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.
Will Eli and his friends make it out of Phoenix?
Some things are so shocking, they scar for life, like the time my dad hit a dog that had run out into the road. Dad had stopped to check on it. He told me to wait in the car, but I didn’t listen. I was ten at the time, and when I saw that dog… Well, I still have nightmares about that poor animal. And I know I’ll have nightmares about Zaq’s family for the rest of my life.
Still. It was the right thing to do. I know that much. And I think it gave Zaq some closure that I might never have with my mom.
It had taken a while, though, to dig the grave—we buried them together. By the time we got back to Logan’s place, it was almost five. We were both covered in dirt and sweat. I wanted a shower more than ever. And I also wanted to find a dark closet and hide for a few hours, to try to deal with the madness piling up in my head.
No time for that, though. Had to keep moving.
Logan’s garage door was open. The others had loaded most the stuff in the minivan. Time to take off. Another forty minutes and the sun would be up.
“I left a radio out for the truck,” Lizzie told me, handing me one. “There’s room for all five of us to sit in the van, but I figured since we’ve got two vehicles, we could take turns riding with each other, you know, to give us different company.”
“Good idea,” I said, fighting back a smile. Lizzie’s way of making us all share Logan. I unlocked the truck and tossed the radio inside the cab.
“You guys forgot to load my guitar,” Zaq said, picking up the hard case covered in stickers of Zaq’s favorite bands.
“There’s room in the back,” Lizzie said, waving him to follow.
I looked around for Jaylee and found her standing by the front door, cell phone to one ear.
“Is it working?” I asked her.
“No,” she snapped. “I was checking for messages.”
“Ah. Well, it’s almost light out,” I said. “We need to get moving.”
She lowered the phone from her ear and fixed those brown eyes on me. “Tell me we aren’t going to leave till I find my mom.”
Why did I have to be the bad guy? “We can leave her a note,” I said. “But if things are as bad as they seem, people will start killing for water. And we’ve got a lot of it. So we need to get someplace quiet. Someplace remote.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Back to Colorado?”
“I think we’ll be safe there. We can look for Reinhold.”
“What makes you think he’s alive?”
“I don’t know if he’s alive, but we’re all alive, so the odds are good he’s figured things out and is being careful.”
“What about Riggs?”
A chill flashed over me. I’d forgotten all about Riggs. “What about him?”
“You’re just going to leave him too?”
We couldn’t drive all over Phoenix looking for everyone we knew, though Riggs should be an exception considering he was likely alive. “Did you call him from the corded phone?”
She nodded. “He didn’t answer, but I don’t have a land number.”
We should probably drive by his house and see if he was there. I didn’t want him to come with us, but we couldn’t just abandon the guy.
“I don’t have to go with you,” Jaylee said.
Was she nuts? She stared at me, and I wondered what I was supposed to say—what she wanted me to say. “That’s true,” I finally said, slowly, like I was still thinking about it. And I was. The idea of leaving Jaylee behind made my stomach ache.
She gasped and tears welled in her eyes. “You would really leave me here by myself?”
Unbelievable. Girls were so frustrating. Did everything have to be some kind of test? “Yeah,” I said, annoyed. “If that’s what you want. We’re leaving soon, though, so you’d better decide what you’re going to do.” I pushed past her into the house and went straight for the kitchen to see what still needed to be loaded. I hated myself for being mean to Jaylee, but no matter how much I liked her, I had enough problems without some girl messing with my head.
Still. Jaylee wasn’t just some girl. Not to me.
Maybe I should go apologize.
There wasn’t anything left to load. Logan and the girls had done a thorough job. The only thing I saw that might be useful was a manual can opener. I already had one, but you could never have too many of these lying around if you were living off canned goods.
I walked out of the house in time to see a plume of dust fill the pale morning as the minivan faded down the road, Logan sprinting after it. Zaq stood alone in the driveway, hands on his hips.
I ran up beside him. “What happened?”
