DRY

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Submitted Date 09/20/2022
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The canals went dry before we were born, me and my brother. The earth burned and cracked ages ago, and our Mother said she's never seen the water return. At night, when the air cools enough, she throws open the windows, unlocks the doors and we run, me and my brother, down the lane.

"Don't stay out too late!" Mother shouts as she prepares herself to leave for work. "Be back before dawn!" She calls out to us.

We know. It's too hot for anyone to stay out here, even by 6 o'clock in the morning everything is burning. We are home by then anyway, crawling into our soft beds to sleep away the sunlight hours.

At the end of the lane, across the broken road, the old fields are dust for miles. By the light of the moon, we can see them stretching into forever. And forever is a lot of nothing except we've found the old waterways. Here is evidence that there must have once been farmers and green growth and daylight that didn't burn everything away.

"Come on!" my brother says, jumping down into the deep canal. "Let's go!" he calls, snapping on his flashlight and waving it overhead.

From my satchel, I pull my own torch and push the button. Light spills in a circle across the ground as I race to catch up. "It's right there," I holler, pointing my light at the black hole in the canal wall.

My brother and me, we shine our lights together and peer into the underground. We're not scared of rats or snakes or spiders down there. Those things were all cooked a long time ago. No, we're looking for the others, the neighbor boys, that steal our adventures. The sunburned boys who never get home before dawn and their mother bangs on our door, searching for them. "Are they here?" She always cries in a panic, but she's gone to the next house before our mother can shake her head no.

Our mother does not like those boys in our house. "They smell of bones," she tells us. "Like they've already begun to cook from the inside out."

We know well what bones smell like. We know because when we kick up the dust in the lane, we might find part of a humerus bone, the nub of a fibula bone, or maybe the iliac crest of the hip bone. People die out here every day, and their meat cooks and their fat burns away because they don't make it home in time. They don't listen to their mother like we do, my brother and me.

The entrance to the waterways, the round hole in the wall, crumbles a bit around the edges as we squeeze through and drop down into the old irrigation system.

"Which way?" I ask my brother and he sets off, following his flashlight down the tunnel.

"Anything is a clue to finding it!" My brother calls over his shoulder. "Could be a change in smells, or the sounds of animals moving. Even a cool rush of wind might mean we've found water," he tells me.

"But what if the other brothers find it first?" I ask.

He laughs. "They won't! They're gonna be bones before long. They'll definitely be dead before school is out."

"I wish things didn't burn," I tell him. "If only there was still water in these tubes and we could, me and you, sit in a boat. Wouldn't that be fun?" I swing the light to see my brother's sallow face. "What if we could swim for the first time?" I try to think of what a pool of water might look like. It's got to be so much more than just the little measured sips we get from our dispensers. When our alarms ring, we can drink but not until then and only the quarter cup that is released.

"What if we could actually live without worrying?" My brother throws back to sting me. "What if we found enough water what would last us for five years? Heck, even one year. What if we didn't have to drink the recycled urine anymore either!"

"I'd still like to swim," I say softly, "if I would wish for anything."

The tunnel curves and I smell it before my brother does. "Bones," I report. "I smell bones here."

He nods. "Me too," he pauses to shine his flashlight over a mound of dirt against the wall. He kicks and the dust lifts to reveal radial and ulnar bones, the crown of a skull. "Looks like someone didn't make it home in time," he tells me and moves on.

We used to bring bones home, my brother and me. Our mother would open the large encyclopedia and we would find and name each bone. Once, we tried to put together an entire skeleton but it's hard to find all two-hundred and six bones, even in a freshly burned person. Hand and foot bones can be tiny and easily overlooked.

Inside my satchel, the alarm sounds. My brother stops and I unbuckle the bag. It's time for us to drink.

"Did you know," my brother says, carefully sipping his water so he doesn't spill a drop, "that people used to poo into a bowl filled with fresh water."

I laugh. "No, they didn't," I say. "That's not true."

"Of course, it's true." He smiles at me. "Everyone had basins filled with water, just waiting to take the poo away from their houses. Water went gushing through pipes after every poo. Water came rushing up the pipe to rinse the bowls clean." He shakes his head. "What a waste," he scoffs.

I return the water dispensers to my bag, buckle the strap and we are walking again, down the endless tunnel. My brother reads a lot. He knows a lot of things. Not only does he know about history but he's good at math too. He knows how far we can walk and when we must turn to hurry home before the sun rises.

"Wait!" he says, coming to a sudden stop. My brother raises his hand in warning. He tips his head. "I heard something," he whispers. "Be very quiet."

"What was it?" I say. "Was it the…"

"Sshh," he tells me. "Voices, I think."

"The other brothers?" I mouth but he is a pillar of silence.

We stand there forever. We listen so hard my ears begin to ring with the sound of nothing.

My brother finally releases me with a shrug. "Musta been hearing things," he explains, and we are walking once more. Quicker this time and I hurry to stay in step.

"If we find water down here," I tell him, "Will we share it? Will we give some to the other brothers?"

"We can't!" My brother says. "For you, me and mom to have enough, we won't be able to share with another person."

"Not unless there's a pool," I tell him. "Then we can swim and still have enough to drink and share and maybe even go poo!" I laugh.

But my brother does not laugh. He stops and puts both of his hands on my shoulders. "Don't you understand," he says, "We will die without water. And no one can help us if we can't find more of it. So, no, we cannot share with anyone if we do find water. Is that clear?"

I nod slowly and pull away from his grasp. For a long time, we walk in the darkness. I turn off my flashlight and follow my brother. The dust is soft under my feet. The oposie of what a clear pool of water must feel like. I imagine how it must be inside a wet world: weightless and cool.

Then I smell something. "Can it be?" I wonder, snapping on my torch.

I feel something. "No," I whisper, and my steps quicken.

Then, I hear something, and all my senses are awake.

"Do you think…" I say slowly, softly. "Can that be water?" I ask. Waving my flashlight from wall to wall, I search out the source of the cool breeze, the distant sound of dripping, the wet scent of moisture.

The alarm in my bag goes off and we pause again, only for a moment, to drink.

"We're close," my brother says, looking at his watch, "but we've gotta hurry. We don't have much time."

The tunnel dips lower, bends to the right and then I see splashes of green on the tunnel walls. I feel a cool, moist breath on my face, and I want to run. I want to feel the moss, taste the water I see in little pools on the ground. The powder dry earth beneath my feet has turned to mud. Water is dripping from the walls and ceiling of the tunnel and I hear my brother laugh for the first time in forever. And forever is a long time when your brother has been worried for that long.

"Let's stay here today!" I tell him. "Let's not go back."

He shakes his head. "Mother will be waiting and worried if we don't return. She'll go door to door, looking for us."

"Okay," I say. Opening my satchel once more, I take out the empty jar. "Proof," I tell him, dipping the glass into one of the little pools of water. It's cool on my fingers as I twist the lid shut. I rest the jar next to the water dispensers and say, "Do you think there is more water ahead? Maybe a pond or bigger? A lake!"

My brother shrugs. "Tomorrow we'll check. Maybe we'll even stay here, explore further in." He puts his arm around my shoulder. "We don't want to be late getting back," he tells me.

As we turn to go, we hear a gasp and I smell the scent of bones. My brother waves his light and there they are, the brothers, seeing our fine treasure.

"This is ours," we call out to them. "You can't have any," I say.

The brothers, they don't like this. They raise their baton torches at us, tell us they are taking what they want.

We raise our torches, my brother and me. And we rush at them. We holler as we swing our lights and crash them down on the other brothers' shoulders and faces. We scream as they hit at our arms and our chests. A torch bounces off my chin and my brother grows furious. He swings again and again and again, and I see that his light has gone from yellow to a wet red. The cries have gone silent and soon, there is only the drip, drip, dripping of water from the ceiling of the tunnel.

On the ground, the brothers lay quiet and unmoving.

"Are they breathing?" I whisper.

My brother looks up into the darkness.

I nod and look ahead instead of down. "We've got to get home to mother," I tell him.

He turns and we are hurrying away. Our walk turns to jogging; turns to running through the darkest night.

The sky is beginning to grey as we step out of the tunnel. Sweat drips off our faces. I am still trying to catch my breath when my brother touches my shoulder. Without a word, he takes the satchel, unbuckles the strap, and removes the jar of water. With a quick twist of his hand, the lid is off and he is pouring the contents into the bone dry canal floor.

"We found nothing tonight," my brother tells me. He looks me straight in the eyes and says, "nothing."

As we are crawling into bed, as the sun begins to scorch the sky, there is a banging at the front door. "Are they here?" the mother cries. "Have you seen them?" She screams and quickly, I pull the blanket up over my head.

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