“When in doubt—” I catch Thomas’s eyes and hold up a jar of sparkle lip gloss. “—add more glitter.”
The mirror we face is cracked and wreathed in vanity lights that flicker in time with the strained chugging of the ancient generator outside. The smells of old perfume, road dust, and hush puppies fill the painted wooden wagon that serves triple duty as my transportation, home, and dressing room. I blame the generator for that last odour. We restocked on biodiesel at our last stop, and now everything smells like frying corn.
“It’s your go-to, glitter. You can never have too much.”
Thomas nods and bends over the worn, hand-stitched journal he carries everywhere. “Glitter,” he whispers, as his stub of pencil scratches across the page.
“But first things first.” I trade the lip gloss for a facecloth and hand a second to Thomas. “We’ve got to cleanse, glue down those bushy man-brows, prime, colour-correct, and girl…conceal, conceal, conceal.”
• • • •
We pulled into Sweet Spring at sunset, and from my perch on the box of my wagon I got a prime view of the colours—reds, oranges, and purples—sweeping the saffron-yellow sky above the mesas.
Sweet Spring was a little place, not much more than a few farms and a trading post, but it was neat and in good repair. That always boded well. It looked like the whole town had turned out to greet us. Women, men, and children in their much-mended and wash-thinned best lined the rough dirt road, waving and cheering as we drew near. A little girl with dark braids ran forward and threw flowers on the path in front of us. She giggled when one of my mules bent low to snatch them up. Good ol’ Harvey; he was never one to turn down a treat. And who was I to begrudge him? The roads through the Dry between New Angeles and Sweet Spring were long, hot, and nasty. Narrow, hard-scrabble tracks through rough terrain where water and food were scarce, and good people were scarcer still. They were dangerous, those roads. Easy to get lost and starve, easy to run into trouble. Roving bands of Haters liked to ambush the weak and unwary out there on those roads. They usually avoided travelling Rainmakers, but people like that are rando, and we’d pushed hard to cover the distance quickly. Harvey was one tired mule, and he deserved his treat.
We came to a stop in the dirt square at the centre of town and tied up at the hitching posts there. We’d tend to our chores—unharnessing, grooming, feeding—once the formalities were over with.
Here the town leaders—both official and otherwise—awaited us. Faces young and old, stamped with a mixed bag of emotions: hope, interest, uncertainty. My eyes slid past them all, drawn immediately to the small, white-haired woman who stood by the edge of the group. A sturdy, well-built young man sat on a wooden crate in front of her, staring up at me with curious eyes. The woman wasn’t big or particularly well dressed, and her face was creased with wrinkles that spoke of many long years between the yellow skies and sand, but her presence had weight. Everything about her—from the tight twist of her bun to the firm hand resting on the young man’s shoulder—radiated authority. I didn’t know if she held any official title, but there was no doubt she was in charge. She was the one who’d sent for us, I was sure of it.
When my fellow Rainmakers, sixteen of us in all, had assembled, I bowed to the woman.
“Emma Allen, I presume?”
She nodded, a short, sharp movement. “The same. Glad to see someone got our message. Took y’all long enough to get here.”
The young man gasped, but I laughed. I liked people who spoke their minds, especially little old ladies. Show me a feisty old girl dishing shade, and my mind immediately went to my old drag mother, Fifi Foxxx. Now, Fifi—she’d been a Queen, full of pride, sass, and determination. Emma Allen was the same. No candle to Fifi in looks or glam, obviously, but the attitude? Hells yes.
“All’s well that ends well, I s’pose,” she allowed. “Welcome to Sweet Spring, Rainmakers.”
“The pleasure’s ours. Thank you for your hospitality.” I gestured to the young man who sat before her. “Is this the boy you wrote about?”
She nodded again and nudged the young man to his feet. He was handsome enough, with clear skin, bright, wide-set eyes, and a full set of teeth. There was a resemblance to Emma in those features. A grandson, perhaps, or great-nephew? Potential, too. He had good bones. But did he have what it took to be a Rainmaker? Of that, I wasn’t sure.
