– CHAPTER TWO –
An alarm beeped at Clara. The screen of the portable device she kept by her bedside lit up green with light.
Clara groaned. She hated mornings and without aid would likely sleep the day away. For that reason, she had taken to Waking the portal device before allowing her head to meet the comfort of her pillow each evening. The strain of using the amount of Nites needed to operate the device for an extended time—even if in a limited capacity—left her even more drained than a busy day could alone. Regardless, she always woke in the morning, recharged at least in one way.
That device was a contradiction to this world that lacked the conveniences of the old. Some might call the operation of the portable device a miracle, though not many. Most would see it as something worse, a crime against nature since the day nature, fate, some almighty being, or whatever rewrote the rules. Clara hated rules, godly or otherwise. And as far as she was concerned… waking up in the morning was a rule too.
She groaned at the device disturbing her sleep, hoping her glumness would quiet the thing. It did not.
Reaching over, Clara silenced the device by touching her finger to the screen. She wanted to slam her fist down on the bedside table and crush the infernal thing but devices of its like were difficult to scrounge up and thus expensive to collectors. The metal bird that sat next to the device—a cross between an eagle and tiger, the avian grace and ferociousness of the cat—rocked on its claws and talons when Clara’s hand bumped the table. She shoved that hand back underneath her pillow.
Silence. Blissful. Silence.
Relief puffed out of Clara as her heavy eyelids slid shut again.
“Clara! Breakfast is ready,” a voice called from far away. Mothers could throw their voices far, as if baring a child amplified their voices to supernatural levels.
Again, Clara groaned, wanting to ignore the trumpeting of her mother.
“If you don’t move your lazy butt your morning meal is going to Scooter! And I’m leaving for the shop in fifteen minutes. Hustle, miss!”
No way was the family dog going to have more meat on its ribs than Clara. She rose, dressed herself, grabbed her gear, and on the way to breakfast stopped by the bathroom the splash water on her face. Cold water. Brrr.
In the mirror over the washbasin a familiar face dripping with water stared at her. Clara took up a towel and dried her pale face, which remained alabaster fair regardless if she went out in the sun. The tie around her wrist bound back her raven dark black hair, though curly strands were already escaping and bouncing in front of her oval-shaped face. Clara was not pretty, average, but nothing boys would find a reason for a second glance, especially when golem oil was smudged across her white cheeks and down button nose.
After wiping away beads of water from her equally dark brows, Clara tossed the towel over a rack behind the door and went to make sure her breakfast didn’t get tossed in the dog’s food bowl.
Scooter was already anticipating Clara’s sleeping in. The brown and tan long-haired dog sat in front of his bowl. His whipcord tail wagged across the carpet, gimme-gimme the motion demanded. He pawed at his bowl with eagerness, adding a whine to pluck heartstrings.
As soon as the family dog eyed Clara he knew his breakfast of leftovers would not come. He bowed his head and padded over to Clara, but not before sliding his butt across the rug situated in the middle of the room. Finished scooting, Scooter stood on his hind legs and pawed at Clara’s chest, giving her a doggy hug and licking her hands.
“Off! Scoot, get down!” She could not keep the fondness out of her firm tone.
Scooter returned all his four paws to the floor and walked beside Clara as she joined her mother and brother at the dining table.
The Danvers family lived in the modest accommodations provided by the Linden Grove community. Modest meant better than poor and most people lived poor. Living poor meant surviving in a world that was a skeleton of its former self, picked clean of meat. Clara, her mother, and her brother occupied a two-bedroom apartment in a three-level complex. Wood floors and brick walls, the space tended to be cold, drafty in the winter months. A cast iron stove sat near the open kitchen, capable of only warming the immediate area on the coldest of nights. In the morning the stove was rarely used, wood and coal conserved. Clara’s father left them a sizable amount of money, enough to live off for many years. Still, her mother wanted to stretch the money as long as possible and she didn’t want to draw attention to the family.
To me… Mom doesn’t want to draw attention to me, Clara often reminded herself, trying to keep from making mistakes, slips. Some itches needed scratching, though.
Magically a bowl of snooty oats appeared in front of her. Clara dipped her spoon in the breakfast substance then raised the utensil. Mealy ooze dripped off the sides of the spoon and back into the bowl. A quick touch of the bowl’s side told Clara her meal this morning was cold… again. She shivered. The morning was cold enough with October quickly moving on. Some sugar would help in chocking this mush down. Sugar helped make any meal less revolting. Too bad sugar was expensive; it had to come up from three states to the south… an expensive trip buyers paid for.
Having read her daughter’s mind, Jessie Danvers placed a bottle of honey on the table along with a smile. Clara returned a wide, forced grin that was more a pouty sneer.
“Honey will sweeten up the oats,” her mother assured her.
“It won’t make me love the oats more,” Clara said.
Her mother sighed. “Which do you love more, Clarabelle… oats or an empty stomach?”
Clara wrinkled her nose upon hearing her real name. I hate my name. Hearing it made Clara think of elaborate costume balls and puffy gowns, like in fairy tales from a world long gone.
A gurgling in her stomach betrayed Clara. She quickly placed a hand over her middle but her mother had already caught the hungry noise.
Jessie Danvers smiled kindly and pushed the bottle of honey further toward her daughter, urging.
Like mother like daughter, Clara’s mother too had a pale complexion the sun loved to burn. Dark eyes and dark hair framed a youthful face despite her fifteen odd years as a mother. The only lines were the worry lines at the corners of her mouth, the lines at her eyes were from smiling and seemed to reduce her age as much as the stress at the eyes accelerated the years. Jessie Danvers always tried to make a bad situation better with smiles and good attitude. The opposite of Clara, who wanted to punch the problem until it solved itself.
Grudgingly, Clara upended the bottle over her morning bowl snoot. Not that the oats tasted horrible, they simply didn’t taste like anything. The honey poured slowly, coating the oaks in golden stickiness. Bland white turned to gold soon.
“Better hot,” Clara mumbled at the bowl, as if the temperature were the oats’ problem to fix.
“You know I can’t light a fire, Clara,” her mother said while wiping clean two bowls that she’d dunked into a sink filled with suds.
Next to Clara was Leo, her younger brother, ten years old. He looked very similar to their father. Strawberry blonde hair, grey eyes all within a round face. In these younger years, Leo was all limbs, lanky, but he would grow tall one day. Already he was near to Clara’s height.
No bowl sat in front of Leo.
Leo was tinkering with an old portable game device. The words Game Boy were printed on the front. Their father had scrounged the junk up from the ruins and given it to Clara as a gift. Now it was Leo’s prized position.
To Clara’s other side, the right, was an empty fourth seat. Their father’s former seat. For a time Grammy used to occupy the seat, after the Danvers patriarch had passed away. No one sat in that chair anymore. Maybe because it still felt occupied by the two people no longer with the Danvers’ family.
Clara stared at the chair, slightly pulled out and ready for someone to sit in, the seat dusty. An old, patched olive colored coat was draped over the back.
Thinking of her father must have triggered Clara’s next words. The suggestion she was about to make required the use of a set of skills she shared with her deceased father.
“We could pull out that heater Dad found years before, I could…”
Her mother looked sharply at her.
“Absolutely not! You nearly burned down the house trying to Wake Up that damn machine.”
“Mom, please. I wasn’t trying to burn down our home. The machine malfunctioned. We’ve never used that thing since…” Clara trailed off. Her father had brought home the heater—a small machine people in the old world used to cook meals on when no electricity was available, like when camping in the wilderness. Sounds like my life… except we don’t have batteries, not exactly. The last person to Wake the heater successfully was her father. Thinking about the heater made Clara remember her father—his easy smile, his infectious laugh, his strength. Memories were in her mother’s eyes as well.
After clearing her throat, Clara finished, quieter this time.”Besides, no one was hurt. Mr. Sullivan came to help put out the fire,” Clara reminded her mother sheepishly, feeling guilty.
“That’s the point, Clara,” her mother said quietly, firmly.”If he’d seen you create Nites and Wake Up the heater… well…”
Clara liked to think better of Mr. Sullivan. He would never turn her in, right? A rage rose up inside her, bubbling, reminding her of why her father was not sitting next to her right now.
Several mouthfuls of oats kept Clara from saying anything further, or kicking over the empty chair.
Taking Clara’s pack from beside her chair, her mother began to open cupboards in the nook kitchen area. She grabbed what she could, stuffing rations and road food—anything that would keep for long stretches of time, granola, nuts, jerky—into the pack’s many small pockets.
Jessie Danvers sighed, stopped loading her daughter’s pack and put her hands on the counter, bowing her head. “I love you, Clarabelle. You just… I… I can’t help worrying you won’t come back. That someone will see you and—”
“Know me as a freak,” Clara snapped.
Her mother appeared at her side in a flash and knelt. She cupped Clara’s face in her hands. Hard as she tried Clara could not keep from meeting her mother’s gaze.
“Not a freak. Never a freak,” Jessie Danvers said between gnashing teeth, offended that her daughter would think her so intolerant. “My daughter. You hear me? You’re my daughter, first, whatever or whoever you are. The man I loved gave you to me, and every time you touch the Field and produce something of wonder I see him.”
“It’s painful, thinking of Dad,” Clara said softly, sorry for her flippant attitude toward her mother.
Head nodding slowly as if tired, Jessie Danvers tucked one lock of her daughter’s curly hair behind an ear. She smiled proudly, though still sad, at her daughter. “He’s gone. Least you can do, Clara, is stick around and remind me of your dad. It’s painful, yes, but I don’t want to feel numb either.”
Clara hugged her mother tightly and whispered, “I have to be who I am, though, Mom.”
“I know. Your dad would not want it any other way.” Her mother said this regretfully. She feared for Clara’s safety when she ventured into the ruins, when she used her conduit abilities. Yet momma bird could not keep the chick in the nest forever, nor could she cage the baby bird. That helplessness tore at Jessie Danvers.
Before her mother betrayed her own words, Clara’s mother released her and went to a corner of the room to get her sewing kit for work. Jessie Danvers worked as a seamstress with a couple of other ladies, one was the mother of Clara’s friend, Gabby. The ladies worked for a shop in the village’s market square called the Threaded Needle.
To distract her mind, turn the thoughts away, Clara peered back at the game device sitting on the table in front of Leo. She took another bite of honey oats, or rather, honey.
Leo had taken the device apart, prying off the backing, opening the hatch behind which the battery was stored (it was empty). The green circuit boards were exposed along with several wires. Eyes trained on the dissembled pieces before him, Leo studied the long dead junk for a moment longer before putting it back together like a pro.
By the time Clara stuffed down the last spoon-full of her cold honey breakfast, her brother’s device—once her own—was whole again.
She pushed the bowl away and got up from the table, shrugging into a jacket before slipping her arms inside her pack’s straps.
Leo took up the game device and eyed the blank screen. On the top of the device was a faded red slider, it once powered up the portable game player. The slider was pushed to the ON position currently, like most machines from the Electricity Age.
Standing now behind her brother’s chair, Clara closed her eyes. She took in a breath and felt the tingles, the sparks her body made. Doing this always made her more aware of the environment, the Field woven around all living things and every person. It embraced her snuggly, like life itself. She drew on the sparks around herself, her own personal Field.
Tiny firefly-like sparks came to life in Clara’s open hand as she stretched her fingers toward the game device. The sparks—what she and others like her, before her, called Nites—fluttered to the device and sank within.
The blank screen lit up and the screen asked Clara’s young brother, “Would You Like to Play a Game?”
“Thanks Clara,” Leo said absently, now absorbed in his game.
Over in the corner of the room their mother was by the window, the drawn curtains clutched tightly in her hands, not a speck of morning light allowed to enter. Or rather, not a speck of Nite blue light allowed to leave.
Distress drew lines across Jessie Danvers face, the frustrated guard that mother ducks hold for their chicks when the feathered family crosses a street while a couple horses come stumping along. Mothers know danger and they would fight to keep their children from harm, scratch, bite, kick, or spit.
Clara grabbed up her pack from the counter, secured the pockets, pulled the worn coat from the back of the empty honor chair, and moved to the apartment’s front door. Hand on the knob she tossed over one shoulder a last comment. “Don’t worry Mom. Uncle Marty has my back when I scavenge the ruins.”
Her mother remained quiet until Clara began to turn the doorknob and leave. “Just like he protected your dad?”
“Uncle Marty did what he could for Dad,” Clara said quickly, trying to keep the frustration from boiling over and in to her voice. This was a tired argument between mother and daughter. “We could ask nothing more of him, then or now.”
Before her mother could offer a response, to set more blame on Uncle Marty, Clara left the apartment and hustled for the stairs. Her Uncle Marty carried enough blame already, weight he set on his own shoulders. Any more would crush the man. If Clara could not have her father, she would gladly take her surrogate uncle and the life he had shared with her father. It was good coin too, and the Danvers family needed the money. Seamstress wages were not fair and their savings were running out. Clara knew no other way to earn a living.
She was a conduit after all.
Wanna keep reading?! Turn the page to Chapter Three.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved