Manuscript Monday: “No Water”
Below is an early excerpt from a book I’m writing about a bicycling tour I took across America (to be finished this December). Would love to hear your thoughts! Enjoy.
Forty miles beyond Desert Center finds them each down to their last bottle of water, again.
Louis reveals a bunched up wristwatch from his pocket and brings it into view.
“Almost Eleven,” he says.
They are side by side, not exerting, just rolling, hoping that little effort will retain the quickly evaporating water within their systems. The air is thick and heavy, a blanket spread wide and close to the desert ground. They cannot help but sip from their water bottles every few minutes, their expensive seventy-cent water dissipating before their eyes.
“Hey man, I think we should pull over,” Michael says.
“Me too, let’s stop at the next overpass.”
Every four or five miles the four-lane highway crosses over a forty-foot ditch. Beneath are rocks, tumbleweeds, and cracked mud chips that crunch into dust underfoot. They were made to channel rainwater underneath the highway to keep it from flooding. Only God knows how many decades it has been since this part of the earth has seen rain.
Shade is more than scarce and ducking underneath the overpass is the only option. They made a pact to seize adventure whenever possible and however it would come. But dehydration, drying up from the inside out, leaving behind overly-exerted carcasses for vultures to fight over, was not what they had in mind.
They are desperate, in a way.
Michael wonders if he has ever been desperate for anything in his life.
They dismount on the overpass and peer over the ledge. Tumbleweeds, a small, dry runoff zone, and dirt. It looks like a pot above a fire with nothing in it. He looks at Louis and motions with his eyes toward the shade beneath the overpass.
“What do you think, man?”
“It’s about all we can do.”
“Yeah, seems our only option. What about water?”
Louis removes a water bottle from its cage on his bike and stares at it, shaking it a few times and watching the remaining drops dance back and forth. He lowers it. He looks at Michael, and then darts past him.
He is running on the shoulder toward a car coming their direction.
It is a red car. Nothing more.
Michael watches Louis still staring out.
“Michael,” he yells.
“I’ve got no shame.”
“Hell man, I’ve got no shame!” Louis darts for his bike, removing the other two empty water bottles and then does the same at Michael’s.
“If God’s gonna provide I don’t plan on missing it.” He takes three long steps from the dirt and onto the asphalt. Then, he holds every bottle he can manage into the air and waves them at the cars. He starts yelling at them. He is grinning, he is laughing. Having the time of his life in the middle of nowhere, death impending.
“WATER! GIVE US WATER!” He motions at the bottles and dances like a sign-twirler. He moonwalks. He does the Charleston. He swing-dances with an invisible partner. Cars continue to fly, but at least now people are noticing. It is working. Kids have their foreheads flat against their windows. Their eyes are fixed on him and their heads slowly crane as they pass.
After a few minutes Michael takes bite-sized carrots out of their insulated bag and brings them over to his friend.
“This is going to work,” Louis yells. “People want to help people!”
Michael nods with him and hands over the bag.
Louis takes and handful and stuffs them into his mouth. He is jogging in place as he yells, again, louder than ever: “WAA’RRR!” A piece of carrot leaps from his mouth and hits the heavy pavement.
Michael ducks under a barbed-wire fence and makes his way under the overpass, finding a rock to sit on. It is cooler than he expects. He considers camping here, their sleeping bags thrown out beneath the overpass as cars boom by overhead.
Cars and semi trucks passing on the bridge above muffle Louis’ shouts. He bites into another carrot, thinking and feeling a little weird about asking God to provide a way out of a situation, their messy situation, because he knew it was their fault. Why would God want to answer a prayer for something when I should have just been smarter? Why would God want to reward that?
Even still, he prays.
Five minutes pass and Louis has stopped shouting. Michael figures the heat has run its course so he begins up to the trail to start on his shift. What would he do? Recycle the moonwalk? He could do that. The sprinkler or the shopping-cart are classics, he thinks.
There is something on the road now that wasn’t before. On the tailgate of a white pickup are the words: “California Highway Patrol.”
Louis is standing next to the bikes, his arm coolly resting on his handlebars. When he hears Michael approach he looks and smirks.
“Told me what?” He is trying to speak quietly. “This looks more like an air-conditioned ride to jail.”
“Nah,” Louis says, waving him off.
Two cars blur by and a female officer in green shorts, black work boots, and a khaki button-up shirt exits he cab. She is medium height. Attractive. Latino, it appears. Black sunglasses cover her eyes and she approaches looking worried.
“You guys alright?”
“Yep,” Louis says casually, both elbows now resting on his bike. His feet are crossed on the ground. “Just ran out of water a mile back. Didn’t think it would disappear as fast as it did.”
“This is a bad place to run out of water,” She says, nodding her head from Louis to Michael, and back to Louis.
She is a disapproving mother. They are stupid kids out to get themselves killed.
“We have a lot of cyclists out here who run into the same problem. Hang on just a second.” She turns and walks back to the truck.
She is going to cite us. Or call for backup. What does backup even mean out in a place like this?
When she returns she has six twelve-ounce water bottles in her hands. “You guys need any more than this?”
Michael and Louis exchange glances of shock and disbelief, their jaws dropping to their toes simultaneously. Before they can finish thanking her they are halfway through a bottle each.
“Why don’t you just come over to the truck and grab as many as you need,” she laughs and motions.
A torn package once holding twenty-four water bottles sits on the passenger seat. Louis reaches in for two more and feels a blast of cool air overtake his sweaty arm.
“Wouldn’t be so bad to go to jail in this thing,” he says.