– Chapter Four –
Stories. They were simply stories adults told children. They were the monsters underneath the beds. Brush your teeth or the Junkers will come to getcha. Go to sleep or the Junkers underneath your bed will drag you away. Or in a young conduit’s case—like Clara—use your abilities where people can see and the Junkers will come take you away forever. Except, Clara always believed her mother and Grammy put more seriousness in the warnings to her, more than any parent of a non-conduit would have.
When her father failed to come home from one of his runs with Uncle Marty is when she started to take the stories seriously. When she grew older—about thirteen—and heard in more detail the story, Clara tossed away any lingering doubts. Nightmares were real. Nightmares could take. Nightmares could kill.
Those nightmares struck Clara in the heart today like a blacksmith’s hammer, ringing in her ears. Cold sweat slicked her back, making her twitch. She pushed away the external stimuli, dulling the world as she walked through Linden Grove. She could sense a hole inside her, an old wound, the unhealed edges throbbing with soreness.
Her mother heard the news about the Gonzales family and came running to find Clara ready to charge into the apartment building where the family lived on a horse named Curiosity. Gossip and news in general spread fast, especially in small towns like Linden Grove. Everyone knows each other. Jessie Danvers knew Gabby’s mother, they worked in the same shop as seamstresses under the flamboyant tailor Gerard. When she heard about the Gonzales family being murdered in the night, slain by intruders, she didn’t hesitate to seek out the truth.
Clara waited in the street, behind the crowd. She might have waited five minutes or an hour for her mother to return.
Quiet and somber, Jessie Danvers moved through the crowd of gawkers like a ghost, in no hurry to deliver horrible news. Mother hugged daughter and whispered that the family was indeed dead. All except Sammy, whose body the militia could not find. They were holding on to the hope the boy was kidnapped rather than killed.
Junkers took him, Clara knew instinctively. The nightmares had reached out and snatched the boy, drawn by his perfunctory use of his conduit abilities. Gabby wanted me to talk to him. I should have taken the time. Guilt filled the emptiness in Clara, a poor substitute for the loss from years ago.
Though her eyes remained dry, Clara face must have shown the distress and culpability bleeding from that hole within. Her mother didn’t understand why—she thought her daughter merely empathic—and Clara did not tell her about how Gabby wanted Clara to speak to Sammy about using his abilities discreetly, if at all. When they were still children, Clara showed Gabby what she could do, the Waking of machines. The Gonzales girl gradually stopped coming around the dangerous and unnatural conduit. Afraid of conduits—same as most people—the now teenager Gabby had wanted Clara to tell her brother to not use his powers. Coming from another conduit, the warnings would have sunk deeper, meant more to Sammy. The whole time the two girls spoke the term coppertop was on Gabby’s lips, unspoken but ever present. It was on everyone’s lips.
Hearing the crowd murmur coppertop and Junkers, Clara excused herself, telling her mother she needed to get to the shop, to work.
Anywhere but here. Burn it, I need to get away from this…
So Clara walked on, the guilt bleeding from that hole of hers.
Despite her lethargic, distracted state, Clara found herself in Linden Grove’s market square as the morning sun was rising over the town’s defensive walls.
Linden Grove was a large enough community to draw many outside merchants. Most tended to practice their crafts during the week and make their way into town on Saturdays for Market Day (as many called it). On Saturdays, the carts and portable seller’s stands overflowed in the branching streets that lead away from the town’s front square. During the week, the bustle had fewer elbows bumping and cursing and more polite smiles, businesses in town maintained a generous flow of sales during these days too.
In the middle of the square was a fountain large enough to be a swimming pool, and the younger children in town treated it as such on the hotter summer days. The fountain was made of stacked river rocks and larger flat stones. A statue of a young woman, little older than Clara, stood in the middle of the waters, caught in the act of holding up her skirts and daintily sneaking through the summer children’s play pool. Someone had carved her stone face with little modesty and a lot of winking mischief. The locals called her Lady of the Fountain.
If a visiting merchant managed to get a view up the Lady’s bunched skirts, he or she had prime real estate and had beaten the sun up that day.
Along the outside and down the streets leading away from the square local merchants kept permanent shops. Linden Grove also had several inns in this area, along with more than a few watering holes.
