“Dry” is a short story inspired by a nightmare wherein I died of thirst. Incidentally, did you know the mega-rich are buying up freshwater sources?
It started like any other Saturday in June, the hottest month of the year. Blistering Oklahoma heat filtered through the open window. Cassandra luxuriated in the warmth for a moment longer before rising out of bed. She could hear her children, twins Sam and Sophie, playing outside with the neighbor kids.
The smell of breakfast wafted towards her.
“Cass, are you up yet?” her husband Luke called. “I’ve made breakfast!”
Still in her pajamas, she wandered into the dining room.
“You’ve out done yourself,” said Cass, gazing at the sizzling bacon, piles of fluffy pancakes, fruit salad, and tortilla de patata. “This looks delicious!”
He bussed her cheek then said, “You work hard for this family everyday. I wanted to give you something special this morning.” He began shoveling food onto a plate and she sat down at the table.
But when he the plate down before her, she frowned. The fruit – it was hard and dry. So were the eggs. “Has the fruit gone bad already?”
“What do you mean?” said Luke.
She palmed a strawberry. “It’s as hard as a rock!” She tossed it to him, but he rolled it around in his hand.
He popped it in his mouth. “Seems fine to me.” But she heard it cracking in his mouth.
“Luke, that strawberry sounds like it broke your teeth.”
“No, it’s delicious. Are you okay? Still groggy?”
Confused, she looked back at the fruit salad. “Uh, yeah, I’m fine.”
“Here – let me get you some coffee.”
Within moments, Luke presented her with a cup full of coffee granules, sugar, and a crusty goop that was less like milk and more like dough.
“I appreciate you making breakfast, but I’m not going to drink that.”
He looked hurt. “What’s wrong with it? I made it the way you like it – coffee, cocoa powder, sugar, milk!”
“I’ll just have some water.”
This time, he gave her a ceramic cup.
“It’s empty,” she said.
“No, it’s not.”
“Then you drink it!”
He snatched the cup from her and swung it back. She watched his glottis move up and down, as if he was swallowing something besides air. He dropped the cup on the table, wiped his mouth with the other hand. A challenge was in his eyes.
She glanced at the cup again. Dry.
Suddenly shaking, she said, “Okay. Okay! I’m going to brush my teeth and take a shower. Maybe I’m just still sleepy.”
He watched her recede into the bathroom. She closed the door and exhaled. Get it together, Cassandra.
She reached for her toothbrush. She turned on the faucet. A plume of dust rushed out. Her heart pounded in her ears. Even the toilet bowl was dry. She burst out of the bathroom calling, “Luke, the water has been turned off!”
“What do you mean?” he said, emerging from the kitchen. “I paid the bill this month.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot? Cassandra, what has gotten into you?”
“Just come here and look!”
She led him into the bathroom. The faucet was on, but it only released red dirt. “Well?”
He ran his hands through the dust, splashed it on his face, grabbed a toothbrush and paste. He brushed his teeth with dirt. “I think you’re seeing things. You’re hallucinating. Didn’t you say schizophrenia runs in your family?”
Shocked, Cassandra said, “My step-father had schizophrenia. And he never hallucinated!”
He shrugged. “You should see Doctor Litman. Just to be sure.”
Maybe he’s right. She went back to the dining room and found the phone. She dialed Doctor Litman’s office and while she was on hold, something caught her eye.
Through the window, she saw Sophie and Sam in the sun’s golden heat. It was so hot the sky was bleached white. Their clothes were wet with sweat.
Then she saw it: a lawn sprinkler. It turned and the children turned with it. But nothing was coming out. The sprinkler was dry.
She tapped her foot as she waited for her name to be called.
Sitting beside her was a young mother with a baby. She held a bottle to the baby’s lips. But the bottle was filled with goop.
“Cassandra Stevenson?” called the doctor. Cassie rushed away from the young mother.
“So, you’re having hallucinations,” said Doctor Litman. He peered at her earnestly. She blushed beneath his gaze.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“You guess so?”
“I have no history of hallucinations. And they are so…believable, consistent.” She tried to explain what she had seen that morning. With each word, she felt crazier and crazier.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mrs. Litman.” He pointed to the faucet, turned it on. Dust. “See? Water.”
A lump formed in her throat.
“Listen,” said the doctor. “What makes more sense: that you alone can see something that no one else can. Or that you are hallucinating?”
He nodded. “I see no evidence of brain abnormalities. I recommend you see a psychiatrist. And I know just the one. Don’t worry, Mrs. Litman.” He wrote something down, then handed it to her. “Josephine Windham. She will help you.”
Before Cassie left, the doctor said, “Just remember to stay hydrated.” He chuckled. “Ironically there have been a lot of people coming in with dehydration symptoms. It’s hot out here, you know?”
Walking back to her car, Cassie rolled the paper with the phone number in her palm, over and over, until it was a sphere. She squeezed it. The street was lined with oak trees, but their leaves were limp, weak.
When she made it to her car, she stared into the white sky. Birds hung listlessly in the sky above her. She wished she could ask them if they were thirsty. Instead, she dialed the psychologist’s number. She’ll tell me I’m hallucinating…maybe prescribe something.
“Ms. Windham? My name is Cassandra Stevenson. Doctor Litman recommended you.”
“Hm, that name sounds familiar.” Pause. “Oh, yes, he just called me about you! Can you come in today?”
Cassandra hesitated. She thought she heard Josephine’s tongue sticking to her mouth. “Um, sure.”
“…Oh, what was I saying? Sorry, I just have a horrible headache.”
“Must be the heat. What time should we meet today?”
“Oh…uh, how does two hours from now sound?”
“Fantastic,” Cassie said through her teeth.
On the drive home, the traffic came to a halt. A parade of firetrucks blared down the street. Swirling behind the buildings of downtown Oklahoma City, Cassie saw a plume of smoke. The acrid stench of fire stung her nostrils.
Finally, the traffic was moving again. She craned her neck to see the flames, but to no avail. She exhaled a breath she didn’t know she was holding.
She piled out of the car and was struck by the sun’s arrows. The neighbor’s lawn sprinkler continued chk-chking across the grass, but it was still dry. The kids were gone.
Stepping inside – before she even shed her shoes – she spotted Sam and Sophie at the kitchen counter. They were pale and shaking beneath the ceiling fan.
“Kids, what happened? Are you okay?”
Luke emerged, holding two glasses, empty. “They’re just a little overheated, aren’t you, kids?”
Sam nodded, but Sophie looked as if she might puke.
“Well, give them something to drink!”
Luke dropped the glasses on the table. “What do you think I’m doing?”
Sam and Sophie raised the empty glasses to their lips and “drank” with the gusto of someone dying of thirst. She felt her heart race. “What are you doing, Luke? You’re going to kill them! Give them something to drink, goddamn it!”
She ran to the refrigerator and pulled out a carton of milk. It glopped around in the container, but she poured it in their glasses anyway.
Luke grabbed her arm. “Cassie, what did the doctor say?”
She felt tears sting her eyes. “…He said…”
“Okay. Okay! Just calm down. Sam and Sophie will be all right. If they don’t recover soon, I’ll take them to the hospital, okay?”
She nodded again.
“It’s hot outside. They just need a little rest. And I bet you do to.”
She sat down at the table and pretended everything was okay. After a few minutes, the kids were up again.
“Do you feel better?” Cassie asked them.
They were still pale, still shaking, but Sam said, “Yeah, I’m fine.”
And Sophie said, “I want to go outside in the sprinkler again!”
“No! Enough of that. I want you to stay inside for now – ”
“Oh, Cassandra,” said Luke. “Let them play with their friends! It’s summertime!”
She bit her lip. Hallucinations. She nodded.
And then it was time to see Dr. Windham. She didn’t tell her husband where she was going. He already thinks I’m crazy.
She drove through Downtown again. The smell of smoke continued wafting through the mirrored buildings. Traffic crawled by. Someone in an adjacent car took a swig from an empty water bottle.
My husband thinks I’m crazy. Maybe I really am.
Josephine Windham was ecstatic to see her. She tossed the doors of her office open and smiled, exposing pearlescent teeth. Her eyes were guileless, large and dark. Cassie almost felt at ease. But then Dr. Windham said, “Er, what was your name again?”
She scrambled back to her desk, which was remarkably disheveled. “I’m so sorry about this. I’m usually so organized. But lately I’ve been feeling more and more…what’s the word…?”
Doctor Windham laughed. It was a nice sound, but it sent a chill down Cassie’s spine. “Yeah! Isn’t that ironic. Won’t you sit down?” She gestured to a plush love seat. Cassie acquiesced.
“So, Cassandra, why don’t you tell me…uh…why don’t you…”
Cassie frowned. Josephine Windham blinked rapidly. She saw a pulse in the doctor’s neck, rapid, too rapid. Her eyes weren’t dark – her pupils were hugely dilated.
“Why don’t you tell me what brings you to my office.”
“Everyone says I’m hallucinating. But I’m not. The whole world is dry and no one seems to notice.”
Doctor Windham knit her brow. “Dry…? What do you mean?”
Cassie felt something inside her like a coiled spring. She pointed to the empty water cooler but said nothing.
“Are you thirsty?” said Dr. Windham.
“I should ask you the same thing.”
“There’s nothing in it, goddamn it! It’s dry – the water cooler is dry! Can’t you see that?”
Slowly the doctor turned her head. “I just had that thing refilled today.”
“You don’t see it,” Cassie breathed. “Doctor Litman said a lot of people are coming in with dehydration lately – ”
“It’s so hot – ”
“It is not just the heat!” Cassie screamed. “There is no water.” She levelled her finger at the oak trees that brushed the window. “Even the trees are wilting. Why is everyone pretending like everything is okay?”
“This is an intense…er, delusion…you are experiencing – ”
“I’m NOT crazy!” said Cassie. She jumped to her feet, knocking over a table topped with a vase. Shards of ceramic clattered across the floor. Cassie took a menacing step toward Doctor Windham. She stabbed her finger at the doctor. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you lying?”
But something wasn’t right. Dr. Windham drooped, pale and shaking, in her chair. She blinked. Her eyes were dry. Cassie wished she knew what the symptoms of dehydration were.
“Doctor Windham…can’t you feel it? When was the last time you drank anything?”
“…I had some…water, a big glass, just before you came – ”
The doctor parted her mouth as if to speak. Instead, a wave of vomit rushed out. Cassie flinched, looked away.
“Oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry!” said Doctor Windham. She stood up.
She fell face-first onto the plush red carpet.
Cassie gripped the steering wheel with fists so tight her knuckles blanched. The accusations of the police still rang in her ears.
What business did you have with Doctor Windham?
Are you aware that she wrote in her notes that you were becoming violent?
Hallucinations, huh? So, are you crazy?
You look pale. Feeling guilty?
She called her husband. But he didn’t answer. She sat in traffic and stared at the column of smoke that blotted the horizon, so dark she could not see the blue sky. She called again. No answer. Another firetruck zoomed past her.
She called once more, this time left a message: “Why won’t you answer? Luke, what’s going on?” She felt her face turn red. Her eyes burned. “She died, Luke. She died right in front of me. And the police thought I had something to do with it!” The spring inside her snapped. She cried, but no tears fell from her eyes. She howled in pain, but she was dry. “She died of dehydration. Where is all the water?”
Night fell by the time she reached her home. The windows were dark. The garage was empty.
When she unlocked the door, instead of her family, a note greeted her on the wall. It read:
S & S are really sick. I had to take them to the hospital.
Cassie raced through the doors of the hospital, screaming, “Where are they? Where are my children?”
An orderly placed two strong hands on her shoulders. “Ma’am, you need to calm down.”
She realized everyone in the room turned to stare at her. Hundreds of people cluttered the hospital floor. She spotted the woman and baby from earlier. The baby wouldn’t stop crying.
Cassie felt her tongue sticking in her mouth. The smell of smoke bit her nose. “What’s going on? Why are there so many people here?”
“There’s been an epidemic of dehydration. It’s just so hot – people aren’t drinking enough fluids.”
Cassie couldn’t breathe. “My children. My husband said they were – ”
At that moment, she turned her head to see Luke in an adjacent room. He was pink. He cried, but his eyes were dry. He spotted her, waved her over.
“Luke, what is going on? Where are Sam and Sophie?”
Before he could answer, a doctor entered the room. She eyed Cassie suspiciously, saying, “And you are?”
“I’m Cassandra Stevenson, Sam and Sophie’s mother! Tell me what the hell is going on!”
The doctor sighed. “It’s just like everyone else. Tingling limbs. Dim vision. Memory problems. Muscle spasms. Vomiting. Fever.” She glanced up from her notes. “Dehydration.”
Cassie felt like screaming. “Give them something to drink!”
“Ingesting fluids wouldn’t help at this point, I’m afraid. They’ve already begun to lose consciousness – ”
“I have to go see them!” Cassie cried.
“They are in critical care. I prescribed a round of IV fluids. But I’m afraid it’s not doing much good at the moment.”
“It’s because the water is gone!” Cassie screamed. The doctor raised her eyebrows.
Luke stepped in front of Cassie. He grabbed her hands. His face was covered with dust. “Now is not the time for your insanity! I thought the psychologist was helping you with that.”
“I’m not insane!” She wanted to cry, but no tears came. “What is wrong with all of you? Why can’t you see – ”
A siren began blaring.
“Fire alarm,” muttered the doctor.
“Luke, the children!”
“They will be okay,” said the doctor. “We have an evacuation protocol.”
He squeezed her hand. Together, they forced their way through the crush of people. Babies screamed.
Hand intertwined within her husband’s, Cassie stood across the street as the fire fighters doused the flames with air and dust.