Not a Drop to Drink


Mindy McGinnis


Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond, the sweet smell of water luring the man to be picked off like the barn swallows that dared to swoop in for a drink. Mother had killed the people who came too close to their pond before, but over the next seven years they fell by Lynn’s gun as well, their existence easily wiped out first by a bullet, then by the coyotes before the sun could rise. Death and gunpowder were scents from her childhood, but today the fall breeze brought something less familiar to her rooftop perch, and her nose wrinkled.

“What is that?” Lynn asked, nerves pricking. “Smells like smoke, but there’s something wrong with it.”

Mother jerked her head toward the binoculars lying beside her. “East.”

Lynn picked up the binoculars to see a thin line of white smoke rising above the trees there, barely visible in the gray evening sky.

“They’re burning green wood. That’s why it smells funny. Doesn’t make much heat, just a smoky mess.” Mother kicked at an errant pinecone on the roof, sending it plummeting to the ground below. “I don’t think they know a lot about being outside.” She shaded her eyes against the last red rays of the sun. “They’re also burning at all times of the day, not just when they’d need it for cooking, which to me says they’re keeping somebody warm that can’t take it—somebody sick maybe, or could possibly be children in the group.”

“Looks like they’re down by the stream,” Lynn said. “Shouldn’t be a bother to us. They have their own water.”

“Until the stream dries up, like it always does in the summer. Then they might take an interest.”

“Dries up,” Lynn agreed, “or washes them away in spring like it did that last poor cow that was wandering around.”

The firm line of Mother’s mouth went even thinner. “Can’t count on that stream. There’s a reason why nobody’s set up there permanently. Doesn’t look like these people know the ground from the sky. I doubt there’s a hunter among them.” She trailed off, watching as the white smoke dissipated. “I’d give them three snows. Then we’ll see no more smoke from the east.”

Lynn let the binoculars hang from her neck. “That the same fire you’ve been seeing?”

Mother shook her head and pointed due south, where no smoke rose above the treetops, no birds raised an alarm.

“I see nothing.”

“Exactly,” Mother said. “There’s been smoke to the south consistently in the evenings and the mornings. Yesterday it was gone. Today, nothing.”

“So they broke camp, left.”

“There’s no reason. They’re set up at a tiny town called South Bloomfield. It’s at the bend in the stream, plenty of water, plenty of woods for cutting. It’s a good location,” Mother admitted. “It’s where I’d be, if I weren’t here.”

She fell quiet and stretched into the prone position, raising her rifle to watch the world through the scope. Lynn sat silently beside her, waiting for whatever explanation would come.

“Past three times you went for water in the evenings, you notice anything?”

Lynn shook her head.

“You know the momma raccoon? The big one that cuts through the field behind the house every night?”

Lynn nodded. The raccoon was hard to miss, her hunched back rising high enough to be seen above the grass that grew in the abandoned fields surrounding the house. “Yeah, what about her?”

“She hasn’t been going out. Doesn’t want to cross the field.”

Lynn felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise, a primordial response to danger that she had learned to never ignore. “You think they’re watching us? You think they got someone in the fencerow?”

“I think maybe. And whoever they are, they stopped building fires because they want us to think they’re gone. Without fire, they’re not eating much of a supper. People won’t go long without a hot supper if they don’t have to. They’ll be coming soon.”

“Coming for us?”

“For everything.”

Lynn pulled her own rifle into her lap, the cold metal bringing more comfort to her than Mother’s touch ever could. Her finger curled around the trigger, hugging it tight in the life-taking embrace that she’d learned so long ago. She slipped onto her belly beside Mother, watching the sunlight bounce off the twin barrels of their rifles. Waiting was always the worst part, the crack of the rifle a relief.

Years before, Mother had shown her pictures of the thirsty dead. Their skin hung from their bones like the wallpaper that sloughed from the walls in the unused upstairs hallway. Swollen tongues were forced past lips cracked and bleeding. Eyes sunk so deeply into sockets that the outline of the skulls was evident.

“Do you want to die like this?” Mother had asked, that night and every night since then.

Lynn’s answer never changed. “No.”

And Mother’s response, their evening prayer. “Then you will have to kill.”

Regret was for people with nothing to defend, people who had no water.

When Lynn was ten years old, Mother had fired up the shortwave radio in one of her sporadic fits of optimism. Whether she had hoped to hear that normalcy had been returned somewhere in the world, or that the cities had begun to loosen their grip on water supplies, Lynn did not know. But the news that came caused Mother to smash the radio, not caring what the outside world had to offer anymore.

Cholera. Mother explained that it had once been the most feared disease in the world, striking people in the morning and killing them by nightfall. It was waterborne, contagious, and deadly. Clean water sources and antibiotics had banished it for decades, but desperate people were now drinking brackish water, and the demand for medicine far outstripped the supply. Now thousands died from a disease that had been laughable a decade before.

With dead bodies dropping all around the countryside, and the water table rising with the spring rains, Mother had decided that the pond water could kill them as easily as save them. Mother’s purification system was a simple strategy she learned from an issue of National Geographic. Sheets of tin roofing from the old red barn were laid out in the yard, the ends weighted with rocks to prevent them from blowing away. Bottle by plastic bottle, all the water collected from the pond rotated out to the tin sheets. They could only purify on clear days, when a full eight hours of summer sun could heat the bottles enough to kill any bacteria in the water.

Even though it had lately been cooler in the evenings, the morning sun pounded on the back of Lynn’s neck as she made the early water run to the pond. It would be a purifying day, for sure, which meant hours of labor. She pushed the lip of her first bucket under the surface of the water, trying not to disturb the muddy bottom. No matter how careful she was, there were always flecks of dirt and algae that settled in the holding tanks. She moved along the bank to a new spot to dip the second bucket.

When it was full, she set both buckets on the muddy bank and raised her arms to show Mother she was ready for the trek to the barn. Sunlight flashed off the barrel as Mother followed her progress, scanning the horizon for the slightest hint of someone watching. Lynn’s upper arms were quivering by the time she covered the hundred feet to the barn doors. She set both buckets down to rest before sliding the massive door open.

The water tanks sat there in the darkness, motes of dust settling onto their long, white bodies. They had once carried chemicals to the fields that were now fallow. Mother said she had rinsed and re-rinsed them, terrified she and Lynn might be poisoned by the very water she was depending on to save them.

As Lynn climbed the ladder to the top of a tank, she remembered Mother’s story, how she had run a hose

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