The meteor shower came at the end of June. At first we all thought it was just a tall tale, seeing as Ed Wibley had been the only one to see it start and Ed had been three sheets and a pair of long johns to the wind ever since the war. Weren’t predicted, as a matter of fact if Doc Newcomb up at the observatory hadn’t set up a telescope to look for somethin’ called the Horsehead nebula, we wouldn’tve thought it was real.
We woke a few days after the shower. The air was bad, smelled like a hot handful of pennies. Everyone had these bad pressure aches behind their eyes, so at first we thought it was a gas leak. Then Hep Callow and his brother Evan tried driving their Plymouth the next town over to find a phone that worked. The damn road had a crater the size of a house in it, but no rock.
Well, this news gets people to wailin’, women weeping their babies are gonna die, old Hodges up in his big house croaking that his progeny are going to let him die and split his Civil War guns amongst themselves. It weren’t all like that, though. Jill Stein got the schoolhouse organized into a neat little emergency shelter, found the tornado provisions and passed them around. She was the only teacher in the one-room schoolhouse we’d had since 1867. Nice lady, even for a big-city liberal hen.
Most folks couldn’t walk for the splitting headaches they had. Doc Newcomb wound up being the only one missing out on the sickness, him being up in the foothills and all, so he was the one to find us all in our homes, keeled over in the middle of whatever we were doing. He kept a cool head in organizing the men to a city hall, what little able-bodied were left.
Doc told us that we’d probably been inhaling materials outgassing from the rocks burning up in the atmosphere. He said he hadn’t seen anything like it in all his days. Being as the road was the only way out of town, it was decided that a few of the younger men, Evan in the lead, would try to track up the steep hills to the west, try to find a way out. The one phone line in the town had gone down, we had no radio contact, even with the short-wave station in Burke. Doc Newcomb said it was on account of the metal in the rocks, although he didn’t look too convinced when he said it. We just figgered he was trying to reassure people because he didn’t have any fancy science talk to explain what happened.
Evan and the boys reached about half a mile out of town before the pain in their heads stopped them cold. They said it was like going down into the bottom of the sea, every step they took made it worse. It only went away when they turned around and came back.
So we forgot about getting help. After a while it didn’t seem like we needed help anymore. The headaches didn’t go away but they felt…not bad. We got used to the pain, like scratching a good itch. The few people who weren’t so bad off turned into the de facto leaders of the town. Mayor Ennis wasn’t all that fond of public office, anyway.
Jill organized the women into a nice little hospital for the folks, operating out of the schoolhouse. Lessons were suspended, no one felt like learning with a headful of pins. Doc retired to his lab a lot, taking samples of blood and soil and plants and whatever he could get his hands on. He confiscated the chemistry set from the school, mumbled a lot about metal intoxication. Evan and Hep were the most able-bodied of the men, they led the excursions into the hills to look for game, though a lot of the hares and pronghorn had already fled for greener pastures.
August 5th was the first murder.
Abe Herrington took some gas in the great war, went a little simple. Doc thought it was an accident, Abe was going to lift a driving wheel and lost his grip. What the hell Abe was doing with the wheel in the first place, nobody could really say. But little Henrietta Rourke’s body wasn’t as easy to explain.
Henny had been at play with the other kids her age around the back of the schoolhouse. Her ma was laid up sick with a headache that day, so she and the Dover boys were playing rum-tag over by the old grist mill. The boys say she was just walking around the corner and disappeared. They found her by the millstone…that is, beneath the millstone. Her ma was unconsolable. We were up in arms. We knew we were a good, God-fearing town, no murderer hid among us. Maybe up in Burke, but not here.
For a suspect we seized upon Vargus Pitch, a draft-dodger and good-for-nothing loafer. He was always spinning big-city ideas about Government, and hanging around the drugstore talking up the young girls. It didn’t help that he was one of the lucky few not to suffer too badly from headaches. Against the Doc’s protests, we strung him up without trial. The peace lasted only a few days, until Old Man Hodges wound up beneath a punch-press. His folks really weren’t too happy with his death, now that it happened. They called for blood, but this time the Callow brothers held out on the posse. They said that Hodges was alone in his house, nobody had been seen out that way and eventually cooler heads prevailed.
Doc was too busy in his lab, getting more and more worried by whatever he saw at the other end of his test tube. Jilly was too busy with the hospital; folks showed up everyday bleeding out the ears and nose and other places. New cases broke out whenever there was a murder, mebbe the stress and anger led to the breakouts.
Widow Helms was found out in a field, skirt rucked up to her shoulders, head beneath a slab of granite. Mr. Meadows, the druggist, managed to park his own car on himself. Those were black days. Folks were in a bad way, in health and in temper. We hadn’t been this low since the end of prohibition. Finally Doc called a town hall. We were more than ready for it.
Doc called to order. He’d been sweating like a hog and kept wiping the back of his neck the whole time he was talking. He started off with a whole lot of science jabber we were too tired to understand, something about neurotoxic compounds and miasma and Hiroshima and on and on. Then he got to the murders.
He said, “I’ve been looking at the empirical evidence at every scene. Even in a town this small it seems unlikely that there wasn’t at least one witness to the crimes.”
He said, “another thing I’ve noticed is that some crime scenes show signs of tampering. All this points to multiple culprits.”
He said, “The only thing I can’t rightly account for is the lack of physical evidence of murder, fingerprints and such, like it was being done without touching the victims—”
And then we crushed Doc Newcomb like a leaf.
Some screamed. It was a bit of a shock. Kind of like you don’t know how thirsty you are until you hear the word water. We’d known but we hadn’t. And now we looked to the others.
Not everyone would go along with it. Most we took care of right then and there. Some loitered by the exits and tried running, but there weren’t nowhere to go. We cornered Jill under her desk at school. She wept and pulled her skirt over her head. Evan got Hep himself, wouldn’t have it any other way. He was blood, but bad blood.
It was better after that. It was like turning back from the town line, pressure receded. We could live without all those holdout voices crying out to be individuals, trying to swim upstream, rubbing us the wrong way. Cal became the de facto leader again, he was the one who led the mission to dynamite the pass so’s no one could get at us. He’s a fine man, takes good care of his wives, and if a single one of his progeny were in the wrong way, we can be sure he’d take ‘em out without a second thought.
Sometimes a Good Samaritan will make it over the hills, all chatty-brained and different, sometimes looking for aid, sometimes just looking for someone. Cal takes care of them, too. We don’t need no aid.
The folk left here are good folk, God-fearing folk, and we can take care of ourselves