– CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE –
The Reverend raised his head, flashed Rose a smile sent down from the heavens—more than a little creepy given their age gap, Rose apparently thought so too given her expression—and finally settled his attention on Clara.
He didn’t hesitate in taking her hand in both his, bowing over the back, and murmuring softly, “May His light shine down upon you, my sister. Find comfort in his bosom and your soul settled by His judgment.”
His beard brushed the back her knuckles like a branch of nettles. Not enough to scratch but that and his words sent a jolt of electricity hopping up her spine’s vertebrae like a ladder’s rungs. Clara wanted to touch the Field more than anything right now.
“I bet you say that to all the girls,” Clara said dryly.
The Reverend did her the unwanted honor of showing her his teeth again, a creepy sight for sure. The genuineness did not touch his eyes. She saw in those eyes that the Reverend meant to convert her or burn her. Either that or Clara was paranoid. Please let this be paranoia. Please!
Trying for politeness, Clara drew her hand away from the Reverend’s grasp and offered him what she hoped was a good attempt at a smile.
“Actually,” he went on, “the prayer is different each time and varies from follower to follower.”
“Depends on the mood and day.” Clara raised an eyebrow at the Reverend.
“Precisely, Ms. Danvers.”
“I’ll be sure not to anger a follower or yourself on the wrong day then,” she flashed him a wolfish grin without trying. “I wouldn’t want anyone to curse me to damnation.”
Rose gasped suddenly, snatching a breath of air from the terse silence between the religious leader and the conduit.
I never know when to hold my tongue, Clara rebuked herself. Yet she did not jump to apologize, nor did the Reverend clap his hands or snap his fingers to call Croo back into the room and ask him to haul her away to a fire pit.
The Reverend just stared at her.
After Rose began to breathe again, the leader of the His Hand pursed his lips in deep thought and tilted to his head to regard Clara with curiosity.
Hanging or burning… I’m not sure which would be worse. Neck snapped or my flesh melted off. Neither brought comfort. Clara repressed a shudder and stood firm. She wanted to shout.
When Clara was about to utter a transitory grunt or cough, the Reverend surfaced from his revelry.
“Excuse me, sisters,” he told them, clasping his hands together and offering another prayer bow. He spoke to Clara specifically. “Chiefly to you, Ms. Danvers. May I call you Clara, sister? Yes? Wonderful! Thank you. My little intermission was only because I had such a strange feeling that I’d seen you before. Odd?”
“Maybe you glimpsed me in a vision,” she offered, trying not to roll her eyes. It was not as if she needed to hand the man a clearer route toward his family’s self-imposed divine mission.
Again, he gave her a sanctimonious grin. “He delivers us all unto each other so we may hold each other up. Even those sinned. It is His Plan.” Clara could hear the capital P in the last word. Even if Reverend Jimmy found fault or sin in his actions or speech, he was confident his God would forgive him because of his honesty and willingness to take a lashing, metaphorical or literal. “We do not walk through this world of temptation, sin, and junk alone.
“Speaking of Him bringing us together,” the Reverend continued, “let us retire to my quarters, which is also my office, so we may speak finally. Rose and Clayton have spoken at length about you to me, Clara.”
“All good things,” Rose assured Clara quickly. Her sneer told Clara that Clayton spoke most often and more honestly.
“They’ve been concerned for you, Clara,” Reverend Jimmy told her. “Every day my new brother and sister have expressed their deepest love and friendship for you.”
Good guess Clayton had expressed his concerns for the teenage conduit long before he even knew Junkers had captured Clara for use as a battery.
Clara ground her teeth while the Reverend made his way across the long reception room to lead the girls to a set of doors and yet another set of stairs. Ten steps up and the stairs deposited Clara and Rose in a large single room.
The room was simple in its decoration, befitting a servant more than a master, albeit the space was big enough for a small family. It was bigger than the apartment Clara’s family shared in Linden Grove! Clara thought the space magnificent for the breathiness alone, yet the square footage was not what stunned her. The furniture pieces were few. She counted a circle of couches for meetings, a desk to spread out work, a wide bed with no posts or canopy. For all the modesty in the Reverend’s living space and office, Clara’s breath still caught in her throat.
