By the fifteenth month of the drought, the lake no longer held her secrets. But the lakebed was still damp and muddy, as much as the water level had receded, so she put on her galoshes, chained the tires of her grandad’s old truck and went out with a shovel, a hoe, and a length of tarp.
She should have known better, hoping her refuse would remain hidden in a pool of increasingly still and shallow water. The town had been running a water deficit for over a decade, with only intermittent showers to break the heat and return the dust to the ground. For the last fifteen months, though, the heat had been oppressive and the rain had simply refused to come.
People waited and waited and looked to the skies, then looked to their screens, then listened to the broadcasts from the national weather service, then studiously ignored the told-you-so chidings of Greenpeace and the EPA. Some people left. The ones who couldn’t afford to lingered. They kept themselves hydrated with milk or tepid Cokes. The condensation on the bottles and cans was the closest thing to humidity they had.
— — –
When Noel moved in with her grandad, she was sporting a baby bump and a split lip. A BA Art History graduate with nearly a hundred thousand dollars in debt, she’d been unemployed for over a year by then. Her ex-boyfriend had been a bartender, which seemed appealingly practical at first. He had a temper problem, Noel told her grandad. Really that wasn’t true. His anger was very controlled, predictable; it always helped him get his way. He had a temper asset, if anything.
— — –
The dryness had consumed everything. The wide, open exurb had shifted from a cheery, artificial-seeming forest green to a drab beige. The farmland to the east of her stopped selling lemons from their squat, twisting trees; the rows of almond and walnut, too, had gone brown and brittle. The waterpark closed and the zoo shipped its aquatic mammals away, to places like Florida and Louisiana, where water was plentiful.
A thin layer of dust coated all surfaces, danced in the winds that swept across town. Everyone’s lips became chapped. Bob Mackey made a quick mint selling lip balm made from bee wax and honey, but then all of his bees died, and he went bankrupt. Like everyone else who could manage, he took off for wetter places.
A few immigrant workers and former Los Angeles transplants wandered into town from time to time, spilling out of old vans and trucks required a human to drive. They hoped to find work, or a place to rent that had running water, but they knew better than to expect it. Still, it was better here on the plains than it was in LA. A few stayed, cleaning houses very efficiently with very little fluid, or watching the children of those who still had full-time, out-of-home jobs. Most continued east into Nebraska or Wisconsin, knowing there would be nothing, considering a journey north and into the Canadian snowmelt.
Everyone kept talking about Canada and Russia. They were still temperate, drowning in water, flush with oil. Soberer minds cautioned that it would not last. The changes would come and wreck them too. Already the deluge had impoverished and left homeless thousands of First Nations and Inuit people. Canada’s borders became less and less permeable, then closed up entirely after New York City was drowned. Still people in town lingered on hope. Lake Pillsbury drained lower and lower. And Noel’s pulse started to raise.
— — –
Noel was never sure if it was the split lip or the bump on her belly that clinched it. Her grandad put a caftan around her and pulled her into the house. He poured a glass of lemonade and sat on the ottoman, hands on knees, very concerned. He cleaned out the spare bedroom. Noel slept on a set of Winnie the Pooh sheets, staring out the high windows at the long stretch of grape plants. He made her sausage and eggs. He gave her money for student loan payments. No questions were asked.
— — –
Noel’s truck got stuck in a four-foot deep tract of mud after only ten minutes of driving, so she had to kill the engine and throw herself out. She pulled the shovel from the bed and went out, squinting against the sun. There was no shade to be had for miles. A box of water sloshed sadly inside the bag at her hip.
“Five fifty-three. It is now ninety eight degrees,” the watch on Noel’s wrist told her, and she slapped at it to shut it up.
— — –
Really, it wasn’t the boyfriend who caused the split lip, not directly. His only crime that last night was getting Noel drunk. She’d curled up on the floor heaving Jager onto the carpet and he’d stormed off in a fury. But it was the wall he’d punched, not her. The plaster didn’t even part. Noel rose and staggered over to stop him, to quiet the blows, then she fell and cut her face open.
