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by D.W. Davis
The storm raced across the prairie, darkening the southwestern horizon like a descending shroud. Black and purple and furious, roiling layers of anger and dangerous intent. Lightening crackled within, like neurons firing ceaselessly. The air ahead of it seemed sucked dry, the prairie hollowed in the front’s advance. Ervin’s eyes darted between the clouds and the road, the road and the clouds. The Packard jerked back and forth as he tried to avoid the wildlife fleeing the storm, jackrabbits and coyotes and prairie dogs. Exodus in miniature, and the child that had trembled at his father’s Bible-whooping shivered deep down inside of him.
“Watch the fucking road,” Oscar said from the backseat. “Ne’er mind the weather.”
Easier said than done. One could no sooner look away from a raging housefire. As beautiful as it was terrifying, and drawing closer at speeds Ervin couldn’t begin to fathom. Science had never been his strong point, no more than anything else had, and worse than some.
Next to Oscar, the bank manager said something. Tried to say something. They’d had to gag him as soon as they left town; you could only pistol whip a man so much before you risked serious brain damage, and the idea was to drop him off, alive, in the middle of nowhere. So they’d jammed an old sock into his mouth deep enough he couldn’t spit it out, and he’d pretty much stayed silent until the car started its hopscotch across the highway.
Pistol pressed against the manager’s side, Oscar leaned forward between the front seats. “Well sweet Jesus,” he said. “Ain’t that something.”
“Comin’ fast,” Ervin said.
“Bet it’ll be as bad as ‘Twenty-five? That bastard crossed three fucking states.”
Ervin swallowed his response, which wasn’t so much a word as a whimper. He’d never lived through a twister, but he’d watched them from a distance and he’d seen their destruction up close. He’d long ago told himself he didn’t believe in God, that God wouldn’t permit such a bastard as Samuel Ervin Jameson to worship and praise Him, but the devil was another matter altogether. Ervin had seen plenty to suggest the devil was as real as he or Oscar or anyone.
Oscar swore. “We gotta find somewhere to lay up.”
Relief swept through Ervin, until he remembered the other man in the backseat. “But they’re after us.”
“Not for long. Ain’t no sane person gonna be out in that weather, and I aim for that to include us. Keep an eye out.”
He sat back. Ervin kept both hands on the wheel. His nerves hadn’t calmed since they’d exited the Packard back in town. What had the town’s name been? Didn’t matter, of course. Just another town. The third one. He’d thought of Oscar’s joke, The third time’s the charm, as more of a curse, but everything had gone just as smoothly as the two times before. Small town bank; they weren’t expecting it. No security, lazy cops. A middle-aged, middle-class, middle-of-nothing manager who’d done just as they’d asked, come along with them easy-as-you-please. Oscar could be intimidating when he put his mind to it. Ervin too, for that matter. Had a mean streak that helped him with this sort of thing. He blamed his father for that, also for the paunch and the early bald spot, and the occasional nightmares of fire and brimstone. A couple cigarette burns and other lashes that had healed but wrong. Ervin tried to keep all that to himself, but during the first bank he’d let it out some and actually shot up the place a little. Oscar had just laughed and laughed. Put a fright into everyone but Ervin didn’t think he’d hurt anybody, though they hadn’t stuck around to find out and he still thought about it some.
The Packard jolted as he ran over some critter. The highway curved, taking them closer towards the encroaching disaster. Sheets of rain so thick it looked like a wall at the end of the world. If Ervin hadn’t been a grown man on the run, armed with a pistol and shotgun and a newly-acquired small fortune, he might’ve pulled the car over and curled up under the dash.
Up ahead, something emerged from the prairie blandness. Ervin blinked until it came into focus: a house. Just a solitary farmhouse.
“Oscar,” he said.
Oscar leaned forward again and squinted. “Well, that’s something.”
“It’s the only thing, I think.”
Ervin slowed as the house drew closer. He looked for a car or tractor, but saw nothing. An old barn out back, mostly in shambles. The house itself seemed abandoned, maybe only recently; broken windows on the second floor, a porch railing split in two. Without being told, Ervin pulled the car off the highway and down the gravel drive, pulling up in front of the house. The sun-faded paint was peeling off the exterior; the roof was minus several shingles. Ervin didn’t like the look of the place; it looked like man had tried to stake a hold, and nature had reclaimed it.
“Think it’s haunted?” Oscar asked.
Ervin looked at him and Oscar laughed. He did not look good when he laughed. His face was drawn, gaunt, almost starved; when his mouth opened too wide, as it did now, you could make out the finer lines of his skull. Oscar Turnbridge constantly looked like a strong wind would blow him clear into the next county, and it didn’t help that he ate small bites of everything, rarely finishing a plate. He could drink as well as any man, however, and the liquor didn’t seem to affect him the same; he claimed his mind was too mean for booze, but Ervin thought that was just what happened when you started young. Ervin himself hadn’t touched the bottle until his twelfth birthday, practically manhood. And he’d done it to spite his father, who smelled whiskey on his breath and beat the unholy hell out of him. Such was not a deterrent; Ervin had simply learned to suck a mint afterwards.
Ervin turned off the engine and they sat there in the damp heat, so wet it may as well have been raining already. The storm approached from behind the house; if Ervin narrowed his focus on the building itself, he couldn’t even see the clouds. But he could still feel them. Hear them, even; now that they were stopped, he could make out the distant roll of thunder, a low, ominous pronouncement.
The devil is another matter altogether.
“We can’t just stay here,” Oscar said. “For God’s sake, get out and open this man’s door for him.”
Ervin got out. He thought of grabbing the shotgun from the passenger side but left it, trusting the pistol tucked into his waistband was enough. He walked around the car and drew the gun, before opening the rear passenger side door. He motioned with the gun. “Come on.”
The manager stumbled out, catching himself against the side of the Packard. He grunted and gasped; snot shot out of his nostril and into the dirt. Christ, Ervin thought, and he snatched the sock out of the manager’s mouth and tossed it aside.
“Just fucking breathe,” he said. “And don’t talk.”
Oscar got out and came around the car. He looked at the manager, then at Ervin. “Why’d you do that?”
“He couldn’t breathe.”
The manager coughed. “Thank—”
Oscar jammed his pistol barrel in the man’s side. “Believe my friend told you not to talk. So don’t fucking talk.” To Ervin, he said, “And if he hollers for help?”
“Who’ll hear him?”
“We don’t know the house is empty.”
Ervin turned around and let his gaze wash over the building one more time. He nodded. “Sure looks empty.”
“Well, you can settle for looks, I’d prefer to make damn sure, myself.” He shoved the manager forward. “Stay ‘tween me and my friend and don’t try anything.”
Ervin put his foot on the first step leading up to the front porch. He expected the board to snap beneath his weight but it held. The stairs squeaked as he climbed them, his gaze darting from the steps to the windows, looking for movement, seeing none. Cracked glass, streaked with dirt and grime. Curtains drawn on the interior, motionless.
Who leaves curtains behind?
On the porch, he used his foot to brush away clumps of dirt and grass and dead bugs. Thought of what might be living under the porch. Thought of what it would be like for the porch to give way and for him to fall down into whatever lived below. All undulating legs and quivering antennas and leathery tails and slimy skin. In total darkness.
Ervin shook his head. All nerves. Hadn’t been like this the first two times. Maybe it was just catching up to him.
“You gonna knock?” Oscar said. “Or we just planning on standing out here and taking our chances?”
Ervin knocked on the door. The wood seemed to absorb the blow; the sound was not nearly as loud as he expected it to be. He waited, then knocked again, and a third time, and a fourth. Then waited some more, and turned around and shrugged.
“Try it. See if it’s locked.”
The door was. Ervin tugged at the knob, twisting it both ways. It didn’t give.
Oscar spat. “Hell, Erv, put some oomph in it.” He shoved the manager aside. “Watch him, will ya?”
Ervin stepped back and put his gun on the manager while Oscar eyed the door, cocking his head to the side. He tried the knob himself, as if Ervin hadn’t just done that, then he lifted his right foot and slammed it into the door. The wood gave but didn’t break. A second blow and there was a loud crack but still the door held. A third blow and something popped. With the fourth, the wood splintered where Oscar’s foot met it, and the door swung crookedly open.
Hot, stale air wafted out of the house. Ervin fought the urge to vomit. Beside him, the manager gagged. Oscar covered his nose with his arm and said, muffled, “Now that’s how it’s done, Erv!”
Ervin stared past his friend, into the house. Not as dark as he would’ve thought; some windows in the back were broken, letting in the fading sunlight. The interior appeared empty; a set of stairs a few feet from the door, leading up to the second floor, a wall on the far side of the front room with a short hall leading to the back. Wooden floors, dust and dirt everywhere Ervin could see. No furniture.
“Empty,” Oscar said. He coughed. “No one could live in a stench like that. Come on.”
As if to underscore his point, thunder grumbled again, louder this time. A small, faint charge filled the air. Lightning coming. Fast.
The interior wasn’t as insufferable as that first rush of air would’ve suggested. Unpleasant; breathing came difficult, and Ervin had to do it through his mouth, aware that he was probably inhaling particles of things better left unmentioned. The house was dry; Ervin could smell mold and mildew, but the prairie summer had sunk its claws even here, fighting back the damp. The air tingled and his feet slid across the floor, and he wasn’t sure if it was the approaching storm or static buildup.
“Cozy,” Oscar said, and his voice echoed faintly, though the reverberations died almost instantaneously in the heat.
“I bet there’s rats,” the manager muttered.
Ervin nudged him absently with the pistol but said nothing. The man was right; there were probably rats. Big prairie rats. Not used to humans, in this abandoned property. Which meant they weren’t afraid.
“Hello!” Oscar shouted.
Ervin and the manager both jumped. Oscar saw them and chuckled. “Come on,” he said. “There’s not a fucking soul here except us.”
Thunder cracked in the mid-distance. Ervin stared towards the far end of the house, out a broken window. The horizon was pitch black with spots of brilliant flashing white.
“Gotta be a storm cellar here,” Oscar said.
“Oh no,” the manager said. “Oh no. No no no.”
Oscar turned on him. “Ain’t you ‘sposed to be quiet?”
“You boys aren’t from around here,” the manager said, talking too fast for them to shut him up, his voice rising. “Place like this, there’s no telling what’s down there. Badger if you’re lucky but maybe rattlesnakes and recluses and widows and rats, there’ll be rats—”
Oscar stepped forward and smacked him with his free hand. The manager gasped but stopped speaking. He held his cheek and glanced woundedly at Ervin, as though he should’ve prevented it.
“I’m in no mood to get blowed away,” Oscar said. “This house wouldn’t withstand a wet fart.”
Ervin turned his gaze between the two. Saw Oscar eying him and knew his face was plain as day. Oscar frowned.
“Not you, too,” he said.
“He’s right,” Ervin said, carefully. “I mean…” He gestured. “Look, Oscar. Just look. We’d get bit by something.”
Oscar actually did stop to look around. Ervin’s hopes rose for a moment. He couldn’t imagine himself down in the dark…no lights…hell outside and the demons within…
“You’re not a child,” Oscar said, his face hardening. “For Christ’s sake, pull yourself together.” He pointed towards the broken window visible down the hall. “You seen that?”
Ervin had, but he looked again. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked. So much closer.
He nodded slowly but said, “Maybe if we find a corner or something…”
Oscar shook his head. “Ever been in a twister, Erv?”
Ervin didn’t answer, which was answer enough.
“I have. It’s fucking awful. You hear me? You don’t want to be above ground for it.” He looked to the manager. “You either, big boss man.”
The manager held himself straight. “I will not.”
“You wanting to die?”
“You’re going to kill me anyways.”
“Son of a bitch.” Oscar flung his arms wide and shook his head. “You think we’d still be hauling your ass around if we meant to kill you?” He glanced at Ervin. “Erv, I ever killed a man?”
Ervin didn’t know the truth of that, not really, but he said, “No, you ain’t.”
“See? I ain’t. And Erv here sure as shit ain’t. We’re bank robbers, not murderers. We’s gonna let you out somewhere, let the coppers find you. Hand to God.” He placed his hand over his heart, solemn, and only Ervin knew that he actually meant it.
The manager shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”
“He doesn’t believe me. Wonderful. In case you hadn’t noticed, boss man, there’s a hell of a storm approaching, and you’re sure gonna die if you stay up here.”
The manager said nothing, but his face was set.
Oscar ran his hands through his hair and paced. “Well this is a turn, ain’t it?”
“Maybe,” Ervin said, but stopped because he had nothing to follow it with.
“Shit.” Oscar stopped and laughed. “What am I thinking? Erv, we have the fucking guns, right? This schmuck, what’s he gonna do—”
The manager made his move. Blind panic, Ervin had to figure; surely there was no logic behind it. Should’ve believed Oscar; they hadn’t killed anyone yet, at least not together, not while Ervin was there. Weren’t about to start now, should’ve thought things through and listened to reason but he didn’t, he charged at Oscar screaming, a small nothing man with fading brown hair and small blue eyes, the kind of man born to manage a bank, not wealthy but probably acted like it to those of lesser means, probably had a place of prominence in his little town because there was no one else to fill that role. Probably gave him some sort of confidence, his ability to lord it over people like them, Ervin and Oscar, two men of obviously little means, two uncouth malcontents who didn’t know better than lawless ways. A man like that, Ervin reasoned, in the second or two it took his mind to comprehend what was happening, might not listen to the truth, because he already had his own truth figured out beforehand. He’d judged the world before he lived in it, and so far it had turned out exactly as he’d predicted. Such a man was bound to come to a fork in the road and choose the wrong path, if only because he’d chosen correctly all the times before and assumed there was no wrong path. Such a man could not, then, be blamed for his wrong choices, because he couldn’t possibly know any better.
These thoughts were punctuated by a gunshot. But before that, Ervin watched the manager dart forward, arms out, going for something—Oscar’s throat, the gun, the front door, the future, Ervin couldn’t be sure. Would never know. Probably the manager—whose name would forever be lost to the two men who had taken him—was going on pure instinct, those that tended to keep men alive. His fingers grasped at something ungraspable. Oscar was partially turned away, and turned so slowly Ervin thought maybe the manager had a chance, even though he knew better, thought maybe Oscar had been caught off-guard, and he thought of maybe saying something, possibly raising his own gun and yelling “stop” or some such requisite thing, but he didn’t, and Oscar’s gun rose and barked and barked again, yap yap, the roar dulled and softened by the heat and aged abandon of the house, and the manager twisted to the left and then the right and kept coming, except now his fingers seemed purposeless, his steps awkward and hesitant, and when he fell to the floor Ervin swore he saw surprise in the man’s face, the kind of ultimate surprise usually reserved for the afterlife, when one arrived at one’s destination and realized it was not where you had thought you were going all along.
Ervin’s thoughts took a few moments to catch up. By the time he realized he wasn’t breathing, the manager was facedown in the filth on the floor, and Oscar stood over him, gun at his side, his eyes twitching, his tongue darting in and out of his mouth like a snake’s. Ervin’s lungs grasped the stale air and pulled it inward, and he gasped, gagged, turned and dry heaved. Tears fell onto the floor. He’d never seen a man die before.
“Shit,” Oscar said.
Ervin moaned. He straightened, then bent back over, his stomach in knots. Took deep, rancid breaths.
“Just came at me,” Oscar said.
Rain started to pelt the house. Even on the ground floor, they could hear it, Tommy gun bullets ratatatat on the weather-beaten roof. The dryness of the interior suddenly found itself flooded with humidity. The prairie, omnipresent, thrust back in the wake of the storm. Thunder, low but near, rattled the walls.
Oscar laughed. Not like before. Just once, harsh and toneless. “Should’ve listened. Wasn’t gonna hurt him. Were we?”
Ervin lifted his head. He blinked, glanced around. Had he imagined it?
“Shit,” Oscar said again. “Shit shit.” He saw Ervin. “What? Just what?”
“Thought I heard something.”
“It’s called a gunshot, Erv.”
Oscar looked at him for a moment, then frowned. He, too, started looking around. “What?”
Ervin nodded toward the stairs. “There, I think.”
The two men stared. For a few seconds, it was just a wall—formerly-white panel, filthy now, doused in shadows with the sun blotted out. But the more Ervin looked, the more he began to see distinctions. Faint lines in the panels. Smudges that might’ve been fingerprints if one interpreted them loosely. A section of the wall that did not, upon closer examination, look exactly like the rest of the wall.
“Oscar,” Ervin said, “I think…”
Oscar raised his hands. One, he held outward, quieting Ervin. The other held the pistol. He hesitated, then approached the wall, motioning for Ervin to follow him. A few feet away, he stopped and glanced over his shoulder, gesturing with his head.
Ervin approached the wall, his own pistol out. He reached out with a trembling hand and found the line in the panels that didn’t match. Fingernails hooked into a groove. He glanced back at Oscar, who nodded, then pulled once, quick and sharp.
A section of the wall fell open. A cupboard underneath the stairs. A section of panel swung outward, hinges creaking. Darkness inside, pitch but not total. Ervin stared and let his eyes adjust. Let the shapes slowly form. No movement, but one didn’t need motion if one tried hard enough. Or was scared enough.
Ervin wasn’t a good judge of age; never had been. People were people, big or small. He could tell the really young from the really old and could separate those from people in the middle like the bank manager. But when pressed to be more specific, he could only guess. Five years? Six? Maybe seven? Young, perhaps younger-looking. Shaggy hair, just starting to grow out. Big eyes, color unknown. Skin pale, frame even lankier than Oscar’s. Wedged into the far corner of the cupboard, trembling ever so slightly. Dressed in torn corduroys and nothing else. Barefoot.
Neither man said anything for a time. They just watched the boy as the boy watched them. Boy? Yes. Definitely a boy. Something masculine, even at that age, in the caged wariness. Afraid—terrified, even—but almost feral, like a captured animal that knew fear but wouldn’t let that keep it from striking back. Ervin had never seen such a look on a person before. It upended everything he had thought humanity to be. He could hardly bring himself to look, but could not possibly look away.
Oscar cleared his throat. The boy jumped slightly, eyes darting back and forth between them.
“Come out,” Oscar said.
The boy looked at him. He understood, Ervin thought.
“I mean it, son.” Oscar tried softening his tone and waggled his fingers. “Come on, now.”
The boy glanced at Ervin, who had no reaction.
“Erv,” Oscar said. “Get him out, will you?”
Ervin glanced at him. “Can’t we…”
“He saw us kill the boss man.”
Oscar’s voice was even. Not that of a killer; just that of a man stating a fact. Which it was. Save for one small point that Ervin didn’t voice.
You. Not us.
“Hey,” Ervin said. He hadn’t talked to a kid since…ever. “Hey, pal, you want to…you wanna come out here?”
The boy watched him. Not defiant, just scared and angry and…curious? Yes.
Thunder crashed. The rain became mixed with something harder and fiercer. Hail. Pounding, bouncing off the roof and the walls. Glass broke somewhere upstairs but none of the three looked up towards it. The house seemed to shake from the wind and pummeling assault. Perhaps it actually did shake; Ervin wasn’t sure of his senses anymore. Every hair on his arms and neck stood on end, his nerves frayed, his eyes wide and dry and his brain still reeling.
“Just fucking grab him,” Oscar said, his voice a growl. “Just fucking get him out here!”
Ervin didn’t act; he reacted. Reached in and grabbed the boy and drug him out into the room. Ignored the struggle, a wild animal at the end of the line. Ignored even the teeth that sank into his wrist, barely breaking skin. Ignored the dry, cracked feel of the kid’s skin. The soft downy hairs of youth. The moans and grunts. Just hauled the kid out like a sack of potatoes and, not meaning to, it was just instinct, flung him to the center of the room with a sweeping motion of his arm.
The boy skidded through the dirt as the storm broke in earnest. “Goddamn!” Oscar shouted, maybe because of the weather, maybe just for the hell of it.
Ervin stared at the boy, out in the open now, though the entire house had fallen into shadow as premature night descended upon the prairie. How long had he been here? Who had left him here? Had he wandered here, or had he lived here before, when there had been others in the house, the people who had left with the curtains still hung? What had he been living on? How long? So many questions, punctuated by flashes of lightning and the clang of thunder, almost overwhelming now in its density. Rain and hail falling so fast it was just one continuous deluge. And this boy, staring back at him, as much a mystery as Ervin was to himself at that moment.
“He saw us kill that man,” Oscar said. Yelled. He didn’t seem happy about the words.
“They got the chair in this state,” Oscar said. “You know that? They got the fucking chair.”
“It was an accident.”
Oscar laughed. “Sure! And we accidentally robbed those banks!”
“Maybe he didn’t—”
Thunder. Followed by something Ervin had never heard before but didn’t like. Something distant but growing slowly. A buzz like a million riled hornets.
He swallowed. “Maybe he didn’t see anything!”
Oscar looked at the boy, who looked back him. Then he glanced at the body. The boy’s gaze followed.
“Maybe he doesn’t see that,” Oscar said. “Huh? Maybe the boy’s been in there so long he’s fucking blind!”
The buzz was growing. More a hum now. Almost—but not quite—melodic. And part of Ervin’s mind knew what it was but he couldn’t quite express it to himself yet.
“He’s a kid,” Ervin said, aware he was pleading.
“Doesn’t matter,” Oscar said. He shook his head, mostly to himself. “Doesn’t matter. It just…”
His voice faded off. He looked at Ervin, his expression momentarily blank. Then his eyes slowly widened as the hum turned into the roar of a train, and in his mind Ervin pictured lights emerging from a dark tunnel, himself trapped on the track, stuck in the ties, the train hurling down upon him. Yes, even though he’d never heard it before, he knew that sound, knew it in his bones and whatever was left of his soul.
“Oh god,” Oscar said, and that was all he had time to say and Ervin to hear, because just then the far wall of the house cracked like a gunshot, like a gunshot was supposed to sound, and fresh air filled the house, mixed with rain and ice and hate. Ervin turned to shelter his face as something hard and unyielding whacked his side. He fell to the floor as something sailed overhead, tearing at the back of his scalp. He screamed, heard Oscar scream, heard wood splinter and glass shatter and above it all that godawful tidal roar, no longer a train but a continuous explosion of sound and motion and force. He crawled on instinct, knowing he couldn’t stay there, dragging himself by his fingers across the floor as pieces of the world tore at his skin and clothing. No individual sounds anymore, just the continuous cacophony, as if it existed solely inside his head. He cried, felt the tears on his cheeks or maybe it was blood, and without knowing quite how, he found himself half-in the cupboard, it wasn’t big enough to shelter his entire body, his entire broken and sinful body, and he covered his head like he had when as a child his father had wielded the Bible like a bludgeon, beating him with the word of God, beating out the demons that were not yet within him. “Father,” he’d said then, and said it now, not sure whom he was talking to, knowing whomever it was, they couldn’t hear, not just because of the calamitous cacophony, but because they simply weren’t there to hear it and perhaps never had been.
It went on, as such things do. There were screams; some Ervin’s, some surely Oscar’s and the boy’s, breaking through every now and then, seconds dragging into hours. Things cracked. Things fell. Everything was broken. The ground itself shook, as though a giant were emerging from the center of the Earth, desperate to reclaim the territory it had abandoned in the time Before. Ervin muttered to himself, certain every moment was his last, that the taste of salt and copper on his lips would follow him into whatever waited thereafter. His body jumped and rippled with the floorboards; he was a ragdoll, conscious but unable to move of his own accord. Left purely to the whims of disaster and chaos.
The devil is another matter altogether.
It had not begun suddenly; it had been building for some time, they had felt it and had ignored it. But it ended with a pop, a shift of pressure that left Ervin’s ears ringing, the pain sharp and piercing and wholly welcome. He cried out one last time and found that he could hear his own voice, as well as the sounds of things settling, the ground shifting back into place, reality seeping back into the vacuum the storm had left. He lay there and cried and muttered a monosyllabic prayer to himself.
Slowly—gratefully—sensation began to creep back into his body. He could feel the blood trickling down the back of his neck, curving across his shoulders and onto his cheek. His legs stung. His upper body felt oddly numb, except for a dull ache in his side from whatever had hit him. Something soft pattered his behind, and it took him a moment to realize it was rain—hesitant but there, an afterthought. Like an apologetic kiss from the angel of death.
After some time—he was incapable of measuring it—he slowly pushed himself out of the cupboard. Uncovered his eyes and looked around. The house still stood, sort of. The foundation had held. The ceiling was slanted at an angle and not entirely whole. Most of the rear wall, the southwestern wall, was gone. The wall between the front and back of the house had been utterly shredded. This was no longer a house; it was now merely an impressive pile of rubble still pretending to hold the frame of a house.
Ervin pushed himself up, grateful to find that he could move his legs, but he didn’t stand. He took a deep breath, aware that instead of stale prairie remains, he inhaled the fresh aftermath of the storm. The temperature, too, had changed, dropping at least ten degrees, maybe more. He was cold but that could’ve been the blood loss. The rain was already stopping; the night had moved onward, the twister itself gone but the storm still very much alive. Sunlight had begun to creep reluctantly back across the prairie. Normalcy hesitant to reassert itself.
“Hey,” he said, surprised to still have a voice. He said it louder: “Hey.”
A groan answered him.
Ervin crawled towards it, ignoring the splinters in his hands. “Oscar,” he said again, and saw a leg beneath the rubble, twitching. He grabbed the foot and pulled it towards him. There was a muffled scream but he kept pulling, and his friend emerged from the debris, hands pawing at his chest, up towards his face.
“Something’s wrong,” Oscar said. “Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong.”
Ervin didn’t say it. He lowered his eyes. Didn’t want to take in the ruin of his friend’s face, the obliterated left side of it, glass and wood where an eye had once been. He let Oscar figure out the damage for himself, and endured the screams silently, head lowered, letting the anguish wash over him. He deserved this on some level, he figured. Maybe they both did.
Then he thought of the boy, and he left his friend and crawled around some more. He didn’t know the boy’s name so he said nothing, let his breathing speak for him, human sounds to attract other human creatures, man called to man, but no other man answered, and eventually he found the boy in the far corner, motionless, and he knelt over the body for a while, the curious angle of the neck, and thought to himself that they hadn’t brought the storm, then thought to himself that maybe that had, then thought that if he hadn’t been in the cupboard the boy surely would have, and then he decided not to think anymore for a while.
It was Oscar who interrupted his mental silence. No more screams; just a soft, whimpering chuckle. “I’m half-blind,” Oscar said, and he repeated it until his voice faded, and then Ervin heard his friend stand and listened to his footsteps approach, hesitant like an old man’s learning to walk again. Pictured his cyclops friend feeling his way through the wreckage. Maybe once the thought would’ve made him smile. Now it made him close his eyes and feel a strange sensation of nothing.
Oscar stood over him. A drop of blood fell on the back of Ervin’s neck and mixed with his own.
“Well,” Oscar said. Wheezed. “Well.” Ervin thought he was about to say something else, but nothing came. Instead, Oscar shuffled away, pushed open the front door and walked out onto the remnants of the front porch. The sun had fully returned now and the prairie was a beautiful thing to behold, but Ervin didn’t look.
“Car’s still here,” Oscar said, absently. “Well, it’s over there now. Looks okay.”
Ervin stared at the boy’s face. Thought of the manager, whose body was…somewhere. He had not seen it. Wish he’d known their names. People should have their names remembered. Maybe someone else would, probably someone else would, but that didn’t matter just then. Ervin wished he’d known. They’d had a connection, however tenuous and lethal. That mattered, on some deep fundamental level known only to those who shared death together.
“Hey,” Oscar said.
Ervin stirred. Wiped something from his face.
“I can’t drive.”
Ervin turned his head.
“I need you to drive. Can you drive?”
Ervin swallowed. Turned away again.
The devil was real enough, sure. And he came with his trumpets blaring and all his demons howling behind him. And a part of you knew when he was coming and he still managed to take you by surprise every time, because that was the nature of sin, wasn’t it? You knew it was wrong but lied to yourself until you were caught red-handed and had no choice but to admit your dues had caught up to you.
Third time’s the charm. That’d been the joke that Ervin had taken seriously. He’d been right to. Maybe there was no one listening. But there was surely someone laughing, somewhere.