The view was simply astonishing.
She knew now the apartment was located in the other, higher dome. The walls were all glass, showing an almost wraparound view of the compound and of the countryside outside its borders. Clara saw the double old/new roads. The forest stretched out for miles. The early sunset turned the tops of the flowing canopies a leafy ocean of gold and scarlet. Squinting, she thought she marked several landmarks that told her where Linden Grove might lay. The river sparkling in the west was diffidently the same that flowed by her home. She guessed a trip to Linden Grove was a couple days of long but easy riding, based on the unfamiliar roadways and forest outside the compound. The Junkers had not traveled far after all. Clara nearly deflated when thinking the beastly golem might have carried her across half the country in its belly. No. Home was not far, not out of her reach. She almost wept with hope and relief.
“His country is indeed beautiful and we are blessed to look out over the splendor as His lowest angels might.”
The Reverend did not offer these words. Instead, another voice piped in, a female squeak that despite its size carried authority and weight.
“Let me introduce my wife,” the Reverend interjected, trying to act abashed by his neglect in letting Clara observe the view before doing introductions. “Rose has met her but not you, Clara… This beautiful woman here is my wife Genevieve Anna Powell”
“Mind my dear husband, he’s so formal, call me Eve, sister.”
A motherly figure walked up to Clara and in mid-greeting crushed the teenage conduit in a hug.
Nooses and bonfires are too good for me. The His Hand plans to kill me with hugs!
The Reverend’s wife buried Clara’s face in her generous bosom as if the conduit were a child needing nourishing milk from the breast. The woman, just young enough to still bare children and with hips made for birthing, giggled with a girlish glee of someone welcoming home their best friend. Her coppery curls bounced as she giggled. Her freckle-peppered cheeks were as red as ripe apples, excitement beaming from her face.
“Have you eaten, sister?” Eve Powell inquired as if Clara’s possible hunger were an afterthought she should have already considered. “You look thinner than a skeleton!”
Only now having caught her first breath of air, squishy sounds were the only answers squeezed from her lips; Eve Powell still had Clara pressed against her wide bosom. Clara nodded vigorously to indicate her satisfied hunger.
“We ate in the reception area, Sister Eve,” Rose informed the woman. “Someone was generous enough to leave us plenty of food for a late lunch.”
Eve Powell pursed her lips in an exaggerated pout. “It was improper of me not to have welcomed you both more properly at the start.” As suddenly as the woman’s mood dropped, it leapt high to touch the sun. “At least you have full bellies.” Looking on the bright side of things, the manic woman moved on quick enough, directing herself to her husband. “Now who do I have to thank for extending the minimum amount of hospitality in my absence?”
The Reverend answered swiftly. “Deseray, dear. She came running to tell me Clara here was awake and itching to leap from bed. Oh! Here I go again with not introducing. My dear, this is Clara Danvers, a recent guest and, one can pray, a possible addition to our flock.”
“One can pray,” Eve echoed her husband.
“Keep praying,” Clara said to no one in particular.
“What was that, Sister Clara?” Eve asked.
“Nothing but mindless white noise,” Clara covered up, supplying a stretched toothy grin.
Eve looked at Clara sideways, the term white noise strange to her. It was static across radio waves, literally and figuratively here. Anyone not familiar with junk tech or the old world would never have heard the jargon before. Eve was one of the ignorant.
By Clara’s estimation, the woman’s husband was not so ignorant.
“How… charming of a sayin’ you have,” the portly Reverend’s wife tittered, her double chins waving at Clara. She scuttled away but within less than a heartbeat had returned and was pressing cups of sweet fruit punch into her guests’ hands.
The Reverend did not take his eyes off Clara, even when offering thanks to his wife for bringing him drink, even when he pressed a kiss on her round cheek. Suspicion. Repulsion. Pity. Judgment. All of it he rolled into a smelly package.
