– CHAPTER ELEVEN –
The duck stared at Clara, its neck bent at an unnatural angel, broken.
Clara tilted her head to line up her gaze with the green and white feathered animal. It’s pink tongue was stuck out at her, seeming to say, yeah, I’m dead, go ahead and try eating me, all you’ll get is a stomach arch.
“I thought you said you were hungry, Clara?” Roos asked, probably noticing her complexion go as green as the duck’s feathers.
She didn’t want to hurt his feelings nor did she want to look at the snap necked duck any longer. She felt like any second she might sick up on her boats. “I was. I am. I just think we should get going to the cache, if we want to make it back to Slynt’s boat before dark.”
That was not a lie, not really. Noon was fast approaching and Roos told her there was still a few miles to walk and obstacles to cross. Stopping to cook a duck would take time. Other beasts might smell the smoke and investigate as well. Clara wanted to limit her encounters with the beasts living in Nork to once a day. She preferred to limit the encounters to none, if possible. Nothing doing for that today.
Roos looked at the duck as if he couldn’t believe he was going to waste the fowl after he’d gone into the alley chasing after it.
I didn’t ask him to be such a manly ox anyway. Not that Roos lumbered around like an uncoordinated bovine. Roos was silent in his stalking, light on his feet and patient, good at blending into his surroundings with a casual force of will. Still…It’s not as if I couldn’t catch my own food.
“You sure, Clara? It won’t take more than an hour…”
She attempted to keep herself from turning a nose up at Roos. In going down the alley, chasing the squawking and flapping duck, he was only trying to help curb her hunger after she’d complained.
“‘Course I’m sure. I have a few bars we can share.”
“Yeah. My mom makes them. She used to pack them for my dad too. Come on over here, we’ll rest for a few minutes.”
Clara made sure Roos saw her walk toward a downward slopping side street, a spot not far away from their course toward the cache.
The declining street ended at the edge of a great lake, a lake in the middle of the city. The city had not built up around the body of water, rather the lake had swallowed half the neighborhood. Near as Clara’s father had figured, multiple storms had blown in an overwhelming amount of water over many seasons. All that water had drained in and flooded this neighborhood, which was in a lower area of the city. It never drained itself dry. Today, the tops of the tallest houses stuck out of the lake like tiny islands. Clara was tempted to hopscotch across the brick and steel islands, to try tagging the old water tower about hundred yards out in the city lake. The water tower was made of riveted steel with a conical top. Crisscrossing metal beams elevated the tank above the water, its building shorter than the other islands and no longer above the surface of the lake.
Only just barely catching the noon hour, the angling of the rising sun transformed the surface of the lake a sparkling orange-gold. Despite the destruction nature—in its elemental rage—had set upon the buried neighborhood, Clara thought the city lake beautiful and peaceful. The sound of gulls echoed her sentiment as they swooped down to find perches on the buildings. One dove to the top of the water tower and for the first time she noticed a nest set there. Eggs might be snug among the nest’s tangled security of twigs, leaves, and city debris. Life and family still survived in this world, repurposing the junk humans had thought useless and thus left behind. The gulls and Clara were not much different. They and she were scavengers and recyclers.
In the shadow of two buildings on either side of the sloping street, Clara found her own perch and hunkered down to dig in her pack for those bars she promised Roos.
Not long after, Roos approached. She didn’t detect his presence until he stood next to her shoulder. Her skeleton nearly leapt from her skin and tried walking on the surface of the city lake.
Maybe I should start relying on the Field to detect Roos, she considered privately. She quickly decided against this suggestion. She needed to trust the salvager, at least somewhat, or her paranoia would drive her insane.
He stood there rocking back and forth on his heels, arms crossed behind his back with hands clasping his forearms. Looking up, she noticed his gaze traveling across the lake as her own had been. Was this his attempt at not coming off as threatening toward her? Yet Roos retained the alertness of a hungry big cat ready to pounce. Most salvagers possessed this silent intensity. Always watching. Always ready. It must come from living away from the communities. Most know the ruins as intimately as other people know their families. And the ruins don’t offer much conversation either, only echoes— echoes that probably originate from the salvagers themselves. Clara imagined Junkers had this same air. Isolated. Alone. Much like conduits.
