On a lonely stretch of road due west of nowhere the thermostat’s needle touches red. “Better pull off before the head gasket blows,” his father grumbles, cutting the engine and coasting to the gravel shoulder with all the grace of one who has performed the maneuver dozens of times before. “Maybe just beyond that next bend we’ll find a little stream or a creek,” he motions with his eyes as he retrieves from the ocean of fast-food wrappers littering the floorboard a ragtag collection of Styrofoam coffee cups and two clear plastic bottles whose labels have long ago disintegrated. “Won’t take too much. Just a top off, I suspect. And we’re almost there, anyway. We’ll hit the state line by midnight.”
Down the dust-covered lane, the boy and his father walk, a hot, dry breeze blowing across the hardpan like the blast from the convection oven in Doodlebug’s Diner. Unable to find even a puddle, his father removes his frayed baseball cap, wipes his face against his shirt sleeve, and gestures toward an old farmhouse atop a slight embankment to the right. All the lights are out and it looks abandoned. “Better stick close to me,” his father cautions as they cross the pockmarked driveway. “Most of these places have a guard dog chained to an old car’s bumper or a tree trunk. A lot of folks out here is into… But any dog’ll hear us long before we get there and give his self away once he sets to barking.”
The overgrown front yard is as empty and neglected as the house appears; the only sound the groan of a nearby barn’s rusty corrugated roof quivering with each strengthening gust. Still, the boy sighs uneasily, wishing they could leave. Their search for a stream wasn’t nearly as thorough as it could have been. “Seems to me…” the boy mumbles as his father mounts the sagging porch steps.
“Anybody home,” his father shouts following several open-palm strikes upon the unpainted front door.
A minute later a faint light appears behind drawn curtains and the door inches open as far as a chain lock will allow. “Can I help you?” a faint, work-weary voice asks.
A soft click like a snapping twig follows and the old man’s coal-black eyes dart briefly to his right. From where he stands behind the porch’s railing, the boy can just make out against the dimly-lit window the outline of an old woman aiming a rifle, or shotgun, where his father’s head would pass should he kick open the door and try to enter. Maybe it’s only a broom.
“Need a bit of water,” his father explains, raising into the slot of harsh white light spilling from inside the house the Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles. “Truck overheated a ways back. We couldn’t find a creek.”
“Suppose not,” the old man sniffs, his shoulders relaxing as the anxiety drains from his eyes and his severely-wrinkled forehead. “And if you did it wouldn’t of had no water in it, no how. Ain’t rained a drop in six weeks. Crops is done for, I fear. Everything for miles is bone dry.”
His eyes narrow when he spots the boy peering through the railing. “There’s a pump beside the shed,” he rasps. “Help yourself, just don’t be complaining about the stink. Ain’t had no good water since the rain stopped. Like as not won’t have no more ’til fall. Ain’t too bad if you pinch your nose shut when you swallow it, but it’ll suit your purposes just fine.”
“We won’t be a minute,” his father nods, leading the boy from the porch and across the overgrown yard to the shed while the old man grins a toothless grin that leaves the boy shivering.
Cups and bottles filled with what is easily the foulest water either of them have ever smelled, father and son carefully make their way back to the stricken pickup, both wondering out loud how anyone, even with his nose pinched shut, could ingest something so vile.
While his father refills the radiator, the boy lies on the gravel shoulder, looks at the sky, and counts stars. This time last night he would never have dreamed there were so many, they are so densely packed, and that they go on forever. He wonders about the time, imagining his mother clocking out at Doodlebug’s Diner, flicking off the lights, and locking the door.
“I know you’d love to go camping and fishing and ride a dirt bike out to a real Wild West ghost town not too far from your daddy’s place,” she’d said in a tone he’d never heard before, kneeling beside him in the kitchen while her new boyfriend smoked impatiently in the living room. “Why don’t you let me call him first thing tomorrow morning?”
Losing his place, he stops counting. On a night such as this, the sky in all directions as if it is consuming the earth, he can understand why the mariners of old feared sailing their ships too close to the horizon. Even now he grips the crunchy brownfield grass slowly overtaking the gravel shoulder, praying its parched, brittle roots will anchor him against the hot wind racing across the hardpan, and pushing him relentlessly westward.