Directly to the northeast of the Lady’s fountain stood Linden Grove’s main gates and one of the reasons the front square was the market. The town’s market was far away from the town’s residential areas and just outside these main gates was a small port alongside the river that ran north to south along the town’s east border. Those merchants with ships could travel down or up river to Linden Grove and dock just outside town limits. Linden Grove also had a couple of boat companies that would—for a fee—take passengers across the river.
Today was a weekday and the market was less packed than on Market Day. A handful of visiting merchants had set up booths and one soap box preacher from the His Hand was ministering about salvation and saving souls, drawing only a meager showing of interest. Clara would have no problem ghosting through the light crowd visiting the few booths set up on the streets. Nevertheless, she kept her head down and shoulders shrugged as if wanting to fit into a tight space between two people wedged together in a bigger weekend crowd. She didn’t want to see any of the locals who would greet her this morning. She didn’t want to be friendly with anyone. Part of her wanted to plop herself down on the dusty ground and weep for a dead friend. The other part of her wanted to punch the nearest wall and spit at it for tearing the flesh off her knuckles. Stupid wall! She had the notion that maybe—just maybe—if she had listened to Gabby, spoken to Sammy about using his conduit abilities discretely, than perhaps the family would be alive and together this morning having breakfast. If only she’d stuffed down her pride, the insult she’d felt when Gabby implied she didn’t want Sammy to control his power but to suppress them, the Gonzales family would be together.
Stop making yourself out as an important component in some fate machine, that’s selfish and doesn’t bring anyone back to life!
Just when Clara was insight of the open gates, a voice called out to her. Chipper. Friendly. Familiar.
Clara shrugged deeper when she let out a long sigh of regret for the unfair thoughts passing through her mind in that second. She briefly considered ignoring the voice and moving along.
It’s not everyone else’s fault the Gonzales family is gone, Clara reminded her angry half. Don’t go punching the world, mistaking it for that wall you want to nail!
Putting on a brave face, Clara turned around to meet the owner of the voice.
“Morning, Rose,” Clara said through a weak smile.
“Clara! I didn’t think you saw me,” Rose Mathers said. Her voice bubbled with sunshine and rainbows as she approached with a hand waving widely at Clara.
“I didn’t see you, Rose. More like, uh, I heard you.”
“Oh. Sorry, I still have my seller’s voice turned up.”
“It’s no big thing. You gotta catch people’s attentions. Coax ’em to walk up to the wagon.”
Shyly, Rose blushed and spoke quietly. “I don’t think we have a problem attracting customers.”
True enough. Rose Mathers was the daughter of Hank Mathers, a man whose family’s ownership of one the local ranches went back further than Black Out Thursday. The family’s large acreage allowed them to grow a variety of produce that they then sold in the local communities, making them wealthy, able to employ people from the outlying communities as workers and as a private militia force. Their operations also allowed them to build up enough an inventory so when winter blew in they could sell at premium prices when other communities are hard up for supplies and have grumbling bellies.
It would be easy to envy Rose and her family for their wealth and comfort but that was life. Those families with ranches controlled all of the fertile land needed for growing grain, produce, and for grazing livestock. Grammy said that before Black Out Thursday hit agriculture was a dying industry. Agriculture before the lights went had become automated with machines, making life and work easier, the grower and rancher obsolete. Times changed. The world changes… or rather the world changed. Growers and ranchers today control the world, they just can’t decide who rules it; instead they stay to their acres, run their pieces of the world, and wage economic warfare in the markets. Clara couldn’t hold Rose’s privilege against her and she wouldn’t want Rose to hold being a conduit against her. Rose was too sweet anyhow, her affable nature drew people to her. She was also generous. When Rose came to Linden Grove to sell her family’s wares, she never undercut the buyer and was far with prices. Clara didn’t know if Rose’s father appreciated his daughter’s lack of shrewd business dealings and fairness, but he either didn’t care or was oblivious. From what Clara could remember of Hank Mathers, he was a man who you gripped forearms with instead of shaking hands, checking daggers up sleeves. Just in case. He also loved antiques, junk from the old world, specifically tractors and old heavy farm equipment. He had also been a friend to Clara’s father when he was alive, though that relationship became strained in Mo Danvers’ final years.
