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 (8 page)

 

TAKE THE STAGE

 

MAYOR BARNES COMES
back on the mic and starts with some half-poetic horseshit about Harvest Home. He’s saying something about how farmers once harvested the corn by hand and not by motorvator, and how this day is just like that, and how all the “beautiful young girls” and “handsome gentlemen” are like mature plants whose “fruits must be reaped.” Even as he’s saying this, Cael’s not thinking about reaping corn but about the hand of Death sweeping down with a sickle so big it blocks out the sun. Here it comes, chopping off legs right at the knees. As Barnes (a man who’s stuck his mayorly bits in Lord knows how many ladies) is going on about how an Obligated marriage is the bedrock of the Heartland, Cael
and Lane are already moving toward the stage.

Cael sees his father out there. Pop offers a small nod. Cael doesn’t return it.

Lane laughs and jogs up onstage. Most of the other boys are there. Rajit Werner. Dilly Brim. Little Wyatt Sanderson.

And Boyland Barnes Jr., standing close to his father. The mayor’s big like his boy, but these days most of his muscle has gone to fat—or as the saying goes, gone to seed.

Cael steps past Boyland. He’s looking up in that sonofabitch’s eyes, which is the wrong place to be looking. Before Cael realizes what’s happened, Boyland’s foot thrusts out and catches Cael, who falls to one knee—the whole stage bangs and shakes. The audience gasps. Everybody sees it.

Godsdamnit godsdamnit godsdamnit.

“Gotta watch yourself,” Boyland says, helping Cael up. “You aren’t more careful, one of these days you’ll wreck your boat. Hey, by the way, how’s your sister?”

Cael thinks about hitting him right here. Hauling back and breaking that fat nose.

But then, as though on cue, up on the stage walks Proctor Simone Agrasanto. Dark hair hanging in waves around her shoulders. The prim, sharp-angled suit in the Empyrean colors of ruby and gold. Emblazoned on her chest is the sigil of the Empyrean, a pegasus whose long, sharp wings hang back over the beast’s haunches.

The way Proctor Agrasanto looks around at the boy candidates for Obligation is the way a Heartlander looks at a vagrant; it’s as though they all give off a
smell
they have long gotten used to.

Other proctors might get up, give a speech like Barnes did. Maybe talk about the Empyrean’s “commitment to the Heartland and its people.” Not her. She just snaps her fingers and her attaché—a wiry, twitchy man not much older than the boys onstage (Cael wonders if those on the Empyrean flotillas must submit to Obligation)—hurries up and hands her a stack of paper certificates. The mic, clipped to the podium, is still on, so everyone hears when she says “Get the girls.”

The attaché scurries off.

Cael’s blood churns so loud he can hear it in his ears like a river and so fast he can feel the fluttering pulse in his neck. His mouth is dry. His hands are wet. His toes are curling in.

The other boys must feel the same way. They all shift nervously from foot to foot. Or fidget with their hands. Or quickly wipe the wrinkles out of their loose, button-down shirts.

Boyland, on the other hand, does nothing but stand stock-still, chest puffed out, chin thrust high, a smirk on his concrete drainage block of a head.

As for Lane, he looks like he’s about to lose his lunch. He’s gone green as a corn husk. He stares ahead with big bug-eyes, as though he’s afraid of what he’s going to see but won’t dare look away.

“You good?” Cael whispers.


Fine
,” Lane hisses.

The girls begin walking up on the stage one by one. They’re all in their Obligation Day dresses, with their hair worn in the braided crown as the Lady once did when wooing the Lord.

First is Alia Polycn, a blond little slip of a girl. The proctor makes no ceremony of it. The audience goes dead quiet as Agrasanto hands the girl her paper. Alia’s eyes rove quickly over the assembled lot; and Cael finds that, even though Alia’s a nice enough girl and certainly pretty, he can’t help but hope
not me, not me, not me
.

And it isn’t him. She drifts over to Wyatt Sanderson, a small smile on her face, and the gathered festival-goers all clap. He looks relieved. A few
aww
s come from the crowd.

