November 16, 2010
There was nothing left in Ellsworth, Kansas except for dust. The drought had replaced the green grass of the plains, and despair had settled right in where hope and faith had once called ‘home’. The hard times had become harder and the once happy town had begun to decompose as rain clouds traveled farther and farther away from the Midwest.

Ellsworth’s population was decreasing more and more every day due to people packing up and traveling to the “Promised Land” of California. There was nothing people wouldn’t do to get a paying job or a speck of land during the rough times that had fallen upon the United States in the 1930s. As President Roosevelt promised opportunities to citizens everywhere, it seemed that those in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and the other states affected by the Dust Bowl were on their own.

That’s exactly where Jack Bennett fit in: on his own. Jack couldn’t remember the last time he had seen his mother, who had left him and his father before he was old enough to walk. His father said he always knew she was too good to be a farmer’s wife and could do nothing but watch as she drove away with a handsome and wealthy businessman sixteen years prior. Jack always wondered if his dad had ever gotten over his mother’s desertion, but had never had the guts to ask him. He certainly couldn’t ask his father now that he was dead, rotting away six feet under the ground for almost two years. The doctors said he died from a heart attack, but Jack believed ‘heartache’ was the more appropriate term.

It must have been hard for his father to look at him, Jack thought. He looked exactly like his mother. His eyes were green, the color of the leaves on the trees before the drought had dried them up, and his hair was brown and wavy. The shape of his face, the dimples on his cheeks, his smile, and his laugh were all inherited from his mother. Jack wondered if maybe looking at him every day had been the cause of his father’s death.

Jack contemplated this and much more in the afternoon sun as he leaned against a rundown truck’s door, staring at what was left of his father’s farm. It depressed him to see that dirt and withered crops were all that was left. His eyes rested on a small daffodil a few feet away, and the young boy walked over to the delicate flower and reached out to grab it. The daffodil quickly disintegrated in his hand.

“What a waste,” Jack muttered, kicking his worn and dirty boot at the ground. His eyes followed the dust cloud he had created, and noticed an auburn haired little girl walking towards the only building for three miles, Saint Peter’s Church. She was wearing a dress that had previously been white and black patent leather shoes that must have been shiny years prior.

Jack quickly recognized the girl as his neighbor’s eleven year old daughter, Ruth Fuller. The Fullers had lived on the farm next door for as long as Jack could remember and had quickly taken Jack in when he became an orphan at fourteen. Mr. and Mrs. Fuller had recently informed Ruth and Jack that they too were going to try their luck further west. The family, along with Jack if he chose to join them, would be leaving the next week.

“Where are you going all dressed up?” Jack asked, walking towards Ruth.

Ruth turned her head in his direction, but didn’t break her stride. She smiled and her blue eyes lit up, the only bright and shining thing for miles. “I’m headed to the church. Want to come?”

“God left this place a long time ago, Ruth,” Jack said. His eyes cold and his mouth a straight line, but he joined Ruth anyway.

The two walked to the small chapel in silence and as they approached the building, Jack couldn’t help but admire that the building was still standing in a time where everyone’s faith was being tested. Ruth entered the chapel first, quickly dipping her fingers into the holy water and making the sign of the cross. Jack walked past the small basin and slipped into a pew behind Ruth. He watched as his eleven year old neighbor kneeled on the ground and concentrated on her prayers. Ruth was unfazed that Jack made no effort to act like a churchgoer. She knew that the seventeen year old had stopped believing in fairytales many years before, and the bible had joined the pile of storybooks he had stopped reading.

“Why don’t you pray with me, Jack?” Ruth asked her blue eyes big and full of innocence.

“I have nothing to pray for.”

Ruth stared at him, shocked. “You don’t want to ask God for help? Not even to give you strength on our trip to California?”

“It's better not to want anything, that way if it goes away or doesn't happen … it just doesn't matter.” Jack looked down at his hands, his voice having lowered to barely above a whisper.

“But Jack,” Ruth whispered, “it’s okay to want things. It’s alright if you ask God for courage to go and get the things you want.”

Jack stared into Ruth’s eyes, wondering if she knew about the sadness and despair going on outside of the church’s walls. “All I want, all that matters, is money so I can be happy.”

“Money doesn’t make a difference. Love is the strongest thing in the world, you know. Nothing can touch it. Nothing comes close. If people love each other, they’re safe from it all. Love is the biggest thing there is.”

Ruth stood up and started to walk away, but turned back after a few steps. She stared at Jack and breathed in deeply. “I’m not naïve. I know that things are bad, but I’m not worried because I know that all of this,” she motioned to the dead land outside of the stained glass windows, “is temporary. We’re going to a better place in the end. Open your eyes to the little things. God doesn’t disappoint, and he hasn’t forgotten about you even though you’re trying to forget about him. Have some faith, Jack.”

Jack stared at the altar, going over Ruth’s words in his head, as he listened to her footsteps fade away. He wondered if she was right, if God and miracles weren’t just fairytales. Could things really change for the better after all the terrible incidents that had occurred in the last few years?

He sighed heavily and rose to his feet, risking one last glance at the empty altar before he left the church and went back to the real world filled with sadness. Just when he was about to turn away, his eyes caught something delicate and white at the foot of the steps to the altar. A beautiful, healthy daffodil was growing in a small pot, defying everything that was going on outside of the church’s walls.

There was no way he couldn’t smile while looking at it. And Jack continued to smile as he walked down the aisle and dipped his fingers into the holy water. The smile was still on his face as he signed the cross and made his way through the dust.

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