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 Riggs really in town? And if so, what might that mean for Eli and his new girlfriend?
“We don’t know for sure that Riggs is here,” I said. “Someone might have the same car.”
Jaylee points to the pewter skull hanging from rearview mirror.
Well, nuts. “Someone might have stolen his car.”
“Eli! Why would you think such horrible things about Riggs?”
Because I’m a horrible person, apparently. I just looked at her, unable to form any words that might make me look better.
Dad and Reinhold kept walking, so I did too.
“You guys are just going to leave?” Jaylee called after us. “Can’t we wait and see if he shows up?”
“It’s late,” Dad said. “And we should get these little ones in bed.”
Good point, Dad! I turned around but kept walking backwards. “Plus if he’s here, we’ll run into him eventually.” Then I turned back and jogged to catch up with the others.
Unfortunately Jaylee didn’t come with. At the end of the block, I looked back and saw that she and Krista had climbed up on top of the roof of the Evoque. I hadn’t even realized Krista had stayed behind.
“What are you guys doing?” I yelled.
“We’re going to wait,” Jaylee yelled. “We’ll catch up with you guys at the condo.”
Her words made my chest tight. “Dad?” I asked, trying to look like I didn’t care. “We shouldn’t just leave them, should we?”
“We’re not their parents, Eli,” Dad said. “I’ve already given it to you guys straight. You’re all adults now. You’ve got to make your own choices. I can’t help it if the girls would rather test fate than play it smart.”
So we left them there. It was so hard for me to just walk away like I didn’t care, because I really did. But I wasn’t going to go back and sit on Riggs’s Evoque, either.
We reached the vehicles, and I climbed into my truck. We’d only brought three vehicles this time—left the van back at the condo—but no one got in my truck but me. Whatever. I didn’t need friends. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay in this place. It felt so weird, to have concerts and dance around like this was some kind if party. I get that people are sad and could use cheering up, but the way the Champions talked, it was like they were living in a dream world, pretending nothing bad had happened. And that just felt wrong to me. Because bad stuff happened. And I wasn’t about to forget it.
I started my truck and waited for Dad to pull out. The passenger’s door opened and Hannah climbed in.
“Hey,” she said, pulling the door shut behind her. “Mind if I ride with you? Logan is attempting to rap the lyrics to Bon Bon Breakfast. It’s just a little much for me right now.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, Logan can be a little much sometimes.”
Dad’s truck pulled out into the road, so I did too. In my rearview, I saw Reinhold follow me.
“So you like Jaylee, huh?” Hannah asked.
Wow. Nosy much? I glanced at her but didn’t say anything.
“I thought I had you all figured out, but I didn’t see that one coming.”
She shrugged. “What do you like about her?”
The question took me back in time and I smiled. “Everything.”
“Really? You can’t give me one specific thing?”
“Uh, she’s gorgeous.”
Hannah rolled her eyes. “I didn’t peg you as the shallow type, Eli.”
“I’m not shallow.”
“So tell me what you like about her beyond the physical.”
“Why? Why do you care?”
“Just answer the question.”
“I don’t know, I’ve just liked her forever. Since the fifth grade. She’s always been so confident and strong and fun to be around. Her whole demeanor sometimes blows me away. I wish I could be so confident.”
“Okay, I can see that. That’s a much better reason that her being gorgeous. But what else? What do you have in common?”
“What is this? You think I need a shrink or something? Is the idea of me and Jaylee that far-fetched?”
“Yes, actually, but not the way you’re thinking. I don’t think she deserves someone like you. You’re smart. She’s not. I just want to get inside your head, understand your choice.”
It was like she’d complimented me and insulted me at the same time. I stopped behind Dad, waited for him to turn, then rolled up to the stop sign, looked both ways, and followed. I didn’t disagree. Jaylee was smarter than most people gave her credit for, but that was all an act she put on to mess with people.
