– Chapter Seven –
Clara was on the road alone. The road golems were silent and unmoving in their oblivious slumber. No wind stirred the subtlest of sounds… the tumbling of leaves, the sway and crack of tree branches.
The world could be in no other state that would force Clara into a position of loneliness.
With no distractions Clara had only her thoughts to occupy her. Dark thoughts, some of her own creation.
She could not hold back the image of Merlyn on the ground, bloodied, silvery mustaches drenched in crimson. She had not even glimpsed Merlyn after the battle, yet her mind kept returning to this image. Then there was Gabby’s dead body. That too Clara had never seen, yet her imagination desperately put the pieces into a gory portrait for her.
While combing fingers through her dark curls an idle thought came to mind. Clara grabbed for the lifeline. How far from Rivend am I?
She pulled out the portable device from her pocket and turned it on; the Nites she had this morning to Wake the device had not yet left. With a couple finger flicks across the screen Clara pulled up the machine’s maps application. It had other functions but this was one of Clara’s favorites and one most useful to her. Most of the applications were simply not practical anymore—the thing probably made coffee a long time ago. The one downside to the map application was that the maps in the memory were outdated, only as current as Black Out Thursday. Since that world changing day new communities had sprung up, older ones had been renamed, and monstrous weather events had destroyed bridges and other landmarks. Albeit most of the roads were correct; the new roads were—after all—worn beside the decaying asphalt tracks. Nevertheless Clara had to make guesses about where towns and cities lay. After years of practice she was good at that. One day she would figure out a way to rewrite a device’s base programming using the Field. She was close. And on that day she would rewrite the maps.
Until then she was half a mile from Rivend.
Again she pocketed the device. And again the loneliness returned with the faces of the people she’d let down.
I’ve been alone ever since—
Clara sensed Tink before she saw the Nite. The hairs on the back of her neck rose and her sixth sense—her Field sense—received a ping.
A spark as large as Clara’s pinky finger appeared quicker than the teenager conduit could bring to bear a small smile, popping in to existence. The Nite shot toward Clara and fluttered around her head. She, Tink the Nite, had no fixed form for Clara to describe, though when moving the Nite did resemble a rocketing ball of fuzzy light. When she stood still—which was rare, the little spark of energy possessed a lot of… well… energy—the Nite resembled the silhouette of young woman with a mane of lush long hair that trailed away into a whip-snap tail, a gossamer body that was occasionally garbed in a sheer dress of pure light, and dazzling stars for eyes.
Tink always appeared to Clara when the latter was feeling the lowest, never when other humans were present. Clara didn’t know what Tink was, exactly. Generally speaking, Nites don’t have a personality or consciousness aside from what a conduit wills for it. Every Nite except Tink. She was feisty, playful, and sometimes rude when her mood soured. Above all a friend, Tink was as ever present as the Field around the world, ever since a few days after Clara gave up hope of her father coming home again.
Like other Nites, Tink could not affect the world around her except machines. Other people could see Tink if the Nite desired, just like they could see the Nites Clara created (though not the Field). Despite this, Clara kept her friend a secret. Besides, she didn’t know if anyone would think her crazy for talking to a Nite when Nites were not supposed to be sentient. Conduits might also try to take Tink away—as far as Clara knew Tink was unique, why wouldn’t another conduit want her? Clara couldn’t bare such a betrayal. Think her crazy but leave Tink.
Tink zipped around Clara’s head, shot up into the canopies of the trees, disappearing in the glare of the sun before dropping down again to Clara’s eye level. Right in front of Clara’s nose. Hello there…
The little spark gave off a series of pulses, her young woman’s form seeming to stand out against an intense backlight.
When Clara was a child and a new conduit her father had taught her to communicate silently through the Field using a series of pulses. The range was not far, but it was effective enough for Clara’s purposes. Mo Danvers said the combination of flicks and blips were something called Morse Code, used by the former military when sending secret messages across radio waves. The Field worked perfectly with Morse Code and seemed to curiously know the code. How did Clara know this fact? Her father had told her, for one. Second, Tink innately understood and used Morse Code to communicate. When the Nite first appeared to Clara she had used the code even before the conduit had thought to. What other explanation was there then?
Hi, friend, Tink said again with her blips and pings and flickering.
Clara only needed to speak normally. For some reason, in addition to the Code, Tink understood speech, albeit she could not talk herself.
“Long story, Tink.” Clara sighed, her eyes shutting for a brief thought. Blood was there. She quickly opened her eyes again.
Tell me about it. Walk and talk.
