A lengthy California drought escalates to catastrophic proportions, turning Alyssa's quiet suburban street into a warzone, and she is forced to make impossible choices if she and her brother are to survive.
Neal Shusterman is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty award-winning books for children, teens, and adults, including The Unwind Dystology, The Skinjacker trilogy, Downsiders, and ChallengerDeep, which won the National Book Award. Scythe, the first book in his newest series Arc of a Scythe, is a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. He also writes screenplays for motion pictures and television shows. The father of four children, Neal lives in California. Visit him at Storyman.com and Facebook.com/NealShusterman.
Jarrod Shusterman is the author of the short story “UnDevoured” in bestselling Unbound. He writes for film and television, and his talents extend to directing films and commercials. He was the story producer on the television movie Zedd—Moment of Clarity, and he and Neal Shusterman are adapting Dry for the screen. Jarrod lives in Los Angeles but enjoys traveling internationally, and is currently studying Spanish. He can be found on Instagram @JarrodShusterman.
*Starred Review* Alyssa and her brother, Garrett, are normal kids in a suburb in Southern California-that is, until surrounding states shut the floodgates to the Colorado River due to prolonged drought. At first, people dismiss the news, but circumstances turn dire quickly when bottled water disappears off store shelves while the spigots remain dry. What ensues is a horrifyingly fast descent into barbarity as neighbor turns on neighbor, government intervention falls short, and society's civil facade disintegrates. Alyssa and Garrett must travel to find new sources of water, all the while defending themselves against people crazed by thirst. While this book leans on siege-like tropes established in zombie movies, the Shustermans revivify the genre by adding an environmental twist. Using multiple points of view, the authors fully flesh out Alyssa, Garrett, and their travel companions to showcase the various ways people mentally approach calamities. The authors do not hold back-there is death, disease, manipulation, and chaos. None of it is presented simply, and none of it is sugarcoated. Lovers of horror action fiction will feel right at home with this terrifyingly realistic story of our tenuous relationship with the environment and of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of desperate situations. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: With the elder Shusterman on a roll with Challenger Deep? (2015) and Scythe? (2016), this collaboration will be supported by a tour, festival promotion, and more. Grades 9-12. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
When a calamitous drought overtakes southern California, a group of teens must struggle to keep their lives and their humanity in this father-son collaboration. When the Tap-Out hits and the state's entire water supply runs dry, 16-year-old Alyssa Morrow and her little brother, Garrett, ration their Gatorade and try to be optimistic. That is, until their parents disappear, leaving them completely alone. Their neighbor Kelton McCracken was born into a survivalist family, but what use is that when it's his family he has to survive? Kelton is determined to help Alyssa and Garrett, but with desperation comes danger, and he must lead them and two volatile new acquaintances on a perilous trek to safety and water. Occasionally interrupted by "snapshots" of perspectives outside the main plot, the narrative's intensity steadily rises as self-interest turns deadly and friends turn on each other. No one does doom like Neal Shusterman (Thunderhead, 2018, etc.)—the breathtakingly ja gged brink of apocalypse is only overshadowed by the sense that his dystopias lie just below the surface of readers' fragile reality, a few thoughtless actions away. He and his debut novelist son have crafted a world of dark thirst and fiery desperation, which, despite the tendrils of hope that thread through the conclusion, feels alarmingly near to our future. There is an absence of racial markers, leaving characters' identities open.< Mouths have never run so dry at the idea of thirst. (Thriller. 13-17) Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
SATURDAY, JUNE 4TH
The kitchen faucet makes the most bizarre sounds.
It coughs and wheezes like it’s gone asthmatic. It gurgles like someone drowning. It spits once, and then goes silent. Our dog, Kingston, raises his ears, but still keeps his distance from the sink, unsure if it might unexpectedly come back to life, but no such luck.
Mom just stands there holding Kingston’s water bowl beneath the faucet, puzzling. Then she moves the handle to the off position, and says, “Alyssa, go get your father.”
Ever since single-handedly remodeling our kitchen, Dad has had delusions of plumbing grandeur. Electrical, too. Why pay through the nose for contractors when you can do it yourself? he always said. Then he put his money where his mouth was. Ever since, we’ve had nothing but plumbing and electrical problems.
Dad’s in our garage working on his car with Uncle Basil—who’s been living with us on and off since his almond farm up in Modesto failed. Uncle Basil’s actual name is Herb, but somewhere along the line my brother and I began referring to him as various herbs in our garden. Uncle Dill, Uncle Thyme, Uncle Chive, and during a period our parents wish we would forget, Uncle Cannabis. In the end, Basil was the name that stuck.
“Dad,” I shout out into the garage, “kitchen issues.”
My father’s feet stick out from underneath his Camry like the Wicked Witch. Uncle Basil is hidden behind a storm cell of e-cig vapor.
“Can’t it wait?” my father says from beneath the car.
But I’m already sensing that it can’t. “I think it’s major,” I tell him.
He slides out, and with a heavy sigh heads for the kitchen.
Mom’s not there anymore. Instead she’s standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. She’s just standing there, the dog’s empty water bowl still in her left hand. I get a chill, but I don’t yet know why.
“What’s so important that you gotta drag me out of—”
“Shush!” Mom says. She rarely shushes Dad. She’ll shush me and Garrett all day, but my parents never shush each other. It’s an unspoken rule.
She’s watching the TV, where a news anchor is blathering about the “flow crisis.” That’s what the media’s been calling the drought, ever since people got tired of hearing the word “drought.” Kind of like the way “global warming” became “climate change,” and “war” became “conflict.” But now they’ve got a new catchphrase. A new stage in our water woes. They’re calling this the “Tap-Out.”
Uncle Basil emerges from his vapor cloud long enough to ask, “What’s going on?”
“Arizona and Nevada just backed out of the reservoir relief deal,” Mom tells him. “They’ve shut the floodgates on all the dams, saying they need the water themselves.”
Which means that the Colorado River won’t even reach California anymore.
Uncle Basil tries to wrap his mind around it. “Turning off the entire river like it’s a spigot! Can they do that?”
My father raises an eyebrow. “They just did.”
Suddenly the image switches to a live press conference, where the governor addresses a gathering of antsy reporters.
“This is unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected,” the governor says. “We have people working around the clock attempting to broker a new deal with various agencies.”
“What does that even mean?” Uncle Basil says. Both Mom and I shush him.
“As a precautionary measure, all county and municipal water districts in Southern California are temporarily rerouting all resources to critical services. But I cannot stress enough the need to keep calm. I’d like to personally assure everyone that this is a temporary situation, and that there is nothing to be concerned about.”
The media begins to bombard him with questions, but he ducks out without answering a single one.
“Looks like Kingston’s water bowl isn’t the only one that’s run dry,” Uncle Basil says. “I guess we’re gonna have to start drinking out of the toilet, too.”
My younger brother, Garrett, who’s been sitting on the couch waiting for normal TV to return, makes the appropriate face, which just makes Uncle Basil laugh.
“So,” Dad says to Mom halfheartedly, “at least the plumbing problem isn’t my fault this time.”
I go to the kitchen to try the tap myself—as if I might have the magic touch. Nothing. Not even the slightest dribble. Our faucet has coded, and no amount of resuscitation will bring it back. I note the time, like they do in the emergency room: 1:32 p.m., June 4th.
Everyone’s going to remember where they were when the taps went dry, I think. Like when a president is assassinated.
In the kitchen behind me, Garrett opens the fridge and grabs a bottle of Glacier Freeze Gatorade. He begins to guzzle it, but I stop him on the third gulp.
“Put it back,” I tell him. “Save some for later.”
“But I’m thirsty now,” he whines, protesting. He’s ten—six years younger than me. Ten-year-olds have issues with delayed gratification.
It’s almost finished anyway, so I let him keep it. I take note of what’s in the fridge. A couple of beers. Three more bottles of Gatorade, a gallon of milk that’s down to the dregs, and leftovers.
You know how sometimes you don’t realize how thirsty you are until you take that first sip? Well, suddenly I get that feeling just by looking in the refrigerator.
It’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a premonition.
I can hear neighbors out in the street now. We know our neighbors—run into them occasionally. The only time whole bunches of them come out into the street at the same time is July Fourth, or when there’s an earthquake.
My parents, Garrett, and I gravitate outside as well, all of us standing, strangely, looking to one another for some kind of guidance, or at least validation that this is actually happening. Jeannette and Stu Leeson from across the street, the Maleckis and their newborn, and Mr. Burnside, who’s been eternally seventy years old for as long as I can remember. And as expected, we don’t see the reclusive family next door—the McCrackens—who have probably barricaded themselves inside their suburban fortress upon hearing the news.
We all kind of stand there with our hands in our pockets, avoiding direct eye contact, like my classmates at the junior prom.
“Okay,” my dad finally says, “which one of you pissed off Arizona and Nevada?”
Everyone chuckles. Not because it’s particularly funny, but it eases some of the tension.
Mr. Burnside raises his eyebrows. “Hate to say I told ya so, but didn’t I say they’d hoard what’s left of the Colorado River? We let that river become our only lifeline. We should never have let ourselves become so vulnerable.”
Used to be no one much knew or cared where our water came from. It was just always there. But when the Central Valley started to dry up and the price of produce skyrocketed, people started to pay attention. Or at least enough attention to pass laws and voter propositions. Most of them were useless, but made people feel as if something was being done. Like the Frivolous Use Initiative, which made things like throwing water balloons illegal.
“Las Vegas still has water,” someone points out.
Our neighbor, Stu, shakes his head. “Yeah—but I just tried to book a hotel in Vegas. A million hotel rooms, and not a single one available.”
Mr. Burnside laughs ruefully, as if taking pleasure in Stu’s misfortune. “One hundred twenty-four thousand hotels rooms, actually. Sounds like a whole lot of people had the same idea.”
“Ha! Can you imagine the traffic on the interstate trying to get there?” says my mom, in a sour grapes kind of way. “I wouldn’t want to be caught in that!”
And then I put my two cents in. “If they’re diverting the remaining water to ‘critical services,’ it means there’s still a little bit left. Someone should sue to get them to release a fraction of it. Make it like rolling blackouts. Each neighborhood gets a little bit of water each day.”
My parents are impressed by the suggestion. The others look at me with an isn’t-she-adorable kind of expression, which ticks me off. My parents are convinced I’m going to be a lawyer someday. It’s possible, but I suspect if I am, it will just be a means to an end—although I’m not sure what that end would be.
But that doesn’t help us now—and though I think my idea is a good one, I suspect there’s too much self-interest among the Powers That Be for it to ever happen. And who knows, maybe there isn’t enough water left to share.
A phone chimes, receiving a text. Jeannette looks at her Android. “Great! Now my relatives in Ohio found out. Like I need their stress on top of my own.”
“Text them back: ‘send water.’?” My father quips.
“We’ll get through this,” my mom says reassuringly. She’s a clinical psychologist, so reassurance is second nature to her.
Garrett, who’s been standing quietly, brings his Gatorade bottle up to his lips . . . and for a brief moment everyone stops talking. Involuntary. Almost like a mental hiccup, as they watch my brother gulp the quenching blue liquid. Finally, Mr. Burnside breaks the silence.
“We’ll talk,” he says as he turns to leave. It’s the way he always ends a conversation. It signals the conclusion of this loose little fellowship. Everyone says their goodbyes and heads back to their homes . . . but more than one set of eyes glance at Garrett’s empty Gatorade bottle as they leave.
• • •
“Costco run!” says Uncle Basil late that afternoon, at around five. “Who’s coming?”
