The Water Tower
by Graham Marema
The first sign of Lasar Falls was the felled water tower. Ten years ago, according to an article Callan read in the Falls Bulletin archives, the town had enough money to rip the old one down and build a new one, but ran out of resources before they could move the body of the old. The article showed an unfocused picture of the water tower halfway through its descent, surrounded by onlookers from the town waving their arms behind roped-off areas.
It looked like another hill rising out of the fields, turned rust brown like the earth, blushing with moss, except for the unnatural curve of its body. Callan passed it when she took her exit.
The town was deep in the Virginian woods, three hours from Richmond. Callan ate sunflower seeds and drank gas station coffee to stay focused. Dusty houses crept out of the trees as she wound through tangled back roads, first old farmsteads with chickens and pigs, then plumes of horse fields between the woods, then cottages and playgrounds, rusted swing sets in backyards, trampolines, and finally the squat buildings of Lasar’s downtown, which consisted of a gas pump, a café named Sweet’s, a post office, and Dana’s little blue house on a hill.
She was in the tomato garden. Callan could see her from the road, kneeling in overalls and a turquoise bandana, a ball of gray and blue frizz bobbing among the red and green. With the noise of the car, Dana stood, wiping the sweat from her face and the back of her neck with a dishrag as the car parked.
She said nothing when Callan stepped out of the car and stood beside the garden gate. The last time Callan had seen Dana was six years ago, at an extended family Thanksgiving in the private room of an Italian restaurant in Richmond, cold with too much air conditioning, thick with personalities and the smell of garlic. Callan had been seventeen. Dana had left early.
“Aunt Dana,” Callan said. The sun was in her eyes, and it disoriented her.
“Callan,” said Dana. She wore gardening gloves that were too big for her, swollen paws hanging at her sides. She plucked them from her fingers and tossed them into the garden.
“You didn’t respond to my emails,” said Callan.
Dana didn’t meet Callan’s gaze, instead staring unfocused at something behind her. Callan turned, but there was nothing there except the back of the post office.
“Did you read them?” Callan asked. “Do you know why I’m here?”
“Yes, I read your emails,” said Dana. She wiped her hands on the thighs of her overalls and collected her gloves and trowel, heading back into the blue house. “Come on,” Callan heard Dana say through the glare of the sun. “Inside.”
Callan had never been to the little blue house, but she’d seen pictures, bloated with water damage from her mother’s basement, Dana and her grandfather Sal standing outside, waving. Growing up, other kids in school visited their grandparents on weekends, in rural towns around Virginia, or at the beach, but her mother told her Lasar Falls was too far of a drive.
On the inside, the house was a jungle of books and folders. Callan followed Dana closely, afraid to take a turn too sharply and knock a pile over. The translucent, green curtains drawn across the windows and Dana’s slow gait made her feel as if she were following an underwater creature through a shallow sea.
“Sit down,” said Dana when they reached the kitchen. Callan sat at the kitchen table and pulled out her notebook, a blue spiral bound she’d bought for the trip. The pen was new too.
A photograph of Sal hung beside the clock, one that Callan had in her files, him as a young man with a beard, playing guitar in church. He’d caught sight of the camera at just the right moment, his mouth curled around the vowel he was singing, frozen in a moment of stage fright and glee, staring out at Callan across time.
Dana took a Tupperware container down from the top of the fridge and set it on the table in front of Callan. “Yesterday’s biscuits,” she said. She moved a stack of newspapers to sit at the chair opposite her.
“Thank you,” said Callan, but she didn’t open the container. “It’s good to see you.”
Dana picked up one of the newspapers and fanned herself. She was still sweating from the heat of the tomato patch. The room was cool in the watery shade, but the air was stagnant with the smell of biscuits and damp paper.
“I’m sorry to come unannounced,” said Callan. “But you probably expected I would at some point, if you read my emails.”
Dana continued to stare.
“Is it wrong of me to want to find out what happened?” Callan asked.
Dana closed her eyes for a moment and let out a long, tired breath that stirred the newspapers on the table. “I don’t have any answers for you,” she said.
“Well, that’s why I came down here. I thought maybe someone in town would.”
