Authors: Chuck Wendig
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Lifestyles, #Farm & Ranch Life, #Nature & the Natural World, #Environment, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian
Cael walks to the festival with his father and several other families who live down the old Creamery Road. John Redskirt and his wife, Lula Belle. Ed and Sigma Tyrus with their baby, Nicolaus, whose left eye is already given over to a milky cataract. Burt and Bessie Greene, smiling as if this is the first day of a brand-new earth, bless the Lord and the Lady and all their works.
They share stories as they walk. All Ed and Sigma want to talk about is the “hobo problem.” She keeps hearing reports of vagrants and vagabonds rising up in the Heartland. He says they’re probably joining up with the Sleeping Dog raiders—after all, wasn’t the town of White Truck hit just a few months ago by the Sleeping Dogs? She says hobos are like cockroaches and shuck rats: once you find one, you’ll find a dozen more living in the corn, eating your life’s work. He says if left long enough, hobos will resort to killing folks and just eating them right up.
And that, Ed claims, is where the Blight comes from. “Proven fact,” he says as though saying this makes it so.
John, who sometimes works as a mechanic down at Poltroon’s, says that Proctor Agrasanto’s skiff has already landed at the pad south of town. And Burt and Bessie just want to talk about all the festival food they’re going to eat. (“We’ve been saving up our ace notes!”) But they can barely get a word in edgewise around the other two talking about the hobo menace.
Cael isn’t saying much. Neither is his father. A polite word here. A barely listening “uh-huh” there. They perk up, though, when Burt sneaks over and says, “Hey, where’s Merelda?”
“She’s ill,” Pop lies.
“Snuck off again, did she?” Burt asks quiet-like. He pats Pop’s shoulder, and that’s the end of that conversation.
By the time they get to town, the festival’s in full swing. Everybody’s happy to have a day off mandated by the Empyrean, a day when they can gather on Main Street and hawk their handmade wares and drink gallons of chicha and fixy (sometimes together in a single glass, in what the old hands call a “land mine”). Smells of sweat and popcorn and tamales mingle together and crawl their way up Cael’s nose. From somewhere down the street comes the drunken twang of a pair of guitars. The sun’s a bright white eye in the sky, periodically diffused through a blowing curtain of fresh pollen.
The piss-blizzard isn’t here—not yet—but it’s damn well on its way.
Cael should be happy. Hell, he should be hungry. But he’s not. All he has is that sour feeling nesting between his heart and his stomach and a vinegar taste in his mouth. Because it’s not just any Harvest Home.
Everyone gets Obligated in the Heartland at age seventeen. That’s just how it is. A young bride and a young groom, matched together. One year to learn about each other, to prove their loyalty to each other, even though they don’t have the steel rings on their fingers that mark them as married. Till death takes one or the other. Empyrean
claims it’s a “family values” thing. Lane, though, says it’s just one more way they lock down the Heartlanders. Just another pair of shackles.
Whatever the reason, today’s Cael’s day.
And he wants to throw up.
“You good?” Pop asks.
“Aces,” Cael lies.
“I’m going to go take a walk around.” Pop sounds… not sad, exactly. A bit lost, though. At most Harvest Homes he’d set up a book-cart and sell books. But this year the Empyrean decided that wasn’t “in the spirit” of the day and denied him the privilege.
Pop musses Cael’s hair and wanders off, leaving Cael to ponder his own fate. If he doesn’t find the others in his crew right away, he thinks he might go crazier than a shit house owl.
As Cael wanders through the crowds, a hard elbow connects with his ribs. He jumps. Gwennie sidles up next to him and winks. She hands him a small bowl.
“Chicha beer,” she says. He takes a smell of it: The odor neatly matches the sour feeling in his middle, and he has to concentrate hard not to throw up in his mouth. “Doc’s special brew. He’s selling it from his counter, which doesn’t
make Busser happy. They’re in a little tiff, those two.” She eyes him up. “You don’t look so hot.”
“Nah,” he says, and musters a grim smile. “I’m fine.”
“You’ve got the pallor of a grave rock.”
“Allergies. Piss-blizzard’s coming in, don’tcha know.”
