In 1935 the midwest teetered on the edge of extinction. Economic ruin had spread like an unchecked plague, infecting its way across the nation, shutting for-ever once profitable doors and ruining the lives of millions. But in Oklahoma that was only the beginning. Another sinister force was waiting, counting off the moments of drought and sorrow until finally deciding to strike; monster dust storms wrecked their way from the west to the east, obliterating what little hope remained, causing an exodus of close to half of a million people.
Harvey Green was the sixth year owner of the failing HG filling station and husband to a wife who was no longer able to move. He had no choice but to stay. His stone veneered store sat on the north side of Route 66 in the dwindling town of Arcadia. The station wasn’t an investor’s dream but it did have the small-town charm that so often went with honesty, which was why Harvey (against his wife’s wishes) went ahead and sunk all of their savings into the purchase. This had been in the spring of 1929 and six months before October 24th; the day that all dreams died. How could he have known? For his wife Anna Belle, the reason for their misery mattered little, her ability to accept dire times had been washed away three years before by the death of their only son. The impact of his loss had led to a spiraling path of depression that even the medicine from Dr. Wright over on Main Street couldn’t stop for long. Soon her trips to town became fewer and fewer until finally, even her own friends had given up asking about her.
The demon from the west struck on the afternoon of May 2nd, 1932. Harvey stood out front of his shop watching it along with Arnold Switzer, the town barber.
“What do you think that is?” said Arnold.
“It’s gotta be a storm,” said Harvey, but it didn’t look right. The color was all wrong for one thing, and it seemed to be rolling like some kind of titan sized pin. Harvey squinted his eyes against a growing wind and saw that the cloud was sitting on the ground.
“That ain’t no thunderstorm,” he said. “That’s dirt.”
“You think that’s dirt?” said Arnold, doubtfully. “That can’t be. Look at how big it is.”
“You better get home,” said Harvey turning and making his way back to his shop.
“Yes sir,” said Arnold, high tailing it for his Model A. “I believe you’re right.”
Harvey shut the door behind him and checked the windows. For a moment he considered getting into his truck and risking the ten-mile journey back to the small farmhouse that he shared with Anna Belle. A sudden blast struck his shop causing the small hanging light in the center of the room to flicker and then go out. Another gust slammed against the western wall bringing with it a claw-like scraping. Harvey waited for it to die down, only it didn’t. It became stronger and soon the scraping turned into a shriek like some kind of banshee demanding to be let in.
Harvey walked over to the window and gasped. It was as if a dirt-filled ocean had suddenly been released over the town. High-speed grains of Oklahoma soil whisked by, some finding their way to Harvey’s storefront window, scraping the glass. On it went with the color of the storm fading from an acrid brownish orange to a humbling shade of gray. The claws of a thousand rats played out within the small shop as particles of dirt crept their way through the crevices and cracks, laying siege to Harvey’s store until piles of dust began to build-up on the floor.
A moment of panic seized Harvey as he suddenly remembered that Anna Belle was alone.
He would have to risk it. Harvey walked over to where a bucket sat next to the cash register and pulled out a handful of rags. He then proceeded to tie three together and wrapped them around his head, covering his mouth and nose. He pulled out his keys to the Stake Bed truck and made his way back to the front door. The wind was ripping, creating an illusion of a solid wall as the particles rushed by with blurring speed. His truck sat only fifteen feet away but Harvey couldn’t see it. He reached for the door and pulled but was only able to move it a couple of inches. The invading dirt had managed to build itself up over the threshold like a growing disease. A violent surge of wind whistled through the small opening that he had managed to make, causing the dead hanging light to swing dangerously on its chain. It took three kicks with his foot to finally clear enough dirt away so he could open the door. Harvey rushed out, struggling to close the panel behind him. The sand felt like a million stinging bees slapping against the exposed areas of his face. He was forced to cover his eyes with his hands and did his best to guess the location of his truck as he stepped off the landing.
He suddenly remembered Arnold and hoped that he had made it home. Had he left in time? Harvey didn’t think so. A pain shot up his leg from the impact of his knee slamming into something hard. He had found his truck. Harvey leaned forward squinting through the dirt and saw that he was at the driver’s side door. Loose sand had built its way up the side of Ford and he was again forced to kick away a pile of dirt.
The handle at first refused to move. Harvey reached out with his other hand and pushed. He could feel the grind of the clinging dirt fighting him but was finally able to turn the lever and jerk the panel open. He stepped up on the foot-rail and fell into the cab, the wind slamming the door behind him. The truck rocked back and forth while the sizzling sound of sand scraped against the metal. His entire body tingled, his scalp felt as if it was infested by insects. He shakily placed the key into the ignition and cringed from the bolt of electricity that suddenly surged up his arm. The storm wasn’t just covering the world with its waste but electrifying it, as well.
A moment of utter surrender flooded over the man as he sat trembling within his shaking truck. This could be nothing less than the end of times; a sudden moment of truth straight out of the Scriptures. An image of Anna Belle laying there alone brushed away the fear that had him throttling the steering wheel. There would be time enough to question the purpose of this disaster later, but for now, he had to get back to her.
At first, the engine refused to start. Harvey again turned the key and the motor caught. The trip was a straight shot west on Route 66 and with any luck, he would drive out of the tail end of the storm. A sound like crunching glass blended in with the gale as he slowly pulled the truck onto the road. The highway was like an unfinished painting with small patches of pavement showing through and then vanishing, only to reappear a few feet away. Harvey risked a look down at the speedometer and saw that he was only doing ten miles an hour. At this speed, it would take over an hour to reach his driveway and that’s if he didn’t just drive right by it. By now, the sun should be nearing the horizon, shining directly onto his eyes, but instead, the storm was becoming darker as if all light had been swallowed. He reached for the headlights, switching them on and was immediately tossed into swirling vertigo. The dirt on the highway was becoming thicker the further he went and he felt the rear end of the truck suddenly slip to the right. Harvey let out a low moan and eased off of the gas. He leaned closer to the windshield, trying to focus on the small shifting patches of pavement. To each side of this stretch of the highway was a ravine and if he was to wander off of the road there would be no getting out. What would he do then? What would Anna Belle do? Suddenly a flash of red appeared to his right. He risked a quick gaze out the passenger window just as the tail light to a Model A crept by. Arnold hadn’t made it after all. For a moment Harvey considered stopping to check on his friend. It was what Arnold would have done. But Arnold didn’t have a wife unable to move and he was sure that his friend would understand.
It wasn’t long after passing his friend’s car that the screams began. At first, it seemed as if they were coming from behind, fighting against the waves of the tempest. Harvey felt his blood go cold as an image of Arnold struggling against the endless slicing of the sand played out in his mind. Could that have been him crying out for help? Of course, that was impossible; Harvey could barely hear the rumbling of his own motor sitting just a couple of feet away. Another scream caused Harvey to jump. This one seemed to come not from behind but directly in front of him. A sudden orange flash zipped across the shadowy wall flowing past the front of the truck and within the illuminated void were shapes, like frozen images of terror done in tapestry. They appeared for only a moment and were then swallowed back into darkness. Another cry split through the storm but weaker, as if whatever it had been had finally accepted its fate.
Fifty-eight minutes had gone by since Harvey had pulled out of his station. The driveway would be close. Driven dirt continued to slam against the windshield, hungrily assaulting in an effort to get at the man inside. Harvey did his best to ignore it as he leaned closer to the glass, focusing his attention on where he was sure the side of the road should be. Suddenly he saw it: The compartment door had been blown open and its squared body convulsed from the relentless wind tearing at its side, but Harvey Green’s mailbox still stood. A sudden well opened up in his eyes as he brought the Stake Bed down to a crawl. Just beyond the mailbox, he could see the mouth of his driveway. Incredibly it was mostly dirt-free. The motor stuttered for a moment as Harvey turned the Stake Bed. Another fifty yards and he would be home.
The welcoming glow of the kitchen window would not be seen tonight, but that was okay, it hadn’t burned in a while. Anna Belle had turned off that light five months ago before the illness had finally taken hold and Harvey had refused to touch it since. Yet, he had often hoped that one night he might arrive to see its warm radiance but he knew better; her infliction ran far too deep for such revival. Perhaps that was why this demon from the west had come. Maybe it wasn’t a demon at all but a misunderstood angel wanting nothing more than to reunite.
Harvey Green limped the Ford to within a couple of feet of his sagging front porch. The wind knocked at the dilapidated siding of his house, chipping off rotted pieces of the lap. Harvey didn’t notice. Anna Belle was waiting.
The western demon tossed open the truck’s door as soon as he had turned the handle. Harvey stepped out into the raging night, oblivious of the tiny daggers stabbing into his face and made his way toward a wrought-iron opening. The normally stubborn latch leading into the resting yard opened as if on its own. Harvey walked in, not bothering to shut the gate behind him. An etched stone stood silently accepting the blistering wind. A wave of sadness flooded over Harvey, as fresh as the day that he had laid her to rest. A sudden gust burst through the already steady flow, pushing him forward, bringing him to a stop at the foot of a weather-beaten mound.
Lay with me, a voice whispered and within the spinning darkness a shape appeared.
Anna Belle stood with her arms extended, her face untouched by the disease that had taken her from him. Harvey let his knees surrender and dropped to the ground. The wind had gone from a screaming threat to a welcoming beacon, providing an ever-growing blanket that continued to cover the man, its weight bearing down until his struggling breath retired.