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 (5 page)

“You should be the one who’s worried, Pally. You hit me, I get knocked back, bruised up, probably sick for a few days. I hit you—and I will—I’ll put that eye out of your fool head.”

Cael widens his stance, trying to look tougher, meaner. He’s bluffing—he’s never been shot, but Cael has heard it’s pretty awful. Besides feeling like you just got hit by a drug-pumped bull, the blast leaves you dizzy and imbalanced for days. Unable to stand for long. Throwing up every couple
hours. Busser once said it was like being drunk and hungover both at the same time.

“These are my crew’s plunders,” he tells Pally. But he knows it’s coming. The way Pally’s hand tightens around the shooter, the way his finger seeks out the trigger, Cael knows he’s about to get hit dead in the chest by a sonic blast. Once that happens, he’ll be rolling around on the ground, throwing up on himself—giving Pally the perfect opportunity to go rifling through those sacks.

“Hey!”

It’s the other Babysitter, Grey Franklin. Jogging up behind Cael from the direction of town. Pally looks like he’s been caught with his hand in the till. Though Grey is not his superior, he’s damn sure mentally superior.

Pally suddenly laughs and his hand drops, his pistol with it.

“What’s going on here?” Grey asks. Franklin’s built like a bulldog, with a mean hunch and a hard underbite. The sides of his head offer thatches of gray hair, hard and bristly like a boot brush.

“Nothing,” Pally says, waving it off. “I’m just giving Cael here a hard time.”

“Leave him alone. Get back to town. Folks are getting riled up, what with the Marshall kid dying. We want to make sure we’re both there. Just in case.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure, sure,” Pally says. As he passes Cael, he mutters, “Hope you eat that rat and you get the trots so bad it pulls your guts out your bunghole.”

Cael’s about to open his mouth, but Grey plants a hand on his chest. A gentle shake of Grey’s head makes it clear Cael shouldn’t say a thing.

“Go home, Cael. Say hi to your pop.”

Just this once, Cael does as he’s told.

 

PISS AND WISHES, BROKEN DISHES

 

THE HOMESTEAD ISN’T
much to look at. Horseshoe gravel driveway. Old red barn falling apart. The skeleton of a silo out back. Pop’s got a workshop above the barn, a place he calls his “fortress of solitude”—a term he took from some old flimsy rag about a goof in blue-and-red tights who flies around and fixes problems in a long-ago world. Smack dab in the middle of all of it is their home: an old white farmhouse with a slight leftward lean and a back porch with a roof that sags like a caved-in skull.

The air, Cael notes, smells of cloying fragrance. Strong and floral.

His father comes around from the back of the barn, a pump-sprayer in his hand with a dirty plastic tank hanging
below it. He pulls the trigger on the nozzle in his hand, spritzing a mist across the little corn shoots that keep trying to come up through the driveway’s loose limestone gravel. He’s not wearing a mask, so Cael knows it’s not a chemical spray he’s using. Pop won’t take his rations of Queeny’s Quietdown—a fact that earns him a small measure of suspicion from everybody else in Boxelder.

Then Pop sees Cael, and he hobbles over. The limp favors his left leg. The right one works okay—it’s the hip that’s the problem.

“Cael,” he says, nodding. He sets down the tank with a slight groan and then pauses to push his round-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his hawk’s beak nose. His father’s not a big man. Cael has already outgrown him by a couple inches. Someone in town once said he looked “academic,” which is appropriate given the fact that Pop was a teacher once upon a time. “Not a bad-looking rat.”

Cael nods. He hands the rat to Pop.

“What’s in the bags?”

Cael doesn’t want to say but knows he can’t just dodge the question. “Motorvator parts,” he lies. That seems to satisfy his father.

The two of them stare at each other for a while. An uncomfortable silence. It wasn’t always this way, but lately a gulf has grown between them. Cael knows when it happened,
but he doesn’t want to shine a light on that dark space.

Finally, he says, “That stuff. What is it? It smells…” He wants to say, “Like someone ate a bunch of funeral flowers and crapped them all over the driveway.” Instead, he goes with “Strong.”

