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 (6 page)

“You messed your hair up,” he says. His head is lying on her breast like it’s a pillow.

“I didn’t like it anyway.”

“But that’s the way you’re supposed to wear it. For tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.” The way she says it is laced with poison. “Hell with tomorrow.”

“Maybe it’ll all work out.”

“Maybe it won’t.”

“Lane says we got about a ten percent chance.”

Gwennie rubs her eyes. “That means there’s a ninety percent chance it could go the other way.”

“I didn’t think about that.” He didn’t
want
to think about that. “What happens then? If that happens, I mean. Not that it’s going to!”

“You know what happens. It is what it is. We’re already taking a risk doing what we’re doing. If my parents caught us… if the
Empyrean
caught us? We’d be run out of town on rails.”

“Nobody knows.”

“And nobody’s going to.”

She pulls away from him and sits up on the bed. He plants a hand on the small of her back, a pale expanse that calls to mind a puddle of milk. And then she stands, leaving his hand wanting.

But something tickles at his brain stem.

Milk.
Milk.
Goat’s milk.

“Aw,
shit
,” he says, hopping up and then falling back as he trips over his own trousers. He races to get them up on both legs, kicking his feet up in the air like an upside-down weevil. “Gotta milk the goat. Gotta get to the market. Shit, shit, shit.”

Gwennie pulls on her own trousers and shirt, and shrugs. “Go to it, Captain.”

“Come with me,” he says.

“Already late. They’re wanting me to be there so they can fit the dress.” What she means is,
I don’t want to get caught
.

“I gotta go,” he says.

“So do I. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Tomorrow
. And like that she’s out the window. His gaze hangs there a little while longer. For some reason, his heart aches.

Mer’s room looks like what he figures Guster’s Grove looked like after the twister came through: Her clothes are on the floor, not in the drawer. Her bedsheets are off the cot. A knitted blanket is bundled in the corner. A couple of plastic-headed, fabric-bodied dolls lay arranged in a lascivious position atop the old swampwood dresser.

And there stands his sister, her dark hair tucked under a broad-brimmed farmer’s hat. She’s shoving clothes into a long canvas bag. Her window is open to the south roof of the house, a breeze blowing in.

“I heard you two” is the first thing she says, and a blush rises to Cael’s cheeks. He crosses his arms and takes a step backward. That’s Merelda. Good at disarming him. Him and anybody she’s ever met. She doesn’t even look over at him. Just keeps shoving stuff in that bag.

“You’re running away again,” he says.

She shrugs. “You weren’t supposed to be home.
Pop
wasn’t supposed to be home. I thought I had time to just… sneak out.”

“So don’t go.”

“I have to.”

“Shut the hell up. You do not.”

She spins toward him. “I don’t want to be Obligated. I don’t want to be forced to marry someone I don’t love.”

“You have a whole year before you’re Obligated, and another year after that until the ceremony makes it official.
I’m
the one who’s on the hook this year.”

“And are you happy about it?”

“No, of course not, I… I—”

“Then come with me.”

He scowls. “And leave Pop? And Mom? I don’t know if anybody told you this, but we have responsibilities here, girl. Work. Jobs. Ace notes to keep everybody alive. Pop would say—”

“I don’t care what Pop says. He doesn’t care about us anymore.”

“That ain’t true. And stop interrupting me.”

“Besides,” she says, setting down the bag and walking over to the old oaken rocking chair sitting in the corner of her room. “I have a plan to keep up my end.” She snatches her old teddy bear: a one-eared, button-eyed
bear named Mister Shushers, named not on account of the ear but rather because nobody ever seemed to have stitched him a mouth.

She’s never taken the bear before. She loves that bear.

“Don’t do this,” he says.

“Got to.”

“Damnit, Mer!”

She hops over to her brother, as light on her feet as a seed puff skipping across the dry earth, and she throws her arms around him. Mer always gives big hugs. Lung-crushers, unexpected for her sprite-like size.

