How it happened:
It happened slowly. The fishermen called the rogue and unpredictable changes at sea El Pescadoro. Winds came from differing directions, currents looped back on themselves, temperatures fluctuated. It wasnt seasonal like El Niño, though at first everyone thought it was. It didnt 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 buildings 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, like she were some toothy, unpredictable animal hed 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 dont 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. Im thinking of turning to crime instead.”
Youd 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 youd 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. Youre 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 agoI told you?”
They watched it continue down the street until a shot rang out. The mooses body jerked and sidestepped strangely and then there was another shot.
Thats 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 theyll store it.” The moose stumbled again on a third shot but continued on. Theyve got to get a straight shot in.”
I cant watch,” Renee said. She climbed back in bed and spoke to Zachs 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.
Whats happening? Tell me whats happening.”
They cant lift it, one of its legs is kicking.”
My co-worker had to kill his dog,” Zach said. Hes 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 dont buy it,” Renee said. The moose maybe, but not your own dog. Next is your neighbor, then your children and your wife. Its like a spider that cuts her own webbing.”
You think Im in danger, as his co-worker?”
Oh, youre 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.
Youre 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 mooses stutter-step as it was shot, and wondered if he would know when he was the moosethe animal too lost and thirsty for reason, stumbling toward annihilation.
He was still thirsty after hed 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 re-work 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 shed finished.
Ive 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, lets 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 re-positioned 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 whod served him coffee at the café down the block for over a year, the one hed 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 hed 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, hed said, Id like it if youd come inside.” He still winced at the blunt, sad honesty of the line. Shed 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, Were going to do a robbery. Josh and I and a couple others.”
Black Bloc Josh? From the re-zoning 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 over-much 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 wasnt sure what theyd been before: wilderness guides maybe, or labor organizers, or electricians. They certainly hadnt been ad-writers. If he were to be honest, he realized hed hoped never to hear of them again.
A truck,” she said. We wont take a lotits a message.”
Reneeplease,” he turned and propped himself up on one elbow. A message?” It was hard to keep the disdain out of his voice.
Its not an official distribution truck. Theyre driving them up into the West Hills and we followed one. We want people to know what theyre doing.”
I can help you guys send a message. Patel and Grummus is the citys ad firm. I talk to the mayor all the time.”
Renee shrugged and smiled and then pulled him to her. Dont 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, dont,” Zach said once more.
Ill bring you a gallon,” she said.
I dont care about that.”
She smiled roguishly and patted his cheek. Dont you worry about me. Im 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 unpredictablemoose, 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. Theyd watched as the trucks pulled into the driveways of palatial houses. Drivers hand-delivering gallon after gallon of water. Inside, shed 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 citys trees died, and moose committed suicide.
Bea was asleep. She edged her roommates 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...