The day was hot and sticky as I sat in the stuffy car waiting for Mum. I wanted her to leave the keys so I could crank the air conditioning but instead she popped the window down and told me to sit tight.
“You’ll be in the shade,” she’d said, “I won’t be long.”
The corner shop – or the Shop, as we called it – sat tired and stooped. It sagged under the summer heat, wilting like a sad flower pot that someone had forgotten to water. Its painted roof was really starting to peel and some amateur artist had traced a smiley face into one of its grimy windows.
There never used to be a line at the Shop. Sometimes, when Dad got paid for a weekend job, he’d place a couple of round, gold coins in my hand and we’d head down to spend them. I always liked the way the doorbell chimed as we entered, announcing our arrival as if we were the most important customers in town. I’d wander amongst the shelves, taking my time and agonising whether to get two packs of bubble gum or five fizzy wheels or ten tangy fruits. I’d count the lollies up in my hand, making sure I always got the best bang for my buck. Lately though, the only thing we seem to come to the Shop for is water.
Three months ago the town council placed a restriction on water use. We first learnt about it from a crumpled flyer snagged in the crack of our front door, which Mum had promptly ignored and tossed out. Then Dad saw it in the paper and moaned about it over breakfast. Then a few days later, it crackled through on the radio after school with a clear and repetitive mantra: conserve, conserve, conserve.
At first we thought it was just for things like watering the garden and taking quicker showers – like the summer of ‘95 the adults all talked about – but it turns out this was much stricter than that. Everything was restricted. You couldn’t water your garden, showering was limited to three times a week and you were lucky if you were allowed to get in two loads of washing. I didn’t mind not showering, I can handle a bit of dirt, but turning my underwear inside out to get a second day’s wear before we could wash it… gross.
So now, a couple of times a week, we’d come down to the Shop to pick up our water allotment. They gave it out in five litre containers that were so heavy I could barely lift one on my own. I’d have to drag it along the ground with its plastic handle digging into my skin. Initially it was a first-come-first-serve system but the store owner was quickly overwhelmed by frantic shoppers. People went a little crazy I think, grabbing not only water, but any liquid they could get their hands on. Once, I caught Mum smirking at a young couple with armfuls of wine bottles. Curious, I’d asked her what was so funny.
“Wine dehydrates you,” she’d laughed harshly, “It’ll make them more thirsty, not less.”
I guess the couple must’ve reminded her about our own wine because that same night, I watched Mum tip six full bottles right down the sink. The red liquid had glugged and swirled as it disappeared down the drain, leaving behind the sharp heady smell of berries in the air. Mum then handed me the bottles and told me to stick them outside on the lawn to catch any rainwater. It was wishful thinking really; it hadn’t rained a drop.
The heat is irritable as I wait in the car. I can feel it pricking at my damp skin through my cotton t-shirt and my legs are slippery against the seat. Pulling my school drink bottle out of my bag, I take a swig of precious water. The liquid is warm with a stale tang but my throat swallows it greedily; there’s not much left. As I gulp it down, I see the shop line inch forward and Mum fanning herself while she waits.
Feeling stuffy and suffocated, I decide to open the car door and get out. The air feels no different on the outside but at least I can stretch my legs and swing my arms – a new trick I’d learnt to cool down. I set my water bottle down on the pavement next to me. Then, standing up tall, I stick my arms straight up above my head and start to move them in big circles. I rotate slowly at first, then I get faster and faster until I reach top speed. Whirling around my body like a vortex, a sweet breeze is created and takes the edge of the heat. I let out a blissful sigh as the rushing air cools the hot sweat on my skin.
As I focus on my propulsion, my arms whirring about, I spot a line of black ants on the pavement. They move closely together, zigzagging fitfully this way and that, with their antennae constantly twitching. Worried that I might blow them over with my swinging arms, I stop and crouch down to look at them more closely.
Their bodies were like shiny black beads, glinting in the harsh sunlight. At first, they skittered as my shadow passed over them, dashing for cover in the concrete cracks. I felt like a predator to them, so big and looming from above, so I froze, crouching stock-still. After a moment or two, the ants poked their heads out of their hiding places and moved back out onto the concrete. One crawled towards me until it was right under my nose. I peered down at it, looking at its spindly legs and round abdomen. It looked like a fat cherry with too many stalks.
Then the ant stood up on two legs. Facing me, the insect pulled itself upright and with its front legs, gestured up and down like a dog begging for a treat. Its little eyes seemed to flash and its pincers mashed together as if shouting something of great importance. Startled, I jerked backwards away from it. The sun instantly filled the space where my head had been and the ant shrunk away from me, skittering back into a dark crack. What was that about?
Curious to see if the ant would return, I tilted my head to block the sun and resumed my motionless stance. My shadow was cast out onto the concrete and sure enough, the little ant came back out of its crack and started its strange hind-legged gesturing. Then another one scurried up next to the first ant, and then another, and another until suddenly there were more than twenty little ant soldiers all bobbing up and down in front of me. My mouth dropped and I stared at them. I’d never seen ants do that before.
“What do you want, little ants?” I asked the gathered crowd.
Now that they had my attention, they all turned in unison towards my drink bottle and hinted towards it with their twitching antennae. They even took a few tentative steps closer to the bottle, stopped and then turned back to me, before repeating their choreographed signal several times. A slow understanding dawned.
“Oh, of course! You’re thirsty!” I smiled.
Snatching up the bottle, I quickly unscrewed it and poured a few droplets into the blue cap before setting it down onto the pavement like a dish. Careful not to move out of the sun, I scooted backwards to give them some space. In an instant, the ants swarmed. Their bodies twisted and blended, turning the blue cap into a writhing black mass. Within moments, the water vanished, gulped down by their tiny parched mouths. As soon as it emptied, they stood up again and renewed their begging. Compelled to help, I hurriedly refilled the cap several times. With each refill, the swarm became more docile, their thirst being slowly quenched until I was shaking the last precious drops out of the bottle.
Satisfied, the ants positioned themselves into a line and, with a final twitch of thanks, scurried off over the pavement and away into cool shadowy cracks.
I’d been so intent on helping them that I hadn’t heard Mum get back to the car. Her pink, polished toenails appeared in my vision as I was screwing the cap back onto the empty bottle.
“Look Mum, I helped th–”
Whack! Pain instantly smacked into the side of my head causing tears to well in my eyes.
“What are you doing wasting water like that?!” She asked angrily, “Do you know how expensive that stuff is! I don’t wait for hours in line so you can tip it out onto the concrete!”
“But the ants were thirsty…” I protested.
“The ants? The ANTS?! Get in the car now, young lady.”
The car ride home was silent. I wiped my eyes and sniffed. It wasn’t fair. The ants couldn’t line up at the Shop to get water. They didn’t have any money to pay for it either. And I bet, even with a million ants helping, they wouldn’t be able to move one of those five litre containers. Even if they could, how would they get it open? I was only trying to help. Folding my arms across my chest, I resolved to find a way to get more water for them.
Mum pulled us into the driveway and turned off the ignition. Turning towards me, she placed her hand on my knee and told me she was sorry for hitting me.
“It’s just a tough time right now and we need to conserve as much water as we can.”
“I know that! But the ants were thirsty too! I was only trying to help them.”
“Yes, well sometimes nature can be cruel, honey, and if the ants are meant to survive they will.”
I shook my head in hurt confusion. Parents were always telling their children to share but now all of a sudden it wasn’t okay to give my water to the ants. It didn’t make sense. My resolve hardened.
My dinner plate sat in front of me; a Dad special of sausages and mashed potato. I poked at the white starch with my fork but found I was too distracted to eat. My mind was thinking of how I can get some water for my new ant friends. Mum poured me a small glass of water to have with dinner. At first I thought I could maybe sneak some out of the bottle when she wasn’t looking but it wouldn’t work. Now that we’re rationing, every time we use the water, she takes a black permanent marker and draws a line along the side, like measuring our height as we grow, only now the amount shrinks. She’d know instantly if I took any.
Maybe I could just use the leftover laundry water. Dad had moved the drainage hose in the back to capture the water again, so he could reuse it for washing the car. I could sneak into the laundry and fill a bottle after Mum and Dad have put me to bed. I shook my head. It had soap all through it, I don’t think the ants would like that. Suddenly, Mum’s palm slapped the table, bringing me back from my thoughts and into the dining room.
“I reminded you three times to bring the towels in,” Mum said, exasperated.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry. I’ll grab them right after dinner,” Dad apologised.
“Forget it. There’s no point now; they’ll be all damp from the dew. Just leave them out and bring them in tomorrow.”
My ears pricked up at the word ‘dew’. I cut a piece of sausage and shoved it in my mouth. Chewing slowly, a plan slowly formulated in my head and I smiled.
The house is dark and quiet. It’s been half an hour since the sliver of light under my doorway went out and I’m sure both Mum and Dad are asleep by now. Slipping silently out of bed, I edge over to my bedroom door. I hold my breath and slowly turn the door handle until it opens just a crack. I peer through and watch intently for a moment. Nothing moves. Satisfied it’s safe to proceed, I sneak from my bedroom and down the hallway towards the linen closet.
In a flash I open the wooden door and snatch as many towels as I can wrap my scrawny arms around. Hoisting the bundle up towards my chest, I then move as silent as a shadow for the backdoor. The golden knob is cool in my hand and I click the lock open while trying to keep the fluffy towels from spilling onto the floor. Once the backdoor is unlocked, I bump it ajar with my hip. It swings out wide, too wide. It bangs on its hinges, sounding a loud boom into the cool night air. I freeze, my breath caught in my chest. I wait, statue-like, for Mum and Dad’s bedroom light above to flicker on but nothing happens. The bedroom stays dark and my parents snooze on. I let out a sigh of relief and step out onto the lawn.
The grass is wet and slick under my bare feet. The dew has already formed and I feel an excitement grow in my chest. I quickly set to work, laying out the towels end-to-end, up and down the lawn. Next I dash to the washing line, pull Dad’s forgotten chore down and place them onto the last remaining patch of grass along the fence. I then adjust each one carefully, making sure there’s no spaces left between them, until our backyard grass is turned into a mismatched patchwork quilt. Finally, I kneel down onto the edge of the towels and spread my arms and legs out long. Like a rolling pin, I start to turn over and over and over. My vision blurs, flicking quickly back and forth between the night sky and the dark sweet smell of fabric softener. In minutes, I’ve flattened the whole yard.
Panting, I stand up and admire my handiwork. Dark patches of moisture are already blooming like flowers in the fabric. A grin spreads across my lips – it’s going to work! Suppressing a giggle, I sneak back into the house, dive under the covers and fall instantly asleep.
The next morning I woke up early to the sound of Mum’s angry tones and Dad’s laughter. I sit upright and listen carefully.
“Is this some kind of joke, David?” Mum demanded, “Is this payback for me nagging you last night?”
“I swear, it wasn’t me!” He responds.
I pull the covers off me and run out into the hallway.
“It was me! It was me!” I announced proudly, “I’m going to use the dew to get water for the ants!”
Mum stared at me, “What are you talking about?”
“The ants! They’re thirsty but they can’t line up at the Shop and buy water like we can. This way we’ll have extra water to share with them.”
Dad moved over to me and ruffled my hair. Mum shook her head but she was smiling at me.
“That’s a great idea, honey. Do you want some help to wring the water out?” Dad asked me.
“Okay, let’s do it now before the sun dries them out.”
Grabbing a bucket, I headed out to the backyard to fetch my precious water. Now every time we visit the Shop, I take a special bottle of water, just for the ants.
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