– CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT –
A little over a week ago, men from the His Hand had taken Sammy Gonzales from his family in Linden Grove and then brought him to their compound. Two positives to these events. The boy never had to toe-the-line toward burn out as Clara had when Kell and his crew used her and the other conduits like Wendy as batteries for their beastly bus golem. While Sammy’s abuse by his foster siblings was not ideal or fair, it had forced the boy to escape the foster family’s home on multiple nights to look for refuge. During those self-sought breaks, during the evenings mostly, he found only high walls and the confining yet peaceful compound streets. Sammy knew the compound. His wanderings gave him that advantage. He also knew were the followers were tending Merlyn King.
Sammy took Clara straight to Merlyn and the visiting Rose.
The older man greeted the young conduit warmly, not because the child had run away and come running back with tears in her apologizing eyes with her senses set straight but because the child returned unharmed. Such a reception relaxed Clara to the point she nearly fell bone tired to the floor, Rose helped her instead to the edge of Merlyn’s bed. Merlyn was glad to see Clara and had as many questions for her as Sammy had, except Merlyn expressed his interest calmly and with no hurry.
Their conversation started with the healing gash on her head, the one Roos tended to on their misdirecting trip into Nork. Her tale quickly transitioned to human batteries and road pirates. Rose had already told him about Clara’s meeting with the Powells. Finally, Clara told Merlyn and Rose about her conversation with Clayton outside the church.
“They’ve brainwashed my brother already,” Rose said crossly, though the words sounded old, more so than the week the Mathers group had spent in the compound.
“This has been coming, Rose.” Merlyn stroked his long mustaches, the corns of eyes crinkling with a spider web of lines as he looked back on Clayton Mathers’ childhood. One of Merlyn’s arms was in a sling, the arm where shot had punctured his flesh and broken bone. His nutty brown flesh was paler than Clara remembered but Rose swore his coloring had been white earlier in the week. “He’s been interested in the teachings of the His Hand for years, since his father allowed him to accompany the wagons into the towns. Clayton has even tried to convince his father to allow a gideon to preach at the ranch.” He came back from his revelry and addressed Rose directly, gently, holding back the pain in his voice. The Mathers siblings were like his grandchildren. “This is a road your brother has been walking down for a while. He was going to knock on Reverend Jimmy’s doors someday.”
“I guess there is no chance Clay will help us get me out of this place and back home,” Clara concluded flatly, hoping to receive support.
She received a confirmation from Rose.
“That woolheaded idiot will speak to his new best friend Jimmy if I have to drag him by the ear myself to the man’s apartments. You’ll see, Clara.”
“Oh, I don’t think Jimmy Boy has any intension of letting me or any of the other conduits go from this place, not unless we accept his communion.” Grim words. Clara made an effort to assure Sammy she would try to get him home, no matter what. His big eyes told her he was skeptical of what home meant for him without a family to return to.
Merlyn lessened both girls’ confidences with his next comment. “You may drag him to the Reverend, Rose.” He held up a finger to fault interruptions.”However, like Clara already said, convincing the man will not be an easy task. Maybe if Clayton agrees to usurp his father and open the ranch’s gates to the followers… maybe then would the Reverend listen.”
Rose gasped in horror and incredulity. When she spoke, her tone challenged the grandfatherly figure’s remark. “My brother would never think of harming father. Never! Do you not have faith in him, Merlyn?”
“Your father and I are older,” Merlyn told the rancher’s daughter, smiling gently. “Our time will pass and Clayton’s turn to run the ranch will come.” He patted his slung arm and winced after barely shrugging his injured shoulder. “Perhaps sooner than any of us think.”
Rose nearly threw herself on Merlyn’s sick bed and took up his free hand in her own. To her, holding on would draw him back into his youth and keep him handling the ranch as her father’s second.
“Why do you think your father has pressed Clayton to take on more responsibilities? Solely to keep the boy busy? If only.” Merlyn’s emerald eyes shone sadly. The plan he and the elder Mathers had put together to keep Clayton concentrated on family business was shifting away.
Firmness in her expression, back straight, Rose turned to Clara and blew out a breath before speaking. “If my family’s holdings… losing them… means a friend’s life then I’ll give them.” She smiled at Sammy. He looked as lost as he probably had been that first night he ran away from his abusive foster brother to wander the compound streets. “I’ll give as much land as need be for as many conduits as he’ll let go.”
“Your dad will skin you if you make the deal you’re proposing, Rose,” Clara warned, flattered by her friend’s willingness to sacrifice for her. Now Clara really felt bad for blowing off steam in Rose’s face. “He still controls the ranch, your brother and you don’t have authority.”
Clara looked to Merlyn for help. He shrugged his good shoulder and blew out his long mustaches.
“The Mathers are friends to the Danvers,” she assured Clara, shaking her head. “It is time we show our support for conduits as well. Besides, I’m not giving away the ranch, I’m simply proposing giving the His Hand access to preach to our laborers.” Rose raised a clench fist and stuck the air with an uppercut, showing the might of her bicep. Very unladylike. A fey grin appeared on her face. “I’m only demonstrating my resolve. There has to be something my brother and I can accomplish here! There must be!”
Filled with passion for a cause, Rose stood up from the edge of Merlyn’s bed and strode across the room to the door. Before leaving, she turned back around and went to hug Clara. “I’ll speak to my brother immediately so he can approach Reverend Jimmy straight away in the morning. You’ll see, Clara. Everything will work out. All of us will leave together.”
While Clara wanted to place faith in her friend’s passionate confidence, the young conduit could not shake the feeling that no conduits left the compound without making what the Reverend deemed the right choice.
