Forbes and Fifth

The Water is Fine

The faucet shuddered as Maryanne turned the knob further. Rather than the customary flush of water, nothing happened. Spinning the knobs back and forth, tapping on the faucet, she tried to coax out something, anything from the reluctant spigot. When that achieved nothing, she ducked under the sink. The valves for hot and cold were still on. As Maryanne withdrew from that dank cabinet, the pipes rattled and, above her, the faucet exhaled.

A dark gray substance oozed from the faucet like frozen yogurt. Maryanne, still kneeling, reached up to turn off the knobs. Some of it had fallen into a glass, which Maryanne lifted and held in front of her. When she tried to swirl it around like wine, it jiggled but mostly stayed in place. She sniffed it, but it had no scent, and she wasn’t going to taste it. The sludge glistened under the yellow light of the ceiling fan.

Another rattle sounded inside the wall behind her, followed by a yelp from the bathroom. Seconds later, Maryanne’s son David burst through the doorway, dancing in a circle with one hand clutching the towel around his waist as the other brushed worm-like strands of the gray sludge off his body. Maryanne rushed over, grimacing as the strands fell onto the carpet.

“Hold still.” She gripped David’s shoulder and picked the rest out of his hair.

“What’s going on? What is this stuff?” David said between deep breaths.

Maryanne picked the last of the sludge off him and set it on a nearby end table. “I don’t know. Some of it came out of the sink. Looks like Play-Doh, though.”

“I thought snakes were coming out of the shower and I was gonna get bit.” David said, still breathing heavily.

“Snakes can’t come out of the shower."

“They can come out of the toilet.” David poked one of the gray strands on the end table, piled on top of each other like a nightmarish plate of spaghetti.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She slapped his hand. “Don’t touch that. You don't know what it is."

David shook his head and walked away. "It's wild. I know that."

Maryanne called the water utility after testing all the faucets in the house. She reached a human voice after only a few minutes of hold music, leaving Maryanne to believe that it wasn’t a citywide problem—or else they’d have all hands on deck. Or maybe it was the whole city and she got through because they had everyone answering calls.

“Hello, my name is Jamie. This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes. How can I help you today?”

“Yes, Jamie, my water isn’t water anymore. Some gray stuff is coming out of my faucet. Do you know why that’s happening?” Maryanne tried to enunciate every word to sound pleasant instead of furious. She had worked at a call center once for six months, and she remembered how miserable an angry caller made her.

Jamie’s voice suddenly became measured and choppy. “To our knowledge, any sediment buildup or contamination has not occurred on our end. We suggest you contact a plumber. Goodbye.” She hung up. Maryanne considered calling back, but she wasn’t about to waste her day shouting at someone who wouldn’t do a thing for her. Leaving her phone behind, she headed down the stairs to the front door. Every step creaked as she descended the stairs, her pace slowed by the arthritis in her left knee.

She wished she could teleport from her porch to her neighbor's. She had to climb all the way down the porch, then either circumnavigate the lawn just to get to the paved walkway or trudge through the ankle-high grass. Maryanne chose trudging. When she reached the door, she took a moment to run her hand over the weathered door frame. Maryanne liked how the grooves felt beneath her fingers. She knocked on the door, but John didn't answer. Instead, his face peeked into the window near the top of the door. Just a crack of his eyeball exposed itself.

"John, it's me." She said, chuckling.

“I know, I know. I don't have a peep hole, though. So, I have to do it sneaky-style.” John raised his head and his eyes darted from side to side.

“Except I see you every time."

John shrugged. "What can I do for you? Car busted again?"

"No, it's good. My water's not right, though. It's this gray stuff."

“Oh, you’re getting that too? Good. I thought my house was messed up.” Buzzing sounded from his pocket, from which he retrieved his phone. “Sorry. Gotta take this. Hello.”

Maryanne looked at John’s yard while he was on the phone. Clutches of grass stuck up here and there, but for the most part the yard was a sea of mud, with pebbles cresting above the surface. The centerpiece was a tree which overlooked the house. John tried to cut it down a few months back, when his heat was off. When Maryanne had reminded him that he had nowhere to burn the wood, he gave up. Despite five gashes in the trunk, the tree branches were populated with green buds. The tree inspired Maryanne. If it could persevere and expand after such trauma…

“Alright.” John stuffed his phone back into his pocket. “That was the water company. They’re saying the gray stuff is water. It just looks different.”

“They can’t expect us to believe that.”

“I mean, they’re saying it’s water. I’m gonna go drink it. I’m thirsty as hell.”

She shouted after him, “Don’t do that, John.”

When he returned with a half-cup of the sludge, nausea hit Maryanne. As he tipped the glass to his lips, she shielded her eyes. It was all she could do not to vomit at the sound, like someone inhaling a slug. After he finished, she opened her eyes and stepped closer to John, ready to catch him if the water was some fast-acting poison. But he didn’t fall. “How was it?”

“Tastes like water. Goes down funny. I chewed it a little, but I don’t think I had to, you know? Regular water is better.”

Shaking her head, Maryanne stepped over the mud and onto the concrete alley between their houses. “I’m gonna check on you in an hour. Better not be dead from drinking that.”

Later that night, after checking in on John and stopping by the grocery store to spend money she didn’t have on a case of bottled water, Maryanne nestled between the countless throw pillows on her couch and switched on the television. A cop show was on. One of those where the police run around to make the victims' lives hell before the arrest of whomever allegedly committed the crime. Maryanne scoffed as she changed the channel to the local news. The mayor’s bulldog face filled the screen.

“—not what we planned for our water system, to be sure. I hear the complaints, and we are considering how to restore the water to its former, clear state. In the meantime, I guarantee that the water is safe, despite how the look and texture.” An aide ran up to the podium and handed a paper to the mayor, whose wrinkled face creased as he smiled. “Thank you, Devin.” After glancing at the paper for only a second, the mayor said, “I’ve just been given information, suggesting that the gray water contains beneficial nutrients, and is likely healthier than normal water. That’s great news, but it warrants more study. Until we’re certain of it, and even when we are, we should provide everyone will the choice between the new and old water. However, if you’re wondering how best to drink the new water, especially those of you whose water is thicker, we have information on our website about a spoon-straw distributor that is offering a pretty steep discount. My aide Devin will demonstrate its use.” The camera panned to Devin, who held a cup of the sludge with the straw sticking out.

“Aw, don’t do it,” Maryanne said. First, he took a sip through the straw. Maryanne scoffed; this had nothing to do with demonstrating to anyone how to use a straw. Still, much like everyone else who drank the water, he didn’t hunch over, didn’t scream in pain. He was fine. So why did she feel sick watching him do it?

Two days later, Maryanne was at the grocery store again. The case of bottled water hadn’t lasted as expected. Maryanne wished she had bought ten cases, but at the time she hadn’t considered how much of it would be used for bathing. John had emerged from his house that morning smeared with the gray sludge. He looked like a fool, and Maryanne couldn’t imagine that it cleaned him very well.

She navigated her cart into the water section. On both sides, bottles and jugs of gray sludge closed in on her.

No clear water. Not anywhere.

Maryanne yanked a jug from the shelf and tossed it behind her, sending it crashing to the ground and spilling a puddle of sludge on the beige tile floor. She plunged her arms into the bottles and created an aisle between the rows. In each bottle, the sludge glowered, threatening Maryanne with the certainty that she would have to drink it, let it seep into her bones and spread all the way to the tips of her fingers. She scrutinized the cases of individual bottles on the ground. None were clear. She yanked a case out and climbed on top of it to peer onto the top shelf, now hoping for even a single bottle of clear water to drink and alleviate the panic that had seized her. But she found nothing.

An employee approached her. He was balding, tall and very frustrated by the puddle of sludge on the floor. Gray sludge ringed his eyes. Tracks of gray residue ran from his forehead to his receding hairline. “Ma’am? What are you doing?”

“I need water. How can you sell this and call it water? I mean, look at it.” Maryanne chucked a bottle onto the ground.

“I hear your complaint, but we have been assured that this is water. It’s safe to drink, it’s clean, it just looks different.” The man picked up the bottle and placed it back on the shelf.

“Would you drink it?” Maryanne grabbed another bottle to throw, but stopped when instead of any anger in the man’s eyes, she just saw fatigue.

“Ma’am, I have to. This is all there is.” He pulled a white rag from his pocket and pressed it into the puddle on the ground. When he picked it up, sludge dripped off of it like pancake batter.

“All of it?”

“I don’t know. This is what we have.”

Maryanne nodded and left the aisle. She was going to have to drink that poison—her son was going to have to drink it. A few tears squeezed their way out of her eyes as she passed through the sliding doors. Whatever effect the sludge had, it would be the end of her and David, one way or another. Pausing between every step to delay the horrible future, she walked out to the parking lot.

Rain dripped on her head. She held a hand in front of her eyes and laughed as a clear droplet snuck past her knuckle and slid down toward her wrist. Maryanne held her arm high and the drop continued its journey, working its way down her arm, somehow navigating past the bracelet and slinking between any particularly absorbent hairs, going and going until it disappeared into her sleeve. Maryanne took a deep breath and exhaled, then broke into a wide smile.

Maryanne peered into a bucket full of water. “David, did you boil this?”

Over the sound of gunshots and a clicking controller, David shouted, “No, I forgot.”

She pressed a hand to her forehead. “How do you forget? How did I raise a son who can forget something he does every day?”

Maryanne clicked the burner on. She leaned against the counter and thought about John. He’d been drinking the sludge since day one and she didn’t know that he’d changed at all. Yes, he was acting weird. But didn't he always? He wasn’t dead and certainly wasn’t acting severely poisoned. But something was wrong. It had to be.

Twenty minutes later, the water boiled. She intended to take the pot over to the sink where a pool of cold sludge awaited her. Despite everything, the sludge had its uses and she wasn’t about to wait an hour for the water to cool on its own. Maryanne picked the pot up and it was heavier than she expected. It always was. As she made her way to the sink she clipped the front of one foot with the back of the other, pitching forward and grabbing the countertop to keep her balance. The pot clanged against the ground and the steaming water pooled on the floor.

She balled a fist and pressed it to her lips. The wall of her hand was the only thing stopping her from cursing so loud the whole neighborhood could hear. Instead, she smacked her hand against the countertop with the futile hope that all her anger would dissipate into the Formica.

“David,” she shouted, “I need you to get another pot of water.”

“What? Why?”

“Just get it. Please.”

As David stomped down the stairs, Maryanne pulled an armful of towels and rags out of the cabinet. She laid one flat on the ground and watched as the water soaked into little spots around the fully-drenched center and spread to the corners. She wrung the cloth out into a bucket. It still looked clear enough, but it had been a while since she mopped. Flecks of dust and debris revealed themselves once she turned the light on. She crouched down again, using the seat of a chair to brace herself on the way down, but stopped when David came back up the steps.

“Mom. Some cops are here. They say they want to talk to you.”

“Police?” She pulled herself up from the ground, and sighed as she walked down the steps to the door.

Poking his head down the staircase, David asked, “What’s going on? Why are they here?”

“I don’t know.” She pointed at him with the hand that wasn’t gripping the banister. “I want you to say up there. No matter what.”

Maryanne poked her head out of the door, maintaining a barrier between her and the officers outside. Two of them stood on her stoop: both bald, white, and wearing wraparound sunglasses with teal lenses. They could have been twins, she thought, right down to the gray streaks by their mouths and on their necks.

“Hello ma'am, would you mind stepping outside to speak with us?”

“I'd feel more comfortable right here, thank you.”

“Ma'am, please step out of the doorway,” the officer said, one hand touching his belt, implying the whole range of punishment he could employ on her. Maryanne complied, and wondered what they wanted. Could John have gotten himself into another mess? If they asked, she'd do what she always did—say she had no idea what John was doing at any time of day. One of the officers peeked down the side of her house, while the other said, “Are you the owner of this house?”

“No, I rent.”

“Is that your rainwater barrel?”

Maryanne couldn't see the officers' expressions behind those glasses. Instead she saw a version of herself—small, distorted, teal. She didn't know what the rainwater barrel had to do with anything, but she sensed they weren't asking out of curiosity.

“Oh, that? I don't even use that thing. I think the last tenant put it in.”

One of the officers pulled a slim notebook out of his shirt pocket. Flipping it open, he said, “We received a report that you installed it one week ago. Is that not correct?”

“Who said that?” The cops didn't answer.

Before Maryanne could figure out who did it, John answered for her. He burst out of his house, pointing a sludge-stained finger at Maryanne. “It was her, it was her! She bought the barrel.”

One of the officers walked over to him. “Please return to your house.”

“She did it, and you're not stopping her,” John whined.

“What the hell, John!?" Everything around Maryanne dropped away in the face of John's betrayal. She thought of all the times she hadn’t called the police on him for being drunk and screaming on his lawn, selling knockoff clothing out of his basement, or any of the dozen reasons John could have been arrested.

“Ma'am, you're talking with me now. Let us deal with him.” The officer wagged his finger between them.

“Oh, I'm going to deal with him later. That's not a threat, officer, just a promise of neighborly conversation.” She shouted tilting her head in John's direction without looking at him. Maryanne heard the officer corral him back into his house. As John re-appeared, staring from his window, Maryanne noticed the thickness of the sludge residue all over his face. The sludge had changed him. That was the only explanation.

The police reorganized into a wall of blue uniform and black weapons in front of her. One of them said, “So, is that your barrel?” His tone, clipped and impatient, told Maryanne that he wouldn't accept any answer other than yes.

Maryanne said, “Yes, yes. It's mine. So, am I getting a ticket?”

The police didn't respond. They marched forward in perfect symmetry, each grabbing one of her arms before she could react—not that she ever had a chance of getting away from them. Wrestling her hands behind her back, one of the officers said, “Rainwater collection is a felony. You're under arrest.”

"For rainwater collection? That's ridiculous. Let me go!” She knew better than to struggle, though. The slightest resistance could find her on the ground, receiving the full force of the police.

“The law is the law.” They guided her to the car and dumped her in the backseat. She looked out the window as they drove, taking her far away from her house and the rainwater barrel which placed her there.

After a silent ride in the car, during which the officers ignored anything Maryanne asked, they led her to a holding cell. It had a bed that looked like a concrete slab, a metal toilet and sink, and a window, ten feet in the air. She sat on the bed, which responded to her weight with no give or bounce, as an officer closed the cell door. If rainwater collection was a felony, there was nothing she could do. They had her dead to rights.

First, she tested the sink. Sludge wormed its way out of the faucet, just a slightly darker gray than the sink itself. She felt a pit in her stomach knowing that she was trapped with the sludge. As the day passed and night fell, she grew thirstier. The cell offered few tools for her to work with. Her first thought ad been to purify her urine, but she didn’t know how to do that in even the best circumstances. Thirst pricked at her throat and she decided to go to sleep in hopes that it would be more bearable in the morning.

It wasn’t. Her dry throat crackled as she swallowed her saliva for just a moment’s half-satisfaction. She poured some more sludge into the sink. If she had some plastic wrap, she might have been able to try to extract water from the sludge with condensation. But she had none, and couldn’t be sure it would work.

A couple hours later, an officer brought by some food. At first, Maryanne was grateful for the chance to eat and ignore the sludge for a minute, but when she picked up the sandwich, sludge oozed out of the bread around her fingers. Of course. Most food was made with water. She peeled the soggy bread off the sandwich and picked out the meat. It looked like ham, but it was thicker than usual, and gray. Maryanne set the sandwich aside. Again, all she could focus on was her throat. It needed any moisture at all. Just a drop of water would be heaven.

She poured another pile of sludge into the sink and stared at it. Obvious poison still, but it would relieve her of the pain that came with every swallow, now that all her saliva was long gone. Maryanne reached a hand down toward the sink, but then she heard a patter outside.

Drops. Rain drops. She felt like an idiot. The window might’ve been ten feet up, but rain was still the answer. Just like it had been outside the jail. Beneath the window, she reached her hands all the way up. She needed another four and a half feet at least. Jumping, Maryanne briefly narrowed it to four feet and three inches.

The cell had to have something she could use. First, she checked to ensure no police were watching her. Getting dragged into some windowless room now would be her death. She tried to drag the bed two feet over to the wall, but it was bolted to the ground. And the bolts were rusted, so even as she tried to spin them off with her fingers, she knew her hopes lay elsewhere.

With the bed no longer an option, she stood in the middle of the room and tried to picture everything she could do with what she had. As she wondered how large a pile her clothes could make, the rain grew louder. A storm of drinkable water was only a few feet away from her and she couldn’t get it. Grasping her throat, she examined the sink. It was a metal tray attached to the wall. If it had been close to the window, she could have climbed on it, but if she took it down there would be no way to fix it to that height again. That left the toilet.

Checking again for observers, she un-threaded the bolts from the bottom of the toilet. It must have been newer than the bed. Or she was just lucky. She chuckled at that thought. With the bolts off, she tried to lift the toilet, but it stayed on the floor. Something kept it there. The promise of water was too near and too loud, so Maryanne crouched to the ground with her shoulder pressed against the toilet. She was sure she’d seen something like this at David’s football practice once. She pushed off her legs, sending her body weight and more pushing into the bowl of the toilet. It nudged as she pushed, so she tried harder. And harder. Then it leaned, and she crouched back down and tried once more to dislodge it.

The toilet tipped to the side, a pool of sludge slithered out of the water line, and Maryanne’s back seized in pain. She'd over-exerted herself and thrown out her back. Face down on the ground, she saw the sludge approaching her. She pushed herself up, even as pain shot across her body. As her legs shook and she cried from the pain, she stumbled over to the toilet and dragged it to the window.

All that was left was to climb. She tried to take a deep breath, but it sent another wave of pain through her back, so she’d have to settle for the fast, shallow breathing that she was already doing. When she first lifted her leg, the pain brought it right back down. Maryanne slapped her hand against the wall. Not now. She wouldn’t be stopped, not this close to water. Again, she raised her leg. Despite the pain, which prompted involuntary gasps for air every few seconds, she secured her foot on one side of the toilet bowl. That was the easy one. During the next step, she blacked out. One moment she was pulling herself up onto the toilet, the next leaning face first against the cold cement wall. There was no room left for thought or anything but pain and thirst. She was on top of the toilet.

Maryanne reached her arm up to the window. Her fingers extended through the bars, but not out into the rain. She stretched, letting only one pained yelp escape her as she did, but it was enough to attract attention. Footsteps echoed down the hall. They were too late, she pushed her hand out into the storm and felt the cold, wet rain drench her hand.

She withdrew her hand, her dry throat begging for a taste. But when she brought it back down, there was no rainwater. Gray cords of sludge dangled from her fingers.

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Volume 11, Fall 2017