One night, everyone on Earth has the same dream—a dream of being guided to a watery death by a loved one…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Drowning Practice by Mike Meginnis, out from Ecco on March 15.
One night, everyone on Earth has the same dream—a dream of being guided to a watery death by a loved one on November 1. When they wake up, most people agree: after Halloween, the world will end.
In the wake of this haunting dream and saddled with its uncertainty, Lyd and her daughter, Mott, navigate a changed world, wrestling with how to make choices when you really don’t know what comes next. Embarking on a quixotic road trip filled with a collection of unexpected and memorable characters, Lyd and Mott are determined to live out what could be their final months as fully as possible. But how can Lyd protect Mott and help her achieve her ambitions in a world where inhibitions, desires, and motivations have become unpredictable, and where Mott’s dangerous and conniving father has his own ideas about how his estranged family should spend their last days?
Not everyone believed the world would end that year. There remained a few optimists, agnostics, and well-meaning liars who claimed it might endure at least a few months longer, possibly even forever. Until this question was settled, however, there would be little point in spending good money to repair or replace what was broken or used up, and least of all what benefitted children, who would probably never repay such investments. Public schools stopped buying supplies. In the unlikely event that the dream about November proved wrong, they would resume their purchases in December. Taxpayers would thank them for running a surplus.
Mott attended a public middle school for reasons both financial and political, according to her mother, and though some dedicated educators now paid for necessities out of pocket, Mott’s teacher was not one of these. Ms. Rooney attended class each day dressed more or less for the part, but she rarely spoke and often took naps on her desk. Her classroom was down to its last stubs of chalk. Among the dozen long, fluorescent ceiling lights that lit the children, three always flickered and one was entirely spent. These bulbs would never be replaced.
Erica Banach stood in front of the class, a piece of yellow notepaper stretched taut in her hands—it would tear if she pulled any harder. Her knees were covered in Band-Aids. They were shaking and so was her voice. “‘What I Think Will Happen in November.’ That’s the name of my report. I think that everything will be okay. When you hear ‘the end of the world,’ you think about everyone dying. You can’t help it, that’s how you grew up. But there’s another way to think. November might only mean the end of the world as we know it. Would that be so bad? Most people suffer for most of their lives. Most people live in India or China. If everything was different, some things would be better. Maybe in the new world no one will be hungry. Maybe we’ll learn to be nice. In conclusion, I think that’s what will happen. Thank you for your time.”
A student in the front row raised his hand. Erica pointed at him, which meant that he could ask.
“What happened to your eye?”
Erica tore her paper in half. She didn’t mean to do it—she only pulled a little harder.
“When you see a black eye,” she said, “you think of someone being hit by her father. You can’t help it. But my father is a doctor and a good man. He delivered me himself.”
She gave the halves of her report to Mott and went back to her seat.
The children looked to Ms. Rooney. Her head lay on her desk and she was covering her ears.
“I’ll go next,” said Molly Coryell. She walked to the front of the class. “‘What I Think Will Happen in November.’ Everyone will fall down at the same time. If you’re in the grocery store, you’ll fall down in the fruits and veggies. If you’re at your job, your face will fall down on your keyboard and spell a weird word. If you’re at home in your bed, you won’t fall down, but you won’t get up either. Everyone will make a little surprised sound, like they just checked their mailbox and inside there was a letter from their friend.”
No one had any questions for Molly. She gave her paper to Mott and sat down. Ms. Rooney sobbed once.
“I’ll go,” said Malik Boyd. He drew a cloud on one end of the chalkboard, and on the other end a flame. “You already know what’s going to happen in November. The dream was very clear. There’s going to be a flood like the one in the Bible. We’ll drown to death, which is supposed to be a pretty decent way to die, at least compared to all the other ways, and then we’ll have to choose the cloud or the flame. My granddad died from liver failure last year. His car is still parked in our driveway. I worry all the time that it’s going to be stolen. The doors are unlocked, but nobody takes it.”
Malik didn’t wait for questions. He erased what he’d drawn on the board and handed his paper to Mott. It was her turn. She always preferred to go last.
“‘What I Think Will Happen in November,’ by Mott Gabel. I have asked myself one thousand times. We all had the same dream, or close enough to the same, and we all know what the father said. The world will be over, forgotten, or maybe it’s better to say never remembered again. My first memory is I am sitting on a checkered blanket in the park. My mother is scooping potato salad onto my father’s plate. He keeps telling her, ‘A little more, please.’ Soon there’s more on his plate than there is in the bowl. She’s trying not to laugh. He keeps telling her, ‘A little more, please. Just a little more and I’ll be satisfied.’ Finally she can’t hold in the laughter. He says, ‘A little more.’ All of the potato salad is on his paper plate and my mother is dying from laughter. Someone’s blue Frisbee settles on our blanket. No one ever came to claim it, so I still have the Frisbee, and that’s how I know my memory is true. Becoming a person doesn’t happen to you all at once. It takes months or maybe years to learn your name, and then you have to remember it every day. The world has to do the same thing. It’s lucky that when we’re asleep, when we’ve forgotten we’re a world, Australia’s awake to remember. They keep us alive. When November comes and the world is what it is, we’ll all forget our names together. Our bodies will still exist, but we won’t use them anymore. They’ll use themselves.”
Nobody raised a hand and no one asked. She set her paper with the others on her desk. She sat down and tidied the stack. It was quiet in the classroom. Attendance today was less than three-quarters.
The children looked to Ms. Rooney, who was sleeping or pretending.
Erica slapped herself on her own face. The children looked at their desks, most of which were badly vandalized—names scratched into their surfaces, wizards and unicorns drawn with permanent marker, wads of gum stuck there and dried. Erica’s was clean.
Mott said, “I guess that’s enough for today. Remember Monday is a book report. You’re supposed to tell us about the best book that you’ve ever read and try to persuade us to read it. Your title should be ‘If You Read Just One Thing Before November, Make It This.’ Use evidence from your book to support your ideas. Your report should be at least one typewritten page. If you write it by hand, make it two.”
“Class dismissed,” said Malik. “Use your time wisely. You don’t have to leave if you feel safest here.”
About half the students stood, shouldered their backpacks, and shuffled out the door, mumbling goodbyes and invitations. The other half stayed where they were, played with phones, drew in notebooks, read comics, pushed earbuds in too deep, or hunched their shoulders and slumped in their chairs. Erica was one of these. She had removed one of the Band-Aids on her knee too soon. She replaced it with a fresh one from her pocket.
Mott and Malik were among those who left. First Malik put an apple on their teacher’s desk beside her sleeping head.
“She doesn’t deserve you,” said Mott.
“I feel bad for her. She told me her mother is dead.”
“She says that about everyone.”
Mott and Malik left together because it was safer that way. The halls of the school were empty apart from a cluster of students playing cards on the floor and the girl who slept all day by her locker. Most classrooms were at least two-thirds full, but few students ever moved from one room to another: subjects and specialties were over, extracurriculars forgotten. Each teacher gave as much instruction as they could bear in reading, writing, remedial math, and what history they remembered or saw on TV. Fridays they did an hour on personal hygiene. Children who could not sit still and keep quiet were sent to the principal’s office and never came back. This is not to say they disappeared completely: they were sometimes seen wandering the school before first bell, which had been moved back one hour to accommodate the end of the busing program. Mott didn’t know where the troublemakers went while she was in class. She wasn’t friends with them, would never be, and so could not ask.
Mott and Malik stepped outside. The groundskeepers had all been let go a month back, and now the grass was grown enough to show seed. Butterflies searched the lawn for hidden flowers. Two condiment-colored cars had collided in the parking lot. The drivers, both middle-aged men, chose to avoid confrontation by closing their eyes and waiting for the other one to drive away.
Mott and Malik were going the same way, so they agreed to continue walking together. Mott called her mother. The phone rang twice.
“Hello love,” said her mother. “I haven’t looked at the clock yet, I’ve been feeling very anxious, I don’t know the time. Did they let you out early again?”
“They said it’s some kind of government holiday. Probably they made it up to get out of teaching.”
“Is the weather nice? I haven’t looked behind my curtains.”
“It’s idyllic,” said Mott. “Sun is shining, moderate temperature, cotton-ball clouds, and a pleasant, aromatic breeze. There’s a ladybug on my shirt’s collar.”
Malik searched her shirt for the bug. Mott shook her head and gestured dismissively—he needn’t bother; it did not exist.
“You should come home and do educational activities with me,” said her mother. “We can listen to enriching music. You can read a historically important woman’s biography. I’ll try to finish my work quickly so we can focus on each other once you’re here.”
“I need to go to the library first.”
“Is there somebody with you? Somebody you trust?”
“Malik is with me. After I’m done at the library, I need to go to the grocery store. We’re out of everything. But I promise then I’ll come directly home.”
“Don’t go to the store today. It’s dangerous there. You can do it tomorrow.”
“It won’t be any safer tomorrow,” said Mott. “It could get worse.”
“Maybe I could come with you though. Maybe I can find some
courage by then.”
Mott knew that wasn’t going to happen. It hadn’t happened in years.
“Are you breathing on the receiver, Mott? Honestly, it’s very irritating.”
“Sorry Mom, I’m not. You might be hearing yourself.”
“It feels like you’re doing it right on my ear.”
“I’m sorry you feel anxious.”
“Come home soon, okay? Don’t go to the store.”
“I’ll come as soon as we’re done at the library, but the bus might still be late or slow, so please don’t worry if I take a little while, and please don’t call me unless I’m very, very late and you feel too stressed out to wait anymore. I promise I’ll be careful, and I’ll call you if I need your help.”
“You’re sure that you’re not breathing on the phone?”
“Yes ma’am. Try holding your breath and see if it stops.”
They shared a moment of silence, each of them holding her breath. Mott stood still to keep quiet; Malik walked on ahead. Mott’s mother gave a small, happy sigh.
“Did that help?” said Mott.
“I still don’t think it was me. You held your breath too, so it wasn’t much of a test. I’m going to get back to my typing. I want to be done by the time you get home. You know I love you more than the waves love the moon.”
“Am I allowed to say I love you too?”
“You know I would rather you didn’t,” said her mother. “Our relationship’s inherently coercive.” She hung up.
Mott pocketed her phone and jogged to catch up with Malik, who was waiting for her at an intersection. He asked her, “How’s your mom?”
“Still a genius,” said Mott. “But sometimes she’s weird.”
The library was widely considered a good place for naps. Men who looked like bums and men who looked like fathers slept on all the outside benches. They covered their faces with elbows, newspapers, hats, empty bags. They rolled from side to side and scratched their bellies.
Women stayed inside, using chairs and sofas meant for readers, some with children curled against them. There was a mother sleeping upright on a small bench between the books about crafts and the ones about how to draw. Her baby fed on her left breast; the right breast was covered. Malik apologized to Mott as if the woman’s nakedness was something that he’d done. He took a history of the postbellum South from a shelf. “I also need an atlas.”
On the shelf under the atlases there was a small girl sleeping. She had pushed all the books out of her way, so that now they were heaped on the floor.
“This is all I needed,” said Malik. “What are you getting?”
“Three novels. You should get one too. Take my mother’s third and final book—it was highly underrated. Did you know that she was on a list of the best twenty women writers under forty? The order wasn’t supposed to mean anything, but they did put her first on the list, and you know they wouldn’t do that without thinking it over. Her picture was on the magazine’s cover.”
“I don’t have time for fiction,” said Malik, which made Mott want to slug him.
The younger librarian at the reference desk slept upright in her chair, horn-rimmed glasses hanging from a silver thread around her neck. The elder librarian was reading Little Women. Her white hair was thin like not enough icing.
Mott cleared her throat. “What are the best three novels ever written in English, including translations? I trust your opinion.”
The elder librarian glanced up from her book. “Little Women is one of them,” she said. “I don’t know that I can say for sure about the others.”
Mott clapped her hands together once, too hard. The sound filled the library. The younger librarian stirred, but her eyes remained closed. “I need you to help me,” said Mott. “My mother never tells me what novels to read. She feels that it would poison our relationship, that I would not love the books she chose and that she would hate me for it. So it all comes down to you. What are the three greatest books ever written?”
“That depends on your taste.”
“No it really doesn’t. You can be honest. We don’t have much time.”
The elder librarian tore the title page from Little Women and wrote the names of two more books beneath that first. “Get these.”
The woman at the checkout desk asked Mott and Malik if they would like to put the books on their cards. “You can just take them if you want,” she said. “Nobody cares.”
“Put mine on my card, please,” said Mott.
“I’ll just take mine,” said Malik. “I’m not coming back.”
Outside, at the bus stop, Mott asked Malik what he’d meant. He looked to the horizon. “I’m going to travel all around the country with my parents. They want me to see where I come from before the world ends.”
“We were almost friends,” said Mott. “We were getting so close. Now you’re leaving.”
“We are friends. You just don’t know what it’s like.”
The bus was late. Mott imagined her mother was already starting to panic.
“I probably won’t be at school on Monday,” said Malik. “My mom says we’re leaving first thing.”
“Can I have your number?” said Mott. She looked at her feet.
“I don’t have a phone, but my brother does. I’ll give you his.”
The bus arrived and let them on. They would ride together for three stops, and then Malik would leave. Mott would ride alone for two more.
“Do you believe in God?” said Malik.
Mott couldn’t think of a not-cruel response. She shook her head.
“That’s okay,” said Malik. “Heaven and Hell are pretty much the same thing. I don’t like to think about either.”
Mott opened Little Women and started to read.
From Drowning Practice by Mike Meginnis. Copyright 2022 Mike Meginnis. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint on HarperCollins.