“All the same,” Clara said to Rose, “I’d like not to place every coin on one bet. Rose, could you get me a few tools for tomorrow morning? Nothing the followers will think is sinful. A wrench or two, a screwdriver.”
Possibly. Rose agreed to indulge Clara’s pessimism, though she insisted on placing confidence in her ability to wag her tongue and persuade the Reverend to let Clara and—some, if not—all the conduits to leave the compound with little fuss.
For all her worries, Rose inspired Clara to keep hold of hope, to not slip over the edge and into the pit of despair. There was also Sammy to think of now as well as Wendy and any other conduit she could get out of the compound with her. Clara glanced down at Sammy—he was tall for his young age, nearly to her shoulders already. He made a face as Rose mussed his hair before leaving the room.
“Why does everyone older than me mess with my hair?” he asked the universe, wanting an answer to a question every little boy had wondered since even before Black Out Thursday.
Deciding to take on the role of a proxy for the universe, Clara lightly punched Sammy in the shoulder. He let out high, sharp “ouch”. What were big sisters for, right? Leo knew all too well—having lived with Clara—that she gave her younger brother no slack… ever.
“Who is the boy to you, Clara?” Merlyn asked quietly so Sammy would not hear. The boy was staring out the window, well away from the bed, looking to the lights of the church that were visible from the fourth floor room. “You speak openly around him, unafraid he’ll run to the Reverend.”
“Because I know Sammy,” she assured the older man, glancing at the younger conduit. “I owe him… and owe his sister more.”
Merlyn considered Clara quizzically, asking with his eyes if she would share more details about her relationship with Sammy and his “sister”.
She told him about the morning she learned Sammy’s family had died, murdered in the night while the His Hand took him away. She also explained how she knew Sammy’s family, Gabby and Clara’s mothers worked together as seamstresses and the girls had gone to school together. The families were not close but the thin connection was enough to prompt Gabby to approach Clara years later, to ask her to teach Sammy about his conduit powers, how to stay safe in this world. Now the boy was here. His family was dead. She failed Sammy and Gabby.
Upon hearing the sorrowful tale of loss and blood, about bedtime scares coming to life, Merlyn looked at Sammy with greater sympathy.
“He was brought here straight from Linden Grove,” Clara told him through clenched teeth. Her jaw might lock soon from the tension in her face. “Junkers didn’t take Sammy. Junkers didn’t kill his parents. Gabby woke to find her brother being kidnapped and the His Hand made it so she would never speak the truth. The boogieman under the bed is not the Junkers—though Kell and his boys are not innocent angels by any stretch!—but Jimmy Boy and his Bible thumpers are.”
“You mean to take Sammy with you then? To give him a home? Teach him about his abilities?”
A lump formed in Clara’s throat. She should have been teaching Sammy from the beginning, when Gabby first came to her. “When we… conduits I mean… are young, when we first learn to draw on the Field within ourselves, the first thing we do is create Nites. Bits of light. Stars for a darken room. We bring the night’s sky indoors. At that age, darkness scares a kid. Sensing the Field, the life within its flow, takes away the fear.
“Creating the tiny wisps of light is not dangerous but do too much and it’ll drain a person. Kill them. Sammy can probably do that much… get himself killed. I need to teach him not to kill himself. I need to show him how to hide if need be. This is not a game.”
Merlyn threaded one long mustache through two fingers and pulled softly. The sound of his long aged fingers, leathery from his lifetime of work in the sun on the ranch, stroking the white hairs was like rough flesh sliding across a silk ribbon. “You don’t think he doesn’t know a little more about life now? You told him about his parents, yeah?”
She nodded stiffly, the single motion short, more a jab. “He’s cried.”
“He’ll shed more,” Merlyn corrected. “But he’s young. Most of the memories he’s sorting through now will fade and jumble.”
Same happened with Leo. Her brother was too young when their father died to hold on to the few memories father and son had created together. While Clara’s abilities reminded their mother of a lost husband, Leo thought Nites fluttering into his handheld game was a neat trick.
Talk of loosing parents made Clara think of her father’s easy laugh, their time together in his old workshop tinkering with sleeping machines. He had always smelled of oil and metal, no matter how much he washed. The workshop junk smells were under his skin as much as the gunk under his fingernails. The memories made Clara want to change the subject before she started crying.
“Merlyn, you didn’t object to Rose possibly trading away to the Reverend the right for his people to venture on her family’s land, all for my freedom and Sammy’s. Why?”
“She made a decision as an adult,” Merlyn explained with pride in his voice. “Children hold on to the past, to their dolls and toys. Adults make hard decisions. If I’ve taught Rose and Clayton anything, it’s to put their people, those tenant laborers, before all. People are important.” The older man looked at Clara and the pride twinkled in his bright green eyes. “She thought of her people. You, Clara. And even a boy she’s just met.”
Squeezing his wrinkly hand Clara said, “You and Mr. Mathers have done well.”
“Hopefully with both of them,” he whispered.
Sammy spun around, hands on the sill of the open window, looking ready to leap out. “Clara! Clara! People are leaving the church.”
“We’ve talked over Reverend Jimmy the whole time.” More color returned to Merlyn’s cheeks as he said this. Clara chuckled and shook her head.
Sammy actually might jump out the window, that or he needed to pee badly.
“Slow down there, kiddo,” Clara advised.
“The Dicksons will be heading home soon.” Panic spread from the boy’s brain to his toes. “They can’t know I’ve wandered off again. They’ll look for me before heading home.”
“Then we should head back.”
Pulling Sammy away from his suicidal perch, Clara said her goodbye to Merlyn and promised to visit in the morning. Then the two conduits left.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Twenty-Nine by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved
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