In conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series I’m writing over on the Go Teen Writers blog, I’m posting the chapters for THIRST on this blog. Subscribe by clicking here. And if you’ve just discovered THIRST, click here for a list of previous chapters, if you’d like to get caught up.
In chapter one, we meet Eli and his friends as they return from a long camping trip and encounter a few problems.
Six days into our wilderness survival adventure in the La Plata Mountains of Colorado, Comet Pulon passed by the earth. We had no way of knowing that it had come much closer than expected, that it had forever changed our planet, and that it had left a killer among us. Oblivious, the twelve of us camped in a clearing, cheered as the bright yellow fireball soared overhead, roasted marshmallows, and toasted with canteens of water we had purified ourselves.
And as we celebrated in awe of nature’s majesty, the rest of the world began to die.
“First!” I jogged up the split log steps of Deadwood Lodge and yanked on the antler door handle. It didn’t budge.
“This ain’t a race, boy.” Andy Reinhold, a retired US Army Ranger, our guide, and owner of Wilderness Way Adventures, clumped up the stairs behind me. “What? Is it locked? It shouldn’t be.”
I cupped my hand against the glass window on the slab door and peered inside. “The lobby is dark.” I shrugged off my pack and let it fall to the planked porch. My shoulders loved the weightless freedom. The twelve-day extreme survival training camp had been awesome, but I was ready to go home.
Reinhold stepped past me and tugged on the handle. He grunted. “No biggie. I got a key stashed here someplace.”
While Reinhold searched for the hidden spare, I turned back to the yard. The dirt parking lot held four vehicles: Reinhold’s rusty Ford pickup, Mark’s Impala, Krista’s Prius, and Riggs’s fancy new Range Rover Evoque. No sign of my dad. Bummer. Our group had left our campsite at dawn. I checked my watch. It was 9:40 am now. We were a bit late, if anything, so Dad should be here. If we left soon we’d be home in time for dinner. I hoped Mom would grill steaks tonight. Reinhold’s vegan meals had been good, but I missed me some meat.
Across the grassy clearing, Riggs and Jaylee trudged out of the forest, followed closely by Kimama, Reinhold’s eleven-year-old daughter. Jaylee’s reddish-brown pigtails swung as she walked. She laughed at something Riggs said. The sound carried all the way to where I stood and gnawed at my stomach. Stupid Riggs, anyway.
Squeaking hinges diverted my attention from Jaylee Jennings. I turned back to find Reinhold stepping inside the lodge. I followed, leaving my pack on the porch. In the lobby, a strong, fishy odor hit me. A vegan betrayal? I gasped dramatically and wrinkled my nose. “Busted! Chipeta’s been eating salmon while you’ve been out working.”
Reinhold shot me a dark look. His hair and beard were so bushy that his eyes were pretty much all you could see of his face. The quintessential mountain man. “Don’t know what that smell is, but it ain’t salmon.” He flipped the light switch. Nothing happened. “Power’s out.” He walked to the front desk and snatched up a sheet of paper. He squinted, tilted the paper toward the light from the open front door. His eyes flicked back and forth as he read, his eyebrows scrunched up. He grunted and his hands fell to his side, the paper crumpling in one fist.
“What’s it say?” I asked.
“Chipeta’s home sick. Marcie too.”
“Must be bad to keep Chipeta home.” Reinhold’s wife, a Ute native, could have led any wilderness adventure on her own. She was one tough lady.
“I’ll give her a call.” Reinhold walked behind the desk and picked up the cordless phone, put it to his ear, then slammed it back in the charger. “Cursed technology. Got a corded phone in my office.” He trudged down the hallway, his boots clumping on the hardwood floor.
I tried to get a drink at the water fountain, but nothing came out. Whatever. I went back out to the porch, expecting to see Jaylee and Riggs, but Kimama sat alone on the bottom step. I sank down beside her and stretched out my legs. My hiking boots were dusty from the Colorado mountain trails. “How you doing, Kimama?”
“I just like to give them a moment, you know?” Kimama looked at me and smirked. “It has been twelve days.”
Only a kid like Kimama would think of something like that and not be weirded out. “Your mom’s not in there. She left a note that said she’s home sick.”
“Sick?” Kimama frowned. “Mama doesn’t get sick.”
I shrugged and looked back out over the grassy yard. Zaq, Jesse, Mark, and Davis were crossing the lawn now. A hundred yards behind them, Krista, Tyler, and Josh had just stepped out of the forest. No sign of Logan. Big surprise. I hoped Riggs hadn’t murdered him and left him for dead.
