When the sun rose on the cold morning of March 24th, followed by ominous clouds coming from the south, the town of Calliope, Nebraska didn’t exist anymore.
Only 24 hours earlier, Dr. Peel’s jogging shoes could be heard on the only paved road in town. He breathed to the rhythm of his feet, inhaling one chilled breath after another, his throat feeling dry and the faint scent of toothpaste going up his nose.
A few of the early rising farmers looked out of their windows, amused at the sight of their young, red-headed town doctor and his sporty black leggings and skintight running shirt, covered in logos. He practiced what he preached. Healthy living and exercise and organic food. He had already convinced Andy Whitfield to make his chicken farm free range.
Dr. Peel was fresh out of medical school, fidgety and ready to listen. Making house calls in a time when such a practice was unheard of. With only 81 residents it was easy for a doctor to get on his bike and ride from farmhouse to farmhouse, considering his office hardly saw activity outside of some man trying to get a prescription of Viagra without the wife finding out about it.
Most of his difficult cases came from the immigrants working for the farmers as they lacked proper healthcare and paperwork so when they came to him it was out of absolute necessity. A broken bone, a wound allowed to fester. Despite telling them repeatedly that he wasn’t going to call ICE on them, they still hid on the property of their employers not knowing that they were so prized by the farmers, no one would dare have them deported.
Calliope, Nebraska was a town of hard working people, family people. Mostly Methodists. They might have looked weary to outsiders but after work was over or the fields had been plowed and animals fed, it was common to see those in the neighboring clapboard houses and paint worn Victorians gather around porches for some gossip or pull out a small T.V. in order to catch a baseball game. There weren’t many kids in the area (the one school building, Roosevelt School, housed all grades) but the sounds of happy children squealing and playing outside was so common, no one noticed anymore. They would bike or chase one another up and down dirt roads, most of which lacked names.
The town started out as a settlement named Mansfeld, full of German immigrants who meandered off the Oregon Trail and turned their new acreage into ranch land. The area thrived as healthy farmland until the government took it away from the ranchers after WWI, during a nationwide expulsion of German ethnicity.
It was quickly renamed Calliope, a bustling pit stop to the west. During the Great Depression, it was the last place you could get gas for hours either way. One of those 1920’s gas stations with a Spanish tiled roof still existed and was owned by Clarence Moore who was once offered $500 for his gas pump, from a lost yuppie. Clarence refused, completely dumbfounded. Why would anyone want it if they couldn’t use it for its true purpose?
There were wheat plains and farmland as far as the eye could see and the nearest big city was Joliet, Nebraska, population 12,385, thirty miles north, down one straight asphalt two-lane called White Bog Road which exited onto Highway 40. The next closest civilization was the third largest city in all of Nebraska (Great Plains) which boasted a little over 127,000 people and plenty of Starbucks, 188 miles northeast.
For the few teenagers in Calliope, there was not much to do outside of bonfires on the weekends. The girls read their subscriptions of Vogue on their tablets and the boys played on the computers in the school library if their family didn’t have much money. They drove to Joliet for their clothes and weed. Many would dream about the day they would leave for adventure and most kept this promise, as seen by the disastrous population crash over the past fifty years, after the building of Highway 40 made Calliope an out of the way stop for gas and left no jobs for its high school graduates, outside of the family farm.
The younger generation thought differently from the shaggier folk who grew up not knowing much outside of their little land. They all went to Joliet for big purchases on weekends and saw commercials and wondered how other people lived, but they didn’t think too much about it. They liked what they saw in front of them. They liked the smell of hay in the air. You could smell it on Main Street, on any road, even in the winter. They liked the flies buzzing around the casseroles they would make and set on the picnic table on special days when it wasn’t too hot to eat outdoors. Some of them liked that strangers never came through, not even to get gas anymore.