“This is Thomas, my grandson. Turned seventeen last planting, but he’s had the calling long as I can remember. He’s a Rainmaker through an’ through.”
If I had a sequin for every time I’d heard that, I’d glitter like a diamond.
According to folklore, having a Rainmaker in the family was lucky. You’d be blessed, the stories said, with fertile land and bountiful crops. You’d be fertile and bountiful too, the whispers added. From a purely practical perspective, a Rainmaker’s hometown got priority when it came time to call down the clouds. Out here in the Dry, where one rainstorm could spell the difference between famine and plenty, that meant something. I’d seen all sorts of unsuitable candidates put forward by desperate people hoping to change their luck.
“We’ll see.” I offered Thomas my hand and received a firm shake in return. He had working hands, rough and strong. No surprise there. He was a farm-boy from head to toe. Strong wasn’t a problem. Rainmaking could be hard labour, and there was always room for someone who knew their way around livestock. Rough, on the other hand, was an issue. A Queen always took care of her skin. If we took him on, that skin would need fixing.
“Hello, Thomas. When I’m Rainmaking, I’m Clementine Devine, and I go by her and she, but right now you can call me Clem and him/he is fine. Tell me about this calling of yours. Why do you think you’re meant to be a Rainmaker?”
“Clem is just fine, when I’m out of drag.”
“Well, Clem, I think I’ve just always known, ever since I first saw a troupe of Rainmakers come to town when I was a little sprout. I want to help people. Be useful, make sure they’ve got what they need. That’s what Rainmakers do, isn’t it? Help people and spread the love?”
“That it is. But being a Rainmaker isn’t easy, Thomas. If we accept you, it would mean leaving all this behind; your town, your family, your friends. It would mean travelling all around the Dry, fending for ourselves and making do. Sometimes we go weeks between towns.”
“I can do that, sir. I’m strong, and Gran says I’m smart enough. I’m used to doing my share.”
“What about fighting? Can you do that? There are Haters out there, and they don’t always respect the rainbow flag.”
“Can’t say as I’ve had any experience with fighting, sir, but I’m willing to try. An’ I’ve hunted a fair bit . . . I’m a good shot with the rifle.”
He seemed a fine lad, open and hard-working. But that wasn’t good enough. If it were just hard work—travelling between communities, delivering messages, medicines, and goods, helping out, lending a hand—then any sensible young man would have fit the bill. But Rainmaking was something more, and very few had what it took.
“What about the other side of it? The Rainmaking? Can you put on the drag? Can you dance and sing in front of a whole town to call down the clouds and the rains?” This was the question that counted. If he hadn’t really heard the call, this would be where it would show. I had yet to meet a boy who could fool me.
“I can do that too, Qu—Clem.” No hesitation. “I know my build ain’t great for it, what with my shoulders an’ all, but I’ll do my very best. An’ . . . ” His gaze dropped for a moment. When he looked up again, his eyes were filled with a longing I knew all too well. “An’ I want to glitter, Queen. I want to shine.”
A perfect answer, and a real one too, by my guess. Certainly good enough to let him try. He had the calling all right, but only time would tell if he had the skills. Not everyone was cut out to be a Rainmaker.
• • • •
“Once you’ve got a nice, smooth surface, it’s time to contour.” I apply highlights and shadows to my own face and then help Thomas with his, showing him how to accentuate his cheekbones and soften his square chin.
“Me, I’ve got a right big schnozz, so I like to go in with a lot of highlighter on the bridge and tip to snatch it in. Yours is narrower, so we shouldn’t have as much to do there.”
“What if I make a mess of things?” Thomas’ voice trembles with nervous energy. Fear too, I imagine. “What if I forget the words or the routines?”
A Rainmaker’s first performance is always the hardest, and despite all his strengths, Thomas is no different. He’s as jittery as a spring kid, glancing at the door and jumping at every sound.
“Not likely, given the way you’ve been practicing. And even if you do, it’s not a big deal.”
