by Phill Campbell
The first summer after Joe moved to Little Rock, they had a drought. It poured across the desert like hot syrup and made its way into town. The stream dried up, the crops wilted and the streets were thick with white drought-dust. Even the cars panted in the heat.
"Is it like this every summer?" Joe asked Saul Bellows, who ran the grocery store.
Saul's eyes slid away from Joe's as if the question made him nervous, and a bead of sweat trickled down his forehead. He glanced through the window at the hard blue sky with its promise of more heat to come.
"It's not too late," he said. "It's been this hot before and then cooled down some. There's time yet."
"Time... before what?" Joe asked.
"Before it begins ... the water rationing, I mean," he replied; but Joe had a feeling that he had meant something else.
A few old-timers sat in the shade outside, like ancient lizards hiding from the sun. They gazed silently at the desert, as if they were waiting for something to happen. They glanced at Joe with the look they reserved for strangers - polite and uninterested. As always, it annoyed him.
"Another hot one," he announced loudly.
They did not reply. Their eyes were fixed on the desert, watching the heat-haze shimmer in the air.
"Dust's getting thicker," one of them remarked. "Not much time left now." Joe stared at the old man as if he was crazy. Why was everyone making such a big deal about the weather? Something had changed in the past few days - he could feel it. Everything had gone quiet. People spoke in whispers and cast wary, fearful looks at the desert sky. It made him uneasy.
Joe recognised the voice. It was Abe Whateley, the county sheriff. His heart sank. Why was Abe here? Did he know? Had the rumours about the trial already followed him as far as Little Rock?
Joe opened the door, revealing the sheriff's bulky outline. Great scarves of airborne dust trailed across the orange sky behind him.
The sheriff's face was grim, and Joe steeled himself for the worst.
"You'll have to leave town, Joe. We don't want the likes of you living here," Abe said. His eyes flicked to the framed photograph of the woman and child on the sideboard. They wore bright print dresses; the sun was shining, and they were laughing.
"It was an accident, Abe - just an awful accident. The judge let me walk free from that courtroom," Joe said.
The man's hard eyes did not waver.
"We can't take the risk," he said. "Not with the drought and the dust blowing in. No one in this town has blood on their hands. No one - understand? It opens the door and lets them in. You need to be out of here before the dust-storm hits town, Joe."
The rabbit was stone dead. Fear had killed it: there was no mark on its body. It lay in a little scooped-out hollow in the ground, with spiral patterns traced in the dust around it.
Joe glanced up at the sunset sky. It looked like the mouth of a furnace. A reddish dust-cloud was blowing in from the desert, obscuring the horizon. The air stank of burned flint.
He found the town deserted. The stores were locked and shuttered. Gusts of wind blew down the main street, whirling the dust up in pale spirals.
Joe heard muffled voices coming from the chapel. He pushed the door open and stepped inside. Most of the town was packed in there, with Brother Taylor on the stand above them. The preacher was in the middle of a sermon, shouting at the top of his voice. Purple cords stood out in his neck.
"The Good Book says: 'When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, it walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none'.” He stopped when he saw Joe standing in the doorway.
The entire congregation turned in their seats and looked at him - a wall of closed faces and accusing eyes. It reminded him of the courtroom on the day of his trial. Saul Bellows was there, and Abe Whateley, red and perspiring in his uniform. Their naked hostility drove him out of the chapel and back into the wind. He heard the inner bar slam down as the door shut behind him. He was alone now. He had been alone since Becky and Sarah died last year.
Clouds of grit and sand blinded Joe as the dust-storm roared in from the desert. He cowered against the wall of the chapel, bringing his arms up to shield his face.
Through the keening wind he thought he heard faint cries like lost souls calling for help. The voices sounded familiar.
"Sarah... Becky... Is that you?" he yelled. Dust clogged his mouth and dimmed his vision. He staggered out into the middle of the street.
Then he saw the dust-devils whirling out of the storm towards him. There were scores of them, different shapes and sizes, lit up with sparks of static. He thought he saw faces in them - and among the faces were two that he recognised.
He lurched forward with a cry, trying to catch them as they wandered past, but his fists closed on empty air. He followed them down the street, his lost, wailing voice fading into the howl of the storm.
The man was stone dead. Fear had killed him: there was no mark on his body. It lay in a scooped-out hollow in the ground, with spiral patterns traced in the dust around it.
©2005 Phill Campbell
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