There were four things that could explain away what Gerald was seeing as he sat one night drunk on the porch of his empty home looking out at a dust storm gathering. Four things that allowed Gerald to tell himself he was simply delirious when he saw, out on the edges of withered fields, the figure of a woman coming toward him. A woman out here, when most of the farmers and their families had the good sense to clear out when their crops failed and their children started coughing like they’d been smoking for twice their lifetimes.
He hadn’t had a proper meal in days. That was the first thing. Hunger makes one bleary-eyed. Makes one hallucinate.
The second thing was grief.
It wasn’t two weeks before that Lorrie’s water broke. It was early. Too early. But once she started hollering and sweating, Gerald knew that the baby was coming. He sent Freddy to town to fetch the doctor.
Boise City was a good eleven miles off, and the horses were in no shape for running. They were weak from lack of food, same as every man, woman, and child in Cimarron County. Was a wonder Gerald hadn’t broken down and slaughtered the horses for what little meat was left on their bones. But he’d been saving them for just this occasion. Lorrie was due two months hence, but that child of theirs wanted out and once it was coming, there was no going back.
“I’ll stay with her,” Gerald said to Freddy over the sounds of Lorrie’s screams. “You need to get the doctor, though. Get him fast.”
Freddy tried his best to make those horses fly. Even if they’d been healthy it would’ve been hard to run them fast enough to save her. Gerald hadn’t any money to fit those horses with new shoes, not since the whole world had dried up and the soil swirled skyward, blocking the sun. Still, Freddy kicked and whipped them and rode them harder than he’d ridden any in his life. But it’d taken him three hours to come back with the doctor and by that time, Lorrie was dead. Freddy and the doctor came in to find Gerald on his knees cradling a still baby in his arms, blood all down his shirtfront.
The doctor said it was hard to have a normal baby these days, what with the dust in the air and everything falling apart. Said he’d been seeing a lot of cases of babies coming out too early — all quiet and cold as the fields at night.
Lorrie had been thin, besides. “Malnourished,” was the doctor’s word. And even Gerald couldn’t ignore the odd shape of her body in the last weeks of the pregnancy. He’d seen her walking around the house thin as a vine, with one big watermelon swelling in the middle. No denying she’d been getting worse right along with the crops.
“Even if I’d made it in time, she might not have lived,” the doctor said to Freddy who kept crying that he could have ridden faster. Freddy cried more than Gerald who just sat holding that would-be-son of his and shaking his head. They couldn’t get that child out of his arms. The doctor tried to ease Gerald’s grip, but Gerald reached out with one hand and slapped him.
“Ain’t takin’ my baby,” Gerald had said. “Ain’t takin’ him.”
Eventually, Freddy went back to town on one of the doctor’s horses and brought back the mortician and his assistant. The doctor had to use chloroform on Gerald to get him to let go of his child. The mortician took the child and wrapped it up in a small cloth. Then they wrapped Lorrie up in the bloody bedsheets and brought her to the carriage. Said they’d have to get the measurements for the coffins.
“He don’t have no money for coffins,” Freddy said.
“No one does,” the mortician said, then rode off with the remains of Gerald’s family.
When Gerald did come out of it, he wouldn’t listen to Freddy.
“You got to pay those folks for the coffins.”
“They ain’t dead, Freddy,” Gerald insisted. “Just gone for a while.”
Melancholy settled into the house as thick as the dust and soon enough Freddy left. “Can’t stand to look at you lying to yourself,” he said to Gerald. “I’m no help. You got no work for me anyhow.” So he went off west and left Gerald to drink his store of whisky.
And those were the third and fourth problems. The dust and the alcohol. He was sure to be seeing things in his state. Yet the vision of this woman was so clear. So real.
Out at the edge of the field where the dust danced, he could swear he saw a woman approaching. He squinted and still, he could see her. She was carrying something and walking steadily toward the house.
He wondered if it was a stranger come to loot and if he should grab his gun, but he thought better of it. He was too drunk to aim. So he just sat back and watched the figure come. He took another swig then closed his eyes tight, shook his head, and slapped his face. When he opened his eyes he knew he’d gone insane.
Right on the porch steps, the woman stood. She’d advanced with inhuman speed. Jumped right from the horizon onto his front steps.
Wasn’t any normal woman either. She was caked in dust. Her face, arms, dress, even the bundle in her arms—all of it was covered in a thick layer of dust. The longer he looked, the more he thought she wasn’t coated in it, but she was made of it. He sat looking at her, too dumb to speak.
She took a step up the porch and dust rolled off her body. She took another step, and another cloud of dust kicked off her and rolled into Gerald’s face. He started coughing.
“Stay right there. Don’t you take another step,” Gerald said through a dry throat..
The woman stopped.
“You’re just something I dreamt up,” he said.
The woman shook her head no.
“Then I figure I’m dead.”
The woman shook her head no again and another wave of dust fell from around her head.
“What you got there in your arms,” Gerald asked.
The woman began to step toward him again, dust falling in buckets off her body, but she didn’t get any smaller. It was as if she had an infinite store of the stuff filling her insides. Gerald shrunk back in his rocking chair. She got nearer and nearer, and Gerald saw what he was trying not to see.
The dusty specter kept walking toward him, adjusting the bundle in her arms so that she was holding it out to him like an offering. A dust child swaddled in a dust blanket.
“Jesus.” Gerald closed his eyes again. He felt the weight of something being placed in his lap. When he opened his eyes he looked down at the bundle. A baby made of dust was reaching up for him.
“Is this him?” Gerald asked. “Is this our son?” The woman shook her head yes.
He lifted the bundle to his face and looked at the child’s full, dusty cheeks.
“He’s beautiful,” Gerald said.
The woman spoke. “Kiss me,” she said. It wasn’t quite a human voice. It was the sound of someone coughing. The words were punctuated by dust spilling from the woman’s impossible lips.
Gerald looked back at the baby and adjusted him in his arms. He stood up to face the dust woman.
“Kiss me,” she coughed again. This time it was more forceful, and dust shot out her mouth and stung as it hit Gerald’s face, but he could barely feel it through his foolish desire. He closed his eyes and kissed her. It was sweet at first despite the lips being dry and powdery. The kiss went on and on. He didn’t care if he was seeing things as long as it felt this real.
At last, he tried to pull away and found he couldn’t. Through a small crack in his lips, he felt dust threading into his mouth and down his throat. He could feel it snaking through him filling his lungs. He opened his eyes and saw that the woman was no longer a woman, but a huge, spinning cloud of dust. He felt there was no longer any weight in his arms. The child was gone. And still the dust filled him and filled him. It spun into his mouth, the cloud disappearing into him.
He couldn’t breathe. His mouth tasted of earth and rot. His eyes were heavy. They began to close. And he knew he was dying, full of dust. As the last bits of the cloud disappeared down his throat, all he could think was that this last kiss was worth it.
Elizabeth J. Wenger is queer writer from Oklahoma. Currently an MFA student at Iowa State University, Wenger’s work has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, The Hopper, orange peel literary magazine, and more. You can find more of her work at her website wengerwrites.com. Twitter: @wengerwanger. Instagram: @wengerwow
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