The sun rises in Sacramento, and two boys wake to the sound of the ocean.
Their day begins all at once. The older boy wakes the younger boy with a quick kiss on his forehead, then gathers his belongings - a rusted switchblade and a canteen. He pulls on his boots and helps the younger boy with his. The younger boy rubs his eyes with his fists, his hair still matted to his face with a sticky sheen of sleep. His skin, as pale as starlight, is mottled with an archipelago of sores. Both boys are so thin the wind could snap them in half.
They step out. The atmosphere in the neighborhood is hot like breath, full of trash and rust. Radios blare from every direction, little metallic voices shouting over each other, all about Kairos. The water barely breaches the knees of the boys’ rubber boots. With gentle splashes, they wade in, leaving ripples in the wakes of their steps, and set off for higher land.
Thirst turns the boys into magpies. The flood steals everything it can, so the older boy holds the things worth keeping close to his body - the switchblade nestled in his pocket, the canteen slung around his torso. His brother’s hand, never leaving his.
During the flood season, the older boy pays special attention to his brother. The water is tantalizing as it laps against the boys’ calves on one hundred and ten degree days, but it is full of parasites that could eat away at his brother’s bone and sinew until there’s nothing left of him but a husk of empty skin. These are the thoughts that fill the older boy’s nightmares.
The boys stopped being ashamed to steal long ago. Each day is another quest for water. They venture onto dry land, the high places the tide has not yet reached, where cracks crisscross the parched earth like a maze of open wounds. They sneak into gated communities where the lawns are just as green as they were hundreds of years ago.
Garden hoses, lawn sprinklers - these are the linchpins of the boys’ lives. Fire hydrants are risky, but on the driest, most desperate days, the older boy will pare one’s valve open with his switchblade and fill the canteen, then take his brother’s hand and run.
Today, it only takes them ten minutes to find a lawn sprinkler. They drink with wild abandon until their bellies slosh, and they fill their canteens until they bulge like ripe peaches. Then they make a game out of it, craning their necks and running in circles around the spray to catch the rotating streams of water in their mouths. They push each other and tumble about, giggling wildly, a blur of glistening skin. They kneel, staining their calves with grass and mud, and wash their hair and bodies. Once they’re clean, they lie down, reveling in the cool dew, and tell each other tales about the clouds. For today, their thirst is slaked.
The boys peer through the windows of the houses that can afford televisions. The news has been reporting on Space Shuttle Kairos for months now. The same footage is shown every day - a colossal silver tower in the Mojave Desert, a whale breaching in a sea of sand, ringed by barbed wire fences and American soldiers toting assault rifles. A camp wraps around the launch site, a miscellany of luxury tents, minivans, recreational vehicles. From the aerial view of the news drones, it could be mistaken for a great scarf.
In two days, Kairos will launch and begin to orbit Earth at ninety nine percent of the speed of light. A century on Earth will be twenty five years aboard Kairos, a version of Earth without thirst, without pain, available to those who can afford to wait out the storm and let the world lie fallow.
A great weight settles in the older boy’s gut. He stares down the television screen with a caustic mixture of envy and outrage. He understands that the passengers on Kairos are the people who caused the disaster, the people who ran the mines and factories that destroyed the very marrow of the planet. It’s enough to turn his blood to acid.
He also understands that there is a nearly empty pill canister hidden in the floorboards back home.
He wishes he didn’t have to understand so much.
After a day of scavenging and exploring, the boys return to their parents’ house. The house is propped up on cinder blocks caked in barnacles and scum, the ocean having eaten away at its foundation. The neighborhood shrinks every year, unmooring itself from the continent and sloughing little by little into the sea.
The younger boy falls to the floor, coughing. The older boy isn’t shaken - he moves so swiftly, so naturally that it could be a series of reflexes. He holds his brother by the shoulders as the boy convulses and lets out whoops, straining to force air through a throat wrung tight. He hacks a yellow-green clot of phlegm onto the floor. A few drops of sickly broth dribble from his mouth.
The older boy uses the hem of his shirt to wipe the tears from his brother’s cheeks and the fluids from his chin. He pries away the loose floorboard and twists open the canister hidden beneath. Three pills left - his heart sinks - and he shoves one into his brother’s mouth and tips the boy’s head back so it falls down his gullet.
He holds him and tells him it’s okay, begging him not to cry - tears are water, after all.
There are two framed pictures on the floor of the house - portraits of the boys’ mother and father. Not even the older boy remembers how they died, although he often tries. Some nights, he uses the hand-crank lantern to illuminate the pictures and tell his brother stories about their parents.
“They were magicians,” he says sometimes. “A witch and a wizard. And it’s only a matter of time until we get their magic.”
The younger boy knows these stories are lies, but they’re comfortable lies, the warm kind he can wrap himself up in.
He remembers his parents’ lullabies. Each night, he sings aloud until his brother falls asleep.
Some nights, he suffocates under the weight of all his secrets. He wishes he could confess to somebody how he snuck into the dry neighborhoods last night and left his brother alone for the first time ever, how his hand shook as he held his switchblade to the neck of a well-dressed stranger, how he has done terrible things because every good doctor is fleeing to the sky.
He reaches into his pocket and worries the ticket - his brother’s ticket to recovery. The future is coming too quickly, and the present is slipping away, sloughing into the flood. Tomorrow, the boys will wake early to hitchhike to the Mojave Desert, and in two days, the older boy will say goodbye to his brother forever. But there is still tonight, and tonight, he sings his brother a tune so sweet on his own throat it may as well be water.
Sam Wachman is a writer and cat enthusiast from Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2018, he was one of eight young writers to win a Gold Medal Portfolio at the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. His writing has appeared in The Best Teen Writing of 2018. He is a freshman at Brandeis University.