Emmeline is most alive in the dead of night. Each night, she skulks around the pristine, serene houses of the rich side of town. They are untouched by the dingy floodwaters that lap at the front porch of Emmeline’s family home. As she sneaks from house to house, her eyes, accustomed to the gloom, are searching: an open window, a loose hinge, any opening she can squeeze through. She is rail thin and pale as bleached bone — a small gap is enough of an invitation.
Once inside, she has only one destination: the water room. At the back of the house, or in the basement; the houses of the wealthy host huge, gleaming white boxes. Water filtration systems. Emmeline’s has filled her backpack with plastic bottles and canteens, as many as she can carry. Empty as her pockets, she hopes to fill them with gleaming, clean water to take back home.
Her side of town has four houses where people remain. Everyone else fled when the floodwaters became a near-permanent fixture. Others died in the riots, more still from sickness and dehydration. Emmeline’s father was the first of her family to die. It happened during one of the first riots, when the people realised there was to be no government aid or evacuation.
By that time her mother was already far gone, losing a battle with an illness no one ever named. In the end, it might have been dehydration that dealt the final blow. It left Emmeline, aged fourteen, as the head of a household that comprised her and her four-year-old brother, George. Two years later and they were still surviving. Most days, George didn’t move. Emmeline could not remember a time when he was not as silent as stone. He stayed indoors like a tortoise in its shell.
Emmeline would venture outside for provisions and grab whatever she could get her hands on. Drinkable water was her main goal. Too many of her town’s inhabitants had been seduced, in a momentary desperate fever, into drinking the turgid floodwaters that seeped under their doors. Too many had gotten sick and died.
At the third house she investigates, Emmeline spies an opening. A ground-floor window cracked open as a defence against the summer heat. She pries it open still further with her fingertips and tumbles in. It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She pads to the back of the house, into the kitchen. A door to the left, ajar, reveals another small room. There’s a squat, square box that Emmeline dimly remembers is a machine for cleaning clothes. Then, at the back of the room, she sees what she’s looking for. The outline of a huge, rectangular box. She scurries over and opens a valve using as much strength as she can muster from her needle-thin arms. There’s a creak, a rumble, and clear water gushes out. She smiles and, resisting the urge to drink directly from it, fills as many of her containers as she can.
From upstairs there are noises. A low murmur of a male voice. Footsteps. She can hear them coming down the stairs.
Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.
Emmeline freezes. To get back to the window she came in from would mean going past the stairs.
“I will call the Police,” says a voice in the darkness.
A light flicks on. When her eyes readjust she makes out the shape of a tall, grey-haired man in the doorway. He holds a shotgun, pointed, shakily, at her head. She notices a change in his expression. Initially defiant and fearsome, his face set in hard lines, it softens as he looks the emaciated girl up and down.
“W-What are you doing?” he asks.
Emmeline can’t find the words. She points at the still gushing valve, which was now pooling water on the floor. She points to one of her canteens.
“Oh. You’re from…”
“But you…I mean, we donate. I see the ads on TV, we donate to the government program, you get fresh water…”
Emmeline shakes her head and shrugs. The man looks her up and down again, a pained look on his face as he spies her protruding ribs. He sighs.
“Go,” he says hurriedly. “Go now, take what you have. If my wife finds you, she’ll call the Police. Believe me.”
Emmeline nods and shuts off the valve. She packs what containers she can fill into her rucksack. As she walks past the man, he stops her. He fumbles in the pocket of his dressing gown and produces a bronze metal object. A key.
“Take this,” he whispers. “Come back. Come back when you need more.”
“Th-thanks,” Emmeline hisses, surprised at the harsh rasp of her own voice. She could not remember how long it had been since she had spoken to someone.
Back home, the flood water is receding, though still high enough to require a raft. In the house, there are small puddles pooling on the floor. The warped floorboards creak even under Emmeline’s small frame. She hoarsely calls George’s name as she unpacks the containers from her rucksack, setting them on the soaking, fraying old sofa that served as their only piece of furniture in the sparse front room. No response from George. The only sound was the autumnal sighing of the rusting pipes behind the walls.
She bounds upstairs and into the bedroom. There’s George, on the bare, grubby mattress on the floor that passed for his bed. Lying still as a calm river, and immediately Emmeline knows that he is too still. She had seen it with her father and mother.
Blinking back tears, she heads back down the stairs, grabs one of the water bottles, and walks out onto the porch.
The filthy water is rising again, slowly, lapping at her ankles. She gazes out at the flood that has, one way or another, claimed all those that she loved. The thin corpses of trees stick out of the water, grey and lifeless.
She steps aboard the rickety old raft she built herself and using a branch as a makeshift oar, sails out into the flood. Fishing in her pocket, she comes across the old man’s key. She tosses the bronze key from hand to hand, feeling its heft and weight. The only sound is that of the hot summer rainfall as the droplets slap into the standing water.
Emmeline closes her eyes and tosses the key as far as she can. She watches it arc and drop into the stagnant water. She lies down on the raft as it floats gently away.