“Jaylee stole the van, with your sister inside it.”
Of all the… “What are we standing around for? We’ve got to follow them!” I sprinted to the truck and opened the driver’s side door.
Before I could pull the door shut, I heard Zaq’s voice from behind me. “Dude, calm down. She’s just going to Riggs’ place.”
* * *
When I said that Logan’s house was massive, it was a double-wide trailer compared to the mansion that was Casa Riggs. The place had nine bedrooms, a game room, a movie theater with sofas on three different levels, and every bedroom had its own walk-in closet and private bath. It was more like a bed and breakfast than a place where three people should live.
I parked behind the van and got out. Jaylee stood pounding on the front door, Lizzie beside her. I swung my rifle over my shoulder and walked up the curling sidewalk to join them.
“His car isn’t in the driveway,” I said.
“It’s probably in the garage,” Lizzie said.
True. “No doorbell?” I asked.
“She rang that already,” Lizzie said.
Jaylee hopped into a triangle of decorative rock between the sidewalk and house. She picked up a large rock with one hand and pulled a key out from the hollow interior.
“You know where they hide their spare?” I asked.
She smirked at me. “I’m Riggs’ special friend.”
From behind me, Zaq snorted. “I bet you are.”
I shot him a dirty look and noticed that Logan had come with him.
“Those fake rocks aren’t a safe place to hide anything,” Logan said. “It’s the first place a thief would look. You can tell the rock is fake because of the color.”
Jaylee used the key to open the front door. We all followed her inside. The lights were off in the house, but a wall of picture windows in the living room to the right let in the hazy, bluish light that came just before dawn.
“Riggs?” Jaylee ran down the hallway and disappeared around a corner. The sound of her muted voice continually calling out for Riggs was like nails on a chalkboard in my mind. I kept checking my watch as we searched the house. It was almost six now. We needed to get out of here. The crazies would be waking up soon.
“His car isn’t in the garage,” I said. “We should go.”
Zaq slapped me on the back. “Just let her look, man. It’ll only take a couple minutes.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Where would Riggs have gone? That he might go looking for his parents seemed out of character for someone so self-absorbed. Though that wasn’t fair. Even serial killers had moms, right?
Jaylee returned to the living room carrying a notepad, a tape dispenser, and a pencil. “I’m leaving him a note.”
I didn’t like the relief that rushed through me, knowing Riggs wasn’t coming with. This disaster was turning me into a jerk. “I’ll be in the truck.”
I reached the driver’s side door, and the sound of heavy bass met my ears. I froze. In the distance, a pair of headlights lit the treetops on Lafayette, heading west, toward the intersection with Jokake. I took my rifle into my hands and inched toward the back of the truck in a crouch. The glow of the headlights lit up the intersection now, brighter than the pale dawn. The steady thump of bass grew louder.
“What are you doing?” Lizzie asked.
I spun on my heels. “Get down!”
Lizzie ducked beside the minivan. I turned back to the street in time to see a black Honda crawl through the intersection, fifty feet away. It continued west, likely headed into the hills and the mansions up near Echo Canyon Park.
I was glad Riggs didn’t live on the corner.
I ran back into the house, dragging Lizzie with me. Zaq and Logan were perusing the shelves in the sitting room. Jaylee was sitting in a fancy high-backed chair, using the footstool for a table.
“There’s a car out there,” I said.
“So?” From Jaylee.
“We need to leave. Now.”
“Because of one car?” The look Jaylee gave me—the look that said, “You’re an idiot and I will never have any respect for you”—just about did me in. But I stuck to my resolve.
“Yes,” I said. “And I want us to keep our headlights off and to drive cautiously, at least until we hit the freeway.”
“Eli, you’re scaring me,” Lizzie said.
“I’m sorry. But you heard the gunshots last night. I don’t want any trouble. We took too long. It’s almost light.”
“Stop freaking out, Eli,” Jaylee said. “You’re worse than Logan. Besides, I’m done.” She got up, ripped a piece of tape from a dispenser, and taped her note on the front door. “I call shotgun!” She took off for the van.
“Put the spare key back, will you?” I yelled after her. “Riggs might need it.”
“Good point.” She slid her fingers into her front jeans pocket and tossed the key to me.
I barely caught it with two hands, clapping the thing to my gut.
“She’s so charming, isn’t she?” Zaq said as he exited the house. “Such a lovely girl.”
“Shut up,” I said.
“If she’s riding in the van, I’m riding in the truck,” Logan said as he passed me.
Zaq followed him, patted my cheek as he went by. “Just remember,” he whispered, “Jesus loves you even if she doesn’t.”
I swung after him but he darted out of my reach, chuckling.
“Jerk,” I said, shoving the key back into the fake rock. I paused for a moment to read Jaylee’s note.
Since we can’t find anyone and Eli is freaking out, we’re driving north, back to Reinhold’s place.
If you don’t have plans, come meet us, okay?
Riggsy? I was tempted to rip down the note and take it with me, burn it, maybe. Instead, I flipped the lock on the inside of the door and pulled it shut, descended the porch steps and headed for the truck.
Lizzie was standing between the vehicles. “You want me to ride with you?” She glanced at the truck where Logan was climbing into the passenger’s seat.
“Nah, you ride in the van with Zaq and Jaylee.”
She winced. “You sure?”
“It’s not a problem. I can handle Logan better than anyone.”
She hugged me. “You’re the bestest big brother ever. If you want a break, use the radio. Say you need to make a restroom stop, okay? I’ll be our code phrase.”
“Yeah, yeah. Get in the van, will you?” I walked over to Zaq’s side. He had his window down and was leaning out.
“Jaylee wants to leave a note for her mom,” he said.
I nodded. One last stop, then.
Jaylee’s apartment complex was only a few blocks away, but it was so massive that I worried we’d see someone. We didn’t, though. Not a soul. Jaylee ran in and out in less than five minutes, too, even returning with a suitcase. I wondered what she’d managed to shove in that thing so quickly.
I leaned out my window and looked back to Zaq. “We ready?”
He gave me the thumbs up. “Imma follow you, boss.”
“Right.” I headed north, for Camelback Road. The CB radio fizzled to life as Logan messed around with it.
“Zaq, do you read me? This is Logan Graham. Over.”
Jaylee’s voice came through the speaker. “This is Jaylee, Logan.”
“Testing the radios. Over,” Logan said.
“Don’t be dumb, Logan,” Jaylee said.
“Right,” Logan said to himself, then grinned at me. “If she answered, that means they’re working.
“Sure does,” I said.
I stopped a few yards before the intersection on Camelback and peeked west. No sign of the Honda or any headlights, but it was light out now. So much for my plan of getting out of town before dawn, but maybe headlights in the dark would have made us more visible. I turned right onto Camelback and headed into Scottsdale.
“Where are you going?” Logan asked.
“I want to get on the freeway. Loop 101 is closer.”
Logan pushed the button and held the CB to his mouth. “Transport two, this is transport one. We’re heading north toward Camelback Road. I’ll be giving you directions. Over.”
“Not necessary, Logan,” Jaylee’s voice came back. “It’s not like Zaq is going to lose a red pickup truck when there are only two cars on the road.”
“Plus you’ll waste the batteries,” I said. “We need those for emergencies.”
“I didn’t think about that,” Logan said. He spoke back into the CB. “Transport one to transport two, let’s keep the channel clear for now and save the batteries for emergencies. Over.”
“You got it,” Jaylee said.
“Why doesn’t she say ‘over’?” Logan asked. “How am I supposed to know she’s done talking?”
“I don’t know, Logan. I guess you’ll know when she doesn’t answer.”
The road was completely deserted. Trees, bushes, and concrete walls lined both sides for a while, hiding fancy homes from the noise of would-be traffic.
“The speed limit is 35 here, Eli,” Logan said.
And I was doing 60. “Yeah? Well, I’d love for a cop to pull me over. I really would. I’ve got a lot of questions that need answering.”
“Law enforcement agencies have suffered the same catastrophe as the rest of Phoenix. Maybe even the world.”
I gritted my teeth and slowed to glance both ways before running a red light. I tensed, waiting for Logan’s rebuke at that latest infringement, but for once he didn’t speak.
The sky was cloudy today, likely due to all the fires. The sun peeked over the horizon straight ahead, brilliant, backlighting the palm trees in a peachy orange color that made the trees look black. Gorgeous. Even amongst so much death and destruction, creation went on doing its thing.
After 64th the street had steady median crossovers with grass and trees that split the two directions of traffic. We were almost to the mall; I could see the Nordstrom overpass up ahead. Loop 101 was only another eight blocks or so past it. But before I reached the overpass, a boy ran out into the street.
“Do you see him?” Logan asked.
“Yeah.” I slowed down. The boy reached the sidewalk and tripped over the ledge. I stopped the truck diagonally in the road, just past the intersection at Goldwater, and got out to help. The boy was holding his knee and wincing. He looked to be about nine or ten.
I squatted beside him and grabbed his arm. “Hey, buddy. You okay?”
“You let go of me!” The boy squirmed, kicked at my stomach, and crawled away.
“Calm down, kid. I’m only trying to—”
A piercing scream drew my attention. On the other side of the road, a teen girl in a mini skirt dragged a little girl into the street. “Jump,” she said. And when the girl jumped, the teen lifted her by the arm so that she cleared the median in one leap. The teenager was barefoot and sprinting right for me, black makeup streaked under each cheek. Her shoulder length hair was so blonde and curly it looked like she was wearing a tumbleweed for a hat.
“Help us!” she yelled between gasps for air. Her feet slapped against the pavement, echoed by the patter of the rubber soles of the little girl’s sneakers.
The boy beside me had stopped struggling and was looking me over with narrowed eyes. “Are you a good guy?”
I looked down on his freckled face. “Yeah, kid. I’m a regular superhero.”
I stood to meet the blond and she tackled me, almost knocking me down, her arms wrapped around my neck, her hair all in my face and mouth. I blew out a breath, spitting out her hair, and turned my head, trying to back away, but she held tight.
“Get off!” I said.
“Sorry!” She let go and stepped back, brushing her hair away from her face and wiping the tears off her cheeks, smearing the black make up worse. “I’m so sorry.”
“He’s coming!” the boy said, pointing back where they’d come from.
Across the street, a man sprinted toward us. He was maybe in his late 20s, wore a plaid western shirt, tight blue jeans, and cowboy boots. He had stringy black hair and a thick moustache. He slowed to a jog, still coming toward us.
“You’ve got to help us!” The blond’s eyes met mine. They were green, edged in smudges of black makeup. “Please?”
I ran back to my truck.
“Coward!” she yelled after me. “Just leave us to the monsters, you sniveling, weak, pathetic excuse for a human be—”
I grabbed my rifle out of the cab.
“Oh,” she said.
I ran around to Logan’s side of the truck, using the vehicle for a blockade. I leaned over the front hood, trained my rifle on the man, and waited. “Get over here.”
The blond grabbed the kids, each by one hand and ran behind the truck.
The passenger window lowered. “Eli! What are you doing?” Logan had gotten down on the floor inside and was peeking out over the dashboard.
I wasn’t sure. “Radio Lizzie to pray,” I told him.
The man slowed to a stop just under the Nordstrom bridge. Behind him, on the other side of the underpass, an old blue Ford truck sped toward us, driving on the wrong side of the road. It exited on our side of the underpass and stopped by the cowboy who climbed into the passenger’s seat. The vehicle rolled nearer.
My pulse pounded in my ears. Was I nuts? What was my plan? Would I really shoot anyone? What if they drove right over here? What if they rammed us?
But this wasn’t a Fast and the Furious movie. The Ford stopped twenty yards away. The driver jumped out, raised his arms in the air, and stepped toward us. I looked through the rifle’s scope. Only saw the two of them. Unlike his pal, the driver was a big guy, heavy, wearing ratty cowboy boots, faded jeans, and a Budweiser T-shirt. He had a big metal belt buckle that said Jack Daniels Old No. 7 Brand.
“I don’t want any trouble!” the driver yelled. “Them’s my kids running off is all.”
“He’s lying,” the blond said. “The kids have never seen those guys before today.”
I glanced behind me to my right. The blond had picked up the little girl, who I guessed to be four. The boy stood beside her, clutching the blond’s upper arm with both his hands.
I focused back on the cowboys but asked the blond, “Who is he?”
“We were walking over to Coco’s to see if there was anything to eat. They stopped and offered us a ride. I said no and they started chasing us. I don’t want to go with them.”
I didn’t blame her for that. These were exactly the kind of people I’d been hoping to avoid. “What’s your name?”
“Where do you live, Krista?”
“I live in Mesa. The kids live over on East Highland. I was babysitting them, but their mom never came home.”
Mesa was out of my way. And I couldn’t start picking up strays everywhere we went. We had little supplies as it was. And here were three more mouths to feed—to water. They didn’t look to be very helpful mouths either.
But I could decide all that later. Right now we needed to lose the desperados. The big guy was inching toward me. My thumb hovered over the safety.
“Don’t come any closer or I’ll shoot!” I yelled.
Zaq’s minivan rolled up on the other side of my truck. “Eli?” Zaq called through Jaylee’s open window. “What are we doing, man?”
“Being good Samaritans. Get in the van, Krista,” I said.
She squinted in Zaq’s direction and frowned, looked back to me. “Can’t we ride with you?”
“I’ve only got two seatbelts.”
“But I don’t know those people.”
“You don’t know me, either.”
Krista flipped her hair out of her face and looked back to Zaq. “He looks really strong,” she whispered.
“He’s a good guy,” I said. When she didn’t move, I glanced at her again. Tears brimmed in her eyes. “Fine. Logan, get in the van. Zaq? Be ready to ride. We’ll take Goldwater north to Chaparral to the Loop. Krista, you and the kids get in the truck. Go. Now! All of you!”
Krista and the kids climbed into the truck.
“Goldwater doesn’t run all the way through going north. It turns one way,” Zaq said as Logan got in the back beside Lizzie. “We’ll need to cut over on Highland and take Scottsdale up to Chaparral.”
“Fine. That’s what we’ll do.” Though I doubted the one-way street would be a problem.
Zaq backed up the van onto Goldwater and stopped.
“I’m not gonna let you take my girl!” the Budweiser man yelled.
“I don’t see your name on her,” I yelled back.
“She’s mine, just the same! I don’t care about the little ones. Just give me the girl.”
What a creep. “Things are hard enough right now without people like you causing more trouble,” I said. “So, get in your truck and drive away.”
“I ain’t going nowhere without the girl.”
“If you don’t leave, I’ll have to shoot out your tire. I don’t want to make trouble for you, but I will.”
“You do what you got to do, punk,” the man said. “I don’t think your gun is even loaded.”
I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t leave Krista with these guys, and I couldn’t have them following us, either. I took careful aim, flipped off the safety, aimed again, and pulled the trigger. The gun recoiled against my shoulder as the shot rang out. The driver jumped away from the vehicle, swearing a blue streak. The Ford didn’t move, but once my ears stopped ringing, I could hear a soft hiss coming from the tire. The Ford was starting to tilt. Perfect.
I flipped on the safety but kept my rifle trained on the Ford as I edged around the front of my truck. Let them think I was going to shoot again. I got to my door, which was still hanging open, handed my gun in to Krista, who was sitting in the middle for some reason. I climbed in.
I started the truck and peeled out in a U-turn, turned right up Goldwater, sailed past Zaq. My arms were trembling, so I gripped the wheel tighter, hoping Krista wouldn’t notice. She was holding my rifle barrel with both hands, the butt on the floor, her knees tipped toward the kids to make room for it and me.
Goldwater became one way, took a ninety-degree curve and became Highland. I slowed to a stop at Scottsdale and took the gun from Krista. “Duck,” I said.
She obeyed, and I hung the rifle on the gun rack on the back window.
“Thanks.” I turned left on Scottsdale, glancing into my rearview mirror for any sign of an blue Ford. The road was barren but for the minivan. I let out a deep breath.
“What are you doing out so early with no shoes?” I nodded at Krista’s bare feet. “You shouldn’t go anywhere alone right now.”
“I wasn’t alone. I was with the kids and they were hungry.” She tugged at the hem of her skirt, trying to pull it lower. “And what is wrong with my outfit? It’s cute.”
“It screams, ‘Attack me. I’m a defenseless female.’”
She grunted. “Don’t judge me.” She shifted on the seat and something sharp poked my thigh.
I glanced down to see a tag on the side of her skirt, digging into my leg. “You stole that skirt?”
She met my gaze, looked down to the tag. She yanked it off and tossed it on the floor. “Like it matters. No one is alive to arrest me.”
“We were shopping at Macy’s,” the little girl said. “Krista always wanted a short skirt but her mom said no.”
“Shut up, Shy,” Krista said.
I stopped at Chaparral, noted that Zaq was right behind me, and turned right. I glanced at the little girl. “Your name’s Shy?”
“Shyla. And my brother’s name is Davis.”
“Nice to meet you Shyla and Davis,” I said.
“You are a good guy,” Davis said. “Did you see how he shot out Al’s tire? Blam! Blam!”
“Wait. Al? I thought you didn’t know that guy?”
Davis clapped a hand over his mouth.
“I never said I didn’t know him,” Krista said.
She pretty much implied it. Heat flashed through me. “Was that your dad?”
“No!” She folded her arms across her chest and sighed. “No.”
“He’s our stepdad,” Davis said.
Nuts. “I shot out that guy’s tire and gave you a ride because I thought he was some kind of creeper. If he’s your dad, I should take you back.”
“No!” Krista and Davis said together.
“Look, you saved us, okay?” Krista added. “Trust me. Al is bad news. Don’t you remember? He said he didn’t even want the kids. Just me. The babysitter. He is a creeper, just like you thought.”
She made a good point. I glanced out the window. We were passing Chaparral Lake. Almost there. “Okay, fine,” I said.
“So what’s your name?” Krista asked me.
“Elijah or Elisha?”
“Elias.” (Note to readers: I changed this.)
“So where are we going, anyway?” Krista asked.
“Loop 101,” I said, gliding into the turn lane that stretched under the freeway overpass.
“That’s it? We’re going to the freeway?”
“For now.” A quick glance in my rearview showed Zaq right behind me. Good. I hit my blinker and turned left onto the freeway entrance ramp. I tensed as the truck crested the hill at shot out onto the freeway. I hoped it would be empty.
I chastised myself for that thought. Shouldn’t I be hoping there were more survivors? Truth was, I dreaded the inevitable confrontation with someone armed.
I hoped Lizzie was still praying.
The freeway put us up high enough that we could see everything for miles. The sky was dark, like it might thunder, but it was all smoke. Phoenix was still burning. And I hadn’t heard a single siren all night. Even with the smoky canopy above, the bright morning light stung my eyes. I hadn’t gotten enough sleep. I didn’t like the idea of getting into a wreck with the kids sharing a seatbelt. I should stop and make Krista and the kids get in the van. But now that we were finally moving, I didn’t dare slow down until Phoenix was far behind us.
END OF CHAPTER
Do you think Al will catch up to them? Will they make it back to Wilderness Way Adventures?