Genre: Middle Grade
Title: THE DRY
Fact: Wasps live in colonies that form self-contained communities ruled by one queen or foundress.
Early light slipped between smoky mountains, swept across the town's bell tower, and burst bright the edges of everything. Another dry dawn and the town of Jeffersonville, Virginia was slow getting to its feet. At the center of town a tall house sagged in shadow. The sunlight stretched to reach the topmost attic window of this house and peek inside.
As usual Elliot Sweeney lay sprawled among books and broken toys. These were his treasures. The light banished the shadows that lurked like dragons in the corners. He splayed his fingers in the warmth. Perhaps today he would see his father again.
He tossed his covers aside. Last night he had found photos in an old cupboard crammed between other discards that shared the attic with him. A spark crackled as he touched first one and then another photograph, as if each held some secret that couldn't wait to be revealed. The new light was enough to dissect bits in the pictures he'd missed. He touched the face of a much younger-looking Uncle Nat, and his aunt – she'd been dead for some years – but who was this boy between them?
The boy's wispy fair hair stood on end. Bony wrists poked from sleeves. The boy's lopsided smile was a mirror image of Elliot's smile. In fact, the boy looked very much like Elliot. They could be twins. Except they weren't. The photographs were old. The boy would be older than twelve by now. He knew of a cousin lost after the war. Why did he get lost? And if Uncle Nat cared for his son, why were his pictures hidden in the attic?
Elliot had been living with his Uncle Nat ever since his father went to investigate the disappearance of a group of children from a coal mine in West Virginia. Most people paid little attention to the poorest of the poor at the coal mines. That's where his father was different from most people. His father told him there were four-year-old mine children picking slag from the coal until their hands bled and turned black with the coal dust that worked its way under the skin. There were children pushing and pulling coal bins and sometimes getting crushed between them. The stories just got worse from there. He was proud that his father paid attention. His father wrote the stories in the newspaper. His father told him about the sacrifice of one helping the many. Elliot didn't understand, though his father told him he needed to understand.
A week after his father left a telegram arrived. Sam Sweeney disappeared, it read. Disappeared. And Elliot was frightened. This big house was full of strange noises at night. Noises his father told him were natural to an old house. Without his father the skittering, clodhopping, clatter grew. After three months the nightly disturbances were monsters he could not get rid of. Not without his father.
His uncle owned this big old house. No one else lived here except his uncle and his uncle had forgotten that he lived here. All the rooms in the house were kept locked. Elliot found one key. It fit the attic door. The attic was freezing. With a thick rug, plenty of old blankets, and a drawer for his belongings, he had constructed a place of his own near the one window for light.
A lady from down the way came in to make meals for his uncle. She would shush Elliot, or she would wave her arms and shake her head when he came near. The fright in her face made her eyes widen until he wondered if they would pop out. He knew he had to keep quiet – something about helping Uncle Nat concentrate – but he couldn't understand why the cook never spoke. She left food for Elliot, hidden in the pantry. He was cold but not hungry.
And during the day the house rang with silence.
His uncle used to work for the railroad. He never saw him leave the house. Wherever he used to work he made a pot of money because he stayed home counting it. That was all he did. All day.
Elliot stuffed a good bit of day old bread into a pocket to keep from being too hungry at the train station. He added bits and pieces from his collection to other pockets. Coins, his marble, string, his father's letters, his cousin's picture. He had a lot of pockets.
In the kitchen he filled his father's army-issue canteen with water, and a glass besides and went out to the front porch. He clambered down the plank steps to the sapling he worked to keep alive in the deathly dry. Something squirmed at his feet. It was a fishing worm twisting in the dust. He picked it up and laid it under a leaf at the base of his little tree and dumped the water from his glass over it.
"You saved that worm," the man's voice startled Elliot.
He looked up at the gawky man smiling down at him from the other side of the yard's iron fence. Everyone in town thought Morgan Johns was simple. But Elliot liked him so he said, "No use in letting something like that die."
"This dry 's just about killin' ever-thing."
"I got somethin'." The man held out a shiny watch case. "Here."
"I can't take that off you."
"It's mine so I can give it to you."
Elliot shook his head. "But why?"
"I see you go down to the station ever day waitin' for yer paw. You gonna need this watch. Open it."
Elliot took the watch. He popped the case open. All the dials and levers clicked and turned inside the crystal of the watch face. It ticked loudly. But the watch ran backward. It was just about the strangest but most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. He looked up at Morgan John's smooth face.
The man nodded. "Can you read the time on it?"
"It says eight o'clock."
"See? I can too. We about the only two people in the world, I reckon, can tell it's time. So you take it."
"Maybe. Okay. Just today."
"You goin' to the station?"
"The train's due at nine. Might be early. Sometimes is."
"Okay. See you again, Elliot Sweeney."
Morgan Johns turned and left with his long awkward strides towards the other side of the dirt road. Loaded wagons were already swaying up towards the center of town or down towards the train station. Mostly mules drew the wagons. Some loads were the size of small houses. Dust billowed as high as their reins and stayed there, floating like a red haze.
Elliot had to get one more thing before heading for the station. He tugged the big front door open without making a noise and tip-toed up the stairs. From behind his uncle's study door he heard the 'clink, clink, clink' of money being counted. He dashed up the stairs to his attic. There he found the scraps of paper that he'd rescued from the trash bin. Quick, before anything else happened, he left. The big front door closed behind him with a sound like a sigh of relief.
Yesterday his uncle came out of his study as Elliot slid past. The man's eyes were sunken in as if he hadn't slept for days. Upon spotting Elliot, first the man's face went white and then almost green before he let out a roar. "What are you still doing here?"
Today Elliot was free and out in the noisy open. He took off at a fast pace for the station. This marked the ninety-first day since he began his vigil. The ninety-second since his father left. He had a feeling deep inside where it mattered most that today something would happen.
The station looked empty. That meant he had time before the train to read the newspaper's headlines. He crossed the platform to the news stand. He spotted a drawing of his father's face on the front page. His heart did a double-time thump. He read the caption:
SEARCH ABANDONED For missing Newspaper man
Well-known for his campaign Against CHILD LABOR
The whistle of the approaching train forced a decision. Even if everyone else had given up the search, he would not. He would find his father. With a lump the size of a fist in his throat, he bought a ticket and boarded the train.