Author : Kathy Kachelries, Staff Writer
Ollie McNeil used to be a person, or so the rumors said. He came to the glades when the glades could still grow grass, before the floating villages, when the mosquitoes were smaller than the shrimp and the shrimp were safe to eat. Not that Ollie ate, of course. He got everything he needed from the windmill.
Jake called him Old Man Ollie, though he was only kind of a man. No one could dispute the old part, though: his human eye was like smoked-over glass and his lips curled in where his teeth used to be, lending a slurred twang to his language. Composed mostly of metal, Ollie was too heavy to go out in the boats, but his strength and precision made him useful in other ways. He was the only Glader strong enough to pull the barge in before a storm, and he could knot a net even faster than Mrs. Johnson, much to Mrs. Johnson’s dismay.
Like most of the Glader children, Jake knew of Old Man Ollie before he was old enough to swim, but he didn’t meet the man until a drowning fever tore through the village when he was eight. After his father choked in his sleep, Jake was sent away from the floating village and left to wait in a sickhouse on the muddy shore, to die or live depending on the whims of the fever. Only Old Man Ollie knocked on the door, bringing dried fish and purified water fresh from the windmill’s filter.
“Ain’t you afraid of getting sick?” Jake asked as he tore into on the leathery meat.
“Can’t catch the drowning if you don’t have lungs,” Ollie said with a shrug, and although the gesture carried a faint pneumatic hiss, its warmth was like porridge after a week on the ponds. Immediately, Jake’s fear of the half-man vanished, and despite the village’s best efforts, it never returned. If Old Man Ollie was an outcast, then Young Man Jake would be an outcast as well.
Most of Ollie’s time was taken up with maintaining the windmill, which jutted out of the muddy pond like an ancient castle and was even older than he was. Unlike the Gladers, he could make sense of the symbols and digits on the ancient displays, and he always seemed to know when a wire needed to be redrawn. The windmill spun slowly, lazily, but it generated an immense power that hummed through its deepest core and could be stored in white coffin-like slabs, sleeping until a need arose. These slabs seemed to cause Old Man Ollie an endless amount of misery.
“Capacity’s down,” he’d mutter, and Jake would nod in sympathy. This was a common refrain, and as far as Jake could tell, there wasn’t anything to be done about it. There was also “gotta run the cycle,” which sounded mostly harmless, and rarely, “wind’s gonna overload ‘em,” which was much more urgent and was followed by a scramble to disconnect wires at the top of the structure. The windmill was an essential part of the village’s life: it powered electric lights and fans that stirred the miasmatic air in the summer heat, but most importantly, it ran the water purifier. It also ran Ollie, who drew power a few nights a week using a wire in his arm.
Although he spent his spare time at the windmill, Jake’s job was on the ponds, pulling in nets and traps with the others who were old enough to work, but too young to start a family. That’s where he was when he noticed the first signs of the storm.
“We should head in,” he said. Surprisingly, the others agreed. Storms were common but this one seemed ominous: the horizon was hidden behind dark sheets of rain, and the clouds boiled red in the setting sun.
By the time Jake made it to the windmill, Old Man Ollie was well into the task of managing wires. “Give me a hand,” he called, and Jake obeyed. By the time the white slabs were fully disconnected the rain had reached the Glade and the wind whipped against the building like a wet rag, creating heavy sounds that rain had no business making.
“Big one,” Jake said, and Old Man Ollie nodded. He was watching the slabs with a dull frown, and he raised an arm to scratch the rippled skin below his eye.
“They’re still losing capacity,” he said.
“The batteries. Look. They’ve been off for an hour and they’re already down to 96 percent.” He pointed at a lighted panel beside one of the slabs, and although Jake didn’t understand, he gave a nod of agreement.
“What are you gonna do?” he asked.
Ollie was silent. Jake stood up to take a closer look at the panel, as if the bars and rings meant anything at all.
“You can just plug them back in, right? After the storm’s over?”
“Yeah,” Ollie said, but he didn’t sound convinced. “Yeah, sure, we can plug them back in. They’re going to keep losing capacity, though. One day they’ll run dry and they won’t hold a charge at all.” He leaned against the wall, which groaned slightly at his weight, and Jake settled onto a heap of nets waiting for repair.
“That’s a long way off, though, right?” Jake asked.
“Fifty years or so,” Ollie said. “Maybe sixty. We’ll see.”
“So a long way.”
“You could say that. Sure.”
The rain continued, and Jake could hear the windmill’s blades creaking as they strained against the gale. It seemed like the storm would go on forever, the way storms always do, but Jake knew the morning would break red and angry and the lake would be full of fish, full of detritus, full of opportunity. They’d reconnect the wires and the white slabs would fill up again, just like before. Everything would be fine.
“You worry too much,” Jake finally said.
“I do,” agreed Old Man Ollie. “I do.”
I absolutely love this story. So much is revealed in so few words. The back-story just shines through and makes so much sense. Recently I’ve been reading a lot about how our planet is doomed what with global warming and habitat destruction leading to extinctions and can imagine the scenario depicted in this story isn’t a long way off.