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.
Who was the guy with the shotgun? And what will happen to Eli?
I knew we shouldn’t have stopped at Target. I knew it!
My heart lurched inside. I had my right fist around the barrel of my gun, my left hand on the handle above the door. I let go of the handle, hoping to get my hands into position on my rifle. Lost my balance and slid out of the truck. My hiking boots twapped on the pavement.
“Don’t do it, boy!” Shotgun Man yelled. “It ain’t worth it. Leave the rifle in the cab and walk away.”
“I can’t do that,” I said.
But I just stood there, staring, daring myself to move my rifle into position. Pick it up, McShane, you gutless coward!
I was the worst surveillance guy to every grace the planet earth. Where had this guy come from, anyway?
Shotgun Man whistled, and the brown lab came running, pink tongue flapping in the breeze. Stupid dog! What did I care about a stupid dog?
“Come away from that truck, now,” Shotgun Man said, jerking the gun toward the bed.
I took a small side step that way, unsure what to do. I couldn’t let him take the truck. I couldn’t!
I had the keys, at least. I could run into the store. Maybe with Zaq’s help, the two of us could scare this guy off. Except the store was the opposite direction, and to get there, I’d be putting my back to this guy.
I took another teensy step toward the back of the truck, thinking that maybe if I could get behind it, I would have a chance to lift my gun.
Two months’ worth of water in the back of my truck. Two months’ worth that we wouldn’t have if I gave in. That stupid brown lab that would be lapping up my share.
I inched another step to the left. My hands were shaking.
Lord help me, Lord help me, Lord help me, Lord help me, Lord help me.
“Move a little faster, will ya?” the man said. “And put down that gun.”
I shook my head, and in one quick breath, I lifted my rifle, trained it on my adversary, and flipped off the safety.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Shotgun Man yelled. “Let’s not do this!”
“Get out of here!” I yelled back, my pulse pounding in my ears.
“You don’t have the guts!”
“Neither do you!”
We stood there, standing off between the van and the truck. A dozen scenarios flashed in my mind. Try and shoot him in the arm or leg. Run around to the other side of the truck. Run inside the store. Or jump in the passenger’s side and hit the locks. Drive away. Shoot the dog. Cry.
I stood there, trembling, praying he wouldn’t shoot me, wishing I were smarter and could think of some way to get myself out of this. The brown lab came along side me, sniffed my leg and panted, oblivious to the tension around him. His head cocked, and his eyes focused behind me.
Something hard struck the back of my head, the force so strong I collapsed to my knees. Someone took my rifle. My skull felt like liquid fire. Had he shot me? I hadn’t heard a shot. Was I dying?
Since I seemed to have no control over my body, I decided to die—or at least pretend to. I slumped to my left side, the pavement hot under my cheek, the truck keys an uncomfortable lump under my left hip.
The dog’s breath blew hot on my face. His tongue lapped my cheek, my lips.
I didn’t move.
“He’s out,” Shotgun Man said. “Get in the truck.”
Footsteps scuffed over the pavement. Only one set. The driver’s side door clicked shut.
I squinted open my eyes. Saw that Shotgun Man hadn’t moved. He was smart. I stayed put, unsure what else to do.
The driver’s side door opened again. “No keys!” the woman yelled.
Shotgun Man started toward me, gun trained on my head. “Get over here and check his pockets,” he told the woman.
Lord help me. I kept my eyes slitted as the woman crouched over me. I wished I’d studied Karate or Jujitsu or something that could get me out of this fix.
Hands patted down my right side. If they didn’t find the keys, maybe they’d think Zaq had taken them inside. Zaq. I willed him to come out here and check on me.
I should gotten up and run. The moment the woman had climbed inside the truck, I should have taken off. Too late now.
“They’re not here,” the woman said.
“Roll him and check the other side,” Shotgun Man said.
She rolled me. The moment I felt her hands on my pants pocket, I curled into a ball, rolled back.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Shotgun Man said, then bashed the butt of his gun against my head.
Things blurred together as pain spiked through my skull in a second place. I felt the keys slip from my pocket. Someone whistled and called for the dog. Doors slammed. The truck started. Peeled away.
