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Thirst

by E.J. V'Kanty about a year ago in fiction

A Short Story by E.J. V'Kanty

Photo courtesy of Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay

The city of Silver Lake is so named because it forms a crescent around the small lake of the same name. While the city sprawled around that curve of the lake offers more public access to the water than most beachfront communities, it’s still a small community that sees little business in the way of tourism. Much like the other cities scattered throughout western New York state, Silver Lake had never been able to make good on the ambition the founders of the city had for it centuries earlier, but that was just fine with its residents. The tight knit community liked to keep to themselves and they liked that no one in town was really a stranger. You might not recognize someone by face, but, once you learned their name, you could usually put together their entire family history. Chances are that person’s father, uncle, or cousin owned a business somewhere in the city.

The familiarity the towners had with one another was usually a positive thing, but it caused tensions to rise when a stranger rolled into Silver Lake. Even someone stopping for gas or directions drew the stares of everyone within sight. On this particular day, the unfamiliar couple, just travelers passing through on their way to Niagara Falls, drew more than unwelcome gazes. Their presence at Mack’s Corner Store caused such a ruckus that Joshua Saunderson had to give his two on-duty officers a hand in quelling the disturbance. He was last to the store, having sent the two officers, Jenkins and Stone, ahead. When he walked into the store, he approached the front counter, which was where the heated voices were drawing attention from customers and passersby alike.

Jenkins and Stone formed a human barrier between the couple and Mack, who was behind the counter. Jenkins was focused on the couple, talking in a soothing voice that was barely audible under the boom of Mack’s screams. As he spoke to the man and woman, he put a gentle hand on each of their shoulders as a means of reassuring them. They didn’t seem to be hostile at all, responding to Jenkins in hushed tones that were equally hard to hear.

Stone, on the other hand, had a much more challenging task. Although he was a muscular Hispanic man with a shaved head and a dagger tattoo on his forearm, Mack was not intimidated. Between taking gulps of water, Mack screamed over Stone, hurling insults at the younger man and threatening to jump over the counter. At one point, Mack even raised a leg, but his overhanging belly -the size of a baby elephant- prevented him from getting his leg high enough to straddle the countertop. It was the reddening face and the spittle flying from his mouth that told Saunderson that Stone was more in need of his help.

“What’s going on here?”

“Josh, thank God,” Stone said, exasperation clear in his voice. “I can’t get him to stop ranting long enough to tell me what’s what.”

“Mack, what’s happening here?” Josh turned his attention to the store owner, who had only ceased his ranting upon hearing his name. “What’s got you so upset?”

The store owner seemed stunned by the tone of Josh’s voice and simply stared blankly at him for more than a few seconds. In that time, Josh was able to get a better impression of what was really happening. He saw that Mack, a morbidly obese man of more than 50 years of age, was dripping sweat like he’d just finished running a marathon. There were water bottles scattered all over the counter, most empty and the others half or three-quarters empty. The cooler next to the registers, which stored single-serve bottles of water and soda for customer purchase, had been tipped partially to the left. It sat at an angle because a full water bottle had rolled underneath and was now lodged between the cooler and the checkered carpet. Even as Mack’s gaze darted back and forth between Stone and Josh, he frantically double-fisted bottles of water.

“Near as I can figure, the dispute started when this here couple tried to buy a case of water,” Jenkins interjected.

“Water,” panted Mack suddenly.

“What about the water?”

Josh was suddenly more concerned than he had been as he his eyes moved over the scene and caught sight of the discarded case of bottled water on the floor. The packaging was twisted and torn to suggest it had been hurled several feet, possibly with the intention of hitting one or both of the customers. The Silver Lake police chief crouched down to pick up a full bottle of water among the bottles scattered across several feet of the store’s floor. He looked intently at the bottle.

“The water...I need...”

Those were the last four words Mack spoke before his jaw fell slack and his eyes, red with tears, bulged from their sockets. Seconds later, he seemed to have disappeared as he fell flat onto the floor behind the counter. Josh was the first to react, hurtling the counter with the intention of starting CPR on the store owner. What he found upon landing on the opposite side of the counter stopped him from even touching the big, burly man. A sound that resembled the crackling of an old leather jacket echoed in that enclosed space. A moment later, Mack’s chest and his big, pot belly seemed to fall inward, releasing a cloud of brown dust. In turn, that cloud of dust rose up, carrying the stench of rotted meat with it, until the air from the store’s HVAC ducts forced the cloud to dissipate. The foul odor was a little more stubborn, lingering in the area surrounding the counter.

Mack poked his head up and nodded towards Jenkins. “They can go.”

“Thank you, sir,” the young man shouted, using a hand to push the woman towards the door.

Once he heard the couple’s sports car peel out of the gravel driveway and take off for parts unknown, Josh called Jenkins closer. He was using a king-sized chocolate bar to poke around inside the splayed chest cavity. Instead of organs, the three officers looked down into the corpse and studied mounds of brown dust. There was no blood, nor any other kind of moisture to be found in even the tiniest droplets. It was as though Mack had been cooked from the inside.

“Jenkins, get on the radio and get a bus over here quick. I want this body out of here before word spreads about this...whatever it is.” He glanced up at his other officer. “You make sure everyone is out of here and lock every entrance. We’ve got to solve this mystery fast.”

***

As it turned out, the rush to solve this particular mystery wasn’t at all necessary. Mack’s case wasn’t the only one in Silver Lake and it wasn’t long before the entire community was aware that something was going on. A discussion with the mayor resulted in a policy of revealing only that which was necessary to help the residents stay as safe as possible. Josh issued a notice to the Silver Lake Gazette that advised everyone to stay in their homes as much as possible, adding that the investigation was underway and more information would be revealed as soon as they gathered additional facts.

While there was some criticism over the vague nature of the statement, Josh found it to be truer than most of the townsfolk knew. In the days following Mack’s attack, very little had been turned up concerning the cause. All they really knew was that it was some kind of virus and even that hypothesis was starting to seem more unlikely as people in isolated conditions were found to be victims of the event. There seemed to be no reason to the spread of the condition, which affected more and more people as the days progressed. It was hard to say how many fell prey to the condition; most folks were heeding the warning to stay indoors and that made it more difficult to count those still among the living.

Josh’s focus was on finding the cause of the trouble, but no one on his staff had found anything unusual to explain the sudden occurrences. There hadn’t been any accidents, chemical leaks, or fallen meteors to explain where a previously unseen virus might have come from. It just seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and nothing had been discovered to contradict the idea that Mack had been its first victim. That led Josh to start interviewing the store’s other employees.

“Am I in some kind of trouble?” The 16-year-old cashier nervously blew a bubble, twirled the gnarled pink gum around her pinky, and sucked it back into her mouth to start blowing a new bubble. Her eyes looked moist, like tears might start falling at the slightest provocation. “Maybe I should call my parents.”

“You’re not in any trouble, Tina.” Josh sat on the edge of the grey, metal table just a few inches from the girl and gave her his most trustworthy smile. He let the gesture drop as he recalled a conversation in which Stone informed him that his smile was kind of creepy and not at all capable of engendering trust. “You didn’t have anything to do with what happened to Mack, did you?”

“Me? No.”

“That’s all we want to talk to you about. That would be okay, wouldn’t it?”

“I guess.” She shrugged, but she still seemed nervous. “Only I don’t know anything. He seemed fine all day. He was fine when he came to give me my break. I didn’t even know anything was wrong until I got back to the store and Jenkins was there to tell me to go home.”

“What about during your shift? Did you see Mack do anything unusual?”

“Not at all.”

“Was he drinking a lot of water?”

“Not really.” She rolled her eyes as though recalling her memories. “Well, I guess that was kind of weird. He did have a bottle of water with him when he came to break me. I only remember because he’s usually guzzling some kind of cola, or energy drinks.”

Josh nodded. “I guess that’s all I need to know. You can take off, Tina.”

Stone entered the interrogation room just as Tina was making a hasty exit. “No luck?”

“Not much. She had the same story as the other employees. The only difference is she remembered Mack drinking a bottle of water earlier in the day, but that might not mean much.”

“This might be something. A Roberta Phillips called for you. She asked if you could stop by Smart Cures over on Elm and Main.”

Josh stared blankly at his second in command.

“That’s where we sent the blood samples for analysis.”

“Oh,” he responded, suddenly recalling the name of the hematologist he’d spoken to over the phone on a few different occasions. “I’ll head over there right now.”

Stone grabbed Josh by the shoulder as he passed him and stepped out into the hallway. “Josh, she sounded kind of jittery. Be careful.”

By the time Josh pulled the marked police SUV into the Smart Cures paved lot, Stone’s warning had echoed in his mind uncounted times. To be fair, everyone was a little on edge. There was little known about the disease that was affecting the people of Silver Lake other than the horrific symptoms that seemed to come on so suddenly. It wasn’t ridiculous to think this disease could spread far beyond the city limits, if it hadn’t already, and turn into a widespread epidemic. Even considering that grave potential, the idea that a hematologist, someone who made their career out of studying blood-borne illnesses, was noticeably jittery left Josh feeling a little nervous, himself.

As he climbed out of the SUV, he unbuttoned the holster for his handgun and lifted the weapon’s handle just a little. Satisfied that he could draw the weapon easily and quickly if necessary, he made his way across the parking lot and stopped at the building’s outer glass door. He pulled a little too hard, expecting the door to be unlocked, and felt the muscle in his shoulder stretch at the resistance offered by the locked door. Next, he put his hands up against the glass to block his reflection and peered inside. No one was within sight.

Josh knocked hard on the glass.

“Hello,” he shouted. “Roberta? Roberta Phillips?”

A few seconds later, a tall, thin woman hurriedly weaved between the desks that cluttered the outer office area. She had long, brown hair that might have been mildly wavy on a good day, but, today, it was frizzled and each strand seemed to have a life of its own. Her thick-framed glasses were sitting on the edge of her nose, magnifying her chestnut-colored eyes, and her white lab coat flew behind her like a villain’s cape. There was visible concern in her furrowed brow as she unlocked and swung open the glass door.

“Come in! Come in,” she urged him, securing the lock as soon as Josh made his way past her. “Thank God you’re finally here.”

Josh followed the woman, who seemed as mousy and nervous as the stereotypical clinical scientist. They made their way through the sea of desks, down a narrow corridor, and into a large bay of laboratories. Each lab was separated from the others by its own self-contained cube of glass and steel. Ventilation systems and the accompanying ducts were separate for each work area. They zigzagged between these stations until they arrived at one at the farthest end of the bay. Once there, the woman pulled out her giant ring of keys, fumbled with them nervously, and, finding the one she wanted, tried to force the key into the lock with her shaking hand.

“Roberta, are you okay? You seem...a little unsettled.”

“Unsettled? Ha!” Her voice seemed especially loud in the confined workspace and the amusement didn’t sit well on her face. “Just you wait! You’ll be unsettled too!”

“What’s this all about?” Thinking about it, Josh suddenly wondered if he could trust anything she showed him in her current state. “Maybe I should just call someone for you. A boyfriend? Girlfriend? Parent?”

“Therapist?” She chuckled loudly at the thought. “Yes, a therapist will fix everything, I’m sure.”

Josh didn’t respond, mostly because he really didn’t know what to say.

“When was the last time you drank any water?” She looked him up and down. “Nevermind. It doesn’t matter. If you’re infected, it’s too late.”

“What in God’s name are you going on about?”

“I have something to show you!” She thrust a capped bottle of water toward him, which was just about halfway empty. As she held it just two or three inches from his eyes, she shook it frantically. “Look!”

After a minute, he shrugged. “It’s water. So?”

“Oh my God! Look at the water!” Again, she shook the bottled wildly and held it in front of his eyes. “Do you see?”

He thought she was out of her mind, so, while his eyes were looking straight at the bottle, he wasn’t really focusing on the water. Mostly, Josh was just humoring the crazed woman until he could figure out a way to call and get her some help without alarming her. That was the plan...until his eye caught movement in the bottle. It wasn’t the lazy drip you’d expect to see with droplets of water running down the wall of the bottle. No, these were fast movements and the beads of water weren’t falling down the plastic wall. They were darting back and forth, moving like crazed fish trying to find an escape from their tank. Josh jumped back as one droplet bounced up out of the water and flew at the inside surface of the bottle’s cap.

“What the fuck was that,” he screamed. “Jesus Christ!”

Roberta flashed a satisfied smile. “Still want to call the white coats for me?”

“No,” Josh exclaimed. “What the hell is that?”

“You haven’t seen anything yet.” Roberta set the bottle inside a glass tank. The tank was used for examining bacterial specimens that typically needed to be destroyed afterwards. There was a control station and one of the buttons on the console was marked FLASH. Once the bottle was sitting upright in the tank, she sealed the cover. “Watch.”

“What am I looking for?”

“You’ll see.”

Josh gave his full attention to the demonstration this time. He even concentrated on not blinking for fear he might miss some seconds-long revelation. He needn’t have worried. Right before his eyes, the level of water in the bottle gradually decreased as though he watched a time lapse video of water evaporating. When it finally stopped, there was just a thin layer of water in the bottle, no more than a quarter of an inch deep. He quickly learned that the remaining liquid wasn’t water. It quickly separated into hundreds, possibly thousands, of water droplets and those drops attacked the plastic walls of the bottle in an instant. It was like watching a school of piranha attack a leg of lamb. The bottle crinkled and crumbled under the pressure, finally allowing the “water drops” to escape their prison. At that moment, Roberta slammed her fist down on the FLASH button and the contents of the tank were instantly incinerated.

“So, what do we do now?” Josh felt energized. The hope that this new knowledge represented was enough to send a spike of adrenaline running through his veins as he envisioned Roberta’s research leading to a viable solution. He wasn’t sure what that solution might be, but, if Roberta could learn as much as she had, a cure or vaccine couldn’t be far behind. At any rate, this was the most he’d learned about the situation since it all began. “What precautions do you suggest?”

“Precautions?”

“Yes,” Josh exclaimed, audibly annoyed. She seemed to be intentionally obtuse. What was even more irritating than that was that she didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm, or any hope at all. In fact, she seemed dour and far less motivated than he expected. “Precautions! Obviously warning people not to drink water for the time being is one. What else?”

“Ha!” Her eyes grew big and she seemed to get that wild, untamed spirit about her again. “This is so much bigger! You have no idea!”

Although Josh had initially mistaken that demeanor for insanity, he now saw that it was simply the passion she had for her work. “Explain it to me.”

“This isn’t just about not drinking water. Even people who live unhealthy lives and never touch a single bottle of water will come into contact with water every single day, countless times, and even more than they realize. These creatures came from our own oceans and there’s no limit to their population as far as I can tell. They’re in the pipes now! They come to use in our showers, as we brush our teeth, and in the coffee we drink! You’re exposed when you go for a swim, or cook a meal. We’re exposed to water constantly and we don’t even realize it. There’s nothing to be done.”

Roberta went to the refrigerator in the corner of her office. There, she took three bottles of water from the second shelf, which was full with the bottles. She set two of the bottles on the table that now stood between Josh and herself. Before anything could be said, she chugged the full contents of water from the bottle she held in her hand.

“Roberta!”

“You don’t get it, Chief. We’re already infected, or contaminated. Infested, inhabited, or whatever you want to call it.”

“What if you could keep drinking enough water to keep these things satisfied. At least until a solution could be found?”

Josh wasn’t just concerned for his community any longer. He’d grown to like the eccentric girl in the short time he’d known her and the thought of her falling victim to these creatures seemed too cruel to contemplate. Yet, here she was chugging a second bottle of water as if she’d just crossed a desert.

“There are a few problems with that scenario. First, each time you drink more water, you’re ingesting more creatures. That speeds up the rate of dehydration and gives those bastards less moisture to absorb between them. Secondly, even if you could keep up with their thirst, water toxemia is just as fatal as these creatures.”

Roberta chugged a third bottle of water.

“Either way, I’ll die soon.”

She poured the water from a fourth bottle down her gullet without taking a break.

Throughout her speech and the consumption of those full bottles of water, Josh stood gawking at her in a horrified stupor. At first, he wasn’t sure he hadn’t been imagining things. The laugh lines that framed her lips seemed to deepen within seconds. Next, he watched crow’s feet form at the corner of each eye where her skin had previously been unblemished. Before long, there were roadmaps forming in the skin of her cheeks, forehead, and chin. Even her hands seemed to age decades in just a few seconds. Then, as if a magician had waved his wand from a secret location, Roberta was instantly gone. Her clothes billowed and floated to the floor as Josh stood staring in disbelief.

He walked around the table to look at Roberta’s remains, but not out of idle curiosity. He wanted to see if those creatures had survived the devastation they had wrought. He expected to see animated water droplets defying gravity and racing away from the pile of brownish-grey dust that had once been Roberta Phillips. He saw no signs of the intruders fleeing the scene of the crime, however. Just abandoned clothes and a mountain of human ash. The creatures had died with their victim, deprived of the moisture they relied upon for their existence.

Josh now realized that Roberta had been right about it being too late. Even before Mack had died a horrifying death in the middle of his grocery store, they had all been infected. It was equally likely that the young couple who stopped for a case of water on their way through town had now helped to spread the creatures beyond the Silver Lake city limits. The hematologist had been right about everything, including the fact that there could be no eleventh hour rescue.

Realizing the lab held no more answers for him, Josh decided to head back to the station. On his way out of Roberta’s workspace, he grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator.

His thirst had just begun.

fiction

E.J. V'Kanty

Writer, reader, horror enthusiast, animal lover

You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, & MeWe

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