Texas Panhandle, 1933
“Dust is comin’, mister, ain’t you heard?”
The man at the desk squinted at me, as if judging my sanity. He had every right to, seeing as I had come to this flea-bit town specifically for the dust storm, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. Or that what was coming with the dust was my particular interest.
I just slapped my money on the desk and shrugged. “Lookin’ for work. I’ve been shoveling up dust two counties over, when they was hit. Heard the wind was blowin’ this way, thought I’d try my luck.”
He scooped up the coin with a snort. “Your funeral.”
I felt that tickle on the back of my neck I get when something isn’t right. This whole town gave me that feeling, from the minute I arrived.
“Not today,” I said. Not if I can help it.
The town folk were rankled up, too. Their eyes were tight, tempers short. All of them looking over their shoulder, checking the sky. I knew the cause even if they didn’t: a Dustman was coming, looking to scour this place clean.
The afternoon stretched out long and slow. Midday the wind kicked up, coming from the east. People rushed home, dragging screeching children behind them. I watched them from my perch at the soda fountain counter, a fierce anger seizing me at the thought of all these turned to dust, play things for the ghoul.
A creature I’d seen, that used the storm as a handy vehicle to ride in on. A cloak, if you will.
Not every dust storm had one. In fact, I hadn’t quite figured if there were more than one, but I had my suspicions. All I knew for certain is what I’d seen a month ago, when I’d been caught in the storm that had billowed over Coalvale like a coarse pillow. When it was done the town was empty of none but dust and a few people who spoke of the strange man they had seen through the gritty veil of the storm. I’d seen him too, and what I saw brought me screaming awake more than once.
People in the Panhandle were spooked, and for good reason. Two towns mysteriously emptied after a dust storm hit them, and no explanation seemed to fit.
Three nights ago I had a dream that woke me to a steely purpose, one that brought me to this town, where the wind would soon bring the dust.
Some folks said the storms were God’s judgment. I weren’t too sure about that, but the Dustman was something else entirely, I reckoned. My dream had showed me a way to stop him. Maybe the nightmares would stop, too.
An hour later I was squinting at the sky, standing just outside of town, the wind gusting in my face. The air smelt hot and burnt. Far away, a dog barked once. On the horizon a black cloud was boiling towards the town, and I braced myself.
Lord, have mercy.
The dust hit then, all scour and grit, and I put up my handkerchief, my eyes burning.
I felt him first, felt the cold snaking through the air, cutting through the dust and heat like a knife. He whirled into shape in the midst of the storm, the dust spinning around him as the edges of his silhouette grew sharper, and then he was stepping towards me in that murky, dusty light, a slight smirk on his face.
He looked like an ordinary man, if you didn’t look close enough to see the pitiless scorn in his eyes, or the way he faded under the light. Most people never got the chance to notice, I suppose. One touch of his long, spindly fingers and they dissolved to dust right there and then.
It’s what I saw in Coalvale, the memory that haunted my dreams.
The wind died down a notch, but the dust still swirled, blocking out the sun, casting the day into gloom.
“That’s far enough,” I said. My heart hammered in my chest. My dream-directed plan seemed a flimsy one, now, made of mere vapours and hope.
He stopped, cocked his head, nostrils twitching like he was trying to scent me.
“You ain’t welcome here,” I said, gathering my courage. “Or anywhere, for that matter. I’m here to tell you your days are at an end.”
He looked me over, and I had to work not to flinch.
“From dust you came, and to dust you will return,” he said, his voice a dry, gritty whisper as he stepped towards me, his hand lifting.
My gut clenched. I had to let him get close enough.
He took one more step and I twisted around, bending over and grabbing the bucket I had brought, water sloshing over the side as I did so.
I caught a quick glimpse of his eyes widening and the smirk changing to a screech that whistled around my ears as I heaved and flung that bucket of water right at him.
This was the moment I saw in my dream; the water hitting him full force and him melting like an ice cube on a hot day in July, the edges of him collapsing inwards, mud spattering my face as I dropped the bucket.
I wiped my face, and bent down, coughing on the dust as I examined the mud pooling at my feet. Just ordinary dirt, far as I could tell.
I straightened up, spitting out grit, wondering for a moment at the strange turns of the world. From dust I came, sure enough. But no cause to go back just yet, thank you God.
I tightened the handkerchief around my face and turned back to the town, hugging myself against the wind that blew in a wild sandpaper scrape against me.
Just another drifter, looking for work.
This story is one of a series of original short stories. I hope to get more of these up on the blog, if y’all like them!
You can find the others here:
Featured image: Dust bowl, from the USDA, on Flickr