The last storm was already on the horizon when I woke on Sunday morning. It hung in the south, a solid black wall of dust, churning and motionless. I’d every intention of sleeping late into the morning, as had been my Sunday custom since Adele and the girls had left, but the distant rumbling and crackle of lightning drug me from the bed just after sunrise. I shuffled around the farm in the early morning, lashing the doors of the barn, rounding up the two stubborn hogs, and shuttering the windows.
I found myself rooted in place, captivated and entranced by the writhing shape across the sky. It stretched impossibly wide over the horizon, rolling across the border from Nebraska. The air had a dry, electric chill, and the sickly yellow wheat swayed in anticipation.
To the west, I saw a small, light plume, picked out in stark contrast with the black beyond. The horse and rider at the base of the little dust devil approached the farm at a sharp trot, and my dust-bleary eyes registered the silhouette.
Carl Jordan owned the farm next to mine for as along my family has been in the Dakotas; I grew up with his great booming laughter warming our home nearly every night. His usual broad, yellowing smile was absent beneath his trimmed mustache and broad-brimmed black hat. His dark suit was blotted with fine layer of grit that he brushed at absently.
“Eddie.” His voice was tired and small as he looked down at me. “No church today?”
I hadn’t been in months and he’d once admitted to envying me. I just didn’t see the need any longer, and I’d relished the extra hours. I ignored the question.
“What’s troubling you, Carl? Mattie all right?” I asked.
He turned towards the south, to the storm and sucked on his lower lip. After a few moments of thought he sighed with a phlegmy rumble.
“The Hattersons are dead. All of them, ‘cept Saul,” he said, not returning his gaze to mine. I drank this in for a moment, feeling the insides my sinuses beginning to burn in the cold and arid breeze. I thought about the youngest Hatterson, a tow-headed toddler with the dim-looking smile, whom I’d seen at the general store with Saul and Molly a few days prior.
“How?” I asked at last. He grimaced, still gazing south.
“Saul’s missing. No one seen him since last night. Molly and the kids are dead, and Saul’s gone. It don’t sound good.” Carl slumped forward a little, and I saw, not for the first time, how old he was. “The whole hornet’s nest is stirred up over in Pickton. He was gonna lose the farm they say.”
It concerned me that I could see the connection between these facts.
“Mattie’s fine,” he said, after another silent moment. “Just a little ill this morning, thanks for asking.” He broke his gaze from the black clouds, and fixed his eyes on me. He offered a pale imitation of his familiar smile, but his eyes remained squinted tight, haunted. He looked as if he had more to say, but at last, he just nodded and gathered the reins.
“Be safe, Eddie,” he said, a phrase worn smooth by repeated use, and turned to trot towards his farm, head still crooked towards the storm.
By noon, I could only watch as it reached up and blotted out the sun.
* * *
The dust storm enveloped us, obscuring the sky like the hands of God. I did my best to ration the allotment of bourbon I’d poured off that morning, watching the black wind scour the earth through a broken shutter slat. During the storms of the year before, pale and weak compared to this tempest, Adele would huddle with the girls to read scripture, inevitably ending with the Revelations in hushed reverent tones. I’d tried not to scowl at her fear and awe before, but now I could feel a little tremor of doubt in me, as I looked out at the sackcloth sky.
When the sky darkened a few shades at nightfall, I prepared a small meal of bread and fried eggs, and drained the rest of the bourbon. Later, I laid in the unmade bed with the world spinning, and the sky howling outside and tried not to think.
The storm raged stronger than ever the next morning, the sun winking through the maelstrom, a fat circle of hazy orange like a fading coal. Late in the day, it showed no sign of abating and I resigned to leave the house, if only to feed the animals. I tied goggles to my head, and a damp bandana around my mouth, but I still gasped at the ragged burn of the dust when I stepped outside into the storm. The lining of my throat seemed to crack and bleed within moments.
I could barely see the barn, but I set out towards it by instinct. A tall hillock of fine black dust lay pressed to the side, and it took me a few kicks to clear the door. The dust had seeped in everywhere, and the hogs and cows were covered in a layer of grime. They stood still in their pens, eyes red and glassy, shuddering and jerking with each loud creak from the roof beams. They ignored the food.
A coil of anxiety twisted in my chest when Carl arrived, leading the terrified horse behind him. His beard was matted with dust, and he had to sweep the lenses of his own googles clean at my doorstep. Instead of entering, he only waved me out to join him.
