10.04.2008

Dust Country

by Daniel W. Powell

James Diamond kept it pegged at a steady seventy miles an hour. The dusty Charger devoured the shimmering asphalt, and Diamond, a cigarette cradled in the nook between his index and middle finger, stared at the road with the dreamy complacency that is the hallmark of rural driving. One thought played over and over in his mind, and surprisingly it wasn’t that of freedom, although it can be said that freedom does occasion this particular notion. The concept was so palpable it seemed to stand on the horizon, like that great white sign in Hollywood or one of those Megabucks billboards. The notion was simple: possibility.

He’d stopped to gas up and grab a sandwich and a Yoo-hoo at a rickety service station and convenience store in New Princeton. There had been mirrors in the corners of the grocery, the kind that discouraged kids from filling their pockets with Laffy Taffy and Rolos. He’d caught a glimpse of himself as he made his way to the refrigerated cold case along the back wall of the grocery. He stopped and considered his reflection, and yes, he thought, something most certainly had changed. Here now stood a man with possibility. He was aged by labor and the rigors of an eight-year bid, but also muscled and still fundamentally youthful. His dark, shoulder-length hair had been trimmed upon release, and he’d maintained his square jaw line. The same dark eyes that had earned him respect in Salem and the adoration of women like Sandy shone back at him in the dusty mirrors. He studied himself, trying first one side and then the next in profile, until the codger behind the desk began to eyeball him, and then he grabbed a tuna sandwich and a drink and paid for his purchases. He paid cash, and not cigarettes or skin magazines, and exited the grocery into the scalding brilliance of an August afternoon in Southeastern Oregon.

James Diamond had been released early for good behavior. While he hadn’t necessarily turned to God as a means of salvation, he had found the urge to be a better man. He’d learned to control the vices that had contributed to his incarceration, but he’d also, and more importantly, learned to take responsibility for his actions. In his glory days, he’d drunk too much far too many times. The last time he had wrapped his bike around an alder tree and killed his fianc√©, Sandy. He was sentenced to eight years in the Oregon State Penitentiary. His mother had passed while he was in prison and his brother was overseas in the service “killing rag-heads,” as he liked to mention in the letter he sent every year around the holidays. He’d never known his old man, and he refused to use his father’s absence as a crutch.

He had stitched blue jeans forty hours a week in the prison shop, and early on he’d had his mother sell his motorcycle and what she could of his tools. He mingled the proceeds with his earnings and paid a paltry sum of restitution to Sandy’s folks. He helped teach other inmates to read and he stayed away from the rotgut hooch that circulated in the halls of the enormous prison. At night he thought of Sandy, and dreamed of a life in the desert, away from the rains of Portland.

Upon release he’d caught the Greyhound back home, to the old neighborhood in Sellwood, and retrieved the Charger from his brother’s place. He left without talking to anyone from his past, without so much as poking his head into Deluxe Billiards, where they’d be playing pool and chasing Hood River whiskey with Pabst Blue Ribbon.


He’d driven through a night and a morning and into the middle of an afternoon, and he was tired and anxious to arrive in Arizona. Possibility. And so, it was with some anxiety and a pang of reluctance that he found himself slowing the Charger and pulling over to the soft gravel that lay on the shoulder of Highway 78. The man who stood there, thin and disheveled, a cardboard suitcase at his feet, smiled gratefully and shuffled over to the passenger window.

“A lift?” James Diamond said through the open window. It wasn’t really a question, of course.

“How far you going, mister?” the man replied. His face was crusted with dirt, although Diamond thought it odd the man didn’t appear to be sweating. The sun was sweltering, and he’d had to change his shirt outside of Bend, back around noon.

“Going down the road a spell. Next town up is Burns Junction, maybe 30 miles or so.”

“Thirty miles?” the man said, and he paused to consider it. He rolled his eyes up, squinting, as though figuring a times table, and James Diamond saw a thick, yellowish tear ooze over the rim of reddened eyelash. “Thirty miles ought to be just fine, sir! Burns Junction? That’ll be just fine!”

The man picked up his suitcase and made to open the door, and then reconsidered. “Do you want me to put my, ahhhhh, my,” the man said, looking for all the world like one of those kids at the ESPN spelling bee.

“Your suitcase?” Diamond said, this time with some levity. The old guy was harmless. It seemed that he might even be lost out here.

“Yes, yes. My suitcase. Shall I put it in the back?”

“That’s fine. Hop in, though. We need to get some air on us.”

The man opened the back door, slid his luggage next to the duffle that contained the pair of outfits in which James Diamond hoped to earn employment in Arizona, and then plopped down in the front seat. He couldn’t have weighed more than 140 pounds, Diamond thought.

“Hot day, mister. Thanks for the ride. Not too many cars coming through here,” he said. His voice was pained and wheezy.

“You’re right. Country’s wide open,” Diamond replied, sneaking a sideways glance at his passenger as the Charger again surged forward. “Where’re the people? No farmers, no cars, no busses. Nothing.”

“Oh, you won’t find much out this way anymore, young man,” he said, eyes straight ahead.

“Call me James. I’m driving through from Portland. You got a name?”

The man considered the question. Again, he looked like a confused child adrift in a department store, waiting at the help desk for his mother to return from women’s shoes. James Diamond spared the man another glance and caught his breath. For an instant, it seemed, there had been some kind of…well, rippling, or movement at the skin around the man’s mouth, as though something had been caught just beneath the skin there. As quick as it had appeared, it moved up the side of the man’s face and behind his ear and then was gone beneath his dusty hat.

“Richard,” he said, the words almost a whisper. “My name’s Richard.”

James Diamond didn’t stare. In fact something inside him told him to keep his eyes on the road, to take care that he didn’t slip and mention the thing he thought he’d seen. And that was probably just it. The thermometer at the grocery in New Princeton had it at almost 100 degrees. It was hot enough to fry bacon on the highway and his passenger’s passenger had no doubt been only a simple byproduct of the heat.

“Good to meet you, Richard. Mind if we listen to the radio?”

This time the man turned to look at him. He was gaunt and the skin around his eyes and mouth was dark and there seemed about him an air of decay.

“Can you get something? Can you get something on your radio out here?” he said, a glimmer of hope in his voice.

“Don’t see why not,” Diamond replied, and switched on the radio. The country station he’d had on until just before New Princeton was static. He dialed up and down the band, switched to AM and did the same, and then, finding only white noise, switched it back off.

“That’s the damnedest thing,” he said. “I was getting perfection reception all the way up until New Princeton. You’re not bad luck there, are you Richard?” he said, trying to put a little humor into it.

“There’s just nothing here,” the man replied quietly. “See these lakes?” He swept a hand over the dash, indicating the sand drifts and scrub brush that fanned out below either side of the elevated highway. “Dry lakes. Duck Creek and Turnbull. Used to be fish in em’ the size of your arm. But since it happened…nothing. There’s not even any birds around here anymore.” He craned his neck and looked to the sky, a blanket of soft blue, and no clouds in sight.

Diamond pulled his map out of the glove box. He slowed the Charger as he poured over the lower right corner of Oregon. The old man was right. On either side of them, although there had been no signs to indicate it, there had once been a lake. Probably Duck Creek, judging by the expanse of cracked, hollow earth.

“What happened? This map doesn’t show them as dry,” he said.

“They were consumed,” the old man said. “Since they came here, everything’s been consumed.”

Diamond considered his words. He looked at the road and the heat that danced and shimmered over it. He studied the great dried up lake and swatted at an insect that crawled on his calf. He sweated in silence for about a mile, and then decided to come out and ask his question.

“Who do you mean ‘they,’ Richard?”

The old man turned, and for the first time he seemed animated. He even seemed to smile a bit before he answered. “Three years ago or so, a local fella was out target-shooting. His name was Farley McCray and he liked his Jim Beam, which is probably why no one took him seriously. Anyways, he’s out shooting cans and whatnot—the guy lived out on the south shore of Turnbull—when he says the sky opened up and a ball of fire tore over the lakes and landed over there,” he pointed a gnarled index finger back over Diamond’s left shoulder, “at the base of Saddle Butte. Farley says it knocked him down, it came by so fast. Anyway, Farley calls it in to the State Police, but no one ever finds anything. They look for a few days and then dismiss it. Farley goes on and on about this thing he sees, and pretty soon, after drinking every night at the bars in Arock, no one believes his story.”

“What’s this guy saying to people?” Diamond interrupted.

“See that’s the thing. Farley starts talking about his livestock coming up missing. A cow here, a couple of chickens there. Then his dog disappears. Pretty soon his well is nigh drained and he can’t put his finger on it. Farley takes some time and wanders up in the hills, out and around Saddle Butte, checking to see if his animals run off or, just maybe, something was up there. Taking them away.” The man took a break in his story. He slid in his seat and hitched up his trousers, and he seemed to be gaining strength as his story progressed.

“Did he find something?”

“He did, or at least he claimed to. Said he came upon his dog up there on the Butte, this great big old German Shepard named Butter, so named because as a pup the sucker would lick butter straight out of the palm of your hand if you had some handy. Well, Farley comes back into town saying his dog was different, that his dog didn’t seem right, and that he’d had to put it down where he found it, up there on the Butte. But the thing, see, is that it was Farley that was different after going into those woods. He didn’t drink at the bars in Arock anymore—hell, he didn’t drink period, which some would say is an improvement, but it was certainly out of character. He seemed distant, strange, and then he quit coming around altogether. It got around to the Sheriff, and when John Cobb went out to check on him, Farley was dead. Cobb later let it slip, over drinks in New Princeton, that Farley had looked—used up.”

