Eli had been only eight when the dusts came in the summer of 1930, rolling across the horizon of Trego, Kansas like a great brown curtain that choked the crops and buried all that it touched in a layer of sand, one, two, three inches deep. Ma had wanted to go, to move away, to pile everything that they owned into the truck and drive as far as they could. With any luck, they could have made it to her sister’s house in Ottawa within a day. They said the dust wasn’t as bad there.
But Pa had refused. The Ricks had been born in Trego, and they weren’t going to leave because of a light breeze stirring up some dirt. So, as everyone else—the Pauls, the Desmonds, the Nicksons—drove off into the sunset, choked with silt and soil, Pa boarded up the windows. As everyone else gave Morton Dill’s Texaco the best business of his life—desperately filling up the tank before they broke into a mechanical sprint into the distance—Pa went into town and bought all the canned food he could carry. While everyone else fled to safety, the Ricks stayed at home.
And so on the night of June 4th, 1934, Eli checked the shutters over his windows by candlelight, wading through the miniature sand dunes that shifted and flowed across the splintered floorboards before falling into bed with an exhausted wheeze. It had been four years since the dusts came. It was getting awfully difficult to breathe, and the cans were running out. Pa would probably send him into town tomorrow to get more from the old general store: more beans, more tomatoes, more tuna. Oh God, the tuna. On a good day, Eli didn’t mind the beans, but the tuna! It seemed to sit on your tongue like a rotten, leaden weight, stinking to high heaven and providing you with none of the joy usually associated with eating. As far as Eli was concerned, it was the devil’s meat. As far as Pa was concerned though, it was dinner.
Anyway, there wasn’t any use in complaining now. The dusts had fallen for the past four years, and they would fall again tomorrow. They would fall, and they would choke all that remained on the surface of that flat, dead state. They had chased everyone else away. Only the stubborn and the dead had remained, and, at this rate, the former would soon become the latter if Pa didn’t get over his damned family pride and let them leave soon.
Eli gave out a sudden cough, stirring a cloud of dust across the surface of his sheets, then proceeded to pull the comforter over his head, praying for tomorrow and an end to the dusts. As he turned on his side to rest though, Eli seemed to catch a peek of something through the shutters. Rubbing sand from the corners of his eyes, he squinted through the brown darkness of his room. There was something, a glint, slanting through the gaps in the shutters.
It bobbed on the horizon, a pinprick of flame dancing in the inky blackness of the night. Eli sat up in bed, pushing aside his rough linen sheets as he squinted through the window. What was that? What was that light on the horizon? The nearest farmhouse was 15 miles away that had belonged to the Simonsons, but they had left town last August after Susie had died. She had starved to death. Mr. Simonson had come by the house once or twice, begging for bread, beans, meat, something to give to his little daughter who laid in the emptiness of the back room, wasting away like a side of beef in a salt house. Pa had turned him away. Pa always turned them away.
“Not enough to go around,” he would say. “Not enough to go around.”
So what was that light on the horizon? Pa always blew out the gate lamp before he locked up the house at ten. So what was that wavering spark in the dust? What could it be?
It was too low to be the gate lamp. The gate lamp stood tall and consistent, unwavering in the wind and deviled dust of the plains. This light swung and bounced low to the ground, jangling up and down obnoxiously as it almost seemed to grow larger, to come closer, to advance
upon the farmhouse. Eli leapt out of bed and hurried to the window, throwing up the sash and unlatching the shutters hastily as he leaned outside to get a better look.
It was. The light was definitely coming closer, and, now that he was outside, he could hear a whistling, a low tune, piercing through the darkness despite the blistering wind.
“There’s a locomotive puffin’ at the station, fare thee well, Annabelle…”
There was someone coming. There was someone walking down the road, slowly trudging through the sands down the driveway to the farmhouse. But there was no one around for miles. Everyone had left months ago, years. So who was walking down the driveway? Who was coming to the farmhouse in the dead of night?
Downstairs, Ma’s grandfather clock rang dolefully, a series of 12 hollow rounds. As the metronome of midnight slowly knocked back and forth behind Eli’s eyes, the light suddenly seemed to vanish, fading into the dust until it was little more than a glimmer, than a spark.
Uneasily, Eli turned from his window, closing the shutters behind him, back to the warmth, to the comfort of the sheets. It was nothing. It had to be nothing. The dust was empty. There was nothing out here with them. Someone would have to be mad to stay out in these dusts. As mad as Pa. Madder.
