– CHAPTER ONE –
Gabby Gonzales peered out from her bedroom window, elbows propped up on the sill. She and her family of four lived on the fourth floor of an apartment in the community of Linden Grove.
Outside it was evening, dark as pitch beyond the smoky glow of the inner streets’ oil lamps. She had a difficult time imagining a world where night was only a few shades darker than day thanks to what Nana G referred to as light bulbs. Trapped light within glass spheres were so common before Black Out Thursday that cities had been lit by millions of the glow balls. Millions! Gabby wondered if back then any of the Lighted ever missed the sun. Doesn’t matter, the ruins are dark now. As bleakly shadowed as the nightly din Gabby gazed upon. But this was normal to Gabby.
She was born in the generation all the oldsters called the Lightless, a generation after the lights went out. Her mother had a vague remembrance of the world in which light and power were as attainable as flipping a switch. Gabby’s grandmother used to say something like that…
“Used to be that you flipped a switch and the world came alive,” Nana G used to say.
Some of the old buildings people lived in still had those switches. One such switch was on the wall across the room. Her brother Sammy loved to play with that switch and he always caught trouble when playing with it. Curious, his kind was.
Again Gabby tried to envision a world where the junk lamps—those with wires instead of filled with oil—glowed along the cracked streets. A world where the rusted shells of the golems (Nana G called those heavy husks “cars”) went go on their own. Nana G told her people long ago crossed the country on machines with wings, she called these “planes”. Her friend Clara also called these golems, people like Clara did. Other people simply called the antiques junk, worthless and a waste. Just as wasteful as the tall tales the Lighted like Nana G told.
All the kids her age laughed at the legends. Gabby’s parents chuckled too, their memories of those days as faded as old photographs.
Gabby didn’t laugh. Albeit the ramblings from the Lighted generation did bring a wry smirk to her lips. But Gabby kept secrets, confidences she could not, would not trade for the genuine laughter of her friends.
I can’t do that to Sammy. Not Sammy. If people knew they would talk and when people talk eventually they would come after him… just like in the stories.
Getting up from her perch at the window, Gabby grabbed the one candle lighting the room and headed to the apartment’s single washroom and undressed herself. She exchanged her usual daytime clothes for a pair of undershorts and a loose t-shirt too big for her small frame. To retain a sense of modesty and privacy she kept the door closed. She was fifteen years old after all, nearly a woman grown in her estimation, and she deserved a few minutes of privacy from her father and brother. Bad enough Gabby had to share a room with her little brother Sammy. She felt guilt for complaining. Her father and mother couldn’t afford to keep a larger home, not with the average rent in town so high and their combined wages as a field worker and a seamstress meager.
I shouldn’t complain, Gabby chastised herself. Sammy is a good kid. A little distracted but harmless. She was thinking of the trouble with the switch.
Gabby helped her mother with sewing, little things like buttons and hemming. Most kids in their community tended to apprentice with their parents. If your father was a blacksmith and you a boy, you learned to swing a hammer and work the bellows. If your mom was a baker, you lugged flower around, greased pans, and stoked fires. And if your parents worked in the nearby fields, you started as a laborer as soon as you were strong enough for the work and your family couldn’t afford to have a child off at school for part of the day. Strong backs always earned coin, if not a lot of coin. Certainly more coin than sitting at a desk for hours doing equations, reading books, learning history.
Then there were kids like Sammy. Off in their own worlds. Chasing the past. Fascinated by the junk from the Lighted’s old world three generations past. None of the junk worked… for most people anyway, which made the junk useless to most people.
A friend of Gabby’s, Clara Danvers, was like Sammy. Clara was of an age with Gabby but with her head in the clouds, always scrounging junk to sell to collectors and repairing junk that would never work again, stuff with gears and springs and a second skin of rust. Nana G collected the junk with gears and springs, “antiques” from her first life. Gabby called it “junk” same as most. If you couldn’t eat or wear something it was junk. Not just useful. Broken. Broken to most at least.
Gabby pulled out her toothbrush and paste from the medicine cabinet. A beeswax candle helped in lighting the closed off bathroom, enough so she could change clothes and brush teeth properly.