My head pulsed with waves of pain. I wanted to get up and stop them. To run into the store. Get help. Tell everyone we had to follow them. But I just lay there, immovable, feeling stupid and useless and pathetic.
I opened my eyes. Logan’s face appeared over me, looking down.
“What happened? Oh my gosh, the truck!” He ran off.
I turned my head to follow him with my gaze. He was standing in the parking space where the truck had been and was turning in a circle, scanning the parking lot.
“Logan.” I tried to yell his name, but it came out more of a grunt.
He heard me, though, and came running back. “Are you shot? I didn’t hear any shots. Did their gun have a silencer? Where are you hit?”
“I’m fine.” I stretched out my hand. “Help me up.”
He took hold and pulled at the same time as I pushed myself off the ground with my other hand. I did most the work, but Logan’s weight made it a bit easier. My stomach lurched as I came to stand fully on my own feet. I held my breath, set my hands on my thighs, took a few slow breaths.
My head felt like it was going to implode.
“You sure you’re not shot, Eli?” Logan asked.
“You don’t think I’d know?” I gingerly touched my head, but when I looked at my fingers, I saw no blood. “Am I bleeding?” I had to be. It hurt so bad.
Logan walked around me. His fingers trailed through my hair. “I don’t see no blood, Eli. You think they shot you in the head? They must have missed.”
“They didn’t shoot me in the head, man. They hit me with their gun.”
“Oh. Well, there’s no blood.” It was then I noticed Logan was holding a black shirt in one hand. He held it up to his chest and grinned. “What do you think? Cool, huh? It was the only one. The place is pretty picked over.”
The shirt had the TARDIS in the center and the words “You never forget your first doctor” underneath.
I so didn’t care. Logan could be so clueless sometimes. “Dude, the truck was stolen! Go inside and tell Zaq. We’ve got to get out of here before they come back and try to take the van.”
Logan’s face paled as he looked out over the parking lot. “Right. I’ll get everyone moving.” He sprinted about four yards, then stopped and ran back, tossed his shirt at me. “Hold this so Jaylee doesn’t try and steal it.”
Before I could reply, he took off running again. “Come on!” he yelled over his shoulder.
I couldn’t do much good guarding the van with no gun, plus Zaq had the keys. I followed Logan as fast as I dared move. By the time I made it inside, I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him screaming.
“Guys! Eli’s hurt! Someone stole the truck! We gotta get moving! Guys, come on!”
Nice way to induce panic, but effective. Zaq and Lizzie came running up the aisle, Zaq pushing a cart full of medicine.
Jaylee arrived next, pushing a cart filled with makeup and—you guessed it—feminine products. “They took the truck? Eli, how could you let this happen?”
Ouch. That hurt worse than my head.
“Shut up, Jaylee,” Lizzie said. “Eli, are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” I said before Lizzie could start freaking out.
“They bashed his head in with a gun,” Logan said, appearing on my right and taking his Doctor Who T-shirt out of my hands. “Eli thought it was bleeding but I could find any blood.”
“I’m fine,” I said again, as both Lizzie and Zaq surged toward me. “We need to get moving before they come back for the van.”
“We’ll go,” Zaq said. “Just let me take a quick look.” He walked toward me.
“I’ll go find Krista,” Lizzie said, running off.
“He might have an intracranial hemorrhage,” Logan said as Zaq stopped beside me. “Think you could do a craniotomy if you had to, Zaq?”
“He looks fine to me,” Jaylee said, glaring. “I can’t believe you lost all our stuff.
“None of it was your stuff, Jaylee,” Zaq said. “Your duffle bag is in the van. The rest of that stuff came from Logan and Eli’s house.”
“You guys said we have to share everything from now on,” she said.
“Jaylee’s right,” I said. “I messed up.”
“No, we all messed up,” Zaq said. “We shouldn’t have left you out there alone. And if we’d have listened to you in the first place, we never would have come to Target.”
His defending me took the edge off my guilt. Jaylee pushed her cart over to a checkout stand and started bagging it up. I didn’t like her being mad at me.
“Show me where it hurts,” Zaq said.
I did, and Zaq’s fingers moved over the two swollen spots. One on the back of my head, and another on the top right side.
“It looks like they both kind of missed. The lumps are on the surface, like the gun grazed off the curve of your head both times. Broke the skin a little, but it didn’t reach the bone. The back one is just a lump. The front one is hardly bleeding. You dizzy?”
He made it sound like nothing. My head was still pounding. “Maybe a little.”
“Confused about what happened? Nauseous at all?”
“I don’t think so. It just feels like someone drove over my head.”
I told Zaq about the dog and Shotgun Man and his woman. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I wanted to fight back, but I … I just couldn’t shoot him.”
“You did the right thing,” Zaq said. “We can find more stuff.”
“But the water,” I whispered so Jaylee wouldn’t hear. “I only put one flat of water in the back of the van so you’d have some bottles to drink on the drive. That’s all we got.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll get more.”
Lizzie returned, holding hands with Shyla. “Krista’s coming.”
And did she ever. She and Davis each pushed a cart heaped with clothing up to the entrance. “We didn’t even get a chance to look for shoes yet,” she said.
“You were only supposed to be grabbing a couple things,” I said. “We can find new wardrobes later.”
“Most everything good has already been picked over,” she said. “If we don’t take this stuff now, someone else will.”
“There are hundreds of stores and thousands of homes that we can scavenge once we’ve got a safe home base,” I said. “Right now we’ve got to move before those guys come back. And I don’t think we have room for all that in the van.”
“That’s why I got these.” Krista dug into the cart and pulled out two large duffle bags.
“Great,” I said. “You can hold them on your lap.”
She glared at me, like I was some kind of jerk. Maybe I was.
I hated this. I especially hated the guilt of losing the truck and all our supplies. I tried not to think about it, because it was making me sick to my stomach, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Zaq would have been able to run that guy off. Was it my being so skinny that made me look like an easy target?
And he’d taken my gun. I knew there was dozens of personal possessions Lizzie and I had brought along, but my gun… I loved my gun.
We managed to load the van. No sign of Shotgun Man or his wife and dog. We had to put all the bags on the floor because the back was already crammed full, but no one complained. Zaq drove. I sat shotgun. Logan sat behind Zaq, Krista behind me, and Jaylee, Lizzie, Shyla, and Davis crammed into the back seat.
Zaq pulled out of the Target and onto University Drive, then went north on Milton Road. I drummed my palms on my knees, which were uncomfortably high since my feet were perched on a stack of Jaylee’s feminine products.
“Well,” I said to Zaq, “we might not have any water, but at least we have eight years-worth of tampons.”
Zaq laughed, but Jaylee had, unfortunately, heard me.
“They’re not tampons, Eli,” she said with enough attitude to shut me up for good. “They’re maxi pads. The tampons are back here. You sister doesn’t like tampons.”
“Can we talk about something else?” Zaq asked, steering the van onto the 40.
I didn’t want to talk at all. I just wanted to run through a forest and scream at the top of my lungs. Maybe burn something or smash something.
“What’s the plan?” Zaq asked me.
Why did I have to be the one to have a plan? I’d had a plan. No stopping. But no one had listened. We’d stopped at Target and lost all our stuff. I’d never wanted to be in charge, anyway. Zaq is the one people listen to. Zaq should be in charge.
I shrugged one shoulder and stared out the window. “People listen to you, Zaq. You need to be the leader.”
“Come on, Eli. I’m not leadership material.”
“You are too.”
Zaq snorted. “Am not. I’m the heavy. I’m the guy who gets behind a good cause and makes it happen. But I’m no idea person. I don’t have a clue what to do. You’ve always been the smart one. If we’re going to live, it’s going to be because of you.”
Zaq had never said anything like that to me in my entire life. I’d had no idea he thought of me as smart or a leader of any kind. “But I didn’t want to go to Target.”
“You were right. You shouldn’t have let the girls twist your arm. And I should have backed you up.”
“But the…” I kicked the stack of “feminine products” under my feet.
“We can’t let the girls play us, man,” he whispered with a quick glance in the rearview mirror. “We’re going to have to be smarter than that. I know they’re looking to us to lead—at least Lizzie is.”
I doubted any of them wanted us to lead. Girls liked being in charge. Feminism and all that. “We should take a vote. Make sure that’s what they want.”
“Maybe. But first, this is the last big town before Durango. What should we do?”
“We need another vehicle. A truck. Maybe a Ford Ranger or a Toyota Tacoma—something with good gas mileage.”
“How can you tell which trucks get good mileage?”
“I wrote a paper on it for auto tech.”
“We also need supplies and food and water. Lots of water. I had almost everything in the back of the truck. The tents, the tools, the gas can… This sucks.”
“It’s fine! We get to go shopping. And everything is free. It’s going to be awesome!”
“Aren’t there a few dealerships on Route 66?” I asked. “We could take our pick. Then we’ll need to get some stuff together again. Get a syphon hose to get some gas.”
Zaq nodded in slow motion. “I like. Let’s go get us some new wheels!”
We found Jim Robert’s Used Cars two blocks past San Francisco Street, where we’d found the destroyed Downtown Diner when we’d passed through yesterday. The dealership reminded me of an Altoids box, flat and low with red trim around the top and solid gold windows in the front—the kind that looked like mirrors. You could see out of them but you couldn’t see in. The building sat in the center of a scummy slab of old pavement filled with shiny cars and trucks with colorful writing on every windshield that said things like, “Low Miles!” “Loaded!” “Big Savings!” “Gas Saver!” or “Drive Today!” Zaq pulled into the lot and drove around to the back of the building.
I turned in my seat and addressed everyone. “Listen up. Wait in the van. I’m going to go find us a new truck. Keep the doors locked and your voices down, okay?”
“Yes, Mr. McShane,” Jaylee said.
I ignored them and grabbed my father’s rifle. “If anyone comes around, drive,” I told Zaq. “Head for Reinhold’s place, and we’ll meet you there.” I got out of the van and called over my shoulder. “Logan, you’re with me.”
“Thank you!” Jaylee called.
Logan and I walked around to the front of the dealership. I scanned the lot, looking for the best truck. There was a 2008 Ford Ranger, royal blue with two fat white racing stripes running down the hood and over the cab like the stripes on a skunk. “That’s pretty sweet,” I told Logan.
“Check out that convertible, Eli,” Logan said.
“No convertibles, man. We need a truck.”
There was one Toyota Tacoma, silver, but it had been converted to have big wheels, so that would mess with the gas mileage. There was a shiny black Nissan Frontier that I would happily make my own if I wasn’t looking for better camouflage color. Black wasn’t bad, but green or brown would be better.
I felt better, having a mission. I still tried not to think about my stolen truck and all our stuff. We passed by a yellow Dodge Dakota and a white Dodge Ram. “No and no,” I said. “Too much gas.” I also ix-nayed a Subaru Baja and a Chevy Surburban.
“Ohhhh,” I moaned when I saw the 2010 Suzuki Equator that had been painted in flat army green paint. “That’s my girl right there.” Plus it had a hard folding bed cover on the back that would keep people from knowing what we had.
“Why that one?” Logan asked.
“So we can park in the trees and no one will see us.”
“What about when it snows?”
“It’s July, Logan. We’ll worry about snow later, okay?”
“I like the Tacoma better,” Logan said. “What if we have to drive up a rocky hill?”
“Why would we? And if we did, the Suzuki would make it. No on the big wheels. The black Nissan is my second choice. Let’s go find us some keys.”
We crossed the lot to the front of the dealership. The mirrored windows along the front of the building also had colorful window marker writing on them, the way old supermarkets used to advertise. Several of the windows had been busted up, making it hard to read what some of them had said. The front glass doors had been broken too, but the window to the left was still intact. Neon orange and green writing proclaimed, “Guaranteed Financing Available.”
“My kind of financing,” I said, carefully wedging myself through the jagged hole in one of the doors.
Logan followed, creeping along beside me like some kind of cartoon ninja. I ignored him lest I receive a lecture on what he was doing and why.
The keys would likely be kept in some sort of safe or lock box in an office of some kind. We passed by a cluster of cubicles, peeked into a few offices, and headed for the big office at the end of the hall. The door was halfway opened, but the name Jim Robert on the nameplate seemed like a good sign.
Then I heard a noise. I held up my hand and stopped, then trained my gun on the open door. A shadow moved inside.
Oh, come on! Couldn’t we catch a break? I was just about to urge Logan into one of the smaller offices to hide until the mystery person made their exit when the door swung in and a someone came running out.
END OF CHAPTER
Who is running toward them?