Suddenly, a great clattering downstairs seemed to shake the house. Eli jolted up. There had been something. Something at the shutters. Something in the night.
His heart in his throat, Eli ran to the door, throwing it open and charging to the end of the hallway, to Pa, to the gun. Downstairs, the banging grew louder as the clumsy, ephemeral hands of some otherworldly spirit fumbled at the latches, as some poor lost soul clawed for a way out of the dust.
At the end of the corridor, Eli rapped his fist against Pa and Ma’s door. How had they not woken up yet? The clattering became even louder downstairs as the door swung open beneath his hand.
“Boy, what the hell’re you banging about?” Pa asked in a sneered whisper, his wiry grey chest hairs creeping over the neckline of his overalls and stained undershirt.
“There’s someone, someone downstairs!”
“Ah hell, it’s them bad beans,” Pa muttered under his breath, turning back into the room, to bark a curt, “Back to sleep Helen” to his perturbed wife. As he turned back to Eli though, a look of violent displeasure on his face, a final bang, accompanied by a crisp shattering, rang out downstairs.
Eli gasped. He had been right. There had been someone outside, and now they were in the kitchen. As he and Pa stood there on the landing, silent but for the wailing of the wind outside, a thin whistle drifted up the stairway to greet them, dancing tauntingly through the dust.
“And I know you need a little consolation, fare thee well, Annabelle…”
In an instant, Pa’s face of stern disapproval fell into a mask of undecided nervousness, somewhere between fear and regret. At his side, Eli turned to face the whistling. When Pa was scared, things were bad.
“Eli, get my gun.” “I don’t know where it is.”
Pa stepped forward, toward the staircase, craning his neck in an attempt to see downstairs, to catch a glimpse of the mysterious whistler that had broken into his house through the dust. Silence had fallen in the kitchen, but whatever it was, it was still there. He knew. He could feel it.
“It’s under the bed. Shells’re in the box next to it,” Pa turned back to him, severity in his eyes. “Don’t wake your mother.”
Eli ran into the room, breaths shallow in his throat, and retrieved the items, running outside to hand them to Pa, who hadn’t moved. His eyes locked on the stairwell, Pa grabbed the
shotgun, loading the device in silence, hardly giving the firearm a glance as he let his fingers do the work, operating entirely on muscle memory. Finally, he turned to Eli.
“You stay up here. Don’t follow me, you hear?”
Eli gave a silent nod as his father snapped back the safety on the gun and began his descent down the stairwell. Before he vanished into the dark, Eli saw him raise the gun to his shoulder, ready to fire.
Eli waited in silence as everything seemed to stop. Pa’s footsteps had faded. The wind had died. Even Eli’s breathing seemed muted and hushed, a dry scratching in a silent world. Only the sound of his heart remained, beating solemnly in his chest.
One, two, one, two, one, two…
A steady metronome thrumming into the night, a solid beat against the white noise.
Suddenly though, a new melody joined the metronome, a high falsetto against the steady bass. The whistling.
“I’ll send a telegram from every station, fare thee well, Annabelle…”
Eli’s ears perked up and a chill doused his spine. Against his eardrums, the whistling sounded like a shrill musical siren’s song whirling about his skull, and, were those footsteps carrying the whistling closer, lifting it slowly upward to the second floor, to Eli?
“If your family wants a little information, say that I’m doin’ swell…”
The metronome quickened; Eli’s breath hitched. Panicked, he backed into the corner, away from the stairwell, away from the song.
“And when I come back, with a pocketful of jack, you’ll have somethin’ grand to tell…”
Downstairs, a single shotgun blast sounded. The whistling stopped. Upstairs, Eli collapsed in the corner, his mind released, his eardrums free. The wind began again outside, a buffeting layer of noise against the terrible, deafening silence. After a moment, Pa came up the steps, shotgun over his shoulder. He stopped and turned to Eli, cowering in the dark. He stood
silent for a moment, then pushed his long grey hair out of his eyes, rubbing his stubbled face with his knotted, leathery fingers.
“Go to bed, boy.”
Pa vanished into his room, shutting the door behind him gently.
Eli sat in the hallway for a moment then similarly returned to his room.
The next day, the Ricks piled into the truck and left Trego, Kansas. They never returned.