“You need to come with me!” he shouted over the storm. The dust between his teeth had formed a thin black mud that flecked at the corners of his mouth. His tone, flat and even, terrified me. I didn’t argue, but pulled on my goggles, and offered him a second bandana. I followed close behind him, one hand on the horse’s haunch. Carl picked his way down the path, navigating by some uncanny memory of the curves in the little road. We walked, cautious and deliberate, to the west for the better part of mile, towards the leaning shape of the Collins farm. A throbbing dread began to stir in my breast as we approached.
The door was thrown wide open and off one of its hinges, swinging in the wind. I could see Roger Collins, slumped in the door frame, the congealing blood on his forehead caked with the fine dirt. His left eye, just beneath the bullet hole, was flooded red and tilted skyward. The right eye stared straight ahead. Clutched in his hands was a rifle, one spent casing pressed in the folds of his filthy shirt.
Abigail Collins and her youngest were inside, curled around each other in the corner of the room. The flowers of blood that bloomed on the fabric of their dresses was bright and vivid.
Seated upright at the dinner table, as if ready for a meal, was another figure, filthy and caked with black dust. He seemed composed and proud, despite the pinprick bullet hole, clean and bloodless, standing starkly in the center of his throat. His grimy skin was dried and shriveled, his eyes were closed, the lids sunken over hollow pits. It took a long yawning moment to recognize the desiccated face.
Saul Hatterson, hands clasped around his little revolver, looking for all the world like he’d been dead for a week. Saul Hatterson, grinning obscenely, baring dried black gums.
Despite the roaring storm, there was a unearthly stillness in the little house, and I could hear my heart thudding in my ears. I turned to Carl with pitiful expression, a plea for some sort of understanding.
“I was bringing them some cans. Roger was worried about being able to last out a long storm,” he shouted from the front porch, where he closed Roger’s eyes and wiped the blood from his hand. He looked up at me and stood. “Jed ain’t here.”
I gazed around the room again, before turning to Carl. “You don’t think Jed…” I began, letting the idea remain unsaid. Jed was a quiet and sickly kid, but something about him had always set my teeth on edge.
“No,” he barked. “I don’t think a 13 year old is capable of this. But I didn’t think Saul was either. None of this makes any Goddamned sense.” He brushed at the lenses of his goggles.
“No. It does not,” I agreed.
“We should head into Pickton to tell someone, but I – I need you to drive the Collins’ Ford. I can make it between our three farms on foot reliably enough, but I don’t think me or that damn horse could make it all the way into town.”
Carl looked embarrassed by his admission, hidden as he was behind dust and beard, and I followed him to barn.
The Model A made only a few grinding rasps before dying, refusing to respond to any of our clumsy ministrations. When I opened the gas cap, a damp clumped mixture of dust and gasoline tumbled from the little opening. My breath came in shallow gasps as we moved to the Collins’ tractor, unscrewing the cap. The same reeking clay was stuffed to the top of the tank.
We walked back towards our farms in silence, my heart pounding as I struggled to keep my breathing steady. The dry passages of my sinuses were scoured raw.
We checked Carl’s tractor, then mine. Both were useless and clogged with dust. If Carl was as panicked as I was, he refused to show it.
“Eddie, I don’t know what this means,” he yelled as we crouched over my tractor. The sky dimmed. “But I think I’d appreciate it if you stayed with me and Mattie tonight. The storm has to let up in the morning, I’m sure.”
I could see at last the spark of fear in his eyes, and it brought me a little solace.
Carl went ahead, panicked with thoughts of Mattie, sick in bed on her own, and I agreed to follow. I entered my house to gather my shotgun and a tin of coffee.
I don’t believe I intended to start drinking, but Roger’s bloody and crooked eye was shining wetly in my memory, and I drew from the bourbon a few soothing pulls.
I recall being tired and weary from the day’s grim business, but I don’t remember lying down on on the cool wood of the floor. When I woke gripping the gun and empty bottle, the sky was lighter, but the whirling black cloud still surrounded the world on all sides.
Tuesday, I thought through a fog of pain. Or is it Wednesday? I let the shame to flood in when I realized I’d left Carl and Mattie waiting all night.
After finding I’d drained all my water the night before, I dressed for the storm and headed out to the well. The pump handle strained as I pressed downward, bringing up the first sounds of water. What came out of the pump was dark and viscous, a chalky black paste. I dropped the tin bucket in disgust, feeling yesterday’s dread igniting behind the alcohol ache, and I turned back towards Carl’s farm.
On the road, with my destination not yet visible, I turned to see behind me. There wasn’t even the faint outline of my barn. In that moment, I was alone, surrounded by a wall of vibrating earth and wind all sides. It could have been all of creation, or the end, and I would never know. I turned back towards Carl’s farm and began to run in a panic, hoping I had not altered my direction.
As the small unpainted house came into view, I saw Carl’s horse, lying motionless on the ground, still tied to the railing on the porch. A small dune of black dust had formed against the animal’s still chest. The door was wide open, slamming into the wall with a sharp crack at every breath of the storm.
My panic spiked like a fever, extremities shaking of their own accord, when I stepped inside and climbed the stairs.
Mattie lay spilled from her bed, trailing sheets and a shredded fragment of her nightgown. Her head was twisted, the neck bruised and bent. Her bulging glassy eyes seemed to stare at me. Her tongue was thick and black between her teeth.
Seated on the bed above her, spindly legs dangling over the edge, not touching the floor, was the dried and leathery corpse of Jed Collins, the missing boy. His eye sockets gaped empty and black as he grinned out at the world.
Carl was nowhere to be found.
I backed out from the house, at last tuning out the chaotic roar of the storm. My mind spun trying to make sense of utter madness, and it stoked the fires inside me. Desperate dread flooded my limbs until I found myself propelled blind, running through the storm.
I continued past the hulking silhouette of my barn, legs flooding with fire as I sucked in great lungfuls of choking dust. I thought nothing of destination, I only wanted to get as far away from the storm as possible, far from the empty charnel houses of my neighbors, and from empty eyes and wicked grins.
I made it as far as thin fork of the Missouri that carves the far edge of my land. I saw, through the wall of shifting haze, the black outline of the river from a distance. When I approached, legs slowing and lungs burning, I saw the river, wide and unearthly still. The water was black and thick, and in mute disbelief I watched it flow, like molasses, under a dark and churning sky. And then, thinking of Adele, I began to understand.
I nailed the shutters closed, driven by an animal urgency of purpose. I the door braced with Adele’s heirloom cabinet, allowing it to crack and splinter, as I stacked a steamer chest on top.
I didn’t really believe that this would slow whatever would come tonight, in the howling darkness, but I wanted to have the time to know, to be sure. The last bourbon bottle lay empty on the floor, and I was glad for this, for the chance to be clearheaded at the end. I sat, back to the wall, facing the door with the shotgun in my hands and I waited.
The sky darkened and the storm continued to howl. I measured my breaths, trying to hold onto a that moment of calm, to stretch it out until it dried and snapped apart.
It was late at night when it arrived. I could hear the heavy footsteps circling the porch, pulling lightly, testing each shutter. My hands were suddenly slick with sweat on the barrel of the shotgun.
The shuffling footsteps stopped in front of door, and I saw the wood flex ever so slightly as pressure was applied. A scraping sound began to rise, hissing, from the small barricade as it began to slide slowly across the floor. The force on the other side of the door increased, the pile of furniture toppling to the side. In a moment, the door was open to the storm and to the night beyond.
The figure swept into the room with a silent grace that surprised me, and it stood regarding me. Carl’s skin seemed to crackle and go taut like paper as he moved. In the hollow of his empty eyes were tiny twisting clouds of dust, blue ribbons of electricity arcing across the sockets. He was smiling, a smile I’d never seen from him. A wide obscene grin.
I felt a strange sort of calm then, the surety of knowing, despite the madness of it all.
I raised the shotgun.
“Eddie,” the thing inside Carl hissed, in a voice like grinding sand. The corpse took another step towards me, and I saw a black trickle of mud from the edge if its cracked lips. “Go ahead. Shoot, Eddie. See what it gets you.”
I smiled back at him, seeing the solution so clearly. I took a moment to be thankful that Adele and the girls are gone. Thankful, in an awful way, that I’d struck her hard enough for her to finally leave me. This would not be the night that they die.
It moved halfway across the room, shuffling towards me, the malevolent sparks of its eyes locked on me. The now-familiar dread reared up to swallow my temporary peace.
I saw, in the black whirlpool of its eyes, the great storm, covering the entire earth in a final gloom. I saw trails and chains of endless murder and atrocity crisscrossing the darkened world, into that last eternal night.
I saw the end.
All I had left was a little sliver of hope, enough to spur me onward. I swung the shotgun up under my chin, feeling the cool of the barrel on my chin. The thing inside Carl jerked to a halt, and ceased to smile. I knew I’d gambled right this time.
It needed me. And it wouldn’t have me.
I made sure I was smiling, drinking in the thing’s rage and frustration.
The thing roared. With a leap, it burst from Carl’s body. His drying muscles snapping and shredding into long fraying fibers as it shed him like a coat, thudding to the floor behind. A swirling cloud, a flurry of dust, coursing with lightning and pure elemental hatred, surged towards me faster than I would have thought possible.
Tendrils coiled and tightened, wound their way through air, twisting towards my mouth and nose. I could feel it caress the raw passages of my lungs, hot, twisting and unmistakably, horribly, alive as they slid into me.
I pulled the trigger.