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.
Is Jaylee kissing Zaq?
If I was going to be the leader, I couldn’t freak out like some middle schooler because Jaylee had picked Zaq. I had to be a man about this. Deal with it. Move on.
Be cool, McShane.
I was debating whether to walk away or say something scathing when Zaq’s hand slid down to the girl’s waist, revealing the number 14 on the back of her shirt.
“Lizzie?” Jealousy morphed into shock. “What the Hades?”
Lizzie yelped, slid off Zaq’s lap, and clapped her hand to her chest. Zaq lifted his arms, as if this was a stick-up and I was the sheriff. He clunked his head back against the counter and closed his eyes.
“Yeah,” I said. “Caught you.” I slapped both hands on the counter and walked away. I felt stupid for thinking that Zaq would have gone after Jaylee, for suspecting him of something so low, but… my sister?
Dude. That wasn’t much better.
“Eli,” Zaq called after me.
I didn’t want to hear it. I walked back to the cluster of sleeping bags and yelled, “Rooster call! Time to go, Pumbaas. Up and at ’em.”
I had Logan look up Sparklets up in the phone book, but when I drove by, the lights were on inside. Looked like someone had already claimed that building. I’d passed a Walgreens on the way, so I doubled back and parked at the loading dock. It was just after 5:30 a.m. as we piled stuff into carts. They only had three rows with food, but I felt safer here than at a big grocery store. I prayed no one would come by and challenge us.
“General Mills is out of Minneapolis,” Lizzie said, looking at the side of a box of Cocoa Puffs. She grabbed a box of Frosted Flakes. “And Kellog’s distribution is in Michigan.” She picked up two cans of food out of her cart. “Campbells is in New Jersey. Rosarita Beans—”
“Dude! I love refried beans!” Zaq said.
“ConAgra Foods. Omaha, NE.”
Zaq took the beans from her and looked for himself. “Aw, man!”
“Kraft is Illinois,” Logan said.
“Sweet peas are from Marion, NY,” Davis said.
Hannah held up a can of tuna. “Chicken of the sea, San Diego!”
“That’s because it’s imported from Thailand,” Logan said.
“Ewww,” Lizzie said.
“Why is that eww?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’s just weird to think that my tuna salad sandwich came all the way from Thailand. That’s all.”
“Spaghetti sauce. Also Conagra foods in Nebraska.”
“Gunslinger Hot Sauce! Mesa, AZ.”
“I’m not wasting gas to stock up on hot sauce.”
“Dude! The west coast sucks!”
“So all our food came from the east coast? In semi-trucks?”
“That or by train,” Logan said.
“There has never been a lot of water in the southwest. Can’t grow food without water.” Logan said.
Lizzie held up a beef stick. “Hickory Farms, Ohio.”
“Gimme that, babe. I need that!” Zaq grabbed my sister, who held the beef stick behind her back, giggling while Zaq practically frisked her.
To which I thought, Ewww.
“Hamburger Helper, General Mills, Minneapolis, Minneso—”
I threw a pack of spaghetti powder at Logan. “We don’t have any hamburger, moron.”
Zaq snatched the box from Logan. “We don’t need no burger, Clark. This stuff does just fine by itself.”
“I love those movies,” Logan said.
“Movies!” Jaylee yelled. “There aren’t going to be any new movies, is there? You think Hollywood is dead?”
“Can we focus here?” I said, wanting to get moving. I didn’t like spending a long time in a store, and the sky outside was already starting to brighten. “Forget the Hamburger Helper, Logan. We don’t want anything that needs lots of water to prepare it. Get some plastic tubs from the home aisle and fill them with canned goods, tuna and canned meat, fruits and veggies, but not condensed soups, no noodles, no bread or baked goods. Get crackers, breakfast cereals and bars, things that won’t spoil. Packages of cookies and candy is okay, but only if we have room.” I paced at the front of the store, ideas churning now. “Also, let’s take all the baby wipes we can find—and those bleach wipes for cleaning.”
“What about hand sanitizer?” Jaylee asked.
“If you want. I’ve never liked it, but it’s probably better than nothing.”
“Think I can wash my hair with it?” Jaylee asked.
Was she serious? “I don’t think so.”
“We should all shave our heads,” Logan said. “We’re going to get lice if we can’t bathe.”
“I am not shaving my head!” Lizzie said.
“I might,” Jaylee said. “I’d be like Furiosa in Mad Max.”
Please no. “Also look for matches, lighters, stuff that’s useful,” I said, trying to keep people focused. “Use your head and you’ll know it when you see it.”
Hannah was staring at me.
“You are so smart.”
