I don’t know why I chose that day to refuse my pills. Maybe because it was my sixteenth birthday and I felt rebellious. Or maybe it was because, later that day, I would be going to work with my father. My stomach lurched with anxiety, I had barely touched my food.
“I don’t feel well, dad,” I said, withdrawing my hand.
“You need to take your medicine, just like everybody else.”
“No! It tastes horrible. I hate it.”
Almost as a non-verbal cue, my mother threw her own into her mouth and downed some OJ in two well practised movements. Her fiery gaze sent shivers through me.
“Fine,” I said, placing my hand out in front of my father, not breaking eye contact with my mom.
Dad forced the pill into my hand with a scowl. I popped it in my mouth and washed it down with water, a mirror image of mom. I smirked.
“Thank you,” she said, plunging her spoon into her cereal, breaking eye contact.
“I can’t eat,” I said, “can I be excused?”
“Sure,” my dad replied, “you have ten minutes before we leave. Do not be late.”
“Yes, sir,” I said hopping off the chair.
“What did you say?” my dad growled.
God, I hated family time. It was forced upon me. We rarely talked, only shovelling down the tasteless food in unison. It was as if the whole charade was orchestrated to keep an eye on me, to make sure I took my tablets. That day was going to be different, I was older and wiser.
I sat in front of the toilet and fished out the slimy and chalky white pill from my mouth, dropping it into the bowl, before flushing. The paste that covered my gums was bitter and revolting. I ran the tap, swilling water in my mouth eagerly to remove the taste. It was the first time I had done this and the anxiety that built in my empty stomach now rose, sending ice cold tingles through me.
My head spun as we drove through town. Beads of sweat swelled and dribbled down my face.
“You’re a tad warm,” my dad said, holding his hand to my brow as he used the other to steer.
“I told you I didn’t feel well.”
He withdrew his hand, placing it back on the wheel, hunching forward as he saw out-of-towners saunter down main street.
“You see them?” he said, pointing with his eyes, “Jim told me one wanted to move here. It disgusts me.”
I watched the tourists as they wandered up the street. They seemed fine to me. I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Though I heard it from everyone; my mother, my teachers and my friends. No outsiders was sort of a motto for our town.
Main street stretched around half a mile, it encompassed the whole town, rising up into the mountains. We didn’t get many visitors until a blogger had come along and took photos of the scenic Little Rock Falls. The waterfall began halfway down the rocky slopes on the far end of town. I have to admit it was a sight to see. We’d camp up there frequently. The mayor held the annual fete there. I loved those days, I’d get to hang out with all my friends. Even the ones that were home schooled. We’d play baseball, eat burgers and swim in the ice cold water. Our parents thought us crazy, but we were kids and we did what kids do.
That blogger though. He added our little place to a Top 10 hidden vistas you have to see to believe post, and ever since then the outsiders flocked here. We had no hotel to speak of, so they’d usually camp in their RVs out by Little Rock. Last summer, one RV burnt to the ground. My father was overjoyed. I heard him on the phone, gloating. I was fairly certain he wasn’t involved, though it was obvious he knew what happened. A happy little accident he called it. Two little boys and their father burned alive in their sleep.
It was seen as a triumph. The out-of-towners stayed away for a bit. Now it was summer again, they had come back in force.
“Why don’t you like them dad?” I asked, my new rebellious streak shouting loud and proud.
“Why?” he mimed spitting, “Just look at them, boy.”
I did. I didn’t see what the problem was. It was unusual to see people of a different colour. I’d only ever seen them on TV before. But it didn’t bother me.
Once, one of them gave me a lift home when I missed the school bus. When I say bus, it was more of an SUV driven by one of my father’s friends. I thanked the man, who was as friendly as a neighborhood cat. When my father saw him, he raced towards the car. It was as if the man had seen a rabid dog. The tires screeched as the panicked man fled. My shoulders sunk and I felt tremendously bad for him. Dad chased after him fruitlessly. Dad’s anger didn’t diminish, he returned to me and whacked me around the side of the head.
I remember standing there, holding my ear as it throbbed with heat and pain. Dad shouted at me, telling me never to get into a car with an out-of-towner, especially not a… I can’t repeat it now knowing what it’d meant.
“You’re lucky you have an old man like me that knows how to keep this place in order. It’s people like your Daryl’s dad who are the problem. He’s trying to get the money together to open a motel. As soon as that happens this place is going to go to shit. Not if I have anything to do with it. And thank good old Jesus that most of us here still think like me. If we get our way, he’ll be gone and out of this town just like that RV.”
It was those words that shocked me. I’d never heard my father speak so candidly. I was beginning to wish I’d never turned sixteen, or at least kept my mouth shut.
My face burned more. I wished I was home and in bed.
The incline increased as we left the populated area of town and ascended into the mountains. My dad’s shoulders relaxed and he rested back into his seat. Colour rushed back into his knuckles as the vice like grip he had on the wheel eased. He let out a huge sigh. I was relieved.
We pulled up outside the pumping station. As I exited the car, all I could hear was the fierce sound of water falling hundreds of feet and crashing into rocks in the near distance. I’d never been to work with my father before, but had always wanted to. My legs staggered and my head swam as I followed him into the metal building. I longed for bed.
He handed me a hardhat, a bright, yellow, plastic helmet way too big for my head. I put it on, the sweat from my skin soaked into the nasty, old foam. Dad signed a book in reception before leading me out into a large cavernous room. The sound of motors and loud machinery reverberated around the walls, so loud it was hard to hear my father speak.
“This is where the water is treated before it is sent to small tanks underneath this building. Gravity then does the rest. Anytime you drink out of a tap, that’s where it’s coming from,” he spoke as you’d expect a teacher to. He was well versed. I suspected he had done this before, “Now we don’t only treat the water here, we also generate power.”
We walked up a metal staircase. Our footsteps clanged out, but were lost in the cacophony of the machinery.
He pointed out a window and down at Little Rock Falls.
“At the top of that curtain of water, there’re two large hydroelectric motors. One that serves to generate power, and the other a backup in case the first fails. I think you’d admit they did a great job hiding the dam and making it look natural, like mother nature intended.”
“Hi Ned,” a man in similar garb to my father said, “is that your boy?”
Dad nodded, but didn’t talk.
“Nice to meet you, I’m your dad’s boss,” he smiled at me and then to my father.
I shook the man’s hand. Dad’s face flushed red, and he did his best to feign a smile.
“Say, Ned, I need to speak to you about the water quality. There’s been some anomalies reported back from the lab. Can I see you later?”
My dad turned his head downward to hide his anger.
“Is it okay to do this tomorrow? I have my boy with me today.”
“Oh, sure, sure,” the man said, “I’m not feeling too well. I think I’ll finish early today, if you don’t mind. See you tomorrow right? Don’t forget.”
“I won’t, jackass,” dad said under his breath.
“I won’t, sir,” dad replied, politely.
The man’s confused expression vanished and was replaced by a warming smile.
“Nice you meet you…”
“Sam,” I said.
“Sam, what a nice name.”
The man trotted down the metal staircase. Dad gripped my hand tightly and marched me along the viewing gallery and into an office.
He slammed the door and began to pace.
“He seemed nice,” I said, trying to break the silence.
“NICE?” dad said lunging at me, spittle flying out of his mouth and mixing with the sweat that clung to my face, “he’s one of THEM!”
I fell to the floor. Stars gathered in my vision. I propped myself up as best I could. My father didn’t notice, or at least didn’t care.
“Everything was going smoothly until HE was sent here. We’re FUCKED, do you understand what that means?”
“I don’t feel well.”
“I’ve been doing this job for twenty years now. I don’t need no outsider telling me how to do my job. He won’t even drink the water! He brings his own God damned bottled shit. But do you know what I’ve been doing? I’ve been taking his bottles and filling them with OUR water. He doesn’t even suspect.”
He let out a maniacal laugh.
“Doesn’t even know.”
“Could I have some water, please?”
He continued to pace.
“He’s been here a week! He’ll be gone though, like all the others,” he held his hand to his mouth to stifle laughter.
“He’ll be lucky if he only gets diarrhoea. I’d love to be there when the stomach cramps start. I’d laugh in his FUCKING face.”
My vision became hazy, blackness gathered at the edges of my sight and slowly grew larger.
“What we do, we put a little bit of something in the water supply. Just a tad. We’ve been increasing it over time. Everyone in town has been prepared. That’s why it’s so important you take your pills. Soon, we will get to the point where even as much as a sip of the water will cause an outsider to lurch over with crippling stomach cramps. Without medical care they will be dead within days, maybe even hours. We have to be careful though. Need it to look like food poisoning.”
“Help, dad, I think I’m passing out.”
“Daryl’s dad, we’ve been giving him antacids. He doesn’t know the difference. Soon he won’t be wanting to make that motel anymore. But the damn guy’s tolerance is too high! No matter, we’ll sort something out.”
“Dad?” I said, flopping backwards and onto the floor. The sound of me hitting metal stirred my father from his rant.
“Son! Let me get you some water.”
“No,” I said as my eyelids grew heavier.
He returned with a glass of water and held it to my mouth. I choked trying not to take back the liquid.
“I didn’t take my pill this morning.”
That was the last thing I said before I passed out.
I woke to find myself in my bed. My head throbbed. It was as if knives were stabbing me in my stomach
“Take this,” my mother said politely.
First I stared at the pill I had taken hundreds of times before, and then stared at my mother’s eyes. They were calm now, but I knew if I refused anger would grow and I’d panic. I popped it in my mouth and washed them down with fresh OJ.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Dad’s trying to kill the outsiders,” I said.
She shook her head, gave me a concerned look, then stroked my hair.
“He’s protecting us and our way of life. Your father is a hero.”
He wasn’t my hero and I needed to stop him.