Read Under the Empyrean Sky Online

Authors: Chuck Wendig

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Lifestyles, #Farm & Ranch Life, #Nature & the Natural World, #Environment, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian

Under the Empyrean Sky (4 page)

 

THE BOXELDER BLUES

 

LATER, THEY FIND
themselves standing at the crux of the old, shattered Boxelder Road. Lane and Cael each carry a sack bulging with pilfered vegetables. It takes all their willpower not to sit down here and now and have a feast.

The shuck rat will have to do.

The old Cemetery Road crosses their path, with corn rising up on all sides. Rigo lives one way, and Lane lives the other. Cael has to walk through town to get to his house. The Cemetery Road has an enamel of plasto-sheen on it so the corn doesn’t grow up through it. The way the afternoon sun collects on the plastic coating gives it a glossy brightness; look at it the wrong way and you’ll catch a blinding eyeful of white light.

They do their not-really-that-secret handshake: shake hands, then transition into locking elbows before moving into a manly, shoulder-clapping hug.

“Godsdamn Boyland,” Cael says.

“Godsdamn Boyland,” the other two say in unison.

“Least we got the garden.” Rigo pats the side of one of the sacks the way you might the side of an old cow.

“True,” Cael says. “I’m gonna head home first since it’s on the way, but then I’m taking these to the Mercado right after. Fresher they are, better we get paid, I figure.”

“Then I guess we’ll see each other tomorrow,” Lane says.

“You’re not coming to eat?”

Lane’s got nobody. Father dead. Mother off in some town, Lord and Lady know where, serving as a Babysitter for the Empyrean. Sending a few ace notes and provisions home now and again. Lot of nights Lane ends up at the McAvoy place for dinner.

But not tonight, apparently.

“Nah, I…” Lane shrugs. “I’m not hungry.”

Cael nods. His palms go slick. “Obligation Day.”

“Not for me,” Rigo says, looking grumpy. He’s only sixteen, a year behind.

“You still get to enjoy the rest of Harvest Home. Besides, count yourself lucky. You’ve got a couple pretty girls coming up at next year’s Obligation. Summer Beaumont, for one.”

“Whatever.” Rigo waves them off. “Cael, don’t get caught with those vegetables.”

“I won’t,” Cael says.

“You get caught, we all get screwed. They’ll be our ticket, all right—a ticket on some Empyrean work detail for the next ten years.”

“I said
I won’t
.”

And then the three friends go their separate ways.

Get closer to town and the corn starts to die off—or, rather, it starts to get killed off. Boxelder sits like a tick on skin: a little dot in a clear, slightly raised-up circle. Cael waves to Bessie and Burt Greene, both wearing backpack tanks of Queeny’s Quietdown, an acrid brew of herbicide that hoses down the invasive corn and keeps it from swallowing Boxelder whole.

Around here they just call it “the gravy.”

Burt and Bessie don’t wear much protective gear: old cracked plastic goggles and fabric masks held over their noses and mouths with fraying elastic. Bessie’s okay except for a fatty shoulder growth, but Burt’s got skin like a hot sausage casing: glistening, taut, blistering crimson, the flesh striated with pale stretch marks. Bessie says when he moves it hurts, but you’d never know it. Burt’s all smiles, all the
time. It’s just how he is. Bessie watches Cael’s mom once or twice a week—more when Cael’s sister is off on one of her unscheduled adventures.

Burt points to the dead shuck rat. Cael holds up the rodent, its mouth open and baring pink incisors. Burt gives a bright red thumbs-up.

It’s not unusual to see Cael with a kill. Whether it’s a shuck rat, a Ryukyu rabbit, or a two-headed snap turtle, he’ll thwack it on the head with a steel ball bearing and give it to Pop to cook for the family. One time Cael even saw a fell-deer out there—he felt bad shooting it, given it was the only one he’d ever seen around these parts, but that fell-deer was in misery. Half the animal’s neck hung fat with dark tumors, and on those tumors the fur had rubbed away. Cael killed it, but Pop said most of the meat wasn’t safe to eat. He cut away a helluva lot of the animal, and what they ended up with wasn’t more than what you’d get out of a pair of shuck rats.

But, Lord and Lady, was it good.

Boxelder isn’t much to look at. A handful of buildings on one side, another handful on the other, and a ripped-up plasto-sheen ribbon of road cutting it right down the middle.

Over there, the Tallyman’s office sits elbow-to-elbow
with Busser’s Tavern. That causes no end of moaning and groaning. The Tallyman—in this case a Tallywoman, Frieda Wessel—is all business, and her business consists of keeping up production and ensuring that the corn gets processed and that the Empyrean gets its due. The tavern is where the folks go to get goofy on bottles of fixy and chicha beer. Frieda likes it quiet. The taverners like it loud—in part
because
Frieda likes it quiet.

They all say, “To hell with the Tallyman.”

Behind the tavern on a small berm is the jail—a dingy, cement-block structure where the Babysitters lock up the drunk and disorderly from time to time. Got a couple of holding cells in there and not much more. Empty right now, far as Cael knows.

On the other side of the street is Doc Leonard’s (the only doctor’s office with a diner counter in the back); Poltroon’s motorvator shop; and, at the far end of the row, the provisional store. Not that anybody goes in there much. The Empyrean sends out weekly rations to every farmer and worker in the Heartland, and any ace notes over and above that are likely spent at the
real
market, the Mercado, just north of town. The goods in the general store are about as desirable as a wandering hobo. Last time Cael was in there, he bought a pouch of jelly beans. They tasted like sweet-flavored dirt nuggets. When Cael complained, the
store’s keeper, Weston Sinclair, just shrugged and went back to rereading that ratty old chapbook with the faded image of the pretty girl in the arms of the bare-chested farmer.

All around are the signs of tomorrow’s Harvest Home. Hammers falling, people cobbling together wooden booths. At the far end of town, men drag pallets to make the stage. Chairs are being unloaded from hovering motorvator carts chugging black smoke.

But as Cael walks through town, the mood is not one of celebration. The air is still and somber. He sees that a small half circle of folks have gathered outside Doc Leonard’s. From beyond that wall of people he hears a woman weeping. He’s not sure of the voice, but if he had a pocketful of ace notes, he’d bet that it was Carrie Marshall.

Carrie Marshall. Couple years older than him. She used to be Carrie Tremayne, but when she turned seventeen, it was time to marry the man to whom she was Obliged: Stanley Marshall.

Wasn’t but a year after their marriage that she ended up with child. And Cael knows she was coming up on being due.

Across the street at the tavern, the bartender, Tom Busser, stands out front, arms crossed. For a moment a wind kicks up, and a sheen of hazy dust separates them; but when it passes, Cael sees Busser waving him over.

“Believe that?” Busser says, lifting his chin in the
direction of the doc’s. Busser smells of the sour mash chicha beer; he doesn’t drink it, but he serves it most of the day.

Cael looks over, and finally he sees the crowd part a little. There’s Stanley Marshall. Cheeks dark with stubble. Eyes low and sad. In front of him sits Carrie. She’s got a bundle of something in her arms, and she wails like a ghost.

“Baby didn’t make it,” Cael says. It’s not a question, because he already knows.

“Boy. Stillborn. Sixth one this year. Almost as many broken births as healthy ones.” Busser looks Cael up and down. “Where’s your boat? What were you flying out there, a pinnace-racer?”

“No.” Cael feels a surge of anger like a hot wash of poison. “I was working with a cat-maran Pop and I put together.”

“So why you walking through town? Pair of sacks like that should be in the back of your ride.” He’s already leaning over and trying to get a good look at the two burlap sacks. Cael turns away.

Another whorl of dust leaps up in front of them.

“Piss-blizzard’s coming,” Busser says.

Piss-blizzards wreak havoc on everything. The winds pick up and bring with them a choking tide of corn pollen. The air turns yellow. The pollen clogs up the motorvators. Folks can’t work, so they stay inside, seeing as how they don’t feel like breathing in that stuff. Even the bar shuts
down because the promise of a taste of fixy isn’t enough to get you outside. Which ensures that Poltroon across the way is the only one happy when a storm comes in.

Busser says, “Seems like the piss-blizzards come around more and more every year. Get worse every time, too.”

“Just in time for Harvest Home.”
For my Obligation
.

“Might miss us. Or come late.”

“Like we’re ever that lucky.”

Busser laughs. “And yet we’re told to keep on smiling with shit on our teeth. You want a beer?”

“Ain’t I too young?”

“Sure. Good thing, too, because I wasn’t going to give you one anyway.” He claps Cael on the back—it’s hard, it hurts, yet somehow it remains affectionate. “What’s in the bag?”

Cael’s heart kicks in his chest. “Nothing.”

“Well, it’s something. They ain’t just holdin’ fresh air.”

“It’s private.”

“Okay, don’t sweat it, Cael. I’m not digging a hole where nobody wants one dug. I’m just making small talk.”

