Chapter 4

Chapter 4

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Screaming, I fell through the hole. My voice echoed. There was no light. The air here was stuffy. The smell of moss and fungi, of primordial life, intensified.

But that made no sense. There was no water outside. If there was, why would the madman have gone mad?

Still, I couldn’t deny: beyond the dome, there was a secret space that I knew nothing about. Whatever awaited me there, I hoped there was enough cushioning material for me. If there was none, I’d shatter all my bones and die there—

The air was pressed out of my lungs when a sudden force pushed me upward. Up, up, as much as I’d fallen.

Then, before I could collect more air and begin screaming again, a second sudden force pushed me sideways and up at a slanted angle.

Then there was light.

So much light.

Blinding, scorching, cruel light, and no more moss and fungi, instead something a lot drier—

I landed on top of Timothy. His body most definitely did not function like a cushion. It had hardened. Guilty and terrified, I rolled away from him. It didn’t matter that my bare arms, legs, and feet were getting scratched on the prickly dry ground with deep cracks…

Then I remembered that open wounds could mean death out here. Yes, out here. I’d managed to doom myself to the desert. I could feel it from the wrongness of the un-air-conditioned atmosphere, dry and rough in my nostrils.

Open wounds. Death. The skin was the greatest shield against the outer environment. You scratch, cut, hurt it, then you can’t stop water from escaping through the cracks. That wasn’t something you could afford in Eternal Summer.

And yet, stupidly, that thought didn’t fully sink in. What did sink in and hit my brain like a shock wave was the fact that I’d inadvertently let go of the coffee canister as I’d landed on Timothy.

But that’s my shield! was what I thought. I scrambled to get it back, scratching my knees further.

Someone stopped the canister from rolling farther away. Someone’s foot. In boat-sized running shoes.

Still on the ground, all dirt-and-dust covered, I looked up.

It was the madman with those eyes, empty like the void, full of despair.

And behind him were the hundreds, thousands of madpeople in rag clothes that’d been slowly disintegrating under the fierce desert sun. They all stared at me, unmoving.

“It is she,” the madman said in a hoarse, teary voice.

He picked up the canister. That only required one hand. He had large hands, one of those incredibly spidery, long-fingered hands of basketball players.

Then we both heard it: the ring-ring-ringing of the metallic song of water inside.

“Is this…” he began.

Then he blushed. Amazing, that even a person so exhausted can still blush.

Abruptly, he said, “She has answered!”

The crowd gasped. The madman collapsed. No, knelt. Gazing down in utter humility, he held the canister up with both hands. They were shaking—had been shaking ever since he’d noticed the song of water.

I stood up. Everyone stared at me with big eyes, hollow eyes, empty-but-full eyes. No one seemed to think that the madman’s behavior was out of the ordinary. I took a deep breath. Stood as straight and tall as I could.

Dignity required slowness and precision. So, with slowness and precision, I accepted the canister from the madman. The man lowered his hands. By now, his entire body was trembling.

“We saw the man,” he said, gaze still lowered, pointing at Timothy with difficulty. “We figured it was a sign. Because usually after the watering of the yellow flower, you only send us a bottle of water. By ‘only,’ I mean to say that that is the sole step, not that the bottle of water isn’t important and appreciated and precious.”

A general murmur of agreement spread like parched waves across the vast field of madpeople.

“We didn’t want to touch him, before it became clear what kind of sign he was. At first we thought you were angry, that it was a warning, that you meant to punish us, then— Never mind. You’re here now.”

The madman looked up. His eyes, unlike before, were now completely full: not with despair, but with zeal.

“You’ve made it clear now,” he said. His eyes fell on the canister. “He’s the price you paid for the extra, isn’t he?”

I wanted to ask What? but knew—survival instinct—that I couldn’t afford to appear more clueless than I already had by falling through…

I looked up to see what I’d fallen through. A slanted square duct, about the length of a grocery store checkout stand—that part where you put your items and the belt rolled them toward the cashier—shot out from the ground. The root began more than a dozen feet away from the outer dome. The dark opening faced the crowd. I tilted my head left and right. I knew this structure. I’d seen it before.

But for some reason, I imagined it solitary, utterly alone in the desert. Without the bumps and lumps that were these madpeople.

I suppressed a gasp. This was the collapsing phone booth, the random elevator, the giant abandoned water pipe. I hadn’t noticed this structure since people had begun gathering around the dome, because I’d tried so hard not to look up. The structure was painted pale-brown, the color of the ground. Timothy had meant for it to be inconspicuous.

Timothy. For, who else but he would’ve built it here? Who else would have attached those little knob-like cameras on the duct? Who else had been watching the screens and manipulating the pincer arms? Presently, those machine arms were stuck flat on the surface of the square duct. But I recognized them. They were of the same design as the cleaningbot’s pincer arms—those harmless mechanical parts that grabbed cleaning cloths to keep the kitchen counter spotless.

But this meant that these madpeople had had an access route into the dome from the beginning. Why hadn’t they tried to enter? Sure, the sideway air-push had been strong enough to dump me outside, and the vertical climb would be a nightmare, but I couldn’t imagine a strong-willed person, especially in the early days of Eternal Summer, succumbing to such meager defenses.

The madman didn’t seem perturbed by my lack of response to his question, whether Timothy was the price I’d paid for the extra.

Extra what?

That question must have been written on my face, for the madman now gestured at the crowd. It split in half to reveal two people: a woman seated on the barren ground—in her arms, a boy, about three or four years old.

Then I saw what the woman held in her hand. It shimmered in the heat haze; positively glowed in its transparency.

It was a plastic bottle, nearly full of water. No, it was the plastic bottle—one terribly familiar due to its lack of branding. Slim, elegant, modest: a gift. Lightweight. Very thin, sturdy plastic. Doesn’t melt under the sun.

I deduced that the woman was the boy’s mother. She rocked him back and forth, never lifting her eyes from him, never caring what the madman or I said. She was absorbed in trying to trickle a bit of water into the boy’s mouth without spilling a single drop.

“We couldn’t let him die,” the madman said. “But of course, we too need water. So we prayed and did as told, and you came.”

He eagerly eyed the canister.

“Did as told,” I repeated.

The madman pointed at the pincer arms attached to the duct shooting out of the ground. “You told us the exact time when we needed to return the bottles, every night.”

This was what’d kept Timothy busy: watching whether people obeyed him, watching their reactions, watching their sick.

Sudden disgust wrenched my guts. Could anybody be this cruel? Could Timothy, of all people, be this cruel?

But then I wondered: why had these people played along? As far as I could tell, no one here looked physically tortured.

Then, abrupt prayer began.

“Oh glorious angel we have nothing to offer thee but we’re at your service we worship the dome…”

The madman said this in one breath, like a prayer he’d repeated a million times. And to my horror, many of the madpeople joined in. Their murmur spread and multiplied. The various pitches of equally hoarse voices clashed in dissonance.

When the madman was sure that the others would continue the prayer without him, he approached on his knees. “We are ready,” he said—his eyes on the canister.

I handed the canister back to the madman. Apparently, he needed this official transfer—the act of giving and receiving, not something so coincidental and meaningless as picking it up from the ground himself. A strong cheer broke out.

“Thank you, Angel of the Gate, thank you, thank you,” the madman kept saying, and so did the hundreds, thousands of madpeople who spent their lives camping around the outer dome, waiting for the water gift to shoot out of the duct that Timothy had built.

My disgust subsided. Could I blame Timothy? No.

Could I blame these people for believing in the angel trick and calling the duct the “gate”? No.

It probably hadn’t started as a trick. Myths and legends never formed just because someone wanted to start one. No, myths and legends, illogical and insane as they were, grew on the need for an explanation.

In my mind’s eye, I saw myself finding the little yellow flower near the edge of the dome, one day not long after it had been raised. Had Timothy planted it there? Had he gifted the madpeople bottles of water before I found the flower? How had he known I’d water the flower?

Whatever the answers were, a ritual had been established, so fragile yet so meaningful, Timothy hadn’t dared disrupt it. The madman had never been mad, because in knocking on the dome, he hadn’t expected a different result. He’d known exactly what to expect. I imagined Timothy responding to desperate calls before, unbeknownst to me. Timothy couldn’t save everyone; he wasn’t obliged to; he wasn’t God and wasn’t even the government; keeping outside things outside was his right and had never made more sense in the history of humanity.

And yet he’d delivered. Through his cameras adorning the outer dome and the duct, he’d watched people gather and disperse, die and be born into Eternal Summer. I imagined these people, in the beginning, arguing and fighting over what they should do with the questionable duct and the domes. Clearly, someone was inside. Otherwise, where could the bottled water come from? Where did the bottles return to, once emptied?

Then I imagined the sun defeating their desire to act “reasonably” or “logically.” Whoever reasonable and logical had expected the world to nearly-end with such a fizzle anyway? No great bang? No war? Just the slow dying of masses of people because of the heat, the incredible heat?

Nowhere else in the world could people rely on the easy supply of water, without fighting against wild animals who were equally, if not more, desperate than humans. Someone must have pointed out they might as well wait and see if the duct kept delivering.

And it did. When necessary, Timothy had added to the daily ritual, responded frequently enough to “Water! Please! We need more!” for the madpeople to believe I was an angel.

I, the one random thing that had come his way. The grocery delivery girl.

Why not you? he’d said. I think it’s beautiful, what you’re doing. Saving one random thing that comes your way, even when you’re terrified.

“He isn’t the price,” I finally said, swallowing my tears. “He is the martyr.”

Interested whispering susurrated with the desert wind.

“That’s why I’ve been crying.” I gestured at my eyes, still red from thinking that I’d incinerated Timothy. “There was a battle. He fought for your water.”

They didn’t question how there possibly could’ve been a battle anywhere. The desert beyond them was empty and they’d only ever seen me inside the outer dome, no one else.

But then again, this dead man, this martyr here, had appeared out of nowhere, hadn’t he? How much more was happening inside that magical dome that they didn’t understand?

And they didn’t need to understand. What they needed was water.

“He must be buried,” I said. “Buried deep.”

To prevent diseases, I considered adding, but that seemed too unmythical. So instead I said:

“If you do that, you shall get more water than before.”

It should be all right. With Timothy dead, I was the only resident of the domes. I would gift these people his share.

Was that enough? Of course not. People were going to die. Maybe that boy, in that mother’s arms.

Could they blame me? I hoped they didn’t think so. I hoped they didn’t blame Eternal Summer on me.

I was their preparer now, the angel, the guardian of the one secure source of water in this godforsaken desert. Also, the waterer of the little yellow flower.

Now, if only I’d exercised every time Timothy had done it.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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