Stepping from the air conditioned oasis of the Press Box Grill onto the sunny August streets of downtown Dallas was like stepping into an inferno. The world baked beneath the high stone walls of Chase Tower and the nineteenth century Wilson Building, the streets bleached of color, the people scurrying for shade.
When my phone buzzed with an incoming call, I stared at the number in surprise. It was my old sergeant, Tyrone Bilks. I hadn't spoken with Tyrone since leaving the Army two years prior. I ducked into the shade provided by the building's massive green columns and answered.
"Hey, Tyrone, what's going on?"
"Lieutenant, long time no see."
Two of my coworkers shuffled out of the restaurant doors adjusting their sunglasses and scrutinizing the sky as if surprised by the fierceness of the sun. "Dave, you comin'?" One of them asked as he strolled past.
"Be there in a minute, Rodney." I covered the mouthpiece with my palm. "I gotta take this call."
They dodged between lines of cars and delivery trucks before disappearing into the swirling haze of heat and diesel fumes.
"So how's it goin', Sarge. You doing all right? You and Celia still living up in Lewisville?"
"I'm still here in Lewisville," he said, "but me an' Celia split up three years ago last May."
Once he mentioned the divorce, the memory of it flooded back; an ugly incident that left Tyrone without his son and a hefty alimony payment that forced him to sell his house and truck.
"Sorry to hear that," I said. I cleared my throat and changed the subject. "So what do I owe the pleasure of your call? I hope everything's goin' okay."
In the midst of his long pause, a gust of wind whipped past, peppering me with grit and recalling our last deployment in Afghanistan. Eighteen long months patrolling the desert outside Shindand Airbase at the ass end of the world.
"Cash and Pike are dead," he said bluntly.
His words hit like a punch. Commanding soldiers in combat creates a brotherhood like no other. As their leader, I'd left Afghanistan with feelings of responsibility for their lives long after our deployment ended. Every year I emailed them on their birthdays and at my wife, Lora's, insistence, made sure they received one of the corny Christmas cards we send out to family.
The thought of Cash and Pike being dead was difficult to accept. Cash with his twangy West Texas accent and stupid comic books and Pike with his constant obsession of getting on The Voice. I'm sure Tyrone had similar feelings, especially when it came to Pike. I knew the kid reminded Tyrone of the son who no longer called or spoke to him. I'd seen the Sarge's occasional Facebook posts of he and Pike fishing on Lake Texoma and knew they'd grown close.
"That's rough, Sarge. What happened? Was it a car wreck?" I couldn't conceive of any other way they'd both been killed.
"I'd rather not talk on the phone," he said. "Is there someplace we could meet?"
Sweat beaded my brow and my shirt grew damp. Even in the shade, the heat wrapped me like a blanket. "Sure thing, Sarge. I work downtown, you want to meet somewhere in between here and your place?"
Lewisville was only a forty-five-minute commute from downtown, but my daughter, Katie, had soccer practice at seven. If I could avoid the drive, I wouldn't have to impose on Lora to take Katie to practice. I knew what a hassle she'd have bundling the baby up for the trip and keeping him entertained while watching Katie on the soccer field.
"I'm in Dallas right now," he said. "At a bar in lower Greenville. It's called the Old Crow, you know it?"
Lora and I like the Greenville area and I remembered seeing the Old Crow on date nights, although I'd never been inside. "Yeah, I know the place. How long you been there?"
I considered my afternoon schedule as a homeless man in khaki shorts and a dirt-stained tee shirt drifted past, driven on the wind like the cups and discarded papers around him. All of them bound to end the day piled against a chain link fence or tucked in the corner of a dark alley.
"You in town on business?" I asked.
"Naw, man, I came to see you."
It suddenly hit me how deeply the deaths had affected him. He'd taken off work and driven here just to meet. I didn't need to rehash the stats on post-traumatic stress disorder and vet suicides to know Tyrone was struggling. I glanced at my watch, doing the calculations on getting to lower Greenville before stepping out of the shade and heading towards my car.
"Sarge, I'm on my way." I dodged a cab and raced across the street. "If I don't make it in twenty minutes, the first round's on me."
It took me almost thirty before I was stepping out of the summer glare and into the shuttered darkness of the Old Crow tavern. The floors were scuffed pine, the walls a mix of mahogany colored bead board and worn stucco. Rows of thick planked tables at the front dwindled to a pair of pool tables and a row of video games against the rear wall. I spotted Tyrone in a wrinkled yellow polo seated at the bar, a full beer and a half-eaten plate of nachos beside him.
When he saw me step in, he slugged down his beer and slid from the stool.
"LT, puttin' on a little weight, I see." He pulled me into a crushing hug then stepped back, his wide lips cracking into a grin.
For the six years I'd known Tyrone, he'd been the picture of military order, a man with a place for everything and everything in its place, especially when it came to personal hygiene. Now his clothes smelled of sweat and stale beer and a dry stink of dust. His unshaven face was lined with worry.
I hollered to the bartender to set us up with another plate of nachos and a round of beers.
"So what happened to our boys?" I slid onto a stool beside him. "Car accident?" When I rested an elbow on the bar I brushed away a fine layer of grit carried in by the wind, leaving behind a clean spot in the shape of a question mark. "Man, they really need to dust in here," I said, brushing my hands on my slacks.
Tyrone studied the dirty bar for a long moment before looking up to meet my eyes.
"No, sir, it wasn't no car accident." He paused for a long while, an empty glass cradled in his massive hands.
The bartender, a slight woman with dark hair pulled into a loose ponytail and a baggy green shirt set down two glasses of beer and disappeared into the back room.
"I think a curse killed 'em," he said. He looked up, his red-rimmed eyes meeting mine. "I think we all cursed."
"Cursed? Tyrone, why in the world would we be cursed?"
He shook his head, his gaze dropping to the floor. "Cause of what we done over there, LT. Cause of what we done."
My thoughts drifted back to that fateful afternoon in Rajan, a parched farm village fifteen clicks from the base. It was our last patrol before heading back to the states and none of us wanted trouble. Cash was driving the hummer that day with the Sarge in front and me and Pike in the back. We'd just entered the village on our way home to the base when the dust storm rolled in and visibility dropped to nil.
"Tyrone, there's no such thing as curses. You're a reasonable man, you know that."
"Then explain this." He dug out his phone and pulled up his voice mail. "Just listen," handing me the phone.
The voice in the message was wheezy and weak. "Sarge, I found out how Gavin died." I recognized the voice in the recording; it was the voice of Bill Pike.
"He suffocated, Sarge. He suffocated on dust." A bout of coughing followed then a long moment of silence. "It's getting me too, Sarge," Pike continued. "I cain't hardly breath no more and there's sand everywhere. Sarge, it's everywhere." There was a long minute where the only sound was sobs and broken coughing then the message ended.
"I got a call from his momma the next day," Tyrone said. "She told me Bill was dead."
"How?" I asked.
"He suffocated, LT, he suffocated on dust."
A waitress appeared behind us with the nachos. She deposited the plate and cleared away the empties.
"Could you get this dirt?" I asked pointing to the powder on the bar. She apologized and wiped the spot clean before hustling back to the kitchen.
"See there?" Tyrone pointed to the bar. "That's what I'm talkin' 'bout."
I stared at him in confusion. "See what?" I glanced at the nachos, my brows knit in confusion. "You're not making any sense, pal." Tyrone's dark face was ashen with an expression that on any other man I'd have taken for fear.
"The dust," he said. "It's part of the curse. It starts with the nightmares. Dreams 'bout that day an' the old woman. Then the dust." He turned and stared out the plate glass windows at the front of the bar.
"That's what Bill told me before he died," Tyrone said. "He called twice before leaving that message. The first time he mentioned having nightmares 'bout that afternoon in Rajan. Nightmares where he saw the old woman." His eyes drifted to mine. "You ever have nightmares 'bout that day, LT? I do."
I laid a hand on his arm. "Sarge, there is no curse. What happened back there is done. It was a tragic thing, but it's done."
"Then how you explain Bill, how you explain Gavin?" He reached down and pulled off a shoe then poured a handful of sand onto the floor. "How you explain that? You call it what you want, a curse, a demon, whatever, but somethin's after us, Lieutenant, and it won't stop til' we paid for our sin. Mark my words, it won't stop."
I shook my head. My old friend had fallen into a dark place and I didn't know how to get him out. "Sarge ... Tyrone, I think you need to talk to someone about this, about what you've been thinking. I know some guys at the VA who are pretty good with this kind of thing."
He jerked his arm away knocking the tray of nachos to the floor. The sound of the crash was like a gun shot. The bar grew silent as every eye turned our way. "I ain't crazy." Color rose in his cheeks. "This ain't about that. This is real, man. This as real as it gets." He stood up and flipped a pair of twenties on the counter. "Call me when ya wise up." Then he turned and marched out the door.
On the drive home, I got to thinking about Rajan. A community of simple farmers with little sense of politic. People more concerned with family and the late summer rains than the war raging about them. Groups of children who'd follow us through the streets in bright colored clothes, old men squatted in doorways and open shops whispering as we passed. The old woman in the black robe who every afternoon made her way down main street, her milky-white eyes staring into nothing as the little girl in the bright green dress led her along the packed dirt road to her cart at the edge of town. A spot where the old woman sold vegetables and fruit and bits of candy to the children.
The next day at work, I called my old Commanding Officer, Colonel Hays.
"Good morning, Colonel," I said. "This is Lieutenant Myers ... from 'E' company ... back in Shindand."
"Hell, I know who this is. How are ya, Dave? How have ya been, son?"
"I've been good, Colonel. Still working here in Dallas. Me and Lora had another kid. A boy this time."
We exchanged pleasantries for several minutes then the colonel said. "What's got ya callin' this mornin,' Dave? You're not thinkin' 'bout joinin' up are ya? You gotta be the best damn first lieutenant I ever had. I sure could use a man ah your talents. I think I can swing that promotion ta Captain if ya sign on."
I laughed and turned my chair to stare out my office's floor to ceiling windows. My desk was on the thirtieth floor and provided a grand view of the city, the roads meshing across downtown, and the city sprawl stretching to the horizon.
"I appreciate that, sir, but the reason I called is to look into the deaths of a couple of my men. A PFC by the name of Bill Pike and a Specialist by the name of Gavin Cash. Their deaths have my first sergeant pretty shook up. I'm sure you remember Sergeant Bilks."
"Boom-Boom Bilks?" the Colonel said. "Hell yeah, I remember Tyrone Bilks. Best damn boxer third battalion ever had. I won a lot of money bettin' on him." There was a long pause and I heard the colonel speaking to someone on his end of the line.
"You say these boys were named Pike and Cash?"
"That's right, Colonel."
"Well, you let me look inta this will ya an' I'll call right back. I hate to think of Boom-Boom runnin' inta trouble. In twenty years ah service with that old fool, I never seen nothing' shake 'em."
I thanked him and hung up, surprised to get a call back less than an hour later.
"Lieutenant, I found out about your men," he said. "I'm surprised you ain't got a call from the Homeland Security boys."
I closed my office door and sat down. "So what'd you find, Colonel?"
"Well, both your men died of an extremely rare event. Severe allergic reaction ta high levels of dust."
"That's right, Lieutenant, dust. I don't have much information on Cash's death other than a date and a cause. Seems he died on July twentieth, found in his garage by a girlfriend. The Coroner ruled cause of death as respiratory failure due to allergic reaction. Two weeks later, Bill Pike died, same cause; severe allergic reaction to high levels of dust. The thing about Pikes' death is his girlfriend's claim someone broke inta the house prior ta her discovery of the body."
"Why'd she say that?" I asked.
"Well that there's the strange part. According to the girlfriend, when she came home an' discovered Pike's corpse, the house was covered in sand. I made some calls to a couple friends in DC about the case. Seems they're exhuming the Cash boy and are looking at the deaths as possible homicides. Maybe even terrorist related."
"Thank you, Colonel. I appreciate you looking into this for me."
"Ain't no problem, Dave. You keep an eye on Boom Boom for me. An' cover your six, ya got me?"
"Yes, sir I'll make sure I do that."
That night I dreamed. I was back inside the hummer outside Rajan, thumping along the rutted road to the base. The air through the open window was like a blow-dryer in my face, the landscape beyond the windshield drained of color.
Jammed in the back seat among the gear, I'd been trying to get some shut-eye, my mind gnawing on the latest email I'd received from home. Lora had sent pictures of their bowling team's victory after the tournament a week earlier. In one image, she appeared joyous about the win, her smile wide, her dark eyes sparkling. She had an arm thrown over the shoulder of a man I didn't recognize, a good-looking guy with a toothy, honest grin. There was something in the way they looked at each other that burned in my veins.
"Lieutenant, you need to see this," Bilks said from the front seat.
I yawned and leaned forward, craning my neck to see out as we raced across the desert. In front of us, a brown wall stretched across the horizon rising into the heavens and cresting over us like a wave. It was a haboob, a dust storm of such intensity the locals claimed it could strip the flesh from a man's bones.
"Where the hell'd that come from?" I asked.
"We've been watching it for a few minutes," Bilks said. "I thought we could make it back to base before it hit." Already grit was slashing across the windshield with a sound like rain. We entered the outskirts of Rajan at forty miles an hour when the world was engulfed in cinnamon colored twilight.
I rolled up the window as Cash continued through the streets, the buildings of the town a dark channel funneling us on. Then two shadows loomed suddenly before us. I was thrown to the right as Cash swerved, then a flash of a bright green and the hollow thud against the windshield. Blood splattered across the glass only to be etched away by the sand and wind.
"What the fuck was that?" Cash exclaimed. He hit the brakes, skidding sideways across the road and bringing us to a halt.
I clambered out holding an old rag across my face. Even with that covering, the dust made its way into my mouth, clogged my nose.
"It was that little girl," Cash wailed, his cry blasted away in the storm. "The one with the old woman ... aww God, I killed her."
Looking back, there was no sign of the girl, no sign of the old woman, but I could make out the old woman's mournful cries on the wind.
"Oh my God, I'm goin' ta jail," Cash said, "they're gonna hang me up ta dry."
"They gonna hammer us all," the Sergeant said. His hands were cupped around his face as he shouted back at me. "The girls dead, Lieutenant, an' ain't nothin' bringin' her back. There's no reason ta spread the sufferin.' They gonna send Cash here to the brig an' we all gonna be stuck here for months while they conduct an investigation." He turned his head and spit. "Then they gonna bust one or both of us down a rank. I know you don't care much 'bout that, Lieutenant, but this here's my last rodeo, I'm retirin' when we get home an' the last thing I need is ta lose my pension."
I thought about his words, about more months wasted in this hell hole. The photo of Lora at the tournament flashed through my mind. For weeks, her emails had been less personal, her replies less frequent.
"If we do this," I said, "we do it together." My eyes drifted from Cash, to Pike, to the Sergeant, each one nodding their approval. "No one say's shit ... ever. This never happened." I climbed inside and slammed the door.
In my dream, I saw her. The old woman cradling the green dressed girl, her unseeing eyes shining with a malice that filled the dust-choked air.
I jolted awake, the sweat-soaked sheets clutched to my chest, the bitter taste of sand on my tongue, pinpricks of desert heat across my flesh.
"Honey, what is it?" Lora asked. "Are the nightmares back?" In the radium glow of our alarm clock, I didn't see my wife. I saw the huddled form of the old woman. I jerked away as she caressed my arm.
"Yeah, just a dream." I kicked away the sheets and stepped into the bathroom. It was almost five a.m. I wondered if Tyrone was up. He probably was, but I wasn't going to call him, not until six-thirty. Then I'd find out what was going on.
Unlike most nightmares, taking a shower and eating breakfast hadn't dulled the pain. Instead, it sat like an open wound at the forefront of my mind. I slipped on a pair of sweats and running shoes and told Lora I was going for a jog. Walking to the end of our drive, I dialed the Sarge's number. There was no answer.
Maybe he went to the gym and left his phone in the car. Blue jays chased each other through the suburban tree tops in the crisp Texas dawn, the first early morning commuters backing out of their drives and speeding down the street. In the entire time I'd known him, the Sarge had maintained the same schedule; up at five for a run, shower by six, breakfast of two eggs and toast, half-cup of coffee at six thirty. You could set your clock by it.
I dialed again. It was picked up on the second ring. Only it wasn't the Sarge who answered.
"This is Officer Walter Little, Lewisville PD."
"Yeah, I'm calling for Tyrone Bilks," I said. "Is he around?"
There was a long silence.
"Caller ID says this is 'The Lieutenant'," Officer Little said. "Was Mr. Bilks in the military?"
"Yes, he was," I said. "Best damn first sergeant any officer could ask for. Me and him did two tours of duty in Afghanistan."
"Hang on a second," Little said. In the background on Tyrone's phone, was a cacophony of police radios and chatter of voices. As I waited, the sounds grew vague then non-existent. "Okay, I can talk," Little said. "Since you're not a relative. I'm not supposed to tell you this, but I did my time in the suck. I know what it's like over there."
My heart hammered at his words, but I already knew where he was going.
"Tyrone committed suicide didn't he?" I blurted.
There was a long silence.
"No, not that I'm aware of. I am sorry to tell you, Mr. Bilks has passed away."
Tyrone's words rang like thunder through my head. Something's after us, Lieutenant, and it won't stop til' we paid for our sin.
"What ... what did he die of?" I asked.
"That, I'm not at liberty to say," Little said.
"It was respiratory failure wasn't it?" I asked. "Either an allergic reaction or asthma, something related to dust."
"That's right," Little said. "I guess he had a history of breathing problems?"
"Not until we came home," I said and broke the connection.
It was too much to believe, too incredible to accept. There's no such thing as curses. There are no witch's spells or demon incantations to steal a man's life. I stepped inside and leaned against the door.
Lora stepped into the living room carrying my black loafers atop a basket of dirty clothes. "Honey, I don't know where you've been lately, but would you please clean out your shoes before coming inside?"
She lifted one of the loafers and turned it over, a rush of sand filled her palm. "You're tracking dust everywhere."