Boneshaker 5

Page 5

  Briar wondered when the war would end back east. The papers talked about it in exciting terms. A Civil War, a War Between the States, a War of Independence or a War of Aggression. It sounded epic, and after eighteen years of ongoing struggle, perhaps it was. But if it would only end, then perhaps it might be worth the trouble to head back toward the other coast. With some scraping and saving, maybe she could pull together the money to start over somewhere else, where no one knew anything about her dead father or husband. Or, if nothing else, Washington could become a proper state, and not merely a distant territory. If Seattle was part of a state, then America would have to send help, wouldn’t it? With help, they could build a better wall, or maybe do something about the Blight gas trapped inside it. They could get doctors to research treatments for the gas poisoning—and God only knew, maybe even cure it.

  It should’ve been a thrilling thought, but it wasn’t. Not at six o’clock in the morning, and not when Briar was beginning a two-mile walk down the mudflats.

  The sun was rising slowly and the sky was taking on the milky gray daytime hue that it would never shake, not until spring. Rain spit sideways, cast sharply by the wind until it worked its way under Briar’s wide-brimmed leather hat, up her sleeve cuffs, and down through her boots until her feet were frozen and her hands felt like raw chicken skin.

  By the time she reached the ’works, her face was numb from the cold but a tiny bit burned from the foul-smelling water.

  She wandered around to the back of the enormous compound that hunkered loudly at the edge of Puget Sound. Twenty-four hours of every day it cranked and pumped, sucking rainwater and groundwater into the plant and stripping it, processing it, cleaning it, until it was pure enough to drink and bathe in. It was a slow and laborious procedure, one that was labor intensive but not altogether illogical. The Blight gas had poisoned the natural systems until the creeks and streams flowed almost yellow with contagion. Even the near-constant patter of rain could not be trusted. The clouds that dropped it may have gusted past the walled-up city and absorbed enough toxin to wash skin raw and bleach paint.

  But the Blight could be boiled away; it could be filtered and steamed and filtered again. And after seventeen hours of treatment, the water could be safely consumed.

  Great wagons drawn by teams of massive Clydesdales took the water out in tanks and delivered it block by block, funneling it into collective reservoirs that could then be pumped by individual families.

  But first, it had to be processed. It had to go through the Waterworks facility, where Briar Wilkes and several hundred others spent ten or fifteen hours a day hooking and unhooking brass cylinders and tanks, and moving them from station to station, filter to filter. Most of the tanks were overhead and could be zipped down lines and rails from place to place, but some were built into the floor and had to be shifted from plug to plug like pieces in a sliding puzzle.

  Briar climbed up the back steps and lifted the lever arm that secured the workers’ entrance.

  She blinked at the usual blast of steam-heated air. Over in the far corner, where workers kept company-assigned belongings in cubbyholes, she reached for her gloves. They weren’t the heavy wool contraptions she wore on her own time, but thick leather that protected her hands from the superheated metal of the tanks.

  She’d pulled the left one all the way down to her wrist before she noticed the paint. On the palm, down the fingers, and across the back knuckles someone had brushed bright streaks of blue. The right glove had been similarly vandalized.

  Briar was alone in the workers’ area. She was early, and the paint was dry. The prank had been pulled last night, after she’d left for the evening. There was no one present to accuse.

  She sighed and shoved her fingers into the other tainted glove. At least this time no one had filled up the interior with paint. The gloves were still wearable, and would not need replacing. Maybe she could even scrub them clean, later.

  “It never gets old, does it?” she said to herself. “Sixteen goddamn years and you’d think, someday, the joke might get old. ”

  She left her own wool gloves up on the shelf that used to have her name on it. She’d written WILKES there, but while she wasn’t looking it had been crossed out and replaced with BLUE. She’d scribbled over the BLUE and rewrote WILKES, and the game had gone round and round until there was no room left on the ledge for anyone to write anything, but everyone knew who it belonged to.

  Her goggles hadn’t been bothered; she was thankful for that much. The gloves had been expensive enough, and the company-issued headgear would’ve cost a week’s worth of pay to restore.

  All the workers wore goggles with polarized lenses. For reasons no one fully understood, such lenses allowed the wearer to see the dreaded Blight. Even in trace amounts it would appear as a yellowish-greenish haze that oozed and dripped. Although the Blight was technically a gaseous substance, it was a very heavy one that poured or collected like a thick sludge.

  Briar strapped the clunky lenses against her face and left her overcoat on a peg. She picked up a wrench that was almost as long as her forearm and stepped out onto the main floor to begin her day of shuffling piping-hot crucibles from slot to slot.

  Ten hours later, she stripped off the gloves, peeled away the goggles, and abandoned them on her shelf.

  She opened the back metal door to learn that it was still raining, which came as no surprise. She tied her big, round-rimmed hat more closely under her chin. She didn’t need any more orange streaks twirling through her otherwise dark hair, courtesy of the nasty rain. With her overcoat fastened tightly across her chest and her hands jammed into the pockets, she set off for home.

  The way back from work was almost straight uphill, but the wind was behind her, billowing off the ocean and crashing up the ridges on the edges of the old city. The walk itself was a long one, but a familiar one, and she did it without giving much thought to the wind or the water. She’d lived with the weather so long that it was barely background music, unpleasant but unnoticed, except when numbness settled in her toes and she had to stomp to bring the feeling back.

  It was only barely dark when she arrived home.

  This pleased her in an almost giddy way. During the winter she was so rarely home before the sky was fully black that it astounded her to find herself scaling the crooked stone steps while there was still a touch of pink between the rain clouds.

  Small victory or no, she felt like celebrating it.

  But first, she thought, she should apologize to Ezekiel. She could sit him down and talk to him, if he’d listen. She could tell him a few stories, if it came to that. Not everything, of course.

  He couldn’t know the worst of it, even though he probably thought he did. Briar knew the stories that made the rounds. She’d heard them herself, been asked about them dozens of times by dozens of policemen, reporters, and furious survivors.

  So Zeke had certainly heard them, too. He’d been taunted by them when he was small enough to cry in school. Once, years ago, when he was barely as tall as her waist, he’d asked if any of it was true. Did his father really make the terrible machine that broke the city until pieces of it fell into the earth? Did he really bring the Blight?

  “Yes,” she had to tell him. “Yes, it happened that way, but I don’t know why. He never told me. Please don’t ask me anymore. ”

  He never did ask for more, even though Briar sometimes wished he would. If he asked, she might be able to tell him something good—something nice. It hadn’t all been fear and strangeness, had it? She’d honestly loved her husband once, and there were reasons for it. Some of them must not have been spun from girlish stupidity, and it wasn’t all about the money.

  (Oh, she’d known he was rich—and maybe, in some small respect, the money had made it easier to be stupid. But it never was all about the money. )

  She could tell Zeke stories of flowers sent in secret, of notes composed in ink that was al
most magical for the way it glittered, burned, and vanished. There were charming gadgets and seductive toys. One time Leviticus had made her a pin that looked like a coat button, but when the filigree rim was twisted, tiny clockwork gears within would chime a precious tune.

  If Zeke had ever asked, she could’ve shared an anecdote or two that made the man look like less of a monster.

  It was stupid, she realized, the way she’d been waiting for him to ask. It was suddenly as obvious as could be: She ought to just tell him. Let the poor child know that there had been good times too, and that there were good reasons—at least, they’d seemed like good reasons at the time—why she’d run away from home and her strict, distant father and married the scientist when she was hardly any older than her son was now.

  Furthermore, the night before she really should’ve told him, “You didn’t do anything either. They’re wrong about you, too, but there’s still time for you to prove it. You haven’t yet made the kind of choices that will cripple you for life. ”

  These resolutions buoyed her spirits even more than the early homecoming, and the hope that Zeke might be inside. She could begin on the spot, righting her old wrongs—which were only mistakes of uncertainty, after all.

  Her key grated in the lock and the door swung inward, revealing darkness.

  “Zeke? Zeke, you home?”

  The fireplace was cold. The lantern was on the table by the door, so she took it and fumbled for a match. Not a single candle was lit within, and it irked her that she needed any extra illumination. It had been months since she’d come home and simply parted the curtains for light. But the sun was almost wholly down, and the rooms were black except for the places where her lantern pushed back the shadows.


  She wasn’t sure why she said his name again. She already knew he wasn’t home. It wasn’t just the darkness, either; it was the way the home felt empty. It felt quiet in a way that couldn’t include a boy closed away in his bedroom.

  “Zeke?” The silence was unbearable, and Briar didn’t know why. She’d come home to an empty house many times before, and it’d never made her nervous.