– Chapter Five –
“Can’t believe you make this walk every day,” Rose said, her gaze lingering on the cracked asphalt road running along the dirt path the horses used.
“I don’t really walk, Rose,” Clara retorted. Once the wagon had passed outside Linden Grove’s gates she’d pulled the brim of her hat down over her eyes, crossed her arms, settled back in the crease of two barrels, and tried to nap. The chatting had her keep one eye open. “I tend to hitch rides with people going and coming along the road, just like I’m doing today with you guys.”
“Do you trust most people who let you ride along?”
Clara shrugged. “Got no other option.”
“That’s a no?”
Clara shifted herself so she could pull out the knife she kept in a sheaf at her back, attached to her belt, hidden under her jacket. “This is a no.” She deftly put the weapon away. I don’t need Clay thinking I’m going to stab his baby sister. He might just think something stupid like that too.
A couple minutes passed before Rose spoke again, pulling Clara back from a light drossiness. “Do you trust me, Clara?”
Tipping up her hat, Clara regarded Rose. The other girl had a slight smile across her lips, her round, pleasant face framed by her straight strawberry blonde hair. Yet, Clara read in Rose’s eyes that her earlier comment had wounded the latter. If only slightly.
“I trust you, Rose.” Clara sighed, then raised her arms and stretched. She could tell there would be no nap this ride. “If I needed someone, anybody to have my back, Rose Mathers, I would call on you first. Honestly and truly.”
That brightened Rose. The rancher’s daughter could bring so much joy to people with a simple smile or gesture of compassion. Being empathetic also meant Rose was sensitive to the ugly side of the world. Storms can easily darken the brightest of cloudless days.
Overhead the sun had not reached its zenith. The fiery ball was near nine and half. If Clara had guessed correctly, the wagon would reach Rivend before noon. Not too bad of a ride, if she had to say so. The delays this morning would probably push Clara to put in an overnighter at the workshop, she still had several machines to tinker with and fix for customers due to drop by the shop today or tomorrow.
Thinking of machines—the old left behinds of the old world—had the young conduit’s eyes drifting.
A countless amount of the relics flooded the old paved roads, waiting for her touch. Most were automobiles. Long ago people had pushed the metal husks off to the side, an effort to clear the roads the Lighted used to travel on. Horses can’t travel comfortably on the old paved roadways, though, not for long anyway. The concrete doesn’t affect a horse if it’s shoed but the hard surface was murder on a beast’s legs over extended periods of distance. After Blackout Thursday travelers wanted to save their horses from this wear. As an alternative, travelers quickly began to wear away new dirt roads parallel to the old paths made for the automobiles; often the best paths were those already paved, you just had travel next to those ways.
These days the automobiles sat idle and Sleeping. With the help of time, erosion and the persistence of nature had cracked the old roads open. Naturally the cities were worse. Nature seemed to have a special vendetta against the cities.
Clara paid attention to the automobiles. There were many and each had its own story. Someone had been driving each one. To where? Why? Were the drivers leaving the cities to visit family for a holiday? Or perhaps the drivers were commuters with jobs in another city, just like Clara? Some maybe were out for a leisurely drive, for the enjoyment of the motion, the speed?
Now the automobiles—like the cities and relics eccentrics collected, thereby helping to keep her family fed—sat like statues. Except statues were never alive, could never Wake. Automobiles—cars as he Grammy called them—used to come to life with the turn of a key. Clara liked to think of the automobiles as road golems. Sleeping giants waiting for life, waiting for someone to provide that life, for a direction.
None of us belong here, she reminded herself, feeling more connected to the road golems than even Rose. She pulled her legs up into her chest and rested a cheek across her knees.
All I need to do… All Clara needed to do was reach out to the hulking, sleeping golems. She could feel the Field. She could easily reach out, take the Field around her into herself and let it out again as Nites. Easy. Tiring. But easy.
“What are you doing, Clara?” Rose asked.
Clara realized she had her arm stretched out toward the road, fingers splayed. Her fingertips tingled.
A sudden chill made Clara shiver and she drew in her arm.
“Nothing. Just… I wasn’t right in my head at the moment.”
The wagon was passing a squat road golem. Most of its paint was chipped away, its metal hide rusted to a brown, a jagged crack ran up and over its rounded dome. The paint that remained was yellow. The road golem’s shape and road lights reminded Clara of a tiny bug. A ladybug.
A gust of wind pulled up the golem’s remaining rubber wiper and smacked it against the windshield.
I know you’re sad.
“Are you ever…?” Clay’s voice smacked Clara across the face.
“Clayton… don’t do this,” Rose pleaded to her brother.
He was sitting next to Merlyn in the front of the wagon.
“No, I want to hear what his fat head has to say!”
