The Scavenger’s Jar

It stood taller than Elijah, wrapped in layers and layers of light fabric that wafted around its’ frame as the boom of air settled. His chest heaved from where he stood in the corner, holding tight the broom his mother had thrown in earlier. You need to sweep that hellhole! she’d said with a laugh just before leaving for work, and all Elijah could think was that she was being literal and somehow, his messy room had summoned a demon.

Under a large gauzy hood he could make out a human face, but he was utterly certain that there must have been horns as well. A large hump rose from its shoulder and back. He held the broom out, and in response, the demon whipped a long staff out of a loop of rope on its hip and pointed it at him.

“You must take me to the town water,” it said in a voice that was sharp but entirely too high to belong to a demon.

“The what?”

“Town water.” The demon sized him up so obviously that it seemed an exaggeration, then slid the staff in the scabbard. It reached up with normal human hands and tossed the hood back to reveal an average human head behind the light fabric. Its hair was jagged, dark, and cut short over dusky olive skin.

The demon was just a tall woman, dressed in drab, dusty fabric that covered her from head to toe. Even the hump on her back was just a bag, not some demonic deformity. It rattled and clanked loudly as she shifted her balance. She sighed and gathered the fabric of her cloak up to glance at what looked like an ice cream sandwich with a screen clipped to her belt. She squinted, then smacked it with her palm. Dust drifted to the ground at her feet.

“I need to hurry,” she said. “This passage is not forever.”

Elijah was sure that if he opened and closed his mouth enough times, he would eventually find the words he was looking for. All he managed was a sort of panicked screech.

She took four long steps forward and grabbed his chin in a strong grip. “Are you a broken mechanic?” She pulled his mouth open and peered in. “I see no mechanical parts.”

He shook his head to get away from her dry fingers. Up close he could see the dryness of her skin, the red and peeled sunburn on her forehead. “I’m not mechanical. Are you mechanical?”

She stepped back. “Of course not. Mechanics break in the time stream.”

“The time — what are you?” he finally asked.

“It does not matter,” she said. “I will be gone soon. I need the town water. Please hurry.”

“Like, the water plant? I have never even seen the water plant. Why can’t you just use the faucet?”

Her face went slack. She licked her lips and exhaled. “You have faucet near? Does it work?”

The question was so far beyond his capacity for weirdness that for a moment he felt the panic subside, the situation was so absurd that he couldn’t possibly be surprised by anything else. He set the broom aside and beckoned for her to follow him through the bedroom door. Maybe if he gave her water, she’d leave and he could go back to wondering what he would eat for dinner while his mom was at work.

The only sound as they walked down the hall was the rattle of her pack — glass, he realized as he listened to it jingle with each step. She had a huge boulder-shaped pack of glass on her back.

He went to the master bedroom — his parents’ bathroom was bigger, with one of those huge rainfall showers and enough room for him, the woman, and her giant bag of glasses.

When they entered the bathroom, she stopped and looked around with her mouth agape. Her frantically shifting gaze settled on the window. She rushed over, her hands on the sill while she looked out into the backyard. “It’s still green,” she said, her voice soft. She looked back to the sink and her face hardened. She set the bag to the ground and flipped the top open.

Every jar was different, as though she had raided the cupboards over his nana’s fridge. She took them out one by one, and without asking, he grabbed the closest one and started to fill it from the faucet.

“Does it matter if it’s hot or cold?”

She laughed, then caught herself as though the sound had surprised even her. “You can make water cold at the spout? Even the rich men would envy you.”

Elijah laughed in return, though she gave him a look that made it clear that he wasn’t as in on the joke as he thought. “Look, I — what’s your name? I’m happy to give you as much water as I can, I guess — can you even carry this much water?” He looked at the jars. “It’s going to be heavy.”

“I can carry the load,” she said stiffly, removing jar after jar. It seemed like the bag would never end, bottomless with empty jars and rusty metal lids. Mason jars and wine jugs and spaghetti jars and jars that weren’t familiar to him at all. Finally, after it had to have been thirty jars or so scattered across his parent’s bathroom tile, she said, “Ecks.”

“What?”

“They call me Ecks — it is my name.”

“Your mom named you Ecks?”

She shrugged. “Someone named me Ecks. It was perhaps a mother or perhaps an aunt. Both are water now.”

“Oh — okay, sure.” He was going to let that slide and maybe come back to it later. “Here, why don’t you put those in the shower? I bet we could fill, like, five or six under the shower head.”

“The what?”

He turned off the faucet and capped his third jar of water. Beckoning her to follow, he opened the glass shower door and turned on the water.

Ecks stared, and her hands went to her mouth as though she might throw up, or cry — maybe both. “This is…” She leaned past him to turn the water off, her hands shaking as she moved the lever. “What is the purpose of rain in your home?”

“It’s just so we can get clean. Do you not…” He looked over her again, her light fabrics caked in dust and her wonder at the greenery outdoors and the water in abundance. Her dry skin. “There’s not a lot of water where you’re from, is there?”

She shook her head.

“And you came…” It all came apart in his head, the layers falling apart to show him the truth at the center of his evening. “You’re from the future, right? You opened a — what’d you call it, a time stream?”

She nodded.

“Okay, you opened a time stream and you came here for water. But why to me?” He started filling a fourth jar of water, mostly to have an excuse to look away from her stare. “Why did you choose my home?”

“A place is not chosen in a time stream. It is like…” Behind him, he heard the shower turn on; looking over his shoulder, he could see Ecks holding a jar as close to the head as she could, careful not to let any water escape. “Hole,” she said finally. “Falling in the place you are. This was where I stood, in my own time. I knew nothing of you.”

“Oh.” He capped a jar and continued the work. Behind him, he could hear Ecks turning off the water, setting a jar on the tile, and then starting the process again. “Did you choose how far back?”

“A guess. Too far back, and the town might not have water. Not far enough, and the rich men would already control the water.”

“You got lucky, then — rich men don’t control our water.”

She snorted.

Elijah set the jar on the counter. “So, what, this is what you do? You just jump around in time and borrow water from the past? What about paradoxes? What about free lunches?”

“To scavenge is an art. I am no scavenger. My sister has been taken in punishment for scavenging.” Another two jars filled in silence. “They do not like when we take what they think to be theirs. She will become water unless I can trade. This may be enough.”

“Become water?”

“Yes. We are all the water. The ones who control water seek to control us.”

Elijah shivered as he reached for a new jar, but there wasn’t another to fill.

Ecks was also finished on the other side of the bathroom. She checked the device on her waist, then nodded. “We’ve made good time, but we still must hurry.” She began to repack her bag, quickly with care.

She shooed Elijah away every time he tried to add a jar or hand her one to add herself. “Can I help?”

“You have helped,” she said.

“I just filled jars. Surely there’s…” He looked around the bathroom, suddenly much more aware of the water he’d never thought twice about except to complain about the heater taking too long. “Wait here.”

He ran to the garage, nearly slipping on the tile of the kitchen as he took a sharp turn to reach the side door. Against the back wall, past the recycling that he had forgotten to wheel out to the curb after dinner, were his mother’s gardening tools. He grabbed a light spade and one of the spare pairs of gardening gloves, then ran back to the bathroom at the opposite end of the house.

After a second, he doubled back and went into the pantry. Buried at the back, ignored as a snack all summer long, were a bunch of unopened bags of trail mix full of nuts and dried fruit — probably the most practical thing he could offer, besides the water. He threw the spade and the trail mix into a spare plastic bag, along with whatever granola bars and wrapped food he could get his hands on. He’d say he had friends over if his mom asked later.

He nearly barreled into Ecks as she marched down the hall to his bedroom. The pack was already perched upon her back, and he could see the sweat beading on her forehead.

“Here.” Elijah pressed the bag into her hand. “It’s food and a shovel. I’m going to bury more water.”

She tilted her head, then shook it as she went back to the bedroom. She pulled her hood back over her head with her spare hand. If he focused, Elijah could hear a faint whine, like what he had heard before Ecks appeared. “Bury water?”

“I have jars too.” Elijah had to raise his voice as the whooshing and whining increased. “Right underneath us, understand? That water will be just for you.”

She stared at him, then nodded. The noise around them was deafening. “You are kind, for a rich man. I will take your gift.” She checked the device again. After seeming to think on it for a moment, she reached into a small pouch and pulled something out. She threw it at him. “Thank you!”

With an odd screech and a pop, she was gone. The absence of sound left him dizzy, and he might have thought he had dreamt it if not for the bauble in his fist. It looked like a small, fine rope, braided with smooth pebbles. He had no idea what it was or what it meant, but it was a gift all the same. He slipped it into his pocket, then went about his task. He pulled jars from the recycling bin and got a shovel from the garage. After he filled each jar with water, he wrapped it in several layers of plastic shopping bags.

“Here’s hoping Mrs. Snyder was right about plastic bags never breaking down,” he said to himself as he made his way to the unfinished basement to start digging.

When his work as done and the sun had long since set, he swept his room.

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.

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