New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author

Dust Devils

With brothers in school and my mother sick with child, I often found myself alone in the thirsty pastures behind our house, creating dream worlds out of agricultural artifacts. A centuries-old shed, the only structure other than our house to grace the land for miles, usually donned the amenities of a grand castle. And the skeletal remains of an antique tractor, rusted from constant exposure to the elements, ultimately became my carriage. Of course, a bank and getaway car was also quite popular.

The hot sun floated high above with no clouds to comfort the day when I traipsed out to my waiting carriage. As harsh weeds scraped across the dryness of my legs leaving white lashes in their wake, I squatted down to pick burs from my socks, one sock being pink and one sock being red. I was a firm believer that pinks and reds belonged in the same genealogical family; thus, they complimented each other quite well. Although Mom disagreed, she was much too busy vomiting up her breakfast to argue, so pink and red it was.

While midday dust devils whipped my hair into a haphazard frenzy, I concentrated on grass burs, pulling and plucking with infinite care. It was then that I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He lay underneath the tractor in the only bit of shade the approaching sun would allow. Curled up against one of the giant tires that had been cracked and deflated since the beginning of time, his arms were crisscrossed over his head hiding his face. A thin layer of dust powdered his denim britches and black jacket creating a surreal, ghost-like image.

I stood up and decided to poke him with a stick, but first, I took a minuscule step toward him.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

I knew when I spoke the words he wouldn’t answer as they were only whispered and I could barely hear them myself before they broke apart and evaporated into the winds. But to my surprise, and growing discomfort, he moaned in response.

A slight state of panic blossomed and I decided to run instead.

“I’m going to get help. I’ll go get my mom.”

But before my feet could react accordingly, he stirred¾a labored movement that bespoke weakness, an inability to do more. The effort seemed to exhaust him and he fell back into a heap with a sigh. The fascinating realization that he could hardly move gave me a certain kind of courage, and I decided to poke him with a stick after all.

My weapon of choice, the only stick within arm’s reach, wasn’t as long as I would have liked and would bring me much too close. Nevertheless, I crept forward, ever poised to run should the need arise, and poked him once in the ribs. With unimaginable speed, the stick was snatched out of my hand before I even saw him move. But he paid a price. With a hiss he jerked his arm back as if he’d just touched a blazing furnace, and cradled it while burying his face further into the folds of his jacket. He resembled a child, sulking from the stinging lash of a mother’s tongue, and my previous impulse to run evaporated into a sea of empathy.

I inched toward him yet again. “I’m sorry,” I said, “are you all right?” As I waited for a response, I noticed an odd odor permeating the air around him, subtle and not entirely unpleasant: Something akin to smoke and honeysuckle. I became lost in thought as I studied what little I could see of him. Dark curls caressed an ear and feathered across an unshaven jaw; thick lashes shutout the world beyond; fingers, strong and elegant, clutched the dusty jacket as if his life depended upon it. I jumped when he finally responded to my forgotten question.

“No,” he said, his voice hoarse from the scorched atmosphere, “I need out of the sun.”

I gave him a puzzled look. “Why don’t you just go to the shed?” I asked, pointing in that general direction for no one’s benefit but my own.

He turned his head toward me and I could see his eyes from beneath a protective arm. They were molten silver, the likes of which I had never seen. They resembled the stainless steel instruments in a doctor’s office and provoked the same nostalgic emotions, morbid interest tainted with serious concern.

“Maybe,” he said with deliberate menace, “I’m a vampire and cannot step into the sun’s hideous light.”

I snorted as well as a five-year-old could. “Mama told me there ain’t no such thing. Besides, you’re too derned lazy to be a vampire. Vampires are fast and strong and they don’t waste away the days in the shade.”

There are moments in every girl’s life when realization strikes—like when you hit your finger with a hammer and only then realize you should have been more careful—and I realized in that particular moment my mother might have been right all along. Truly, given the chance, I would argue with a fence post.

He lay his head back down, exhausted from the effort it took to look up at me. “The sun comes quickly, and sometimes I cannot outrun it. It will soon turn the corner of the horizon. It will soon bring my death.”

His words were spoken with eloquence, smooth and hypnotic, so unlike the hackneyed dialect of the area, yet somehow stained, a sense of hopelessness clinging to each word.

“I’ll be right back!” I said as I sped off toward the shed. Surely there was something there that could turn back a determined sun. The first thing I came across was an old cloth tarp that had once protected our navy blue Plymouth. Surely it could protect a vampire. However, mere cloth or not, it was large and heavy and it took me precious minutes to drag it across the expanse between castle and carriage, accumulating everything from grass burs and milkweed to grasshoppers and fire ants along the way.

By the time I arrived, the sun bore down hard upon him. He was forced to use his waning strength to push into the tire, striving to stay within the unfair boundaries set by the shade. I spread the tarp over him just as the sun did exactly as he’d said it would do; it turned a corner in the sky, and the shadow from the huge tire slid into itself and disappeared.

I held my breath and waited. Nothing. I waited a while longer before mustering the courage to check him for life once again. This time I didn’t use a stick. I placed a timid hand upon the tarp.

“Are you okay? Can you still breathe under there?”

There was a long pause before he rolled onto his back, careful to stay under the cloaking properties of the thick material, and whispered, “Ah, smidgen, what makes you think vampires breathe?”

I giggled with success as I patted the dusty tarp, soothing and assuring, like one would do while giving food to a starving stray, as if the stray were the most thankful for the situation.

“I should try to get to that shed, little one, can you help?” he asked. I glanced over to the shed that now seemed like forever away.

“I’ll try.” Although doubt tainted the authenticity of my statement, together we struggled to get him to safety. We fought the sun, the cumbersome tarp, his utter lack of strength, and five-year-old clumsiness to get him inside.

When we finally arrived, I cleared out a shady corner and he crawled into its safety, sighing as the cool shade enveloped him. I mimicked a statue as he began to remove the tarp, able to comprehend nothing but the thing before me. My hands clenched in anticipation, and as the cloak fell away, my breath caught. He was magnificent. I gazed upon him in awe and his silver gaze locked with mine, an appreciative grin softening his features. His face was as beautiful as his speech.

I started as my mother’s voice broke into my thoughts, shattering the moments I had to look upon him. “Emily! Emily Dawn, where are you?”

I rolled my eyes in disappointment. “That’s Mama, and she used two outta three of my names. I have to go.” I turned to run when his hand shot out and grabbed my wrist, pulling me back into the shadows. Despite the suffocating heat, his hand seemed cool and it soothed the skin beneath. And I was not afraid.

His strength, however, was fading again and he seemed to be struggling just to stay conscious. “Please, don’t tell.”

I bent down, wanting to be closer, daring him to sink his teeth, and whispered into his ear. “I won’t,” I assured him, “I won’t say one word. You are my secret.”

He winked at me then with sparkling eyes and squeezed my wrist before curling into the jumbled tarp at his side, eyelids drifting down as he fell into oblivion. I stood transfixed, absorbing every detail that I could before scrambling out of the shed. My mother might get too close and find him, my secret. As I skipped through the pasture, tingling with the excited joy one experiences with a newfound treasure, I heard a voice on the breeze.

“Thank you, Emily Dawn.”

I stopped and turned back, squinting against the brightness of the day, but only the parched land, an abandoned tractor, and one lonely shed in dire need of fresh paint squinted back.