TITLE: Fresh Water
By Valarie Sullivan
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Rachel sat back in the chair and looked around the room. Originally the living room, two beds had been brought in. A small table and one chair graced one corner. The rest of the furniture had been broken up for firewood a long time back.
She ran an appreciative hand over the mantel of the fireplace, musing over the patchwork design. Tom had scrounged up bricks, cinder blocks, stones, anything he could find to build the fireplace and hearth so they could have heat and a way to cook. Rachel sighed and slumped in the chair. She missed Tom, so much.
Jason napped in the bed near her.
Her tomato soup was coming along nicely. Someone had anonymously gifted them with a tomato plant and with loving care, it had grown to a bush and provided much fruit. Stirring the makeshift pot on the fire, a strange noise assaulted her ears. What is that?
Running to the window, Rachel peered down the street. A motor vehicle? A car hadn’t been seen on these streets in months!
A sudden dread filled her heart and spoke to her about moving the pot into the back room. And hide the tomato plant, too.
Megan burst in the door. “Who is that, Momma?”
Rachel returned to the front room in time to see two men approach outside.
They wore policemen’s uniforms of a kind that she had never seen before. A dark green with lots of pockets.
What could they want?
“Go back outside, and tell Billy to stay in the hole.” Rachel hissed.
“Ok, ok!’ Megan hissed back. “No need to push!”
Pounding rattled the house.
Megan safely out the back, Rachel smoothed her hair and opened the door.
“Yes?” She asked imperiously. Two men stood before her with hands on their belts. She could see pistols and batons, and all manner of paraphernalia that law enforcement carried. One man was portly with graying hair; the other was younger and had a mean look to his eyes.
“Mrs. Stone, we have orders to search all houses in the area.” The gray haired one said, curtly.
“Search for what?” Rachel wrapped her arms around herself and wondered how they knew her name.
“For anything we deem pertinent.” The mean one spat.
The two men shoved their way past a trembling Rachel. What were they looking for?
“You are welcome to search, of course.” She said in a tight voice. “But it would help if I knew what you were looking for.”
The police officers took a quick turn around the room.
“You don’t use the rest of the house?” The mean one sneered.
“It was more efficient to heat only one room.” Rachel controlled her temper valiantly, still puzzled over their presence.
The gray haired one tried to speak, but his voice caught in his throat. He coughed. Coughed again. Tried again to speak and broke into spasmodic coughing.
Rachel poured a cup of water from a white jug and handed it to him. He looked at her suspiciously.
“Its snow melt.” She informed him. He took a cautious sip, then gulped it convulsively.
“Mrs. Stone,” Mean Cop put his hand on the quilt she used to cover a door way. “Where does this lead to?”
“The kitchen and the rest of the house.” Rachel swallowed hard as he disappeared into the back rooms. Praying silently, she watched the gray haired policeman. “Where are you from?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He handed the cup back to her without any thanks. “I noticed that these are men’s clothing here on the bed. Whose are they?”
“My husband’s.” Rachel said coolly.
“Where is your husband?” Grey-haired inquired with a strange look.
“He was taken by press gangs just after New Year’s.”
Gray-hairs eyes flickered briefly.
“We have on record that you have two sons.” He gestured toward Jason. “Where is the other one?”
“He died in the flu epidemic.”
Gray-hair looked down at her haughtily. “Where did you bury him?”
“All the flu victims were buried in a mass grave by the railroad tracks.” Rachel hoped God would forgive her. “Why do you want to know?”
“One of our orders was to find all eligible males and enlist them in the army.” The officer looked hard at Jason.
“He is only five years old.” Rachel stepped in between them. The policeman shrugged.
The mean one returned to the front room.
“Did you find anything?” Gray hair asked curtly.
“Nope, they’re clean.”
Then without another word to Rachel, the two left the house and walked toward their car.
Megan ran in a minute later. “Mom! What did they mean by that?”
Slumped in the chair from reaction, Rachel asked her what she was talking about.
“Those two men that were here. “ Megan gestured at the window. “As they were walking away, I heard the big one say “Mark that house.” The littler one said “For what?” And the bigger one said “Christian”. What did they mean, Momma?”
Rachel’s blood ran cold. “It means we have trouble. Where is Billy?”