“I gotta go.” Cael shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot. “Later, Busser.”

“May the rains wet your face, boy.”

As Cael passes Doc Leonard’s office, he sees Carrie drawing the bundle tighter to her bosom as Doc Leonard—a
man so bony you might describe him as rickety, like the way a scarcecrow looks hanging on a busted cross—tries to take the child from her.

A few eyes fall to Cael as he passes. He nods. Keeps walking. What else can he do?

Times like this, when Cael is walking alone, it feels like the only answer is to tear it all down. Burn the cornfields. Blow up the barns. Knock out the Babysitters. Escape.

Escape where, though? The flotillas won’t have them. Unless you win the Lottery, they don’t want you. Refugees from the Heartland? Please. They’ll kick a refugee right off the edge. Let him fall to the earth and fertilize the corn.

If not to the flotillas, then to where? What lies outside the Heartland?

They’re all like shuck rats trapped in snares.

Boyland used to play this game in school where he’d grab a fistful of your hair and then whisper, “Don’t move, and it won’t hurt.”

This is like that. Like the Empyrean is saying to them, “Don’t move, and it won’t hurt.”

Well, hell with that
, Cael thinks.
Hell with that.

On the way back out of town and toward Cael’s own farm, the corn once more rises up. Small stalks give way
to the bigger, woodier stalks, the ones that support the “prolific” part of the plant’s name, since a couple dozen ears of corn on the stalk tend to weigh it all down.

And there, ahead of him on the road, is one of the town’s two Babysitters, Pally Varrin.

Suddenly, the vegetables are a heavy weight in Cael’s hand. If the Babysitter finds out he’s carting around fresh vegetables, no telling what will happen. Pally might take them for himself. Or he might confiscate them and jail Cael. Or, given how spiteful Pally can be, he might just stomp on them.

Rigo’s voice haunts him suddenly:
Cael, don’t get caught with those.

Pally stands there with his rubicund cheeks and patchy beard. He’s got the top half of his uniform unzipped and tied up at his waist. Underneath is a sweat-stained wife-beater—Cael can see his ribs through the fabric. He’s got his sonic shooter out and is taking careful aim at the signpost marking Creamery Road, the same road Cael uses to get home.
The only road.
Cael thinks suddenly to turn around and hightail it back toward town. Pally pops off another sonic shot—a buzzing, warbling blast of sound and air—that hits the sign and makes it spin like a loose weathervane in a hard wind.

Technically, Pally and the others are called Overseers.

But everyone else just calls them Babysitters.

“Shuck rat,” Pally says, twirling the pistol. He’s clumsy enough that he almost drops it.

“Yeah,” Cael says. “Taking it home.”

Pally tucks his tongue in his cheek, bulging it out. He’s thinking. Whenever Pally thinks, Cael imagines a single pulley guided by a rotting rope inside the man’s head. Whatever it’s pulling up to the surface never seems to get there all the way.

Finally, Pally says, “Nah, you’re not. I want the rat.”

“No, you don’t.”

Pally’s chest puffs out. “I said I do, and I do. And I want what’s in those sacks.”

Shit, shit, shit.

“This is a sick rat. Got into a tank of gravy. We’re gonna eat him because we have to, but you get better provisions than us. You really want the rat?”

Please say no. Please just go away. I need what’s in these sacks.

Cael prays this is enough to send Pally off the scent, because who the hell would want to eat a poisoned rat? Well, besides half the people in town. But Pally is bored. His cheeks grow redder.

“Fine. Don’t want the rat. But what’s in the sacks?”

“Fresh vegetables. Bell peppers. Tomatoes.
Green beans
.”

The misdirection works. Pally spins the sonic shooter.
“Uh-huh. That’s real funny, shit-bird.”

“We wrecked our boat,” Cael says. “This is just some of our provisions. Some hardtack. A bundle of mouse-eaten rope. You don’t want any of this.”

“You’re right, I don’t.” Cael’s heart lifts. But then Pally smirks. “But I’m still going to take it, because I think you’re a shit-bird.”

“That’s not gonna happen,” Cael says, and the words surprise even him. Before he knows what he’s doing, he’s already dropped the rat and the sacks onto the road and brought the slingshot to his hand. “No helmet. Uniform unzipped. I got a clear shot.” The Babysitter uniform is a kind of plastic mesh meant to absorb heavy blows and diffuse impact, but a white wife-beater won’t help Pally.

“Put that slingshot away. I got my shooter out. You want to tangle with me?”

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