“No one in town can help you either.”
Callan clicked her ballpoint pen and opened her blue notebook to the front page. Interview / Dana – “No one can help u.”
“I think I’ll just ask around, if that’s alright,” Callan said.
“It isn’t,” said Dana. She opened her eyes and took the lid off the Tupperware. “Have a biscuit.”
“No, thank you, I’m stuffed on sunflower seeds.”
“Have a biscuit and be on your way.”
“Don’t you want to know what happened to your brother?”
Dana put down the newspaper. She looked older than Callan remembered, as if she’d aged much more than six years since leaving the back room of the Italian restaurant. She’d been a long distance runner in her twenties. Callan had blurry photographs in her files of Dana too, ruddy and sweating, crossing finish lines with her ponytail coming loose, hair sticking to her neck and forehead and a dizzy grin splitting across her face. In the blue-green kitchen, Dana’s arm muscles were still taut and knotted, but her skin sagged, especially around her eyes. She had the appearance of someone who had used up her body too quickly.
“Police say he died,” said Dana. “Or split.” She took a biscuit for herself but didn’t eat it, holding it in her lap like a baby bird.
“I don’t think he did either,” said Callan. “I can show you my research. Sal moved back home, to this house in Lasar Falls, after divorcing my grandmother in 1984. That was when he started acting strange. Relatives recall him being ‘nervous’ and ‘physically gaunt’ at the time. Another relative told me he acted ‘culty’, although she wouldn’t go into details about what that meant. And truthfully, I could hear Forensic Files on the background, so she may have been influenced.”
“You’ve been speaking to relatives?” said Dana. “Which ones?”
“The strange behavior went on until 1995,” Callan plowed on, “when he reached out to relatives outside of Lasar Falls and seemed interested in rekindling his connection with family again. Even talked about moving. He spoke to Aunt Goldie that year over the phone. Quote: ‘He told me he used to think Lasar Falls was his salvation, but he didn’t think he could take it anymore.’ None of the relatives knew what that meant. What couldn’t he take anymore? How could this town be his salvation? And all of that led up to April of 1996, which was the last time anyone ever heard from him.”
“Of course I know the story,” said Dana. “He vanished without a trace.”
“Not without a trace,” said Callan. “He called my mom first.”
Crumbs fell to the floor at Dana’s feet.
“You wouldn’t know that,” Callan said. “My mom didn’t tell anyone about it but the police, because the call was so strange.” The kitchen, which first felt cool in the shade of the green curtains, had warmed. Callan felt flush rising in her cheeks and along the sides of her neck. “Do you want to know what he said?”
Callan pulled a creased, worn piece of notebook paper from her back pocket and flattened it against the white tablecloth.
“She wrote it down,” Callan said. “These were the notes she jotted down in 1996 when her dad called her out of the blue at midnight on a Monday. He disappeared the next day.”
The green light of the windows bubbled along the words.
Need yr help
Dozens of them living in old pt of Lasar Falls
The town knows
Dana stared at the note, but her eyes didn’t move, as if it were written in a language she didn’t know how to read. After a moment, she delicately folded the paper in half and held it out to Callan.
“The police always said it was possible he’d gotten early onset dementia,” Dana said. “Just wandered off into the woods and got lost.”
Callan took the paper. Dementia story again, she wrote in her notebook.
“Who was living in the old part of Lasar Falls, Aunt Dana?” she asked. “Dozens of them — dozens of who? He said the town knew. Does that mean you knew?”
Dana pushed the Tupperware across the table toward Callan, knocking over a saltshaker. “This is your last chance for a biscuit,” she said, “and then I think you’d better leave.”
The room had grown almost unbearably hot, and Callan saw an angry red blush creeping across Dana’s face too. The effort seemed to drain her, and Dana looked older than ever.
Biscuits, Callan wrote in her notebook.
“I’m sorry to have bothered you,” she said, flipping the notebook shut. “But if you won’t help me, I’ll find my answers somewhere else.”
Callan stood and retreated through the labyrinth of papers and books, anxious for a moment that she might lose her way, until she arrived at the front door, sweating and desperate for fresh air.
Outside, the sun splintered through the wet tree leaves, freckling the tomato garden and the buildings downtown. Two people stood behind the post office, looking up at Dana’s little blue house. They were young men, not much older than Callan, fists pushed down into the pockets of their jeans, watching. One shaded his eyes from the sun as Callan approached.
“Hi,” she said. She wondered for a moment whether she should shake their hands, then thought better of it. “I’m Callan Degan. My grandfather was Sal Maxwell. Have you heard of him?”
Up close, the young men looked much older than she’d realized. Their skin was pale and loose, still pocked with acne scars, and their eyes sagged like Dana’s.
“Nope,” said one of them.
“Never,” said the other.
The back of Callan’s neck prickled. She turned. Dana stood watching them in the doorway of the house.
“There’s an old part of Lasar Falls, isn’t there?” Callan asked. “Could you point me toward it?”
One of the young men squinted at her, his eyes bright green and glittering with sunlight. “Nope,” he said.
The other man waved at Dana over Callan’s shoulder.
Swaying in the sun before the two men’s sagging gazes, Callan felt a moment of self-conscious uncertainty. The manic weeks of pouring through archived newspapers and letters from her grandfather, spinning rolodexes searching for relatives who weren’t dead, had been heady and dreamlike, from the day her mother first told her about the note. In fact, with each step leading her here to this parking lot, she’d felt giddier, even being told by the police that they wouldn’t reopen the investigation, even her mother telling her not to drive to Lasar Falls to look for trouble. Now in the parking lot, watched by the men and by Dana, the bubbles of euphoric mystery that had steadily simmered in the pit of her stomach died down and left her feeling childish and sweaty.
The men said nothing, only watched her as she squinted in the sun, uncertain of what to do next.
“Thank you,” she said, hoping they hadn’t noticed her falter. “I’ll ask around town, then.”
Callan walked around the post office without looking back at Dana. Her shoes crunched on the gravel. The streets seemed empty, other than a young boy sitting with a basset hound near the gas pump. The boy waved, and Callan waved back before walking into the café called Sweet’s.
It was air conditioned inside. A girl looking high school age stood with her elbows on the counter reading a paperback. She stared when Callan stepped inside.
“Hi,” said Callan. “A coffee?”
The girl didn’t move for a moment, then earmarked her page and set the book down.
“Sure,” she said. “Who’re you?”
“I’m Callan Degan,” Callan said. She sat at the counter beside the book. It was one of those dystopian young adult novels, its cover swollen and pocked with water damage. “Dana Maxwell is my aunt.”
“Huh,” said the girl, pulling a mug out from beneath the counter. Her hands shook as she poured, as if the coffee pot was too heavy for her frail arms – and they were frail, Callan noticed. Her bones poked out of her shoulders, and her muscles were thin and taut under her skin, just like Dana’s. As she set the coffee on the counter, Callan realized her eyes sagged like the men’s.
“I just came for a visit,” said Callan. “How long have you lived here?”
“My whole life,” said the girl. “Like most people.”
“Is there a blood drive going on?”
The girl blinked at her.
“Your arm,” said Callan. “Sorry, I just noticed.”
The girl looked down at the cotton ball in the crook of her elbow, attached by a piece of blue tape. A green and purple bruise seeped out on either side like an oil spill.
“Yeah,” the girl said, picking her book back up. “They come to our school sometimes.”
The door jingled. Callan looked over her shoulder.
Three men entered the café, the sleeves of their T-shirts rolled up to their shoulders, their faces covered in a sheen of summer sweat. They nodded to the girl and sat at a booth in the corner.
“Just a sec,” said the girl, putting her book down again.
Callan pulled out her notebook as the girl left with the coffee pot. Sagging eyes, she wrote. Pale, limp skin. Coincidence that everyone looks like that?
She looked around the café, trying to remember any significant details Dana had let slip. Nothing but biscuits and denials, that she could recall. One of the men gestured to the girl as she filled his coffee pot and she leaned over, putting her ear close to his mouth. The man’s lips moved, and Callan felt the back of her neck prickle again.
Weird feeling, Callan wrote, then scratched it out. She needed to be scientific, inputting the facts and outputting the truth. If she could ask the right questions, go down the right streets, and notice the right details, she could find out what had happened here in 1996.
The girl returned with the pot. “Refill?” she asked.
“Oh, I haven’t even had a sip yet.”
The girl shuffled, still holding the pot. She looked at Callan as if expecting her to say something.
“How much do I owe you?” Callan asked, feeling nearly as nervous as the girl looked.
“Oh,” said the girl. “Don’t worry about it.”
She turned her back on the room to put away the coffee pot, pulling out a new bag of coffee filters to make a fresh batch.
Callan took a sip of her coffee but didn’t taste it. The men from the corner booth were staring.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Callan said, clearing her throat. “The new water tower. I saw the old one they tore down, but where’s the new one? I haven’t seen it.”
The girl’s back stiffened, or maybe it was Callan’s imagination.
The door to the café jingled again. This time it was two women who entered. They sat in a booth near the men.
“We’ll have a fresh brew on in a sec,” the girl called. She rested her elbows on the counter and picked her book back up, thumbing through until she found her page.
The City Walkers, Callan wrote in her notebook, which was the title of the paperback.
“The water tower?” Callan prompted.
The girl dragged her eyes away from the page as if sucked into a particularly engrossing sentence. “Oh, right,” she said. “They never built it. Ran out of money.”
“Really? I read a newspaper article that said they only ran out of money when they started to move the old one.”
“Yeah, what I said.” Her eyes drifted back to the page. “They ran out of money.”
The door jingled again, and Callan turned. A woman stood in the doorway of the café, holding herself up with two canes decorated with fake holly berries. Callan couldn’t have started to guess at her age. The canyons of her face hollowed with shadows from the white overhead light of the café. Her eyes, which flushed yellow where they should have been white, searched out of the gaunt holes where they lived. She wore a Virginia is for lovers T-shirt, revealing chicken leg arms speckled with pockmarks, which Callan realized after a moment were finger-shaped bruises, as if every time someone touched her, the dark blood in her arms rushed to the surface.
One of the men stood from the booth and pulled out a chair for the woman. She sank laboriously into it, clutching her canes over her lap as she rested, panting.
“Dr. Wellington,” said the girl. She closed her book without earmarking it. “Can I get you something to eat?”
The woman nodded. The girl shuffled through the cabinets, hunting for food.
Virginia is for lovers, Callan wrote.
The atmosphere in the café changed. The women, who had been chatting with their heads close together at their booth, went silent, and the men perched on the edges of their seats as if each hoping to be the next person to offer someone a chair.
The woman with the canes, whose whole body trembled with each breath, pointed across the room with a shaking finger.
Callan felt an exhilarated trill of terror when she saw the finger was pointing at her. She stood, clutching her notebook, and walked to the woman’s table without further invitation. The woman looked up, her mouth dry and curled like a dead caterpillar.
“The men told me you’re looking for someone,” said the woman.
Her voice was the only indication she was younger than eighty. It was weak, but it was clear, and it didn’t croak with age.
“My grandfather,” said Callan, very aware that the café was silent except for the whir of the air conditioning. “Sal Maxwell. Did you know him?”
“Know him?” said the woman. “I saved his life.”
The way she said it made it sound like a joke, but no one in the café laughed.
“How’s that?” Callan asked.
“I saved all their lives,” said the woman. She smiled. Callan thought her lips might bleed from the effort. “I’m a doctor.”
Town physician, Callan wrote in her notebook.
“Where is he now?” she asked.
“Where all the others are, waiting.”
“In the old part of town.”
“And where is that?”
The woman lifted her shaking arm and pointed out the café door, into the trees.
Callan’s heart grated against her windpipe. She turned, tucking her notebook into her back pocket, but the woman caught hold of her wrist. The grip was strangely strong. Her skin was cold like a corpse.
“A fair warning,” said the woman. “We’re a town that will do anything to protect our loved ones.”
The spot on her wrist where the woman grabbed her burned like frostbite in the summer air as Callan stepped into the parking lot and struck out toward the trees. She kept her eyes straight ahead, though the streets weren’t empty anymore. The boy with the basset hound stood with other silent figures at the gas pump, and more crowded around the post office, and there were eyes in the windows of the houses.
She worried for a moment that she wouldn’t know the way forward, and she’d have to go back and ask the woman for more specific instructions, but as she approached the trees, she saw a dirt path cutting through the underbrush, and above it, its bald, metallic head glistening in sunlight, the very top of the new water tower breached over the trees. Callan entered the forest.
The people of the town followed.
Spiderwebs clung to her sweaty face. Gnats quivered in her peripherals. The path wasn’t overgrown as she’d expected, but well trodden and wide, though the forest was thick. Movement bubbled in the leaves, the townspeople curling around her like sheep dogs, snaking through the forest alongside her on unseen paths. She heard them whispering at first, their voices growing louder, less self-conscious with every step.
“…Have to feel sorry, in a way…”
“…It’s a good thing… Dana should be pleased… having more of the family around…”
“…It’s a gift to the girl…”
“…Sal would have wanted…”
“…Sal never wanted any of this…”
“…Came to his senses for a while there…”
They know Sal, Callan thought, making a mental note to write it down when she was less winded. Something appeared through the trees, something metallic growing larger as she walked.
Callan stepped out of the woods into the old part of town and leaned on her knees to catch her breath. She’d expected ruined, wooden structures, sagging with mildew and claimed by the weeds. Instead, it was a large, dark metal box, almost like a shipping container, neatly trimmed by a clean, fresh garden of flowers. The only thing about the clearing that looked old was the water tower, which rusted bright red along its sides.
Callan turned to find Dana panting beside her. She put her hands on her hips and looked up at the tower, huffing.
“It gets worse,” Dana said. “The fatigue. Once you start making donations.”
For the first time, Callan saw that Dana had a small red dot in the crook of her elbow. Blood donations, Callan thought, but she didn’t have time to look for her notebook. The townspeople milled around the clearing, plucking at weeds in the garden, watching her with sun-shaded eyes. Ignoring a growing feeling of unease, and ignoring her mother’s voice in her head saying, “Don’t go to Lasar Falls looking for trouble,” Callan walked into the metal box through a door in its side.
The temperature instantly dropped. A pale red glow washed over her. She stood at the entrance of a long, brightly lit hallway lined with coffin-sized glass containers filled with dark red liquid, like a contaminated aquarium. The overhead light buzzed, or maybe the noise was coming from inside her head. Her feet drew her down the avenue of glass and crimson.
Red, she thought, but she worried she’d shake too hard to ever write again.
She read the names as she went, neatly labeled in the corner of each container — Sydney Caldwell… Derek Place… Emily Lynn Neely — and hoped she’d reach the end without finding it, hoped she’d keep walking and emerge in the sunlight on the other side of the metal box unhindered, but about halfway down, there it was, on the side of one of the scarlet tanks:
Callan turned to stare into the red tank, uncertain what she was looking for.
But she knew it when she saw it: three pale, white dots, creased with wrinkles. The backside of a hand’s knuckles pressing against the glass, the only part of the hand visible in the opaque liquid, as if the hand was gently reaching out to her, to say, “It’s me. I’m here.”
Callan reappeared on the other side of the metal box to find the townspeople waiting for her. The sun warmed the goosebumps on her skin. The woman with the canes stood in the center of the crowd, held up by the others, waning in the heat.
“Blood,” Callan said, though she felt as though she had no control over her voice.
“Yes,” smiled the woman. “After decades of research, I’ve discovered the trick to eternity. They’ll wait, suspended, until we develop the science to resurrect them. For us left behind, that’s the only price for seeing your loved ones again: blood. And when we’re too old and frail to carry on outside of the boxes, our loved ones will make the same sacrifice, until a cure can be found.”
“Your grandfather didn’t understand,” said Dana. “But don’t worry. He’ll be back when he’s ready.”
“And so will you,” said the girl from the café.
The last thing Callan saw was the scarlet rust on the water tower.
About the Author:
Graham Marema hails from the blue foothills of the Smoky Mountains, whose gullies and lakes continue to inspire her writing. She studied creative writing at Davidson College and currently works in East Tennessee as an advocate for conservation and renewable energy policy. Twitter: @GrahamMarema