CHAPTER 2: THE SANDSTORM
It had come from nowhere, a great brawling, howling, sucking monster of a sandstorm that tore at her face with granite claws and seared her ears with it’s wail. She felt like she was in a storm of razors as they struggled blindly over dune and down crevice. Finally she felt Angela’s strong, bony hand clasp her by the elbow and her mouth at her ear screaming “We have to stop! It’s getting too bad.”
Unable to answer without getting a mouthful of sand, Marie simply nodded. She dropped to the ground and pulled her dress over her head. She was now in a tiny little sunless world, the storm a dull roar around her head. Then she felt Angela’s cloak being thrown over her, and the world expanded as she pulled the dress down and looked around. The cloak was barely big enough to cover her shoulders. She held the fabric close to her and hunkered down. She could make out the huddled outlines of Angela, Geoff, Hannah and…where was Tristan?
Angela and Marie peered out from under the cloak and looked desperately around.
“There!” Angela called out and pointed to a tiny figure in the distance, stumbling pathetically and screaming in pain as the sand tore at his face.
“Get back under!” Marie called “I’ll get him.”
Without waiting for a reply, she closed her eyes and concentrated.
She was in a meadow, watching a rabbit amble softly over a grassy knoll, green and dashed with yellow cowslips.
She opened her eyes. All was still.
The roar of the storm was now a gentle, deep, loving croon. The grains of sand hung in the air, turning ever so slowly, softly, softly. The sky was in need of a good dusting.
The distant figure of Tristan, infinitely clearer in the frozen storm, stood out stark and rigid.
Marie ran towards it.
Behind her, the statue like figure of Angela began to slowly change, as a look of shock and amazement spread over it’s glacial face. The eyes widened, the jaw slowly grew slack with the wonder of seeing this young girl seemingly run like the wind.
Marie was not really running any faster than she normally could. She had simply slowed down time around her, so that she could cover the distance before Tristan could wander even further away.
Her feet lightly touched the sand, the footprints only forming several seconds after she had run on.
She loved this. Once, she had only been able to do it unconsciously, and had associated it with danger, fear and death.
Now, it was something she could do at will. Just stop the noise and the chaos, and everything would become still and beautiful.
She reached out and touched Tristan, releasing the slow time bubble around her.
And reeled as he punched her full in the face.
She lay on the sand , her head swimming. The pain ground her skull beneath it’s iron thumb.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
She had come up behind him too quickly. Most likely she had scared the life out of him and he had responded with instinct.
Shielding her eyes against the hissing sand, she got shakily to her feet. Her face was on fire but, oddly, there was no blood.
Tristan had run off, and had vanished into the maelstrom.
Marie suddenly realised that she had no idea how to get back to Angela.
She heard a roaring in the distance. And something told her it was not the storm.
She felt for her blade. It was there.
She felt for her comb. It was not.
Her hands plunged into the sand, desperately clawing through the grains hoping to feel a thin sliver of bone. It was gone.
No, no, no, no, no…
She was now blind, the storm had become so bad, and still she scraped and dug, hoping against all odds that she’d find the one and only thing that gave her a link to her father. When she felt it’s coolness in her hand, she felt his hand on her shoulder. It’s scent was the musky aroma of his beard. It was a wand that could conjure her father’s spirit from beyond the grave.
There was the roaring again.
What was out there?
Some terrible demon had crawled it’s way over the black glass mountains, and was trailing blood over the sand even as she stood here.
Maybe. It was not impossible.
Calm down. One problem at a time.
She closed her eyes. The storm quieted once more. The grains drifted like motes of dust.
Slowly, calmly, she bent down and studied the sand at her feet.
There it was, a tiny white tooth peering out at her. She reached down and pulled it up, and held the comb tightly to her chest and promised to never let it out of her sight again.
She lost concentration and the storm returned with such ferocity that she was almost blown off her feet.
The wind was deafening her, her ears slowly shutting down and becoming numb.
Was she going blind, everything was fading to white…
Tristan ran towards her, scramming, colliding with her shoulder as he scrambled desperately back the way he had come.
Two great white eyes were coming for her, growing to the size of the sun.
She stood there in the light, deaf and blind and tiny.
She could no longer hear the roaring, but she could feel it shaking her bones.
Then it stopped, leaving only the -sound of the storm.
The white eyes dimmed.
A head thrust itself out of a window.
“Where ya headed?” it asked.
The truck was as tall as a three story building and as broad as a barge. It’s headlights were the size of sea turtles, and it churned the purgatorial sand beneath four lethal steel treads. In the cockpit there now sat Angela, Marie and Hoss, the driver and owner. Tristan, Geoff and Hannah huddled behind the seats.
The sand was pelting the windshield as they drove. It would gather in drifts, before being swept away by the tireless wipers, long and black as swordfish.
“Hell of a storm.” said Hoss to Angela “Ain’t it?”
“Yes.” said Angela coldly.
Marie got the impression that she didn’t like Hoss. She couldn’t imagine why. Personally, she liked Hoss a great deal. Largely because he had rescued them from the sandstorm and was now driving them to the city, cutting a good few days off their journey. Right now, she liked Hoss a whole bunch.
Hoss was obviously aware of the tension, as he swallowed uncomfortably and turned his gaze back to the windshield. He was not a bad looking man, really. He had a beer belly, and his chin was jowly, but his eyes were warm and friendly. Like Angela, his skin and hair were grey.
“Yup.” he muttered to himself “Hell of a storm.”
There was a silence.
Marie was beginning to feel very uncomfortable. Sitting in the middle seat between Angela and Hoss felt a lot like standing between two opposing armies. It was too quite, and if violence suddenly broke out she’d be right in the thick of it.
“You ever seen a storm like this, Ange?”
“No.” said Angela icily, and then her tone shifted “No, I haven’t.” she said, in genuine puzzlement.
“Yeah.” said Hoss “Me neither.”
“Don’t you get storms out here?” Marie asked.
Hoss shrugged “I wouldn’t really call ’em storms. I mean, I grew up in Kansas. Now you grow up in Kansas you’re going to see storms. But here the most we ever got was a few squalls. Nothing too bad. This is the worst one I’ve ever seen here, and I been here a good long while.”
“How long?” Marie asked.
“What’s your name again, darlin’?”
“You new here?”
“Shoot. And I always thought all little girls go to Heaven. Well, what you’re going to learn damn fast is that it’s pretty hard to tell how much time has passed in Purgatory. Time is something that happens to other people.”
“You call it Purgatory too?”
“Hell, I ain’t Catholic but I got eyes. Don’t see what else it could be. And I know for a fact that that’s Hell over yonder. Oh, that’s another thing Angela.” he said “Storm didn’t start in the desert. Came over the mountains.”
Angela’s head snapped over to look at him.
“Yeah.” said Hoss “Just swept over the Blackglass Peaks. Has that ever happened before? You been here longer than me.”
“No.” said Angela quietly “It never has.”
There was another silence.
“You know, Angela.” said Hoss, and he sounded a little angry now “You could have asked me for a lift. We could have gotten to the Lethe in half a day and you could have stopped them drinking.”
Angela did not answer and simply stared out the window.
“Now look at them. When I think of all the hard work you put in, and they put in, and….now look at them. Don’t even know their own names. You see that’s your problem, you’re just so damn stubborn, you just had to ask me…”
“Don’t.” she cut him off “Don’t pretend you care about me or them or the school or anything because if you did then you would not be out here doing what you’re doing.”
Hoss hissed as if he was going to retort angrily but instead just swore under his breath and turned back to the wheel.
“Why?” Marie asked “What are you doing out here?”
“Tell her Hoss.” said Angela “Tell what’s in the back of the truck.”
“Fine.” said Hoss “Marie: In the back of this here truck there is a tank full of around six tons of Lethe water.”
“Why?” Marie asked, more confused than shocked.
“Because he’s going to take it back to the city and sell it.”
“Oh c’mon!” Hoss exclaimed “It’s not like that and you know it. Hell, if it was like you make it sound these three wouldn’t have had to gone all the way out here now would they? They could have just bought a couple of bottles off me and been done with it. But they didn’t because I don’t sell it raw!”
“Oh no?” Angela asked.
“Not to people!” Hoss exclaimed “God, woman, what do you take me for?”
“What you are Hoss. Nothing more nothing less.” Angela replied.
“I don’t understand.” Marie said.
“Oh boy.” Hoss sighed wearily “Okay look. Marie. It’s like this. Straight Lethe is flat out bad for you. Wipes your mind clean, takes away everything you ever were. But…if you tinker with it a little bit, you know, mix it with regular water, dilute it a little bit, add some ingredients, you can get some very interesting…drinks.” he said after trying to think of the right word.
“Interesting?” Marie asked.
“Yeah.” said Hoss “It’s like, you just got to know how to use the right amounts. For example, I’ve got a bottle of stuff back in the bar that, if you drink you’ll forget everything except your happiest memory for five minutes. That’s all. And then you’re back to normal. And because it’s the only thing in your head it’s like being back there. It’s like being alive again. I’ve figured out all kinds of different recipes.” Hoss was becoming more enthusiastic as he went on “Like, one of the things almost everyone misses is the day to day stuff about being alive. We’re all dead so we don’t need to eat, drink, or go to the john. None of that stuff. And I’ll get people coming in saying, “Give me something that’ll remind me what it’s like to eat.”, or “I want to remember a dream. I haven’t had one in so long I don’t even remember what they’re like.” I get…” and here he started to laugh “I get people who want to remember what it’s like to sit on the toilet, or to shave or give birth. Now I’m a guy and I don’t understand about these things but personally that’s something I’d be happy to never remember, but to each their own. ‘Cos I don’t want to dash your hopes here Marie but this ain’t a happy place we’re going to. Everyone’s bored and miserable. There’s nothing to do except walk and talk. If you want out, you go to the school. If you just want something to cheer you up you come to me and I help you out. I make people happy and I generate some damn economy. What’s wrong with that?”
“They’re not supposed to be happy.” said Angela angrily “That’s not why we’re here. All you’re doing is reminding them of a life they can’t go back to. Material things that were of no real worth in the first place. And until they can learn to forget all that and embrace God’s love…”
Hoss snorted contemptuously.
“…then they will remain here always and you’re helping that. You are, that’s what’s wrong with it.”
“Angela.” said Hoss “Did you ever stop to think that maybe not every person in the whole damn universe feels the way you do?”
“Only the ones who are wrong.” Angela replied.
The storm was getting worse.
“How did you get this?” Marie asked, hoping to change the subject.
“I was a mechanic back home.” said Hoss “It took a while. Took a long while. This ain’t the first one I built though, I had around four before this one. Started out small. Got the materials shipped in.”
“From where?” Marie asked.
“Other places.” said Hoss evasively “Desert’s fulla metal if you know where to look. Lot of it was trial and error of course, I never did build a whole truck back home. But I had time to learn. And as the business grew, so did the trucks. Things keep going the way they are even this one’s going to be too small after a while. Hey, I don’t mean to be rude or nothin’ but…” he stared at her attentively.
“What?” Marie asked.
“Your hair. I haven’t seen hair like that in…what’s up with that?”
“I’m not dead.” said Marie simply.
“Well why the hell not?”
“Actually, I’ve been wondering the same thing Marie.” said Angela “And how you were able to move so fast in the desert.”
“It’s a long story.” said Marie.
Hoss stretched his hand out to the windscreen, where nothing could be seen but the endless grey desert stretching off into infinity.
“We got time.” he said with a grin.
“Alright.” said Marie “I’ll tell you.”