There's a long black cloud a hanging in the sky
Weather's gonna break and hell's gonna fly
Her daddy always said that you weren't smart until you were poor.
Poor folk were the true intellects, he said. Geniuses, in the face of poverty. Professional masterminds, because necessity made you think different. Need made you think big and wide open. Want made you see things for what they could be, instead of just what they were. When you were poor, newspapers became wallpaper. Sacks of flour became new dresses and worn out tablecloths became handkerchiefs. The brittle old tires off the tractor became a sandbox and dried cornhusks became dolls, dots for eyes and scraps of fabric for clothing.
Tumbleweeds became dinner, soaked in vinegar long enough that the thistles were chewable.
It hadn't always been this way.
Bella's family came from the gill-stuffed corners of the east coast. Fled the miles and miles of concrete and asphalt, the crowds of people living on top of one another like sardines in a can. Escaped a basement apartment that was only two rooms and always smelled like exhaust from the cars chugging outside their sidewalk-level windows. They came with everything they owned strapped in a cart, two fresh horses, and all the hope they had.
Oklahoma was heaven compared to the life they had left behind. The prairie rolled out big and flat with nothing to stop the view of the skyline. The air smelled clean, and the grass came up green and lush, soft as a fresh-born lamb. The summers were warm and the winters were brutal, but survivable. Springtime always came along to renew their hope, together in their little house on the homestead all their own. They had a garden, chickens, some pigs, even a bee hive. They had a promissory note from the government for twenty-five acres and the shade of the only cottonwood tree for five miles. They had four good years of wheat fields and jars of strawberry jam and a basement full of potatoes. Milk and honey, sweet as life could be.
Then the drought came.
You could see it in everything: the cracks in the earth, the cracks in the paint, the cracks in the soles of their feet. Not one single drop of water for miles or days or even weeks. Not a single inch of rain all summer long. Not a single cloud to break up the endless empty sky. With the drought came the grasshoppers. With the grasshoppers came the jackrabbits. With the jackrabbits came the snakes and the vultures and the ribcage coyotes, and then they all got chased away by the blistering, burning sun. They all fled in apocalypse stampedes that ushered in the storms, every living thing on the prairie fleeing the onslaught that was bearing down across the flatlands.
When the storms came, they came two miles high. Thick as mud and blacker than hell and higher than the stars. Big and roaring and picking up every grain of drought-ridden wasteland for hundreds of miles and just flinging it all down on them. Sand rubbed the paint off the barn; sand pushed through every crack in the house; sand poured down from the attic, and sand came up through the floorboards.
The first year there were three storms. The next, fourteen.
Last year, there had been thirty-eight sand blizzards.
If they were in the Bible, this place was worse than Egypt.
Bella had exactly one row of potatoes left to dig up. Small, hard red things that felt more like rocks and needed about the same amount of cooking to make them edible. Two and half rows of corn, gone pale and brittle under the sun, whispering their death rattle all night long. She had a cache of apples in the basement, as long as one hadn't gone rotten and ruined the entire barrel. There were two sacks of cornmeal and a single sack of snow-fine flour that she was already picking mealworms out of. There was one tin can full of grease, four-and-a-half candles, and not nearly enough hope to make it through another blistering hot summer.
But, no matter what, she couldn't leave.
She couldn't leave the woodstove, the one her momma insisted they haul with them from back east, no matter how heavy or cumbersome or how many horses died to get it clear out to the prairies. She couldn't leave the sow, the only animal left, gone thin and mean off the bare scraps she had left to feed it. Couldn't leave the crooked little house her papa had built with his own two hands, the sounds of his hammer still ringing in her ears and his smile burning a ghost kiss on her heart. She couldn't leave the row of headstones just beyond the small rise to the south that used to bloom violets every year but was now just a sand pit.
If no one went to scoop away the ever-shifting dunes, they'd be lost forever.
Everyone else gave up eventually. The last family left before dawn on Sunday. Packed what they could and abandoned the rest, pulling out of town just as the sun was rising, cashing in on a new dawn for a new life. Bella was certain that very act counted as some sort of blasphemy. No matter how desolate or dried up or impossible to live off of it was, to abandon God's land on the very day He set aside for worshipping was wrong. To give up, give in, throw away every hour of dirt-digging and water-searching and stubborn make-it-work hope on the very day when your heart was supposed to be at its fullest with blind faith, to go chasing off after some faint promise without even knowing if it was worth chasing after…
As far as Bella knew, things weren't that much better in any direction.
North, south, east, west… it was all just desperation and dust.
With the Pratchetts gone, Bella was the only one left.
Bella spent most of her nights seated by the fire, twisting hay into small, tight clumps fit to burn for light, reading passages in the watery firelight from the single book she had left. It was a worn out romance novel with a fraying cover stamped in gold leaf, set in a castle with descriptions of food that made her mouth water, and love that made her heart ache.
Loneliness was her only housemate.