It didn’t matter, though, that the bartender had never hit her. The way friends and bar patrons reacted told Noel he might as well have. They weren’t surprised. They didn’t care. And deep down, Noel was happy to finally have an out. He’d blacked out and couldn’t account for the spray of black Jager on the floor or the blood on Noel’s face or the pain in his hand. When she left, he was too ashamed to be menacing. Leaving felt like a gust of cool air.
— — –
The metal backside of the watch was hot against her skin. She should have taken it off sooner, left it behind in the cool basement of her grandad’s house where she slept and recorded herself reading audiocast advertisements. It wasn’t a lucrative line of work but it kept her solvent, a thing very few people in California could say anymore.
The sun glinted off a white metal post about two hundred yards away. Something low in Noel’s intestines gurgled. She took a fortifying sip of warm water and kept walking towards it.
“Your body temperature is rising and your heart rate is elevated,” the watch intoned. “Continue task?”
“Ignore,” Noel said, her jaw tight. She pulled her right foot from the muck. It was thick, barely wet, cement-like with a heavy crust of dirt on top. Moving across the lakebed was like stomping through four feet of tightly packed snow that had partially melted and then refrozen.
Snow. Noel tried to think about the sensation of it, as hot sweat coursed from her temples and bled salty rivulets into her ears. The music playing from her buds became murky. She jammed a dusty finger in the canal to slosh some of the sweat out, but the filth just mingled with the wetness and made a muddy grout deep in her ear.
The music thrummed softly. She would have to extract the buds and clean them with rubbing alcohol later. You were supposed to get a nurse practitioner or an Apple genius to do that for you, but Noel had learned how to pull the buds from her head without causing damage. She’d done it for her grandad dozens of times, before he died.
— — –
Noel’s grandad asked nothing of her. No help with the vineyard, no explanation, no accounting for the six years she’d been incommunicado. He offered all he could. Sometimes Noel would eat toast and avocado ($5.99 each!) and stare at nothing and feel very guilty, knowing her grandad had imagined untold traumas in her backstory, and was trying to set them right.
— — –
Noel looked back at the truck and saw the sun glinting off its windshield. In the distance, the Reyes’ McMansion loomed. There was a rusted-out Roomba lawn mower moldering away in their back yard. The sod had been replaced haphazardly with rocks and driftwood pulled from the lake. There was a dingy Bing smartcar in the drive, too hot to safely enter. When they overheated, the consoles of Bing smartcars went haywire, and deposited you in the wrong places. You’d ask for a ride to the grocery and wind up at the dump. So the Reyes family was relatively homebound.
Inside the house, Mrs. Reyes was probably fanning herself and watching a reality show on Telemundo’s holo channel. Noel sometimes visited them to drop off boxes of water or a spare canister of dry shampoo. Mrs. Reyes would clutch Noel on the arm and beg her to sit down, watch her stories with her. And while Noel’s Spanish was awful, she didn’t have the heart to cop to it.
The Reyes’ had known her family for decades. It wouldn’t make sense to them that Noel didn’t speak the language. What kind of Albarracín was she, to not speak Spanish? Hell, what kind of American, at this point? A shitty one. So Noel sat on the couch and watched the holonovellas and kept her mouth shut. Now, she looked off at their house in the middle distance and walked backward, deeper into the bed of Pillsbury, hoping that her regular visits had bought the Reyes’ loyalty, and that this time, they would be the ones to keep their mouths shut.
“The temperature is at its peak,” the watch told her. “Would you like to water the grapes?”
“What, no, cancel, cancel.” Noel pressed a button on the watch’s side and reviewed its holographic map of her grandad’s vineyard. The watch still thought there were acres upon acres of red grapes to be maintained, harvesting to do, wine to make. “Cancel this event and all future events,” Noel sputtered.
“Canceling scheduled watering.” the hologram dropped out, her grandad’s miniature fields turned to dust before her eyes.
Noel turned and kept walking towards the spire. The ground was getting murkier, not harder, indicating that she was headed deep into the bottom of the lake. The Reyes’ house shrunk behind her, and then her car became tiny in the distance. The shovel slapped against Noel’s outer thigh. Her forearm was aching from the weight of it. She shifted the instrument and kept plodding along.
The spire was coming into focus now, white chipped paint with a little green cap on the top. As she drew closer, Noel realized there were two poles, not one, but that the second was shorter, and bent. She could detect a bit of the white metal gate if she squinted. Maybe a flash of the bright green plastic below.
— — –
She still remembered the day he gave it to her. She’d been in her room sipping mouthwash and trying to blot out the sun by handing dark clothing over the curtain rods. Then he barged in, sweat dappling his brow, success on his face. He led her outside by the hand.
— — –
The spire had first presented itself six months ago. Noel had gone to the lake with a bucket and a pair of coveralls, hoping to steal some water to pour on her grandad’s flowers. The forget-me-nots brought a pop of color and a sweet fragrance to his hospice room, but the staff would not water them. Noel thought if she could pilfer just sixteen or twenty ounces from the lake, the flowers would last until grandpa was dead. And that would be a kindness, her last, best gift to him.
But when she arrived Lake Pillsbury was less a body of water and more of a husked-out corpse. She could spy a slight glimmer of stagnant fluid in the distance, but it would take the better part of an hour to cross. The bucket hung at Noel’s side as she stared out on the landscape, a flat palm blocking out the sun.
Then she saw it, barely rising above the shallow water. A metal post parting the flat expanse. White with a green rubber tip. And Noel doubled over, tormented by a seizing pain deep in her colon. She ran back across the muck and to the Reyes’ house, where all the poison sprayed out of her and into the guest bathroom’s pale pink toilet. Noel vowed never to return to the lake again. But then the drought had continued. And now, unearthing the spire was necessary.
As Noel approached the metal poles, the mud rose up past her galoshes, coating the knees and lower thighs of her jeans in dark grime. It was oddly cool, and Noel found herself thinking of elephants bathing in mud, slapping flies away with their ropey tails. Of course, there weren’t any wild elephants alive anymore. But she’d seen the documentaries. Read the National Geographics piled in the basement of her grandad’s house.
“You are approaching dehydration,” said the watch.
Noel pulled out her box of water, let a thin stream slide down her throat. It was hot. The UV resistant coating of the box had been worn down from weeks of reuse.
“Ten ounces remaining,” the watch told her.
Noel kept pulling through the mud. It went past her thighs to her hips, from her hips to her waist. Mud was spilling into the gaps between her shirt buttons when her watch began to buzz with a phone call.
“Antonia calling, Antonia calling, Antonia call–”
Noel’s aunt’s voice came in, marred with white noise. “Noel, honey, are you there? I can’t see you.”
The wind swept over the microphone.
“What is that sound? Sweetie are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Aunt Toni,” Noel muttered, pressing the watch’s mic to her mouth. “I’m just out…checking on the grapes.”
“Oh honey, forget them. They’re past dormant by now. Let the prairie dogs do what they will with them.”
Noel didn’t answer. The spire was twenty feet ahead of her now, looming above her, jutting from the muddy ground.
“Honey,” Aunt Toni said. “You don’t have to feel responsible. When things shape up, you and I will clear the brush and sell the land, okay? My ex-husband will help us find a developer. Put some condos there. It doesn’t matter what you do, it won’t ever be vineyard land again. Just let it be.”
Noel pulled the watch away. She downed more water. She was breathing heavily.
“Eight ounces remaining.”
“Listen, Tía Ti, I’ve got to go.”
“Honey. Please tell me you’ll get inside and cool yourself down. My monitor says you’re about to have a heat stroke.”
Noel touched her watch, and swiped to look at the biofeedback display. She shared her bio statistics with her aunt, and her aunt did the same. It was standard these days; a good way to circumvent an emergency. “It doesn’t say I’m about to have a heatstroke, Ti. I’m not that bad yet.”
Her Aunt sighed and licked her teeth. “Please. Take care of yourself. I’ll see you soon, okay? Will you holo me later?”
“Yeah, I promise. Bye.”
Noel stripped the watch from her wrist and threw it to the ground.
“Bio stats connection lost,” it complained.
“Good,” Noel said. She pushed forward. Reached out. Touched the metal pole.
Noel was hurling mud over her shoulder with the shovel. Sweat soaked through her shirt and bra. Her hair was completely damp. The shovel hit metal. She spread through the muck with her fingers and revealed a rounded handle.
She scraped away at the mud. Her skin could not breathe in the heat and the mess. She glugged water and ignored the quiet, far-away fretting of her watch. Her arms seared with muscle exhaustion. She struck plastic. Noel dropped to her knees and began scraping like a burrowing, frantic animal.
— — –
Noel remembered that when she first saw the slide, her grandad beamed and stood beside it, hands on his hips. She had to rush out and touch it, and thank him, and tell fantastical stories of how much her daughter would love it, how many lovely summer days they’d spend there.
Daughter. Her grandad teared up at that detail. Where had that come from? Noel didn’t even know its sex.
— — –
The green plastic revealed itself now, smooth and cool and uncracked. A little sob escaped Noel’s mouth. She felt an almost unbearable cramping in her bowels. Her palm pressed against the surface of the slide and seemed to radiate regret.
— — –
That evening was the first of many 100 degree nights to come. All across the West, a change was coming, and the doom could no longer be denied. The plants were losing color. So was Noel’s grandad. Noel downed a bottle of sherry and took one of her grandad’s old pain pills and went down to the basement with an armful of pillows to sleep on. All night the ground spun and she fought cramps and heaves. When she woke up, her thighs were covered in blood. Her grandad found her like that, passed out, vomit crusting her lips, no longer pregnant. She never slept in the guest room again, only below ground.
After the miscarriage, they threw the slide into the truck, drove out as far into the water as they could, and deposited it into the depths. Her grandad’s cancer appeared soon after. It was as if the fetus once growing in Noel’s stomach had been transformed into a malformed mass of cells and deposited in her grandad’s bowels instead.
Suddenly, and without discussion, the story of Noel’s visit was changed. No longer was she a feckless, abused single mother being cared for by her aging grandfather. Instead she was the quiet, doting granddaughter, caring for her dying grandparent while the world burned up. No one asked about her past. No one but Noel, her grandad, and the deliveryman from Sears had seen the swing set.
— — –
Noel sat on the edge of the slide, deliriously tired, licking the final dregs of water from the box. Mud was spread all around her. Lumps of it clung to her arms and torso and hair and dried on her skin. The sun was slowly falling but the temperature had not yet broke. Her stomach seized in pain. Shit and water flowed out of her, dirtying her jeans from the inside. Not that anyone would be able to tell. The stink of heat and swear and decayed fish would certainly cover the shit smell up.
Noel leaned back and looked at the sky. It was a wide, clear blue bowl placed atop her, keeping her and everyone else contained, keeping possibilities restricted. The earth was a closed system. Nothing could be created or revolutionarily changed, not really; goods could only be found, and drained of value, and then deposited, laying scattered until someone more desperate found them and squeezed them tighter, hoping for more.
She closed her eyes.
Her watch chirped quietly from several feet away. “Out of water! Call for assistance? Out of water! Call for assistance?”
Noel parted her lips. A crack of dry skin opened up and bled slightly. She tongued the blood.
— — –
The first line of this story was provided as a prompt by the First Line Linterary Journal
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.