He feels the warmth of her cheek against his.

Then she presses a small note into his hand. “A note. Saying bye to you guys. Give it to Pop. If he even cares.”

“He cares—”

“Bye-bye, big brother.”

“Don’t be gone long, sis.”

To this, she says nothing. Mer goes and grabs her bag, hoisting it over her shoulder. Starts to climb out the window. She waves one last time.

“Pop’s not gonna be happy,” he says.

“That’s life in the Heartland.”

And then she’s gone.

Pop’s outside by the garage at the stump—the remains of a tree struck by lightning when Cael was very young. Now it’s a kind of butcher’s block. Pop does a lot of cooking right there next to the stump, puts a kettle or a skillet over the fire pit only a few yards off.

By the time Cael walks up, the old man’s just finished “shucking the shuck rat.” The skin’s off. Next to the grayish-pink carcass sits a little tray of blood, feet, and entrails. Some of that will go into tomorrow night’s soup, and it’s already expected that Cael will have Lane and Rigo come to share in that evening’s meal.

Cael’s about to hold up the note, tell Pop what his sister did
again
, when he sees that the two sacks he brought home are sitting on the ground. Empty.

And just past the stump is an old wooden tray of vegetables.

All of them cut up. Diced pepper. Chopped tomatoes. Green beans destemmed and broken in two. Cael feels the blood pound at his temples.

“Lord and Lady, Pop!” he cries out, hands balling into fists. “What did you do?”

Pop gives him a sideways glance. “Just cooking dinner, son.”

“The rat, yeah! But those vegetables. I told you not to look in those sacks.”

“What you
told
me was that the sacks contained motorvator parts. Which I found curious, what with the way the sacks were not clanking together. Decided I’d take a peek. Discovered that you lied to me and figured that you were just trying to surprise me by bringing home dinner.”

Cael’s mouth twists up. “That wasn’t what you figured, and you damn well know it. You
stole
something from me. I was planning on taking that to the Mercado, to the maven—”

“And then what?” Pop wheels, the skinning knife in his hand. “Get a bundle of ace notes? Live high on the hog for a couple weeks? Maybe rub it in Boyland’s face?” Cael tries to answer, but Pop doesn’t let him. “Food like this isn’t
legal
, son. And the maven is no friend to the McAvoys. She’s in the mayor’s corner, and you damn well know it. You walk in with a bounty like that, and it’s like handing her a gun. A gun she’ll point at your head and use to take you down, making sure that Boyland Barnes Jr. never has to contend with the likes of the Big Sky Scavengers again.”

“Just the same, you had no right.
No right
. That was my choice to make.”

The tip of the skinning knife punctuates each of his father’s words. “And plainly you are not yet mature enough to make that kind of choice.”

“You treat us like kids,” Cael says.

“You and your little sister
are
kids.”

“Yeah, well, maybe she feels like you should trust her more, too. And you don’t. Maybe that’s why she ran away again.” And with that Cael flips the note toward his father. It flutters to the ground as Cael storms off.

He doesn’t bother to see what his father thinks about it.

At the very edge of the horizon, Cael can see a faint golden hue intruding on the late-afternoon sky. It means one thing: the piss-blizzard is on its way. Maybe it’ll come and swallow Obligation Day whole. Gobble it right up.

Cael is standing out back by the silo when Pop finds him. Staring up at the sky. Watching a pair of Empyrean flotillas way off in the distance pass by each other, silent and steady.

“She’ll be back,” Pop says, quiet. “She always comes back.”

“What? That’s it? She’ll be back?”

“Way I figure it, yes.”

Maybe the old man is right
, Cael thinks. But he’s not so sure. Mer and Pop have been fighting more and more. She stopped showing up at Molly Goggin’s, where she works as a seamstress—a day like today could have earned her more than a few ace notes, what with the Obligation Day dresses needed.