“Since when does love make sense,” I said.
“You love her? Why? You guys have nothing in common that I can see. Nothing. Is there a past friendship that I don’t know about here? Did you guys used to build treehouses in the woods as kids or something?”
“No. Why are you doing this?”
“You remember me telling you about Shen, right?”
That ticked me off. “I’m not rebelling against my dad.”
“It’s not always about rebelling. Sometimes it’s just an illogical obsession.”
I couldn’t believe Hannah was lecturing me. “Jaylee is not an obsession.” Which was a lie. I’d been obsessed with her since fifth grade. I’d just admitted as much.
“I just don’t want to see you get hurt, Eli, and she looks like the type who wounds sweet guys like you. But I guess getting hurt is how people learn, so maybe it needs to happen.”
How people learn? “Ouch.”
“Sorry. That sounded mean. I don’t mean to be a jerk.”
“Yeah, well, you failed. You might think we’re totally wrong for each other, but I say opposites attract. You don’t even know Jaylee. She needs stability in her life. I can be that for her. I won’t give up on her.”
“That’s my point, Eli. I know you won’t give up.”
I wanted to yell at her. To tell her where she could take her opinions of my love life and what she could do with them. I mean, who asked her, anyway?
But we’d reached the condos, so I just parked the truck and got out, leaving her behind. I checked my watch. It was ten thirty. I sighed, wondering how long it would take Jaylee and Krista to get back here and trying to decide what to do with myself while I waited.
I was sitting on a bench outside the Snowcrest, watching the road when I heard Jaylee’s giggle. I jumped to my feet and scanned the darkness until I saw them, cutting across the parking lot from the restaurants.
Anger and relief warred in my chest. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to yell.
I checked my watch. One forty-five.
Krista saw me first and elbowed Jaylee, who looked up and gasped.
“Eli!” She jogged over to me and gave me a childish hug, patting my back softly like she was trying to be cute.
I played the role of tree and didn’t move.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked.
“Waiting for you. An hour ago I drove back up the hill. The Evoque was still there, empty. No sign of you guys. So I came back here.”
“Oh, Eli…” Jaylee’s bottom lip poked out and she batted her eyes. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I was worried.”
“We we’re fine. Riggs never showed, so we started walking back. And we met some people and hung out with them awhile at the Brown Lab Pub.” She bobbed up and kissed me. Her breath stank of alcohol and cigarettes.
I didn’t know Jaylee smoked.
“Don’t they card at these restaurants?” I asked.
“Not here,” Krista said.
“Not anymore, anyway,” Jaylee added. “The Champions changed the legal drinking age to sixteen.”
“What!” I said. “They made us sign a contract that said we’d adhere to the laws of America. They can’t just go changing the laws.”
“Teens who want to drink always found a way,” Krista said. “The new law will keep them from doing in secret and making more trouble.”
“The legal drinking age of twenty-one has to do with maturity,” I said. “Letting teens drink in public doesn’t change the fact that most of them are irresponsi—”
“Yo!” someone yelled. “Yo, Lime-a-Rita!”
Jaylee spun around and waved to a group of guys who looked to be in their early twenties. “Hi!” she yelled, then softer asked Krista, “That guy with the gauges, what did he drink?”
“Right.” She waved again. “Hi, Bourbon!” Then blew him a kiss and laughed.
That was it for me. I’d reached my limit. I walked past Krista to the entrance to the Snowcrest.
She rolled her eyes. “You’re such an old man, Eli.”
I pulled open the door to the lobby. “Yeah, well, I doubt Mr. Bourbon would have saved you from those creeps in Phoenix,” I said.
Jaylee just stood there, looking from me to Krista.
“Let’s go talk to them,” Krista said. “Real quick. Just to say goodnight and tell them where we live.”
“Wait here one minute?” Jaylee asked me, wincing. “We’ll come right back.”
I didn’t wait. I went inside, heard the door whoosh shut behind me, walked up the stairs slowly, straining to hear if anyone was following me.
Please let her follow.
I made it to the second floor before I heard the door open and footsteps running up the stairs. I paused on the landing between the second and third floors, and glanced back. Jaylee had caught up. She took hold of my arm with both hands, hugged it. “Why didn’t you wait?”
“I’ve been waiting for three hours!”
“I thought something had happened to you. But you were just off drinking with some random guys, who are way too old for you.”
Her eyes lit up. “You’re jealous!”
I pulled away and stomped up last flight of stairs.
Jaylee chased after me. She got in my way and pushed me toward the wall opposite the stairs. She set both hands against my chest and whispered, “Don’t be jealous.” Then she kissed me.
It was a good kiss too. She was really putting a lot of effort into trying to make it up to me, and while I tried to enjoy the moment, all I could think of was Hannah’s warning that this would never work out.
I woke up early. I have an internal alarm that rarely lets me sleep in. So even though I was tired from staying up so late, I was up by eight, roaming around the condo, bored out of my mind. Dad, Reinhold, Logan, and Kimama were up too. We decided to hike up the mountain and see if we could find access to the creek outside of the Champions’ property. I asked Zaq if he wanted to go, but he said he’d rather sleep. When I came back out, Lizzie had come over in her PJs to see why Kimama had never come back. When Lizzie heard where we were going, she begged us to wait for her. She’d just ran back to her condo to change when Zaq came out into the living room. He was wearing a pair of sweatpants and no shirt, his arms crossed over his muscular. swim-team chest, like hugging himself was a better way to warm up than putting on a shirt. His hair was sticking up, and he had pillow creases on his cheek.
“Did I hear Lizzie?” he asked sleepily.
“She going to come with us,” I said.
He perked up. “Then I’m coming too.” And he shot back into the bedroom.
My best friend would rather hang out with my sister than me, and my girlfriend would rather party with strangers. Welcome to my life.
“I’m going to go wait outside,” I told my dad. “See you down there.”
The cool summer air felt good in my lungs. It was quiet out this early. I wondered how many survivors had partied late into the night. How was I going to build a future in a place like this? Were there any families with kids around? Was there a tame side of town?
Maybe I was an old man, like Krista said. Was that so bad? I had a lot of people depending on me to make good choices. Could Cree and Shyla and Davis grow up normal with Loca and Liberté Champion as their commanders in chief?
When the group came outside, I was annoyed to see Hannah with them. I walked between my dad and Reinhold and tried to keep my distance. I’m sure she knew how late Jaylee and Krista came in last night, and I didn’t want any more lectures from her. I really didn’t need to worry because Logan was following her like a hound dog. It rather pleased me that she couldn’t escape from him this time by trying to hide in my truck.
I caught my dad eyeballing Zaq and Lizzie, who were holding hands. I wondered if he’d given them his peer lecture on being adults in this new world and making their own choices.
Somehow I doubted it. I figured a father-son relationship was a little different from a daddy-daughter one, but I also didn’t doubt that Zaq one of the only people on the planet that my dad might approve of for his only girl.
We walked over to the ski resort and began our hike at the bottom of the main ski lift near the Grand Lodge. A short hike up the grassy ski and snowboarding slope and across the mountain bike trail we came to a dusty service road. We followed it for a while, short cut a few steep slopes, but they tired us out quickly and we decided to keep to the road, which ran along the south side of the mountain. There were beautiful purple wildflowers all over the place. It crossed my mind to pick some for Jaylee, but she’d probably think it was dumb.
The road switched back to the north, but Dad continued on a narrow trail to the south that forced us to walk single file, putting Kimama right behind me. She’d been having a conversation with Hannah and Logan about last night’s concert, and now I could hear everything they said.
“It didn’t sound like music to me,” Kimama said. “Just noise.”
“People like that,” Hannah said. “Techno is fun to dance to.”
“Did you know there are different types of techno music?” Logan asked. “There’s hardstyle, jumpstyle, breakbeat, rave, electrohop…”
“You white people,” Kimama said. “You’re all so eager to conform.”
“I’m Asian,” Hannah said. “My parents are Chinese.”
“Do you speak Chinese?” Kimama asked.
“Not really,” Hannah said. “I know a few words.”
“…electronica, trance, club, drum and bass, ambient, speedcore…”
“I am proud of my Ute heritage,” Kimama said. “I can speak Ute too.”
“But your dad is white. Are you proud of your white heritage too?”
That shut Kimama up for a bit, and I couldn’t help but smile.
“Did you know that every race on earth stemmed from one of Noah’s three sons?” Logan asked. “Some anthropologists believe that the Chinese people were the descendants of Ham.”
My smile grew.
Hannah went on, “I think it’s great that you want to maintain your identity in your Ute culture. Do it. But I don’t think it’s right for you to worry about what everyone else is doing or not doing. You live the way you want to live and teach your customs to your children someday. But I’m not wrong to consider myself an American with an American heritage. And my parents weren’t wrong to raise me how they thought was best. Sure, I might not speak fluent Chinese or know much about China, but my parents gave me an education and helped me become a doctor. And that’s not nothing. I’m thankful for it.”
“If you lived in harmony with your family, that is success,” Kimama said.
A moment of silence passed but for our steps crunching through the forest grass and leaves, then Hannah said, “Thank you.”
Up ahead, Dad and Reinhold were discussing the terrain. We were high enough now to get a good look at the town below. That meant it would be another half mile at least before we were above the Champions’ compound.
We reached the creek long before then. It seemed to come down out of the mountain on a diagonal from north to south.
“We sure this is the same one?” Zaq asked.
I spotted a deer taking a drink upriver on the other side and pointed. “Looks like it to me.”
“Why couldn’t we build our own settlement up here?” Reinhold asked. “Or even farther up.”
“Let’s see what the land looks like up here,” Dad said, and he started upstream.
We wove our way around bushes and tree branches. The sky was clear and the sun was making me warm. I pulled off my hoodie and tied it around my waist. We were approaching a cliff, and I could hear the rushing of a waterfall. The trees had grown taller and thicker here, so we slowed to fight our way through.
We exited in a small clearing on the shore of the plunge pool. The falls weren’t overly high, but the water was coming down hard and fast and my first thoughts were how much fun it would be to dive in.
But we were not alone. Two dozen men were gathered on the upper ledge, sitting on the ground eating. They wore the brown uniforms of the Champions’ Enforcers. Behind them was a bulldozer, a heap of freshly dozed soil, and stacks of aluminum fencing.
One of the Enforcers saw us and scrambled to his feet. The next thing we knew, five of them were pointing rifles our way and everyone was screaming.
“We don’t want any trouble!” Dad yelled. “We’re just hiking the mountain.”
“The mountain is private property,” one of the Enforcers yelled.
“No one owns an entire mountain,” Zaq said.
“Our guns say differently, kid,” an Enforcer said.
“Actually, lots of people own mountains,” Logan said. “It just depends what acreage is for sale. And I think some people from Vermont own the resort.”
“Well, the Champions own it now,” an Enforcer said.
“Did they buy it?” Logan asked. “Because I—”
“Shut up, Logan,” Zaq said.
“Let’s get out of here, guys,” Dad said, turning around.
“About face, people,” Reinhold said. “We’re leaving.”
“Spread the word to any other hikers that this mountain is off limits,” someone yelled after us.
We didn’t answer. Not even Logan, thankfully.
“It ain’t right,” Reinhold said as we dug our way back through the thick forest. “They don’t have any right to keep people away from that crick.”
“They’ve got an awful lot of Enforcers on their side,” Zaq said.
“With rifles,” Lizzie added.
“Still ain’t right,” Reinhold said.
“Looked like they’re fencing the thing in,” I said.
“Aluminum fencing is mostly used for industrial purposes,” Logan said.
“Looked like they might be going to build a dam,” Dad said. “That would give them complete control of the creek water.”
Reinhold muttered some kind of Ute curse under his breath. “I bet you’re right, Shane. That’s exactly what them hippies are doing.”
A chill flashed over me. “That’s not fair! Why should they get to control it?”
“They’ve got fame on their side,” Dad said. “And because of their wealth, they came out of the Great Pandemic with a lot more resources than any of us. Plus they were here first, so they had a head start in staking a claim.”
“It’s still not fair,” I said.
“Life has never been fair, son,” Dad said. “It’s even less so now. We’re going to have to find a way to make the best of this.”
“Not me,” Reinhold said. “I’m not going to let a couple of hippie rock stars dictate my life.”
“You going home?” I asked.
“Not just yet.” He turned and gazed up to the mountain peak. “If they were building a dam, it’s not very high up. I’d like to hike up the other side of this mountain and see just how much of the crick they’re not using.”
“That’s a long ways on foot,” Zaq said.
“The summit is only 12,162 feet,” Logan said. “Just over eleven miles. They could climb it in probably five hours.”
“I’d drive around to the other side first,” Reinhold said. “Leave my rig at the bottom and climb from there.”
“Maybe we should all go,” Dad said.
“No,” Reinhold said. “We don’t know how many more pilgrims will come this way. I don’t want to risk you all losing your place in the condo. Kimama and I will take a drive tomorrow. See what we can make of it. I’ll take one of the radios. You should be able to hear me when I’m on this side of the hill.”
That was all that was said until we reached the bottom. We then went by the Woodstone Grill, ordered a bunch of sandwiches To Go, and took them back to the apartment. Jaylee, Hannah, and Kimama went to their condo to wash up, which me and Dad laid out the food buffet style on the kitchen counter.
The kids were up in our place, watching some Disney Channel show. When the food was ready, I went next door to check on Jaylee. I knocked and Lizzie opened the door.
“I’m not ready yet,” she said. “Can’t you wait two minutes to eat?”
“I was just going to check on Jaylee,” I said.
“Oh. Right. Sorry.” She opened the door wider and yelled, “Incoming boy!”
I caught sight of Hannah pulling plates out of a kitchen cupboard. She paused to watch me as I passed through the living room.
I knocked on the door to the master bedroom, then cracked it open. “Jaylee?” I whispered.
When no answer came, I opened the door all the way, squinting as the sunlight from the living room filtered in.
The bed was empty.
I took three steps into the bedroom, strained to listen for any noise coming from the master bath. Nothing. I checked. The bathroom was empty.
I went back to the kitchen where Lizzie was piling silverware onto the stack of plates. “They’re not here,” I said. “Jaylee or Krista.”
Lizzie sighed. “They probably went for lunch. Let’s ask the kids if they know where they went.”
I helped them carry the plates and silverware next door. And while they were laying the dishes out by the food, I asked the kids.
The kids didn’t know. No one knew.
I really didn’t want to be a jerk, but the world had just ended and Jaylee and Krista were treating this place like spring break in Florida. I get that things had been stressful and sad. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have some fun. But we shouldn’t be partying it up nonstop. We needed to be smart. We needed to make a plan that ensured we’d live through the year and maybe even longer. The Champions were working on some big time plans with their Enforcers. But, frankly, I didn’t want the Champions planning out my life, thank you very much. I could—and would—take care of myself.
Jaylee and Krista were gone all day. They came in around eight thirty, all excited. They’d met some girl at dinner who knew Riggs from the concert two nights ago. They were home to change for tonight’s dance party op on the Champions’ lawn.
“Another party?” Zaq asked. “Are they going to have them every night?”
“I hope so,” Krista said. “Do you know how much tickets cost for their concert when they came to Phoenix?”
“Over a hundred for the worst seats in the place,” Jaylee said.
“Yeah.” Krista kicked off her shoes and picked them up with two fingers. “And we get to go for free.”
“Before you go, I want to tell you a story,” Kimama said. “It won’t take very long.”
“Did something happen to you guys today?” Jaylee asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “We hiked up the mountain and met some Enforcers with guns. They’re building a fence around the creek so that the Champions can keep everyone away.”
“That’s smart, right?” Krista asked. “That will keep people from contaminating the water.”
“If they control the water, they control us,” Hannah said.
“Control us how?” Jaylee asked. “They’re giving us everything.”
“Until they run out,” I said. “Then they’re going to make us work.”
“They will not,” Krista said. “The Champions say we all need to enjoy life.”
“They chased us away with rifles,” Logan said. “I didn’t find that particularly enjoyable. If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves living in Orwell’s Manor Farm.”
“Logan,” Jaylee said. “I don’t even want to know what that means.”
“Yeah, well, it’s people like you that end up one of the pigs while I get sent to the glue factory.”
“Can I tell my story yet?” Kimama asked.
“Yes, please,” Jaylee said. “We really need to get going.”
“Okay.” Kimama smiled, but it quickly vanished in trade for a somber expression. “A Cherokee grandfather told his grandson. ‘A terrible fight between two wolves is going on inside me. One wolf is evil and ugly. He is angry, hateful, envious, at war with everyone, greedy, filled with self-pity, depressed, guilt-ridden, a liar, selfish, and arrogant. The other wolf is beautiful and good. He is peaceful, kind, loving, hopeful, humble, just, fair, generous, compassionate, thankful, and wise. This same fight is going on inside you, my grandson, and inside every other human as well.’ The grandson paused in deep thought over what his grandfather had said. He finally asked, ‘Grandfather, which wolf will win?’ The elder Cherokee answered, ‘The wolf you feed.’”
Kimama stopped and looked from one of us to the next, arms crossed as if she had just imparted a great wisdom to us all. I’d heard that story before, but I didn’t think her method was going to work with Jaylee and Krista—at least not when there was a concert to go to.
“So?” Kimama asked. “What do you think?”
“It’s good,” Jaylee said. “It makes me think of how the Champions are taking care of us all. They’ve given us places to live, food, water, and showers. We’d all be dead if it wasn’t for them.”
“No,” Logan said. “We had food and water enough to last a few months, right Eli?”
“Sure,” I said. “We’d have been fine.” For a while.
“Well, anyway,” Jaylee said. “We can live longer here a lot longer. The Champions are good wolves. That’s my point.”
“Kimama’s point was that both wolves live inside each of us,” Hannah said.
“Right, so the Champions are feeding the good wolf along with the rest of us,” Jaylee said.
“Can we go now?” Krista asked, walking to the front door.
“You coming with us, Eli?” Jaylee asked.
I didn’t want to, but maybe it would be better than sitting out in the parking lot all night.
“Yeah, we could use a lift,” Krista added. “Jaylee said you could probably drive us.”
“No,” I said. “I’m beat. I’m going to bed.”
“Eli!” Jaylee gave me her best pout, but I wasn’t falling for it.
“Be smart,” I said, then walked into the living room. I didn’t turn around until I heard the door slam shut.
“The Champions might seem like they’re feeding the good wolf,” Kimama said, “ but building that dam says otherwise. So what if the Champions are acting like they’re feeding the good wolf, but they’re really feeding the bad one?”
“Then we’re all in a lot of trouble,” I said.
END OF CHAPTER
Are Eli and Kimama overreacting? Does Eli need to stop freaking out and enjoy life a little? Pretending you know nothing about what’s to come, Safe Lands readers, how would you be acting? If say, Katy Perry or Lady Gaga was in your town offering free concerts every night, would you go?