Other than the soft rustling of a passing tumbleweed, the desert was silent. Winston peered behind the window curtain of his temporary rental home, where the full moon’s illumination was so powerful he could see each individual needle on the cacti scattered across the landscape. He sighed and closed the curtain.
Inside, the minute hand of his travel clock clicked to midnight, ushering in February 10th, 2013. Twenty days down, only ten to go. He reached for a pencil laying on top of a nearby pad of paper, marking a tally for another day gone by. Soon he could return home to Massachusetts.
Months ago, he took a trip outside his gated community by the sea to stroll the slovenly streets of a New England ghetto. His wealthy Boston friends had agreed to finance his dream of gentrifying this corner of the neighborhood he found so distasteful. Winston’s real estate acumen would help flip the aging homes into trendy shops and the ratty basketball court into a spacious mall parking lot. A capital investment.
“Excuse me,” called a voice from behind him. Winston had turned to find an older woman, hunched over, clutching an orthopedic cane as she eyed him head to toe. “I’ve seen you here before. With the construction crews.”
Winston puffed out his chest. “Why, yes mam I am! I’m saving this neighborhood from itself. See there,” he pointed to a pile of bricks that was once a community shelter before being bulldozed into oblivion. “That’s going to make a fine hot yoga studio. Next door to that we’re building a fantastic gastropub.” He grinned.
The woman’s face fell, crestfallen. “You’re responsible for all this?”
“You’re welcome,” Winston replied. He watched the woman’s morose expression twist into anger. “You’re destroying our home,” she said, her voice cracking as she uttered ‘home’. “This is all we’ve ever known. People in this neighborhood can’t afford to move.” She shut her eyes and whispered, “Why are you doing this?”
Upon realizing the stranger would not sing him praises, Winston turned his back on her. “You’ll be fine. Just pull yourself up from your bootstraps.” He sauntered away from the stranger, who he suspected might be mad.
She followed him. “There are other people,” she said, “who don’t want what you want. Who have a different life than you. You’re erasing an entire community.”
Winston huffed. “Trust me, it’s for the best.”
As Winston walked away, the distant sound of waves hitting the beach was hushed. Seagull cries ceased. Even the sound of his own breath was snuffed out. For a moment, Winston feared he had spontaneously become deaf. He stopped, pressed his hands against his ears and turned, reeling in a panic until he locked eyes with the old woman.
Her expression was blank and serene. Her lips were shut, yet Winston heard her voice. “By the time of your zodiac, you will die. By the nature of your zodiac, you will die.”
Winston blinked and found himself standing outside his home. The sun had shifted positions in the sky, and suddenly the morning was afternoon. Where he had been for the unaccounted hours, he would never know. Shaken, he wiped sweat from his brow, stumbled inside his stately domicile and locked the doors.
Death by his zodiac. By the nature of his zodiac. Winston knew he was an Aquarius, though he never placed much importance in the silly symbols found in the stars. He looked up Aquarius online and found—other than references to a bohemian musical he thought repulsive—the zodiac’s symbol of two zig-zagging waves, along with a man carrying a container of water on his back.
So, he thought to himself, I would die by water.
This strange encounter with the woman would likely be forgotten by Winston if not for the unseasonal flooding that began the next day. Confounding climate experts, the edge of the ocean crept closer to his once relaxing beach home. With each rising tide and every wave washing closer, Winston wondered, privately, to himself if the old woman’s words had been a curse.
Fear of water consumed him. As the dreaded start date of Aquarius in late January approached, he could no longer deny the woman’s words had a hold on him. He decided to rent a home in a desert, smack in the middle of one of those God-forsaken landlocked states, a suitable location to avoid drowning.
This was where he remained, renting a ranch style, one-story house in the desert, forgoing showers other than once a week, and consuming only enough water necessary to ward off thirst. The residence wasn’t bad, though the furnishings were dated. He occupied his time by utilizing a living room bookshelf that was filled with both paperback schlock and hardcover classics alike. The bottom row was designated to travel books.
Too anxious to sleep that midnight, February 10th, he closed his eyes and selected a travel book at random. His finger landed on a thick spine, and when he opened his eyes, he faced the book’s title: CHINA. Winston shrugged and pulled out the book, sat on the couch, and admired a photograph of the Great Wall on the first page.
Winston froze. He gripped the book, wrinkling a glossy page corner.
Winston arched his back, feeling his beating heart rise up into his throat. He peered around the corner, down the dark, unlit hallway.
The noise was coming from the bathroom. He set the book aside, and tiptoed down the hall. His mind buzzed with images of burst pipes and gushing water, flooding the house, leaving him to drown in a torrent of tap water. He pressed the bathroom door open. There, to his left, was a faucet, where a single, round drop fell down into the sink’s basin.
Winston twisted the faucet handles. The dripping stopped. He chuckled. He was being ridiculous, now that he thought back to the nightmarish scenarios he had imagined seconds ago. Come to think of it, this whole excursion of hiding from water was just plain idiotic. He gave a hearty laugh, and returned to the couch. He leaned back against the cushions and continued to peruse pictures of China.
The Great Wall. The Hong Kong skyline. Rice fields near Tibet. Winston found himself getting sleepy from the bucolic images of the nation’s landscapes. He flipped to the next page, which showed a throng of people beneath paper lanterns during a nighttime celebration. Mâché masks of some snaggletooth monster were peppered within the crowd. Firework blasts lit the sky.
Winston read the photo’s caption:
Lunar New Year, 1988. New Year begins based on the lunisolar calendar, starting sometime between late January to mid-February. Every year is associated with an animal based on the rotating Chinese zodiac. In the picture above, citizens celebrate that year’s zodiac, The Year of the Dragon.
Winston pressed his hand to his chest. “Another zodiac,” he whispered to himself. “The Chinese zodiac.”
Again, he heard dripping from the bathroom. Winston stood, the book falling to the floor. He poked his head around the corner, facing the hallway once again.
“I was born in 1977. That was the year of…” Winston took a step closer. His mind now pictured dragons, ox, rabid dogs and other beasts hiding in the house. “What is my Chinese zodiac? I think I knew it once…” He whispered, reaching the bathroom. He turned on the light, and faced the sink.
No water fell from the faucet. He looked over to the bathtub, the shower curtain fully closed.
The noise was coming from behind the curtain, in the tub.
Winston walked over, lifted his hand, and slowly pulled back the curtain. He held his breath and tensed his shoulders, all the while his mind preoccupied with trying to remember his Chinese zodiac sign.
He slid the curtain as quietly as he could, revealing the source of the dripping at the bottom of the tub. A snake. Desert cobra to be exact, clutching a dead mouse in its jaws. The mouse’s fur was fuzzy and red, blood dripping from its belly.
The cobra turned to Winston, dropped the mouse, and sprung towards its new prey.
Logan McConnell is a health care worker, lifelong reader and new to writing fiction. His work is published or upcoming in Diet Milk Magazine, Dark Recesses Press, The Crow’s Quill, Lovecraftiana, The Dark Sire, and the webzines Schlock! and Yellow Mama. He is influenced by the works of Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson and Thomas Ligotti. You can find him on Twitter @LMwriter91. He lives with his boyfriend in Tennessee.