The woman wiped her forehead with an already-damp sleeve and lifted the container to her lips. Her fingers fumbled with the metal spout, slipping across the slick surface and leaving tiny beads of water in their wake. Cumbersome to open, but one of only three possessions she took with her when she left: a cell phone, a bottle of whiskey, and a box of salt. The whiskey, of course, was for the mountain; the phone and salt were for the journey.
She studied the little girl with the umbrella on the box, yellow dress dancing in the rain, and wondered if she preferred to be wet—if she was happier that way. The umbrella wasn’t actually covering her, after all. Lazily tipped halfway back on her shoulder, as if she wanted to get soaked to prove how good the salt could be.
“Fucking delicious,” she said, pouring a stream of coarse granules onto her tongue. “I’m Nadine Caldecott, and I approved this message.”
Beside her, Bowie cocked his head and whined.
They had been on the road for two days. They still had a solid day’s climb ahead of them if the weather stayed fair—and her muscles didn’t give out before then—but other than his lolling black tongue, Bowie looked like he could run a marathon.
He was fed. He was happy, and most of all, he was dry.
Nadine cupped her free hand and let Bowie lap up the pool that filled her palm. “Lucky,” she said. What she wouldn’t give to gulp from a glass of cold water—to feel the cool liquid rush through her, ice cubes clinking against her teeth.
One swallow would take an hour off her ticking timeclock. Maybe two.
“You’re gonna need to fend for yourself soon, buddy. You know that, don’t you?”
Bowie wagged his tail.
“That’s what I thought.” She sighed and put her bag on the ground, zipping the box inside before the cardboard had a chance to absorb any more moisture. She stroked his head until the black fur matted together. No escaping the wet-dog smell, but it was worth it for the companionship.
When he finished, Nadine rubbed her hand on her yoga pants, out of habit more than any real expectation of drying off, and removed the phone from the front pocket. She’d need it for the rest of her trek. A distraction from, well, everything.
A puddle slowly formed beneath her feet, running down her legs like dawn dew drops gathering on blades of grass. A faucet. Drip. Drip. Drip.
Salt didn’t stop the flow entirely, but it slowed the speed in which the water seeped from her pores. Seven days, they had warned on the news. Seven days was the longest anyone had survived from contraction to total dehydration. No one knew why. Anyone who might’ve been able to find the answer was gone.
“Liquefied,” she said, trudging up the street, but that wasn’t exactly right. They didn’t melt. Their skin didn’t dissolve; they didn’t ooze into corporeal mud.
They leaked—she was leaking—and she would continue to do so until she was empty.
Just like everyone else.
“Turns out, water doesn’t discriminate, Bowie, did you know that?” No answer from her trusty four-legged friend. Science, medicine, faith, useless. It didn’t matter who you knew or where you lived. Money couldn’t save you from leaking; it merely drowned and ripped to pieces.
Nadine hadn’t seen another living person in days, the irony of which wasn’t lost on her. How Justin had always made fun of her for not drinking enough water throughout the day.
“I have a headache,” she’d say. Or, “Wow, I am parched.”
“A mystery.” Her husband would chuckle and pour a cup from the Brita. “Ten cups of coffee and not a single sip of water. I can’t think of a reason why.”
Justin had been good like that, with his casual, often sarcastic, reminders to take care of herself without being condescending. And he had been a hydrator, although she hadn’t thought of him that way before humanity lost control. A hydrator. Like he was some sort of superhero for drinking the recommended half gallon daily allotment. Making healthy choices and encouraging her to do the same, much to the detriment of her caffeine fix.
Yet in spite of his diligence and wisdom, he was gone, and Nadine remained.
Bowie dodged forward, chasing a squirrel up a knotted oak tree. Oblivious to the rotting bodies slumped over each other along the curb. Or perhaps purposely ignoring them. He’d given up on investigating the strange blobs shortly after they set out for the mountain. They shriveled beyond recognition soon after their demise, and a thick waxy sheen coated their bodies.
Unwashed raisins. That’s what they reminded her of.
“That’ll be me, Bowie,” Nadine said, nodding at a prunish corpse. “Wrinkled and forgotten.” Nadine fumbled her words, the last syllable choked out with the threat of tears. Crying made her pores drain faster. She learned that the hard way.
That’s not true, her subconscious whispered. Nobody’s left to forget.
The irony of that wasn’t lost on her either.
The videos and digital albums she had posted on Facebook and Instagram. The photobooks she printed and lined sequentially on the bookshelf. Years of special events and firsts, candid moments and staged shoots. All to preserve their memories, and now there was no one left to remember.
“Shit.” She inhaled, exhaled. Loneliness, desperation. Drip. Drip. Each dribble a minute less she had to reach her goal. “Bowie,” Nadine gasped. “Promise you won’t forget me? Can you do that, boy?”
He pawed at the trunk and barked, looking back at her expectantly. Animals were immune, apparently, excluded from this watery fate. None had exhibited any of the symptoms of dehydration, at least according to the news updates she watched before the networks and internet went dark. Bowie’s primary objective centered on eating copious amounts of beef jerky scavenged from the market and protecting her from evil squirrels.
“Good boy. Come on. We gotta keep moving if we’re gonna make it to Thacher by nightfall.”
Her sneakers squelched with every step now, rubbing uncomfortably on her raw ankles. The blisters had been enormous, erupting after a mile and popping quickly no matter what she did. Band-Aids didn’t stick. Gauze absorbed the pinkish, bloody water then inevitably rolled up her shins. Nadine settled for Justin’s moisture-wicking socks, the expensive ones he used during his annual camping trips with his high school friends. These were a little better but not a perfect remedy.
There didn’t seem to be a decent solution for combatting the constant wetness.
Just a little further, she told herself. Don’t give up.
She could’ve driven. The backroads were mostly clear, and it would’ve shaved days off the trip. But Nadine’s gut told her taking the car was wrong. Too noisy. Disrespectful to disturb the peace that had settled over the land.
Her own laughter surprised her. World peace had finally been achieved. All it took was a massive biological revolt.
She wouldn’t be the one to ruin it.
And who’d want to spend their final moments alone in a family car, anyway? Thighs sticking to the seat. Enclosed with the smell—a hint of chlorine and sickly-sweet peaches. Death would claim her before the week’s end. Nadine had no desire to smell her own mortality any more than she had to.
Most of all, though, Nadine knew driving would be too dangerous. What if her joints stopped working mid-turn? Ran out of lubricant and locked in place? The roads to Thacher Mountain were winding and narrow. If her body decided to stop transmitting neurons while she was navigating the curves, she’d launch straight off a cliff. Smash into the rocky escarpment and burst into flames.
Would she catch fire in such a wet state?
Irrelevant. She would never make it if that happened—a risk she refused to take.
Walking gave her a chance. She might die before she reached the Overlook, especially with an exhaustive uphill hike ahead, but at least she hadn’t opted for the easy way out. She wouldn’t quit.
Justin deserved better. Mason deserved better.
“No,” Nadine said, shutting her eyes. “I will not think about them. Not yet.”
Her thoughts threatened to revolt, drawing forth images of belly floats and strawberry kisses and hot, sunny days playing on a beach.
Nausea rolled through her stomach like a carnival ride.
“No.” Puking would be devastating, a guaranteed monsoon. Valuable water she couldn’t afford to lose. She swallowed the lump in her throat and concentrated on her breathing. Slow, steady.
Music. Music would help, she thought.
Nadine powered up her phone, holding it away from her to avoid the brunt of the accumulating drops, and tapped the music app.
“Tunes, Bowie?” she asked. He huffed and snorted at a patch of weeds. Not terribly overgrown, not yet. Houses were sporadic in this section of the city, more farmland than suburb, and the majority of the lawns looked like they might’ve been cut yesterday.
Maybe some of them had been. People did crazy things when they lost control of their cognitive processes. Nadine wouldn’t choose to use her last day mowing the grass, but she could see the appeal, where it might have brought joy to someone. A normal task, a normal solitude. Easy to pretend nothing had changed.
Isn’t that why she wanted to make it to Thacher?
Yes, Nadine thought. Their happiness thrived not in special occasions—those were the exceptions—but in the mundane moments, the in-betweens. What could make her feel more alive than honoring their routine?
She loaded her playlist, simply titled THE END, a collection of her favorite songs (and a few meant to poke fun at her unfortunate circumstance). TLC’s Waterfalls. Rhianna’s Umbrella (the mash-up version with Singing in the Rain), and the ever-classic boy-band bop, Bye Bye Bye.
Nadine hit shuffle and smiled at the familiar piano chords opening her favorite rendition of Hallelujah.
“You don’t really care for music, do ya, boy?” she sang at Bowie, lifting the hem of her shirt to wipe her face. Dots of water prickled her cheeks and forehead immediately, but for a split second, Nadine could almost believe in the myth of dryness.
As the hill inclined, the stitch in her side became more of a knife and her head buzzed fiercely. Relentlessly. Justin had complained about the buzzing, too. How fuzzy his thoughts felt, spiders crawling in his veins, decaying as they formed.
Could a living brain grow moldy from too much moisture?
“Curds and whey,” she crooned. “Just curds and whey and spiders.”
Mason had loved the Miss Moffett. Sang it every night when Nadine tucked him in with sweet dreams and soft pillows.
I don’t feel good, Mommy. My belly feels weird.
“Stop. Please,” she begged her memories. Not yet.
They didn’t disappear, but faded into the background. Vultures lurking, biding their time.
Less than ideal, but it was better than Mason’s voice cutting to the surface and the gutting ache that accompanied it.
An hour later, with only a few miles to go, Bowie stopped for another water break, this time from a creek rolling gracefully downhill. She glared at him, casually lapping at the cool stream, sloppy strands hanging from his mouth as he bowed his head again.
Anger hit her square in the chest, pummeling her patience, and Nadine indulged in its force. “Not done, your majesty? Feeling a bit parched from our trip? By all means,” she motioned at the creek, droplets flying from her hand, “chug to your heart’s content.”
Bowie kept drinking, unimpeded by her outburst, which only succeeded in enraging her more.
“It’s not fair.” Nadine kicked at a rock and cursed when she swayed off-balance. Her right knee popped, a hard, painful crack that warned of breakdown. “Damn it,” she shouted, finding her footing. “Damn it! Why should you get to drink, huh? Last time I checked, dogs are made of water, too. Everybody else on the planet has to suffer?” Kick. “Why do you get to live and they don’t? What makes you so special?” Kick.
The stone, round and smooth, ideal for skipping across lakes and childhood art projects in last week’s world, caught more air than Nadine expected. It smacked into one of the dense tree trunks lining the creek and ricocheted off, knocking Bowie on the snout with a resounding thwack.
He yelped and tossed his head in from side to side in awkward, stunned angles before burying his injury in his paws.
“Shit, Bowie, I’m sorry!” Nadine took a step towards him, and her ankle cracked and collapsed under her weight. She fell hard, shrieking as a flare of agony blazed through her hips.
I can burn, she thought, then lost whatever would’ve come next as the buzzing in her brain mutated. A shrill ringing, veiling her mind with a string of incoherent demands.
Pick up the lizards. Don’t trample the horses. Plant the coconut flowers.
Nothing and everything made sense. Her thoughts scrambled effortlessly without a buoy. Her de-hydration edged closer to completion.
Bowie nuzzled against her with a whimper, leaving a splatter of blood on her arm that promptly washed away.
“I’m raining,” she said, grimacing at the tingling sensation. It spewed faster, no longer confined to her pores. It trickled from her ears and nose, sending a series of phlegmy coughs rattling in her lungs.
“Pouring, sorry. No snoring.” She grunted and rubbed the spot between Bowie’s ears that he preferred and examined his wound. The rock had scraped a chunk of fur away, but he would heal.
More than Nadine could say for herself.
“Showers,” she moaned. “Showers, too many showers.”
The soft earth beneath her muddied. She spun to her stomach, covered in dark grit, hoping that with a better position, she’d be able to stand up—or at the very least, organize her wandering thought strands.
“On three, Bailey.”
“Right. One, two—” Nadine braced her hands and tucked her knees into a modified push-up position. “Working,” she said. The buzzing subsided, and the terrifying certainty of how close she came to losing her mind muffled in her excitement. “We’re gonna make it.”
She didn’t realize she was falling again until the instant before she hit the mud, a fact she chalked up to her failing mental capabilities. Her knee and ankle chastised her decision, refusing to bend or support her efforts. Her chin trembled as she accepted the definitive conclusion.
The water on her lips mixed with sweat and mud in muted salty bursts. Murky. Like the futility of her situation. This had to be what a swamp monster felt like. Plastered in muck. Warm from the vigorous activity of swimming to the surface, trying to trade in his proverbial sea legs for a pair of land-walkers.
By tonight, however, Nadine suspected the deep cold would set in, burrowing to her bones to nest and grow. Fever from infection—who knew what germs were thriving in the filth that dug through the socks and caked her ankle sores—or hypothermia.
Or whatever life-sustaining organ system decided to quit first. Her lungs, Nadine guessed, clogged or fluid-filled suffocation, but it could be any of them. When had she last peed? Had she eaten anything?
“Salt,” she laughed. “The finest meal of organic salt, with a side of salt and dirt.” Bowie cuddled up to her, tail relaxed and floppy ears. “I’m sorry to say I don’t think we’re making it to Thacher, buddy. Close enough will have to do.” She sighed. “Time to bust out the good stuff.”
Sprawled on her stomach? No. She couldn’t make it to the Overlook, but she could make a proper seat. Appreciate the serenity and the shade.
Nadine exhaled, preparing for the pain. “To the tree,” she said. “Get to the tree, get a drink. Get to the tree, get a drink.” Simple. Five feet, maybe six. She was strong enough to do this.
Water gushed down her forehead, blurring her vision. But she didn’t need to see the path; she knew how far she needed to go. Clawing into the dirt, Nadine dragged herself forward. One inch. Two. Good. Her nerves screamed for her to stop, but she sneered, grunted, roared. And stretched for another handful.
Sharp pebbles tore at her skin, but if she bled, she couldn’t tell. Everything leaked, what difference did it make if it was blood or water?
Bowie army-crawled next to her, matching her stride and barking when she rested a little too long for his liking. “Thanks, boy. I’m okay.”
It seemed like hours had passed, and as much as she fought against the despair, Nadine felt it creeping into her heart. Fluid throbbed against her eardrums in rhythmic pumps, worsened by a hacking cough that resulted whenever she inhaled too deeply. Her left elbow locked, jerking with every clench.
Doubt flitted at her resolve with every excruciating pull.
Until she felt the rough bark on her palms and knew she’d reached the tree.
“We made it,” she gurgled. “We’re here, Bowie. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Exhausted and soaked, she pulled off her bag, released the zipper, and removed the whiskey.
This was for Justin. He loved whiskey, drank a tumbler every Friday night, but they’d never been able to afford more than a bottle of Johnnie Walker. When everyone started dying, however, they looted the closest liquor store to their house and came away victorious. Macallan Sherry Oak 25 Single Malt Scotch, the label read, worth almost two thousand dollars before that became an arbitrary number.
Nadine twisted the top and cringed at the way the skin on her palm wrinkled in loose ribbons, like brownie batter pouring into a pan. “I love you,” she whispered, and drank. The first swallow burned her throat; the second soothed her soul.
The third made her remember.
The cell phone. She’d lost it in the fall. She could barely see her toes, and trying to crawl back to the mud and scrounge around blindly was out of the question.
She’d have no photo with her when the end arrived.
And that made her cry. She let the tears come, trying to imagine the picture she would’ve propped against their favorite boulder at the Overlook. Not the highest point in the park, but the view of the city surpassed any other. For miles, nothing but cotton clouds and forests of gold and green, Lego cities, and mountains as blue as crystals undulating along the horizon.
They had gone often, her, Justin, and Mason. Her loving husband and adventurous son.
Six year olds were highly vulnerable to dehydration. Babies and young children, as a matter of science, were comprised of a higher percentage of water compared to adults. He’d been counting cars, lining them up for races—the same as he’d done any other afternoon—when he felt his stomach turn. The bubbles, he called it.
Nadine had buried him three days later. Justin followed within a week.
Nature’s cruelty wasn’t in its rebellion, but in its execution. Forcing her to endure both the tragedy of losing her family, powerless to stop it, and leaving her as the sole survivor, temporary, but with no reprieve from her own expiration.
Nadine had chosen the picture not because her makeup looked nice (which it did) or because Justin actually used his real smile instead of his overly-practiced professional grin (which he also did). She chose it because of Mason, his beautiful auburn curls on fire in the last sunset they’d seen as a family at the Overlook.
Not a significant outing, just one of many little moments that defined who they were together.
She sipped the whiskey and closed her eyes. “Maybe there’s another dimension, Bowie, some cosmic warp that took everyone before we could destroy each other. A place like this where they’re waiting for me.”
Bowie yawned and plopped his head into her lap.
Nadine coughed and smiled weakly, the muscles in her face twitching from the effort, and rested her hand in his fur.
The water trickled on.
Amanda McHugh’s work has appeared in various anthologies and literary magazines, most recently The NoSleep Podcast (12×18) and the Halloween anthology from Castabout Literature. My debut novel is forthcoming from Magnolia Press in Winter 2019. When I’m not working on my next MS, I drink all the iced coffee, knock titles off my TBR, and plan adventures for my family.