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.
Before you start reading, I need to tell you a couple things. First, last week was my last pre-written chapter. As I mentioned before, I had started writing this book back in 2012. But I’d only made it as far as Chapter 13. So this week is all new material, and it’s not quite as smooth as what came before. So bear with me as I am now posting totally new material (in rough draft form)! Secondly, I deleted the last few paragraphs of Chapter 13 and re-did them here at the start of Chapter 14. I found that my summary didn’t work for what I needed to set up. So if you start reading and think to yourself… “Didn’t we already do this?” The answer is, “Yes. But then I went back in time and erased that, and now this is the way it REALLY went down.” *grin*
So… What did Eli and his friends find in Crested Butte? Let’s find out.
The city of Gunnison had been ravaged. As we cruised through town, I didn’t see one store that hadn’t been looted. Every window seemed to be broken, every door hanging open, and every few block yards we’d see a body on the ground. Reinhold, my dad, Zaq, Hannah, and I made it three steps into the lobby of the Gunnison Valley Heath Center when I saw this would be ten times as horrible as I’d imagined. Dad sent Zaq back out to warn the others to wait in the vehicles. With Hannah in the lead, we made quick work of the place. She seemed to know exactly where both the drugs and the medical supplies would be kept. There were plenty of medical supplies to help ourselves to, but Hannah seemed to think that someone had already picked over the drugs. Still, we left the place each carrying a heaping box. We put the stuff in the back of Reinhold’s truck since he had packed light, thinking the rumors of clean water were bunk and he’d be back home tomorrow.
We then made the half-hour drive north to Crested Butte. There were actually two towns up here. The historic mining town of Crested Butte dated back to 1800s. Less than two thousand people lived there, and the houses and layout reminded me of the old west. Three miles north at the base of the mountain sat the smaller, ski resort town of Mount Crested Butte. It was nothing but fancy hotels, spas, a few elite hotels, and expensive retail shops and restaurants for those rich enough to stay at the foot of the ski slope. It had about seven hundred locals. Mount Crested Butte had none of the glitz and glamour of Aspen—which was only about fifteen miles north physically, ten minutes by plane, yet over a hundred miles by car—but the smaller ski resort was well-known for its extreme ski and snowboarding terrain and an extremely laid back culture.
All these facts came from Logan, who was again riding with me. Oh, and this this gem too: “Did you know they call people who ski this mountain Crusty Butts?”
Charming, huh? The closer we got, the more signs we saw pointing the way to the “LLC Compound” and “Safe Water For All.”
I dared hope it could be true.
The city of Crested Butte looked no better than any other, though I didn’t see one dead body. We also saw the first signs of civilization in a long while. There were people here—work crews, sweeping up glass and picking up trash.
Three miles north, Mount Crested Butte was even cleaner. I saw two shops with broken windows, but they had been boarded up and a third store had construction workers out front replacing the glass. All the other cities we’d passed through so far had been destroyed by the Great Pandemic, but Mount Crested Butte seemed to be recovering. I didn’t see any trucks packed with supplies. I didn’t see anyone toting guns, either. It seemed wrong somehow, after everything we’d been through.
There wasn’t much to Mount Crested Butte. Maybe three dozen buildings. The mountain looked bare, the surrounding forest thin. When we reached the city center of the ski resort town, some construction workers stopped us at a roadblock.
A chill crept up my neck. I remembered the man at Target hitting me with the rifle, stealing my truck. These men looked harmless, though. None carried a weapon. One of the workers approached, so I rolled down my driver’s side window.
“Looking for the compound?” the man asked.
“Yes we are,” I said.
He glanced at the van behind me. “Y’all from Arizona?”
“Phoenix,” I said.
“We’ve had a few from there. I heard it got pretty bad.”
“Yeah.” I wasn’t here for small talk. “So how does this work? The mountain really have safe water?”
“A creek, actually. It comes down out of the mountain right behind the Champion’s compound. Continues down the mountain and joins the East River.”
“Why isn’t the creek contaminated like everything else?” I asked.
“What do I look like? A scientist? Follow the signs on up to the Champion compound. Don’t go wandering anyplace else unless you’re told to. People live and work in this town. We’ve got a no looting policy here and Enforcers working to keep it so.”
“Enforcers?” I asked.
“It’s what the Champion’s call their bodyguard staff.”
Sounded a little overkill. “What are you guys building here?”
“A fence. We’ve had trouble with some local warlords trying to loot the place. We want to keep them out and keep our people safe.”
“No one died here?”
“Oh, plenty of people died. But we took care of the bodies. We’ve got safe water and plenty of room for survivors. We’ve worked hard to clean up the town so we can all move on with the rest of our lives.”
Sounded too good to be true. I thanked the man and drove on. I followed the signs as they directed me through the ski resort area and to a road that turned south along the bottom of the mountain. The buildings fell away and soon we’d entered a forested, residential area. The farther I went, the more trees stretched between each residence and the fancier they got.
Empty vehicles lined both sides of the narrow street. I felt like I was trying to find parking for some major house party.
I failed to find parking before I reached a black iron gated entrance. I stopped and got out, taking my keys with me in case Logan got any bright ideas. My dad followed suit and joined me at the gate. Beyond, a gray stone mansion sat back on a grassy lawn like its own version of the White House. Tents and people covered the lawn like some kind of festival was going on. The drive circled around a rose garden and working fountain, passed by the front door, then ran right back to the front gate. A gaggle of kids were playing in the fountain.
Playing in the water.
“It really is safe,” I said to my dad.
“Seems to be.”
As we stood watching the children play, a man approached from the guardhouse and spoke to my dad.
“How many you got?”
“Thirteen,” Dad said. “We’ve got four vehicles.”
“You all family?”
“You could say that.”
“Don’t know that they can put you all together. I’m assuming you all want to stay together.”
“We’d like to, yes.”
“Go ahead and park right out front. Ask for Mr. Tracy.”
“We’re going to live here?” I asked.
“The house is full,” the guard said. “You’ll likely be put in a hotel to start. There’s a task force working to clear the houses, then we will start assigning those.”
Clear the houses. I shuddered.
Dad and I hopped back into our vehicles. The guard went back to his station, and a moment later the iron gate slid open on wheels, rattling as it went.
We followed the driveway that circled around the fountain. I couldn’t help but watch the kids as they played in the water, running and splashing and shrieking and laughing. I wanted to stop the truck and tell them to get out of there, tell them the water might hurt them. But apparently it was safe.
It all seemed too good to be true.
We parked outside the front doors, which were oversized and made of black iron that matched the gate. This place was like some kind of modern castle. Everyone climbed out and we let ourselves in.
The spacious foyer had dark, hardwood floors and a ceiling that stretched three levels above our heads. A staircase wrapped up the left-hand wall. Gaudy cream and gold carpets ran up the middle of the steps and stretched down the center of the foyer’s floor. Archways stood on both side walls. The one on the left seemed to be some sort of formal sitting room with fancy chairs and a matching sofa, all with carved wooden legs. I didn’t get a good look through the right archway before a woman stepped out to greet us. She was tall, had bushy auburn hair, wore a pink suit, and black high-heeled shoes.
“I’m Jennie,” she said. “Are you here to see Mr. Tracy?”
“Yes,” Dad said.
“Right this way.”
She herded us into what appeared to be an office that was filled with a variety of black leather furniture. A man came into view, sitting behind a glossy black desk. He stood as we gathered around his desk. He looked to be Indian or Middle Eastern and wore a three-piece black suit with white pinstripes. He was Jack Skellington skinny too, though his head seemed a bit small. He had cropped hair, thick eyebrows, and bulging eyes.
“Hi, there. I’m Logan Tracy. Why don’t you all sit down.” His voice was nasal and reminded me of that guy Chris Tucker from those cop movies with Jackie Chan.
Mr. Tracy leaned against his desk and folded his arms. “What a great looking group of young people. We’re so glad you found us. I hear it’s brutal out there.”
“It’s not pleasant,” I said.
“I promise that if you stay here, we will keep you safe,” Tracy said.
“How can you promise that?” Reinhold asked from the back.
Tracy’s fish eyes latched onto Reinhold and he stood up. “Oh, I didn’t see you back there, sir. These your kids?”
“Do we look like his kids?” Hannah asked.
“Okay, okay. My bad,” Tracy said, holding up his hands. “Here’s how it works. The safe water comes from a creek on the back of the Champions’ property. It’s the only water you can drink. It’s the only water you can touch. They’ve disconnected their house from the city water and pumped in the safe water from the creek. No one else has access to this water. We will set you up in hotels and eventually houses, but the water has been turned off. You cannot shower anywhere but here. You cannot drink any water but ours. If you turn on the water in the hotels or the houses and die, that’s not our fault. If you want to stay, we’ll need you all to sign a waiver, agreeing to our rules and releasing us from liability should you choose noncompliance.”
Was this guy for real?
“You’re a lawyer?” Dad asked.
“Consider me the Attorney General of this place. It’s my job to make this place run smoothly and to keep everyone safe. Now, if you’ll all sign the waiver, we can get you processed.”
He snapped his fingers and Jennie came running. She handed each of us a single sheet of paper. I read it. It was a bunch of legal mum I jumbo. We each got three meals a day, five showers a week, and four gallons of drinking water a week. We had to adhere to the “Laws of America,” whatever that meant. And we had to attend a mandatory “Morning Party” every Monday at ten a.m. where we would get updates on the water and housing situations.
Basically, we had to agree to their rules or get out. No trying to re-connect the old water. Oh, and we couldn’t sue them for any reason.
Like the city courthouse was still open for business or something.
I watched Dad for cues, but he scratched his name at the bottom and handed the paper back to Jennie. So I signed as well. All of us did, even Reinhold, who I had expected would abstain. But really, there was nothing on that paper that scared me. I didn’t have a problem agreeing to it.
“Welcome, all of you, to the LLC Safe Haven,” Tracy said. “We’re glad to have you as part of our populace. Jennie will get you set up with housing. And if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting.” He walked past us and out the door.
Jennie gave us instructions on how to get back to the downtown area, like I might get lost or something. “I put you all in the Snowcrest Condominiums, m’kay?” she said, then read from a card in her hand. “People say the Snowcrest has the best view of any hotel in Mount Crested Butte due to its slightly elevated and central location. It has easy access to the pedestrian footbridge, charming shops, and gourmet restaurants.”
“The restaurants are open?” Zaq asked.
“Oh, yes. Everything is open, except the hot tub in your condominium, of course, since there is no water to fill it. Now, I’ve given you rooms 33 and 34 at the Snowcrest. Both are three bedroom, two bath units. They each sleep eight. Obviously you can divide yourself however you like, m’kay, but I figured the seven men could sleep in one, and the six women could sleep in the other. The master bedroom and second bedroom each have a queen bed and the third bedroom has two twin beds. Also the living room has a sofa sleeper.” She handed my dad two sets of keys on plastic rings.
“That’s it?” Dad asked. “No charge?”
“No charge. It is the Champions’ honor to take good care of you all. Also, here are your vouchers,” she said, handing out lanyards with plastic tags on the end. “You must activate them online before you can use them. If you don’t have computer access there are computers you can use in the lobby of the Snowcrest. You cannot eat, take your showers, or claim your drinking water without your voucher. So be careful not to lose it, m’kay?”
“You’re going to feed everyone three meals a day for free?” Reinhold asked.
“Not me,” Jamie said. “The Champions are doing this for us all.”
“How do you have Internet access?” I asked.
“The Champions’ staff is technologically savvy. The vouchers use the same technology that is used for backstage passes at LLC concerts across the—excuse me! Don’t touch that, please.” She pushed past us and strode toward where Jaylee and Krista were admiring some award statues on a shelf on the wall.
“What do you think?” Dad asked Reinhold.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “They can’t feed all of us forever. At some point, they’re going to start asking us to earn our keep. And I didn’t see anything about that on their contract.”
“Let’s go see this hotel,” Dad said. “I don’t mind taking advantage of their hospitality for a day or two.”
Reinhold grunted, but followed us out.
We caravanned back to town and found the Snowcrest Condominiums. We went ahead and split it up just as Jenny had suggested. Dad said he preferred that the boys and girls be in separate rooms, and I wasn’t going to argue. They guy’s condo had brown furniture, a round woodstove in the center, and hotel bedspreads in red and blue geometric 90s prints.
Once we unpacked our vehicles and registered all our vouchers in the lobby, we went back to the Champion compound to shower. The shower building had been built behind the mansion. It was a single story beige building with a long line of people waiting. We got in the end of it, and the guy in front of Zaq told him there were only four shower stalls inside.
This was going to be a long wait.
As we inched our way closer, Krista started freaking out.
“I don’t want to shower,” she said. “What if we all die? How do we really know this water is okay?”
Jaylee gestured to a girl who’d just exited a stall, her hair wrapped in a pink towel. “She looks okay to me. Don’t be such a baby.”
“No one died right away,” Krista said. “It took three to five days.”
“You’re being stupid,” Jaylee said.
But Krista continued to whine and was still whining when I went in to take my shower. The water inside was lukewarm, which reminded me of taking showers at campgrounds. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
When I came out, there was no sign of the girls. I figured they were inside, so I looked around and spotted Zaq, who was sitting on one of the rocks that lined the back of the lawn.
I sat down next to him and put my bundle of dirty clothes at my feet, suddenly wondering if our vouchers had provisions for doing laundry.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about Lizzy,” Zaq said.
No, I didn’t want to talk about this. “It’s fine,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I shouldn’t have kept it from you. We shouldn’t have.”
We. I gritted my teeth. “Lizzy is pretty great,” I said.
“The greatest,” Zaq said.
“Which means you’ll treat her better than Bekah?” Bekah was Zaq’s previous girlfriend, and their breakup had gotten War of the Roses out of control.
“Of course,” Zaq said.
Silence stretched between us.
“Bekah is probably dead,” he said.
A strange thought. “Most everyone is.”
“Think we can really live here like this? It feels like camp.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. How long can it last before they run out of food? I didn’t see any fields or livestock.”
“I’m starving,” Zaq said, tugging on the voucher around his neck. “Wonder what these get us to eat?”
Once everyone had showered, we took our laundry back to the condo, then went looking for food. It looked as if the Champions were trying to keep the local restaurants open. We ended up at a place called The Secret Pizzeria, which oddly seemed to be serving up random grocery store frozen pizzas. I got the impression that whoever had run this place before the Great Pandemic was no longer around. After our meal we wandered around the downtown area. It was strange to see groups of people and not want to point a gun at them. One man passing out flyers said that there would be a concert tonight back up on the Champion compound lawn. Jaylee and Krista squealed and I knew I wasn’t going to get out of it.
Don’t get me wrong. I like music just fine. But I’d never been to a concert, and I wasn’t impressed. From the reaction of the crowd, it appeared that Loca and Liberté Champion were putting on a good show, but I didn’t see what the thrill was. The bass was so loud, I couldn’t hear the words. The people were screaming so loud, I couldn’t hear myself when I spoke to Zaq. And the techno beat made every song sound the same. Sadly, due to Jaylee’s indoctrination on the ride up, I recognized most every song. They played Fast Lane, Rage Right, Bon Bon Breakfast, Everywhere Love, Brown Sugar Night, and then the siblings gave a short speech.
“Hello, residents of Safe Land, USA!” Loca yelled. “Oh, my. You are all just so beautiful. I am so happy to see you all smiling and waving your hands and looking so beautiful and healthy!”
The crowd went wild over his French accent.
“Yes! Yes! We did it!” Liberté yelled. She had a thick French accent as well, but her voice was nasal and high-pitched. “We survived the end of the world! And we will continue to survive as long as we stick together.”
“But we’re not going to just sit around and be bored,” Loca said. “We’re going to party. Every. Day.”
More screaming. They sure knew how to work the audience.
“Because we’ve got a lot to party about,” Liberté said.
“Because we … are … survivors!” Loca yelled.
The crowd went nuts, jumping and screaming as the siblings began to sing the song We Are Survivors.”
I had a headache.
Somehow—and I really don’t know how I managed it—but I survived the night. On our way out, as we walked along the roadside past the long line of parallel parked vehicles to the van, Jaylee, who’d pleasantly been holding my hand, jerked away and started running ahead.
“Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” she yelled.
A few steps later, and I saw why. She was jumping up-and-down next to a silver Evoque. When I reached her, she threw both hands around my neck and squealed. “Riggs is here!”
END OF CHAPTER
Say it’s not so! Is Riggs really in town? And if so, what might that mean for Eli and his new girlfriend?