Lying in the tub, the bather wondered what became of his classmates from elementary school. He hoped they avoided a life of pain and squalor. Their chances seemed slim, as much had changed over those decades when the elders took everything for themselves. But the bather still hoped sometimes.
He could do little else except enjoy the bath for them, at least for the ones who had no baths. But he’d never know for sure who had prospered and who hadn’t. Growing up before the blossoming of the internet, many of the bather’s friends from elementary school probably shunned social media. They’d favor reality, and perhaps that gave many of his generation a greater chance. But it also meant the bather could never check up on them. He only knew some of their first names, so those friends had truly drifted away forever.
He thought of one child more than the others while watching the steam vanish—a girl named Meadow. She said her parents had named her that because she played in a meadow. The bather, all those years ago, skeptically wondered why the parents would wait so long to name their child. But he believed it anyway.
Meadow, something of a tomboy, played tag with the boys during lunch hour. In those days, kids would run around outside. The teachers locked all the kids outside to wait in the cold, whether some kids brought their mittens to school or not.
The bather never knew much else about Meadow except that she longed for toys and didn’t have any. Her family moved shortly after they arrived. Meadow had entered a meadow of mystery, boundless and unfathomable. When one’s friends moved away at elementary school age, as many did in the pre-internet era, they simply disappeared forever. No Facebook, no pen pals, not even a phone number would get left behind. They only left a creepy emptiness, like that of a kidnapping victim.
Some kids never even announced their moving day or their last day at the bather’s school. He often wondered if their parents told them at all.
It made the bather wonder about the selfishness of parents who moved too much. Maybe they didn’t like the view of the hills outside their bathroom window, or they gobbled up a few hundred bucks from selling their house and moving again. Maybe a child would never fulfill them, and they just needed more and more and more.
The bather would shudder if not for the block of warm water around him. He recalled a chance meeting of another girl from his elementary school days. Now grown up, this one had turned out too petite, almost runty. She had facial asymmetry, and her teeth pushed close in a way the bather had luckily forgotten. Maybe Meadow, who played with the boys, should remain a complete mystery to him.
But in all likelihood, she didn’t live into her 30s as the bather had. Most of his classmates didn’t.
The bather had to stare at the third tap again and wonder why the city had made such a horrible thing. He watched it there at the end of the bathtub staring back at him. It loomed over his feet, gathering pebbly moisture from the stream. And as always, it waited between the hot and cold taps with its green tint which promised something environmentally good. But really, the extra tap gave bathers the choice of how fast they could kill a person.
Some tenants liked the little power trip the third tap evoked. Some people, the bather supposed, wanted a loaded gun in every drawer or a bottle of poison hanging from every tree along the street. With a long groan, he cranked out the same thought process that hassled him during every bath. Often, those thoughts almost felt like turning the third tap itself.
Turning the damn thing opened a valve somewhere under the house. It shunted all the bath and shower water down a different pipe. The soapy and dirty water went to an individual reservoir, and a specific homeless person accessed it with a government water key. The issued key activated a faucet on a numbered post found in a huge park lined with such faucets. Thus, the poor had free secondhand water. They drank the strangers’ bathwater with its sweat, shampoo particles, urine, and sometimes bath salts and cleaning products. Unless it rained, the homeless masses had nothing else. And every house had a third tap.
Or, bathers could leave the third tap in the off position so the water goes to the sewer as normal.
Oh, the homeless had some options too, the bather thought. He heard that they swapped sexual favors for a liter of the purer-tasting stuff. Some faucets provided consistency, either always soapy or always clean. Other posts would sometimes gush with gray mop water, forcing the key holder to drain his or her reservoir for the next few days to flush out the floor cleaner from the pipes. You basically applied for a key and hoped some renter down the street never bathed with soap products. But if the bather connected to your key did use soap, or urinate in the shower, you’d have to drink the water anyway.
Water cost money in the city. So every hobo with a key hoped their donor would take long, wasteful showers. That would at least dilute the sweat, underarm deodorant, makeup, hair products, and whatever else that landed in the particular reservoir.
The bather had heard of this park of naked scuzzbuckets. Grinning brown or toothless grins, they timed their showers to those of their donors. Some got the lukewarm water that way. Others got stuck with a key that had no bather or no tenant at the other end of it. Those folks had to barter with their whines or orifices, or drink from the puddles around other posts.
So they fought and fornicated. Most suffered cramps and nausea all day from ingesting soap and dirt. They worked on their kidney problems by trying to die from addictions instead. No food banks, no charities, no fountains in public buildings. The taps in public washrooms hadn’t worked for years. People used the old sinks for tossing away their pocket garbage. You merely had to call the third world the fourth, and western society started looking alright again.
Thus, the third tap gave bathers a choice: either kill someone slowly by poisoning them with your fowl bathwater, or leave the tap off so the person dies of STIs, thirst, and competition.
The bather got on with the bath. Like thousands of others every day, he’d never know whether to bathe long and enjoy the precious water or leave the tub sooner to pollute the water less. He didn’t know if it mattered. How would he know if someone held the key to this bath line or if the key holder regularly used it? Some wealthier bathers left the third tap off to drain their dirty bath water, then turned the tap on and poured buckets of fresh water down the drain. But hardly anyone could afford such charity.
The bather scrubbed his feet hard with a sudsy face cloth. The time of the week for this task had come, and it had to get done. Visible shavings of soggy skin settled at the bottom of the tub. He pulled the stopper and saw the first of the skin bits and short hairs swirling down the drain.
The bather left the tub clean, as always. He’d never know if some sad batch of retards in the city park would drink his aftershave from yesterday now dissolved in the draining bathwater. When moving into this apartment years ago, he simply left the third tap in whatever unmarked position the previous tenant had left it.
The bather watched a drop of water gather itself on the stainless steel tap. The shining blob dipped, rounded out, and fell. It vanished, letting go of itself in favor of pure conformity in the tub.
Another drop could form and live and make decisions there, if the bather simply touched his wet foot to the tap. Many drops could form and fall into the uniformity below. He considered this a great luxury, for some day no more drops would play about on Earth. They would all boil off the rock and get yanked from ever-cracking soil. It would all happen when the sun goes nova. The water would jump apart in agony and fly into space.
But not all water. The bather remembered the Earth's secret caves and springs. Steam would billow up in quadrillions of leaps, hit the stalactites, and drip back down into boiling pools. Water would smash at the walls, but mostly rip itself to bits, only to reassemble as more drops, then more steam. The lakes in Earth's belly would become pleading steam engines of angst, blasting in all directions yet also nowhere. The cavern capsules would make only mud. And the bursting mist would just keep cooking as the Earth upstairs desertified.
Maybe in that time, the bather hoped, the steam might claw its way from the caverns. If it could just peel enough stone and beach the rock as the sun dies and diminishes, some of that great mist would resettle. And the drops would slow-dance again.
Then, eager to move more, and having eons of exercise, the water might form life. It will have mined everything needed for those organic molecules to nestle in once again. Maybe life would just take the ferry and go in circles. It might stay in the pools and feed back into itself forever. The boring chains and cycles may wiggle and bind, diffuse and die. Dissolve. Cannibalize its cousins. Simpleminded forever.
But much more had spawned from worse. Extremophiles had grown up from lava-laid terrains. Man had even emerged from his caves, seeking the water he needed. Filthy, beastly, eating man had eventually conquered all. Water had found more water. The bather wondered, could life again spread from the caves, foraging for even scanter fuels? Could something build itself up to race from the pools, screaming for more drops?
The bather wondered if that new sentient life could ever top humans. They would work from scarcity and recycle the bits of organic stuff left by the nova. But they'd wield much less of it than the sweets available now. Maybe in time, comets carrying more water would hit and give life a painful and pitiful boost.
Or maybe the new life would press further than man. It might work more efficiently with its precious few droplets as wastefulness dies out. The beginnings of such sentience may have arisen today, the bather mused. For the microbes abundant now, with their head start, could outpace the rawness of some scummy pool jailed in stone. Down there the parts must mingle, in the right frolicsome ways and in the right atmospheres, to get that first lunge going.
Yes, current life would win out after the nova and sip from those pools, as it had always done so well. Maybe those surviving cells would grow and amass and reach sentient status. And it would all emerge from some sealed place, safe from the sun's blaze and radioactive thunder. It would pick the right time to leave the caves.
The bather looked at his toilet tank and wondered what already lived inside.
The day the bather discovered a miracle began in frustration. First, he found a long scratch on his forearm, its cause a mystery to him. The kitchen-cleaning frenzy the day before left a thumb-length scab, perhaps in the same way a drunkard gets mystery bruises when on a roll. Then, the pinkish scrape started to sting in the bath water, like a whipping for doing good. But as more house chores called out through the dust, he'd have to rush through the morning's routine anyway.
The bather poured the last half-teaspoon of shampoo in his palm. He'd have to close the bottle and leave it upside down until tomorrow to get the last clingy bit to ooze out. For the moment he opened a new bottle of a discount brand. It gave him a hard time because one hand still cupped the first brand, also on discount, and the new plastic top needed breaking in.
Once he started shampooing, with a mixture of both brands, his face started to itch. It tingled in four spots with the steam hunting for more. The humidity breathed down every pore. The bather shampooed fast, trying to bear what felt like electric worms burrowing deeper.
Frantically, the bather surrendered and rubbed his entire face with the shampoo lather. That usually meant he'd have to flip himself and dunk face-first to rinse more thoroughly underwater. And it had to get done soon so he could see again.
But the scratch on his forearm itched terribly. He rubbed it obligatorily and dedicated himself to eradicating all itches everywhere. Smeared from the chest up in shampoo lather, the bather finally rinsed.
An hour after leaving the tub, the bather noticed the scab on his forearm had flaked off. Only the faintest comet trail of pink remained, and even that had mostly paled. He checked again 20 minutes later and saw the scratch scarcely had an outline. In another 20 minutes, the area had completely healed.
The bather found a cure to wounds. He flipped over a junk mail envelope and began writing the formula to the best of his memory. Surely, the Jesus lather required more than simply mixing two shampoo brands. With thousands of brands for every sucker and ditz, the manufacturers would have already stumbled upon this remedy. They have hundreds of testers who would report their seborrhoeic dermatitis receding. No, the secret formula must include that unique cosmetic layer of chemicals on the bather's face.
He started each day, like many men, with a shave and an application of aftershave. When that dried, he'd added a milk of magnesia mask. The layer around his neck covered some cologne the bather sprayed there the day before. Even frugal guys tried Christmas gift toiletries sometimes. The stack of three chemicals went with him to the bathtub that morning.
And before entering the tub, the bather habitually added ten drops of tea tree oil to the water. He did that once a week. So the cure formed from the right amounts of the three layered chemicals blended with the two shampoo brands and the oil extract. It all mixed before landing on his scratched forearm.
And the bather knew those amounts well. He used the same routine for years. The cure only revealed itself after a string of irritating flukes. How many people had died needing this treatment when it got brewed and sent down the drain weekly?
Having rubbed in this random concoction, the bather wondered why smoke hadn't risen from his face instead. The reality of the great find settled in when he considered all the chemical formulas discovered by accident. Many became modern marvels.
The medical possibilities zoomed through his mind. Each idea fell on the others, building a staircase to sainthood. But then it all fell apart. Although the bather could cheaply create barrels of the healing lather, he'd never get through the red tape to patent the cure. The medical monopoly demanded credentials in the rich-boys' club plus decades of research and peer review acceptance. And giving away the formula would only thrust the long wait into someone else's hands.
But he could take some of his savings and ship the ingredients to a Third World nation. He'd set up a small operation and build a reputation treating the poor for free. Soon, they would flock to see him, lining up like in the New Testament. Some countries had little to no regulation. Burn victims could get carried in then walk out cured hours later. Villagers who would normally die from farm accidents and infections would keep on farming. Families and volunteers could apply the healing lather to the injured, leaving the bather to simply make the stuff.
With the humidity from the recent bath still lingering, the bather could almost feel the heat of Africa, the rural dust in his nose. The climate and harsher diet would shrink him a little. But he'd save potentially millions of lives. Then, after years of demonstrating a proven product, maybe the rest of the sick, legal world would accept it. Black markets certainly would.
And the bather would post the ingredient list online. The whole world could take it for free.
The bather's feet ached from pacing in his apartment. He nudged a curtain aside and looked out his bathroom window. Just the one glance, this random sampling of passersby on the street below, made him shudder. It all happened on a random Wednesday like any other day. The people, nearly all of them, did...horrible things. He'd have to look away soon and leave that curtain alone for months or until an impressive lightning storm.
The bather watched what they did out there. He stared at their expressions and winced, and not from the sunlight. After this little reminder, he'd never release that cure to anyone.
Enjoy the first story in the Dystopian Bather series (© 2015 Nicholas Stillman).
The bather lived in a 1920s house grotesquely rendered into apartment units. As usual during his bath, he stared at the painted pipes in the corners. They wormed through holes cut in ancient wood. The oldness of the thick walls and window frames had a touch of charm and a barrel of ruggedness. Everything in the bathroom remind him that people hoarded houses too long, and not just the junk inside the houses.
A scientific push began, in fact, to build materials the clingy types could keep forever. One eccentric billionaire recently paid tens of millions for such an endeavor. He gathered scientists to produce a substance so dense and indestructible, so stable and insoluble, that it would last for eons. The sun and Earth could throw everything they had upon this material, and it would retain every molecule.
News spread of this. The most imaginative article writers, the bather recalled, described a scenario of alien explorers finding a long-cold Earth. The future travelers would find only silt and stone, mud and dirty ice. All mankind's thickest vaults will have corroded, crushed, or melted. They'd spill their sacred holdings and all man's symbols into oceans or mudslides. The black tsunamis and flamethrower jet streams of one natural apocalypse or another would spread our constructs thin. The planet's death throes will churn all trinkets in a perennial tornado. Everything would bust into a glittery soil, then dull itself in a dark sandstorm.
But in that blend of atoms, the alien archaeologists still might find the one surviving object the scientists had built. It would hold together in the lava baths and ash storms. The billionaire, rapt by such far-fetched internet stories, ordered his material forged into a disk. It encased an atomic battery and transmitter, protected for eternity. Every eight days, the disk emits a complex wave signal. The pulse will continue for billions of years.
The hypothetical aliens, then, could detect the signal and locate the everlasting disk. They would send their machines through the igneous rock and frozen sludge to obtain the one remnant of man. Wherever the artifact had tossed or whichever elements submerged it, the disk would cry for discovery.
Then they would know. The aliens, by whatever fluke of their existence and choice of travels, could hold that one token and marvel at man's ingenuity. The disk will serve as the final punctuation mark to prove humans lived at all.
The billionaire just needed a symbol, a sign or two of humanity's greatness. He sought ideas from around the world. Contests arose, official or otherwise, all striving for the design most representative of man's progress. Many pleaded for religious symbols. But the aliens, if their fantastic arrival happens, would fail to comprehend such markings. They'd require contexts and historical records.
Other artists suggested that great poems or historical figures' names should get stamped on the disk. But again, each side had too little surface area for a picture key to decipher language. Some contestants argued for etching microscopic letters on the disk's edge. This, however, would cost more money than the billionaire wished to spend. Furthermore, the letters would not even appear as visible graininess. The curious aliens would grasp a seemingly flat scrap of metal. Perhaps they would face expenses of their own trying to extract dirt and metals hardened into the imperceptible letter groves. Maybe they'd give up, fearful of damaging the artifact and losing information.
No, the aliens needed a punch in the eyes. A symbol, a big one, should startle them into centuries of obsession with long-gone man. The world voted, and the majority chose a simple design: a man and woman holding hands, a simple depiction of love. Inspired by famous statues and the outline drawings on the Pioneer plaques, the design took dozens of leading artists to perfect. The gifted, the prolific, the poor, and even the blind left a mark on the final computerized engraving.
The quest began to design the opposite side. Mankind had chosen heads, but tails needed immortalizing too. Some wanted a baby's face on one side and an old man's on the opposite. Others demanded a beautiful landscape that encapsulated Earth in her prime including sea, sunset, mountains and trees. Other leading concepts included cityscapes, simple tools, or a cluster of plant and animal genera—all brilliant, and potentially, instantly understandable to any alien professor.
But the billionaire settled on a design he created himself: his face, of course. It would do on both sides.