A Century of Shorts

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*~*~*~Week 2 Runner Up~*~*~*

Maybe Tomorrow

I picked at the callouses that had formed on my hands as I waited for Father to join me inside. It hurt when our tools first brought the blisters, but that was so long ago. The blisters formed, popped, formed again, then eventually my hands decided they’d had enough and the callouses shaped themselves into hardened circles on my palms and fingertips. I preferred the callouses to the blisters. As ugly as they were, it was better than bloodshed. I closed my eyes and tried hard to remember when times were good, but I was too hungry and too tired to remember anything but the dust.

We hadn’t produced a successful crop in two full years, but Father refused to give up on our family farm. His father and his father before him had all lived and died on this farm, working the soil, producing the corn that would keep us all alive. When it was our time, my father and I kept their legacy alive and fairly successfully, too. Merchants crossed the entire state of Nebraska, from as far away as Omaha, to buy our corn for their stores.

Then the crops started dying. It was gradual at first. My father blamed it on the crows and rabbits that were always picking at the outskirts of our fields. We made ends meet with what was left for a time, but the patches of viable corn were shrinking rapidly. We had to cut back on our portions during meal time, but we were okay. When we had to cut out lunch altogether, I knew we were in trouble.

Then the dust storms came.

I brushed away the traitorous tears that fell at the memories of the first of the storms. It wasn’t really a storm, that was just what the men on the radio had called it.

Radio. I scoffed. Father had sold ours last year for a sack of half-rotted potatoes.

It wasn’t a storm. It was a wall. A massive, unending wall of dust that came at us faster than we could run. Mother, Father and I were tilling the last of the workable soil when the winds started picking up.

I slammed my palm on the table, kicking up the hated dust that was an ever-present part of life. We had ignored the wind. Why didn’t we go inside when had the chance? I thought angrily, wiping away more tears.

When we saw the wall of dust coming toward us, it was already too late. We ran as fast as we could, but we were slammed from behind by the dust. This was not just dust. This was a billion tiny knives stabbing every piece of exposed skin. It got in our eyes, our mouths, our noses. We pulled our shirts over our faces, but it was far too late. I was the fastest and made it to our front door, but I couldn’t hear anything over the roaring of the wind and the pounding of the dust on planks of our house. I felt around blindly for my mother and father, but they were nowhere. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. Like a coward, I fled inside. Alone.

I leaned against the door, listening hard for my parents’ footsteps on the porch; waiting for them to push on the door to be let in, but they never did. I coughed and gagged as the sand coated my tongue and throat. I wiped furiously at my eyes to clear them of the grit, but it was useless. The dust was everywhere. Nothing had escaped unscathed.

A thousand lifetimes later, the relentless howling of the wind finally died down; the sand finally stopped billowing in from under the door and through the cracks in our windowpanes. I shook out a kitchen towel to free it of as much dust as I could and wrapped it around my nose and mouth. It took me way too long to get up enough courage to open the front door. I knew what I would find. Eventually, I knew I would find my family buried out there under the sand. I knew they couldn’t have survived. I knew, but I had to see with my own eyes.

I don’t want to think about this anymore, I thought fiercely, trying desperately to rid the images from my mind. The memories were too painful, but they kept coming unbidden; a tidal wave of grief and humiliation threatened to cripple me. I sat heavily on the floor under the window I had been looking through and buried my face in my calloused hands.

I found Father first. He was face down in the sand, arm outstretched, facing away from the house. I had sobbed into the kitchen towel at the sight of his prone body. I flipped him over and pounded my fists on his chest in heart-shattering anger and hopelessness. His answering coughs were a symphony to my dirt-clogged ears. I helped him roll to his side as he coughed and vomited the sand out of his dried lungs and throat. When he could finally sit up, I watched the panic appear on his face as she searched around wildly for his wife.

“Where is she?” he croaked and tried to get up.

I shook my head, sobbing anew. I didn’t know where she was. It was too much to hope that they had stayed together during the storm; I had left them behind in my cowardly race to get to safety.

Why hadn’t I waited for them. Grabbed their hands. Pulled them along behind me. Gone. Back. For. Them. Anything!

Anything but what I had actually done.

I had given my tear-soaked towel to Father to wipe the dirt from his eyes and we started searching for Mother. It didn’t take us long to find her, though. She, too, was facedown in the sand less than twenty feet away from where I had found Father. But unlike Father, she didn’t start breathing when we pounded on her chest and begged and pleaded for her to wake up.

Father gently picked her up and carried her inside. Her lifeless body hung limply in his arms. I followed slowly, looking anywhere and everywhere except my mother. He murmured sweet-nothings to her all the way inside and set her down on their bed. He tried once more to revive her.

I gasped at the sobs that wracked my body. To my utter disbelief and shock, my mother began to wheeze. She was alive! But she was fighting the dust that had overtaken her lungs, making it impossible for her to breathe a full breath. Father gently coaxed her to her side so that he could pound her back to help clear her lungs. He encouraged her when she could finally cough the gunk out of her lungs. Finally, after an impossibly long time, she collapsed back on to the bed and slipped into a deep sleep.

Two days later, another storm blew through, but we were prepared for it. We put towels under the door and covered the windows with paper. We kept extra water in the house at all times. We never had enough food to eat, so starvation was always at the back of our minds.

The winds had been relentless ever since. There was this magic time just as the sun was coming up over the plane, though. Everything went calm for just a few moments and the world seemed like it would right itself, but it never lasted. Every day, Father went out to our baren fields to try to coax some life out of them, but nothing would ever live here again. It hadn’t rained in way too long and I was afraid to ask how low our well water was now.

Father and I had been constructing a fence for the past two months, trying to create a shield against the blowing sand. It was pointless, but desperation was a heady weight to carry around with you constantly; it demanded an outlet. Father found that outlet in this fence, and in an attempt to assuage my guilt at leaving them behind all those lifetimes ago, I helped him.

But there was nothing to show for our efforts.

We would slowly starve to death in this wasted landscape unless a miracle happened.

When Mother had regained some of her strength, she had taken to praying constantly, day and night for a salvation from our plight. When things went from bad to worse, she retreated into herself and hadn’t spoken a word since. Father started construction on that stupid fence after a week of trying to coax my mother out of her stupor with no success. Maybe he just needed an excuse to be out of the suffocating weight of hopelessness that now permeated every corner of our home.

Maybe we would get our miracle. Maybe one day soon the clouds would bring rain instead of more blasting heat and sand and death. Or maybe we would build our fence and the next storm would carry it away, laughing at our pathetic attempt to temper the raging beast.

I stood slowly, opened the door, and stepped out onto our porch, shielding my eyes against the blazing sun. Father was patting off his clothes to get the worst of the dust off of them, creating brown clouds around him like a macabre imitation of a vanishing magician. A small part of me hoped that he really would vanish from this place and reappear somewhere better; that he would find an oasis somewhere far from here and start a new life where the threat of starvation wasn’t constantly hanging over his head.

I smiled a sad smile as he emerged from his dust cloud with his head hung low. I wished I had something better to offer him than empty promises that things would get better. He sat in a dusty rocking chair on the porch and silently gestured for me to sit in the vacant one next to it.

“I really think the fence will help,” he said quietly, almost as though he were talking to himself. Maybe he was.

“Tomorrow, we could try digging out in the west fields and see if there’s any good soil under the sand,” I mused as we rocked slowly back and forth in time with each other.

“Couldn’t hurt,” he answered. “I’ll get some of your mother’s pots, but we only have half a sack of corn left to try planting. It won’t be enough.”

“All it takes is one sprout, Pop.”

“Maybe our miracle is coming tomorrow,” he said with a small nod; the familiar words he had said countless times in the past two years echoed once again.

“Yeah, maybe tomorrow.”

* * *

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