Would You Rather by James Zerndt

 

Our dad tended to be philosophical when he played ‘Would You Rather?’

Thomas, would you rather be thunder or lightning? Snow or fire? A question mark or a period? Red or yellow?

Mom never played. She even refused to answer easy questions like ‘Would you rather kiss Robert Redford or Steve McQueen?’ She’d shake her head, smile at my dad, but always claim she just liked to listen.

Even though it’s been a year since we’ve seen our parents, I still play my own version.

“Would you rather I kick your ass or you hurry it up?” I say, and Dustin stops to ponder this before he realizes I’m not kidding around.

“Hurry it up?”

“Move,” I say, and he does. He has to. I’m all he has anymore.

It’s seven a.m. and we’ve got four hours of water-patrol ahead of us. While Dustin gets dressed, I toss his used body-wipe in the bin and head outside to wait. He’s stopped asking to take showers. When Dustin comes out of the house his ‘Officer of Sustainability’ jacket is zipped up to his nose. The logo, a big drop of blue water wearing hand-cuffs, covers his entire eight-year-old torso.

“Let’s do this,” he says and struts off ahead of me, ticket-book at the ready.

Six months now and no rain. Last year the average rainfall was a whopping six inches, just enough to keep the hinges of the world oiled. Still, it’s a slow day. We walk without incident for a solid hour before being heckled by a Leftover sitting on a cardboard box, a liter of brown-colored water at his feet.

“Hey, I think I hear somebody watering their lawn! You better go arrest them!”

Dustin has his pen out before the guy even finishes his sentence, but I grab him by the collar before he can cross the street. “Forget it.”

“But that water-bottle—he’s worth at least half a gallon.”

“We’ve got plenty without him, Dustin. This isn’t a game.”

“But what if Mom and Dad don’t come back? What if they stop giving us extra rations? Then what?”

“Then we get by like everybody else.”

Dustin puts his ticket-book back inside his jacket, sticks the pen behind his ear, and contents himself by taking a long, unnecessary drink from his own water bottle. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve, says, “When are they coming back?”

“When they finish their research in the Amazon and figure this mess out. We’ve gone through this how many times?”

“A million.”

“C’mon,” I say. “Let’s go find some electricity-pirates. That’ll make you feel better.”

It doesn’t take long before we spot some lights peeking out from a curtained basement. We knock on the door and, sure enough, the lights go out. A woman opens the door, forty-something, still wearing her bathrobe.

“Hi, ma’am. We’re with the Sustainability Unit. Would you mind if we came in, took a look around?”

I know the look she’s giving me. Our dog used to look at us that way after he peed in the house.

“Of course,” she says. “And who’s this little cutie-pie?”

She doesn’t know it yet, but she just earned herself an extra ticket. “This is Officer Dustin,” I say and give her a look that she interprets perfectly.

“Oh, you’ll have to forgive me. It’s just that I haven’t seen such a handsome officer before.”

Dustin is having none of it. “The basement?”

I shrug and she leads us down the hallway. On the way, I peek my head into her bathroom, note the tube running from her Recycler into a hole in the tiled floor. She must have just gone because the thing is still agitating, filtering out the urine, turning it into clear drops of water to be used for laundry, dishes.

The basement holds the usual violations: hydroponics, a sprinkler, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes. The only surprise is the row of Dragon Lilies.

“Dragon Lilies were his favorite. My husband’s I mean,” the woman explains. “He died last year. I share with others when I have enough. Please, you have to understand,” she says and I want to grab her hand, put my arm around her, sit down and have a nice big salad, eat every last morsel of evidence with her and tell her she has no idea how much I do understand.

“I still have to write you up for this. They’ll probably just garnish a few liters, put you on water probation for a year. It won’t be so bad.”

“Not so bad?” she starts to say, but stops when she notices Dustin scribbling away.

“Let me see,” I say and take the pad from him.

“Fourteen violations,” Dustin says. “And that’s not counting the fan you have on upstairs.”

“Officer Dustin,” I say. “Can you go outside and check the perimeters, make sure we didn’t miss anything?”

“Gotcha,” he says and actually goes so far as to hitch up his pants.

“I’m already getting by on less than most do,” the woman begins, her hand rubbing her neck, the robe parting just a touch. “Isn’t there something we can work out, some sort of community service I could perform...”

I take a step back, cough some of the color back into my face. “Here,” I say and hand her two of the tickets. “Just pay these and dismantle the greenhouse, okay?”

Her eyes go all soft and big and I hurry out the front door before she can get to me. As we head down the street, Dustin glares at me, asks, “How many?”

“Fourteen,” I say. “Nice work, D.”

*

After our shift, me and Dustin get cleaned up for our date. Jerusha’s asked me to bring D, said she had a surprise for us, but she’s a bootlegger—someone who makes un-recycled water at home and sells it on the black market—and I don’t know how he’s going to take it.  She only lives a few blocks away, but by the time we manage to get there the house is dark, her parents long asleep. They’re the opposite of Jerusha: obedient, scared, good citizens.

“Home illegal home,” she says, waiting for us by the garage behind her house.

“You live out here?” Dustin asks.

She doesn’t answer, just unlocks the padlock and does a clean-and-jerk with the garage door. With a flip of a switch we’re doused in red light. A king-size bed with satin sheets sits in the middle of the garage.

“Whaddya think, boys?”

Dustin immediately goes for the bed.

“This rules!” He points to a second story loft with bed sheets hanging from the ceiling. That must be where she hides her paraphernalia, her water-making lab. “What’s up there? Can we go up there?”

“That’s my secret place, Dustin. Sorry.”

I haven’t turned her in yet. There’s my being head over heels in love with her, but also the fact that she knows where my mom and dad are. It works out well, a blackmail made in heaven since I can’t imagine being chained to anything sexier than Jerusha’s lips.

Would you rather get laid or …

“Mind your own business, Dustin,” I say. “Or you won’t get to see the surprise.”

“Surprise, surprise, surprise!” he yells, jumping up and down on the bed.

“First you have to promise not to tell anyone. Can you keep a secret, Dustin?”

“I can keep a secret.”

“I thought so. How about you, Thomas?”

“I don’t have much choice, do I?”

“No, I suppose you don’t,” Jerusha says and scrambles up the stairs to the loft.

“Do you think she has water-guns?” Dustin asks.

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“That would be so cool!”

“No, it wouldn’t,” I say. Water pistols are one of the ten Unforgivables, but Dustin doesn’t take his work home with him. Once the jacket comes off, he’s one-hundred-percent kid again. “You know we can’t tell anybody about this, right? We’d both get in big, big trouble.”

Dustin plops down on the bed, says, “Don’t be such a wet rag, Thomas.”

“You don’t even know what that means.”

“Do too!”

Jerusha is standing at the top of the stairs, her jeans replaced by a pair of bulky flannel pajamas. “Thomas, can you give me a hand with this?”

She’s holding something wrapped in a white bed sheet. I climb half-way up the stairs, grab the thing and walk it down.

“Ready?” Jerusha says once we stand it up. She doesn’t wait for an answer before whipping the sheet off. “Ta-da!”

“Wow!” Dustin says, standing on the bed again. “What is it?”

“This, Dustin, is a projector. It’s what people used to play movies on.”

Another Unforgivable. Anyone caught possessing movies of any kind will automatically be placed in an Un-concentration Camp. I remember the DVD burnings held on the weekends, the free liters of water passed out for every ten movies burned. No longer would we gorge ourselves on distraction, no longer would we amuse ourselves into submission.

“Where did you get that thing?” I say, not quite wanting to hear the answer.

“Here, make yourself useful and hang this on the wall.” Jerusha hands me the white sheet and a handful of tacks. As she goes about threading the film, Dustin puts his hands on his lap, morphs into good-little-boy. When the images from Star Wars start jumping on the wall, Dustin’s mouth doesn’t seem able to close.

Jerusha fluffs a few pillows, then nods toward the ladder. “Dustin, honey, I need to go upstairs with your brother for a while. You okay down here?”

“Yeah, okay, whatever,” he says. I’m worried he’s going to drool all over her sheets.

“Give me a minute,” Jerusha says before she cranks up the volume and disappears up the ladder. I count out two long minutes in my head, then follow after her. When I part the bed sheets at the top of the ladder, Jerusha is standing next to a claw-foot bathtub filled with soapy water, the steam slowly rising, a blue towel wrapped around her.

“You can’t just…”

“I can Thomas, you should know that by now.” She lifts her leg up, the towel opening up along her thighs in a V as she dips her toes in. “When’s the last time you had a real bath?”

Number One on the list of Unforgivables.

I can’t speak. My tongue’s deserted me.

Would you rather watch R2D2 or take a bath with Jerusha?

“Five years ago, freshman year of high school,” she says. “Am I right?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Well, what are you waiting for?”

“Where did you get all the water?”
“Take your clothes off and I’ll explain.” Jerusha drops the towel to the floor, starts coming toward me and I back away, worried about Dustin. “We’re just taking a bath, Thomas. What do you think’s going to happen here?” The smile widens. “He can’t hear us anyway.”

I undress, sit down in the tub, barricade my knees against my chest as the water envelopes me like smoke. It feels pornographic, so pure it’s dirty. An entire tub full of water hot enough to turn my legs a deep pink.

“Now relax.” Jerusha takes her hand, tugs at one of my feet so that my leg slides down along her thighs. “That’s better.” Her hair is spread out against the back of the tub like a shiny black fan and I can’t stop staring. “Feels good, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I say, my voice quivering more than the water.

Jerusha leans forward, places her mouth against my knee, gives it a soft bite and the world pulses and pounds in my ears as she lies back with this pleased look on her face.

My eyes are closed, the water almost cool by the time we speak again.

“I guess now you’re a Violator, too.”

I open my eyes to find Jerusha smiling that illegal smile of hers.

“If Dustin wasn’t here,” I start to say, “I’d violate more than just—”

“Oh God, I forgot about him,” Jerusha says, and pulls herself out of the water, starts drying herself with one foot on the rim on the tub, giving me an eyeful.

“You like that?” she says and drapes the towel over my head. “Be a good boy and maybe you’ll get some tomorrow.” With that she climbs back into her pajamas and heads down to Dustin.

I dry myself with Jerusha’s towel, rub her smell as deeply as I can into my own skin before putting my crusty clothes back on. I’d been so preoccupied with Jerusha that I haven’t had time to really look at her water-brewing system. I’ve seen them before, but this one is especially tricked out. There’s a car battery on the floor, jumper cables hooked up to an iron rod that leads to a small skylight in the roof. Aluminum foil covers the bottom of the skylight and plastic tubing drips down like an IV into a five-gallon barrel. It must have taken her a month to get enough water for just the one bath. I feel honored almost to the point of tears.

When I go downstairs, the film is flapping away on the reel, Dustin fast asleep on the end of the bed. Jerusha turns the machine off, covers Dustin with a blanket, and pats the bed for me to climb in. I fall asleep with my arm around her, her back arched into my chest as I dream of flash floods, thunder and lightning, showers, tsunamis.

*

When I wake up, it isn’t to the sound of rain tap-dancing on the roof, it’s to Dustin’s voice. He’s sitting beside Jerusha on the bed, studying a map.

“We’re going on a camping trip! Guess where, Thomas.”

“Prison?”

No. We’re going to a lake!”

Jerusha hands me the map, her finger pointing to a place up in the mountains. “It’s hard to get to, which is why the government doesn’t know about it. It’s hidden away, fed by mountain run-off.”

“I don’t know.”

This time it’s Dustin. “Thomas, don’t be such‑”

“A wet rag. I know.”

“A pussy,” he says, and immediately scoots away from me. “I want to go.”

“And how are we going to get there?”

Jerusha tosses a set of keys at me. “My parent’s lent me their car.”

“Do they know they lent you their car?”

Jerusha’s parents think she’s an angel, living out in the garage so she can remain close to them. The fact that they’re being used as a cover has, I’m sure, never occurred to them.

“C’mon,” Jerusha says. “The sooner we leave the better chance we have of finding it.”

“You haven’t been there before?”

“That’s the fun part, dummy.”

“Yeah dummy,” Dustin says and grabs the keys from me. “I’ll drive. Let’s go.”

*

We take the highway out towards the coast, the mountains bare, most of the trees felled long ago.

“It looks like a sick dog,” Dustin says from the back seat.

“What does, honey?” Jerusha says.

“The mountains. Like our old dog did after surgery, after they shaved his butt.”

It’s exactly what it looks like. The back-side of a very large, very sick animal.

I try to change the subject using Dad’s old fail-safe.

“Dustin, would you rather be an eagle or a salmon?”

“There are no salmon.”

“Pick one.”

“A tiger.”

Dustin. Eagle or salmon?”

“Fine. Eagle. My turn.” Dustin puts on his serious face, scrunching it up like a raison. “Jerusha, would you rather be a fart coming out of my butt or Thomas’ butt?”

Jerusha turns around in her seat, completely un-ruffled. “Definitely your butt, Dustin. Hands down.”

“Gross!” he says and rolls over on the back seat, his hands covering his face.

“My turn,” Jerusha says. “Dustin, would you rather be a water-cop or a Leftover?”

I can hear a humming in the back seat that’s threatening to spill over into laughter. “Mmmmm…a rain-maker!” Dustin says.

“See what you’ve done,” I say, but Jerusha’s already reaching over the back seat, tickling Dustin. At this rate, he’s never going to want to go back to work.

“Pee break,” I say and pull the car over.

“What, no recycler?” Jerusha says from her open window. “Isn’t that illegal or something?” Before I can answer, she rolls her window up.

I go against one of the few remaining Alaskan blue cedars still looming along the roadside. Beyond that there’s what’s left of a river: a sluice of dried mud. The bright green moss on the cedar branches is now brown and dried out, the limbs of the tree like the hairy legs of an old tarantula.

When I get back in the car, the laughter’s long gone.

“What?” I say.

“Look,” Jerusha says and nods at the windshield.

At first I look right past it, notice only the naked tree stumps along the highway. Then I see it. A solitary drop of water on the windshield. I’m about to ask Jerusha if she’s up to something, but the look on her face tells me she’s beyond serious. She cranes her neck under the glass, peers up into the sky. “You see it now?”

Above us, there’s a cloud. Just one, but a big one. The rest of the sky is all blue and sun. “Maybe it’s bird shit,” I say.

“Clear bird shit?”

“You guys think it’s rain?” Dustin says, pronouncing ‘rain’ like somebody from old times might ‘God’ or ‘Elvis’.

“No Dustin,” I say. “It’s a drop of water. That’s all.” I put the key in the ignition. “How much further to this lake?”

“What. Is. Your. Problem?” Jerusha reaches over, rips the keys out and dangles them in front of my face. “Dustin and I are going to investigate, aren’t we Dustin?”

Dustin scrambles out of the car and onto the hood, props his elbows on the windshield.

“You’re probably right that it’s nothing,” Jerusha says. “But what’s the harm in—”

“Dustin is the harm,” I say quietly. “I don’t want to get his hopes up.”

“Hope’s not such a bad thing.”

“Depends on who’s doing the hoping.” The words are barely out of my mouth when I see Dustin lick the windshield. “No harm, huh” I say, and we hear a muffled, “Tastes like rain!”

“Great,” I say and Jerusha rolls her eyes at me, gets out of the car and starts spinning around with her arms raised up to the sky like she’s Fred Astaire in Singing In the Rain. Dustin sprawls down flat on the hood, watches as she goes into a mock rain-dance, her chest jutting in and out, her elbows pushed back like a chicken’s.

Dustin starts chanting, “Rain, rain, rain!” and hops down off the car so he can shadow behind Jerusha. I’m witnessing an ancient culture, a shaman possessed by the Gods of rain, as Jerusha goes into an impromptu prayer.

Oh, Mother of water, we thank you for this sign of your glory. We know you are up there. We know you are watching. We are good, humble people deserving your sweet nourishment. We beg of you, let your bounty fall and cleanse our parched souls!”

When I look up into the blank face of the sky, I almost expect to feel something on my cheeks, but like always, there’s nothing.

“Bravo,” I say and Dustin and Jerusha look confused, like maybe they thought the dance would actually work. “Can we go now?”

They both give one last disappointed look up into the summer sky, then get back in the car, the colossal wind turbines spinning away indifferently along the mountain ridges as we continue our drive in silence.

Would you rather die from thirst or drown?

It’s Jerusha who finally speaks up. “Turn right after the guard rail.”

I slow down, take the turn which leads to a dirt road and we make it maybe a hundred yards before coming to a large gate. “What now?” I say, and Jerusha gets out of the car without a word. Me and Dustin watch as she scratches around in the dirt at the base of a nearby stump, finds a key, and unlocks the gate.

“I told you Leftovers weren’t all bad,” she says when she gets back in the car. “You ever been skinny-dipping, Dustin?”

“What’s that?”

“You’ll see.”

The closer we get, the more excited Dustin gets. He’s like a dog who knows it’s going to the park. This lake better exist or he’s going to tear up the interior of the car. We make it up one last incline and park the now wheezing car under a massive dead cedar. With all these giant specters grave-yarding the land, the few remaining plants look like sprigs of parsley ornamenting an empty plate.

“We just follow this trail here and bang, there’s our lake,” Jerusha says and Dustin wastes no time, darts off ahead of us.

“No running!” I call after him.
“I’m not,” he yells and slows into a trot.

Me and Jerusha have barely started walking when she turns to me and says, “Have you told him what happened yet?”

“What happened when?”

“To your parents,” she says and gives me a look I haven’t seen before.

“No, I haven’t.”

“He still thinks they’re away doing research?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

I say nothing and we walk on, every now and then catching glimpses of Dustin up ahead. I haven’t seen him this happy in a long time.

“The longer you wait, the harder it’s going to be for him to understand why they did it. And more importantly, why you didn’t tell him.”

“What exactly am I supposed to say? Mom and Dad killed themselves so we’d get their water rations? Oh, and by the way, Dustin, they’re buried in our basement. You walk over them every day.”

“No, I want you to tell him what love means,” she says. “How you found them holding each other.”

Would you rather I lie or tell the truth?

“I can’t do it,” I say.

“Then I’ll do it.”

“No. You won’t.”

“He trusts me. It’ll be like removing a Band-Aid.”

“It’ll be like removing a heart.”

“I’m sorry,” she says in a beautifully small voice. “I just want to help.”

Maybe she’s right. I honestly don’t know anymore.

Jerusha loops her arm through mine like we’re on a Sunday stroll through the park, like we’re not searching for a forbidden lake, not about to change a kid’s life.

“I found it! I found it!”

Dustin is leaping up and down ahead of us, pointing to what must be the lake below him. I have to admit that I didn’t expect to find it, and, now that we have, I get instant goose-bumps. Jerusha unhooks her arm from mine and we both start running toward him.

There is a moment of silence as the three of us stand on top of a ridge looking down at one of the paltriest looking lakes I’ve ever seen. It’s a sad excuse for a lake, but it’s ours just the same.

“Last one in is a rotten egg,” Jerusha says and crabs her way down the slope.

Dustin doesn’t move.

“C’mon, D,” I say. “I’ll help you down.”

Big mistake.

“I don’t need your help,” he says and to prove it he climbs past me, slips and ends up going down the slope on his butt. My heart stops, but he’s fine, pops right up when he reaches the bottom. “Rotten egg! Rotten egg!” he yells, pointing up at me.

I would be a million rotten eggs for the view I’m getting now of Jerusha stripping along the edge of the water. Dustin, too, stops his yelling when he sees the miracle happening only feet away from him. The tan lines. I hadn’t noticed them as much last night, but now, in the light of day, they stand out. She puts her feet together along the edge before diving in and taking it all away from us. I scrabble down and almost bump into Dustin. He’s still transfixed, like he’s not sure if he’s dreaming or not.

“C’mon you two! I won’t look if you’re shy!” Jerusha says and turns her back on us.

“Can Thomas go skinny-dipping, too?” Dustin says.

“Of course he can, why not?”

“Because he’s not skinny!”

I have my pants off just as he’s saying this.

“He’s skinny enough,” Jerusha says.

“Thanks, Dustin. Nice one,” I say and jump into the water before Jerusha has a chance to turn back around. It doesn’t occur to me that Dustin has no idea how to swim until I notice him sitting on the bank, underwear still on, legs dangling in the water. Jerusha realizes the problem and coaxes him in the water by placing his lucky arms around her neck, his legs kicking behind him, his face crammed in between her breasts.

I have the ridiculous thought he’s faking the entire thing.

*

I’m not asleep, but not exactly awake either, when I hear the sound of an animal whimpering. Like something small caught in a trap.

Before I can focus my eyes, I understand.

I can see Dustin cradled in Jerusha’s arms, his head against her shoulder, his back broken with sobs. I’m stuck there, my back pinned to the ground at the edge of the lake. It feels like I have a boulder lying on top of me. When I try to get up my stomach muscles are useless. I have to roll over on my side and push myself up with my arms. When I make it over to them, Jerusha is cradling Dustin’s head in her lovely arms.

“C’mon you two,” I say lamely. “We need to go or we’ll never make it back before curfew.”

There’s no argument from them. Whatever fantasy we may have found here in the woods has turned into something else: a place Dustin will go back to for the rest of his life when he thinks of his childhood. Or the end of it.

We’re on the road maybe ten minutes before I hear Dustin snoring in the backseat, the tears having left him exhausted. On the radio the announcer reads off a list of recent Violators. I turn it off.

“I’m sorry,” Jerusha says in that small voice again. “Maybe you were right.”

“Too late now,” I say and realize it sounds more judgmental than I intend it to. “I’m just glad it’s over.”

But I know it’s not. Not even close.

“He’s going to want to see the basement.”

“I’ll have to explain how Dad did it,” I say and I can see the pit, the bed they made for themselves at the bottom of it, and the shovel he left out so I could finish the job.

“It was the right thing to do,” Jerusha says, and the conviction in her voice is almost enough to make me believe it.

At some point Dustin stops snoring and all I can think of is what he might be dreaming. I’m half-expecting him to wake up screaming when Jerusha reaches over, squeezes my hand, but neither of say a word. Instead, I stop the car in the middle of the road and we watch as rain pelts the windshield, the highway. Dustin wakes up, probably more so because of the car stopping, and hangs his head over the front seat. We are mesmerized, speechless, frightened.

Dustin is the first to speak.

“It was a waste then,” he says in a voice that shouldn’t belong to a child.

Would you rather be safe or sorry?

There isn’t an answer anybody in the world can give him, so I turn the windshield wipers on, start driving through what may turn out to be the biggest downpour we’ve had in years. In the coming dark, I see the mouth of the pit and my parents climbing into it; in the winding road I see their bodies spooning around each other one last time.