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 (9 page)

“Cael,” Lane says, “I don’t know if this is such a good idea.”

“You want to get back at the Empyrean.”

“Cael, c’mon. That’s not what I meant.”

“Grow a pair, Lane. Because this shit is happening.”

Cael winds up and lets fly.

Pally leans out and tries to swat away the apple, just like Busser did. But the apple flies hard and fast—and Pally’s clumsy swipe catches naught but pollen-dusted air.

The apple
thwacks
against the bull’s-eye in a spray of rotten sauce.

Pally’s plank seat disappears from beneath him, and he plunges into the filthy water. His head immediately resurfaces, his mouth gasping for air.

“You’re dead, McAv—” But he speaks too soon and catches a mouthful of foul water. He gags and splashes. “
Ghlurghglag
.”

Worth it
, Cael thinks. If only for the temporary lift in spirits.

Night falls and the pollen falls with it. It blows in streamers and trails, whispering across the ground like wind-swept
snakes. The festival is lit with colored bulbs that hum and snap, and the Heartlanders are drunk; a lot of them are catcalling and yipping like dogs and dancing to fiddle music up and down the street. Now that the Obligation is over, a lot of them are buzzing about the coming Heartland Lottery, which will be announced in a handful of hours when the town clock strikes the midnight bell.

And it’s then that Wanda whispers in his ear, “You wanna go under the water tower?”

An Obligation Day tradition. The newly betrothed couples, all of them hornier than a Capote water ox with two dicks instead of one, go beneath the water tower to the east of town in order to get to know each other better.

Cael doesn’t want to. But he’s mad at Gwennie. And he’s a little bit drunk from drinking with Lane. So before he even knows what he’s saying, he agrees. “Yeah, let’s go.”

And he waves on Lane and Francine, too.

“No,” Lane says, “I dunno about that.…”

But Francine smiles sweetly and pulls him along, and Lane goes with it.

They leave Main Street and all the light and noise and descend into the ring of darkness around town, corn pollen whispering against the hard earth.

And soon a massive shadow darker than the gloaming appears. The water tower rises before them, shifting shapes
and silhouettes hiding within the cradle of its wooden legs. Every time the wind stirs, the tower groans and stutters, eliciting an excited gasp from those beneath it as though it could come tumbling down at any moment.

Francine leads Lane away. Wanda’s hands find Cael’s chest, and she holds her palms flat against him. “I don’t know what to do,” she says.

“I don’t know either,” he lies.

“Maybe we should talk. We could just stand here. For a while. And talk. We don’t really know each other. I’d like to know you better. Wouldn’t you like to know me better?”

There it is again, that sense of desperation coming off her. The fact is, he
doesn’t
want to know her better. So instead, he just leans in and kisses her. He feels her teeth clack hard against his. Their noses smash together. Her tongue finds his, and it’s like a dog licking a mess off the floor: wet and inelegant. Cael thinks,
Ugh, get off of me
; but he doesn’t move and neither does she, and there they stand for a while, groping each other inexpertly while Cael tilts an ear and listens to the others do the same.

He’s listening for something. Some
one
.

For one of Gwennie’s telltale moans. Or sometimes she squeaks. Like a little mouse.

It isn’t long before footsteps approach and he hears the
murmur of familiar voices. A new pair of shapes emerge—one smaller shape arm in arm with a much larger-bodied blockhead.

Cael pulls away from Wanda.

“Did I do something wrong?” she asks, following after him. But he’s not listening. Not to her.


You
,” he says, stepping in front of the shape that resolves into Boyland Barnes Jr.

“Yo, McAvoy,” Barnes says. With a snort, he adds, “Wanda Mecklin, huh? Here at the water tower? You lucky dog.”

“Sonofabitch—” Cael says, and he steps forward with the full intent to tear that bastard’s head clean off his neck and shove it back up his ass. But Gwennie steps between them and catches the full force of Cael. She’s strong. Always was. “Gwen, move!”

