“Thirst” by Leanne Olson

Dedicated to the memory of my dear friend and talented writer, the Gourmet Exorcist himself, Ted Janusz.


When you love bugs like I do, you spend a lot of time in the backyard, crouched on your knees, digging up earwigs and earthworms. I am used to the feeling of sweat dripping down my back, of dirt caked under my fingernails. I am adept at patting down the dirt over top of the holes in the grass to hide the evidence. Even if Dad notices the disturbed earth, sometimes the fact that I tried means he can look away.

Occasionally, punishment is more bother than it’s worth.

And when school is canceled for the time being and no one knows when they’ll let us back to learn something new, what’s better than poking around the garden for Armadillidium vulgare? You probably know them as pill-bugs. I like to watch the way they curl up at my touch like miniature armadillos.

Oh, I guess that’s how they got their name. Cool.

Lately the soil is too dry to find earthworms or pill-bugs, but ants are just as interesting. Did you know that ants lived at the same time as dinosaurs, and that wood ants can squirt acid to kill their enemies? If I could shrink to their size I’d explore their dens, following the maze through dirt downward, far down below the surface, ducking my head in tunnels designed for six-legged creatures.

So when you spend this much time in the backyard, you notice the trees are moving. Just a little bit, every week. Slightly closer to that clump of maiden clover. Farther away from that dark stain on the wood fence.

I don’t see them move during the day, so it has to be at night. Everything interesting happens after bedtime. When I’m an adult, I’m going to stay up all night, like my cat Smoke, who is nocturnal—I will stay awake even later than the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, even later than the witching hour. I’m going to see it all.

For now, I can’t see the trees walk, but I can measure. I can gather evidence.

I stretch out my tape measure carefully, tugging at the yellow metal. If I let it recoil too quickly it can slice my hands. But if I press the button on the side, it stays extended. It’s obedient.

Smoke is not, and I nudge her out of the way twice, scratching behind her ears.

Today the trunk of our oak tree is thirteen feet, eight and one-quarter inches from the back door of our house. Yesterday it was eight and two-quarters, or one-half. I told you they moved slowly. You might think, Isa’s just measuring wrong, small distances like that are tricky, and with one day’s measurements you might be right. But what about over a month? Two months?

What about not just our backyard, but every yard on our street?

I document the measurements in my coil notebook, pencil scratching on dull pages, before calling Smoke and heading inside. Dinner tonight is pork with canned potatoes and peas. We eat in silence, and I don’t share my findings yet. Mom and Dad have stopped asking me questions at the dinner table. There are no test scores or field trips to report on, and it’s too hot to waste saliva on speech.

I miss the crisp, green taste of vegetables fresh from our garden. Everything we eat now is metallic and dry and I have to chew each bite eight times before I swallow. I don’t complain.

* * *

I tell Mom that Smoke isn’t waking up, that he’s sleeping in the middle of the backyard and won’t come in for his breakfast or lift his head.

I know he’s dead, but the concept of mortality is one my parents still avoid. When Nan died they told me she was going on a trip to heaven or outer space or something and she left her body behind because she didn’t need it anymore. Yeah, right.

I don’t think Smoke can go anywhere if his body is totally exsanguinated. That’s a word I learned from this old show called The X-Files I saw on Netflix. It means drained of blood, like a vampire did it. Or embalmed, like the Egyptians did it. That’s Smoke: a mummy but without the wrappings. Dry and drained and empty of life.

At bedtime I can’t stop crying, I miss him so much. Smoke slept on my pillow every night and now it feels too big for just my head.

* * *

I’m not supposed to sneak into the neighbors’ backyards.

Obviously I know that but I play ignorant. Plausible deniability. I learned that from Mom’s lawyer shows. Never plead guilty. Unless—when is a discovery more important than getting in trouble? Do I tell them I was measuring the trees? Do I tell them that in every yard on our street, the trees have been moving closer and closer to the houses, oak and maple and avocado and orange? Do I tell them that Mrs. O’Dea’s yard contains two dead squirrels, exsanguinated like Smoke, now only dried rugs of fur and skin and rodent-face?

