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"You're probably radioactive, aren't you?"
Adam knelt beside the small miracle. He timidly darted his index finger against the smooth and inviting clear glass.
"You're probably radioactive, but at least you're not a mirage. How about that?"
He rose, wiping his stained and faded leather gloves against the ancient and worn field jacket that bore his name. The ruined brick edifice that rose before him stood like a blasted tombstone marking the end of civilization. Crenelations of crooked, broken brick yawned wide at the base, exposing the black and rust of a log rack that was piled high with mulch-like detritus that appeared to have been choking the chimney for a long while before its partial collapse.
He was standing in the twisted remnants of what used to be somebody's living room. The roof had probably been blown off some time ago, and was now little more than a fungal midden of wood and tarred shingles to the leeward of the house. Adam could clearly see the copse of charcoal trees that were slowly crumbling and blackening what used to be a family driveway. Behind him to his left, a smashed television was partially buried under the particle board entertainment center that had held it up so many years ago. Opposite of that was a vast, mildewed rat nest of twigs, putrid fluff, and unidentifiable fabric that was a serviceable sofa once upon a time. No rats, unfortunately. Rats would have been nice for roasting. They must have passed on along with most of the remaining wildlife in the region years ago.
Most remarkable, though, was the little end table that had fallen against the fireplace. Somehow, the termite-ridden pile of mush had tipped over in just such a way as to slide its sole parcel, a sturdy, tall water glass, against the brick, standing straight up and remaining leeward to the sun. That itself was miracle enough.
Greater still was the fact that it was full to the brim with clear, blessed, life-sustaining water.
“Your friend and mine: H2O,” said Adam to no one in particular. He knelt beside the miraculous liquid once more, his eyes focused and leery. The few bottles left from his last foray into a ghost town were nearly empty. They crinkled within the saddlebags on his “borrowed” cross-country motorcycle between the MREs and cans of SPAM. His canteen was empty, his throat near parched, and he had no idea if the next ghost town would be fruitful (or even standing).
“You’d’ve probably been protected from the wind. Chimney would see to that. I think so, anyway. I guess the water must’ve been trickling down the brick and right into you, huh, little guy? Maybe nothing touched you. Nothing got into you....”
“God, but that’s weird!” Adam leapt up again, half in exaltation and half in incredulity. “There’s no way that could happen. No way, man.” The peals of his laughter echoed throughout the empty countryside, off of rusted tin roofs that lay entangled in charred woodland bric-a-brac and over the sloping, destroyed homes they used to cover.
“Someone had to have put you here. Someone had to,” he said as he scratched his tawny, oily beard. “Maybe . . . maybe you’re a sign. Maybe God put you there.”
Adam stared into the still water, his imagination creating a vision of the Heavenly Host therein. A choir of angels clad in their Sunday finest erupted before his eyes. They danced with childlike cherubim atop the rim, all bright white and small as specks, like salt on a margarita glass. The fluid below morphed into a liquid still life of All That is Good – a wholesome purity of distilled love and forgiveness, peace and reward for Adam’s unwavering will to survive. Above the angel dance party, above the ocean of salvation, above these and between these did God dwell, faceless vapor at the center of the universe between the rim, discernible only by the occasional rings that cut the water’s surface.
Adam could have plunged headlong into the glass then and there. He reached out to his Creator and benefactor as his namesake had within glorious ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The thought jarred him. Was the chapel still there? Was the Vatican? My God. Is the Pope okay? The sobering realization banished the angels from his vision, sending them screaming away into a darker place that remained untouched by light or hope.
Dejection washed over Adam’s spirit, and a seed of paranoia took root within.
“No. No, that would be too convenient, wouldn’t it? Maybe,” he said, his hands crawling across the underbrush, pulling himself face to face with the glass, “maybe you’re from the other guy.” Adam glared at the glass, his eyebrows furrowed in displeasure. “Maybe you’re my wilderness temptation.”
It made perfect sense. An untouched glass of water stood before him in what could very well be a shrine. A miracle. A perfect happenstance.
In the yawning darkness of the chimney nook, black creatures born of mushrooms, rotten twigs, and muck moved and gibbered behind the glass, upset at their discovery. Adam’s survival-enhanced powers of perception revealed the secret unwholesomeness that did reside within the foul container. He could see Disney’s “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia play before his eyes. Like the fiend Chernobog unfurling its great wings from the eponymous dreaded mountain, so too did a malicious Chernobogglette unravel its bat-like form from the seemingly innocuous glass. The watery fiend cursed Adam for a coward and bade him drink.
“Aha! I knew it, you mangoat sonofabitch! You can’t fool me!” Adam poked the beast in its belly, tilting it backwards precariously. Adam made a cross of his index fingers before the foul fiend. “Out, beast! Get thee gone! By the Father, Son, and . . . Max von Sydow, you . . . shall not pass!”
With a meeping cry and no less than three what-a-worlds, the imp dissolved away into inert water once again, and its demonic kin disappeared into the shadows and detritus of the chimney.
Still belly-down on the remains of a carpet, Adam reached forward and gently pulled the glass straight again. He waved a hand over the top of the rocking waters in a sign of benediction.
“You are clear now, little friend.”
The glass, not quite knowing how to respond, decided to play it cool and remain silent.
Pulling himself forward with his elbows, Adam thrust his head forward, his drying mouth ready for demon free libation. Just before his lips could touch the rim, however, he looked up at the sickly yellow sky, perhaps to say a “thank you” to the forces that were looking out for him. Thousands of feet in the air, flowing over and behind his position, there drove a herd of dark, foreboding clouds that had steadily been painting the dimming sky into a gunmetal grey.
“Fallout,” he whispered, the word meagerly croaked out in terrorized realization. He rolled onto his back, eyes wide and staring up through the warped foliage. “Not up there, you know, but in you,” he said to the glass, his fingers twining on his lean stomach. “None’s fallen in a long time, as far as I know. But I can’t account for you.”
Adam lay beside his treasure, thinking out loud in not entirely quiet contemplation.
“It’s probably fine, though. It’s been sitting here for who knows how long. Everything bad should be cleaned out, right? If there was anything bad to begin with. I mean, it looks clean enough. Especially without the possession. I probably made it cleaner, hell. I wish it would rain. I wish I had a Geiger counter. That’d solve everything.”
Talking was beginning to hurt. Pulling himself up, Adam waved for the glass to wait for him. As he walked over to his bike, his boots crunched on the aging oyster shells and broken carbonized bits of tree that covered the former driveway a few yards away from his discovery. He grabbed a bottle of water and threw it back, swishing its warm contents over his parched tongue before allowing it to travel beyond. With a satisfying “Ahh,” he walked back to his small silicoid mystery, scratching his beard once more as evidence of his deep thought and consideration.
“Mmph . . . yeah. Let’s consider the possibilities.” He pulled from the bottle once more, and pointed it towards the enshrined glass, like a man planning with a co-conspirator. Thoughts swirled in his head just as the water swirled into his mouth. He paced between the television and the couch, ever waving the bottle at the object of discussion.
“Most basic terms, you’ll either sustain me, or kill me.”
“Point the first!” he said, raising the bottle above his head. “I, being human, need you, as I am running out of potable water,” he said, after which he downed the remaining water from the bottle. He gave it a good shake and winked at his companion. “Ah. Case in point.”
“You, being a glass of water, need me to drink you so that you will have fulfilled your purpose. You’re probably worth two of these bottles of water. I could probably fill my canteen off of you. Purpose, equal sign, fulfilled.”
“Point the second! You could be filled with fallout that collected on the chimney that, by sheer bastard unluck and chaos theory, managed to be a destination for the water that has, over time, trickled down the masonry. Were this to be the case –“
He flashed backward in time. The first days after. Years and years ago. The barracks. So many thirsty people. So many undiscerning thirsty people, drinking from the wells. Piles of flayed men and women at the river. Face down. Limbs twisted like broken marionettes. The black dog, like a vision of bad luck, that leapt and scampered and fell and flailed after drinking from the overturned horse trough. First the barking and whining, and then the high pitched terror squeals that no beast should make.
The vision crept forward and jumped upon the here and now like an assault. He saw himself, tongue thick with thirst, raise the clean, clear glass to his lips. His skin sheared off by the blast, eyes melting like marshmallows over a campfire. The vision-water fell through him like an acid, eating away at his flesh like the blast had done to everyone else. The vision-glass shattered and embedded in his face and chest. Vision-Adam would then wander and wander, like the living dead, in a horde of mutes silently begging for release and, finally, dropping along the road like a handful of meat. Then he wouldn’t have to carry on or feel guilty for having lived while the world passed on.
With a jerk of his head, Adam blinked the vision away.
“And that would not be the desired result,” he said to the glass.
Unless it was. Maybe he was right the first time. Maybe this was someone telling him to let go. That he’d given it a good shot. You haven’t seen another living person in years, soldier. The world's a chunk of well-done steak, you're running out of gas, and you'd probably just end up going crazy if you kept this up for much longer.. I give you an A for effort. It’s okay to pack it in. We’ll have a nice cold beer waiting for you.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. These bottles I’ve got, they’re only supposed to be good for a few years. The plastic leaches into the water. Poisons you. It doesn’t rain enough to refill them. I’ll run out of countryside convenience stores, eventually. What’s the point, anyway? Maybe . . . just maybe . . . you were sent here specifically for me.”
He picked up his Holy Grail, guaranteed to cure all that ails you, and held it to his lips. He closed his eyes, a single tear eked its way down his cheek. He leaned back, falling into sweet oblivion. He knew no more.
Which was kind of a lame way of imagining the afterlife. So, he tried again. This time, he could feel himself disengage from his body, his spirit essence drifting upward and onward to a realm above the stars, floating away from the blasted grey, black, and yellow of his wasted Earth. Floating away from struggle and survival and onto a soft, cloudy nebula where he would jam with the angels and cherubim, all of them dancing on margarita glasses for all eternity. Amen.
There. That version was nicer.
Doubt, however, is a bitch. Maybe that last taste wouldn’t be the last. Maybe, instead of wafting away into Never Never Land, the fallout had bizarre effects?
What if it caused some sort of weird mutations?
What if it sent Adam spasming and choking onto the floor where he would writhe and twist and then --
A). arise as a fleshless radiation zombie, forever scouring the world as a radioactive nightmare monster hungering for the flesh of the living until his brain was destroyed? He would haunt the highways and terrorize the empty fields, shambling over hill and dell in search of his latest victim . . . and feel incredibly unsatisfied because there weren’t anymore human brains to devour. What does a zombie even do if there’s no one to eat? It’d be like now, except worse.
B). sprout great green muscles and shoot laser beams from his eyes. Which he wouldn't mind. He'd go all a'trampling over the world, using his super strength to, um, knock over the remaining buildings. Ditto for the eye beams.
C). maybe it’d be like A or B, but then he’d be under the secret control of some sort of remaining shadow government that survived the destruction and is working on creating a new race of atomic super men for use in World War IV against whatever enemies we have left or maybe for their own twisted enjoyment because a shadow government (probably Freemasons) would be all over that kind of thing.
D). Yeah, Freemasons! Of course they’d take the opportunity to plant mind control chips in this water and make Adam do their bidding.
“Wait,” he said, water lapping up against his bottom lip. “What if there were mind control devices in all of those other bottles of water?”
“Judas water!” Suddenly coming to his senses, Adam made as if to throw the glass against a tree trunk, thereby prohibiting the vast Masonic conspiracy from taking control of his survivalist brain powers.
The glass of water, trying its very best to remain neutral in the ordeal, could only sit and do its darndest to look innocent and potable. It splashed against Adam’s hand due to the sudden movement. It was a way of saying, “It’s okay. I understand. But I’m so cooling and moist and certainly don’t deserve this treatment.”
Adam’s head snapped in the direction of the glass, eyes narrowing upon the splash zone at the crook of his thumb and forefinger.
“Oh. Got it on me, anyway. How about that?”
He watched the potentially lethal concoction dribble down his arm.
“Guess I’m pot committed, now.”
Visions of horrors unending, devils and demons, wretched unlife without end, and alien mind control danced in his brain and before his eyes. An explosion of fears and guilt grew and thrashed within him. Did he really deserve to be alive, anyway? Why should he go on when everyone else is dead? Maybe it’d be nice to let someone else take control of his destiny for a while. It would be wonderful to just let go. But life! The survival instinct! His extra sensory survival powers!
And all this worrying was making him thirsty, anyhow.
So, down the hatch. Over the teeth, past the gums, look out eternity, here it comes.
Cool, clear, slightly dirty water made its way into Adam’s system. Adam squeezes his eyes shut, his body tenses, and he braces himself for any number of threads that fate had dangled before him that day.
It was . . . okay. Not the best water he’d ever had. Kinda dingy. Almost as if someone had been in the middle of drinking lemonade some time ago and the sticky mixture clung to the bottom over the years. Eh. Could be worse, really.
So, with a shrug, Adam shot back the rest of the glass. When there were no other obvious effects beside a quenched thirst, he replaced the glass in its brick shrine and went upon his way throughout the town, hoping to get some more scavenging done while there was still light left in the day.
It was at the next door neighbor’s that, in a sagging and otherwise empty pantry, that Adam discovered a succulent loaf of yellow, cream filled cake-matter, lovingly shrink wrapped all for him. All perfect, except for the single hairline split in the plastic along its side.