These days, she was adrift on a vast ocean of sand, with no land in sight.
She was kneeling in the dirt, the sun blistering her neck as she pawed for rock potatoes, when he showed up.
"Excuse me, ma'am."
His voice was rough as sandpaper and had her jumping out of her skin. She caught her breath by the tail and held a hand to her chest to keep her heart inside, scrambling ungracefully to her feet. He was tall and broad, his shadow splaying out over her shoulders, but when she tried to look at him, his face was haloed by a sun so bright she had to shield her eyes.
"Pardon. Didn't mean to startle ya." He had his hat off, a sorry-looking Stetson, the felt gone dark with sweat around the brim. His hair was plastered to his forehead, and his collar was undone at the neck, skin glistening in the heat. There was a gleam of something on his mouth that Bella hadn't seen in so long, she couldn't even remember the name of it for a moment. So long, it was damn near confusing.
Half-cocked and tired-looking, but a smile, nonetheless.
"You did, though. Not right sneaking up on a person like that," she scolded. She tried to dust off her dress, but it hadn't had a decent washing in so long that it didn't do her much good, stained around the hem and wrists and neck. Besides all that, it was patched together from six old flour sacks, so it wasn't like it was fancy enough to worry about keeping clean. She shuffled her hands into the fabric to hide how dirty they were from digging for her dinner, but she hadn't had a decent washing in even longer than her clothing. She was sure she was as dirt-smudged and sand-stained as her dress, whether or not he saw her hands.
"I'm looking for the sheriff. Know where I can find him?" The fellow looked off toward the little town just beyond the shifting sand dunes, the pointed crests of rooflines poking their noses into the air like a smoke blue ruffle of low-lying clouds.
"Ain't no one left." Bella shook her head.
His eyebrows came together hard in the middle, and he glanced around the yard: the pitchfork in the dirt at her feet, and the house slumped against the always-pushing wind, the sand-rubbed paint peeling off the siding, and the front door squawking on rusty hinges. The cottonwood that used to shade the yard had died a few years ago and now stood sentry over the house like a skeleton over its own grave.
"You all by yourself?" he asked, his gaze coming back to her.
Bella could only shrug and dig her bare toes into the hot dirt, licking her dried out lips. Alone was normal, not as odd as he made it sound. She'd been solitary for so long that she wasn't sure how to interact with someone. And yet, here was a man with big strong shoulders and wild copper hair and a giant hand held out in her direction. She'd never shaken a man's hand before; it seemed so out of sorts when she knew she should be remembering her manners and curtseying. But common courtesy seemed long gone in the middle of this desert wasteland, so she put her palm to his.
"Name's Cullen. Edward," he said slowly, still smiling crookedly at her as though he thought she was a hallucination. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
"I ain't no ma'am," Bella laughed.
"You got a name, then?"
"Bella," she muttered. "Isabella."
"Well, Bella." He rolled her name around on his tongue like it tasted extra sweet, and then he squinted off across the sand. "I think I'll go have a look 'round town myself. Just to check things out. You gonna be here, if I come back?"
"Course. Got no where else to be." Bella wrapped her hand around the smooth handle of the pitchfork, just for something to hold on to. Edward plopped his dusty hat back onto his head. She watched him go, a limp russack slung over his shoulder and his head turning back to glance at her, until he was nothing but a speck of dark on the crest of a dune, disappearing toward the cloud town like a bird sailing over the rolling ocean.
The knock came just as the sun dipped beyond the horizon.
Bella jumped to her feet, her hay twist falling to the floor between her feet and her heart leaping up into her mouth.
There hadn't been a visitor since long before the drought. Everyone was too busy trying to survive to pay visits to one another. Entertainment, conversation, laughter: it all went by the wayside in the face of dehydrated death. The thieves though... they were the only sort of visitors left. She had heard of them ransacking houses up north, taking what little was left and leaving folks without even a way to escape their hollow homes. Pilching food and livestock and candles, taking the clothing off people's backs and disappearing into the prairie as though they had never even been there. As fast as the storms themselves came and went.
There was a gun on top of the stove: an old single-action Colt, polished shiny silver, already loaded but probably jammed full of sand. Bella had never bothered to learn how to use it, but she pulled it from its hiding place and struggled to fold her fingers through it the way she had seen her father do, hoisting the heavy firearm level with her chest. She tried to look as though she knew what she was doing as she opened the door wide enough to slip the barrel of the gun through and came eye to eye with Edward.
He stood on the doorstep, knapsack at his feet, hat in his hands. The hat dropped heavily to the dust as he lifted both palms into the air, his eyes widening as the gun barrel brushed his chest. His gaze slipped from her face down to the trembling gun that was rubbing the buttons of his shirt, and he looked back at her hard as double arithmetic, shaking his head.
"You ain't holding that thing right," he chuckled.
Bella stood taller and threw out her chin, readjusting the gun. He didn't stop grinning.
"Gon' knock your teeth clean out, holding it like that." He reached out and took the gun from her, easy because she didn't resist. "Did I scare ya?" he asked, checking to see if the gun was actually loaded and pouring a palmful of sand out of the chambers.
"A little," Bella exhaled, her arms shaking, chin falling to her chest. Her heart was beating louder than a war drum, and her head felt dizzy. Fear and hunger did not go well together.
"You're right," he said, blowing more sand out of the gun. "Ain't no one left. Whole town's deserted."
"Told ya. Not much to stick around here for."
Edward's mouth went tight, and his eyes went narrow as he handed the gun back to her. "Don't know how true that is," he said, eyes moving over her shoulder to the fire in the stove and the pot boiling away on top.
"Hungry?" she asked.
The stew was supposed to last her a week, but the jackrabbit she trapped had been extra thin, not the normal skin and bones, only claws and fur and paper thin ears with barely anything left on it worth killing for. She hated that part the worst, the killing part. The rabbits screamed when they died. They knew what was coming, maybe saw it coming from a long way off, and kicked hard enough to draw blood if she wasn't careful to keep them pinned to the ground. She had a foot-long scar on her thigh from a particularly brutal encounter just last month, one that fought off death so hard, it was still kicking even after she slit its throat.
Edward sat at the table and watched in silence as she brought the steaming pot over, already licking his lips. She flipped his bowl right side up and ladled the stew into the clean porcelain, setting it back down on the dusty table cloth.
"Haven't had a decent meal in ages. This smells like heaven." Edward's hands brushed hers as he pulled the bowl closer. His hair was flopped heavy over his forehead, rusted copper penny over his baked brown skin, deep furrow smiles lines around his mouth.
His eyes were green. Bella hadn't seen that color in so long that the flash of emerald made her throat ache in a way she couldn't even understand.
She sat down hard in front of her own bowl, blinking back tears.
The house seemed suddenly small with him there. The air felt heavy, and the walls leaned in closer, and Bella felt like gasping for breath. For so long she had struggled to take up all of the space, the unmade beds, the empty chairs, and the quiet kitchen that used to be full of songs and prayers and school book recitations. Now, the house was just steeped in silence like a double-used tea bag. But here he was, all shoulders and knees, those big brown hands, and that crooked smile, and the house didn't feel quite so empty anymore.
Like maybe he was pushing back all the ghosts with a light too bright to see them in.
"Where'd you come from?" Bella asked, sipping small and quiet from her spoon, even though she was hungry enough to pick up the bowl and slurp right from the edge.
"East. Chicago. Been looking for work," Edward muttered around his spoon, the brown stew dripping down his chin.
"You and e'rybody else." Work was the thing that got most folks to leave, or at least the promise of work. Rumor had it that California was all green, with beaches and orange orchards for miles. Even the kids could earn a few pennies a day, scouring the tree roots for salvageable fruit. Bella could barely imagine such a place, what the sun must feel like if it wasn't just scorching hot, what the earth might feel like if it wasn't just sifting sand.
"Back home, it's been bad, but it ain't nothing like this. We got bread lines and poor houses, but you just got dirt and more dirt."
"Comes from the West," she told him. "The storms pick it up, and bring it all here."
"Heard o' them," he said, still slurping his stew like it was his last meal. "The Black Blizzards."
Bella nodded. "Last for days, sometimes." She glanced off out the window, the night quiet for once, the wind nothing but a whisper. It was hard to believe the earth could do something so cruel, sending those storms fit to smother. The worst had been last April, a storm that sunk the whole prairie into midnight and didn't let up for almost three days. They lost little Hiram to that storm. Six years old and out looking for the last stray chicken when it hit.
They found him not twelve feet from the barn, a lump in the dunes, with sand all clogged up in his nose and mouth and eyes.
"How'd you get left here?"
Edward's question pulled Bella out of her awful memory: Hiram's face cemented shut and the awful moaning sound her mother made into her pillows for three weeks after they buried him. Bella could only shrug and poke her spoon through her stew, suddenly not hungry, her stomach shriveled tight, and her throat clamped shut. Heat rose in her face, and water pooled behind her eyes. She had a million answers for that question, a million things that tied her down, but none of them rolled easy off her tongue.
"Jus' happened," she muttered.
"You ain't planning to leave?" He wiped his face clean with his sleeve and sat back, looking at her as though he couldn't quite fathom finding a thing so alive in the middle of so much death.
"Got no way to. Sold the mare last month for some cornmeal and a few candles. Wagon too. All I got left is the sow, and I ain't riding her nowhere."
"You got a pig?" He seemed surprised by this, licking the corner of his mouth.
Bella nodded. "But she's mean as the devil. Couldn't get near enough to kill her, even if I wanted to."
Edward sat near the fire with her for a bit, twisting hay alongside her in silence as though they both had too much to think about to actually talk to one another. He refused a chair and sat on the dusted floor, his face glowing golden in the firelight and his hands working over the hay with a lot more care than Bella gave it.
"There's an extra room in the back." Bella looked toward the door that had been shut and stayed that way for the better part of a year. She didn't know what the room might look like now, maybe dusted in a fine layer of red Arizona dirt but more likely covered waist deep in sand.
"No, ma'am. I'll sleep o'er there." His head tilted toward the barn, or what was the barn before the winds pushed it sideways. "S'pose I'll have to fight the devil pig for a bit of hay, but I'll make do."
He reached out toward her, slow like he thought she would startle and bolt the way a feral horse might. His hand was rough and worn, but soft as rubbed leather, warm against her cheek.
'Don' know what got me here, but I'm sure glad you ain't gotta be alone no more."
Bella set her buckets down in the dust at her feet and wiped her brow, already spotted with sweat. Her hair felt heavy and hot, her skin itchy and broken out in heat rash, and she wished she could have just left all her clothing on the floor this morning. Her feet were sticking in her old leather shoes, and her thighs were slip sliding against each other, and it was only seven o'clock in the morning. The day was set to be brutal. She gazed up at the old skeleton cottonwood, wishing for just a few leaves, just a bit of shade.
She trudged by the old, dead garden, the abandoned furrows barely visible beneath the sand, and was nearly past the barn when Edward emerged into the sunlight.
"Where you going?" He was settling his hat on his head, pulling his suspenders up over his shoulders.
"I'm out of water."
"You got no well?"
"Dried up." Bella shook her head. She glanced toward the old well beneath the tree, damn near useless for the better part of a year now.
"How you gettin' water, then?"
"Town. There's an old pump behind the livery that's still runnin'." Bella pointed south across the sand that had eaten up the rolling grasses. "Unless it's run dry overnight."
That was Bella's biggest worry these days: that old, rusted pump. If it stopped working, it meant she'd have to haul water from the creek which was a good mile off across the dunes. It'd take her near half the day and one bucket at a time, her arms burning with the effort by the time she made it home. In the meantime, she had to make the trek to town every couple of days, maybe three, if she was thrifty and didn't stoop to the desire to wash her face or her hands or her sheets. If she rationed carefully between her and the sow, two buckets just managed to keep her alive for two nights.
"That's all you gonna take?" Edward eyed her two buckets suspiciously.
"All I can carry."
He disappeared back into the barn for a moment, a violent squeal from the sow chasing him back outside, the grain bucket in his hands.
"Well, let's get goin', girl. This water ain't gonna fetch itself."
"We're gonna what?" Bella shook her head at Edward, even though the bigger part of her was screaming, "Yes, yes, yes!"
"Look," he groaned. "They're all gone, jus' left it here. They ain't coming back for it, and no one else is gonna come along wanting it either. I say we take what we want, starting with that." Edward pointed to a double wheeled cart, half-buried in a sand drift at the edge of a building.
"But we got no horse," Bella said.
"Got me." He grinned at her and tugged at the cart, loosening it from its sandy grave.
Edward ducked into the livery, swallowed by shadows, and Bella wandered down the empty street, the town eerily still and silent. It had been bustling the first time she saw it, years ago when everything was still green and full of promise, the dirt road full of wagons and horses and kids running through all of it. Women in fancy dresses on the clapboard sidewalks and rough cowboys standing in the mud and horse shit, not caring about their boots. There had been an ale house and a school and even a library in the back corner of the dressmaker's shop, two bookshelves full of paperbacks that smelled like dust.
Bella went there first.
She loaded an old basket with twelve books, A Farewell To Arms and To The Lighthouse and The Sound and the Fury. She found a few strips of lavender velvet left on a work table and shook them free of dust, stuffing them in with the books. There was a bottle of fancy lotion that smelled like roses and a hair brush carved from deep dark wood in the tiny bathroom at the back of the building. She found a lone bolt of simple white cotton forgotten in a small storage room, enough to cut a shirt for Edward. Before she left, she took the curtain from the front window, thin printed cotton in a blue flower pattern that was bordered in elaborate lace, perfect for replacing her worn-through apron.
She found a hand mirror, burnished silver with a cracked face, in the back bedroom of the school mistress' house. A pile of hair pins on a dresser in one of the rent-by-the-hour rooms above the ale house.
She found a stash of dresses left in a suitcase in the hallway of the Mayor's double story, cut from good quality calico with fancy wrists and necklines, rows of buttons, and strips of expensive lace. She shed her dingy old dress into a heap at her feet, once white but now the color of a dusty rose, and put on a fresh one right there in the hallway, naked and not even caring if Edward stumbled across her. The fabric felt so clean and soft that she sighed as it slipped over her shoulders, the worn spots on her fingers catching against the slick material. It was deep sapphire blue, like what the deepest part of the ocean must look like. She stepped out into the sunshine of the porch to get a better look at it, her dirty shoes making it all seem like a dream.
"Nice dress," Edward chuckled. He was in the road, the cart piled high beside him, smiling up at her with wrinkles around his eyes and his head shaking at her again. Bella twirled, the big skirt ruffling out around her, swishing around her calves. Edward only chuckled again and motioned her off the porch, taking the laden basket from her and throwing her suitcase on top of his treasures.
Where Bella had found frivolous, pretty things, stuff meant to decorate a life that wasn't a constant battle against the invisible wind and single grains of sand, Edward had been a bit more practical. He found two blankets, both heavy wool, woven with designs that Bella recognized from the Indians who rode through every few months, silent and stoic on the backs of their painted ponies. He found a lantern and a pot of oil, a sack of oatmeal, and seventeen beeswax candles. He even found a bucket of pickles. The salty brine hit her nose when he wrenched the lid free, and Bella hadn't tasted anything quite so lovely as the crunch of that pickle, standing there in her too-fancy dress in the middle of the abandoned road in the ghost town everyone had left behind. He found a rocking chair with a busted seat that he promised he could fix and a giant burlap sack of cracked wheat, enough to plant a field with if there was ever any rain again. He'd filled two giant barrels with water from the pump, along with her buckets, and even managed to pull an old china water pitcher painted with roses free from the sifting sand dunes.
"I feel like a robber," Bella said happily, crunching her pickle and smiling up at Edward.
"Sure don't look like one." He laughed, licking his fingers.
The storm hit on the third day with Edward.
He'd spent the last two days trying to dig another well. Ten feet away from the cottonwood, slowly sinking into the earth with every shovelful of red dirt hefted over his shoulder. She checked on his progress a few times, bringing him a glass of their hard-won water. He gulped the glass dry in two swallows and kicked dejectedly at the side of his hole, his head already two feet below the surface.
"It's just dirt and more dirt, and all of it's drier than a popcorn fart."
For the first time in a long time, Bella thought that morning was beautiful. The wind had died to a faint whisper, and the sun shone soft and warm instead of its typical relentless burn. The sky was as blue and as still as a clean pool of water, and the sand dunes looked soft as velvet, rumpled like a blanket thrown carelessly across the bed. It didn't seem quite the same as the desolate, death-filled desert it had been a few days ago, and she wondered what had changed.
She washed the dishes in a bucket of water and even sponged her face and hands clean afterward, a luxury she didn't often allow herself. Her hair needed a good washing, her scalp itching, but she couldn't bring herself to be that wasteful. She'd cut off sixteen inches of it last summer, mailing it back east in exchange for six dollars, and now some rich lady somewhere was walking around in a wig made out of her. It was partly for money, partly because it was too damn hot to keep it, partly because she couldn't take care of it anymore. Now, the shorn off ends brushed her shoulders, but she still felt the weight of it sometimes: the thick, heavy, hot braid falling down her back.
She hauled all of her blankets outside, slinging them over the line that was strung up between the old dead tree and the sad, slouched house, beating the sand out of them in steady time to Edward's shovels when it came.
In an instant, the sun was gone.
Everything went dark as though something had stepped in front of the light; Bella sunk into shadow as the wind kicked into a howl, and the sand jumped up all around her. She peered around the corner of the house, dreading the great big black wall of dust looming on the horizon before she even saw it. She could hear the far-off roar that pushed the black cloud across the earth, snakes and rabbits and tumbleweeds pelting by her as they all tried to outrun the doom, like the second coming of Satan himself.
Bella screamed Edward's name and grabbed her blankets, fighting her way back to the door with her eyes closed against the sand storm. She waited fearfully at the window, peering through the gloom for Edward. All she could see was a blur of sand and grass, the wind beating against the house, looking for a way inside. He burst through the door a few endless minutes later, ushered in by a whirlwind of dust, breathing hard.
"Are you ok?" Bella coughed, her eyes stinging as he slammed the door behind him.
He didn't answer, just threw himself to his knees at the foot of her bed and dug furiously through the hope chest at the foot of it, pulling out a crisp white piece of fabric. He barely looked at it before he ripped it clear down the middle, ignoring Bella's gasp. He uncovered the bucket of water and dunked the fabric inside, wringing it out between both hands, craters on the dusted floorboards between his feet, before he turned toward her. He stepped so close she could feel his heart thumping and his breath on her face and the buckle of his belt rubbing her stomach through the fabric of her dress.
Edward tied the damp cloth around her face, beneath her eyes, before doing the same to himself.
"That was my last good petticoat," Bella grumbled, the dampened fabric against her lips. She had been saving it, though she didn't know what for. Edward's cheeks bunched up underneath his eyes, green flashing brighter than anything else in the storm-shadowed house. She could tell he was smiling beneath the cotton of her underclothes without even seeing it.
"Better you breathing clean than wearing it to your funeral," he laughed.
"You ever seen a shark before?"
They were huddled in front of the fire, the light watery thin against the howling dark around them. The storm had been raging for almost an entire day now, all through the night and chewing into the next morning. They had stayed near the fire, blankets on the floor. Bella had woken with her head in his lap and his hand on her hair, the fire almost died completely out and the windows still black as night.
"You think I seen a shark before?" Bella rolled her eyes at him, shaking her head. For all the prairie looked like the ocean with its waves and its storms and its endless rolling enormity, she was about as far from the ocean as she could ever get, landlocked in a place where the only blue was above her, instead of below. It was hard to believe that this had all been underwater, sometime forever and a day ago, but the old schoolteacher had said it was so. She said great big fish, bigger than any brook trout, and terrible sea creatures used to swim right above them, and all their houses were on what used to be the ocean floor.
"They had one in Chicago, you know? A shark, I mean. Some money man built an aquarium, lots of tanks in a big fancy building downtown. They had a shark there, just swimming round n' round n' round." Edward twirled a finger in the air, looking melancholy. "Sad, sorta. Creature like that got no business being in some banker's swimming pool. Belongs in the great big sea."
Bella tried to imagine a building big enough to fit a shark, but she didn't even know how big a shark was.
"Thing about sharks..." Edward mused, "They can't stop swimmin'. They die if they stop. Has to do with the way they breathe the water, I guess."
"We're about as far away from the water as we could get. Why you thinkin' about sharks?"
"You remind of one." He grinned at her again, that sideways one she was beginning to like.
"Cause I'll die if I stop swimming?"
"Nah." He shook his head. "It's more that… they look different up close. Far away, they're all sleek and smooth and just slice through the water like velvet. Like butter. But their skin, it's like sandpaper, all rough you know? Except you can't see that part 'til they're up close and swimming right by your face."
"You calling me rough?" Bella laughed.
"I'm calling you an enigma," he said. "A brainteaser."
Edward leaned in, putting his face close to hers, tugging the cloth down over his nose, then doing the same to her, staring at her mouth like he was daring her to say something. Waiting for her to speak. He was so close Bella could count his eyelashes. She could see the dust settled into the lines across his forehead, the flecks of ocean blue swimming in the green of his eyes.
"You ain't at all what you seem," he whispered.
When he kissed her, he kissed her soft as a single drop of rain in the middle of the desert.
"Has to be done," he said, shaking his head and running his thumb down the blade of the big hunting knife her pa used on deer, back when there were still deer to be had.
"But I'm saving her."
"From what?" Edward squinted at her. The storm had passed two days ago, and they were finally out in the open again instead of stuck in that stifling house, all squashed up against one another, waiting out the hellfire storm that blew them inside.
Bella shrugged. The pig had been breathing bad ever since the air cleared, and she knew it was inevitable, but she never thought it would happen this way. Despite how mean the old thing was, there was a fondness in Bella that she didn't even understand. The two of them were the last remnants of some crumbling monolith. That pig was the only one left, and if she was gone, there was no one for Bella to claim anymore.
"She ain't worth saving now, Bells. You know who's worth saving?" Edward took her chin roughly between his finger and thumb, forcing her face to the sky instead of the ground, and spoke tersely, right at her. "You. You're worth saving, not some damn pig."
He pressed his lips firm to her forehead and left her standing in front of her sad little house, her eyes scrunched closed and her hands to her ears to drown out the wailing of the dying sow.
The pump in town ran dry the next week, just like Bella had feared it would.
The tap coughed and hacked and spit up a thick spew of mud that slopped to the ground all over their feet, and Edward muttered a word dirtier than anything Bella had ever heard before. He kicked the pump and then punched the back wall of the livery hard enough to splinter the wood and his skin.
The rust red imprint of his fist left on the building forevermore.
Bella sat in the sand, scooping the dunes away from the row of headstones lined up in a neat row in the little dip of prairie just a few hundred yards from the house. The springtime used to bloom a purple carpet of violets here, the smell so strong you would come feeling happy and leave feeling downright drunk, bouquets in your pockets and the smell of those flowers all up in your dreams all night long.
It had been Bella's favorite place once, but now it was her least.
Her whole family was here.
Hiram had been the first, lost to that storm. Then Jeremiah, only a year younger than Bella, but looking like an old man by the time death finally took him. The doctor said it was cancer, but Bella knew the sand had tainted his lungs, gotten into him, and turned his insides to mud. He choked to death over the course of two days, so awful it was a relief when he finally went.
The dust pneumonia took Hazel next, her wheeze steadily worsening with each storm until she finally gave up and passed away, quiet, in the middle of the night. No one even knew it until the morning when she wouldn't rouse for breakfast
Then the twins, Francine and Caroline. Dying within minutes of each other like they couldn't stand to part, in the middle of a storm. Their bodies laid out, stiff as boards, on their bed for two days before the sky cleared enough that they could be buried.
Then the baby, Imogene. Only three days old and never even got to take a full breath.
Momma didn't die from the dust. She didn't die from starving herself, even though she stopped eating after the baby went. She didn't die because her lungs filled with sand or her eyes filled with mud. She died because, after Imogene, after Hiram and Miah and Hazel and the twins, her heart just stopped working altogether.
Poppa had been the last. Bella nursed him through his final hours, dripping water across his lips, while his eyes rolled wild and blind beneath his eyelids. Digging his hole had been too much for her, too hard, and he ended folded up like a baby beneath his headstone.
Edward pulled Bella out of the sand, her tears to his chest, his arms wrapped solid around her shoulders. She still hadn't quite forgiven him for the pig, even though there was enough salt pork to last them all winter, and she wouldn't run out of grease for a year. She cried into his shirt, and he didn't say anything, just stood there and let her, watching the sun set over the sand dunes. He hummed a broken tune deep in his throat for a long while after the darkness came, then he picked her and carried her home.
Edward was loading up every bucket she had, all three of them, stealing her only big mixing bowl and the pitcher her momma used to put flowers in, back when the flowers grew around here. He loaded up the big heavy barrels he'd taken from town, sweating heavy by the time he was done, wiping his brow with his sleeve as Bella wandered across the yard toward him.
She had cried herself to sleep last night, and he'd slept beside her in her bed instead of the barn, holding her tight enough to remind her that she wasn't dead.
"Goin' to get water," he said. "Hop on."
Bella scrambled up into the little wagon, and Edward picked up the rails, holding them at his waist and setting off over the dunes.
The breeze brushed Bella's face, and she pulled off her sunbonnet, letting the sky kiss her face as the wind cooled her hairline. It took near half an hour before the distant rumple of trees appeared on the horizon, the sun blasting down on them like a furnace. Edward paused, lowering the wagon and shedding his shirt, tossing it back at her with a grin as the damp, smelly fabric hit her in the face. He set off again without a word, hoisting the wagon and heading onward. The muscles in his back rippled just like she imagined the ocean did, just like the prairie used to when it was grass and not a thousand tons of sand.
When they neared the creek, Bella hopped off the wagon and ran ahead of Edward, into the trees and the cool, damp shade. The air chilled instantly, another world here beneath the leaves, the water bubbling over mossy rocks, birds and bees and little star flowers blooming like the drought didn't even exist here. A singsong of frogs stilled for a moment when she appeared and then started right back up again, the leaves whispering soft and mellow in the dappled sunlight. There was a thick carpet of grass around the creek, green as emeralds, and soft and springy as a thick carpet. Bella took off her shoes and sunk her toes into that green, sighing at the cool feel of it.
Edward started pouring water by the bowlful into the barrels on the cart while Bella wandered off in search of anything fresh and green to spruce up their meals with. She found a patch of buffalo berries just a little ways downstream, using her apron as a basket to collect as many as she could reach, fighting off a pair of angry jaybirds. There was watercress growing in the shallow water at the banks of the creek, its sharp pepper bite a refreshing change from salted beef and pickled tumbleweed. There were wild onions and wood sorrel and horsemint sprouting in clumps along the bank. She found white cloud clusters of oyster mushrooms sprouting on a rotten log and a hickory tree dropping nuts to the ground.
When she finally came back to the cart, her bonnet was full of herbs and her skirt tucked up around a near bushel of nuts. Her apron was brimming with all the edible greenery for a near half mile. Her lips were stained red, and her fingers were stained green, and her heart didn't ache nearly as much as it had been for the last two days.
"You been busy." Edward popped a few buffalo berries into his mouth, his face pinching as the tart fruit hit the back of his tongue.
"Done?" she asked, eyeing the cart and wondering just how he planned to haul all that heavy water back to the house. She'd have to walk beside him this time, no sense in making him carry her too.
"Not quite," he said, pushing his suspenders down over his shoulders and unbuttoning his shirt. "Better make the very best of it, while we're here."
Bella turned away as he started to unbutton his pants, her cheeks flaming.
"No time to be shy, girl." He winked at her and pushed his pants down, stepping into the water with his naked behind pale white beneath the sharp line of his tanned back. He crouched into the water, washing off his face and sighing deep in his chest. He sat down in the water, speckles of sun across his shoulders, and Bella took a deep breath as she pulled off her dress. The shadows hit her hot skin, and the water kissed her ankles. She stood there for a moment, simply savoring the calm, cool, and quiet before stepping into the stream. She took some time to clean her dress, rubbing it against the rocks to loosen the sweat and dirt caked into the fabric. She did the same to Edward's clothes, wringing everything out and laying it all on the clean grass to dry before returning to the stream. There was a small pool just big enough enough for her to dunk herself completely underwater, and she ran her hands through her hair, across her scalp, over her face, wishing she had some soap.
When she came back up, the air cool on her skin, Edward was sitting on a rock a little ways off, staring at her.
"You're such a pretty thing," he said quietly, and Bella's skin flamed red hot despite the shade.
"Underneath all the dirt," she mumbled, rubbing her arms.
"Even then," he said, scooting toward her. He lifted her hand out of the water, the fine layer of brown dust washed away and her pale skin only spotted in freckles. She thought he might tickle her, a mischievous gleam in his eyes, but instead, he brought her wrist to his lips and kissed her softly, right where her hand joined her arm. Kissed her again in the crook of her elbow, the scruff of his beard raspy against the soft skin. Kissed her again on the crest of her shoulder, his hair tickling her cheek, and she turned her head toward him just in time for his eyes to lift to hers.
Here in the shadows, surrounded by all this green, his eyes were brighter than they had ever been before.
"Your skin. You glow, girl, just like the moon. Pale and white in the middle of all that black." He ran his sunbaked fingers lightly over her breast, her skin prickling as he pulled her into his lap, hot and hard between her thighs, his breath warm and his lips burning trails across her skin. He licked her neck, her ears, the curves of her collar bones, kissed her lips and her eyelids and her cheeks with gentle precision even as his hands ran reckless beneath the water. She could feel his callouses shifting over her hips, up her spine, down her thighs, and she held tight to his shoulders, eyes closed tight as his hips rocked up into hers.
Suddenly, despite the cool water, despite the shade, Bella was raging hot as the burning ball of the sun.
"Edward," she murmured, his face pulling from her neck, eyes sleepy and solemn. She took his face between her hands and kissed him hard, kissed him all her own, pushing her tongue into his mouth and moaning when he met her with his. He pushed her up, out of his lap, and when he pulled her back down, slipping inside of her slow and soft, she shook from head to toe. Clenched up around him tight and hard enough to make him gasp.
"Ah, girl," he exhaled against her neck, hands moving to her breasts. "Let go. Let me in."
Bella threw her head back, eyes struggling to focus on the spots of light flashing through the leaves above her as she let his mouth work her over. Let his hands knead her gentle. Let his breath trace patterns into her skin and his fingers spin circles into her thighs. Soon she felt her muscles loosen, her insides open, her bones soften as he slid in.
Her hips met his as a giant rush of air left her lungs.
"That's the place, right there," Edward sighed. "That's the place I've been dreaming about being for days now. You are so damn sweet." He rocked his hips smooth against hers and hit a spot so deep inside of her that it blinded Bella. Set off a flash behind her eyes. Set off a fire in her belly and a burning beneath her skin that just grew and grew and grew with every rock of him beneath her until she was a big, empty, open landscape being ravaged by his licking, running wildfire. She was the dried up, desolate stream bed, and he was the flash flood. She was the desert, and he was the first drop of rain.
Washing away all the dirt.
Bella felt Edward stiffen, go still and hard as he bit her shoulder and groaned her name, a final push from him that sent her freefalling over the edge of something tall and bottomless. Her skin went prickly, and her hair stood on end, and that spark in her belly exploded like a firecracker.
Edward said the same bad word he had when the pump finally ran dry, except this time it sounded more like a prayer than a curse.
They lay in the grass for a long while afterward, letting their clothes dry, kissing every inch of each other, eating the buffalo berries and the watercress, naked in the shade.
"You're thinking real hard." Bella smoothed a finger over the wrinkles that spanned Edward's forehead, pushed her thumb against the furrows between his eyebrows, those green eyes of his staring up at her from the grass.
"Plannin' how I convince you to leave with me."
"Leave to where? I can't." Her panic was immediate. Full of fear and force. Leaving the house, the tree, the headstones... The thought of it made her want to jump up and run away, back to her slumped house, back to her shabby life and her limp bed, even if it meant dying there.
"We gotta go. Ain't no living to be done here, anymore. It's just surviving, and that ain't no way to exist." Edward rubbed her shoulder, tightening his arm around her as though he knew she wanted to bolt.
"I've been doing alright," Bella muttered, her heart sinking. Leaving was giving in, after so long and so hard and so much death and destruction… leaving meant that none of it would matter. none of the struggle counted for anything.
"You have. But I ain't leaving you here. I ain't stayin', either."
"Where would we even go?" California was probably overrun with people just like them, hordes escaping the desolation of Middle America. They were sleeping on the roadways and putting up tent cities outside the orchards, begging for work and food and water.
"Back to Chicago. At least there we got bread lines, and I can probably find a factory job. Enough to eat off of, till this whole mess blows over."
"And what if it don't ever blow over?"
"It will. Every storm does." Edward pushed her hair away from her face, his eyes deep and green and serious. "I gotta get you out of this dust bowl, baby. Take you somewhere we don't have to worry or struggle or starve. This ain't no place for you or me."
"I don't know what to say." Bella was shaking her head even as he pulled her close, his words just a whisper across her skin, a promise, an invitation, an escape that slipped between his lips as he closed them over hers.
OMG, in case I haven't said it enough - Hadley Hemingway is the SHIT, y'all.
Without her (her time, her research, her love) these words would have never seen the light of day.
Thank you, darling, from the deepest part of my heart. You are incomparable.
This story won 3 Judge's Picks and 1st Place Public Vote in the Age of Edward Contest, 2015.
I am stunned.