I don’t think so. Mom and Dad don’t often believe me. I guess that’s my own fault: when I was four I told them about dinosaurs in the river and when I was seven it was extended conversations with Smoke about the nature of humanity versus cat-manity. Apparently cats don’t talk to adults. Their loss.

You know that story of crying wolf from Aesop? Maybe that’s me. I have quite the imagination, Dad says. It is not a compliment. I need to learn to control my instincts, to check my desire to tell stories, even if they’re interesting. I need to respect the gates of suburban backyards.

Mrs. O’Dea helps me bury the evidence. I think she needs the squirrel funeral more than I do, but we pretend it’s for me, since Mom wouldn’t let me watch while Dad buried Smoke. The small mound of dry dirt Dad left behind is not as well disguised as my own explorations. Every time I look out in the yard, past the wilted tomato plants and fallen leaves, crisp and brown too early in spring, I see it and think of Smoke.

Mrs. O’Dea had tamed some of the squirrels and given them names, Jamie and Brownie and Sadie; she hand-fed them sunflower seeds. She cries at the funeral and rubs at the tears on her wrinkled cheeks with a scarf the same gray as her hair. It was given to her by a former student and is more tatters than fabric. She pats me on the shoulder, she says there, there, even though my eyes are dry.

I’m not imagining things. Today our oak tree is thirteen feet, seven inches from the door. It has moved a whole inch overnight.

* * *

The thing about digging for bugs in the backyard is you get dirty. And now it’s not so easy to get clean—our shower doesn’t last very long and sometimes Mom has to shout for me: Bella, Isa-belle-belle, fetch me a bucket of water!

Today there’s shampoo in her hair, all white and foamy, how I imagine the sea. But when I turn on the kitchen tap it sputters, it spurts dark mud and then dry sand into the sink.

I open the fridge. I want to obey, I want to do what Mom has asked me, but do I take one of the bottles of water? I know they’re for drinking, they’re pure, with no sulfur or any of the other minerals she hates. Would she want to pour it over her hair and let most of it seep down the drain? I scan the shelves of the fridge for a reasonable substitute. The fridge light sputters.

I take her a cup full of apple juice.

It’s the wrong choice. Now Mom and Dad are both furious and Mom’s hair is sticky. I offer to forfeit my shower to her this week and it doesn’t help. I am sent to bed with no shower and no glass of water. On my too-large pillow I count sheep, chasing sleep as my dry, blistered tongue scrapes across my teeth.

* * *

You know what’s the best for not thinking about people or cats you miss? Empirical investigation. My measurements are exact and I triple check them, scrawling dark charcoal numbers in my notebook. Our oak tree is eleven feet from the back door.

Every backyard I sneak into has at least one dried, mummified squirrel or sparrow. Seven out of seven. One hundred percent.

At least twice a week a white van is parked in front of another neighbor’s house on our small street, repairing internet cables that have been damaged by roots.

Now I have evidence, so I need a hypothesis. The imaginative part of my brain, the crying-wolf part, says maybe the trees are just dancing at night, just having fun, because why can’t plants enjoy their lives like people do? But that’s not much of a hypothesis because it doesn’t answer this: Why are they always moving closer to our house? Why are they always closer to the neighbors’ houses? Why are the animals dying?

On television the news station has the number of days since the last rain up the corner of the screen. A drought is defined as a long period without rain, but who decides how much that is? My research says that in northern England it can be fifteen days, but here in the western United States it can be seven months.

Blue numbers in the corner of the TV screen flash 226.

Across the street, the tall maple’s yellowing leaves seem to reach out, almost touching Mrs. O’Dea’s windows. She is out there on a ladder snipping off its branches with cutting shears. The twigs snap easily, falling to the ground.

She burns them in a pile in her backyard and the grass catches on fire. She calls the fire department and is so embarrassed. They are under city regulation not to use water, so now they are out there in her yard, four men in red uniforms and yellow fiberglass hats, smothering the fire with a blanket, stamping around on the ground, dancing on the grass to kill the flames.

I do a rain dance in our backyard at the same time, copying them, asking the cloudless sky to send us moisture. I flail my arms and throw my legs in the air. It’s pretty fun. It would be more fun if Smoke were here to dance with me.

* * *

There’s no water in our toilet. My urine is dark yellow and comes in spurts. It burns as I pee and the pain makes my tear ducts itch. I don’t have tears left. When I press the handle, nothing flushes the urine down.

But there is something else in the bottom of the basin. Long, pale white strands like skinny fingers reach up from the pipes. They look familiar, and I remember the copy of Gray’s Anatomy I found at a garage sale: they are splitting off like dendrites in the human nervous system, like flower roots reaching downward into the garden. Like tree roots.

Maybe the trees are just as thirsty as we are.

I close the toilet lid, and when I check back an hour later, the strands are gone, and so is the yellow liquid.

* * *

Mrs. O’Dea was eighty-three years old, Dad says. He doesn’t tell me anything about heaven now, the way he did with Nan. Maybe that means I’m more grown up. I don’t feel more grown up.

He says it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mrs. O’Dea died. It was her time. She was old, she was useless, she had nothing left to give to this world.

I don’t believe him. I stop listening, I do powers of three in my head, my brain shouting to drown out his words.

She was kind to me, she loaned me books by Madeleine L’Engle and Lois Lowry and John Green, she taught me that math works even if it involves a constant that isn’t a number, she told me that if I was ever scared of my parents, really scared, I should come and knock on her door no matter how late it was. Even if it was past the witching hour.

She gave a lot to me, even if I am not the whole world.

When Nan died, at her funeral they put makeup on her cheeks and her skin was gray, but she still looked like Nan if I squinted. When I found Mrs. O’Dea in her yard (illegally, disobeyingly, trespassing even though I promised not to) her wrinkled skin had collapsed on her cheekbones and she was thinner than I had ever seen her, her sweater and jeans loose on her body, as if the fat had just vanished into the atmosphere. Evaporated. Exsanguinated. I tried not to look at her once-green eyes. They weren’t eyes anymore, and her lids were small and deflated.

When I found her I screamed and screamed and I don’t think I stopped screaming until the ambulance sirens continued the sound for me.

Now Dad has given up consoling me but Mom is trying to get me to look away as the paramedics come to remove Mrs. O’Dea’s body. I press my hands to my face as if I’m hiding and I peek between the fingers. I don’t want to see it but I cannot ignore the possibility of more data points for my research. Where is my notebook?

It takes two paramedics to lift her onto the stretcher. She sticks to the ground like a spider on flypaper, eight legs tearing from its body slowly as it tries to rise, one by one by one.

One paramedic asks the other, what the fuck are those? As he lifts Mrs. O’Dea’s bare arm from the dead grass, thin strands hold her to the dirt and break as he pulls.

Mom’s hands are a vise on my own arm and she drags me away—I think she’s angrier about the profanity than the death—but I can hear the other man say, I don’t know. They’re coming from the ground. Worms or parasites or something. Don’t touch ’em. Get some tweezers and grab a sample.

But I know the worms in our neighborhood are long gone, dried up and dead in the parched soil. It has been at least four weeks since I have encountered anything from suborder Lumbricina. It has been days since I have seen many of my neighbors, and at least half the houses on our street have gone dark.

When I get home I don’t think about my friend Mrs. O’Dea, I just find my measuring tape and I get to work. Mom watches me from the back deck, her face all scrunched up, worried or mad I can’t tell. Our oak tree is five feet from the house. It has moved halfway across the yard! I look back at Mom and I announce out loud, five feet from the back door, but she doesn’t answer.

Why do Mom and Dad ignore my findings? Who do they think moved it? Or do they know that trees can move by themselves? Sometimes I wonder if I am wasting my time, if I should stop trying to make sense of the world, when really it’s just that adults haven’t bothered to explain it all yet.

* * *

I am supposed to be asleep, but my bedroom window is open and I hear Dad outside talking to Mr. Zhang from the house across the street. He’s one of the few who hasn’t packed his car full, tying suitcases to the roof, driving away.

I peer out the window, and although electricity to the street lamps failed weeks ago and the white van has stopped coming, the moon is bright tonight so I can see the men in the darkness. Dad is leaning on the fence, marking his territory. I know he misses the lush green grass that Mom always called proof of his virility.

What I hear is this: Mrs. O’Dea’s whole body was full of what the paramedics said were fibrous strands of plant or fungal origin. The strands pierced small holes in her skin and followed her veins and arteries. All of the blood in her body was gone, replaced by a twisting system of roots that ran from her head to her toes.

I carefully note this in my book. My penmanship has declined, I am not as scientifically detached as when I began this investigation, but I am resolved: in the morning, if Mom and Dad will not listen to me, I’ll take it to Mr. Zhang or another neighbor. Or I’ll walk the seventeen blocks to school and see if anyone is there, maybe a custodian who knows how to contact one of my teachers.

* * *

When the trees make their next move overnight, it is so swift that I don’t have to worry about explaining anything.

The television and internet cables have failed but my iPod has a bit of battery left and the radio reports that bodies are everywhere, drained of fluids: animals, humans, anyone outside during the dark hours. The police have donned riot gear. A town in western Arizona has burned to the ground, no survivors. Speculation is the community took matters into their own hands and spread gasoline on the trees, then lit a match. Everyone wants the president to make a speech, but no one can find him.

Early in the morning I hear Mom and Dad arguing, so I stay in bed with my sheet drawn over my head. The heat of it is suffocating. They throw words at each other sharp as breaking plates: too fucking late, nowhere to go, what the fuck do you expect me to do?

It is not fantasy or crying wolf, unless we are all still asleep and sharing the same child’s nightmare.

* * *

Step away from the sink, Isabella, Mom says. I let my hand with the tape measure drop to my side. It shakes against my dirt-encrusted jeans. For so long I documented the trees’ movements for posterity, for curiosity, but I’d always thought of our home as safe, impenetrable from the outside, the only danger from my own defiance within.

Around our neighborhood we see vines breaking through masonry, roots crawling up through pipes. The trees are moving so much more quickly than one inch a night. Every time we close our eyes, every time we blink, the roots draw closer.

The butter-voiced man on the radio says that people are fleeing to cities, to the tallest apartment buildings, to man-made structures higher than any tree. On the coast, they are piling onto boats. I cannot imagine their abundance of water, even if it is saturated with salt. There is a pounding in my head that never quiets.

The toilets have been dry for days, and we don’t sit on them any more—the bowls are full of white, grasping roots. We pee in a bucket, and we cover the bucket with tinfoil. I have learned the trick of not splashing over the edges, though at first Mom and I used crudely made funnels.

We have three small bottles of water left.

The smell of urine curls my lip and fills every corner of our home. I can taste it, dry and acidic, on my tongue. When I ask why we don’t dump it outdoors, I feel Dad’s fist before I see it, impact and stumbling back, my head hitting the edge of the kitchen stove. It is the first time he has done that in a long while, and it shocks me. On the floor I press my cheek to the cool tile and curl up into a ball. My eyes burn, craving tears.

When he leaves the room in disgust, Mom whispers an answer to my question: we might need it later.

There was this old text-based video game that kids played in the 1980s, in a whole different millennium when water filled backyard swimming pools, when they had mattresses made of liquid that you could sink into at night. It was called Oregon Trail. It’s been updated online. In the new version of the game, before the pilgrims turn to cannibalism they drink their own urine. The kids in my class at school thought the game was funny, and so did I. Addison wore a T-shirt that proudly proclaimed: “You have died of dysentery.”

Roots rise between the tiles of our kitchen floor. They have taken over our sinks and bathtubs in ratty nests of brambles. Dad gives me his lighter, the pewter one reserved just for his pipe that I am not permitted to touch, and he tells me to burn them. He and Mom retreat to the top of stairs several feet above me as I bend down on the kitchen floor, flicking the lighter, holding it with my arm stretched out before me like a shield.

* * *

The thinnest roots burn, crackling and turning to gray ash before my eyes. Past the walls of our house, I think maybe I can hear our oak tree screaming. It’s not something I can measure in decibels, not something I can record in my notebook. But I feel it in my head somewhere, slithering in through my ear canals, snaking along my sinuses, vibrating in the red marrow of my skull.

The sound reminds me of Smoke as she slept, caught in a nightmare, trapped in the secret past of a rescue cat that I will never know. I’d wake her and sometimes she would be grateful and cuddle against my chest, purring and desperate for contact. Other times I’d startle her and she’d scratch my arm, drawing bright blood. I didn’t blame her; I know what it’s like to wake from a nightmare not understanding I am safe in bed.

But when Mom told me that if that damned cat scratched me one more time she’d get rid of it, I stopped waking Smoke. Was that selfish, to leave my cat to her night terrors rather than chance I be left alone? She died anyway, her blood drained by trees. I wish I hadn’t let her last months be filled with bad dreams.

Once upon a time I loved our oak tree. I would run my hands over its trunk and count it a friend. Quercus kelloggii. The depth of its gray bark, the texture of it, reminded me that we have choices beyond who we are on the surface. We have dreams beyond our current lives.

Why does it deserve to die of thirst more than we do? Who am I to decide its fate?

But I flip back the pewter lid from the lighter again. I roll up a newspaper and set it aflame to conserve the lighter’s fuel, and I hold my new torch next to the intruder breaking through our kitchen floor.

* * *

All of this burning has given me courage. I ask my parents: Why didn’t we run? Why can’t we run still? The trees can’t be everywhere. If they want moisture, if they’ve drained all the squirrels and pets and the birds have flown high above this drought-stricken world and found somewhere new to be, why don’t we take to the paved streets and find cities built without green?

But Mom and Dad answer: This is our home. This is our house, the house we’ve purchased, the house on which we’ve paid off almost thirty-five percent of the mortgage. We will not abandon our property. Dad tosses our last empty bottle of water on the floor, crushing the plastic beneath his foot.

We gather in the room that is farthest from any waterworks, away from the laundry with its pipes, away from the kitchen with its sink, and away from the bathroom, most dangerous of all, a coffin of toilet plumbing and sink drain and showerhead birthing reaching, grasping tendrils.

Tonight we have run out of lighter fluid, we have run out of matches. There may be gas left in the stove, but I can’t get near it, the kitchen is a twisting mess of inhuman life.

I use a pair of scissors to cut off a long chunk of my hair and show Mom how to start a fire with dry hair, steel wool, and the battery from our smoke detector. We burn the roots that have filled the stairway leading to our bedrooms. They crackle orange and gold in the dark. We burn them until I am nearly bald.

Dad insults Mom’s pageboy cut, the one he pointed to last year on an actress in a magazine.

* * *

We gather in my bedroom, which is farthest from the master en suite and any source of water. Mom leans on me to walk. We are silent, with swollen, dry tongues and blistered cheeks. We have left the last bucket of urine, one-eighth full, as a distraction in the kitchen, hoping to herd the roots there for one more night of sleep before we determine our next move. Mom says that all she can think about now is closing her eyes.

I pee into a coffee mug and Dad presses his lips to the cup, ravenous.

We huddle on my bed together, and now the pillow is too small—it cushions Mom’s head and Dad’s head, but I lean my own on Mom’s chest. She heaves shallow, quick breaths full of fear. Eventually, she sleeps.

By morning there are tree roots reaching under my bedroom door.

I don’t wake my parents. Technically, I am obedient: many months ago, back when there was school and earthworms and salads filled with tangerines that squirted juice as I bit into them, they told me never to wake them early. The weekend was theirs alone, and Smoke and I should amuse ourselves. Those orders have never been countermanded. Smoke and I rose earlier and earlier on Sunday mornings, living out our fantasies: we were explorers crawling on our bellies through tall grass in the park, we were mathematicians using pebbles to solve ancient puzzles, we were best friends together forever.

So I don’t wake them as I escape, as I open the small window in my room to make a gap that only I can squeeze through, that would never fit an adult body. I don’t wake them as I fall on the crisp, brittle grass, the farthest corner from our oak tree.

I glance back at the house and wish I hadn’t. My former home is unrecognizable: I cannot tell our tree from the neighbors’ trees, there are branches and roots reaching in through every cracked window, prying open the spaces between wood panels. The back of our house is hidden beneath masses of grasping plants. But they don’t extend toward the road. There is no life, no moisture, on the pavement.

Although I don’t know where I’m going and I am dizzy with thirst, I pull open our gate, I tread over a garden of dead daffodils, I stumble toward the road, and I begin to run.

Leanne Olson is a librarian and writer from Ontario, Canada. She has a dendritic tree tattooed on her back but has never had to drink urine.

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