In conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series I’m writing over on the Go Teen Writers blog, I’m posting the chapters for THIRST on my website. 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.
What was at the door? Let’s find out.
“Elijah?” a soft voice said.
A girl’s voice. Sounded like Lizzie, but…
“I can’t see,” she said. “I thought the power had come back on.”
I flipped on the safety, threaded the gun strap over my arm, and fumbled for the flashlight on my belt. In one motion, I clicked it on and pointed toward the shadow. The bright light shone over Lizzie’s squinted expression. She turned her head to the side and raised her hand between us. “Eli!”
Thank you, God! In a breath I embraced her. Hot relief flashed over my skin as I squeezed my sister Lizzy and she squeezed back. Longest hug—of my life.
I pulled away first and looked down into Lizzie’s eyes, which were only a glimmer in the deflected beam from the flashlight I clutched in my right fist.
I could barely force out my next words. “Mom and Dad?”
“Eli!” Liquid pooled in her eyes. “I thought Dad would be with you.”
“We found the van… just inside the Arizona border. It was empty. No sign.”
“You just left him?”
“Dad wasn’t there! We left the van. What were we supposed to do?”
“Look for him!”
“We did! I didn’t know what else—”
A gunshot rang out. A woman screamed. Closer this time. Lizzie clapped her hands over her face. I lunged past her and locked the front door, knob, bolt, and chain. I held two fingers over the flashlight lens, dimming the light, and peeked through the window that ran alongside the door. I didn’t see anyone. Mom’s car sat in the driveway.
I turned back to Lizzie and whispered, “We have to be quiet. Where’s Mom?”
“Don’t you dare blame me!” she whispered.
I held my breath a moment to try and keep it together. “Hey,” I managed.
I put my arm around her shoulders and led her into the living room, propped my rifle against the side of the sofa and sat down, pulling Lizzie with me. I clicked off the flashlight, and we sat together in dark, which was somehow more comforting.
“Tell me,” I said.
She sniffled and released a shaky breath. “I was sick before you left. Mom had me on a non-stop diet of Gatorade, orange juice, and chicken noodle soup. Dad got sick next, and Mom put him on the same regimen. Then the news reports came, about the Hydro-Flu killing lots of people. It was all so confusing. ‘Don’t drink the water’ was all anyone would say. No one knew what was wrong. Just ‘Don’t drink the water.’”
“We tried going to the store to stock up on bottled anything, but it was a madhouse and there was nothing left to buy. So we decided to stay home and ration the water we already had. Mom got sick the day before Dad needed to go get you. He tried to stay here. He said you could get a ride back with Rigley. Mom didn’t want you riding with Riggs—you know how she is. Did Riggs bring you home?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, Mom and Dad fought about it. Like, really fought. I never heard them lose it like they did. Dad kept saying you were smarter than Riggs and that you’d keep everyone safe. But Mom was worried that you might not know about the water, so Dad finally gave in and left.”
It felt nice, that my dad had so much confidence in me, but all I could think about was what Lizzie hadn’t said. “And Mom?”
She choked back a sob in the darkness, and when she finally spoke, her voice came laced with tears. “I tried my best to take care of her. But I was so tired from my own cold, and I didn’t know what else to do. The power went out, so I couldn’t go online or watch TV to learn anything. All I had were dad’s survival books, but nothing I tried seemed to help. I finally drove us to the hospital. It was insane. People were everywhere. They put me and Mom in chairs in some random hallway. Gave us IVs with fluids. I got better. No one else did.”
I lost it then. Lizzie and I cried. She hugged me, which only made me cry harder because her hair smelled like Mom’s.
I don’t know how long we sat there. I realized that the tears on my face had dried and made tight tracks on my skin. The darkness began to press against me. It had taken my mom and it wanted the rest of us. Why were we still alive? What are you doing here, God? Why is this happening?
“How can any of this be real?” I finally asked.
“You think Daddy is still alive?”
“I don’t know.” He had to be. “How sick was he when he left?”
“Not bad. Not like Mom was. I think he and I were okay because we hadn’t been drinking water. Just all that Gatorade and OJ.”
