A young adult story originally posted on the site Figment. Around 2000 words.
The neon lights wink outside of my window, and while the other men mumble and curse about not being able to sleep, I greet the city lights and noise with relief. Once upon a time the broad expanse of the Great Plains sky, black velvet strewn with diamonds, made me catch my breath; but that memory is from long ago, and lies buried and covered with dust. It was the Black Dust which drove me here, to a life of beds shared with strangers in a tenement, of hours spent sweeping up entrails at the slaughterhouse, of hunger and cold and the smell of unwashed bodies. While there may be no good way to die, there are some that are better than others, at least in my mind. I'll take my chances here.
I was 10 when we packed up what little we had and left Philadelphia for the Great Plains. The government was still offering free land to anyone who would settle and farm on it; and Daddy had gotten hold of a pamphlet from the railroad offering free passage to anyone who would settle in one of the towns springing up along the lines. When we got to Watson's Junction, there wasn't much but a couple of nailed together shacks and stakes in the ground. Daddy bought a horse and wagon outfit, some tools and food staples, and we set out to stake our claim.
Those first nights out in the open were magical. The air was clean and sweet, the breeze soft, the sky endless. We worked hard during the day, building what was called a “soddie” - a hut built with blocks of sod, shored up by wooden lathes and with a tarpaper roof. At night my brother and I curled up together and whispered till we fell asleep. Daddy plowed every day, the wheat and corn grew till they were over our heads, and after a year's time we could get a loan to buy a tractor and plow even more. There was even enough to buy me a pony named Brownie. We built a barn to keep Brownie, the draft horse named Violet, and a couple of cows, and after that my folks had quite a time getting me to sleep with the family instead of with the animals. I loved drifting off with the smell of hay and horses, listening to the slow grind of teeth chewing grain and Brownie snuffling and shifting in his stall.
Then the rains disappeared, and the ground dried up. The second crop was plowed under, and everyone broke even more sod to plant. It was hotter than blazes, month after month, and pretty soon you couldn't find a green thing anywhere. I couldn't sleep for the heat, the arguing from my parents, and the dust which had started to creep in no matter what we did. Momma wet sheets and draped them over our beds, dabbed petroleum jelly in our noses, taped up the windows, but the dust just kept getting in. The worst was the bugs that came out at night. Hundreds of spiders and centipedes lived within the sod walls, and I could hear them moving at night, feel them crawling under and over me so that I thought I'd go mad. The dark became a moving, smothering, crawling thing, waiting for me at the end of every blazing day. I begged to sleep in the barn, but they wanted me close at hand in case of a storm. Not just any storm, but one which was the particular curse of the Plains.
The Black Blizzard.
I spotted the first one, and mistaking it for a rainstorm ran shouting and laughing to fetch the family. But as I approached the house, Daddy was heading for the barn and Momma yanking the wash off the line.
“Jack! Run and help your father close up the barn! Hurry up!”
Puzzled, I glanced over my shoulder and stopped dead in my tracks. What had looked like rainclouds a few moments ago had transformed into a seething, roiling coal-black mass coming clear down to the ground. Daddy was already out of the barn and running for the soddie so I ran too, for all I was worth. Inside, we started to stuff newspaper into all of the window cracks. Within seconds, it was pitch dark. The wind threatened to tear off the roof, and choking clouds of black dust were coming in everywhere. I could feel it gritting between my teeth, stinging my eyes, and clogging my nose. Even the light from the kerosene lantern couldn't cut through the murk. In the darkness, I prayed for it to pass and for the barn to hold – there'd be nothing to protect the animals if it collapsed.
It felt like it lasted forever, like the world would end and we'd all be buried by this monstrous thing, made all the worse by not being able to see it.
That was the first dust storm. The second caught us out on the road, and Daddy tried to outrun it in the truck. Midday, but it turned to night once again as we were engulfed. The headlights made no difference, and there was so much dust piled on the road that we couldn't even see it sometimes – Daddy had to keep sticking his head out the window to try and follow the telegraph poles, even though the grit nearly blinded him and took the skin off his face. We made home, but just barely.
After that, a new sound was added to the night; the persistent, racking cough of Daddy's dust pneumonia.
We continued to bake under the relentless sun. The few rainclouds that developed piggybacked on dust storms and dropped nothing but sparse mud droplets. With no grass or fodder for the animals, we took to salting tumbleweeds and using them as feed. Still, they lost weight. Daddy shot the steer, hoping to sell it for meat, but it was so skeletal nobody would take it so we butchered it ourselves. The insides were full of dirt. One by one we had to shoot them all, leaving Violet and Brownie to plow if the tractor was taken for not paying the loan. But one morning, Brownie didn't greet me; he stood miserably, eyes unblinking and a stream of brown mucus hanging from his nostrils.
“We've got to put him down, Jack,” Momma said firmly. “You don't want him to suffer any more.”
I wanted to say that we were all suffering, and that no one was going to put bullets in our heads. I was angry, and I thought of trying to hide Brownie at a neighbor's place. But one more look at his silent suffering convinced me that Momma was right. And since he was mine, it was only right that I should be the one to do it. I buried my face in his neck, breathing in the scent, and he feebly tried to nuzzle me. I could hear each painful, raspy breath that he struggled to draw. My throat was so tight that I couldn't even whisper goodbye, but we'd never needed words anyhow. I put the muzzle of the rifle to his broad forehead, looked into his trusting eyes, and pulled the trigger.
That night I dreamed that Brownie had wings like Pegasus, and that we were flying far, far away from here. I awoke, startled, and happy for that one blessed moment. Then I heard the infernal winds rattling the roof, and my father's tired voice.
“I don't think we can recover from this. We've lost just about everything. The only thing we've got plenty of is dust, and we can't spend it or eat it, though it ain't for lack of trying.” He coughed and spat. “Just one more loss and we're gonna have to pull up stakes and try our chances elsewhere. Even with a Depression on, there's got to be somewhere better than this. I keep telling myself to hold on, just hold on long enough and it'll all turn around. But I'm losing faith mighty fast.”
Just one more loss, I thought. Daddy could save us – if I made him. I waited until I heard them slip into bed, listening for their labored breathing. Grabbing the can of kerosene and some matches, I made my way out to the barn in darkness, scuffling my feet to warn away any snakes that might be lurking. I knew the way by heart, and eased open the door. The smell of livestock still clung to the old building, and I took a moment to run my hands over Brownie's old bridle, still hanging on an old nail. My hand came away with dust, of course. It only took moments for the stuff to settle on everything. The International tractor, the Grand Detour plow – those metallic monsters that stripped the prairie, fueled dreams, and seduced farmers into magnificent debt – sat silent and hulking in the corner, a useless shrine to the god of prosperity. I would send them off in a Viking funeral, freeing us to leave this hell and start over. I poured out the kerosene, leaving a trail for the lit match, then stood at a safe distance to watch the flames leap against the night sky.
It was only when the barn was fully engulfed that I woke my parents. Daddy struggled, cursing, with his boots and finally ran off without them, but it was far too late to do anything but watch. Years ago there would have been danger of the fire igniting the prairie and spreading into town, but with nothing but hard-baked earth the fire simply devoured the barn and then burnt itself out. We were left, again, in darkness.
Momma lit the lantern as we gathered around the kitchen table. I drew a pattern in the dust and sipped some black coffee; not the best thing for a 15 year old, but then the water was so dirty it couldn't be much better. I waited eagerly for Daddy to announce that we'd all be packing up and leaving this place for good.
“Well,” he began, turning his head to cough and spit a blackened gob on the floor, “I reckon the insurance money might be enough to buy some seed, and a nag to pull the plow. With all the foreclosures going on, we should just be able to afford it. And since Jack here's big enough to help, we might get a couple acres put in. There's a feller coming to town next week, claiming that if he sets off enough explosives it'll seed the clouds and bring rain. Could be right. Anyhow, we've lasted this long. Surely, one of these days the rain's gonna come.”
Rain's gonna come. Those words would be forever emblazoned in my mind, embodying all that is hopeful yet futile in this life. I would hear them, over and over again, as I tossed and turned at night, in between the imagined sounds of bugs crawling, a sick man coughing, and the soft whicker of a beloved pony calling to me to save him.
Two weeks later, I left my home, family, and past in the middle of the night without a backward glance. A two hour walk got me to the tracks where I could swing aboard a freight train headed east. If I was caught, the charge for vagrancy was four months on the chain gang at hard labor, but there wasn't much that could scare me anymore. I had plenty of good company, and sitting on the edge of a boxcar with a fresh breeze blowing over me felt like heaven. Maybe millions were fleeing the cities, but I was fleeing toward them – places where the wide open sky wouldn't press down on me, where even the poorest people didn't have to eat yucca roots and tumbleweed like cattle, and where the air might stink but it sure didn't come and suffocate you in the middle of the night.
Maybe the rain will come, but I won't be sitting there waiting for it. I'll be making my own future, here in the city where I'm never left completely in the dark.
A companion story from this Dust Bowl series can be found at What Follows the Plow