Kevin’s dad drove the huge water truck out the town gate every Wednesday morning. The brake lights glowed bright red when the truck stopped and the guards opened the gate. The lights dimmed, then disappeared as the truck rolled out beyond the town’s fortified walls. On those mornings, Kevin’s mom always woke early to boil the water and pour coffee into his dad’s big thermos. She packed him the best of their pantry: seasonal fruit from Mr. Abernathy, and some of the peanut butter Mrs. Kalb made every week.
Kevin’s dad came back every Friday at noon. Like clockwork.
For those two and a half days Kevin was Man of the House. After Tutor, he fed the chickens and helped his mom milk cows and harvest vegetables and did all the outdoor chores. Then Friday after Tutor, he and his friends and everyone else went to the town square and set down their buckets and bottles to mark their spot in line. Sometimes, if the week had been especially rough, they cheered when his dad drove the water truck through the gate. Kevin almost looked forward to the rough weeks. Even on the regular weeks, someone always came up to Kevin and told him how brave his father was for going “out there.”
Each Friday, his dad reversed the truck into the special spot in the town square. Everyone filled their containers. Everyone, no matter what. His dad always said that to Kevin: No Matter What. “If everyone shares,” he’d start, and Kevin would finish, “then everyone gets their share.”
Kevin worked the truck’s spigot so well that nothing splashed or spilled. He knew to angle Mr. Bowser’s bucket to avoid the water hitting the curved bottom and flying right back out. And to keep the pressure low on Miss Mattingly’s deerskin because the seams were loose and it would leak if he overfilled. But he wasn’t allowed to touch the big hose or the levers next to it. Kevin had once climbed up the ladder on the back of the silver water tank and his dad smacked him good when he came back down.
The townspeople stayed in the square all Friday evening. Everyone brought out their surplus, and though it wasn’t like the picnics in his books, everyone picked at leftovers and strummed instruments, and Kevin and his friends played soccer or Frisbee. The town filled their water containers and stayed and stayed and laughed and joked until past dark.
When Kevin still considered himself a kid, he sat in the truck and pretended to drive it. He imagined himself a town hero, fighting off pirates like Long John Silver, and racing the truck, and taking it up a mountain, and even sometimes rescuing a girl. His feet didn’t reach the pedals and, when his legs grew, his dad yelled at him not to touch the pedals because he could flood the engine or over-pump the brake. As Kevin grew up, his interests turned to the engine and the wheels and the transmission. Images of pulling himself high into the rig replaced childish heroics. He wanted to ride out the gate, elevated. He fantasized about the townspeople’s cheers when he drove the full water truck back into town each Friday.
“You can go when you’re a teenager,” his dad promised.
On a Monday, Kevin turned thirteen. His mom made him a chocolate cake and it even had a candle. She gave him a dented metal thermos like his father’s. Kevin didn’t even have to fake excitement and thankfulness. His dad gave him a knife, with a blade maybe five inches long and a sheath to wear on his belt. The gifts meant Kevin was a man, that he could finally ride in the truck.
Kevin’s friend Danny asked, “Are you nervous about going outside the walls?” Kevin said No, that a few stray dogs and burnt-out buildings weren’t anything to be afraid of. Danny made a face and said, “Whatever. You’re scared, you just won’t admit it.” Kevin told him to shut up and called him a dickweed. Despite the brave face, he was scared. Only his father and a few others ever went outside the gate, and they all said the same thing: “Just a few stray dogs and burnt-out buildings.” It was almost like everyone else was afraid to leave the walls, and so Kevin thought maybe he should be afraid too. He didn’t actually know the outside.
On Wednesday, Kevin’s mother made coffee like always, but didn’t give any to Kevin. He pulled himself high into the rig just like he’d imagined. After the guards waved the rig past the gate, his dad took a sip of coffee from his thermos and handed it to Kevin. Kevin burned his tongue and grimaced at the bitter taste. His dad laughed and said he’d get used it to.
