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 did Eli and Hannah find in the hotel kitchen?
I moved cautiously, shining my light over every inch of floor before I took a step. From the intensity of the pungent sweet smell, I was expecting to find a dozen dead people, but Cree led us to a lone body, lying on two couch cushions—likely the missing ones from the lobby. The woman had dark, Native American skin, but her body appeared black and blue in places, almost a sickly green. Flies swarmed and crawled over her skin. Cree plopped cross-legged onto the floor beside the cushions and slipped her hand into the dead woman’s.
I had no words. I closed my eyes and began to pray. I didn’t know what else to do. Why was all this happening? The poor kid had been sitting around with her mom like this? How many others had been abandoned like this?
“She hasn’t been gone very long,” Hannah whispered. “Maybe two days.”
I opened my eyes and looked at Hannah. “How can you tell?”
“The flies. It’s pretty warm in the building, but she’s barely begun to decompose. Her body is still in fairly good shape.”
“Should we try to bury her?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t. It would be difficult to move her at this stage and not have… difficulty.”
“Difficult not to have difficulty?”
“Well… she might not… hold together. If we wrapped her first, maybe…”
“Never mind. Let’s just find a blanket or sheet and cover her up, then try and talk to the girl into leaving with us.”
We wandered out of the kitchen and down the hall until we came to a laundry room where we found all the sheets and blankets we could ever want. I grabbed a nice thick blanket with flowers on it that I hoped Cree would like and carried it back to the kitchen. We found the little girl waiting outside the kitchen doors, her big brown eyes watching us.
I took a deep breath, went inside, and covered the body with the blanket. Cree stared up at me and took hold of my hand. A jolt of heat passed over me as Jaylee’s fears ran through my head. What if Cree was sick? What if I got sick from touching her?
But that was dumb. This wasn’t some mutation of cholera. It was waterborne. I couldn’t catch it from touching someone. As if to prove it to myself, I squeezed Cree’s hand, then started to sing.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
When Hannah didn’t join in, I felt stupid. I should have asked her if she knew any hymns, but this was the song Zaq had sung after he and I had buried his family, so I just kept going.
I once was lost but now I am found,
Was blind but now I see.
I stopped after once verse. I guessed I should pray too. I suddenly wished I’d made Lizzie come in. She was so much better at this stuff than I was. “God, we pray for the soul of this woman and ask for your mercy. We thank you for her life and the love she gave to Cree, and we pray that we can love Cree as much as her mother did. Amen.”
“Amen,” Hannah said.
My stomach heaved at the smell. I had to get some air. I tugged Cree toward the door, but the girl pulled away and ran back to her mother. She pulled at the blanket, but I scooped her up into my arms and stumbled away. She screamed and arched her back. It brought tears to my eyes, but I kept going, thinking it was best to do this quickly, like ripping off a Band-Aid. The way I was holding her, my flashlight was pointed up and the ceiling, but Hannah ran by, lighting the way with her flashlight beam.
Cree screamed like I was cutting off her hand, kicking and clawing at me, her little fingernails long and sharp.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s gonna be okay.” But what did I know? Too many people were dead. And what were we going to do when we ran out of water? Was I wrong to take Cree away from her mother only to have her die with me up in the mountains?
I didn’t know. And I was tired of not knowing.
Hannah held open the front door for me, and I swept past and into the blessed light. I took deep breaths through my nose, trying to cleanse my sinuses and calm myself, because Cree’s fingernails were starting to hurt and I didn’t want to lose my patience with the poor kid. She was still screaming bloody murder as if I had been the one to kill her mother.
Zaq climbed out of the van and came running. “What happened?”
“Mom was gone,” Hannah said, and I was thankful she’d answered. I didn’t trust myself to hold it together if I had to speak.
Zaq tried to take Cree from me. “Hey, there.” But Cree screamed louder and clutched my neck, nearly strangling me.
