Image by NASA, Public domain
A Trail Of Dust
by Henry Warren
The dust cloud followed us down five miles of bad road. The city felt far away, a part of a world that never had much to do with this area. Nothing changed out here. Didn’t matter that it was decades later and for a different reason; part of me knew we were heading to Grampa and Gramma Kellan’s place for the holidays. They’d be there waiting to hug us, Gramma would slip us some hard candy before Grampa took us back with him to “earn our keep” by sweeping, picking up tools, or playing around in the barn while he finished his work.
“Don’t touch it,” he’d warn us. “No time today for the Moon.”
Hedge apples rotted in shallow ditches, rusting barbed wire fences drooped between twisted wooden posts, a few cows stood around in fields, and suddenly a small herd of ostrich-like things ran away from a pond. I twisted around to watch them disappear over the rise.
“What the hell were those?” I wished I had my phone ready to take a picture. It wasn’t good for anything else; we were in a strictly one-bar territory in those spots there was any signal at all.
“Uh, emu, I think?” Dad had been out here more than anyone, the past year. “Always someone trying something new out here. There’s buffalo like a mile to the south. I think old Peterson’s got llamas or alpacas nowadays.”
“So the Farmer’s Market has gone hipster?”
“We can check it out if you want, see if they’re selling breadfruit or avocado toast spread. If we’ve got time for it.” Dad sounded doubtful, which was rare. The man had many faults that I could list at a moment’s notice, but indecisiveness was not one of them. Unless it involved Grampa and Gramma’s place.
The whole family had gone around and around: keep the farm or sell the farm? I wasn’t convinced we’d made the right decision. But it was either sell or someone from the family would need to live here to take care of things, especially what was in the barn. No one volunteered for the second option. As the only people in the family with experience flipping homes—Dad, more than me, but I’d worked through high school and college at his side in a variety of rotting shitholes—we were volunteered to handle the rest.
Lucky us, that meant a month together, walking on tightropes and over eggshells. But hell, we’d managed to survive when I lived at home, hadn’t we? Through much rougher circumstances—his struggles with the bottle, my struggles with who I am.
Well, “sort of” managed it. Most of the time.
And then there was the faded-yellow wooden fence. It had last been painted, and the flower beds beside the gate cleaned up by me, my sister, and our cousins, a few years ago during Grampa’s funeral. It was a way to be useful while we kept the hell out of the house. We wanted no part of our parents, aunts, uncles, and various in-laws arguing like hell with Gramma that she needed to sell and move into a care facility.
As expected, Gramma won the argument.
I unlocked the brand-new padlock on a rusty gate. The flowers were overgrown and weedy, and the roses were losing the fight against a creeping vine. The pasture grass was about waist-high, the air shimmering in a dense haze of no-see-ums. The drive continued a hundred yards to the perimeter of large trees around the house and barn. The other farm buildings were farther back, corrugated steel and wooden structures, all in some need of maintenance. Mostly we’d need to paint and replace rusted panels, although in some cases, like the milking shed no one’s used in decades, we should just knock it down.
We parked by the house, which to be honest looked okay on the outside. It wasn’t like Gramma had neglected it, and Dad had kept himself busy with small projects when she’d gotten really sick. It had been a few months since she passed, but much had happened in the meantime. There were a lot of big branches on the ground after the big storms in April, but nothing of course no debris on or through the roof; that kind of danger to the house would never be allowed. The house was a three-story Victorian affair, plus attic and cellar, with an oversized wraparound porch that our South Carolinian Granmama had insisted on bringing with her to the Midwest. The porch covered three sides, but did not face the working buildings. Unlike Granpapa, Grampa was more interested in farming than ranching, so the corrals and stables went mostly unused. He had some horses and goats when I was young, but not too many of either. He’d protested like hell when Gramma put up a chicken coop and had flatly refused to keep pigs.
Dad stared at the barn for a while. I did too, but didn’t feel anything from it, yet. After a moment, Dad went up to the house. He already had a list of what we needed to do. I knew the biggest project was the plumbing. Gramma wouldn’t hear of us tearing up her home to update and repair it. I also expected to spend a fair amount of time on the wiring, which was at least as old as Dad. Grampa’s pride in the family home meant the external stuff was fixed when it needed to be fixed, as long as he could do it with his own hands. That’s where Dad learned it, and I guess it had spilled down to me, too.
It surprised me that Dad wiped his eyes while looking around. That maybe wasn’t fair. He’d grown up here, the oldest with two sisters and a surprise baby brother ten years his junior. Most of his life, he’d been expected to live and work this land, raise his own family, take care of the thing in the barn, and someday pass it all on. One of his many rebellions, the most lasting one, was going to college and never coming back to live.
I should have comforted him. But while a lot of work had gone into getting us to the point where we talked more than shouted, there was a long way left to go.
Because I knew Dad wouldn’t, I went straight to the barn. It was in better shape than the house: red paint, white trim, all fairly new. The doors, hinges, and latches were in good repair. I’d helped Dad fix it up after Easter weekend the year before.
I checked the lock, the biometric handprint scanner I’d installed myself. There was also a voice ID, although Gramma had asked me to disable it once she had trouble speaking loudly or clearly enough for it to understand her.
The scanner accepted my print and the big locks disengaged. Dad strolled in my direction but stopped when he was a dozen yards away.
The inside of the barn was as I remembered it: old smell of hay, faint hint of manure from the fertilizer bags, mostly kept clean. The back room was the work area that could have been a small hardware store, with a few big parts for the tractor and combine stored to one side.
As always, the sphere occupied the center of the barn. It was “black,” although the word was not a sufficient description. It was a total absence of light, no reflection, no gloss, no details. We assumed it to be a perfect sphere, but no one could be sure. It hurt the eyes to stare at it. Not only was it a complete void in space, but the air nearby had strange bruise-colored glints and glimmers, as if light took a beating when it came too near.
Best estimate for its size was about six yards in diameter. The bottom did not touch the ground—it floated a couple of inches above the dirt, and the top was above the level of the second floor loft.
As always, it was quiet in there. The world is usually noisy, especially these days. Music, pod casts, people talking, whatever. Even in the boonies there’s wind, animals, bugs, that kind of thing. But in the barn, all sound dropped away. In the silence my thoughts took over, the hum of consciousness made loud by comparison.
“Okay,” Dad said. He walked back to the house.
I went to the ship, touched it carefully. It was near enough to frictionless that too much movement would make me slip off. It was always faintly warmer than the air, not unpleasantly so, as if it were in sunlight while I was in the shade.
A flicker of symbols appeared in my vision, although my eyes saw only the void of the ship. I shook my head. “Not right now.”
More symbols. “He’ll come back, eventually. You know him.”
One more symbol. “Okay, I’ll go check on him. See you again soon.”
No response. I shut the barn door but didn’t bother locking it. Dad was stomping around on the second floor. I checked under some of the dust covers on the furniture, and everything seemed okay. But there was a smell of mildew coming from somewhere. Bathroom, maybe?
I pulled out my phone and started a list of things I noticed. The kitchen was the worst—no amount of scrubbing could get rid of decades of grease and smoke, and there was definitely a slow leak under the sink. The fridge would need to go, too, and we might as well redo the tiling.
I walked around the house, taking notes. Out the window, a feral cat, one of the massive clan Gramma had tolerated and Grampa had secretly bribed with food, strutted past on the rail of the porch, long and lean with a strange pattern of lines in its ginger fur. The cats fought against coyotes, wild dog packs, and farmers who wanted to poison or trap them. Gramma didn’t much like cats, but she respected them. She laid ground rules—they could be here if they earned their keep and hunted pests outside, but inside the house was off limits. Some kittens tried to break that rule, or lure us into breaking it for them, but this one obviously knew better. The cat met my eyes for a while, measuring the odds that I’d give it food. It ran off as Dad came downstairs.
“Got a whiteboard in the truck. Easier than the phone.”
It was just a suggestion, not a criticism. I tried to match the mild tone. “Just first impressions. I figure we’ll use the whiteboard for detailed plans.”
He shrugged. Then, tightening his lips, “It’s still here.”
I laughed. “Where else would it be? Not like Gramma could have parked it behind the Moon before she went to hospice.”
“I sorta hoped it would leave after she was gone. No reason for it to hang around. Or maybe she could have told it go home.”
“Didn’t you try that once? It didn’t listen then. Granted, I don’t know if you said ‘please.’”
“It was waiting for my father. Mom didn’t want anyone to see it afterward, you know. She never went back into the barn after he was gone. All I did the past few years was check on the locks. But my folks are gone. It has no reason to hang around.”
“And it knows that they’re gone, and what you want it to do. It’s still here. You think the barn would stop the ship, if it wanted to leave?”
“Damn thing,” he muttered.
“Hey, is that mildew smell in the bathroom or the utility room, you think?”
He paused on the way out the door, narrowing his eyes at the cat sitting on the hood of his truck. “Probably it’s both. We’re definitely replacing those pipes.”
We avoided the blow-up most of the week, but we felt it coming. As soon as they’d heard the plan, my sister, cousins, and mom had started a pool for when the fight would happen, with side bets for what would set us off. They refused to let me know the details so that I couldn’t skew things in favor of my sister Heather; she’d share the winnings with me.
We unloaded all the pipes, the new wiring, sockets, switches, and all the rest. It was a huge pile of stuff with just the two of us to handle it. The Home Depot delivery guy looked at everything, then at us, and offered the names of good local contractors who could help out. Dad waved him off.
Then he spent the next half-hour staring at the equipment, the house, and then the barn. I sat on the porch and let him think. One of the ferals, a big friendly white tom with flame points and blue eyes, was rubbing my boots incessantly, purring all the while. Poor guy drooled every time I scratched behind his ears; his family tree didn’t branch much.
“Tearing open the walls, hauling everything in, fixing the holes…the plumbing will take at least a week,” he said, finally.
“A week if we’re lucky. Call it another week for the wiring.“ The cat flopped right over, showing me his belly. I wasn’t falling for that trap.
“Damn thing in the barn wants to help,” Dad said, gritting his teeth.
I said nothing, only put my foot near the tomcat’s belly. He sprang into action, attacking my boot with all five pointy bits. Then he got confused and started licking the leather.
“You probably think that’s a good idea.”
I shrugged. “Be a lot slower without help. Besides, it would be interesting to see what it does. Never had the ship help me with this scale of work before.”
“Oh, it likes to help even when you don’t need it. Then once you’ve given it the opening, it talks to you all the time.” I saw him tightening up inside and out, but this was a trap I couldn’t resist.
“So what? It has interesting things to say.”
“Just stories. Just fucking stories. Meanwhile, we’ve got work to do. Or at least, I do. Go somewhere and play with the damn cats if you’re not going to help.” He grabbed his tools and marched into the house.
I sighed, freed my foot from the tomcat who was half-asleep by now, and went to work. On another floor.
Dad either shouted or vanished. Shouting is bad, because sometimes he’d end up punching a wall or, years ago, hitting the bottle. Vanishing is worse. Even if he was in the same room, he’d disappear into himself and ignore everything else. Usually, though, he’d leave. Once he turned up days later cut so bad it required a trip to the emergency room. We were sure someone had stabbed him.
I inherited the silent anger, but I did my best to not disappear completely into my own head. The way I burned off my ire was to whistle and sing, off-key, while working. I removed the wall and ripped out the old wires in the living room. Maybe we could sell some of the demo to collectors; it was all post-WWII metal conduit instead of vinyl-sheathed NM cable. There was some 1990s-era coax here or there, for the satellite dish, but even that needed to be updated to the latest RG6 standard.
Eventually, Dad needed my help with the pipes. I braced them while he unscrewed them with the wrench. We grunted and pointed and worked until the sun was too low for us to see. Of course we had lamps and a generator if we wanted to work into the night, but we weren’t far enough along to pull late shifts. I went back out to the barn. The ship was there, as it had been for a century or more.
The extended family didn’t even know. Granpapa and Granmama thought it best if only their direct descendants knew about it, although it was hard to hide things from spouses. After Granpapa passed, Gramma enforced the rules of who knew and who didn’t. My impression is that Dad showed Mom, and Gramma never stopped being angry about it.
I wondered if my cousins remembered it the way I did, how, after our chores and when Grampa was in the right mood, he’d bundle everyone, cousin Janet still in her toddler diapers, into the ship for a few orbits around Earth. Did they reminisce about the three times, on cold clear Christmas Eves, he even took us on a loop around the Moon? The last time, the youngest cousin, had just turned five. Did she remember, or did she think those were stories Grampa told her as she fell asleep on the porch, warmed by a wood stove and hot chocolate?
The ship was supposed to be Dad’s legacy. He was the eldest, he’d known it the longest. It spoke to him the most, maybe even more than Granpapa. Until he stopped talking back.
“Where are we going to put it?” Dad was just a couple feet behind me, staring into the barn over my shoulder. I hadn’t heard him, but I didn’t jump. The ship made some people nervous, but I always felt protected and safe.
“I don’t know.” We could barely see each other in the twilight. “I’ve got land around my place, but my boyfriend is, you know…”
“Producer. There’s a difference. But I put up a shed big enough for the ship and tell him not to look, it’ll be on the news the same night.” I didn’t mention the complication that the land was Sean’s.
“Your sister can’t help?”
I have no idea when my sister last spoke with my Dad. All I know for sure was that she ignored his Facebook friend request two years ago and that was all she had to say about it.
“Heather might be willing, but she’s starting grad school and lives in a ten-by-ten box. I don’t even think she’s got covered parking. Where would she put it? But you know, Mom might take it. She’s got some room at her place.”
He grunted. Her place used to be their place. In the back acreage was the large shed that I’m pretty sure he originally built for the ship. “No.”
I tried another angle. “You know, I might ask the ship for help tomorrow. I’ve got a lot of scrap to haul. And maybe if we reestablish a relationship with it, it might have an idea what it wants us to do with it.”
Dad’s face was almost completely hidden by the night. The only lights were the lamps back at the house. Then he said, flatly, “You think I hate the ship. You don’t understand the real problem. But, fine, ask if it will help us both.”
Out in the barn, I put my hand on the ship, thought hard about what I hoped it would do. Symbols passed across my eyes in long looping ovals. They were not English or any other language I recognized, but I’d seen them since I before I could talk. It also used English words sometimes, because it liked to be understood.
It flickered messages to me, instructing me to look carefully here, to measure there, to check the work we’d already done. I knew it was looking through my eyes, something I’d always found fascinating as much as it creeped out others in my family. Dad stayed behind me, basically out of my field of vision the whole time. Once in a while he’d make sure I didn’t miss anything, and the ship symbols changed quickly, almost as if it was excited to hear his voice.
Then we waited out on the porch. The ship didn’t move from its place in the barn; it never needed to move. I didn’t know how far its fields could reach, but the distance to the house was no problem. We watched the cats and other animals run away during a period of intense humming and a series of sudden pressure changes. The air stank of ozone, and the sound of several heavy things falling a few inches to the floor reverberated. For a good ten minutes, pipes and wires floated through hallways and open windows and settled into place. The symbols vanished from my vision.
Dad and I walked into the upstairs bathroom. The wall had been cut perfectly. The sheetrock had been moved aside and stacked neatly so we could work. All the old pipes were gone, and the new ones had been cut to fit and waited for us to finish the work. The only trace the ship left behind was the dust hanging in the air.
“Handy, isn’t it?” Dad said. “Everyone wondered how Granpapa built such a nice place by himself, or how he and Granmama could handle the ranch without hiring people.”
“So all those stories you, Uncle John, and Aunt Ellie tell about how rough you had it working the farm-”
“Don’t get me wrong. Your Grampa did not use the thing the same way Granpapa did. And even when he did, it was only for the big stuff—digging the new well, getting the combine out of that sinkhole. We had to work our asses off like everyone else. Your Grampa hired seasonal workers for harvest, just like our neighbors did.”
“I can’t believe the workers didn’t look in that part of the barn.”
“Yeah, well. My dad wasn’t stupid. We kept the ship locked away in its half of the barn, of course. Also, migrant workers know all there is to know about keeping secrets. If they ever noticed anything, they kept their mouths shut. That’s just how they survive.”
Time for the next tricky subject. My hands shook enough that I couldn’t get the ratchet to seat correctly. I had to put it down and wipe my palms. “Sean wants to do that 23andMe thing, you know? And, well, I keep wondering if something weird will show up.”
“I don’t know.” Dad was quiet for a while, but I didn’t sense the usual anger. A couple hours later, as we were buttoning things up, he continued as if there hadn’t been a pause, “I mean, okay, there’s a spaceship in the barn and once in a while we’d go into space for a quick day-trip, and so that was all real. But it had to be that he just found it, right? We look exactly like everyone else. We feel as normal as anyone does. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t have any super powers or psychic abilities or whatever. Our family’s completely ordinary, except this one weird thing. And, you know, every family has some weird thing they won’t talk about. You should ask your mom what her grandpa’s job was during World War II.”
“Grandma Davis said Grandpa was a spy. She told me she met him while she was a codebreaker.”
“Maybe that’s the truth. Mrs. Davis sure loved her math and puzzles. She didn’t care that I grew up a farmer, but she was aghast that I struggled with college algebra. Anyway. Except when I’m here, I don’t feel like an alien.”
The word floated there, between us, the thing we never talked about even in the family. I turned it around, trying it on for size, but it didn’t fit the person I thought I was. I had my issues, sure, but they seemed as human as anything other people dealt with.
“You know,” I said slowly, for once unsure how angry he was, ”I once asked Grampa about it. I thought at first he would make me pull all the weeds in the Back 40 by hand. But then he said it didn’t matter. That the ship made sure Granpapa was human in every way that was important.”
Dad’s eyes were shadowed, and he didn’t want to look at my face. “Yeah. And you know, he was. I thought it was easier to get along with him than Granmama.”
Sensing my opportunity to push, I said, “You said I don’t understand how you feel about the ship.”
He stood up and walked down the hall, leaving the job half-done. Despite the promise I’d made myself to never chase after the man again, I followed him this time.
A minute went by before he said, “You think I hate it. I don’t.”
“You got all of us fooled.”
“Listen, let’s table it. Even with the ship, there’s days of work ahead. We’ll hold off on big decisions until then, okay?”
Some things just didn’t change. It was still about decisions, not feelings. Work rather than conversation. I sighed. “Just waiting for you to stop talking so much.”
Not that finishing the plumbing solved everything. At one point the kitchen looked like a war zone. We had almost decided to set fire to the entire house rather than dealing with it. Neither of us was especially scared of rats or roaches, but that didn’t mean we liked running across them. The mildew in the laundry room and downstairs bath was a lot worse than we thought, but after that was resolved, at least we were finally able to take showers after a long day.
That water on my face head felt good, but it also felt like we were almost finished with the job, and with half of what we needed to say unsaid, just like always.
Other than our camp lights and the lamps at the house, the property was completely dark. The high thin clouds dimmed the faintest stars, and the moon hung low to the western horizon, a thin slice of silver-white.
Dad walked into the field and I followed, hair still wet. He looked up at the sky and breathed deep. We could see, way off to the west, a faint golden glow from the city. The trees rustled softly in the night breeze, and coyotes were talking across the miles of darkness. A small calico crept out from behind a bush, rubbed against my leg. There were a few burrs in its fur, but before I could do anything to remove them, the cat vanished into the untamed wheat.
“You know, I used to love the ship. When I was little, I had dreams of flying off somewhere. Not just where Granpapa took us, but out to maybe Mars or the moons of Jupiter. Maybe even farther. Maybe even where it came from. Granpapa was always vague about that, you know. That’s why I thought that part, about him coming here and being remade, was just another immigrant story. But sometimes after talking to the ship, I’d have these dreams of skies a shade of blue I’d never seen, trees that just don’t exist, people that aren’t human.”
“Yeah.” I’d only flown a couple times, but I never forgot how exhilarating it was to feel like the entire universe was just around the corner. It took the Apollo missions three or four days to reach the Moon. The ship had taken us there and back in four hours. I remembered Grampa’s wrinkled, spotted hands on the console, eyes wide but not focused on anything, breathing deeply like he was napping. We could see everywhere, right through the walls, although it was a little scary to stare off into all the space that wasn’t Earth or the Moon. He didn’t land, but he hovered near the Apollo 11 site. I remember the flag, the bottom half of the lander. When he flew away, the invisible force of the ship pulled the regolith up in a wake that stretched for miles.
“It wants to go back.” His face was completely hidden in the dark. “I think it can only fly if it has a pilot. But Granpapa wasn’t interested. My dad absolutely refused to even consider it. And…it talks to you, right?”
“Sure, when I make contact with it.”
“It talks to me every day. Every day, no matter how far away I am. John and Ellie, they never had the same problem. John was like our father, so self-possessed. I don’t know if he ever touched the ship on his own. Ellie was really into it when she was young, but she stopped visiting it sometime in high school. Not sure why. We weren’t really talking by then. They left, not just the ship, but the farm. My parents, my brother and sister, everyone expected me to stay. Even the ship expected it.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. All I could think to do was put a hand on his shoulder. He turned to look at me, his eyes wet in the reflection of the camp lights. “Some people drink too much because they’re depressed or anxious and can’t figure out how to handle it. I was trapped. My whole life, trapped. Even when I left all this behind, I was still trapped here. Just like the ship stuck in that barn. Took me way too long to figure that out. To find, well, hopefully better ways to cope with it.”
“So you finally got to Step Eight?” I tried to sound calm but my wavering voice didn’t cooperate. “Five years on, you’re ready to seek forgiveness?”
“I don’t know. I have no idea how to make amends. Maybe we can call this ‘in progress,’ okay?”
We stood there in the dark. We could just barely hear traffic from the interstate miles away. A rabbit shot past my foot, chased by the small calico.
Dad returned to the house. I spent a few more minutes in the noisy quiet before I wiped my eyes and followed him.
The ship replaced the cut sections of wall so perfectly that we almost didn’t have to tape and paint over the seams. We worked in silence, but this time it was companionable. We were in sync. He’d reach out a hand and I gave him a putty knife. I’d grunt and he’d put more paint in my tray.
We were finished with the big projects. All that was needed was some cleaning, replacing bulbs, fixing rattling doorknobs, that kind of thing. It didn’t take long to do that stuff, but we didn’t rush. Neither of us was in a hurry to leave the farm for the last time. In the late afternoon, we’d go for walks.
I pointed at the creek and told Dad how I’d fallen in the deepest part of the mud while playing with my sister and cousins. I’d pulled them into the mud with me. Made sure to get extra handfuls in their hair or their ears. Oh, Gramma was so angry, she hosed us off just like she did the goats.
Dad showed me where he caught crawdads in the creek and catfish in the pond for an authentic “Cajun feast,” which they only knew about from some old cooking show. Dad swore that a catfish as big as a ten-year-old’s arms stretched wide flopped back to life and smacked him right in the face with its tail. Uncle John, the Boy Scout, kept Dad from drowning, but after that, Dad never wanted to eat fish again. “They know. They’re plotting their revenge, and one day they’ll come for you fish-eating monsters.”
The day before the realtor was to arrive, I said, “We never decided what to do with the ship.”
Dad nodded. “Ignoring the damn thing hasn’t really worked out well.”
“But ignoring things is what we do best.”
“Not sure I’d call it ‘best,’” he said.
I laughed. “You got a better idea?” Dad handed me the keys to the truck. “Listen, if I’m not back tomorrow, give Rick the blue plastic binder. It’s behind the driver’s seat. He knows you can sign whatever is needed. You got any questions, call Ellie or your Mom. They know the business stuff best.”
“Okay.” For a change, I understood him completely. “Don’t be gone too long.”
He shocked the hell out of me with a hug. “See you.”
Dad went into the barn, and a few minutes later, the ship floated out. It struck me as surreal, impossible; that this thing existed in the same world as the gravel drive and lawn it hovered above. The void of its surface appeared to leech the color from the lush row of trees and the bright red of the barn. All the birds, squirrels, and cats fell silent.
Then it was gone, up into the air so fast that I couldn’t see it move. It pulled a cloud of dust from the driveway that rose for miles. It blew away in the breeze.
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