“Used up?” Diamond said. He was getting the impression his passenger had told this story numerous times. The words, the mannerisms, the delivery—they all seemed rehearsed.

“Those are the words Cobb used. He said old Farley was dry as a corn tortilla, like something had just sucked him up from the outside in.”

They got past the edge of the dead lake in silence.

“What does that have to do with the birds? What does that have to do with the lakes?” Diamond asked, knuckles white on the steering wheel.

“That’s the strangest part. Things have been dying out here in the last couple of years. Things are getting, to turn Cobb’s own words, used up out here. In one of the last conversations Farley had before he passed on, he had told Milton Crane, one of his closest drinking buddies, that he thought something had come from the sky on that day. That whatever had landed up there on Saddle Butte was now using up the resources of the area. That whatever it was could make animals go,” he screwed up his face, searching for the word, “off. And that if it could turn a dog like Butter against him, think of how it could turn one man against another. He said he thought that whatever it was up there, whatever had crashed down that afternoon on the Butte, was hungry, and that a man should be careful about who he talks close with.”

The pair covered a mile or two in silence.

“You believe him?” Diamond asked quietly. “You think that crash led to this wasteland, to those dried up lakes?”

“Well sir, what do you think?” the man said. He leaned across the seat and fixed the driver with a stare.

“Well, Richard, I don’t go in for that type of thing. You see, I’ve seen what one person can do to another. Hell, the fact is that I’m responsible for the death of another person. I’ve seen men abuse each other, in both jail and out here in the world. I think it’s a neat story, but you don’t have to blame human misery on space aliens. If you want to see a person get used up, as your friend the Sheriff liked to say, you only need to turn on the evening news.”

“That’s it then?” the man said. He seemed disappointed. “You don’t see how there’s things in the world we simply don’t understand? How there’s stuff that might just be getting started, and that maybe this is the place where it all begins?”

“Interesting story. That’s my stance, Richard.”

“Stop the car,” the man said quietly.

“What?”

“Stop the car,” he repeated, this time more firmly.

“Richard, come on. Don’t get offended. I just have a hard time believing that space aliens dropped out of the sky and…”

“Can you?”

“Can I what?”

“Can you stop the car?”

“Richard, what are you trying to prove? If you want me to let you out, I will, but there’s no need to…”

“Try it. Try it now. Just brake the car gently and pull it over.”

James Diamond studied his passenger. The man was quite serious. He pushed down on the brake pedal. The Charger chugged along at a neat seventy miles per hour.

“What the...?”

“You can’t, can you? You can’t because now I’m connected to you. I’m tapped into you now, James. At least below the neck. You’re strong, to be sure. I’m surprised you can still move your head.”

“What are you talking about? I can’t move my foot! What have you done to me?” Richard screamed. Only his screams gave away his frustrations. His body remained calm and nonchalant, both hands loosely on the wheel.

“Here’s how it works. I’ve been in this…this Richard for too long,” he said with obvious distaste. “I thought I might die out there on that road, you see. Fortunately you came along, and I was able to attach.”

He reached across the seat and pulled up Diamond’s pants leg. There, embedded in a knot of pink flesh at mid-calf, was a glistening protuberance. It ran along the floor of the charger and up into the pants leg of the rumpled hitch hiker. A cloudy fluid the color and consistency of the waxen tear he’d seen earlier moved slowly through the translucent tube.

“I’ve had a fix on you for the last few minutes, and it’s just like I said, you are a strong one. I’ll enjoy my stay with you James, and I have to be honest, you’ve been a tremendous sport about all of this.”

James Diamond opened his mouth as if to speak. No words came.

“Ah, ah, ah. Save our energy, James. We’ve got a long drive ahead of us. There’s a whole world of possibility out there, just waiting on us.”

The Charger devoured the pavement, stopping only once, for just a moment outside of Burns Junction, as the driver shuffled the exhausted corpse of an alfalfa farmer named Richard into a roadside culvert.

© 2008 by Daniel W. Powell
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.

Daniel W. Powell teaches English composition at a small college in Northeast Florida and enjoys writing and reading speculative fiction. He's an avid outdoorsman, long distance runner and zombie aficionado. Daniel shares a small house with his wife and cat near Florida's Intracoastal Waterway. He blogs about speculative storytelling at The Byproduct; and you can also read about his horror novel, Wendigo, at www.DanielWPowell.com.

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