Nearly ready to climb across the barrels and give Clara a piece of the narrow mind crammed inside his “fat head”, Clayton was only stopped by Merlyn’s intervention.
“Knock it off, all of you!” He especially eyed Clay with the you are too old for playing tag look. “You’re all adults, act appropriately. Remember, most of all, you are friends.” He emphasized the present tense.
Half tempted to pitch her voice loud enough so Clay could hear her, Clara thought better of it as she spoke to Rose privately. “What’s your knuckleheaded brother’s problem anyway? He’s a jerk, more so than usual!”
Rose offered Clara a weak smile. “I know. He has a lot of expectations to live up to. He’s pulled as tight as a drum. My father sees Clay taking over the ranch. And that’s the family’s entire world. Shouldering something like that, even if only asked to take up a little of the burden at first, is not easy. He’s still so young too. Wait! Don’t jump all over me! I’m not excusing his behavior.”
“It’s more than the stress of growing up, Rose,” Clara said. “I’ve had to step up and bring in money for the family too, step into my father’s shoes. Life is not easy when the shoes we kids need to wear don’t fit, when their too big yet. But you lace them up tight as possible and walk best you can. The alternative? Well, you can always go barefoot and cut your feet. This world is full of broken glass.”
“I know. That’s why I’m not excusing my brother’s behavior.” Rose bit her lip, reluctant. “He’s been turning to this pastor for guidance but I don’t think any of his suggestions— ”
“Wait… what? A preacher?”
Another wagon traveling the opposite direction on the same road passed their group on the right. The guard riding along on that side trotted forward to ride in front, allowing enough space to pass. The owner of the second wagon gestured with appreciation. Merlyn tipped his hat politely and Clay nodded.
Rose shuddered. “Yeah. Some guy who’s been coming to preach to some of the workers who we lease housing to on our property.”
“A preacher? As in a pastor from His Hand? A thumper?!”
Nodding, Rose went on. “Yeah. My father doesn’t want to deny any of our workers their religion. Clara, don’t be upset. Father doesn’t indorse the teachings nor allows the preacher into our home. Clay… well, Clay goes to the workers’ housing and listens. He says he likes hearing what the man says. It makes sense to him. It also endears him to the workers, worshiping with them, praying knee to knee.”
“Great! This makes perfect sense now.” Clara slapped her thigh. “He’s going to be calling me a coppertop soon.”
Ever since Clay’s mom died he’s been… different. Unfortunately, Clara understood her friend’s pain. Grief makes us blame ourselves, blame others, just like Mom places Dad’s death on Uncle Marty’s shoulders. Doesn’t mean she had to agree.
The Mathers wagon came around a bend in the road and the passing wagon they’d made room for to pass disappeared around a wall of trees slowly overtaking the double paths.
Rose nearly blanched. “He’d never! Clara, please don’t think such things.”
But Clara remembered the look on Clay’s face when he saw her today. He regarded her the way someone would the road golems. Endlessly sleeping obstacles. No use in this new world so what’s the point? The His Hand—a religious sect that sprouted out of Black Out Tuesday—believed God had cleansed the world of heathens, men and women who thought themselves gods, people arrogant enough to think they could created as God had, could improve on His design. They held that in response, God saw fit to take away the world these false gods built. He took away their power. Made their heaven-stretching towers dark. He broke their machines. What He left was the faithful, the devote. And He left them a world to oversee. The conduits were persistent reminders of humanity’s vanity and corruption. Or so the thumpers—that’s what most people called followers of the His Hand—held as truth.
“One more nightmare to worry over…” Clara mumbled to herself.
A stray thought entered Clara’s mind.
Then a crash cracked over Clara’s hearing.
Her head jumped up from where it had lain on her knees. Rose’s eyes darted toward the interruption in the quite, down the road in the direction they had come.
Clara imagined the breaking of a wheel might make a similar sound, breaking under the blow a hammer larger than a blacksmith’s tool. Or maybe a falling tree. Her mind immediately went to the recently passed wagon.
Merlyn did not slow the Mathers wagon.
Rose urged her father’s ranch foreman to halt their wagon and allow the guards to check on the disturbance.
Both her brother and the foreman disagreed.
“What if someone’s hurt? Are we going to leave them out here alone for Junkers to come and loot?” Rose urged heatedly. Clara had never seen her so angry, her face several shades redder than her hair.
Clara glimpsed Merlyn’s wrinkled face crease into indecision. He was a loyal man to the Mathers family and their business, but Merlyn was a decent man first. Clay wanted to argue for snapping the horses’ reigns and heading quickly to Rivend. The guards too advised racing away from possible danger.
A lead round to the head of the guard carrying the sword and pistol made their decision easy.
Wanna keep reading?! Turn the page to Chapter Six.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved