The pink tongue of a child’s plastic slide licked the dust from the playground. The area was empty, abandoned long ago by the children it was designed to entertain. While the sun leeched color from fading equipment, the wary kids took refuge inside dark houses. They peered through grimy windows and wondered if this would be the day the rain would come.
Some of them had never seen water fall from the sky. And after the rain disappeared, Dust Devils arrived.
The real name of the disease died with the adults, but the symptoms were ever present in some of the surviving children. The color of the eyes lightened. An organic grit accumulated along the rims of the eyes until the sufferer went blind. Skin hardened, then the body developed pits as all the fluids within dried and disappeared. Parched hair began to resemble bird nests. Eventually the child was no more than a sepia husk.
The husks were so delicate they couldn’t be buried. If they could keep them from falling apart, the children placed the hollow bodies outside, on porches, in yards, even on the playground. Eventually night winds caught up the husks and blew them away like tumbleweed, scattering DNA across their town and into the mountainous desert.
Marcus had contracted Dust Devils. His lovely violet eyes had faded to grey then crusted shut. Maya was distressed to see his skin turn brown, then shrivel. She couldn’t stand the thought of him as a husk, tumbling through the empty town and into the desert.
Maya hated the desert. She remembered the landscape as it had been, before it became dry and barren. Cool shadows in deep valleys. High green ridges. The coalfields of Virginia.
Almost every nook and cranny of the region had been mined, but shaft mining had ensured that some mountains remained intact, at least on the surface. Their father had been an underground miner. He hadn’t approved of the mountaintop removal method of mining that had become so destructive in Appalachia. Even after the mine shut down and he got laid off, he had refused to take a job that involved blowing off tops of mountains.
“It’s filling up all the hollers,” he had told their mother. “Choking the creeks. Killing the wildlife. We’ll be lucky to have clean water after a few years of this.”
Mountaintop removal mining had indeed spoiled the water. There was no clean water to be found.
It wasn’t the end of the world.
But it made it seem worse when the real end came. Maya almost laughed out loud. Even now, six years into it, she didn’t understand how the world could die so quickly. “Celestial event” was the term that popped up early and often on television and social media. Whatever had happened caused the earth to turn on its inhabitants, depriving them of rain even as the sun rose to unbearable temperatures.
Dust Devils followed.
What does it feel like when you start drying up? Does it hurt? Marcus had asked her that when they first realized he was sick.
Maya had put her arm around his thin shoulders as they listened to the night wind whip shingles from the roof.
“I don’t know.”
She didn’t want to think about what happened to the children after they blew away, but sometimes images came to her unbidden. She imagined that pieces of them got caught between boulders. Maybe the wind corralled some husks into crevices or blew them across crownless mountains already decimated by coal mining.
Once, on one of her expeditions, she had come across a child husk tangled in a prickly patch of thorns. The sight of it had made her sick.
Despite the heat outside, she shivered at the memory. She turned her face from the afternoon sun. “I wish it was me instead of you,” she whispered to her twin.
I should be sick, too.
They had always been sick in tandem…hacking coughs, headaches, diarrhea. But her eyes were as violet as ever, a color at odds with the bleak landscape of black, brown, and grey outside the window.
Marcus lay on the floor, fingers twitching and caught up in his brittle hair. He hadn’t spoken in weeks. She missed his bright chatter. She had been the quiet one, relying on her brother to fill the void in conversations. While she was somber and introspective, he cheerfully voiced his every thought.
Just like Mom.
She pulled a framed photo from the nightstand. Her father had taken it a few weeks before their world fell apart. Maya and Marcus sat on the porch steps with their arms around each other, their temples touching where they inclined their heads. Their mother kneeled behind them, stretching her arms to hug them both. She was laughing.
Marcus laughs just like Mom, she thought. But it had been a long time since she had heard the joyous sound that seemed to tumble from Marcus like water spilling across mossy stones.
Moss. She hadn’t seen any in years. I remember it, though. Soft and green.
When there had been trees behind their house, before the woods crumbled away, she and Marcus had spent summer days exploring beneath their shade. She remembered a large rocky outcrop covered in moss. Her brother had climbed onto it and pulled off his shoes. He had called to her as he dug his toes into the cool “carpet.”
She licked her lips. She couldn’t think about moss without thinking about water.
Maya pulled a bottle of dingy water from a cardboard box on the floor. She set it against Marcus’s lips, but the water just streamed down his chin.
Those in the middle stages of Dust Devils couldn’t eat or drink. They suffered gut-wrenching cramps when they tried. The inability to drink hastened the self-mummification.
Maya lifted the bottle to her mouth and rubbed the open rim across her lips. She licked the moisture, but fought the urge to guzzle the contents. This was the last of the water in their home.
I’ll have to make a supply run tonight.
I shouldn’t have put it off for so long.
She was afraid Marcus might completely transform while she was gone. Water runs took almost the entire night now. Without rain to replenish them, creeks were little more than rivulets, ponds mere puddles. The children had to travel farther than ever since there was no single source of water that could fill the few bottles they carried.
When her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, she tried to free it by making smacking sounds. It didn’t help much.
I’m so thirsty.
Maya wanted to cry, but her eyes might as well have been two hard stones set in cracked earth. She blinked away the grit that formed at her tear ducts.
She crouched on the floor next to her brother and patted his face. The fibrous texture of his skin made her shiver. She wasn’t sure if he could understand her, but she spoke anyway.
“Marcus. I’ve got to find some water. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Hang on for me, okay? I love you.”
He didn’t move or speak, but she thought she felt a change in the rhythm of his breathing. He must have heard me.
She touched his face one more time, then gathered her jugs and bottles and stepped outside.
Although the sun was behind the mountains now, the air was still heat heavy. She felt as if she might smother before she took the first step. Maya swallowed hard.
I’ve got a few good hours before it gets rough out here. Each night strong winds stirred up dust and carried away new husks.
She spotted her neighbor sitting on a cooler in the middle of the street. Jonas was six, ten years younger than Maya. In fact, she thought the boy might be the youngest surviving child in town. He seemed a lot older.
“Maya! I don’t have anything to drink.”
“Us neither. Come with me. Bring containers.”
“Okay.” He stood with a groan, sounding more like an old man than a boy.
No such thing as old men anymore, Maya thought.
Jonas opened the cooler and pulled two worn plastic jugs from its guts. “This is all I can carry.”
Maya nodded and headed down the street. The boy followed her.
By the time they reached the edge of town, seven other children had joined them. Last week there were eleven.
Nobody asked about the missing ones. They fell into line and trudged toward the desert without speaking.
An hour passed before they reached the first creek. It had been nothing more than a trickle the prior week. Now, as dusk deepened, they found an empty creek bed.
Maddie, a thirteen year old girl with red hair and freckles that looked like splats of paint across her nose, kneeled and ran her fingers along the path bereft of water. She lifted her hand to show the children. They saw clumps of thick mud on her fingertips. Nobody reacted when she stuck her fingers in her mouth and sucked on them.
They moved deeper into the wilderness, lifting their faces as a breeze began to stir around them. Although it agitated the sand, they welcomed the wind. It made the air seem cooler than it was. Maya tugged a handkerchief from her back pocket and used it to mask her mouth and nose. The others followed suit.
When dusk morphed into complete darkness they pulled out flashlights. A few years ago Maya had come up with the idea of using her driveway’s solar lights as flashlights. After that, the children had scavenged every solar light they could find in town. They set them out each morning to recharge. They had run out of batteries and oil years ago, so solar power and fire were their only sources of light.
They moved gingerly across the landscape, wary of loose stones and crevasses. And critters.
Animals were scarce now. They suffered from the drought as much as the humans did. The surviving few could prove nasty. “Watch out for snakes and skunks,” Maya told them.
“I wouldn’t mind a rabbit,” Jonas said.
“Or a lizard,” said Lisa. This girl was so skinny that Maya had a hard time looking at her. Her teeth seemed too big for her mouth, her eyes too large in her face.
“Remember when we found that owl?” Maddie smacked her lips.
It had been roosting in a burrow when they came across it. Maya had smashed it with a large rock, but it had been a hard won battle. She touched a talon scar on her face as she remembered.
The children had roasted the owl right there on the spot, along with its eggs. Her mouth watered at the memory; the meager meal seemed like a feast now.
“Let’s not talk about food.” She flapped her hand at them and the light skittered across their angular faces. “Keep moving.”
A few hours later they found their second source of water, a cave. The air was much cooler inside. A tiny stream trickled around stones at the back of the cave, seemingly without beginning or end. Maya figured it to be an underground stream that rose above the surface just inside the cave. Years ago they had searched the area outside but had been unsuccessful in finding where the stream came from or where it headed.
Gathering water here was slow going, but they managed to fill all the containers. When they finished, the children knelt on all fours by the water and drank as much as they could hold. Although it was bitter, the cold water slaked their thirst for a time. Most of them would get sick on the way back to town.
I’ll be squatting behind a rock before we make it back to town. Her stomach was already cramping.
All the existing water sources, including this stream, were contaminated due to mountaintop removal mining. It wasn’t immediately deadly, but the long-term effects were apparent. Their teeth had gone soft and brown. They all had sores on their scalps and under their arms. Many of them suffered terrible headaches that lasted days, while others had painful joints.
Maya used the back of her hand to wipe her mouth. Poison water provided no respite from the thirst of Dust Devils.
Maybe fresh water could.
Some of the children believed that rain could cure Dust Devils. They had been told so by their long-dead parents. For all we know, that’s not even true.
Maya suspected that her father had lied to Marcus and her about it, to appease them and to ease his own guilty conscience as he prepared for a journey. That first year almost all of the adults had left in search of fresh water.
None of them returned. Maybe they just wanted to die out there, she thought.
Or maybe they abandoned us.
Her mother had believed that.
She was one of a few parents who had remained with the children. She died in the second year, not from Dust Devils, but from suicide. While they were napping, she had stepped out into the daylight, pulled off her clothes, and walked into the newly formed desert. Maya had found her desiccated body weeks later.
Shaking away the memory, she glanced at the others as they rested, flopped over large rocks or crouched on their haunches or flat on their backs. How have we lived like this for six years?
Jonas sat with his arms resting on his water jugs. He was shorter than he should have been and not very strong. Just a baby when the world went to hell.
His older sister had cared for him after the adults died. She developed Dust Devils last year and blew away, leaving Jonas to fend for himself. He never mentioned her.
How does he do it? Without Marcus…I don’t know how I’ll live. Maya pushed away the thought and rose to her feet.
“We better get back. Sun will be up soon.” She didn’t voice what she knew they were all thinking.
A day in the sun means death.
The days were hotter now than when the event first happened. She wondered if eventually the nights would become unbearable, then deadly.
The sun was just reaching over the shoulders of the mountains when they returned home. Without a word, the children scattered, careful not to spill the water as they hurried to seek shelter. Maya was out of breath by the time she reached her porch.
She shoved open the door and set her water containers on the floor. After shutting out the sun, she stumbled into the living room and collapsed onto a threadbare recliner. Just need to rest my eyes for a minute.
She awoke in darkness. Realizing that she had slept the entire day and hours into the night, Maya jumped up and grabbed a makeshift solar lamp. She made her way to the bedroom. Marcus lay where she had left him. She set the lamp on the floor next to him and stooped to touch his face. The skin of his cheek flaked away beneath her fingers.
She remembered chasing butterflies when she was very young. After she caught them, she discovered a fine powder on her fingertips. Scales from their wings, she later discovered. That’s what her brother’s skin felt like. She rubbed her fingers together and gawked at them.
He’s a husk.
Maya lowered herself to the floor, gently, as if she might wake him. She stretched out next to her brother and gazed at his face. She wanted to touch it again but was afraid of what might happen.
“Marcus,” she said.
Her eyeballs felt hard and heavy. She polished her eye sockets with her knuckles, then sat up and grabbed a blanket from the bed.
She spread it on the floor and tried to roll him onto the blanket, without success. Wherever she grasped him, the skin erupted into a cloud of powdery flakes. He was literally falling apart. She fell back with an anguished cry.
After a few moments, she reached for him again. This time she laid her hands flat against his body and gave it a gentle push. It made a crackling noise and collapsed beneath her touch. She continued to press down on Marcus, until he was flat on the floor. She moved her hands back and forth, flinching at the rustling sound.
It seemed to her that hours passed before she finished her horrible task. When she was done, she sat back and stared at the remains of her brother. He was nothing more than a heap of brown powder and some ragged clothes.
Maya rose to her feet and clapped her hands together slowly, as if applauding what she had just done. A fine dust hung in the air between her palms. When her hands began to tremble, she clenched them into fists and held them against her chest. She stared around the room as if seeking answers in the corners. She found nothing.
She trudged to the kitchen and pulled a metal pot and its lid from the table. They had used it for stew when she was able to catch rabbits or squirrels, and later, rats. It hadn’t been used in a long time.
Maya carried it to the bedroom and set it on the floor next to her brother’s remains. She cupped her hands to scoop the brown dust of him into the pot. She shook his clothes over it. When she finished, she covered the pot with the lid and carried it outside.
The sky was fading from black to grey. The sun would appear soon. Maya returned to the house and grabbed a bottle of water and a small garden spade. She carried these items out to the pot, then began to dig a hole in the yard.
“I can’t let you blow away, Marcus.”
I just can’t do it.
When the hole was deep enough to accommodate the pot, she nestled it in the earth. She scooped up some dirt, then hesitated.
I won’t make it without you.
Maya let the dirt fall to the ground. She removed the lid and stared at the powder in the pot. After a long moment, she reached into it and grabbed a handful of her brother’s remains. She lifted it to her face and found his scent lingered within the dust. Closing her eyes, she inclined her face toward her cupped palm and licked the powder.
She gagged a bit, then ate more of the dust. It was like ashes in her mouth. She opened the bottle of water and drank it all. She replaced the lid on the pot, covering the rest of her brother, then pushed the freshly turned dirt onto it. When he was covered, she threw herself across the mound of earth, careless of the rising sun.
Maybe I’ll die.
She waited for the white heat with her eyes shut tight. Minutes passed. The air warmed a bit and she began to sweat, but it didn’t feel right.
Maya opened her eyes and saw that the sky was still grey. The sun remained hidden behind masses of black clouds. She stared at them a long time, then shut her eyes again.
She fell asleep there and dreamed about machines that crushed people into fine powder. Their victims’ screams were drowned in the loud rumble of mechanical parts.
Maya awoke with a start, the sound of the death machines all around her. She searched her surroundings and found nothing but the sun-scorched earth. The rumbling continued.
She looked up. Jagged silver scratched the sky. The rumbling…that’s thunder. Thunder!
She screamed it aloud. “Thunder!”
She screamed it again and again.
Children crept from their homes, wary of the daylight but curious about the wondrous black clouds. They gathered around Maya and gaped at the sky.
Jonas recoiled when lightning shattered it.
“What is that?”
“What does it mean?”
Maya laughed, a croaking sound they’d never heard before. The children stared at her.
Jonas dropped to the ground and sat cross legged next to Maya. The others did the same.
They all leaned backward, palms flat against the hard earth, faces upturned.
They waited for rain.
Author Bio: Neva Bryan is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories and poems. Her works appear in a large number of literary journals, as well as in the anthology We All Live Downstream: writings about mountaintop removal. Neva is a graduate of The University of Virginia and received a Master of Professional Writing from Chatham University. She lives in the mountains of southwestern Virginia with her husband and their dogs.