“A good deep well is worth killing over.” He heard those words going through his head as he looked down at the lifeless body of his neighbor’s neighbor. The blood was still fresh from the wound and the eyes had only just begun to look unconscious.
Jack had been sitting on his front porch holding his daughter, Heather, when he heard the shot. Before she could ask what it was, he had her back in the house and was on his way towards the well.
The hot dry air filled his lungs as he walked briskly through the dust covered field. “Everything all right Angela?” His voice gave no indication of the effort of his heart. “I heard a shot.”
“Everything’s fine Jack. Sorry to bother you.” Her eyes were as flat as the corpse’s. “The heat always brings ‘em out don’t it? I’ve been telling him for weeks he needed to dig his well deeper.”
Jack wondered what would happen when their shared well no longer supported the both of them. “It’s a hard thing to be thirsty.”
“That’s why I told him to dig his own well deeper.” Her eyes softened. “How’s Heather? I saw you two on the porch. She seemed to be over her spell.”
Heather’s mother had died during childbirth the 4th year into the drought. The lack of milk of any kind had left her frail and thirsty. She’d have fainting spells mixed with manic episodes where she screamed and clawed at the ground until she found water or someone gave her some. “Yeah, it passed quickly this time.”
Angela looked up to Jack’s house then back to the well. “Well that’s good to hear.” She let a long silence pass before looking back to the corpse. “Would you mind helping me move him away from the water? I’ll bury him myself once the sun goes down. I just don’t want the smell bringing in what’s left of the wildlife.”
He nodded and took the man’s arms as she took his feet. They didn’t speak as they walked through the dried up tree trunks away from their houses to what they had begun to call “the thief’s garden.” Jack couldn’t help feeling a bit strange. His daddy had always told him he was too much a thinker to survive the hard times. “Thinking gets you in trouble when the only choices are dying or going against God.” He missed his daddy in moments like these. He was always good to reassure Jack that the path was solid even if it felt wrong.
Jack could feel Angela’s growing tension these last few weeks. It had been 2 months since the last rain had fallen and the longest they’d ever gone was a few days past a month. She asked more and more often about and less and less tenderly about Heather’s health. He remembered Angela as she had been before, soft and natural. He had first met her at a garden party 10 years before. Samantha, his wife, had loved to befriend neighbors especially those which shared her passion for vegetable gardening. Jack had not cared one way or the other about gardens at the time. He didn’t really start to care until the fourth year of the drought. That was the year he realized that without gardens there came no food.
His thoughts on gardens stopped to matter all together when the water disappeared as did his wife’s ideas about what made good neighbors. Jack looked at the Angela that now stood before him. She was certainly not the woman she was once. Although he couldn’t prove it, he was almost certain she had killed her husband with some of the herbs she had grown before. The man was healthy as an ox one day and dead from what she described as a “peaceful death in the night” the next. Jack had helped carry that body too.
“This should be good enough.” She dropped the legs and put a hand up to shield her eyes as she surveyed the ruins of her once beautiful garden. “I used to plant tulip bulbs this time of year.” Jack couldn’t tell if she was nostalgic or if it was just an acknowledgement of the time of year.
“Samantha always loved your tulips.”
“That’s right.” The words were as dead as her eyes. “Do you even bother counting the days anymore Jack? Or have you given into it?”
His eyes tightened as he thought about his answer. A piece of dust fell into his eye and he fought hard the urge to rub it. Even the smallest cuts goes septic. “Damn!” the word echoed through the dried wood forest.
“A piece of dust get ya?” Angela became a woman again, for an instant. “Let me help you.” She took his face tenderly in her hands, opened his eye and blew gently into it. His eye responded with moisture. “Better?”
“Yes, thank you.” He watched her turn to stone again.
“You best be getting back to Heather. You wouldn’t want her having one of those spells when you ain’t around to stop her.” Jack thought he saw blood boiling in Angela’s eyes, but decided it was just the heat of the day getting to him.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. You come and get me when you get ready to bury him. Just because it’s hot as hell doesn’t mean we can’t still be neighborly.”
She nodded a faint yes and watched as Jack moved back towards the house. He heard the shotgun cock behind him as he grew nearer the well and he quickly turned away from it towards his own house. He heard the noise of her relaxing. His heart weakened at the realization that she had a much stronger resolve to live than he did.
He focused his attention on the small steady frame of his daughter. Her hair blew wildly in the gentle breeze, tickling her face, eliciting the cutest of giggles. She had her mother’s smile.
He reached the porch and kissed her gently on the forehead.
“She doesn’t look happy Daddy.”
Jack looked down in surprise at his daughter’s growing insight. He worried he wouldn’t be able to protect her much longer from the ways of the world. “She’s having a difficult day sweet pea.” He didn’t want to lie to her. It wouldn’t help her survive. But he wasn’t quite ready to paint a completely accurate picture of what lay ahead. “And what about you?” He picked her up so their eyes met.
He missed her mother.
“Are you having a bad day?”
He liked to feel her joyous squirms as he lightly tickled her ribs. “No daddy.” She squealed between laughs “It’s always a good day.”
“Ah yes. I forgot.” He said as he subtly looked over her shoulder to see Angela’s burning eyes glaring from her own porch. He kissed her cheek as he placed her on the porch. “Let’s go inside and play Chutes and Ladders. The sun is starting to get to your old man.”
She took his hand and pulled him through the door Chutes and Ladders was her favorite game, even though she understood he let her win.
He shut the door and turned the lock for the first time in months. He didn’t think Heather noticed, but he knew Angela did. He knew sleep would not come easily tonight, for either of them.
Jack lay listening to the familiar noises of the night. He had managed to hone his abilities to hear movements, even as far as Angela’s home. He strained even harder, trying to be certain the noises he heard were her sleeping. He had to be sure before he went out of the house.
He found it was no longer safe to go to the well during the day. He didn’t understand why exactly but the last few weeks Angela was becoming more and more protective of it. Today only helped to solidify his suspicions that Angela was going crazy.
He’d seen it a lot in the early days. People’s fear of running out of things, driving them to unspeakable horrors. It was during this time that his wife had become pregnant with Heather. Jack had thought it cruel of God to choose that moment to give them a child, after so many healthy years of trying. However his wife saw it for the blessing it was, so did his father. At the time, he thought them both crazy, and was fond of telling them so.
Sometimes he felt guilty about it. That he had wasted so much of those precious last moments with both of them in worry and complaint. Sometimes it felt too heavy, but most of the time he remembered their reaction to his worries. He remembered how his hardened father would look at her as they laughed together. Even in the worst of times the prelude to a baby brings such life.
Jack thought again of his sleeping daughter. She had her mother’s insight and optimism. She would make a fine woman…when her time came. He needed to stay strong so that time would come.
He gathered his courage. He only had a short window of opportunity when Angela slept deeply. He knew the risk that she wouldn’t sleep at all. She was becoming increasingly unpredictable in all areas, but he had no choice.
He rose from the bed, silent and paranoid. He stopped and held his breath to better hear the sounds of his world. His father’s laughter rang through his tired mind. “You’re over thinking again. These are times of action.” It was one of the last conversations they’d had before the stroke took him. The community well was growing increasingly more difficult to use. It was in the center of town, something the mayor had decided on to help “protect and regulate.”
Town was a good 10-mile ride, even on a bicycle that was a difficult trek. He remembered Angela’s husband approaching him “out of courtesy.” Apparently they had decided a well of their own simply made the most sense. At first Jack eagerly agreed, thinking of the coming child and the inherent difficulties he knew to continue to grow. Even food was becoming scarce for those who didn’t know how to grow and preserve it for themselves.
It was only later, when he let himself consider the social implications of a good deep well of his own that the nagging doubt crept in and he sought his father’s council.
“Son, we live in strange and difficult times, times for which your mother and I never thought to prepare you. How could we? We believed the American dream where your children would live a better life than you. Deep down we knew it was a lie, at least I think we did, but we so desperately wanted it to be true!”
The words had fallen heavy on his already taxed soul. His father was saying he didn’t believe he could be the man the times called for. He wanted to scream at the old man, to tell him he had no idea the strength that lie within him, that had already surfaced and been used. He had wanted to but he’d heard the scream of his wife.
He watched the color drain from his father’s face. “Go to her. There is no mid-wife.”
Diane stood at the kitchen sink, humming a lullaby of her youth. She remembered the days when she stood beside her own mother, drying the freshly washed dishes, listening to her mother sing of birds and love, not noticing the gently soothing sounds of the continuously running water in the background. She found it odd that only the melody remained with her now.
She was lost in a thought of what moments she would share with her own daughter, imagining how different they would be, wondering if they would mean as much.
She felt the pain again. This time it was strong enough that her knees buckled and she almost fell. She saw the moisture on the floor and her heart began to race. It must go fast from here, she thought. I don’t think I am ready.
The next wave of pain was already upon her before she could make it to the chair across the room. “Jack.” She grabbed the counter with one hand and used the other to support her belly, which felt as though it were tearing loose from the inside. “It’s starting.”
Jack remembered the birth in pulses, as if at that moment, time passed in variable speeds. He had been speaking with his father when he heard the cry from the kitchen. The next vivid memory was of Diane, sitting calmly on the kitchen floor smiling up at him. “It seems that she is in a hurry.” She had said to him.
He knew his father had helped him move her to the birthing room, but he had no memory of the act itself. His next memory was seeing Diane holding her own weight with her arms in a converted bondage chair they had discovered left behind in their neighbor’s garage after they left “in search of a more stable town” – one he doubted they would ever find.
It was Diane who saw its value beyond the chair’s entertainment use. “There will be no maternity ward for me Jack. Stop laughing and get your father to help you carry this back to our house.” He heard her mumble, “I had no idea about them” as he left her to continue her treasure hunt. He loved her ability to see beyond the intended use of things.
The rest of the birth was a blur of screams and blood and terror. Jack had done his best to hide what he saw, but he knew how well Diane knew him. There could never have been secrets between them, even if they had wanted them.
When the moment was finished and Jack had cleaned Heather and watched as she took her first meal, he felt a brief moment of hope. Even his father’s eyes watered at such an angelic moment.
Now that time had given him the opportunity to analyze every remote aspect, he hated his naiveté. When the bleeding finally stopped, he had believed Diane. I am fine Jack. Just weak. With sleep I will be fine.” He still didn’t know how he could have gotten her treatment, but he knew now that he should have tried. He hated that the times changed faster than he could. Even now, he could feel Angela evolving better.
The room was so silent he heard Heather’s subtle murmurs. Just like her mother, sleep quieted everything but her mind. He moved forward to the door and walked onto his porch. He took a step and began scanning the darkness for signs of life. He was still safe on his porch. If he saw Angela, he could explain his insomnia, offer to let her join him in enjoying the cool moisture of the night air. They could discuss the wish of finding a way to get that moisture to stick around during the day. As long as he sat here, he was no threat to anyone.
He strained even harder to hear. His ears picked up the distant sounds of a prairie dog. He let himself be touched by its ability to survive.
He heard no other signs of life, but his father’s words came again. “Now is the time for action son. If you know nothing else, know that!”
Jack stood quietly from his chair and stepped from his safety. His heart drowned out any other sounds. From this point forward he would have to rely on his will to succeed. He fought back the images of what would become of Heather if he failed in this. Instead he imagined himself at the well, quietly taking the water he needed, and just as quietly returning to his home.
His fingers danced over the hunting knife on his belt.
Jack reached the well and filled his two buckets. His heart had settled in the rhythm of work. His focus kept him calm.
Then he heard it; that familiar click of a rifle being prepared for easy fire.
He wondered how long she’d been watching. He knew it was before he’d ever gotten up from bed. He set down the last bucket as he considered the knife at his waist. He wished now that he had put it in a less conspicuous place.
“He was the only man I ever loved. Did you know that?” Jack’s mind froze. “Angela?” He hoped he could hide his sinister heart.
“We met in high school. He was my prom date both years. I have never even felt the kisses of another man, even now. No one ever believed that.”
Jack slowly turned to face her. He forced a smile, hoping it looked natural. “Your love for each other was always apparent. Diane always said that of you two.” He hoped to reach a part of her that grieved as he did. “It was difficult to watch Diane fade from my world, but at least I had time to prepare myself, to tell her all the things I thought I’d have a lifetime to tell her.” He hoped Angela didn’t notice this huge lie. There were so many things he’d forgotten to tell her; so many things she deserved to know. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like to lose Frank so unexpectedly.”
Jack saw the first tears in her eyes for months. He couldn’t decide if this was a good or bad sign. He knew where men’s emotions lay, on the surface where they could be directly expressed, felt deeply and dealt with. The depth of a woman’s mind left him ill-equipped to assess the situation.
“You were lucky Diane went the way she did, with your hands clean. She left you knowing you’d done everything for her and that your heart held her daughter’s life more precious than its own. You must sleep well knowing that.” Her eyes did not change except to glide along him, presumably examining each and every thing he had hoped to hide from her. They stopped briefly on the knife.
Jack opened his mouth to speak, but the sudden flare of fire in Angela’s eyes told him to hold his tongue. He was beginning to understand what had happened to her husband. Her insanity went further back than he’d realized.
“Why are you getting water now Jack?” She did not lower the rifle, but only vaguely aimed it in his general direction.
This is the moment he had hoped to avoid. He still wasn’t sure he’d caught up to his times, but he knew for certain that she had. He’d been letting her handle these types of moments for years now.
“I couldn’t sleep and thought I’d get a head start on tomorrow. It’s cool enough tonight that none will evaporate before breakfast.” He felt her eyes burn into his flesh. He tried to show equal determination. “And you? What are you doing up and so ready this time of night?”
She didn’t move or speak. Her finger ran over the outer edge of the trigger. All he could think was to get back to the house.
“Well…” he said slowly. “If you don’t mind, I’ll be going back in now. I wouldn’t want Heather waking to a dark, empty house.” He hoped reminding her of Heather would soften her again.
“I’m not sure that’s the best thing.” Her voice remained flat.
Jack froze, in mind and body. There was no way to out-run her shot. He’d seen countless others try. And he couldn’t reach her before she got a shot off. He wish he’d brought a gun instead of a knife.
“What do you mean? Of course it is.” He tried to laugh as though his facade were still viable. “Angela, are you feeling OK tonight?” He nervously looked around, hoping to find something that could help him out of this situation.
He hadn’t noticed Heather’s light eyes peering through the darkness at them, nor had either of them noticed her slinking over the rocky, dry terrain; so the surprise was magnified when the pop sounded into the night air and the slight trickle of dark touched Angela’s blouse just in front of her heart.
By instinct Jack ran to catch her as she fell to the ground, still clutching her rifle. “We could have been a strong team. We’re so much alike.”
Not understanding what she was saying, Jack didn’t know what to say in return. He put his hand over her wound and quickly scanned the area, stopping on the image of his daughter’s calm eyes staring at them – the .22 still smoking slightly at her side. He was confused, but needed to have her close to him, to know she was unharmed. He pushed aside what his eyes told him and tried to get through the moment.
“Angela?” He spoke softly, already knowing that her open eyes were no indication of life. He pulled his bloody hand away and gently lay her down, closing her eyes with his clean hand to keep his last images of her face less gruesome. He then turned his attention to Heather and getting the two of them safely back into the house.
“Are you all right Heather?” His words were as flat as Angela’s had been, but his sentiment was passionate. He watched his daughter nod to him then gently grabbed her and turned her around and around, finding frustration in the lack of moonlight. “You are sure?” He said again.
“Yes daddy.” Her eyes were wide and innocent, as thought nothing unusual had happened.
He reached out and took the gun from her hand, marveling at how cool it was. He didn’t know what to say. He thought again of his father, wishing that he had raised him better to deal with these hardships.
“Come on Heather.” He stood and took her hand. “We should go back in. I will take care of this in the morning.”
She didn’t move. Instead she looked intently around. “By morning a lot could happen daddy. We should do it now.” He could have sworn he saw her eyes change as he watched her speak.
A wave of sadness washed over him as he began to understand how much she was a child of her times, so well equipped for the harshness that paralyzed him completely. “Of course. I will take care of it now.” He fought back the tears. “But first let’s get you back in bed.”
He watched her look around again and shrug her shoulders. He wondered what thought had provoked it.
Once Jack managed to lay them both to their rests – Heather to bed for the night and Angela to the thief’s garden to join those she’d sent ahead of her, Jack lay silently in his own bed, glad for the first time in many years that his wife had not lived.
– ∞ –