Stop being paranoid, Clara, she told herself.
It was only when she gestured for him to sit did Roos relax, as relaxed a beast could be when feasting on a kill and making sure no other predator challenged him for his meal.
“Here you go.” She handed him a small bundle of thick cloth just large enough to fit in his hand.
Clara giggled as he sniffed the grain bar wrapped inside and probed it with a finger, testing its density, wondering if it would chip a tooth.
Her mother’s bars were never moist but taking a bite would not break a jaw. “The bar won’t kill you, Roos,” she promised. “It’s oats, berries, and nuts held together when honey and cement.”
His eyebrows rose at the mention of ‘cement’.
She easily slipped her expression to one of seriousness. “Just a little cement. What else would hold everything together?” She bit into the bar and tore off a piece as if it were overcooked meat. Then Clara made a show of chewing loudly and vigorously. Her manners were very unladylike, especially when she began to chew with her mouth open. Rose Mathers would never have done such a thing. The rancher’s daughter was a dress-wearing, manners minding young woman after all, homeschooled and tutored by real ladies.
“You’re not kidding then?” Roos turned the bar over a couple of times in his fingers and sniffed it again. As if he knew what cement smelled like.
“If you learn nothing about me, then learn one thing.” She stuck up an index finger from a closed fist.”Don’t take me seriously,” she told him, reassuring him with a smile that her mother’s snack bars were not made of building materials.
“Although you might think cement was in the recipe. These things do keep for a long time,” she added.
Finally, Roos bit off a piece of the bar and readied himself to chew the honey-glued contents into a workable paste to swallow. His expression of surprise and enjoyment was clear when the contents went down smoothly and his stomach approved of the tasty nourishment. The honey glue made the bar more than edible, like a treat rather than survival food.
Thank you, Mom. The next bite Clara took was less exaggerated as she chewed slowly and kept her mouth closed. Savoring the fruit flavors of the snack, she planted herself on the ground, leaned her head back against the building wall, and looked across the city lake at nothing in particular.
“Nice of your mom to pack you some food for the road,” Roos said after they had finished off a second bar between the two of them.
“She never knows when I’m on the road or in the shop,” Clara revealed, a little guilty about what she kept from her mother. Better she not know. She would worry like she did with Dad.
“Your mom doesn’t live in Rivend with you and your uncle?”
She shook her head. “Nope. My family lives in Linden Grove, a community to the south. Marty was the one who moved to Rivend a number of years ago. He used to live in Linden Grove too, had a shop with my dad.”
“Not Uncle Marty now?”
“He’s like my uncle but he’s not.”
Confusion settled on Roos’ face. He scratched the scar across his nose.
“Marty and my dad grew up together,” Clara explained after pausing. Talking about her father hurt more than thinking about him inside her head. “They were best friends. Like brothers, really. My dad, yeah, he was a conduit like me. Or, I guess, I’m a conduit like he was.”
Even though she did not explicitly say her father had passed away, Roos picked up the detail, likely hearing the past tense references. “Was? He’s gone then?”
At least Roos had tact enough to avoid using the blunt word nearly everyone else did. Dead carried with it the sound of nails being hammered into a coffin. Not a fun sound to hear in your head.
Clara nodded slowly and decided to move the topic quickly along. “Yup. Marty never accepted it well, even to this day. I’m pretty sure that’s why he moved to Rivend. He wanted to get away. Except, he can’t get away from me. I wanted to go into the ruins. I wanted to become a mechanic and a conduit like my dad. Marty had no choice but to apprentice me. Either he could keep me out of trouble—for my mom’s sake, and his best friend’s ghost—or he could let me find trouble on my own.”
A quirky, uncertain grin appeared on Roos’ face. “He’s not doing very well today, is he?”
“Not really. No.” Clara stared at her boots and inched her toe to the edge of the city lake. She kicked at the water a wave sent over the lip of the concrete beach. Ripples unfurled, spreading wide. “These days, I take care of Marty more that he does me. Enough about me! What’s your deal, Roos? What’s your story?”
Roos shrugged, picked up a piece of broken concrete, and tossed it across the lake’s surface. Stalling for time. Circular ripples stretched out where the fist-sized pebble lightly touched down on the surface before moving along its path.