He stares at me, a look of horror on his half-baked face. “Not a big deal? How can you say that? Those songs are tradition. What if I screw up, an’ the clouds don’t come, or if—”
“They’ll come. Yeah, the songs and dances we perform are tradition, but the real magic’s in the intent. If you put your heart and soul into it—dance for your life and spread the love—the rains will know, and they’ll come.”
“But how can you be sure?”
“’Cause I’ve been doing this almost my whole life, Thomas, and that’s more years than I’ll ever say out loud. I’ve seen all sorts of mess-ups and missed steps, but I’ve never seen the rains stay away. If we dance, they’ll come.”
• • • •
We left Sweet Spring late the next morning, after delivering a sack of dusty, well-travelled letters, helping repair the generator at the Trading Post, and swapping some sheet metal for corn meal, cooking oil, and five precious jars of powdered mineral pigments. Mixed with jojoba oil, beeswax, witch hazel, and clay, they’d become concealer, blush, eyeshadow, and lipstick.
Thomas hugged his parents and grandmother goodbye, and promised to write often. He exchanged tearful embraces with a young man and woman as well. The rest of the troupe bent our attention to harnessing our mules and gave him his privacy. It was never easy to leave home and the ones you loved. Leaving to become a Rainmaker was harder still. We travelled the Dry for months on end, stopping in towns along the way to lend a hand as needed or call down the clouds. A few days here, a week there, never long enough in one place to find love or form attachments. Being a Rainmaker could be a lonely life. Could be, but didn’t have to be. If those young folk loved him, they’d be patient and welcome him back with open arms when the turns of the seasons brought us this way again.
From Sweet Spring we travelled south. Thomas shared with Milo, who had the biggest wagon and acted as drag mother for our troupe. It was Milo’s job to show newbies the ropes and start them learning the songs and dances for calling down the clouds and the rains. When and if we were sure Thomas was staying, we’d trade for what we needed to build him a wagon of his own.
Thomas was eager to learn and full of questions. Only good manners—hammered into him by his grandmother, I imagined—kept him from peppering us all day long. On the second day I took pity and invited him to ride with me and ask anything he liked.
He asked about where we were headed (south to Tumbleweed and beyond) and how long it would take to reach our first stop (seven or eight days, if the weather held). He asked about make-up (lots) and costuming (sparkly) and where we got our wigs (donated hair and very fine craftspeople in New Angeles). Finally, after a few moments of pensive silence, he asked “Why did you become a Rainmaker, Clem?”
I knew he’d ask eventually, and I’d already thought about what I’d say. I’d learned over the years that while everyone asked, not everyone was comfortable with the answer. Thomas was a steady lad; he’d be one of the ones who could handle the real story. Still, best to give him a choice about it.
“Do you want the easy answer, or the real one? Real one’s not pretty, just saying. A bit TMI for some people.”
He studied my face for a moment. “Both, if that’s okay with you.”
“I wouldn’t have offered if it wasn’t. The easy answer’s that I heard the call, just like everyone else here in the troupe. It’s true, too, for what it’s worth. One of my first memories is of sitting in the back of my father’s truck and holding an old wedding dress he’d . . . found. ‘Keep it off the bed and keep it clean,’ he told me, ‘or I’ll whip you till you bleed.’ He meant it too, so I held that dress all bunched up on my lap as if were the most precious thing on earth, and the whole time, all I could do was stare at it. It was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen, all lace and sparkle and little beads that caught the sun coming through the dirty windows and glittered like rainbows. I wanted that dress more than I’d ever wanted anything in my life. I wanted to own it and wear it and make it my second skin. I wanted to be that dress, if that makes sense.”
“It makes perfect sense. I felt the same way when Callie—that’s my older sister—got married a couple a’ years ago. She looked so pretty, and all I wanted was to try on her dress. Wouldn’t a’ fit me, a’ course. But still . . . ” He paused a moment, eyes closed in reminiscence. “What about the other answer, the too-much-info one? Is it something bad?”
“Yeah, it is. For some people, it’s unforgivable. And I understand why. Even when you spend your whole life learning to spread the love, sometimes it’s hard to forgive.”