“I thought you might have already headed out of town or been gone for a couple days on one of your runs,” Rose said, referring to Clara’s hold up at the Gonzales’ apartment. No…The Gonzales’ former apartment.
Clara bit her tongue, wincing at the mental correction and hoping her friend didn’t notice the queue. No need to bring the storm clouds in on Rose’s sunny day.
Fat chance of avoiding that storm. Rose was atoned to other’s feelings more than her own comfort, she notices these things instinctively. Rose’s brow wrinkled in consternation that etched worry lines at the corner of her eyes, eyes the color of the sky on a clear cheery day.
Those baby blue sky eyes darkened. “Clara, is something wrong at home with Leo or your mother?”
Rose reached to a pocket in her skirt, to a money purse there.
Clara quickly put one hand atop her friend’s and held up her other. “Not what you think, Rose. I swear.”
Unconvinced, Rose pushed. “Then what, Clara? Don’t give me the tough girl act… please?”
Always polite. Even when being forceful.
See? How could Clara be upset at Rose? Ever?
A merchant arriving late to market nearly ran over Clara and Rose, they were standing in the middle of the street leading out.
To break up the nervous energy making Clara want to run out the town’s gates, she tilted her head to one side and cracked her neck. She gestured for Rose to follow her off to the side, out of the way of traffic.
She licked her lips and lowered her voice. No sense in stirring people up by mentioning Junkers, you never know if a stray ear might catch a word or two and panic.
Clara told Rose about the Gonzales family, carefully leaving out the part about Gabby wanting Clara to speak to her brother about being a conduit. Yeah, I tossed away my feelings of guilt completely…
“That’s horrible,” Rose said with a tremble, her face nearly went as white as Clara’s usual ghostly shade. You would think Clara had described the bloody scene, with all the nasty bits and pieces left behind for the neighbors and militia to find, like Clara had seen the aftermath.
“Those poor people. The boy especially. They really didn’t find him?”
Shaking her head, Clara said, “Not a hair.”
A thought crossed Rose’s face. Clara had not told her Sammy was a conduit. She didn’t need to. “If the boy was taken that means…” Realization dawned. Rose pitched her voice low, as if speaking something taboo. “That means he’s like you, Clara. Right? You did say… but mention Junkers and you have to assume Sammy was a conduit.”
She spoke the words “Junkers” and “conduit” softly, bright eyes shifting to see if anyone caught the words. Both girls glanced at the soap box preacher. The His Hand devotee was a good distance away but the wind could carry words a fair distance and no one wanted to get the religious fanatic started on conduits.
Now Rose was whiter than alabaster Clara. She placed a hand over her aghast expression. “Wow… I mean… Wow. Outside you hear about the Junkers from passing merchants and travelers. They’re bandits at best. Scavengers at the least. They hit caravans, stealing money and supplies. No one knows where they make their home. Strike fast and disappear. Father says they’ve been worse in the last few years, with more numbers. That’s why we travel to Linden Grove and the other communities with armed guards. Taking conduits, though, that part is just in stories, it’s supposed to be just part of the stories.”
Clara nodded. Rarely did people travel alone these days outside their communities. The roads were simply too dangerous, lawless, yet merchants and people need to travel, for no other reason than to keep the human race connected through commerce. When people did venture on the roads, groups were preferred for companionship and protection. Day travel was most common too. That’s why during the summer the market stayed open later and at the ends of the year the inns were busier, packed with merchants who preferred to travel with the day’s light. At night, they were safer behind Linden Grove’s walls, protected by its guards—even if those guards were local men and not professionally trained soldiers. Personally, Clara traveled with a knife at the small of her back, hidden behind her jacket. The knife failed to keep her mother from worrying, albeit she didn’t carry the knife for her mother’s peace of mind. Clara’s work took her on the road for days at a time. Hitching rides was a must and traveling with Uncle Marty, who never let Clara go out on runs alone. If Jessie Danvers had her way, her independent and stubborn daughter would remain behind the town’s walls. Junkers and other bandits should not be able to get into town… until today that is.