“Lavender. Well, lavender oil. Natural herbicide. Doesn’t kill the weed so much as inhibit its growth. Or that’s what it’s supposed to do anyway. The fight against the weed continues, and we must remain ever vigilant.” He shakes a fist and offers a wink.

Pop calls corn “the weed.”

Part of Cael wants to rail against his father, tell him that “the weed” is how most people in this town make a living. Who is Pop to think he’s better than them for not accepting the corn when they don’t have a choice in the matter? It’s what the Empyrean demands. Heartlanders grow corn so it can be made into fuel, plastic, food additives, and drugs. They’re not even allowed to keep any for themselves or to eat it. Well, not that you’d want to—Hiram’s Golden Prolific has about as much nutritional content as a palmful of the driveway gravel underneath their feet. Plus, it’s all so goofed up with chemicals and twisted DNA, it’s not even safe to eat.

Then again, what food is? You might end up like Carrie Marshall’s baby. Or Pop with his hip. Or… Cael’s mind
drifts to his mother, but he can’t think about her now. Later, later, always later.

Or worst, you could end up with the Blight. You get that, nobody will talk to you. They’ll run you out of town on a rail. Maybe even bash you over the head with a shovel and plant your ass in a pocket of dirt somewhere, see if you’ll grow.

Pop’s eyes narrow. “Cael. Where’s the cat-maran?”

Cael stalls, kicks a few stones. “Uhh. Took her to Lane’s. Got a crack in the hull. He’s got some mender’s paste. We put
Betty
up on blocks in his barn.”

“You should have said something. We have a whole tin of mender’s paste here in the barn.”

“Yeah. Well.” Cael changes the subject: “Shouldn’t you be at work?”

Pop works at the local processing facility. Once a teacher of children, now just another cog in the Empyrean machine. Mayor Barnes gave him that job like he gives out all the jobs. The Barnes clan has had it in for the McAvoys for a long time now.

“Got back an hour ago. Will be heading back there soon.”

Cael nods.

Pop sucks air through his teeth.

Another yawning silence. Another uncomfortable void.

Pop holds up the rat. “I’m going to go skin this and
start on dinner. We got a new box of provisions in from up above—even ended up with a couple of knobby apples and a bundle of worm-eaten collards. Can you head out and milk Nancy?”

“No.” Cael says the word and realizes too late that it comes out harsh, like a hammer-blow. It’s just that Cael doesn’t want to waste any time. He hurries to say, “I need to get to the Mercado, after I visit with Mom. Can I get Mer to milk the goat?”

Pop’s smile is sad and strained, but it’s there just the same. “Sure, Cael. Sure.”

Her room is always kept dim. Curtains drawn so that only a glowing frame of daylight creeps in around the edges. The room smells heady. Verdant. Fungal, even. It doesn’t make sense, really, given that his mother doesn’t suffer from the Blight. Still, when Cael smells the air in her room, he can’t help but think of Pop’s old textbooks, of pictures of faraway jungles and rain forests.

The first thing he does in the room is listen for her breathing, because he fears that one day he’ll come in and she won’t be breathing at all. (And he hates himself for thinking that day will be a relief, in a way.) But he hears it: a slow, whistling wheeze as she inhales, then
a small puff of air as she exhales.

She’s just a dark shape on the bed. Never moving.

It’s the tumors, in part. Her whole body is covered with them, and they lie against and atop one another like tar paper shingles on an uneven roof. They remind Cael of calves’ livers. A heaping mess of them. They’re heavy—a burden on skin, muscle, and bone. Because of them, her arms and legs and back have all atrophied. She cannot stand; she can’t even sit up.

Maybe the tumors are also inside her body and her brain, or maybe the weight of the growths is more than skin-deep. Maybe it pulls on her mind above all else. Maybe there’s not much mind left.

Cael can’t think about that too long: On the one hand, he hopes her mind
is
ruined, because then maybe she’s away from the prison that is her body. Trapped in a place of dreams or even nothing… that has to be better than here and now. On the other hand, this is his mother. He can’t abide thinking about her not being
in there
. Somewhere.