“What do you mean? Did you hurt someone?”
“No, not me, not directly. But my parents did. My parents were Haters.”
Thomas’s eyes widened, but he didn’t flinch or gasp. “What happened?”
“What always happens with Haters. They attacked and people died. Haters learn the opposite of spreading the love. They believe in looking out for number one, and taking what they want, and survival of the strongest. To grow up a Hater is to think the world’s made of fear and greed and pain. That’s what I was taught when I was little. I didn’t know there was anything else till the day I saw that wedding dress and realized the world held beauty, too. I wanted that beauty in my life, and I got my chance the day our band attacked a troupe of Rainmakers.”
“They attacked Rainmakers?” Now there was horror in his voice.
“They did. My father was a Big Man in our band, second only to the Boss. He was tough and macho and full of ego. No matter what anyone else did, he had to do it bigger and better. When his chief rival for the Boss’s favor raided a fat trade caravan, my father needed an even bigger prize. I guess he figured Rainmakers would be just the thing. I was around ten years old, and he brought me with him. I was old enough to fight, and he wanted me to be a Big Man too.”
“Did he kill them?”
“Are you kidding? Hells no! Rainmakers are always more than they seem. You should know that. Not saying he didn’t do damage, but when the bullets stopped flying, most of the Rainmakers were still standing, and my father’s raiding party were dead in the sand.”
“What about you?”
“I was the only survivor. They found me hidden under the seat of my father’s truck, all ragged and feral and covered in scars. They were scared of me, at first. I can imagine what must have been going through their minds. How could such a child understand any show of kindness? How could such a child learn to spread the love? They debated whether to leave me behind or take me to the closest town. I asked if could stay with them instead.”
“What did they say?”
“When the clamor and kerfuffle died down, not much. They were too surprised. Finally, one of them—a big, round man who I later learned to call Philip when he was off stage and Fifi when she was on—asked me why.
“’Cause your clothes and your wagons are so pretty.’ I was sobbing, too scared and desperate to be tough. My father would’a beat me silly if he’d seen, but he was dead in the dust, and for the first time in my life, I could speak my mind. ‘Like the wedding dress an’ the flowers an’ the pretty girls. I want to be pretty too!’
“And that was it. They took me in. Taught me to spread love instead of hate, and to dance and sing the clouds down. Some people don’t like to hear my story, because they’ve lost family to Haters, or been hurt themselves. I guess it’s easier to be angry when what you’re angry at isn’t the same as you at all. I make them think. It makes them uncomfortable.”
“Well it shouldn’t. They should be relieved.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because your story proves that hate isn’t bred into the blood and bones. That it’s taught and learned. And if it can be learned, it can be unlearned too. Maybe someday there’ll be no more Haters at all.”
That was my dream too.
• • • •
Once our faces are done, I help Thomas with his wig. Milo gave him free run of the extras, and he’s chosen a cascade of loose brown curls that fall to the centre of his back. It’s an interesting choice for a newb, nowhere near as flashy as blond or red, but the moment it’s on, I know he’s made the perfect choice.
“Beautiful.” I hand him some bobby pins. “It’s beautiful. The highlights bring out the colour of your eyes.”
He smiles a shy smile and gazes in wonder at his reflection in the mirror. “I look like Callie.” He laughs. “Only with better cheekbones.”
“That’s the spirit!”
I rise, fetch the garment bags from their hooks on the door, and hand one to Thomas. “Best for last. Here’s your dress.”
He takes the bag in loving hands and slides the zipper down a few inches to reveal the masterpiece of vintage silver satin and Swarovski inside.
“It’s a classic, passed down from Rainmaker to Rainmaker for I don’t know how long. Last one to wear it was Fifi, and I’ve been saving it for just the right Queen. Now it’s yours. I’ve altered it; it should you fit just right.”
Thomas pauses mid-zip and stares up at me. “But Clem . . . wow, I . . . I don’t know what to say. Thank you! I mean—”
“No thanks necessary. You just wear it and shine. You’ll do great.”
