“The Puddlers” Apocalyptic Fiction by K. Hartless

Daybreak is dry. There’s no drip from brewed coffee or slurp from cereal bowl, those luxuries long ago evaporated. It’s my business to sniff out every drop. My ears attuned from years of training to follow any trail of moisture to the sated end.

Despite the droughts, dawn is a Puddler’s favorite time of day. Moisture gathers overnight even in an arid climate, and in the dawn, goldmines, precious drops perched on blades of grass. 

It is for this reason that I have spent the night on a peeling park bench, surrounded by the incessant creaking of parched insects. One alights on my chest, and although his hind legs are faltering, I can’t bring myself to end his suffering. When the sun appears from behind the high rise, the chirping quiets, I resume my search. 

The battery on my vac pack says 70 percent. Perfect. Means I have the juice to bring in a haul, should I find one. The tank is heavy when I slide it on, but with any luck, it will be heavier when I trudge it in at the end of my shift. 

“Morning, sir, care for a coffee patch?” A thin-skinned lady in black and white loafers works a stand near the edge of the park. She’s to remind us of happier times, but I can only think of how her lips are dried around the edges and her voice rasps when she speaks. 

“Perk me right up, thank you, kindly.” I extend my arm and she rolls up the sleeve to apply the patch on the optimum ingestion site. Then, she salutes–thumb, index, and middle finger, the wave given to heroes.

“Happy hunting, Puddler.”

“Many thanks, and a damp day to you as well!” I force my face to smile. So much rests on keeping up appearances. I imagine the pour of a steaming cup of coffee, the caffeine enters my system, clears my mind so I can focus on finding some real liquid.

It all comes down to H2O. That knowledge and perhaps the coffee patch give me the boost I need to begin my search and find the water that my moisture meter tracked to this location the day before.

“Dried pumpkin bites, sir?” A man in a bowling shirt scoops from a cart. 

 “Why yes, don’t mind if I do. And when the man refuses my bills, I give him a doubly wide grin.

He raises the salute. “Hauls us in some, sir.”

“Will do, my good man. Got a drip lead going right now.” I am blessed in my line of work with an abundance of gratitude. It is, after all, my kind that keeps the rest of the world alive. But with each passing season, the water is scarcer, the sweetness of the mission evaporates. Dehydrated pumpkin tastes more stale than sweet, and I walk away with a full belly, but the guilt of an empty pack.

Of course, the rivalry doesn’t help. 

When Aquaprima and Dezani announced they’d be sending out separate Puddlers, it forced everyone to pick sides. Both companies usually keep to their own territories, but you never know when a rival might be slurping at the same puddle. 

Dezani loyalists use the three-finger salute seen here in the park, and their workers carry blue packs, a stripe added for each year of service. Mine looks zebra-like from my time chasing liquid.

Aquaprimians carry red packs, salute with their last three fingers. Usually, both companies keep to their own neighborhoods, but you never know when a rival might be slurping in your same puddle. I scan the lawn but don’t spot any red flags. Means I’ve still got time to take in my load. 

The geese in park are waddling this way and that as if dizzy. When I see them head for a place off the path, I take a hunch and follow their lead. These natives may know something we don’t, and I stop to vacuum up a few precious drops dotting the grass along the way. 

As if sensing a tail, the waddlers pick up their pace, making their way down a steep ravine. I scoot downwards on my bottom, the pack too heavy for steep inclines, and I would likely topple if I lost my footing. 

Midway down, I find a small treasure: a plastic water bottle, a relic from the before, but this one has a small sacred puddle trapped inside. I pause to vacuum the tiny pool, thinking of my sweet granddaughter, Ella Mae. Her freckled face. I imagine her swimming, submerged in liquid, like we all did, in the olden days. I can picture her running over to me dripping wet in her lavender swimsuit. 

“Don’t you dare,” I’d hold up my hand, but Ella Mae would squish down on my lap and plant a drippy kiss on my cheek. Wetness would expand on my shirt. Dampness will never feel that good again.

There is wetness along my brow and back. I use a small nozzle to capture the drops on my forehead. Nothing can be wasted now. Stabbing pain ascends from my sciatic nerve as I slide almost vertical, gripping tree branches and terrain to make it the last few feet of the descent. 

At the bottom of the ditch, there is moisture. It hits you square on the face, the way a sauna used to do, and even though the weeds down here are almost as tall as me, I stoop down and press my hand into the ground. 

It sinks. Incredible. It’s muddy. My fingers drip as they rise, cool and coated. 

Above my dirty fingertips, square in the middle, the most glorious thing: my own reflection in a six, no eight-foot puddle. Small snags are visible in my uniform from the descent, but what I notice most is the branching red lines of dry eyes. 

I reach down and touch the surface, sensing the motion of a ripple. It’s the first ripple I’ve seen in years and it’s harmonious, a suite of instruments playing in the same key. Part of me wants to wade in, submerge. Paddle, float on my back, even. But I pause, thinking of Ella Mae. This one’s for you, baby girl. 

Readying the hose with my widest nozzle, I spot it. A rebellious red, out of place at the bottom of the ravine. I hear a familiar sound. A vacuum starts.

“Hey, Puddler!  Stop, this instant. This one’s mine!”

The vacuum stops. “What’s that, old man?” The Puddler shouts. Maybe because his earbuds are still in. The Aquaprimian’s half my age; his loud metal music drifts over the puddle. Moving toward him with long strides, I reach out a hand, smack a bud free from his ear. 

“YOU tracked me here. This is my guzzle, young chap!”

“All’s fair in wet and war, Benjamin. Oh, and by way of thanks,” the boy winks, “I’ll let you take a slurp.” His bud back in, he restarts the vacuum before I have a chance to respond.  

Carl? Could it be? All these years playing cat and mouse, he’s been my shadow. I trained him a decade ago, let him date my daughter, only to watch him jump ship taking Aquaprima’s sign-on gallon and stealing my sweet girl’s heart in the process.

The raging red vac sweeps left to right. 

“No so fast, Carl.” I smack his earbud lose again; it dangles from his uniform. “This is my puddle, you bastard.” I push him, but he barely budges. “This…this is outrageous.” 

Carl turns his vac off to speak to me again, but not without swallowing a huge gulp of air.

“Smart following those geese, Benjamin. You know, if you sniff an old dog long enough, you can still learn some new tricks.” He lifts his nozzle. “Tell Ella Mae daddy says ‘hi.’ And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got clearing to do.”

Over my dried-out body!” I yell, and without thinking, I grab my legs and jump, straight into the puddle, water droplets fly around me like geese taking to the air. It’s enough of a mess to upset Carl, and soon he is stepping into the pool to try and stop me from ruining the haul.

“That’s what we call a cannonball, son. Doubt you’ve ever done one. Now, a final lesson. I’m gonna teach you how to swim, either that or how to sink.” 

From this angle, it’s easy to drag Carl down into the water beside me. “First,” I whisper in his earbud-less ear, “you gotta get on your belly.”

I sweep his legs and watch as he falls face first. I hit the eject button on his pack releasing his stash.

“Next, you gotta spread your arms and legs. But oh, I forgot the most important part. You gotta put your face underwater.” I hold the back of his head underwater, watch as his legs and arms start to flail.

“That’s it. You’re getting it.”

I hold firm. Think of his arrogance, of my daughter heartbroken, left to raise Ella Mae alone. Maybe with this haul, we can finally afford to give Ella Mae her first swim.

“There, now that wasn’t too bad, was it? You’re floating fine now, young chap.” And I let go of Carl’s collar, his corpse floats freely across the surface.

There isn’t time to say any words. No, simply no time for pleasantries.  I start the vacuum and get to work. When my vac pack fills, I use the Aquaprima pack to capture the rest, including the special hose for corpse extraction. The geese stand around the edges as I extract their watering hole, occasionally honking a weak protest. 

With both packs full, I claw my way out of the ravine. Lifting one pack, moving slowly, going back for the other, but it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Water is more valuable than gold.

 I’m saving humanity, I tell myself. Besides, one should always respect one’s elders, even in times of crisis.

K.Hartless is a free spirited fiction writer, educator and word trapeze artist. She’s been recently published in 365tomorrows, Luna Station Quarterly, and Last Girl’s Club. Check out her Yardsale of Thoughts at khartless.com or follow her healthy haiku habit on Twitter @hartless_k.

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