She knows he’s here, at least. That speaks something for her mind. He knows she knows, because when he sits, she makes a sound—it’s like the way the wind whispers through the corn.

“Hey, Mom,” he says.

His mother keens a raspy breath to greet him.

He goes about the ritual: He’s gotten a short bucket of water from the well-pump outside, and he sets that by the bed. Then he opens the side table drawer and pulls out all the accoutrements. He dampens a hard, dark sponge that softens with water, and he dabs it against the layer of tumors that comprise her brow, washing the top and underside of each. She doesn’t have much regular skin anymore; it’s almost all taken over by the bulging bladder-like tumors.

When he’s done there, he lifts the flaps from around her eyes and deposits a couple of wetting drops into her eyes. The eyes don’t focus on him, not really; he’s not even sure how good her vision is anymore, what with how the tumors keep her in the dark most times.

He wets her lips. Cleans her ears. Brushes back her hair. Her hair is the color and consistency of corn silk—thin and soft—and in this light an almost golden green. Her scalp is the one place the tumors never manifested. He doesn’t know why. Nobody does.

Nobody really seems to know anything anymore. Maybe they never did.

Normally he’d talk to her. Light, polite conversation:
Heard a twister hit Guster’s Grove couple days ago, piss-blizzard’s coming, Lane and Rigo are good, got a portion of squealer meat a few weeks back, Pop’s okay, so’s Mer, got a shuck rat for dinner, everything’s pretty fine, don’t worry one lick about anything.
He’d feel like a real monster telling her all the things that are really going on. All the things he’s feeling.
Hey, Mom, I know you’re trapped inside that thing you call a body, and while I got you here, maybe I could burden you with
my
problems? How’s that sound?

Today, though, he’s got to hurry off. Got to get Mer to milk the goat and then head to market.

He kisses his mother on her brow, just where the tumors recede—he’s not grossed out by them anymore, but he hopes she still has some sensation left beyond the cancerous margins.

Cael leaves the room. But then he hears a creak and a squeak—not from the hallway but coming from inside
his
room. Is Mer in there again?
Damnit, Mer.

He turns heel-to-toe and marches straight into his room. He’s about to start yelling at her to keep the King Hell out of his room—

A shadow runs fast toward him. A great darkness falls upon him; and before he knows what’s happening, he can’t see anything, and his hands are tangled. He can’t see; he can’t move.

Cael
, whispers a female voice.
The Maize Witch has come for your soul.

And then the darkness is gone again in a rippling flutter of fabric. Gwennie stands before him holding a blanket—his blanket, from his bed, which she clearly has just thrown over his head.

“Damnit!” he says, and feels the heat in his cheeks.
I’m such a damn donkey.

Gwennie cracks up. When she finds something really funny, she snorts and doubles over, doing this little stompy shuffle with her feet. “I had you going there, didn’t I? I mean, Maize Witch? Seriously?”

He folds his arms over his chest. Embarrassment bubbles up inside him. A wind blows into the room, and the edges of the blanket in her hand shift and squirm. The window sits open: Gwennie’s entrance point.

It’s then that he notices her hair. She has pale cheeks, a dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose, hair like strawberry water. But her hair is done up—nothing pretentious or showy, not in an Empyrean way or anything, but braided and then wound in a circle, as though it were a wreath of laurels. Like the Lady wore when she was Obligated to the Lord in all the old stories.

“Stupid, isn’t it?” She picks at her hair like she’s looking for bugs in it.

He swats at her hand. “Quit. You’re gonna mess it all up.”

“Oh? You like it?”

“I might.” Another blush rises to his cheeks.

“Captain, are you coming on to me?”

“I…”

“Do the others know?” she always asks.

“They do not.”

“Good.” She laughs then—this time no snort but a happy giggle that calls to mind porch chimes ringing in a slow breeze—and attacks him. Her mouth finds his and his hands find the small of her back, and they backpedal into the room doing the dance they’ve been doing for months now: a clumsy but earnest tango to which nobody else is privy. They tumble onto the bed, hands and fingers seeking.

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