“Then Dad is probably okay,” I said, now more sure of it than ever. “He just ran out of gas. And most the gas stations were closed because of the power being out. I bet when he realized he couldn’t get gas, he headed toward Colorado, thinking we’d cross paths.”
“You think he’ll turn around and walk back to Phoenix?” Lizzie asked.
“No. I think he’d walk to Wilderness Way Adventures first, to try and talk to Reinhold. For all Dad knows, we got sick up there. Since he was closer, he’d want to confirm what happened to me before going back to Mom.”
At least that’s what I thought he’d do.
“Why do you think someone shot that gun outside?”
“Because people are panicking. Those who aren’t sick are looking for bottled water. And they’ll do anything to get it.”
“What are we going to do?”
I flicked on the flashlight and stood up. “We’re getting out of here.”
“And going where?” Her voice cracked like she was trying not to cry again.
“North,” I said. “Back to Colorado. To see if we can find Dad. Plus… It’s just a feeling, but we’ve been drinking the water there for two weeks. We purified it with our tablets, but maybe the water there is okay?”
“We can’t know that.”
“No, but we have a much better chance of surviving someplace rural and forested.”
“Because there’s not as many people?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And because we can’t stay here.” I walked to the kitchen and lifted the corded phone out of the pile on the floor. I unplugged the receiver for the cordless and plugged the old phone in. I tossed up a quick prayer and held the receiver to my ear. The familiar buzz of the dial tone drew a sigh from my lips.
“Yeah. I’m going to call Zaq.”
Lizzie came closer, eyes wide and hopeful. I turned away slightly. Her expression brought too much responsibility to my shoulders. Without my cell, I didn’t know Zaq’s home number. I had to look it up in Mom’s address book. The phone rang seven times before I pushed in the hang-up button.
“No answer,” I said.
“Yep.” I flipped the pages in the address book and found Al and Deb Graham written in Mom’s loopy handwriting. The whole side of this page was covered in doodles of blue ink. Mom had a habit of doodling while she was on the phone. I could tell by the amount of doodles on this page that she’d spent many hours talking to Logan’s mom. The sentiment tried to take hold of my emotions, but I fought it back. I had to get Lizzie and me someplace safe. Then I could think about Mom.
I dialed the number and chanced a glance at Lizzie through the first ring. She was still watching with those huge, hopeful eyes.
“Logan! It’s Eli. You okay? Is Zaq with you?”
“Zaq and Jaylee are both here. I need to ask you something, Eli. This is very important. Have you consumed or bathed in any water since we left you?”
“I know about the water. I’m fine. Can I talk to Zaq?”
“One moment please.”
I rolled my eyes at Lizzie and mumbled, “Logan.”
She giggled. It was a great sound, but she let it go one too far, let it be funnier than it was, like she wanted to keep laughing.
“Eli!” Zaq’s voice rang in my ear. “Is Lizzie okay?”
“Yeah, she’s good. My mom is gone, though. Not missing. I mean…” I signed. “My mom is dead.” The words stole my breath and I forced myself to keep talking, though it was practically a whisper. “No sign of Sammy. Or Dad.”
“Aw man. I’m sorry, Eli. Your dad is probably fine though. Still up north somewhere, trying to get gas or whatever.”
“Yeah, I was thinking he probably hiked to the camp to talk to Reinhold. What about you?”
He didn’t answer for a moment. I heard footsteps, a door close, then a shuddering breath. “Uh… I d-didn’t know what to do. I saw them… Eli, I was only home, like, two minutes. I just saw them there and ran back to Logan’s like a coward. I should go back, right? I should go back and bury them?”
Another rush of heat came over me at the idea of Zaq’s parents dead. I rubbed my eyes with the heel of my palm. How could this be happening? It was too much!
“Jaylee walked over here,” Zaq said. “She said her apartment was empty. Said it was Paul’s week to have the kids, but no one answered at Paul’s place. No sign of her mom or Melissa and Willie. Logan’s parents weren’t here. Left a note about going to the hospital. We were thinking of driving over there.”
“Don’t bother. Lizzie was there already.”
“Ah. Okay. Gocha.” Silence stretched over the line. “What do we do, Eli? I don’t know what to do, man. Logan is driving Jaylee nuts. He’s preparing to go underground for a decade, he says, and Jaylee wants us to go look for her mom. She doesn’t get what’s happening. And Logan’s bluntness is only ticking her off. She keeps screaming at him. I didn’t tell her what I saw my parents. I just said they weren’t there. I just… Can you come over here?”
“You bet. But only to grab you guys. Lizzie and I are going to drive north.”
“Back to Colorado?”
“That’s what I was thinking. We’ve heard more gunfire, and it’s getting closer. I think people are looting, going after bottled water. We need to get out of the city.”
“Yeah… You think Reinhold is still alive?”
“He’s gotta be,” I said. “He’s, like, invincible.”
“Yeah. That’s what I was thinking too.”
“Lizzie and I are gathering supplies. We’ve got a bunch of bottled water and canned goods. A few sleeping bags. A few guns and ammo. You want to see what you guys can pull together over there?”
“Logan’s already on it. When are you guys coming?”
“All we’ve got is Dad’s truck. You got the keys to your mom’s van?”
“Yeah, I can get them.”
“Okay, that will give us lots of room to haul stuff.”
“Great. Pack up and get over here before Jaylee kills Logan.”
* * *
Easier said than done though, leaving everything behind, possibly forever. It wasn’t so much the house; we’d only been here a year. It was the stuff. Our stuff. The stuff of memories.
Dad’s recliner that had a subtle indentation of his shoulders and head. Sammy’s dog dish that I’d filled a thousand times before. The key hook in the kitchen that says HOME in different colored fat wooden letters with a golden hook on each. The sign hanging above the couch that Mom painted the year Lizzie was born. It said: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The handmade clock Grandpa Ed had made for my parents wedding. The little bathroom stool we stood on as kids. The family wall of pictures. I caught Lizzie staring at them twice and urged her to keep packing. She was normally pretty tough, but she’d kept up a steady, whimpering cry ever since we started packing. I got it, though. There was nothing to distract from our bleak reality, nothing to do but think.
Mom was dead. Dad too, likely.
I gritted my teeth. I could grieve later. Right now I needed to be the strong one, at least until we got to Zaq.
Zaq would be a great leader. He was a rock. Everyone listened to Zaq. Then Lizzie could turn her big worried eyes his way, and I could have a moment to breathe.
We pulled everything we wanted into the kitchen. Flashlights, batteries, candles, matches, lighter fluid, all the water and food, warm clothes, Mom and Dad’s hiking boots—Lizzie put hers on and I was still wearing mine—the guns, the ammo, the box of camping tools, gloves, tents, camping chairs, canteens, gloves, my bible, and dad’s spare set of keys for the van.
Lizzie also packed a small duffle bag of stuff. An envelope of pictures and the “important documents” file from Mom’s room, her flute, her bible and prayer journal, her PrismaColor markers, her stuffed bunny—don’t ask, I didn’t—Mom’s bible, Lizzie’s copy of Pride and Prejudice, and her basketball.
I didn’t understand why she put half that stuff in there. I would have left everything, except Mom’s bible. I understood why she wanted that. But it was only one small bag, and I figured, for a girl, Lizzie was doing pretty good.
We also took Mom’s address book. I figured once we were someplace safe, maybe we could call some relatives and see if we could get through to anyone.
I thought it best that we wait until really late before driving across town. I mean, even crazies with guns have to sleep, right? We plugged in our cell phones to get them charged while there was power. I set my alarm for 3:30 and put the phone on vibrate so I could turn it off before it made too much noise.
Lizzie nodded right off. I dozed a bit, but I couldn’t manage to shut off my brain. I got up four times to add stuff to the pile: My fishing rod, my Teeva sandals, my Suns cap, and Dad’s survival books.
The alarm never did go off because I shut it off myself at 3:15 and started hauling stuff to the truck. By 3:40, I’d loaded everything. I woke up Lizzie and waited as she said goodbye to every room of the house. I stood by the door, trying not to think that I’d never come back. I had no desire to drag this out. I didn’t want to rush Lizzie though. I didn’t want her to have regrets if I could help it.
Finally she walked toward me, face was tear-streaked. She took my hands in hers and squeezed.
“I want to pray,” she said.
“El Shaddai, you are God Almighty, all sufficient, all we need. We’re afraid. We don’t understand. But we trust that you’re in control. We believe that our friends and family who have died are with you. And we pray, precious Father, for your guidance for those of us still living. Help us know what to do. Help us be strong and courageous and do what we must to survive without falling into despair. We know you are with us. You will not leave us or forsake us. Thank you for having a plan. And please show us what it is. In Jesus name, amen.”
When I was in ninth grade, my youth pastor taught a series on spiritual gifts. I remember seeing Intercession on the list, which turned out to be fancy word for prayer. At the time I didn’t think I knew anyone with that gift.
When Lizzie joined the youth group two years later, she proved me wrong.
“Feel better?” I asked.
She nodded and walked past me out the door. I shut and locked the door behind us. I mean, when all this blew over, maybe we could come back and see if the place was still standing.
We climbed into the truck. I set my rifle between us; it wouldn’t do me much good in the back. The electricity was still on—streetlamps lined the streets—so I left the headlights off as I backed out of the driveway and took E Rancho Drive to 16th. I went south on 16th. I could have taken the freeway down an exit, but for some reason I felt the surface streets would be safer.
“I know it’s just stuff, Eli,” Lizzie said. “I know I shouldn’t care about it.” She looked out her passenger’s window and sighed. “Remember that one fork with the crooked tong? Whenever I took a bite of food and realized I’d gotten that fork, it made me smile.”
Yeah, I remembered the fork. Girls were weird.
At the CVS Pharmacy, we turned onto Camelback, which stretched across most of Phoenix. We passed many of our familiar haunts: Denny’s, Chipotle, Starbucks. Too many windows were broken. I guessed stores had been looted.
The six-lane street that was normally packed with traffic was deserted. Occasionally I had to weave around a car in the middle of the road. We passed over the 51, which was also deserted.
Best Buy, past the Biltmore golf course, through five blocks of residential area, then back to commercial districts. In the daytime, I’d be able to see Camelback Mountain looming in the distance, growing ever nearer as I approached my old home. But now the sky was simply a black void where I knew the mountain slept.
I turned right on 40th and passed over the canal. It was weird how I was noticing everything I usually ignore because I was normally listening to music or the radio or whatever. This drive was different. My last one, maybe. Jaylee’s apartment complex loomed on my right. Capri on Camelback Apartment Homes. The place was made up of a field of massive five story buildings. I couldn’t see Jaylee’s balcony from the road.
I turned onto E Coulter and lost the streetlamps, so I flipped on my headlights. I followed the curvy road through the residential area. The headlights spilled over shadowed prickly pear and jumping cholla trees, making the vegetation seem like moving creatures in my peripheral vision. I jolted at least five times for that same reason.
I finally pulled onto Logan’s wide, flagstone driveway that was edged in rigrag. His massive house sat on a desert scape lot. Lizzie jumped out if the front and slammed the door.
“Way to be discreet,” I said to myself. I could see the lights from Zaq’s place through the Acacia trees that edged Logan’s property line. My gut clenched at what Zaq had told me about his family.
Later, I told myself. Get yourself in the house.
I didn’t like leaving the truck in the driveway with our supplies exposed, but it was only four a.m. and I hadn’t seen a single vehicle on the ride over.
I made my way to the front door. Lizzie was already inside, the door wide open. She stood with Zaq in the entry way, hugging him like she had me.
“Hey,” I said.
Zaq released Lizzie. “Hey,” he said.
But before I could go inside, the garage door started up. Logan ducked under it and came outside, waving his arms at the truck as if directing traffic. “Bring her inside, Eli. We can’t risk anyone getting at our supplies.”
I smirked at Logan’s level of intensity but was secretly relieved. Once the truck was parked beside Logan’s dad’s Porche, and the two of us had taken the time to admire her, we went inside.
Boxes lined along both sides of the hallway made a narrow path to walk down.
“We did what you suggested,” Logan said. “Though Jaylee refused to help. She’s watching TV. We gathered all the supplies we could and put them in boxes in the hallway.
“Good,” I said, my spirits lifting at the sight of six, five-gallon Sparklets bottles filled with water.
Logan led us into the living room. The cooking channel was going. Bobby Flay challenging some random chef to a cook off.
“Eli!” Someone fragrant and thin tackled me in a hug. Jaylee. She released me all too soon, and wiped the side of her finger under one of her eyes. “I’m so glad you guys are okay. I can’t get in touch with my mom or Dave.”
“I’m sorry.” And I was. It seemed like everyone had lost someone in this nightmare.
“Yeah, well, what are we going to do?” she asked. “Zaq wants to leave, but I think that’s dumb. We should stay and look for our families.”
“We can’t find anyone because everyone is dead, Jaylee,” Logan said. “We’ve been over this.”
“Shut up, Logan!” she screamed. “I told you not to keep saying my mom is dead.”
“Okay, your mother is deceased, then.”
Jaylee lunged at Logan, shoved him. He stumbled back into a lamp, which fell over with a clank of metal against the stone tile floor.
“Come on, guys, cut it out,” Zaq said. “This isn’t helping.”
“Well, I’m not leaving without my mom!” Jaylee screamed.
“Fine,” Zaq said.
“Any idea where she might be? Lizzie asked.
“She might be at Dave’s? Or at work, maybe?”
“No one’s at work,” I said. “Everything is deserted or looted.”
“Well Mom works at a bar, and I bet people are drinking,” she told me. “I could sure use a drink. Your dad has a liquor cabinet, doesn’t he, Logan?”
“I wouldn’t tell you if he did,” Logan said.
“Jaylee, did you pack up anything from your house or do you need to get some stuff?” I asked.
“I packed a bag. I’ll be fine until I find Mom.”
“Want to see what I brought?” Lizzie lifted her duffel bag off the floor.
Jaylee shrugged. “I guess. It’s better than hanging out with a bunch of doom’s-dayers.”
“I think the word you were looking for, Jaylee, is doomsayers,” Logan said, “but we’re not predicting impending misfortune or disaster. It has clearly already arrived.”
“Shut your face, Logan!” Jaylee screamed. “No one is dead, okay? So stop saying that!” Jaylee grabbed Lizzie’s arm and pulled her toward the hallway.
“Your sister is my hero,” Zaq said. “Jaylee has been ranting ever since she got here. I was about ready to duct tape her mouth and throw her in a closet.”
I wanted to defend Jaylee. Her not knowing for sure about her mom and siblings left that same shred of hope I clung to about my dad. I couldn’t fault her for that. I wanted her to have it as long as possible. I settled on, “It’s a pretty stressful situation for everyone.”
“I’d like to do something about my family,” Zaq said.
“Right.” But at this moment, more than anything in the world, I did not want to go to Zaq’s house. I did not want to see whatever Zaq had seen.
“Zaq found his family dead in their beds,” Logan said, walking up to us. “I guess it was pretty horrific.”
I stifled my desire to say something nasty to Logan. He was such a tool sometimes. Instead, I said, “Yeah, Logan. He told me already.” I glanced at Zaq, who was looking pale. “It’ll be light soon. Why don’t we have the girls pack up the van, then go to your place?”
Zaq nodded. “Think the girls will be okay alone?”
“I’ll protect them,” Logan said. “I mean, I know a lot about mortuary science, so if you need my expertise I could—”
“We’ll be fine,” I said. Besides, the last thing Zaq needed were more tasteless comments from Logan while he was trying to bury his family. “You stay and watch the girls, Lo.”
Logan motioned to my rifle. “I’ll hold that for you.”
Logan with a gun… a good way to get some people hurt in a hurry. “Yeah, I don’t think so. In fact—” I held up Dad’s keychain and pressed the automatic locks. The truck beeped at me from the garage, my dad’s gun safely locked in the cab.
“Real nice, Eli,” Logan said, scowling at me. “If we get robbed while you’re gone and I can’t protect us because you wouldn’t share the gun, we all know who to blame.”
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” I said.
“I thought you could break into vehicles?” Zaq said. “Isn’t that what you said about the Silver Bullet?”
“I can, but it’ll waste valuable time that I could spend gathering supplies.”
“Right,” Zaq said. “Good thinking.”
So Zaq and I left Logan’s house and walked across the desert scape lawn toward Zaq’s place next door, me praying for strength and courage every step of the way.
END OF CHAPTER
How am I doing so far? This was a hard chapter to write because the subject matter is pretty heavy. In the next chapter our heroes will get on the road again.