“Uh-huh.” Gwennie raises an eyebrow. “Heard your sister took off again.”
He shoots her a look and hisses: “Shhh.”
“Oh. Right. You better hope nobody finds out. They find out—”
“They’ll dock our provisions. I know.”
“Bingo.” Gwennie sips from the bowl.
. Then she shakes and shudders. The first sip of chicha always sends chills skittering up your spine and out from your shoulders.
“So how’d you con a bowl of corn beer?”
“My usual charm.”
“Meaning you stole it.”
“I totally stole it!” Her eyes light up. Cael didn’t think she was the type to get all giddy about narrowly dodging trouble—she’s usually the sensible one in the crew. “First I bought a bowl of jellied pig’s feet. Then while Doc Leonard was ranting and raving and trash-talking Busser, I did this kind of behind-the-back move and let Artie Mecklin’s funky mutt steal those squealer-steppers out of the bowl. Then I quick snatched somebody’s cup of chicha
off the counter and dumped it in my bowl. And here I am!”
“With moves like that, you should join up with the raiders.”
“I know, right? I’ll be the Raider Queen of the Sleeping Dogs before the year’s out.”
He tries to picture her as a raider. But he just can’t do it. The way he hears it, the raiders are filthy vagrants: rags and burlap and dirty cheeks. Cups and bottles clanging at their sides. Corn knives or sickles in hand. Bindles full of dry meats over their shoulders with mean cur-dogs trailing behind. Hobos, really. Except, unlike most hobos, they work together.
Not that he’s ever seen a raider—he’s only heard stories.
Gwennie’s too pretty for that. Today especially. Her hair has been rebraided and wound on top of her head. She is wearing a simple but form-fitting yellow dress with a powder-blue cornflower over her ear. It’s not like her to dress like this. She’s usually got oil on her hands or dirt on her cheeks.
, he thinks,
maybe she would make a good raider.
“So,” she says, “you’re freaked out about today.” As she says it, she waves to her father, Richard Shawcatch, standing across the street talking to John, who works at Poltroon’s garage—Cael notes he hasn’t seen Poltroon all night, a man who usually gets drunk early and slinks away late. Richard’s oblivious to it, probably—he forever carries around that “Aw,
shucks” vibe with him. Nearby, her mother, Maevey, tries wrangling Gwennie’s little brother, Scooter, who’s probably jacked up on some kind of syrup candy. Gwennie turns back to Cael. “You don’t need to be freaked.”
“This is it, Cael. This is the deal we get. This day was always coming. We knew that.”
“I need you.” There. He said it. It’s not everything he’s thinking, but it cuts to the quick.
She laughs. Not an encouraging sound. “You don’t need me. You want me.”
“And I want you, too. Maybe that’ll pay off. Maybe if you want something hard enough—”
His turn to laugh. “What? It just falls in your lap?”
“I say, you want something, you have to take it.”
“Well, you sure took me yesterday.” She winks and darts in for a quick kiss on his cheek. He wants to scold her—
Did anyone see?
—but he liked it too much.
“Don’t,” he says, but he doesn’t mean it.
“That’s not what you said yesterday.”
“That could be it, then. Last roll in the hay. Last kiss on the cheek.”
She tenses. “Could be.”
The voice of Gwennie’s mother carries over the crowd, calling her name. That means it won’t be long now. They get the Obligation out of the way early in order to move on to the celebration (or, for some Heartlanders, the mourning period).
“That’s you,” he says.
He wants to grab her by the shoulders and drag her out behind Busser’s Tavern, where all the piles of junk and boxes of old bottles stand stacked up; and he wants to hold her there and kiss her like they’re dying, like tomorrow is a dream and not a promise. But instead, all he can do is stand there with a fear-struck look on his face.
Gwennie squeezes his hand, and she’s gone.
Lane’s lit up like a string of bulbs. Drunk as a brain-diseased badger.
,” he says, bold and blurry and loud, as soon as he sees Cael. He grabs Cael’s face and meets him nose-to-nose, forehead-to-forehead. “Drink with me, Captain.”
He pats a barrel next to him not far from one of the popcorn stands. The
of Hiram’s Golden Prolific popping fills the air. The stuff isn’t edible unless
you turn it into popcorn. Cael’s father says even then not to eat it. Says not to eat
with the corn in it if you can help it.
Across the street, Cael spies his father talking to a votary—one of the Lord and Lady’s preachers, stuffed tight into his black dress, big white beard lying over his chest. The votary plucks something red and round from his pocket—an apple—and takes a big bite before shoving it back in his dress so nobody sees.
Cael’s about to say something to Lane, but then Lane almost falls off his own barrel before steadying himself. “Sit, I said. Sit.”
“You’re piss drunk,” Cael says, still standing.
Lane squints while pulling a half-crumbled cigarette from his shirt pocket. He licks the end and then smashes it between his lips.
“I can’t find a match. Lord and Lady can go diddle each other. Damnit.” He spits the cigarette into the dirt, wasting it.
“You do know that today’s your Obligation.”
“I know it.”
“And you don’t care.”
“Nothing to care about. They’re going to match me up with someone I don’t give two hog’s tits about, and she probably wouldn’t piss on me if I asked her to.”
“Maybe you’ll get matched up with Gwendolyn.”
“For fuck’s sake, McAvoy, don’t start with that again.” Lane staggers off the barrel and nearly face-plants. Cael has to steady him. “You know what? I’m tired of your mopey hullaballoo. Let us seek out our other cohort, Mr. Rodrigo Cozido. He’s always good for a laugh.”
Before Cael can answer, Lane leans forward and tumbles forth in an awkward, if determined, walk. He pushes his way through the crowd, and Cael follows after.
The crowd is thick. Elbows and knees. Fixy breath and clouds of gnats. The sun is getting hot now, and Cael can feel sweat beading up on his brow—sweat that already collects pollen in yellow blobs and droplets. Once in a while the wind will blow and cast a streamer of pollen down from the sky, like a string returning to earth without its kite.
It isn’t long before Cael spots Rigo’s round head and squat shoulders moving through the crowd toward one of Busser’s fixy stands. Cael has to grab Lane’s elbow and direct him that way.
“Oh, a glass of fixy. Good idea, Captain,
Rigo hovers not far from the bent back of one of the Poltroon sons, who stands idly staring down at a motorvator part and talking business with John Redskirt.
“Rigo!” Cael calls.
Rigo looks over.
Two things happen almost at once. First, Cael sees the knobby knot just below Rigo’s hairline. A bruise hides beneath the skin, not yet fully formed but red enough that it’ll soon darken to the color of old meat. Second, Rigo’s father, Jorge Cozido, steps out in front of Rigo, waving a brown bottle.
“Get out of here,” he says to Cael, spit-froth flecking at his lips. “This is a family day.” He reaches into the crowd and pulls the arm of a small, cowed woman with darting eyes hiding beneath a dark brow. Rigo’s rarely seen mother, Cristiane.
. Rigo can come out and play,” Lane mumbles, staggering into the mix.
“You’re drunk,” Jorge says.
drunk,” Lane retorts.
Cael thinks that if he found a match and struck it, the fumes coming off the two of them could blow the lot of them ten feet up in the air. Already, an explosion isn’t entirely out of the question: Lane’s stepping forward and so’s Jorge, both drunk enough to take a swing.
It’s the mayor who saves them.
The voice of Mayor Barnes—loud, jowly, lightly slurred, and amplified by an old microphone—suddenly calls out over Main Street: “If the lovely young Harvest Home candidates could double-time it to the stage, we would
like to begin the”—he poorly stifles a chuckle—“obligatory Obligations. Come on, lads and lasses. Chop-chop.”
Suddenly, everything seems hyperreal. The hairs on Cael’s neck and arms stand up. His palms are cold and damp. “That’s us,” Cael says, pulling Lane back from the brink.
Lane acquiesces. Only barely. Jorge grumbles and grabs his wife and drags her back to Busser’s counter. Cael meets Rigo’s stare and mouths the words,
Rigo gives them a thumbs-up. He means it. This isn’t new for him. This is his life.
Not that it makes it any better. You’re with who you’re with.
That’s life in the Heartland.