Clara wrinkled her nose at the man, eyes looking over the rim of her cup. She ran a finger underneath her inhabiting collar.
“Is the cider too tart for you, Sister Clara?” Eve inquired, possible disappointment in her tone, waiting earnestly for an answer.
“No, ma’am,” she assured, “I know bitter and this sure is not. Thank you.”
Rose too offered a pleased thank you.
Everyone gathered around the circular sitting area. In the first moment or two after they sat, Clara thought the Reverend might launch into a sermon.
But no. He eased himself down into one of the chairs, crossed his legs at the knees and sipped his punch, making satisfied sounds after each.
“Have you heard any of the followers’ preaching in your town, sister?” the Reverend eventually asked Clara.
“James! Can we not have a few moments of casual talk before you launch into the mission?” Eve seemed flabbergasted by her husband’s directness. Clara imagined this was part of the act. By the look Rose passed her, at least one of the couple’s teamed conversations with her had begun similarly.
“Sister Clara doesn’t mind,” the Reverend insisted to his wife gently, laughter dribbling as he smacked his punch-wet lips. “I imagined she would rather skip the dance around the berry bush.”
He was saying Clara was not only a conduit but someone who didn’t play by the rules. Followers thought of conduits in this way, those who lived outside of today’s normal society. That or Clayton had a low opinion of her that he had shared with the man.
Clara grinned softly and took a sip.
She looked at Eve. “It really is quite a nice drink. And I’m rather blunt myself.”
“See, darlin’? All is well in the circle of the Lord.” He spread his hands and punch sloshed over the rim. The Reverend didn’t notice the spill. His wife did and she settled a glare on her husband that turned Clara’s original perception of the woman on its head. The burning bright lights of Heaven shone from the woman’s dark brown eyes. In that moment, Clara wondered who she should be more afraid of… husband or wife.
Then the expression flittered away and the dithery mother-type bounced back into the room.
Eve excused herself without the permission of her husband the Reverend. Albeit the man did kiss his wife on the cheek and say “thank you”. His tone suggested he expected her behavior.
“Now! The sermons… Have you had an opportunity to hear a follower speak of our mission in the second world after the Flood, hmm? You’re from Linden Grove? Clayton said so. Yes. Brother Tobias often is there with a few of his. Wonderful speaker. Devote. Passionate.”
If Clara remembered the man correctly, his beard was red with black strands that made her think of a blaze and after char. Tobias spoke of burning too. Burning conduits or at least junk from the old world. Often enough sympathizers would bring out their junk collections or wrestle away junk from their friends and Tobias would lead a good ol’ fashion junk burning. Clara could smell the burning oil right now. The flames were usually hotter than any smith’s bellows.
She had to down some punch to moisten her throat and keep from chocking.
“Can’t say that I have,” she finally answered, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “I don’t spend much time at home these days. Not since my dad died. Mom needs me to bring home some coin to help cover the house expenses.”
“Your father? Was he…?”
“Like me?” Clara looked hard at the Reverend.
“As a matter of fact… yes. Yes, he was a conduit,” she answered.
“A great man,” Rose added judiciously. “Gentle. Kind. He was a friend of my father, Reverend Jimmy.”
The Reverend didn’t much care for Rose’s additional comments. He had received all he needed from Rose and Clayton. This interrogation was aimed at Clara. “May I ask his name, your father’s I mean?”
Hesitant, Clara let the question hang in the air. Why did the Reverend care about her father? A dead conduit. Gone to God’s feet for judgment like the dogs he and Clara were. Unless you repented your sins of the Field, there was no hope of a good report sent to the big man upstairs… or so the Reverend and his thumpers threatened people with.
“Maurice Danvers,” she answered slowly. “Friends called him Mo for short.”
Reverend Jimmy smiled faintly. Before he did, Clara caught a sign of recognition. Earlier she thought this man had mistaken her for someone he might have known. Now she wondered if he didn’t see her father in her face. Often Clara’s mother had told her she had received her eyes from him. Had her father run into the His Hand at some point before his death? She didn’t remember any stories of such an encounter. Like her, Mo Danvers kept clear of junk burners.