“He stayed in the hole like you said.”
“Stay here with Jason,” Rachel grabbed a jacket. “Don’t answer the door for anyone but me, understand?”
“Sure, Mom.” Megan sat on the chair and poked at the fire in the hearth.
Rachel ran around to the backyard. Billy had been put to the task of digging a hole for an outhouse. The toilet in the house stank because of the scarcity of water to flush it or clean it. Rachel hoped he had stayed put like she had said.
Peering over the edge of a very deep hole, she could barely make out the shape of Billy standing in there. A rope tied to a tree held a bucket used to pull the dirt out of the hole.
“Billy!” She called down. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, Mom!” He called back cheerfully.
“Why are you standing in water?”
“Since I had to stay out of sight, I kept digging!” Billy crowed with delight. “I hit water!”
“How much?” Rachel could barely hope.
“Its seeping in slowly, but I think by tomorrow, it will be full of water!” Billy splashed his feet.
“Well, come on out of there.” Rachel shook the rope. “We’ve got trouble!”
Without another word, Billy pulled himself up with the rope. He emptied the dirt bucket and let it back down the hole. “We need to build something to keep people from falling in.”
“Later,” Rachel pulled his arm. “We need to get you back in the house.”
Once inside, Rachel retrieved the soup pot and put it back on the fire. How it escaped the notice of those policemen will be a mystery only God knew about. While it cooked, she told Billy and Megan all about what happened.
Megan was incensed. “Mother! Snow melt! How could you be so nice to them? I’d given them rain barrel water! It’s all scummy now. Scum for the scum!”
Sighing, Rachel patted her daughter’s arm. “I appreciate your feelings, honey. But the Word says to be kind to your enemies.”
“That’s how he knew you were Christian.” Billy said thoughtfully. “I think everyone else wouldn’t have done that.”
“Probably not,” Rachel conceded. “But it was the thing to do, and I would do it again.”
“What are we gonna do, Mommy?” Jason spoke up sleepily.
“Carry on as usual. But Billy,” Rachel looked at him seriously. “If you go about the neighborhood, you’ll have to dress up like a girl.”
“What?” Shocked, Billy punched Megan in the arm for laughing hysterically. “Why?”
“They are looking for able MEN, not women.” Rachel held up a skirt she had just finished sewing for herself the other day. “If they think you are me, they will leave you alone.”
“Until they run out of men.” Megan put in.
No one wanted to think of that scenario.
By the time Rachel had outfitted her son to look like a girl, the well had filled up half way. Raising the bucket, she took a cautious taste of the water. Clean, clear…good! She quietly cheered. Maybe by morning, the well would be filled to the top. They had a lot of cleaning to make up for!
Tonight, Rachel would attend the community meeting and talk to someone about the law enforcement officers that had come to call. Maybe someone had some answers.
That night, Mr. Patton greeted them at the door of the church. “Heard ya had some company!” He crowed.
“Yes.” Billy growled, startling the old man. Mr. Patton pushed his wheelchair back a few feet and took a closer look at the ‘woman’ standing before him.
“Great disguise!” Mr. Patton chuckled. “Too bad, it aint Halloween!”
Ignoring him, Billy pushed on in and the rest of his family followed. Rachel murmured a greeting to the old man. He had been kind enough to tell Rachel what had happened to Tom, so she refused to be rude to him.
She looked around the room as they sat in a middle pew. Candles lit up the room here and there, letting out a warm, if feeble glow. Fewer and fewer people filled the seats these days. The flu epidemic took out scores of people. The press gangs thinned it out some more. Now, only women, children and old men graced the room.
“Rachel!” A screechy voice broke into her musings. An overweight woman with frizzy brown hair shoved her way through the pew to Rachel. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, Madeline.” She hoped this would be quick. “How are you?”
Madeline began a litany of physical ails, to which Rachel nodded and made polite noises. Soon enough, Madeline found someone else to regale her health woes to and left Rachel with a dull headache. She knew that the winter had been hard on every one, especially the older people. But she grew impatient with those that thought their illnesses were fascinating subjects.
Mr. George took the podium and every one became quiet.
“Ahem.” He straightened his brown jacket and looked over the room. “I see the Holcutts are still out.”
The crowd murmured for a bit before he continued. “They were hit pretty hard by the flu. Samuel…”Mr. George found the man he wanted to speak to. “Be sure and go by there tomorrow, will you? Check on them? Thanks.
Well, it’s finally Spring!” Cheers from the group. “Yes, and we will start clean ups next week, so get ready. We need all the wagons, wheel barrows, carts, anything you have. Meet here on Wednesday morning at sunrise. As agreed, we will do our ‘quarterly scrounge’ go through the abandoned houses and look for anything that could be used by the community. And do burials as needed.”
“You mean the body dump at the railroad tracks?” Someone yelled from the back.
“Now, Fred,” Mr. George admonished. “You know it was an emergency measure to do that! The ground was frozen and we couldn’t bury them the proper way. If you want to go out there now that the weather has warmed up and bury them one by one, you go right ahead. I hate to be so calloused about it, folks, but we are talking about our very survival, here.”
Murmurs of assent filled the air. Rachel felt sorry for the families that had to deal with such a tragedy.
“Ok!” Mr. George raised his hands. “Let’s get down to business here! Mr. Charlie has agreed to resume his excursions to the town to barter what he can get. Anybody got anything to contribute, or have a wish list, get it to him by tomorrow afternoon.”
Everybody started talking at once. Mr. George tried to quiet them down, but they ignored him. He ran his hands over his balding head and sighed heavily. Someone handed him a rock and he banged it on the podium. “Come on, now, ya’ll! Let’s get this over with!”
They settled down slowly.
“How about we have some decorum here, huh?” A thin woman Rachel knew lived down the street stood up. “We are still civilized, aren’t we?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Rush.” Mr. George said politely. “We are indeed still civilized. Back to business! About the water situation. Elmer, on the other side of the interstate has a well with a hand pump. He has agreed to continue to allow a minimal number of people to use it every day.”
Protests broke in. “Now, now! It is a matter of practicality! The well has slowed down. Four or five people can deplete the contents with just ten gallons each. There will have to be a system set up so that we can all take turns.”
Against Megan’s protests, Rachel stood up. “We have a well.”
“Yes, Mrs. Stone, but I thought it was run by electricity.” Mr. George rubbed his bald spot again.
“My son, Billy, just finished digging a new one.” Cheers went up again. “It fills slowly, but between ours and Elmer’s perhaps we can fill the water needs adequately.”
Mr. George was elated. “Thank you, Mrs. Stone! The community is grateful for your generosity! People! People! Settle down! Now the people that live on the south side of the Interstate, get together with Elmer and set up an agreement. All those that live on the north side, get with Mrs. Stone.” More cheers.
“Ok, people! Now, anything from the floor?”
A stooped older man stood up. “We had a couple of strange fellers come to the house today.” Several people agreed, they had come to their houses, too. “They said it was to look for men and boys, but they sure poked around a lot.”
“What do you suppose they were looking for?” Madeline asked with hand to throat, the picture of drama.
“Besides warm bodies to put in their army?” A young woman with two little ones broke in, snidely. “They were looking for guns.”
The crowd gasped. No! and Why? Sounded through the room. “They can’t take our guns, can they?” Someone mourned. “How will we hunt?”
“They don’t care about whether you can feed yourself,” the young woman continued. “As long as you can’t fight back, that’s all they care about.”
“Fight back, why?” Mr. George seemed non-plussed.
But the young woman refused to say any more, just cuddled her children closer.
Rachel stayed silent, wondering.
A few more items were discussed that were of lesser importance and the meeting broke up. Rachel drew Mr. George to the side. “Sir, they came to my house today, too.” She told him of what they had said and what Megan had overheard. “What do you think?”
“I think we are facing serious trouble, child.” Mr. George squeezed her arm.
Rachel pulled Jason close to her side until the boy protested. “Momma!”
“Pray for rain.” Mr. George looked her in the eye for a long moment, but he didn’t explain his statement. Rachel knew that the lack of rain had caused the water table to fall. Her new-found well was a miracle. But what else did he mean? But Mr. George turned away to speak to someone else.
“Mom?” Billy pulled his hood down closer on his head. “Are you ready to go?”
Rachel nodded in assent and they headed out for home.
The next morning, Rachel looked at the water level in the well and was astonished to find it almost to the top.
“Get all the buckets you can find, Megan.” Rachel ordered. “We are going to be doing some spring cleaning!”
“Oh, joy.” Megan slumped off to obey.
“Can I go swimming?” Jason asked hopefully.
His mother looked at the water and shivered. “No, it’s too deep to go swimming, honey. Besides, it’s still too cold!”
They worked all morning, hauling water into the house. The first thing Rachel did was scrub the bathtub, thoroughly. Then they filled the tub with water. Not long after that, the people that had made arrangements with the Stone family started arriving with their buckets and bottles. Rachel set Megan to oversee the distributions while Billy and Jason helped scrub down the house. Starting with the toilet!
By the time they were finished cleaning, the house smelled fresh again and the water level in the well was down to half.
“Give it a rest, now.” Rachel ordered. “We’ll let it fill back up again, and then we will haul water in for baths.”
“Aw, Momma!” Jason wailed. “It’s not Saturday!”
Smiling, Billy sipped some of the fresh water. “Maybe not, but now that the house smells good, you stink!”
“Momma!” Jason protested.
“Don’t look at me!” Rachel retorted. “It’s true! We ALL stink!”
Megan rolled her eyes. “That’s stating the obvious!”
Several days later, Rachel disappeared for almost the whole day. Megan and Jason were frantic, but Billy calmly finished his chores. Wood had to be hauled in and chopped. The small garden they had planted needed to be watered and weeded. It grew quite nicely from the seeds Rachel had the foresight to acquire before winter hit. Carrots, corn, spinach, peas and green beans. The potatoes were not doing well. Billy didn’t know what they needed. Tomatoes grew in one corner of the garden, but Rachel kept the original bush in the house. It was used to living indoors and Rachel wanted to keep it alive for the coming winter. Jason objected to the squash and beets, but his mother convinced him they could use them for trade. Sunflowers graced one side and gave shade to the more delicate plants during the afternoon.
Billy pressed his siblings into service in the weeding and watering. Mom would be upset that he wasn’t wearing his skirt, but it got in his way. Besides, the law enforcement officers hadn’t been back. Maybe they forgot about his community.
Suddenly, Jason stood upright and peered down the road.
“What is it?” Billy asked.
“I think I see Momma!” All three ran to the fence and looked down the road. It was! They ran to her in joy.
“Where have you been?” Megan demanded tearfully.
“I’ve been doing some trading.” Rachel replied serenely. “Go into the house. Billy, would you carry this package for me?”
“What did you trade with?” Jason skipped along side his mother. “What did you trade for?”
“Wait till we get in the house!” Rachel laughed. Excited to show what she had acquired, she failed to notice Billy wearing his jeans.
Once inside, she opened a large bundle wrapped in gaily colored material.
A pair of soft blue jeans was handed to Megan. Her eyes glowed in pleasure. “Are they my size?”
Rachel encouraged her to try them on. Scampering into her bedroom, Megan giggled in delight.
Jason received a pair of tennis shoes and he dropped to the floor to pull them on. “Thanks, Momma!” They fit perfectly.
Puzzled by his gift, Billy looked up at his mother. “Gun shells?”
“Shh.” Rachel held a finger to her lips. “Wait here.”
She disappeared into her bedroom, and reappeared with a rifle.
“Mom!” Billy made sure the windows were covered before taking the gun. “Where was that hiding?”
She smiled softly. “Your dad has had that rifle since before you were born. But I raised such a fit about it; he made a hiding place so that none of you children would find it and shoot each other.”
“That’s how those cops couldn’t find it!” Billy pieced the facts together.
“Police officers.” Rachel corrected. “Respect the uniform if not the person. I’ll show you where we keep it hidden later.”
“I’m giving you Dad’s clothes.” Raising a hand to stop his protests, she continued. “He’s not using them right now, and you need some.”
Billy nodded. “What about you? Your clothes are wearing out.”
She held up the colorful material, shook it out and held it to herself. “It’s a dress!”
Billy threw back his head and laughed. “I get it!”
“Get what?” Megan entered the room and pirouetted. “They fit me!”
“Yes, they do!” Rachel was glad. Megan had outgrown her last pair during the fall. And was forced to wear the skirt her mother had made from material she had bartered for. Then Rachel drew a can out of her coat pocket. “And now, for the finale!”
“Hash?” Jason jumped up and down, trying out his new shoes. “You found us some hash?”
“Yay!” All three children cheered and hugged their mother.
“But what did you use for trade?” Megan asked suddenly suspicious.
“Remember the fit you had about us giving away our water?” Rachel reached for the can opener and started working on the can. Megan nodded silently. “The community had a meeting and pooled together to give us these things as a way of thanks to us.”
All three children were surprised.
“See?’ Rachel said as she poured the contents into a pan. “You reap what you sow. Sow good things like giving away the water and you reap, or receive, good things like blue jeans and shoes.”
The weather had warmed up enough they didn’t need to keep the beds in the living room anymore, so they opened up the rest of the house. Rachel didn’t feel closed in, anymore and breathed in the free air. God is good, she thought to herself. He gives seasons in their time. She was glad it was spring.
Twilight had fallen when loud noises could be heard down the street. Rachel stood on the porch and peered into the gloom. A large crowd of people were banging on doors and smashing windows.
Press gangs! Rachel gasped. Billy had not been wearing girl’s clothes the other day! He was seen and now they’ve come after him!
Running into the house, she retrieved the rifle and loaded it.
“What is it, Mother?” Megan queried. She sat by the fireplace trying to read. Billy ran out of his bedroom, carrying a candle.
“Stay out of sight.” Rachel told Billy. He blew out his candle and crouched to the floor. “Where is Jason?”
“I made him stay in bed.” Billy crawled on his hands and knees to the window.
“What is it, Mother?” Megan demanded to know.
“Quiet!” Billy hissed. “Something is going on, but now is not the time!”
Megan pouted, but stayed quiet.
Looking out the door, Rachel could see the group of people making their way down the road. When they reached her property, Rachel could see that they were a bunch of teenagers. All in ragged, dirty clothes, lurching back and forth and shouting at the top of their voices. She had heard of gangs in the cities that were vandalizing properties and stealing. But she thought they stayed in the city. This was the first time she had heard of them in the Tall Creek Community.
One teetered a few feet toward the house.
“Not one step more.” Rachel said firmly as she stepped back onto the porch.
The tipsy teen leered up at her. “Well, looky there! A woman with contraband!”
The others snickered and started toward Rachel. She settled the gun into her shoulder and they stopped, suddenly unsure. “Go on, get out of here!” She ordered.
A large boy pushed his way up from the back of the crowd and stood staring at her. He spat to one side and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I don’t think she knows how to shoot that thing.” He sneered.
“Do you want to take the chance and find out?” Rachel cocked the trigger and pointed it at the apparent leader.
“Sheldon,” A girl with black hair hanging in her eyes grabbed the leader’s arm and tried to pull him back. “I think she means it.”
Sheldon spat again and stared Rachel down.
Rachel trembled inside, but refused to show her fear. This was a large group of hostile people. Would she be able to get out of this mess with her children safe?
She frantically prayed, ‘Help me, Lord!’
“You do not belong here!” She cried out. The teenagers hooted and hollered back at her in derision. “You do not have authority or claim on this property and you are to leave NOW!”
Sheldon took a step toward the porch and Rachel started praying harder. Lord, give me strength to do this!
Before she could pull the trigger, the teens started screaming in fright and scattered down the street. Sheldon stood where he was, gaping and trembling. He stood alone.
Rachel lowered the gun and approached the boy, cautiously.
When she got within a few feet, she stopped. “What is it, son?”
It was a moment before Sheldon could speak. “Who was that?”
“Who was who?” Rachel looked toward the house. It stood in the dark, the front door softly glowing from the light of the fireplace. “What did you see?”
“The house was surrounded!” Sheldon yelled, then turning, ran off into the night.
Puzzled, Rachel went back in and shut the door.
“What was that all about?” Billy asked.
Rachel handed Billy the gun and sat heavily in the chair. “I think we had some divine intervention.”
“What is divine intervention, Momma?” Jason asked from the door of the kitchen.
“It means God is looking out for us, honey.” Rachel pulled her youngest son to her and held him close. “Just what exactly they saw, I don’t know. But it frightened them enough they didn’t want to stick around.”
“I’ll say!” Megan flopped onto the bed. “Hey! Why aren’t they in the army like Dad?”
“I suppose they managed to hide from the press gangs.” Billy said as he came back from hiding the gun. “How long do you think it will be before the law finds out we have a gun?”
“Let them look for it.” Rachel sighed heavily. She was so tired of all this. When was it going to end? “We need to pray and thank God for protecting us.”
All three children knelt with her and they praised the Father for His hand protecting and providing for them. Peace settled onto Rachel and strengthened her spirit.
The garden grew quickly, but they would have to barter or scrounge for food until it made any vegetables.
A steady stream of people came to the house for water, every day. The well continued to produce clear water in large quantities. Billy managed to build a cover for the well so that Jason wouldn’t fall into it. Rachel told him that he took after his father, building things from scratch so solidly. Billy stood a little straighter and she socked him on the shoulder for not wearing his disguise.
“Mom!” He said as he rubbed his arm. “I can’t work in those things! Besides, the law hasn’t been back.”
Rachel opened her mouth to argue with him when she heard a strange sound. Traffic on the interstate. The interstate was a few blocks away and divided the community in half. Running down the road, the Stone’s arrived in time to see a convoy moving out from the town. Moving vans, pick ups, cars with trailers, all loaded to bursting with people and goods.
“What’s going on, Momma?” Jason clung to his mother’s skirt as he watched the parade, wide eyed.
“I don’t know.” Rachel looked around and saw Mr. Patton sitting in his chair on the corner. She greeted him and asked if he knew what was happening.
“Nope.” He replied. “Been watching them comin’ from the town for the last fifteen minutes.”
“It looks like an Exodus.” The young mother that was so cryptic in the community meeting stood nearby, a toddler on one hip. She looked thin and worn as her hair blew in her face.
They watched the vehicles drive by until there were no more. Rachel and Mr. Patton spoke to the young mother, who was named Jocelyn, and they all agreed that it was strange and portended no good thing. Megan thought they were running from a plague.
“Oh, let’s not say such things!” Rachel scolded. “There must be another explanation.”
The mystery deepened the next day when military vehicles were seen on the interstate, moving toward the town. Several hours later, they were seen driving back the way they had come.
Mr. Charlie arrived not long after, his cart piled high with treasures.
A crowd milled around him, asking questions and poking at the stuff.
“I tell ya,” Mr. Charlie pulled off his hat and wiped his brow. Someone handed him a cup of water. Nodding his thanks, he gulped down the water and sighed.
“Well, tell us!” Someone shouted from the back.
“Give me a minute!” Mr. Charlie’s face was bright red from exertion. He must have fast pedaled that bike the whole fifteen miles from town. “Its odd. Very odd.”
“What!?” The crowd was getting impatient. “What is happening?”
Mr. Charlie seemed to be enjoying the attention and made them wait a few more minutes.
“The town is empty.” He said, finally. “Completely empty. They have rounded every body up and hauled them all out.”
“That’s not true.” Mr. Patton butted in. “We saw them leave yesterday.”
“Alright, alright.” Mr. Charlie conceded. “But there is nobody there, at all! I had free run of the whole place! Stores, houses, you name it!”
He pulled back a tarp and showed a pile of canned goods. Clothing overflowed the front of the cart and all manner of things were heaped, piled and suspended from the sides. How he managed to pedal his bike so overloaded, Rachel couldn’t see.
“Mr. Charlie is now open for business!” He crowed.
“Wait!” Mr. George held up a hand. “Did you find out why the people left?”
Mr. Charlie opened his mouth to speak when a rattling boom knocked everyone to the ground. It was followed by a series of smaller booms and dark clouds of smoke filled the air.
“I think that answered your question.” Billy said dryly, looking up from leaning on his elbows..
At first, it was thought that the refinery had exploded, but it remained intact. The thick columns of smoke poured up from the town.
Mr. Charlie went into shock. “I almost spent the night there.” He said over and over. “That king-sized bed with the feather pillows looked real god. I thought about spending the night in it.”
It took several days for the smoke to clear. It took longer for Mr. Charlie to get up the nerve to go back and take a look around.
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