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 is running toward Eli?
It was a young woman. She stopped when she saw me, her face a pale mask of shock. She was Asian, and her hair was long and straight and messy. She was wearing a filthy white blouse and a pair of short jeans, the kind that end midway between a girl’s knee and ankle and have a special name that I can never remember no matter how many times Lizzie explains it to me. She was also barefoot and wore a silver toe ring one of her middle toes.
All this I noticed in the space of a breath.
“Please don’t shoot,” she said, her English perfect.
I lowered my rifle. “I’m not going to—”
She ran, sprinting past Logan and me as if her life depended on it.
“Wait!” I called after her. “We’re not going to hurt you.” But she had already slipped out the jagged opening in the door and was running across the parking lot toward a silver Honda Civic.
Good gas mileage, I thought.
“Dude!” Logan called from inside Jim Robert’s office. “She found the keys for us!”
I joined Logan in the office. He was looking into a narrow cabinet filled with rows and rows of hooks with keys on them. Jackpot.
“You think she picked the lock?” I asked.
“Of course,” Logan said. “She’s probably a ninja. Asian’s are born knowing ninja skills.”
“That’s racist. And since when is lock-picking a ninja skill?”
“Lock-picking is stealth. Ninjas are stealth.”
“Whatever. Look for the Suzuki.”
“I wish she wouldn’t have run off,” Logan said, combing through the keys. “I’ve always wanted to date an Asian.”
Forget dating. I doubted Logan had ever had a conversation with a girl that wasn’t completely one sided. “Guess you should have chased after her.”
“Ninjas are fast too, Eli. I never would have caught her unless she wanted me to, and since I didn’t get a chance to speak, I didn’t get a chance to impress her.”
“You’re a nut job. Find the key so we can get out of here.”
* * *
I found the key. Logan was too busy trying to decipher the code of how the keys were organized. I just searched for the word Suzuki.
On our way out, I stole a phone book off one of the desks in the cubicle area. If we could find someplace to lay low, we could make some lists and find some smaller stores to gather supplies. I didn’t like being out on the main strip.
Inside the cab of the Suzuki felt like sitting in a kiln. I tossed the phone book on the seat between Logan and me and started her up. Sounded like a good engine. I drove around back where Zaq was parked. Sadly, my new wheels were already running on empty.
I pulled up alongside the van facing the opposite direction so that my driver’s side window paralleled Zaq’s. “There’s a gas station in the parking lot of Fry’s Food Stores. Let’s try and gas up, then park somewhere to make a plan.”
“You got it, boss. Sweet ride, by the way.”
“Thanks.” I drove around the dealership and east on 66. Zaq was waiting and pulled out after me. It wasn’t even a full mile to Fry’s, but as we coasted into the gas station, I remembered that we couldn’t get gas if the electricity was out. There had been so many windows at the dealership, I couldn’t remember if the lights had been on or not.
I coasted to a stop beside the pumps and had my answer. All the displays were dark. No power. No gas. What now?
With all these abandoned cars, there was plenty of gas to be had. I just need a syphon hose and a gas can. Preferably a shake syphon, but I’d only find one of those at a hardware store.
“Logan, look up Ace or True Value or Lowe’s or something,” I said, steering into a U-turn. I was just about to drive around the back of the gas station to get out of sight when I saw the Honda Civic parked at a pump closest to the gas station building. The words “Low Gas Mileage” were scrawled on its windshield in neon orange and white paint. The driver’s door was hanging open and a gas nozzle stuck out of the tank. No sign of Logan’s Asian Ninja.
Could the gas be working at that pump? I pulled up on the other side of the Honda and looked over its hood at the fuel dispenser. This display board was dark too. So where’d the girl go?
I peered inside the gas station itself, but the chains coiled around the door handles seemed to have kept people from going inside. None of the windows had been broken yet. I put the tuck in drive and rolled just past the station so I could look beyond it to the vast grocery store parking lot.
The radio fizzled. “This is Krista. Zaq wants to know what you’re doing.” [Note to readers: I went back to chapter eight and planted that Eli took a spare radio from the van with him into the car dealership.]
