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.
Eli and the group are looking for Eli’s dad and find a body on the road. Who is it? And what’s going on?
Jaylee rocked in her seat, repeating “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh” a hundred miles a minute.
I just sat there, staring at the body.
“I’ll go look,” Zaq said, already climbing out.
I scurried after him. We jogged toward the body until the smell of dead fish slowed our steps. It was a man. I took in his red windbreaker and leather loafers.
“That’s not my dad.” Relief flooded my body, followed by a subtle horror of being pleased that someone else was lying on the side of the road.
Zaq squatted beside the man and tipped back his chin, peering inside in mouth. “He reeks.” He put his fingers on the man’s neck, checking for a pulse. Zaq was a lifeguard at the pool. We’d all taken basic first aid with Reinhold this past week, but I was glad Zaq was here.
“You going to do CPR?” I asked.
“I would, but…” Zaq waved me closer. “Come see.”
Zaq wouldn’t make me look just to see something gross. He wasn’t Logan. I took slow steps forward. My hiking boots scraped over the asphalt. Like a scene from some horror film, foreboding music built in my head as I inched closer. I didn’t want to look. My legs were shaking, but I tried to keep my face passive so Zaq wouldn’t know how freaked out I was.
The smell was worse up close. The man looked to be in his fifties. He was bald, his scalp shiny under the hot sun. His eyes were open and so bloodshot they looked to be bleeding. His face was pink and blistered.
“That from the sun?” I asked, jiggling one leg.
“Naw, it’s all over his arms too. Some kind of zitty rash. Could be contagious.”
“Well don’t touch him,” I said, sliding back a step. “He stinks like Deadwood Lodge.”
Zaq looked at me then, our eyes exchanging an unspoken question. Zaq stood and walked past me to the Evoque. I glanced back at the dead man, then grabbed the gas can. It was empty. But if the Honda was out of gas, maybe my dad could use it. I jogged back to the Range Rover.
Zaq was standing at Riggs’s driver’s side window, yelling. “The coyotes will get him! It’s not right.”
“Dude, I’m not putting a dead body in my car. No way. We’ll send someone after him when we get to the next town.”
Zaq stepped back from the vehicle. “You’re a jerk, Riggs, you know that, right?”
“Cry me a river and get in, both of you.”
I shoved the gas can in the back and climbed in. When I looked back out the open car door, Zaq was gone. I glanced up to see him standing back by the dead man.
“What is he doing?” Jaylee asked.
“I don’t know.” Riggs stepped on the gas, and the Evoque rolled closer to Zaq and the body. “Maybe he’s robbing him.”
Zaq returned to the vehicle empty handed. “No wallet. Someone must have taken it.”
“Why did you want his wallet?” Logan asked.
“So we could give his name to the police in Flagstaff. That way if a coyote carried him off, at least there would have been some record of the guy.”
Riggs drove on. We rode in silence for a long, awkward moment. I kept picturing that man’s pimpled skin and bloody eyes.
“I take it that wasn’t your dad,” Logan whispered.
“Duh.” But the comment reminded me that I should be watching for him. I looked out the front and caught Jaylee with her hand on Rogg’s shoulder, toying with the brown and black puka shell necklace he wore around his neck. I hated that he always wore that thing. The guy could do lots of cool stuff, but he was no surfer.
I’d spent the last twelve days asking myself what Jaylee saw in Rigley Orcutt, which was dumb because the guy was twenty-two, a college student, rich, drove this spaceship of a car, and had a reddish-brown goatee despite his dark hair. He also had a scary tattoo on his shoulder blades that ran down the backs of both arms to his elbows. Plus every girl in my youth group—including my sister—said he was hot.
“Bet this was that dead guy’s ride.” Riggs sailed past a black Nissan king cab parked on the shoulder.
We all stared at the car. A chill ran up my arms. I glanced at Zaq, but neither of us spoke.
“How much gas do we have, anyway?” Logan asked.
“Plenty,” Riggs said.
“We’ll have to fill up though,” Logan said. “One tank won’t get us to Phoenix.”
Riggs’s eyes glanced back in the rearview mirror. “We’re fine.”
Yet his tone didn’t sound so fine. I straightened, tried to get a look at the gas gauge, but the dashboard was so fancy, I couldn’t tell where it was.
Seeming to have the same idea as me, Jaylee leaned toward the driver’s seat. “The low fuel light is on.”
“We’re going to need some gas,” Logan said.
“I think I can handle it,” Riggs said.
“If we run out, we’ll have to hitchhike,” Logan’s voice cracked.
“We’re not hitchhiking,” Riggs said.
“Hitchhiking is dangerous,” Logan said. “That man probably died from heatstroke.”
“Dude!” Riggs glanced over his shoulder. “Do you have an off switch?”
Logan rocked in his seat and started praying under his breath. With his bushy blond afro, his bony limbs, and braces, he looked twelve, not sixteen. “Please help us, God. Don’t let us die.”
It was weird to see him freak out so bad. I mean, Logan freaks out a lot, but we hadn’t run out of gas yet, plus my dad was the one who was missing. How about a prayer for him?
“Did you see that?” Jaylee whipped around to look over her shoulder and out the back window.
“What?” I looked back but didn’t see any bodies on the roadside.
“That sign back there said, ‘Gas ahead’.”
“Where?” Logan leaned over me, trying to see out.
I elbowed him. “Get off, Logan!”
“I see another one!” Jaylee yelled, pointing forward.
We all stretched to look out the front, our heads turning as we read:
“Gas—Open. One mile.”
Logan whooped and clapped his hands, like we’d solved some huge dilemma. Jaylee grinned and said something to Riggs that I couldn’t hear. I felt relieved to see the sign but wondered why such a sign was necessary. What was going on that would close gas stations?
Riggs pulled into the gas station. It was really run down, but so was everything in Northeastern Arizona. Riggs up to a pump and shut off the vehicle.
“See now?” he said. “Everything’s cool. I’ll get the gas going. Eli, you go in and ask about your dad.”
“Here comes someone,” Logan said.
All heads turned to a man, who had exited the store and was headed our way. He wore dingy gray coveralls with blackened knees and a green baseball cap that read “SKOAL: a pinch better.” He had a long brown beard and round cheeks that made him look like a skinny gnome.
He walked right up to the driver’s side window. An oval-shaped patch on his coveralls declared his name: Pete. Riggs rolled down the window.
The man whistled. “Man! If this ain’t one fancy vee-hicle. What do y’all call this thing?”
“It’s a Range Rover Evoque.” Riggs patted the dashboard like the vehicle was a good boy. “Gets 18 miles a gallon. Best mileage in a Range Rover to date.”
“That right? Well, how can I help you kids?”
“Fill her up,” Riggs said.
“You got cash?”
Pete stepped back from the car and pointed across the gravel parking lot. “Pull on over to that pump there.” Then he started walking.
“What does he mean?” Logan asked.
“Probably that I should drive over to the pump that is working,” Riggs said, starting the car.
Riggs pulled the Evoque over to the pump and climbed out. The rest of us got out too. My legs had felt like pretzels in that backseat. The pump looked like an antique. It was skinny, had a glass container on the top, and a long handle attached to the base.
Jaylee tucked a loose strand of hair over her ear and asked Pete. “Is your store open?”
“Sure is. Just don’t use the john. You need to go, you use that there outhouse.” Pete nodded to a port-a-potty on the side of the building.
Jaylee wrinkled her nose and headed toward the brown and beige plastic structure.
Zaq walked up to Pete. “Sir? Do you have a number for the highway patrol? We found a man on the side of the road about twenty miles back. He was dead and didn’t have any identification on him.”
Pete rubbed his chin and sighed. “The number’s on the counter in the store, but I doubt anyone will answer.”
Zaq frowned at Pete. “Why not?”
But before Pete could reply I butted in. “Have you seen a man come through here, mid-forties, about my height, dark hair, probably wearing an orange Phoenix Suns cap? We found his Honda Odyssey a ways back, so he might have been walking.”
Pete started to crank the handle on the pump back and forth like it was some massive slot machine. “Ain’t seen nobody come by on foot, sorry to say.”
My stomach turned to lead. I turned by back on Pete and lowered my voice. “If he didn’t go north, he had to come by here.”
Zaq met my gaze. “I want to know why this guy thinks the cops won’t answer their phone. They should be able to help us track down your dad too.”
“We were sure glad to see your signs,” Riggs said to Pete. “Tank was almost empty, and no place else was open. Hey, what are you doing?”
Pete was still cranking the handle, but now the glass jar on top was filling up with gas. “What you think I’m doin’, boy? I’m pumpin’ your gas. This here’s a globe gravity flow pump. She’s been on display inside the station since 1932. But with the power out and people needin’ gas, I figured I’d better hook her up and put her to work.”
“The electricity is out all over?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know ’bout all over, but it’s been out ’round here for the past three days.”
“Three days!” Logan shrieked. “That’s a long time to be without power.”
“Does that work like a hand water pump?” I asked, intrigued.
“Looks like pee,” Logan said.
I snorted. “Nice, Logan.”
“Well it does.” Logan slurped at his braces. “I’ve never seen gas before. You know, like in a see-through container. I didn’t know what color it was.”
“You know why the power is out?” I asked Pete.
He slid the pump nozzle into the Evoque’s gas tank and flipped a switch. The gas in the globe started to drain. “All I can reckon is that everyone got too sick to work the grid.”
“Something going around?” I thought back to the rash on the dead man’s body.
“How’s it you ain’t heard of the sick? It all but took over the world the past two weeks.”
My stomach twisted. Zaq raised his eyebrows at me. Yeah, Pete was giving me the heebie jeebies too.
“We’ve been camping,” Riggs said.
“What happened?” I asked.
The globe had emptied. Pete flipped the switch again and went back to cranking the handle. “I had a blood sugar test over in Flagstaff. Had to fast from food and drink the day before. That’s when it hit ’round here. It all happened real fast like. By the time I got to the doctor’s office, the place was a madhouse. Doc told me not to drink any water that wasn’t bottled. That’s why I’m still healthy.”
“Something in the water?” I said to Zaq.
I looked up to see Jaylee standing outside the door of the store, waving us over and pointing to a sign on the door. She didn’t have to ask me twice. I took off at a sprint.
Zaq and I reached the store together and took in the red and white sign posted on the door.
A new bacterium has been found in drinking water in various parts of the country. People who visit these affected areas and do not take preventive measures are likely to suffer infection and spread the disease to other areas. This notice is to remind you of the need to practice personal and environmental hygiene at all times.
Do not consume or bathe in any ground, lake, or river water until further notice. Drink only bottled or canned beverages.
If you think you have been infected, visit your nearest clinic or health facility immediately.
LET’S WORK TOGETHER TO PREVENT DISEASE
Department of Health and Human Services
Center for Disease Control and Prevention
“It’s the black plague! Ahhhhh!”
I whipped around to see Riggs gripping his throat and pretending to choke. I scowled at him. “That’s not funny.”
But Riggs only laughed and headed back to the Evoque. Good riddance.
Zaq folded his arms. “Wasn’t there some cholera outbreak in China before we came up here? I saw it on the news.”
“I don’t watch the news,” Logan said. “It’s too depressing.”
“No, you’re right,” I said to Zaq. “Something to do with that tidal wave and the flooding.” It had seemed so far away—all disasters did, even the ones in the US. September 11th, Katrina, the flash floods, tornado outbreaks, and blizzards in the Midwest and east coast. Arizona never got any of that. “But this couldn’t be the same thing. Not in Arizona.”
“Cholera can spread quickly if people aren’t careful.” Logan fixed his brown eyes on mine. “It can be lethal within hours if a person is not treated.”
“Thank you, Logan, for that PBS moment,” Zaq said. “But seriously, guys. Think about it. This is what our government does. If there is one case of cholera in the US, they have to post warning signs everywhere, otherwise someone tightwad will sue for millions when their dog dies and they weren’t properly warned.”
That was true. The U.S. government did tend to overreact where these things were concerned, which was a good thing, really. Better safe than sorry. “Still, I think we should heed the sign—and Pete—and stick to bottled water till we get home.”
“Agreed.” Jaylee smiled, then took off running for the Range Rover, her ponytails bouncing behind her.
Zaq elbowed me in the side. “Stare hard, McShane.”
I shoved him. He pushed me back, then tucked me into a headlock. Nuts. I could never get out of Zaq’s headlocks. The dude was a sculpture despite his baby boy face. He had a full ride to the University of Arizona for swimming. He’d be training at the Hillenbrand Aquatic Center this fall and likely competing for an Olympic medal in the next games.
I, on the other hand, liked to hike and hunt. These activities did not require a muscular physique. Still, I knuckle-punched his leg as hard as I could. “Let go!”
He laughed. “Oh ho ho! The string bean fights back!”
“Come on!” I twisted my head, but Zaq’s hold was like medieval stocks.
“Admit you love her!” he sang in my ear.
“Dude. Cut. It. Out.” It was one thing to tease me about Jaylee when we were at my house or Zaq’s or Logan’s. But not here. Not where she could hear and I could die of humiliation when she laughed in my face.
My tone did the trick. Zaq let go, shoved me toward the Evoque, then ran for the store.
“You’re a jerk!” I yelled, smoothing my shaggy brown hair out of my eyes as I followed him inside. Oh yes. That showed him.
Zaq used Pete’s phone to call the highway patrol, but no one answered. I tried home again, with no luck. I paid for Pete to fill the gas can and rearranged the packs in the back so that it fit upright. Once we were back on the road, Jaylee passed out snack-sized Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to all of us.
Zaq made a sound similar to gargling. “I love you, Jaylee Jennings.”
She giggled and winked at Zaq. “Well, I love you, too, hot stuff.”
This time I elbowed Zaq. He flashed a wide smile my way and whispered, “See? Was that so hard? If I can do it, so can you, McShane. Go on. Tell her. Confess your luh-hu-huv.”
I elbowed him again, then opened my candy.
“Was there a vending machine in the store, Jaylee?” Logan asked.
“How did you buy these?” Logan asked. “Pete was at the pump the whole time.”
“Oh. I left a fiver on the counter inside. They were a buck each.”
“A buck!” Riggs whistled. “That’s some high-priced candy. Thanks for breaking into the college fund for us, though.” He winked at her.
I wanted to believe her—and have the guts to wink at her too—but I hadn’t seen any money on the counter when Zaq and I used the phone. Jaylee had a tendency to do whatever she wanted, no matter who got hurt. And because she was gorgeous, she not only got away with it but made it look glamorous. Guilt washed over me. What was my problem, anyway? I should believe her, right?
“That old guy was creepy,” Jaylee said. “And I think that sign was a fake.”
“Why would anyone put up a fake sign?” Zaq asked.
“Something is going on,” Logan said over a mouthful of Reese’s. “The power, the phones, the outbreak, the water warning, Eli’s dad, the dead guy, the fact that there is no one else out on the roads…”
“Hey, we’re not getting all paranoid over Prickly Pete, okay?” Riggs said.
“You think your dad got sick, Eli?” Logan asked me. “And what about Pastor Wayne? Think they both got cholera? Think it somehow got to Phoenix?”
Heat flashed over my body. Logan had no tact whatsoever.
“Shut up, Logan,” Zaq said.
“What?” Logan asked. “What’d I say?”
Zaq leaned forward to glare past me at Logan. “Just shut your mouth.”
But my dad had been feeling sick on the drive up. He’d planned to go on the survival trip with us but figured he was coming down with whatever Pastor Wayne had. But the cholera outbreak in China had only shown up a week or so before we left. Cholera couldn’t spread that fast. Could it? Besides, the US had excellent water purification systems in place to keep diseases like cholera away.
We rode in near silence all the way to Flagstaff. And that was a record for Logan. Images of my dad and Pastor Wayne covered in a zitty rash haunted my thoughts. Is that what cholera looked like? I didn’t have a clue. I only knew that it didn’t happen in the U.S.
Riggs slowed down as we entered the outskirts of Flagstaff. “Whoo! Route 66, baby. Yeah! Imma get my kicks here today.” Riggs crooned out some lines of the classic rock song.
Jaylee looked over her shoulder and rolled her eyes at me. I smiled at her, and a chill ran up my arms.
We just shared a moment. That was a bona-fide moment right there. I smirked at Zaq, then looked past him out the window, thankful for Riggs’s poor singing voice.
Route 66 ran parallel to the train tracks. The crossing signals were clanging and flashing, but there was no sign of a train. “If the signals are on, does that mean there’s electricity here?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious,” Logan said.
I dug out my cell phone and checked it. “I’ve got a bar!” I quickly dialed home. It rang and rang. The answering machine never even picked up. I sighed and tried my dad’s cell. Zaq and Logan were trying to make calls too. I got my dad’s voicemail and left a message.
“Guess there’s still no power in Phoenix,” Logan said. “That’s likely why our calls have all gone to voicemail. No power equals no working cell towers.”
“Thank you, Einstein,” Riggs mumbled.
I distracted my dark thoughts by taking in the sights. Flagstaff is the coolest Old West town. It’s filled with two-story historical buildings that make you feel like you’ve gone back in time. Trains go by so often you almost always hear the train whistle more than once while you’re here. Flagstaff is also the home of Northern Arizona University, so there are bicycles everywhere, which doesn’t really fit the Wild West atmosphere but somehow works anyway.
We passed a sign that led to the hospital. What if my dad did have cholera or whatever this sick was? Maybe they would have taken him to the hospital. How bad could it be?
Stephen King’s The Stand popped into my mind, and I shuddered. I couldn’t help but notice there were no cars on the road here, either. No people on the streets. Surely everyone was at the hospitals or home in bed, sleeping it off. But that old song “Don’t Fear the Reaper” started playing in my head. Curse Zaq and his horror movies on Netflix anyway.
Jaylee whimpered. “I’m starving.”
Zaq leaned his head between the seats. “Ooh! Downtown Diner!”
“Where?” Riggs asked.
“It’s that’s place with all the license plates on the counter,” Logan said as if that made the location obvious to everyone. “They have the best milkshakes.”
The mere thought of a Downtown Diner milkshake made my mouth water.
“I’m game to see if it’s open.” Riggs glanced over his shoulder. “Where is it?”
“It’s by the toy shop,” Logan said.
“You have to turn by the Painted Desert place,” I said before anyone could get on Logan for his stellar directions. Not that mine was all that better.
Riggs eyed me in the rearview mirror. “Painted what?”
“It’s by the…” I racked my brain. “It’s a one way street going right.”
“At the Amtrack station,” Zaq said.
“Yeah! But before the Amtrack,” I clarified. “The one-way street before it.”
“There!” Zaq pointed at the Painted Desert store on the next corner. “Turn on San Francisco Street.”
Riggs turned right.
“Then left up here on Aspen,” Zaq said.
“It’s a one-way! Aw, who cares?” Riggs steered the Range Rover left anyway.
“But that’s illegal,” Logan said.
“That’s true, Lo-gan,” Riggs spoke in a breathy tone a mom would use for her toddler, “but everyone on the planet has cholera, right, Lo-gan? So there will be no cops to give me a ticket. And even if there was a cop, he wouldn’t be able to run my plates because there’s no electricity.”
“We’ve already established that there’s electricity in Flagstaff because of the train crossings,” Logan said. “Plus a cop car would have its own power from the car battery, and an officer of the law doesn’t need to run your plates to give you a tick—”
Riggs laughed maniacally. “He just keeps going, doesn’t he? Five years later, he’s still talking, and I’m in the nuthouse.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Give him a break, Riggs.” Only Zaq and I get to razz Logan. That’s what friends are for.
Riggs slammed on the breaks and turned to look over his shoulder. “You got a problem with me too, high school twig?”
Zaq leaned in front of me, saving me from certain death. “Dude, Downtown Diner! It’s right there on the left of the… Oh man!”
Riggs turned around, and we all stared. The windows of the Downtown Diner were shattered. Piles of debris littered the sidewalk out front. Someone had tagged the walls.
“What do you think happened?” Jaylee asked.
Before even Logan could speculate, two guys ran out the door of the diner, wielding crowbars. We all screamed. Riggs hit the gas, but one of the thugs managed to bash his crowbar against the back windshield, cracking the glass like desert clay.
END OF CHAPTER
That’s all for today. Feel free to leave any thoughts or feedback in the comments.