Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 490 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews, and anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
The Storm Chasers
By Steve Carr
The town of Corkscrew, Nevada, sat amidst arid scrubland surrounded by desert. The perimeter of the town formed an almost perfect circle that surrounded a few dozen residential blocks and the small business district, which was comprised of a main street – Wigsworth Avenue – lined on both sides with stores and shops, the bank, post office, The Corkscrew Baptist Church, a small hotel, and two saloons, one at each end of the street. The old two-lane highway that led east and west in and out of town began and ended with the opposite ends of Wigsworth Avenue. There were no trees or grassy lawns in the town. Every house and building had the similar light beige hue. The desert winds that blew across the town on a regular basis coated every board, brick, and glassy surface with sand that muted the colors that lay beneath.
The economy of the town, and its lifeblood, came from the Wigsworth silver mines a hundred miles away that was owned by the town, with every resident owning a share of it. The mines had been bequeathed to the town of Corkscrew and everyone who lived in it by J. Haskell Wigsworth, who had died nearly a hundred years before. The last two surviving descendants of the Wigsworth clan, Emerald Wigsworth and her granddaughter, Harmony, lived alone in a large Victorian house a block east from Wigsworth Avenue. Anyone of any standing in Corkscrew lived east of the main street.
It was an evening, just before twilight, that a sandstorm arose from the south and washed over Corkscrew, battering the town just as Harmony was about to have sex with Clyde Matthews, the bank manager, while in the back seat of his car that was hidden between mounds of sand and scrub brush a few miles from town.
Harmony scrambled from her supine position to a sitting position with Clyde kneeling between her legs, his pants unzipped. She pushed him hard, shoving his body into the window eliciting a cry of pain when his lower back was jabbed into by the metal rear door handle. She hurriedly pulled up her panties and pushed her skirt into place over her knees. She swung her legs around and began searching the floor for her pumps.
“We can’t stop just like that,” Clyde protested as he rubbed his back. He hoped a bruise wouldn’t form there. His wife would be certain to ask questions if one had.
“I can’t do it . . .do that . . .with the storm barreling down on us,” she replied. She located her left shoe under the driver’s seat and slipped it on and while searching the floor for the other shoe. She ran her hands through her disheveled hair. “Why do I have hair the texture of tumbleweed?” she bemoaned loudly as she tried to mold it back into something presentable.
“You’re the most beautiful woman in Corkscrew,” he said, playing uncertainly with his pants zipper, slowly zipping it up and down.
“Get out of here with that kind of talk,” she said, finding the other shoe wedged in between the two front seats. “I’m forty-two, not sixteen.” She put on the shoe, turned her head, and gazed thoughtfully at the sand that had formed into the shape of a hand and was knocking on the window. “Every time something important in my life is about to happen, a storm puts a stop to it.”
“We don’t have to stop.”
“I told you I can’t do it with this storm going on, not when it’s my first time,” she replied, still staring at the window where the sand had formed into a scowling face.
“Your first time?” he asked, unable to mask the surprise his voice.
“I thought you knew,” she answered. She turned her head and glanced down at his fingers nervously tapping the teeth of his zipper. “I didn’t really want to lose my virginity to you, but you have always cashed my silver mine allotment checks with a smile.”
He raised his zipper, shifted about and sat in the seat next to her. “That’s a damned poor reason for losing your virginity to a man,” he grumbled.
Harmony looked up from her blouse that she had begun fumbling to rebutton and saw a dozen or more faces made of sand peering in through the front windshield. “We better get back to town,” she said to him. “This storm looks like it might turn out to be a whopper.”
The next morning, Harmony climbed out of bed and went to the window. Only a dusting of sand, like a thin layer of powder sugar, remained on the street. As usual, the sandstorm had blown across the town leaving nothing permanently scarred or altered in its wake. A dull beige haze hung in the air through which the rays of early morning sunlight shone through. She turned from the window and at her vanity dresser mirror stared at the smudged lipstick around her lips. She didn’t remember if Clyde had kissed her or much about the two hours she had spent with him, only that her virginity was still intact. She pulled a tissue from its box and wiped her face, somewhat startled at how much the lipstick on the tissue resembled the faintest hint of blood. She tossed it in the wastebasket and watched it flutter in the air for a moment like a wounded butterfly before it came to rest on top of a used tampon. She ran a brush through her mass of tangled hair, slipped on a robe over her slip, and left her room.
Her grandmother looked up from the dining room table when Harmony walked in. “I went to bed early and didn’t hear you come in,” she said. “I hope you didn’t let that man have his way with you.”
“What man?” Harmony replied as she went to the sideboard and lifted the lid on the coffeepot.
“There’s always a man,” Emerald answered. “You left your skirt rumpled on the bathroom floor after you got in last night. It had the smell of a man on it.”
Harmony poured coffee in a cup and then carried the cup to the table and sat down.
“While you were out doing Lord knows what, two men checked into the Wigsworth Hotel,” Emerald said as she poked at the runny fried eggs on her plate with her fork.
Harmony took a sip of the coffee and peering through the wisps of steam that arose from the cup, asked. “Who are they?”
“When Henry called to tell me that the hotel had registered two new guests, he said they came here from a university near Las Vegas. They’re some kind of scientists looking into the sandstorms.”
“Storm chasers? Like the kind that look for twisters?”
“Yeah, but these men chase sand, apparently.”
Harmony took another drink of her coffee and turned to look at the window. The thin layer of sand that coated the outside of the glass shifted about forming the image of the outline of a man wearing a broad rimmed hat. It quickly vanished. “They come and go,” she said.
“No, the sandstorms.”
Harmony quietly drank the rest of her coffee, declining the offer from her grandmother to have eggs and a slice of ham for breakfast, and then went back upstairs to her room. She undressed in front of the mirror, surprised to find a hickey on her neck, not remembering Clyde getting his mouth anywhere near it, and then took a bath in cool water scented with lilac. Flowers didn’t grow in Wigsworth but she could readily name the floral scents in her soaps and bath salts simply by their smells. Around noon she left her house and walked to Wigsworth Avenue, kicking at the sand that drifted across the sidewalk, blown by the hot summer breezes. The sand she kicked turned into flakes of silver that quickly evaporated in mid-air.
She first went into the bank to withdraw some money to buy a new hairbrush since the bristles on her old one had been worn to nibs, two cans of hairspray, and bobby pins, lamenting to Sylvia Mathers, the teller, that she had been born with hair that had the luster and manageability of sage grass. As she walked out of the bank she looked over at Clyde who was sitting at his desk with his head down, catching him quickly glancing up at her before averting his eyes. She put the money in the pocket of her skirt and left the bank.
Across the street parked at the curb in front of the hotel was a dark red SUV with an antennae sticking up from the top of its roof. She stared at it for several minutes, surmising it belonged to the men from the university, before heading to the store to buy her hair care products. Along the way she passed Clyde’s wife, Susan, coming out of the post office, but avoided looking at her directly. She didn’t feel guilty about her aborted tryst with Clyde, but she did feel sorry for his wife. There were many men in Corkscrew just like Clyde whose wives she felt sorry for, for the same reason. Entering the store she bumped into a man wearing a broad rimmed hat. They looked into one another’s eyes. In his she saw the shifting desert sands.
The dirt road to the perimeter of Corkscrew was bumpy and barely recognizable as a road at all, its meandering direction leading away from the town pointed out by Harmony who sat in the front passenger seat of the SUV. She tightly clutched the bag of hair care products in her lap and let out sharp little chirps, much like that of a mating cricket, with every jolt of the vehicle as the tires hit mounds of sand. Dan Baxter sat in the driver’s seat, firmly grasping the steering wheel. His hat shifted about on his head with every turn. In the backseat, Tom Huston sat with his arms crossed, staring out the window. He hadn’t said a word since leaving the town.
“My great, great . . . I lose track of which generation . . .grandfather drew the perimeter around Corkscrew,” Harmony stuttered, her speech affected by the rattling of the SUV. “The first thing a Wigsworth learns as a child is the exact location of the perimeter. We walk all the way around it hundreds of times while we’re still toddlers.”
“Why is the town called Corkscrew?” Dan asked as he sharply turned the wheel to the right, avoiding a small dune in the middle of the road.
“The first Wigsworths who settled here arrived with a lot of bottles of wine, but forgot to bring along anything to open them with,” she replied. “A corkscrew was what they wished for more than anything else.” She then suddenly cried out and pointed dead ahead. “We’re at the perimeter.”
Dan slammed on the brakes bringing the SUV to a sudden stop at a spot that was no different from any of the land around it. “Are you sure?” he asked her.
“I would stake my life on it,” she replied. “I can feel the perimeter as if it were an artery or vein.”
“This is ridiculous. We’re supposed to be chasing storms, not listening to bullcrap,” Tom said from the backseat. “I’m getting out.” He unbuckled his seat belt and opened the door.
Dan looked at Tom in the rearview mirror. “Don’t forget the equipment,” he said.
“Why? There’s nothing but dirt out here that’s not going anywhere for the time being,” Tom said, and then he got out of the vehicle.
Dan hesitated a moment before he turned to Harmony. “I know we’ve just met, but I’m terribly attracted to you,” he said.
“Are you sure?” she asked, looking at him longingly. “What about my hair?”
“Your hair?” he replied as he looked up at the knots and tangles in her mass of hair.
Harmony pulled the bag of hair care products to her chest and held it there, her breasts suddenly heaving. “It’s this place, being on the perimeter, that has you, me, excited,” she said, breathlessly. “The desert does crazy things to a person’s way of thinking.”
He looked out the front window and watched as Tom looked out at the desolate horizon, holding his hand above his eyes, shielding them from the intense glare of the sun.
Harmony watched something else. The desert bloomed into an oasis of tall trees and lush gardens.
It had been two days since Harmony had met Dan and took the storm chasers to Corkscrew’s perimeter.
“I don’t understand all this fuss about the sandstorms now, after all this time,” she had told them on their way back to town after they walked about, the men taking soil samples and photographs.
“We’re trying to understand what is happening here in relation to global climate change,” Dan explained.
“It hasn’t changed here. It’s still hot as hell and the sand rises up sometimes and blows across Corkscrew just as it always has,” she replied.
“Simpleton,” Tom had muttered from the back seat.
Waiting for Dan’s return from doing research while camping and exploring the land beyond the perimeter, she spent the time puttering around the house and having glasses of lemonade and iced tea while sitting on the porch with her grandmother. The sand stirred up by sudden breezes formed winged cupids that danced around her head, shooting arrows into her mop of hair. She had fallen into unsatisfied lust hundreds of times in her life, but what she felt for Dan was love. She was certain of it. It was late afternoon and her constant fidgeting and squirming while seated on the porch swing didn’t go unnoticed by her grandmother.
“Okay who is it this time?” she asked Harmony as she bit into a slice of lemon. Her face contracted into deep lines and wrinkles.
“Who is it what?”
“Who is the man who put the ants in your britches?”
“Really, Grandma,” Harmony protested, standing up. “To listen to you, you’d think the only thing I ever think about is men.” She placed her half full glass of iced tea on the porch railing, walked down the steps and out to the sidewalk and then headed to Wigsworth Avenue. She turned the corner onto Wigsworth just as the air began to thicken like soup, the precursor to an oncoming sandstorm. She scanned the sky in all directions searching for the brown haze that preceded any storm. To the north a wall of sand curled like an ocean wave arose from the landscape. It began rolling toward Corkscrew at tremendous speed. Sand formed into fingers that circled her throat and began to squeeze just as she spotted the red SUV turn the corner at the far end of the street. She peeled the fingers from her neck and ran headlong down the street fighting against rapidly increasing winds. She ran into the street and flailed her arms at the approaching vehicle that stopped only feet from hitting her.
Dan opened his door, rushed from the vehicle, and took her in his arms. “What are you doing?You could have been killed. There’s a storm coming.”
“I’m so glad you’re back,” she said, clutching his shirt. “I couldn’t wait another moment to tell you that I love you.”
“I already have a wife. I just thought we might mess around while I’m here.”
The ground beneath her feet began to shake and then shift and then slowly began to turn. The entire street, the entire town, all of Corkscrew, began to revolve. Then Corkscrew began to rise from the earth, like a cork being twisted from a bottle. It lifted into the air, turning, battered from all sides by a giant wave of sand that washed over the town.
Harmony awoke two days later in her bed just as her grandmother walked into the room. “What happened?”
“So you’re awake at last you poor thing,” her grandmother said, going to Harmony’s bedside. “You were caught in a really bad sandstorm. Those two storm chasers brought you home.”
Harmony sat up and brushed her matted hair back from her forehead. “Have they gone ?”
“The storm chasers?”
“Henry called yesterday and said they checked out Why?”
Harmony looked at the window, at the images of outlines of men formed by sand that clung to the glass. “Never mind. It’s not important. It never is.”