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.
Another stand-off for Eli. What did he do this time?
“Sorry, man,” the guy said. “Looked like you were stuck. You sure got a lot of stuff packed in there. You guys headed up to Mount Crested Butte?”
“Uh, Cortez,” I said, instantly wondering why I’d told the truth. I didn’t like anyone looking at our supplies or knowing our business.
“Hey!” From the bathrooms, Zaq sprinted our way. He slowed, his footsteps plodding heavily over the asphalt, until he stopped beside me.
“Hey,” he said again, holding out his hand to the stranger. “I’m Zaq.”
“Artie.” The guy shook Zaq’s hand, then mine. “Stopped to let my old lady pee.”
“Yeah, us too,” Zaq said.
There were two of them? I instantly scanned the area for his old lady. No sight. I eyed his white Dodge Dakota. The back was piled high with gear.
“Pretty wild stuff happening, huh?” Artie said. “Everyone dying. Why you going to Cortez?”
“We know someone there,” Zaq said.
“I hear you,” Artie said. “Gotta check it out. See all who’s left. Yeah, this is some messed up living we’re doing right now. Almost feel guilty to be alive. We’re headed to Mount Crested Butte.”
I frowned. “The ski resort?”
“Yeah. You all haven’t heard about the Champions?”
“Champions of what?” Zaq asked.
“Nah, man, those French rock stars. Loca and Liberté Champion. They got a mansion up by the resort. Got clean water there. Word is they’ve invited survivors to come up and share. Gonna build a commune or something.”
“If they have clean water, why would they share it?” I instantly felt guilty for such a comment, but the water was only going to last so long. Then things would get ugly.
“Nah, man,” Artie said. “Some creek outta the mountains goes by their house. It’s clean. Well water’s clean too. Hardly anyone in Crested Butte has died. So they’re telling people to come on up and make a life there.”
“How can that be?” Zaq looked at me, as if I was some expert on the whole Comet Pulon water virus situation.
I shrugged. Frankly, I didn’t believe a word of it. Things like this happened during a crisis. It was like a mirage out in the dessert. People panic. They’re desperate. They’ll believe anything if it keeps the hope of survival alive.
Lizzie, Jaylee, Krista, and Shyla walked toward us in a pack, whispering, staring at Artie. I wondered if they’d met his old lady.
“Well, hey,” Artie said, “I’m gonna use the can. It was nice meeting you all. You guys don’t find what you’re looking for in Cortez, you should come on up.”
“We’ll think about it,” I said, knowing I wouldn’t.
Artie swaggered off to the stickman’s room and went inside. Just as the door closed, Hannah and Cree came out of the ladies.
“I’d like to get back on the road. We got everyone?” I asked, doing a quick scan of the faces around me. No Logan.
“Logan and Davis are still inside,” Lizzie said. “Logan is taking forever, as usual, and Davis is talking to him through the stall door.”
“Talking about what?” I asked.
“Zombie Kings, what else?”
“Hey,” Zaq punched my arm. “He was nice. Not everyone is going to hit you over the head with a rifle and steal your rig.”
“Yeah.” I knew Zaq was right, but I’d feel better when we were all safely locked inside the vehicles and moving away from Artie and his old lady at seventy-miles-per-hour.
“Eli,” Hannah said. “Can I talk to you a minute?”
“Sure,” I said, feeling nervous for who knew why. Maybe I was just intimidated because Hannah was older than me and had already graduated college and done international internships and had a tattoo. I walked up to where she stood looking off at the view and stopped beside her. “What’s up?”
“Cree is a boy,” she whispered.
I spun around and spotted Cree squatted on the sidewalk, poking some ants with a stick. “What makes you say that?”
“Anatomy 101.” She giggled.
“Oh.” I could feel myself turning red. Great. “No wonder he didn’t want to wear a pink shirt with a horse on it.”
“Maybe Davis has a T-shirt he won’t mind sharing.”
I could barely see Cree’s profile through his curtain of black hair. “That’s a lot of hair for a boy.”
“Lots of Natives grow their hair long.”
“I guess.” I felt bad that I’d mistaken Cree for a girl. I wondered if he knew.
“Logan!” Jaylee’s scream pulled my attention to the van. Jaylee was standing at the sliding door on the driver’s side, her hands on her hips.
I headed that way to see what was up. Logan was sitting in the van, buckled into Jaylee’s old seat.
“I was here first,” he said.
