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The Age of Water
Nell sits bolt upright, expecting to be greeted by the oppressive glare of the sun above and the harsh heat of sand below. Instead, she feels a pillow beneath her spine and hears the soft buzz of fluorescent lights. A strange man looks at her with something in his eyes she doesn't understand. He speaks softly, introducing himself with a name she already can't remember.
“Do you want anything?” The man leans towards her.
Nell gulps. “I want to see my daddy. Can you please take me to him and Ma?”
Making eye contact, she realizes the unrecognizable thing in his eyes is sadness, lurking deep in his face and shadowed by the brim of his sheriff’s hat. It's hidden, but there. Nell gulps again.
Sheriff Allman steadies his voice. “Miss Baker, I'm so sorry. Your parents didn't make it. You’re the sole survivor of your family.”
At this, Nell’s sunburnt face goes pale and she quietly turns over, minding the IVs on her arm, and closes her eyes.
The next day, Nell’s still figure remains huddled in the bed. She is surrounded by swirling memories she doesn't understand. She sees her Daddy pushing her on the tire swing in the setting sun. She feels her Ma carefully braiding her hair. She smells the sweetness of Daddy’s tobacco as he tucks her in goodnight. A bitter taste fills her mouth. She shudders as her door swings open and the sheriff sidles to her bedside with questions on his lips and concern in his eyes.
Allman begins. “Nell, do you think you can tell me what you remember?”
“I - I don't know.” Nell whispers, looking at her clasped hands.
“Anything…” Sheriff Allman prompts.
“I was in a desert, but now I'm here. I don't understand how you found me...”
“Your Aunt contacted our station, said she thought something was wrong. Told us your car was gone and your family hadn't been heard from for two days.” Allman answers.
Nell thinks of the green Ford Explorer.
She is looking at her reflection in the car window. Past the image of her face stretches endless barren terrain. Ma’s knitting needles clack from the front of the car and she can see her Daddy shift on the driver's seat from the corner of her eye.
“We were on vacation… Daddy took us on a road trip through the desert. It was supposed to be a special treat, just for me. Daddy is—was”, at this Nell’s small voice quavers, “always doing special things for me.”
Sheriff Allman’s brows knit together and he cuts in. “Miss, what can you remember about the trip?”
“I was sitting in the car for a long time.” Nell strains past the fog clouding her brain and tries to visualize their old car.
The cracked leather seat next to her is occupied by a cooler filled with food. Ma is asleep in the front and Daddy looks into the rear view mirror at Nell’s innocent gaze. Outside the car is pitch black night and beneath them the road grows more and more rough.
“Ann,” Daddy begins, addressing the now awake Ma, “there's a fork in the road up ahead. Looks to me like a fine place to tuck in for the night.”
Ma nods her weary head and flicks her pale eyes over to Nell’s, who beams at her Pa.
“Daddy, is this like camping? Can we stargaze? Will we make a campfire?”
Daddy interrupts Nell’s stream of questions. “Nell, be a good girl and go to bed. Daddy’s tired from driving all day. No more talking.”
Nell nods with a complacent smile, turns over in the backseat of the car, and is lulled to sleep by the sounds of strained whispers between her parents she has grown used to.
“The first night it got dark fast. Daddy said he parked at a fork in the road. But—but the next morning, I remember now, Daddy was so upset. We weren't on the road at all. Daddy got lost in the night and we were in the middle of the desert without any landmarks to tell where we were.”
At this, the sheriff begins to scribble on his notepad. The noise of his fountain pen draws Nell back to the hot car.
Scratch, scratch, scratch. Ma’s nails drag across the dashboard as she looks unhappily out the front window at the dry land engulfing them. Daddy bangs his hand on the dash, halting Ma’s nervous movement.
“Cut it out Ann,” Daddy glowers. “It's not my goddamn fault the idiots who designed the road didn't put in road signs.”
Nell remains perfectly still. “Daddy,” she soothes, “Daddy, we know it's not your fault. It'll be alright.”
Daddy grabs the cooler from beside Nell and rummages through its contents, throwing an apple to the backseat and picking a sandwich for himself.
Ma chimes in softly, “Well, food’s sorted, but what do we do about water? We expected to get it from the motel…. ”
Daddy shrugs and takes a moody bite from his sandwich, Ma frowns and worries her wedding band, and Nell watches as the sun begins to climb the sky and her throat begins to dry.
“We didn't have any water. That was the problem. Ma packed food, but no water. We were getting so thirsty, but we had no idea where to go. Daddy said the car wouldn't start, that the engine broke from the heat. He said it was best if we just stay put and wait for a search team to come get us. Ma didn't want to, but she knew better than to argue with him….”
“What do you mean by that?” Allman interrupts, looking up from his notepad.
“You don't argue with Daddy. Everyone knows that. Else he’ll get mad,” Nell says.
“What happened next?” Allman prompts, going back to his notes but holding Nell’s confused gaze.
“Somehow we made it to the second day. All I can remember is the heat.” Nell blinks quickly, as if still in the sharp glare of the sun.
Everything is sweltering. Ma lies in the front of the car, her chest rising shallowly. Nell crouches behind the driver’s seat, seeking any relief from the beating sun. Her throat feels as rough as the craggy terrain beyond the window. She watches as Ma’s breathing becomes slower and slower. It stops. Daddy leans over and gently closed Ma’s eyes with a sigh. Nell remains huddled in the backseat as her eyes prick with salt, but with no water to spill, tears do not come.
Back in the fluorescent light of the hospital room, tears finally make their way down Nell’s small face. “I remember” she gasps, “I remember now. Ma—she—she didn't make it.”
Allman lays a comforting hand on her shoulder, but Nell wishes it was her Daddy’s hand there instead.
“Darlin’, I'm sorry. I know it's hard, but try and think of what else happened.”
The word sends Nell spiraling back into her shadowed memories.
Daddy rummages in the trunk, searching for anything that would serve as a signal. He emerges empty handed, climbing into the driver’s seat with a dejected huff.
“Daddy,” Nell begins in a scratchy voice, “do you think we are gonna die?”
Daddy reaches around to the back seat, laying his cool hand on Nell’s burning forehead.
“Darlin’, don't you worry about it. Just close your eyes.”
Nell snaps out of her reverie. “The last thing I remember—Daddy was still alive. He was fine. How come he didn't make it? How come he isn't here? I wanna see him. I know he made it. I just know it!”
Allman clears his throat. “Nell,” he said, looking at her with his sad eyes, “your Daddy is gone. When we found your car, you were very dehydrated, about to die. But your daddy wasn't sick at all. He—he had a gun. He didn't want us to save you. He tried to shoot at us, and one of the sheriffs had to protect themselves. Your Daddy didn't survive the gunshot wound. I'm so sorry, Nell. When we searched the car, we found his rucksack in the trunk. He had water the whole time…”