Heat rushed to my face as her compliment washed over me. I had to fight the urge to smile. “I want to leave in thirty minutes, so let’s go!”
Ten minutes later I heard girls yelling. I found them on the shaving aisle of all places. “What’s the problem?”
“Jaylee is filling her storage tub with shaving cream,” Lizzie said.
“We’re not taking shaving cream,” I said.
“What?” Jaylee said. “You can’t stop me from shaving my legs.”
“Jaylee,” I said, really not wanting her to be mad at me, “water is scarce and we have limited space. Why don’t you take one can for now, and once we’re settled you can find more. Is that cool?”
“Fine.” She dumped her storage tub and cans of Gillette went rolling everywhere.
That was my cue to leave, so I went to the loading dock and put myself in charge of repacking the vehicles. The water went in first. Thankfully there was a ton of it. Bottles and jugs—enough to last a few months, at least. I managed to get everything in the back of the truck and the entire back seat of the van. That left five seats free in the van and the whole extended cab of the truck open. We had plenty of room, as long as I didn’t pick up any more strays.
All we were really missing was clothes. Hannah found some cheap shoes, and there were Flagstaff T-shirts and sweatshirts, but this did not satisfy the girls. I promised them we’d go shopping again once we reached Reinhold’s place.
“It’s only five and a half hours,” I said. “We’ll be there before dinnertime.”
But would Reinhold be?
I told everyone to take one last bathroom break and went out and syphoned gas with my new shake syphon and gas cans. Once both vehicles were full and the gas cans re-filled and loaded into the back of the truck, I locked it up and climbed into the cab.
I was surprised to see Hannah sitting shotgun.
“Hey,” I said.
She had her feet up on the dashboard and her hands resting on her knees. She had a fancy manicure job with the glossy with white tips and that ring with the massive diamond gleamed at me. I wanted to ask about her husband or fiancé or whatever, but I didn’t want to risk making her cry.
“They’re fighting over who gets to sit where,” she said. “Lizzie is riding with Zaq, and Jaylee wants to ride with Lizzie but doesn’t want to ride with Logan. But Logan wants to talk to Zaq and said he was there first. Krista says she’s sick of the kids and wants to ride in the van and have the kids ride over here…” She sighed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been around teenage drama.”
“Sorry,” I said, wincing. “I’d rather not be around it myself. But I’ll tell you right now, Jaylee will win and Logan will be riding with us.”
“Jaylee always wins?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Not with the shaving cream, though.”
Oh. Right. “I guess.”
She smiled and her eyes shifted as they studied my face. “How old are you, Eli?”
Her question made me nervous, though I had no idea why. “Seventeen.”
“When is your birthday?”
“So you’re closer to sixteen than to eighteen.”
“Yep. You joined up with a band of teenage crazies. Sorry ’bout that.”
“You act older than most seventeen-year-old boys.”
The back door on my side opened and Davis climbed up. “Krista said you wanted us to ride with you.”
“I sure did,” I said, wondering who would parent these two kids since Krista didn’t seem to want the job.
“I like the new truck,” Davis said from behind me. “It feels bigger in here than in the van.”
“Not much room in there with all the egos,” I mumbled.
“Waffles?” Davis asked.
Shyla climbed in beside her brother, and Logan got in behind Hannah.
“I’ve decided to ride in the truck,” Logan said.
“Sweet. We’re glad to have you.” I grinned at Hannah. “Let’s roll!”
“Can you plug this in to the cigarette lighter?” Logan asked, tossing a cord over the seat.
“What is it?” I asked, starting the truck.
“It’s a charger for my DS. Zaq gave me his so me and Davis can play Zombies Kings.”
“Have at it.”
I pulled out of Ace and headed north on Butler. I turned left onto Ponderosa Parkway and drove north out of Flagstaff. Hannah fiddled with the radio. There were a few stations still broadcasting, but we didn’t hear any announcers. I wondered if there was still power in some cities. I bet Hannah wondered about San Francisco.
“Are you sure you want to come with us?” I asked her. “If I didn’t know what had happened to my mom, I don’t think I would have wanted to leave the city.”
“I called the house and nobody answered,” she said. “I called Dad’s office. I called their neighbors. I called the country club. I called my friends.” She shook her head. “No one answered anywhere. And from what happened to me in that dinky little Flagstaff town… there’s no way I’m going to San Francisco. It would be suicide.”
I didn’t doubt it.
I merged onto the 89 north, leaving Route 66 behind me forever. It felt weird, riding with a strange girl in front. I felt like I should talk to her, but all I could think to ask was, “So what kind of doctor were you studying to be?”
“General practitioner. I wanted to work abroad.”
“I went on a few internships to Guatemala with Doctors Without Borders. I was only an office assistant, but I learned so much. Stuff I would never have been able to see or do in the US. It’s so poor there. Children are malnourished and abused. There’s a lot of street gangs. A lot of rape. It’s horrifying. I was considering changing my major to OBGYN so I could go back and help.”
Wow. She was quite the humanitarian. Our youth group took a yearly trip to Mexicali to run vacation bible school. I’d gone three years running, but it seemed kind of small compared to all that. I mean, we just hung out with kids.
“What about you?” Hannah asked. “Did you have any college plans?”
“Yeah. I don’t know. My dad owns his own shop and I like working on cars. And owning your own business gives you a lot of freedom. I never saw any reason to put myself into debt for a degree I’d never use.”
“So you were going to work with your dad?”
“Maybe. I actually wanted to start my own business being an outdoor guide. Hiking, backpacking, river rafting, hunting. What you’ll see up in Colorado, the place we’re going. That would’ve been my dream job.”
“I’m going to design video games,” Logan said. “I’m a decent artist, and I excel at problem solving and love algorithms and programming. I’m going to go to MIT or Berkley for software engineering technology. Maybe Oregon Institute of Technology. I’ve been working on designing my own game. It’s tedious, but could sit there all day. Have you ever played Zombies Kings, Hannah?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“You want to play? It’s fun.”
Logan’s verbage gave me pause. As if his college plans were still a go, as if we were all going to wake up tomorrow and find the world was back to normal. Logan in denial. That was new.
“I want to be a rock star,” Shyla said. “I want to be beautiful like Taylor Swift and play the guitar and wear ball gowns in my music videos.”
“You don’t look anything like Taylor Swift,” Logan said.
“Hey, now,” Hannah said, glaring back at Logan.
What an idiot. I glanced at Shyla in the rearview. She was frowning at her lap. “Which totally doesn’t matter, Shy, because you’re already gorgeous,” I said.
I kept glancing back, and she didn’t look up, but I could see her lips twist into a smile.
“I was thinking about this pandemic, Eli,” Logan said, as if he hadn’t just insulted a little girl. “Maybe the water problem wasn’t caused by the comet so much as the comet affected certain aquifers. Maybe it only affected metropolitan communities. Because think about it. Groundwater is depleted from aquifers by over pumping or drought. And Florida has a serious problem with aquifer depletion because they overuse their freshwater supply, then salt water seeps in and contaminates everything. And Florida is where this all started in the US. And once people were infected, it spread across the country quickly.”
Sometimes Logan made my head hurt. “What about the comet, then?”
“Conspiracy. The government refusing to deal with the water problems, blames the comet.”
“Logan, that makes no sense what-so—”
“Why don’t you show me that video game, Logan,” Hannah said.
“Sure!” Logan thrust his arm over the seat and Hannah took the DS.
And Hannah suddenly became one of my favorite people on the planet. She allowed Logan to instruct her on the Zombie Kings game for the next hour while Davis and Shyla took turns on Zaq’s DS.
Two and a half hours later we approached the turn off to Kayenta, Arizona. We passed the Hampton Inn, and I thought how it might be nice to take over a hotel. Think of the people that could be housed in a hotel like that. It probably had over a hundred rooms. And there’d be a kitchen on the ground floor.
“The King!” Logan moaned as we passed by Burger King.
“Can we stop at McDonalds?” Shyla asked.
“Sorry, Shy. It’s not open,” I said.
“Look out!” Hannah yelled, grabbing the dashboard with her right hand.
Which just about gave me a heart attack. I looked back at the road and saw a child standing in my lane, just past the driveway of a Holiday Inn and Chevron that shared a parking lot. I clutched the wheel with both hands and slammed on the breaks, but the kid just stood there, didn’t even flinch.
I pulled into the driveway and stopped, rolled down my window. It was a little Native American girl. She was shirtless, had long black hair, and looked to be about six years old.
“Hey, there,” I said. “You lost?” I imagined that the kid had been given the Stranger Danger talk at whatever school she’d attended and I doubted she’d say anything.
“Mommy didn’t wake up.”
I put the truck in park and got out, walked up to the kid and squatted in front of her. Looked her over. She was barefoot, wearing only a pair of dingy blue jeans that were frayed at the hem. Her mouth and cheeks were smudged in brown.
“What you been eating?”
“What’s your name?”
“Can you show me your mom, Cree?” I had no desire to see any more dead people, but I wasn’t loading up this girl without making sure she was truly alone.
The girl took off toward the Holiday Inn, her bare feet slapping the pavement. I jumped in the truck.
“What are we doing?” Hannah asked.
“The kid is showing me her mom.”
“You think that’s a good idea, Eli?” Logan asked.
“Not really, but I’m not kidnaping any more kids.” I shot Shyla a look in the rearview and put the truck in drive.
“You kidnapped these kids?” Hannah asked as I followed Cree across the spacious lot.
“Not exactly. Well… technically. I’ll explain when I get back.” I parked under the extended roof in the drop off zone. The main building was beige with dark green trim, squat-looking, like a Flinstone’s house. The next building over was a two-story strip of hotel rooms with entrances on the outside. Classy joint.
I grabbed my dad’s rifle and climbed out. “Everyone stay in here,” I said through the open door. “I’m just going to go check it out, but we can’t afford to have anyone steal our rig. So, Hannah, why don’t you sit in the driver’s seat just in case you need to ditch me.”
“Oh-kay.” She started to slide across the seat.
“We’re not ditching you,” Logan said.
I shut the door and hit the auto locks.
“What’s the dealy-o?” Zaq asked out the driver’s side window of the van.
“Kid said her mom didn’t wake up. I’m going to go in and see if she’s is all alone. Wait here.”
“Eli, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Zaq said.
But I was already walking away. Cree was waiting in front of a set of double glass doors. When I was about three steps away, she pulled open the door and held it for me. I ducked past her and into the lobby. The walls were beige brick, covered with Native paintings and artifacts. It was darkish inside. No power here, but the wall of windows on the entrance gave enough light to see by. I followed Cree over a dark brown stone floor, past some gaudy furniture on a red and navy native rug. One of the couches had no cushions. We walked past a little dining area with white chairs and plastic plants, then down a dark hallway. The girl became a black shadow before me. She pushed inside two double doors that swung both ways. A kitchen.
The smell about knocked me flat. I gagged clapped my free hand over my nose. Hades, it was awful! And I couldn’t see squat.
Cree’s voice flitted out from the darkness. “Come to help Mommy?”
“I can’t see. Do you have any lights?”
“Broken lights,” Cree said.
Yeah, no kidding. “I’ll be right back.” I fled out the double doors, down the hallway, and back through the lobby. Out the front doors and the fresh air was mercy to my nostrils.
“What happened?” Zaq asked.
“Can’t see. It smells bad, though.”
“Like sickness?” Zaq asked. “Like my house?”
“Yeah. I was going to get a flashlight.”
“You sure you want to see that, man?”
“No, but… What are we supposed to do about the little girl?”
The sliding door on the driver’s side opened, and Jaylee glared at me. “You’re supposed to leave her, Eli. You can’t rescue everyone you see. I know you’re trying to be a hero, but you’re going to kill us in the process.”
“Kill you how?”
“There could be people with guns in there who want to steal our stuff.”
“There’s dead people in there,” I said.
“Then how do you know she’s not infected?” Jaylee asked.
“She’s not infected,” I said.
“But how do you know?”
“She’s not,” Lizzie said, leaning over Zaq’s lap. “While you all were camping, I saw what infected people looked like, and she looks fine.”
“That Hannah girl is a doctor,” Jaylee said. “She should go check.”
“Check what?” Hannah asked out the open window of the truck.
“Go inside with Eli and see if that little girl is sick before Eli gets himself infected and kills us all.”
“Jaylee, I’m not going to get infected. This is a waterborne bacteria.”
“I’ll go in with you,” Hannah said.
I shook my head. “You don’t have to. It smells bad in there.”
But Hannah was already climbing out of the truck. I was just about to ask Lizzie to get in the driver’s seat when Hannah put the keys in my hand. “In case Logan gets an urge to drive,” she whispered.
I opened the back of the truck and dug out two flashlights. “Logan says he can hotwire any vehicle.” I handed Hannah a flashlight and closed up the back of the truck.
“Logan thinks pretty highly of himself, doesn’t he?” she asked.
I headed for the entrance again, this time with Hannah beside me. “Well, his dad is a real piece of work. Being a bit messed up runs in their family. Actually, it practically sprints.”
The door swung out just before we reached it. Again, Cree held it open, a self-made doorstop with her back against the door.
I flicked on my flashlight and wiggled the beam over her bare feet. “Working light,” I said.
Cree ran ahead.
“Wow,” Hannah said. “This is…classy.”
“You stay in a lot of hotels like this?” I asked.
“I’ve only ever stayed in hotel penthouses. My dad is really picky. Was. I wish I knew.”
I didn’t answer. I was still holding out hope that we would run across my dad alive and well before we reached the Colorado border.
I stopped outside the double doors, already sick with the faint smell of what was inside. I pulled my T-shirt up over my nose and mouth and followed Cree inside.
END OF CHAPTER
What did Eli and Hannah find in the hotel kitchen?