“‘Course they did,” the leader of the His Hand said. “Surely he had many loved ones.” He nodded at Rose. She made no sign the attention sent insects growling over her arms and back. “Though a man is only as great as the path he walks. Or walked in the case of Mo Danvers. How did Mo die?”
Grinding her teeth—how dare he call Dad by that name?!—Clara answered with a single, clipped word. “Junkers.”
“Shame,” the Reverend said quickly. Too quickly. “As I said, he must’ve been a good man.”
“Very good,” Rose confirmed. “Mo was good to his family. He loved Clara, taught her all she knows.”
Again, with that grin! Reverend Jimmy’s grin slipped over Clara like water from an algae infected lake. “Of course,” he agreed.
Clara hoped she was able to repress for a second time the shiver that crashed across her body. It made her angry and for whatever reason, she directed the rage toward Rose inside her mind. How did Rose know anything about Clara’s father? He was a salvager who dealt with her father. He didn’t come and socialize with the rancher’s children. When Clara’s father and Uncle Marty showed up with their latest old world finds, junk Rose’s rancher father collected and often paid upfront for the duo to ferret out, Mo tended to shoo Clara away—if he brought her, he usually did. This was adult business. Go play with the other children. For that matter, Rose rarely came into towns like Linden Grove. She was privately educated, better educated than most children who would end up working in the fields like her family owned. Rose had never met Leo or Clara’s mother. She didn’t know who loved Mo Danvers. She didn’t know the pain of his loss like Clara, her family, Uncle Marty. Rose didn’t mean it, but Clara and her family were underneath her nose. Same as Clara was underneath Clayton’s nose, way underneath his heavily lofted gaze of righteous judgment.
How did I ever have feelings for that burning jackass?!
Clara pushed away her misdirected resentment. She needed friends here.
“It’s a dangerous world beyond the walls of our compound, as it is past the borders of places like your Linden Grove and the ranch Rose’s family calls home. Am I right?” the Reverend asked the two girls. Rose nodded, the ambush of her family’s supply wagon and Merlyn’s injuries fresh in her mind. “That is why we grow a lot of our own food inside our walls. We make our own garments. Our teachers are our neighbors. We have to leave our walls for many things but every few years it seems we gain a person with a new skill and we become strong together. Community is what insulates us from the dangers. The His Hand is about community. Bringing people and families together.
“The Flood tore many families apart. I cannot tell you the number of children my grandfather rounded up in those first days. Mothers and fathers dead or lost. He gave the children food, clothes, shelter, hope, belief in a new beginning and a new world. Gone were the temptations of the past…”
“Until people like me popped up… the conduits,” Clara said.
“Temptation is always around us,” the Reverend said flatly, retaining his cool. These were beliefs he held dear and he stood firm like a rock. “It is His way of calling us to account. Our tests are not finished, Sister Clara, daughter of Mo.”
“Change is hard. Some people can’t handle the world shifting underneath their feet.”
“I can agree with you. But the Flood was not change, it was a reset. The Second Chance for all of us.”
“Your god changed the world,” Clara countered, trying to use the man’s almighty faith as a big stick. “He created conduits as—”
“As a temptation,” the Reverend cut in, a little bite to his words. No one had likely debated this man in a while. The other conduits from the Junker’s golem battery store were too cowed to fight. “A world of danger and temptation can create men and women strong in the faith. Fight hard. Gather wounds. It makes for faith calluses. That is His plan. To ready us.”
“Sounds like a big ol’ game of chess to me that your god is playing.” She flashed her teeth.
Rose began to protest but the Reverend swept away with a hand her gentle words and kind intentions.
“He is your lord too. God is everyone’s father, their creator and master.”
“Not my master. And your god is not the one my grandmother introduced me too.”
“Same lord, I assure you, Sister Clara.”
“When I meet Him, we’ll see. Till then… I’ll believe in what I can see. And what I can see is the Nites. I can touch the Field. I’ll choose those things in this life until they snap back at me.”