Dr. Peel started down the short strip of buildings standing on both sides of Main Street, known to the locals as “The Square”. It was an isolated mix of boarded-up shops, some from the turn of the last century. A few businesses had flourished based on necessity, such as Sugar Pharmacy or Harold’s Bar and Restaurant (which used to be called Moxie’s Place in the 1920’s by the grandfather of the current owner, Donald Baker). Donald tended the bar while his wife took care of the restaurant. If there was a crowd it was usually to gather and talk about a Nebraska presidential primary or an Easter lunch. Those small town yearly rituals that are often boring to outsiders. The one jail cell was just a drunk tank, waiting for the same three men stumbling out of Harold’s, every other weekend.
The town newspaper, The Calliope Tribune, had folded twenty years ago after having been run only by volunteers. As Dr. Peel jogged past the old flat-faced building on Main Street that used to house its only press, he wondered what on earth this hole in the wall (known only for being the birthplace of Nebraska’s Number One Bull Riding Champion of 2003, Rusty Sanderson) could possibly have reported on.
He had been told the Cole Bros. Circus had once been to Calliope but that was in the 1930’s when about 1,000 people lived in the area. Calliope had once been known for having “The Largest Statue of a Horse in the Midwest”. Made of wood and aluminum, it started out as a midlife crisis project from a farmer Bill Murphy who said he was trying to escape his wife and build a spaceship. It turned into a 30-foot horse instead. Bill went into a nursing home and the horse became affectionately known as “Trojan”. He stood in front of a now vanished Piggly Wiggly building for years before burning down in a suspicious fire in 1959. The few residents who remember still call this event, “a disaster for the town of Calliope”.
Besides these footnotes, there was little else to write home about.
Sitting in a frayed plastic deck chair on the remnants of her front porch, Mrs. Maroney heard the rhythmic thud of soft feet coming towards them and saw the familiar profile of the comely Dr. Peel. His red hair came out white in the dim light and his hand up in a wave as he went by and down the dirt road. She sighed,
"Dr. Peel runs all night, all morning. Makes me feel safe, he does. Fat too," Mrs. Maroney said to her seated husband as she squeezed the dough popping out of the underside of her tank top.
“Are you using him to make me feel guilty for thinking you fat?”
“I ain’t skinny. You’d like me better skinny, wouldn’t you? You’d stop staring at those commercials.”
“We got a crap TV. I can’t even see those girls in those commercials. I have to squint to see the picture. You ain’t right in the head. Go find Dr. Peel to treat you. He can probably get you something for lady problems. Head problems.”
The Maroney’s were in a tract house, the smallest one across from the police substation on Main Street. The substation had never been fully utilized. Officer Horst was on his thirtieth year ruling the roost along with the only slightly younger, Officer Halpern. They went fishing together down at Little Elk Creek. They were both easy going men who traded time “on call” for the very few problems about town. They had nice wives and clean houses. Officer Halpern was starting to get scared that the lump his wife found in her breast was cancer. They kept it quiet and were waiting for next week’s trip to Great Prairie’s St. Luke’s Hospital to really get nervous.
One person who noticed a difference in Mrs. Halpern was her best friend, Dorothy Arnold, the town busybody. As Dorothy got ready for church that morning, sipping her tea with curlers in her hair, she flipped through the Land’s End catalog she had taken to Mrs. Halpern’s, three weeks prior. Normally, Dorothy’s best girlfriend would have cooed over the new summer shirts and dresses neither of them could afford but Dorothy felt shooed out of the house. She hadn’t even had a chance to help herself to the homemade raspberry cream pie on the counter.
Dorothy was a teacher at the school as well as the town’s lone realtor, a job she took very seriously despite the obvious lack of clients. The last one had been Dr. Sexy who she kept an eye out from her perch at the kitchen sink. She couldn’t let him see her in her curls, of course, but she liked watching him run early in the mornings. Only Mrs. Halpern knew that Dorothy had a thing for this young man, despite an age difference of a couple of decades, the disadvantage on her end.
Flicking the BIC up to her cigarette and trying not to light the curler that was hanging over her eyebrow on fire, Dorothy stewed about her old friend. Mrs.Halpern had been distant, fake when looking at the catalog. Too polite. Like she was waiting for Dorothy to leave. A sudden shift was abnormal as they could finish on another’s sentences. They didn’t keep a thought or feeling from the other. They double dated for their prom in the 80’s. They both collected Precious Moments figurines. Both had a problem with Mylette Amberson, now little Miss Hot Pants, strutting around the town and “parking” with boys down by the creek. Mylette had once been the tiny girl who went door to door selling her homemade Christmas ornaments, but now she drew the ire of the housewives of the town who had never felt, before then, that they had to put on makeup to pick up their mail.
Dr. Peel almost made it past Dorothy’s house on Red Bluff Road without having to see her hand enthusiastically wave at him from her front window. He obliged as he stopped to catch his breath and check his pulse. He looked out over the hill and saw his next obstacle: the south side of town and its breathtaking views of yellowed fields, one rolling over the next.
A Holstein cow farm took up a lot of southern land. It belonged to the Fosters and it did well but not well enough to pay off their new truck or get their eight-year-old, Scott, braces. His two front teeth were large, so he would pull his shoulder length hair over the bottom of his face if he was feeling insecure. They were always pointed out and made fun of, by his cousins who visited every Christmas. Scott’s father couldn’t wait until the kid was ten so he could start mowing the lawn and helping out more around the farm. This was a man who grew up hard farming at age four, but his wife prevailed. He would have to wait.
Mr. Foster thought about it as he held a glass of milk and stared at his overgrown front yard. The sky was bright now and the morning birds were somewhere else. The kids were already up. Amy was always up first. She used to sneak into their bedroom and worm her way under the covers in between her parents. She would pretend to sleep and wait for him or his wife to notice her. Kip loved the smell of his daughter in the morning. Baby powder and the shampoo that dried in her hair, in the night. His wife would snuggle her as he got up to feed the cows.
Scott and Amy Foster were playing on the tire swing in their front yard. The boy would carefully put his four-year-old sister inside of the tire and twist the rope in circles, her blonde straggly head a blur, until she jumped out dizzy, trying to see how far she would walk without falling. If the tire had water on the bottom of it, they would pretend to drown his plastic, green soldiers.
It was a nice morning and the two of them were bundled up against the cold but at their age, they didn’t feel temperature. Their laughter could be heard by a small figure coming up the hill, their friend Erico Lee Smith. At nine, he was in the same class as Scott and they both had bikes, so they could get away from nosy sisters and go frog gigging after church on Sundays. They learned how to burp on command and started doing it in the ears of the girls at school.
Erico Lee’s slick black hair was always wet looking as his mom liked to give it a swipe with Vaseline before he went out. The Smith’s had the nicest home, a grand, three-story, lavender Victorian, so she wanted to keep up appearances. Since her son’s skin burned like the dickens, she had also added a little dab of blue sunscreen on the tip of his speck of a nose.
Erico Lee jumped out behind the tree, trying to scare the siblings. They both made frustrated noises. Amy stuck out her tongue.
“You’re being stupid,” Scott lamented. “I can see everything between here and your house. I saw you coming, like, fifty minutes ago.”
Erico Lee was big boned with thick glasses and oversized white ears that Scott said you could see light through, and puffy lips that made him always look like he was pouting about something. That morning, they were stuck out as if he were sucking on a straw and his dark eyebrows were bunched up. Scott caught wind of a problem and wondered if Mr. Smith had recently paddled him.
“What’s wrong?” Scott asked as he twirled the tire around.
“I dunno. My dad went to the police last week. Now he keeps jabbering because they ain’t doing nothing.”
“What?” Scott was incredulous.
Going to Officer Horst or Officer Halpern was a big deal because no one ever had a need to bother them. They had a fancy police substation with lots of phones and computers from the 1990’s but no secretaries and both men could usually be found in their homes. Even if there was a fire, you called the volunteer fireman out of their houses.
“When we had that snow. You know? Last week?” Erico Lee picked his teeth.
Snow in Calliope was common, but Scott vaguely remembered the three inches they got a few days prior. The grownups had even called off school and they never did that.
“Nothing.” Erico Lee shrugged but Scott could tell something was bothering him. “Dad saw these footprints in the snow coming out from the trees by our house. Where all those trees are. He said the footprints went up to our house but there weren’t any leavin’ the house. Dad seemed kinda annoyed by it. Thinkin’ its kids.”
“Was it fairy feet?” Amy asked. She almost put her thumb in her mouth, but she remembered the hot sauce and quickly held it fast against her leg.
“There ain’t fairies, Dork.”
“Don’t call her Dork.” Scott casually chided his friend as he pushed his long auburn hair out of his eyes.
“Thing is, I hear things real good,” Erico Lee glanced back at his home, “and every night I feel like there’s something in the attic. Ever since Dad told me that. Ever since he saw those prints.”
“Something in the attic?” Amy squealed as she bounded up and down on a stone with glee and then tried walking on her toes.
“What do you mean?”
Scott hated it when Erico Lee tried to scare him. His chubby friend knew that he locked his bedroom at night and started covering his ears with blankets after he watched that Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman cartoon. That was something only Erico Lee knew. A secret you only tell a best friend. Scott tried to make a joke out of it,
“Yeah, right. Like the tree behind your house that came to life when it rained? How about the time you told me Miss Zelko was a werewolf and that’s why her legs were so hairy? Or the aliens you said that were living in the gas station because gas was cheaper on earth.”
“Aliens living in the gas station,” Amy giggled.
Erico Lee kicked the dirt up with a satisfying grunt. “No, I’m really am serious this time! I hear something real soft right above my head. The attic door is in the hall next to my room. I swear on…on…everything I got. I swear on my bike.”
“We had raccoons once,” Scott offered. “Dad got rid of them. Maybe he can get rid of yours too.”
“Dad won’t bother. He says I’m imagining things.”
The three little ones stared at Erico Lee’s house. The Victorian monster had a thick growth of evergreens and ancient oaks separating it from The Square but not before hitting the cemetery, covered with weeds and full of blackened gravestones. It made the building look lonesome and isolated. The kids shuddered and turned their attention back to the tire.
“Oh, yeah.” Erico Lee stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled something out. He threw it to Scott who fumbled with it on the ground. “Dad got a bunch of that green stuff. You can have one.”
The boys in school were secretly collecting beer caps and the more variety, the better. They would all sneak into their trash and pick them out and hide them from their parents. Unfortunately, they were restricted to the limited selection in Calliope’s grocer, on Main Street. Erico Lee’s dad had gone to Joliet three weeks ago and brought back a pack of Heineken and Erico Lee wouldn’t stop talking about how he was the only kid with Heineken caps. He could tell Scott had been annoyed so he was sacrificing one from his collection.
Scott brought it close to his face and stared at it. He loved the big red star surrounded by that bright green color.
“Hey, why don’t we start flashing again?”
Scott’s suggestion seemed to please the boy.
“Flashing” was what they called shining flashlights through their bedroom windows at one another in the middle of the night. For a whole summer, they spent time learning Morse code and they were pretty good at it. They would shine their lights in code and try deciphering the messages. Though it was never said out loud, it made each boy feel safe.
“I’d better go back. We’ll be going to church soon. He’ll wonder where I went.”
“Yeah, us too. See you there.”
Scott watched his friend run down the reed covered hill and then looked up at the sky. The wind was making the clouds move fast and some of them were dark gray, even though it was sunny. He thought he saw the shape of a bat in the clouds. Amy said she thought it looked like a chair. The siblings waved at Dr. Peel as he jogged along the bottom of the hill, past the cemetery and towards the church.
Everyone in the town of Calliope went about the day and their routine without much thought. They fed their animals, the chickens, the cattle, or the sheep such as the Texels and Romneys and cleaned themselves up for church and spent the morning listening to Reverend Johnson’s sermon. Before the church service, Erico Lee ran up to John Butler and his girlfriend Lucia just as they entered the building. Mr. Butler, a mailman from Joliet, had already taken off his coat, showing off the same iridescent purple suit he wore every week. His girlfriend was shivering against the cold.
“Did you bring it?” Erico Lee asked the tall man.
John shook his head with regret. “Sorry, little man. I forgot it at home. Maybe next week I can teach you.”
“But what if you’re not dating Lucia next week?”
The kid’s comment may have been entirely innocent, but it hit an invisible injury. In a huff, Lucia flipped her long dark hair and rushed to find a good seat. John Butler shrugged while digging into his pocket, suddenly puzzled. When he whipped the coin out the boy squealed, and everyone’s head turned to look at the pair.
“Yes!” Erico Lee felt the quarter all over with his pudgy fingers. “How does it work?”
“You go up to someone real innocent like. Watch me. See how casual I am?” John pretended he didn’t know the boy. Turning, he acted surprised. “Hello, there. Would you happen to have a quarter on you? I’m hungry.”
Erico Lee covered his mouth with his hands, giggling. Mr. Butler took the coin from him and made a great show of gnawing it. He held out the quarter, now bit in half.
“That is so cool! Where’s Amy and Scott? I want you to show them.”
"That’s not all. Watch this.” John spit at the coin. The missing half mysteriously appeared in front of the boy’s eyes. He swooned, taking the quarter back.
“How did you do that?”
“Come close.” John lowered his voice as he made Erico Lee his confidante. “What I’m about to tell you is super secret magician stuff. You got me? The secret society of magicians will come after you if you squeal.”
Erico Lee took this very seriously. He wiped some of the Vaseline out of his hair as he gave a salute. “I promise. I took the oath last month. Remember?”
“All right. Good, good. This quarter I brought you is a special one. See how there are two halves held together with a rubber band? You hold half of it back and show your audience. Remember to always hide a real quarter in your palm in case someone wants to feel it.”
Erico Lee joined his parents and the Fosters, crowing about his new gift. Everyone walked into the church, watching the display with amusement. As they sat in the pews in their coats (on account of the heater breaking down in January) they listened to the Reverend, his hands shaking with early Parkinson’s disease, speak about The Parable of the Lost Son,
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything…”
Not raised in any Christian church, John Butler tried to pay attention sitting next to his girlfriend. Every weekend, he would leave his apartment in nearby Joliet to stay with her though the visits had been volatile as of late. The night before, they’d gotten into an argument about him having password protection for his phone. He had an out-of-body experience as she bubbled with anger, asking him repeatedly why a man would want a password if he wasn’t cheating. As she kept talking, he began to think that their age difference was the cause of the trouble.
John wiped his dark bald head with a handkerchief wondering about the promise Lucia made to him. That the church was going to install central air in April. Everyone near him was bundled up, but he was always hot, something that made his mail route in the summer unbearable. Fanning himself with a pamphlet, he moved his eye around the room of captive churchgoers, half of them Catholic Hispanics making an exception due to the shortage of churches in the area. The Reverend got louder as though he knew John wasn’t paying attention. The postman snapped his head forward to catch the man at the pulpit staring at him as he spoke.
“…the older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The congregation didn’t know that this was the last time that any sermon would be heard in that church. The last time they would see one another, together in one place. The last time Maud Crawford would sneak a cigarette behind the shed or Ralph Stutzman would yell at his kids on the way home in the car because they kept changing the radio station. The last time Dr. Peel went out for his run or Amy Foster grabbed the sleeve of her brother’s coat as they made their way up the steps to their house.
When the sun rose on the cold morning of March 24th, followed by ominous clouds coming from the south, the town of Calliope, Nebraska didn’t exist anymore