“Good idea. I have another half mile till Marty’s anyway.”
And she didn’t want to spend that time in quiet any further.
So Clara continued walking with Tink blinking along during her pauses.
“I hate the smell of fish,” Clara said. Her mouth filled with saliva she swore was flavored by herring.
She and Tink could see the river now, the road having veered closer as they traveled nearer to Rivend. In addition to being a large merchant hub, Rivend was a fishing community with a large harbor at the mouth of the River Colonial, the same river that runs past Linden Grove and through the southern communities beyond. As such, the town reeked of slippery scales, fins, fish guts, and regurgitated river mock.
Your mother always makes fish for dinner, Clara. You should be used to the taste and smell, Tink insisted. Her wispy form sat on the brim of Clara’s hat like it was a ledge, kicking her feet in the air as if they were dangling in the river and she wanted to splash someone.
Clara stuck out her tongue. “Doesn’t mean I enjoy fish. We eat it all the time. I’m rather tired of the taste, Tink.”
A pause. Tink was considering. After six years of hanging around Clara, the Nite still failed to catch on to human peculiarities. The Field was logical data and energy—logical but also complicated. Humans were complex creatures too, just not logical. Instead of traveling from point A to point B, humans often slipped to point E just because, a detour. Tink couldn’t understand why.
Why would your mother feed you something you don’t like? Tink pulsed. Each of the blips Clara picked up as vibrations in the Field, ripples caused by little stones skipped across in the surface of a lake or river.
“It’s cheaper than beef most often.” Clara shrugged. “Simple as that.”
But fish is good for you? Makes you strong? It allows you to survive?
Another shrug. “Sure.”
Another pause. So… why not like the fish?
“Sometimes you get tired of the same old thing. Variety is the spice of life, Tink.”
This answer didn’t make much more sense to Tink and quickly Clara defused the conversation and they settled back into companionable silence.
Rivend waited in the distance, another fifteen-minutes of walking ahead. It was not the town itself that drew Clara’s attention…
The merchant town sat in the shadow of a derelict city from the Electricity Age. Its ancient towers stabbed at the sky like dozens of fingers from many hands reaching toward the heavens. Some of the fingers were crumbling, cut off as if by a careless mistake with a meat cleaver, the steel bones jutting crookedly from the stumps. Long years of neglect had tarnished the ruins’ exteriors. Walls of windows were shattered, others covered with a film of dirt. Clara imagined that once the city had sparked in the sunlight of a clear day. Today, the persistence of nature and the decay of years forgotten had left the place dull and dead, just like the road golems. Of course she couldn’t see all these details but she’d been to the ruins enough.
Having been in those ruins specifically, Clara knew treasures of days gone remained in that graveyard, among the steel bones and crumbling concrete flesh. Treasures people would pay good money for and lie about having to others who did not approve of the acquisitions. I am an agent of dirty little secrets. A peddler of the history many would like to forget because it reminds them of what we’ve lost. I am a reminder.
Although Tink couldn’t affect physical objects, she acted contrary to her nature on a regular basis. If Clara went through a doorway and closed the door behind her—before Tink could zip in with her—well then the Nite would wait grumpily for Clara to come get her. Clara believed the sentient Nite’s behavior might be a reaction to Clara treating Tink as a human as opposed to a ball of compact energy.
Now a couple minutes from Rivend, Clara lifted her floppy hat and allowed Tink to ride underneath. Focusing on her Field sense would allow Clara to make Tink remained concealed beneath the hat and in order. She could also receive messages from the Nite too, if need be.
They entered Rivend within an hour of the sun reaching its zenith. Squinting up at the sun made Clara aware of how fast the day had bleed away. Her rumbling stomach also helped. That snotty gruel Clara’s mother fed her this morning had not stuck to her ribs.
I’m not going to get any work done before dark. I guess I can look forward to a late night and the spare bed at Marty’s place.
Better that then her mother’s glare if Clara came home after dusk. It was for this reason that when the labor piled up Clara worked several days at the shop and bedded down in the apartment upstairs. She was away from home a lot but this was her world.
Digging in to her work would distract her too. Talking to Tink had helped relieve some tension but Clara still felt—if nothing else—partially responsible for Merlyn’s injuries and for what happened to Gabby and her family.
Clara, you did what was necessary to fight off the Junkers and save Rose from harm, Tink told her with furious Morse flickering, knowing the human’s dejected mood.
Impossibly, Tink flashed in what Clara interpreted with her Field sense as a harrumph.
Clay is a fathead! He used to be nice. Now… now… he’s just mean.
Signing, Clara could not suppress the tiniest of smiles from turning up her lips.
He is! Tink affirmed hotly. Get over him, Clara.
If only casting aside friends were as easy a tossing away a bolt too rusted and useless in repairing or reconstructing a junk machine. Friends don’t give up on each other. It was one of the reasons Clara continued to make the trip up here, to work with her Uncle Marty, to watch over him.
Why Uncle Marty had moved to Rivend Clara would never truly know. Of all places! She understood he wanted to leave the hometown that reminded him so much of his best friend, Clara’s deceased father. To Marty, her father’s ghost probably haunted Linden Grove. He couldn’t go into an inn or tavern without feeling the presence of his best friend’s memory. Clara could relate. Every time she walked by the Lady’s fountain she remembered the searing summer days when he father would take her to the fountain to splash around. The water there was so cool. And Clara’s friends had played there too. Every time Clara walked past the fountain she saw her father’s ghost standing there, watching a younger version of her, him grinning with positivity for his daughter’s future… even if her future was as a conduit.
Better to remember the bad times than lose the good memories, Clara reminded herself. Pain told her she lived and had to continue to live. No matter how much remembering hurts.
Rivend stank of fish and hot metal. The town boasted a large collection of craftsman and merchants dealing in raw materials. The banks of the river in this area were rich with iron ore. Many craftsman set up shops in Rivend’s warehouses so they were close to that source. It had the facilities for such operations. Old warehouses from the Electricity Age were in abundance around the shipyard, many with enough space for an owner’s living quarters too. The steel used to construct the large spaces stood up well to time and could be easily maintained, aside from the roofs, which were subject to beat downs from the weather like everything else. Roofs are easy to fix. Merchants kept stores here in Rivend too. A couple of Rivend businesses dealt in the lumber trade and exported down river. Then there was the fish. The mouth of the river that dumped into the ocean was ripe with fish and rare crustaceans. Fish guts. Clara hated the smell of fish guts.
Most lucrative about Rivend was its proximity to an Electricity Age city, affording people like her Uncle Marty and her father—when the man lived—easy access to antique machines and other relics wealthier merchants and ranchers collected.
Another reason Uncle Marty moved to Fish Gut City, he’d talked about moving the shop here for years before Dad died. Dad could never move us from our home in Linden Grove.
Clara gave the carts hauling fish a wide birth. One cart didn’t see her and when righting itself nearly spilled its load of scales and heads with bulging eyes on to the cobbles. The driver cursed at her, shouting for her to watch where she was going.
The streets around the docks were busy, a number of ships having come in and wanting cargo unloaded. First they needed to pass inspection and the dock master need to sign the boats into a log.
She quickly made her way to the tighter streets in the center of the city, where the merchant shops and inns were prominent. The smell of fish heads and scales were less assaulting here.
Her stomach again complained, threatening to cramp if she did not feed it something more than oats with nose juice.
She stopped by a couple of carts and purchased two apples, some skewers of meat—not fish—still steaming hot, and bread that she wrapped the meet in so it’s juices would not drip all over her boats.
Her Uncle Marty’s shop was further back from the shipyard, away from the fish smells. The sign hanging out front named it as Antique Wrench Works, beside the words was a painting of wrench turning a golden cog.
Her second home…
Overhead the shop’s bell rang.
“I know. I know. I’m late. Got held up on the road.” Clara attempted weave her words together with guilt but the quilting came undone due to her anger. Bad stuff happened today, being late was her last concern and it shouldn’t be.
The door closed harder than she intended, nearly hard enough to break glass. She winced, causing her to miss a step. Clara sighed and took a moment to collect herself, to shake off her embarrassment.
“Rough time on the road, sparkplug?” The person who spoke had a deep, undulating voice, like the bellow made by a brass instrument. The tone was not reproachful, it contained more concern.
Now I feel like a jerk, Clara thought. She let go another long sigh and rolled her shoulders, today’s mounting guilt sat there awkwardly. She wanted to tip forward and into a bed for a long night’s sleep, if she could sleep. At the moment only the floor would come up to meet her, to smack her in the face.
“Marty, when is the road not ‘rough‘?”
“The road kicks everyone’s rear from time to time,” he retorted with a snort, “but your rear looks to have taken it harder than most. What’s happened?”
Clara walked across the shop toward the counter at the back. She felt like someone had poured hot lead into her bones. And it’s not even noon yet!
A bear of a man stood behind the counter tinkering with some machine over an oil rag. Everything in his huge hands always appeared small and delicate, easily broken, yet he used screwdrivers and wrenches as deftly as a surgeon uses scalpels. His face was craggy and angry looking, scarred; Clara’s mother told her that when she met Uncle Marty for the first time—Clara was just a baby—she screamed until her lungs blew out. After Clara and Marty’s first meeting, Baby Clara slept soundly for a week. Yet his one good eye—the right—twinkled with the mirth and mischief of good humor. His smile always turned his apple-round cheeks rosy. His hair was black with the first streaks of grey, the mane curly and an enemy to every comb. Razors dulled at every attempt to cleave the bushy beard that fell nearly past his barrel chest. Despite her infant hollering long ago, Clara always wanted to give Uncle Marty a hug. He was a bear, but he was her teddy bear.
Clara dumped her pack on the counter.
She took the screw driver from Marty’s sausage-like fingers, placed the tool on the oil rag, and took the machine away from him. It was a piece of a motor, small enough it probably came out of household appliance that had at one point replaced feather dusters or brooms. Marty and she fixed these motors, engines, and computer parts as best they could with the tattered manuals they scavenged. The junk engines—the machines themselves—would never run without electricity or some other power to Wake them. Not without a conduit. Good thing they serviced plenty of conduit customers. The ranchers only collected the old world junk, they didn’t want to use the machines.
Clara placed the small motor on the rag next to the screwdriver and pushed it all to the side.
Marty raised a caterpillar bushy eyebrow. “I was working on that.”
Food suddenly materialized in front of burly shop owner.
“You and I eat, I tell you about what happened on the road and in Linden Grove. Deal, Uncle?”
By way of agreement, Marty grinned, the scar that cut across the bridge of his wide nose and through his milky dead left eye almost disappeared between crinkling smile lines.
The Field pulsed with aggravation, the way bees act when you knock their hive around.
Oh, no! That’s right! Tink is still underneath my hat!
Bundled in a thick cotton blanket of emotion, Clara had forgotten to take her floppy hat off. Clara removed the hat and Tink shot off her head. The Nite rocketed toward Marty in unthinking haste. Unable to stop, Tink stopped short of Marty’s forehead and burst in a shower of blue sparks. Tink had no material form and brought no force to bear, but that did not stop Marty from reacting. His body jerked back as if hit by a blunt force, a cudgel swung to take off his head. The stool he’d been sitting on tipped over with his shifting weight and dumped him on the floor with a crash.
Clara darted around the counter and to Marty’s side.
“Are you alright, Uncle Marty?”
The big man groaned and patted his person, checking for broken bones. His hand briefly brushed the tin in his back pocket, the tin he kept his sweet weed in. Did he think Clara had not noticed the motion, the shaking in his strong hand? Aside from popping a couple buttons on his vest in the fall and a tear in his pants above the thigh, he rose on his own power.
The hundreds of scattered Nite sparks drew together to reform Tink’s natural firefly form.
“Tink! I am so sorry,” Clara said as she helped Marty to stand firmly. “I had no idea you were still under—”
Tink flashed with a flurry of blips before shooting across the shop and to a set of stairs that lead down both to the basement and up to the second level apartment. The Nite headed down to the workshop.
“Is it okay?” Marty bent down—his knees cracking—and righted the stool. “Seemed like the thing was embarrassed.”
Clara walked back around to the customer side of the counter. “Yeah. I think so.”
“What did it say?”
“She apologized and wanted to wait for me downstairs,” she lied without thinking. “She said she might go away for a little while, into the Field, but she would be back a little later.”
“You know that thing you do with it,” Marty said, “how you two communicate?”
“Your father and I used to use a similar system when we were in the ruins, signals when we were separated but nearby.”
“Dad taught me. Morse Code, yeah?”
Marty’s eye gazed off across the store. “Morse Code,” he confirmed quietly, speaking to Clara directly but lost in thought, a memory of her father. “He’d tap on a hollow drainpipe and I could hear him miles away. The ruins are quiet, sound carries with no one but ghosts around to hear. Seeing the Nite use that code, sometimes, it makes me think…”
Often Clara had similar thoughts. The His Hand thumpers spoke of the afterlife, about Heaven, a place where a soul goes after death. They spoke of the place the same way someone else would refer to Rivend or Linden Grove, a real place you could walk to given enough time and the right path. What if those people were wrong? What if a soul did not go to this magical place of puffy clouds and eternal spotless linens? The Field was a real thing, made of energy. Clara could see the Field. She could interact with the Field. Could souls merge with the Field as Nites once they evaporated from the machines after use? Maybe her father’s soul…
They both thought of Mo Danvers often, father and best friend. Marty had been with Mo when he died. He hardly spoke about that day. Clara knew Marty often thought of her father and that day. She could smell the repentance; his culpability stank of sweet weed, which Uncle Marty smoked often these days in a vain attempt to forget his self-imposed sins. He always did remember and he always needed to forget again.
She smelled the earthy sweetness of Marty’s guilty addiction and wondered how long he’d been in the shop today. One hour? Thirty minutes? Five minutes?
I’ve found you too many times in an alley or tavern, chunks of sick in your beard, mind addled, unable to stand without a friendly shoulder to lean on. Uncle Marty, Dad did not die because of you. He’s gone. I need you now.
“I thought you wanted to hear about my terrible morning, Marty… hmm?”
That was a swift kick to Marty’s head. He shook himself out of his revelry and remembered the steaming meat his apprentice and employee and adopted niece had brought.
Stomachs rumbled with hunger—Marty’s like a rusty road golem just Waking from hibernation. Their mouths watered. Shop owner and conduit employee dined on the juicy meat kabobs and fruit until the juices ran down their chins. Between bites Clara told Marty about Gabby and her family dying and the ambush on the road. She left out the part about her sending Nites into one of the Junker’s body and jolting him as if he were struck from the sky by Mother Nature’s wrath. The Junkers’ attempted piracy of the Mathers wagon did not surprise Marty. He’d seen such violence, had to deliver news to a mother and child that their husband and father wouldn’t be coming home because of a Junker raid. He was more shocked by what happened to the Gonzales family. Clara thought he would be angry, fists shaking as if wrapped around a neck he wanted to strangle. Instead, her Uncle Marty was solemn and dejected, his expression grave.
“Terrible. Terrible. No child deserves either fate. I’m not sure what’s worse. But the one who lived will not have an easy time living with that loneliness. That perhaps is the worst.”
Clara didn’t know much about Marty’s family. He had a wife but she died before Clara could remember. And his daughter… she was not around and Marty never spoke of her. He doted on his deceased best friend’s daughter like she was his own child. Either he did this because he missed his own daughter or because he felt an obligation to take care of Mo Danvers’ daughter in the other man’s absence. Both motives were likely.
I wonder what happened to Deseray.
“None of it is your fault, sparkplug. None of it.”
“Huh… yeah, I guess.” She took a bite of apple, the meat gave way with a crisp snap as she took the first bit.
“Listen to me. There is nothing you could have done for Merlyn King,” Marty told her firmly, his voice booming. “You all are lucky not more of you were hurt in the attack. Junkers have been known to leave no one in a caravan alive after they attacked. If you had not distracted the attackers, Rose and Clay might be dead, worse off than Merlyn and unable to tend his wounds, to save his life. Count my next words with surety… If you would have spoken to Merlyn he would have expressed his thanks for your help. I know the man well, him and Rancher Mathers. Rose and Clay’s father did a lot of business with your father and I over the years, he still does call on me from time to time.”
She gazed at her hand, the one holding the apple. She turned it over to look at the back, expecting sparks to jump out from between her knuckles.
Lightning came out of my hand. I made lightning and probably killed that one Junker with my special gift, stopped his heart. In that moment she doubted how special her conduits abilities really were if they could take life as easily as provide.
“What if I could have done more?” she asked.
No sparks leapt from her flesh, albeit she did think of the unexpected lightning, thinking she might will something to happen.
Clara shrugged. “All I can do is bring machines to life.”
“And you did just that. You distracted the Junkers and gave Clay and the other guard time to change the battle in their favor. You also gave yourself an opportunity to sneak behind a couple of others. I think I speak for Merlyn when I say… you done good, kiddo!”
Cheeks hot, the flesh almost certainly redder than the apple’s, Clara held rose as her eyes went to Marty’s face. His crinkling eyes and thinning scar, made him handsome again as he beamed with parental pride.
“Maybe you’re right,” she conceded.
Or maybe you’re biased, Uncle Marty. She did not speak these words, though inwardly Clara knew her adopted uncle wanted nothing more than for every Junker to die, to avenge Mo Danvers. To that end, his daughter had done well. After all, Merlyn would live. Right? Clay said so. Why can’t I shake this off? Is it because I used Nites to kill? People want to believe conduits are evil. They want to be scared of us. I don’t want to give them a reason. I don’t want Clay to look at me like I’m a danger to everyone, Rose and Merlyn included.
Clara took another bite of apple and chewed the fruit meat slowly while she also chewed on her thoughts.
Wanna keep reading?! Turn the page to Chapter Eight.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved