This is a very short but nevertheless intense story I wrote some years ago (I think my junior year of high school) for a contest. It's not as fully realized nor developed as some of my other short stories due to the word limit I was given. Nevertheless, it represented a huge experimental turn in my style. I hate first person present-tense, and yet here it is in a very colloquial (and male) voice. Enjoy! *SPOILER* This is not a happy story.
Listen. This is the story of Bobby MacFarlane, the Walker.
“That’s a sight if I ever saw one,” Darby says, her horse jolting her syllables. “Makes me feel alive. Like I’m gonna live, love and fly.”
She tries to pass me. Always does. I pull my sweat-brimmed hat over my eyes and nudge Shot to tear dust up faster. Darby puffs air through her lips, little bit of female sass she’s got left, but doesn’t try it again.
A grin plays with the corners of my sand-salted mouth as up-down-up-down I go on Shot’s back, looking up at dying sky she mentioned past my hat.
I like it when my hat cuts off half my view with leather silhouette. Makes me feel more mysterious. I like it when Darby fails trying to pass me. Makes me feel a little more like the boss I’m supposed to be on this dadgum trek to the City.
“Y’all talkin’ ‘bout the sunset?” asks Daniel. He don’t care who’s in front. He knows he’s got the most baggage anyway.
“Yeah, brother,” crows Darby. “Dust catches in the pink. Sparkles like pixies.”
“Ain’t gonna be no more pixies or sunsets if y’all don’t shut up and ride,” I mutter.
Don’t know why I feel cross. Maybe it’s got something to do with Daniel’s extra baggage. He shouldn’t have it. It was Marty’s and Doris’ until the sand dragon happened.
All my hours, my mind taunts me with a hazy image of Marty’s mare wandering away crying ‘cuz we couldn’t take her with us. It makes my heart squeeze sick feelings into my stomach. No doubt that mare’ll return to Homestead and shatter the world of Marty’s parents and little sisters. If the Living Sand don’t get her first.
I hope to heaven it don’t.
“You’re a sourpuss leader, Bobby MacFarlane,” says Darby, sort of whining.
I don’t argue. First, she’s right. Second, don’t want Darby breaking down. Doris is her sister.
Was, not is.
Past tense is sometimes the hardest thing to say.
“Good leaders don’t crack jokes all the time,” I say. But I know what she means.
Mama always says, “Bobby, you gotta pretty smile when you crack one. Stop pretendin’ to be like all them dead heroes you always readin’ about. Wrong kinda attitude.”
Except my “wrong kinda attitude” got me this job. Leader, Emergency Youth Messanger Squad of Homestead. People call us Emmies. I wanted the position, still kinda do, minus the fact Doris and Marty are dead. Marty’s mama’s probably gonna kill me if we ever get back.
Homestead’s ain’t the only town sending out Emmies. I know that ‘cuz ways back we found a dead horse with the Emmie brand on its sun-leathered side. Sand dragon probably got that Emmie.
That same day the dragon came. Marty unloaded all his lead in panic when its shadow flitted over us. Doris’ horse threw her and the dragon swooped down. Marty tried to save Doris.
Danged fool brave thing to do. Dragon got ‘em both. Now Marty’s horse is wanderin’ the desert, somewhere between Homestead and Death.
When you’re kids, them banjo-pickin’ story-telling bards come from where they come from say Death is some tragic end to failed means, something romantic to take for your lady.
Death ain’t like that. Marty tried that heroic thing. Didn’t help anyone.
Death is Living Sand.
It’s sweltering, bending vision from a distance, pale gold, beautiful, horrid. Eats everything, leaves more sand. Swallowed up all of Ladybird Town. Left Homestead alone stranded.
Only way we know is ‘cuz some bard come up from Ladybird Town. Said she’s got some sorta immunity to Sand and knows if someone else does too. I remember standing in the square with Marty, Daniel, my girl Kate, staring past sun glare and the brim of my hat at that woman, her glass of sand in her fist.
“Ah know whose safe, and Ah know who ain’t,” she shrilled, hot air thinning what voice she got left. “The Sand is coming. Y’all gonna die, y’hear?”
Die, die, Y’HEAR? chorused the silence. Then she’d pointed right at me, Daniel and Marty.
My life officially changed.
I try to whistle an old song ‘bout some guy leavin’ his girl behind to find his fortune, but my throat’s choked. Whistle withers on my dry lips. I wanna marry Kate. Never told her that. Now I’m an Emmie, got what I want, but didn’t.
Don’t wish on a star. Might lose what you’ve already got.
“Hey Darbs,” I say weakly. “Water?”
“You watchin’ the horizon, Bobby?” Darby whispered. I realized how silent she’d been.
I look up, well aware what I’m about to see. Yup, air’s bending. Crooked stripes of sunset and hot. I run a hand over my face’s attempt at stubble and let a breath settle in my heavy bones as I pull up Shot. Grim’s a good word to describe that feeling. Shot shifts nervously under my legs, ears flicking.
“Living Sand’s probs right over that hill,” Darby breathes.
“Are we trapped, Bobby?” Daniel asks.
Darby shoots him a look, like he’s being too loud.
I don’t answer. Maybe I’m just dramatic. Don’t care. I spur Shot towards the brushy hill, heat smacking my cheeks. Shot’s every step is reluctantly thick. I can hear Darby and Daniel following.
Hill evens out, and I stare Death in the face. Miles around of pale gold sand, no end in sight.
DEATH, screams the heat.
Something hateful makes me smile. Makes me feel alive.
“Hey Death,” I say.
Daniel whistles fearfully behind me.
According to that old witchy woman, the Living Sand won’t swallow us three up. That’s why we’re Emmies, heading north to the City. But the horses don’t got no immunity gift, and whole lotta good immunity’s gonna do us if we ain’t got water or food out in a lifeless desert. Lifeless minus the…
“Sand Dragon!” shrieks Darby.
Duh. Dumb girl.
Shadow swoops from behind us. Shot panics and rears. My hat drops off as I cling on, breath yanked out my throat as my eyes are flooded with light.
Daniel shoots like a moron. Shoulda learned by now guns don’t work on the beasts and freak horses out. Shot tries to throw me. My teeth crack on his neck, stars, pain, world whirling.
“Daniel, you idiot!” I scream as I slide off Shot’s back, hands slipping off his neck. No.
If I fall, I’m trampled.
The shadow darkens, concentrates. Wings rush hair off my forehead as I hit earth and roll away from Shot’s kicking hooves, pain stomping jigs down my arm, nails dragging backwards in my lungs.
Daniel’s emptying his gun, Darby’s crying. Her horse threw her, too. I flip to my back just in time to gawk at sandy scales and scream as claws scrape me off the ground, leaving my stomach somewhere down.
It’s all I know what to say. You wanna know how I felt right then, there it is, capsulated in that wordless piece of human fear.
Think I blacked out, because I remember waking up.
“He’s an Emmie, put him down as Homestead.”
“Emergency-Youth-Messanger-Squad of Enter-Name-In-the-Blank, this case Homestead. Fancy name for cattle kids they send to the City hopin’ to stop the Sand. In fact they’re probs all Emmies.”
When my brains registered the dude’s words and that I was alive between sheets in the dark, I opened my eyes. I was lookin’ at two shadows. One turns towards me. Waves.
“You hear me?”
They’ll probably tell me to “lay quiet” if I do “hear me,” so I groan and let my eyes close.
“Dazed. If he wakes up don’t tell him about Homestead.”
I jerk upright, shedding sheets, ignoring my pounding head. “Homestead? The Sand got them?”
Both shadow dudes slump. One reaches up and lights an oil lamp I didn’t see, revealing a guy my age and another my dad’s.
Older Guy sets his lip, says seriously, “Weren’t supposed to hear that, son. Take it easy. I’m sorry.”
No yes, no no.
I know the answer.
I fall back on the cot. Not shocked, not sad. Dazed. Ghost faces flash in my mind’s eye. Mama, Daddy, Darbs’ and Daniel’s families. Kate.
Moments like these Love really is a four-letter word.
“Go back to sleep, kid,” says Older Dude. Younger Dude just looks awkward.
“All right, your name?”
“Friends?” I sit up on my elbows. Sure enough across me is another cot. Daniel. Guess Darby’s in another room.
“Daniel Jackson, Darby Pickens.”
Suddenly their names feel like the best things I ever said in my life. They’re all I’ve got left. “What happened?”
“You okay enough to be fed info?” asks Older Dude. “Wes, get ‘im some water.”
Wes goes scurrying off while Older Dude sinks on my cot. Know he’s a dad by the way his weight bounces the mattress. Not ‘cuz he’s heavy, but because life is. How he spreads his knees and looks at me, the wrinkles in his skin haloed in the lantern light.
“Sorry for freaking you out with Lyd’s dragon. We call ourselves Sand Devils. Go around rescuing folks stranded by the Living Sand with our dragons.”
“You train Sand Dragons?”
“Some of ‘em. Wild ones you still wanna avoid. You an Emmie, Bobby?”
Wish I wasn’t. Wish I died. Or maybe I just wanna wish to die. Maybe got too much fight to wanna die. One thing’s for sure, though.
Life will hurt.
“Old witchy woman said we’re immunes.”
Older Dude snorts. “No such thing as immunes.”
“Just don’t touch the sand, and you won’t die. Simple as that. Y’all going to the City? I can tell you for a fact they don’t know what to do any more than any of us. In fact, they’re running outta the city.”
“No,” I say in disbelief. “So… it’s hopeless?”
“You alive? There’s hope.”
Not sure about that. Pretty sure I’m watching my life and hope slip through my fingers like sand.
“Where they running to?”
“Well,” says Older Dude, just as Wes returns and hands me a chipped glass of water. I let it cool my skin, don’t drink. Just drinking in his words. “They say there’s a hermit in the Northern Kingdom who can fix everything. They’re trying to go up there and find him. But I’m afraid most’ve ‘em get caught by the Sand before they can even reach the border.”
“Hermit?” I furrow my brow.
“Yeah.” Older Dude gestures to Wes on the floor, who pulls shriveled paper out of a pocket and hands it to me. It’s a sketch of a blue rock.
“He lives in there. We’re about to send a team of Sand Devils to go find him.”
“Send me,” I blurt, crunching paper.
“Ever ride a dragon?”
“Can’t be worse than a bronco.”
Older Dude grins, splitting his grizzled face. “I’d tell you to stay here, but guess you’d just run off anyway.”
I probably wouldn’t, but I don’t argue.
“I’ll have you ride with Lyd,” he says.
Moment later I’m tied on a Sand Dragon behind a dark girl. Calls herself Lyd and me “boy” though I’m not much younger. Makes me miss when I’d sit in front of Kate on Shot and make her scream by galloping.
Around us are other riders and Dragons. The world spreads before us, mostly Sand, and behind us is all our friends, mine being Daniel and Darby. Daniel’s got one arm slinged, the other round Darby. Silly part of me wants to see them like that always.
“Bye Bobby!” screams Darby.
“Hey World,” says Lyd, smirking like she’s something.
“Hey Death,” I say under my breath.
The Dragon’s wings swoop, smacking wind in my ears and eyes as the ground leaves us and the sky surrounds us with hot heat. I grab Lyd’s shoulders in spite of myself, grinding my teeth and squeezing my eyes shut. Air roars past. Thud-thud-thud go the Dragon wings as the shadow of the Devils’ Mountain fades behind us.
Hours become minutes and minutes become hours till I’m not sure which is which and don’t care. At one point Lyd shakes me.
“There’s the City,” she says. “Barely no one there now.”
I don’t have to look down. Skeleton towers of the City brush sky full of gritty wind. The wind sounds hollow tunneled down hollow streets.
But after we pass the city, we began to soar over snakes of road darkened with fleeing life. These roads are surrounded by weak green. Life, life, life. I swallow dryness and blink at it.
“You alive? There’s hope,” Older Dude had said.
I thought we’d stop for the night. Instead I end up sleeping while flying, adrenaline sickening my veins with the fear of falling. ‘Course, I don’t. Tied down. But when the sun rises again, instead of flat we’re looking at bubbled land, all scarlet and rose under new daylight.
“What’re those?” I ask Lyd, too curious to pretend to know.
“Gotta find the one where the hermit dude is,” she adds.
I notice the other Dragons are gone, that it’s just us. Lyd says it’s ‘cuz they’ve split to look around. Words are half out of her mouth when I see it, sapphire sore thumb.
Down we swoop, blue rock growing as we get closer till it’s all we see and the Dragon thuds to earth. In front of us is a big open gate like a gaping mouth, wooden, painted teeth jagging down from its frame.
“Weird,” says Lyd, hand drifting to her pistol.
I yank my kerchief off my face and squint up. The air is stiller than still, that still that makes it and you feel alive.
“Guess we go in?” I ask as she ties down her sleepy dragon.
Lyd’s braids shrug with her shoulders. “Reckon so.”
But then a grating voice howls out the mouth, “Come forth! You have reached the Gates of Life.”
We share a glance and start crunching across dry earth towards them Gates of Life. Look more like Gates of Death with that mouth.
The shadow of its innards flits over us as we duck in, find ourselves looking at hundreds of people working in lush gardens, a waterfall pouring white from a deep blue wall in the center. They all turned and shouted in one reverberating voice, “Peace, Chosen Ones!”
Lydia’s face lights up. I just shift my weight.
Both the waterfall and the people parted in a wave, clearing for a tall lady, gold crown on her head and a smile on her dark face. Lyd sighs and drops on her knees, something I didn’t place right with her, though the Lady was pretty impressive. Shift my weight to the other leg and tip a hat that isn’t there to her.
She spreads her hands and says, “Welcome. You are of the 500,000.”
Pictures not in my head suddenly are. See a community in this blue rock, of people chosen by the Hermit Lady to survive The Purge, meaning the Sand, until it passed and life returned to the Colonies. And Lyd and I are two of them.
“Uh, what about our friends?” I ask abruptly, slicing away the silky vision. Lyd gives me an irritated look.
Hermit Lady lets her lids drift closed, thinks a moment and inhales. The pictures come back, revolving round the Devils’ Mountain. See Darby’s face, Older Dude, Wes, bunch of other people I don’t know. Don’t see Daniel. I point this out to Hermit Lady.
“Then he has not been chosen,” she says. “I am sorry. Come.”
I blink and stumble after her and Lyd. All I can see is Daniel’s arm around Darby, his innocent grin. But it fades. These gardens are amazing. The waterfall sings and the people smile. The blue is beautiful. Some sort of sensation settles in my bones.
Peace. That’s what it is, I realize.
“Here,” says the Hermit Lady as she leads Lyd and me towards the waterfall. “You will rest.”
Rest. I smile. Rest would be nice. As we walk on, I feel unnecessary guilt about Marty and Doris slip away. Sadness for Kate’s still there, but it’s calmer, more retrospective, I guess. The sort that a guy writes songs about.
We’re standing on the slippery, glistening rock in front of the waterfall, its pure water sloshing my ankles as I peer into the darkness beyond its gate, the gate that opened for the Lady. She gestures.
“If you pass through these waters, you will be safe from the sand forever.”
I feel its moisture kiss my face. I wanna run in and drown in it, feel free, alive forever.
But I think of Daniel again. My jaw sets in indecision, and I glance at the mouth gate, the glaring heat beyond. All the pain of the outside pricks my heart again, fear of dragons, strangle of sand. But even as it floods over into my watering eyes, I say it. Can’t believe it, but I do.
“Hey Lady, I appreciate it, but I’m gonna let my friend take my place.”
For a moment utter silence drops. I turn and face her, repeat my words.
“Are you certain?” she asks, brow frowning.
Already my bitter sorrow for Kate is biting back. I smear dusty tears off my cheeks and nod my head. Can’t talk, it hurts that bad. But I can’t shake that picture of Daniel.
Lady smiles, lifts my chin to her eyes, kisses my forehead.
“Bobby MacFarlane, may you walk long,” she says.
I tip my invisible hat again, then pivot, march down the lighted path outside. Back into heat, back into light, back into darkness. I squint at the blazing fields.
Don’t know how long it’ll be till the Sand gets me. Think I’ll walk the Colonies, warn the Chosen. Then what? Who knows. Least I know Daniel’s safe.
“Hey Death,” I whisper to the Sand, and I walk out into the world without looking back.