It’s the Water

There’d been twelve of us at first. “The dirty dozen,” Krasner named us, because we were always covered in soot and smelled like shit. Not that anyone gave a rat’s ass about those kinds of things anymore. When the time came to venture out, we drew straws to choose who’d be the first to search for food and water—to see what was out there. And to report back. Only no one ever returned. Zimmerman was the first. We waited seven days for him to come back. After that, our wait times were shorter. Not because we wanted to go outside. No one did. But because we didn’t have a choice. What little food we had was running out faster than expected. And when we caught Green sneaking more than her share, we sent her out next. No straws needed. A unanimous vote.

“Thief,” yelled Wilson as Green slipped through the crack.

“Traitor,” added Singh.

At least we have one less mouth to feed, I thought, using my teeth to tear off a hunk of dried-out jerky.

There were five of us left when I drew the short straw. Something about the process reminded me of Russian roulette. I was bound to be on the losing end of the draw sooner or later. Pow. We all were. I buttoned up my tattered army jacket, pulled my frayed cap tight on my head, and made my way to the edge of the crack.

“See you soon,” I said, turning back for one last look at the four other survivors. It wasn’t likely that we’d see each other again, but they all nodded their heads in agreement anyway. How frail they all are, I thought as I stepped through.

The first thing I noticed was that it was surprisingly warm outside for the dead of winter. It should be snowing, I thought, unfastening the topmost button of my jacket and inhaling the gritty air. Something unseen skittered to my left, seemingly coming from the burnt-out chassis of a military vehicle. I moved into position to defend myself, glowering at the unknown and waiting for whatever it was to show itself, but nothing did. Maybe it’s just the wind, I thought, undoing another button and continuing forward over the rubble, careful not to tweak an ankle or cut myself on a jagged edge. After walking for about an hour, I spotted a clump of palm trees in the distance. The leaves swayed in the breeze, beckoning for me to keep coming. Is it a mirage? I wondered. A trap? I rubbed my eyes and shook my head to clear away the cobwebs. “They’re still there,” I whispered, expecting the inviting trees to disappear at any instant.

I knew it wasn’t a mirage when I heard the water. It was a trickle at first that grew steadily louder with each passing step. Then I saw the cool dark blue of the pond. Overcome by thirst, I broke into a sprint and jumped in feetfirst, without even stopping to take off my clothes. It felt cold and refreshing, and I stayed under for as long as I could, the soot and grime washing off my body. After coming up for air, I cupped the water in my hands and drank in large gulps until I had my fill. Then I floated on my back and spat a stream straight up into the air like a fountain in a public square.

I didn’t see them until I clambered out of the pond. They were all there. All my predecessors. Zimmerman, Green, Krasner, Singh, and the rest. One by one they’d come the same way, lured by the trees and the promise of water. And one by one, they all drank it down until their bellies were full. “The water,” I murmured, staring at their bodies in various stages of decomposition. Without warning, a piercing jolt of pain ricocheted in the pit of my stomach and dropped me to the ground. “It’s the water!” I wanted to scream so loud my companions back in the bunker would hear me. But they were miles away, and I was seconds from joining my fellow searchers, my last anguished gasps carried away on the warm, silent, radioactive breeze.