It had not rained on Tad Hill for four months. Summer had passed and now in autumn it was still dry and the ground changed from hard scorched rock to soft powder and dust. The wind picked up the soil and blew it through the air, covering everything in the fine grit. The corn crop had failed. The green shoots had come, they grew into leafy plant and then turned brown and grey, withering away. Karft had carted water to the crops, pouring it down the rows leaving the grey dirt, dark and moist. But soon the water ran low and even the small amount he could bring was not enough. He worked for hours each day, two buckets from the well, carried to the crop, half a bucket for every four plants. Still they died.
One sunset, after the corn was no more, he sat in the dust and cried. The dirt clung to his bare feet and stained them. His hard, cracked heels would forever stay brown like the soil, a reminder of his life on the farm. He lifted his left foot and examined it. He worked bare footed because the soil was soft in the crop field.
“It is no life for me if I cannot grow anything,” he said sadly. In the west, between two rocky useless hills, the sun set grandly, the golden orb settled in the shimmering red evening. Karft turned and looked to the east, the white virgin moon rose in the blue night and a bright white star shone, the first before thousands came and lit the night sky.
A mosquito landed on his brown face. He did not know, but his cheek itched and he ran his hard hands over his cheeks and the little insect fled.
His nails were longer than they should have been and dirt was crammed under them. He stood up and looked about his land. In the distance heavy smoke sat in the sky, somewhere a fire burned and at night when you tried to sleep the smoke would come to you and try to choke you.
“Please rain, come,” he said to himself.
He made his way down a dirt track he had worn by years of walking, the track was lower than the ground surrounding it and dead grass hung down and brushed his feet. By the house a dog barked and ran toward him.
“Hello Peuro,” he called and the dog slumped against his shin. “I love you boy.”
The dog looked up into his eyes.
“Lets go inside.”
Karft walked to the front door which was propped open by an old car jack and looked about before stepping inside. Peuro sat outside and softly ran his paws across a rut he had created in the dirt.
“Mom, dad?” he called.
A woman sat by the stove, it was not lit, she was mixing dried fruit, seeds and nuts into flour to make a bread. She looked up.
“All the corn is dead.”
The old woman did not answer but looked back down at what she was doing.
“We will run out of money now, I cannot stay here. I will have to go to find work,” Karft continued.
“No, there is nothing there for me, I will have to go to the city.”
The old woman looked up slowly. A sadness in her eyes.
“I will send money home, I can get a good job in the city. I have been talking to Mark about it. I can get a job and easily send you two hundred dollars a week.”
“We need you here.”
“No, you need the money. Once the rain returns, so shall I.”
The mother nodded. “When are you going?”
“Tomorrow or the next day, but I have to go. I can catch the freight train running steel to the east coast, it is not yet too cold. If I wait any longer I will freeze. I must go tomorrow. The train will take me right to the city.”
“Are you going to take Peuro?”
“No. How can I take the dog?”
“He will miss you.”
“I can’t take him. I am going to walk into town to say goodbye to Mary. Do you want anything?”
“Can you cut some wood before you go away?”
“Yes, I will cut wood tomorrow, enough to last you two months. I mean do you want anything from town?”
Karft walked out of the house and put the dog on the chain to stop him from following along to town. He walked over to the wood pile. There was already a lot of fire wood, but it would not last the winter. He sighed at the thought of all the wood he would have to cut before he left. It would be certain to cause him pain. He picked up the ax and examined it. The head was a little rusty but it would do. The blade was blunt. He would have to rub the sharpening stone over it and put some oil on the head. It would have to be very sharp to complete the job.
He replaced the ax and then headed off down the dirt track that led to town. It was four miles away. He walked carefully alone the track. It was stony and some of the rocks could be very sharp. He was grateful his sandals had thick soles. Some of his friends had very thin shoes and the rocks would bruise their feet. A huge ants’ nest rose up in the middle of the track and he walked around it carefully. These ants were very aggressive and would swarm up your feet if you walked on their house. They were red headed little devils, they had no poison but they worked together as a team and would bite you over and over again until you brushed them all off.
He crossed the railway tracks and walked along a dirt cattle track until he could see the town. It was a collection of houses, with a row of buildings and churches in the centre. On the outskirts were the town silos; huge, tall and yellow. Karft crossed a dry gulch and then stepped onto paved road.
Mary lived in a small house not far from the water pumping station. At night you could sit outside her house and the low hum and trickling water coming from the place would make you sleepy. Karft walked up the front steps and stood on the verandah. He looked at the timber floor and kicked a bit of the dust away from the front door and then knocked twice. A young woman with dark hair and large soft red lips answered the door. She smiled a little when she saw Karft.
“Hello Karft,” she said.
“Come in, take off your shoes and come in,” she waved him inside.
“Thank you.” He kicked his shoes off and walked into the cool neat house. There was a warm smell of bread and something sweet. Mary was one of the local school teachers, she owned a computer and she had a connection to the internet. It was a nice place to be and he looked around.
“How are you?” he asked picking up a china statue of a cat and turning it around.
“Good, I am very well. You?”
“I am OK.”
She looked at him and the yellow dust stains on his clothes. “Do you want a drink?”
“If you have a glass of water please.”
“Sit down if you like.”
“I am dirty.”
“Sit in the wooden chair.”
Karft sat down and looked at the newspaper on the table. He read the headlines about the mayor’s speech in town hall and the problems of the drought and local fires.
“How is school?” he asked.
“Good, the children are great, I really like them. There are problems but I have more trouble with the parents than the kids.”
She placed a glass of water in front of him and touched his hand. “I am sorry it is so dry. I stood looking out over the land last night before sun set and I could see the dust flying about in the air.”
“It is an evil thing when it does not rain. The dry air lays down like an old woman across the world and dies.”
“Have you any idea what you will do?”
“I have come to talk to you about it, I need a favor. I am going away the day after tomorrow, I will go to the city and find work, then I can send money home to my parents so that they will be able to live. They do not have a computer. Could I send you the money and you give it to them?”
Mary sat down opposite him. “I can do that for you.”
“My mother comes into town Tuesday, if she could come by the school at lunch? I will send two hundred a week if I can.”
They spoke for half an hour, but the setting sun made Karft nervous. He stood up.
“I appreciate what you are doing for me,” Karft walked to the door and nodded, his eyes looking down at the carpet.
“So you are leaving town?”
“How will you go?”
“I had better go, it is a relief I have you as a friend.”
Mary nodded again and came across to him and hugged him. He smelled of earth and sweat. She closed her eyes as he hugged her back and she tried not to think of the dirt on his clothes. She gritted her teeth.
“I had better go.”
He shuffled out of his house, down the front steps and walked toward town.
The sun glinted off the parked cars and house windows. The streets were tinged red from the evening.
He looked at the places as he passed and put them in his mind, he anticipated that he would miss the place and wanted to remember the nice things as well as he could. He did not want to remember the dead trees and hard dirt, he did not want to remember the dust over everything. He walked past his old school and glanced up at the front door. Above the entrance was a statue of a man. He held a book and at his feet were maps and scrolls. One hand was pointed out toward the east, but the arm had been broken a long time ago and all he had now was a stump.
“Poor town,” he spoke, “I will miss you. I will come home again.” The sun was low and if he wanted to walk home while he could see he would have to leave now. If he waited until it was dark, he would fall over. There were sticks and holes in the trail that could injure you if you could not see them.
The morning brightened as the sun came up between the hills in the distance, but Karft was already walking toward town beside the train tracks. He was dressed with his heavy jacket, a bag full of his clothes and almost four hundred dollars. The train only slowed when it reached the local station, it did not stop, but it went slowly enough for him to catch a metal ladder and pull himself up. The best place to sit on a freight train was between the trucks, where you were sheltered and it was hard to be seen. If he were caught riding a freight train he would be arrested.
The sun glinted red off the silver worn rails and the dirt road cut by railway workers made the walk pleasant and easy. His arms hurt from yesterdays wood cutting and he flexed his fingers again and again hoping that they would not give way when he reached for the metal rung to pull himself up. If his hand should slip there was a chance he would fall and injure himself or worse, fall under the unforgiving wheels.
A train sounded in the distance. From the hum it made it was going quickly, racing down the slight decline, straight for him. If it did not slow to a running pace, he would have to let it pass and catch the next one. It was too hard to grab a fast train.
The train came into sight, a long way off, it was still a mile away but it would soon be here, the driver would see him too, so Karft walked into the bushes and hid. The train came past slow enough that a sprint would bring him alongside. He had to run fast with his bag, he had to make it up the large gravel bank that held the tracks, his feet slipping and losing speed. The truck he had targeted sped past him, but the next one came and he missed it, the next came, well back at the rear and he leaped toward the ladder and gripped it, he brought his knee up and planted a foot on the ladder, his other knee smashed hard against the metal and he cried out in pain, but managed to climb up into the filthy platform at the back of the truck. Karft sat and pushed his feet hard against a metal guard and wedged himself down, he took a small pillow from his bag and sat on it. He rubbed his knee, it felt like it had been broken. The wind was cold and he buttoned his coat up tight around his neck and he smiled as the train past the station and then picked up speed. He watched the familiar buildings and roads as they shone under the new sun, the people just waking up and he said goodbye.
He laughed and his white teeth shone in his wide heavy mouth.
“Goodbye town,” he said gently, “You bastards, good bye.”
The sun shone off the large window of the Catholic Church, as the train moved on the passing trees made the reflection wink so it seemed the Church was laughing and saying goodbye.
The trip was hard and cold. After twelve hours he felt sore and stiff and would fall asleep in small snatches. Each time he nodded off he would dream he was falling and he would awake in terror, to find himself relaxed and in danger of sliding off the train to his actual death. He would instantly stiffen and wedge himself against the train again. His muscles already sore and torn would scream with pain. His knee had swollen slightly and continued to ache.
The landscape changed. Farmland, such as Karft knew had given way to hills, a mighty brown river had been crossed and houses in great rows sprung up. He passed through a town full of tall buildings and narrow lanes, faces came out of streets and windows, some looking at him. These people would not bother him.
The train pulled through some forests now, beautiful, deep and silent. Karft wondered what sort of animals lived here. The train seemed out of place to be passing through the green leafy world where the trees were tall and blocked the setting sun. Soon it was dark and painfully cold. Karft, no longer falling asleep, shivered, he stood up occasionally to stretch. He leaned around the train and was caught in a heavy blast of wind. The train moved at an incredible speed and he was nearly thrown off, but he pulled back. He was near the city now, in the distance he could see the huge buildings, the lights reflected from the clouds. It was huge and terrifying, something that man built which could be seen thirty miles away. There was only half an hour left of the journey.
The tunnels had been unsettling, it took nerve to hang on in the dark world, the freight train then came into the night again and slowed. It pulled into a well lit goods yard, when it slowed to a running pace, he leaped off and fell in the dirt and rocks. He rolled away from the train and then crouched for a moment under a yellow light pole. The electric light radiated down on him and he had to wait until his vision came back to normal. He was dizzy and had to hold to metal pole or he would fall over. He pulled his bag tight on his back and then jogged away, avoiding the large wire fence by crawling out through a dry storm water drain. After an hour of walking he found himself in a suburban street. An elevated railway track ran above him and the buildings were all three or four stories high. It was late and he found an apartment building with the door unlocked and he slept in the foyer, tucked away in a corner where no one bothered him until morning, when five little children going to school woke him with their cries and heavy footsteps.
Karft stood outside in the cold morning sun. The buildings around him blocked most of the light. He opened a letter he had kept deep into a pocket of his bag.
“Hoskins Hotel, cleaners wanted,” he read. “52nd Street…” he mumbled the words of the advertisement he had read many times. He was unsure of where he was so he read the street signs near him.
“108th Street,” he read and walked along another block until he read 107.
He walked through narrow streets, lined with impossibly high buildings, people pushing past him and cars clogging the roads. He had expected it to be like this, but there was more than he had thought, people leaning against walls, hanging out of windows, watching him, cars parked along the sides of every street, noises that beat at his skull, the terrible noise of mass inhabitation, of hell.
He found the street he was after and then made his way along looking at the buildings.
Hoskins Hotel was a huge structure, the lower part of the skyscraper was made of clean white stone and two heavy flags hung above the entrance. A man stood at the huge glass doors and held it open as people came and went. It was an intimidating facade, and as Karft looked in, he saw how beautifully lit and elegant the interior was, shining with gold and silver lights. It was early still but it was busy. He waited outside and watched. The doorman, dressed in dark black suit and black cap, glanced at him occasionally.
Karft turned and looked down at the gutter and spat. He coughed and spat again and then turned back to the hotel and walked through the doors. The doorman pulled the door back for him.
“Good morning, sir,” the man exclaimed.
“Good morning, thank you.” Karft answered and passed through quickly.
Inside the hard polished floor sparkled and the sounds of people’s footsteps echoed off the hard surface. Karft walked across to the nearest wall so he could stand still and look around without blocking anyone.
To his right there was a coffee stand, people lined up with newspapers and phones. To his left was a long counter, cream in color with bright lights shining down upon it and a sign that read; ‘Hotel Reception’. People lined up here too and seven men and women worked behind the desk, checking people out.
Karft joined the queue and waited until he spoke to a young woman.
“I would like to apply for a job please,” he said after the woman greeted him.
“Oh,” her face dropped. “In which department?”
Karft took the advert he had been keeping and opened it, he read it to her; “Cleaner?”
“Housekeeping department. Here you go, fill this out and when you come back, I’ll give it to the manager,” she said and handed him a form. He smiled and thanked her, took the paper and walked over to a bench. He searched his bag for a pen, found one and filled it out.
When he had finished he returned the sheet to the desk. The same woman who had spoken to him before came up.
“Wait over there,” she barked, pointing to an alcove where he would be hidden from the customers.
Karft stood with the form in his hand and his bag at his feet. He felt dirty and uncomfortable. He looked about to see if anyone was coming to speak to him. He was worried about where he would sleep when again it became dark. The entire city was making him anxious. Just standing in the hotel lobby he could feel his animosity toward this metropolis. He watch the people move about, calm and in control of their lives here. None of them seemed to worry about the corn or the rain. He wondered at their clothes and clean confident appearance. There was no one here like him.
After half an hour a man walked up to him.
“You have come for the cleaning job?”
“Yes,” Karft answered.
“We have nothing available.”
Karft looked at the tall man, he could make nothing of the dark eyes before him. “Can I leave my sheet here with you?”
“No, we have nothing, it is very competitive to find employment here.” The man turned and left Karft standing in the lights and shadows of the boxed in corner.
The Bomber, June 24th, Pen Name Publishing.
See my Goodreads page at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24910237-the-bomber