The following is an excerpt from Cherry Pickett’s Main Squeeze. It is the third book in the Flirting with the Zodiac series. You can read more about the book here.
The drumming of Marty’s head dredged him back from dead sleep, forcing his eyes open. He stared upward for a second, trying to make the world make sense. Then he closed his eyes and flickered out again.
He woke up again some time later, the same steady rhythm pulsing through his temples, an infuriating beat that forced him awake, as though being conscious to the pain was somehow preferable to darkness and bliss.
He had no idea how long he’d been out. He had no idea where he was.
He clutched his forehead and dragged himself into a sitting position. A blanket pooled over his knees, then cascaded to the floor with a rustle. He contemplated it for what felt like an eternity before realizing it was woven of thatched leaves. He lifted his head and inspected the ceiling again. It was easier now; the darkness wasn’t quite as murky, grayer around the edges, and he could make out a similar thatched pattern.
Had he crash-landed in the Amazon? He lowered his head as a sudden wave of pain broke over him, the drumming whipping into a wilder pace.
No. He couldn’t be in the Amazon. He’d been millions of miles away from the planet when he went down. He remembered, vaguely, the shaking of the controls, gravity, the glinting rim of a second planet moving out of the shadow of the first—
He winced again as his head panged.
“You should lie down,” someone said. His eyes drooped, and he nodded, slowly reclining with the suggestion. It was a good one. Like something his mother would tell him.
Or maybe not. Mom had never been particularly good at … mom-ing.
God, he hadn’t seen her in forever now. He had no idea if she was even alive.
He didn’t really know if he was alive. He didn’t know much, come to think of it.
He didn’t even know what the hell this pillow was made of. He closed his eyes and slept again.
The third time he woke up, it was much brighter in the hut. His head hurt less, so he sat up fully, peering toward the source of the brightness. A doorway allowed daylight—he assumed it was daylight, anyway—to filter into the small abode. It was still dingy and dull, the light tinted green. He could hear the lazy drone of insects, something swishing through thick underbrush. Somewhere, a crack like thunder echoed, followed by a hoot and a holler.
He froze, holding the blanket to him, peering at the door. But nothing came to investigate him.
Slowly, he melted into motion again. He needed to figure out where he was, where his ship was. What the heck was making that kind of noise out there. What even was out there.
He glanced at the door warily, then peered around the hut. It seemed to be a one-room sort of operation, circular in formation. He was tucked up against a wall in what was clearly a sleeping area of sorts. More woven mats and blankets were strewn across the floor, along with a couple of soft-looking bags—pillows, he presumed, covered in some kind of textile and perhaps stuffed with feathers or plant matter. Above him, two hammocks draped from the ceiling, providing more sleeping space.
In the middle of the room, the floor had been cut away and a pit dug into the earth. The charred remains of a fire were there. On the opposite side of the room, cooking implements adorned the wall. Small clay urns and various baskets were lined up beneath them. On the other side of the door hung a wide array of weapons, and Marty considered them for a long moment, wondering if he could make it across the room to them. Wondered if he could even heft some of them—they looked like tree trunks with wicked metal points lashed to them.
The final wall was decorated with masks and other regalia, something that looked like a drum. The implements of weaving covered the floor—a half-finished basket, a blanket awaiting the final touches.
He swallowed thickly. He still wasn’t sure he hadn’t crashed in the Amazon somewhere.
He jerked viciously, then clutched at his head, groaning. He lifted his gaze at last, then slowly dropped his hand.
A man stood in front of him, bare except for a short skirt of thick green leaves—they reminded Marty of palm leaves, and he swallowed around the lump in his throat, because he was a long way from home and the trees here probably weren’t palm.
And the man probably wasn’t a human either.
But he seemed like a human, standing upright, his voice deep, his shoulders broad. He crouched down in front of Marty, so that they were almost at eye level. He smiled warmly, his eyes sliding shut as he tilted his head just to the side. “I was wondering when you’d wake up,” he said.
Marty plucked at the blanket, glancing around again. The man stuck out his hand, and Marty stared at it—four fingers and a thumb, just like his own. “My name’s Jasper,” the man said, and then he opened his eyes again, red glinting in the light, reptilian pupils following Marty’s every movement.
Marty swallowed the urge to scream. What sick kind of fever dream was this?
The man frowned. “What’s your name?” he asked. “Do you know? How’s your head?”
“I … uh …” Marty swallowed, then cleared his throat. “Marty. My name’s … Marty.”
Jasper held out his hand again, and Marty took it limply. He peered around the room again. “Where … am I?”
Jasper’s look was inquisitive. “Do you have any guesses?”
Marty chewed at his lip and shook his head, dark locks swinging to and fro. He brushed a hand through his hair, felt it tangle around his fingers. It was … a lot longer than he remembered.
How long had he been out?
Jasper hummed, then said, “Well, that figures. You hit your head pretty good, I guess. At least, that’s what Mindaro said.”
Marty waited for him to continue. “Orrin helped me drag you down from the metal bird,” Jasper said. “You weren’t moving when we found you.” He looked at Marty again. “Orrin wanted to eat you. I convinced him not to.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Marty mumbled. He wanted to ask who Orrin was, but he figured that could wait. He had bigger questions. Like why this guy had eyes like a snake. “The metal bird … that’s my ship.”
Jasper nodded, like he understood. “Mindaro said you didn’t look like any naga she’d ever seen, so she figured you must have come from a long way off.”
“A … what?”
Those red eyes on him again. “Naga,” he repeated.
Marty shook his head slowly. Jasper frowned. “Like us,” he said.
“Look, I’m not from here—” Marty glanced down, then barely stifled another scream as a long, scaly tail wrapped around his leg. He gritted his teeth, desperately searching for the serpent, only to realize the shimmering white scales led back to Jasper, blending seamlessly with the rest of him somewhere under that leaf skirt.
“Oh my god,” he breathed, then promptly passed back out.