By Connor White
Short played with the buttons of the voice recorder, hitting fast-forward, rewind, fast-forward again, scrubbing through the last movie recording until he queued it exactly where the film concluded. He stood the voice recorder on the concrete floor of the storm shelter. I was laying on my stomach on the bunk above him, worrying about the winds. We were getting close to our last can.
“Okay, movie time,” Short said. “Whose turn is it? It might be yours, Tall.”
“I forget,” I said.
“Well, lemme look at the list.”
Short got up and found his spiral notebook on the desk. He flipped through to the last page of entries.
“We forgot to pen in John Carpenter’s The Thing, which was two nights ago; 28 Days Later; our triple-feature of Friday the 13th parts 1, 2, and 3; The Exorcist; Night of the Creeps. . .”
“Which one was Night of the Creeps?”
“Directed by Fred Dekker who also directed Monster Squad, which you listened to a month ago. In the zombie classic Night of the Creeps, Tom Atkins, who plays Detective Cameron, is holed up in the Kappa Delta Sigma sorority house with all the sorority sisters dressed up and ready to go to their formal dance, he looks out the window at the zombies in tuxedos staggering toward the house, cigarette betwixt his lips and says, “I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is, your dates are here.” Then one of the sisters astutely asks, “What’s the bad news?” The camera pushes in, emphasizing the revolver in Cameron’s hand, held at the ready as he says through gritted teeth, “They’re dead.”
“Then we had: Tales from the Hood; Army of Darkness, obviously preceded by Evil Dead 2; Ganja and Hess; The Blob; In the Mouth of Madness; Carrie; The Babadook; Insidious; Signs.
“I guess it’s my turn.”
“Any movie in mind?”
I listed my favorites. Fantasies like The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, then more of the realist dramas like Serpico and The Godfather. Short had never seen The Godfather, but he’d seen all ten Friday the 13th movies, and, Short liked to point out, if you included Freddy vs. Jason and the remake of the first film, that made the count twelve. There was some overlap in the films we’d seen, but not much. Mostly from dates we took to a matinee. It had been a long time since we saw a movie.
The night before, after we’d finished a quick session of fooling around, Short began to cry. He was feeling claustrophobic. We both were. That night he’d told me the story of The Ring and got nostalgic for the night he’d seen it in theaters with his first love, Henry. He hid his face in the crux of my arm and wept.
“I’ll never watch a film in a theater again,” he said. “I’ll never sit in the dark and watch the triangular rays of light dance from the projector, lighting up all the particulate floating in its beams. No one will ever make another horror movie. There’s no one to make them for.”
“On our next run, we’ll look again for working players. Anything—VHS, DVD, hell even Laserdisc. Eventually, we’ll find one. There’s gotta be horror movies you haven’t seen. They’re out there. You haven’t seen them all. And someday we’ll watch them.”
“How many DVDs could possibly be in the radius of the shelter? We’ll never get far enough to find them. The winds won’t allow it.”
I thought more about the films I had seen and recounted the titles for him. Short had an encyclopedic knowledge for horror movies. He could recite half the lines, even giving the camera cues. He remembered what the characters wore, how they styled their hair, the color, contrast, and intensity of the lighting in each scene. I couldn’t even remember the name of the main character half the time.
“Have you ever seen Field of Dreams?” I said.
“Nope, is it good?”
“I can’t believe you haven’t seen it. And to think, you’re from Sioux City. It takes place in Iowa.”
“Would I like it?”
“I think so.”
“It’s a horror movie.”
“It’s not a Children of the Corn ripoff is it?”
“Do you remember enough to tell it?”
Short grabbed his tape recorder. He recorded every movie we told each other and carried it with him in case other memories came back to him. In case we couldn’t remember the details later on. When we’re old, he meant. He wanted to preserve the accuracy of the tellings while we still remembered, so we could play them back when we no longer did. It made me slightly shy to know my voice was being recorded. Though, unlike Short, I didn’t think that we’d make it far enough to suffer senility. When I listen to the tapes, I curse myself for sounding timid and unenthusiastic when Short sounded so exuberant. I’m embarrassed by my embarrassment. I enjoyed telling the stories, I really did. I just wanted to do a good job.
“A farmer in Iowa plows over acres of his corn to build a baseball diamond—”
“Tell me about the characters first before you dive into the plot. I wanna fall in love with them so I can feel their calamities.”
“The aforementioned farmer, Kevin Costner, is the son of a washed-up, triple-A baseball player.”
“The character’s name is Kevin Costner? Like Waterworld Kevin Costner?”
“Just a coincidence.”
I closed my eyes and conjured their backstory. The type of backstory that Short could appreciate. Something horrific.
“When he was still in diapers, Kevin lost his mother to a stampede at Ebbets Field—”
“Is this a Slasher?”
“It’s a Haunting.”
“The mother? She comes back doesn’t she?”
“Do you want to keep fast-forwarding, or do you want me to tell you the story?”
“I’m sorry, go ahead, I’m liking this so far.”
“His father never recovers, blaming the sport for the loss of his wife. Each night at bedtime, his father recounts horrible stories of lives ruined by baseball. The tale his father always circles back to is the tragedy of Shoeless Joe Jackson, banned from the league after his team, the Chicago White Sox, are caught fixing the World Series by throwing the game in exchange for kickbacks from underworld bookies. Kevin is eighteen when he flees Brooklyn. He never sees his father again.”
The LED lights flickered and went dark. The solar batteries had run out of power. A whistling came through the seam in the tornado shelter’s doors. The wind was picking up outside. It had been blowing for eleven days straight. Not the longest storm yet, but getting there.
For hundreds of miles in every direction was flat land. Nebraska farmland. No forests or high ground to block the winds. No bodies of water to divert the pressure systems. When the winds ripped across that barren landscape, the air filled with dust, a grey cloud of debris that blocked out the sun. Power was hard to conserve when the winds lasted that long. Night and day, it was pitch black in the tornado shelter. We turned on the lights only when it was time to eat. Once the winds finally subsided, we had an opening of clear weather to go scavenging the nearest townships for supplies.
The winds carried a disease. Scientists from the CDC said on the news that it might be a fungus that survived in the upper atmosphere. Buoyant in air, never resting on the earth. Microorganisms that by evolution or by design floated like microscopic balloons. The winds pulled them to earth to infect us. And when they did infect an organism, no water could enter its cells. At least, that was the suspicion. They never found out for sure. It wasn’t long until there were no scientists left.
Birds were the first to drop. Then desiccated animals began showing up around the country by the millions. Deer, squirrels, raccoons, dogs, any animal caught out in a storm. Once infected you can drink all the water you want, but it just passes through on the long slide out the other end. Not a drop absorbed. Death comes by dehydration.
It took some time for it to affect plants. A disease that infected plants and animals alike? The botanists and epidemiologists said it wasn’t possible. First, they thought it was a simple drought. But then farmers noticed that the water from their irrigation was running off the land. The roots of their crops weren’t sucking up any water. Hectares of farms and wild vegetation began to dry up overnight. And soon nothing grew. It stopped raining altogether. Above the prairie now is an endless, uninterrupted sky. Not a cloud in sight.
It was summer when it started. Before the winds, May through September was muggy in the prairie. Oppressively humid. People complain about the humidity of the south, but they’ve never experienced Iowa and Nebraska humidity. The Corn Sweats, they called it. A phenomenon whereby the corn stalks that blanketed the land transpire an excess of moisture. But now the land is dry.
It rains over the ocean still. One of the last reports we heard before the silence was of a hurricane approaching the East Coast. Maybe we can make it out to the coast someday. It would be nice to feel rain again. Though the rain might carry it, too. That’d be a nice way to go—a walk in the rain on a hot summer day.
In the dark, I lay back in bed and listened to the winds and the revving of a gear from Short’s flashlight, charged by a hand crank. Finally, after much effort, a bar of blue light sparked to life.
“Want me to keep going or are you ready to sleep?” I said.
“Just a few more minutes,” Short said.
“Trying to put as much distance as possible between him and his father, Kevin moved to Iowa and married a strawberry blonde named Annie. They had a daughter. He became a farmer, growing corn for pig farms. Financially, they were getting by, happy even, but the winds shifted for the little family. One day Kevin heard a voice call to him from deep within the corn. Initially, he dismissed it as a trick of the wind. He ignored it for weeks, but the voice kept calling to him. Like the sirens, it drew him near. He resisted, but the harder he fought it, the clearer the voice became.
It said, ‘If you build it, he will come.’
An almost sexual urge overtook him—an impulse to rip each stalk of his corn from the ground by its roots. He hungered for it. One afternoon it was too much to resist.
The corn called to him, ‘If you build it, he will come.’
He ran for the shed and mounted his cultivator. While his neighbors looked on from their fields, he drove into his crop, bursting with ecstasy as whole streaks of vegetation were churned under in one continuous spiral, a whole-body orgasm that pulsed through him, aching for desolation. The feeling was too good to stop. He would have kept mowing over his crop until nothing was left, if the engine hadn’t sputtered to a stop, empty of gas.”
Short’s breathing had turned heavy.
“You awake,” I said.
“Yeah, but I’m fading,” Short said.
“Is the movie putting you to sleep?”
“Just tired. I’m digging the movie. Finish it tomorrow?”
The recorder clicked off.
Short shook me awake.
“It stopped,” he said.
“The winds, they stopped.”
I sat up and dangled my legs over the side of my bunk. Short was hustling to get his clothes on in the dark, knocking into things.
“Short, when did it stop?” I said.
“I don’t know. While we were asleep.”
“Have you looked out yet?”
“I just woke up like you.”
“What’s the time?”
“Ten after five.”
“Morning or night?”
Short cranked up his flashlight and shined it on our map. The town’s stock had dried up. Each house, each store, each boarded-up restaurant we systematically searched, and after coloring in their little blocks on the map, we never stepped in them again. The time had come to make a run for the neighboring town of Stantzville to our east. It’d be a risk. A necessary one.
“Okay, let’s move,” Short said.
The whole world looked like an attic left abandoned for half a century. A fine layer of dust settled on everything. Mixtures of ash and dirt and dead cells. It made a cloud if you shuffled your feet too much. The remains of every living thing that the winds had touched, turned to dust, scattered about by storms. After the Prairie Fires, the land had turned gray.
Our bicycles were tuned-up as best as we could get them. We carried a spare air pump, but we didn’t have any spare inner tubes left. A week before, I had popped my front tire. We used our last spare to replace it.
We made good time riding to Stantzville. Before we searched the houses, we decided to check the stores. There was a good chance a can could be found, rolled under a counter or fallen behind some boxes during the runs on the supermarkets.
Short wanted to try the Casey’s General Store since it was right on the corner. Its windows were shattered, so I wasn’t optimistic. While he climbed inside, I went to examine a mound in the street. With the sole of my shoe I brushed away the dust covering it.
The body lay facedown. I turned it over to see if it was anyone I knew. The corpse was lightweight. Only skin and bones and clothes. Preserved like a mummy. The towns were small enough that occasionally we recognized acquaintances and, once in a blue moon, friends. A stranger, a man wearing a tattered black leather jacket with chrome studs pinned in the collar. A button in the shape of Australia read, G’Day Mate. Another pin said, Stay Free.
It’s funny, in our isolation, corpses were a welcome sight. Like running into someone you knew at the store. Short would call me over and say, “look who I ran into.” And there would be a friend of ours mummified in their living room. We once found a woman we knew, Ruth, dead in a bed that wasn’t hers, with a man who wasn’t her husband. The nightstands beside the bed displayed an assortment of vibrators and dildos and lube. You might think it’d be grim to witness, but it was comforting to see that she’d had some fun before the end.
“Clear,” Short called as he climbed through the window.
We rode to the main strip, aiming for the Hy-Vee. I stopped at the window of a realty office. Signs in the windows gave details of local sales. A craftsman home, 3 Br, 2 Ba listed for $280,000. A ranch, 2 Br, 1.5 Ba listed for $230,000.
“You on the market,” Short said. “Come on let’s hurry.”
“Wait, look at this one,” I said. “Rustic country home, 2 Br, 2 Ba, on 3.2 acres nestled in an old apple grove. Well water, septic tank, and in-ground storm shelter.”
“It’s got a storm shelter?”
“Yup. It’s east of here, too. Right off of Prairie Du Chien Rd.”
“You still dreaming of heading for the coast?”
“Why not? We got nothing else to do? We could do this.”
“String together a chain of storm shelters.”
“It’ll take years, maybe decades.”
“What else do we have to do?”
“We’ll talk about it.”
“What’s there to talk about?”
“It’s dangerous for one.”
“We’re in danger already.”
“It’s more dangerous. It’s best to stay put while we—”
What I’d thought was a feature of the landscape was moving. Short turned to face what I saw. On the sidewalk was a person. A figment of imagination covered in dust. We hadn’t seen another person in a year. The figure trudged toward us. Their limbs were thin. A dress strap hung off one knobby shoulder.
“Holy shit,” Short said.
“I thought I was losing my mind,” I said.
The figure came closer.
“Stay back,” Short said.
“They might be starving,” I said.
We quickly backed up as the person hastened their shuffle, trying to reach us. There was still so much we didn’t know. We knew the winds carried the infection, but person to person transmission? Still, I felt for that emaciated soul. They were isolated, starving, dehydrated. How long had it been since they’d seen anyone? Maybe they weren’t sick. Just starving to death, like us. Short stumbled into me and nearly fell.
“We gotta move,” he said.
We turned and ran for our bikes as the figure broke into a labored jog. Short started to ride off, but I stopped and turned around. The person had fallen over in the street. A haze of dust clouded the spot.
“Short, wait a sec,” I said.
They weren’t moving. If they were still breathing, it was incredibly shallow. The skirt of their dress had flipped up past their naked hips. The skin stretched tight over their bones. Tendons and muscles strung underneath the skin like poles in a tent. I got close and nudged them with my toe.
“Don’t touch,” Short shouted.
He rode up alongside me and grabbed a fistful of my shirt and dragged me a safe distance away.
“Are you crazy,” he said.
“I’ll put on my mask and gloves,” I said. “They need help.”
“Don’t bother, they’re dead.”
Short was right. They weren’t breathing.
“Let’s go to Hy-Vee before it gets too late,” Short said.
The Supermarket was picked clean. Most were since the run on stores during the first wave of deaths. The places we typically found cans were in the loading areas, in the break rooms, and in the back offices. I found a can of peaches stashed behind a crate in the loading zone. Short found a cup of Ramen in the break room. We searched the cabinets and drawers in the back office.
“So what happens after Kevin mows his crop down?” Short said.
“Doesn’t it wear you out?” I said.
“Wear me out?”
“Look at the state of the world. After all the terrible shit you’ve seen? Don’t you want to hear about something nice for a change?”
“I just like creepy stories.”
“I don’t know, it’s fun to get scared and survive. It used to be that I’d watch a truly terrifying movie, typically, a midnight showing, and on the way out of the theater they’d lock the doors behind us. I’d be scared out of my wits walking back to my car alone in the empty parking lot. But once I was inside with the doors locked, I was happy. Horror movies make it easier to return to life. Your life can be all fucked up, but you’re happy to return to it.”
“What about now? There’s no movie worse than this.”
“Good horror movies also make you realize that you live in a horror movie.”
“I already know I live in one.”
“It’s not so bad. Oh damn, a Snickers bar!”
“Where’d you find that? Is there anything else?”
“It was next to the keyboard on the tray. We never check there. We’ll eat this tonight when we watch the rest of the movie.”
We’d have to save the rest of the building for the next trip. It was getting late, and we couldn’t be caught out after dark. The winds had a tendency to start up at night. We returned to our bikes and started riding.
I was staring ahead, watching for debris in the street that might puncture a tire. On the horizon, the sun shone bright. I had to squint my eyes against it. It took me a moment to realize I was seeing in color. The street was divided. Ahead of me was technicolor, while the street behind me was black and white. The signs on the buildings across the street stood out in stark, neon relief. My brain wasn’t processing the divide between grayscale and color. Short skidded to a stop.
“Turn around,” Short said. “Go back.”
I braked. The dead branches of the trees were swaying. Dust blew off the roofs. The colors of the town were being unearthed by the winds.
“Oh god,” Short said. “Ride Tall.”
We pulled on our masks, spun our bikes around and pedaled. Colorful signs showed behind us. The dust rolled across town like a freight train miles long.
“We’re cut off,” Short said.
“Head for Prairie du Chien,” I said.
“That’s the opposite direction of home.”
“The real estate listing.”
“The one with the shelter? I don’t know, it could be padlocked shut.”
“There’s nowhere else to go.”
The winds were building around us. Dust devils were spouting from every direction, gray funnels that twisted across the landscape. We rode to Prairie du Chien and cut down a gravel road. We found the house from the picture.
Branches were cracking and falling from the dead trees surrounding the property. The winds grazed us. I could only hold my breath for so long. We were panting from exertion. We had to try to get into the shelter quick.
Built into a hill behind the house was a set of storm doors. Miraculously, they were unlocked. We dragged our bikes inside and slammed the doors behind us, latching them in place. The winds got louder as they increased in speed. Updrafts pulled on the doors, trying to suck them off their hinges.
Short got his flashlight out and found an old Coleman lantern on the shelf, still filled with fuel. He found the matches and lit the lantern, placing it on a small wooden table against the wall.
The shelter was small. No beds. Only a couple chairs and a small table to play cards at. It smelled of mildew and rodent droppings. Built for the threat of tornadoes, long before anyone had ever heard of the winds.
“See any food?” I said.
“There’s a water jug,” he said.
Short unscrewed the cap on the jug and gave it a sniff. He took a sip, shrugged and handed it to me. The water tasted of plastic, but my dry throat welcomed it. The storm might last for weeks, but at least we wouldn’t die of thirst.
“Dinner and a movie?” Short said, shaking the Snickers bar at me.
“Field of Dreams or something else,” I said.
“I wanna hear how it ends.”
We pulled chairs up to the table. Short placed his tape recorder between us and pressed
When I play back the tape, I can hear the crinkle of the Snickers wrapper. His hands working excitedly, but carefully. I can almost make out his voice when he said, here, and placed my share on the table, bundled in half the wrapper. It’s one of the parts I always rewind to listen to.
On the recording I say, “Kevin told Annie about the whole Black Sox scandal with the Chicago White Sox, and his father’s mission to steer him away from baseball and avoid another tragedy. Annie knew the project was important to Kevin. She sensed that he was exorcising some sort of demon with it, and so she was supportive. But she was also worried. They used up their life savings on the construction. Most of their crop was plowed over to make way for the baseball diamond and stands and facilities, and the income from their remaining corn couldn’t cover their mortgage payments. Annie was happy to give to Kevin’s obsession, but he had put their whole future at risk. Kevin had complete tunnel vision in regards to building the field. When she tried to bring up her concerns, he would snap at her.
One night, when Kevin was in a good mood, Annie attempted to convince him to slow down on construction, arguing that maybe they didn’t need the metal halide lights on fifty foot poles to illuminate the field for night games. She was arguing her point to Kevin as he painted lines in the dirt of the diamond, when a man emerged from the corn. They thought he was a neighbor, stopping by to see the progress, but as he came closer, they noticed the leather mitt in his hand. The stranger was dressed in full vintage Chicago White Sox uniform.
The White Sox player came near but didn’t dare cross the newly painted lines, the borders of his world. He introduced himself, Joseph Jackson. Shoeless Joe Jackson. His father’s idol who broke his heart. Joe was right in front of them. Real as day. Annie saw him, too.
‘Where’d you come from?’ Kevin asked.
‘In there,’ Joe said, pointing to the corn. ‘And there’s more of us.’
But before he could press him further, Shoeless Joe turned and walked back into the corn and disappeared. Kevin and Annie stood there dumbfounded, watching the border of the corn for hours, waiting for movement.
Annie relented to Kevin’s insistence that they invest in lights. Right when they finished wiring power to the lamps, Shoeless Joe emerged again from the corn, joined by a team of players. The lights sparked on, and the team began their practice. Kevin and Annie were in shock. They watched from the bleachers as the ghosts practiced pitching and hitting and catching. Dawn approached and practice ended. The ghosts returned to the corn. The sun had yet to crest the horizon when the voice returned saying, ‘Ease his pain.’ Shortly thereafter the bank threatened foreclosure.”
“Can we take a break from the story for a bit,” Short said.
“Sure,” I said. “You good?”
“It’s just a headache. We haven’t eaten much today besides sugar.”
The recording is choppy from that point on. Years of dust have worn it down. The gears have stretched the tape, and sometimes it comes off the rollers, and I have to respool it centimeter by centimeter, turning the gears with the tip of my thumb.
What wasn’t recorded was our panic the next morning.
Short couldn’t sleep. His headache got worse, and he started having diarrhea. The water he drank hours before passed right through him. He pushed me away and shouted at me if I came near to hold him. He feared infecting me. In the corner of that shelter he tried to sleep, shifting and rolling and changing positions, trying to get comfortable, but his headache was too severe.
We were trapped there by the winds. For a week, the winds blew. I wanted Short to see daylight one more time, but by the time it was safe to go outside, he had been dead for several days.
I listen to the recording of Field of Dreams once a week. I have to limit myself. There are only so many listens you can get from a tape before it breaks. But I have the others, Les Diaboliques, Oldboy, The Omen, The Strangers, all the spooky movies that Short loved.
I like listening to Field of Dreams the best. He was so pleased to hear a new one. And it made me happy to be able to creep him out, at least once.
It’s scratchy, but the tape continues like this:
“Kevin and Annie don’t lose their farm. Thousands of people heard the voice too and were drawn to the field. The travelers thought they were going mad, like Kevin and Annie did, until they saw the lights of the field. They came in lines of cars down the county road and paid good money to watch the ghosts play their game. Each night, rain or shine, the ghosts played for cheering crowds. Kevin and Annie kept the games running, but it wasn’t always enough. Occasionally, the corn needed an offering.
The Field of Dreams was growing thicker. It needed food. Shoeless Joe convinced Kevin to kidnap a Sportswriter to feed to the field. So he did and brought the Sportswriter to meet Shoeless Joe. When the Sportswriter saw Shoeless Joe, he was caught in a spell. Then Joe led the bewitched man into the fold of the corn stalks, and he was never seen again.
Soon, the Field of Dreams needed more. It was dependent upon Kevin and Annie to feed it, to maintain its lawn, to rake its dirt, to paint its bleachers, and to keep spectators coming. It would never let Kevin enter. That is, until he was no longer useful.
Kevin grew tired of the field and tried to put an end to it. He filled his fertilizer cart with salt and spread it over the finely manicured grass of the outfield. He flooded the diamond and tried to burn the corn, but the Field of Dreams fought back. One night, the field lured their daughter into the stalks. It consumed her like it did James. On the same day that it took their daughter, it forced Kevin and Annie to mate. The Field of Dreams needed their progeny. Someday Kevin and Annie would be too aged and frail to take care of it anymore. It forced Kevin and Annie to beget more children. Their children would inherit the upkeep of the field. They would inherit its shackles.
Kevin and Annie tended to the field for the remainder of their natural lives, feeding it offerings whenever it was hungry. They had many more children. Some they sacrificed to the field. The others, they taught the art of its maintenance. The family was enslaved to it. As long as they were still able to deliver it food, it would never let them go.”
When I finished, Short said, “I’ve heard so many people talk about Field of Dreams. I thought it was supposed to be trash like It’s a Wonderful Life. One of those flicks boring-ass families watch together once a year. But they share my taste.”
There was a faint, mechanical click and the tape went silent.
About the Author: Connor White is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, Monkey Bicycle, Postscript Magazine, Clarion Magazine, The Des Moines Register, and Guesthouse. His novel excerpt “Waking Up” was recently shortlisted for The Masters Review novel excerpt contest, and he also has an essay forthcoming in LitHub on the power of storytelling in the criminal legal system.