– CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE –
On the breakfast menu today… mud. No one told Sammy Gonzales, or he doubtless would’ve skipped that meal. Clara would have anyway.
Clara searched a good deal of the morning for Sammy. She was starting to think of the compound as a small city, the warren of streets wide, the gutters clean, a healthy place.
She finally spotted the boy in an alleyway. A curse hissed between her teeth. Three older boys were passing Sammy roughly between them, pushing him. These older boys were taunting Sammy, daring him to call from nothing a grand junk monster to fight his battle. The older boys cackled like wild laughing dogs. They were taller, stouter, well fed.
The oldest warned Sammy that the junk monster would need to beat its way through the armor his faith provided him. Sammy was pushed toward this boy. The older boy took Sammy’s head in his hands, in a similar manner which other followers used to greet people, praying over the person with hands cupped over the other’s own. Then the boy shoved Sammy to another of the tormenters, this boy had a gap between his front teeth large enough for the Junker’s bus golem to drive through. That boy tripped Sammy, sending the conduit face down in the dirt.
Laughing at Sammy’s fall, the other boys began calling Sammy a “coppertop”. Clara hated that name! It wasn’t even a name. It was a slur. A curse. Normals wielded the slur like a rock from a sling, meaning it to injury, to maim the soul, the very being of a person. Clara ground her teeth at the mention of the slur. Her hand tightened in to fists.
If she guessed, Clara would put money on these older boys being the foster siblings giving Sammy a hard time. Most followers ignore conduits. Shove a conduit in the face of the most stoic and pious of religious might irritate that person but they went on ignoring the Field-tapping person. Put a conduit in the care of a thumper family—for the conduit to live, eat, and sleep under that roof with the family’s children—was inviting trouble. And trouble in a His Hand family usually came from the immature boys who enjoy pulling the wings off a fly’s back… or kicking a conduit when he or she was collared.
Clara ran into the space between two buildings. Here people could keep their horses while shopping on the street. A water trough for the beasts sat situated against one building, its contents overflowing and churning the ground in to the mud Sammy now ate.
One of the boys swung his leg back, ready to nudge Sammy to his feet with the toe of his foot, to continue their vicious game. Clara caught his foot with both hands between her skirts. She then threw her arms up and over her head, tossing the foot and the boy’s leg into the air, the motion so quick it flipped him ass over teakettle.
In the wild, to take a place at the head of a pack, a wolf needs to unseat the biggest and strongest member of the group. If Clara didn’t do the same now, the other boys would come at her too. Already the boy she’d sent crashing to the earth on his head was rising. Tears streaked his dirty cheeks, mud caked his teeth, he spat blood on the back of his hand, and he was rubbing his bottom. For all that, the boy was ready to commit violence. His pimply face was redder than what she might call normal and he was ready to pop.
Take down the pack head and the younger, weaker wolves will follow, Clara reminded herself.
That thought firmly set in her mind, she looked to the fattest and oldest of the three boys, the one Sammy had spoken of to her, the boy who led the foster family’s ruffians to abuse him. She took a step and a half toward bully fatso, crouched low, and did the most unladylike of things—Rose would have died of humiliation…
She punched bully fatso in the groin.
He shriveled up around where Clara’s fist landed and toppled to the side.
The alley between the buildings drew up silent, all the air sucked out of the wide space.
So much for keeping out of trouble and below notice, Clara reproached herself half-heartedly. Her cheeks burned with the puffed up pleasure of her actions.
Pimply brother and the boy with mud in his mouth gathered up their oldest sibling and ran out of the alley. They had a hard go of carrying their stout brother, dropping him in the same mud they had made Sammy eat. Pulling the weeping bully to his feet, they darted glances to either end of the street, likely trying to decide which way lead to the nearest adult. They chose left, shambled away, and left Clara to care for Sammy as they had their own brood.
“Nice family they saddled you with, kid.” Clara used her skirts to clean up Sammy’s face. She dunked a generous amount of the wool material into the horse-drinking trough against the building and then began to scrub.
“They don’t like me much,” Sammy said, his nose snooty and his eyes red despite his attempt to show bravery in the face of his humiliation.
“Really?! I could not tell.” Clara chuckled, attempting levity.
“Gabby always told me not to show people I’m a conduit,” the boy explained, his eyes not becoming any less moist with the memory of his sister.
Clara nodded, still cleaning Sammy’s face. Clods were jammed in his ears even.
“I should’ve listened to Gabby.” His head drooped with grief. “Gabby… Mom… Dad…” Here comes the water works. “All of ’em would still be alive if not for m—”
Clara nearly shook the boy. She had to control her fury and treat Sammy as she would Leo, firmly but with the affection of a person willing to knock a head or two for the sake of that person’s life education. This was not Sammy’s fault; no one had taught him to be proud of his individuality, his powers.
“You’re special, sparkplug, never forget that when the days get dark,” she heard her father’s voice say in her head.
She held Sammy at arm’s length, closed her eyes, and inhaled. Two seconds later, she released the breath and opened her eyes. Clara moderated her tone. It’s time to make good on my promise to you, Gabby.
“This is not your fault,” she told Sammy.
It’s my fault. I should have stepped in when your sister asked me. But this is no time for a pity party. Time to put away the party favors and cake, Clara.
Two big eyes glistened at her, wrapping around her, capturing every word, gobbling the syllables, digesting the lesson. Clara seated herself on the trough next to Sammy. Having an audience was a little unnerving.
“Never apologize for who you are, Sammy. Never.”
“Gabby told me,” Sammy stumbled over each word, probably playing his older sister’s exact words—painful as they were—through his head.
“She never wanted you to change who you are, kid,” Clara assured him firmly. She took up the damp part of her skirt again and resumed roughly rubbing the boy’s cheek till he winced. A little pain could distract. “I knew your sister. Gabby wanted you safe but she wanted you to be Sammy. She wanted you to be careful.”
Olive skin appeared from underneath the alley grime. Sammy would still need to dunk his head in a basin to get the brown shadows from around his cheeks, the dirt in the creases of his nostrils, and the gunk out of his thick dark eyebrows. Otherwise, he was no worse than a boy coming in from rough play.
“I’ll teach you to be careful, Sammy,” Clara said, locking on to his gaze. “I Promise.”
He nodded firmly, excited.
“But I’ll never teach you to be less than you are, less than Sammy, a conduit, someone special.”
“Clara…” He paused. A goofy grin appeared. Clara knew that expression. She had a little brother after all. It was the type of expression any boy got when he was caught pulling a prank, or staring in the window to watch a girl change—Sammy was too young for the latter, right? Trouble was familiar, as familiar as a best friend. And boys always run with that best friend. Clara told Sammy to spit it out, but not harshly. “Can you teach me to make metal monsters? Just to scare people bigger than me. Only scare! I promise!”
She glared at him dubiously. Then she ruffled his hair. A few pieces of dirt shook free. Sammy needed not just a washbasin but also a bath!
The little conduit’s head nearly descended below his shoulders, like a turtle retreating into its shell. “Why does everyone do that?”
“‘Cause you’re still so little!”
Together the two conduits laughed. Clara laughed first. The mirthful infection caught the brooding boy shortly after.
That’s when Croo approached them, his eyes seeking Clara specifically. His eyes were two large grey rocks tumbling down the mountain, tripping her up, wanting to stomp her into meet chunks. His broad form’s shadow shaded her, an ominous sign of trouble to come. Nearby, Sammy’s foster brothers were poking around, trying to act innocent and not like they’d been the bullies let alone the ones who had pointed fingers at Clara. Passersby on the street too spared looks for Clara and Sammy. There are those heathens! Making trouble for our poor community. The followers were supposed to attempt to sway conduits into their fold, right? Those dozen sets of eyes would scare a dog in to sticking its tail between its legs, flattening its ears, and send it off to find the nearest hole to crawl into.
Croo’s stony gaze would send the mutt looking for a hole miles from here! Yet when Clara examined those rocks closely, she saw cracks. Was that pity? He would take Clara to the Reverend, she knew as much. Of all people in the compound, involving Croo in this street scuffle would make sure Clara landed in the Reverend’s presence. So much for laying low. Clara wanted to whack those three boys’ heads harder! Albeit doing so would only make her situation worse.
Sighing heavily, Clara let her skirts fall to cover her ankles again.
“I hear there’s some trouble,” Croo said, giving Clara a chance to come clean on her so-called transgressions.
Their god is all-seeing and all-knowing. Only him, though.
“Just a little rough play with the boys,” Clara responded, offering a wide grin with teeth. She ruffled Sammy’s hair again. The boy didn’t move a muscle.
“I hear it’s more than rough, sister.” He hated using the sister honorific to address Clara. The disdain was in Croo’s tone, but only slightly.
Clara eyed the boys poking their heads around the building’s corner. They were as innocent looking as wolves in the skins off a recently butchered lamb. Then she turned her attention back to Croo, hoping he’d picked up on the sneering glare she launched at bully fatso; the stout boy gave her a smug, satisfied look in return.
“Consider your sources,” Clara responded to Croo.
He considered Sammy’s disheveled appearance, the mud caked in his hair, the redness around the boy’s now dry eyes, the humiliation carved into his young features. Croo knew the truth. He also knew the street had drawn in its breath.
Cracks. She for sure saw cracks in the man’s eyes. Why else would he hesitate in taking her by the ears?
Turning around, Croo assured the people in the street that all was well. He firmly suggested they move along and that justice would be upheld. “The Reverend will hear matters and set all in order.” These last words Croo addressed to the crowd, though he had turned around to regard Clara while speaking.
Of course, this was a crowd of people, and people were curious and chatty by nature. Although it was a small crowd, the size of the onlookers mattered little against the measure of gossip ready to overflow from their lips. And in a community of the His Hand, anything with conduits was a mouthful. Croo needed to maintain order and the Reverend was order on this mortal coil. Conduits received no passes. Clara would see Reverend Jimmy, whether or not Croo knew the truth of what happened between Sammy and his bullying foster brothers. The thumpers would talk, but they would say the Reverend had matters in hand.
Clara told Croo that Sammy had nothing to do with what happened in the alley. Any blame was hers. The Reverend’s right hand nodded with respect and allowed Sammy to run off.
On second thought, Clara wondered if her actions were correct. The foster brothers were eyeing Sammy. They meant to pay him back for her interference. Would he be safer with her, with the Reverend? She hoped her assessment was not correct, that Sammy’s foster brothers would leave him be. Except, boys rarely thought with their brains, they preferred their muscles.
Regardless, she had spoke up for Sammy’s blamelessness. She didn’t want Sammy in trouble with the His Hand leader.
She followed Croo to the compound’s church and the Reverend’s apartments.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Thirty-Four by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved
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