– CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN –
Thirty miles. Fifty miles maybe. Uncle Marty’s daughter had been so close. Why had Mo Danvers’ best friend never come for his daughter in these last few years? Did Uncle Marty even know Deseray lived so close? The girl had not run far. Given what Deseray’s father did for a living and his deceased best friend having been a conduit, how could the girl turn toward the Reverend and the His Hand? The Tully household had to have been one of tolerance. Or perhaps, like Clayton, the death of Deseray’s mother shaped her ideas about the world and conduits?
Clara had to admit she knew even less about Uncle Marty’s family than she first believed. And she knew little to start.
Full night fell and the church doors closed on silent hinges before Clayton returned from looking for Deseray. He told Clara that he found the older girl huddled in a corner, bottom lip quivering and eyes teary, speaking urgently to a gideon—some sort of high level priest just below Jimmy Boy’s office, if Clayton’s description was accurate.
“What did you say to her, Clara?” Clayton asked, trying to keep the accusation from his tone and retain the good air he’d been promoting earlier.
He didn’t believe her.
“Pff.” Clara let her arms go limp, slapping the heavy shirts at her thighs. “You people are trying to convert me. Not the other way around!”
After saying so, she realized she had lumped Clayton in with the His Hand. Subconsciously, somewhere in a darker part of her mind where diseased negativity easily propagated, she believed her old friend was lost to her. No, not just a friend, I was crushing on him badly for years. Where is Tink when I really need her to slap me around?!
“Fine. Let her hide away. I’ll find my own way,” Clara stubbornly committed.
A quick glance at Clayton’s face told her he was torn between listening to the good word and helping her find Merlyn.
She wasn’t waiting for Clayton any longer. Not for anything.
A gust of wind slid past Clara’s right side just as she set out. Unsure what way to head, she chose the direction the wind recommended.
Heartbeats later, Clayton was not nipping at her heals.
That decided finally, the young conduit began to wander the compound streets in hopes of finding someone who might ignore her inhibiting collar and kindly offer her directions.
Earlier when Croo led Clara and Rose through the compound, Clara had thought the streets seemed wide enough to accommodate four wagons. Even with as many followers that lived and worked in the compound, going about their daily business, the streets appeared airy, giving the bustling religious town an open and breezy feel. With most people at the church for evening service—even the guards it appeared—the streets were now no different than those in ruins like Nork. Abandoned. Desolate. Well maintained and kept, true. Junk free, of course! But gone was the warmth a large community of people radiated. Inside homes and stores, candles and lamps were blown out and cranked off, the windows vacant and dark as pitch. No one knew more about the energy flows than a conduit. Clara knew well about the flow of energy. Like the Field, people exchanged, exuded, and drew in huge amounts of energy as they passed through the world. It was emotion, the flows directing people, influencing their attitudes and decisions. Everything connected. Conduits saw those flows through the Field.
Clara felt isolated and alone cut off from the Field, from the flows of life. The cold shoulder all the followers gave Clara magnified these feelings, depressing the conduit.
A couple of men, armed with poles two or three times their height, moved down the sides of the compound’s main streets. Lamplighters. Each man went to each iron streetlamps individually and set the wick at the end of his pole into a lamp. An orange ball of light grew in the glass and iron housing. A pocket of the street illuminated, a lamplighter moved to his next streetlamp.
The lamplighter had lit the majority of the compound by now. The oil in the lamps reminded Clara of her workshop below the store in Rivend, of her half-finished projects, her machines with their gears and wheels.
The two lamplighters ignored Clara when she tried to catch their attentions to ask for directions.
She would have persisted but arguing with Clayton had drained the fight from her, she was exhausted.
So exhausted she didn’t see the black shape leap out at her from a side street. She stumbled and fell with her assailant atop her…
“Clara! It’s really you isn’t… isn’t?!”
A pair of brown owlish eyes stared back to Clara out of a tangle of dark bangs. She had grabbed the attacker by the shoulder, was holding tight, ready to knee him in the crouch. He showed her a gap-toothed grin. His skin was a dark olive, his face the round softness of a child. Like her, he also wore a collar that blocked from him the frequency of the Field.
Her grip loosened and she pulled the boy into her arms, tightly embracing him, hugging the life from him. She whispered his name. “Sammy.”
Words spilled out of the boy. He wanted to tell her everything. How strange men abducted him in the middle of the night. How arriving at the compound they put him in the care of a family with five other children, some of whom disliked him because of his conduit abilities. They gave him new clothes along with new brothers and a sister, a new mother and father. He told Clara “something” inside the collar—Sammy didn’t know what—buzzed around his head worse than a hive of angry bees. Did she know how to get the collar off? Could she take off his collar? He also told her these new “brothers and sister” were picking on him, taunting and bruising that drove him to sneak out tonight… which was not his first escape. Not once during Sammy’s high-energy storytelling did he mention his family’s deaths.
Does he know?
Clara wanted to get off her back. She found space between Sammy Gonzales’ word flood to ask him to move off her belly. His lips stumbled and his big eyes grew surprisingly wider as he realized he and Clara were lying in the street together. Blushing, eyes shining with fever, the boy moved off her straight away. Stepped off to the side, he began to look around as if he’d been scalded and realized his error as the worst blunder. Clara rose and dusted herself off.
To sooth her deceased friend’s brother, Clara took the boy’s hand and offered him a smile. Together they moved to the curb and sat. One of the lamplighters lit the iron street lamp near them, and spared them a glance and a disapproving sniff. Neither reaction was for ditching evening service or because they were leftovers from the old world. Clara stuck her tongue out at the man when he walked past and showed his back to them. Sammy cupped his hands over his mouth to stifle childish giggles. She blew a raspberry down at the boy and his giggles turned into a fit that followed the moody lamplighter along his route and away from their conversation.
“What are you doing out on the street, Sammy?” she asked, tweaking his nose. “Shouldn’t you be playing the good boy at service? You said something about a foster family.”
He wrinkled his nose as if at something fowl. “I don’t like that church. The guy standing up front always tells people God doesn’t like electricity, that’s why he took it away. He also says the Field is a trap conduits fall into before they go to Hell. He’s not happy.”
“I’ve met the guy.” Clara nodded. “We didn’t get along well.”
“What is electricity? Is it like the Field? The way that priest guy talks I think it’s the same.”
Gabby wasn’t kidding! I really do need to train this boy, he doesn’t know much about our world.
“The Field is something like electricity, very close,” Clara explained, not wanting to launch into a lecture right now. She touched the boy’s back and he winced, pulling forward and away. “You sure there’s no other reason your skipping out? How is this family the thumpers stuck you with?”
Sammy hesitated. When Clara leaned forward to seek his eyes and attention, she caught his eyes darting up and down the street for phantom threats. He answered her with a whisper. “The older boy, his name Roddick, he doesn’t like me. He’s supposed to share his bed with me until another is made… but… he makes me sleep on the floor, under the bed with the monsters.” By his tone of voice, Sammy still believed in the under-bed boogieman. “I try to look for the Field sometimes. I try really hard, Clara… I try till I float away to my special place. Roddick comes up and punches me when I try. He says I’m talking to the devil and I’m stupid. But I can’t find my place. I only feel pain when I try! So I don’t look much anymore. Roddick still hits me, though.”
“Sounds like his mom and dad should rename him Dick. Just Dick. It fits better.” Careful not to remind Sammy of his foster brother’s mistreat of him, Clara nudged the boy playful with an elbow. He returned a pained smile, the memory too fresh.
“I wanna go home,” Sammy revealed, sniffling. “Gabby never hurt me for being a conduit. She just worried I’d be hurt. I wanna see Gabby and my mom and dad. Can you take me home, Clara?”
Great. He doesn’t know. And I’m the one who drew the short straw. Machines are sooo much easier to deal with then people!
“Sammy… I-I don’t know how to tell you this.” His owlish eyes blinked at her with hope. Hers was a familiar face to him. She was a person who could take him home to the family who didn’t persecute him for what he was, the family who felt no revulsion from his abilities.
Her grim news would break his little heart. But Clara promised Gabby she would protect her brother and ever since she thought she had failed that promise, Clara wanted to redeem herself. Honesty would keep that promise.
Drawing in a deep breath like it were putting on armor, Clara closed her eyes, listened to her heartbeat three times, opened her eyes, and then finally began to tell Sammy about the morning after this abduction.
As she expected, the boy wept. Clara’s words were like knives slashing at Sammy, leaving tiny cuts. Each cut would not kill Sammy but the cuts would hurt and accumulated into a never-ending sting that with a slightest touch would flare to life. At first, he accused her of lying to him. Why would she lie to him, he cried. Clara held the trembling boy and assured him of the truth as best she could. He seemed so small in her arms, a baby. Before she uttered her first heart-breaking words, Clara had decided honesty would heal Sammy the quickest. She needed Sammy’s young mind sharp and alert. Of course, when denial resolved itself inside Sammy, the boy replaced that emotion with blame. If he had been normal, not a conduit, Gabby and his parents would still be alive. Clara did her best to assure the boy none of what happened lay at his feet. When acceptance finally hit Sammy, he held himself together and did not run. He shed his final tears on Clara’s shoulder, knuckled his eyes red, and wiped away the snot from his nose with the back of his hand.
One question continued to nag at Clara and after Sammy had used her skirts to dry his eyes, she inquired.
“I thought you were dead too,” she told him, trying to sound relieved that out of the tragedy at least he survived and that was okay in her book. “My mom sent me away from your family’s apartment that morning after everything went down. She didn’t want me to see any of the… aftermath. Anyway… When I didn’t see you in the Junker’s golem—”
He sniffed. “What’s a-a ‘golem’?”
I have a lot to teach you, Sammy. Clara smiled gently at the boy and rustled his already tussled brown hair, the way she would her brother Leo’s.
“Never mind that now,” she told him, turning the conversation back around to the road she wanted to travel. “Like I said… I didn’t see you in the golem after they grabbed me. Where did they keep you?”
“Here,” he breathed, still upset rightly.
Clara tilted her head to the side, processing Sammy’s answer. “What do you mean by ‘here’, Sammy?”
“With the His Hand,” he explained. “If Junkers got me, like in the stories Gabby told me to give me frights before bed, I would’ve been really scared. Wet my breeches scared.”
“As any smart person would,” Clara said, “I would too, I was scared. I’m scared right now.”
Sammy settled his head to lay in Clara’s lap and tried to curl in to a ball. He tried to stick his thump in his mouth. A habit Leo had held on to until her mother had started dipping the sucking digit in vinegar. Leo’s thumb didn’t taste all the great later and he kicked his habit quickly. Clara didn’t have vinegar now so she settled on pulling Sammy’s thump away from his lips—the evacuation made a wet plop sound—and held that hand in her own.
“Were you ever on a Junker golem… I mean, where you ever traveling in a huge wagon made of metal? Did the Junker bring you to one of those and…”
Petulant and tired after the horrible news of his family’s demise, Sammy answered. “No Junkers. They didn’t take me. The His Hand said mom and dad wanted me to not be a conduit anymore and that them and Gabby would come and live here with me when grownup stuff was settled.”
“The His Hand took you then, not Kell and his lost boys.” Clara said this more to herself than the boy.
She felt Sammy nod in her lap and try to pull his hand out of her own, wanting to suck on his thumb, but really, she was squeezing his hand too tight.
Reverend Jimmy and his thumpers will do just about anything to finish mopping up what their God’s Flood didn’t wash away.
Preaching in the streets, inciting fear and discord in towns so the communities would never fully accept conduits, were one matter. But murder in the night… stealing children from their families…
Junkers were not the monsters in her Grammy’s stories. The His Hand were the ones underneath the bed waiting to drag children into the dark. And the Reverend was the biggest boogieman of them all.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Twenty-Eight by clicking here…
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved
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