• • • •
We stayed two nights in the town called Tumbleweed and a week in Cottonwood Creek. What with planting season still a month off, we did whatever was needed and traded chores for our food, fuel, and water. Milo was a blacksmith, Finn had trained to be a doctor before he heard the call, and Isla could sheer a sheep in three minutes flat. Thomas made himself useful too, chopping firewood, digging post-holes, and doing just about anything else we asked. He wasn’t afraid of hard work, and he had a quiet, earnest charm that put people at ease.
But was he a Rainmaker?
Of that, we still weren’t sure.
We stopped along the road for rehearsals, out in the Dry where there was no one to see but ourselves. Thomas picked up the songs and dances quick enough, but as for performance, he lacked the je ne sais quoi that made a true Rainmaker.
“You need to be more confident,” Milo told him. “Smile, sashay.”
“Make sure you’re well rested before rehearsal,” Mia suggested. “Have a snack.”
“Picture success,” Finn said. “Positive thoughts only.”
Thomas tried it all, but there was still something missing.
“Give him time,” I told Milo. “Give him time. Some people just need the right push to glow-up.”
• • • •
We were two weeks out of Cottonwood Creek and five days shy of Kéyah when the Haters attacked. They caught us by surprise in a narrow valley between two high bluffs, the perfect place for an ambush. Mia and Ezra had been riding scout, but they’d given no warning. That meant one thing. They were dead, outnumbered and overwhelmed before they could raise the alarm. If we didn’t fight back hard and fast, the rest of us would follow.
The way was too narrow for us to turn and flee, and there was nowhere to hide as the bullets and arrows rained down on us.
“Take cover!” I yelled.
Wild screams and curses echoed down from the crevices and shadows of the boulder-strewn slopes above us. Howling, foul, violent language, promises of pain and torture. I’d known those words once, had shouted them myself and watched our victims—innocent farmers and traders—cringe in fear. Not this time. We were Queens, Rainmakers, and we wouldn’t be intimidated.
“Take cover and return fire!”
“At what?” Thomas gasped as he grabbed his rifle and ducked behind the seat. “I can’t see them!”
It was typical Hater strategy. They’d stay hidden and pick us off one by one. It would work too, unless we changed the game.
I grabbed the rainbow flag mounted next to my seat and jumped down. “Aim for the ridgeline and the shadows.” I ran to the middle of the dusty road. “They’ll show themselves. I’ll make them.”
I waved the flag above my head and screamed at the hills. “Hey you, Big Man. Where are you? I know you’re up there! Show yourself.”
“What’s he doing?” Thomas cried. “Clem don’t be crazy, get back here!”
“No, he’s right,” Milo hissed. “Just wait. Haters are macho; they can’t resist a challenge. He’s going to draw the Big Man out.”
I smiled a thin, fierce smile, and waved the flag harder. I’d grown up in that world, surrounded by that toxic fear and insecurity. Milo understood.
“Come on, you big coward,” I yelled. “I’m right here! What kind of leader are you? Hiding like a frightened child. Come and face me, if you’ve got the balls for it! Face me like a real warrior!”
A roar of angry denial echoed from the shadows on the ridge to my right as a beefy man broke cover and rushed me like an enraged bull. He went down in a short, sharp rattle of rifle-fire. Simple, predictable, sad. Big Men were all the same.
Now for the iffy part.
“Your Big Man is dead,” I called to the darkened hills. “If you lay down your weapons and leave, we’ll let you live. If you fight, you’ll die.”
We gave them a chance, because violence was the opposite of spreading the love.
We gave them a chance, but they didn’t take it. Haters almost never do.
They screamed and cursed and poured down the slopes in a blood-thirsty, blade-swinging wave.
We cut them down.
Like I’d said to Thomas, Rainmakers are always more than they seem. We trained every day, and once they’d shown themselves, the Haters stood no chance.
When the last of the Haters had fallen, I found Thomas behind the wagon-seat with tears streaking his dusty cheeks.