By the look on Rose’s face, Clara could tell the rancher’s daughter was thinking the same thing. Together they glanced toward the open gates merchants and travelers were arriving through. They examined the militia signing in people, the town’s soldiers were recording in ledgers each visitor’s name along with the purpose for his or her visit to Linden Grove. Junkers should not be able to get in town. Closed gates. Militia on shift. No. Clara didn’t want to believe her community was…
Clara shook her head to dislodge the thought.
During the brief pause in conversation, Rose rubbed her upper arms while Clara’s shifted her thinking away from betrayals and knifes in the dark.
“You haven’t heard about any other disappearances have you, Rose? You get around, yeah?” asked Clara.
Smile quirked, Rose placed a hand on her hip. Dimples appeared on her cheeks. “What are you implying, Clara?” she teased.
Laughter. Clara put up both hands. “I mean you get around to the other towns while out on your family’s business. Have you heard anything?”
Rose tilted her head to one side, considering. “No… Not that I can recall. Clara, I know what you’re thinking. No one would think about reporting a missing…” She trailed when Clara frowned. “It’s just… I think it’s horrible that… no one would… That no one cares…”
“Save it,” Clara cut in to save her friend, not angry with Rose specifically, just at the blind and deaf world two or more generations removed. “I know you would say something if I suddenly stopped running into you every day. You’d ask around.”
“Of course! A good friend would. That’s what you are… a good friend. You have been ever since those days when your father used to come by and sell my father antiques. My father loves the old junk from the stories Grandpa used to tell. Do you really think Junkers took this Sammy boy, huh? It’s hard to believe the old bedtime stories are true. We’re not little kids anymore.”
That’s what Clara’s mother said too. She didn’t know if her mother really believed Uncle Marty’s story about how her father died. Not even years later. How else could Mo Danvers have lost his life?
Tell that to my dad, Rose. Tell that to his headstone.
After drawing in a deep breath, Clara exhaled slowly, hoping to expel some of her frustration along the way.
Rose quickly changed the subject to a better topic, seeing her friend’s agitated state and knowing she’d nearly crossed a line. “You wanna ride today? We only came today to drop off orders to a couple of the inns and taverns. We still have a couple more stops to make today so we’ll be leaving soon.”
“Only if you got room.”
“You’ll need to squeeze in between Clay and I, but yeah, we can make room. We would be delighted!”
“Your brother is here today then?”
“He usually comes on the runs, supervises. You know that.”
“Yeah, I know.” Clara had to keep herself from sighing. A difficult task since Rose’s brother was an insufferable bigot. Ignorance makes even the best-looking guys ugly and Clayton Mathers was more than good-looking, he was downright handsome.
Rose raised an eyebrow. Ah, so she did see the sigh. Perfect.
“Just dash my hopes against the wall,” Clara mumbled as she followed Rose to her family’s wagon.
Rose led Clara to an alley behind an inn facing the fountain’s square. There was no sign back here but Clara knew the establishment as the Lady’s Watering Hole, named after the fountain’s statue. The inn’s hanging sign out front displayed a young woman curtseying beside a lake’s shallows.
A large wagon drawn by two brown and tan horses whose chests came as high as Clara’s head waited just after the inn’s open backdoor. Nearly front to back iron-banned barrels, boxes, along with wrapped bundles packed the wagon. In addition to farming, the Mathers Ranch also bred and slaughtered cattle, the bundles were likely cuts of salted meat.
In the wagon’s front seat sat a slouching old man with silvery hair, his back to Clara and Rose. One armored guard stood outside the wagon to the older man’s left while another flanked the other side. To Clara, the guards appeared identical. Each carried himself with a business-like efficiency, their broad shoulders squared, eyes shifting at every little movement the world made, anticipating danger. They were paid for this. Well trained. Well armed and heavily armored. Well paid. She decided the guards were twins too. Not for their like dispositions but for the similar shape to their faces, the quirk of the lips, their stormy blue-grey eyes, and thin lips. Twins. Brothers in arms and from the same mother. She separated the twin guards by the ax one carried and the sword and pistol at the other’s hips.
The twin guards mattered little to Clara, though. The third person, a younger man, eighteen last week and considered a man by many standards, caused Clara to stutter step, to fall behind Rose by a pace.
Clayton Mathers stood toward the rear of the wagon, overseeing the unloading of the barrels the Lady’s Watering Hole had purchased from his family.