“Don’t be an ass,” she says.

“He sank our boat!”

“That’s not what this is about.”

Boyland plays dumb. “I didn’t—What? What’s he accusing me of? I’d never.”

“Go to hell, Barnes! May Old Scratch steal your liar’s tongue.” Cael tries to spit on him but misses.

Gwennie grabs Cael and hauls him away from the water tower. She lowers her voice. “This is over. It has to be. You can’t do this.”

“Boyland,” he says, the name like slug’s ichor dripping from his lips. “
Boyland?

“Like I picked him?”

“And yet here you are with him. Under the water tower.”

“And here
you
are with Wanda Mecklin. I could say the same thing about her.” She mimics Cael’s blustery incredulity. “
Wanda? Waaaanda?

“I was here looking for you!”

“Did you think your tongue would find me down her throat?”

“I was hoping you weren’t here. And yet you are. With him.”

Her voice drops to a hissing whisper. “You think I like this? He’s a
skunk ape
, Cael. But he’s my husband. Or will be. I figure the best thing I can do is keep my head down and take the ride.”

“You’ve changed,” he says. “You never would have gone along with it before. You always did what you wanted. Those days are over.”

“Maybe they are.” She hesitates. “Maybe they have to be.”

“Yeah. I guess so.” The words suddenly come out of him, a bubbling, bilious concoction that he wishes he could swallow, but it’s too late: “You’re no longer first mate of the crew. You’re out.”


What?

“You heard me. Go with him. I can’t have a person on my boat married to the enemy.”

“You’re an asshole,” she says.

“At least I’m not a slut.” It quiets her like a slap—but, really, it’s worse. Those words plunge deep like a knife. Did he even mean them? He stammers, “Gwennie, wait.”

But she pulls away from him and storms back to Boyland.

“C’mon,” Gwennie says, pulling Boyland underneath the water tower. On the way she pauses by Wanda and says, “Congratulations, Wanda. Good luck with that one.”

And then their shapes merge with the shadows.

Wanda comes up, asks him, “What was that all about?”

But Cael doesn’t even open his mouth, because he’s afraid of what will come out.

 

THE HOWLING POLLEN

 

MIDNIGHT IS WHEN
they’ll announce the Lottery. An hour before, the street starts growing tighter with people, gathering in the hopes that they’ll be the winner. The pollen drift picks up and the winds start to howl, and all around are those allergic to the storm—blowing their noses into paisley handkerchiefs or rubbing their swollen red eyes. But they gather just the same because, above all else, they want to win.

The Lottery goes out across the Heartland. Once a year the Empyrean randomly selects a family, and that whole family ceases to be Heartlanders. Instead, they get a one-way trip to an Empyrean flotilla, to go live among the skyward elite. A reward, it’s said, for their “mighty toil.” Rumor has it that the
winners are highly sought-after guests to all the biggest parties. Lane says this just proves that the former Heartlanders are a hick circus act brought in to entertain the cackling harpies.

Cael stands there, lost in the crowd, looking toward the stage, a stage on which he stood earlier that day. He doesn’t see his father, or Rigo, or Gwennie and Boyland. Wanda’s gone now; he sent her away, off to be with her family. Like she should be. (Like
he
should be.) She was just standing there, behind him and to the right, queerly subservient and keenly afraid to speak lest she set him off. He hates that this was her first impression of him, but what can he do? “That’s life in the Heartland!” he wants to scream in her ear.

Proctor Agrasanto, her attaché, and Mayor Barnes alternate between milling about the stage and hovering over a visidex computer. The glow from the single handheld screen bathes their faces in an eerie blue light. Cael feels a presence at his side, and there stands Lane. Looking grim.

“It’s all bullshit,” he says. His pinched eyes and hangdog face suggest the ghost of his fixy drunk still lingers. But he’s got a fresh jar of the liquor pilfered from somewhere, and he passes it to Cael, who takes a sip. “I’ll tell you, Cael. The Lottery.
Pfft
. It’s how they keep us on the hook. How they keep us fish from flopping around.”

“Uh-huh,” Cael says. He’s heard this speech before. Every year, actually.

“No, really. Everybody thinks, ‘Ah, yeah, okay, I can be rich one day, and not rich like the mayor rich, not rich like the Tallyman. I mean flotilla-rich.
King Shit of Shit Mountain
rich.’ We don’t say boo against them because we think that one day we might
be
them. Right? That’s what you think is gonna happen to you. To us. We’re gonna get rich, and when we do, that’s the key that unlocks our endless happiness here in this dead dog of a town.”

“It’s true. Ace notes make the world go round—”

“No—the Empyrean make the world go around. Being one of
them
is all that matters, and there’s no way to ever be one of them. Not through money, not through the Lottery. The only way it gets better is if we tear it all to the ground. Like the Sleeping Dogs want.”

“You’re drunk.” Cael takes another swig because he wants to be drunk, too.

“Ayup.” Lane snorts. “Nobody from town will win anyway. Last year it was someone from… where?”

Cael thinks back. “Tremayne, I think.”

“Yeah! Tremayne. Third time in ten years. I smell something fishy.”

“You and fish,” Cael starts to say, but just then a still-wet Pally Varrin comes up from behind Lane and shoves a finger in Cael’s face.

“You little snot,” he says. “You dunked me.”

Cael tries not to laugh. Lane doesn’t even seem to bother: he just brays like a mule.

Pally’s not having any of it. He grabs a fistful of Cael’s shirt and shakes him. “You laughing at me, boy? I notice your sister’s gone.
Again
. How convenient that the proctor’s here in town—guess I’ll just have to tell her your sister’s gone hobo again. They’ll dock your provisions. Maybe more this time. Maybe they’ll throw you in the hoosegow. Or drag you and your damn daddy away from Boxelder once and for—”

Suddenly, a man steps between them. Grey Franklin, once more. He plants big, broad hands against Cael’s and Pally’s chests, separates them like a wedge.

“Merelda’s taken ill,” Franklin says, giving Cael a look.

“Horseshit,” Pally barks.

Gray shakes his head. “You’re just mad ’cause someone sunk your butt. Now go on and get some dry clothes. The pollen’ll stick to you like burrs on a dog’s ass.”

Pally sneers but slinks back into the crowd.

“Thanks,” Cael says finally.

Gray shrugs. “I do what I can. But you better find that sister. They will cut your provisions. Or worse, if the proctor gets involved.”

“I know.”

Grey musses Cael’s hair then heads off after Pally.

Lane shrugs. And laughs again. Carefree. Or just careless.

Suddenly, those gathering at Busser’s beer stands and Doc Leonard’s beer stands begin to sing competing verses of the “Harvest Song”:

 


Here’s health unto our mighty Lord, the founder of the feast,

Here’s health unto the Lady fair, the tamer of the beast.

And may heaven’s doings prosper, whate’er takes in hand,

For we are Heartland servants, ever at command.

Drink, boys, drink!

And see ye do not spill.

For if ye do, ye shall drink two!

The Lord and Lady’s will.

Now harvest it is ended, and supper it is past.

To the health of Lord and Lady, boys, a full and flowing glass,

The heavens rain upon us all and grant us all good cheer.

Here’s to the Lord and Lady, boys, so drink off all your beer.

Drink, boys, drink!

And see ye do not spill.

For if ye do, ye shall drink two!

The Lord and Lady’s will.

It’s hard for the mayor to be heard over the raucous, drunken chorus, but he eventually thwacks the mic with his open hand and sends a feedback shriek over the whole crowd, quieting the song.

It’s still an hour early. Why is he talking? And where’d the proctor go? Cael suddenly doesn’t see her or her attaché anywhere.

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