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.
Will Eli answer? If so, who will he say was his last crush?
Zaq may as well have punched me in the gut. I couldn’t believe I’d just thought he was worthy of my sister.
“Zaq,” Lizzie warned.
“Yeah, my bad,” Zaq said. “I’ll ask something else.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Jaylee said. “He has to answer. Go ahead, Eli. Who did you like?”
I stared at her, speechless, wishing I would say anything at all. It suddenly seemed extremely warm in the house and I wished I could escape outside where the night was sure to be cool.
Jaylee’s eyes narrowed. “Is it someone here?”
I shook my head. What I wouldn’t give for ten seconds with Bilbo’s magic ring. I’d slip it on and run for the front door.
“It is, isn’t it?” Jaylee squealed, likely delighted at the thought of discovering some juicy gossip.
“Hey, Jaylee,” Zaq said. “I was just messing with him. It’s no one you know.”
Yes. Thank you. I relaxed a bit. Next question, please.
“Then why is he afraid to say?” Jaylee asked. She pushed to her hands and knees and crawled toward me, slowly.
I couldn’t look away. I wanted to, but I’ve already mentioned how pretty she was. And the way she was staring at me… I wondered if she had some kind of supernatural ability to immobilize people with her eyes.
She reached me and sat back on her ankles. “Is it Krista?” she whispered. “Krista’s cute.”
I glanced at Krista, who was looking at the floor in front of her. “No.”
“Hannah? You saved her from those bad men. That’s pretty romantic.”
I could feel everyone staring at us. But my gaze was locked on Jaylee. Her left eye. Her right eye. Her eyebrows. Her nose. The freckles across the tops of her cheeks. The curve of her lips.
What had she said?
Her eyes widened a little, showing all the whites around her brown irises. “Is it me?”
If I’d thought it was hot before, I wasn’t prepared for the way my cheeks started to burn.
She gasped. “Awww! Eli!”
I closed my eyes, cursing my biology. I should have just made up some random name. No one would have known.
The thing is, I knew Jaylee too well. She would act all cute about this, but she’d be patronizing me. Until she got bored of it.
I heard movement and opened my eyes. Everyone was standing. Hannah and Lizzie were creeping up the stairs, while Zaq ushered everyone else into the kitchen.
Oh, no. Don’t leave! I shot Zaq a pleading look. He motioned at Jaylee, and mouthed something.
Yeah right. No way could I make a move. I wasn’t like Zaq. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I couldn’t even speak.
“I guess you won the game,” Jaylee whispered.
“I guess.” Oh, good. I said something. And it was coherent.
“So…” She poked out her bottom lip. “You got a little crush on me?”
This time the heat that flashed over me was fueled by anger. I glared at her. “Why you gotta be like that? Just forget about it, okay?” I made to stand up, but Jaylee grabbed my arm.
“Wait.” She ran her fingers down to my hand and laced her fingers between mine. “You’ve always been my friend, Eli. You know I like older guys.”
Here we go. I could feel the smack down coming.
“But it’s not like there are a lot of single guys around here right now. And you’re cute and sweet and smart. So we could give it a try, if you want to.”
Give it a try? What did that mean? I didn’t want her pity. I didn’t want to be her last resort.
But then she kissed me. And I didn’t know what to do. I felt so awkward and embarrassed and clueless and thrilled. I also thought I might have been having a heart attack.
Before I could decide what to do about this, it was over.
Jaylee leaned back and licked her lips. “Now that was fun.”
The next morning over a breakfast of bruised apples and squishy bananas, Reinhold and Dad told everyone that they’d decided we should drive up to Mount Crested Butte to see about the Champion rumor.
“Once we know for sure, we can decide what to do,” Dad said.
“And along the way we can stop and scavenge more supplies,” Reinhold added.
“Can I open up a can of applesauce?” Jaylee said from the pantry.
“Put that down and get over here,” Reinhold said. “We’ve got to eat what’s going to go bad first. Save the canned stuff for when the perishables are all gone.”
Jaylee huffed and flopped down at the table. She was wearing a purple tank top and had a pair of black sunglasses perched on top of her head. She took an apple wedge from the bowl in the center, tapped it on the table top, then scanned the faces until her gaze locked on mine. She smiled, blinked at me a few times, then moved to sit beside me.
“Good morning,” she whispered in my ear, sliding her hand over my leg under the table. I jumped and grabbed her hand in mine. Man! She was the gutsiest girl I’d ever known.
“There’s lots of good land up around Crested Butte,” Reinhold said. “If there’s a fresh water source, we should just build our own place.”
“Is there a hospital there?” Hannah asked.
“No,” Reinhold said. “They airlift people out. Nearest hospitals are Gunnison or Montrose. There’s one up in Aspen. And we’ve got one down in Cortez. Why you ask?”
“It would be wise to stock up on some hospital supplies,” Hannah said.
“Smart girl,” Dad said. “Don’t think any of us have thought of that yet.”
“Smart girl,” Jaylee whispered. She let go of my hand and laid her arm on the back of my chair, scratching the back of my head. It was hard to pay attention with her touching me.
“Zaq and I scavenged the pharmacy at Walgreen’s,” Lizzie said. “We got all kinds of stuff that Zaq thought would be useful.”
“That’s great,” Hannah said. “But there are some things only hospitals will have.”
“But the hospitals are going to be really bad,” I said. “Hannah, remember Cree’s mom? Imagine that times… How many dead in the hospital in Phoenix, Liz?”
“Too many. Hundreds.”
Jaylee fed me an apple slice. How very… awkward. I chewed it some, then said, “Thank you.”
“We’re going to need medical supplies as some point,” Hannah said. “I’d rather be prepared than have to rush out in an emergency.”
“I agree,” Zaq said.
“Then we swing by Montrose Memorial and Gunnison Valley Health on our way up,” Reinhold said.
“Great,” Dad said. “Eat and clean up. Then let’s hit the road.”
People did just that. When it was just me, Jaylee, and Cree left at the table, Jaylee got up and sat sideways on my lap, wrapped her arms around my neck. She wasn’t choking me or anything like that, but I still found it difficult to breathe.
“Baby, I know you got some applesauce from Walgreen’s,” she said softly, her nose almost touching mine. “That still in the back of your truck?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Did you see how she just called me baby? I liked the sound of that.
“Can you get some for me? I’m hungry and I can’t eat this stale fruit.”
“Applesauce is made from mashed apples, Jaylee,” Logan said, carrying his sleeping bag past the table and toward the door.
“He’s right,” I said.
“So? It tastes better than these browned slices.”
She wasn’t nearly as pretty when she was complaining. I pushed her off my lap and stood, thinking I needed to grab my sleeping bag and get out to the truck before Logan started packing things poorly. Jaylee hugged me around the waist and buried her face against my chest.
“Jaylee, I’ve gotta pack my—”
She raised onto her tiptoes, grabbed my face, and kissed me, doing so thorough a job of it that when she stopped I was dazed and breathless.
“Please?” she said. “I’m so hungry.”
“One can of applesauce coming right up,” I whispered, though I didn’t want to do it. Why couldn’t she understand how serious things were? And if I let her play me on day two of our… maybe it was a relationship, was I setting myself up for a life of being bossed around?
I decided to give her an order back, even things up a bit. “Go clean up your bed and bring your stuff out to the truck.”
“Okay!” She gave me one last peck on the lips and jogged off.
Kimama walked by then. “Be careful, Eli. The Coyote is a trickster. He is toying with her, and now she is toying with you.”
Gee. Thanks for ruining my moment, kid. “Whatever.” I stumbled to the den, rolled up my bag, and carried it to the front door. Zaq met me at the bottom of the stairs.
“You mad at me?” Zaq asked.
I grinned, my lips still buzzing from Jaylee’s kisses. “Nah, man. We’re cool.”
“Good. I’m glad it worked out.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Outside, my dad and Logan were standing at the back of my truck, not packing, thankfully. Logan was regaling my father with his theory on Comet Pulon.
I slipped into the space between them at the back of the truck, pulled out Logan’s sleeping bag, and put it back the way I had it. I felt relieved and a little guilty. Being a control freak was like that.
“You could be on to something, Logan,” Dad said. “Do me a favor and ask Reinhold if he wants me to take his generator in my van or put it in his truck.”
“Sure,” Logan said, running toward the house.
The question made me look at my Dad. Obviously a generator should go in the back of a truck. There was no room in the van for it.
Dad was staring at me, and I knew by the serious tilt of his eyebrows that he’d gotten rid of Logan on purpose. “How long this thing with Jaylee been going on?”
My stomach roiled. “Since last night.”
Dad chuckled a little too long and let it dwindle in a sigh. “Okay. You be careful with her. She’s a wild one.”
I studied my shoes and sighed. “I know.”
“Not sure you want a wild one?”
I looked back to Dad. “I don’t know. She wants me to give her some applesauce from our stash since Reinhold told her she couldn’t have any of his.”
Dad nodded. “I saw that.”
“Oh.” I hung my head. The idea of my dad watching me get played made me feel twice as stupid. “I told her I’d get her some.” The confession felt good, at least.
“Guess you’d better do it, then.”
Really? “But I agree with Reinhold. We need to be smart about the food.”
Dad grabbed my shoulder at the base of my neck. “Listen up, son. You’re a smart man. You need to trust your instincts. If your instincts says one thing, and a woman talks you into another thing with absolutely no logic, you know what you are?”
A nod. “Some call it whipped. You want to spend the next fifty years of your life being bossed around by someone half as smart as you are?”
“I guess not.” But I couldn’t help who I loved, right? These things just happen. Opposites attract or whatever.
“Keep in mind, Eli,” Dad said, “she’s only going to look like that for another five to ten years, depending on what having a few kids does to her body. You should choose your mate based on more than her looks.”
Blasted cheeks burning again.
“Give it a try if you want, but don’t let her change who you are. If she stops pushing and accepts you for you, you’ve got a winner. If she won’t, well, at least you tried, right?”
I could live with that. “Right.”
“Good talk, son.”
“So you’re okay with this?” I’d never had a girlfriend before.
“This is a new world, Eli. In this world, you’re a man. You’ve got to make your own choices. Are you asking me who I’d pick if I were you?”
“No.” Dad would probably tell me to pick Kimama.
“Good,” Dad said. “I try not to boss around my peers.”
“You’re welcome.” He walked back into the house, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I’d felt stupid when I came out here, but I didn’t feel stupid now. A little scared, maybe, since I knew I had to stand up to Jaylee, but I wasn’t going to let her play me.
At least I hoped I wasn’t.
We took four vehicles north. Zaq’s van, my new truck, Dad’s van, and Reinhold’s truck. Kimama and Shyla rode with Reinhold. Logan wanted to ride with me until he saw that Jaylee and Krista were riding with me, then he and Davis got into the van with Zaq and Lizzie. That left Hannah and Cree, who got into Dad’s van.
We headed out from Reinhold’s place in a caravan. Reinhold took the lead, then Zaq, then me, and Dad followed in back.
Krista sat alone in the back. Jaylee sat shotgun, but scooted over into the middle of the bench seat, right beside me. It made me feel like a man, until about five miles down the road when Jaylee turned her shade-covered eyes on me and asked,
“Where’s my applesauce?”
Suddenly the man was gone and I was a little boy again. Moment of truth, Eli. Man or boy? What was it going to be? “Sorry, Jay,” I said, my pulse racing. “Since we don’t know where we’re headed, it’s better to save it. I brought you these, though.” I grabbed the baggie of the browning sliced apples from breakfast that I’d tossed up on the dashboard. Leftovers were gold these days, and we weren’t leaving anything behind.
Jaylee tipped down her head so she could see me over the top of her sunglasses. Her eyebrows raised in two sculpted arcs. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope,” I said. “We’ve all got to play by the same rules if we’re going to survive.”
“One plastic dish of applesauce won’t starve anyone.”
“That’s not the point,” I said. If we let everyone do what they want, it’ll be trouble. We’ve got to have rules if we’re going to survive.”
“Your dad caught you, didn’t he?” she said, her tone nasty. “He told you no, and all this is what he said to you.”
“No, it’s how I feel.” Dad had just backed me up.
“Sure, Eli. Whatever.”
She plugged her iPhone into the USB port and Vivre La Vie Dixième by Loca and Liberté Champion blared over the speakers. The truck had a nice sound system. But after three times through the playlist, I sort of wished the truck had no sound system at all. I’d never liked LLC, which was what people called Local and Liberté Champion’s musical duo. It was so… techno and girly. I preferred rock, real instruments over synthesizers. English lyrics were also a plus.
Jaylee fell asleep, leaning against me like a pillow, which made it difficult to steer with both hands, so I put my right arm on the back of the seat and steered with my left. It was awkward but totally worth it. I had wanted to kill Zaq for his question last night, but he’d been right. What good had it been for me to keep my feelings a secret? All I’d had to do was speak up. And look how it turned out. I’d got what I wanted. Jaylee Jennings was my girl!
At some point Krista lay down in the back seat. I wondered if she liked LLC or if she hoped that by going to sleep, she could avoid a fourth tortuous time through the playlist.
When Vivre La Vie Dixième came on again, I carefully lifted my arm off the back of the seat and turned down the volume.
Jaylee sat up straight and yawned. “Where are we?”
“A half hour outside Montrose,” I said.
For a few miles we sat silent, listening to the now soft sounds of Vivre La Vie Dixième. Then Jaylee reached up and started playing with my ear.
“How long have you liked me, Eli?”
Her touch sent a chill up my arms. “Since Mr. Miller’s class.”
“Fifth grade! Are you serious?”
“Yep. You wore your hair in braids with different colored rubber bands that matched your outfit. I thought it was cute.”
“I can’t believe you’ve liked me that long. Didn’t that bother Rachel?”
“Rachel Moss. Wasn’t she your girlfriend?”
She knew about Rachel? “That was a date. I’ve gone on three actual dates, but I’ve never, you know, ‘gone out’ with anyone.”
She messed with my ear again. “So are you going out with me now?”
I laughed but it sounded weird. Too high and nervous. “I don’t know.”
“I say yes.”
I couldn’t believe it. Jaylee Jennings was my girlfriend. I tried to be cool about it. “Okay, then I say yes, too.”
Jaylee unbuckled her seatbelt, got up on her knees, and kissed my cheek. That seemed kind of sweet until she kept doing it, working her way back to my ear, then down to my neck. Her warm tongue on my throat shocked me so bad I made the truck swerve across the road.
She giggled and I got back in my land behind Zaq’s van, hoping my dad hadn’t noticed that.
But Jaylee wasn’t done messing around. She rained kisses all over the side of my face. When I felt her teeth on my earlobe and almost drove off the road.
“Jaylee, come on.”
She giggled and peeled up my T-shirt, scratching her fingernails over my chest.
Strangely, that didn’t bother me nearly as much, but it was still distracting. “Jaylee, cut it out.”
Then she grabbed the waistband of my jeans.
“Jaylee!” I hit the brakes and pulled off onto the side of the road, a cloud of dust billowing around the truck. She was still messing with my pants, so I grabbed her hands and brought them up to my chest, squeezing them. “You need to stop. Please.”
She giggled and tried to kiss me.
“Are you serious? Jaylee, come on!” I looked in the rearview mirror. My dad had stopped the van behind me and was out the vehicle, walking our way. I pushed her away just as Dad knocked on my window with the back of his knuckles.
I rolled down the window. “Hey, Dad.”
“Everything okay in here?”
“Can I ride with you, Mr. McShane?” Krista asked.
“Sure,” Dad said.
Krista got out of the truck.
“Me too!” Jaylee climbed out too. Once she was standing in the ditch, she looked back in the cab. “See you, Eli.” She slammed the door, making me jump.
“You okay, son?”
My heart was pounding, thudding in my ears: womp, womp, womp. “I’m fine,” I lied. Or maybe I was fine now that Jaylee was out of the truck. That girl was nuts.
“You want me to have Hannah and Cree come ride with you?” Dad asked.
“No. We’re almost to Montrose. Let’s save the musical chairs after the hospital.”
“You want to be alone.”
I managed to swallow my nerves. “Yes, please.”
“You got it.” Dad slapped the side of my door and walked back to the van.
I set my forehead on the steering wheel and took a few deep breaths. Apparently the word “wild” wasn’t enough to describe Jaylee Jennings. Add “experienced” to the list. She was experienced and I was not. But that was no big deal, right? I mean, if I was going to marry this girl, I’d figure out all that stuff then. I could ask my dad. I could learn.
Just not while I was driving.
END OF CHAPTER
Tune in next week to see what Eli and the gang find in Crested Butte, Colorado.