Through the weeping household stalked a small black cat—just past kittenhood, and more gamine than gangly. She darted past the skirts of a grieving wife as the woman buried her face in a... [+]
When there is no water left, we’ll leave. Until then, we ration what we pull from the well. Three-quarters of a bucket for drinking (a full one when the day gets above 90 degrees, which is happening more and more now), half a bucket for cleaning (the house, the dishes, our bodies) every three days, a quarter bucket for cooking. We measure our days in buckets.
Adaline is in charge of the bucket. Sometimes it makes me hate her. But Mother has said Adaline is most exacting, the least prone to daydreaming. It was Adaline, after all, who marked the increments in blue paint.
We had to say goodbye to the animals. Mother and Adaline spent days with the livestock, butchering and cleaning and preserving. Mother said, they have given themselves so that we may be fed in the drying.
I miss my cat, Elva, the most. She stuck around for some time, mewing outside my bedroom window, but I wasn’t allowed to give her any food or water. I tried to save some from my weekly bath, but Adaline caught me. And of course, she told Mother.
Mother loves my giving nature. But there is no longer a place for it, she says. We only have ourselves. There is no room for anyone or anything else.
We don’t see people anymore. The last was a few weeks ago, and before that, it had been many months. The man was alone, and so thin and weak, Mother said we had nothing to fear. Even still, she said no. He cried then, and I wanted to tell him what a waste that was. Adaline whispered to me later that she saw his body up the road two days after, but I can’t always trust Adaline. Sometimes I think she means to scare me.
It doesn’t rain anymore. If we’d known the last time that it was the last time, perhaps we would have stood outside, just to feel the water on our faces.
Mother changes the rations again. We no longer clean the house, or our bodies, with any regularity. It is strange living in this house now. Mother used to take such pride in sweeping and mopping the floors till they shone. Now she spends whole days alone in her room. Adaline says she is working out a plan.
One day, when Adaline is outside, I open the door to Mother’s room. She is lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling. She turns her head toward me and I can tell she has been crying. She pats the spot next to her and I climb into the bed and rest my head on her chest.
“We’ll have to leave soon,” she says. I stay still. “I don’t know where to take us. What if there is nowhere else?” I wonder if she is thinking of that man, as I am. Or perhaps her worries are more focused. A woman, two girls, no water.
She begins storing water in bottles we aren’t allowed to touch. She isn’t surprised when the bucket scrapes stone, but Adaline has a fit. She can’t breathe, and she won’t try, until Mother presses her palms on Adaline’s shoulders, orders that she calm down. I’ve never seen Adaline like this. It is this that scares me more than anything.
I sneak into bed with Adaline that night. She doesn’t push me away like she usually does. “Mother has a plan,” I say to her, stroking her hair. Adaline doesn’t respond. “She knows what to do,” I whisper. Adaline slowly turns to face me and it’s like she’s not even awake.
“She doesn’t,” Adaline says, and then turns back to face the wall.
Adaline won’t eat the jerky we’d made, and Mother wastes precious water coaxing her to eat some broth. She stops getting out of bed, and it is my job to pull the water. One-half bucket a day. This is a job I’d coveted for so long, only now, at the end, it is impossible. To fill the bucket, to see Mother’s eyes with what I bring in. I know now her impulse when that ravaged man had shown up. There isn’t enough.
This lasts a few days, until there is nothing to be taken from the well. We pack the water bottles, food, some clothing, and Mother says we will set out first thing the next morning. “Where?” I ask.
“West,” she says, busy with securing her pack. “And don’t ask me any more questions.”
I hold Adaline that night while her teeth chatter though it isn’t the least bit cold.
“You didn’t see that man at the end,” she whispers. “That’s how it’s going to be for us.” No, no, I assure her. “It’s an awful way to go. I hope I’m first. I can’t bear to watch it.”
In the morning, I reach for Adaline and she isn’t there. Nor is she downstairs or anywhere else in the house. Mother and I search for her all day around the property, but she’s just gone. She hasn’t even taken a single water bottle.
Maybe she’s struck out looking for water, or people, so that we don’t have to. She could come back at any moment, we say. After this, we cannot leave.
We cut our rations yet again, and we wait. Sometimes, when Mother is napping, I trace the blue lines of the bucket with my finger. They are so precise.
I do not say this aloud: but I think of my cat Elva. How she knew when it was time to go off into the woods and to be alone. How she didn’t come back.
The bottles grow empty, even as we drink less and less. There is no cleaning. No washing. No speaking. We sleep most of the day and keep watch at night. For Adaline. For anyone.