By L. Stewart Marsden
Nothing soothed the thirst. Those who succumbed early were blessed, their blood and bladders drained by others for anything that quenched. Their remains littered the streets like dried road kill — skin stretched taut over bony skeletons.
You could not tell the once-obese corpses from those who were always in fit shape. They all looked alike. Like the stark images from Dachau or WWII American prison camps, or the tin-type images of Confederate and Union prisoners. The irony was that those who were fat lasted much longer than the morbidly-fit group, whose muscles and sinew deteriorated much more quickly. There was little fat on them for the arid planet to suck dry.
All rivers and lakes were cracked dry beds of adobe now. The Great Lakes were so drained they were but large ponds, but even those were fiercely protected by the border-states and Canada. Not a tree on the planet bore leaves of any kind. Not a blade of grass was not withered. The air was thus thick and burning when breathed in.
Every grocery shelf product that contained any kind of liquid was ravaged by armed droves of unsupervised militants — the preppers who long-warned the day would come when survival would be the realm of the fittest. Ironically, most preppers had tossed out Darwinism in favor of Spencer’s theory, never associating the two men. Coca-Cola and Pepsi distributors and headquarters had long been assaulted, looted and burned to the ground by tongue-parched protestors over the inordinate amount of water resources used by the two giants to produce product. Their CEOs and board members were attacked and publicly hanged, then their bodies burned.
Birch Holcromb stared at his emaciated image in the dusty mirror on the door to his closet.
God! he thought, realizing he had lost nearly 150 pounds at least over the last year. He remembered he had heard the human body is 98 percent water. At the time it seemed absurd. Now, not so much.
His wife died six months earlier from diarrhea because she drank from the toilet. She was desperate. She was one of millions who emptied the sewer systems by drinking water scooped from toilets, then boiled. Not all of the bacteria were killed by the process. It took about ten days for her to die, keeling over onto the bathroom floor from her hardened perch on the john.
Holcromb knew better than that. But you could never tell Cathy anything. Once she decided to do something, she did it. He left his post sitting on the edge of the tub in support of her after he had no more physical or emotional strength left. He was lying in bed, the fan blowing directly on him from his dresser bureau, when he heard the soft thud of her body onto the tiled floor. He left her there.
He dreamed about it. Oceans and oceans of clear, pristine liquid reflecting an azure sky and soft sunlight.
Many had urged him to join their ranks in search of the oases of water rumored about on Facebook. He knew better. The majority turned out to be terrible jokes played by worthless weasels who somehow found satisfaction by scamming the public.
The news contained two headlines daily: another source of water dried up, and scores of hopeful and hapless people who had either dropped dead on their search for hydration of any kind, or were killed by preppers as a result of trying to raid the survivalist.
He was amazed at the kinds of things people would try to relieve thirst:
Beer, wine and hard alcohol vanished quickly, to no one’s surprise, but to great dismay.
Canned foods — especially fruits and vegetables — were then targeted. Those were decimated within the first three months of the world drought.
Then anything drinkable, like mouthwashes, was consumed.
On to the not-so-drinkables, like rubbing alcohol and cologne. Followed by anything liquid. Even urine.
Suicides were plentiful and creative. Toilet water, of course. Then Draino, and gasoline, and engine coolant were poisons of choice. Why more didn’t just shoot themselves and get it over quickly bemused him. He supposed that the last savor of something wet was the reason, however horrible the aftermath.
This day Holcomb had reached his point of surrender.
Why fight it?
There was an ironic silver lining. At least everyone in the world pit their frustrations, anger and efforts against one common enemy. It was a terrible price to pay to attain an increased level of reason regarding how the Pre-Drought era. The world was no longer pitted against itself, other than preppers versus everyone else. But in the redirection of care, even the preppers were not hated. Others arrived at the understanding the small enclaves were going to end up brittle skin on bones, too. There wasn’t enough energy left among the dwindling populations to be envious, or frightened, or paranoid. All of the issues that had existed in the once-watered world seemed of no consequence at all. Religious issues dried up, as did political extremes, LGBT controversy, and all of the other “very important” points of view that separated and divided once before.
Even Duke haters no longer hated Duke.
For the occasion, Holcromb decided to go out in style, and put on his favorite business attire, starting with his underwear and socks. He had to tie a knot in the waistband of the underwear because of his extreme weight loss, and used a pair of natty suspenders to hang his trousers. His dress shirt collar gaped open at the front until he clamped the back of it with one of Cathy’s bobby pins. Racked by the pain of dried finger joints, he nevertheless managed to tie a neat, tight double Windsor knot in his necktie. Then he awkwardly slipped into his
Looking in the mirror to brush his thin hair he chuckled. He looked like a Ringling Brothers clown in his oafish, baggy outfit. Socks donned and his wingtips tied, he winked at himself before turning to exit the house.
He closed the door to the bathroom as he passed it in the hallway. It was now a crypt for Cathy’s mummified body, which no longer stank.
On the sidewalk he walked as briskly as he could. He tried in vain to whistle a tune — one his father constantly sang or whistled. Oh What A Beautiful Morning! From his dad’s second-favorite musical, Oklahoma! His first favorite was South Pacific, because he had served in the Navy in the Pacific during WW II. His lips were too cracked and dry, and whistling was beyond his current condition.
A rare cool breeze blew gently across his face, and the day was bright and hot like more than a thousand days had been.
Ordinarily Holcromb wouldn’t have walked on a hot day. Within minutes — seconds even — he would have been drenched. It’s not the heat … it’s the humidity. That was the standard retort for misplaced Northerners who had moved south to live years ago and who eventually complained of the stagnant temperatures.
But there was no humidity now, and he did not have enough water in his body to express onto his face, or neck, or other body areas in order to cool. Those pores had long puckered closed into his skin.
There were no birds nor insects to accompany him along his walk. The birds had long died off, as had most of the feral animals who foraged and competed for water. Dry carcasses were inhospitable to insect eggs or larvae, and so flies eventually succumbed. There was no standing water for mosquitoes to proliferate, which was a good thing. The cicadae were dried out of the ground, and their summer chirrups had long gone silent. The only insect that seemed impervious to the conditions were the cockroaches. Even they were on the decline, as there was at least a bit of moisture in their crackling bodies.
It was oddly silent as he wound his way out of his exclusive neighborhood and toward the small town bank where he had worked his way up over the decades.
He was Assistant Bank Manager in charge of commercial loans.
He still had his keys to the five-story brick building, his office, the executive bathroom and the penthouse.
The wind picked up as he turned down the final stretch to the bank. It seemed a bit cooler to him. Wind was arbitrary now, and had become the sweeper of dust, debris, dead leaves and random trash.
Scattered along his route were the decayed bodies of people he had once known and done business with. Other than by their clothes they were unidentifiable in their mummified conditions.
Pastor Markham lay prone on the steps to the First Baptist Church. He collapsed three months ago, having forsworn any liquid intake as he prayed on his knees for God to send rain. There was not enough energy or care on the part of his parishioners to remove his body for burial.
Ditty Smith, owner of Ditty’s Dottera, was draped over the front counter of her shop, now hardened into that position. She didn’t die of thirst. She was shot in the head by looters who cleaned out all of her holistic ointments and oils. Hers was the first murder in the town not responded to by officials of any sort. It was the turning point of caring.
The front door to the bank was unlocked.
Normally Gus Amos sat his security watch in an old schoolhouse desk, wearing his silver badge and uniform proudly. He, too, was dead — but at home. He used his gun to dispatch his wife and himself.
Luckily Holcromb’s office was only one flight up, and he climbed the steps slowly, recalling much about his work there, shaking his head at the finality and futility of it all.
He unlocked the executive bathroom and tried the spigots and looked into the john stall. Only orange water stains streaked the sinks and the toilet bowl. All were powder dry.
He moved on to his office, and walked slowly about its walls, touching and reminiscing. He sat in the overly large leather chair, and pulled himself up close to the ornate desk.
The decor was bank-like in nature. His diploma and multiple certificates of merit were neatly arranged in expensive wooden frames. His recognition from the Boy Scouts of America, and from the Chamber of Commerce as well as the United Way were strategically positioned so that visitors could easily see them.
Everything was veiled with a light coating of dust.
He tried to lean back in his chair, but didn’t have the weight to budge it. He smiled and shook his head slowly.
Pulling himself back onto his feet, he trudged out of his office and across the hallway to the elevator. He pushed the UP button, and to his satisfaction it glowed yellow. The electricity was still on.
The doors opened to a ding, and Holcromb entered the elevator cab. Otis. Weren’t all elevators Otis?
He took a key and unlocked access to the penthouse level, then pushed the button. The cab jerked to life and ascended slowly, machinery whirring and grinding above him. When it abruptly stopped, the bell dinged again and the doors opened.
It was the office of the President of the bank, now dead for two years. Its walls were of clear glass, and with the exception of the wall that housed the elevator. The view was a near-complete panorama of the town and beyond.
He turned slowly to purvey the view. It was nearly noon. All around the town was bathed in sunlight and appeared normal, with the exception of no movement and no noise.
Holcromb was the last living person in town, as far as he knew.
He walked to one of the glass walls and placed both hands flat against its surface. It was hot to the touch, yet he let his hands remain, knowing his leathery skin was practically immune to any more damage.
There were no clouds, except a towering build-up of cottony puffs in the west.
Mirage, he thought. Like every other seeming hint of rain.
He walked through a glass door to the outside porch. It was carefully designed for small trees and other flora, which had long since died and withered. Sun-scorched deck furniture had begun to crack of its enameled paint, revealing dull gray aluminum frames. Vinyl straps that served as seat bottoms and backs looked decayed as well, and Holcromb thought better of sitting down. Instead, he walked to the bricked half-wall that bordered the deck, and leaned to look over onto the street below.
A few abandoned cars were parked in spaces, the meters long expired. Their shells no longer gleamed of polished metal, but were faded unevenly.
The sidewalks were empty, and he could actually see the heat radiating from their surface.
So this was it.
His world had dried up, figuratively and literally.
Holcromb mustered enough strength to stand atop the wall. He stretched his arms out to the side, as if preparing to take flight.
A distant rumble caught his attention.
The cumulus clouds had built up a bit in that short period of time.
Are they darker?
Again, a mirage. A cruel joke on the part of the gods.
Another breeze crossed his body. Decidedly cooler, he thought.
He held his arms out again, palms up, as if to invoke, to dare. But not to hope. That had shriveled and cracked long ago.
His suit coat caught a draft of wind and ballooned open, the cool air whisking about his sides and back.
Another rumble, only louder and more pronounced.
He flared his cracked nostrils.
He scented something almost totally forgotten — moisture.
The clouds were darker, thicker, more angry and saturated. They rolled toward him like a powerful black-engine freight train that spouted more black clouds from its huffing stack.
One tiny dot of water struck the opened palm of his right hand.
He turned toward the freight train cloud.
It was even larger and closer, and each burst from its wheels cracked the sky as though to split apart the blue dam that had long restrained the rain.
With a second drop of rain came his unbridled response, and he began to heave with dried emotion, sensing hope, relief and anger combined.
Overhead almost, a lightning bolt split the air with a deafening report, and Holcromb held his hands to his ears, then leaned back to face the now gargantuan black front.
Crash! came another cannon-like report, followed by a series of volleys.
The sky was no longer blue, but black.
The wind whipped cold, damp tendrils all about Holcromb’s body. He stripped off his jacket and let it fly away with the gusts. He slipped his suspenders from his shoulders, letting his trousers fall to his ankles. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt, letting it billow behind him as the wind filled it like a sail.
“Rain!” he yelled into the storm. “Rain, you goddamn son-of-a-bitch!” and rose a clenched fist into the bluster.
A crack and a brilliant blast of light were the last things Birch Holcromb experienced. He was dead before his body crumbled apart on the sidewalk below in front of the bank.
His death was ruled both accidental and a suicide by the town coroner, who couldn’t decide between which.
His wife was found dead in the upstairs bathroom of his house, dehydrated and starved to death.
The small town newspaper ran the story as a front-page headliner — Local Banker Commits Suicide. Friends and family were all amazed, and no one could point to any reasons that might lead up to the apparent murder-suicide.
“It’s a puzzler, all right,” commented the sheriff. “Strange thing was he had cut the water off at the street, and anything in the pantry that had water in it was opened and emptied. Not a drop of liquid in that house,” he mused, stopping to drink from a glass of water during the press conference.
Copyright © Lawrence S. Marsden, 26 July, 2015