Rose waved at her brother. He simply nodded, acknowledging his younger sibling’s existence but too busy for anything more.
As long as Clara had known the Mathers children, Clayton had always been trying to grow up too quickly. He wanted to mature, to step out of his father’s shadow and cast his own light on the world and the family ranch. At a young age he’d quickly cast aside toys in favor of learning arms, the sword and pistol, training in martial arts to build up his body and skills. He worked the ranch and farm with the paid help, learning the operation, the calluses on his hands badges of honor. He consulted and learned from his father’s supervisors, those in the fields overseeing the people and the cattle. All the while Clayton probably felt his father’s eyes on the back of his neck every moment of the day, judging and deciding. The desire for his father’s approval shaped Clayton more than his hard work, unfortunately.
Today Clayton stood straight-backed and determined in his own armor, weapons on his hips, pride hard in his stone-blue eyes. Yet he could not pull off the confidence that the twin guards did. If you always search for approval in your tasks, in everything you do, that shows in your posture, as it did in Clayton’s. His skin was tanner than his sister’s, his time spent more in the outdoors, training and managing his family’s land. Years ago he’d lost the chubbiness of adolescence, putting on muscle weight and growing to nearly six feet. Clara remembered the boy she used to run around with on the Mathers property, playing tag and hide-and-seek. He didn’t carry the weight of responsibility then; his mop of brown hair was freer too. Back then he constantly had to push his unruly hair away from his face. Now Clayton had it clipped short, no combing or tending needed.
Two inn workers were unloading a box of bundled meat when Rose and Clara drew up to the wagon and Clayton.
Clayton spared Clara an unfriendly glance to question her attendance.
Where is the boy I used to chase around and pinch? He used to giggle like a girl. Now you’re a rock.
“Come to say ‘hello’, Clara?” Clayton asked, watching the inn’s men slide a box off the wagon and carrying it inside.
Wagging her hand as limply as a fish, Clara gave the rancher’s son a wolfish grin. “Hey.”
He responded in kind by averting his attention to the inn’s back door. Likely the owner of the inn had not paid for the delivery yet.
Friendly much, tickle boy?
While her older brother’s head was turned, Rose gave Clara an apologetic look. Much was exchanged between the two teenage girls in a few blinks, eyebrow raises, and quirks of the lips. They giggled.
That brought Clayton’s eyes back around.”What?”
Rose rocked herself back and forth on the balls of her feet, lips pursed as if to whistle innocence. “We didn’t say anything.”
He jabbed a finger at his sister and narrowed his eyes. “You didn’t have to. Girls don’t have to speak to say stuff. You say enough with your eyes. It’s some kinda language.”
Both teenage girls glance at each other.
“You’re doing it again!”
Shaking her head, Clara gestured for Rose to take over the argument. He’s your humorless brother. You deal with him, Rose. Those two sentences she conveyed with her eyes one. Secret girl language indeed.
Clayton’s left eye twitched anxiously.
“Take this seriously!” Clayton demanded of his sister. He saved a disapproving look for Clara.
How in the world did Clara get dragged into this brother-sister mess? People wound too tightly are likely to spring and poke out eyes at the lightest trigger.
“Leave Clara out of this, Clay,” Rose pleaded softly, her calmness more authoritative than her brother’s bombastic order could ever be. “She’s just here because I told her we would give her a ride to Rivend.”
“You never asked me.”
Rose offered her brother a small smile, the kind you show a simpleton when being gentle. “You’re not in charge, big brother.”
“I’m in charge of the deliveries today, Rose. Father put me in charge.” This revealed fact made Clayton push out his chest slightly, proud, the rings sown into his armored jacket clinking with the movement. He crossed his arms over his chest to imply his immovable authority. No one gets through this blockade. He peered down at his little sister, daring her to try ramming his brick wall.
However, Rose was not one to bull her way through obstacles. She found ways to walk around the wall impeding her way.
Rose rolled her eyes then looked over Clayton’s shoulder to the front of the wagon, to where the older white haired man sat waiting.
“Merlyn,” she called to the old man, “is it okay if Clara hitches a ride with us to Rivend?”
