The dust storm scratches and scrapes against the courtroom windows like t-shirts rippling on a clothesline. In the audience sit a few old timers of the esteemed Tamarack County Butterscotch/Werther’s Association—of which plaintiff Elizabeth Crabtree is an honorary member—each of them dashed everywhere with fine, orange dust. There are the jurors in the box, all powdered head to toe with this same dust—it frosts their hair and drizzles down their shoulders as they fidget in their seats. Mrs. Crabtree sits with prosecution and Mr. Joseph Toejumb twitches and squirms and hates life where the defendant sits. His own lawyer can barely look at him. It’s his brother is the kicker, and he can barely look at him on account of what he did. Meanwhile the judge is a pair of bushy grey eyebrows that many many years ago sprouted backwards a face and body like how a cactus grows little tube babies. He observes while the smart-looking man behind the witness stand investigates a little plastic baggie filled with a dry, leafy-green herb.
The man took a long look at the plastic baggie, at the dry crumbles of tiny green leaves inside. He adjusted his dusty reading glasses, took a sniff, then looked at the mustached lawyer—Crabtree’s man—and nodded his head. Some dust twirled downwards as his feathery hair curtsied on his scalp.
The lawyer with the mustache turned to the court reporter and said in an exceptionally high-pitched, almost phonographic voice, “Let the record show that Dr. Kleinhold positively identified the item.” He turned to the box of deadpan jurors. “Now remember. This is the stuff that was found between the pillows of the couch where Mr. Scott often spent his evenings. It was found there only hours after his disappearance.”
Toejumb’s lawyer had no questions for the man of science, so Mustache excused him and called Mrs. Crabtree to the stand. Significantly rotund and wheezing, covered in drizzling orange stormdust, the lady trundled past the jury box and left behind her a dizzying wake of butterscotch scent. One of the jurors, an elderly man with bright white hair, licked his parched lips.
“Mrs. Crabtree,” said the lawyer after she had taken her vows, “Did you notice Mr. Scott acting funny during the minutes leading up to his disappearance?”
“Oh yes,” Crabtree shmumbered. “He wasn’t walking straight, believe me. Bumping into things here and there whilst the storm slapped against the house from all sides. The windows were like garbage bags, the house we had all the lights on inside, that’s how thick it was.”
Sitting behind the defense table, Joseph Toejumb, a cold sweat rolling salty beads down the slope of his strawberry noseskin, squirmed in his seat until his lawyer nudged him to stop.
On the floor Mustache continued, “At what point, Mrs. Crabtree, did you notice Mr. Scott left the shelter and safety of the house? Had stumbled blindly out into the storm?”
So fast did Ms. Crabtree snap her gaze at Joseph Toejumb, her gelatin cheeks made a sound like when a bulldog tries to shake its head dry. “When one of my tenants, Mr. Toejumb, bumbled up to me in a panic and told me ‘Mr. Scott is gone! He went outside into the storm!’” Mrs. Crabtree’s eyes welled up. “Poor Mr. Scott! Outside all alone. Lost!”
Mustache said, with theatrical curiosity, “But Ms. Crabtree! Was this normal behavior for Mr. Scott? To leave the safety of the inn right in the middle of the worst duststorm we’ve had here in Tamarack County in a decade? A dust storm that rages still, two days later?”
Mrs. Crabtree lost it. Tears came but they couldn’t find their way to the bottom of her face because her bulbous cheeks collected them in little smiling pools. When she spoke, her words were festooned with snot and bubbling in a traffic-jam of tears. “No. Of course no. Old Mr. Scott been living with us for so long, now. He’s up there in years. He don’t like going outside no more. ‘Specially not in no howlin-ass duststorm! He’s slow but he still got his marbles!”
The lawyer with the mustache tactfully gave it a minute before proceeding; he let Crabtree exhaust the worst of her blubbering. “Mrs. Crabtree. Is it your opinion that Mr. Scott made the decision to exit the safety of your establishment, into the blinding chaos of the dust storm, because he was under the influence of a mind-altering substance?”
Mrs. Crabtree said, “Yes sir.”
Joseph Toejumb jumped up from his seat and slurbarked: “I didn’t make him do nothing! Maybe I left it for him right there on the edge of the table but I didn’t make him do it! Not like I rubbed it in his face!”
“Order!” shouted the crinkly-Judged eyebrow. He whacked his hammer a few times against the wood disk thing. A man in the jury woke up for a moment, mid-snore, and he fell back to sleep fast enough to complete that very snore.
Toejumb’s lawyer, making no attempt to stifle a wild groan of annoyance, grabbed his brother/client by the shoulders and assed him back down to the seat.
Finally the courtroom settled into quiet.
The Mustache lawyer sighed, continued his scratchy, high-pitched query: “Mrs. Crabtree. Is it your opinion that Mr. Toejumb intentionally provided Mr. Scott with the substance identified by Dr. Kleinhold?”
“Yes. Yes. Because Joey Toejumb’s a big goofy idiot and Mr. Scott never gives him the time of day. Joseph’s always doing his damndest to get Mr. Scott to show him only a little respect. To acknowledge him at all! But Mr. Scott don’t want nothing to do with a big galoop like Joe. And now he’s gone! Gone in the dust!”
And that’s when the courtroom doors burst open and tall Mr. Crabtree, covered smoothly in fresh orange dust, charged into the room with an equally dusty cat in his arms. With every step the man took, a big plume of dust puffed free from him and the cat. “Found ‘im under the Osmond’s tractor,” he said in a mist of mouthdust. “Been in that spot since the storm I betcha. Alive and well s’far’s I can tell!”
Mrs. Crabtree dived over and through the old oak witness stand, reducing much of the thing to splinters. “Oh Mr. Scott, my Scotty, you’re alive!” She runaway-hippopatamused her way past the guardedly delighted men and women of the jury and met her cat and her husband in a big bang of dust and unearthly cat screams.
Joseph Toejumb melted down onto the table in a long, deep sigh. He made himself laugh at his own raging dumbness and blind luck. That catnip stuff was bad, bad news, he thought. No more of that stuff. Keep it clean.
For more practicallyserious short fiction, check out this story!