“And don’t drink too much,” his dad said. “It’ll give you the jitters. I need you calm.” He took the thermos back, sipped again, and put it in the cup holder. “Open the glove box.” Kevin opened it. He’d never known his dad owned a gun.
“Give it here,” his dad said.
Kevin gripped the gun, pretended to aim. “Cool.” It felt heavier than he’d imagined, the metal colder.
“Give it. That’s not a toy.” Kevin handed the gun over, and his dad tucked it in the back of his pants. “Don’t tell anyone. Our secret, okay?”
His dad’s stories of outside the gate were a bit exaggerated. The buildings looked vacant, but Kevin had expected sharp triangles of glass and cobwebs in the windows. Most had no windowpanes at all. And none looked burnt-out. He didn’t see one stray animal. A few squirrels. Every once in a while they passed a wide tower of grey smoke coming from somewhere back in the trees. The road had some potholes, but wasn’t as messy as his dad described. For the first few hours, it was only the loud hum of the truck and the one cassette tape his dad played over and over.
Kevin asked, “Think I could drive?”
His dad laughed. “You think you could handle this big thing with a half-load of water?”
“Sure,” Kevin said. But he knew his voice sounded unsure. “At least a little bit.”
“Look at these pedals,” his dad said. “Double clutch isn’t easy and this baby’s got thirteen gears. And lots and lots of torque. Do you know what torque is?” Kevin shook his head. “Torque’ll make her rumble like an earthquake if you don’t get it right. It means if you mess up, you stall her out or, worse, lose control and end up in a ditch.”
Kevin got nervous just thinking about skidding the trailer off the road. The entire town would lose its water source. How long could people go without water before they died?
“I’ll teach you,” his dad said. “Bit by bit. And not for a while. But someday.”
That Someday was something to look forward to, the way he had looked forward to this trip. He looked forward to pulling the truck through the gate, seeing all the people. Their cheers for him and the truck. The knowledge that he had earned this. He looked forward to backing the truck into the town square, sharing what he earned with those he loved, like that time he cleaned the entire house for his mom’s birthday. He worked and worked and worked all morning so she could enjoy a clean home, so she could relax and have an easy day.
Hours later, Kevin’s dad turned off the big road and down a dirt one. In the sideview mirror, Kevin watched the truck kick up a dust storm. Like a real-life smokescreen, he almost said. But he knew that would sound childish. He rubbed the leather sheath on his belt.
A few more hours of dust and his dad said, “Here we are.” They pulled into a gravel lot. A huge building had three doors that rolled up instead of opening out. Only one was open. Several men stood idly, holding guns like the guns were heavy and weighed down their arms. The men looked angry and dirty. Kevin’s dad dropped out of the rig without turning off the engine. Kevin followed, keeping his arms crossed to hide his shaking hands.
All the men stared. One pursed his lips weird and spit a brown loogie. Kevin had never seen anyone spit that far. Only one man came to greet his dad. Short and stocky with long tangled hair. His jacket was torn at both elbows. The man said “Sir” after each sentence. Almost as if he were afraid of Kevin’s dad.
The man swiped some dirt with his foot, revealing a metal circle twice the size of a Frisbee. He pulled a handle and the circle came up. His dad looked into the hole, sucked his teeth, and looked disappointed. The man tensed the same way Kevin did before he was about to be punished. His dad nodded, and the man relaxed a bit.
“Kevin,” his dad said, “grab the hose and bring it here.”
Kevin lifted the hose off its carriage. It slipped from his hands and hit the ground. He hoisted it over his shoulder, brushed the dirt from the metal end and pulled it toward the hole. He leaned forward, putting all his weight and energy into the tug. Sometimes his sneakers slid back against the dirt when he stepped. The hose snaked the ground behind him.
“Drop it in,” his dad said. Kevin dropped the end of the hose in the hole. “Kevin,” his dad pointed with his thumb to the man next to him. “This is Eliot. Eliot, this is my son Kevin.”
The man nodded. After a mean look from Kevin’s dad, Eliot held out his hand. Eliot’s grip was weaker than Kevin’s.
“Nice to meet you,” Kevin said.
Kevin’s dad lowered the hose more and told Kevin what levers to pull. His dad wrote something down in a little flip pad and stuffed the pad into his back pocket. The truck hummed and jolted and in ten minutes that felt like forever – because the men with guns just watched and spit – Kevin and his dad were loaded up and back in the truck.
His dad wiped sweat from his forehead with a white bandana and shoved it back in his pocket. He dropped the rig into R. “When you got the trailer,” his dad said, “backing up is backwards, understand?” He pointed out the sideview mirror. “If you want it to go left, you turn the wheel right. And the other way for right.” Kevin nodded, but didn’t fully understand. His dad swung the wheel to the right, spinning it in the palm of one hand. The opposite elbow out the window. His head went back and forth between the mirrors and fully out the window to see the trailer. “Backwards. Remember that. If you want something right, do it left. Bad drivers don’t understand that and it doesn’t quite make sense at the beginning. But it’s the only way to turn the truck around. Understand?”
Kevin nodded. He thought he understood. He was beginning to, at least.
A mile down the road Kevin asked, “Who were those guys with guns?”
His dad drummed on the steering wheel to the music. “They give us water.”
“Yeah. But why do they have guns?”
“They protect the water in case anyone wants to steal it.”
“Didn’t we just steal it?”
His dad twisted the brim of his hat on his forehead. “Imagine I gave you a checkers game. It was all yours. You owned it. And then you let Danny borrow it, but he broke the board and lost all the pieces. Would it be stealing to take his Frisbee to replace your checkers?”
“I guess not.”
“It’s the same thing with water.”
“Oh,” Kevin said. He had never thought about his games that way. His dad always told him to share, and so if someone broke the game, no one could play it at all. Everyone knew that, and everyone took care of the games. But his dad also said men take responsibility, so that meant Danny should have to give the Frisbee. But what good was a Frisbee if Danny was mad at him and didn’t want to play?
Another time through the cassette and they pulled off the main road again, this time onto another paved road. They stopped by a small building and parked under an outdoor roof. Kevin had never seen a gasoline station in real life, but he knew which cap to take off so his dad could fill up. He liked the smell of gasoline.
Again, men with guns looked angry as they watched his dad fill the gas tank. The gas came from a separate hose and a separate pump, so they filled the water tank and the gas tank at the same time. As both pumps hummed and rumbled, a woman inside the station kneaded dough behind the counter. She was beautiful. Boxes and cans and jars filled the shelves around her. A young kid, a girl maybe four years old, cupped her hands and leaned her forehead against the glass door. She squinted through the glare.
His dad introduced Kevin to a guy named Gus. Gus too dismissed Kevin until his dad gave a mean look and then Gus shook hands.
A few minutes into the humming and rumbling, Kevin heard gurgling, sputtering and then a high-pitch whine. The water pump was moving faster, sucking only air.
“Shut it off. Quick,” his dad said.
Kevin ran and jerked the lever. The humming stopped.
“What the fuck, Gus?” his dad said.
Kevin had seen his dad angry tons of times: when Kevin talked back to his mom, when he broke something in the house because he was playing too rough, when he forgot to secure the fence and a chicken got loose. But Kevin had never seen his dad get angry with another adult. His dad was always calm. With his mom, his dad was mushy even. When the people in town would yell at him – sometimes when he didn’t get enough water or when they thought someone got more than their share – he took deep breaths and spoke calmly. Even that time at dinner when Danny started eating before his dad said prayers. His dad took a deep breath and spoke softly to Danny about how, in this house, they took a moment to be thankful and it was important that Danny do that with the family. And Kevin had never, never heard his dad swear.
“Sorry, Mr. Russo,” Gus said. He inched his toes back, like he was about to run away.
“Sorry’s not going to cut it.” His dad took out the flip pad.
“We have more,” Gus said. “Plenty more. It’s just that it’s unboiled rainwater.”
“You can make it up next week.”
“But Mr. Russo, we don’t —”
His dad stopped Gus with a look. “That’s not how this works,” he said. He finished writing and put the pad into his back pocket.
“But Mr. Russo, you gotta –”
His dad snapped the gun from his waistband and touched it against Gus’s nose. Gus’s eyes went wide. His dad cocked the hammer. Click-click. Gus’s head slid back on his neck, but his feet stood still, like he was about to fall over backwards.
All the men pointed their guns at Kevin’s dad. Kevin grabbed his sheath. His knife only made him feel like a child. A knife at a gunfight. Still, looking down the barrels of their guns didn’t scare him like he had expected. It motivated him to fight, to protect. It made him angry.
“You’re old enough to remember what we can do,” his dad said to Gus. “You want that again?”
Gus shook his head.
“Good.” His dad smiled, and he seemed suddenly happy again. He released the hammer and put the gun back in his waistband. All the other men kept their guns pointed. His dad turned back to Kevin. “Get the hose.”
Kevin’s arms were already tired, but hauling the hose kept his hands from shaking. The little girl peeking through the glass door smiled at him and waved goodbye like she was clapping one hand.
When Kevin climbed into the rig, his dad was drinking the last of the coffee. “There’s a few more sips in there if you want it,” he said, holding the thermos over the center console. Kevin shook his head. “Well,” he stuck the thermos in the cupholder, “it’s there if you want it. About cold, so don’t wait if you do.” His dad lifted his hat off his head, scratched his bald spot with its brim, and dropped the hat back again. “You did good just now. Stayed calm. I’m proud of you.”
“Proud enough to let me drive?”
He hoped to make his dad laugh. Instead, his dad said, “When you’re backing out, you got to think, before you even push the gas, about where you want the trailer to go. And then make it go there. Any idiot can drive a rig forward. Only a real driver can back up a fully loaded trailer.” His dad’s head followed his elbow out the window. Looked back at the trailer. His palm pressed against the wheel, rotating back and forth. His head re-entered and he focused on the sideview mirrors.
A little more than a mile down the road, his dad pulled into a large flat asphalt area. The whole thing was paved like the road, but plants grew heavy over the sides and weeds sprouted from cracks and the only other cars there were rusted out and abandoned. Flat tires and broken glass and some had what looked like rusty bullet holes in them. His dad shut off the engine and Kevin heard crickets, louder than he’d ever heard them in his life.
“Now what?” Kevin asked.
“We’re here for the night,” his dad said. “But we’re going to meet a guy soon. So we just wait.”
“What do we do while we wait?”
“Just relax. Talk if you want.” He opened their food sack and took out some cookies and their water bottles. He bit and talked with his mouth full. “What do you want to talk about?”
“What’s Gus old enough to remember?” Kevin asked.
“Is this a riddle?”
“No,” Kevin said. “Earlier you told Gus he was old enough to remember what we did. What did we do?”
His dad cleared his throat. “You know how you get mad sometimes at your friends if they try to cheat at games. And you’ve got to yell at them to get them to play it right?” Kevin nodded. “It was kind of like that. They thought they could play without any rules and I made sure they played by the rules. That’s all.”
“Oh, okay,” Kevin said. He felt stupid for not knowing the rules of real life. Felt even more stupid for not knowing that he was supposed to know. So he kept quiet. Being quiet always meant he understood. It meant he was mature.
Near dusk his dad sat up in his seat. “About that time.” His dad pulled the horn. The loud WONK echoed in the empty lot.
“Why’d you do that?” Kevin asked.
“Just wait,” his dad said. Kevin waited. Then, “See? Over in the corner.”
Gus, the man from the gasoline station, crept out of the brush on the far side of the lot. He wore a backpack and carried four empty gallon containers, two in each hand. Kevin and his dad dismounted and met him at the spigot. Gus dropped the containers and shrugged off the backpack. “Here,” he said, handing over the backpack.
Gus grabbed a container and reached for the spigot.
“Hey!” Kevin said. He put his hand on his knife, popped the sheath’s buckle with his thumb.
“It’s fine, Kev,” his dad said. “We got a deal.”
Kevin’s dad dumped the bag onto his seat: garden seeds, razor blades and shaving cream, tampons, duct tape, and a bottle of shampoo. He tossed the empty backpack over his shoulder.
Gus filled his containers in silence, capped the last of them, and disappeared back into the brush.
Kevin asked, “Why didn’t we just get these at the gasoline station?”
“That’s a special deal I have only with Gus. Not everyone can give what he gives, so not everyone gets what he gets.”
Kevin understood. Gus snuck off so that he didn’t have to share the water with anyone else. But that was Gus’s business. The Russo Family shared. If others didn’t want to run their town the way his dad ran the town, they had to live like that, not Kevin. Kevin despised Gus. Understood why his dad had to pull the gun. Kevin would have pulled his gun too.
“He’s a dickweed if he’s making a deal that screws over his town,” Kevin said.
“Hey now,” his dad said. “You don’t know what he’s about. He’s a man making tough decisions and looking out for his family.” His dad tossed another cookie in his mouth. He chewed and said, “He’s not doing anything different than what anyone else in his situation would do.” His dad chugged half his bottle of water, refilled it at the spigot and climbed into the rig. He reclined his seat as far back as it would go, dropped his hat over his eyes. “Now, we got another really long drive to our next place tomorrow afternoon and then the long haul back home. I’m going to sleep. If you need to piss, do it on the asphalt. You go into that brush and the mosquitoes’ll eat you good.”
Hours into the ride the next day, they finally arrived at the last stop. This place was bigger, though. These people had a building off to one side made of all glass with lots of plants inside. And his dad parked next to four really big green plastic containers. Round containers not much smaller than Kevin’s house. Every house in this town was perfectly square and in rows and columns like a checkers board. Each had a little stoop that people decorated with flowers or a bench. Like all the other towns, people stood around holding guns. But they all lined up in front of the green containers. Two people came out to greet them this time, a tall man and a lady. When his dad introduced Kevin to the town boss, it was the lady.
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Collins,” Kevin said.
The lady’s handshake was harder than the other men’s had been. She introduced him to the man next to her. Just Frank. No last name. Frank held his hands behind his back and didn’t smile – didn’t seem like the kind of person who ever smiled. Mrs. Collins had hair pulled back in a ponytail and a rifle slung crossways over her shoulder. She wore sunglasses and not seeing her eyes intimidated Kevin. He couldn’t tell where she was looking. Couldn’t see the fear in her eyes like he could with all the other bosses.
Kevin unloaded the hose without being asked. Looked at the ground for the metal lid to the hole. His dad said, “There,” and pointed to the side of the big green containers. Kevin dragged the hose. Some guy – he never said his name – set down his gun and helped him carry. All the guy said was, “No, like this.” He grabbed the hose from Kevin, pushed it into a metal circle and twisted. Kevin pulled the levers on the truck and the humming started.
Two minutes later, the motor whined again.
His dad flipped the notepad back and stuck it in his pocket. “Attach it to the other one,” he told Kevin.
Mrs. Collins said, “No need for that, young man.”
Kevin looked to his dad. His dad looked at Mrs. Collins.
“What’s the deal, Cathy?” His dad started to reach for his gun. By the time his dad’s hand touched his waistband, Frank’s gun was already against his dad’s temple. His dad froze. From the corner of his eyes, he looked over to Kevin. Kevin felt fury boil in him, like when Danny tried to cheat at a game. Kevin looked to the nameless man, but the man held up his hands and stepped away from the hose.
“Come over here, young man,” Mrs. Collins said. “Come stand next to your father.”
Kevin obeyed. He heard his own breath pumping out his nose.
“You’re making a mistake,” his dad said. Calm, like he was talking to Danny at the dinner table again.
“No mistake,” Mrs. Collins said. “We’re just renegotiating is all.”
“You remember what we can do to you, right?” his dad said.
“It’s been a long, long time,” Mrs. Collins said. “I’ll take my chances.”
Kevin felt the knife at his side. Everyone was looking at his dad. Real slow, he popped the sheath’s buckle with the top of his wrist.
“We’ll give you what we can spare,” Mrs. Collins said. “I don’t think that’s anything less than generous.”
“You’ll give us what we come here to take,” his dad said. “I don’t want to have to bring my soldiers here to enforce it. That just bloodies us all.”
“I welcome the fight,” Mrs. Collins said.
“If that’s what you—”
In one motion Kevin pulled his knife and slammed it into Frank’s torso. Frank said, “Huuuh” and jerked. Kevin felt the knife slip in his hand, and he gripped it as hard as he could. Frank stepped back, his legs wobbled and he fell on his back. Kevin thought only of holding onto the knife. He fell with Frank and landed above him, kneeling on one knee. Frank’s gun skipped a few feet away. Kevin looked up at his dad. After a slow four seconds, Kevin realized everyone was watching him. They thought he brought Frank down deliberately. They thought the look to his dad was Kevin awaiting permission to kill. Like he was an expert. Like he had done it all on purpose. Like he wasn’t mad as hell and scared out of his mind.
“Son of a bitch,” Frank said. But he didn’t move except to grimace.
“See?” his dad said. Still too calm. “My own son – he’s only thirteen by the way – just handled your man. Imagine what fifty grown men will do.” He took the gun from his waistband slowly. He held it by his hip and cocked the hammer. “Now, we’ll make a new deal. You’ve insulted me. My son here has handled that, and I’m not feeling insulted anymore. So, we’ll call that even.” He turned to the nameless man, the one who helped Kevin attach the hose. “You.” He pointed like the gun was his finger. “Attach it to the second container. Fill the truck.” The nameless man obeyed. Kevin’s dad turned back to Mrs. Collins. “And if you ever again think I’m someone who negotiates, you’ll have to deal with much worse than a teenager, understand?”
Mrs. Collins’s sunglasses reflected his dad’s face, her lips angry and motionless.
“Good,” his dad said.
Kevin stayed kneeling, still holding his knife in Frank’s gut for the slow minutes while the nameless man flipped the levers and filled the truck. Kevin thought only about avoiding eye contact with Frank. Frank lay with his head back, probably thinking only about not moving because any movement really hurt.
The nameless man restacked the hose on its carriage.
“Let’s go, Kev.”
Kevin yanked the knife from Frank’s side. Blood spurted out of the wound. Frank groaned and covered the wound. “Fuck you, kid,” he said. Blood oozed between Frank’s fingers. Darker and thicker than Kevin had imagined.
They mounted the truck and, as if nothing had happened, his dad reversed the trailer and they sped down the road. As soon as they turned the corner, his dad yelled, “WAHOO!” He slammed his palm against the roof of the cab. “How about that!” He ruffled Kevin’s hair – too rough. “That sure was something, wasn’t it?” Kevin’s mouth tasted bitter. Like coffee even though he didn’t drink any. “Oh hell yeah. That was something.” He drummed on the steering wheel. “Man, you just took him down like nothing.” He punched Kevin’s shoulder. Intentionally playful, but still it hurt. “That’s my boy.”
Kevin didn’t feel proud. His hands shook. Frank’s red-brown blood stuck under his fingernails, in the lines of his palm, and through the groove of his fingerprints.
His dad saw Kevin’s hands. The smile dropped. “Oh shit.” He snapped the radio off. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” Kevin said. “It’s… it’s that guy’s blood.”
His dad slammed the brakes. “Com’on,” he said and dismounted. His dad opened the spigot, covering and washing Kevin’s hands like when he was just a kid. Kevin barely held up his hands. He let his dad do all the scrubbing. He started to cry.
“Kev, it’s alright,” his dad repeated. But Kevin kept crying.
“I’m sorry,” Kevin said. “I didn’t mean…”
“Hey, you did the right thing.”
“But I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
“You did what you had to do.” His dad shut off the spigot. Put his hands on Kevin’s shoulders. “You saved me. You saved us.”
“I was so scared. I was so angry. I…” Kevin sniffled.
“I was scared too,” his dad said. Kevin had never seen his dad scared, and his dad definitely never said he was scared before. “I didn’t know what to do either.” Kevin snorted runny snot. “But you saved me, Kev. You did the right thing.”
Kevin rubbed his nose with his sleeve.
“Here, use this.” His dad pulled the white bandana from his pocket. “And keep it. You need one of your own anyway.” Kevin dried off his hands and blew his nose.
Back in the truck and moving, Kevin kept his eyes on the sideview mirror. Kevin expected to see another car or truck come chasing after them. He didn’t stop watching and didn’t stop shaking until after his dad flipped the cassette.
As dusk dropped, Kevin asked, “How much longer?”
“We’ll drive through the night, Kev. You can sleep if you want.”
Kevin looked in the mirror again. “I can’t sleep.”
“You did good today.”
“Where’d you learn that takedown?”
“I just held onto the knife and we landed like that. I didn’t like him pointing a gun at you.”
His dad burst out laughing. His head rocked back, his mouth opened huge. “You mean you were just winging it?” Kevin nodded and the laughter started all over again. Kevin tried to laugh too, but didn’t like the humor in it. Laughter at something that wasn’t funny. Kevin couldn’t even pretend to laugh. He only saw the blood flowing between Frank’s fingers. The red spiderwebbing through his clothes. His dad noticed he wasn’t laughing and said, “I’m not sure you even understand how much you just saved us.”
Kevin understood. Frank would have killed his dad. Doing what he had to do made him a man.
“If I didn’t do that,” Kevin said, “would we really have attacked them? I thought we only had seventeen gate guards.”
“Our town doesn’t have enough soldiers anymore. We did before you were born.”
“Why did the soldiers leave?”
“They were killed.” His dad paused. “Or they’re too old now.”
“Then why’d you lie about attacking?”
His dad tilted his head, like he was confused by something out the windshield. He sighed. “I guess because in a few hours we’re going to drive through the gate with a tank filled with water. Because our family and our entire town will have all the water they want. Because this way they’ll be safe and happy.”
“I thought we were supposed to share the water.” Kevin tried to drum on his legs like his dad did on the steering wheel. He couldn’t find the right beat. He couldn’t predict when the rhythms changed like his dad could.
“Things are different outside the gate.” His dad sighed again. “And, Kevin, if anyone asks you, just tell them we spent the entire time on the road. You saw some burnt-out buildings and some stray animals. Some rough road here and there. But nothing else happened, okay?”
“But you said I did good. Why can’t –”
“Because people will worry. Sometimes people don’t want to know the truth because it makes them sad. You wouldn’t want to make everyone in town sad, would you?”
“Kevin, part of being a man is not letting people worry about us. It’s our job to worry for them, understand?”
“I guess,” Kevin said.
“So not a word to anyone. Now here, put this back.” His dad handed him the gun, and Kevin put it back in the glove box.
A fitful night’s sleep in the rumbling rig brought him to the gate of his town. His dad honked the horn, the gate rolled back, and they drove in to a waiting crowd. He saw what his dad meant. The town had gathered, had laid out their buckets and bottles like they always did. They didn’t cheer, but from his elevated position in the truck, Kevin saw the worry on their faces, the stress of lives inside the town. And when his father reversed the truck into its spot, their faces lifted. The worry disappeared. The town’s faces looked up to the men in the rig, eyes relieved and admiring.
Kevin dismounted with his dad.
Danny came running. “What’s it like out there?”
“It’s just a few stray dogs and some burnt-out buildings,” Kevin said. “Nothing to worry about.”