Holding hands, the two leave the stage, ushered by the proctor’s attaché.

Next up: Marissa Ruhlman. She’s paired with Daffyd Kelly. Neither of them looks particularly happy about it. She’s got a mouthful of dead teeth, the poor girl. He’s got one arm that looks like a withered tree limb. They go off
together, the unhappy couple. Uncertain applause follows them.

Then it’s Hetta Busser, niece to the tavern man. She gets her certificate and her eyes light up and then fall to Rajit, who gets a smile on his face so broad Cael wonders if it’ll cut his head in half. The two race to each other. They kiss. This is what they wanted.

The crowd loves it. Above the din, Busser hoots and hollers.

Francine Goggins. Her father is a factory worker. Her mother is Molly Goggins, the seamstress who employed Cael’s sister. She’s as plain as butter, this girl, a little broad in the hips and not a swipe of blush to her cheeks nor paint to her lips. With a trembling hand she takes her certificate (not seeing how Agrasanto scowls at her), and once more Cael wishes
no, no, no
. But then her eyes find his, and the voice inside gets louder:
no! no! NO!
But despite his wishes, here she comes.

She reaches for Lane.

Not me
, Cael thinks.
Not me.

Her pleasure is manifest. Lane’s enough of a catch. No physical deformities. A good job. Lane, however, wears a mask of disdain and disgust. He sags like a tent with a broken pole. He doesn’t even bother giving Cael a look before she and he hop off the stage. Then a tiny question
in Cael’s mind:
Who did Lane want to be with?

He doesn’t have time to think on it. Because:

Here comes Gwendolyn Shawcatch.

Cael’s pretty sure he’s not breathing.

Please.

Agrasanto hands her the certificate. Gwennie takes it. Turns it over.

Please, by the Lord and Lady’s grace, please.

She looks to him. His heart leaps. She smiles. He takes a deep breath.

And then she crosses the stage and stands before Boyland Barnes Jr.

That smile, it was a sad smile. A
consolation prize
smile. An “at least we had what we had” smile.

And it kills him. It slices a rift in his sail so the wind passes through. He feels like he did when
Betty
crashed just a day before: the world gone end over end, his lungs unable to find air to breathe, a loud ringing in his ears.

He can’t look as they leave the stage. Hand in hand. The mayor with two fat fingers in his mouth, trilling like a factory whistle.

Gwennie and Boyland.

Obligated to be married in one year’s time.

Cael’s so dazed, so dizzy, he doesn’t even realize what happens next. Before he knows it, a shape comes out of his
peripheral vision and tackles him with a smothering hug. He feels the dry kisses of Wanda Mecklin on his cheek and her gangly arms around him. Wanda’s giggling and crying and stroking his hair, but all he can do is move her aside and look once more for Gwennie. He catches a glimpse of her ducking between townsfolk. He finds her by looking for Boyland. Her future husband.

 

ALL WET

 

IT’S NOT THAT
Wanda isn’t attractive. To someone, she probably is. And Lord and Lady both know that she’s a damn nice girl.

But Cael just can’t hack her. Something about her rubs him the wrong way. Maybe it’s the way that all her parts don’t seem to match: Her nose is a little too small, her ears a little too big, her hair a little too sandy. Long arms, long legs, chest as flat as a barn door. The teeth are white and small. And he can see her gums. Makes him think of an old nag chewing on a bundle of hay or an old man gumming a pebble.

The fact that she’s nice doesn’t help, because she’s
too
nice. She doesn’t seem to have a single mean bone in her
body. Wanda Mecklin’s entire existence is geared toward making other people like her, and in a thick dose of irony, that’s the one thing that keeps everybody from liking her. She doesn’t just want it. She
needs
it.