A horn beeped in the parking lot, making me jump. I stood up, looking for our silver Honda minivan, but there were only the same four vehicles in the lot.
“They’re in his car,” Kimama said.
My stomach slid into my boots as my gaze shifted to the Range Rover. Sure enough, I could see Riggs and Jaylee’s silhouettes in the front seats. Jaylee in the driver’s seat. I slumped back to the step, propped my elbows on my knees, and ran my hands through my greasy hair. I needed a shower.
“You like her, don’t you, Eli?”
I glanced over at Kimama. She looked just like her mom. Tanned skin, round face, dark brown eyes, and black hair twisted into two braids that ran down to her waist. She was giving me the same look my sister Lizzie always gave me when she knew I was lying.
I didn’t answer. No way was I going to confess my pathetic crush on Jaylee Jennings to this little girl. But the situation was killing me. Twelve days of watching Jaylee chase after Rigley Orcut had been more than I could stand. The sooner we lost him, the better. Where was my dad, anyway? My cell phone was dead in my pack, and I couldn’t charge it with the electricity out. I glanced back to the parking lot, past the Evoque to the road.
“She doesn’t deserve you,” Kimama said. “She could, though. If she started acting normal. But she won’t. The shadow of the owl soars over her head. She is not long for this world.”
I shivered. Kimama said weird stuff like that all the time, like she was some sort of Ute shaman. It creeped me out, especially considering her native heritage. Not that I believed in that stuff. I mean, I grew up going to church and youth group. So… yeah.
Footsteps on the porch behind us preceded Reinhold’s deep voice. “No answer at home. I tried Marcie too. They must be sleeping it off, whatever it is. Your dad ain’t here yet?”
I shook my head.
Reinhold stepped between us down the five porch steps and turned to offer a hand to his daughter. “Let’s get your pack in the truck so we can take off as soon as their ride shows. I want to get home and see your mama.” Reinhold hoisted Kimama up, and the two set off for the parking lot. He glanced over his shoulder. “Eli, go use my office phone to call your ride.”
I dragged my weary body back inside Deadwood Lodge. It really did reek like rotten fish. I shut the front door, which made it hard to see. The light from the front windows lit the lobby and hallway enough so that I didn’t run into the walls as I inched my way along, but I couldn’t see squat in Reinhold’s office. I fumbled around until my eyes adjusted enough for me to glimpse the outline of his desk. I managed to find the phone, and when I lifted the receiver, the keypad glowed a yellowish-green, illuminating the office like a wad of glow sticks. Weird that the phone got power when nothing else did.
I couldn’t remember Dad’s cell number, so I dialed home. It rang and rang—the answering machine didn’t even pick up. Weird. I also tried my sister Lizzie’s cell number since it was only one number off from my own. The call went straight to voicemail.
I stumbled back out to the porch. My gaze scanned the parking lot for the minivan. Still no sign. The silhouettes inside the Range Rover were each fully in their own seat. That was something, at least.
Where was Dad? I needed to get back to Arizona and get Jaylee away from Rigley Orcutt.
Something hit the top of my head, fell to my boots, and rattled across the porch. A pinecone. I looked up and took another to the forehead. My best friend Zaq peeked out from behind a massive ponderosa, cackled, and pelted me with a few more.
I scooped up the pinecones and returned fire. “You’re just mad ’cause I beat you back, slowpoke.”
Zaq blew a raspberry. “First is the worst, man.”
I ran out of ammo. “Oh yeah? What were you, sixth? If first is the worst, what’s sixth?”
“Kimama said seeing six crows brings gold and wealth, so I win.” Zaq approached the porch, slung off his pack, and dropped it on the ground. He fell onto the grass beside it, groaning. “No Silver Bullet?”
The Silver Bullet was Zaq’s nickname for my parents’ minivan. “Nope.” I yawned. “Man, I want a shower. I feel like I’ve been deep-fried.”
“Mmm. Deep fried. I want me some KFC. And some Cold Stone.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Because clearly you’ve wasted away under Reinhold’s cooking. I’m surprised you’re still alive.” Reinhold had provided meals of rice, beans, pasta, potatoes, whole-grain breads, nuts, granola, and oats, along with an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables. I loved it, though I missed my meat. But Zaq was the king of junk food junkies.
“I need sugar, McShane. White. Granulated. Just a five pound bag and a spoon will do me fine.”
“You’re suffering from withdrawal. I should get you into a support group before you go on a binge.”
It looked like everyone had made it back, finally. My youth group was not made up of professional hikers. This was my obsession. I had wanted to come here. I had talked my youth pastor into it. I had organized fundraisers and talked people into coming. But then Pastor Wayne had gotten sick, and Riggs had stepped in at the last minute to take his place as chaperone.
And ruined my plans to hike for twelve days with Jaylee Jennings.
Most of the others were lying in the grassy lawn, spread eagle, packs strewn about. Logan was finally dragging his way across the clearing. His face was flushed and his blond afro looked like clown hair, but he’d made it. I was proud of him.
We hung around outside the lodge, waiting for my dad to show. Jaylee and Riggs finally emerged from the Evoque and sat in the grass with the others. Those with rides packed up their gear. Reinhold dragged me back to his office so I could try home again. Still no answer.
Jesse, Krista, and Josh left first. The Prius barely made a sound as it rolled away. Mark and my dad had convoyed on the way up, but I couldn’t blame Mark when he, Davis, and Tyler piled into the Impala and took off. Twelve days in the wilderness was awesome, but when it was over, everyone was so ready to go home. That left me, Zaq, Logan, and Jaylee.
Oh, and Riggs, of course, our so-called chaperone.
Reinhold got impatient and started a portable generator so I could plug in my iPhone and try my dad’s cell. But when I finally got power, I had no service.
“You had service before. All y’all did!” Reinhold stalked off, muttering to himself about the ills of technology.
Jaylee, Zaq, and Logan went inside to try Reinhold’s corded phone. Now that my phone had some power, I carried it into Marcie’s office and wrote down my parents’ cell numbers on a sheet of paper, just in case I needed them again. When I was done, I joined everyone in Reinhold’s office.
“None of us are getting though,” Logan said. “The power must be out in Phoenix too.”
Jaylee clicked her tongue. “Land lines should still work.”
“Only if they’re corded phones like this one,” Logan said. “Does your apartment have a corded phone, Jaylee?”
Jaylee rolled her eyes and left the office.
I took the phone from Logan and tried my parents’ cell phones. Both went to voicemail without ringing. I pressed my thumb against the reset button. “This is starting to freak me out.”
“It’s probably an alien invasion,” Logan said. “They would attack the big cities first, like in Independence Day.”
Zaq slapped the side of Logan’s head. “Dude, shut up.”
I walked out into the hallway, headed back outside. Zaq and Logan’s footsteps clumped behind me in the hallway, Logan still working his point.
“I’m just saying that when aliens attack, they’re not going to come down here and fake a peaceful visit. They’ll just take us by surprise. Boom. Done.”
I stepped back onto the porch and squinted in the sunlight. Jaylee was standing beside Riggs, who was doing pushups with both hands on the rail. Show off.
“I can’t get through,” I said. “I just get voicemail on cell numbers, ringing on land lines.”
Jaylee fixed her big, brown eyes on mine. “How are we going to get home?”
“Hey, it’s no problem.” Riggs shoved off the railing. “I can drive you guys back. I’ve got belts for five.”
Jaylee squealed and threw both hands into the air. “I call shotgun!”
No, no, this was not happening. The only reason my dad had taken two days off to drive us up here was so that we would not be in the car with Rigley Orcutt. Dad said he was irresponsible. But I couldn’t very well say that. Instead I tried, “But what if my dad gets here and we’re gone?”
Riggs shrugged. “Leave a note on the door.”
“Seriously? A note?” I couldn’t believe Riggs was being so nonchalant about this. “The man drives six hours to pick us up and we’re not here?”
“What if something happened to him, Eli?” Jaylee said, tugging on one of her pigtails. “What if the van broke down or something like that and he’s stranded?”
My name on Jaylee’s tongue froze my thoughts. I loved it when she said my name.
“Eli’s dad’s a mechanic,” Logan said. “He could handle it.”
“I’m sure he can, Lo-gan,” Riggs said in a slow and mocking tone. “But it could take him hours. What if he needs a part? What if he’s miles from anywhere? Had to walk to a gas station and call a tow? By the time he gets the van fixed, we could be to Flagstaff. And if we don’t pass him on the way, you’ll have reception in Flagstaff and can call him and tell him what’s up.”
“Makes sense to me,” Jaylee said, beaming. “I think it’s a great plan.”
I’m sure she did. If I wasn’t in love with her, I’d have killed her.
I wasn’t good at talking people into things, so I looked to Zaq. At six-foot-five, he was taller than anyone here. Despite his face full of brown freckles, whatever he said, people would do. “What do you think, man?”
Zaq lifted one shoulder. “Your dad’s never been late. Something must be up. It’s pretty desolate for miles. If we don’t see him, one of our phones is bound to have some bars by Flagstaff.”
Traitor. “Fine.” I stood and climbed the steps to my pack. I hoisted it onto one shoulder and took a quick sip of water from my camelback. “Let’s go home.”
We said our goodbyes to Reinhold and Kimama—who reminded me to follow the wolf—then loaded up Riggs’s Evoque. The thing was like an iPhone on wheels. It was candy apple red with a tinted sunroof that covered the whole hood of the car, and had a touchscreen computer console with GPS and internet—internet that couldn’t find a signal either.
Jaylee sat shotgun—she had called it, after all—and Zaq, Logan, and I crammed into the back seat. I lost the rock off and had to sit in the middle. There wasn’t much leg room for three teen guys, but it beat walking. Riggs put on some music, loud enough that I couldn’t hear what he and Jaylee were saying to one another.
And so we headed for Arizona. The Colorado roads were barren. We never saw one car, even when passing through some small towns. It wasn’t that early in the day. Where was everyone?
Logan must have been thinking the same thing, because he said, “What is this, Christmas?” then snickered at his own joke.
I didn’t find it funny. I kept thinking about what Kimama had said about the shadow of the owl and how the cell phones weren’t working and the power was out and my dad hadn’t showed to pick us up.
We passed into Arizona. The first place Riggs stopped for gas was closed. The second place was boarded up. Someone had nailed one-by-sixes over the windows and doors. I would’ve guessed the place had been out of business for years except we’d stopped there on the way up.
True to form, Logan was the first to panic. “Dude, we’re not going to make it home without gas. What are we going to do? Phoenix is another 400 miles!”
In the rearview mirror, Riggs’s cold blue eyes flashed our way. “Don’t start freaking out, kid. There are more than two gas stations on this highway, I promise you.”
Logan had driven Riggs nuts the past twelve days. Logan can do that to a person. It made me feel a bit better, knowing I wasn’t the most paranoid person in the car, until Riggs said, “Dude, is that your dad’s van?”
My gaze shot out Zaq’s window as Riggs steered into the oncoming lane and slowed to a stop nose-to-nose with the Silver Bullet. I shoved Zaq toward the door, my pulse skyrocketing.
“Get out of the car, man. Move!”
“I’m going!” Zaq climbed out, and I followed, leaving the door open.
The van was parked on the gravelly shoulder of the road, northbound. The doors were locked. No sign of my dad. I walked around the van, checked all four tires.
Logan yelled out Zaq’s open door. “Check under the hood, Eli.”
I threw up my hands. “The doors are locked!” I could pop it if I got on the ground under the engine, but I’d need a long screwdriver. And Riggs didn’t have any tools.
“Do you have a spare key?” Riggs asked.
“No. And I’m not going to break a window, either, Logan, so don’t suggest it.”
“If you did, I could hotwire it,” Logan said.
“You could not.” Zaq slammed the door on Logan’s rebuttal and walked to where I stood between the two vehicles. “What do you want to do, Eli?”
I could read the concern in Zaq’s gray eyes but shrugged it off with a deep breath. “I don’t know.” I checked my cell phone. “Still no signal.”
“May as well keep moving, then. I mean, we didn’t pass him yet.”
I nodded. “Yeah, okay. He probably headed for a gas station or something.”
We climbed back into the Evoque, but it felt wrong, like I was leaving my dad for dead, like I would regret this choice for the rest of my life.
“What’s the plan?” Riggs asked.
“Keep going,” I said, as if it were no big deal, though I felt sick saying it. “He must have walked south since we didn’t see him on the road.”
“South it is.” Riggs stepped on the gas and steered back into the right lane.
“I can so hotwire a car, Eli. Anyone can. It’s not that difficult.”
“Logan, please. You’re not helping.”
“But you’re acting like you don’t believe me, and I—”
“Fine. You could have hotwired it. But I didn’t want to bust out the windows, okay? My dad is probably just up the road.”
“There’s a risk of electrical shock,” Logan said, “so I would have needed gloves. What kind of engine does that Honda have? A four-cylinder?”
My eyes scanned the road for any sign of my dad. “Six-cylinder.”
“Oh, well, I think the wires on a six cylinder are on the side, near the center of the engine. I’d have to take a look to be sure.”
I gritted my teeth and glanced at Zaq. His lips were curved into a small grin. I elbowed him and whispered, “Laugh it up, chuckles.”
Riggs slammed on the breaks.
I jerked my gaze out the front windshield. About ten yards away, a body lay on the side of the road, a red gas can beside it.
The sight just about stopped my heart.
END OF CHAPTER
For you Safe Lands readers out there, did you recognize any of the names that are important in the future? *wink*
Feel free to leave any thoughts or feedback in the comments.