An excerpt from Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok.
How it happened:
It happened slowly. The fishermen called the rogue and unpredictable changes at sea El Pescadero. Winds came from differing directions, currents looped back on themselves, temperatures fluctuated. It wasn’t seasonal like El Niño, though at first everyone thought it was. It didn’t go away. Governments fought bitterly about whose fault was whose, and who ought to do what about it.
Along with El Pescadero came an increase in oceanic salinity. There were lots of theories there. When you swam in the ocean, the new buoyancy was subtle, but pleasurable.
The bone-dry summers of the west lingered deeper and deeper into winter. Everyone could see that the snow pack was melting. When was the snow pack not melting? All you had to do was look up at any of the balding mountains.
Then the great Deschutes River, elegant and fast, a river which cut across the Oregon desert like a streak of lightning across a dull gray sky, dried up in a single summer.
The farms that depended upon it followed suit. There were strikes and protests. Blood was spilled. Then, quickly, other rivers diminished.
Finally, the greatest of them all, the Columbia River, its sources choked in mud, leaked its deathsong through the gorge, and became only a scaly alligator skin of memory. In its wake, valleys turned to deserts, fertile farms to dust, and the great migration East began.
As the hordes of Droudies poured into the Midwest and Eastern United States and the last of the surface water seeped deep into the ground, anger over the millions of incoming refugees escalated. Finally, borders along the Rocky Mountains were sealed to Westerners and a meager aid strategy was conceived by the bankrupt government for the many millions abandoned to their dry fates out west.
It was morning and the power was not yet on. Zach and Renee lay in the heat of the bed listening to the city wake outside the building’s windows.
“We should learn how to rain-dance,” Renee said. They were new to the relationship, and she could feel his hesitance to speak, the tentativeness to him, as if she were some toothy, unpredictable animal he’d invited into his house. She pressed her lips into his shoulder and wanted to bite him there. His skin left a taste of salt on her lips.
“Why don’t you?” Zach said.
Zach stared at the ceiling, and she stared at him, with his short-cropped head and monkish demeanor, as if he lived his life in servitude to some greater thing, the identity of which she had yet to figure out. “I’m thinking of turning to crime instead.”
“You’d be good at it,” he said. He was never sure how serious she was. He made two pistols of his hands and pow-powed the ceiling. “But you’d need a mask and a horse, obviously.”
An eerie clop clop clop sounded through the open window and they looked at each other in amazement.
“A horse!” she said. “You’re a conjurer!”
But instead it was a big moose that stumbled along the dusty street, its skin tight over its ribs. Its head jerked left and right in anxious, almost animatronic movements.
“Oh no,” Renee said, “I fucking hate this. Josh saw a bear two days ago—I told you?”
They watched it continue down the street until a shot rang out. The moose’s body jerked and sidestepped strangely and then there was another shot.
“That’s a whole shit ton of extra food rations if they can store it,” Zach said as they watched men close in on it. “God knows how they’ll store it.” The moose stumbled again on a third shot but continued on. “They’ve got to get a straight shot in.”
“I can’t watch,” Renee said. She climbed back in bed and spoke to Zach’s shirtless back as he watched the moose fall and the hunters try to drag the animal to the side of the road. “Hunters in the streets.”
“Dying of thirst has got to be worse,” Zach said.
“What’s happening? Tell me what’s happening.”
“They can’t lift it, one of its legs is kicking.”
“My coworker had to kill his dog,” Zach said. He’s a total mess about it.”
“He was a big dog. He drank over twenty units a day and was getting aggressive about his share.”
“I don’t buy it,” Renee said. “The moose maybe, but not your own dog. Next is your neighbor, then your children and your wife. It’s like a spider that cuts her own webbing.”
“You think I’m in danger, as his coworker?”
“Oh, you’re in danger alright.”
Zach turned and looked at her and she winked at him. She was naked with the sheet pulled to the top of her thighs. She had unraveled her braids for him the night before, and her hair spilled across her arms and his pillow.
“You’re not watching anymore?” she said.
“No.” He pulled his gallon off the dresser and poured them each a unit, a little less than half a cup. He handed her one and sat on the edge of the bed, placing one hand on her thigh, the heat of it warming his hand through the sheet. He stared into the shallow cup of water and thought of the moose’s stutter-step as it was shot, and wondered if he would know when he was the moose—the animal too lost and thirsty for reason, stumbling toward annihilation.
He was still thirsty after he’d finished. Renee stared into her cup as if awaiting a divination there. It was an effort not to refill his. Rations were two unit gallons per day. His measure of making it: if at the end of the day he had a few units of savings leftover.
He watched her sit up in bed. She divvied her hair into two halves and proceeded to rework each half into long, black braids. He was so taken with her. He wished the job of braiding would never end, so he could keep on watching.
“Come back in here,” she said when she’d finished.
“I’ve got to work,” he said, but made no movement toward it. He was one of the few people he knew who had a job.
“Nah. When the power goes on, we can pretend then. We can go about the day. Until then, let’s be here.”
He stood over the bed indecisively for a moment until she got a crab-claw hold on his wrist and pulled him back in. There was a struggle with the sheet as she worked at getting it flattened out and repositioned over them just so and he held still and grinned as she worried it. When it was finally to her liking, they lay side by side, the sheet pulled to their chins, and were quiet.
He found her hand under the covers. Next to him was the girl who’d served him coffee at the café down the block for over a year, the one he’d thought about at work, at night, in bed. The one he never got it together enough to approach for more than a cup of coffee. The girl he’d listened to as she talked to customers, weaving in eloquent yarns that inevitably turned to history: the collapse of the Bronze Age, the Mongol empire, the Polish peasant revolt, the Mayan uprising against the Spanish, and with each story he overheard he felt himself able to say less to her, his tongue tangled with awe.
Then two weeks ago the café was shut down and she walked home with him on her last day. At his door, he’d said, “I’d like it if you’d come inside.” He still winced at the blunt, sad honesty of the line. She’d smiled as if it were really that easy and said sure.
She unfolded the corner of the sheet and reached to the bedside table next to her. “I have wet wipes!” she said. She handed him one and took one for herself. Then she submerged under the sheet with it, and he could feel the wet, cleansing and titillating trail she made with it down his chest, and then further. He reached for any part of her, first the back of her neck, then her arm, later her thigh when that surfaced from under the sheet, and then between.
When they finished she squeezed his hand tight and they were silent. After a while she said, “We’re going to do a robbery. Josh and I and a couple others.”
“Black Bloc Josh? From the rezoning riot?” he said. He let go of her hand and crossed his arms over his chest. Josh had been a regular at the café, who with a few others had held regular meetings in which they bitched overmuch about the state of the world, with no small amount of bravado. He sat near them once, listening in, watching Renee among the group. They all seemed hardened. Two men and two women, dirty and browned by sun, lean and fierce-looking. In his mind they were like a tribe of warriors; the men were real men and next to them, Zach felt like a boy. He wasn’t sure what they’d been before: wilderness guides maybe, or labor organizers, or electricians. They certainly hadn’t been ad writers. If he were to be honest, he realized he’d hoped never to hear of them again.
“A truck,” she said. “We won’t take a lot—it’s a message.”
“Renee—please.” He turned and propped himself up on one elbow. “A message?” It was hard to keep the disdain out of his voice.
“It’s not an official distribution truck. They’re driving them up into the West Hills and we followed one. We want people to know what they’re doing.”
“I can help you guys send a message. Patel & Grummus is the city’s ad firm. I talk to the mayor all the time.”
Renee shrugged and smiled and then pulled him to her. “Don’t worry, Zach.”
With his lips pressed against her neck, their bodies fitting together like two hands clasped, he did just that: worry.
At the doorway to his building, she kissed him goodbye. It was an easy thing, a simple thing. Like husband and wife do, each headed off for their jobs. Him to his, her to the meeting of the water activists.
“Listen, don’t,” Zach said once more.
“I’ll bring you a gallon,” she said.
“I don’t care about that.”
She smiled roguishly and patted his cheek. “Don’t you worry about me. I’m invincible,” she said and flexed her bicep for him. “Go ahead, feel it.”
He did so and nodded glumly. “Impressive. Back in one piece,” he said, “or else.”
On her bike, though, she felt vulnerable. She rode hard to her apartment. The streets had begun to be unpredictable—moose, yes, but the desperation had led to a steady uptick of violence. She asked herself if she were really going to go through with this, and each time some inner voice, of some stronger substance, piped up that she was.
A few weeks previously she and Josh had tailed the trucks heading into the wealthy West Hills neighborhood. They’d watched as the trucks pulled into the driveways of palatial houses. Drivers hand-
delivering gallon after gallon of water. Inside, she’d imagined an opulent matron bathing in a fountain. The image of it needled her for days.
Nearly a year ago, when the tap dried up and water service ceased, the city council created the Portland Water Act, declaring water to be a city-owned resource of which every citizen would get equal distribution. But as far as she could tell, while the rich swam in their fountains, kids in Northeast Portland wandered about in a dehydrated daze, the last of the city’s trees died, and moose committed suicide.
Bea was asleep. She edged her roommate’s door open and stared in, trying to decide whether to tell her where she was going. Bea looked peaceful in sleep, issuing a soft snore, a sort of gorilla-hum. Her brownish-red hair curled in a knotted mass around her face and her big feet hung over the end of the bed, uncovered. Though it was warm enough, Renee slipped in and quietly tucked the sheet over them.
In her room Renee sat on her bed and rotated her metal unit gallon in her hands, letting the water slosh about inside. She had a little time to kill, but it was the sort of time that could not be used. Time that sent an incapaciting buzz through one’s brain, keeping her from performing simple tasks. There was less than a quart left in the container. She took a swig and then confirmed the amount on the digital readout: 6.4 units remained, out of the forty. The city issued the unit gallons, which measured a gallon into forty smaller units, under the premise: That which is measured, improves. The expression was affixed to the side via a cheerful green sticker, with a tired-looking smiley face at the end of it. She felt she remembered Zach had had a hand in the campaign.
She wished she could tell her parents. But even if she could find a way to get a call through to the other side of the Rocky Mountains, to whatever humble abode they might be residing in, eking out some living or scraping by on savings in order to buy their daily allotment of alcohol, she thought she knew exactly how the conversation might go:
“Hi Mom, it’s Renee.”
“Oh!” There would be the sound of a long exhale of smoke, as if her mother had inhaled a dragon’s lungful of tobacco before answering the phone. “Renee.”
A silence would persist for a few seconds as both considered what they might have to tell each other.
“I went to a water activists meeting, really cool people. We’re going to do an action today to make a statement about water issues. I’m going to help stop a contraband truck.”
“What?” her mother would say, the English deeply accented by her native Spanish. “What about your degree?”
Her mother always brought up her degree, as if it were a panacea for everything that irked her about her daughter’s personality. Renee was the only one in the family to receive one. But to her mother’s horror, she’d graduated with a degree in history, or as she’d once called it: a degree in the dead.
Then, as she tried to make the water activists sound compelling for her mother, the words would get a little lost in her mouth. The making of her own life interesting to her mother was a task she’d had very little luck with throughout her childhood. The more she explained, the more preposterous it would sound. A noise or two might issue from her mother, indicating her continued, but mostly bored, presence on the end of the line. Renee could see her: in her gray sweatsuit, the phone squeezed between her shoulder and ear, a glass of gin in one hand while with the other she pried off chips of paint from the wall with a long thumbnail. In the background, the dramatic monotony of Mexican telenovelas. And then her mother would say, by way of ending the conversation: Your father will want to know.
Her father, Renee thought, would want to know. She would love to tell him, but there was the difficulty of encountering him in a moment of coherence. When Renee’s mother yelled for her father, down several flights of stairs, he would pick up his phone off the table saw, where it sat in a pile of sawdust and red wine splatter. Her parents undertook their lives on different floors of the house, him in the basement, her on the second floor, each speaking their own accents, Mexican and Polish, each living partly in the worlds from which they’d come, meeting only rarely in the middle for meals or to exit the house, or most rarely of all, when a sudden berserk passion flared up between them. Around her father were hundreds of dark, metal-worn tools, the signs of a constant, if somewhat ineffectual, tinkerer. In polar opposition to the woman two floors above, he would answer boisterously, sounding thrilled to hear from her, his words slushing from his mouth with great speed, sentences released in one order and then swallowed back and thrust out in a different order. He would listen to her deeply for a minute or two, then list back to her the details, asking questions that she’d answered, as if the conversation were going in reverse. It would make him happy, and then angry on her behalf, and then happy all over again, and then, inevitably, he would gather himself up, swell his lungs for delivery of a monstrous speech about his own comparable moment.
Her father had been a whistleblower. He had outed the Roswell Basin aquifer contamination. This was something he had done, the moment his life had ascended to, and the moment from which his life declined since. She’d listened to this same heady story a hundred times, thrilled, as a child, when the hero in the story, her father, fought and prevailed. He’d gone on the news, he’d testified to Congress, he was backed by scientists, and he’d won. Yet somehow it had ruined him, as if he’d mastered some great game that no one else knew how to play. What was left for him afterwards? What compared to the heroic moment he’d had? He glimpsed, for a moment, ascending permanently out of mediocrity. For the first time he believed in the possibility of being a superman.
In the end, there was no way to contact either one of them.
She was late to the meeting. The water activists were still exotic enough to be a little intimidating, a rough lot with histories of political action and arrests. There were three of them. Josh had recruited her—he was tall and thin and easy in his movement. He smiled her in and gestured for her to sit at the kitchen table, where they’d gathered. In a protest some years back, he had been beaten by the police. The resulting settlement had won him some money and fame. Even how he was dressed, with a dusty bandana around his neck ready to pull up over his nose, a ski cap and an unkempt beard, it was hard not to feel a pull of attraction.
The others at the table, Janey and Davis, were pissed at him for changing plans at “zero hour.”
Renee watched them argue. Josh was the loudest thing in the room, and she wrestled with his simultaneous attractiveness and bull-headedness. He won his fights because he outlasted everyone else.
“Dude,” Davis said. “What’s a month of planning for if you change the plan on the day of?”
Josh shrugged and smiled broadly. “Because it’s a better plan? What’s a brain for if you can’t adapt to a better outcome now and then?”
They were all nervous, and every time she became conscious of her own breath she had to work to slow it down again. She wished they could leave now. She wondered if this is what it felt like before battle, if her father had felt this way. There was a vibration in her guts that would not stop. To do something with her hands, she pulled a piece of scratch paper from the center of the table and folded it into a paper boat.
While Davis and Josh argued, Janey poured Renee a shot glass of water from her own unit gallon. “Ready?”
Renee sailed her boat across the table and left it in front of Janey. She had been asked this often but did not blame them. She was the newest and least experienced, the potential weak link. But Renee could feel her readiness, a coiled spring of it.
“She was born ready,” Josh snapped. “I picked her, I know what I’m doing.”
Renee frowned and shrugged. “Think so,” she said. “Yes I am.”
Janey squeezed her arm. “Good. You’re pretty key, here.”
Davis waved his hand in Josh’s direction to end their argument. “We’ll see who’s right in the outcome, friend.” He looked about at Janey and Renee. “KATU news knows to be there,” he said. “Everybody have their flyers?”
Renee pulled a hand-printed flyer from the center of the table. It read:
Who are the thieves?
This truck carries unmarked
water to the West Hills!
The Portland Water Act is a sham!
She thought Josh must have written it; a wordsmith he was not.
He pointed at her. “Speak through your part again.”
She clutched the flyer, closed her eyes, and narrated her way through each action. As she did, she visualized it, every minute detail. She had practiced it constantly. It was automatic.
He nodded when she was done. “That was perfect,” he said.
“No one will go thirsty,” declared Mayor Brandon Bartlett into the nightly news camera. It made the mayor feel good to say this. He was handling things, he was taking charge. The agenda was on hold—that was OK. If just for once he didn’t have to deliver bad news. He stared into the camera and smiled.
“We will all have to make sacrifices,” he said, a political suicide of a line, but this was no campaign. He had just told them that water rations would be decreased to one gallon per day per person, and he expected the worst. He stood next to the weatherman, in front of the forecast, which showed an endless timeline of hot, rainless days. He wondered if he should put his arm around the guy, with his shiny hair and slick suit and handsome chin. As if to say: See? I’m a friend of the weather myself. Rain could come at any time.
A million gallons per day was distributed out to the city, one sixtieth of what had once traveled through the pipes. On Monday he’d lost forty thousand gallons in a fire in the Pearl district, and another eighteen thousand the following day. Bled out of their reserves reluctantly, letting buildings burn that could not be saved.
They played Patel & Grummus’s new prime the slime water-saving jingle while an attractive woman demonstrated the amount. The whole thing made him squeamish and honestly, he couldn’t imagine how anyone could portion off enough water from the ration to expel any waste from the bone-dry plumbing. But where else were they going to put it?
The city had enough water on hand to last for three more months with the new rationing. “Measures are being taken to secure water imports from Russia and New Zealand. Our city is in better shape than nearly any other remaining Western city.” Except Seattle, he thought, envying their city-side desalinization plant. Still, everyone’s first thought was the violence there, how the Emerald City was essentially in a state of civil war. Of San Francisco, with their power infrastructure destroyed, it was nearly impossible to get any reliable information. After the fires and subsequent takeover by a rogue branch of the National Guard they had gone dark. Or had the fires come after? Everything south of San Francisco was essentially abandoned.
“We ask that you stay calm,” the mayor said. “We’re Portlanders, right? We have thrived in prosperity, and we can endure hardship. To those who may feel the need to secure quantities of water, by whatever means, I ask you to have trust. Trust in your government, trust in me. We will provide. We will help each other get through. No one will go thirsty.” He nodded to the weatherman, smiled, then exited the studio and got into the back of a Lincoln Town Car where Christopher
awaited him. He’d stopped appearing anywhere where someone could ask him a question. Otherwise, the crowds lasted thirty seconds before the anger turned to jostling, or hecklers shot-gunned him with questions about hospitals and the police and reservoirs and desalinization plants and government water usage and imports and fuck all.
When the mayor returned home—or rather to his city hall office, which he and Christopher had taken to living in, for the view and the safety, but also because the work was never-ending—he paced around the conference room. He felt sick-hearted at the new restrictions he’d announced, and aggravated at the new reports of water robberies. He stared out into the view of the city. “Can’t they all just stay the fuck calm?”
Christopher grimaced. Staying calm was not the people’s job, he was fairly certain. It was the mayor’s job. But he declined to mention this.
“Between the city council, the citizens, the news, and the fucking National Guard, it’s like four piranhas in a fish tank.”
“Yeah, eating me!” The mayor very much would have liked to put his fist through the sliding glass door to their balcony, but it was difficult to get replacement anything at the moment and so he reconsidered. It was city property, he was sure he’d be reminded.
“I’m not sure a fish tank is an apt metaphor,” Christopher said.
The mayor turned angrily to glare at him, his finger pointing, ready to pound out a couple of points on Christopher’s chest and then he stopped himself.
“Oh Jesus Chrissy, I’m sorry,” he said and exhaled and turned back to the window. “OK, terrarium. Is that better? Piranhas in a terrarium. That’s exactly it.”
Renee rode her bicycle between taxicabs and clipped a mirror on a big yellow, jarring it out of whack. There was yelling and honking and she heard the distinctive sound of being chased by someone who had no business running, but she had no time to slow down. She gripped the metal rod she kept holstered to her handlebars just in case. The cars were trapped in traffic. There were far fewer cars, but the lack of traffic lights made driving a constant agony. If you wanted to get somewhere, you rode.
Tremendous precision was needed—the water truck would only be in the alley for forty seconds; everything needed to be exactly in place, as they’d practiced a hundred times. She found herself humming an old Genesis song and wished it were otherwise but it went over and over in her brain—fuck all, she thought, this wasn’t the badass self she had in mind for herself. Still.
At an intersection she jumped onto the sidewalk and rounded a building cruising fast. There was a man in her way in an overcoat, completely immobile. She wondered if she had frozen him with her speed, deer on the tracks in the lights of the approaching train—there was no choice but to hit him or veer. She swerved to the left and her handlebar caught on a parking meter and jerked the front tire sideways. The bike came to an abrupt halt and she was launched, bouncing once on the roof of a parked Mercedes with a hollow thud and landing in the street, shoulder and face first.
For a moment she couldn’t move, her breath gone and traffic rushing toward her, blood in her left eye and a feeling like her shoulder had come loose at the socket, like some toy, she thought, like a Mr. Potato Head, with its pullable arms.
“Fuck,” she managed when she could breathe again and the man with the overcoat was pulling her to her feet. He said nothing, just gripped her bicep and steered her to the curb where her bike awaited. Its wheel was turned askew from the handlebars.
“What,” she said and shrugged off the man’s grip.
“Well, listen,” the man said.
She jerked her chin at him and then noticed his expression. He wanted to help, she saw, and appeared now to have all the time in the world for her. One of those types who must have had a job downtown at some point, a manager of something, and now returned daily, donning his overcoat, pacing old routes, hoping for some something—anything—to happen. She righted her bike and yanked on the wheel to bring it back into true with the handlebars. The man hovered next to her. She held up one hand. “Listen, I’m cool. Just in a terrible hurry,” she said, a little creeped out by his closeness and ready to deck him if he slowed her down.
“All right,” the man said, “go on then.”
“I will,” she said. She mounted and rode off down the street, fleeing the stopped cars and the passersby who had begun to gather and wonder. Right now, to do this job, she needed to conjure up that deep inner hellion, that thing which is trained out, which civilization replaces, that thing that wishes to consume the world for its own damn self.
She felt a drop of blood trickle down her cheekbone and the dusty wind on the abrasion. She forced herself through the rickety, pulsing pain in her arm. She rode down a flight of stairs at Pioneer Square and just managed to squeak in front of a van.
The truck always took a shortcut through a back alley to avoid the busy intersection at Fourth. They’d studied it every day as it went to supply the big houses in the West Hills. A wind pushed at the traffic lights, swinging them on their wires, and for the briefest of moments she thought there was a smell of rain in the air but it was only a nostalgic trick, a nasal mirage.
The alleyway was one block away. She checked her watch and slowed, sighting down the street for Josh’s sign. There he was, on his bicycle, a brown handkerchief stretched tight across his nose and mouth, the big baskets on the bike rack and the trailer behind. He held his hand up high in the air, five fingers, then folded them down one by one. When there were none left he shook the fist that remained. She swallowed the last of her fear and whooped with a warcry.
She cornered like she’d practiced, like she’d done a hundred times. She turned into the alley and smacked full on into the front of the water delivery truck, leaping before impact so that she hit the windshield on an incline, her body tucked into itself so that her side took the impact. She hit with terrific force—she hadn’t practiced enough after all—and tumbled to the ground outside of the truck’s trajectory as it squealed to a halt.
The driver knelt in front of her and though she could feel herself passing out, her vision dimming, the blackness coming from the edges, she felt sorry for him.
She didn’t dare pass out. She pleaded with herself in the fraction of a second before her mind closed like a camera’s shutter. Then time bloomed like a flower. The adrenalin that pumped through her body circulated uselessly. Her mind closed in to its own private viewing room and she saw Zach in a room full of water, glass jars of it, stacked in a wall about them. Each jar of liquid produced a hum. She could hear this now. The sunlight glistened and sparkled in each. They sat in this water library and listened to the sound of each of the water monologues like solo artists vibrating out a siren call, and they held hands. She was in her buried mind, and there the water sung to her its own song.
She groaned. It felt like her chest had been crushed. The driver was repeating an apology. She tried to find a hand to push against the ground with.
“Whoa, now. Stay there, an ambulance is coming—you got to stay there. If you’ve got something broken inside—”
She could hear the action at the back of the truck commence. The driver did not.
She didn’t want to move; she wanted an ambulance to come, to be taken care of, to be lifted by her mother’s arms and placed in bed. She wished Zach were there. But it would do no good to go to the hospital and be implicated. The plan was to flee, to leave the crime scene the way she’d come, to be a momentary decoy. She pushed the driver’s hand away and stood up and swayed with dizziness and fell, but the driver caught her and she embraced him, tasted the sweat at his neck, the water that he gave off, the wastewater which could not be wasted. She rested her chin against his collarbone and felt herself slipping back into darkness. I’m sorry, she told him. She was aware of the crowd gathering, of her photograph being taken.
She stood by herself. Her bike was not damaged and while the driver yelled, lady, wait! she climbed on it and coasted toward the back of the truck where there were scavengers pulling bottles out of boxes. A few scattered flyers were on the ground, and others held them in their hands. It’d been a success, and now she was breaking plan. Her people had already come, filled up and gone, like the precise engines they were, their point made, and she knew she was supposed to get away, too. There were news cameras, alerted to this renegade truck, but they got something else entirely. They got her.
“Get back!” she yelled to the hoarders, feeling a sudden protectiveness for the driver, and perhaps because there was blood on her face the raiders eased back from the loot. She saw the bottles lying there on the ground and she thought the driver wouldn’t mind if she had one sip. She was so terribly thirsty. Just one bottle to prove to herself that she’d done what she’d done. It was only fair. A crowd of people hovered in the alley now and she thought she could hear sirens. The driver yelled something, part surprise, part anger, and as a woman with a canvas shopping bag snagged a bottle he lunged for it. They pulled the gallon back and forth, her grip on the handle besting his. These were no unit gallons, ID’d and traceable, but anonymous and unmarked.
Renee pulled a gallon out of a box and turned to put it in her pannier and then she saw the crowd again. They searched her face, tried to make sense of the situation, greedily eyeing the boxes spilled from the truck like some dragon’s mound of wealth upset. In front of them the stalemated wrestle between the driver and the woman. The crowd watched Renee, a woman with blood on her face and a cracked helmet and two long black braids, Hispanic maybe, her eyes vacant, or perhaps extra illuminated, more alive than they felt. They saw her drop her bike and take two bottles and approach them, giving one first to the woman wrestling with the driver so that his catch was suddenly freed and he lurched backward, another to a young boy half her height with dirt on his cheeks. She brought two more out, handing them into open hands, and two more. Then she handed another to the driver who stood on the side, his face grim, saying nothing. He was one of them, the crowd saw suddenly, a man with a part-time job, a driver, no more. She handed out more, and they were still, waited for her to place a gallon into their own arms. For a moment she thought she could do this forever, place water into the arms of those who needed it. This was what she wanted.
Then she stumbled, her bright eyes dimming. The crowd reached out, caught and righted her. She climbed on her bike. Their hands steadied her, but the sound had drained from the picture, as if someone had sucked the air out, averse to the low garble that the scene would make in slow motion. To the side, cameras caught everything.
The next thing she remembered she was riding her bike toward the river, that toxic mud slough, a gallon in each pannier, the world tinged red with the blood in her eyes.
At home she set her bike down on the front porch and a wave of dizziness overtook her. She went to her knees and felt how her shoulder and chest and head ached. She stumbled inside and found the couch and smiled to herself. She’d done it. They’d done it. She lay down. She needed to synch up with the others, but right now she needed to close her eyes for a moment.
When she woke it was dark, and her roommate Bea was there with a washcloth and hydrogen peroxide.
“Jesus Christ, Renee, I saw the news.” Her roommate dabbed her face with swift, overly hard strokes.
“Ow—easy. What happened?”
“You happened, dude. We’ve got to go right now. Right now.” Bea pulled her up by her armpits, as if she were a child, so that she wobbled unsteadily next to Bea, a head taller than she was.
“Right now.” Bea pointed at the door. “They’re calling you Maid motherfucking Marian.”
“What?” Renee said, losing her balance.
Bea pushed her out the front door, across the dead dust-lawn, and down onto the bench seat of her ’76 Dodge Dart. She slammed the door. “Stay down, for fuck sake, stay down, we’ve got to get out of here.”
“Who is calling me?”
“The news, asshole, you and your people are already on the news. They’re calling you Maid Marian.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The seat bench felt like a heap of granite. With each sway or bounce in the car a searing pain went through her ribs.
“You know. Robin Hood’s girlfriend? You made a spectacle out of yourself. Just like you to go and make yourself a hero, dumbass.”
Renee grinned and tried to hold on.
Nevel watched his slow, steady schedule with fascination, that of a working parent: the balance between trying to serve the mayor at work, a round with kids in the dust at the playground, the delicate chore of spousal relations, the upkeep of a home, the sustenance of life a dulling routine. The day divided into its major activities: Breakfast, Lunch, Nap Time, Dinner, Play Time, Bath, Bed—and then that sprawling chaos that enveloped his numbed mind after the kids went to bed when no one claimed his time but his own disorganized self, where, more often than not, after he’d kissed his wife good night, he found himself in the basement, chipping away at the wall there, digging deeper into the earth, building a tunnel for no particular reason that he could discern other than as a sort of military exercise against his anxiety.
Nevel poured a rare bath for the kids. They were down to bathing once every week or two. He abhorred the thought of bathing them in corpse water, as they’d taken to calling the non-drinkable family extra rations, and so he filtered it by running it through a hand-pump water filter. It was a slow, tedious process. A fetid, rotting smell wafted through the bathroom window and he had to put his face to the water to make sure the smell did not come from there. He wondered if the neighbor had killed his dog and buried it too shallowly in his backyard.
The kids scrabbled noisily up the stairs, one laughing and the other pseudo-crying for being left behind in the rush to get there. They crowded into the bathroom and he stripped them down, the dusty earthen child smell of a week’s worth of play overwhelming the smell of rot, and plopped each of them into their proprietary sections of the shallow bath. A chorus of complaint was aired over the temperature of the bath which he pretended not to hear. The day was still warm enough. In the winter there would be only sponges.
The bath was pitifully shallow, but it was enough, and they happily played and splashed in it for nearly an hour. Water splattered out of the bath wastefully but he said nothing, wanting to give them, if only for a moment, a feeling of abundance in their lives. Their collective water ration didn’t go far; bathing meant something else wouldn’t get water. When their bath was finished, he would siphon the remaining water out to reuse for next week.
His lips were dry and he worried about the drought a little and, more immediately, dreaded the escalation of conflict that would come when he removed them from the bath and struggled them through the drying, the donning of their pajamas, the brushing of teeth. There would be crying and there would be laughing and wrestling and someone’s feelings would get hurt and somebody would do something awful to someone else and then they’d read stories together followed by a half-dozen more rituals, teeth brushing and last-minute drinks of water—with each he would tamp down the conservation lecture they’d heard repeatedly.
His wife, Cora, was down in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner, and this is what their nights were like. The division of labor. Divide and conquer.
When the crying started Nevel thought seriously about getting up to go in.
“Nevel?” Cora shouted up the stairs.
“I’m on it,” he said and rolled off the bed. “OK, guys,” he said in the bathroom and the crying collectively increased a notch.
It appeared to be an argument about toy boat rights and bath water boundaries and for a moment he thought about making an instructive analogy about the state of the world. Instead he put toothpaste on their toothbrushes, dipped each into a unit of pure water and inserted them into their mouths, which quieted the last of the complaint.
Cora shouted up the stairs, “Make sure to help them brush their teeth” and he wondered how this could happen. How the trajectory that was his life, both of their lives, had leveled into this. “I’m on it,” he hollered down the stairs, trying to keep the annoyance at bay. “Doing it now!” he sang.
Sure you are, Cora thought downstairs as she moistened a dish rag with the water she’d used to steam the imported broccoli which the children had refused to eat. She wiped down the plates but it was difficult to get the frying pan clean without letting it soak, and she stood there looking at it for a full minute trying to decide if she was going to use the water she had left to soak the pan or to water her last surviving house plant. She cried a little over the sink until she felt self-conscious and weak and poured half a unit of water into the pan and the other half into the plant. Later, she’d recycle the water from the pan.
“There,” she said.
The power was still on. The mayor was on the radio and Cora had the same reaction she always did to hearing his voice. How could Nevel work with him? That slick eloquence that turned her stomach, the constant bad news laced with his strange reasoning on how they should be happy to hear it. She thought he said rations were being cut to one gallon per person. Her face burned hot, aghast at the news, and she waited for the news anchor to confirm it. She didn’t know how they could survive this.
“Nevel!” she yelled, but he didn’t answer. The radio had turned to a crime report of a woman on a bicycle who had robbed a private water truck and handed out water to people on the street. Fuck yes, she thought. She listened tensely as they talked about the manhunt. She had a moment of envy, wishing she was her. Or in her gang, a thief on a bicycle, and then she wondered if Thief on a Bicycle weren’t the name of an old movie. She walked to the base of the stairs and listened to the squabbles over who got to pump the water back out of the bathtub. “Hey, Nevel?”
“What?” he yelled back, his tone that of a man who suspects he’s being told to do something he’s already doing.
She said never mind and went back to the kitchen and swept the floor in a hurry. She didn’t know what she was going to say anyway. That rations were cut? That she’d had it, that she was going to go find a woman named Maid Marian and go outlaw? It was 7:25 p.m., and they had thirty-five minutes of power before the blackout.
After story time, Jason asked what would happen if they ran out of water.
“We won’t, Jay—we’ll be fine,” Nevel said.
“But what will happen if we’re not fine?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe we’ll go on a killing rampage until we find more water, and if we don’t, we’ll drink blood. Garrr!” Nevel bared his teeth and turned toward his daughter who screamed and giggled and flailed away.
“You kids with me or what?” He rose and thrust his fists into the air and it felt great.
“Yeah!” Jason said. “Yeah!” He scrambled out of the covers and stood on top of his bed.
“No. Stop. Dad’s teasing. Back in bed, everybody.” Cora said. “We’d probably pick up and move. The drought isn’t as bad in Spokane, and we have family there.”
“Is that where Calden moved?”
“Calden moved to Alaska. They still have a little snow in the mountains there.”
Afterwards Nevel and Cora hugged in the hallway in the dark. The house was quiet with the whir of everything that whirred gone dead. The streetlights were all somber flagpoles now.
Cora held onto the news about the new rations, and a sickening hollow stuck in her chest. He’d been funny with the kids at story time, and adept, and she didn’t want to leach any poison from the world outside the house into him just yet. He could spend the rest of the night wrapped in anxiety or he could spend it in his tunnel, so she decided to spare him what he’d learn at work tomorrow anyway.
They kissed, but each was already leaning toward the activities they’d set aside for themselves for the night. That which let the mind ease into solitude and quiet, the antithesis of child-rearing. She would read by candlelight, he would dig. Were it to happen, this would be the moment that passion took hold. He pressed into her subtly, experimentally. But when she patted his flank with a beat of closure his mind quickly moved on.
They went their separate ways, into the hermitage of their projects.
Nevel paced about the kitchen looking for any last chores so as not to make his descent seem overly eager, and then he opened the door and padded quietly down into the darkness and felt his way across the cement floor to his hole.
The hole was a reminder of his small cache of water and thus a reminder of his omnipresent thirst. The bottles glistened in the light of the flashlight down a branch of the tunnel. What water he could stand to spare from his daily routine was squirreled away down here. He had to trust the city—what choice did he have? He had a family. He had to trust and be steady until that time when he could no longer trust and then he must radically and decisively change direction to protect his family.
He was driven by hazy yearnings that bubbled up inside of him, unaware of their origins or meanings, and thus he dug, as if somewhere deep in the earth was concealed a clearer picture of himself. He patted the tunnel supports on his way to the end of the tunnel, listening for give or weakness. Then he moved to the back of the cave and tapped away at the clay and rock there, peeling back layers of time with each loosed rock.
He swung the pickaxe into the wall of earth, knowing that several floors up his children, were they awake, would hear only the faintest tink tink tink, as if a man were slowly hollowing out his prison passageway. A section of the wall gave way and buried him up to his knees and he yelled out. His hands shook, and he searched about for the bottles to make sure they were sound.
When the dust settled he tentatively freed himself from the rubble and sat atop with his head in his hands. What a stupid way to die. He wanted to believe he would sense this kind of danger. Especially now, as a parent, he felt a prescience of future disaster ought to be his right, a special power granted to all fathers. He stood and placed his forehead against the very back end of the cave. Felt the coolness of it and thought about how down here there was a safety and quietude. He’d begun to fantasize about burial here, about a sudden collapse of the cave that would leave him disappeared from the struggle to maintain, from the thirst. From his children and wife and the fumes of traffic congestion, the duties of work and the complicated ties of relationships. From wifi and cell towers and GPS signals and security cameras and radio and television and electromagnetic waves. Utility bills and wars, parents and climate change. The drought. It would be a stony, deathly peace. For a moment he imagined them all here, his family united in burial, laid happily together, wrapped cozily. Snug and still as mummies. He wondered if he was depressed and whether he ought to see a doctor about getting some medication. He pulled his headlamp down from the top of his head and shone it on the section he was working on. Veiny tendrils of dead tree roots, a layer at neck-height of century-compressed roadway backfill, below that black earth with stones the size of skulls. He picked at this earth with a spade, feeling around in it. He was looking for something, but he didn’t know what. Chunks gave way—he’d hit a softened vein—and so he dug.
At night, thunder sounded in the distance but there was no rain. The city, the poor and the rich, sweated in their sheets. It was hot. A rare humidity laid a sticky grime over everything they touched.
As far as Renee was concerned, Bea shouldn’t own a car. Now that she had the fear of the police, she drove even more erratically, as if subconsciously trying to flag the authorities by swerving, driving too slowly in fast lanes, too fast in slow lanes, turning in a giant arc in front of the few other cars on the road—the chorus of honking that followed her like a soundtrack that she couldn’t drive without.
Renee felt sick in the back seat. Her head ached, and whether it was the nausea of concussion or the infernal swaying of the car, she needed to throw up. When the car stopped moving, she rolled down the window and did so.
“Renee . . .” Bea said, the word drawn out in sympathy and alarm and revulsion.
When Renee finished she wiped her mouth on the hem of her shirt and regarded her roommate, who gripped the steering wheel in concerned paralysis.
People had whispered “amazon” behind Bea’s back her whole life, Renee knew. In the hallways at school, the boys on the bus, as she walked into restaurants. Her short, red hair and strong nose made her impossible to miss. Even Renee had, though she’d said it affectionately, appraising her six-plus feet and patting the muscles of the girl who was to be her welding partner. They liked each other immediately, and as Renee, a degreed perma-student, continued her tour of the course catalog—wood shop, chemistry, intro to German—French literature, gardening, auto-mechanics, algorithms, and on and on—settling on no theme she herself could decipher, they became great friends. Even now, as Bea recoiled at the puke-foam Renee had stained her shirt with, there was a wisdom in Bea’s eyes that she admired. The wisdom of big people, Renee thought, the wisdom of perspective and contemplation, the wisdom of acclimating to one’s abnormalities.
If it were up to Bea, Renee knew, and if Renee were inclined, they would have continued up that ladder of intimacy.
“I think you should drive now,” she whispered. Several police officers on foot had taken notice of the stopped car with the woman puking out the back. “Where are we going?”
“I don’t know,” Bea said honestly.
Renee groaned. The implication of continued motion was enough to cause the nausea to return.
“Should we leave the city?” Bea said.
“How much water do we have? How much gas?” Outside of the city was an unknown. Like everything else, gasoline had gone up many times in price and wasn’t reliably obtained. Farms had dried up. Beyond the city borders was a lawless wasteland.
“Just the two gallons you stole out of a whole truck. Just saying.”
Renee leaned back into the seat and studied the drab ceiling in the car. Despite the pain, her body hummed with an excitement from what she’d done. She thought again of her father, and then the others. The plan had been to lay low and not associate with each other for a few days, but the plan had also been to not be caught on camera with their identities exposed, and she shrunk further into the seat and hoped she hadn’t jeopardized them.
Inevitably, Bea found herself on the familiar route to her parents’ house. It was obvious, she knew. The likely run-to spot, the refuge of all budding criminals destined to be caught. But Renee was tired and hurt and Bea’s parents were the picture of stability and she wasn’t sure where else to go. They would go quickly, to regroup.
Her own mother, Renee thought, would press Renee to turn herself in, pointing toward the door with mild disgust, cigarette smoke trailing in one hand, gin in the other: you’re just like your father. Even so, despite the utter lack of romance her mother felt for it, she’d had her own heroics. Renee couldn’t help wonder if the frustrated wrath her mother directed at her was instead a bent arrow, pointing back at herself. A frustrated marriage, a frustrating culture she’d adopted, sobriety a frustration. Even so, Renee felt like she’d performed some family rite now, some task that set her on equal footing with them, redeemed herself in their eyes: she’d begun her own fight.
For a moment she could see her father’s face in her mind, the faintest touch of a smile breaking his beard’s grimace. When she was young, she remembered sitting on his lap as he whispered alcohol-fumed fantasies of better times, a better life, a more just universe. Seeing her right now, she thought, on the run as she was, he would give her that same dreamy smile.
They parked outside and Bea gave Renee a shoulder to lean on as they climbed the concrete steps up to the house, a modern ranch on a rise. Bea’s mother opened the door and came down the stairs to greet them.
“Oh Renee—you’re hurt! You’re on television!” Bea’s mother helped Renee up the rest of the stairs while Bea went back to the car for their water.
The newscaster explained what was known of the crime. A still shot of her face encompassed the television screen, and she stared back uncomprehendingly, feeling woozy and not at all herself. Lining the bottom of the frame, block letters read “MAID MARIAN.”
Footage played of Renee bleeding from a head wound and distributing jugs in a tender manner to a crowd of people who came forward one by one to accept them. The replay caught a magic that had not been there, or that she hadn’t been aware of, and it contrasted radically with the water distribution they were all familiar with, with its display of National Guard weaponry. It was the kind of footage that made a cameraman’s career—hypnotic and touching, and even Renee could see there was an emotional hook in there. You wished to cry and cheer a little. The station knew it. They replayed it again and again, between interviews with policemen and onlookers.
The police chief said there were three accomplices, water thieves on bicycles. “It means less for everyone else,” he said. There was a menacing way in which he said it: if you cross me again, citizens, no water for no one. He asked anyone with information to please contact the police. One hundred and ninety four gallons were lost, he said. That’s nearly two hundred people’s daily rations.
“They weren’t rations,” Renee said into the room.
“Water crime’s a felony,” Bea’s father said, absorbed in the newscast.
An image was shown of the truck, filled with unit gallons, and a large white question mark flashed over the top of it.
“Clearly, this was a robbery,” the newscaster said, “but who was robbed? We were there on a tip, and we assume now the tip was given to us by Maid Marian’s group. But where was the truck going with so many pre-filled water bottles? Flyers were found at the scene claiming that this is a private truck carrying water to the West Hills. Under the Portland Water Act this makes the truck itself illegal. The driver is missing and is considered a suspect, and in the meantime the city has seized it. Many questions remain. We’ll stay on top of it for you.”
“The city has seized it,” Renee said and looked around the room at Bea’s family. “Sure they have. Nice one.”
Bea’s dad got up and paced to the window and looked out. Renee thought she heard him say fugitive. She’d known him for several years as an amiable fellow who never said much of anything in conversation, but now he seemed a little frightening, and she wondered if he’d turn her in.
“Well, I think you look very heroic,” Bea’s mother said. Her voice trembled. “What are you going to do?”
“I have no idea.” Renee leaned her head back on the couch and closed her eyes. She was exhausted and hurt, and yet there was something in the air. She could feel how her image was being broadcast over the city.
Zach watched the nightly news with amazement and horror as his girlfriend’s image was played over and over.
After the blackout came he curled up on his couch and stared at the deadened TV and felt sick to his stomach. He wondered if she was already in custody by now. He went to the roof and listened to the night. There were sirens and the sound of people in the street. The night was hot and humid and the stars felt predatory, a billion interested eyes, recording. She was out there somewhere.
At three in the morning she climbed into his bed and spooned against him.
He scrambled up. “How did you get in?” and then after he’d wakened a little more: “I saw what happened.” He clutched her forearm. “I hoped you’d show up.”
She told him they’d gone to Bea’s parents and had to run out the back. “We left the car. Look what I’ve got Bea into.” She pushed him back onto his side on the bed and pressed her face against his back. After a while he could feel that she was crying. “I won’t get you involved.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really sorry. Are you hurt? Have you heard from any of the others?”
“No one. Bea’s asleep on your couch. I fucked up with Bea’s parents.”
Zach turned them both so that he could get a grip on her.
“What am I going to do?” she said.
“You could stay here.”
“And do what? Stay in your house and like be your house servant?”
Yes, he thought to himself, imagining the time they’d get to spend together, but dared not say it. Seattle or to the south were other possibilities, but there were rumors of regular carjackings in the rural stretches of the highway, and the occasional blockade. He didn’t want her to leave. If the media played her image on an infinite loop it would get picked up on other stations across the country as the requisite “drought imagery of the day,” and then nowhere was safe.
“Northeast Portland is spinning out of control,” he said. “They’ll either put it under martial law, or let it fall into a lawless slum. I’m betting the latter. There aren’t enough police to patrol there and the rich areas too. You could hide in that mess. It’s not safe, but it might be safe from the police.”
She was quiet for a long time and he listened to her breathe. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen her scared before, but he could hear it now in her breath as a new and wholly different future opened before her. Or, he wondered, was he mistaking this quiet for fear, when instead it was a buzzing thrill, an adrenalin drunk for what she’d done.
“Are you hurt?” he asked again. He lit a candle. “Let’s take a look at you.”
This he could do something about, and he took pleasure in taking care of her. He carefully unwrapped her head bandage. She had a scrape on her forehead that needed cleaning and a deeper injury at her hair linethat probably needed stitches, though it was too late to do a lot with it. She had bruises on her ribs and legs, her yellow-brown skin turning the bruises a livid purple. In the candlelight her eyes flickered intensely as she watched him. He went rummaging through medicine cabinets and came up with a field cocktail of medical supplies, turmeric and super glue and began reworking the dressing.
“I want you to know, this hurts me more than it does you.”
“Pfff,” she said.
He took hold of her ear. “This, hmm, yes. I’m afraid we’ll need to amputate.”
“Come on,” she said.
He cleaned her head wound, sprinkled in some turmeric and then, holding the wound closed, dabbed a thick seal of superglue over the top of it.
“Weird,” she said. “If I find out the turmeric is a joke . . .”
“I swear, it’s not.”
“What other spices are you going to use? I’m like some kind of pizza now?”
“Curry.” He noticed that she took a breath in the middle of sentences. “You having trouble breathing?”
He felt along her ribs, conscious of her nakedness in the candlelight. “I don’t know a lot about ribs, but it feels OK. I’m guessing you’ve got a crack, maybe a bruise.”
“Just a bruise then.”
“So you’re saying I should stop my whining?”
Back in bed they lay on their backs and stared at the ceiling.
“I don’t want you to be a fugitive,” he said. “I want us to, you know, go out.”
“I’m not sexier as a fugitive? With a head wound?”
“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough,” Zach said.
“I need you to roll over and hug me because my ribs hurt too much to move. But softly, OK? I don’t know what else to do. I’m just going to make jokes about it, because otherwise I’ll think about it, and then I’ll be terrified.”
“OK,” he said. “A little bit sexier.”
After some time, she said, “I’ll go to the Northeast—that’s probably where the others went. If that doesn’t work, I’ll come back here. I’ll be your housegirl.”
“Mm,” he said, and allowed himself to quietly ponder it for a moment. “You need some kind of a hobby to keep you from getting into trouble. Idle hands are the devil’s et cetera. Promise to lay low?”
Renee didn’t answer, and he could sense she was elsewhere, already on the journey across the city perhaps, or stuck in the infinite media loop of the truck robbery, or maybe seriously playing out a prospective stay at his house: how they might sit and have dinner-rations together in the evening, every evening, how she could be his for a while. He inhaled in her black hair and heard the deepening sighs of her sleep.