The paste Gabby scrubbed her teeth with tasted like chalk and salt, a foul bitterness that would not leave the mouth for hours after.
“That’s how you know your teeth are clean,” Nana G used to say with a firm nod to cap off the wisdom.
When she couldn’t stand the taste of the paste any longer, Gabby spat the stuff out into the sink. A pitcher of water sat next to the sink. She poured the contents into a cup and rinsed then her mouth.
Taking the candle on its plate, Gabby exited the bathroom and padded off to her room.
Gabby saw a flutter blue light as she approached her shared room. It was an unnatural glow. Clean. Cool. Unlike the flame of a candle that produces smoke and ruddy illumination.
“My stupid brother is at it again, huh?” Gabby could not believe her brother’s nerve, his audacity. What if someone saw the light? Did she pull the curtains before heading off to change and wash?
Upon crossing the threshold to the room, Gabby stepped wrong.
A floorboard in the doorway creaked under the ball of her foot. Gabby’s shoulders jumped up and she winced. Every time! It gives me away every… time!
The odd blue light winked out before she took another step.
Gabby exhaled and stepped into the room.
She shined the candle’s light into the now dark room. Her brother sat on his bed, legs pulled up into his chest, a picture of innocence. Too innocent by his grin.
First thing Gabby did was check the window. The curtains were drawn closed, held fast with a clothespin. No light was getting out. Gabby began to breathe again. She then settled her glare on Sammy.
Sammy threw up his hands, bringing his bed’s quilted blanket along to hide the lower half of his face. “I didn’t do it!” he claimed guiltily.
Eyes narrowing, Gabby stuck her head between the curtains and glanced around outside. Pinpricks of candle light in other windows revealed other apartment buildings in the town along with single homes. Other than that, the street along which the Gonzales family lived was still. No wind sent refuge tumbling, lingering clouds from the overcast day dampened the light of the moon, and the oil lamps’ lights would hinder anyone’s vision trying to look up.
Gabby once more secured the curtains with an air of a paranoid person, then regarded her brother. “What ‘it’ didn’t you do?” she asked, placing a hand on a hip.
The light from the candle Gabby held had a limited range, her brother barely within the border. Still, she could make out the movement of Sammy’s owlish eyes darting in search of an excuse.
“I’m not doing what you think I’m doing, Gab,” he said with little confidence.
“What do you ‘think’ I’m thinking?”
That he didn’t have a response for.
Blowing out a breath, Gabby felt her shoulders slump and the tension melt. She went to Sammy’s bedside, placed the candle on the bed’s nightstand, and sat on the bed’s edge.
“You know what Mom has told you.” Her words were not a question but a statement, a reminder.
“Don’t make light,” he told his sister sheepishly, as if he were dusting off memories. “You never know who’s watching. If the neighbors saw… or someone passing through town…” Sammy sighed. “… If anyone saw they might talk.”
“Anyone who doesn’t know us or doesn’t like us would give you up in a second,” Gabby finished in more detail.
Sammy lowered the quilt and appeared abashed. His round checks turned the shade of a ripe apple, highlighting his dimples.
How can I be mad at such a cute kid!? It makes me madder that I can’t be mad at him for longer. More of the tension Gabby had felt when entering the room washed away.
She swept up her brother, five years younger than her, into her arms and squeezed him.
“I don’t want anyone taking you away,” she whispered in his ear.
“Like the Junkers?” he said in a hushed tone reserved for speaking about monsters underneath beds. The way the adults told stories about the Junkers, they were the worst kind of monsters.
If they’re real, Gabby lamented with half-belief.
“Those are stories,” the older sister assured her younger sibling, as gently as a skeptical person can. “Mom tells you those stories to keep you out of trouble. All adults do.”
“Stories come from some place,” Sammy retorted sagely, his face smothered against his elder sister’s chest and muffling his voice.
Every story had inspiration. Just as Nana G’s stories of the Electricity Age came from first hand experiences living in a world long since made into dark ashes.
“You have more to worry about from those religious freaks behind their tall ivory walls,” Gabby said. “They come out to trade and will grab any conduit they see to convert them to their cause. Including you, Sammy. Snatch and brainwash.”
Sammy clutched his elder sister tighter, as if he heard the tap-tap of a gnarled finger on their bedroom window, the “religious freaks” coming to eat his brains.
“I promise to be more careful,” Sammy said.
He promises? Gabby shook her head. A promise was easily broken. A promise, especially from someone as young as Sammy, was not bound in steel. Promises meant a person would try to keep their word. No certainty.
“You promise to keep them away, Gab?” Sammy’s tone was serious. Big sisters were supposed to protect their younger siblings. It was part of the sibling code of conduct, or so their mother told them after Sammy and Gabby would have a tumbling spat.
And of course Gabby would protect her brother. Always. No questions. She had a plan too. She just needed to convince Clara…
“Sammy, you don’t even need to ask.”
His chest deflated as she rubbed his back gently.
“That doesn’t mean I can’t tickle you to death!”
Suddenly her long open-hand strokes across Sammy’s back turned to tickling. Gabby’s left arm locked across her brother’s shoulders, keeping him in place against her. Her free hand darted to his ribs and quickly started striking for the sensitive spots, making her brother squirm and twitch, her touch feather-light but vicious. She knew all the right place too. The ribs. The place where the neck meets the shoulder. A tiny space under the arm.
Sammy screamed with laughter. Gabby giggled with a tormentor’s joy. He asked her stop but that only translated to I want more!
Only when their mother came in, drawn by the noises of brother-sister torment, did Gabby cease and leap off the bed, striding to her side of the room and her own bed. Sammy gave her the stink eye but could not hide a smile from his breathless face. That face said I’m going to get you good, wait till I’m bigger.
“I think that’s enough for one night,” their mother told both of them, sparing neither a look of disappointment for their loud antics. She too was smiling.
Gabby said not a word to her mother about Sammy’s blue light.
Candle blown out, Mrs. Gonzales closed her children’s bedroom door and bid them goodnight, a quite night. This time, brother and sister giggled together.
For a time Gabby couldn’t find sleep. Sleep was elusive. A predator stalking the overgrown cities the Lighted told tales about, god-like spires taken back by nature’s green.
An hour could have passed. Maybe four. Maybe five minutes. Light did not attempt to leak through the tiny slit in the curtains so it must still be night.
Gabby’s father had an old watch that he needed to crank every morning so it would tell time. A reliable piece in these dark days. If she had that watch she’d know how late or early she’d chased sleep.
Across the shared room, Sammy snored like a bear deep in hibernation. She could imagine a river of drool streaming down his chin to collect in a puddle on his pillow while his lips flapped noisily with each out blow of air. If not for her mother’s warning to have a “restful, quiet night”, Gabby would have snuck over to sit on her brother’s fat head.
The floorboard outside the bedroom groaned, as if someone with an adult’s weight had stepped there.
Gabby rolled over in her bed to face the bedroom door.
Her mom had left the door cracked. The better for checking on her children without making noise.
A thought slowly crawled its way into Gabby’s head. Mom knows about the creaking board. She always makes sure not to step there so she doesn’t wake us up… or alert us to her arrival.
Worry rushed into Gabby, prickling the flesh between her shoulder blades.
Again the board creaked and the bedroom door flew open to bang against the wall.
Man-shaped shadows rushed into the room, a set of two making their way to each bed. The room suddenly became very crowded.
One rough hand clapped down over Gabby’s mouth and an arm wrapped around her midsection, pressing hard to constrict her diaphragm’s vital function. The person holding her pulled her from her bed, her sheet dragged with her. She kicked the sheet out of the way while trying to find a stomach or tender muscle to connect with.
The second intruder who had moved toward her bed reached up and pulled down the curtains over the window. The moon’s light illuminated the room, giving crisp outlines to the male invaders and the room’s obstacles.
Vaguely, through her panic and hysteria, she noticed the two other intruders wrestling with Sammy. A pair of shadows tangled with a much smaller shade, the two adult bodies easily over powering the child.
“Which one are we supposed to grab?” said the second person nearest her, not the person manhandling her.
Gabby felt the tension around her middle lessen. But the shock of a second hand groping her chest halted any defensive reaction. “Don’t know,” answered the owner of the hands, “I like this one though. Squishy and soft. Hah!” His breath stank of onions and meat. The unshaven cheek he pressed against the side of her face felt scratchy.
Shaking free her sense of self-preservation, Gabby kicked out again. Someone caught her by the ankle and wrenched her off balance. “None of that now, pretty coppertop!”
Coppertop? The term did not register with Gabby at first, either because of the rush of adrenaline trying to smoother her fear or her brain found it too difficult to switch gears with so much going on. Then the detail clicked. Coppertop! Their after Sammy!
Renewed urgency caused Gabby to throw another kick with her free leg. The sudden action caught the man holding her by surprise and he took the hit in the arm. The man holding her nearly lost his grip when her body twisted with the kick. He almost dropped her too. Almost. Two seconds later and he re-tightened his hold, refocusing his attention away from her chest.
“Damn it! She kicked my arm!” the other complained, his grip on her ankle tightening and hurting more so after her connected kick.
“This one’s squishy, soft, and feisty. Hah. I really like.”
Apparently the second man did not like Gabby. He slapped her across the face, hard, while also reprimanding his cohort about his crass language. He mentioned something about outside the marriage bed and repenting before the throne and under his gaze. None of which made sense to Gabby.
The backhanded blow had turned her head so she saw Sammy and his aggressors.
They started dragging Gabby toward the open door.
They’re after Sammy! Just like in all the stories! Just like Mom and Dad were always worried about…
Where were Gabby’s mom and dad? Why were they not rushing in to stop this violence?
Easy answer… her parents were dead, murdered in their sleep.
Tears ran down Gabby’s face and she screamed through the hand once more clamped down over her mouth. She needed to try and make noise. Maybe the neighbors would hear something and rush over. But no, in nightmares no one came to save children. The monsters ate the children.
Through the damp emotion flooding her vision, Gabby caught sight again of her brother. Her brother struggled franticly to fight his attackers. One of the man-shades grabbed Sammy’s wrist and twisted. He yelped behind the hand over his own mouth. Then a sterile yellow light flickered into existence, the glow contained within a bulbous glass casing.
For an instant, the room became so bright Gabby’s eyes stung. As quick as it came, the light blinked out, leaving dancing spots in front of Gabby’s vision.
“Ah ha! So it’s the boy then,” said the man who’d Gabby kicked.
The man with wandering hands halted his dragging of Gabby with a gesture from his partner. He reached out and shoved something into her hand. Cold metal sat in her palm and her fingers felt the smooth finish of thin glass. She knew she was holding something Nana G had called a “light bulb”. The same object Sammy had just lit up. She could not perform the same trick.
“Bring him with us.”
Gabby’s eyes darted to the man she’d kicked. He drew close enough to her so she could see a metal tooth glinting in his mouth’s grim smirk. Sorry, this is just business, the expression said.
Something pinched Gabby’s side and she felt all her breath rush out, seemingly all at once.
A tongue slipped over that metal tooth. “Sorry then. You’ve seen too much tonight. You’ve harbored an abomination in your house. He’ll stand in judgment, not I. May He judge you fair, miss.”
The hand gagging her fell away. “He’s… he’s… my brother.”
More tears came between weakening words.
The arm around her middle slackened and Gabby’s strength failed. She fell to the floor without the support the man with the wandering hands’ muscles provided. Her hands went to the side where she’d felt the pinch and her fingers became sticky with blood. When she raised her hands to her face, she noticed she still held the dead bulb in one, the glass casing bloody now.
The pinch quickly descended into pain and blossomed.
Booted feet stepped over her dying body as the nightmares carried Sammy away, specs of light fluttering around her brother’s head.
When the blue halo of light around Sammy’s head winked out, the room went dark again and to Gabby the gloom never retreated.
Wanna keep reading?! Turn the page to Chapter Two.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved