Oscar woke on the ground. Beneath his hands the earth was soft and damp; he raised his head, and far as he could see, the earth was fertile, rolling rich brown, not long dry, a sheen across the soil like melted chocolate. Indeed, the sky overhead was grey with clouds. Idly they swirled, darkened, and as he picked himself up and began to walk, the rain broke all at once, in torrents, striking his face, rolling down his scalp, until his beard was dripping, and he rubbed his wet cheeks in wonderment.
From where did all the water in the world flow? Oscar had studied the water cycle, knew the answer to be this faucet running from the sky, a cloud-anchored waterfall cold and fresh, this rain that would restore each body little by little till even his little lake was renewed, and then, draw from the lake and begin again. In reality, how perfect could the conservation be—how long could all the earth inhale the good and exhale the bad, how long till contaminant contaminated through and through.
The water puddled on the earth, and everywhere he put his feet, it diverted, rivulets branching behind him like the veins that fed the heart. He saw, ahead of him, the same salt flat where he’d met Iza—stretching forever white and dry, unaffected by Oscar’s rain. Like two mismatched set pieces sharing the same lot.
Where the two skies met, leaning against the buggy, Iza waited. A dun dress, old yellow with pinprick rosebuds, buttons all the way down, covered Iza to the ankles, their feet left bare. Their hair had escaped its tight tie, and grey wisps stuck out around their ears, curling the wrong way.
A beachcomber, Oscar thought. An old rambler, not so old, going down to see the beach. They looked cold without their heavy coat and boots and hat, or Oscar felt that he would have been cold if so dressed, or Oscar himself was cold.
Either way, Iza did not seem to feel it. “Ask me what you want to ask me,” they said.
Oscar felt his arms stretch out for an embrace. He left them there—Iza did not approach to complete it. “Here you are,” he said.
They poked a finger into the center of his open hand, to confirm.
“Where are we?”
“Okay,” they said. “Pay attention now.”
Taking a stick in hand, Iza drew a map of the world in the salt. They made divots with their bare toes for water. They drew his lake—that friendly shape he recognized immediately but for the length of his imprisonment had been unable to recall. They dropped dried bits of sedge for cities, and he watched beside the lake for his city to spring into being.
In the center of the lake, they planted the point of the stick.
“You are here,” they said. They gestured to the surrounding salt flat. “Here.”
“Is this what happened to it?” he asked.
“A lake needs thousands of years to dry.”
“But you didn’t say no.”
Iza dropped their head. “No.”
From temple to temple Oscar felt a fever rush past. He toed the uneasy ground as it started to shift, as the land wavered between water, fresh till, and desert. Iza reached forward, held him in place by the collar of his shirt. “Ask me what you want to ask me,” they said.
“This rain,” Oscar said, shaking it out of his eyes. “Where am I?”
“What rain,” Iza said drily.
And yet Oscar saw it still behind him, saw the land wet and dark as mud. “I think it must be the city, too,” he said. And turning again to Iza, eyes scorched by the white and sun behind her. “This salt is where the city once stood?”
“Yes,” Iza said.
“And the mud is where it is in twenty years.” Oscar staggered again. Iza’s hands steadied his shoulders.
“It’s what I imagined,” Oscar said. “This is what I was scared would happen.”
Iza’s chin was sharp against his ear.
“The thing to know is there’s a bunch of us here together,” they said. “So whatever else this world might be, we decided to stay in it for as long as our strange time allows, and we decided the world should punish us for wandering it, that if we didn’t stay put, the world should make us tired and hungry and sick.” They sank with him to the ground. “So ask me what you want to ask me.”
“Did I cause this?” whispered Oscar.
“Not you alone,” Iza said.
The courthouse was a beautiful building. Oscar had spent a lot of time there, dropping off mail, filing necessary paperwork. He had made many trips to the fourth floor, where there was a little café and coffee shop, the closest food to his work. He had never been in the courtroom. It was a breathtaking space. Like everything in the city, it had only been restored and augmented, never rebuilt. Even now, right outside in the grand hall, crews were working on repainting the ceiling murals. He could hear their voices calling to one another, could hear the beeping caution signals of their automated lifts.
Much more dimly, he heard the judge’s sentencing. Of engaging in a violation of the national Water Quality Act, guilty. Of willful neglect of duty, guilty. Of conspiracy to tamper with evidence, guilty. Of obstruction of justice, guilty. Of involuntary manslaughter, guilty.
For a defense he had offered only that he was scared to tell anyone what had gone wrong, was still scared to say it, that his crime was born of wanting it to go away, that he still hoped it would all go away. Ever since it had happened, he had had trouble speaking much at all.
After some days, Oscar was escorted to what looked like an empty warehouse, to the end of a corridor with an elevator in it. The elevator descended forever down, during which his handler said nothing to him, and he said nothing back. The elevator stopped at last, and Oscar was led into a room terribly bright, hung end to end with fluorescent fixtures, walls covered in mirrors that bounced the light around the room, scorching his eyes. He wasn’t sure who his handler was. He didn’t think to ask anything of them. They led him to a chair, and sat him down in it. They began hooking things up to his wrists, his neck, his temples.
Panicking, Oscar suddenly spilled all his questions. Where was he? What was happening? Was he sentenced to death? He hadn’t thought he was sentenced to death.
The person lowered a visor over Oscar’s eyes, turning everything dark. No, he was going to prison, they said. He would stay in prison the rest of his life.
“One last question,” said Iza. “Ask.”
“Iza,” Oscar asked hoarse, “will you take me home?”
Iza dug the point of their stick deeper into the ground till it stayed where it was planted. “I’ll try,” they said.
They offered him a hand across the mud and salt divide. Oscar let himself be drawn into the salt flat and guided up into the buggy. As soon as they were both settled, Iza goaded the mule into a trot. They tapped its haunch at intervals with an open hand, but it would move no faster. It did not feel any urgency.
“Will we make it?”
“No promises,” said Iza.
In the backseat, Oscar dug his thumbnail into his leg as an experiment. He kept going, leaving half-moons all the way down. The skin did nothing under his prodding, each pinch traveling back to him numb.
“Iza,” he asked, “why do you keep people here?”
“It’s my job,” they said.
“Why,” he asked.
“I needed something to do,” they said. “It’s about the only good left to do in the world.”
In the backseat, Oscar forced himself further up so he could see what Iza was seeing, so he could see the escape they had promised was there, though he still could not see it, though the mountain still looked impossibly far.
He said, “The water’s bad, Iza.”
“The water’s bad everywhere,” they said. “The disaster.”
“It was my job. I could have fixed it.”
“I understand you,” they said, “but I doubt there’s anything you could have done.”
All power over his leg was gone.
“Still,” they said quietly. “Maybe let’s see if there’s anything left for you to apologize to.”
Oscar lifted his leg onto the seat with him, rested his head back.
“Oscar,” said Iza. “Don’t go to sleep.”
“I’m not,” he said.
“I’ll be your enemy if I think it’s better for you,” they said. “Don’t think I won’t take you back to camp.”
“I think I’m helping you,” he said. “I think you want to get out too.”
“Nope,” said Iza curtly, and he had been right; their face didn’t rightly know how to look glad.
“If we don’t make it to the city,” Oscar said, “can I ride around out here with you?”
Iza snaked a hand back through the little window. Oscar couldn’t quite get a good grip, but he held onto their fingertips. They squeezed.
“Hey Oscar,” they said.
Their voice the only thing coming through to him, the sound good and clear.
They tugged his hand up and used his fingers to point to the sky. “It’s pink,” they said.
“Is that good,” he said.
Indeed, the sky was soft red, dark and hazy in that certain way. Through the narrow stripe of it now visible to him in the little window, he saw a familiar glow.
Iza let go his hand, snapped the reins. “When you get there, it’ll be night,” they said.