NOTE: I don’t usually do flash fiction or writing prompts. And I sure don’t do dystopian. But I was looking at Sue Vincent’s photo prompt here before bed, and when I woke up this little story was behind my eyelids, already written. I just transcribed…
Daddy Forgot Water
“We could hit him on the head with a rock.”
Ross felt the words shimmer, meaningless across the waves of pain.
“He looks big. Could he be… Daddy?”
“Nah. Daddy has hair on his face but not on his head, remember?”
“I can’t remember.”
Ross let the soft little voices float away, sliding back into the dark waiting beneath the pain. It was fine in the dark. Marla was there, swinging Peetie and singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. But then somehow Peetie was whispering, “I don’t want to. It looks yucky.” And another voice replied, “Pretend it’s bread. Really nice soft bread that will fill your tummy. Yum.” He heard the sounds of children throwing up.
There was no sense that time had passed, but somehow he knew he had to swim up. The pain waves tossed him, trying to swamp him back to the darkness. But they were old enemies, and he’d defeated them before. Concentrate. Move fingers first. Good. Toes? Feet, hands, arms, legs? Check. Okay, now the eyes.
Ross slitted open his eyes, blurry and swollen. Across the campfire four little faces stared back. Water? He tried to say it, but all that came out was a groan.
The four children looked at each other, and the biggest one sighed. “I’ll go. Watch him.”
She handed what looked like a baseball bat to a smaller boy, and slipped away from the firelight. Ross closed his eyes again and fought the waves.
He managed to open one eye. He lay propped up against his pack, but he’d have to lift his head to drink. Don’t think about it. Sit up and you can have water. You can. The world heaved and spun in a whirl of flames and pain, but his arms held long enough for him to come up on one elbow. In the flickering light he saw a plastic bottle with a faint Diet Pepsi logo. The water was cool but not cold. He had a flash of memory—crossing the dry grass meadow to reach the green promise of a small hill where wrecked machinery guarded a pond. Then…nothing.
“Maybe not drink too much?” Her soft voice was so young, just like Peetie’s had been. Before Peetie…
Ross leaned to the side, stomach heaving. There wasn’t much to come up. Finally, he wiped a sleeve across his mouth and raised the bottle again. Small sips. Slow. That’s it. When he could open his eyes again, he saw the largest child had her arms around the others, piled together asleep around the fire. They must have a stash of wood, because flames danced and he could see more pieces of what looked like old dining room chairs waiting just outside the fire’s circle.
The oldest girl brought more water, but they didn’t seem to have anything to eat. She kept the others back, but they all watched him. No, that’s not right. They waited for him. By the second day, Ross still had a raging headache—they wouldn’t tell him what happened to him, but his money was on that baseball bat—but his hunger got him on his feet. He was stunned to find that his slingshot was still in his pack. Stopping by the pond to splash water over his head and grab some small rocks, he was heading through late afternoon shadows for the meadow beyond when the shooting started. Rocks pinged and splintered as the bullets hit the boulders behind him. But though he was in plain sight, none of the shots came near him.
That night as he roasted a pair of rabbits under the avid eyes of the children, he tried to figure them out. He vaguely wondered if he should be ashamed of himself, but he traded the food for information. The tallest girl, Alice, said she was eight. She hesitated for a moment, watching the cooking meat, and added a burst of words in her near whisper. “I dint have a birthday any more so maybe I’m staying eight.” She pointed to the others. “William and Sara are six.”
Ross eyed the skinny children and found he couldn’t tell William apart from Sara. All were dressed in what looked like men’s t-shirts. There was a pile of them near the back of the group of boulders that formed their little shelter. Earlier that afternoon he’d heard Alice tell the others it was “bath time”, and they had all solemnly waded at the edge of the pond, naked, while she swirled their discarded shirts in the water and spread them in the sun. She produced a comb and dragged it through each head of chin-length tangled hair. They grabbed dry shirts from the pile, and lined up for Alice to tie the hems up in a knot to shorten them.
But Alice was still talking. “When we found the little one, alls he could say was Bunny, so we call him that.”
Ross hadn’t heard even that much from the silent child, who he pegged at around four.
He divided up the meat and handed it around. The children inhaled every scrap, sucked the bones, and licked their fingers. They retreated to the far side of the fire and fell asleep in a pile, each one clutching some part of Alice.
The next day he dragged back a small deer that other predators had brought down—wolves or maybe dogs that had gone feral—but been driven off when the shooting started again. This time the target seemed to be a tree standing alone against the edge of the meadow.
Before he would give them the cooked meat, Ross tried to get more from Alice. “How long have you been here?”
She stared at the meat, and swallowed. “Since Daddy took Mama away.” When Ross made no move toward the food, all four children gave an almost soundless moan. “Daddy said stay here and he’d be watching for us but Mama got the Sick and he might get sick too.” The cooking meat spat and sizzled, and Alice turned to watch it. “Daddy brought food for a long time, but I think he forgot how to do that. He shots stuff with his gun still, but I think he forgot what rocks and water and food is. So mostly we look to see what else might be dead and we eat that.” She shrugged. “William and Sara throw up lots but Bunny and me do okay.”
After they all ate, Ross wrapped the remaining meat in leaves and put it on his side of the campfire. He thought the children were asleep in their pile, but he heard whispering.
“Are you our Daddy now?” Alice’s little voice had no emotion.
“No. I’m someone else’s Daddy.” There was silence from the kid pileup. “His name was Peetie but he got the Sick along with his Mama.” And everyone else, he thought bleakly. He didn’t know how far he’d walked, always heading south, to get to this warm valley, but the few who were left in an empty world were afraid of everyone else, afraid they brought the Sick.
The next day the kids were stripping off their t-shirts for bath time when the shooting started. Water flew up as bullets slapped into the pond. Sara jolted forward, red blossoming across her little back. Ross was already racing to the pond, screaming at the frozen children to run. He snatched up Sara and Bunny, herding William and Alice ahead of him toward their shelter. They’d almost made it when the bullet hit his leg.
As he laid the tiny girl down, she shuddered once and was still.
“DADDY!” Alice, still naked, ran to the edge of the shelter. “You forgot, Daddy.” Her scream echoed against the surrounding rock face. “You forgot what Sara is.”
From the rocks above, there was an answering scream, followed by a single shot. Ross grabbed Alice and pulled her inside, but he was pretty sure she’d already seen the body plunging off the rocks.
Ross tied the tourniquet around his leg, but the pain was a tsunami, pulling him under. Occasionally he’d see the three children watching him. No… not watching. Waiting. He drifted in and out, at one point waking up long enough to somehow dig a shallow little grave for Sara. But then the fever took him and he heard Peetie giggling and Marla singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. He opened his eyes once and told Alice, “I’m so sorry. But sometimes Daddies need to forget.”
He was already running through the dark to catch up to Peetie and Marla when he heard the little voices whispering above him. “Pretend it’s bread. Really nice soft bread that will fill your tummy. Yum.” But he never heard the children throwing up.