Every night we wait for the drones overhead to spill our allotted water rations. I’ve never gotten used to the whirring sound—and that smell, nearly sour, the way it coats the air. Turns it artificial. For most of who’s left, it’s all they’ve known.
The kids are already racing outside with their mouths open, waiting for the pour. I remember as a boy, before the machines, playing in puddles that lasted all night, floods rushing the ground till morning. It rained for days, dragging cars away, the water reflecting our nervous faces back at us when we looked over the porch.
We’d imagine portals in there at the edge, like if you jumped in, you’d sink and get spit out somewhere in old days’ China. We filled our toy boats with green army men, and we sailed them, sent soldiers on a sidewalk sea. Dolls floated facedown along the runoff. We held funerals.
But everything’s changed, those days dead, and we owe the drones our lives. You see it in the eyes of the children, looking up with longing at the polystyrene in the sky. We had those same star eyes back when, gazing above at grey. Cumulonimbus clouds held life in the air.
Now the cracked earth waits. And I’m still staring up, counting dry nights, waiting for the sky to open, for the drones. No lizards crawl in the dust. No birds. Most of Earth has died off or paid their way, moved on to more habitable planets. For those of us left, we still make a life.
We’ve survived, but now the drones are late, and Ariel’s been dreaming of water.
“A flood is coming,” Ariel tells me, before he goes to lie down and wait. He draws his hand to his white spotted tongue, licks at the skin on his finger, and points it at the sky.
“Over from the old Carolinas. A wave so big it’ll swallow us.” He smiles, cracking a split in his bottom lip.
“Hard to imagine in all the dust,” I say. “When’s last you had a drink?”
He won’t answer. I don’t know what to tell him, how to make him understand.
“You know, I about died in the ocean once, back when it was pure. It’s not a rescue, boy, all that water. The salt. The radiation. We’ll be lucky if we drown.”
His eyes are away, lost, imagining a wet world, head rolling around words like drown. These kids don’t know. They’ll be thrashing and sucking up water. Can’t guard their mind. Won’t know the ocean is no faucet. Years of dry, this generation growing up never learning how to swim, never so much as submerging a foot, bathing with drips of wettened towels and liquid rations.
Ariel doesn’t blink. “I wonder what it’s like up there—airtight, canned oxygen, a life encased in glass. Maybe in their world, people won’t make the same mistakes.” He stares off at the blank sky.
I say nothing. I still don’t know what to say.
“Maybe they’ll feel sorry,” Ariel goes on after a pause. “Look down at their old home and wonder what it’s like for the remnants, for us.”
“They won’t,” I scold him. “They’ve already forgotten.”
“Well, Pop, when we’re submerged, none of it will matter. Their wrongs, ours, the stain of what we were. Disease, the Great Extinction, the wars. The water will wash it away, the junk of all we’ve been. I’ll open my eyes wide—underwater.” He says it like a word from a new language. “And I’ll look, follow the movement of the waves, the beauty of it.”
I can’t tell him that it won’t be beautiful, that the waves will be full of dead dogs and people, their stiff limbs bumping into buildings and walls, debris and cars and bicycles floating and swirling about, plastic bottles and nets and headstones, strange artifacts of life that once illustrated an entire planet.
I look at my boy, his eyes squiggled with red lines through the whites, drying out.
“You heard word? Transmissions? Any forecasts?”
“Drones were due weeks ago, been too long since a pour. Must be the flood. Stations will be out now. Nothing on the radios. It’s coming, Pop.”
“Ariel, listen to me. I’ll head out soon, find somewhere with supplies—”
“—Don’t!” he yells, his voice hoarse. “This is bigger than the drones! Don’t you see what I see out there?” He points off to nothing, then grips at a handful of sand and lets it fall through his fingers. “This is revival! It’s all that’s left for us, for our world, for a better world. Don’t you understand? This is salvation!”
His shoulders tense up. I don’t want to upset him, so I just nod. “All right, Son. That’s fine. Let’s get you in the house so you can lie down and rest. Need to save your energy.”
I walk Ariel back inside, sit with him on his bed. I know he won’t sleep. But I still bring over his blanket, the one his mother used to wrap him in when he was a baby. Her scent I pretend still lives in the fabric. She’s been gone so long and taken all the years with her. Sometimes I look at Ariel, all thirteen years of him, and I wonder how this striped blanket ever used to wrap around him in a tiny bundle. I cover his feet.
“Go to sleep,” I say to him, but he turns over to face the wall. He is still angry with me, and so I let him be.
This morning, he isn’t in his room. He never stays anymore.
Ariel is out by the empty water vat, mustering the energy to pull himself on top of the trailer. He’s gathered a group, all familiar faces from nearby houses, though there aren’t many of us left. Everyone’s listening like he’s some prophet. There’s a new joy in their faces, with hopes of water, of waves curling around them, carrying them through currents, a strange euphoria holding them aloft. They haven’t given up. But I keep telling them to come inside. That we have to be smart. It’s what we need most, to preserve energy. Patience.
They won’t hear me. Ariel most of all. When he’s done with his speech, he drops to the ground with the rest of them. It’s been hours of them lying out in the dirt, eyes fixed skyward at the barren wind. They’re holding their mouths ajar with flies buzzing around, landing on teeth and on shriveling tongues. The little neighbor boy, Thomas, already looks sullen, black under his eyes, his lips flaking. He’s too stubborn, like Ariel.
I can’t stay out like they do—the sun gets me tired. And with this heat, it’s dangerous. But if I look, and really stare, maybe the sky does look thicker, humid even. I’ll get us ready, teach the others what to do, try to find supplies. After Ariel comes in, I’ll go. Be back before he wakes up. I trudge down the porch steps, call out to him from the front of the house, lean my weight against the porch railing. It’s difficult to even stand.
“Ariel, come here and get inside.”
He won’t acknowledge my voice, acts like he can’t hear me. I’m overheated, everything’s spinning, and I’m thirsty. But I know he is too. He can’t be out here. None of us can.
I take slow and too-dizzy steps. When I finally reach him, I stand over him, and neither of us speak. I lean down and try to lift him up under his arms, to drag him. But he’s delirious. He turns and pushes me, balls up a fist, punches me in the shoulder so hard his knuckles crack. I’m knocked to the ground. He ignores me and rolls over in the dirt. No one does anything. They don’t even see. They’re still staring at the sky.
I’m stumbling back over to Ariel, and I realize in the state I’m in, I can’t restrain him. Even if I bring him inside, he’ll just come right back out with the rest of them to wait. I wipe dust from my forehead and rub my eyes, hope it will ease my bleary vision, but it doesn’t.
“Ariel,” I say. “Ariel! Ariel, goddamnit, look at me! You need to come inside!”
Ariel won’t look at me.
I twist his arm and pull, try to heave him over my shoulder, but I can’t lift him, my knees are buckling, and he’s fighting me all the way, struggling to pull himself back down. I fall backward so I don’t fall on top of him. I can barely hold myself up. This sun. This heat. I wait a moment, to think. I decide to leave him and hobble back to the porch. For now, I have to lie down in bed, only a few minutes, just need a few minutes of rest, and then I’ll come right back out, drag him the whole way if I have to.
I make it through the door, free from the glaring sun. I collapse onto my bed, colorful dots clouding my vision as I fumble through the sheets for my pen to scrawl a few words in my notebook before losing consciousness:
Silence on radios, no sightings. Entirely out of water. Ariel hit me. He won’t come inside.
When I open my eyes, it’s night. I rush out of bed, try to call for Ariel, but my voice doesn’t start. Only a rasping escapes, and the scraping of my throat burns. There’s a sound off in the distance, a mechanical whirring in the sky. Bitter air fills my nose. It’s nothing like the sea. Our patio door creaks as I drag myself outside, dust scattering beneath my feet. I rub the grit in my eyes, and before I can search for Ariel, there they are: a line of drones with overdue rations.
They’ve brought rain, more water than we’ve seen in a decade, spilling from the black sky, pouring from spigots and turning the earth to slush. I use all my strength to run down the porch steps, and I kneel to the ground to slurp puddles, swallowing mouthfuls of drenched dirt.
When I turn to look at everyone, no one is moving. I run to get Ariel, shake him, shout at him, but he doesn’t respond. I drag him out of the mud, hold him to my chest, and I’m crying, apologizing as I carry him to the steel tub out back, long empty with the drought, lay Ariel’s rigid body at the bottom. Steady droplets of water stipple over his face while I pour cups of rain over his hair.
I pull open his eyes, let him submerge as the tub fills. Water spills over the edges, forms waterfalls around his body. It’s splashing down in an oval, outlining him with all its power and magnificence, and I follow its streams, the beauty of it. I wonder if it’s everything he imagined, and I tell him that I was wrong, that it’s the second most beautiful thing I’ve seen. I take Ariel’s hand into mine.
The most beautiful, I tell him, was the sight of him the day he was born, his smile at the sound of his mother’s voice, him wrapped in that striped blanket, the way he fit into the crook of my elbow as a little bundle in my arms. He is as perfect now as when I first saw him. I look into his wide, underwater eyes. I remember what he said, how the water will wash away all we’ve been, and I pause to let him see how the world is going to be better, let him see the infinite ways he will return to me once water soaks into the earth. Once he is reborn as a flower, a sapling, a blade of grass, a butterfly that lands on my shoulder, or a field of green in a new and everlasting world.
© Belicia Rhea