“No you weren’t,” Jaylee said.
“You said we’d switch seats later. It’s later.”
“Logan, get out of my seat.”
“It’s not your seat, okay? And I want to talk to Zaq.”
“Fine! Then I’m riding shotgun with Eli.” She ripped her purse out from near Logan’s feet and stomped to the truck.
Logan’s presence in the van changed a lot more than where Jaylee sat. Zaq, Lizzie, Logan, and Davis rode in the van. Everyone else got in with me. Hannah, Shyla, and Krista in the back seat, and Cree in the front between me and Jaylee.
It felt good to be on the road again, even better with Jaylee beside me—well, sort of. Cree was between us. And she and Krista were talking about both having gone to the same Loca and Liberté Champion concert last year in Phoenix and trying to name every song they’d played.
I headed north on US 160. We were about an hour and a half from Wilderness Way Adventures. Reinhold didn’t live at the campground, but I hoped to find his address in the office. It had to be there somewhere, right? I’d find it. Then we’d drive to his place.
But what if Reinhold was dead?
“The girl smells bad,” Jaylee said.
“Cree is a boy,” I said, “and I imagine we all smell bad.”
She scoffed. “Not me. I smell good.”
She actually did. I could smell her from here. Something citrusy.
“We should go to that place where Loca Champion is,” Jaylee said.
“Totally,” Krista added.
“Why?” Hannah asked.
“Because they have water,” Jaylee said. “And because Loca is hot.”
“He’s as old as my dad,” I said.
“So? Your dad’s hot too,” Jaylee said.
Ew. Just what I needed. The girl I liked telling me my dad was hot.
“What’s his dad look like?” Krista asked.
“Mr. McShane is a few inches shorter than Eli, but he’s really tan and muscular. And he’s a mechanic, so he’s always got smudges of black on him—oil or whatever. He’s got this deep, sexy voice, and thick black hair, except the hair just over his ears is salt-and-pepper, which is so cute.”
I wrinkled my nose. This conversation was killing me. “Old man hair is cute?”
“Your dad is not old,” Jaylee said.
“He’s forty two.” It sounded old to me.
“Loca Champion is forty-three,” Jaylee said.
“I heard Loca and Liberté were getting a divorce,” Krista said.
“I think it’s a done deal,” Jaylee said. “Maybe he’ll be looking for a younger woman!”
“Can we talk about something else?” I asked.
“I’m just saying we should go up there and see if what that Artie guy said was true,” Jaylee said. “Can you imagine living in the same house as Loca Champion?” Jaylee squealed, which made Krista squeal too.
I adjusted the rearview mirror so I could see Hannah, but she had her head against the window and her eyes closed. So not fair.
Once Jaylee and Krista stopped talking about how hot Loca Champion and my dad were, they moved on to such exciting topics as how hot Riggs was, how hot the guy on the channel 5 news was, and how hot Zaq was.
Nice, huh? Everyone was hot but me. Oh, and Logan, of course.
“Are Zaq and Lizzie going out, Eli?” Jaylee asked.
The question knotted my internal organs. Why’d she have to bring that up? I’d managed not to think of Zaq and my sister’s make-out session for several hours. “How should I know?”
“Don’t freak out. I’m just asking. They seem really flirty, that’s all.”
I pressed my lips into a line until it hurt.
“You know something, don’t you?” Jaylee said. She reached over Cree and slapped my arm. “Eli McShane, spill it!”
I kept my eyes on the road. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I read faces better than anyone. Tell me!”
“There’s hardly anyone left alive,” I said. “Why would anyone actually go out anymore? My guess is that we’ll all have to pair off at some point.” It made sense, and, really, who did I trust more in the world than Zaq? I chewed on that thought a moment, then said, “I can’t think of a better guy to marry my sister.”
“Marry!” Jaylee burst into laughter. “I highly doubt Zaq is going to give up his Olympic dreams to marry your sister and live in the woods.”
Really? We were back on this again. “There is no more Olympics, Jaylee,” I said. “The world we knew is dead. Things are going to be different. And Zaq isn’t going anywhere.”
“The world isn’t dead,” she said. “Everything will bounce back to normal at some point.”
“Cortez,” I said as we passed the sign on the outskirts of town, relieved to have a distraction from this conversation.
The town was abandoned. How could Jaylee look out the window and truly believe everything would bounce back?
Krista saw a clothing store and begged me to stop. Another time, I told her. Would this area become our new home? I doubted it. Because the deserted city was proof that the water was bad here too. And if the water was bad, Reinhold was probably dead, like Cree’s mother and Zaq’s family.
I didn’t think I could handle seeing Reinhold that way.
The turn off to Wilderness Way Adventures was another forty-five minutes to the east of Cortez. I turned right onto County Road 124 and headed north into the La Plata Canyon. Two-and-a-half miles in we hit the National Forest boundary and the paved road turned to gravel. The truck was kicking up so much dust, I could no longer see Zaq behind me. Another two-and-a-half miles and we passed Snowslide Campground on the left, a bit later, the Kroeger Campground. Wilderness Way Adventures was six miles in, on the right just past Kroeger. I turned into the gravel drive, feeling strange that I’d just been here two days ago.
No cars in the lot. That didn’t surprise me. Reinhold would’ve gone home to check on his family. I parked the truck, and everyone got out. I took my rifle and flashlight up to the front door. The place was locked up, so I found the key hanging on the nail on the back of the aspen and opened the place. The fishy smell still lingered, but it was fainter than it had been before. Or maybe everything would smell faint to me after Cree’s mom.
My flashlight made a big difference in the hallway and in Reinhold’s office. I checked his desk first. Found a checkbook with a PO Box, a customer rolodex, and a Christmas card from Reinhold’s mom. I started opening drawers and stopped when I saw a stack of opened mail. Halfway through I came across a letter to Reinhold at a different address: 23700 County Road X, Lewis, CO.
What I wouldn’t give for an Internet connection right now.
I spent the next ten minutes looking for maps. I found a US Atlas, but Lewis was nothing but a pinprick ten minutes north of Cortez on the 491. Reinhold was a guide. He had to have a better map in this place. Then I remembered the giant hiking map on the wall in the lobby. Duh, McShane.
I found Zaq standing there, looking at it. “Crested Butte is a ways from here. We’d have to take the 550 to Montrose and then—”
“We’re not going to Crested Butte. At least not until we see about Reinhold.” I found Lewis on the map, but even this map wasn’t big enough to show side streets. It did see a shortcut, though. “Found his home address. Looks like we’ll save time if we take the 184 to Lewis.”
“Done,” Zaq said. “Let’s roll.”
“We’ll have to drive around until we find County Road X, though. I can’t find a city map.”
“Maybe we can find one in Lewis.”
We drove out of La Plata Canyon to the 160, headed back toward Cortez, then took the 184 north. It was about an hour on deserted County Roads. As we neared Lewis, we passed the occasional farmhouse. I started to get hopeful that by coming up on the backside of town, we might come across County Road X, but suddenly the 184 ended at Broadway, which was also the 491. I stopped at the T. A cluster of four buildings stood on our right along with a sign that indicated we’d found the local post office. A gas station, liquor store, and a diner completed the bustling metropolis. I took a right onto the 491 and drove slowly. “Watch the road signs,” I told Jaylee. “We’re looking for County Road X.” Only I didn’t see any road signs to watch for. “There must be more to Lewis that this,” I said.
But there wasn’t. Not even a grocery store.
Jaylee spotted County Road X about three miles north of “town.” It was a dirt road, wheel rutted and muddy in places. “Really?” I said. But I turned down it and after a quarter mile, came to another T. County Road 20. At least it was paved.
“That can’t be it,” I said. “There was only that one house and it had a Broadway address.”
“It must continue on further in,” Hannah said.
On that theory, I took a left onto County Road 20. A mile north we crossed over an irrigation ditch and the road went to gravel. Another mile and we T’d at County Road Z.
“Why do I feel like I’m driving through a Dr. Suess book?” I asked.
“Little Roads C, B, and A?” Hannah added from the backseat.
I grinned. “Exactly.” On Hannah’s theory of Road X continuing further in, I took a left on Road Z, kicking up a plume of dust behind me. I came to Road 21—paved!—took a right, and went south. Sure enough, a half mile down, we found County Road X on the left. Cheers filled the cab as I cranked the wheel and sped onto the paved road.
Like the 184, it was pretty barren out here. Every mile to half mile we passed a farmhouse. Lots of land and space out here. No wonder Reinhold liked it.
We found 23700 County Road X just around a corner. The land was enclosed in a split rail fence. Inside, stood a one-story light blue farmhouse, a real teepee in the grassy front yard, Reinhold’s truck, a white Ford Taurus, and a silver Honda Odyssey minivan.
My heart leapt. I pulled into the driveway, adrenaline all but shooting me through the roof of the truck like a rocket. Since Lizzie wasn’t driving the van, she required no such restraint. Before I’d even stopped, she came sprinting past the truck and up to the house.
I hit the brakes and high-tailed it after her. I found her in the open doorway, hugging our father, both of them weeping. I just stood there staring, shocked to see him alive. My knees felt weak and if Lizzie hadn’t stepped aside and my dad hadn’t hugged me, I might have gone down.
“I knew you’d come here,” Dad said. “Andy didn’t think so, but I knew my son’s mind.”
“What happened to you?” I asked my dad. “We saw the van on the way home but…”
“Ran out of gas. And let me tell you, gas wasn’t easy to come by that day. Where’s your mother?”
I’ll spare you the next twenty minutes. It was an awkward mess for pretty much everyone as we told Dad about Mom, Zaq told Dad about his family, and Reinhold told us about his wife and kids. It was just him and Kimama now. Pretty depressing all around seeing as Logan, Jaylee, Hannah, Krista, and Shaylee and Davis still didn’t know anything about their families.
Would they ever? Had I done a horrible thing, hauling everyone up here? How would they ever know? Would they always wonder? Would they want to go back?
Dad asked us to move the vehicles around back just in case anyone drove by and saw our load. So Zaq and I moved the rigs, and eventually, we all made it inside Reinhold’s house.
Dirty dishes piled in the kitchen sink and lining the counters, piles of folded laundry on the living room floor… The clutter gave me the impression that Reinhold and Kimama were unaccustomed to keeping house.
Kimama greeted me with a cheery “The shadow of the owl is still circling. Many more will die.”
“It’s nice to see you too, Kimama,” I said. “Sorry about your mom and sisters.”
“There is no reason to apologize, Eli. You did not take them from me. It is the way of the world.”
“Have you heard of people heading up to Crested Butte?” Zaq asked.
Dad nodded. “Two groups I met along the way mentioned it. Some news channels got a report out just before the electricity died, but it was clearly enough for people to spread the word.”
“You think it’s true?” I asked.
“Hard to say. I never trusted Hollywood rock stars.”
“They’re French, Mr. McShane,” Jaylee said, coming alongside my dad and hugging his arm. I couldn’t help but remember that she thought my dad was hot. Was she flirting with him just now?
“I don’t care where they’re from,” Reinhold said. “Famous people are all the same. Too much freedom, too much money, too many people watching their every move. All that adds up to equal crazy. That’s why half of them die young.”
I didn’t know if that was fair. The press tended to only show gossip and scandals where famous people were concerned. I’m sure they were just regular people doing their best with their situation.
“The water here bad?” I asked.
“Yep,” Reinhold said. “I’ve tried some different purifications. Killed a lot of birds trying. So far, nothing. I’ve got supplies to last a month or two. That’s nowhere near what I’d like to have. Was thinking of going down to Cortez and ransacking some stores and houses. You see any people in Cortez? They got power down there?”
“No power anywhere,” I said. “I didn’t see any people in Cortez, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Saw people in Phoenix and kept away. Some creeps were chasing Krista and the kids. In Flagstaff, some guy hit me over the head with his rifle and stole the truck and all our stuff. And a couple guys were chasing down Hannah. That’s where we met up with her.”
“Hi, I’m Hannah.” She extended her hand to my dad. “Your son saved me from a bad situation.”
Dad shook Hannah’s hand and smiled. “Is that so? Well, glad to know you, Hannah.”
“You think one of us should go up and check out Crested Butte?” Zaq asked.
He must have really wanted to go up there, because this was like the fifth time he’d brought it up.
“Probably should at some point,” Reinhold said. “Can’t imagine it’s true, but we can’t afford to ignore that possibility. Even if we rounded up all the bottled water in Cortez and Durango, it wouldn’t last more than a few years. We need a better plan if we’re thinking of living through this thing.”
“I still think things will go back to normal eventually,” Jaylee said. “One day we’ll flip on the TV and the news will be on saying that there’s a cure.”
“I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation, girl,” Reinhold said. “How do you think dead people are going to go to work, girl? Ain’t nothing going to snap this world back to what it was. Not for a real long time.”
“Whatever.” Jaylee waved her hand like she didn’t care, but tears misted her eyes.
“Let’s get some grub cooked up for you all,” Reinhold said. “We’ll put you girls upstairs in the bedrooms and the boys can sack out on the floor in the den. Bring your stuff in and I’ll see about dinner.”
“Thank you,” I said, thrilled that I’d sleep soundly, for tonight at least.
Kimama, Reinhold, and Lizzie cooked up a dinner of fajitas using canned chicken, black beans, salsa, and corn tortillas. How much longer would bread products last once things started to mold? Flour might keep a while longer. Could we figure out how to grow our own wheat and make flour? Seemed like a lot of work, especially without the Internet to show us how.
Reinhold lit some oil lamps for us in the den, then he, my dad, Cree, Davis, Kimama, and Shyla went upstairs. Dad took the little kids with him so we could stay up and talk. We started out mulling over our new world and what the future might hold. Somehow we got back to the apocalypse debate with Logan, and I wished my dad was down here to offer his perspective.
Jaylee put an end to Logan’s conspiracy theories. “Let’s play a game. It’s called Your Last.”
“I’ve never heard of that game,” Krista said.
“Because I just made it up,” Jaylee said. “If Eli’s right, and the world as we knew it is over, there are a lot of things we’ll never do again. So, I’ll ask first. Lizzie, name your last… shower.”
“Last Thursday,” Lizzie said, wrinkling her nose. “My hair is so greasy. I feel disgusting.”
“Don’t we all?” Krista said.
“Now you ask someone something, Lizzie,” Jaylee said.
My sister’s gaze fell on me. “Eli, your last pizza?”
My stomach growled just thinking of it. “Mom made one the night before I left for the camping trip.”
“Oh, man.” Zaq moaned. “I’m going to miss your mom’s pizza. Her crust was so good.”
I was going to miss everything about her. Except how she always nagged me for leaving my socks in little balls when I threw them in the laundry. The thought made me smile. I guess maybe I’d miss that too.
“Your turn, Eli,” Jaylee said.
“Logan,” I said. “Last movie.”
“How to Train a Dragon. I was babysitting my cousin.”
Zaq threw a pillow at Logan. “Sure you were.”
“Don’t judge,” I said. “That movie rocks.”
“Thank you, Eli.” Logan reached his fist toward me and we knocked knuckles.
“Logan,” Jaylee said, “you’re up.”
“Hannah, the last video game you played before Zombie Kings.”
Hannah wrinkled her nose. “Uh…does 2048 on my phone count? I don’t really play video games.”
Logan hung his head. “That is so sad.”
“Hannah, go,” Jaylee said.
“Eli, the last book you read.”
“You read the whole bible at once?”
“Over a year. I did it once. The last whole book I read was Huck Finn for my English class.”
I asked Zaq about his last pool swim, and the questioning continued. It circled back to me when Logan asked me when I’d eaten my last hot dog.
“Uh… junior high school?” I abhorred hot dogs. I tried not to eat anything that was processed. Ironic that all that processed food would now be keeping me alive.
This time, I wanted to ask Jaylee something. And the way we were all gathered, with Reinhold, Dad, and the kids all in bed, it made me feel gutsy, like I should ask something personal. The thought made my heart race. I chickened out, of course. “Last ice cream, Jaylee.”
She groaned. “Don’t remind me! I can’t believe there’ll be no more ice cream. I had a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream bar in Flagstaff on the way up to camp. It was cookie dough.”
“I had one too,” I said, smiling as if this somehow made us a special pair, thought mine had been Cherry Garcia.
“Zaq,” Jaylee said, smiling mischievously. “Your last … kiss.”
Zaq’s eyes widened. He glanced at Lizzie. If he’d been trying to look sly, he’d failed miserably.
Jaylee and Krista crooned, “Ooooooh!” grinning wide.
Zaq leaned over and kissed the top of Logan’s head. “There. Just kissed Logan.”
This sent everyone into a fit of laughter but did nothing to help Zaq and Lizzie keep their secret. It didn’t really bother me like it first had. If Zaq was willing to kiss Logan in order to keep Lizzie from being embarrassed, Zaq was a good guy, which I knew already.
I was just going to have to get used to him kissing my sister.
“Your turn, Zaq,” Jaylee said.
Zaq looked around the room and his gaze landed on me. His eyes narrowed. “Eli’s last crush.”
END OF CHAPTER
Zaq! What a jerk. Will Eli answer? If so, what do you think he’ll say?