“Can I get a hot dog?” Garrett asks, knowing that even if Uncle Basil says no, he’ll get one anyway. Uncle Basil is a pushover.
“Hot dogs are the least of our problems,” I tell him. And he doesn’t question that. He knows why we’re going—he’s not stupid. Even so, he still knows he’ll get a hot dog.
We climb into the cab of Uncle Basil’s four-by-four pickup, which is jacked up higher than should be allowed for any man his age.
“Mom said we have a few water bottles in the garage,” Garrett says.
“We’re going to need more than just a few,” I point out. I try to quickly do the math in my head. I also saw those bottles. Nine half-liters. Five of us. That won’t even last the day.
As we turn the corner out of our neighborhood and onto the main street, Uncle Basil says, “It may take a day or so for the county to get the water up and running again. We’ll probably only need a couple of cases.”
“And Gatorade!” says Garrett. “Don’t forget the Gatorade! It’s full of electrolytes.” ?Which is what they say on the commercials, even though Garrett doesn’t know what an electrolyte is.
“Look on the bright side,” Uncle Basil says. “You probably won’t have school for a few days.” The California version of a snow day.
I’ve been counting down the days for junior year to end. Just two weeks now. But knowing my high school, they’ll probably find a way to tack any lost days on at the end, delaying our summer vacation.
• • •
As we pull into the Costco parking lot we can see the crowd. It seems like our entire neighborhood had the same idea. We do nothing but slowly circle in search of an empty space. Finally Uncle Basil pulls out his Costco card and hands it to me.
“You two go in. I’ll meet you inside when I find a place to park.”
I wonder how he’ll get in without his card, but then, Uncle Basil finds ways around any situation. Garrett and I hop out and join the hordes of people flooding the entrance. Inside it’s like Black Friday at its worst—but today it’s not televisions and video games people are after. The carts in the checkout line are stocked with canned goods, toiletries, but mostly water. The essentials of life.
Something feels slightly off. I’m not sure what it is, but it hangs in the air like a scent. It’s in the impatience of the people in line. The way people use their carts—on the verge of being battering rams to make their way through the crowd. There’s a sort of primal hostility all around us, hidden by a veneer of suburban politeness. But even that politeness is stretching thin.
“This cart sucks,” Garrett says. He’s right. One wheel is bent, and the only way to push it is to lean it on the other three wheels. I look back toward the entrance. There were only a couple of carts left when I grabbed this one. They’ll all be gone now.
“It’ll do,” I tell him.
Garrett and I forge our way through the crowds toward the back left corner, where the water pallets are. As we do, we overhear bits and pieces of conversations.
“FEMA’s already slammed with Hurricane Noah,” one woman tells another. “How are they going to help us, too?”
“It’s not our fault! Agriculture uses eighty percent of the water!”
“If the state spent more time finding new sources of water, instead of fining us for filling our swimming pools,” one woman says, “we wouldn’t be in this position.”
Garrett turns to me. “My friend Jason has a giant aquarium in his living room, and he didn’t get fined.”
“That’s different,” I explain to him. “Fish are considered pets.”
“But it’s still water.”
“Then go drink it,” I say, shutting him up. I don’t have time to think about other people’s problems. We have our own to worry about. But it looks like I’m the only one who cares, because Garrett has already gone off to hunt for free samples.
As I push the cart, it keeps veering to the left and I have to lean heavily on the right side to prevent the bent wheel from acting like a rudder.
As I approach the rear of the warehouse, I can see that it’s the most crowded spot, and as I reach the last aisle to see the water pallets, I realize I’m too late. The pallets are already empty.
In hindsight, we should have come straight here the moment the taps were turned off. But when something drastic happens, there’s a lag time. It’s not quite denial, and not quite shock, but more like a mental free fall. You’re spending so much time wrapping your mind around the problem, you don’t realize what you need to do until the window to do it has closed. I think of all those people in Savannah the moment Hurricane Noah made that unexpected turn and barreled straight toward them, instead of heading back out to sea like it was supposed to. How long did they stare unblinking at the news, until they packed up their things and evacuated? I can tell you how long. Three and a half hours.
Behind me, people who can’t see that the water pallets are empty keep pushing forward. Eventually some employee will have the good sense to put a sign out front that says NO WATER, but until they do, customers will keep piling in, pushing toward the back, creating a suffocating crowd, like the mosh pit of a concert.
On a hunch, I maneuver my way to the side aisle, and to the racks of canned soda, which are also beginning to disappear. But I’m not here for soda. As I look around the stacks of drinks, I find a single case of water that someone abandoned there maybe yesterday, when it wasn’t such a precious commodity. I reach for it, only to find it pulled away at the last second by a thin woman with a beak of a nose. She stacks it on top of her cart like a crown on top of her canned goods.
“I’m sorry, but we were here first,” she says. And then her daughter steps forward—a girl I recognize from soccer—Hali Hartling. She’s annoyingly popular and thinks she’s much better at soccer than she really is. Half the girls in school want to be like her, and the other half hate her because they know they’ll never come close. Me, I just put up with her. She’s not worth the energy for me to be anything but indifferent.
Although she always seems to bleed confidence, right now she can’t even look me in the eye—because she knows, just as her mother knows, that I had that water first. As her mother pulls their cart away, Hali leans closer to me. “I’m sorry about that, Morrow,” she says earnestly, calling me by my last name like we do in soccer.
“Didn’t I share my water with you at practice last week?” I point out to her. “Maybe you could return the favor and share a few bottles with me.”
She looks back to her mother, who’s already moving down the aisle, then back to me with a shrug. “Sorry, they don’t sell them by the bottle here. Just by the case.” And then she gets a little bit red in the face, and turns to leave before it becomes a full-fledged flush.
I take in my surroundings. Crowds are still getting thicker, and things are vanishing from the shelves at an alarming rate. Even the sodas are gone now. Stupid! I should have grabbed some. I hurry back to my empty cart before someone else can take it. There’s no sign of Uncle Basil yet, and Garrett is probably off stuffing his face with something greasy. The Gatorade he requested is all gone, too.
Finally I spot Garrett. He’s down one of the frozen aisles, pizza sauce all over his face. He wipes his mouth with his shirt, knowing I’ll comment. But I don’t bother—because I see something. Just past the frozen vegetables and ice cream, there’s a chest packed with ice. Enormous bags of it. I can’t believe people are such limited thinkers that they haven’t thought of this themselves! Or maybe they have, but denied that they could possibly be so desperate. I open the door and reach for a bag.
“What are you doing? We need water, not ice.”
“Ice is water, Einstein,” I tell him. I go for a bag, and realize they’re a lot heavier than I had anticipated.
“Help me!” Together Garrett and I heave one bag of ice after another into our cart, until it’s piled as high as it can get. By now other people have taken notice, and have crowded the ice case, beginning to empty it.
The cart is ridiculously heavy now, and almost impossible to push—especially with a bad wheel. Then, as we struggle with the cart, the jammed wheel scraping across the concrete floor, a man in a business suit comes up behind us. He smiles.
“That’s quite a load there,” he says. “Looks like you could use some help.”
He doesn’t wait for us to answer before grabbing the cart’s handle, and wrestling it forward far more effectively than we did.
“Crazy here today,” he says jovially. “Crazy everywhere, I’ll bet.”
“Thank you for helping us,” I tell him.
“Not a problem. We all need to help one another.”
He smiles again, and I return the grin. It’s good to know that difficult times can bring out the best in people.
Bit by bit, with short but steady lurches, we get the cart to the front of the store, and into one of the snaking checkout lines.
“I suppose that’s my workout for the day,” he chuckles.
I look at our cart, and decide that one good turn deserves another. “Why don’t you take a bag of ice for yourself,” I suggest.
His smile doesn’t fade. “I have an even better idea,” he says. “Why don’t you take a bag of ice for yourselves, and I’ll keep the rest.”
For a moment I think he’s joking, but then realize he’s dead serious. “Excuse me?”
He manufactures a heavy sigh. “You’re right, that really wouldn’t be fair to you. Tell you what, why don’t we split it down the middle? I’ll take half, you take half.”
He says it like he’s being generous. As if the ice is his to give. He’s still smiling, but his eyes scare me.
“I think my offer is more than fair,” he says. I begin to wonder what business he’s in, and if it’s all about cheating people but making them think they’re not being cheated. It’s not going to fly with me—but his hands are firmly locked on the handle of our cart, and there’s nothing to prove that it’s ours and not his.
“Is there a problem here?”
It’s Uncle Basil. He’s arrived just in time. He glares at the man coldly for a moment, then the man takes his hands off the cart.
“Not at all,” he says.
“Good.” Uncle Basil says. “I’d hate to think you were harassing my niece and nephew. People get arrested for that.”
The man holds eye contact with our uncle for a moment more before folding. He looks at the ice, his expression bitter, then leaves, not taking as much as a single bag.
• • •
Uncle Basil’s pickup truck is parked illegally—halfway onto an island, having demolished a row of ficus. “Had to kick this sucker into four-wheel drive,” he says proudly—probably the first time he’s ever actually had to use it. Suddenly Uncle Basil’s midlife crisis truck is a blessing rather than an embarrassment.
We load the bags of ice into the truck bed. “How about that hot dog?” Uncle Basil offers, trying to lighten the mood.
“I’m full,” Garrett responds, even though I know that’s a nearly impossible feat for him. He just doesn’t want to go back inside. None of us do. And now there’s a small crowd that’s formed, watching us load the ice into the bed of the truck. Even though I try to ignore it, I know there’s a dozen eyes on us.
“Why don’t I ride in the truck bed with the ice?” I suggest.
“No, it’s okay,” Uncle Basil replies calmly. “Ride in the cab. Some nasty potholes on the way back. Wouldn’t want you to bounce around back there.”
“Right,” I agree as I hop into the cab of the pickup. And although no one speaks of it, I know it’s not potholes my uncle’s worried about.
• • •
We pull onto our street, but for some reason it doesn’t quite feel like the same block I grew up on. There’s this strangeness, like when you accidentally turn one street too early, and, because all of the cookie-cutter houses look the same, you feel as if you’re in a parallel universe. I try to shake the feeling as I watch the houses go by through the car window.
Our neighbors across the street, the Kiblers, usually lounge in their lawn chairs and “supervise” their kids as they play, which in reality means gossiping over glasses of chardonnay while making sure their children don’t get run over. However, today the Kibler kids play tag in the street without supervision. And even through the children’s laughter there’s this insidious silence that underscores everything; then again, maybe the silence was always there, and I’m only just noticing it now.
Uncle Basil backs the truck into the driveway and we get straight to unloading. Even with the sun getting low in the sky, it’s still ninety degrees, and the ice is already melting. If we’re going to get all of this ice inside in time, we’re going to need to hurry.
“Why don’t you go clean out the freezer so we can put some ice in it,” Uncle Basil says as he grabs the first bag from the truck bed. “The rest we can let melt and drink today.”
“Better yet, why don’t you clean the downstairs bathtub,” I tell Garret. “We’ll let it melt there.”
“Good idea,” says Basil, although Garrett’s not too keen on cleaning the tub.
Dad emerges from the garage, greasy wrench in hand, clearly still trying to squeeze water from the pipes. “Ice, huh?”
“They ran out of everything else,” I tell him, keeping it brief.
Dad scratches his head. “Should have gone to Sam’s Club,” he says. “They keep more items stocked in the back of the store.” Although Dad smiles it off, I can tell he’s a little more disturbed than he lets on. I think he knows that Sam’s Club has most likely been cleaned out of all of its bottled liquids, just like every other store.
Uncle Basil quickly changes the subject. “Thought you were going into the office today,” he says.
Dad shrugs and grabs a bag of ice. “Best thing about having your own business is that you don’t have to work Saturdays if you don’t want to.”
Except that Dad does work Saturdays. Some Sundays, too. A lot of people put in extra hours these days, considering how the price of produce has been rising—but even without that, Dad always told us that it takes a 24/7 commitment to build out a business. Yet apparently he’d rather haul ice than sell insurance today.
I pull more ice from the back of the truck, but find, even in a thick plastic bag, it’s hard to grip now that it’s starting to melt.
“Need some help?” says a voice from behind, and before turning around I know exactly who it is. Kelton McCracken. Your not-so-typical red-headed geek next door. Most kids of his strangeness are content killing zombies with an Xbox controller, but not Kelton. He prefers to spend his time practicing aerial reconnaissance with his drone, shooting critters with his paintball gun, and hiding in his tree house with a pair of night vision goggles, pretending to be Jason Bourne. It’s like he never matured past sixth grade, so his parents just bought him bigger and bigger toys. But today I can’t help but notice that there’s something different about him. Sure, he’s grown in this past year and looks a lot more mature—but it isn’t just that. It’s the way he holds himself. There’s a bounce in his step, as if this whole water crisis excites him in some sick way. Kelton smiles, revealing that his braces are off and his teeth have been wrangled artificially straight.
“Sure, Kelton, we could use some help,” says Dad. “Why don’t you give Alyssa a hand?”
I go to hand him the ice, but as I hold it out to him, something comes over me, and I can’t seem to let go of the bag.
Dad takes notice, confused by my hesitation. “Let him take the ice, Alyssa,” he says.
I look down to the ice in my hands and then back to Kelton, realizing I’m still skeptical about allowing people to “help.”
“Is there a problem?” Dad asks, in an intrusive, fatherly tone that demands an answer—which I don’t give.
I force myself to hand the ice over to Kelton. “Just don’t expect a bag for helping,” I tell him, which makes my father give me a stern look, probably wondering what would possess me to be so nasty about it. Maybe later I’ll tell him about that guy at Costco. Or maybe I’ll just try to forget it ever happened.
As for Kelton, I expect him to have a snotty comeback, but instead he just stands there, genuinely thrown by my comment. I regain my composure and force a smile, hoping it doesn’t look forced. “Sorry,” I tell him. “Thanks for helping.”
We go inside to set the ice in the bathtub, but Kelton grabs my shoulder to stop me.
“Have you sealed the drain?” he asks. “Not a good idea putting this ice in the tub unless you’ve sealed the drain. Even the tiniest leak and you’ll lose it all in a few hours.”
“I thought my uncle had done that,” I tell him, even though none of us would have thought of it. As much as I hate to admit it, that’s probably the smartest idea I’ve heard all day.
“I’ll go get you some caulking,” he says, and hurries off to retrieve the sealant from his garage, obviously happy for an opportunity to put his Boy Scout training into action.
Kelton and his reclusive family always seem to have a worst-case scenario plan for anything. Dad would sometimes joke that Mr. McCracken lived a double life, working as a dentist by day and preparing for the end of the world by night. But recently the joke is becoming all the more real. It seems Mr. McCracken now spends most of his time welding cast-iron contraptions late into the night, as if he were drilling into the cavity of the gaping monstrosity that is his garage.
Over the past few months Kelton’s family has assembled an over-the-top surveillance system, set up a mini greenhouse in their side yard, and lined their entire roof with some kind of unregistered, off-grid solar panels. Most recently, Kelton—who’s in far too many of my classes this year—is always bragging about how his father installed one-way bulletproof windows—bullets can shoot out from inside, but can’t penetrate from the outside. Even though the rest of our class thinks he’s completely full of it, I think it might be true. I wouldn’t put it past his father to do something like that.
Aside from our complaints about the late-night welding, our families are generally amicable, but there’s always been a sense of polite tension when my parents deal with them. We once shared an area of grass between our two houses, until Mr. McCracken installed a picket fence right through my mom’s prize-winning vermilliades. The fence was obnoxiously taller than your typical whitewashed suburban barrier, but just low enough not to technically violate the rules and regulations of the Homeowners Association—which they always seem to be at war with. Once, they even tried to lay claim to the curb in front of their house as their own private parking spot, insisting that their property line extended a few inches into the street—but the association won that battle. Ever since then, Uncle Basil makes a point to park his truck right in front of their house whenever he can, just to mess with them.
Kelton returns in a few minutes with the caulking and gets right to sealing the drain. “This might take a couple of hours to harden, so be careful when you pack the ice in,” he says, way more enthusiastic than someone ought to be about silicone sealant. There’s an uncomfortable silence between us that makes me realize that I’ve never actually spent time with Kelton one-on-one.
Then something occurs to me that’s not just a conversation filler, but something important. “Wait a second. Don’t you guys have a big water tank behind your house?”
“Thirty-five gallons,” Kelton brags, as he applies the caulking with the precision of a jeweler. “But that’s inside our house. The outside one’s for bodily waste, full of quaternary ammonium compound chemicals. You know, like that stinky blue soup at the bottom of a porta potty.”
“Yeah, I get it, Kelton,” I say, duly disgusted. “Well, I can’t say you guys didn’t think ahead.” ?Which is the understatement of the century.
“Well, as my dad always says, ‘We’d rather be wrong than dead wrong.’?” Then he adds, “I bet if your dad just thought ahead too, you’d probably be better off.”
Kelton’s clearly not aware how insulting he can sound sometimes. I wonder if he ever won a merit badge for being Most Annoying.
Kelton finishes up the job. I thank him, and he heads back home to shoot his potato launcher, or dissect bugs, or whatever a kid like him does with his free time.
In the kitchen, my mom is scouring every surface with 409. Stress cleaning. When something’s out of your control, you bring order to the things you can. I get that. She’s never been the type, though, to leave the TV on as background noise—but she has it blasting in the family room. I’m not sure where my dad and uncle are. Maybe back working on his car. I find it odd that I feel I need to know.
On TV, CNN is focused on the continuing crisis of Hurricane Noah. I don’t begrudge those poor people the attention, but wish some of it would turn toward us, too.
“Any news about the Tap-Out?” I ask.
“One of the local stations has regular updates,” Mom tells me, “but it’s that brainless anchor I can’t stand. And besides, there’s nothing new.”
Even so, I switch to the brainless anchor, who my dad says got his start in porn, although I don’t want to ask him how he knows.
My mom’s right; they’re just showing the governor’s statement from this morning, and trying without success to spin it.
I switch back to the national news stations. CNN, then MSNBC, then Fox News, and back to CNN again. Every national broadcast is reporting on Noah, and only on Noah. Slowly it dawns on me why.
There’s no radar image for a water crisis.
No storm surges, no debris fields—the Tap-Out is as silent as cancer. There’s nothing to see, and so the news is treating it like a sidebar.
I mention this to my mom. She stops cleaning for a moment, and watches the crawl of secondary stories at the bottom of the screen. Finally something comes up: California water crisis deepens. Residents urged to conserve.
And that’s it. That’s all the national news says.
“Conserve? Are you kidding me?”
My mom takes a deep breath and sprays the kitchen table again. “As long as FEMA does its job, who care’s what the news says?”
“I care,” I tell her. Because if there’s one thing I know about the news, it’s that it decides for most people—including the federal government—what is and what isn’t important. But the big news stations won’t give the Tap-Out the critical airtime it needs—not until there are images that are as dramatic as winds taking off roofs.
And if it takes that long for the Tap-Out to be taken seriously, it will be too late.