– CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE –
Clara could hear the pipe organ from outside the church. If she was halfway across the compound, she might have heard the melodious tones. Upbeat and light enough to lift any soul heavy with sin, the music sounded as if angels were humming. All it need was an accompaniment of sopranos shouting about the Second Coming and it would perfectly reflect the confident—if not smug—mood of the followers leaving the church.
A crowd of followers congregated in the concrete yard in front of the steps that ascended to the church’s porch, the light grey slab framed by rows of flower bushes on each side. The Reverend and his wife stood at the top of the steps, just outside the doors aglow with heavenly candle light from within. He shook the hands of the exiting followers and Eve hugged them after, kissing the children on their foreheads.
Clara dragged her feet, Sammy in hand, as the two of them advanced across the street and into the yard. She wanted to blend in. Rushing into the crowd would suggest too much that she and Sammy had been off finding trouble instead of in the church listening to the Reverend like good little thumpers.
Many people fixed their eyes on hers and Sammy’s inhabiting collars, but their eyes lingered only briefly. Among the men’s jeans and work shirts and the women’s sturdy skirts and white blouses, the collars were deviations.
Still, other people—apart from Clara and Sammy—wore collars too. These followers—converted conduits—noticed the two of them more than anyone else did. In a close nit community like the one the His Hand had built, even those conduits who’d sworn away their abilities were accepted and well known. Clara and Sammy were new faces. Easily noticed. Conduits who had yet to make their decision… a life with their abilities and their sin, or life with the Second Chance.
And here I thought I would receive a warm welcome from people like me. Clara was disappoint. The cowed conduits were part of the His Hand, converts. Any support would need to come from Wendy and the others who’d been “saved” from the Junkers, though warm beds and an abundance of food would be appealing to them too.
Someone else besides the converted conduits noticed Clara, though.
She saw Croo striding toward her, purpose planted in each step. He was not coming from the church either, but from the streets leading away.
Had that right arm Bible thumper been looking for me?
Of course, Croo had looked for her! Her butt in a pew during service would have shown her willingness to conform to the His Hand teachings and lifestyle. Instead, Clara had ditched the church service and snuck off. A rogue. A rebel. She smiled madly, pleased with herself.
How had Croo known? The congregation was large. One short conduit like herself would not appear missing unless… Clayton?
Trying to keep up with Croo’s long-legged stride, Deseray followed the Reverend’s right hand through the crowd and toward her.
How had Marty’s daughter found her way to the compound anyway? If Clara got the older girl alone she would smack her until answers spewed past her silence.
“Clara. I gotta go,” Sammy told her. She hadn’t noticed but she was still holding the boy’s hand. He had pulled her right arm behind and across her back like he meant to spin her in an aggregative dance move.
She unlocked her eyes from the approaching Croo and Deseray and shifted to the direction Sammy might drag her if neither of them let go. A family of six was regarding Sammy and her, and not with acceptance. A boy a few years older than Sammy looked like he might murder Sammy if the younger boy came near the family, back alley or broad daylight. Brittle straw hair stuck up from this boy’s melon-head and he possessed the extra girth of a body wanting to leap into adulthood except he was six years too early for anyone to call him a man. His parents eyed Clara skeptically, as if she was courting a much younger fella and the idea was revolting.
Clara let go of Sammy’s hand. “Are those your wonderfully accepting foster parents and their painfully playful children?”
Nodding, Sammy made to leave but his feet refused to take him far from Clara’s side. If she didn’t do something, Sammy might wrap his arms around her leg and never let go.
She hunkered down on the balls of her feet, touched his chin with two fingers, and saw in his face the devastating desire to stay with her.
“I’ll see you in the morning, Sammy.” She attempt to project certainty into her words, something real for him to hold tight to. “You hear me? Sammy! In the morning, you’ll see me and we’ll figure a way to go home. Home is with me. Okay?”
That assurance caused a mixture of emotions in the boy. The old home he knew was gone, taken away by the Reverend’s His Hand. He had a place to go, though, an alternative situation. Relief and sadness poured out of the boy. Clara decided the organ music projected the boy’s same emotions, the leaving behind of an old life but the beginning of a new adventure.
Sammy smiled but it did not shine in his eyes. That was okay. At least he had hope.
“You don’t know where I live right now,” he told her.
True enough. The compound was not a warren but Clara had not yet explored the wide streets.
Before she could assure Sammy further, the boy’s smile briefly touched his visual connection with her. “Don’t worry, Clara,” he whispered, “I’ll find you tomorrow.”
“Deal.” She returned his grin as earnestly as possible. Then the boy returning to the foster family that was a poor replacement for the dead parents and sister the thumpers had stolen from him.
Clara rose to her feet to face the church. Jimmy Boy and Eve were still doing their gracious hosting act just outside the doors, like dinner party hosts seeing their guests out. Thank you for coming. Wasn’t the roasted boar delicious? Attending the party just saved your soul. Next week we’re having duck! See you there!
Exiting the church now were Clayton and Rose. The siblings stopped longer than anyone before them had so they could speak with the Reverend. While hugging Eve, Rose saw Clara and nodded firmly. She had not spoken to Clayton but would soon. Good. Clara wanted to keep her promise to Sammy. This time she would keep the promise.
Croo tapped Clara on the shoulder. She knew it was Croo even without looking behind her. She knew for sure now, he and Deseray had been seeking her out.
Back straightened and lips curved into the most fake and hollow smile she could muster, Clara spun around.
The sudden motion failed to catch the blocky man off-guard. Only an earthquake would move this boulder. Deseray, on the other hand, jolted with surprise. Too bad she didn’t hide behind Croo. Clara made Deseray but not in the same way as she did the other followers. Curious. People walk around mud puddles because they don’t want to get their shoes or boots dirty. That’s how most of the followers treat the unconverted conduits. Deseray didn’t see Clara as a puddle but more as a dirty house she wanted to avoid cleaning up. No one likes scrubbing the dirty laundry.
Again, Clara wondered after the older girl’s presence at the compound. What’s your story Deseray? Without thinking, Clara’s tongue clucked out her thoughts using the Field code her father taught her as a child and that she and Tink used to communicate. Deseray looked at her as if she were a loon. That made Clara chortle. Croo did not crack. She would need a sledgehammer for this mountain.
“Where have you been?” Croo asked flatly, his voice an avalanche of falling rocks.
Clara drew in a deep breath and then laced her fingers together behind her head. “Getting some fresh air. It’s a nice night. Church was a little stuffy, if you ask me.”
“You ran off,” he accused, looking at Deseray. He did not mean she ditched the church service, he meant her sitter.
She shook her head. “Afraid not. A friend cornered me here before the service began. My friend and I chatted. When I turned around, my new other friend here,” she gestured at her Uncle Marty’s lost daughter, “had wandered off. I felt self-conscious about walking into the church alone so I set out exploring. I’m back!”
“Where did you find yourself?”
“Oh… here… there… lots of places. You all have nice streets around this place. Streetlamps too! Very bright.”
If Clara was not careful, she might find out what it’s like buried under a pile of rocks.
Croo probably wanted to call her bluff. Until she wore off her abilities and took to being a good thumper, Clara was under heavy scrutiny with limited privileges.
He tried asking Deseray to confirm Clara’s un-detailed story.
Deseray opened her mouth to answer but she found no words to dispute Clara’s claims. Lacking any reason to switch Clara, hang her by her toss from that nice gazebo in the park, or toss a mountainside on her, Croo told Deseray to show Clara back to her rooms. He made clear in his tone that, this time, the follower was not to disappear or allow Clara to do the same.
Over her shoulder, Clara spied the Reverend watching her. He was not going to interfere but the fact that his right hand was involving himself with one of the unconverted spoke of misdeeds and trouble. He didn’t know the half of it.
“You can ask about your dad,” Clara offered offhandedly as Deseray escorted her back to the house she shared with other unconverted conduits. “If you want, that is. No pressure.”
For a heartbeat or two no answer came. Deseray continued to walk in front of Clara, pretending cloth or cotton were stuck tightly in both her ears.
Curiosity nipped at Clara’s earlobes. “Uncle Marty is doing well. He’s lonely, of course. He doesn’t talk about you but… but he knows I’m a poor substitute for his real daughter.” Flattery. She was tempted to tell Deseray that half the time her father was in a haze, the weed having a firm grip on his mind and heart, smothering the air from the real world, choking his soul. Most nights I need to drag him home. Dano helps but that doesn’t make—
“Likely he’s a poor substitute for a father, for your father,” Deseray said coldly. The words and the emotional strings attached came from deep within her, something she’d kept hidden and never brought out until now.
Something else tugged at Clara’s earlobe. Yanked really. she stopped in the middle of the vacant street, her mind telling her something was not right.
How did she know Dad died? She left before the Junkers killed Dad. Since then she’s been cooped up here, with the thumpers.
“How do you know about my dad dying?”
Deseray didn’t even slow. She kept walking.
Clara rushed to catch up. She grabbed the follower by the arm and yanked her to a halt as hard as her instincts had her ear.
“Tell me what you know about my dad dying!” She screamed the words, each one drenched in tears.
Deseray refused to meet Clara’s gaze. She stared at the other girl’s fingers, turned red from the pressure of holding her arm. Wanting only answers, Clara didn’t care if the older girl chewed through her own arm to get away from her. She would chase Deseray down.
Two weeks passed while Clara waited with her mother and brother, Leo was so young he knew no other words but “dada”. They waited for her father to come home from a salvage run. Mo Danvers would take days in the ruins. He was fending off hungry animals grown to sizes that today frighten the once confident and superior human race, ducking into alleyways and corridors, looting boarded up stores, picking through basement caches buried under rumble. He always brought back some new sign for his workshop. With their Uncle Marty by his side, the best friends salvaging in the ruins, Mo Danvers was a teenager on an endless, grand advantage. He had the mischievous grin of rabblerousing youth too, even in his early forties. No matter what, despite all the dangers—big cats, birds with talons as sharp as daggers, the threat of crumbling buildings—Mo always came home to Clara, Leo, and his wife Jennie.
When the Danvers’ apartment door opened that night, the lightning flashing brighter than a Nite, thunder growling louder than the emptiest belly, only Uncle Marty stumbled in. He brought with him three things… his best friend’s ragged green coat, leather pack, and the story of how Mo died.
Grammy ordered Clara to take Leo into the bedroom, to shut the door, and to try hard not to listen. Leo kept saying, “Dada. Dada?” At first, the toddler was showing off his large vocabulary. Then the words sounded to Clara like questions. Where is our dad? How come he didn’t come home to us?
Clara put her little brother to bed that night. Quickly. She tucked in the sheets tight so the boy would not escape. All the while, he kept asking where their father was. She had no answer. She had no harrowing tale about a conduit besting a Junker horde picking clean an old ruin, taking the spoils for himself. Those stories were for kids and Clara didn’t feel like playing with dolls or toys that night.
Against her grandmother’s orders, Clara snuck into the hallway. Every step elicited a creak from the old apartment floors. Lightning flashed, throwing her tall shadow up on the wall.
The bathroom was near the kitchen. Clara ducked through the door when the night’s stormy light blinked away. Then she wedged herself under the sink and listened.
Uncle Marty told her mother and Grammy how he and Mo raided a ruin called Nork, one of the great old cities a day’s journey to the northeast. They’d been mapping the ruin. The ruin was large enough to house thousands of communities like Linden Grove and still have plenty of elbowroom for miles. The Junkers were also interested in the ruin. The Danvers-Tully duo narrowly had avoided the road raiders time after time as they slowly made their way out of Nork.
Their avoidance of the pirates made Mo and Marty overconfident Grammy scolded. Jessie Danvers shushed the Lighted and told Marty to go on.
On their way back to town, on the littered roads of old and the furrows of the new, just outside Nork, Mo and Marty spotted two distressed men. It appeared a golem had fallen on one of the men. They had been hunting inside the golem for an animal gone to ground. Why an animal would nest in a golem was beyond the young Clara but she kept silent in her hiding spot.
Marty used his muscles to try to lift the golem up off the man. Numerous heaves and hoes later from Marty and screams from the man trapped underneath the golem, but no headway. The stubborn piece of junk was going nowhere.
Mo decided it was time. He used his abilities to bring to being Nites, which he then used to Wake the golem so he could direct it off the man.
That’s when the Junkers struck.
The road pirates appeared from all directions and swarmed Mo and Marty. Mo revealing his conduit power had been what they were waiting for. The two wayward hunters were bait, a ploy to ambush merchants or anyone worth robbing. The Junkers got one better…a conduit. And they were going take him, just like in the stories.
All they wanted was a conduit. Not the supplies the partners carried, nor their newly acquired junk. Young Clara would not understand until years later why her father was more important.
The Junkers did all they could to separate the best friends. Marty overwhelmed a small group of the Junkers with knifes sharper than a puppy’s first teeth. They wore the big man down, though. Little cuts drained Marty. And when he believed himself the victor, the Junkers scattering upon witnessing his strength and resolve, he wheeled around to help his oldest friend. Only Mo was gone by then.
With a whisper of stirred bushes and the retreating of soft-soled boots, everyone had disappeared.
Mo’s pack and now ripped coat were all that Marty found. He looked for miles but found no trace of his best and oldest friend.
Clara knew the stories. She’d heard what happened to conduits taken from Junkers… Grammy said they never returned home to their beds. A child’s imagination came up with tortures adults would quake hearing.
“What really happened, Deseray? Tell me?” the teenage Clara asked.
At some point Clara had balled up her fingers, both her fists shook, needles—her fingernails—pricked her closed palms. By Deseray’s expression, she believed Clara meant murderous intent. She held up her hands in placation.
Lantern light swelled in the windows high above the street, windows that banged open with alarm. Deseray’s loud sniveling and Clara’s raised voice must have roused the followers getting home from evening service.
Clara dragged Deseray into a dark corridor between two homes with few windows on the sides, all of them shut up tight and dark. She made a conscious effort to lower her voice, but her tongue was still as sharp as the knife the Junkers took from here.
“Spill! What happened to my dad?”
“They came for me,” Deseray said, voice pitched low, hands wiping at her damp cheeks. A note of composure was returning to her, though her eyes shined with mistrust. “My father and Mo heard I was here. I’m not sure how my father found me. I left one night years before. I left no note. No last word.” Her mouth curled into a silent snarl of disgust. “He never heard the lock or the door as I slammed it closed. With the haze gripping his dreams, I wonder if he even could hear the Second Coming!”
“You knew your dad was slipping away? You left him knowing?!” Clara was outraged.
“What could I do?”
“Take care of him!”
“He didn’t want to live with me or the now,” Deseray harrumphed, more angry than teary. “My father turned to the weed so he could escape to the past, to a family he would never have again.”
“Burn you! He came for you, Deseray. He and my dad fought to drag you out of this hell.”
Deseray took offense to that comment. “Drag? Yes. Kicking and screaming. Why would I leave?”
“These thumpers are kidnapping children, Deseray! Their sheets are not pure white. They kill people too.” Thinking of Sammy’s family, dead now because the boy was a conduit, they paid the price for loving him enough to keep him from the people would do him harm because of one blind group’s bigotry. The thought filled Clara with her own anger. She recounted what she knew of the Gonzales’ deaths to Deseray. “Are those the actions of a just people?”
“Reverend Jimmy is trying to preserve this world,” Deseray claimed, shaking her upturned nose at Clara. “Conduits start up the creatures that polluted God’s country, his gift to us. Such people should not be allowed to perform such… witchcraft.” A curse, spat like the grime one accumulates in their mouth from a long, tiresome journey.
“You grew up in the shop our fathers kept. How can you think like this?”
Deseray blinked at Clara as if the answer were so obvious she felt insult by the asking. “I looked around.”
“And my dad? He was a polluter as you call us conduits.”
“Mo was not a bad man. Wrong? Yes. Bad? No. My father on the other hand…” She whistled and shook her head in dismay while chuckling sympathetically. “Marty was… and still is, a fool. Worse, he’s a poor friend. However he figured out where I landed, he brought Mo along to fetch me. When Reverend Jimmy told him I was free to leave, if I so wished, Marty looked to me. I said no. Marty pleaded with Reverend Jimmy. He wanted him to speak to me. Convince me. He demanded. At first, the Reverend would not intercede. God had brought me to the His Hand for a purpose and he would not interfere. It was between God and I.” Head tilted up to look upon the night’s sky, Deseray paused. When she began again, she continued to regard the heavens. “Marty could not accept God’s will. He shouted. He shook those bear’s paws he calls hands. He threatened to tear down our walls like a storybook giant. Desperate… he was so desperate to turn me from my real home, he offered up Mo to Reverend Jimmy. A conduit for his daughter.”
Shock must have burst out of Clara’s face because Deseray confirmed the outrageous accounting, “It’s true. Really, Clara.”
“Uncle Marty would never! He was my dad’s best friend. They were like brothers. He would… he would never.”
“Cain and Abel were brothers,” Deseray retorted.
“Don’t thump me, liar,” warned Clara as she pushed herself a way from the wall she was leaning against and aggressively advanced on Deseray, got in the follower’s face, nose to nose.
“Reverend Jimmy gave your father a chance to repent, to make a new life, he offered him the Second Chance,” Deseray assured. “He said your family could live here with us. Adults are hard headed, though, their feet stuck to the ground even when the world is changing and the mountains are tumbling atop their head. Fixed fast.”
Deseray sidestepped out of Clara’s way, ducking a balled fist and shuffling toward the mouth of the corridor.
“So you all killed him? You killed my da’ because he wouldn’t conform to the rules of your new world?” Albeit she was angry, Clara’s voice was calm, the built up of fury sizzling like in the minutes before a storm lets loose. She reached for the Field, to fill herself with the warmth, to calm her with its life sweetness. Only static.
Through her blouse, Deseray clutched what was likely a cross, a token of her god, her faith, of what she hoped would shield her from the conduit demon.
Hands reached inside Clara’s chest and squeezed her heart, pushed steel thumbs into the organ. The pressure made Clara halt.
“We gave him a chance. A choice. It’s what God gives us all. His gift.” The follower spoke the words as she backed out of the darkness and into the lamplight of the empty street. This was not the His Hand’s fault, or so the thumpers believed. They had prosecuted Clara’s father, given him his freedom of choice, and he had decided his own fate. Hands washed. Blood cleaned. The absolution of the righteous.
“Leave. Just go,” Clara told the older girl who once had watched over her in the Wrench Works when their fathers were busy. She was angry enough to strangle the girl. But the strangle hold on her heart was greater. She needed to deal with her grief, an old wound newly opened.
“You won’t know where to—”
Deseray’s words cut off at Clara’s shooing hand flick. Clara leaned back against the building wall that formed one side of the tight corridor leading to the back and sunk to a sitting position.
Not persisting to defend the followers passive actions in her father’s death, Deseray faded into the night with a whisper of slipper feet. The predator’s attention diverted, any sane person seizes the opportunity to run.
Clara wished she could run. She thought of her father. Dying alone. Dying with no friends or family. She knew those feelings, the followers’ stares, their contempt.
No running. What she could do was choose. She chose anger. She chose not to cry.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Thirty by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved