Don’t Drink the Water

You are currently viewing Don’t Drink the Water

The con­struc­tion zone that took almost ten min­utes to pass through was actu­al­ly a nice change of pace for Blake. Too much of any­thing was no good, and he was way past that. One could only take so much farm­land speck­led with hay, live­stock, and bare­ly enough util­i­ty poles to count on both hands.

He took advan­tage of the breather as he was waved along and forced to use the oncom­ing lane but couldn’t see much for the hill bor­der­ing the black­top. From the low rum­bles he felt through the steer­ing wheel and the brief view of bob­bing mechan­i­cal arms crest­ing the hill, it was obvi­ous that progress knew no bounds.

Nei­ther do wel­fare checks in the last unin­cor­po­rat­ed cor­ner of the county…lucky me he thought, pass­ing back into his lane and anoth­er end­less ocean of wide-open spaces, won­der­ing if that catch­phrase on all the state com­mer­cials was meant to attract trav­el­ers or keep them away.

After arriv­ing at the lone house on the spa­cious plot of land, he reviewed the paper­work one last time. The annu­al check was due for Mary Franklin, eighty-six, and her niece Lee­sha age fif­teen. Hus­band Bob­by Franklin died two years pri­or. Coun­ty ordi­nance required an annu­al check on elder­ly seniors. Noth­ing unusu­al came up in the last check on the fam­i­ly so dump it on the city detec­tive since the coun­ty law office appar­ent­ly had big­ger fish to fry. Blake could eas­i­ly have sent the report with­out lift­ing a fin­ger and no one would be the wis­er, but he was above that.

Once at the door he was ready to knock and flash his badge when he was star­tled by a greet­ing at the far end of the porch. “Hel­lo, can I help you?” the lit­tle girl asked from a wood­en rock­ing chair, her feet plant­ed firm­ly to the porch and hands curled around the arm­rests like a queen sur­vey­ing the mass­es from her throne.

“Hi there,” Blake replied with the friend­liest smile he could man­age and took a few steps to get a bet­ter look at her. He wasn’t the best at guess­ing ages, but she def­i­nite­ly wasn’t fif­teen – more like ten. There weren’t any oth­er chil­dren list­ed, maybe she was a friend from the farm next door. She sat unas­sum­ing in over­alls and sneak­ers, wait­ing for his next question.

“I’m Blake, what’s your name?”

“Lee­sha.”

Blake made a men­tal note to yell at the lazy-ass coun­ty idiot who sup­plied him with the first mis­take regard­ing age and prob­a­bly not the last. In any case he was a lit­tle weird­ed-out with this one.

“Hi Lee­sha, is your aunt home?”

“Yes, she’ll be along shortly.”

That was enough. He head­ed back to the door with a swift thank-you and a chill up his spine. This one gave new mean­ing to wise-beyond-their-years and was too gram­mat­i­cal­ly cor­rect for any age, much less a kid liv­ing in this cor­ner of the county.

Mis­take num­ber two arrived at the door in the form of anoth­er female that made Blake instant­ly dou­ble-check the paper­work in his hand to make sure he was at the cor­rect address. She was old but not elder­ly — more like six­ty-eight than eighty-six – glid­ing to the screen door with a swifter walk than he ever had.

He flashed his badge, intro­duced him­self and the pur­pose of his vis­it, then asked the mil­lion-dol­lar question.

“Mary Franklin?”

“That’s me, come in!”

Well, that set­tled that. Trans­pos­ing num­bers, anoth­er note for the coun­ty idiot.

Instincts from his real occu­pa­tion kicked in with­out notice and he cased the place quick­ly. The house showed its age, but it was in no way a fix­er-upper. Floors were clean, fur­ni­ture was nice, the kitchen was spot­less, even the air smelled pleas­ant. Hell, the bath­room was so clean he could have eat­en off the floor.

The only thing unusu­al was how accept­ing she was about the vis­it. From the time he entered Blake was ready for a hail­storm of blow­back, but she pro­ceed­ed show­ing the house with the air of a game show host­ess giv­ing a grand tour to a prospec­tive buy­er. None of the why-do-you-keep-com­ing-out-we-are-so-sick-of-you-can-you-just-leave-us-alone flack he was expecting.

And dammit if he didn’t find her a lit­tle attrac­tive for her ages, whichev­er one was correct.

Once plant­ed on a couch so com­fort­able it remind­ed him to replace his, Blake pulled his pen out and was ready to make a slew of cor­rec­tions for the coun­ty records. Mary sat across from him, mod­est­ly pulled her skirt over her knees, and sat at patient attention.

“Did you get to see every­thing?” she asked.

Blake waved his hand, “Oh yes…absolutely, you’ve been more than kind in putting up with me. Now if you could just help clear-up some things – these coun­ty peo­ple and their typos…” he rolled his eyes which brought a chuck­le from her. He cher­ished the moment as they locked eyes briefly, then real­i­ty walked in at the sound of the screen door slamming.

Lee­sha strolled over and stood near the fire­place. Blake felt that elec­tric chill again and bent over his papers. 

“Can I have your ages please?”

“I’m eighty-six.”

Well…hell.

“Lee­sha tell the detec­tive how old you are honey.”

“Fif­teen,” Lee­sha replied with a now-get-out­ta-here tone.

Blake’s view was frozen on his pen with no idea how to react. Was he sup­posed to pre­tend to believe them? Were they just screw­ing with him? From the kid sure — he expect­ed it – but not this nice, attrac­tive, semi-senior aunt. 

He stole a glance at Mary. Her smile had fal­tered a lit­tle as if she fig­ured the game was up and he would not be as easy to con­vince as the last visitor.

So much for trans­pos­ing num­bers. Bet­ter find out who made that first wel­fare check, maybe he knows some­thing I don’t.

The pen was start­ing to soak the paper with ink, he lift­ed it and raised his head. 

You’re a freak­ing detec­tive, act like it.

“Sor­ry, you said eighty-six?”

“Yes,” Mary answered, her per­fect smile return­ing. “Good genes, I guess. I know it’s hard to believe.”

“Very.”

The pause was deaf­en­ing. Mary’s smile damp­ened again as if she just then real­ized Blake was a detec­tive and not the coun­ty clerk. Lee­sha looked back with no smile, expect­ed at this point. Blake felt that chill go away as he locked eyes on her, ready to play.

“What about you Lee­sha, you look a lot younger than fifteen.”

“I’m a late bloomer.”

“Real­ly?” Blake almost howled with laugh­ter and sti­fled it to a chuck­le. “Well…that happens.”

He fought the urge to ask if she checked her bat­ter­ies lately.

“Look Detec­tive,” Mary broke in, pulling Blake away from the star­ing con­test he was bent on win­ning. “There can be some strange folks out here, much more than us. We’re used to the whole coun­try-cra­zies thing, we just put up with it and live our lives.”

“Ok, I’ll let the ages stay where they are. Can you tell me about your for­mer husband?”

“Yes, Bob­by. He died in an acci­dent about two years ago.”

“What kind of-”

“He was attacked by an ani­mal; we miss him terribly.”

“I’m very sor­ry to hear that.”

“I was fine for a while, but the lone­li­ness final­ly set­tled in and became too much. We nev­er had chil­dren of our own, and Lee­sha was always like a daugh­ter to us. My sis­ter sent her to keep me com­pa­ny, and she liked it so much here that she decid­ed to stay.”

Oh yeah, she looks thrilled to be here.

“My sis­ter was nev­er much of a moth­er, so she’s fine with it.”

Blake awk­ward­ly tried to switch gears.

“Well, it’s obvi­ous from the look of every­thing you get along fine, but I still have to ask. Are you okay out here? Is there any­thing you need?”

He expect­ed Lee­sha to say just get the hell out but wasn’t lucky enough to hear it. She didn’t have to, her eyes said it all. Not to men­tion the way Mary cut him off about her hus­band. He was done here.

“We do the best we can, we’re fine.”

Blake stood, thanked them for his time and asked for some water. He strolled over to the man­tle above the fire­place, Leesha’s eyes fol­lowed him.

There were sev­er­al pho­tos lined up as any typ­i­cal fam­i­ly would do. His atten­tion swayed to the old­er ones that includ­ed Bobby.

“Is this your uncle?”

“Yes, we miss him terribly.”

That chill again. Some­one was fol­low­ing a script here.

Blake leaned for­ward, study­ing the girl next to Bob­by in a shot tak­en some­where on the prop­er­ty. She appeared old­er and taller than Leesha.

“Is this a rel­a­tive or friend of yours?”

“That’s me.”

Of course it is, how stu­pid of me.

He moved down the line to anoth­er, this one with Bob­by and Mary togeth­er. Mary looked much clos­er to the age Blake expect­ed when he walked into this mess, and equal to her hus­band. Just a nice senior cou­ple in their twi­light years.

“I took that one!” Lee­sha cried with what for a sec­ond sound­ed like a nor­mal excit­ed girl who missed her uncle. Blake bent over like he want­ed to tell a secret.

“Look, the office doesn’t have any pics of your uncle, you mind if I snap a few of these?”

Lee­sha shook her head. Blake whipped out his phone and was done just when Mary returned with some bot­tled water, and very proud to point out she fla­vored it for a lit­tle kick. He apol­o­gized for the has­sle, thanked them again, and was out like a shot. A chord was struck, enough to know he was start­ing to tread on thin ice. 

Just what the hell was he inves­ti­gat­ing? There were no laws against this kind of crazy. Even the husband’s demise made sense giv­en the location.

Still, Mary had called him Detec­tive but nev­er asked why they sent him instead of the typ­i­cal coun­ty offi­cer. Then there was the aging ele­phant in the room.

The only red flag in all this was they were not try­ing to hide any­thing. Which, of course, meant the exact opposite.

•••

Back at the motel, he extend­ed his stay and spent almost half an hour on the phone argu­ing with the coun­ty records office before they final­ly caved in.

“You were just sup­posed to make a record of the vis­it and turn it in, how hard can that be?”

There was a strange suck­ing sound after every sen­tence like the clerk was lick­ing her fingers.

“I told you there’s more to it than that. Now the hus­band, what do you have on his death?”

“Can’t you just Google all this?”

“The cell cov­er­age out here is shod­dy at best and there’s no wifi at this place.”

“Sweet Lord-”

“Get me to your super­vi­sor please, or is he too busy bring­ing your dessert?”

Sta­t­ic trick­led through the line at the gaunt­let he just laid down. If they want­ed to dump this on a detec­tive, they sure as hell were going to get their money’s worth.

“That won’t be nec­es­sary, hold please.”

Blake stud­ied the pic­tures he took of the fam­i­ly pho­tos on his phone — just a hus­band, wife, and their vis­it­ing niece enjoy­ing life. Noth­ing unusu­al, except the ladies looked much old­er than they do now. He reached for the fla­vored water on the lamp­stand when the clerk returned to the line.

“Okay…Bobby Franklin…died two years ago. Went out in the mid­dle of the night to inves­ti­gate a loud noise on the prop­er­ty. Was vio­lent­ly attacked by some ani­mal. His wife Mary heard the screams, ran out with a rifle and shot the ani­mal but it was too late. Bob­by died from his wounds.”

“Was there an autopsy?”

“Yes. Cause of death was blunt force trau­ma and mas­sive blood loss from the wounds; he was torn up pret­ty good. The wife had him cremated.”

“What about the animal?”

That brought anoth­er pause as the clerk sucked her fin­gers some more. That dessert must have been delicious.

“Mary said she struck it twice, but it took off before she could fin­ish the job. It prob­a­bly wan­dered off and died in the woods. There was a search, but noth­ing turned up.”

“There are no woods out there.”

“Detec­tive, that’s all I have. Any­thing else?”

Yes, the birth records on all three please.”

More suck­ing and shuf­fling of papers, then the clerk gave the birth­dates. They matched what he had. Damn, he was real­ly hop­ing to give her hell over that.

“Thanks. Enjoy the rest of your meals,” Blake said and clicked off.

He sighed at the dead-end he just hit. So, some farm­ers appar­ent­ly dis­cov­er a foun­tain of youth around the time the hus­band dies and start reverse-aging? Blake laughed and could hear Rod Serling’s nar­ra­tion, pre­sent­ing it for his approval.

Con­sid­er if you will…

He yawned, unscrewed the cap from the water and bent over the pic­tures again, this time zoom­ing in for a bet­ter look at the back­grounds. Noth­ing unusu­al, just nor­mal farm equip­ment. Trac­tors, tools, a water pump. There was even the stereo­typ­i­cal half-buried wag­on wheel. 

Blake’s eyes went back to the water pump in the back­ground of a shot with Mary and Lee­sha. Okay, so they got water from a well, anoth­er typ­i­cal fun farm fact. 

He set the water back on the stand and noticed thin bur­gundy strands swirling in the sepia lamp­light. Fla­vored for a lit­tle kick, Mary had said. Maybe it was the sum of every­thing lead­ing to crazy assump­tions, but the thoughts he had of what it could be turned his stom­ach. What­ev­er it was, it was not dis­solv­ing well.

It was time to call in favors. Blake rang the front desk and asked if they had expe­dit­ed ship­ping. They did, overnight pick­up was in an hour. He pack­aged the bot­tle the best he could and reached out to the research lab at the state uni­ver­si­ty to alert them of the incom­ing delivery.

He bare­ly slept. What­ev­er dreams came were of farms, buried wag­on wheels, home­made water, and the gift of eter­nal youth.

•••

“Ter­ri, I promise I’ll fill out all the forms you need, but this is extreme­ly urgent, and we need to keep it under the radar for now.”

Ter­ri was an old flame from col­lege. Those times were great while they last­ed, until des­tiny called them down sep­a­rate tracks. She stayed on as a chem­istry pro­fes­sor while he ven­tured forth to com­bat crime.

“Ana­lyze water? Real­ly? What do you think is in this any­way Blake?”

“That’s what I need you for, but I learned enough from you to know blood dis­solves in water, and that’s hold­ing together.”

“No wor­ries, I’ll set­tle for din­ner sometime.”

“I’ll buy you din­ner for a year.”

“Ok you got me. I could use a break from teach­ing all those prospec­tive bril­liant minds.”

“They’re only bril­liant because of you.”

“Oh, you’re good. Give me two hours. I’ll see if I can break my record.”

“Thanks Ter­ri.”

Two hours was enough for one more ques­tion for the coun­ty clerk, this time slurp­ing away at what Blake assumed was the after­noon beer break.

He asked who per­formed the first wel­fare check done last year. Offi­cer Spradling was the name, a by-the-book offi­cer with a flaw­less record. Tak­ing ear­ly retire­ment six months lat­er for what the clerk called a come-to-Jesus moment, he bragged about how young he felt and final­ly want­ed to see the world. At this point he was prob­a­bly half-way across Europe.

“We check his Insta­gram posts every once in a while, he’s look­ing young and spry. We can hard­ly tell it’s him.”

•••

Blake was back at the Franklin farm well after mid­night and parked on the shoul­der near the dri­ve­way. The house was nice and dark, a good sign every­one was fast asleep.

Terri’s call with the test results played on an end­less loop in his mind.

“Okay pop-quiz hot­shot, why does blood dis­solve in water?”

“Enlight­en me.”

“Red blood cells are too weak. They burst from the pres­sure and the water takes over, it’s basic osmosis.”

“But that won’t dis­solve, that’s not blood.”

“Well…it is, that’s the rub. We have red cells, platelets, plas­ma, but it’s def­i­nite­ly not human. It has to be an ani­mal – some­thing — but there’s none I know of with blood this strong. This is pow­er­ful stuff. DNA can take weeks, and there’s no way to rush that.” 

“Don’t both­er, you’ve done enough. I’ll get you that din­ner sometime.”

He stud­ied the pho­to with the water pump in the back­ground. From the lay­out he guessed it was about halfway between the road and the house. For­tu­nate­ly, the moon was bright enough to lead the way, using a flash­light would make him an easy tar­get. He brought it any­way and hopped the fence with his gun and a crow­bar from the trunk.

It was easy to spot, a dull met­al glow in the cobalt lunar light. Once there he oper­at­ed the arm, bring­ing forth a brief gush of water from the spout. The col­or was hard to make out, but he assumed it had the same make­up of the bot­tle he sent Terri. 

The same water Mary and Lee­sha drank from every day. They prob­a­bly had a refrig­er­a­tor full. Maybe it wasn’t nat­u­ral­ly fla­vored, and Mary did the work her­self, who knew? Where was the source?

Blake wasn’t pre­pared to dig and assumed there had to be some type of easy access for main­te­nance. He start­ed inch­ing his way out, walk­ing a perime­ter until he spot­ted a clear­ing in the field where the ground was capped by a round stone. He start­ed work with the crow­bar and after sev­er­al min­utes and a gal­lon of sweat, the seal broke with a burst of the most nau­se­at­ing stench he ever encoun­tered. A mix­ture of every­thing com­bined, and every­thing that didn’t belong.

He col­lapsed and almost blacked out, then gath­ered his coat over his mouth and lum­bered back like a drunk. Falling to his knees at the edge of the well, he aimed the flash­light in.

The mal­formed crea­ture was twist­ed like a pret­zel at the bot­tom of the shaft. Dis­tor­tion from the water made it dif­fi­cult to make out most of what it was or used to be. Blake could see claws, ears, some hair or maybe fur. One arm seemed locked in a posi­tion where it grabbed for pur­chase, the nails had carved chalk-white streaks in the walls on the way down. 

He aimed the light over where the head was. Ivory canines reflect­ed the beam, pro­trud­ing past the low­er lip, but it was the eyes that burned in Blake’s mem­o­ry. Lid­less, black orbs locked in an expres­sion of mis­un­der­stood pain.

Yes, the water was mixed with the red life that once coursed through the thing, and now was bizarrely revers­ing the life of others.

“We nev­er meant for this to hap­pen, you know?”

Blake fell back and raised his gun. Mary and Lee­sha stood side-by-side, their night­gowns mak­ing them ethe­re­al visions in the moonlight.

“We’re not armed, Detec­tive,” Lee­sha said. They both held their hands out in an almost beck­on­ing ges­ture. Blake dropped his gun, sick to his stom­ach and too exhaust­ed to breathe.

“It killed my poor Bob­by and fell in after I shot it,” Mary explained, “Bob­by always for­got to keep that sealed.”

“What…what is it?” Blake gasped.

“We don’t know,” Lee­sha answered, then casu­al­ly strolled over to the thick stone lid, placed one foot against it, and slid it back into place. Blake swal­lowed hard at the dis­play of strength and was ready for the end as she approached him.

“We only know what it does.”

With that, she grabbed his wrist and pulled Blake to his feet, then retrieved his gun and hand­ed it over. He hol­stered it and dust­ed him­self off, dumb­found­ed he was still alive.

“How do you know what all it can do? Will it stop? What if you keep going back – aging back — until your nothing?”

“That took a while, but we fig­ured it out,” Mary replied. “It’s all about the dosage?”

“We just dilute the water enough to main­tain where we are,” Lee­sha said. “I guess you didn’t try our sam­ple, or you would feel so much bet­ter now. You wouldn’t even be here.”

Blake’s mind was a scram­bled mess. Dosage, he thought, they’re talk­ing like they just cre­at­ed the world’s great­est cure-all serum.

“We can get you anoth­er if you want-”

“NO!” Blake yelled with his hand up. “I pre­fer to age and die nat­u­ral­ly, thanks.”

Mary stepped for­ward with a yearn­ing in her eyes that almost con­vinced him.

“Detec­tive, we won’t do it for­ev­er. Just long enough to expe­ri­ence things we missed. Just think of all that age robs from you. You won’t have to wake up one day full of regrets and reminders of every­thing you didn’t do.”

Just like the last one, Spradling. He drank their Kool-Aid and now he’s globe-trekking in bliss­ful igno­rance. How much did he take with him? When will it run out?

“That’s exact­ly why I do what I do, so I won’t have many of those regrets. I’ve learned to cut my losses.”

“It’s a choice, that’s what makes it so won­der­ful,” Lee­sha smiled. “You can pick how young you want to be. Some may feel like you do, oth­ers won’t.”

“Oth­ers?” Blake’s expres­sion melt­ed to noth­ing. “What oth­ers? How would they know how to con­trol it?”

“They’ll fig­ure it out, eventually.”

They point­ed at a nar­row trail of soil run­ning through the prop­er­ty, past the well, stretch­ing to the next farm and onward to the hori­zon and the wake of dawn. He could tell by the dark col­or it was fresh­ly laid, maybe a cou­ple of weeks old, the same way a new­ly dug trench would look after being filled.

Stark real­iza­tion swept him with adren­a­line as he bolt­ed to the car.

•••

Blake stopped at the con­struc­tion zone he had passed on the first trip in, remem­ber­ing the wel­come break it was from dri­ving through all that plain, flat coun­try. He rushed to the top of the hill and saw the sign:

MUNICIPAL WATER DISTRICT – MAKING PROGRESS

On the oth­er side that same trail of fresh dirt became an open trench as the dig­gers dug and pipe was laid. Blake fell to his knees.

“Hey bud­dy, you okay.”

He looked up to see a work­er in a hard­hat block­ing the ris­ing sun. Yeah, he thought, that caused a mass-extinc­tion event once.

“You should get back to your car.”

“Just one ques­tion,” Blake asked as he rose, “what is all this for?”

“Huh? Oh, we’re tap­ping a new water source from the lake on the far side. Should sup­ply most of the coun­ty and help alle­vi­ate the drought, maybe elim­i­nate it alto­geth­er. Don’t wor­ry, they were paid well.”

“Paid? Who?”

“The prop­er­ty own­ers. For­tu­nate­ly, sev­er­al of them let us run it under their land, saved us a lot of time and more mon­ey than they got out of the deal. Short­est dis­tance between two points, you know?”

“Yeah,” Blake sighed. “What’s the treat­ment like these days?”

“Well, the coun­ty plant just got a retro­fit, it should purge out every­thing the human body can’t han­dle, and then some. What­ev­er per­cent­age is safe to digest, you know?”

Blake chuck­led at those last words as the work­er offered him a bottle. 

“Here, you look like you could use some water. I haven’t touched this one yet.”

Blake took it and thanked him, then noticed the dark color.

“Where did you get this?”

“This wid­ow at one of the farms we paid off. She adds her own home­made fla­vor to give it a kick. I tell you what, me and the guys have nev­er moved so fast in our lives since we start­ed drink­ing this stuff. We feel great — might even fin­ish this job way ahead of schedule.”

“Won’t that be nice.”

Blake stared at the bot­tle, watch­ing the bur­gundy strands swirl in the light of the sun.

•••

They sat tucked away in the cor­ner of the restau­rant. Ter­ri fought to keep from laugh­ing, then her look went sour. Blake nev­er joked about much, espe­cial­ly the type of ensu­ing glob­al cat­a­stro­phe he just laid out. She stared at the bot­tle he placed in front of her, the red swirl inside rotat­ed like a corkscrew.

“Ok, let’s say I believe you. So, peo­ple get younger, live longer, cor­rect some mis­takes, take more time to knock out their buck list. It’s not exact­ly a zombie-apocalypse.”

“No, it would be a dif­fer­ent kind.” Blake replied. “Accel­er­at­ed over­pop­u­la­tion, can you imag­ine? What if this breeds some kind of cult-men­tal­i­ty. Ones like us who don’t want this stuff against the rest. Maybe I’m over­think­ing it-”

Ter­ri pulled the bot­tle clos­er and stud­ied the thing she was able to explain to him with science.

“No – you’re not over­think­ing it. We need to do something.”

“What?”

“You said it, let’s spread the word and find oth­ers like us. I know some peo­ple to start with”.

“I think I do to.”

They both grabbed their phones and start­ed tex­ting as the wait­er asked for their drink order.

They stuck with the white wine.

What’s scarier than short horror fiction?

Miss­ing Out! Sign up to join 126 oth­ers and receive ter­ri­fy­ing con­tent in your inbox, every quarter.

We don’t spam! You don’t like spam, and nei­ther do we.

Con­tribut­ing Author

When he’s not work­ing as an office admin­is­tra­tor for a tech com­pa­ny, Kevin Holl­away (he/him) is either read­ing, writ­ing, or watch­ing movies – the typ­i­cal habits of a bor­ing sin­gle straight male (but he’s fine with it). He can also be found in a qui­et cor­ner at his local library on Sun­day after­noons (but don’t dis­turb him).

Leave a Reply