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.
Today, Eli and friends reach Phoenix.
“Of all the unbelievable, psychotic…” Riggs went on to declare exactly what kind of men those two were, using just about every colorful metaphor I’d ever heard. He cranked the wheel and turned left on Leroux Street, but slammed on his breaks about ten yards in. A few more colorful metaphors pulled my gaze out the front windshield.
A body lay in the middle of the street. Behind it, the rest of the street was gridlocked with empty vehicles. The smell of fish was overwhelming.
Jaylee sucked in a sharp breath. “Oh my gosh, look! By the mural!”
At least a hundred people were clustered at the base of the wall, sitting as if they’d been waiting in line for days. Men, women, and children with red faces and bloodshot eyes. Many were hugging themselves and wailing. Some might have been dead already, or maybe they were only asleep. A few dozen were lying on the pavement in the fetal position. Some lay on blankets or tucked inside sleeping bags.
The side of a building was painted with a colorful, preschool-like image of rolling hills with a sun on one side, a moon on the other, and a house in the middle. Crayon-like writing across the top of the mural read, “When you see only the dark, know the light will soon return.”
“They’re zombies!” Logan whispered.
“They’re not zombies,” I whispered back, trying to keep Riggs from hearing Logan’s latest. But why were these people here? Why not in a hospital?
Jaylee swatted Riggs’s arm. “I wanna leave, I wanna leave! Get us out of—”
The back window fractured, and I tucked my head between my knees. The guys with the crowbars were back.
“Get out of the car!” I heard one of them say.
“I don’t think so.” Riggs cranked the wheel hard to the right and floored it. The Range Rover spun like a tea cup at Disneyland. Pebbles ground under the wheels and then we shot forward. Riggs didn’t pull around far enough, though, and the Ranger Rover plowed right through one of the white wooden pillars of the Hotel Weatherford. Wood shards splintered over the windshield and sun roof as we sailed back onto Aspen—still going the wrong way. Jaylee screamed again. Logan hugged me. I elbowed him off and held on to the headrests of the front seats. Riggs turned down Beaver Street, which was, thankfully, vacant.
Once we were back on Route 66, Riggs drove like someone from Fast and Furious, taking the ninety-degree corner at seventy and drawing another round of screams from all of us. I think the Evoque may have even gone up on two wheels. We approached another clanging railroad crossing, but Riggs didn’t even slow down. I winced as the wheels clunked over the tracks, thankful not to see a train on this visit to Flagstaff.
By the time we hit Interstate 17, Riggs was going ninety-five. I just sat there, sandwiched between Zaq and Logan, gripping headrests as if that might help me if we crashed.
It wasn’t long before Logan felt the need to talk. “If Flagstaff was that bad, think of Phoenix. What do you guys think happened to Phoenix?”
“Logan. I really don’t want to think about that right now,” I said. “We’ve got two hours. Let’s just relax for now, okay?”
“But there are over four million people in the Phoenix-Mesa metropolitan area,” he said. “It’s the sixth most populated city in the nation.”
Riggs glared at Logan in his rearview mirror. “Anyone got some duct tape?”
“I have some duct tape in my pack,” Logan said.
I almost laughed. “You need to zip it, Logan. Now.” I shot him my most serious “work with me, please?” look, and he finally clammed up.
“We should make a plan, though,” Jaylee said, her voice laced with tears. “Something we can do to stay safe. I mean, Logan is right. If there were two guys with crowbars in Flagstaff, there will be two hundred in Phoenix.”
“Girl, do not give in to the Logan Graham paranoia,” Riggs said. “It’s a curse that will destroy you; you can trust me on that. Everything will be fine. You’ll see. I’ll take you all home, then I can go home and shower and sleep for a week. That’s the plan, and I like it. Aww yeah.”
Jaylee’s jaw dropped. “But you can’t just leave us, Riggs!”
“I can and I will. Home is the best place for us all.”
“If we even have a home left,” Logan said. “Phoenix could be gone. Without power, something could have happened to Palo Verde. Just like what happened in Japan.”
I shut my eyes. Leave it to Logan to bring up a nuclear meltdown.
“Logan, shut your mouth, or I’ll do it for you!” Riggs yelled.
“No! I want to hear this.” Jaylee turned in her seat so she could see Logan through the crack between the seat and the door. Tears glazed her eyes. “You think there is radiation in Phoenix?”
“It’s a conceivable theory,” Logan said. “Back-up generators only run for so long. If no one is alive to work them they—”
“You know what, Logan?” Riggs pulled the car over on the side of I-17. The tires slid two yards in the gravel. Logan and Zaq both jerked against the seatbacks. “I think you need to hoof it.”
“Walk? No way!”
“If I hear one more wonky, paranoid, whiner, know-it-all statement out of your yap, you’re hitching. You hear me?”
“You can’t do that,” Zaq said.
“Watch me, pool boy.”
No one said anything else. We all just sat there, waiting for Riggs to chill. He finally pulled back out onto the road, but the ride to Phoenix was agony. No one spoke, which gave me nothing to do but imagine the worst about my dad and Phoenix and this mystery illness.
We passed eighteen vehicles on the side of the road. I wondered how so many had broken down.
“Look!” Zaq said, pointing at a single car on the opposite side of the freeway, heading toward Flagstaff.
We all watched it in silence. Once it was out of view, no one spoke. I wondered if the driver knew what was going on. If he or she was sick.
“Riggs, look!” Jaylee yelled. “We should stop.”
We passed by a man sitting on the roof of a Subaru Outback, holding a sign that read, “Need Gas.”
“You should at least stop and tell him about Pete,” Jaylee said.
Pete, who was a 250-mile hike away. Well, she had other redeeming qualities. Empathy, for example. And kindness.
Riggs didn’t answer.
“Pull over,” I said.
“We’re not giving him a ride,” Riggs said.
“I’m going to fill his tank. With the gas I put in the can.”
“Come on!” Riggs said. “We might need it.”
“That’s really thoughtful of you, Eli,” Jaylee said.
I grinned at her. But Riggs didn’t stop.
“Riggs!” Jaylee yelled.
“I’m not stopping for no one,” Riggs said. “I’m in charge, so can it, all of you.”
And that was the last thing anyone said until we reached the city and Logan’s arm flew past my face, finger pointed out Zaq’s window. “There’s a fire!”
There was more than one fire. A gray haze clouded the Phoenix sky. Hundreds of black plumes of smoke drifted up as if one in five buildings in the city was some kind of factory. There were cars abandoned in the middle of the freeway here, some with their windows smashed, some with their tires slashed. Riggs kept the Evoque steady at sixty five, pausing only to weave between cars that were too close. Every-so-often we sped past a moving vehicle. I felt the need to duck my head when we did. I don’t know why.
“Phoenix is burning,” Logan said. “It’s like the whole world is asleep and no one is left to put out the fires.”
Which meant what? That it would burn until nothing was left? I didn’t voice my question aloud for fear of what Logan’s reply would be. Nothing pleasant, I was sure.
“You’re going to Eli’s house first, right?” Jaylee asked. “Then Zaq and Logan’s?” Her tone suggested that this was the only acceptable plan.
“Eli’s, your place, then Zaq and Logan’s.”
“But I want to stay with you!”
“No way.” Riggs shot her a look. “I’m taking you to your house. To your mom.”
Jaylee folded her arms and slouched down in her seat. “Fine.”
I had a sister, so I knew that “fine” actually meant “not fine” in girl speak. That Jaylee was upset with Riggs made be happy for a brief moment.
Riggs took the Camelback Road exit. The surface streets looked like a riot had passed through town. Buildings were on fire: some raging, some only smoking. Abandoned cars clogged the streets, forcing Riggs to go under thirty. The stores we passed looked to have been looted. Had this all happened during the power outage?
Every now and then I saw a group of people walking down a side street, or one or two inside a store. They all seemed to be carrying backpacks. I saw a few carrying rifles. Whenever one of us saw human life, Riggs stepped on the gas.
“Which street is yours?” Riggs asked me.
“14th,” I said. “But it doesn’t go through, so you have to take 13th to get there.”
“Right. I knew it was something like that.”
Three years ago we all lived in Scottsdale, in Marion Estates, actually. All except for Riggs, who lived in a mansion a bit east of the rest of us. But I don’t live there anymore. Dad had co-owned an auto shop in Sherwood until his partner got caught selling stolen cars. There had been a big scandal. Dad’s name was cleared, but he had to sell the business, and we moved to a cheaper house five miles from our old one. I was still able to see my friends—and we still went to Camelback Community Church—but I had to go to Central High instead of Arcadia.
My street was deserted. Riggs pulled the Evoque in the driveway in front of my house. Dad’s truck sat under the carport. I hoped that mean mom and Lizzie were home.
Everyone piled out. Riggs helped me get my pack. I lifted out the gas can. “I’m taking this.”
Riggs narrowed his eyes at me, then shrugged. “Whatever, kid. Call if you need—”
A gunshot rang out. I practically jumped out of my skin. Jaylee screamed. Logan fell to his stomach on the sidewalk and rolled under the car. Riggs, Zaq, and I just stared in the direction the sound had come from. Southeast. By the shopping centers.
Riggs blew out a low whistle. “Sounded close. A .38, I think.”
I smirked at him. “A .38? Really? How would you know?”
He trained his cool blue eyes on mine. “I spend a lot of time at the firing range.”
Of course he did. Was there anything Indiana Jones couldn’t do?
Surf, I reminded myself.
“Best lock your doors,” Riggs said. “Call if you need anything.”
“Sure.” But if I needed anything, I was calling Zaq, not this egomaniac.
“I’ll wait till you get inside,” Riggs said.
“Let’s go, people! Back in the car.” Riggs climbed into the Range Rover.
Jaylee hugged me. She somehow managed to smell like peaches despite not having showered for twelve days. It was a quick hug, but one I’d be thinking about for a long time. She pulled back, and her brown eyes met mine. Makeup free eyes. I liked them better this way. “If things are bad, let’s all go to Logan’s house, okay?”
I glanced at Logan, who was back on his feet. He nodded eagerly.
“Sure,” I said. Logan and Zaq lived next door to each other, and Jaylee’s apartment was only three blocks from them. Jaylee blessed me with one last wave, then jumped into the vehicle.
Zaq and I stood alone in my driveway. Riggs honked the horn.
I looked to Zaq. “Why doesn’t he just give the gunman a lift to my house?”
“He’s an idiot,” Zaq said. “Don’t worry about it. You got a corded phone?”
I nodded. “It’s probably in storage though.” There were still a dozen boxes we never unpacked after the move. Our new place just didn’t have room for everything.
I stood at the back of the Evoque, looking everywhere but at my best friend. I felt like I should say something poignant or heartfelt, but I just couldn’t.
Zaq raised his eyebrows at me and offered his fist. “Later, McShane.”
We tapped knuckles. “Yeah. See you.”
Logan waved out the window. “Bye, Eli.”
I nodded back. “Bye.”
I hoisted my pack higher and turned up the walkway to my house. It was weird, getting dropped off like this. Zaq and Logan were my friends. Shouldn’t I at least go with them and see if their families were okay?
But all I could think of was my own.
My house looked like it always did. I tried to walk normally, to look like I wasn’t scared out of my mind, but I don’t know if I pulled it off. I didn’t have my keys with me but found the spare on the top ledge of the living room windowsill. Once I got the door opened, I waved at Jaylee. The Evoke swung around in a U-turn then peeled away, the motor quickly shifting through four gears as it receded down 14th. I stood in the open doorway, listening to the sounds. Crickets were singing already. I didn’t hear any sprinklers, dogs, or airplanes. Someone yelled out a few streets away, calling to a friend, maybe. It was a male voice. Adult.
A different male voice answered with a colorful metaphor. Then another gunshot. Closer this time.
I slipped inside and locked the door.
END OF CHAPTER
What will Eli find inside his house?