The old man turned in his seat, his back straightening. The upper part of his face was shaded by a floppy brimmed hat but Clara recognized the kindly man immediately. Merlyn King had been the Mathers ranch head foreman for longer than Clayton and Rose’s father had been alive, an old friend of their grandfather’s. His eyes shone through the shade of his hat like bright emeralds, all the brighter against his dark skin, his long mustaches drooping down to the middle of his chest, ends tied off, as silver as his shoulder length hair. Now that Clara noticed him, how could she ever have thought he was slouching? Despite his age, Merlyn was a strong and capable elder, with a whipcord frame and quick wits. Hank Mathers always consulted with Merlyn, and not because he was a head foreman. If he was driving the wagon, then he was here to watch over Clayton, to pull on the reigns connected to more than just the horses.
Merlyn tipped his floppy hat to Clara. When he came back up, his features were scrunched into a smile. “Morning, Ms. Danvers. Going to Marty’s place?”
Clara bent at the knees and lifted the hem of an imaginary skirt in a courtesy, a more polite greeting than she gave Clayton. She could swear she heard teeth grinding and she smiled.
“Good morning to you too, Merlyn,” Clara said in return. “As a matter of fact, I am indeed headed to Uncle Marty’s. Girl’s gotta make a living.”
An expression of pain flashed across Merlyn’s lined features, his mustaches drooping further, nearly to his waist. He had known her father… before.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “I guess you do, Clara, guess you do. Hop on then, we’ll take you where you need. It’s not safe on the roads.”
“So my mother keeps reminding me.”
“Wise woman Jessie Danvers. Wise woman. She’s careful too.”
“Yeah,” Clara agreed, letting out a sigh.
“But, Merlyn sir,” Clayton interjected, “we have stops to make and have a schedule to—”
Hand held up, Merlyn halted the young man concerns. Clayton obeyed with the respect you give elders, especially for someone desperately wanting respect themselves. “Rivend is not far, we’ll be there in an hour or two, in time to make our deliveries in town. Taking Clara will not impede are schedule. With the deliveries we’ve made here in Linden Grove there’s even room in the back for her.”
The elder foreman gave Clara an ingratiating smile that was so inviting that it moved her and Rose into the back of the wagon. Rose closed the wagon’s tailgate.
It took the owner of the Lady’s Watering Hole to knock Clayton out of his stunned trance. The innkeeper handed over a bag of coins that Clayton took. To his credit, Clayton regained his composure and was polite and gracious, the manner in which a business man uses to keep his good customers returning.
He came up to check if the wagon’s tailgate latch was secure and Clara caught him glancing at her rear end as she bent to set her pack on the wagon’s floor. Rose failed to notice. She was too busy moving boxes around so Clara and she would have places to sit. Heat washed over Clara’s cheeks and she quickly set herself down with her bag, nearly crushing a parcel of cured and salted meat.
“Careful,” Clayton told her sternly with no humor, “you’ll pay for what you ruin and we can’t sell.”
“S-sorry,” Clara said.
Clayton pointed to the spot where Clara had sat, to her rear, and her cheeks burned hotter.
“Don’t think about using that thing in your pocket,” he said coldly. “We don’t need the trouble.”
Chunks of ice tumbled down Clara’s shirt and the heat evaporated as quick as if this were summer and a scorcher of a day. He’s talking about my portable! She’d tucked the device in her pocket for safe keeping, if she needed it. Outside the town she would use the device for various reasons, the machine was useful after all… to a conduit not afraid of it. She would never pull out the piece of junk while in town, out where people could see. That just pointed to the fact that she was a conduit. But those who knew Clara, who knew what she could do, knew she carried the portable device, that she fed Nites into it on a regular basis.
“Clara, come sit next to me. It’s a ways up the road to Rivend. To pass the time we can talk on the way,” Rose patted an empty space next to where she sat against two barrels.
From her pocket, Clara took the antique from the dead world and tucked it inside her pack.
Better to keep temptation out of arm’s length.
While in her pack she pulled out a hat to keep the sun from burning her pale skin. She burned easily. Best not to tempt the sun either. Then she sat down next to Rose, the wagon’s ironbound wheels rolling into motion with the cracking of reigns and the clop of hooves.
Wanna keep reading?! Turn the page to Chapter Five.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved