Chapter 6

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April 14, 1935. Black Sunday. It began as a dark cloud on the western horizon, first visible at mid-afternoon, a black line separating earth from sky. Many remembered the birds chattering nervously at the sight of the growing shadow before soaring off to the east in winged panic. Temperatures plummeted and a grave stillness settled over the parched plains. This was the prelude to the largest dust storm in American history.

After the tempest Saturday night, many had thought the worst was over. It was the end of the stormy season, when farmers would once again attempt to raise crops from the barren sands under God’s blazing, tearless eye. Sunday morning, Kansas awoke to a gentle, caressing breeze and sweet azure heavens. People emerged from their homes to take advantage of the clearest weather in months. While some basked in the warm rays of the sun with picnics, others traveled to church to give thanks for God’s benevolence. It would be a short respite.

“God-damned dust!” Chuck Frazier swore, blindly weaving north across the KS-25 in between bitter sips from his flask. He had been at church for service when the news of the approaching storm reached him. A few parishioners had immediately dropped to their knees and prayed for salvation. Chuck shook his head at the memory. Unlike the rest of the congregation, he had decided to brave the storm. He had cattle to look after, a home to secure. If anyone was going to protect his possessions, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be the Heavenly Father – that bastard had done his best to take what little he had. Most stared at Chuck wide-eyed as he prepared to go, incredulous at the gall he showed challenging the Almighty.

Lizzy Dubois pleaded with Chuck. “Don’t go out there. You could crash into something or get stranded. No one will be able to help you. Stay with us. You’ll be safer here. That’s the devil’s breath out there.”

“I can’t afford to stick around, Lizzy,” Chuck told her, hat in hand. “If this storm is as bad as I think it’ll be, my cattle will smother in it. I can’t afford that. I got a mortgage to pay off. I been through too much keeping my ranch going to let the bank get their mitts on it now.”

“All that booze has pickled your mind,” Jon Kent retorted, several men nodding in agreement. “The storm’s gonna overtake you before you make it halfway to your place, no matter how much liquid courage you imbibe.”

Chuck shifted his grizzled jaw, meeting their doubting stares. “We’ll just see about that.” Pastor Peter Ross stepped in front of the door as Chuck went to leave. “Don’t try to stop me, Pete,” Chuck warned. “My mind’s made up.”

Peter smiled. “Don’t worry, Charles. I know when a man is ready to listen and when he is deaf to instruction. I won’t try to stop you. I will pray you have a safe trip back.”

Chuck blinked, briefly taken aback by the pastor’s benevolent nature. “Thank you,” was all he could utter.

Peter nodded, though his grin soon withered. “Before you go, I have to make a request.”

Chuck pursed his lips, sizing up the pastor before huffing and waving his hat in surrender. “Go on.”

“This is a small church. We are not equipped to handle a situation like this. We have no food stocks, no running water. I do not know how long the storm will last.” The pastor swallowed, his eyes scanning the uncertain faces of his flock before coming to rest on Chuck.

“What are you asking?”

“Will you return with supplies? I know it is a lot to ask of you, the threat of the storm and all. Surely, if you help us, the Lord will watch over you and aid you in your journey.” The pastor was certain Chuck was beginning to falter in his reticence, watching the rancher twist his hat in his hands as he thought over Peter’s words. “You will be saving lives.”

Chuck frowned, his shoulders fidgeting with the weight of responsibility. He glanced back at the expectant congregation. He saw women and children, their scared faces begging him to help. Chuck turned away and put on his hat, pulling it low to cover his eyes. “Instead of praying for me, I think you’d better pray for them. If you’ll excuse me.” He pushed past the pastor and exited the church without another look back.

Chuck wrung his hands as he hurried to his truck. Before climbing into the cab, he pulled out his flask and swallowed a stinging mouthful of rotgut to numb his guilt. “I don’t have time to drive all over Kansas,” he muttered angrily. “Storm won’t last that long anyway.” He gripped the door handle and wrenched it mercilessly. The door groaned open and he jumped in, tossing his flask on the seat beside him. When his eyes flicked up to the speckled rearview mirror, he was shocked at the sight of the maelstrom churning not but three miles away.

