Thursday, October 23, 2014

Parched - Conclusion (by guest contributor Shoshana Hebshi)

J.R. came to in his bed. The room was dimly lit, the curtains pulled tight. Betsy sat in her vanity chair across the room. Dr. Clark’s head was bowed toward J.R.’s chest, and he was moving his stethoscope across different areas of J.R.’s chest and abdomen.

“Dr. Clark,” J.R. said faintly. “That you?”

“Welcome back J.R.,” the doctor said, removing the stethoscope and placing it around the back of his neck. “How are you feeling?”

J.R. swallowed hard. “Thirsty,” he said.

The doctor turned to Betsy and motioned for her to grab her husband some water. Then he returned his attention to his patient.

“Your heart and lungs sound normal,” he told J.R. “I’m going to need to run some tests, but you’re in no shape to travel far, so I’ll have one of my nurses swing by to take some blood samples.”

J.R. cleared his throat and swallowed again. He nodded in agreement with the doctor.

“Betsy’s worried about you,” the doctor said. “But let’s not get alarmed until we have some test results.”

The doctor stood up as Betsy returned with a large glass of water, which she handed to her husband’s outstretched hand. J.R. drank it straight down and handed the empty glass back to his wife.

“Stay with the fluids,” Dr. Clark told them. “Rest as much as you need to. I’ll send Shannon over here in the morning. But  make sure to call me if there’s any change through the night.”

“Thank you doctor,” Betsy said. “We will.”

She followed him out of the bedroom and showed him to the front door. J.R. heard him walk down the front steps, get into his old pickup and drive away.

Betsy returned and sat on the edge of the bed. “You hungry?” she asked.

J.R. shook his head no. 

Betsy took his hand and noticed his fingers were still pruny. “That’s strange that your skin would still be like this. It’s been an hour since you were in the bath.”

J.R. held his hand in front of his face and studied the raisin-like skin on his fingertips and down the shaft of his fingers into his palm.

“Juliette called,” Betsy said. “She said she’s getting a promotion at work. Vice President of Marketing and Operations. Isn’t that wonderful? Our daughter. Such a hard worker, she is.”

J.R. managed a smile. But he was so tired. He closed his eyes.

Betsy bent over and kissed his forehead. “I didn’t tell her that you were sick, dear. She just wanted to let us know her news. Get some more rest. I’ll fill up your glass.”

Betsy left, and soon J.R. was again asleep. He dreamed of fire and smoke, of a relentless sun that sucked up all the moisture from the Earth, every last drop. All the plants and animals shriveled and died, their carcasses baking under the heat of the sun and eventually turning to dust.

When he woke it was morning, and he was again drenched in sweat. The sheets were soaked; the water glass beside his bed was empty.

His eyelids felt heavy as he scanned the room. He tried to call for Betsy, but no voice sounded when he opened his mouth. He tried clearing his throat and calling again, but it was of no use.

J.R. rolled to his side, his bare back slowly pulled away from the sticky sheet as he moved. He heard a knock at the front door, and the quick steps of his wife coming to answer it.

A few moments later, Shannon, the nurse from Dr. Clark’s office was standing at his bedside with a caddy of equipment in her left hand.

“Good morning J.R.,” she said with a smile. He had known this girl since she was a baby, and now she was all grown up, married with three kids. Her husband worked for the USDA office in town.

“I hear you’re not feeling so well,” she said.

Betsy had brought in a chair from the dining room and set it next to the bed. Shannon thanked her and took a seat. “Any change from last night?” she asked, seeking an answer from either J.R. or Betsy.

J.R. again tried to speak, but couldn’t make any sounds.

“That’s new,” said Betsy, coming closer to sit on the foot of the bed. “He could talk last night. And he’s looking a little yellow.”

“Hmmm, OK,” said Shannon, taking J.R.’s hand in hers. “Everything’s going to be OK. I’m just going to need to draw a little blood, take your vitals and I’ll be on my way.”

She shuffled through her caddy and pulled out a tourniquet.

“Make a fist,” she directed.

J.R. tried his best. His hand slowly curled in.

“As best as you can,” Shannon said, tying the rubber band around his bicep.

Betsy patted her husband’s lower leg beneath the blanket.

Shannon took a new syringe out of plastic wrapping and pulled the cap off with her teeth. “This is going to pinch a little,” she warned. 

She stuck the needle into the crease of his inner elbow and began to draw the syringe back. It started to fill up with blood, the same dark, viscous blood that had come from J.R.’s nose the night before.

“Huh, that’s funny,” Shannon said, looking closer at the blood in the vial of the syringe. “Are you dehydrated J.R.? Has he been taking in a lot of fluid Mrs. Dyke?”

“He’s been drinking a lot of water and lemonade lately,” Betsy said. “I suppose more than normal.”

Shannon allowed the vial to fill all the way, then swiftly removed the needle from his arm and placed a cotton swab upon the puncture. “There,” she said. “Hold that steady for a few minutes.”

The nurse placed the vial of blood back in her caddy. She grabbed a long stick with a bit of cotton on the end and told J.R. to open wide. He stretched open his mouth and she stuck the stick into the side of his mouth, and swabbed the inside of his cheek. She placed the swab inside an empty container and back in the caddy.

“OK, let’s take your temperature,” she said, pulling out a thermometer and sticking it in his ear. It beeped a few times, and she recorded his temperature on a piece of paper. Then she took his blood pressure with an electronic device, recorded the readout on the same piece of paper.

There was another knock at the door and Betsy excused herself to answer it. She returned to the bedroom with two men trailing behind her. One was Paul Farnsworth, the other was Sheriff Jones.

“Heard you were sick,” Paul said, moving in closer to the bed. “I’m so sorry to hear. Just wanted to give you an update on the water situation.”

J.R. looked at him and waved his hand, beckoning the information.

“He can’t talk right now,” Betsy apologized.

Shannon stood up and gathered her caddy. “I’m all done here. I’ll see myself out. Mrs. Dyke, the doctor will be in touch shortly.”

Shannon left the room, Betsy followed her with her eyes then turned her attention back to her husband, who struggled to swallow. She grabbed his empty water glass from beside the bed and left to refill it.

“The well is overflowing if you’ve ever seen it,” Paul said. His eyes were wide, and he shuffled his feet almost in a little jig. “It’s crazy, J.R. It’s like the 500-year flood out there. The pipes are leaking, the ground is soaked. There’s a little puddle forming all around it. Your plants are looking great.”

“I think it’s time to talk about a plan,” the sheriff cut in. He took a seat at the chair by the bed. J.R. followed him with his eyes. “I’m sorry you’re under the weather J.R. But this is an urgent situation. We’d like your input before we take it into our own hands.”

J.R. tried to clear his throat, and he coughed. He spit into his hand a phlegmy wad of spittle and wiped it on the bottom sheet.

Betsy returned with his water and handed it to him. He took a long sip and nodded in appreciation at his wife.

“He’s not talking today,” Betsy told the visitors again. “Maybe he can write his thoughts for you?”

She opened a drawer in the nightstand and pulled out a small pad of paper and a pen and handed it to her husband.

“Thank you Betsy,” the sheriff said. He leaned in closer to J.R., and Paul came up right behind the chair and rested one hand on its wooden back. “All we’re asking is for some sort of civilized sharing opportunity, here, J.R. Nothing complicated.”

“If we can get some water trucks to fill up and start irrigating some of the fields nearby, we’d all be incredibly grateful. It could save our whole crop from devastation this harvest. It could save our livelihoods,” Paul said.

J.R. eyed both of them and took the pen to the paper. He slowly scrawled a response and handed the notebook to the sheriff. He read it and held it up to Paul’s eye level.

“You want reimbursement?” Paul gasped. “You know we have nothing to give, and you have paid nothing for this water. For some reason your well has become productive again. No one knows why. No one really cares at this point. We just need water, and we need it now. You’ve got it, and you have no means to stop us from taking it.”

“What Paul means to say,” the sheriff said calmly, “is you’ve got more than enough. It’s down right bursting from your pipes and beginning to flood your field. Why let all that water go to waste? Being neighborly, being Christian, it’s the right thing to do. We have a plan to line up the county’s fleet of water tanks and after they’re filled, give each farm an allotment. We believe your water surplus will more than cover their needs and yours. Your cotton is looking great, J.R. It’s time to do your part for the community.”

He handed the notebook back to J.R., who was staring through them. His mind was elsewhere, back in his field, imagining what a bumper cotton crop would mean to him and his family this year. Surely, it would save he and Betsy from selling off farm equipment to keep afloat. The kids didn’t need any financial help, but what about any inheritance. What about the legacy of the farm itself?

J.R. picked up the pen and started writing. He handed the notebook back to the sheriff, whose eyes darted across the page as he read. He handed the notebook to Paul in silence.

“We can work with that,” Paul said.

“J.R. you’re doing a great thing for everyone in the county,” said the sheriff. He handed the notebook back to J.R. and stood up. “I’ll discuss the details with Betsy on our way out.”

Betsy followed them out of the bedroom and they closed the door behind them.  J.R. could hear them discussing the matter, though their voices were muffled through the door.

He nodded off again, and when he awoke, Dr. Clark was tapping on his arm. “Wake up, J.R., wake up.”

J.R. took a huge inhale and coughed out his exhale. Betsy handed him a handkerchief.

“J.R.,” the doctor continued in a low tone. “We’re going to put an I.V. of saline into your arm. You’re extremely dehydrated. It’s a peculiar thing, maybe because it’s so hot, but you really need fluids. I think this is where the extreme fatigue and perspiration is coming from. But at this point, we’re not going to bring you in to the hospital. I think you’re better off here where Betsy can check on you, and I’ll come back tomorrow.”

Dr. Clark outfitted J.R. with a big clear bag of saline dripping through a plastic tube into his arm. He gave some words of encouragement to Betsy and left.

“I made the soup,” Betsy said. “Want some?”

J.R. smiled and wrote on the notebook YES. Then he closed his eyes and returned to the lure of sleep.

When he woke the sun was high in the sky, and Betsy had set a bowl of soup on the nightstand. He could hear a rumbling coming from deep in the field. It must be the water trucks, he thought, trying to sit up in bed. He had no strength. He couldn’t even roll over to get the bowl of soup.

Betsy came in. He could see the worry in her eyes. She wiped her hands on her apron and brought the soup bowl to him, but he couldn’t reach out to grab it. So she spoon-fed it to him. He had a hard time swallowing, but eventually, the bowl was empty.

“They’ve come to take the water,” Betsy said. “Everyone is so grateful. You’d think it was the Fourth of July out there. People have been bringing over pies and jam. We’re doing the right thing. We really are.”

Betsy slid her hand along her husband’s arm. It felt strange, and she dropped her gaze to take a look. The skin along his entire arm was puckered, as if someone had squeezed out his insides. She audibly gasped.

J.R. looked at her, and his eyes widened. He still couldn’t find the strength to move. Betsy threw the covers off him and noticed his legs were shriveled like his arm. His other arm, also. She felt his legs with both hands and ran them all over his body. She could feel his bones through his skin, as if his muscles had disintegrated. He was wasting away.

She put her hands to her lips and reached for the phone near the bed. “I’m calling Dr. Clark, this just doesn’t look right.”

Betsy stared at her husbands withering body as she waited for the doctor to answer.

“Dr. Clark, oh thank God you answered. J.R., his body. It’s…it’s all shriveled. And he can’t speak. 

He can barely swallow. Something’s very wrong. Should I call an ambulance?”

“I’ll be right over,” the doctor said.

“Thank you, thank you. Come quick.”

Betsy hung up the phone and grabbed J.R.’s hand. It was cold and wrinkled.

There was a knock on the front door.

“I’ll be right back, honey. I’ll just send them away, I’ll be right back.”

There was panic in her voice as she rose to answer the door. Instead of shooing the visitor away, Betsy returned to the bedroom with Paul Farnsworth in tow. “He insisted,” she said, moving to quickly cover her husband’s shrunken body with the sheets.

“Oh J.R., I can’t even tell you what is going on out there, well I can, but it’s unbelievable. Hey, what the? You look like hell, friend.” Paul sat down on the chair beside the bed and took J.R.’s hand. “What is going on with you? You look like a raisin!”

J.R. just blinked at his neighbor.

“The doctor will be here any moment,” Betsy said. Her voice trembled, and she walked around to the other side of the bed and lay next to her husband. “Tell J.R. about the water, Paul. It might do him good to hear about it.”

“Right. Well, we filled all twelve of the county’s water trucks. That’s twelve, 2,000-gallon tanks! 24,000 gallons of water, J.R. Your well continues to produce. Even after we filled all the trucks, all that water. It’s just so hard to believe. Truly an act of God, here. What else could it be? We’d like to fill the trucks again tomorrow morning. That is, if it’s OK with you.”

Paul looked at J.R. and then at Betsy, then back to J.R. But J.R. was unresponsive. Only his eyes moved, from the ceiling to Paul and back. They looked rheumy now.

“And I’ve got to tell you that your cotton has not only bounced back, but it has begun to take on new shoots. You’ll have a bumper crop this year for sure,” Paul said, his hands waving in the air.

Betsy squeezed J.R.’s hand. “He’s having a hard day,” she told Paul. “But as long as the well continues to produce as it has been doing we see no problem in refilling the twelve trucks tomorrow. It’s the least we can do.”

“People are filling their water storage tanks again. They are smiling, J.R., smiling! All of our prayers have been answered. They’re calling you a messenger from God!”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and be blasphemous,” Betsy cautioned. “While it truly is a miraculous occurrence, this water, we can’t be calling ourselves prophets or anything of that nature.”

J.R. blinked. He remembered something, but wasn’t sure what. Something deep in his mind assured him that it was his fault. But what did he do? It might be all a dream, after all. He could wake up any moment from this dream and it would be back to normal. No water, failing crops, loss of hope.

“The sheriff is talking about throwing a parade in your honor, calling it Water Hero’s Day and having you ride into town on top of a fire truck and everything. You don’t know how much you’ve restored to us, J.R., “Paul said. “Anyway, I won’t take any more of your time. Looks like you need your rest. I’ll be back tomorrow with an update.”

Paul grabbed J.R.’s hand, looked at it askew for a moment and then squeezed it.

“Get well, my friend,” he said and left the house.

Ten minutes later Dr. Clark entered the bedroom. Betsy pulled back the sheets, which were soaked again.

Dr. Clark felt J.R.’s legs with both of his hands. He squeezed the thighs, the shins, the calves, rotated the ankles and pressed on the feet. He checked the bag of saline, still half full, and increased the drip rate.

“I’ve never seen a case of dehydration this severe,” he told Betsy softly. “We might need to transfer him to Fresno. He continues to perspire and soak the sheets. It’s like every ounce of water we fill him with comes back out and then some almost immediately. He’s not retaining anything.”

Dr. Clark shined his pen light into J.R.’s eyes, noticing their cloudy appearance. “Stick out your tongue, J.R.,” he said, and with a tongue depressor examined the top and bottom of his tongue and looked down his throat.

“He’s weak because of the dehydration. I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts hallucinating. But, I know you both would rather be here in your home, so I’ll let him stay here through the night. But Betsy, remain close by. If anything changes, you call me and we’ll get him up to the hospital right away.”

The doctor left, and Besty began to cry. She lay back on the bed next to J.R. and cried as he fell asleep again.

He started dreaming of sand. Black sand. Black earth. Bright lights. An ocean. Darkness. A ship steaming across the sea, guided by a lighthouse in the distance. It was peaceful, serene.

When he woke, his room was filled with light. Still unable to move, now he could not make out any objects, just light and shadow. He could hear rumbling outside of the water trucks gathering the liquid gold from the well pump and taking it out to the road and beyond. He heard Betsy’s voice, comforting him. He felt her warm touch on his forehead.

“Good morning,” she was saying.

For all he knew, this could be his last morning on this plane of existence.

Betsy stroked his arm and was surprised to find his skin rubbing off at her touch. She called Dr. Clark and told him the new development. He said he would take him personally to the hospital and was coming right over.

When he arrived, his nurse, Shannon, was in tow. They both wore expressions of urgency.

The doctor, now gloved, ran a moist towel along J.R.’s left arm. When he pulled the towel away, he examined it and found little strips of skin and hair stuck to it. “Curious,” he told Shannon. “Very curious.”

Shannon replaced the saline bag with a new one and increased the drip to the maximum.
“Should we move him now?” she asked.

“Let’s try,” he said. “You get the right side, I’ll get the left. Betsy, can you grab the saline bag? Follow us as we walk.”

Shannon took J.R.’s left arm to sling it around her shoulder, but she heard a crack and noticed that the humorous had snapped in half. J.R. didn’t flinch. She set the arm back on the bed. “Doctor, look at this.”

Dr. Clark gasped. Betsy screamed, then covered her mouth with her hands, as if she had been caught in a compromising position.

“I’ll be damned,” Dr. Clark said. “His arm just broke in half.”

J.R. blinked slowly. He hadn’t felt a thing. In fact, he couldn’t feel anything in his body anymore. It was if he was floating, touching nothing but air.

“Let’s not try to move him,” the doctor continued. “I’m calling an ambulance.”

He pulled out his cell phone and dialed 9-1-1.

“They’ll be here in five minutes,” he said.

Betsy looked at her husband. Tears blurred her vision, but she could see his shriveled skin, which looked as if it was sucking all the life from his bones. She took a post at the head of the bed, but couldn’t bring herself to touch her husband for fear she would hurt him.

Shannon whispered to Dr. Clark, and he nodded.

“Betsy,” he said. “You don’t have to be here to watch this. I’m not sure what’s going to happen when the paramedics arrive.”

“No, I need to stay,” she said, shifting on her feet to stand taller.

Dr. Clark put his stethoscope to his ears and said he wanted to listen to J.R.’s heartbeat. He bent over his patient and put the round metal scope to J.R.’s chest. He moved it slowly from one point to another. Wherever he placed it, the scope made a small indentation in the skin.

“I can barely hear a beat,” he said, standing up straight and facing the wife. “Betsy, we might need to prepare for the worst. To be honest, I have never seen anything like this before. Such severe dehydration leading to bone fracturing, peeling skin and severe muscle atrophy. It’s incredible.”

Betsy trembled, and held on to the wall for support. Shannon came up beside her and wrapped her arm around the woman.

“Does he have any written instructions for death? I hate to bring this up, because we just don’t know, but have you discussed with him what he would want?”

Betsy shook her head, and tears began to roll down her cheeks. “We…we have a will somewhere in the files. But it’s more than 30 years old, and we never talked about…death. Not in that way.”

There was a pounding on the front door, and Dr. Clark raced to answer it and let the paramedics in. He showed them to the bedroom, explaining to them the tricky situation.

“We must be extremely careful here. His bones are very brittle, and his skin is, well, how do you say… it’s loose.”

The paramedics, two young men dressed in dark blue coveralls, looked at J.R. wide-eyed. “We’ll need to get the gurney,” one said to the other. They both left momentarily.

Betsy, knowing this was her last moment to keep her husband comfortable in his own bed, spoke up.

“We should keep him here. If he’s going to die soon, we should let him die here. That’s what he’d want. Not in a hospital bed. Not in a hospital room. He’d want to die here, in his bed, in the house he built for us, for his family. I’ve got to call the kids.”

Betsy began to sob. Her body quaked, and Shannon pulled her into a tight embrace.

“If that’s what you really think he’d want,” Shannon said softly. “We can monitor him here.”

“Betsy,” Dr. Clark said, “a hospital will have specialists. Doctors who can possibly treat him and make him better. Don’t you want to give him the best chance?”

Betsy looked up. Her eyes were red and her cheeks flushed. “Do you think he can get better? He’s wasting away in front of our eyes.”

“I don’t know, honestly. I just don’t know.”

The paramedics returned with the gurney. “Are we ready?” one asked the doctor.

“Fellas, we aren’t sure he’s going with you after all. Can you wait for a few minutes in the other room?”

The paramedics left the room, and the doctor approached the bed and sat beside his patient. He took his index and middle fingers to J.R.’s wrist and felt for a pulse. As he did that, he felt a crack, and noticed that J.R.’s hand had fallen limp. “Crap!” Dr. Clark said.

Shannon and Betsy rushed over. “His wrist broke.”

“Doctor,” Shannon whispered and pointed to J.R.’s left leg, “look what’s happening over here.”

The doctor moved down the edge of the bed to find that J.R.’s skin had begun to flake off in small granules, looking like dark brown sand. It was piling up all along the length of his leg.

“He’s barely breathing,” Betsy noticed. She came around to the other side of the bed. “If this is it, I just want to lie with him.”

Dr. Clark came up J.R.’s chest to hear his breathing and placed his hand on his chest. The breathing was so shallow his chest hardly rose and fell.

J.R., floating in his body, beyond his body, began to distance himself from the others in the room. He started to hear the wind rushing through the leaves of the eucalyptus trees at the front of the property. Those trees, the quick-growing, shade-providing transplants that his grandfather planted for firewood in the ‘30s, had grown more than 80 feet tall. J.R. soared above the trees and saw the county’s water trucks returning to his property for another refill from the water pump. The trucks kicked up dust clouds as they moved down the dirt road.

J.R. turned east and found a crowd surrounding the water pump. He noticed the cotton plants, green leaved and voluptuous, with great white tufts of cotton poking every which way. At least two dozen people crowded around the pump, and as the trucks pulled in they cleared the way.

He watched Paul Farnsworth and the sheriff direct the trucks and connect their hoses to the pump. He watched men hug their wives, their faces hopeful.

In the distance, the sun was arcing toward the Pacific Ocean, casting a golden light on the Central Valley. The air smelled sweet with the faint scent of water.

J.R.’s body lay motionless in his marriage bed. Betsy sat up with her back against the headboard, afraid to touch her husband for fear he would break in her hand. The doctor and his nurse conferred at the end of the bed, and the paramedics waited in the living room for instructions.

J.R. finally closed his eyes. Betsy turned to him and noticed he had changed.

“Doctor,” she called.

Dr. Clark and Shannon came to the head of the bed. The doctor felt for a pulse, and pressed his stethoscope on the farmer’s sunken chest.

“I can’t find a beat,” he said.

Shannon, using her own stethoscope switched places with the doctor and listened herself. “Neither can I.”

Betsy gasped. “Oh God,” she cried.

J.R. let out a rattle from deep in his chest, a final exhale. And at once the flesh turned to sand, the bones disintegrated, the organs evaporated, and all that had once been a man made of 65 percent water had been reduced to a pile of fine, dark sand as dry as the Sahara.

Yelling came from the fields. Howling cries, and running and more shouting. “The water is gone! The well’s run dry! The miracle is over! Send the trucks home!”
J.R. watched from above as the crowd around the well dispersed. The trucks were driven back to the county lot from where they’d come, and the farmers and their wives returned to their pickups and drove home. When the flurry of activity died down, one man remained at the site of the miracle. It was Paul Farnsworth. His cap was pulled down on his head, nearly covering his eyes. And then he turned his gaze upward, almost directly where J.R. hovered, and gave a wink.

Kicking at the dirt, Paul turned and walked toward the old house to pay his respects to Betsy.

Written by Shoshana Hebshi

About our author: This is Shoshana's third year contributing to October Ghosts. We've known each other a "score" going back to our dorm days at Cal Poly: San Luis Obispo when we were but wee children. Since that time, Shoshi has been a very dear partner-in-crime when it comes to cooking up strange and spooky stories. Originally from San Diego, Shoshi has called California her home for many, many years - but up until a few years ago - Shoshi, her husband and twin boys moved out into the great Midwest residing in both Iowa and Ohio. It's from this Midwestern living that I believe helped inspire Shoshi to write "Parched." And although she loved complaining about the Iowa/Ohio weather 90% of the time in order to "relish those truly nice days," Shoshi and her family recently moved back to California and reside somewhere up north in Wine Country with all the rest of the Grateful Dead-Loving-Hippies. As you can tell from reading this story, Shoshi has a deliciously wicked mind and I'm thrilled that she wrote "Parched" exclusively for October Ghosts. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Parched (by guest contributor Shoshana Hebshi)

John Ramos Dyke shuffled across the sandy expanse of his field. The rows of spindly cotton plants baked in the heat, their leaves brown and wilted, their branches stunted. They were on the brink.

J.R., as most in the county called him, knelt down to fondle the poor plant. He could not support it any more. There was nothing to do. Even his tears, which now rolled down his sun-weathered cheeks would not quench this plant’s thirst.

He palmed the earth and squeezed. Grabbing a fistful of dry, sandy soil, he clenched it, then let his hand go slack. The soil slipped through the gaps between his fingers.

It was October, harvest. J.R. looked around at the expanse of his once-productive cotton field. Shriveled, sad plants arranged in neat rows stretched for acres across the valley. He wiped a tear with the back of his hand and rested his hips on his heels.

In the distance, he saw a swirling eddy of sand and dirt rise up and dance in the wind. Above, the sky was a hazy blue, no clouds in sight. A turkey vulture soared overhead, its immense wingspan wobbling as uncertainly as J.R.’s hopes for a decent crop.

It hadn’t rained in nine months. Nine months and 13 days, to be exact. January 17. A month normally providing the most rain to this parched land. It rained enough to calm the dust storms, but the low, winter sun still clung to enough energy to suck that water right up. Everyone is thirsty these days. Especially the sun.

J.R. could hear the hum of Paul Farnsworth’s tractor a few miles east. He must be digging up more dead trees, J.R. thought. He pictured the scene: a backhoe digging up gnarled roots, excavated from the thin soil, their work finished, their lives of production, of providing, was through.

J.R. struggled to find a deep breath. His chest felt constricted, though his heart raced. His shirt was wet with perspiration.

“This is it,” he thought.

He clutched his left arm, starting to feel light in the head. His vision blurred. His legs trembled. He fell from his knees, chest to the ground and tried to catch a breath.

He clawed at the dusty land, hoping maybe out of all the love, sweat, money, time, he had invested in these 500 acres, the history of three generations of Dyke men and women who made this land a place to call home, a place to change destinies, a place with a dry well, a place that drove away his children, who knew their lives would only improve by leaving the Central Valley for places with more pavement and more water.

As John Jr., his eldest, left for college at the University of Washington, he left his work boots in his closet, tucked neatly beneath a row of folded and faded Levi’s and sweat-stained ball caps. He was a bio-engineer now. Researching gene cells or something of that nature. Something so far beyond the needs of his family’s legacy in Fresno County. A homestead being swallowed by the relentless sun, and those greedy politicians in Congress, who shut off the water. They left us all to die, J.R. thought, now, his lips to the earth, gasping for breath.

The ground rumbled. It shook so hard, it made J.R.—still in his fit—raise his head from the ground. Still struggling to breathe, J.R. wheezed as he noticed a growing fissure between the dead rows of cotton plants. The jagged crack opened into a dark, cunning earth. The crack sped toward him. It moved too fast for J.R. to react by rolling to the side. Instead, the crack opened up wider and raced forward. It swallowed the old farmer, and he fell.

Like Alice down the Rabbit Hole, J.R. tumbled and rolled. Nothing broke his fall. It was darkness and cold. It happened too fast for him to worry. He fell further. Light from above shrank away until it was no more than a pinprick, and then nothing.

J.R. smelled the rich dankness of the deep, dark earth—a once-familiar smell he now remembered how much he had missed.

He landed with a thud on a bed of soft sand. Its silkiness reminded him of the fine black sand he had felt between his toes during his daughter’s wedding on Maui. Kids were so entitled these days, he thought, though the memory of Juliette’s wedding brought a smile to his lips. And he realized he was breathing again. 

No pain. No tightness. He was alive. Or was he?

Maybe this was heaven.

Pitch-black heaven.

J.R. rolled to his side and pushed himself up to stand. He couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. He held out his arms to find walls, or anything to help him navigate his surroundings.
He remembered an old pack of matches he kept on the inside fold of his cap. They were there for those rare occasions when Paul Farnsworth would stop by for a smoke. He hoped the matches hadn’t been compromised by sweat.

He removed his cap, an old tribute to his Navy battalion in ‘Nam. The sweat band was wet, and he ran a calloused finger along the inside flap to find the matches. The paper book was damp, but inside the matches felt dry. He figured if a blind man could play the piano, he could light a match in the blackness of this hole, or wherever he was.

Carefully, J.R. ripped off one cardboard match, flipped back the paper cover to form a sandwich around the flammable nub of the match and lightly traced it along the paper to find the rough strip to scratch the head.

He pulled. No spark. No flame. Pulled again. Nothing. He tossed the match and felt the book to count his matches.

Six. They all felt dry. He tore another from the pack and pulled it across the rough strip. He saw a few sparks fly, but no flame came. He pulled it across again. And again. Nothing.
He tossed the match and grabbed another.

Third time’s a charm, he thought, the tip of his tongue reaching for the outer corner of his mouth.

He closed his eyes, not that it mattered, and pulled the match. He heard the hiss and sizzle, and opened his eyes to small but true flame. It danced in the darkness. He held it up to eye level and smiled.

The light was small, and as J.R. passed the flame across his armspan hoping to get a sense of his surroundings, noting of significance became visible. J.R. turned slowly as to not disturb the flame.

“Hello?” he called into the darkness. “Anyone down here?”

Silly, he thought, that anyone could have fallen into this hole with him. No one had been around when the crack opened up. Except perhaps Paul Farnsworth.

The bottom of the flame traced the length of the cardboard match and began to heat the two fingers that held it. J.R. ripped another match from the book and lit it with the existing flame. For a moment, right before he shook out the old flame, the light doubled and he could see a form of something, an outline in the darkness, just ahead.

“Who’s there?” he called in the same voice he had used when he would discipline his children. He hadn’t heard that tone come out in more than a decade and was surprised by his audacity. Scolding a silhouette.

J.R. held the match out farther ahead of him, as long as his arm could take it. The flame flickered, and J.R. felt a faint breeze against the left side of his body.

He turned to face it, but saw nothing.

He fumbled for another match, but dropped the matchbook to the ground. His reflexes caused his body to lurch downward to retrieve the matches, but he quickly stopped, his body bent halfway down, knowing the effort was futile.

He stood up straight again, noticing the flame creeping down the middle of the cardboard that fueled it. He didn’t have much time left.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, his voice softening. He thought he’d try a different approach. “I don’t even know where I am.”

Another light breeze rose up. This time it sent a chill down the back of his neck. J.R. turned around to follow the breeze, and as he did, the flame burned his fingers and he dropped the match, watching it go out as it hit the sandy floor.
He gulped.

Dark again.

“My name’s John, John Ramos Dyke,” he said, his eyes darting around hoping to find a bit of light somewhere. “But most folks just call me J.R., which is kinda funny if you grew up with the whole ‘Dallas’ thing. My wife was sure into that. I’m not anything like that J.R. though.”

J.R. stopped talking for a moment, thinking he was talking in the dark to himself. He became confused and wondered if he was dreaming. He felt the bill of his cap and pulled the hat off his head to feel his forehead, which became longer each year it seemed. Beads of sweat had formed on his head, and he wiped them away with the palm of his hand and then dragged his palm across the seat of his jeans.

“Sheeesh!” he let out a big sigh. “Where the hell am I?”

He felt a tug around his waist, and then a force dragging him backward. He struggled against it at first, working to pry the embrace from his body and digging his feet into the ground to counteract the force pulling him back, but it was all moot. His efforts futile. He succumbed to whatever it was and was being dragged somewhere.

“Let me go!” J.R. screamed, working to kick his arms and legs. He couldn’t feel a form behind him, just a force as if a magnet was pulling him.

The force dragged him for a few minutes then released his six-foot frame with a thud on the soft sand.

J.R. writhed on the ground, working to catch his breath. It was still pitch black.

“Whoever, or whatever, you are, make yourself known!” he shouted in anger. “I’m too old for games. Show yourself!”

There was a flash of light, and the ground rumbled. J.R. clutched the sand, as if it would lend him support. He brought his knees to his chest.

An orb of light appeared in front of him. It was small and faint, the size of a pea, he thought. He watched it curiously.

It began to grow, and soon it was the size of a fist and brighter. It began to illuminate the space around him, and J.R. looked around to see if he could make out his surroundings. But mostly he kept his gaze fixed on the orb, which continued to grow steadily larger and brighter.

J.R. could feel heat emanating from the orb, and its warm, glowing light drew his gaze deeper. He reached out to touch the orb, but it evaded his hand by slyly darting to the side. J.R. lowered his hand and stared.

“John…” he heard his name being whispered. The sound seemed to come from all around. Surround sound.

He turned is head every which way, but could not see anyone, though the orb was casting enough light now that he could make out the walls of the hole. He was in an earthen room, about the size of his tractor shed. The walls and the floor were made of the same dark earth, though the ground was still a fine sand.

The voice sounded his name again, this time a little louder, and as it spoke, John felt a cool breeze across the back of his neck. He rubbed it with his palm, then touched the brim of his cap.

The orb now was the size of a basketball, and its light was brightening to the extent that John needed to squint when he looked at it.

The orb began to pulsate as it grew larger, and the wind picked up around J.R. It ruffled the sleeves of his t-shirt and chilled the skin on the back of his neck.

“Who are you?” J.R. demanded. “What do you want?”

“John…” a soft voice called. It came from deep within the orb. It was a feminine voice, but wispy. “John Ramos Dyke.”

“That’s my God-given name. Who wants to know? Where am I?”

“You’ve entered the Ninth Realm,” the voice continued. The orb pulsed as it spoke, glowing brighter as it enlarged and dimmer as it contracted. It made no sound, other than the strange voice it emitted. “We’ve come to your crossroads.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” J.R. said. He pulled his cap down farther on his head. “This must be some sort of dream.”

J.R. pinched his forearm, but he only felt the pain. He was wide awake.

“Here you have just two choices,” the orb continued without missing a beat. “You must choose between life and death. What is it, John Ramos Dyke, that you want most of all? What do you desire?”

J.R. stared into the white light and imagined his farm. His dying crops. He saw his children living luxurious lives in distant cities, using their college degrees as shields against the trials of nature. He pictured his wife, Betsy, worried about his disappearance, calling all the neighbors and the Sheriff’s department, wondering where he could have been. She’d never know to check beneath the earth.

What did he want most in life? It was a question he’d never considered. Life was always what you did, not what you wanted. You completed the tasks at hand, what was placed before you. You didn’t ask for handouts. You didn’t look for another path. He felt his father’s heavy hand on his shoulder, and at once he was 10 years old again. “J.R.,” his father said, pressing into his shoulder and bending down to meet his son at eye-level, “this is not an easy life for a man, but it’s a life that has chosen you as much as you have chosen it. Always remember that this is your legacy. You live for the land, and the land lives for you.”

J.R. was surprised to find tears running down his cheeks. He knew he was ruined. And as clear as the cloudless sky that he’d been born under 67 years before, he knew his deepest desire.
“I want my family and my farm to be safe. I want water.”

“Very well,” said the orb. “Choices carry consequences. Are you prepared to face them?”

J.R. held his hands out in front of his face. He saw the caked lines of yellow dirt in the creases of his palm, his life line, his love line, all the other, less prominent lines that made him who he was.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Whatever it takes. Save us. Please. Please. Save us.”
The orb grew even larger and brighter, now it began to hum in the manner of fluorescent lights. It sounded like an electric transformer.

J.R. closed his eyes and covered his face with his palms. He shook all over and let the light ensconce him. His whole world became that hum. It was warm and soothing. For the first time in many years, J.R. felt at peace. His breathing slowed, the muscles in his face relaxed.
He lowered his hands from his face and stared at the light. It made him smile.

And then in an instant, as if he had never left, he was back on his farm, lying face down in the dirt.

His cell phone was ringing in the back pocket of his jeans.

He pushed himself to his knees and reached around to dig out the small flip phone. As he held it in his hand, noticing his home number displayed on the small screen, he felt relieved. If he remembered correctly, he hadn’t felt this content since the day Betsy came home with his baby son from the hospital. His first-born, his heir.

“Betsy, I’m OK,” he answered the phone. “Just finishing up out here. Be home in five minutes.”

J.R. closed the phone and returned it to his back pocket. He stood, and noticed the sun was lowering in the western sky. It cast long shadows of the wasted cotton plants along the parched land. The night would bring relief to these poor plants, and the morning would bring a new day.

When J.R. swung open the screen door to the back porch, he could smell dinner and hear Betsy’s radio program on in the kitchen. His heart heaved and he strolled in to take her in his arms.

She gasped when she felt his arms around her waist from the back, but turned around and returned the embrace.

“Everything’s going to be fine,” J.R. whispered in her ear. He could smell the residue of Ivory soap on her skin, mixed with the sweat of the day and her unforgettable scent.

They ate her pork chops, potatoes and green beans without many words between them. An easy feeling of lifelong companionship filled the void where conversation may have intruded otherwise.

That night, J.R. seemed to fall asleep before his head hit the pillow, and his dreams were full of happiness.

In the morning, he woke up with an unbelievable thirst. The interior walls of his mouth felt like sandpaper, and his tongue felt like a dry sausage. Even his throat was dry.

He rolled over to find the water cup that Betsy always set out beside the bed, but it was empty. She must have forgotten to refill it, he thought. As he worked to push himself out of bed, he noticed the sheets were wet from perspiration. His clean t-shirt, also soaking wet, and his boxer shorts wet around the waist.

It hadn’t been a particularly warm night, and they slept with the fan going.

He wandered into the bathroom to relieve himself, but only a faint trickle landed in the toilet. He washed his hands in the sink and splashed water on his face. When he rose to look at himself in the mirror above the sink, he noticed his eyes were bloodshot, though he felt more rested than he’d felt in years.

He rubbed his eyes with his fists and looked again. The light blue of his irises pierced through the tiny jagged lines of red mapping out his cornea.

Looking for Betsy, he walked into the kitchen. A warm plate of scrambled eggs and bacon was placed at his chair at the table with a note scrawled in his wife’s fine hand alerting her husband to her whereabouts: the women’s auxiliary meeting at church until 10 and there was hot coffee in the pitcher.

The house phone rang, and J.R. moved across the kitchen to the far wall where the old phone was mounted on the wall near the refrigerator.

“Hello?” he answered.

“J.R., man, you’ve gotta get out and see your field! It’s a goddamn miracle!”

It was Paul Farnsworth’s voice on the other end, though talking rapidly one octave higher than usual. He sounded like he’d seen a leprechaun at the end of the rainbow.

“Paul, what are you talking about? Slow down!”

“Just get yourself out to your field. I’m near the well pump.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

J.R. hung up the phone and peered out the window, he couldn’t see much. His eyes itched.

He reached for a mug hanging on a hook on the wall and filled it with coffee. Sipping on it, he noticed how thirsty he was, and filled another glass with water from the tap. He emptied that glass in one gulp, then filled it again from the sink and downed it.

He set the glass in the sink and returned to the bedroom to find his clothes.

Paul Farnsworth was standing beside the water pump, a hulking mass of iron pipe at the edge of a field that bordered his own property on the southwest corner. When he saw J.R. approaching in his ATV, he took off his cap and waved it in the air.

J.R. pulled up and turned off the engine. “Well? What is it Paul? What’s the big deal? I haven’t even had breakfast yet!”

“Take a look at this meter,” Paul said.

J.R. leaned over one of the pipes to find a gauge. He looked even closer and blinked. “That can’t be right,” he said, tapping on the gauge with his index finger.

“That’s what I thought. But turn the spigot.”

J.R. walked around the side of the pump and found a little wheel that served to shut off or turn on the water. He started to turn it to the left, and to his amazement, water came gushing out of the spigot. He quickly turned the wheel to the right, and the flow stopped.

“I don’t believe it!” he said. “This well’s been dry for a year! Nothing but sand!”

“I know!” Paul said. “Do you see? It’s a God-given miracle, J.R. The Lord is having mercy on us.”

“How much water you think we’ve got in there?” J.R. asked, knowing his neighbor would not have an answer.

Paul shrugged as he smiled. “Maybe enough to get us through the season. Then in the winter we can conserve the water until spring planting.”

J.R. nodded in agreement. “Well, friend, time’s a’wasting! Let’s get the sprinklers turned on!”

The two farmers had the irrigation system up and running in less than an hour, and when they saw the water squirting out of the sprinklers and onto the dried up plants they both started laughing and patting each other on the back.

“Hallelujah!” Paul shouted, tossing his cap into the air.

Betsy peppered J.R. with questions that night over dinner, but he had no answers for her.

“Got any more of that lemonade, dear?” he asked, noticing he had just emptied the pitcher in front of him.

“I’ll make some more tomorrow,” Betsy said. “How long do you think this good fortune of ours will last? The ladies and I prayed about it for an hour today at church. It’s just so wonderful!”

“Keep up your praying, woman!” J.R. said. “It’s working.”

The next morning, the telephone woke J.R. As his eyes bolted open, he moved to push himself out of bed. But as he set his hands on the bed, he again noticed the sheets were wet. He felt his t-shirt, and it, too, was wet, just like the day before. He pulled the t-shirt off over his head and leaned over to grab the telephone from his nightstand.

“Hello?” he answered.

“J.R., it’s Roy Peterson, I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“Well, ya did, but it’s OK Roy. How are things going over there?”

“Oh fine, just fine. Well, you know, just as fine as everyone else. It’s hard to grow anything without water. But let me tell you, the reason why I’m calling. Millie heard from Betsy that your well’s full again. I tell you, J.R., that doesn’t just happen.”

“It’s the damndest thing,” J.R. said. “We had our sprinklers going all afternoon without a hitch!”

“That’s great to hear, really great,” Roy said. “Listen, you know we’ve all been in the same boat for quite some time now. We all have felt the real pain from this drought. And you know we all are pinching our pennies…”

J.R. knew what was coming next, though he dreaded his response.

Roy continued: “What if I were to send a truck over this morning and fill ‘er up with some of that water? My trees haven’t seen a drop in more than a month.”

J.R. stood up and walked out to the window, which provided a southern view of his fields. His mouth felt like a cotton ball. The sun was just getting high enough to illuminate the cotton. 

Most mornings, the light danced off the white tufts, almost sparkled as if the cotton was having its own morning party.

“I’d really like to help you out, Roy,” J.R. started. “I just don’t know how long this water, this miracle, is going to hold out. I could be dried up by this afternoon. Hell, I could go out there this morning and find a dry well.”

“Well, just you think about it,” Roy said. His voice was flat on the other end. “Think about all we’ve been through out here together. Any little bit would help.”

“I will,” J.R. said.

He hung up the phone and went to the bathroom. His urine again was just a trickle, and when he bent over the sink to wash, he noticed his fingers were pruned, as if he’d been sitting in the bath too long.

He examined his fingers a few moments, and then cupped his hands together. He passed them under the slow stream of water coming from the faucet and gathered enough to drink. He slurped again and again until he felt almost satiated. He rose to find his reflection in the mirror. His eyes were still bloodshot. The lines in his face seemed deeper, more pronounced.

Betsy was at the kitchen table, reading the paper and sipping on a steaming mug of coffee.
“Good morning, dear,” she cooed as her husband strolled in. “Want some coffee?”

J.R. shook his head and went straight to the cupboard to grab a water glass. He held it under the sink and filled it, then gulped the water down. After three more full glasses of water, he set the glass on the counter and turned to face his wife.

Betsy’s left eyebrow was raised in an expression J.R. knew she reserved for inquisitions.

“What is going on with you?” she demanded.

“I just woke up thirsty,” he said. “I’m fine now.”

“Are you hungry? I was going to make some eggs and toast.”

“No, dear. I’ve got to get out to the well. Check on it.”

“Millie Peterson and June Brown are coming over in a few hours to sit with me and pray,” she said.


“That’s right. Millie Peterson and June Brown. You rememeber the Browns, who live on Henry Road about 15 miles from here. Her husband has all that cattle? Leonard?”
"Dust Bowl Farm" by Dorothea Lange

“Sure, sure. Leonard Brown. They’re coming here?”

“Of course! It’s where the miracle happened isn’t it?”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Betsy.”

“The community just wants to help,” she said.

“Just keep them away from the well.”

J.R. pulled on his boots and headed toward the garage. He rode the ATV out to the well. As he drove down the dirt path, he saw figures in the distance. They were backlit by the rising sun, and they were surrounding the water pump.

As J.R. approached he began to recognize them. Paul Farnsworth and his wife Greta, their neighbor to the north Bobby Hightower and the Sherriff, Calvin Jones, with his wide-brimmed official hat.

“Morning!” Paul called, as J.R. dismounted his vehicle and walked over to the small crowd.

“Morning, Paul.” J.R.’s voice was hesitant and confused. “What are you all doing around my well?”

The sheriff looked at the others, then stepped forward to meet J.R., extending his hand. “Good to see you this morning, J.R.,” he said. He was in full uniform, his aviator sunglasses tucked into his chest pocket just below a gold name badge.

J.R. took his hand and nodded. “What’s going on Sheriff?”

“We just wanted to see what all the hoopla was about, J.R. Sorry to be trespassing and all. This is a cause for great measures!”

“True, it is,” J.R. said.

Bobby Hightower stepped forward to shake J.R.’s hand.

“It seems trite to call it a miracle, J.R., really. But damn! You’ve got yourself a flowing water pump! Do you know what this means?”

“Look at your plants today,” Paul said, also stepping forward and then motioning to the closest row of cotton plants. “They are perking up!”

“Should be ready for harvest,” Bobby added.

“Will you look at that?” J.R. said, crouching down to fondle the leaves of his crops. They felt less withered, less crunchy between his fingers. They had gotten a long, needed drink.

“There’s a lot to make up for,” Paul said. “And we could all really use some water right about now.”

J.R. stood up and faced his neighbors. He felt a tugging in his chest and a lump in his throat. The true tug-of-war of conflicted emotions.

“I’d like to help you, I really would,” J.R. began. “It’s just so, uh, you know, unpredictable. This water came into my pump yesterday like a gift from God. I have no idea how much is in there, how long it will last. If I give it away and it runs out we’re all back to square one.”

The sheriff stepped forward again. “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”

“Don’t be throwing the bible at me,” J.R. said. His face reddened. The lump in his throat grew.
“J.R.,” Paul said in a calm voice, “you have enough to share. We’re all dying out here. Think about your community.”

“That sounds like something my wife would say,” J.R. grunted.

“Just think about it,” the sheriff said. He put a heavy hand on J.R.’s shoulder. “The department will be more than happy to help facilitate and keep things in order.”

J.R. nodded. He squatted down again next to his plants and fingered the leaves once more. Paul walked over and crouched down next to his friend. “Think about it.”

Paul rose and led the others off J.R.’s land. They disappeared into the morning light.

J.R. grabbed a bottle of water from his ATV and drained it. He climbed back in and drove back to the house.

When he walked in through the back porch he heard voices from the adjacent kitchen. He entered to find his wife and three other women sitting around the table in deep conversation.
“Oh there you are!” Betsy said, standing up and pushing her chair to the side. “Look who stopped by?”

J.R. nodded at the women he faintly recognized as his wife’s auxiliary friends from church. “Good of you to come,” he managed. “Betsy, did you make any more of that lemonade?”

“It’s in the fridge, dear,” she said. “Would you ladies like some? Or sticking with coffee?”

“I’d love some lemonade,” said one of the women. “I haven’t had a glass of fresh lemonade in over a year. We used to have such a bounty from our trees. I had so many I didn’t know what to do with them, but it’s been so long without rain. The trees just aren’t producing. The little fruit we get are small and dry. Not a lot of juice to make lemonade.”

J.R. gave a nervous chuckle and reached into the refrigerator for the pitcher of lemonade.
“I’ll get the glasses,” Betsy said. She busily filled five glasses with lemonade, emptying the pitcher and setting it on the counter. She and her husband distributed the glasses among the women.

J.R. took his own glass and downed it.

“I’m going to go lie down,” he said.

The women watched him exit the room and then resumed their discussion in a more hushed tone.

J.R. fell asleep easily, but it was not a restful sleep. His dreams were short and fitful, filled with nonsense and anxiety. He’d wake and find himself sweating profusely, but unable to get up from the bed. At one point, he woke to look at the clock, which read 3:42. The day had passed without him.

He rolled onto his side, and could feel his wet shirt sticking to his back. His mouth was terribly dry, and he called for Betsy to bring him some water. She didn’t come. He fell back to sleep, and when he woke, the room was dark. He glanced at the clock: 7:34. He wanted to get up, but his body felt like lead.

“Betsy!” he called, his voice strained and scratchy.

His wife ran in from the next room. She was wearing an apron and an old dress. “Oh good, you’re awake. You slept the entire day! Are you sick?”

She came to sit on the edge of the bed and touched the back of her hand to her husband’s clammy forehead.

“You feel cool, and wet,” she said. “I’ll make you some chicken soup.”

“I’m not hungry,” he said. His voice was gravelly.

“You sound horrible. Maybe I should call Dr. Clark.”

J.R. waved his hand in the air as if to shoo a fly. “I’ll be fine, I’m just so thirsty. I think I soaked the bed.”

Betsy ran a hand along the sheets and grimaced. “You did. We’ll need to change those, and get you in some clean clothes. Why don’t you hop in the bath?”

She slipped an arm around his waist and began to hoist him to his feet. “C’mon, let’s go.”
J.R. grunted as he rose out of bed. “I’m fine, I’m fine.” He said and pushed his wife’s arm away. “I can make it myself.”

“Look dear, I know you’ve been through a lot. Well, we all have. But if you need to rest, it’s OK. I can hold down the farm and keep the folks at bay.”


“We’ve had visitors all day long, and the phone’s been ringing off the hook. You didn’t hear anything?”

J.R. shook his head.

“You really were out, weren’t you? A nice soak will make you perk right up. Just like our cotton fields. You wouldn’t believe how much better they look today. We even had a photographer from the Bee out here taking pictures. Everyone’s saying it’s nothing short of a miracle.”

She followed her husband into the bathroom and stood watchful as he undressed, peeling damp underclothes off and letting them fall to the tile floor. He turned on the faucet and let the water fill the tub.

“You know,” Betsy said, “we should really talk about what we’re going to do about all of this.”

J.R. rose with all his strength to stand as tall as he could, though his muscles felt like they’d give way under the weight of his bones at any moment. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s the Christian thing to do, you know. Love Thy Neighbor. We are, for whatever reason, chosen to provide. A dry well becomes full again? That just doesn’t happen overnight.”
The tub was filling up, and J.R. stepped in, one leg at a time and gingerly lowered himself to the bottom. He sighed as he settled in, letting the warm water cover his body. “Do you have any of that lemonade?” he asked.

“Sorry, dear. I’m all out of lemons. Would you like some iced tea or some plain old water? And I’ll get to work on the chicken soup.”

“No, no. Stay in here with me for a moment. Hold my hand.”

Betsy pulled up a wooden stool and sat down beside the tub. She took his hand, rotating it in her own and examining it. “Your skin feels cold and clammy,” she said. “You look down right peaked.”

“I’ll be OK. I’ll just relax in here for a bit.”

J.R. awoke to Betsy’s worried face, and her hands shaking his shoulders. “Wake up,” she said almost angrily. “J.R. wake up!”

“I must’ve dozed off again,” he said. The room was a little blurry. His bath water was cold.
“Your lips are blue, and look at this water! It’s…did you have an, an accident?”

J.R. looked down to see the bath water had turned a murky yellowish brown. He grabbed the edges of the tub and hoisted himself from the water.

“Huh,” he said, looking down and seeing the color of the water. “Not sure.”

His knees wobbled and he lurched forward. Betsy tried to catch him, but his weight was too much and he tumbled onto the floor, sliding onto the tile.

“Oh J.R.!” Betsy screamed. “I’m calling Dr. Clark!”

Betsy ran out of the bathroom, and he could hear her dialing the doctor’s number and getting ahold of someone at his office.

It took all his might to push himself from the floor, and he noticed drops of dark, red blood dripping onto the white tile. Pulling his legs and feet from the edge of the tub, he rolled onto his side and pushed himself up to a kneeling position. He rubbed his fingers across his nose, and saw they were bloody. But the blood looked old, brownish, thick and clumpy, as if it had been sitting around a while.

J.R. reached for a towel on the rack and pulled it down. He wiped his fingers and blotted his nose. The blood was viscous and stringy.

The room began to spin, and then everything turned black. be continued...

Written by Shoshana Hebshi