by Gayla Chaney

Winner, Tone Challenge

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



The crack in the window pane should have been repaired already. Had Mariah done what she should have done, what she had been instructed to do, everything would probably be okay now. Or at least her window would be intact, instead of gaping where the wind had shattered the pane into shards, exposing the interior of her tiny hut to the elements.

The large roll of gray duct tape included as part of the emergency supply kit was labeled "for any and all tears, breaks, cracks, or fissures in any window, wall, floor, or door of the residential huts." Originally designed strictly for sleeping, the huts had become personal fortresses since duty had been abandoned.

Duty. That was why Mariah was here. She had been assigned to the perimeter of the southwest quadrant of the newly claimed territory. Sentries were necessary on newly acquired turf; she understood that. Ambushes in the past had cost them dearly. Her brother Bryan and his family were among those settlers whose tragic deaths drove home that point.

She, along with her eleven fellow recruits, arrived last spring. The weather had been beautiful. Though she was among strangers, Mariah felt certain they would all become close friends as the months passed. They helped one another set up their individual huts, followed by the lookout tower, and the command center that doubled as a mess hall. Mariah actually had reread the manual upon arrival as they were instructed to do, but with the spring weather and the excitement of setting up camp and meeting all the other troopers, she hadn't actually believed she would ever need to employ any of the emergency provisions.

They were here to survey any potential risk factors, explore the new territory, establish a base, and document environmental activity. Could the winds be harnessed for energy? Could terraforming be utilized? Were there other resources available? What, if anything, could this place offer that would make a settlement worthwhile? Those were the questions. Answering them was the assignment.

It was not a particularly harsh environment, and other sentries had patrolled similar terrain for years, or so they thought. The winds here were unique; if one were caught outside when a deadly simoom started up, suffocation could occur quickly unless the person lay flat on the ground to avoid being dehydrated by the intense, moving sands. In the past, desert travelers had called the blowing sands a sea of blood, adding to the superstitious lore the idea that a supernatural force sent the winds to avenge some wrongdoing by hapless pilgrims making their way across sacred, forbidden ground.

The sandstorms hadn't scared Mariah. They had been discussed in detail in training. They could be deadly, dehydrating those caught out when the winds picked up, but proper training and equipment lessened the risks. A simoom was simply a force of nature to be dealt with. It had no mind or will to kill; it simply blew. And when it did, proper precautions rendered it a nuisance, not a killer.

The length of the sand storm season was supposed to be short, intense, but endurable. Until the crack in her window, Mariah had thought she could manage in this new, stark outpost. If she could do anything to prevent what happened to her brother's family, if her observations could ensure that proper preparations and precautions were taken by the next group of settlers, then the sacrifice of her time and energy were well worth it. "For Bryan," she whispered inwardly when she took the oath that was required of all new sentries.

Now, as the wind howled in gusts continually and the lookout tower had toppled and the camaraderie of the group had shattered, along with Mariah's nerves, the thought of even one more month seemed insufferable. After the brutal, unexplainable deaths of three fellow sentries, the remaining survivors kept his or her own company, counting the days until the ship returned for them.

The murders could have been committed by some unseen invader from the area, though no species had been observed. The lack of a visible enemy led to a growing paranoia that the murderer was among them. Why? Who in their right mind could ever answer the why behind such random, heinous crimes? No one. Had insanity sprung up among them? Was it from the sand? Or from the sounds the wind made, shrill and haunting? Or was madness a trait one of their group had brought with them, cloaked behind a friendly smile, concealed until the proper time arrived for its unleashing?

Mariah had attempted to barricade the door of her own hut, placing the hotplate and its shelf across the width of the doorway. She slept uneasily in short spurts, constantly surveying from her one window the stark vista of sand gusts swirling throughout the camp. She wished she were anywhere else, away from the howling winds and the eerie silences that fell on the outpost between the gusts. Still, she knew she was stuck until the overdue supply ship arrived.

Because she checked her window continually for any approaching creature, human or not, Mariah had been quick to note the fissure running from the bottom left corner. It was no more than a third of an inch long, and though she and all the other recruits had been told to tape breaking glass immediately, Mariah had delayed the repair.

It had been so small! Instead of rushing for the tape to make the repair, she paused to survey the barren landscape while sipping hot tea from her tin teacup. It was her morning routine. Sunrise and tea, a cherished ritual that had somehow comforted her with each passing day, an assurance that she had survived another night, a promise that she was one day closer to escaping the nightmare of this assignment, that brief indulgence might very well prove disastrous.

The crack, which remained miniscule as her gaze fixed upon it, spread upward rapidly when Mariah's eyes glanced away. It seemed to Mariah that the crack grew furtively, aware of when her attention was diverted. It was monitoring her gaze, taking advantage of any distraction. Two quick glances to the distant huts, and the crack was four inches long!

Mariah dashed for the supply box, only to return and find the crack had become a long diagonal slice across the entire pane. The gray duct tape was on the bottom of the box. The scissors were on the stove where she had used them to cut into a box of oatmeal. Retrieving them took only seconds in such a small hut, but seconds were precious now with the intensity of the wind blasting the sand dust against her one small window.

Her hut, located slightly uphill from the rest of camp, had allowed Mariah to watch all the other huts from her window. She had considered her view a tactical advantage over her comrades should they attempt to sneak up and victimize her as someone had surely done to the three dead sentries. Though some of the other surviving sentries had boarded up their windows, Mariah had not.

She had treasured being able to observe the camp, which now appeared to be a ghost town. No one ventured out since the sand storms had increased. After the murders, the idea of gathering in the control center with a group of former strangers, leaving one's hut vulnerable to whatever predators existed here, didn't make sense to Mariah. Obviously, others felt the same, for she saw no one coming or going anymore. Only the sand swirling, creating dunes in the distance.

Now, the window had become her greatest vulnerability. The gray duct tape would have been adequate had she applied it before the crack spread. That was what she had been told to do. If caught early, the industrial glass, which was supposed to be impervious to shattering, could be kept from cracking by applying tape immediately to any fissure. Why had she delayed?

The sand sprayed once more against the hut and the window was suddenly gone. Bits and pieces of the supposed industrial glass exposed Mariah to the elements; but worse, it exposed her to the reality of her own vulnerability from blindly trusting that the glass couldn't shatter, that the supply ships were actually coming, loaded with food and replacements, that help was on its way because they would never abandon their sentries.

Throughout the lonely months, Mariah had reassured herself with the comforting thought, They value us like family. That had been the mantra in training, and the new recruits gratefully repeated it among themselves. Now, she pondered the words: They? Us? Both sounded so foreign to her, as though the words belonged to a language she no longer spoke.

She couldn't keep the sand out, and she wasn't sure she could make it to another hut before the devastating effects of the simoom left her in the yard as a dehydrated corpse, a human raisin. And if she were able to make to the nearest hut, would she be let in? Would she be killed upon entering? Would she rather die from murder or from wind?

Her vision was already blurring from the swirling dust and sand. Mariah understood the risk of suffocation from sand filling up all the space around her. The terror within seemed suddenly more dangerous and more imminent than the unknown perils without.

Entombment was the compelling thought that pushed her forward against the sand. She would run. Run until she died or until… until they found her, whoever they were. They could not possibly be more frightening than the claustrophobic thought of a dune for a grave. Though she knew she shouldn't, for an instant, she opened her mouth to cry out.

From a sudden blast, she tasted sand. Tiny grains, so dangerous when carried by the wind, were now about to bury her former place of refuge, threatening to reduce her to a pillar of salt if she remained exposed to them. Employing her sleeve like a scarf to block the grains from penetrating her eyes and nose, she lunged blindly into the sandstorm.

She ignored the alarms going off inside her head, warning her of how little time was left before the wind's fury dictated she lie flat on the ground and pray that she would ever get up. The smallest kindness in the form of a temporary haven could spare her life, if only she could find it.

Guided only by instinct, not vision, Mariah probed the blowing sands for any shelter, desperate to press herself against a door before the simoom could overtake her and erase the fact that she was ever here at all. With one arm held out in front of her, Mariah reached into the storm, groping irrationally for anyone or anything to grab hold of.

To clasp a hand, to feel the contours of a face, a form—something, human or not, that could save her from the cascading mounds propelled Mariah in the direction of the nearest hut. She held one image in her mind: an unlatched door. One goal: survival. And one intense desire for mercy.

Fingers! She felt them! Oh, blessed mercy, she thought as the extended hand in the storm clutched her own, wrapping its fingers tightly around her fingers and tugging, pulling her from the certain death that the sand presented. Who was it? Her eyes were hid behind her sleeve but sight was useless in a sandstorm. Still, someone was here, aware of her, pulling her toward the nearest hut and… Mariah stiffened.

She couldn't have retrieved her hand if she had tried. The too-many fingers, all eight of them that surrounded her hand and wrist, were quickly enveloping first one arm and then the other. The pull was too strong to resist. It reeled her into the simoom. Sentient sand? She sensed the curiosity, the intelligence, and in that terror-drenched epiphany, Mariah understood. She was new territory to be explored.




Copyright © 2008 Gayla Chaney

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Gayla Chaney lives and writes in central Texas. Her fiction has appeared online and in print journals, including Potomac Review, Natural Bridge, Sojourner, Thema, Cicada, Concho River Review, and The Literary Bone.

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