"The closer he got, the brighter that red became. It was a rose—a rose that had no earthly business growing there, right in the middle of all that dust."
Just as Jeremiah Goodbye is set to meet his fate in the electric chair, he is given a second chance at life. With the flip of a coin, he decides to return to his home town of Nowhere, Oklahoma, to settle the score with his twin brother Josiah. But upon his escape, he enters a world he doesn’t recognize—one that has been overtaken by the Dust Bowl. And the gift he once relied on to guide him is as unrecognizable as the path back to Nowhere.
On his journey home, he accidentally rescues a young boy, and the pair arrive at their destination where they are greeted by darkened skies and fearful townspeople who have finally begun to let the past few years of hardship bury them under the weight of all that dust. Unlikely heroes, Jeremiah and his new companion, Peter Cotton, try to protect the residents of Nowhere from themselves, but Jeremiah must face his nightmares and free himself from the guilt of his past and the secrets that destroyed his family.
Filled with mystery and magic, this exquisite novel from award-winning author James Markert is a story of finding hope in the midst of darkness and discovering the beauty of unexpected kindness.
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
James Markert lives with his wife and two children in Louisville, Kentucky. He has a history degree from the University of Louisville and won an IPPY Award for The Requiem Rose, which was later published as A White Wind Blew, a story of redemption in a 1929 tuberculosis sanatorium, where a faith-tested doctor uses music therapy to heal the patients. James is also a USPTA tennis pro and has coached dozens of kids who’ve gone on to play college tennis in top conferences like the Big 10, the Big East, and the ACC. Learn more at JamesMarkert.com; Facebook: James Markert; Twitter: @JamesMarkert.
Read an Excerpt
Old Sparky was supposed to have killed Jeremiah Goodbye.
But here he stood squinting against the hard sun in the middle of the Oklahoma panhandle, at a fork in the road marked by two signs nearly buried in the same dust that covered everything. Mounds of it. Drifts sculpted into hurricane waves, as far as the eye could see. Dust in the air. Dust in his eyes. The dust in his mouth crunched when he'd grind his teeth, and he had no Vaseline to coat his nostrils from the abrasive grit.
When the wind blew, dust stung like bees.
Roads were buried by dust, although there were tire tracks from those who'd recently risked it, braved it as he'd done before the Model T he'd taken back in Guthrie choked out on dust two towns east of where he now stood — back in Woodward, or maybe it was Enid. One town looked like the other — all covered in dust, homes and fences buried.
Two days he'd been walking. If only he had a light for the hand-rolled cigarette in his pocket, it could take his mind off the fact that he hadn't eaten all day. Even the tumbleweeds the Russians brought to the plains years ago looked appetizing. Too many recipes included them now, or so he'd heard.
Russian thistle made into edible gunk.
He'd found the car abandoned alongside the road, probably shorted out on the electric sparks that often accompanied the black dusters. Lucky enough the gas tank had been half-full. That's how he looked at things now — half-full instead of half-empty. That jolt of electricity he'd taken during his short affair with Old Sparky hadn't killed him as the warden had said, but it had joggled something loose.
For the first time since he could remember, his nights hadn't been plagued by those night scares — the whirlwind struggle for his life, the dusty figure like a shadow, and then the spot of light that always led to him waking up and gasping for air.
Half-full or not, this wasn't the Oklahoma he remembered. It looked like the end of the world had come and a desert had swallowed what remained. The flat prairie land of his younger days was long gone, the buffalo grass buried under drifts made by drought after the great plow-up of the land.
Land that wasn't meant to be plowed in the first place. Jeremiah covered his mouth with his shirt collar. Sodbusters getting rich off the wheat boom and never stopping to consider the repercussions. He had warned them all, having digested the fears of many of the local cowboys dead set against the homesteading. But did the sodbusters listen?
Earth moved over the horizon. Another duster.
He tilted his black Stetson against the wind, low over his brow to protect his eyes. It wasn't a duster after all. The low rumble gave it away, grew louder as it approached.
A thousand of them at least, down from the hills, scrounging for food, starving like everything else. They paid him no never mind, scampering past, kicking up dust in pursuit of the unattainable. The sheer force of them wobbled him in his stance. One stopped atop a dust mound to nibble the prong of a fence poking through. Another scratched at a roof shingle visible from where a dugout wasn't quite buried. A cluster scratched and clawed over a thicket of tumbleweeds. One nibbled on his boot and moved on — too scrawny to cook up and eat even if Jeremiah had the notion.
A minute later the jacks were gone, kicking up dust and heading for Texas.
They'd have no better luck there, unless they struck some oil. There were more ways than one to rape the land.
The air cleared. Blue sky returned like a pot of gold. Until the next black blizzard. Best head on, but this was why he'd stopped in the first place.
Two signs faced him, one pointing south toward Guymon, the other north toward Nowhere.
He reached into his pocket and felt the quarter between his thumb and index finger.
The same quarter he'd taken from the pocket of the prison guard he'd found buried in the rubble. Probably Officer Jefferson, by the look of those boots. Big as boats — the man was tall as a lamppost.
He'd liked Jefferson, who was one of the few guards willing to sneak him off the row every so often for a smoke under the stars. If he'd been right of mind he would've moved some smashed cinder blocks and buried him proper. But with how that thunderboomer had quickly spun into a twister, collapsing the back wall of the execution room five seconds into that first jolt of 2,500 volts, he couldn't expect to be immediately clearheaded. Those were five seconds of his life he'd like to forget. But at least he had two feet to stand on and an unfamiliar warmth in his heart that might could even be described as hope.
He'd thanked the dead Jefferson for the cigarette he'd found in his trouser pocket.
The warden had been buried too. Last Jeremiah had seen him was when he stepped behind the curtain to crank down that lever, triggering something that sounded like a hammer on an anvil just before Jeremiah's body started to dance.
Jeremiah pulled the quarter from his pocket and approached the fork in the road.
Guymon or Nowhere?
For the first time ever the quarter felt like a boulder in his hand, instead of that smooth skipping rock, and he hesitated in the flipping of it.
Blamed that on Old Sparky too.
The Coin-Flip Killer was what the ink-pages had named Jeremiah, and ink stains, once settled, can't be so readily wiped off. He wasn't too sure if the name fit or not. Kinda fuzzy in his mind, those days, everything going down about the same time the earth started peeling off with the wind.
He assumed his daddy was still alive back in Nowhere. He hadn't heard anything to the contrary. But Wilmington Goodbye had a bullet lodged in his head, just over the left ear, a ricochet shot from the day of Jeremiah's arrest, when the badges clopped into town on horseback, flashing tin with their rifles loaded. The shoot-out was unnecessary. He would have come out willingly, but once bullets started flying he had to defend himself. He'd like to think it wasn't one of his bullets that found his daddy's head, but something told him otherwise.
As far as he knew, his father was still getting about too, even with the bullet. But he'd never come to visit in the almost three years Jeremiah had spent locked up in McAlester for four murders in which he had no direct hand — direct being the key word because, try as he might, there was no way to distance himself from the responsibility of them.
Jeremiah assumed it was the bullet that had kept Wilmington away. Maybe he wasn't supposed to travel with it in there. Or maybe he'd fallen to believe what all the newspapers were saying — though his letters never said as much. And to be fair, Wilmington had the drought to worry about. And money — or the lack thereof. There were probably plenty of reasons he never came. But no matter how grown the man, a father is life medicine for the son, and those letters, regular as they were, had never been able to give the dosage that was needed.
Jeremiah straightened his Stetson and peered toward Guymon.
A car approached. Another black Model T, throttle-choked and puttering like Josiah used to do with his lips in the bubble bath when they were kids. Seemed the entire country had one of those Fords now. This one was weaving as if trying to find the road. The driver had half his torso out the window so he could see. The windshield was dust-covered and the wipers looked stuck midthrust.
Jeremiah waved his arms to get the man's attention. The car slowed. Chains hung from the back bumper to ground it from the static in the air. The man had goggles on and a gas mask he must have kept from the Great War.
"Careful out," said the man, voice muffled. "You'll choke to death if one of them dusters spins up. It's a graveyard out here. Where you headed?"
"Don't know yet, which is why you found me standing instead of walking."
The man lifted the mask. "Well, for what it's worth, there ain't too many good choices. Ask me, you're heading in the wrong direction. If you're a man on the wander, I'd be wandering east. Wouldn't stop until I hit the coast neither. 'Course we've already had one of these dusters float all the way to the Atlantic, spread gunk all over New York. And the capital. And ships a hundred miles to sea." He squinted at Jeremiah, studying him a little closer.
Jeremiah remembered the rifle propped over his shoulder and lowered it slowly, holding it loosely to the side. He tipped his hat and smiled until he swallowed dust. "Got any more of those masks?"
"Not on me." The man stared a second more, then gulped, his Adam's apple moving like a clot of food down a snake belly. "I best get going. Don't want no trouble."
"Not intending any," said Jeremiah, realizing by the man's perked shoulders that he'd just been spotted. His face was probably all over the papers.
So much for getting a lift.
Jeremiah wished him safe travels, but the man had already puttered off, swerving again as he wrestled the mask back on his face with one hand while the other steered.
Things grew quiet.
Guymon or Nowhere?
The quarter no longer felt as heavy in his hand.
New start? Or return home to a family that once loved him but now apparently no longer wanted him?
He and Josiah had been thick as thieves until suddenly they weren't. Inseparable the instant they came into the world — in Jeremiah's case, two minutes late and gasping for air. His birth had weakened their mother. Three years later she died of lung cancer, buried before Jeremiah and Josiah were tall enough to see over the summer prairie grass.
Jeremiah could have chalked that up as his first so-called murder; the hard birth was on him. Josiah had come out first, and easily, rolling like melted butter would, while Jeremiah's had been a breech birth.
Heads for Guymon. Tails for Nowhere.
He studied the signs.
Old habits die hard. He flipped the coin in the air. Sunlight dappled as it spun. He caught it in his right palm and smacked it against the top of his left hand. After a deep breath and an exhale that dislodged dust from his mustache, he removed his right hand.
He set out on foot again and did his best not to suffocate. He had a Winchester rifle with one bullet, a coin he'd stolen from a dead prison guard, and a hand-rolled cigarette in his pocket with no way to light it.
The coin had already spoken. The bullet would be for his twin brother. And the cigarette, well, he reckoned he'd find some fire soon enough.
Unlike the big cities in the northeast, where skyscrapers loomed from miles out, a prairie town gave no prior warning of civilization.
You just stumbled upon it.
Jeremiah knew the land well enough, even if the miles of prairie grass had turned to a dusty wasteland. Nowhere, Oklahoma grew fast during the 1920s wheat boom, and the folks who lived there saw their bank accounts swell. The wet years made them rich. Nesters moved from dugouts and sod houses and built real homes. They bought cars and farm equipment on credit, and the banks got fat. A hotel sprang up, as well as a theater that showed stage plays, vaudeville acts, and talkie films. Nowhere was a town on the move, and the direction was upward, prospering even more on wheat than Liberal, just to the north in Kansas, and Boise City to the southwest.
Jeremiah couldn't see the Bentley Hotel from where he stood — the dust had started to spin — but he knew he was close when he saw the dugouts. A cluster of nesters had come in right at the tail end of the boom, staking their land four miles east of Nowhere and busting up sod with wheat seed in hopes of getting rich like the rest of them. But then the stock market crashed in '29, wheat prices hit rock bottom, and the sky dried up like their dreams.
Most of the dugouts looked empty now, half-covered in dust, but the third one down had a sign out front that made Jeremiah do a double take.
Child for Sale.
He'd heard rumors of such things during these Depression years. Even one less mouth meant more food for the others. But he hadn't really believed it actually happened.
Black tar paper covered the dugout's plank board walls, and the roof looked ready to crumble. A dozen or more centipedes crawled across the front — nothing a good pot of boiling water wouldn't kill, if they had any. Ten paces behind the dugout was a wooden windmill that was cracked in the middle and leaning. If it was still able to pull water from the ground, it couldn't be more than a trickle. The woman standing in front, presumably the mother, looked starved. Behind her on a wooden bench sat three boys, all under the age of twelve, dressed nicely enough yet covered in dust. The one on the end, the youngest, probably eight or so, sat smiling while the other two looked as bleak as the land.
A thin-haired gentleman in a white button-down and suspenders stood next to the woman with his arms folded, hairy arms well muscled, and shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows. Under his dirty bowler hat he had dark, beady eyes and a black mustache so thick it covered his lips. Jeremiah didn't trust his wrinkled, sun-beaten face, so he stopped, even though following these hunches was what put him in prison in the first place — his gift that had proven to be more of a curse.
"What's the meaning of all this?"
The man turned from his conversation with the mother. "Just partaking in some business here. So mind your own."
It wasn't just the man's face Jeremiah didn't trust. It was his soul. Jeremiah could feel the blackness of it. He'd always been able to feel it, like he could an approaching norther or thunderboomer. In the past, whenever he stumbled upon a bad one, sensing the evil dwelling within, his mind would show him hints of it as evidence, and ultimately he'd let the coin decide their fate. But today was different. The feeling had an unburdened dullness to it instead of that more familiar sharp blade. That jolt of electricity he'd taken in Old Sparky had turned his clear radio to static — something he'd often hoped for but now wasn't sure he liked.
Jeremiah stepped closer. "I'm gonna make this one my business, pal."
The man ignored him and went along speaking with the mother.
"There will be no selling to this man." Out of hard-grained habit, Jeremiah reached into his pocket for the coin.
"Reckon I just did." He ran the coin between his fingers until it got the man's attention. "What's your name, partner?"
"The name is scram."
"Funny name, but fittin' for a fool, I guess."
The man turned away from the woman.
Jeremiah stepped closer. "Which one's for sale?"
"The goofy one," said the man. "One that won't stop smiling. He ain't right in the head, and she said he eats too much."
"Then what do you want with him?"
The man paused, dry-swallowed, looked at the smiling boy and then back to Jeremiah. "Need help around the house is all."
"You can't look me in the eyes."
The man didn't deny it, and then tried to but didn't linger. Sun glistened off the coin moving in and out of Jeremiah's fingers.
"I've got one bullet in this rifle," Jeremiah said.
Jeremiah stepped toe-to-toe with the man. "You ain't leavin' with that boy. Now I'm gonna ask you your name one last time."
"Name's Benny, but I go by Boo."
"That 'cause you're scary? Or easily scared?"
Boo didn't answer, but he took a step back.
Jeremiah held the coin out and flipped it high, and when it landed in the dust he covered it with his boot. "You know who I am?"
The man jerked a nod, not so mouthy anymore. "I'll just be on my way."
He started to move, but Jeremiah stopped him with an outstretched hand. "Ain't that easy, partner. Done flipped the coin."
Boo looked down at Jeremiah's boot.
"If it's heads you'll lose yours," said Jeremiah. "Something tells me you deserve it."
Boo had begun to tremble, and it showed in his voice. "And if it's tails?"
"You walk. With the knowing that you'll be watched from now until the end of your days."
"By those that do the watchin'."
Boo snickered. "That makes no sense."
Jeremiah moved his boot. "It's heads. Sorry, Boo." He raised the rifle toward Boo's head and fingered the trigger, although he had no intention of pulling it. He made eye contact with the smiling boy, who was shaking his head and no longer smiling. Don't do it, Mister.
Excerpted from "What Blooms from Dust"
Copyright © 2018 James Markert.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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