Short fiction: Dust to Dust

I wrote this story, semi-based on a couple of true events, for my creative writing class. Since I did very well, I thought I’d share it with the rest of you.

 

Dust to dust

    She sat leaning forwards, almost perched on the front half of her seat, leaving a gap between herself and the ugly-patterned seat back. Through the gap I could see the sprawling homogeneity of the prairies speed by outside the window, the wheat blurring into a yellow pap that covered half the country. Nothing but fields and fields and fields.  
    I had been watching her since Regina, where she’d either got on the bus or moved back to the seat across from mine. As soon as the bus pulled away she’d attracted my attention. Her hair was so ginger-red it might have been dyed , but her skin was that porcelain pale white that redheaded people often have, which forces them to wear wide-brimmed hats if there is even a threat of sunshine. She was wearing a round silver watch, which she kept glancing at just as I glanced at her: sometimes a quick look, sometimes staring for a few seconds at a time. Her clothing was simple: blue jeans and a striped sweater of the one-shoulder type that girls seem to forever be hitching back up into its place, only to have it fall down again a few seconds later. She left hers unhitched.  
In fact, other than her frequent but understated movements to look at the watch, she sat perfectly still, becoming almost background to the landscape rushing past the window. Her energy was all contained, all stored. Her stillness was not the lazy stillness of some of the sweaty passengers at the back, dozing with sweaters like tiny tents over their heads to keep out the daylight. It was the stillness of potential energy, movement that was waiting.
    Since crossing the Rockies on the way out of BC, there had been little of interest passing by outside. The mountains loomed, but gave a curious vibrancy to that part of the journey. They were an ever-changing landscape, growing all the time; full of crags and precipices, nature and geography commingled, and eventually nature bowing out at the tree-line and leaving the peak standing alone. As we entered the prairies though, everything except farming appeared to give up; even the signposts were few and far between. Unlike the mountains, whose sheer size oppressed with the deafening silence of a million tons of rock, down here it was dust. Dust, yellow as corn, covered everything, silenced everything. Dust and wind, eroding life down to its component atoms. Destroying, but in a way that was flat and lifeless. Dust to dust. The dust that was the death of rocks, the death of mountains. The bus itself hurtled past too quickly to ever be worn down. But each time we stopped, it looked old and sickly, a film of dust coating the bright metal.  
I was curious about the girl, perhaps a little more because she was strikingly beautiful. It is always easy to be curious about a beautiful girl. She never looked out of the window, which was a little odd, even though there wasn’t much to see. I leaned over and asked her name. For a moment, she seemed to ignore me, then slowly turned around. She held my gaze for a moment, as if trying to ask a question with her eyes.
    ‘Claire,’ she replied. The word was crisply and perfunctorily delivered, with no hint of further information spilling over out of it . No hint of what else she might be thinking about. I wasn’t sure if she was interested in talking further, but it was a long journey and I felt prepared to risk a metaphorical slap in the face.
    ‘Where are you headed?’ I asked politely.
    ‘Ottawa… and you?’ the words seemed still to be dragged out, or coming from a long way away, but yet they had that same solidity as the mountains: once said they seemed immovable in my memory.  
    ‘I’m going to Montreal. Just for a while.’
    ‘Why Montreal?’
    I smiled and shrugged. ‘Why not? I just wanted to visit.’ She bit her lip and half-smiled. Glanced at her watch. Went back to staring ahead. There was a long pause. A wind whipped the dust into brief flapping sheets of yellow outside the window.
    ‘Why Ottawa?’ As soon as I said it, I could see her face darken. She hunched her shoulders up slightly, just for a moment pulling her body even further forwards on the seat.
    ‘To visit my dad’
    ‘That must be nice’ I said, slowing down towards the end of the sentence as I felt the precipitous edge of the mountain road looming up in conversation .
    ‘He has liver cancer.’
    ‘Oh,’ was all I could reply. I didn’t really see the point in saying I was sorry, and the pause was now too long to add it as an afterthought. What would the apology of a stranger mean? ‘I hope he gets better’ I added firmly.
    ‘I’m going to say goodbye.’ Her words were still clipped, not cold exactly but precise . Her mind seemed to be focused like a migrating bird on the destination. ‘I … might not get there in time.’ Around us, other passengers dozed in the mid-afternoon warmth, or watched the treadmill of wind-swept prairies roll by. For Claire, this was a race. It was almost as if she was conserving all her energy to will the bus along faster, leaving none to move her own body. The whine of the engine seemed suddenly to grow louder, too loud to talk at the level we’d been talking. We sat in silence for a few minutes.  
She seemed to look tired now, worn-down like the old farming equipment I could see as we passed by deserted farms. ‘We’re going to scatter his ashes from the top of a hill close to where he lived.’ She didn’t seem to notice the past tense creeping in. Perhaps she’d been preparing for this moment in her head for months, or even years.
Her phone rang. She stiffened again, and then answered it. She spoke into it very quietly for several minutes. I couldn’t hear what transpired, and I didn’t ask her. Her face was fixed, slightly stiff but unreadable. After the call was over, she went back to sitting perched on her seat, and didn’t say anything to me. Later in the day I dozed off like most of the passengers, and when I woke up she was gone. Perhaps she’d taken a quicker bus to rush there that much sooner. Perhaps she’d had bad news and decided to stop somewhere, or even head back towards the mountains. It was something I wondered about for years afterwards, this girl who was so full of life and energy, and yet so contained . This girl who seemed so out of place in the bleak dustbowl of the prairies.
I wondered if she ever managed to scatter her father’s ashes as he wished. I pictured them catching in the wind, sweeping down from Ontario, North and West over the great lakes, and eventually back to the prairies. Mingling with the dust of mountains, of worn away bone, wood and metal. Grouping and whirling in clouds, ready to wear down whatever tried to move across the prairies. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

 

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