What It Means to Dream About Water
2017, High School, Prose
I spit out a shard of plastic.
“Jack?” I extract another piece of garbage from my gums and flick it into the fire. “I think you burned this bit.”
“I did my best.” Jack shrugs. “Tried to burn off some of those pollutants.”
I look at the small killifish that’s roasted and slightly blackened at the end of my stick. That’s all the fish there is to eat around here. Not the prettiest fish and very tiny. “I don’t think it works that way,” I mumble, struggling to speak around a mouthful of charred fish. “Still, beats starving.”
“I dunno.” Jack takes a swig of his drink before setting the chipped shot glass on the edge of the fire pit. “Probably end up with cancer from all this.”
“That’s the least of our worries.” I sit up straighter, struggling to work the kinks out of my shoulders. My body aches from a day of scavenging, but I’m too tired to complain. “I think we need to move on.”
“Really?” Jack holds up the blackened remains of today’s haul. “What makes you say that?”
“No, really.” I take a long drink from my water bottle, but I can’t wash the taste of ashes from my mouth. “I’m serious, Jack. The food is getting thin around here.”
“We could move north,” Jack grunts. “Heard they’ve got more than we have.”
“That’s a good idea, but I’m sure every scavenger in the country’s gonna end up migrating there, too.”
“Worth a shot,” Jack shrugs. “Dry land would be a nice change of pace.”
“Less humidity,” I add. “Stay here any longer, and I’ll grow gills.” I cough to illustrate my point.
“Yup,” Jack nods. “Lookie here.” He pries his worn boot from his foot and gestures to his toes. He cocks his head. “I got the webbed toes, but I’m not sure if that’s from the pollutants or the climate.”
It’s still dark outside when we break camp. The birds are singing, or, really, wheezing, but that’s a good sign. Their plumage is ragged and their talons are worn, but they’re just as good as any canary. A few feeble rays of sunshine filter through the choking smog, but they provide little illumination.
“Jack,” I call, my voice ragged. “You got my mask?”
“Yup.” Jack materializes at my shoulder, gas mask in hand. “Enjoy.”
He presses the battered apparatus into my hands before drawing his from his pack.
“Thanks.” I fumble with the straps, struggling with the airtight seal.
“Water?” Jack croaks. I extract my canteen from my pack and toss it to my companion.
“Drink up, kid,” I snort. Jack makes a face, but he downs the cloudy liquid.
“Thanks, old man,” he manages, still scowling. “Well, if we’re done here, I guess it’s time to hit the road.”
“The road” isn’t much of a road at all.
“You sure we’re following the highway?” Jack eyes the murky water suspiciously.
“Dunno,” I shrug. “Looks like it.” Favoring my good leg, I clamber atop an overturned semi-truck and survey the swamp. I miss the days when there was a clear delineation between water and land.
“Oh great,” he snorts. “Well, if it seems right.” He stumbles, almost losing his balance in the muck.
“Watch for gators,” I smirk. “I hear they go for the skinny ones.”
“Yeah, right. As if anything could survive here.” And he’s right; not much has, but a few species have endured. He tries to sound dismissive, but I notice him avoiding the deeper parts of the swamp.
We reach our first town before nightfall.
“It’s small.” Jack wrinkles his nose at the dilapidated buildings.
“Kid, we’ve spent the last six months in one of the biggest cities in this part of the country. After New Orleans, everything looks small.”
“I don’t like it,” he sniffs. “It’s too empty.”
“Probably running from the sea.”
“The sea?” Jack frowns. “I don’t think I ever saw the sea.”
“The sea? You blind?”
“No, the old sea. Before the floods, before the storms. I never saw it.”
“Huh.” I stop in front of sturdy brick building and draw my lock picks from my belt. “Well, you didn’t miss much,” I lie.
The door creaks as I try the tarnished brass knob, but remains closed. “It was cold and wet.”
I kneel down to examine the lock, but rust and grime clog the keyhole. Swearing softly, I extract a crowbar out of my pack.
“Fish, too.” The worn rubber grip of the crowbar chafes against my hands, but I ignore the pain as I prepare to swing.
“Did you fish? Before?” Jack is persistent. “I mean not these puny killifish, but game fish.” He says the words reverently.
“Yeah, sure.” Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The wood creaks in protest as I hammer away, but doesn’t give, despite my best efforts. “Did it as a kid.” The tip of the crowbar pierces the rotted wood planks of the door. “Fun, I guess.” I plant my feet, straining to pull the door from its hinges.
After several minutes of sweating and swearing, the door splits in half.
“Jack,” I wheeze, as I slump against the wall. “Bags.”
Jack lugs in the few bags of food we’d managed to scavenge today.
“Great haul.” I prod the canned carrots with a finger and select one for dinner. Using my least rusty knife, I pry the lid off. “Love it.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack blushes. “Those raiders almost got me.” He lowers his head and examines the label on his can of corn. “I got what I could.”
“S’okay.” I dab at the orange juice running down my chin with a sleeve. “Beats burned fish. Speaking of which, I did go fishing.”
“It was cold and rainy, but I didn’t care. My dad took me to the beach. Perdido Beach. I loved it. I didn’t see my old man often, and when I did, we didn’t get along.”
“We rented a boat, I think. The Sea Cucumber.” I laugh at the memory. “More like, Rickety Death Trap, barely made it to our spot, but it was a boat. You remember those, right? I took you to the docks, didn’t I?” In New Orleans, we’d gone to the port, or what was left of it. The tankers were rusting hulks but the scariest part was the wreckage of people that lived in them. We didn’t dare get too close.
“What’d you catch?” Jack squints, like he could imagine my Dad and me floating on the clear, blue water in our boat.
“Don’t rush me.” I take another bite of carrot speared on the end of my knife.
“I almost took my dad’s eye out with the hook,” I resume, “but I managed to catch something. Took me the better part of two hours, but I did. Spiny little monster, a zebrafish, an invasive species and not worth the bait I’d hooked it with, but I was too happy to care. Dad fried it for dinner, but I’m pretty sure he replaced mine with some store-bought fish.”
I waved my knife around.
“Will it change?” Jack looks at me pleadingly, looking for a promise I couldn’t give him. “Will it go back to the way it was?”
“Dunno,” I shrug. “Awful lotta pollution to clean up. Takes plastic forever to break up, I think. I remember my chemistry teacher’s lecture on pollution. Thousands of years for plastic to break down, she said.”
Jack pales. “That’s a long time.”
“Yup.” I finish the rest of my carrots and toss the can in the fire. “Coulda stopped this, y’know. Should’ve listened, but we didn’t.” I shake my head sadly. “I know people blame the industry, but we were the ones who bought the products. Lotta good those products did us. All that money spent, all those lives wasted, just for a new phone. All for nothing.” I tell him about the sensation of sand between my toes, the smell of salt water, the beauty of an algae bloom. Voice ragged, I reminisce about the whales, the jellyfish, the tuna, and the sea turtles. I don’t remember falling asleep, but when I do, the fire is cold and dead.
“Jack?” I croak. My spines creak as I force myself to my feet. I fumble around in the dark before making my way to the window. The sky is overcast, but the sun is beginning to break through the clouds.
“Jack?” I repeat.
The room is dark and empty, but the door to the stairwell is ajar. My knees pop in protest as I ascend the stairs to the second floor to get a better view. I stumble through the open door leading to the roof, flashlight in hand.
“Here.” Jack is perched on the edge of the roof, his legs dangling over the edge. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Huh.” I flop down next to him and click my flashlight off. “Pretty,” I say, gesturing to sunrise. The smog shimmers, turning a dark gold as the light hits it. “Takes me back.”
Jack nods. “I thought I could see the ocean.” I squint into the toxic fumes, but I can’t see through the fog.
“We’re a long way off,” I shrug. “Probably a mirage.” I rub sleep from my eyes and glare at the smog.
“Still, I can’t help but hope.”
Later, as we crest the hill above the town, I glance back at the rising sun. For an instant, I swear I see a flash of clear blue water through the noxious nimbus of the smog. I rub my eyes furiously, trying to see through the yellow-brow fumes, but it’s gone.
This Contest forced me to think about pollution, not just its effects on the present, but its consequences for the future. This is why I settled on writing a piece of fiction. Protecting the environment, particularly one of our most precious resources, water, is very important to me. I want future generations to be able to enjoy a clean ocean—to see how beautiful it is, to understand the depth and variety of its creatures. I felt that the best way to advocate protection of the ocean is to discuss how bleak our future would be if global warming and pollution are unchecked.