On the one hand, Cael gets it. If he could run away, he
would. But the family has debts. And each member of each family is responsible for carrying that burden. Merelda runs away like that, she’s no longer contributing. She doesn’t want to end up marrying someone she doesn’t love? Doesn’t want to one day end up working in one of the processing facilities? Shit,
who does
? That’s life in the Heartland. Wish in one cup, piss in the other, see which one fills up first.

Pop’s brow tightens. The lines across it look like furrowed earth. “I suppose that means Mer didn’t show up at Molly’s again today.” He holds up the note. Peers at it like he’s trying to see something that isn’t there. He pockets it. Adjusts his glasses. Nods as if he’s come to some conclusion. “She’s probably been gone since the morning. Surprised Molly didn’t send someone over to let us know. But she’ll be back. Like I said.”

“Pop!” His father’s sense of obliviousness when it comes to his sister is bordering on epic. For a moment, all Cael can do is make this stammering sound—“Eh? Whuh? Unh!”—because he can’t even find the words. “You gotta be shitting me, Pop. Mer’s gone. She ran away.
Again
. That means I gotta work harder. That means
you
gotta work harder. Never mind the fact she’s not
allowed
to run away. You don’t get to leave town without an Indulgence. I mean, godsdamn, Pop. Godsdamn!”

“Cael, watch your language—”

But Cael’s not even looking at his father now. He’s got his hands up in the air like a pair of startled crows, and he’s pacing back and forth. “Oh, and let’s not forget that
tomorrow
Proctor Agrasanto’s going to show up here for Obligation Day. I’m sure she’ll be totally fine with Merelda going off the reservation. Mer gets special exceptions from you, so why wouldn’t she get one from her?”

“Cael. Calm down, son.”

“Calm down. Calm down?
Calm down!
Mer’s gone! We’re on the hook for it now, and we’ll be hanged even higher when the Empyrean catches wind of it. And you don’t give a shuck rat’s ass!”

“Cael.”
It’s the voice. The voice like a fist pounding down on a sheet of scrap. Cael freezes. The look on his father’s face is one of confusion, as if he almost doesn’t recognize his son. Finally, Pop asks, “Why are you so angry, son?”

Cael doesn’t know what else to say except what he’s thinking, so that’s exactly what he says. “What I don’t understand, Pop, is why you’re
not
angry.”

Pop looks stung. And before Cael really realizes what he’s doing, he’s moving in for the kill. “You’re not angry about anything. Not angry when Mer goes against the family. Not angry about Mom lying in that bed every hour of every day. Not angry about how the Empyrean just keeps sticking it to us worse every year. Not angry about
how Mayor Barnes makes life difficult for you or how his bucket-head son does the same for me. You let it roll right off you, like rain off a rat’s back. You’re content to let us just bend over the barrel and take what’s coming.”

With every accusation, Cael feels as if he’s punching his father in the kidneys. It’s not a nice thing he’s doing, and it doesn’t give him any satisfaction. But by the time it’s done, it’s too late. Pop sags a little, leans up against the stump.

“That’s how you see me,” Pop says. A statement, not a question.

Cael just shrugs. He can’t take it anymore. He walks away and heads back into the house.

Later he’ll try to find Pop, he thinks, maybe to apologize or at least shoot the breeze.

But when he looks, he can’t find Pop anywhere.
Maybe the old man’s gone back to work
, Cael thinks.
Maybe that’s all it is.

PART TWO

 

THE HARVEST

 

The thresher with his flail,

 

The shepherd with his crook,

 

The milkmaid with his pail,

 

The reaper with his hook—

 

To-night the dullest blooded clods

 

Are kings and queens, are demigods.

 

—“Harvest-Home Song,” John Davidson

 
 

LANDMINE

 

IT’S ONLY BEEN
a day since they wrecked the boat and found the garden—and Cael’s itchy to get back there before anyone else finds it. Only upside to today being Harvest Home is that
nobody
else is out there. Everybody’s here to eat, drink, watch the youngins get Obligated, and then finish the night with a Lottery that none of them will likely win.

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