I tried again to comfort the kid. “Shhh. I got you.” I hiked her up against my shoulder and tried to bounce her. She was a bit too big to be carried like a baby, but I figured it was worth a shot. She wrapped her legs around my waist and squeezed my neck. At least she wasn’t clawing my face and screaming anymore.
“Want me to drive?” Hannah asked.
No. I did not. Driving gave me purpose. But I said, “Maybe.”
“I’ll dig out some food. She’s probably starving.”
“Good idea.” I followed Hannah to the back of the truck and watched as she opened the back.
“Where do I look?” she asked.
“The cooler,” I said, which was where I’d put all the candy bars. Cree needed something more nutritional than candy bars, but the canned goods were farther in and weren’t the easiest things to eat while on the road.
Hannah removed a handful of candy bars and set them on the bumper, then closed the cooler and slid it back into place.
“So we’re going to take her with us?” Jaylee’s voice caused me to turn around.
“Yes, Cree is coming with us,” I said.
“She doesn’t look so good. What if she’s sick?”
“None of us look so good,” I said.
“You’re the doctor,” Jaylee said to Hannah. “Is the kid sick?”
Hannah slammed the tailgate closed and locked the cover. “I don’t know. I never saw any sick people. But she looks healthy enough to me.”
“Were you camping too?” Lizzie asked.
“No,” Hannah said. “I wasn’t camping.”
“Then where were you?” Jaylee propped her hands on her hips, as if Hannah’s answers were somehow not good enough. “How could you possibly have missed everything that’s happened in the past three weeks?”
“I was kidnapped,” Hannah said, her voice calm and collected. She may as well have said she was on another planet.
“What?!” Jaylee screeched. “Kidnapped by who?”
“I don’t know. My dad owns MonkeyC. It’s a—”
“—publicly traded Internet domain registration and web hosting company,” Logan said. “It’s worth billions.”
“That’s right,” Hannah said. “Some guys grabbed me when I’d gone out for a coffee, put me in a van.” She opened a Milky Way and handed it to Cree, who merely stared. “I woke up in a basement, tied to a chair. I didn’t know where I was until a few days ago when I escaped. Found one of my captors dead upstairs but didn’t realize what had happened until I got to town and saw the CDC health alert signs.”
“You walked to Flagstaff?” Jaylee asked.
Hannah held the candy up to Cree’s lips, and Cree took a nibble. “Took an ATV from a farm, but it ran out of gas. Walked the rest of the way into Flagstaff, then thought I’d look for a car. I was at the dealership when Eli came in.”
Cree took the Milky Way in her hand and sat back in my arms, inspecting the treat.
“Wait, you saw her at the dealership?” Jaylee asked me.
I nodded. “She took the Honda.”
“Look,” Zaq said,” we can talk on the road. I feel really exposed in this lot.”
“Yeah, let’s go,” I said. I tried to offload Cree into the back of the truck, but she clung to me like a toddler not wanting to get dropped off at the daycare. So I climbed in front and held her on my lap. Hannah took the driver’s seat, buckled up, and started the truck.
It took some coaxing, but I finally managed to get Cree to sit between us on the seat. She was pretty enthralled with Hannah’s collection of candy bars.
I guess I hadn’t gotten enough sleep at ACE Hardware the previous night because I suddenly woke up and realized that I’d been sleeping. I sat up and noticed that Cree was sleeping too.
“Welcome to colorful Colorado,” Hannah said. “At least that’s what the sign said.”
“We’re in Colorado?”
“For about six minutes now.”
“How long have I been out?” I asked her.
“Hour and a half. We just left New Mexico. I kind of wanted to stop at four corners, but didn’t think now was the time for sightseeing.”
“Might as well be,” I said. “There’s not much else to do.” But I knew that was a lie. If power was really gone, we’d pretty much reverted to the dark ages. Or at least the pioneer days. We were going to have a lot to do to prepare for winter.
I looked over the seat and saw that Logan, Shyla, and Davis were all asleep in the back. “Sorry we all abandoned you,” I said.
“It’s fine. Logan talked my ear off for a while, but he finally fell asleep too. I kind of like driving. I’ve never taken a road trip before.”
We passed a black and white road sign. US 160. I perked up. “Wait. We’re in Colorado?”
“Yeah,” Hannah said slowly. “I already said that.”
I had totally missed the chance to look for my dad’s van. I grabbed the CB radio from the dashboard and pressed the call button. “Zaq, you got your ears on?”
“This is Zaq’s personal assistant,” Lizzie replied. “Go ahead, little buddy.”
The memory of them kissing rose up in my mind and brought with it a rush of anger. I shook it away. “Did you guys see Dad’s van?”
“No,” Lizzie said. “Let me ask Zaq.”
I took a deep breath, not sure what to do or think.
The radio fizzled. “Zaq has been watching for it, but he didn’t see it, either,” Lizzie said. “He thinks maybe Dad came back for it.”
The idea that my dad might be alive… Hope surged within me, made me feel hot and cold at the same time. I wanted it so bad, but at the same time, I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
“Thanks,” I said. “Over and out.”
But Lizzie came back with, “I’m praying for him, E.”
I tossed the radio on the seat and sighed. Pray hard, Lizzie. Pray hard.
“I’ve got to pee,” Logan said.
I must have woke him. Should have kept my voice down. I pressed the call button on the radio again. “We’re going to need a pit stop.”
“Us too,” Lizzie said. “But we’re looking for a little bigger place.”
“We girls are hoping for a sit down facility.”
I rolled my eyes. “The water is bad. What does it matter?”
“It just does, Eli,” Lizzie said. “We saw a sign a ways back. There’s supposed to be a rest stop in a mile or two.”
Yeah, whatever. “We’ll follow your lead,” I said, then tossed the radio back up on the dashboard.
I looked out the window. The land was getting a little hilly but was still barren and covered in sagebrush and chaparral. It would be another hour before we hit trees.
“You don’t want to stop?” Hannah asked me.
“No, stopping is fine.” Hopefully I could get the keys and drive again. I hated being chauffeured by a girl, though I didn’t know why. I just liked being in control, and holding the wheel made me feel in charge. “Thanks for driving,” I said, as if thanking Hannah would somehow cancel out my selfish thoughts.
“No problem,” she said.
Whee. Awkward chit chat. Where was this rest stop, anyway? I needed to get out of the truck. I needed to drive. To do something. I examined the vents, checked out the glove compartment, fiddled with the buttons on the dash. My gaze flitted to Hannah, who was staring at the road, intense, like there were deer lining the road or something. Her manicured nails gripped the steering wheel at ten and two. I took in that diamond ring again. She’d taken off my sweatshirt and was wearing her little tank top slip thing. I admired her arms. She was in good shape. Strong for a girl.
“You an athlete?” I asked.
She turned her head to look at me, then focused on the road again. “I played tennis.”
A rich person sport. Should’ve guessed. She’d put her hair up in a bun on the back of her head. This called attention to her long neck and shoulders. My eyes latched onto black in between her shoulder blades.
“Why are you staring at me?” she asked.
Heat climbed up the back of my neck and burned my ears. I looked out the window at the landscape. “You have a tattoo?”
Her silence pulled my gaze back, and I chanced a quick peek at her expression. But there was no anger or embarrassment on her face. “It was my one act of rebellion against my father.”
“You didn’t get along with your dad?”
She shrugged. “He was always so busy. But he wanted me to do the things he wanted me to do, which I didn’t think was fair. Plus I was an only child. He didn’t like my high school boyfriend at all. Shen was a trouble maker—I liked that about him. He had a motorcycle, and he’d come to the house or to the country club and pick me up. Daddy hated that bike.”
“So what’s the tattoo of?”
“Chinese symbol for independence.”
Nice. “So you got a tattoo to tell your dad that you didn’t need him telling you what to do?”
“Yeah… it was pretty juvenile. I laugh about it now, and I’m thankful I didn’t get something even worse, like Shen’s name.”
“Didn’t work out with Shen?”
“Uh, no.” She laughed. “He was a little too wild for me. It was a phase. Girls go through a lot of phases. They just don’t realize it until they’re older.”
I wondered if my sister was going through a Zaq phase. Lizzie had never been the rebellious type. She’d never even dated anyone before. I wondered how long this thing with Zaq had been going on. Would she care what I thought about it? Let me look out for her?
One thing was certain: me and Zaq needed to have a talk.
Up ahead, the van pulled off into a truck stop. A single beige and green house marked the bathrooms with a stickman on the left and a stickwoman on the right. Regular parking spots ran along the sidewalk. Long, trucker parking spots filled the middle of the lot. The lot was completely empty.
Zaq pulled the van into a space in front of the bathrooms, and the van doors all seemed to open at once. Lizzie, Kayla, and Jaylee all sprinted for the stickwoman door.
Hannah pulled up beside the van, and before she had rolled to a complete stop, Logan jumped out and sprinted for the stickman side.
“Hope he makes it.” Hannah turned off the truck, pulled out the keys, and handed them to me. “You drive next?”
“Thanks.” I probably should have said “Sure,” or something less control-freak obvious.
Davis jumped out Logan’s door and ran to the bathroom. Shyla started humming.
“You need to use the bathroom, Shy?” I asked.
“In a minute.”
“Okay, but we’re not staying here long.” I climbed out and woke up Cree in the process. “Hi, Cree,” I said, hoping to look cheerful and kind. See, kid? I’m not kidnapping you. I’m just trying to be a Good Samaritan. “You want to get out?”
Cree unbuckled herself and crawled to my open door. I shoved the keys in my pocket and grabbed her under the arms. I swung her extra high and set her feet on the sidewalk. She was filthy and smelled faintly of the pungent sweet sickness. How would any of us get a bath? Then I remembered the baby wipes. I headed for the back of the truck, and Cree followed.
“Here, Eli,” Shyla said from the back cab, handing me a pink wad of fabric. “For the girl.”
I took it and held it up. “Look, Cree. A shirt!” I scrunched it up in my hands and tried to pull it over Cree’s head, but she wrinkled her nose at me.
“No pink,” she said.
“You don’t like pink?”
Leave it to a kid with nothing to be picky over color. “Cree,” I pointed to the building, “you need to go to the bathroom?” I hadn’t thought to give her anything to drink. The poor thing was probably dehydrated.
Cree’s gaze followed my pointing finger, and she smiled.
“I’ll take her,” Hannah said, looking at us over the front of the truck.
“Thanks,” I said. “Cree, go with Hannah, okay?”
Cree frowned but took Hannah’s hand and obediently went along. I liked that obedience. I hoped it stuck around. I opened the back of the truck and dug out the cooler of candy bars. Behind it was the cooler of drinks. Behind that should be the box with the wipes. I thought.
Five minutes later I had crawled into the back of the truck and was digging through tubs, looking for the wipes. I found some cracker packs with the rubbery cheese you spread over them. Cree might like those. Shyla and Davis were likely hungry too. I dumped some of the cracker packs and a few lengths of beef jerky into the cooler. I finally found the wipes and wiggled my way back down to the tailgate. I had barely put one foot out onto the ground when a strange voice spoke.
“Need a hand?”
Somehow between my heart failure and cramped position, I managed to vault myself backwards the rest of the way out of the truck. I whipped around to see a gangly man with greasy blond hair slicked back over his head and a week’s worth of scraggly beard on his face. He was wearing a wife beater tank top and a pair of dirty jeans with saggy, worn-to-threads knees.
And my gun was in the cab.
END OF CHAPTER
Gah! Another stand-off for Eli. What will he do this time?