Logan dropped the phonebook and fumbled for the radio. “This is Transport One. Hold for an answer. Over.” Logan looked to me. “What are we doing?”
There. Two men weaving between vehicles in the middle of the lot. I’d bet anything that they had showed up when Asian Ninja had been trying to pump gas. What was with all the sickos right now? And where was the girl hiding?
“Tell them to stay put,” I said. “Say we can’t get gas here because the power’s out. And tell them you’re going to find us a hardware store.”
Logan relayed that message over the radio as I continued to watch the two men. They were about twenty yards apart from each other. One was wearing a white T-shirt, the other short sleeve plaid. The guy in plaid approached an old Chevy pick-up and peeked in the back as he passed by. He jerked back, reached in, then jumped up on the tail end just as Asian Ninja popped up and scrambled up onto the roof of the cab.
I hit the gas.
“Ahh!” Logan yelled, grabbing onto the dashboard. “What are you doing?”
“Asian Ninja is in trouble.”
The guy in plaid lunged across the bed and managed to snag the back of the girl’s shirt. She threw herself over the cab, sliding down the windshield until she was hanging by the back hem of her shirt. She grabbed the front and ripped it open like Clark Kent about to transform. She held back her arms and slid the rest of the way down the windshield and off the front of the hood. Her shirt peeled off her arms as she went, leaving her in a white tank top.
“Dude!” Logan coughed out an impressed laugh. “I told you she was a Ninja!”
The girl sprinted away from the Chevy and the guy in plaid, but his buddy in the white T-shirt was heading her way. I floored it, hoping to get between them.
“Logan,” I said. “I’m going to stop the van and get out. I’ve got to let them see the gun to scare them, and I can’t do that while I drive.”
“Give me the gun.”
So not happening. “I need you to get behind the wheel,” I said. “But don’t go anywhere until I can talk the girl into coming with us, okay? Logan? Tell me you understand the plan.”
“Okay, okay. I can’t do that.”
“And open the passenger’s door so we can jump in. Don’t do anything else. Just stay put.”
“Yeah, fine. I got it.”
I sure hoped so. I stopped halfway down the row. The girl was midway between her two pursuers now, curving slightly toward us. I don’t think she’d seen my truck yet. I climbed out, gripped the action of my dad’s rifle with my right hand and held my left in the air, giving the peace sign. I felt stupid as I edged around to stand in front of my new wheels, but I didn’t know how else to signal to the girl that I wasn’t with those other guys.
Her gaze landed on me and her eyes widened in recognition. Her sprint slowed to a jog. She glanced behind her, then to the guy in the white T-shirt. I hadn’t shot her at the dealership, so maybe… just maybe…
She put on a burst of speed, running straight toward me. I edged around to the passenger’s side of the truck. Logan had thankfully opened the door. The girl was almost here, but the guys weren’t far behind. They had slowed, though, eyeing my rifle.
Asian Ninja’s bare feet slapped against the pavement as she neared, her hair a stream of black smoke behind her. She blew right past me, and I yelled, “Get in the truck if you want to live!” It was a bold declaration for a guy with no water or supplies and who’d already been robbed once, but it seemed like the right thing to say.
I heard the truck door slam, so I guess she’d decided to take her chances with us.
Since she’d shut the door and the guys were almost to me, I wasn’t really sure what to do next. I hefted Dad’s rifle in both hands and flicked off the safety inching back, hoping the girl would open the door and let me in. For some reason, the truck started to roll backwards. Logan had it in reverse.
What was that idiot doing?
The white T-shirt guy reached me first. “Nice gun, kid.”
“I don’t want any trouble,” I said.
“Then why you pointing a gun at me?”
“This isn’t going to happen,” I said. “So why don’t you just let it go?”
I glanced over my shoulder to see that Logan had backed up the truck about a twenty yards from me. Great. What an idiot.
The guy in plaid arrived. “What’s with the gun?”
“I think he likes holding it,” T-shirt guy said.
“The girl doesn’t seem to want to play tag with you anymore,” I said. “So we’re going to give her a ride to her car.” I stepped back, knowing I’d never catch up to Logan this way, but seriously, why had he left me here? Did he want me to shoot someone? Did he want me to die?
“You know what they say about a man and his gun, don’t you?” T-shirt guy said.
I couldn’t let these morons know they were scaring me out of my mind. I chambered a round and flipped off the safety. “That he knows how to use it?” I said, then took aim and fired at the back end of a Ford Taurus in the row to the right of them.
They both screamed. T-shirt guy cowered. The guy in plaid hit the pavement on his stomach. I turned and ran like the Olympic sprinter I wasn’t.
Logan seemed to get the hint and the truck accelerated toward me. The passenger’s door opened long before they reached me. Logan slammed on the breaks, and I jumped in beside Asian Ninja, slammed the door, hit the locks, breathed.
“Someone talk to us!” Lizzie’s voice said over the radio, which Asian Ninja was holding clutched to her chest. It was then I noticed that her tank top was more of a silky undershirt. Embarrassed, I glanced up to meet her eyes and saw that they were fixed on the two men, who were walking away down the middle of the row.
Good thing neither of them had a shotgun.
“Get in the back, Logan,” I said.
“You’re not driving anymore.”
Logan opened the driver’s side door.
“Logan!” I dove for the driver’s side door, falling across Asian Ninja’s lap. I grabbed the handle and pulled the driver’s side door shut. Hit the locks again. I pushed off the steering wheel to sit up again. “Climb over the seat, you moron!”
“Gosh, Eli, you don’t have to be such a jerk,” Logan said. “I did just save your life.”
I took a deep breath and glanced at Asian Ninja. “Sorry,” I said.
And Logan said, “I forgive you.”
I closed my eyes a moment, reigning in my temper. I checked the safety on Dad’s gun and flipped it on. “Would you hold this for me?” I asked the Ninja.
“Sure.” She took the rifle in her free hand, holding it like it was an unstable nuclear warhead or something. I noticed a ring on her left hand. A massive, glittering diamond. She was married? She looked like a high schooler.
I checked the passenger door locks again, checked the door locks on my side of the extended cab’s back door, then stood and braced myself with my left hand on the back of the seat and my right on the dashboard. “Could we switch places, please?”
Asian Ninja nodded and slid across the seat toward me. I sat down in the middle and nudged Logan’s shoulder. “Over the seat, now. Move it!”
“Okay, I’m going. Calm down.” Logan climbed up onto the seat and dove head first into the back, unknowingly kicking me in the ear with one knee and the back of my head with his shoe—right where my lump was.
I gritted my teeth against the pain, then took my spot behind the wheel and pulled on my seatbelt.
“Eli, please answer. Do you need assistance?” Lizzie. Still worried.
I glanced out the windshield. The men had walked away—were already over by the entrance to the store, apparently unwilling to be shot by a skinny teenager. Excellent. I reached over to Asian Ninja and motioned for the radio. She handed it over.
“This is Eli,” I said into the radio. “Everything is fine. We’re coming back around. Hold tight.” I dropped the radio in my lap and turned hard right, making my U-Turn. I scanned the cab and saw the phone book on the floor. I slowed enough to crouch and throw it over the seat into the back. “Find me a hardware store, Logan. Now, please.”
“Hold on,” he said. Moping.
I drove back to the gas station and up beside the minivan. Lizzie was riding shotgun and she rolled down her window. “What was that?”
“Sorry,” I said. “Picked up a hitchhiker.” I pointed my thumb to Asian Ninja.
“Hi, I’m Lizzie!” my sister said.
“I’m Hannah,” Asian Ninja yelled past me. Hannah didn’t sound like an Asian name to me—or a Ninja name, for that matter.
“Ace Hardware is on 1763 East Butler Avenue,” Logan said.
I blew out a breath. “Is there a map?”
“A funny one.”
I reached over the seat. “Give it.”
“You don’t have to be so grouchy.” Logan passed the book to me.
I snatched it and looked at the map. “Nice. It’s right across the tracks.” I tossed the phone book back to Logan. “Follow me,” I yelled to Lizzie and pulled away, watching my rearview for any other vehicles, cowboys, or brown labs.
I whipped out onto Route 66 and about a half-mile later, took a right.
“Eli,” Logan said.
“Are you mad at me?”
“You could say that.”
“What’d I do?”
“You drove away from me when I asked you to wait.”
“I was giving you your Old West duel moment.”
I glanced at Hannah, who gave me the “is that guy for real?” look and said, “Are you out of your mind?”
“You’re all into that chivalry, code of honor stuff. I figured since that other guy beat you up and stole the truck, you needed a win.”
Of all the… “Logan, chivalry only works in a duel if both sides have the same code of honor. Those guys didn’t seem like the chivalrous type.”
“Definitely not,” Hannah said.
“I’m sorry,” Logan whispered.
Another deep, and I mean deeeeep, breath, and I was able to say, “I forgive you, man. It’s all good.” I took another right onto Butler, keeping a close eye in my rearview, hoping Zaq was doing the same. “Hannah,” I said, “I’m sorry about the Honda. Maybe we can go back for it later. Do you have the key?”
“Left it in the ignition.”
“Well, it might still be there.”
“I don’t want to be by myself.”
I couldn’t blame her. “We’re headed to Colorado. We think there might be safe water there.”
“What makes you think that?”
“We were there when the comet passed. And we’re alive, so we thought…” I shrugged.
Hannah’s eyes filled with tears. “Comet?”
“Comet Pulon,” Logan said over the seat. “It’s been in the news and everything.”
“Right. I think I remember something about that.”
“Are you from Flagstaff?” I asked.
She shook her head. “San Francisco.”
“Long way from home.”
A tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. It clung to the edge of her jawline, dangling. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“No problem. If you want to get back to San Fran, I’m hoping to gather some stuff at Ace that will help me get gas. I can fill the Honda—or another car—teach you how to do it. Gas stations are useless without power.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“Sure, but, uh… you really got to be careful. We came from Phoenix. The cities aren’t safe.”
“The whole place is on fire,” Logan said. “And people are killing each other for water.
“We didn’t actually see anyone kill anyone for water,” I said. “But that’s why I wanted to get us away from the metro areas, for a while, at least. My guess is that San Fran will be pretty bad too.”
Her brow wrinkled. “This water problem is nationwide?”
“Worldwide, from what I could gather.”
“Everyone is dead?”
“You just passed Ace,” Logan said.
I flipped a U-Turn in the road and drove into the parking lot. To my delight, all the front windows were intact. “Looks like no one’s gotten to Ace yet. It’s all ours.”
I drove around back to the loading dock. The garage-style door was open. I swung around and backed up to it. Zaq did the same, parking right beside me.
“Bat cave exit,” Logan said.
“Right you are, Logan.” If anything went wrong, I’d be able to shoot out of here without needing to back out or turn around. “Hannah.” I shrugged off my hoodie and passed it to her. “You want to come in?”
“Yeah, thanks.” She put on my sweatshirt and climbed out.
The moment she shut the door, Logan said, “I should have thought of that. Of giving her my shirt.”
“You’re only wearing a T-shirt. I have layers.”
“So? She’s gorgeous. How old do you think she is? It’s hard to tell sometimes with Asians.”
“I have no idea.” I got out, made quick introductions for Hannah and everyone else, then said, “Let’s go shopping.”
“I’ll just wait in the car,” Krista said. “I don’t like shopping at hardware stores.”
“No way,” I said. “If you’re coming with us, you’ve got to do you share. The stuff we get here is going to keep us alive. You need to know what that stuff is. Because if we get separated, you’re going to need to be able to find your own stuff.”
Krista rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She got out and slammed the door.
I led the way inside, feeling on edge. I didn’t like conflict, and there had been way too much of it today. But the smell of rubber and metal inside the store made me smile. Sporting goods stores were my favorite, but this was close enough.
“Lizzie, you, Krista, and Shyla, head over to Outdoor or Power Equipment or whatever and see if you can find a small generator. Get some extension cords too and some outdoor lights. Maybe a charcoal grill and some charcoal. If there’s any kind of camping dishes and flatware and cups. Be smart. Think small. Zaq, you and Logan and Davis go to tools and get whatever you think we’ll need. Jaylee and Hannah, you can come with me and help me find some other stuff.”
“What stuff?” Jaylee asked.
“I’ll know it when I see it.”
“Well, you don’t need two people to help you think. I’ll go with Lizzie.”
“No,” Zaq said, “You go with Eli. He’s in charge.”
“It’s fine,” I said, not liking the attention of everyone staring at me. “She can go with Lizzie. Get carts, everyone, and fill ’em up.” I grabbed a cart and headed for the Hardware department, stung that Jaylee didn’t want to come with me. I hadn’t tried to put her in my group on purpose. I just knew that Lizzie would have been good at knowing what we’d need for cooking and figured Krista could help and I didn’t want to separate Shyla from her… Whatever.
Wheels rolled over the tile floor behind me, and I turned and saw Hannah right on my heels. “We got to get you some shoes,” I said, looking down at her bare feet.
She smiled. “I’m sure I’ll find some soon.” She reached past my arm and pulled several packs of batteries off an impulse display. She raised her eyebrows. “Yes?”
I nodded and stepped back so she could drop them in my cart. We found four large gas cans, a half-dozen shaker syphons and some hand pump syphons. I took them all. I figured they were going to be one of our most valuable commodities.
“So,” I said, “are you in college?”
“I’m in my second year of med school.”
“Really.” Med student. I bet she knew way more first aid that Zaq the lifeguard. “So that makes you… twenty-two?”
“Twenty. I graduated high school at fifteen. Did college in three years.”
Dang. “Well, Zaq will be thrilled. He’s a lifeguard and the closest thing we had to a doctor until now.”
“I don’t know that I’ll stay with you guys.”
“Right. I know. I just mean… Hey, matches. We should take all of them.”
Hannah and I gathered the matches. We also found flashlights, three big tents, two easy ups, eight sleeping bags, a half-dozen tarps, a bunch of fleece pullovers, rain gear, some fishing poles and hooks—though I wasn’t certain we could eat fish if they lived in poisoned water—canteens, a few camping chairs, a variety of knives, a couple axes, a small chainsaw… and that’s where we ran into Zaq and Logan at the gun counter.
“Guns in an Ace Hardware store?” I said.
“If they’re independently owned, they can stock what they want,” Logan said.
I rubbed my forehead, not liking the gleam in Logan’s eyes as he drooled over the rifles. “Well, let’s get all the shells they have for Dad’s 30.06. Ooh, crossbows might be handy. But I don’t think it’s a good idea for us all to have a gun. We need to do a gun training first, or something.”
“Yeah, I’m with you on that, man,” Zaq said. “But we might not have another chance at weapons like this.”
He was right. “Okay, grab the smallest gun safe they have and we’ll fill it up, but it stays locked and I keep the key. Once we settle somewhere, I’ll make sure everyone learns how to hunt their dinner.”
“Eat meat?” Hannah said.
“Sure, if you want to live. Canned food is only going to last so long.”
“It’s really that bad?”
“It’s the apocalypse, baby,” Logan said.
“Logan, come on.” I gave him a look that meant “shut up,” and sent him to find some rope and twine.
Once he was gone, Zaq and I packed a gun safe with weapons and ammo. By the time we had everything loaded in the back of the truck, it was dark. We didn’t have much space left for food and water, but there was always the cab or the back row of the minivan. We had enough seats to fill some with supplies, unless I kept picking up strays.
“We should sleep here,” I said. “Get up early and hit a grocery store, before the town wakes up.”
Apparently, no one had any better ideas, so we rolled out some more sleeping bags and had a dinner of beef jerky, candy bars, chips, and soda courtesy of the checkout aisle. I hadn’t realized how hungry I’d been until I ate my third Snickers bar.
“We should pack up this candy,” Logan said.
“We should see if they have any power bars,” Zaq said.
But no one went anywhere. I had a feeling we were all too tired to move.
“Lizzie, didn’t you have some paper?” I asked. “We need to make a list.”
“Sure.” She reached for her duffle bag and pulled out a notebook. I was glad she’d had her bag with her in the van. At least her stuff hadn’t been stolen.
“The way I see it is,” I said, “we’ll continue to have plenty of food as long as we can scavenge nonperishables from stores or homes. It might be a good idea to see if we can figure out where some food production plants are. There’s probably none in Arizona, though, but if there are, we could stock up on canned goods.”
“Or chips,” Zaq said, crunching down on a Dorito.
“We can’t live off chips for the rest of our lives,” I said.
“Heck yes, we can!” Zaq said. “Chips are awesome!”
“So as we go through whatever store we end up in tomorrow, check the canned good labels for addresses. We should also raid the seed row before we leave. We’ll need to start planting our own stuff.”
“I’m sure the country will bounce back,” Jaylee said, “once the government figures things out.”
I had a feeling there was no government left. “But if they don’t, we need to be ready. Seeds. Lizzie, write it down.”
“Yes, King Eli.”
It was then that I realized that I had totally taken charge. I hadn’t meant to. I hadn’t even wanted to. Zaq was supposed to be the leader. “Look, does anyone have a problem with me making plans? I mean, I don’t have to. Zaq should probably—”
“Dude, you da man, boss,” Zaq said. “I’d die without you.”
“Yeah, Eli,” Logan said. “You complete me.”
I rolled my eyes. “All joking aside, guys. You want me to do this?”
“You’re obviously the smartest one here,” Hannah said. “About staying alive, anyway. You probably can’t name all the parts of the musculoskeletal system or tell me the Kreb’s cycle, so… If any of you get hurt, I’ll do my best to help you live, but that’s where my survival skills end.”
“It’s not that difficult,” Jaylee said. “I mean, we just camped in the woods for two weeks. I think we all know what to do.”
“Yet when you had the chance to gather supplies at Target, you chose nothing but makeup,” Lizzie said.
“Why do we need a leader, anyway?” Jaylee asked. “Let’s just each do our own thing and contribute when we feel like it.”
Zaq snorted. “Yeah, we need someone to make sure that everyone contributes or some of you never will.”
“Fine.” Jaylee shrugged one shoulder and looked at me. “Do I call you Mr. President?”
“No,” I said. “Everyone calls me Eli. And I need help, okay? I’m just making this up as I go, so…”
“It’s settled then,” Zaq said. “Eli’s in charge. And I’m his enforcer. Capiche?”
“Great,” Jaylee said, rolling her eyes. “I’m going to bed.”
And eventually, we all followed suit.
I slept hard, but woke when I heard a noise. Dawn had started to creep in the windows at the front of the store. I could see forms around me, dead to the world. I lay there listening to Logan snore, straining to hear another sound, wondering if it had been anything to worry about, hoping no one was out front, thinking about breaking a window.
Then someone giggled. A low voice answered. I sat up, scanning the dark forms around me to see who was missing. It was impossible to tell.
I thought about flipping on my flashlight, but that would give me away, so I got up and inched slowly toward the voices. As I went, my eyes adjusted to the low light. I looked back at the cluster of sleeping bags and counted six bags, including mine.
Two were missing.
I quickened my steps and followed the sound of the whispers to the customer service counter, which was a square booth with chest-high counters on all four sides.
A girly moan sent a prickle up my spine. Oh man. I should go back to bed. I didn’t need to see whatever was happening here. Yet I stepped up to the counter and peeked over.
A guy was sitting on the floor, his back against the inside counter, his legs lost in a sleeping bag, his hands gripping the back of the girl who was straddling him. They were clothed but… yeah. It looked like they were trying to eat each other’s faces.
Betrayal filled me with hot anger. Logan was still snoring, so this had to be Zaq. And I somehow knew he was with Jaylee. He’d told me that she’d hit on him a month or so ago. Said he’d turned her down. Said she wasn’t his type. Yet here he was going behind my back.
I guess the end of the world changes things.
END OF CHAPTER
Gah! Is Jaylee kissing Zaq? What do you think?