“Not much to tell,” he offered before falling silent.
“Strong. Silent. A manly road warrior.” Clara snorted derisively. “More like thick-headed, same as every guy I’ve met.”
Silence, pulled taught by Roos’ reservation against Clara’s openness, strung itself between the two teenage salvagers the way a family dries their washed linens on a clothesline. Except it was only Clara’s dirty laundry airing and not his, the line heavy and uneven, sagging.
Clara rose quickly, frustrated, and in one motion grabbed her pack and swung it on her shoulder. She turned then and showed Roos her back. Fine. This would be a business transaction, nothing—
“I don’t know my parents,” Roos said suddenly. “I’m an orphan. All of us are. That’s how we get out here, beyond the communities. You—the people in the towns and cities—survive because of your families, the community. We don’t have one so we come here…” She heard him make a fist and squeeze, the sound of the leather fingerless gloves he wore squeaking. “We come to create something tangible.”
I’m lucky then, Clara decided. My dad might be gone but I still have Mom, Leo, and even Uncle Marty when the haze is clear. My community. Even my neighbors… though if they knew what I was…
She tried to understand how isolated Roos must feel, as not only a salvager—someone who dealt in the junk only a handful of people admitted interest in—but as an orphan too. At least, she could related somewhat.
“You hang out with other salvagers then, Roos? People like yourself?” she tried to put sympathy in her voice, understanding. Sincerity often can seem thin, easily seen through if experience did not thicken it.
“People like me? Sure. We’re survivors is all.”
He had been squeezing something in his hand. Roos tossed what he held before she could catch a glimpse. Whatever it was, it skipped across the surface of the city lake once before sinking heavily with a plop. A rock then.
“How did they die, your parents I mean?” she asked carefully, trying to make the question seem innocent, not a matter of priority, easily dismissed. His choice.
Roos rose to his feet and slung his pack off his shoulders. Had he not taken it off?
“I never knew them,” he confessed with little emotions. How can you have grief for people you never knew? He seemed sad, regardless. “I imagine they died somehow, killed by an illness or maybe they died heroically, like in the stories. Maybe they lost their lives defending a merchant’s cart from bandits or protecting people from some beasties, they could have been protecting me. All I have is this from them…” He pulled from the pack a dark red scarf, as deep in shade as an unfolded rose. He rubbed the material gently between his fingertips, for a moment, before wrapping it loosely around his neck.
Color like that would draw the attention of any beast. But she didn’t have the heart to tell Roos to take off the one token his parents had left him.
“My parents left the scarf in my bassinet,” he went on to say, “when they dropped me at the guard house outside Taribean, a town north of here. It’s a little place with a lot of people, a hungry place with no desire to take care of orphans when they can barely feed their own children.”
She wanted to say sorry. However, that word, sorry, sounded so hollow. When her father died, when he never came back, people had offered her sorrys. Their words were empty somehow, she didn’t think anyone had filled the words with their own experiences. She wanted to relate to Roos’ plight best she could…
“My dad died on the road, killed by Junkers because he was conduit, a freak like me.”
Shrugging his pack back on, Roos regarded Clara critically.
“Junkers don’t kill conduits,” he said sardonically.
His comment made Clara take a step back. “What? I know you probably didn’t hear the bedtime stories, being an or—”
She almost called out Roos’ lack of parentage, a remark that was as good as calling him different. If anyone knew how it felt for people to push them out of their normal circle, Clara knew.
If she offended Roos, the young orphan salvager did not let on. “Bedtime stories are just that… stories. I’ll tell you, Clara, Junkers don’t kill conduits.”
What was Roos about? One minute he was opening up and the next he’d closed all the doors, slammed them in her face even. If not for his sad story, she might have challenged his insistence about her father’s death. Again, this was a business transaction. Why should she become so emotionally invested in this salvager? Just because she thought him good looking and he had a sob story to tug at her young girl’s heart?
No way. Clara was a conduit, salvager, and mechanic first, a girl second. She was not Rose with her skirts and isolated tutoring.
The teenage salvagers traveled on after their snack break, moving in silence, the clothesline between them snipped, the space between gaping.
Wanna keep reading?! Turn the page to Chapter Twelve.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved