– CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR –
Looming before Clara were the double doors leading from the Reverend’s reception area to the apartments where the man and his wife had attended Clara and Rose that first afternoon after Clara woke. The doors were two heads taller than Croo’s giant height, the oak varnished a cherry-red, the floral carvings inlaid with gilt. She had this sensation, of the doors falling forward and down to crush her. Doors as tall as these could not stand for long, both would come crashing down, her standing beneath them. The imposing doors made Clara feel small, they magnified the Reverend’s judgment final, made his authority bigger than her collared herself.
Clara inhaled and shuddered as the breath escaped her.
“Speak true and he’ll show you fairness,” Croo recommended from behind her, the words a push to shove her through the doors.
Clara steeled herself. She straightened her back, forced her hands to cease their shaking, and wiped her sweaty palms dry on her skirts.
“He’ll see you when you’re ready,” Croo told her.
She placed a hand on the brass knob, made from the same gold as the door’s gilt and buffed to a high shine, but she did not turn. Instead, Clara slowly rotated around on the ball of her foot so she faced Coo. The man was as tall as some smaller oak trees. She turned her gaze upward and at his hard square face.
“You believe me,” Clara said wryly.
Croo turned his attention away from Clara. Either ashamed by the cracks she spied in his unshakable resolve that the Reverend’s right hand must have—who is an extension of Jimmy Powell’s authority—or Croo was trying to deny Clara’s statement. “You speak of your involvement with the trouble between the DeWitt boys and their family’s foster conduit?”
She waited. A heartbeat of waiting almost convinced Croo might turn away and forget her. That’s when he spoke again. “Those boys get in to scraps as often as other people pray around here.” He huffed, disappointed.
That cocked one of Clara’s eyebrows. “I didn’t set a precedent around here then, did I?”
With a nod, he confirmed her assessment.
“Will you do anything about Sammy’s foster brothers?” she asked.”I mean, could you make sure they don’t initiate a reprisal for what I did?”
Croo’s stony eyes latched back onto her, the avalanche not far behind her retreating steps down the mountain. “I’ll check up on the boy while you speak with Reverend Jimmy.” And he would. Clara was sure of this by the absoluteness in his tone.
“Can I ask you another question?” She assumed his silence was assent. “Why believe my part of the story? You listened to me on the way over here.”
“Because I ‘listened’, you assume I believe you?”
Yes, Clara had taken Croo’s attentiveness as acceptance—or at least, neutrality. Any other adult would treat her as a child and reprimand her as one, with or without cause. The other followers gazed on her as if she were a black cat, as if crossing her path brought them bad luck and ill-omens. Croo treated her as a person, though. She was nothing special to him, just another person in the compound, not a follower, but at best a guest. Maybe that’s why using the honorific sister tasted so badly to him; she was simply not a follower. It was not that she was a conduit, she was just a normal person outside his religion and he reserved the honorifics for people part of his religion.
Clara shrugged and quirked her mouth to utter a meh sound. “I have nothing better for a gage. You could either believe me or have no opinion. Given the choice, I’ll choose the believe me option.”
Croo did not offer a response.
He was the right hand of the Reverend, sure, but he was also a soldier. Trained. Disciplined. Following orders.
“I’ll take your continued silence as affirmation,” she said smugly.
Part of a smile did crack on Croo’s face, for a second or two. Then he snorted.
“What I mean is,” Clara went on, “most people around here see me as the conduit. Of course. On the street back there, people looked at me and immediately judged me the aggressor. Where there is trouble, a conduit will be. And I’m a conduit! So to those people I was the one who’d beat up the boys. Never mind that I was defending Sammy. Conduits are not allowed excuses.”
“Sounds like you’ve judged the people as they have you.”
Clara placed her fists on her hips, standing her ground. “They judged first!”
Croo blinked at her.
Clara huffed out a breath and waved off the issue. “Anyway. Brother Croo, you don’t see the conduit…”
“I see the lamb who wandered from the flock,” he finished for her, but paused to rethink his words. She allowed him a moment to muse. “It is better for you to be the lamb who never knew of the flock, we can then herd you to the fold before wolves pry upon your lonesome.”
“And to fold me in, you need to fasten a crook around my neck and pull,” her voice was harsh, “all because I’m a little lost lamb who doesn’t know better?”
“It’s for your own good,” he said firmly.
Clara felt the rocks pile on top of her. She turned her back on the tall man before she started jabbing her finger at Croo’s chest and shouting that this little lamb was a wolf in disguise. Does he really want a wolf among his flock?
Hand again on the knob, Clara was turning when the door flew open and whacked her smack in the forehead. Croo caught her in his strong arms before she hit the floor.
A group of men proceeded out of the Reverend’s chambers. Nine by Clara’s count, though her head was ringing and thus her counting abilities were subject. These were the soberest of men she’d ever seen. Eyes clear, sharp, accusing. Each of the men looked her up and down, their razor-sharp gazes lingering at the collar around her neck. If she could, Clara would have pulled her blouse over her head to hide the inhibitor. Each man was garbed in a poor and itchy looking brown robe with a rope belt, the robes’ sleeves voluminous, and the collars high. Past the robe’s bottom hem—frayed and dusty from constant travel—were the normal work boots and jeans of a follower. None of the robed men wore the typical His Hand beards, most were bald as peanuts. None was younger than fifty, if her estimate was correct. These men were the soap box preachers who travel the towns and cities for the His Hand, shaking Bibles at people, converting people, thumping people. They also organized junk burning bonfires. It was a wonder they didn’t haul off Clara that minute and use her as kindling. Then again, she was at the cusp of choosing the collar or the fire/noose. They would wait for her…
One of the men reached out and grabbed Clara’s hands in that follower greeting. He prayed over her, his words course and bristly enough to scour blood from floors. She could feel a brand on the man’s palms, raised above his flesh. When he drew away from her—not smiling, only taking her measure, wondering probably if she’d choose to walk away from her conduit sinful ways—and she caught a glimpse of the brands on his palms. Burned into his flesh was the His Hand mark, a sigil like a rancher’s brand on cattle. The flattened palm with a simple cross in the center marked both of his hands.
Croo nodded at the man as he continued through the reception area with his fellows. He whispered to her that the Reverend conducts special studies with the preachers when they come to the compound looking for rest and rejuvenation. This group had returned only recently. He found the joint arrival—in mass—of the soap box preachers odd. Croo dismissed the coincidence. Instead, he helped Clara brush herself off and pronounced her head red but unmarked. After this, Croo spoke once more.
“Word of advice, sister,” he said, there was sincerity in the way he used the honorific this time. She remained silent and he went on. “When asked if you are a wolf or the sheep, I advise you to say ‘sheep’. Sheep are folded in with the rest of the wool. I would hate to see wool bloodied because it strays too far.”
Words that echoed Clara’s own thoughts. True words.
A knot formed in Clara’s throat. She had a hard time swallowing it.
Looking up at the double doors, Clara felt like an ant underneath a boot in mid-step. She wanted to let out a bray and run.
Immediately upon stepping into the living area of the Reverend’s champers, Clara felt the heat of examination. Before she had felt the majesty of the wraparound view the chamber offered. Now, Clara felt dread. Every direction light poured in, the dome letting in every scrap of sunlight to highlight Clara down to her soul. To reach out toward the blistering sunlight would be to burn herself. Clara saw spots. She felt naked.
It took a moment of blinking for her vision to adjust to the brightness. Eventually she lowered the hand shading her eyes.
Reverend Jimmy sat cross-legged on the couch Clara and Rose had sat in the day before. In his lap lay open a leather bound book as heavy as her head. He had his eyes intently fixed on the tome’s margins where he was adding notes on the wafer thin pages. He wrote slowly, delicately, without any thought to her.
Not wanting to give any more reasons for her hanging, Clara fought the urge to take without permission a seat in one of the circle of chairs and couches. Reverend Jimmy was, after all, the leader of the His Hand and due the respect of any high office person, or a rancher. Thing was, Clara didn’t respect man, nor many authority figures. She respected Rose’ father because the man was a friend of her late father’s, not because he was a rancher.
She stoked the fires of her heart with memories of her father, thoughts of Gabby and her parents. All them dead. Dead at this man’s holy orders. Orders he claimed were part of his god’s divine plan. Clara rolled her hands in to tight fists, less she find both her hands around the Reverend’s neck.
Living is the best revenge. Escape is living. Clara recited the words as if a mantra, a life creed she wouldn’t break. Roos and Junkers will help me get out of here… if I give them what they need…
Deep in her own musing, body drawn as taut as a bow’s string, Clara nearly jumped and let out squeak at the sudden touch at her elbow.
Eve Powell stood at her side with a cup of something. Condensation slipped down the sides of the ceramic cup wrapped with knots and crosses. The Reverend’s dutiful wife seemed unfazed by Clara’s startled reaction. Sweetly plump. Motherly. The woman was the picture of the devoted thumper wife, the perfect wife for their Reverend, a His Hand trophy wife. That wrinkled Clara.
Clara slowed her breathing with a little effort, managed a polite smile, and accepted the cup with murmur of thank you. Eve told her the Reverend would be finished quickly and then he would attend her. The follower woman went about cleaning after the mess of food scraps and cups the soap box preachers left in the seating area around the Reverend. Dutiful, indeed. Clairvoyant the way she knew what a person needed, at any given time, especially her husband. Clara sipped from the cup and found water. She noticed then for the first time the sheet of sweat dampening her back. The water was cool and refreshing, the contrast to her anxious rise in body temperature made Clara break out in gooseflesh.
Another minute and a few additional sips and eventually the Reverend gestured for Clara to sit across from him.
He placed a narrow strip of cloth in the middle of his open book, softly closed the leather binding, and finally placed his hands folded on top. Head tilted to the side, the Reverend smiled across the table at Clara, the amusement in the curve of his lips didn’t touch his eyes. Clara gulped down more water. She could hear the liquid rushing down, the flow icy.
“Are you ready to give yourself to God, Sister Clara?” Reverend Jimmy drummed his fingers against The Good Book, to draw Clara’s attention to the divine authority in the room. He wanted to remind her that his god’s hands lay on his shoulders, accepting, confirming the Reverend’s divine authority.
The question surprised Clara. She swallowed the rest of the water in one gulp and began rolling the cup between her fingers. Hadn’t Croo brought her to the Reverend to face the allegations that the DeWitt brothers put forth over her head? Did they not claim themselves as the victims, that she was obstructing their foster family bonding? Clara should be here to answer those allegations.
“Aren’t you upset about what happened with the DeWitt boys?” She almost slipped in idiots before the ‘boys’. “I’m here for punishment, right?”
“Community is important for survival in this world,” he said, still tapping his fingers in a calm, slow rhythm against The Bible in his lap. “We spoke on this necessity. If we are to do God’s work, we must unite under His laws, becoming a family, all of us. Fighting amongst our people does not promote unity, does not foster brother- and sisterhood. Strife is the cracks that eventually spread and weaken walls.”
Where was this going? Clara wondered.
“Accepting God’s calling,” the Reverend continued, “tossing off the shackles of the mortal temptations, that would unite us all under a His banner.”
“You’re telling me to be like everyone else,” Clara spoke harshly, sniffing.
The Reverend gestured that this assessment was close enough to his meaning.
“Get along to get along,” Clara murmured.
“What’s in your heart is most important,” Eve Powell added, planting her ample butt on the arm of the couch so she sat next to her husband like a trophy. He entwined his fingers in hers and she giggled girlishly.
“The boys, the DeWitt children,” the Reverend said, “were taught from an early age that the devil’s machinations need stomping out. Love is our first weapon but sometimes people’s ears are stuffed full of junk and His followers need to resort to shouting.”
“Or they can kick or shove,” Clara offered, looking at the Powell couple in turn.
“Clara,” Eve said while shaking her head and making a tsk sound. “I’ll agree with you, the boys were overzealous. But I shall also say this… the boys’ hearts were in the right place.”
They know full well what happened in the alley, Clare surmised. Neither cares because the thumper boys’ bullying furthers their group’s agenda. Don’t aim the gun or point the sword at me, that’s not nice. Oh! But I’ll shove my weapon between your eyes so I can live another day.
Before she pressed too hard on her empty cup, Clara put the vessel on the center table and inhaled deep. She put too much force in to placing the ceramic piece on the table—more than she intended. Yet she felt smug and satisfied when she noticed a fresh chip in the cup’s base. Eve looked ready to burst out in tears when she saw the sliver of ceramic break away. Clara didn’t care. Perhaps that’s why the next words blurted out past Clara’s control.
“Did you kill my father, Reverend?” She did not waiver in her glare at the Reverend, regardless of the soul-bearing sunlight making her transparent.
Admit it! Tell me you hung or burned my dad… I’ll reach across the table, push your brainwashed wife off the stoop you have her on, and then I’ll strangle you until you can’t call to your god for his intervention!
Clara heard the rustle of her skirts crumpling in their curled fists. It was the only thing keeping her from making the leap.
The Reverend regarded the teenage conduit with interest, the same faint recognition he had when first they met a day ago. Now she knew why. He saw her father in her face. But it was only the tug of a memory, a faint recall he probably grasped at only to have his fingers slip through mist.
Waiting had Clara leaning forward, poised like a snake about to strike. To calm herself, to force her body to relax, it took her thinking about Croo in the other room. Killing the Reverend would quench Clara’s need for revenge. Except, she would never make her way out of the church, Croo would stop her. The soap box preachers too would halt her escape, long enough for the His Hand’s soldiers—Clayton probably leading the mob—to take her in to custody for the murder of their leader.
I still need to get Sammy safely back to Linden Grove. Wendy needs to leave too. Keep it together, Clara.
The Reverend’s head slowly righted, he blinked, and then he frowned with disinterest. “His name was Mo Danvers, correct?”
“Maurice Danvers, yes,” Clara said, speaking slowly, nodding. She had given the Reverend her father’s name yesterday in this very same room.
He doesn’t remember my dad…
“I am sorry, but I don’t remember the man,” the Reverend answered with little true apology. “So many men and women arrive here. Those who will not put aside their sin and renounce their conduit ways are sent for judgment.”
“You mean you kill them,” Clara said wryly. “Giving the conduits a ‘choice’ is a front. Well there is a choice, I guess… either they choose to live the His Hand way or they die— excuse me, I mean you let God pass judgment. You won’t allow a conduit to live her life as she wishes, even if her life doesn’t affect your own peoples’ lives. You won’t let a conduit go free, if they wish, huh?”
“Machines nearly killed the old world,” Eve stressed. She patted her husband’s folded hands. “Jimmy’s grandfather taught the followers that the world was dying prior to the Flood. Technology had poisoned the land. It clogged our skies. We spoiled the very gifts our Lord provided. This is the Second Chance, Sister Clara. It can be yours as well, child.”
“If I refuse I hang or burn like every other conduit you get your holy water washed hands on? Right? Well, both of you can burn off!”
Eve blanched at Clara’s junky curse and looked near to fainting. “Such language…”
The Reverend looked like he wanted to slap Clara, probably with The Bible in his lap. He wanted to slap some holy sense in to her. When he spoke to Clara, he had moderated his tone, though the words still burned with anger. “This is His house. His light shines down on us here. And you will respect his house rules, sister. You will.”
“Deseray’s father came to you,” Clara said softly. “He asked you to let her come home.”
Neither of the Powells needed to think hard on about what Clara said, they had recollection written in their eyes.
“My father and hers were friends,” Clara went on. “My father came with Marty that day, a friend supporting his best friend, his oldest friend. Marty was desperate. He loved—probably still loves—Deseray. When you would not force her to leave, let her go, Marty tried to trade my father for Deseray. You agreed. You took my father. Maurice Danvers! That was his name. You took him! But Deseray would not leave here. And you didn’t budge to make her.”
Tears rolled down Clara’s heated cheeks.
“Oh, dear sister,” Eve said, reaching out to the young conduit. “We remember that dreadful day. It was Deseray’s choice. Leave or stay, it was her decision.”
“She chose God and a life free of temptation,” the Reverend said, his implacable words striking Clara as if she was a nail and his voice a hammer. “Deseray, poor girl, told us about her mother’s death by the plague. She told us her father withdrew into the haze, leaving her. She had no family left. What was worse… she said her father supports conduit activity and deals in the old world temptations, spreading a message, promoting the world’s destruction once again!”
“You couldn’t free my dad when Deseray choose to stay?”
“No,” the Reverend didn’t hesitate providing Clara’s answer. “To do so would have meant the His Hand was supporting this world’s second descent away from His way.”
Clara shook her head and guffawed. “You have no idea. You think what remains of the old world is corrupted, infected.” This was like trying to explain to an infant how to take an engine apart. She glanced around the room while tears continued to slide down her cheeks. The Field remained inches away from her fingertips, just out of her reach, so close. Clara wanted to scream. “It’s beautiful. You don’t even know. It’s the flow of life weaving itself around everything, hugging, embracing. Even if no one sees the Field, it is there watching over us, feeding us, strengthening us. How can you think such a thing is evil? The Field can bring life to the sleeping.”
“‘The sleeping’… you call them golems,” Eve Powell said, her plump lips twisting the word angrily. “Stories from the old world say these golems had a vile stink that choked the world’s skies. The decay did not end there. Oh, no! Each turning of the seasons the world grew hotter. The water levels rose. The skies turned as black as the devil’s own heart. And yet the people back then spoke of the wonder they created!” The Reverend’s wife nearly spat but the prim lady caught herself and shook off her aghast. Clara saw the woman’s passion, a hatefulness that twisted her ugly. “Those people were pigs fighting over slop. Disgusting! At the end, the Lighted fought over the weapons of their own destruction and nearly killed themselves in the days leading up to the— What? What are you doing, dear sister?”
Clara was nearly lying on her side, as if tilting herself over so she could examine the floor for a piece of food she dropped. Her searching eyes were looking up at Eve. “Oh! I apologize, Sister Eve.” Her eyes slipped to the Reverend, his fingers were tapping The Bible’s cover harder but no less out of his original rhythm. “I really am sorry. I was simply looking for your husband’s hand.”
“Pardon…?” Eve’s hand, fingers thick as stuffed sausages, slowly reached for her chest.
Reverend Jimmy was catching the joke and didn’t find Clara’s humor at all entertaining. If she attempted to explain her joke, he might finally thump her across the face with his Bible. It was a heavy tome for sure. And jokes were not as impactful when you needed to explain the punch line. Then again, Clara never knew what was good for her.
“Your hand, sister…” Clara explained, letting the words hang in the air. They were smoke to the Reverend’s wife. “I could’ve sworn the Reverend had shoved it—”
Leather cracked under the palm-reddening smack of flesh. “Enough!” the Reverend commanded, slapping The Good Book with a hand, the other balled up and punched into the couch beside him. He probably used that same voice when warning the followers away from drinking wine on Sunday and saying “hi” to the conduit demons, both would land them in the devil’s own stew pot.
“You are as thoughtless and uncouth as the Junkers, riding the roads away from God,” said Eve, catching the punch line straight in the face.
Yep. Definitely not as funny when explained. Sister Eve here didn’t even grin a little.
The Reverend’s puppet wife was across the sitting area before Clara could gasp in surprise. For a larger woman, she could sure move quickly when provoked. Jimmy Boy, on the other hand, was content to let his wife handle the insolent conduit who used their hospitality to slap them in the face.
Eve hauled Clara to her feet by the upper arm. Clara grunted. The woman was as strong as an ox. She had not gained her girth with an overabundance of sweet breads and candies.
With Clara on her feet, Eve roughly dragged her down the short flight of stairs and to the door. Behind the younger and older woman, the Reverend gave Clara a level look that said see now, you’ve made her angry, you should have just dealt with me. Too late had Clara realized her mistake.
“I never gave you my choice!” Clara shouted back to the Reverend as his wife dragged her across the room. At this point he’d reopened The Bible and was searching for the place he’d left off reading when she arrived in the room. He was unconcerned by what she tried to tell him. “You’d toss me out without hearing my answer to the Lord’s Second Chance? Huh?”
He looked up from his reading, eyes measuring her. “And your choice, Sister Clara?”
Mere seconds passed while Clara feigned consideration. Clara grinned, showing her teeth—as a brave wolf would when surrounded by another pack ready to murder her. She wouldn’t go down as chow so easily. “Not in this life, Jimmy Boy. I am a conduit in a brave new world that needs a good mechanic for its tune up. Any broken thing can be fixed with love… my dad taught me that.”
“The Lord will judge your sins in this world, Sister Clara,” Eve assured Clara, though she sounded as if the young conduit’s fate was already sealed and she’d taken a peek inside the envelope. “It is not for us to judge, we are only to shine His light on the poor wretches still dressed in the rags of the old world. His light is everywhere. It fills this very room. It’s so beautiful, filled with billions of little angels singing and strumming harp strings to serenade Him with a hymn, an anthem we all can march to if we listen closely. This hymn cannot afford loose strings, Sister Clara. Coppertops are loose strings.”
Eve opened one of the doors to the reception area below her and the Reverend’s apartments.
In that moment, something scratched at Clara’s understanding. Eve Powell had said, “His light is everywhere… billions of little angels…”
Clara slapped her hands on either side of the doorframe to brace herself against Eve’s throwing of her out. Straining to prevent Eve from removing her, the young conduit considered the older woman carefully and replayed the words again. “The light is everywhere… billions of little angels…”
Was Eve Powell referencing the Field and Nites? The “light” could be the Field, the “angels” Nites.
Could Eve Powell, the wife of the Reverend Jimmy Powell, the matriarch of the His Hand… could she be a conduit?
Matching Clara’s stare, Eve didn’t flinch. She reached up and touched her index plump finger the collar heavy around Clara’s neck.
For an instant, Clara saw the blue Nite light traveling around the room like an old train set her father had found on a salvage run and brought home for Leo to play with. Leo set up the tracks all over the Danvers family’s small apartment. You couldn’t step anywhere without crossing over part of the miniature rails. If Clara made a tiny wisp of a Nite and put it to Waking the toy train… it would keep the toy chugging forever through her family’s little safe world in Linden Grove.
Right now in the Powell’s apartments, the Field was a never end—
Snap. The world went dull and dark.
Clara shuddered. Elation snatched away. Life snuffed out. It was cruel.
A half grin sharpened the pleasant motherliness in Eve Powell’s face into hard lines of disgust. She said softly to Clara, “Who do you think puts the collars on you coppertops? Hmm, Clara? We know you’ve been snooping. God sees all and He lends His ears and eyes to my husband.”
Eve Powell shoved a shocked Clara out of the room. Before the door could close on her, a hand clamped down on Clara’s wrist and quickly exerted control over her body. She felt the raised scar of a seared mark in that palm.
A soap box preacher spun a dizzied Clara around and marched her out of the Reverend’s chambers, all the while praying for her fair judgment and God’s mercy. He didn’t sound as if he believed she would stand a chance at the pearly gates.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Thirty-Five by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved