– CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX –
Not good. Not good. Not good.
Clara’s mind was in a panic. More than ever, she felt the heavy drag of the collar around her neck. Soon temptation may drive her to scratch at her neck to get at the itch. The alarming itch might compel her to try gnawing through the metal like a tethered dog.
How else was she supposed to get out of this religious prison? She needed her abilities. That, or Clara needed Tink to show up with an army.
Until now, she had not noticed all the residents in the compound carried weapons. Males over the age of sixteen either wore pistols holstered or swords sheaved.
This was a dangerous world. Even those of the His Hand needed to protect themselves beyond holding up The Good Book up as a shield. Round shot would punch through the paper like nothing.
Patrols walked the compound’s streets. Temptation was everywhere apparently, and the Reverend knew so. He didn’t trust his followers, they were slaves to flesh and at any moment could slip away from His teachings.
Clara gazed in to the distance, eyes watery. The last rays of the day’s sun were receding, the sun dripping below the horizon line of the compound’s high walls. The walls were higher and thicker than Linden Grove’s or Rivend’s were.
Clara thought of the lost Sammy Gonzales. He was a conduit just coming into his powers, probably prune to the same mischief as her own younger brother, Leo. Thinking of her brother forced more tears from her.
She glanced around the streets outside the church the Reverend Jimmy Boy called home and soap box.
People were heading home for supper. Many of the kids she’d seen earlier playing in the park after school lessons and/or chores bounded off, scattering in every direction after saying their good evenings to friends. None of the faces she found familiar.
If the Junkers didn’t have Sammy then…
One of the faces she did recognize. Rose hurried out of the church, trying to keep up with Clara. Clara wiped away her tears. How had Rose caught up?
What Clara lacked in height compared to Rose, she more than made up for with exercised muscles thanks to running from wild beasts in the ruins and lifting heavy junk. She tried to keep a distance between her and the rancher’s daughter. But the follower skirts Clara was forced to wear did not help. As she ran through the church the thick wool stubbornly tried to trip Clara up with each step. Still, she was dogged enough to outpace Rose through the church and past the double doors carved with the apple tree.
She could not define precisely why Rose’s speaking to the Reverend about Mo Danvers had angered her so. The frustration and fury embarrassed Clara, though. Her heart felt heavy. Her reaction was not fair to Rose but life was not fair in general. So, Clara covered her embarrassment with blind fury and quick steps. Tearing herself away from Eve Powell, Clara took off.
Stopping to look around, however, had allowed Rose time to catch up with her friend, the courtesies the other girl had shown the Reverend and his wife Eve had slowed her up but not by much. A solid wall of Croo had also slowed Clara in the Reverend’s reception room. Croo acted as if the inhibiting collar, high walls, and armed Bible thumping followers were not enough to stop Clara from leaving. Croo could relax, she was not going anywhere… she wanted some solitude and a good cry, though she normally wasn’t a crier. Couldn’t he give her that much? Croo still wanted to stop her furious exit, regardless. But the man would not crack, not until he saw her weeping. Then the solid, blocky man allowed Clara to push past him and storm out through the chapel. She made as much noise as possible, ruining people’s prayers.
Outside now, glistening eyes absorbing the setting sun, ears filled playful sounds of children running to dinner, Rose caught up with Clara.
“Wait up, Clara,” Rose asked politely. She was out of breath and wanted to pitch forward to suck down air, but she also didn’t want Clara to sneak away either.
Rose’s fingertip brushed Clara’s elbow just as the latter whirled around. The rancher’s daughter stumbled back, unprepared for the reaction or intensity in Clara’s gaze. “Clara… what’s going—”
“He doesn’t know anything about my father! And how dare Jimmy Boy back there speak the name my ma’ma and Marty used! How dare—” Choking sobs cracked from Clara’s throat and she felt her lower lips quiver, as if she were a child again.
Her hands flew to the collar keeping her from the Field, from touching life, from the thing she shared so closely with her father. Tugging only made the choking worse. Clara didn’t care. She yanked and pulled until fire erupted in a ring against the chaffing flesh underneath the metal inhibitor.
At some point Clara had fallen to her knees, in the middle of the street paved with cobbles, cut slightly uneven to retain each stone’s natural appearance from under the water of some nearby river. Her knees hurt, she had plopped herself down hard.
Hands reached out for Clara’s shoulders. It was Rose. She was hunkered down and trying to comfort Clara. The look in Rose’s eyes was similar to those of the passing followers. Pity. Like Clara was some wild animal that needed domesticating and still prone to bite the flash of a hand.
Clara swept one arm out in a wide horizontal arc, pushing Rose’s comfort away. She needed no pity.
“You didn’t know him much better,” she hiccupped. Her eyes were damp.
“Now you’re being silly,” Rose told her firmly, fed up with the tantrum from a young woman a year older than her, who was supposed to be more worldly than her. “Mo was a friend of my family’s, a good man who my father trusted. Men just don’t drink with anyone and my father, along with Merlyn, shared the finest of our stores with your father and Marty. My family is your friend, Clara, and we were your father Mo’s friend too.”
Why was Clara so upset with Rose? It was not her fault, she couldn’t prevent the Reverend from keeping Clara here regardless if she wanted to choose the conduit’s junk life. Rose didn’t hand her over to the Junkers. She didn’t lock this collar around Clara’s neck. She deserved better from Mo Danvers’ daughter.
As if reading Clara’s mind, Rose leaned in close so no passersby could overhear, lowered her voice, and said secretly, “We’re all getting out of here. I promise, Clara! We’re leaving together.”
“Clayton won’t leave,” Clara said, “he’s found his place here. He was always walking toward here, ever since your mother’s—”
“Speaking of my mother’s death won’t help anything,” Rose told her, though the pain of memory was sharp on her tongue. “My father never blamed your father or Marty.”
“Never called on us again either,” Clara pointed out.
Rose chewed her lower lip, mulling this fact over. The truth was multisided, one side always in shadow. “He could never bring himself to… adding to his… oh, my! There is no point to this! Let this stupid matter go, Clara. Please?”
Hands on Clara’s shoulders, Rose attempted to guide the young conduit to her feet and the latter didn’t brush away the help this time.
On her feet again, Clara rubbed fresh tears from her eyes and sniffed.
“I need some alone time,” Clara managed to say, her words trembling.
What a week. Bad to worse. What other kind of trouble can I get into, huh? Clara wondered.
Hesitating, not wanting to leave her friend in such a vulnerable state—either to keep harm from coming to Clara or to keep Clara from lashing out innocent bystanders, both likely—Rose again chewed on her lower lip. The stalling was not ladylike but somehow Rose made even lip biting seem pretty, cute.
“Don’t worry,” Clara assured her. “I have a shadow to keep me out of trouble.” She waved a hand at Deseray. The thumper meekly stood just outside the beast’s cage, wondering if the wild conduit would lunge at her. She clasped her hands at her chest, an imaginary Bible there to protect her.
Clara feigned doing just that, swiping with a clawed hand in Deseray’s direction. The follower squeaked, a church mouse corned by a cat, a nip of cheese in her hands.
Eyes rolling, Rose’s lips quirked. “Be good. I’m going to see Merlyn. You should come alone, he’ll want to know you’re alright.” She again lowered her voice, though Deseray was too busy gathering up her wits to listen. “My metal-headed brother might be sleeping but Merlyn is Woken. He’s ready to leap from bed and make a run, you in tow. And I think he’d leave Clayton behind, if it came to saving you or him from the His Hand. Merlyn believes in choice, even the dumb ones. Clayton made his choice.”
The reference to the conduit’s Waking abilities warmed Clara; it also made her outburst seem all the more childish. At least one of the Mathers siblings was on her side.
They parted ways, Rose saying Deseray would help Clara find her way back to her rooms or to Merlyn at some point. Right now, Clara wanted some time to herself, while she was awake and not starving herself into distraction and weakness.
After gathering her wits and cramming the shredded rags of her emotions back inside her chest, Clara rounded on the meek follower assigned to watch over her.
Clara paused, mouth open. She was going to protest, say she didn’t need guarding. Then it occurred to her… Where would she run? How far could she run? Like she could bound over walls.
The mass of people that had evacuated the park upon the setting of the sun were not returning to their homes the way the young conduit originally thought. They were massing at the church. Her babysitter, Deseray, was sending glances over her shoulder to the massive two-dome building. Clearly she was torn between heading into the chapel with her people—like a good little thumper of Reverend Jimmy Boy—and sticking to Clara like a fly to honey.
Odd how Clara thought herself a trapped fly. Deseray had the look of a helpless insect too.
“What’s going on in there tonight?” Clara asked, trying to sound truly interested in the congregation streaming past her.
Deseray peered a little longer at the home the Reverend shared with his god, she didn’t say a word.
“You might draw blood,” Clara warned the follower, trying to look around Deseray’s shoulder and at her face, grab her attention.
“Excuse me, sister?” Hesitation. Deseray didn’t see the newly arrived conduit as a member of her congregation. Not yet anyway.
That face. Clara knew she recognized this girl from somewhere. Did she know a younger version maybe of Deseray, ten or more years younger?
The black spot that seemed to blot out a part of Clara’s memory was too much for the conduit to ignore. She didn’t care why the followers were swarming the His Hand worship center in ones, twos, threes, and army loads… The Good Book must have instruction for a healthy breeding program, Clara had never seen so many kids to two adults. With seven plus mouths to feed, a family of that size would be considered poor in Linden Grove. Here, the children were happily stuffed and had color to their cheeks.
Distraction again. Clara shook off the stray thoughts. Deseray noticed the mental conflict, the struggle to stay on topic; she couldn’t miss Clara’s attempt to loosen mental marbles with a head shaking. Clara had her attention now for sure.
“Where do I know you from?” Clara asked slowly, trying to move around the black spot to find some sunshine and clarity.
“You… you know me?” Deseray’s voice was deep and melodious to contrast her skittishness. Followers really did get weak kneed around the scary devil-sent machine fiddlers.
“That’s the thing… I think I’ve seen you before.” Clara tapped her lips, still unable to find her away around the block but knowing the sun was around the familiar cloud. “Where are you from, Deseray?”
“We all call each other brother and sister here,” the follower claimed, speaking more to herself. She called Clara “sister” as an afterthought.
“Sure. Sure. Were you born here then?” Hopefully the older girl didn’t think Clara meant inside her own slippers. She just might. This girl was ready to bolt.
A tap on the shoulder drew Clara’s attention behind her and away from Deseray and the agonizingly awkward conversation. Deseray let out a relieved breathe, looking like a mouse trying to escape the claws of a cat.
Clara rubbed her temples and turned around to meet the interrupting person.
Clayton stood there waiting. He was trying to grow one of those ridiculous beards the men around here called fashionable—none wore a mustache—except his was patchy and uneven.
“I didn’t get to say earlier how nice you look,” he told her, more polite and engaging then he’d been since they were children playing in his family’s fields.
Of course! I look like a proper lady now. Leashed and with a skirt.
Clara was no more acutely aware of the metal bondage around her neck, heavy and dragging.
“You said something stupid to that affect,” she assured him curtly, folding her arms underneath her breasts.
That dropped Clayton’s smile into a questioning frown.
Punch to the gut. Good! He deserves it… saving me only to shove me into another cage.
“Wherever you were off to, I don’t want to hold you up.” She went to turn around, to pick up her conversation with Deseray again.
The girl had scurried away when Clara’s back was turned. How rude of her! And suspicious. It was one thing not to want to catch the sin from a nearby conduit and it was quite another to retreat in the opposite direction. Besides, most followers wanted to convert conduits, get them to renounce their abilities. To do such a thing, the follower needed to minister to that “sinner” and that required not rabbitting, it meant talking.
As long as Clara had her claws unsheathed, she might as well look for another mouse. Clayton still stood behind her, wondering at her response to his so-called compliment.
She wheeled around on her heel, stuck her out, put balled up fists on her hips, and looked up at the taller teenager.
“Clayton Mathers, what nerve did you have interrupting my conversation, huh?”
Both his hands went up and the little boy she grew up with ran across his face the same way he used to when chasing her during their games of tag or hide and seek. “Trying to be friendly is all! You don’t have to jump down my throat, Clara.”
Warm words. Heat surged through Clara, from her toes to the roots of her scalp.
“Sorry to yell,” she told him, casting her eyes away as she rubbed one bristling arm. “I’m on edge is all. And you freaked me out a little.”
“I did?! How?”
She allowed a mischievous smile to slip across her face as her gaze rose and one shoulder rolled. “That beard is the scariest thing I’ve seen and I’ve recently been in the ruins corned by a big cat.”
Swiftly she yanked at one thin patch on his cheek.
Clayton let out a yelp in jest.
This was how things should be all the time. Everything about this moment tingled, making Clara smile, making her forget.
“Where you off to, Clay?”
His eyes darted up to the church.
Reality crashed into Clara like a Woken golem speeding down the old roads. She was in the His Hand compound. A prisoner.
“Service is starting soon,” he explained, returning his gaze to her. “They hold evening services every other night and individual study groups on the opposite nights, alternating between men and women groups.”
He extended his hand to her, palm up, in a gesture that asked her to come with him. Accept him. Accept his faith. His viewpoint on the world. All the affability he offered was conditional. Clayton had changed and he wanted her to make that shift with him. One foot was in the door and he wanted nothing more than to pull her all the way through. This was confidence he wore about him, a sweet and enticing cologne, alluring but unnatural.
Wasn’t this what she wanted from her old friend? This was someone who she loved. Someone she had once been able to confide in, to share everything with. Someone who was offering new terms, a renegotiation on their friendship. On the other hand, Roos appreciated Clara’s abilities; he accepted the conduit side of Clara. Yet the Junker didn’t know her, the woman. Both young men saw the conduit and all she wanted was for one of them to see her.
All I want is for them to see Clara… to see me.
She was rubbing both her upper arms to banish the chill that had swept away the wonderfully deceptive warmth Clayton blew in with.
“Come inside with me, Clara,” Clayton asked.
Clara looked at him. Sincerity shined in Clayton’s blue-grey eyes. He wanted to bring her to the church. As much as she wanted his acceptance, that acceptance had to come on her terms. Humans are selfish but sometimes to survive in this harsh, ash-ridden world a person had to be hard.
“You like it here, don’t you, Clayton? This place is like home?” she asked.
He answered without hesitation. “The things Reverend Jimmy tells me makes sense, yeah. Our grandparents’ grandparents created what they saw as such splendor, thinking this world theirs to mold, to create. Then the Flood came and their world crumbled, buried them. Those who were able to drag themselves out, God gave a second chance to make good with Him. Make good on their promise to serve, not rule.” Wry laughter puffed from his lips. “And what do we do? People like my grandfather built walls around the food sources, the crops, the vital resources for survival everyone needs, then they set prices higher than people could afford. Yeah the people who work for my family have it good. Shelter. Food. Good pay. Not everyone can work for us, though. Instead of bringing the communities together, we continue to isolate people, force them to divide and fend for themselves. We don’t foster brotherhood, sisterhood. No. The ranchers with their walls, their cache… it’s not working.
“The His Hand wants to bring people together. They want to create a community of brothers and sister, of family.”
At least Clayton wasn’t a puffed up rooster. He clustered himself with the ranchers; his family owned the land, the resources, and they employed other desperate families as workers and an army of guards for protection. Putting himself in that rich bracket made the rancher’s son feel guilt. He knew better and it killed his soul. Guilt and righteousness were dangerous, fuel for a blaze that when roaring could spread out of control. No wonder Clayton was so angry these days. For Reverend Jimmy Power was not the answer, though. The Reverend was a bonfire himself, and his spark had leapt to Clayton, stoking an already large fire.
The Reverend had said the His Hand wanted to spread out. From the beginning, the Reverend’s grandfather sought land to grab up for His Hand. Converting a Mathers sibling would give the religious sect a lot of land, access to the ranchers, influence and power, and most importantly, an ear to the Mathers patriarch.
That’s what he’s doing. Jimmy Boy is probably having private “group meetings” with Clayton, giving him special attention before Merlyn is on his feet and pulling the kids back to the ranch.
“Don’t be a fool, Clay.” Clara shook her head. “The Reverend’s world is a nice place, I get that! Everyone is equal. Everyone supports each other. But what is the cost? He’ll snuff out the conduits in order to bring everyone together. That’s too high a cost.”
Clayton snorted derisively.
“You don’t believe me, do you, Clay?”
His gaze was flat. “The Lighted speak of a world long gone, dead. We need to bury the corpse finally. Every. Last. Remnant. It needs to go, Clara! The junk needs burying so we can move on. Conduits represent the power of that time. Electricity.”
“It’s not elect—”
“Whatever! Point is… don’t get me wrong… I don’t mean killing when I say ‘bury’ but people need to turn their backs to that temptation. No one has to die. They don’t kill people here.”
“And if I want to leave… they’ll let me, huh? You believe that crap, Clay? Do you really?!”
Despite the aggressiveness at which she retreated, the thickness of the walls Clara raised, her old friend continued to hold his hand out to her.
“I don’t want you to go, Clara. Stay. Please.” He spoke softly.
“But, Clay…” She let loose a heavy sigh, shook her head. “Staying is only happening on your terms though?”
“The lord’s ter—”
“Same difference.” Warmth spread through her body again, but this time it was an inferno ready to consume a forest.
Another thought occurred to Clara as she was about to walk away. Might as well pour out the contents of the glass, the milk is already spilled. “This is all about fear, Clay. People like me kill people meddling with the past, right? Conduits are dangerous. Our powers are temptations. Our powers destroyed one world and it will destroy this second chance of yours. Say it, Clay, I know you blame my dad.”
She stomped off then, not wanting to watch Clayton’s kettle scream and spew steam. A funny sight, for sure, but she was already near that point herself.
Refusing to look back after she turned to leave, Clara asked over one shoulder, “Could you point me toward the place Merlyn is being held… please? I seem to have lost my sitter.” She flung the word ‘held’ like a knife directed into the trunk of a tree. By the sharp intake of air she heard Clayton draw in, Clara hit his big fat trunk dead center. Bullseye!
“Wait and I’ll get Deseray, she’ll take you to him and make sure you don’t get lost,” Clayton yelled after her. “I’m sure she would want to ask you how her father is doing. She hasn’t seen him in a long time.”
Clara stopped in her tracks.
A Face. A name. Both slid into place as the clouds parted. Deseray Tully. Uncle Marty’s daughter. She was alive? She wasn’t lost or dead?
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Twenty-Seven by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved