Short Stories

It’s Just Water

The bombs fell in September. We saw the mushroom clouds blooming on the horizon and ran for the bunker. The air-raid siren wailed like a frightened child, cutting through what had been a serene summer day and pricking our skin with fear.  We weren’t prepared—at least not as well as we should have been. Months passed. The view through the small frosted port hole in the ceiling grew darker and colder. Whether that was from Canadian or nuclear winter, neither of us could say for sure.

We watched our scant supplies dwindle as we waited for any news of the situation outside and we took turns cranking the emergency radio, listening hard through the static. It gave us something to do when conversation grew thin. It was just Edith and I, and talking was never a strong point of our marriage.

By the end of October, three full shelves of emergency rations had became two. By mid-November, two had become one. By December, we started making a series of narrow choices between beef stew or stewed beef for our suppers, which were no longer happening every day. The barrels of water in the corner were becoming a concern. The waterline fell along with our morale as the holidays passed without word from the outside. We took turns cranking the emergency radio. Sometimes we could swear we heard voices— some reassuring words through the atmospheric snow. Edith started to talk a lot about death around that time and asked me what I thought it would be like on the other side. I told her I didn’t know. Truth is I was thinking about it a lot too, and I think death is probably a lot like the white noise coming from the radio: lonely and cold.

At night, it froze in the bunker. We huddled together under the scratchy green wool of a survival blanket we’d bought in the spring and watched our breath like smoke come out of our mouths. We spent a lot of time sleeping. I started to lose track of the days, the weeks, the months. Edith was growing thin and frail beneath her dress, now tattered and worn. Her face had grown long and gaunt and she didn’t really talk any more, just shivered and groaned at the pain.  My black slacks and t-shirt used to fit close to my skin, now they hung loose like an ill-fitted mannequin.

I caught myself wondering, in days, how many we could possibly have left. The barrel of water was now down to the last drops. We had started urinating in buckets instead of the small toilet installed in the bunker—just, you know, in case it got that bad.

It got that bad.

After the first day without water, our mouths dry, we started taking timid sips from the bucket, pinching our noses and trying not to vomit. I was mostly successful. Edith was not. After a few tries and a few dry heaves, she curled into a corner and cried. I watched as her tongue flicked out to catch the tears from her cheeks. At least she was still making an effort to conserve and survive. But, it wasn’t enough.

I awoke the next morning and kissed my wife’s forehead. Her skin was dry, cold. She wasn’t breathing. I wept, but no tears came. My voice was hoarse. I wrapped her in a plastic sheet and lay her near a far wall, where I slumped beside her to say… something. Anything. I’m sorry there are no flowers or mourners. I’m sorry you’re wrapped in a godforsaken sheet and that this hole in the ground has become your tomb. I’m sorry I didn’t prepare better. I’m sorry this took too long.

Time slumped by with its only measure being the smell of Edith’s purpling flesh growing in putrescence. My throat burned—begged for moisture, but the potency of the piss bucket became impossible to face. My body could only recycle the darkening liquid so many times before it outright rejected it. I cranked the radio with what little strength I had left. I could no longer hear the ambient static; either because my eardrum was now mad with it, or because the cursed thing was broken. I listened for voices but still none came.

The transparent plastic in which I wrapped my wife had taken on a dull, almost frosted appearance. The misty film seemed to separate, the texture growing. It wasn’t until one wet, shivering drop slipped down the inside of the plastic that I remembered my high school science class. The human body is made up of at least 60% water.

Water. Edith! Oh my sweet darling wife! My stomach heaved and retched at a thought so vile but so necessary. My head was so dizzy now, blurring in and out of consciousness. The end was close. I could feel death’s cold grips waiting just outside of my periphery. With what took all of my strength, I reached my arm across the bunker floor where I lay and I touched, with one finger, the edge of the moist plastic sheeting. Clear and somehow cool water dripped instantly down my digit and made a small pool in my palm. I pulled it close. It looked like water. It’s just water. It’s just water. 

My stomach heaved and I tasted bile but nothing came out. My greedy tongue lapped at the water, which absorbed instantly into the dried tissues of my mouth. With a surge of energy, or maybe it was just the hot adrenaline of survival, I reached again for the plastic, for the water in its folds. My withered fingers splayed and grasped at this new life source. I could see with sudden clarity. My shriveled limbs felt reinflated with moisture and energy. To my sudden horror and brilliant dismay, my enthusiasm had prodded a hole in the thin plastic. My index and middle fingers plunged with a squelch into the swollen and decaying meat of my Edith. I withdrew, seeing the brown rot that now coated those fingers. I felt my mouth fall into sagging o of dismay while my stomach betrayed me, growling and gurgling, wanting more water—wanting more food. I started… licking my fingers. The juices were sour and I gagged at the rot. The last thing I remembered before passing out was reaching toward my Edith, hungry.

When I awoke, the emergency radio was emitting a long tone, followed by a robotic voice.

“The National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination system is back online. This is a national emergency broadcast transmitted at the request of the Canadian Government. This is not a test. An attack with nuclear weapons was commenced on Canada on September 20th, 2017. Ten nuclear detonations were recorded across the country.  Communications were severely disrupted. The number of casualties is not yet known but is assumed high. At this time, the risk of nuclear fallout has passed and it is safe to exit your shelters.”

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