And the way she
talks
: nonstop, an endless, rattling prattle as she trails after Cael drifting listlessly through the festival-goers. “So nervous for today, but I knew the Lord and Lady would look after me. Momma and Poppa always
said
the Lord and the Lady knew my heart and that Old Scratch wouldn’t win this day, no sir, and sure enough it was truer than true. Cael McAvoy! I am a lucky girl, a lucky girl indeed, Obligated to the captain of the Big Sky Scavengers—who, if you ask me, hasn’t a thing on Boyland’s Butchers, and I have full confidence you’ll one day be the top crew in town, not that you can stay a scavenger forever; eventually you’ll have to get a proper job of course—”

On and on. Yammer jabber gibber. It just becomes noise to Cael. He pulls her along by her hand, not because he wants her with him but because she won’t let go. They move past the fixy counter and the two competing chicha beer stands. He moves through a cloud of steam and smoke coughed up by the fry-bread griddles. Hands clap him on the shoulders, and voices offer the two of them congratulations.

Eventually it happens: Lane appears out of nowhere. Alone, with Francine Goggins nowhere to be found. Lane grabs Cael by the collar of his shirt.

“Wanda,” Lane says, “if you’ll excuse us for just one hot second?”

He drags Cael in an awkward waltz toward the game booths. Colorful wheels are ticking, balls are being thrown at old metal milk bottles, wooden shuck rats are tottering this way and that as Heartlanders take shots at them with oversized rubber band guns.

“Don’t you even dare complain,” Cael says.

“I have every right to complain.”

“Francine is a very nice girl—a little homely, but I bet she cleans up nice—”

“I don’t like—” Lane blurts, then pauses, takes a deep breath. “I don’t like her.”

Cael growls. “Did you even
see
who Gwennie ended up with?”

Lane blinks.

“You didn’t, did you? She ended up with Boyland, Lane.
Boyland
.”

“Jeezum Crow. Him?”

“Him.”


Him?

“Him!”

“See? This is what I’m talking about, Cael. The Empyrean, they lock us all down, man. Close up our schools. Make sure the only money we have is a currency they invented just for us. Force us to marry like it’s some kind of… enforced breeding program. You know what we need to do? Do you?”

“Don’t say it.”

“We need to join the raiders.”

This again.

“The raiders. The violent criminals who rob and pillage Heartland towns.”

“Yes. The raiders are heroes. They’re not striking at the Heartland. They’re striking at the
Empyrean
. We can run away. Tonight. While the festival’s on and the proctor’s mind is elsewhere. Shit, look over there—Pally Varrin is doing the damn
apple-dunk
.”

“We’re not running away; we’ve got responsibilities here.…” Cael’s words drift off as his eyes search out the apple-dunk. Sure enough, there’s Pally Varrin. Sitting on a platform with a small, round, wooden bull’s-eye to his left and a tank of rusty, dirty water beneath him. Nobody’s lining up because nobody wants to piss off one of the Babysitters. Little good can come of that.

Cael steps in line. The booth barker is R.J. Biddle, a literal half man who’s just an upper torso in a red-and-white
striped shirt. He tilts back his black cowpoke hat and waves Cael closer.

“Cael McAvoy, as I live and breathe,” R.J. says with a surprisingly booming voice for a body missing its legs and lower torso since birth. “You going to be the first?”

Pally sees Cael. He squints and scowls. Shakes his head. The message is clear:
Don’t you dare, boy; don’t you dare.

But Cael is having the worst day of his life. He damn well dares, all right.

He fishes around in his pocket for the one ace note he’s got floating around. He thought he might spend it on a churro, but this is better.

Biddle plops three rotten apples into a bowl. They’re from the remaining few apple trees up in the black orchard, trees long twisted into an arthritic curl. The fruit off those trees turn worm-eaten and misshapen long before the apples hit the ground.

“There you go, son. Three apples.”

Cael nods. “I’ll only need one.”

He knows the drill. The target doesn’t move on a breeze; Cael will have to hit it
hard
. Last year Busser did the apple-dunk, and he reached out and swatted the apples away as if it were a game of handball. Nobody dunked him.

The apple is cold and squishy in Cael’s hand. Even if it’s mushy, though, it has a hard core. A worm crawls out
and inches up his finger; he flicks the critter to the dust.

Pally continues giving him that look—teeth clenched so tight Cael wonders if they might crack and shatter to dust.

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