©2018 by Richard S. Crawford; 2,989 words
None of us had any idea the world was ending, not even when Duke started taking his lunches at the Food Court in the Fairview Mall. Up until then, he’d gotten his daily two bowls of chili and steak sandwich at Beau’s in downtown So Low. So after a couple of weeks, Beau asked me to go find Duke and find out what was going on.
I found Duke sitting at a table just outside the Panda Express, trying to figure out how to eat his chow mein with a pair of chopsticks. He never saw me come up, and he just about jumped right out of his skin when I sat down next to him.
“Hey, Duke, what’s going on?” I said to him.
He got over his surprise real quick, forced down the bite he’d just put in his mouth, and grinned at me. “Jeb!” A little bit of slimy noodle flew from his mouth and landed on the table right in front of me. “What are you doing here?”
“Duke, the guys at Beau’s are getting worried about you. Is everything okay?”
He looked suspicious, his rheumy eyes narrowing beneath his thick brow. “Why? What are people saying?”
“Well…” I hesitated. Wasn’t sure what to say. “I guess they’re saying that you ain’t getting your lunch at Beau’s anymore.”
Duke shrugged and looked annoyed. “So what? Can’t a man decide to get his lunch somewhere new for a change?”
“Duke, you’ve been getting your meals at Beau’s every day now for forty years, and all of a sudden you decide to take your lunch here at the mall? At Panda Express, of all places? It ain’t natural, Duke. Look at all them yuppies.”
Duke scoffed but didn’t answer. I was getting set to try again when he suddenly grabbed my arm and pointed across the mall. “Look there, Jeb! There it is!”
Just out of instinct, I looked. But I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “What is it?”
He shook my arm and pointed again. “Right there, you damn fool! Look! Look hard!”
I sighed and looked again, trying to see what he was seeing. And this time I did see it. There, right in front of Radio Shack, in front of a bunch of electronic toys that yipped and barked and whirred in a little glass case, was a big, brown tumbleweed. It was quivering a little, back and forth, like it was all excited about them damn toys. Folks crossed back and forth between us and the tumbleweed, but none of them paid any mind to it, as if a big tumbleweed sitting in the middle of the mall and checking out toys was perfectly natural.
“Didn’t see it at first, did you?” Duke said. “Your eye just kind of slid right over it.”
“Yeah,” I said. The tumbleweed was maybe a yard across and just a little less high. How could I even miss it? How could anybody? “Seems it’s like that for everyone else too.”
“Yup.” Duke rubbed his massive belly thoughtfully, and adjusted his John Deere cap.
We watched the tumbleweed a bit longer until it drifted away from the Radio Shack, even though there was no wind. “What does it mean, Duke?”
Duke smacked his jaws. “Jeb, I’ve been watching that thing for a week or so now. It’s here in the mall a lot, ‘specially during the day. And I’ve seen others, too. Out in the streets, in the library, even in Frieda’s Bakery. And nobody paying the least bit attention to them.”
“Duke, we’re in the middle of the hills here. We don’t even get tumbleweeds. So where are these things coming from?”
Duke shrugged and gobbled up another mouthful of chow mein, noodles and bits of green stuff clinging to his bottom lip. “Dunno. But they’re planning something. Something big. I can feel it.”
“How the hell should I know? All I know is, we gotta do something about them. Before it’s too late.”
I saw Duke a couple of times after that, but we didn’t talk about the tumbleweeds. When I told the other guys at Beau’s what the two of us had talked about, they just kind of gave up on him, figured he’d gone round the bend and wouldn’t come back. Me, I promised him I’d keep an eye out for the tumbleweeds. What else could I do, after all? We’d served together in the Army in the War. But, of course, I never saw any tumbleweeds.
Not until that day two weeks later when Duke finally came back.
Me and some of the guys had been sitting in Beau’s all day. It was dark as always, even in the middle of the afternoon, which was how Beau liked it. There weren’t many of us there; in one of the back booths Hank and Pete were telling some damn tall tale to Jack’s boy Ed who was on break from college. Dianne was sitting at another table, taking a break from waiting tables — though I guess for her waiting tables would be a break from sitting down — and I was at the bar, talking to Beau. Of all of us, Ed was the youngest by maybe forty years. So other than that, things in Beau’s were deader than Hank’s chances with Dianne, and quiet, just like always.
But then the door burst open and Duke walked in. I swear to God he looked like that guy Rambo from one of them shoot-em-up movies, if Rambo let himself get really old, bald, and fat. In one hand he carried a huge gun, and these belts full of ammo were draped over his shoulders. He jangled like a cowboy when he walked, and I saw that he had somehow attached spurs to his orthopedic sneakers. He carried a huge duffel bag in his right hand; by the way he struggled with it that it must have weighed even more than he did. He heaved it up onto the bar right next to me, and it clanked.
“Hey!” Beau shouted. “You know the rules, Duke. No guns in here!”
“To Hell with the rules!” Duke shouted back. “We got no more time for rules. The damn things are taking over, and we gotta make our stand!”
There was this long minute of silence. Then Pete started to laugh; then Hank, and then Dianne. Beau stopped looking angry, and said, “Come on, Duke. Calm yourself down and let me get you a bowl of chili, on the house.”
None of us made a move. We all just gaped at him. Hank took a really loud slurp of his beer.
“Well come on,” Duke said. He unzipped the duffel bag. Inside was all manner of guns and knives and things, all oiled and cleaned up like new. There was even a couple of hand grenades.
“What’s this all about?” Beau asked him.
Duke turned to me and looked at me. His face looked sad and lonely. What the hell, I figured. Maybe Duke had gone completely batshit crazy since his Mandy passed, and maybe I’d just imagined the tumbleweed in the mall. But sometimes, a man just needs a friend to stand beside him. I stood up.
“I think I know,” I said. I turned to Duke. “It’s about them tumbleweeds, ain’t it?”
Duke squared his jaw and looked at me hard. “Yeah, Jeb. They started rolling into town about an hour ago, and they’re about to make their move. We’ve gotta do something before it’s too late.”
There was another moment of silence.
We all heard someone scream outside, and a moment later a siren sounded. Duke looked around at all of us, but none of us moved.
I stood up, reached into the bag and took out one of the guns, an old .22 revolver that I figured was the only thing I could handle this days that wouldn’t break my arm.
“What the hell are you doing?” Beau said.
“If Duke says the tumbleweeds are taking over,” I said, “then the tumbleweeds are taking over.”
Ed made this barking noise, which was his way of laughing. “Come on, Jeb. You’re just as crazy as old Duke is.”
That pissed off Dianne. “Ed Iverson, you know that’s no way to talk to your elders.” She stood up from her chair and took out another of Duke’s guns, a mean looking semi automatic pistol. She handled it like an expert, and I suddenly decided that Dianne was a lady I wanted to know better.
Pete stood up then, and came over slowly. Hank grabbed up his cane, and he shuffled over as well. The two of them took more guns out of Duke’s bag.
Ed shook his head. “You guys are all insane.”
“Insane?” Duke said. “You want insane? I’ll show you insane, boy!” He marched over to the front door and threw it open.
We all looked out the door. At first we couldn’t see a thing; but then there it was, the biggest, meanest tumbleweed I ever saw. It was seven feet tall if it was an inch. It sat in the middle of the street like the lord of the town, perfectly still even though there was a strong wind blowing.
Then there was another scream. The tumbleweed trembled a bit, then rolled away, against the damn wind. It was followed a moment later by two smaller ones.
“So,” Duke said, closing the door. “Who’s with me?”
I checked to make sure my revolver was loaded, then clicked the barrel back into place with a gesture that I hoped made people think of Dirty Harry. “Let’s get to work,” I said, “and blow away some damn tumbleweeds.”
We all grabbed up more guns and knives. Beau had been in the service most recently of all of us, so he took the hand grenades. Ed even filled up some bottles with the strongest of Beau’s whiskey and wrapped rags around their necks.
I stared at him as he made them Molotov cocktails. “What the hell they teaching you at the damn college?” I asked him.
Ed shrugged. “Gotta defend your thesis somehow,” was all he said. Then he added, “I still say you’re all crazy.”
Duke opened the door to the bar and peered out into the street. Then he looked back at us, and announced, “It’s time.”
We followed him outside.
It was dead quiet outside. I was expecting that people would be running back and forth in the streets, chased all over by the tumbleweeds, but I didn’t see anything like that. Just the empty street.
It was that quiet that made me nervous.
“Where are they?” Hank asked aloud. I looked over at him. His face was drawn in tight; it was his pissed off look, which I hadn’t seen since the election. He leaned on his cane and stared around.
“Don’t see nobody,” Beau added.
Ed piped in too. “No tumbleweeds. You guys are all crazy.”
All the shops and offices along Main Street had closed their doors and drawn the blinds or curtains over their windows. It was like they knew something was coming, even if we’d had to wait for Duke to come telling us.
Duke sniffed the air, still holding his machine gun at the ready. “I can smell them. They’re coming.”
“Where?” I asked him.
He hesitated. Then he pointed toward the north end of the street. “There.”
A moment later, I heard a scream from that direction, then another. And then the sounds of people running.
“Stand your guard, men,” Duke said. “And Dianne.”
And then the people came running around the corner; dozens of them. I don’t know where they came from; people who worked downtown, people who were just downtown shopping. They came running around the corner, screaming and carrying on. And right on their heels were the tumbleweeds.
Then Beau proved that he could be a decent fellow after all. He opened the front door of his bar and shouted to the people, “Come inside! Get in, quick!”
Not everyone did, of course, but there were quite a few who got off the street. Beau held the door open for as long as he dared before he pulled it shut with a slam.
The tumbleweeds still came toward us, rolling and bouncing along the dusty street at goodly pace. They were still a couple dozen yards away when Duke stepped out into the street and held his assault rifle up straight in front of him.
They came to a stop, defying the wind. They held steady in front of use, quivering, like they were waiting for some sort of signal. There were a dozen or so, some of them bigger than me, some of them no bigger than a puppy, but all of them looking ornery.
Duke took a step forward.
The tumbleweeds rolled an inch forward toward Duke.
“What’s going on?” Hank asked me.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“They know I’m gonna kill them,” Duke said. He sneered. “This is mankind’s finest hour. Let’s give ‘em hell.”
Pete nodded firmly. “Hell,” he said.
Duke squinted. “Attack!” he shouted. His gun roared and he was knocked backwards onto his ass. Bullets sprayed into the air. The tumbleweeds began to roll forward toward us.
I raised my pistol and began firing at the tumbleweeds, but my revolver’s tiny bullets had no effect.
Hank’s cane thumped loudly on the sidewalk as he made his way toward the street. “This one’s for Arizona!” he shouted, firing his pistol at the lead tumbleweed. It didn’t slow down a bit.
“The bullets ain’t doin’ any good!” Duke yelled, clambering back to his feet. “Fall back! Fall back!”
“Crazy!” Ed shouted. Swear to God I never saw no one look so pale in my life.
Running sounded like a good idea to me. “Come on!” I shouted to the others.
Beau grabbed Ed’s arm, but Ed refused to budge. “Tumbleweeds are harmless,” he was saying. “They can’t hurt anyone.” When Beau tugged on his arm again, he stood rock still. Finally Beau just grabbed the Molotov cocktails, turned and ran. The rest of us followed.
I turned around once. Hank leaned on his cane, firing blindly into the mass of tumbleweeds as they passed him, paying him no mind. “And this one’s for Arlene! And this one’s for the benzene!” I never knew what he meant.
Ed, though, didn’t fare as well. As I watched, he inched backward until he tripped over the curb and landed on the sidewalk. One of the smaller tumbleweeds rolled up to him and settled on his chest; he began to scream. That’s when I turned around and began to run again, following the others.
Duke stopped us at the corner of Main and Charger, just a couple of blocks down. “We’ve got to make our stand,” he said. “Right here. Right now.”
“I don’t know, Duke,” I said. “You didn’t happen to pack up a flamethrower in that duffel bag of yours.”
“Wisht I had but those things are illegal now. All’s I got is just the stuff I been collecting.”
“You got a couple of hand grenades,” Pete said. He picked one up and looked at it. “Betcha these could do the job.”
Beau lit the rag in one of the bottles that Ed had prepared. “These’ll do ‘em better,” he muttered.
Duke lifted an eyebrow and nodded. “Yuh, I guess ‘twould.” He looked down the street. “Better do it fast, they’re coming!”
Pete furrowed his brow and squared his jaw like a Marine about to go into battle, and pulled the pin out of one of the hand grenades. He threw it at a herd of five or six tumbleweeds that were about two dozen yards away from us and approaching fast. The hand grenade exploded, and the tumbleweeds scattered. One of them caught fire and began to roll wildly in the street; I swear to God I heard it screaming before it was just ashes. It bumped up against the Burger Time, and the building began to burn.
Beau threw the bottle he had lit, and it landed in the middle of another herd. The bottle shattered, and the tumbleweeds burst into flame.
“Good call, Beau,” I said. I was impressed.
Beau just looked proud as he lit another rag and looked for another herd of tumbleweeds to throw the bottle at. Pete threw a couple more hand grenades. Me and Duke and Dianne, we didn’t have nothing but our guns, so we just kept firing. Other folks who watched the battle from their hidey holes got the idea, and began assembling whatever they could to light the vicious weeds on fire.
When it was all over, there were a few buildings downtown that weren’t on fire, but the tumbleweeds were all gone, burnt to nothing. Duke, blackened with ash and dirt but looking prouder than I’d ever seen him in my life, led the way back to Beau’s and bought the next two rounds for everyone who was left in celebration of our victory. There weren’t many casualties. We found Ed’s body, all dried up and withered, on the sidewalk. Hank had made his stand to the end, and we found him on the ground, pistol and cane still in his hands, smiling toothlessly at the sky.
“You done good,” I told Duke.
Duke nodded. “Yuh,” he said. “But look up there at the TV.”
I looked. And saw what Duke was seeing: tumbleweeds rolling through Washington. Tumbleweeds rolling up the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building. The reporters were saying it was a fluke of some sort, but I knew better. And so did the rest of us at Beau’s.
Duke looked grim and picked up a gun again. “Come on, Jeb. We got us some work to do.”
I like to think that my stories are all “inspired by true events”, but this story was written long before the events in Victorville, CA. Prophecy? Or fate? Do we need to take up arms?
Copyright 2018 Richard S. Crawford. This work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license.