“I’m so sorry Clem, I couldn’t do it! I tried to shoot, but all I could see was their eyes. They’re people just like us! How can people hate so much? And how can I kill ’em without becoming just like ’em?”
I wrapped my arms around him and held him close. “It’s okay, Thomas. It was your first real fight. Shooting a real person’s harder than a target. And that’s love holding you back. Never apologize for love.”
We searched the slopes and the hills beyond for survivors. We found a little girl, no more than four or five, huddled behind a boulder with the body of her mother. She hissed and spat at us as we approached and scrabbled for a rock to use as a weapon.
“She’s just a baby.” Thomas’ face was pale. “No bigger than my littlest sister. How could anyone bring a baby to a fight like this?”
“Hate’s learned young,” I replied.
Thomas knelt and smiled that soft smile of his. “It’s okay, little one. We’re not going to hurt you. You’re safe with us.” He offered his hand and much to my surprise, she set down her rock and came to him. He scooped her up and carried her back to our wagons, away from the carnage.
That evening we piled the bodies, over twenty in all, beside the road, and set Mia and Ezra, whom we’d found hidden in a gully with their throats slit, alongside them. Rainmaker or Hater, in death we’re all the same. We gathered brush and dry grasses and made a pyre, and when it was burning high, we sang the long farewell. Familiar voices, familiar song. We’d sung it before, and I had no doubt we’d sing it again. Such was life in the Dry.
But as I sang and watched the flames dance, a new voice joined the rest, strong and clear. It slipped along the edges of the song, adding harmony and depth. Adding layers of meaning that cut to the core.
This is grief, the voice sang, for lives lost and lives wasted. This is pain and desolation. But this is promise, too. Of redemption and fortitude and a chance at a new tomorrow where no one learns to hate.
Heart tight, I spun to find the source of that voice. Thomas sat a few feet away with the little Hater girl on his knees. His eyes were closed, his face tilted to the sky and cheeks wet with tears, and he was singing for all he was worth.
I’d told Milo that sometimes it just took the right impetus for someone to find their sparkle. Thomas had found his. Helping real people, doing real good, it brought out the Queen in him like no amount of practice ever could. He was a Rainmaker for sure.
• • • •
“Would it be okay . . . that is, my Gran gave me some of her jewelry before I left, and I was wondering—”
“Yes Thomas, you can wear your Gran’s jewelry.” I slide the glittering chain from the faded velvet box in her hands and fasten it around her neck. “Perfect. Now you’re a Queen.”
She turns and looks in the mirror once more, letting her breath out in a shaky sigh.
“Wow. I never imagined I could look like this. I’m so happy, Clementine.”
“Use it. Take that feeling in your heart and share it with everyone out there.”
I clip on my own earrings and slide my feet into my size twelve rhinestone heels. Like Thomas’s dress, they’re precious, passed down through the generations since before the sky was yellow and the earth dry.
It’s a short walk from where we set up the wagons to the town square, and we blow kisses to the crowd as we go. The traditional cheers of “Yaaaas, Queen!” and “You go, girl!” echo off the hills and fill the dull yellow sky with startled birds. Soon we’ll fill that sky with clouds, and then the rains will come and the crops will grow.
We take our places. Milo, as Raspberry De-Light is on my left, and Thomas, as the newly minted Miss Love O’Plenty, on my right. I give Miss Love a grin.
“Not really, but let’s do this thing anyway!”
The music starts, and we dance and sing, beginning, as always, with “It’s Raining Men.” Miss Love’s voice rings out clearer, stronger, and more powerful than it ever was in rehearsals. As strong as it was in grief, and just as beautiful.
The skies open and the rains fall. We dance, sing, and glitter along with the deluge.
Rainmaking is a thing of beauty, and joy lights the wet faces of the crowd, including the little girl who’s become Miss Love’s constant shadow. She isn’t the first orphan to be raised by Rainmakers, and she won’t be the last. Her smile makes my heart happy.
Joy is a form of love, just like sorrow, compassion, and hope. Just like a child’s smile or raindrops on the dry ground.
Spread the love; it’s what Rainmakers do.