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Pedal to the floor, Chuck pushed his junker for all it was worth, kicking up dirt on his way out of town toward the highway. Like a curse, Jon’s claim came to pass. The storm overtook him shortly after he made it to the KS-25, chewing up the earth and spewing it down on his head. Blue skies grayed and darkened before the wave of black crashed down on top of him. Day turned to night, as if a veil had been thrown over the sun. His headlights proved useless in the swirling muck. He couldn’t see five feet beyond his windshield, yet the truck kept rushing forward. It was like driving into the depths of hell itself.

Chuck’s foot slipped off the accelerator when he caught sight of a woman off to his left carrying an infant on the side of the road, the two clearly lost in the turmoil. She screamed mutely when he rolled past, disappearing in seconds. He hit the brakes and slammed to a stop, jerking around in his seat to stare out the back window. She never reappeared. It was as if she and her child had been swallowed by the storm.

Chuck faced forward and thought of shifting to reverse and going back to find her, his eyes darting to the rearview mirror for any sign of her or her kid. The wind rattled the truck’s windows and the air went ever darker with dust. He hit the horn, hoping the sound would guide the woman to him. After a series of honks, he looked back to the mirror.

She did not appear.

Chuck chewed on his bottom lip, unsure what to do. He drained the last dregs from his flask, hoping to ease the dread he felt. After a few minutes, he blinked away the tears in his eyes and readjusted the rearview mirror before continuing. They’d find their way to safety, he told himself. Stupid woman should have known better, going out in a storm like this. He wasn’t responsible for what happened to her. He pushed the accelerator all the way to the floor to outrun the nagging guilt gnawing at his gut. He kept seeing her, baby in her arms, reaching for him.

Tearing down the road, mind elsewhere, Chuck didn’t see what emerged ahead until it was too late. A pale, naked man stumbled onto the highway, the truck rushing toward him. Chuck’s white-knuckled grip tightened further on the steering wheel when he glimpsed the man and instinctively braced for impact. A flash forced him to shut his eyes just before the truck crashed into the ashen figure, throwing Chuck through the windshield. His body struck the concrete, rolling limply for several feet until it came to rest face down.

As the flash faded, the pallid figure emerged from the light, still standing and unscathed on the road. He gawked at the truck twisted around his body, the front end caved in. The figure put his hands on the warm hood, touching the vehicle to make sure it was real. Unnerved, he pushed himself free of the wreckage, shaken by his apparent invulnerability. His attention shifted to Chuck’s unconscious form. The pale figure plodded toward the injured man, feet slapping on the road, arms wrapped around himself.

Chuck was a gory mess. He had hit the asphalt head first, suffering a cranial fracture. The left side of his face was shorn away with bone and muscle visible. His broken left arm lay awkwardly across his back while ragged breaths rasped from his mouth.

The figure knelt down beside Chuck, its head tilted in contemplation. He gently turned the man over, rearing back when he saw Chuck’s grievous injuries. But the figure did not abandon him. Reflexively, he extended a hand, his fingers tracing over the rancher’s wounds. Soon they trailed down Chuck’s broken body until the figure’s palm hovered over Frazier’s chest. A soft glow emanated from the figure’s hand, quickly fading as he balled his fist and pulled it away. The pale man looked at his fist with uncertainty, roughly rubbing his thumb against his curled index finger. His eyes returned to Chuck and his fist relaxed.

The figure reached out once more, hesitated, and placed his fingers on Chuck’s forehead before bowing his own head. The figure’s form, already anemic, became chalky. His flesh took on a sheer glossiness, the scintillating radiance streaming from his pores. Its supernal brilliance forced back the blackness and calmed the howling winds. Illuminated by the figure’s flaring aura, Chuck’s mortal wounds began to seal. The flesh and muscle drew itself together as his left arm snapped back into place, his bones knitting until all that was left was dried blood. Chuck’s ragged breathing deepened and evened as the figure withdrew his hand.

Chuck stirred, his bleary eyes blinking open to stare in awe at the figure above him. He beheld a shining countenance, both alien and divine, paralyzing his senses. The figure’s face was thin but not hungry, with high, prominent cheek bones and a thin, lipless mouth. Sizable black eyes stared down at him, their centers silver irises resembling starbursts. That immortal glance made him feel infinitesimal. Chuck could only utter one unsure word at the sight of such a being. “God?”

The ambience of the figure faded as it withdrew in shock, gaping at its healing hand in horror. The figure scrambled clumsily to his feet and fled into the storm.

***

Birch-Forest_Ulaan_Baatar

Li Chen twitched as he hobbled through the forest, scratching at his dry skin. He grimaced at the pounding in his skull, lurching from the hammering headache until he slumped against a tree for support – the world was so unhinged he felt like he would fall into the sky.

Once stopped, Li Chen didn’t want to move again. His muscles ached and his joints creaked. The boy’s back was knotted, his legs and arms burning with fatigue. “Not another step,” he swore to himself, closing his weary eyes and praying to the gods for respite. Li Chen wanted to curl up and die.

A shrill squeal jerked Li Chen awake, the sounds of the forest scurrying through his head. Hares rustled through fallen leaves. Mongolian larks screeched. Squirrels chittered in arbor nooks. They flooded his ears, grating on his already raw nerves, entering every crevice of his mind and threatening to drive him mad. “Quiet!” Li Chen hoarsely yelled, clawing at the air. His demands only sparked a startled reaction and greater activity, life screaming in his ears from all corners as the creatures of the wood fled before his wrath.

Agitated by the continual noise, he viciously wiped at his mucus-gorged eyes to clear away the slime. His vision had begun to dull and blur since last night. Even stranger, the color was draining from his eyesight only to take on a subtle hue of pink, which created difficulties with his depth perception. The cuts and scrapes on his forearms were proof of his struggle as he constantly bumped into things.

The mucus filling Li Chen’s eyes also glutted his sinuses and dampened his ability to breathe or smell. It felt like a mass was growing inside his head, its increasing size threatening to split his skull. The congestion in his chest wasn’t any better. He was drowning in phlegm, gagging with each bubbling breath.

Li Chen doubled in pain. His abdominal cramps were getting worse, twisting his insides to the point of snapping. The void in his belly had been yawning ever wider until it had hollowed him out. The hunger threatened to become all he was. He yearned to fill the growing abyss at his core, to feed it before it consumed him. He tore bark off trees and shoved it in his mouth. As he chewed, his swollen tongue brushed a bulge on the roof of his mouth. When his tongue passed under it, Li Chen swore he smelled pine and larch.

Li Chen continued to dig and scrape at his itching body as he ate, shredding his tunic with his nails until his flaking skin was bare and vulnerable. His once soft flesh was now leathery and jaundiced. Despite his skin’s thicker nature, the boy quickly drew blood with his frantic scratching.

He tore free another chunk of bark and rammed it in his mouth. When his tongue ran over the blood on his fingers, the scent overtook him. His quiet heart awoke at the first hint of the sanguine odor, a pleasant nausea spilling into his gut. The blood was like nectar, intoxicating and sweet, drowning the pain in his body. His migraine subsided in a beatific, buzzing haze. He spit out the bark and sucked on his fingers, savoring the saltiness. He wanted more, needed more, no matter how monstrous the means. The sounds of woodland creatures became all the louder in his ears. His scarlet eyes darted around the forest, his thick, bulbous tongue flicking through his lips. Somehow, he could sense them all around him. Their every movement was like the strumming of a thread of a web with Li Chen the spider. They were close, all so close. He tensed in anticipation.

Li Chen’s head jerked at the snapping of a branch. His eyes narrowed. The boy instinctively stalked toward the sound, balancing on the balls of his feet while hunching forward. His head turned left then right in rapid succession. After several steps, a hiss, followed by a guttural growl, gave Li Chen pause. A lynx glowered from above, its gray speckled mass clinging to a thick bough. It hissed again, bearing sharp yellow fangs in warning. Li Chen’s top lip quivered, his tongue lustfully licking his chapped lips and tasting the air. For all its threats, the beast was petrified. He could smell it on the wind, hear the animal’s pulse quickening. He relished the cat’s fear, an orgasmic shudder quivering through the boy. He took a step forward, bearing his teeth. The lynx rose up, laid back its ears and growled again, retreating slowly up the branch.

The world thinned around Li Chen and the lynx, all lost save for the small space they inhabited. Despite his near blindness, he could see the cat above him with a sight beyond sight. The sounds of the forest fell to murmurs. Only the panting of the lynx and its rapid heartbeat filled the boy’s ears, mingling with his own, until an unsteady unison took hold, the joining of predator and prey. The terror he inspired in the lynx made him feel strong, powerful, emboldening him. Li Chen sighed jaggedly, his face flushed and his hands sweaty. He wanted the creature. He needed it. His stomach growled in hunger. He gnashed his jaws together as he crouched.

Li Chen lunged forward as the lynx pounced. The cat landed on his back, wrapping its paws around Li Chen’s neck and biting deep, gnawing on his shoulder. Rage coursed through the boy, the anger scorching white hot through his veins, burning away the pain. Li Chen thrashed until he threw the lynx to the ground. Before it could recover, he delivered a stiff kick to the creature’s ribs, knocking it back a few feet.

The lynx rolled to its feet and sprinted into the forest. Li Chen chased after it with incredible speed. His legs pumped effortlessly, thrusting him forward in leaps rather than strides. The lynx dove over a fallen log, Li Chen vaulting after with ease. Steadily, the boy gained on the creature, salivating in anticipation as he weaved his way through the labyrinthine forest, his hunger urging him forward.

Once within range, Li Chen swooped down on the lynx and wrestled it back to the ground. The cat flipped over and kicked with its hind legs, lacerating the boy’s chest, the vertical lines spitting gobs of crimson. Li Chen responded by grabbing the cat around the neck and throttling the beast. The lynx slashed defensively at Li Chen’s arms and face, only enraging the boy further. He began beating on the creature, savagely pounding the life from the cat. His fury devolved to mindless battery. The lynx whimpered in pain and surrender, yet the blows kept coming, cracking bone and rupturing organs.

Minutes later, Li Chen gasped for air, exhausted. He shuddered when he realized what he had done. The savagery made him want to retch, bits of the animal all over him. “What have I become?” he rasped. The boy turned from the lynx shaking in its final throes.

Despite his disgust, something bestial inside him appreciated his conquest. “Where did you come from?” he asked the demon, staring down at the slashes over his heart that had already sealed into thick scars. The demon answered through inhuman cravings. With tears in his eyes, Li Chen wavered briefly before licking the cat’s blood from his knuckles. He couldn’t stop himself, his tongue slithering between each finger for every last drop. A humming began inside his head, accompanied by electrical sparks tickling every nerve. Something primal took over, his id charged and rapacious. He proceeded to tear the battered lynx apart, ripping it open and feeding on its corpse with voracious enthusiasm, warm blood pouring down his chin. The warm, dead flesh filled the emptiness inside him.

***

Monday afternoon, Sheriff Mark Brady cruised down the KS-25, surveying the damage wrought by Sunday’s dust storm. He’d been combing Grant County since dawn, checking on the welfare of the townspeople and helping where he could. So far, there hadn’t been any casualties, though there were numerous odd sights. Mark had found over thirteen people huddled in the ruins of a two room adobe hut, the occupants too afraid to venture out lest they be smothered by the maelstrom they were sure still raged outside. Worse was a field full of dead cattle he had passed five miles back; over two dozen head keeled over and covered with dust, their gaping mouths full of dirt.

Mark slowed when he saw Chris’ dilapidated Model-T. He pulled behind the beat-up vehicle and climbed out. “Chris?” he called, walking to the driver’s side door. He wiped the grime off the glass to get a look through the window. Empty. He opened the door and searched inside. There were no keys in the ignition. He walked around to the front, laying his hand on the hood. It was cool. Mark glanced around. “Chris?” Not a sign of the man to be seen. Dumb bastard probably got caught in the storm and tried to make it home on foot.

The sheriff returned to his car and continued south. He made a mental note to stop at Chris’ farm to make sure the man was alright. After seeing those cattle, Mark couldn’t help but worry about his friend, shuddering when he pictured Chris face down in the fields, covered in dust. His eyes darted left and right as he drove, searching for any hint of his friend.

“Christ,” he whispered when he happened upon it. The wreckage of Chuck Frazier’s truck was strewn across the highway, the front end resting askew on a broken axle, crowned at either side with blown tires. Mark came to a stop and jumped out. He hustled toward the wreckage, his boots crunching on broken glass. “What the hell did he hit?” Mark muttered as he reached the front end. The truck looked like a giant had punched it in, the fender collapsed inward. Bastard must have been speeding to beat the storm. There wasn’t any sign of the victim. Maybe a cow wandered onto the road. Storm could have knocked down a fence and the stupid creature would have lost its way. A quick check proved the barbed wire fencing was still up on both the eastern and western sides of the highway and there was no bovine corpse to be seen.

The windshield drew his attention next. Judging by the gaping hole, something or someone had been thrown out by the impact. But where the hell was the driver? He should have passed him on the road. The lack of either victim was maddening. Did everyone simply get up, dust themselves off, exchange apologies and go home? His eyes came back to that huge black hole in the windshield. “No way a man walked away from that,” Mark whispered. Anything strong enough to throw a man was likely to kill him. Maybe one or both of the saps ended up in an adjacent field and was covered over by the storm, just waiting to give a farmer a spring surprise.

Mark sauntered around the shattered vehicle, stepping over debris as he made his way to the driver’s side. “Hello?” He grabbed the door handle and pulled. It was jammed. Mark jerked on the handle a few more times, struggling to unstick it when Chuck’s disheveled head popped up. The sheriff jumped back, startled. “Damnit, Chuck,” he cursed.

Chuck rolled down the window. “Sorry, sheriff.”

“Are you alright? Looks like you hit something pretty good.” Chuck didn’t answer, his red-rimmed eyes going wide as he fidgeted and hissed something under his breath. “How long you been out here?”

Chuck continued to babble incoherently. Mark reached through the window and put a hand on Chuck to calm him. The contact helped to soothe Frazier’s anxiety, and Mark felt the man’s rigid forearm slacken. “How long you been out here?”

“Since yesterday. Got in the truck to keep out of the storm. Strange things out in the storm.” Chuck shifted in his seat.

“Something wrong?”

Chuck wouldn’t meet Mark’s gaze. “You’re gonna think I’m crazy.”

“Why would I think that?”

“Because I think it’s crazy,” Chuck bluntly replied.

“Just tell me what happened.”

Chuck ran a hand through his wild hair, remembering the events of yesterday. “I…I hit something.”

“Yeah, I can see that. What did you hit?”

“I…I think it was a man.”

Mark’s eyes jerked back to the front of the truck as he released Chuck and backed up. “Did you see who it was?”

“He stumbled into the road. I didn’t get that good a look. He came out of the storm.”

The image of Chris’ Model-T flashed in Mark’s mind. “No. Oh Christ, no.”

“It all happened so fast -”

“Did you see who it was?”

Chuck shivered. “Oh, I saw his face.” He broke down at the memory of the figure, crying hysterically.

The sheriff attempted to console Frazier when he noticed the empty flask. Mark’s kind nature soured as his stare bored into Chuck. “You goddamn drunken bastard, did you hit Chris Donner?”

Chuck shook his head. “I don’t know,” he blubbered. “I don’t know what I hit.”

“What are you talkin’ about? You said you saw his face,” Mark reminded him. “You better tell me what happened if you don’t want me to haul your ass in.”

Chuck began babbling again, only the words ‘god’ and ‘healed’ understandable.

Mark was fast losing his patience with the drunk. “Chris’ car is about half a mile up the road. I need to know if you hit him.”

“I…”

Mark abandoned Chuck to search the road, looking for any sign of his friend. There was no body. No tracks. No sign of him anywhere. “Where is he?” he demanded over his shoulder.

“What?” Chuck absently replied.

Mark marched to the driver’s side door and reached through the window to grab Chuck by the shirt, shaking him. “Where the hell is the man you hit? Where is my friend?”

“He went that way.” Chuck motioned south.

Mark released him and bolted for his car. He gunned the engine and rushed down the highway, the pit in his stomach growing larger.

 The saga continues in the novel, Proxies of Fate…

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