“Did these Nites of yours not attract the devil’s own riders to you, Sister Clara? Hmm?” The Reverend had his own stick and he, like the soap box preachers in the towns, was not afraid to jab and whack some heads. “Your abilities wake the abominations men created in the world God drowned in His Flood. Now the street pirates ride out from hell and worship at those false, drowned alters. No good will come from kneeling there, with those creatures. The followers… including your friend, Brother Clayton Mathers… snatched you from that hell there and brought you back to us. This is His will nudging you to the Path.”
Clara did not comment. She was wasting her breath talking to this man who was adept at the dueling of words, each of his blades sharp. During this crossing of sharpened words, Rose should have turned blue, Clara swore Rose had held her breathe the entire time! Thus, the rancher’s daughter had plenty of breathe left to advocate for Clara.
“The lord blessed us with choice, Reverend Jimmy,” Rose said. Clara glanced over both her shoulders and around the room. The view was majestic from the church’s larger dome; it felt like the world was wrapping itself around Clara, holding her close. From the same doors Clara and Rose used to enter the apartments, Eve came with towels for the spill the Reverend made earlier.
“Choice is His greatest gift,” Rose went on, “and if Clara and others like her want to choose a life with their unique abilities who are we to say they are wrong?”
“Sister Rose, if that choice is harming the person, their soul or body…” Eve interjected smoothly. Was she standing behind the doors listening to the conversation from the start? She had taken a long time to fetch towels. “… well then, it is our obligation as that person’s brothers and sisters to intercede and guide them to His Plan. We’re just guiding. There’s no harm in taking a person’s elbow and showing them the way, is there?”
The Reverend nodded his agreement, unperturbed his wife had snatched his podium away and continued the argument on his behalf.
The inhabiting collar around Clara’s neck chaffed at her as she heard the word guiding leave Eve’s tiny bee-stung lips.
“You’re trying to show me ‘the way’?” Clara asked both the Reverend and his wife.
Together they nodded, probably thinking they’d put a crack in her defenses.
Clara jabbed a finger in the direction over her shoulder and rose to her feet, putting down the drained cup on the table in the middle of the chair circle.
“I choose the door. Thanks for the hospitality.”
That shook the married couple a little, not enough to trip them but Clara’s lips creased into a smile nonetheless.
“Wonderful to have hosted you, sister,” Eve squeaked, nearly bounding forward to give Clara a hug. She was taking Clara’s refusal of His Hand membership in stride.
Who do I have to see to get this collar o—
Even wasn’t finished. “We’ve asked Deseray to show you back to your quarters. She’s waiting for you outside.”
Without a conscious thought, Clara’s feet quit moving her forward. The sudden halting nearly pitched her forward in stunned surprise.
“You’ve had a long and different experience,” the Reverend said, projecting an understanding and sympathy that made Clara small, made her feel weak, like she needed special tending. She didn’t want his sympathy. “Decisions like whether to take in God’s Plan to your heart take time to process. Take as much time as you need…”
Because you’re not leaving here any time soon, is how Clara’s mind finished the Reverend’s speech.
With the collar around her neck, blocking her ability to use Nites, blocking her ability to touch the Field, Clara was helpless. The His Hand had Clara over a barrel and Reverend Jimmy had just spanked her, reminded her of who was in control.
“This is a safe place,” Eve added mothering like, which made Clara more angry because she wanted to see her own mother not this religious stuffed tittering twit! “We take care of each other here. We’re family.”
Strange thing, Clara believed what this woman and the Reverend told her. Nothing they attempted to sell her was an emotionless pitch. They believed every word and that had power all its own. Trust and conviction, both can convince a person to walk into Hell if asked.
Soap box preachers and followers were an army ready to march into to Hell with Jimmy Boy the religious at their head and punch the devil in the nose.
These are a bunch of crazy people. More than she had desired to get away from the Junkers, Clara wanted to break her collar and say goodbye to Crazy Town before she came down with the same infection.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Twenty-Six by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved