Published on May 26th, 2011 by


None of us could believe Jack actually went through with it.
He’d talked about it, of course. Hell, he’d talked about it one god-damn hell of a lot, but y’know. Teenage posturing, just a kid filled with bravado and wider-world dreams. So we thought. But he did it, and then he was gone.
The town was never the same without Jack Whittinger. Despite his youth he’d become a fixture; that James Dean glance, lounging against the wall of Yurkman’s General Store, a comb in one hand and a cigarette smouldering in the other. His leather jacket thick with dust which cracked and billowed in clouds when he changed position. His hair, constantly slicked back with gel, reapplied five times a day when the elements dried it out. That sneer, that smile, a curl of the lip and a point of the finger to break a young girl’s heart.

Jack’s pa had died some ten years ago. A lousy, mean drunk who had one too many and got into a brawl with the wrong guys. No-one much missed Pa Whittinger. Jack used to tell me the world was better off without guys like that, before lapsing into an uncharacteristically maudlin silence, but moments later that half-smile would be back on his lips as he ran a comb through his hair. I knew never to press the subject.

I remember one of the girls talking to me once, Jack’s latest former flame, heartbroken and angry.
‘Jack’s broken, Thomas,’ she told me. ‘His pa done fucked him up good.’ I laughed at her and put my arm around her.
‘I’m serious,’ she went on. ‘He’s gonna up and leave one day.’
Of course I’d heard this talk before. She wasn’t unique. Jack played the damaged goods card when he wanted to move on. And yes, he talked about leaving all the time. Just upping sticks and getting the hell out of Dodge, pushing on through the dust and making it out the other side. But of course he’d never try it, or so I thought. Leaving Weston wasn’t just a case of packing your bags and going.

Everyone’s heard about the Dustbowl, the Dirty Thirties. A mass exodus due to pestilence, famine and dust. Dust storms sweeping the Great Plains. Cattle died, crops died, people died. And the country got over it. The Dustbowl settled.
Not here.
The storm had never died down around Weston. Nobody knew why, or how to stop it, and so many years had passed that nobody much cared any more. The entire town was surrounded by an almost-impenetrable dust storm, encasing us like a cage. Or protecting it like a wall, some said. The storm was most severe at the town’s borders, with the center essentially the eye, but that didn’t keep us safe from the elements. Harsh winds and burning, biting dust clouds swept through the town most of the day, and in the nights it was only worse. It wasn’t the kind of place for someone like Jack to grow up. The rest of us? Well, we were used to it. It was our own little place in the world and we made the best of what we could.

People used to come, of course. Some were lost, drawn into the dust clouds like moths to a flame. Others came out of curiosity, to see the town that never escaped the Thirties. They marvelled at our lack of telephone communications (but how could the necessary work be done in such conditions?). They asked us how we coped without television. None of us had an answer. Sometimes they’d come back and bring us books, bottled water, clothes. We accepted it graciously and stored it in the sheds once they’d gone. The ones who got lost soon left. The nearest gas station was miles outside the dust storms, and we never told them about our underground store. We had no need for cars in such a small town, which helped us ration.

About five years before Jack left, the dust storms got worse. Before, you could occasionally glimpse the outside world. Now you really had to strain to see the plains stretching beyond Weston. People stopped coming after that. Too risky, I suppose. It suited us fine. Not Jack, though. Jack used to love the visitors. He’d hungrily take in their stories of the outside world, of Clinton and Bush, the Gulf, Hollywood and MTV. He’d ask questions when he thought none of us were listening. But he never asked them to take him with them. Jack was too independent for that. If he was going, he said, he was going to make his own way.

I remember one evening I sat reading in the dining room. It was a book I’d read before; I’d read most of the town library in truth. This time it was a romance novel, brought in by someone before I was born. I barely noticed my ma coming to sit in the chair opposite.
‘Tommy?’ she said. I looked up. My mother had inherited many of her ancestors’ genes. Her skin was dark and leathery, worn by the dust and air.
‘Yes ma?’
‘You won’t go the way of the Whittinger boy, will you?’ she asked me. I knew this would come up one day. Jack was my best friend.
I shook my head. ‘No ma,’ I told her firmly. ‘No, I won’t.’ I waited, expecting her to demand more reassurance. Ma just smiled at me, almost sadly, then turned away.

One night, I stood outside, the chill wind biting into any exposed flesh I hadn’t managed to cover. My throat was dry with dust and I took a swig from my flask which did little. I was on storm duty, one of a few who stood guard each night in case of severe damage or danger. Mostly it was boring work. But important. We looked out for each other.
That night, Jack came home. I’d moved my post to the edge of town, staring out into the pounding, billowing waves of dust. The moon’s glow had turned the dust white and smoky. I stared. There was a figure in the ocean of filth, gradually getting larger as it struggled forward. I blinked and stood firm.
Coughing and hacking, Jack stepped from the cloud. His hair was tussled and filthy. His clothes -the clothes he’d left in, no less- were torn. Beneath the rip on his left shoulder I saw blood caked in dirt.
I ran forward as Jack collapsed against me, his knees buckling.
‘Thomas,’ he whispered, his voice raspy and old.
‘There’s nothing out there, Thomas,’ he said. ‘Nothing.’
I opened my mouth to reply but Jack reached into his jacket and pulled out a newspaper, mottled and yellow with age. ‘Look at this.’
I took the paper from him and unfolded it, my eyes still on Jack.
‘Look!’ he said.
I looked down as a gust of wind spewed forth from the dust cloud, catching the newspaper in my hands and tearing it from my grasp. The paper billowed into the air for a second then caught on the dust cloud. It vanished into the atmosphere with a snap like a rope had been pulled from outside, the pages slapping together once before it was gone. I looked at the tiny, blank scrap of paper still clutched in my hand.
‘Come on Jack,’ I said, helping my friend to his feet. ‘Let’s get you home.’

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