The rain pounded steadily all night and the next day and the day after that. Our leave was canceled. Until things were made clear, we weren’t even able to step foot outside on our own base.
On one of the following days, we got an all points bulletin from the US Chief of Staff. It warned us that we should drink only from our sheltered water supply on the bases. Under no circumstances should anyone drink from any open body of water or container that the red rain may have fallen into. May have contaminated. The bulletin let us know that the chemists were working 24 hours a day to study the rainfall, trying to determine whether or not any malignant diseases could be caught from it. Meantime, we were to all hang tight and try not to worry. Easier said than done; especially with Luschek. He got twitchier by the day.
Information being given to us was sparse in the next week or so, but it was obvious to everyone that something big, and something horrible, was happening. That sentiment was confirmed when we got ordered to go to town and guard the water tower.
The three of us, along with anyone else who could be spared from the base, formed a tight circle around the base of the towns water supply. All around us, in a looser but much bigger and angrier circle, there was a rabid mob that was getting rowdier by the second. And thirstier.
I caught Hooper’s eye and I saw the panic in it. I’m sure there was some in mine as well.
He told me this wasn’t good.
He told me that he was scared.
He told me that the people weren’t scared of their guns. Not anymore. Not people who are dying of thirst. They were all getting ready to risk their lives to get a sip. Because, without one, they were already dead.
People can only survive three days without water. I’m sure this mob would be foaming at the mouth if they had any moisture left.
Luschek was in my other ear a moment later. He said that we should desert. We should run. That we can’t do this to innocent folks, that we would pay. That god would make us pay for it.
Having both of them in my ear while being screamed at and bombarded with a few rocks had left me feeling unsteady on my feet and unsteady in my resolve.
I knew that denying people water was wrong. Especially when I thought about what happened to the people who drank from other resources. Their rain barrels. Or rivers. Wells. All contaminated by the rain. By the red.
Those people…it’s unreal. It’s inhumane.
At first we only heard rumors, grumblings of reports on people changing. Growing. It all sounded so insane at the time. Almost crazy enough to dismiss but ease. Alas, we soon had our confirmation. We got to see the nightmare up close.
Some private on the east side of the base had filled his canteen from the base well. He started almost immediately to swell. The last time I had seen him, he was already over sixteen feet tall and as round as our tight circle of men. And growing.
I’ll never forget his face, his awful expression. It was a mask of sheer horror, of unimaginable suffering. He can’t move a muscle, he’s stuck right where he drank. His head, it’s still a normal size, but the rest of him keeps growing. Keeps stretching, swelling, bloating. He looks overinflated, like a balloon animal from a pump-happy clown.
The upper brass quickly built a makeshift canvas hospital around the man and we haven’t seen a thing since. But the reports started pouring in on the radio. On the televisions. On the CB. Anyone who drank was growing. Blowing up. Inflating. One woman in Eugene was reportedly already over eighty feel tall. Eighty!
The news rattled us all, but none more than Luschek. He said the reports stated that, on average, those who consume the water grow at a rate of six feet a day. He reminded me that six, when found in triplicate, was the number of the beast. Of the evil. Of the end times. He said that it was a sign. A sign that heralded the end for us all.
A rock hit me hard on my right shoulder and the pain and surprise brought my attention back to the present. Back to the people dying of thirst, ready to charge. Ready to drink or die trying.
Someone rushed forward, the first one to leave the crowd and press onward. In a matter of three or four steps, he was dead. A sharp burst of bullets from one of our men, Sulley I think his name was, brought that man down, face first in the muck, thirsty no more. He couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, if that.
People screamed. A couple ran. Most got angrier and took a few steps forward, tightening their circle around us like a noose.
Hooper raised his voice to be heard over the crowd, practically yelling in order to be heard. He was asking what we should do. I had no clue. Before I could think of something, anything to do, chaos erupted.
After that young man, that kid, was gunned down, some people ran. I thought that they were returning to their homes, or to wherever it was that they came from. I was wrong. They ran down to the small pond nearby, already they were bending over to scoop out some water. I screamed for them to stop. To halt. When the crowd saw what I was seeing, who I was screaming at, they temporarily turned their attention from us and took up our cause, shouting warnings and cries of concern. It didn’t matter. Those people at the pond were desperate and not willing to risk a bullet, but they had made up their minds about something. They were going to drink something. They could take it no more.
They screamed and clutched at their throats, falling to the ground where they drank. They quickly began to change. To visibly bloat and contort and inflate.
The crowd screamed and surged. They saw what happened when you drank the unprotected water. The red water. They wanted what we were protecting, what was quickly diminishing worldwide. They wanted clean water. They decided that they weren’t going to end up like that, no way in hell. Unfortunately for them, we all instantly came to that same conclusion and let the bullets fly, which far outweighed the sticks and stones and bottles that rained down upon on us.
After a few horrid minutes, the noise ceased. All that remained was anguish. Anguish and red.
Later that night, terrified of the dreams that I knew were impending, I lay in my bunk and tried to focus on my breathing. I didn’t want to sleep, not yet. I wanted to calm down. To think clearly and without fear for the first time in what felt like forever. I also wanted to drink some water. Really badly.
Hooper whispered over to me, asking me if I was asleep. I told him no. He started to talk. He told me about the most he had ever drank at once. Not alcohol, it wasn’t that kind of story. He was talking about water.
He said that he was in a contest, one that happened his senior year of high school, when the Nintendo Wii had come out. It was called ‘Hold your Wee for a Wii’ and was broadcast on ESPN14 or some two-bit station like that. He said that it was a drinking contest. A drinking contest with water. Every five minutes they would drink another cup and they would have to hold their piss until they either wet themselves or quit, running awkwardly to one of the portable toilets that were stationed nearby.
Hooper told me that he drank eighteen cups of water for that contest. He also said that he’d give anything to go back to that day now.
I knew he was very slowly dying of thirst, just like me. Just like the rest of us. I asked him if he won the contest. He told me no. He said that someone’s kidneys shut down from holding it in for too long and that their bladder exploded. The person died en route to the hospital. They canceled the contest. Nobody won.
I couldn’t help but smirk a little bit. Yeah, that seemed like life alright. Nobody wins.