Authors: Chuck Wendig
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Lifestyles, #Farm & Ranch Life, #Nature & the Natural World, #Environment, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian
“I knew it,” Barnes says, laughing without mirth. “I knew those rumors about you were true.”
“Get away from my wife,” Pop says.
“I can’t do that.”
“Then I’ll shoot you.”
“You won’t. I don’t even suspect you have ammo for that old thing. And who says it won’t jam? It’s just an old toy by now.”
“It’s no toy. I keep it clean and working. It’s loaded.”
The mayor seethes. “You took something from me, McAvoy. You need to let me
have it back
“No. No, I do not.”
The mayor makes a sound in the back of his throat, a guttural cry like a rabid beast, and he clutches the knife and looks to Cael.
He leaps at Cael with the blade.
And a red rose opens in the dead center of his forehead.
The room stinks of gunpower, and the air rings with the report of the rifle. Whorls of smoke drift from the barrel’s mouth.
The mayor falls against the drawers with a bang and a clatter, closing half of them with the bulk of his body.
EVENING’S COME, AND
with it crickets. A rare chorus for a warm night.
Pop lights oil lamps and hangs them in the stable door and waves the three boys over. Together they see a wider opening in the floor and then withdraw one of the rail-rafts from within.
“So now we ride the rails,” Cael says. “All of us. Hobos. Who’d have thought?”
Then Pop drops the bomb.
“I’m not coming with you, son.”
“What?” Cael asks.
“I’m going a different way,” he says. “Your mother will
have a hard time traveling with you. And so will I, with the way my hip hurts.”
“We’ve got two rafts!” Rigo says.
“We’ll be fine. Besides, it’ll pay to split up. And where you’re going, I can’t follow.”
They’re headed to the flotillas. To follow in Merelda’s tracks.
, Cael thinks,
to find Gwennie, too
Pop’s plan is simple: go north to the rail. Take the rail west using the rail-raft. Pop reiterates what Mer told them: there’s a Provisional Depot there—that’s how Merelda got on board a flotilla, after all. And that’s how
going to do it, too.
Pop opens the floorboard with a stomp of his foot and lifts a bag out of the space. He hands it to Cael. “Here. Provisions. A few root vegetables I salvaged from the garden before…” His voice trails off. “Anyway. Some other odds and ends in there. Oh. And a box of .30-30 ammo. Half a box anyway.”
“Ammo?” Cael says.
Pop snatches the lever-action rifle from the corner and thrusts it into his son’s hands. “I don’t have time to teach you to shoot it, and the shame of it is, you’ll need to conserve your bullets. For most things your slingshot will manage. But sometimes you’re going to need some
real firepower, and this rifle will do you right.”
Rigo and Lane stare at Cael.
“Pop, I dunno—”
“Cael, you got this. I know you do. I trust you. Maybe I should have said it before. And I should have told you what I was doing this whole time, because I
trust you.” He takes his son’s hand and shakes it. “Go. Find your sister. Bring her home. I’ll find you when the time is right. Come hell or high water, come Old Scratch on his skeleton horse.”
Cael hugs his father.
Then he and the others grab the raft and take it outside.
They’re out in the corn, pulling the raft through the stalks, suffering the cuts and paper-thin slices from the grabby fronds and twitching leaves when Cael stops.
“Can you guys handle this?” he asks.
“What?” Rigo says. “What the heck do you mean?”
“I mean, can you keep carrying it? I… I have something I gotta do.”
Rigo whines in the back of his throat and mumbles, “Aw, Jeezum Crow…”
But Lane waves him on, as if he knows what Cael’s gonna do.
“Go. We’ll meet you at the tracks.”
Cael doesn’t have anything to write with, and he feels like an ass for not thinking about this sooner. So instead, he takes a sharp stone and clambers up to Wanda’s window and begins to carve into the soft, paint-flaked wood of the window frame outside her bedroom.
Wanda, I am leaving for a long time. Sorry, but I don’t love you. You’ll find a better
He’s going to finish with
man than me
, but he doesn’t have a chance.
The window opens, and Wanda pokes her head out. Her hair’s in a ginger tangle. Her freckled face sees him and lights up brighter than the moon above. Before he knows it, she’s raining kisses down on his cheeks and forehead, and he has to pull away.
“Cael,” she says, breathy. “I’m happy you came. Oh! I heard the proctor was in town; and, Lord and Lady, I am so glad that didn’t have anything to do with you or your father. Oops, I know I shouldn’t say anything, but the town’s been saying things and—”
But as she’s speaking, her eyes drift down, down, down, and soon she sees what Cael was doing. Wanda’s eyes spy the words written into her windowsill, and she cocks her head so she can read the words, upside down for her.
As she reads, she lets her finger drift across them.
And when she looks up, Cael’s already receding from the house. She calls to him, reaches for him, but he’s fleeing into the dead orchard, into the dark corn.
It’s not far past midnight when the auto-train roars by. It’s a mean beast of long steel, the cattle catcher on the front paired with the glowing green headlights giving the look of a ghostly skull charging through the darkness. As it passes, Lane and Rigo tilt with the wind.
“Note to self,” Lane says, the attaché’s stolen visidex tucked under his arm, an unlit cigarette pinched between thin lips. “Do not be on the tracks when an auto-train is a-coming.”
“That thing would turn us into pudding,” Rigo says.
“I’m gay,” Lane says.
Rigo blinks. “I thought we were talking about pudding.”
“I know. I’m just sitting here thinking, Dang, who knows how this whole thing is going to go? Are we going to make it out okay? Are we going to end up dead, or worse, in some Empyrean prison up in the sky? I figure we could die, and all this time I haven’t told my friends the truth about me—which is, I’m gay. So. There you go. Gay as the day is long.”
“It’s okay,” Rigo says. “I didn’t know you were gay, but I don’t really care.”
“Nope. I got my own problems. I’m fat and short, and my dad beats me. I figure we are who we are and we ought to be okay with that.”
Lane laughs. “You made up for it by making the proctor bleed.”
“That was pretty cool.”
“It really was.”
Rigo finally says, “So, you gonna tell Cael?”
“Tell me what?” Cael says, coming out of the corn, wiping a bead of blood from his brow where a sheaf of corn got him.
Lane clears his throat. “Uh. Just that I’m looking to stick my thumb in the eye of the Empyrean. Then piss on their heads. Then push them down a flight of stairs. Then pee on them again.”
Cael nods. “A little dramatic what with the urinating and all, but I think I’m on board.”
“You finish whatever it was you had to do?” Rigo asks.
Cael stares off in the distance. “Yeah. I guess.”
“Then let’s get moving. Morning’s not far off, and we’ve an adventure ahead.”
They ease the raft over. The moonlight reflects in long
bands across the metal train tracks. They set down the raft and jiggle it so that the magna-cruxes line up right—
The raft floats on the tracks. A slight wobble, but stable. Mostly.
“We don’t have oar-poles,” Cael says, “so you two hop on, and I’ll get to running.”
Lane and Rigo ease atop. The raft shifts and dips, but then it stabilizes.
Cael begins to push—slow at first, but then he picks up speed, running behind it. He lets go and runs alongside, as fast as he can. Lane and Rigo grab his arms and haul him aboard.
The raft slides along the tracks, silent and swift.
With the moon above and the wind in his hair, Cael can’t help but think,
Toward what, he cannot say.