Authors: Chuck Wendig
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Lifestyles, #Farm & Ranch Life, #Nature & the Natural World, #Environment, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian
Cael barks a laugh. “I almost don’t believe it. But I guess that explains the treats.”
“I know you’ve never seen anything like this in the Heartland.” Pop pulls out the giraffe-headed toy, turns it around. Rubs his finger on the back of the toy’s faux tuxedo, across the eight little speaker holes back there. “These are Empyrean goods, all right. These are the spoils of a good life.”
Those words echo in Cael’s mind.
Spoils of a good life.
He likes that idea just fine.
“Thanks to Mer,” Cael says.
Cael waits. Decides to say it. “She’s not coming back, Pop. Not this time.”
“No. I don’t think she is.” For a moment his father looks sad. Finally he forces a smile. “Well. It is what it is. Mer has her own path now, and it’s not ours to interrupt.”
“Least she’s not a hobo.”
“If she were, we’d still love her.”
“Her leaving is going to come back to us, isn’t it?” Cael already knows the answer. Nobody’s allowed to leave her hometown, not without special dispensation, without a whole passel of permits, and without a handful of bribes few can afford. It’s bad enough they have the shame of everyone thinking Merelda is wandering around like some vagrant. But a crime committed by one member of a family is punishable against all members of the family. “What if the proctor finds out?”
Pop shrugs. “She won’t. Harvest Home is done and so we dodged that charging bull. She doesn’t have much reason to come down here until the next quarterly tally. She lives on one of the flotillas, and her gaze is not that far-reaching. She cares little about us. We’re too small.”
“It’ll be okay,” Pop says. He claps Cael on the shoulder. “Let’s just enjoy this strange and wonderful family meal, huh?”
Cael tries. Tries to focus on this, on the Lottery, on the garden they will soon harvest. But dark clouds continue to shadow these bright moments. Merelda. Gwennie. Boyland.
“Sure, Pop,” he says, forcing a smile.
“The mango was so syrupy—”
“‘You couldn’t stop licking your finger for days,’” mocks Lane. The three of them are walking down Main Street.
“Well, not days,” Cael says. “Hours, at least.”
“Thanks for sharing it with me and Rigo.” Lane elbows Cael in the ribs. “We, your
in the whole hell of the Heartland.”
Rigo makes a sad face. “Yeah, Cael. What gives?”
“Come on, don’t bust my nuts on this,” Cael says. “It was nice to just sit there with Mom and Pop for a while. Eating some Empyrean treats.”
“The Empyrean.” Lane snorts, then spits in the dirt. “Your sister’s one of
Cael shrugs. “She’ll never be one of them.”
“She’s up there. Drinking chocolate. Eating weird fruits. Draping herself in their sparkly ribbons and dancing with robots.” Lane does a quick dance forward and stomps on a corn shoot pushing up through the earth. “She’s basically a traitor to the Heartland, you know.”
“That’s a bit melodramatic.”
“And you’re a traitor, too. For not sharing with your buddies.” Lane gives Cael a hard elbow in the ribs, and Cael’s not sure if he’s joking or half serious or all-the-way serious. “You’ve changed, Captain. Grown cold in your pursuit of fame and fortune.”
“Now you’re just making stuff up.”
“It’s all right. I’m going to be a traitor, too, someday.” Lane stomps on another corn shoot. “One day the Sleeping Dogs are going to come through here and I’m gone.”
Cael rolls his eyes. “This again.”
again. You have your dreams. I have mine, pal.” Lane pops his knuckles. “The raiders are real.”
“I know they’re real. They’re just not as noble as you think. You think they’re armed, Empyrean-hating mutineers hiding out in the Heartland, working for the common man, trying to change things by bringing down the heavens. They raid towns, Lane.
towns. Don’t be naive.”
Lane shrugs. “Some of our towns need raiding.”
“What kind of name is that anyway?” Cael asks. “Sleeping Dogs. Who’s afraid of a bunch of sleeping dogs anyway? You ever watch a dog sleep? Wanda’s mutt just lies on his back, snoring, slobbering, and passing gas so bad it could strip the plasto-sheen off a long road.”
“It’s a saying. Let sleeping dogs lie.”
“It’s a dumb saying, then. You ask me, you should wake them the hell up. Maybe you wake a dog up—” Cael’s about to say more on the subject, but it’s then they arrive at their destination.
They all stop and stare. Inside they see Poltroon’s son,
also Earl, sharpening a spiral of harvester blades. Sparks rain down around him as he stomps a pedal to spin the whetting wheel. The embers reflect back in Earl Jr.’s dark goggles.
“I don’t want to go in there,” Rigo says.
“We got to,” Cael answers.
“We know things,” Lane says. He doesn’t need to explain what things. Town’s been abuzz with what happened to Poltroon. Most assume he went on a bender and took his motorvator out. Some have whispered that the Empyrean thought he was too good at his job and whisked him away in the middle of the night—either to put him to work for them or to slit his throat, depending on the teller of the tale.
Cael grabs the other two, drags them in. “C’mon, we need to do this.”
Earl Jr. sees them approaching. He stops sharpening the blade and lifts the goggles from his eyes—around his eyes are deep pink impressions where the specs bit into his skin.
“Boys,” Earl says. He’s a few years older than they are. He looks them over with narrow eyes. “Now, I know you don’t need any motorvator parts. What’s up?”
Cael looks around the garage at all the motorvator parts hanging off the walls on pinboards and dangling from chains: control boards and rasp bars and wheel-treads. “I figure you don’t deal much with boats, but we need a new hover-rail for
—ah, the pinnace we’re borrowing.”
Earl Jr. stands. Bites at the fingers of his gloves to pull the gloves off. “Yeah. Heard you wrecked yours. That’s tough stuff. Life in the Heartland, right?”
“Life in the Heartland,” the boys intone together.
“Sorry,” Earl says, shaking his head. “Had something, but Boyland came in, bought it.”
“Godsdamnit!” Cael mutters.
“I’ll keep my ear to the ground, though. If anything turns up, it’s yours.”
Cael offers a hand. “Thanks just the same, Earl Jr.”
Earl shakes it. His grip lingers. It’s as if he’s searching Cael’s eyes. Which is insane; no way he could know anything about what they saw. It looks like he’s about to ask something—Cael can feel the sweat on his hands and brow go suddenly cold. But then Earl nods, pulls away.
“See you, Cael.”
“See you, Earl.”
They hurry out of there. As they step outside, Rigo says, “I feel like he knows.”
“He doesn’t know,” Lane says. “Don’t be an ass.”
“We should tell him.”
“We should tell him his daddy was a Blighter? That’ll go over well. Word gets out, people will be throwing him in the jail, locking the door, and calling the proctor.”
The two of them continue to argue, but Cael barely
hears them. Because the wind turns, and a smell reaches his nose: a familiar soap scent coupled with a deeper, fancier fragrance.
Cael turns, sees her standing about ten feet away. She gives him a small wave.
“Cael,” she calls to him. “I need to speak with you.”
“Stay here,” he hisses to the others before he heads over.
She looks different. She’s got on a little makeup, for one: a bit of blush, a pink shine to her lips. But her clothes have gotten an upgrade, too. Good denim. Red crosshatch shirt with some frills on it.
“Hey,” she says, shifting nervously.
“Don’t you look nice.” Way he says it, though, doesn’t sound nice at all.
“That, too.” She stares him up and down. “What’s your damage, Cael?”
“I’m just saying, nice clothing. Boyland has good tastes.”
She rolls her eyes. “Are we doing this already?”
“You thought we’d exchange pleasantries?”
“You don’t have to like it, Cael McAvoy, but Boyland is
my Obligated. We are to be married in one year’s time. And I am now an official crew member of the Boxelder Butchers.”
Cael’s nostrils flare. His head feels hot, his palms slick. “Question isn’t whether I like it,
; it’s whether
like it. And I bet you do.”
She doesn’t offer any answer to that. Which galls him all the more.
“Listen,” she says, “I’ve come to fetch you.”
“Fetch me. Like a dog looking for a bone.”
“Boyland’s back at your house.”
Cael’s jaw tightens. “My house. Why is that bastard at my house?”
“That’s his business, not mine. My business is fetching you.”
“Fine. Tell him I’ll be along.”
She shakes her head. “I brought the yacht. We can hop in and take it—”
, I’ll be along. I’m not riding with you. You go on ahead. I’ll get there when I get there.”
“You’ve changed, Cael.”
“Really? Because I’m not the one in whore’s paint and a frilly shirt.”
Her jaw drops. She heaves back, gives him a hard slap
that reddens his cheek and makes his molars bite into the inside of his mouth. And then she storms away.
His friends ease up behind him.
“You have a real way with women,” Lane says.
“Come on,” Cael snarls. “I’ve got an ass to kick.”
Marching back home, Cael stops to reach into the field, ignoring the way the leaves lacerate his arm, and wrenches an ear of corn right off the stalk. The corn squeals in pain, a sound just loud enough to be heard up close.
As he walks, he shucks the corn, leaving a trail of silk and husk.
Rigo and Lane walk on either side of him. They’re doing all the talking.
“He’s the mayor’s son,” Lane says.
“And he’s built like two motorvators stacked on top of each other,” Rigo adds.
“I don’t know what you’re planning on doing—”
“Cael, you better think about this.”
“—but I don’t like the look in your eye.”
“Maybe take a breath!”
“Cool down a little.”
“Let’s stop walking for a minute.”
Cael hasn’t said a damn thing this whole time. But
now he stops and gives them both a look—a look so toxic it could probably kill a ten-foot radius of corn with just a sweep of his gaze.
.” His jaw tightens, and his eyes narrow. “It’s time Boyland Barnes Jr. gets what’s coming to him.”
And then he continues walking.
Rigo and Lane don’t say anything after that.
Cael comes up from the side of the house; but before he does, he stops, unzips his fly, and coats the corncob with his own piss, taking care to avoid splash-back. Not that it really matters: It’s his piss no matter how you cut it. Then he rolls the corncob in the dust with his foot, picks it back up, and tucks the whole ear into the pocket of his slingshot.
Boyland’s up by the front door. The shovelhead’s got a little wax candy bottle in his hand, and he’s pinching the last of some colored corn syrup into his wide mouth.
Boyland turns and notices Cael, but it’s too late.
The dirty, piss-soaked corncob pirouettes through the air and nails the dumb bastard right across the bridge of his nose. He blinks away dust and urine, crying out, and that’s all the opportunity Cael needs.
Cael runs at a full clip and jumps like a dog trying to catch a stick. He tackles Boyland right in the midsection,
knocking the mayor’s son off the front step and into the dead shrubs that ring the old farmhouse.
“You godsdamn dirt-monkey!” Boyland yells just before Cael elbows him under the chin.
The two tussle on the ground, rolling out of the shrubs, covered in broken branches and dry leaves. Cael thinks he’s got the upper hand—after all, he has got his knee in Boyland’s chest, his arm across his foe’s throat—but both of Boyland’s hamhock hands remain unaccounted for. Rigo yells for Cael to “watch out!” but it’s too late. One fist clubs Cael on the side of the head; the other comes in from the opposite direction and does the same.
Cael’s ears ring. It’s like that day when they crashed the cat-maran, just a high-pitched whine echoing in his head. Boyland picks up Cael and throws him to the ground. The mayor’s son casts a long shadow over Cael as he stands tall. Boyland grabs Cael again, but Cael’s not done yet, not by a long shot. Even though his vision is blurry and his ears are going
, he still has enough wherewithal to slam his head forward into Boyland’s mouth.
It hurts like a sonofabitch, what with Boyland’s teeth cutting into Cael’s forehead like that. But even still, it does the job—Boyland recoils, dropping Cael against the steps. Blood dribbles from Boyland’s split lip, his teeth smeared
red. Both of them are bleeding: one across the forehead, the other from his mouth.
Cael can’t help but laugh—this is what he’s wanted to do since forever, to make that buckethead
. It’s not as if he hasn’t fought back before, but then it was always a shove here, a scuffle there. But this,
is how it should be. This, he thinks, is not how children fight but how men do. With fists and blood.
This moment is like the eye of the storm. But just before the mighty winds can crash together once more, the front door opens.
Pop steps out.
And so does Mayor Boyland Barnes.
“Uh-oh,” Lane says. Which just about covers it.
The mayor smiles, licks his teeth. “Why don’t you boys come on inside?”