Thirst
By: Steve Carr

On the edge of the Black Rock Desert, the town of Iswell baked under the bright mid-August sun. Like miniature tornadoes, eddies of sand blew across the town's streets. The rooster-shaped tin weather vane atop Chris Mackley's hay and feed store on the edge of town whirled about erratically. Loosened by the winds, the ropes on the flagpole outside the town's courthouse smacked against the pole, causing metallic echoes that reverberated down Main Street. In the dry, turbulent air, crows circled above the Presbyterian Church as the church bell in the steeple clanged discordantly.

A half mile out of town, Ross Dewey walked around the edge of a perfectly round circle of blackened ground the size of a small swimming pool. He stopped at intervals and kicked at the black dirt with the tips of his cowboy boots. The dirt had a sticky tar-like consistency that clung to his boots but became dry and brittle after a few moments and fell off. He stopped and removed his cowboy hat, stared at the circle thoughtfully, and scratched his balding head. Despite the wind, the circle was clear of sand. A set of footprints and a line of rabbit tracks marred its surface. He placed his hat back on his head, and then got into his pickup truck, and using a back road, drove home.

Twenty minutes later, after bringing his truck to a skidding stop in the gravel driveway behind his house, he rushed into the kitchen through the back door. His wife, Ruthie, was standing at the sink washing dishes.

"Did you find anything where you said you saw something land last night?" she asked.

He pushed her aside, turned on the water, and stuck his mouth to the faucet.

Watching him guzzle the water for several minutes, she said, "What's wrong with you?"

He raised his head from the sink. "I'm thirsty," he said as he licked his lips and looked at her hungrily.

#

Standing in the parking lot outside the hay and feed store, Dan Purcell, gazed out at the hazy outline of the Calico Hills at the western edge of the desert. Visible waves of heat rose up from the expanse of barren earth. He wiped his forehead with his sweat-soaked red bandanna and then stared at it, pondering how much water his body had lost putting sacks of chicken feed in his truck. Three empty plastic water bottles pushed by the hot wind rolled about on the tailgate. He tossed the bottles in with the sacks and raised the tailgate. It took two tries to get the motor to turn over in his truck, and then he drove out of town on the main road. A half mile from Iswell he came to a sudden stop when a large gray jackrabbit staggered onto the road. The rabbit stopped on the white line, stared the direction of Dan's truck, and then fell over. Dan drove up beside it and saw a large, open wound in its side. He watched as the jackrabbit's hind legs twitched until it lay still, and then he drove on.

When he reached his small ranch he parked his truck in front of the chicken barn, got out of the truck, and opened the barn door. He stared in horrified disbelief as hundreds of chickens in their pens were crowded along the troughs, aggressively jostling, clawing and pecking each other to get to the water. The level of noise from their cackling was beyond the usual din. Dan walked down the aisle between the rows of pens and counted the chickens whose dead, torn apart bodies were surrounded by other chickens frantically pecking at them. Reaching the other end he noted that forty-eight were dead. As he left the barn he turned on the spigots to the troughs and let the water run. He left the barn wondering where his ranch hand, Jake, had gone.

At the back of the house he noticed his wife's car was parked at an unusual angle and the front tires were in her cactus garden. He went into the house and stopped at the wash basin in the laundry room to wash his hands. "Something's seriously wrong with the chickens," he called out.

He then noticed the sound of running water coming from the kitchen.

"Did you enjoy your visit with Ruthie?" he called out.

Not getting a reply from his wife, he finished washing and drying his hands, and then walked into the kitchen. His wife was standing at the sink with her mouth on the running faucet. Her blouse was ripped and there were bite wounds and bright red and purple hickey marks on her arms and neck. Blood trickled from the wounds. Urine ran down her legs, forming a puddle around her feet.

"Sue?" he stammered. "What happened? Who did that to you?"

She slowly raised her head and fixed her gaze on him. "I'm so thirsty," she said.

He took several steps toward her and then she pounced on him, driving him back against a wall. Before he could push her off, she bit into his cheek. As she tumbled backward onto the floor, Dan grabbed from the wall the spare rope Sue used for clothesline. As she started to get up he wrapped the rope around her, pinning her arms to her body, and then sat her in a chair and tied her there.

"Please, Dan," she moaned, "I need fluids, any fluid."

"I'm going to call Doc Heller," he said.

He took the phone from the wall and dialed Doc Heller's number. After several attempts and getting the busy signal each time, he hung up the phone. "I'm going into town and bring Doc Heller back," he said to his wife who was struggling to free herself.

He ran out of the house and jumped into his truck. As he sped out of the driveway he saw a coyote running in circles in the desert scrub brush across from his property. He drove the short distance from his ranch to the town at eighty miles an hour. As he entered Main Street he saw that other than Ben Tully's brown and white mongrel, Lucifer, drinking from a horse trough that sat alongside the walkway outside of The Iswell Diner, the street was empty. Sand drifts were piled in the street gutters and along the base of the buildings.

Blocked by a motorcycle that lay on its side, Dan stopped his truck in the middle of the street, took his rifle from the gun rack installed in the back window, and got out. Other than the motorcycle, there wasn't another vehicle in sight. He had lived in Iswell his entire life and he couldn't remember there ever being a Saturday when at least a few cars or trucks weren't parked in front of the grocery store. He walked down the middle of the street with his rifle held in readiness at his side. It wasn't until he reached Mike Lowell's barber shop that he saw anyone through a plate glass window of one of the shops that lined both sides of the street. Mike's body was in a barber chair. His shirt was torn open and dozens of bite-sized wounds and bruise-like hickey marks covered his shriveled skin.

"Get off of the street!"

Dan looked up at the window of Doc Heller's second floor office, one of the few two-story buildings on Main Street. Doc Heller was at the window.

"What's happened?" Dan yelled.

"Some kind of sickness. Almost everyone has come down with it," Doc Heller shouted back.

"I think Sue has it," Dan responded. "She bit me." He pointed to the wound on his cheek.

Doc Heller held up his arm and pointed to a bite mark. "You and I must be immune. I got bit too. Most folks get bloodthirsty in about twenty minutes after getting bit. They'll suck the blood right out of you. It's like they're human leeches."

"I gotta help my Sue," Dan said. "And I haven't seen Jake."

"I think Jake brought this sickness to us. He was at the diner earlier and was out of his head. He just kept drinking water and talking about spaceships. Then he attacked Margie. Bit her right in the throat."

"My chickens got it too," Dan said. "How'd they catch it?"

"Hard to say," Doc Heller answered. "Maybe this thing is in the air."

"What'll we do? What do I do about Sue?" Dan suddenly turned his head. A horde of Iswell's citizens had turned the corner at the opposite end of Main Street and were rushing toward him. Their teeth were bared and their tongues hung out.

"Nothing can be done for Sue. Get out of Iswell," Doc Heller screamed, and then shut his window.

Dan raised his rifle and shot those in the front: Hugh Trayson, the school teacher, Tammy Urcine, the beautician, and Frank Small, the Presbyterian minister. When Lucifer turned away from the trough, faced Dan, and began to viciously growl, Dan shot the dog in the head. He then ran to his truck, jumped in, and sped out of town. He drove past his ranch, and continued South.

#

That night, on the outskirts of Reno, as hot wind blew sand through his open windows, Dan pulled his truck off of the highway and into the dirt. The young woman who flagged him down stood in the beams of Dan's truck's headlights. A car was overturned in a nearby ditch. She rushed up to the truck and opened the door. Her lips glistened with fresh blood. She gazed at Dan hungrily, licked her lips, and said, "I'm dying of thirst."

The End

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