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 the HydroFlu back?
Two days after Hannah told me about the resurgence of the HydroFlu, Zaq and I went to the market to grab some supplies. We found the place packed.
“You know what’s going on?” I asked the clerk as we checked out.
“Someone died from the HydroFlu,” he said. “I guess it happened over at the hospital, but it’s kind of freaked everyone out. People are using all their credits to stock up.”
Zaq grabbed a handful of candy bars beside the register and tossed them on the pile. At my raised eyebrows, he said, “What? I’m stocking up.”
As I drove the truck out of town, the traffic was thick. People everywhere carrying bags.
“This is bad,” Zaq said. “We’ve got to get out of this place before it implodes.”
“I know,” I said. “But how?”
“Steal a bulldozer. Drive right over the chainlink and barbed wire.”
I laughed. “If we’re stealing vehicles, let’s just steal a police car and pretend to be Enforcers.”
“Oh, sure. That’s be no problem. I say we put Logan on the case. He can hotwire, you know.”
It felt good to laugh, but the situation was grim. That night, we sat around the dinner table trying to come up with a legitimate plan, but we had none.
The rest of the week passed by in a restless state of boredom. According to Hannah, it was getting worse in town. Three more had died of the HydroFlu, and people were going crazy thinking the pandemic was back. I wanted to do something to get us out of here, but I didn’t know what. I kept vigil beside the CB, trying for Reinhold every half hour. Nothing. What had happened to him and Kimama?
At the next Morning Party, Tracy made an announcement that didn’t help matters. At all.
“It’s been a rough week for our little community,” he said, “but we are determined to keep as many people safe as possible. That’s why we’re going to need your help. In the next week, everyone needs to drop by the hospital to be tested for infection.”
“What!” I yelled.
Everyone in the crowed started talking at once. The dull roar drowned out whatever else Tracy was saying. Something about numbers on the Grid.
A few seconds later, a siren went off. People scattered on the front left side of the crowd. A police car was parked there. I could just see an Enforcer standing behind the open driver’s side door, holding a bullhorn to his mouth.
“Let’s have some quiet here so Mr. Tracy can give everyone instructions. Quiet please!”
Shockingly, people quieted down.
“Thank you, officer,” Tracy said. “I know this is scary, y’all.” He set his hand over his heart like he was about to say the Pledge of Allegiance. “I’m scared too. But if we are going to stand a chance of stopping this thing before it gets out of control, everyone needs to get tested as soon as possible. Now, we’ve posted a schedule on the Grid and assigned everyone appointments based on the first letter of your last name. Names starting with A through B get tested today. C through F go tomorrow. Like I said, the whole week’s schedule is up there, m’kay? If you’re scheduled to task during that time, it’s okay to take time off to get tested.”
I snorted. “Who’s going to cover for everyone suddenly leaving their jobs?”
“What if we miss our day?” someone yelled out.
“Anyone who misses their test will spend a day in rehab,” Tracy said. “Please follow the schedule on the Grid. By next Morning Party everyone should be tested.”
“This is incredible,” I said. “They’re going to put us in jail if we don’t get tested?” I wished Hannah was here. I’d love to hear what she thought about all this. She was probably at the hospital, waiting to receive a hoard of people with last names A-C.
I wasn’t about to be tested, but I really didn’t want to go to rehab. Again.
On the way home, I vented about it to my dad. “Seriously. How do we even know there is a virus? This could just be their way of getting us addicted to nicotine or whatever so we’ll want to stay here.”
“Four people have died from something, Eli,” Lizzie said. “I don’t think they’re trying to drug us. Besides, they said they’d sneak the nicotine into our food or something.”
“They also said they didn’t have any yet,” Zaq added. “They were going to tell their scavenging team to see what they could find.”
“Yeah, it’s too early for that conspiracy, Eli,” Logan said. “This virus is legit.”
“Fine,” I said. “Even so, I’m not going in. We know Hannah is capable, but she wasn’t yet licensed as a nurse. What’s to say the rest of the people working at the hospital even know what they’re doing? For that matter, what’s to say their needles are clean? I could go down there perfectly fine and walk away with the HydroFlu.”
“Maybe they won’t have to take our blood to find out,” Lizzie said. “Maybe a urine sample will work.”
“Blood cultures are done for bacterial infections,” Logan said.
“Oh what do you know, Logan?” Zaq snapped.
“Hey,” Dad said. “Let’s everybody calm down, okay? Remember who the enemy is here. We’re on the same team. Team Freedom, okay?”
“Sorry, man,” Zaq said to Logan.
“No problem,” Logan said.
No one spoke the rest of the way home.
When Hannah came home that night, she confirmed what Logan had said. “The HydroFlu cannot be tested with a urine sample.”
“Was it a total madhouse today?” I asked, imagining people freaking out and protesting and causing general chaos for the hospital staff.
“It really wasn’t bad. People are scared, but they all want the assurance that they’re healthy. We can give them that assurance.”
“In three to five days,” I added. “Who is checking all these tests, anyway? Is there enough qualified people? What happens if someone makes a mistake?”
“We’re doing the best we can, Eli,” Hannah said. “The hospital has a lab, and the staff there will be checking the blood samples.”
“How many people live here, anyway?” Zaq asked.
“One thousand seven hundred thirty-nine,” Hannah said.
“How very accurate,” Logan said.
“I heard Dr. Bayles say so,” she said.
“And how many looked sick today?” I asked.
“A couple,” Hannah said. “But that doesn’t mean anything. We tested two hundred seventy-three people today. It will take a few days for the lab to run all those tests.”
“I just don’t get how the HydroFlu cropped up again,” I said. “Maybe someone turned on the water in one of the houses.”
“Or maybe the river is finally going bad,” Logan said. “And if that’s the case, we’ll all die eventually.”
“Logan!” Lizzie threw a pillow at him. “Can’t you at least try to be positive?”
“Actually,” Hannah said, “I don’t think this is the same virus as before. I think it’s something new. HydroFlu was waterborne. What we’re testing for is bloodborne. Dr. Bayles is keeping everything really hush hush, but I’ve been able to pick up a lot of clues. Plus the four people who died were also sick for other reasons. My guess is that whatever we’re testing for kills a little more slowly than the HydroFlu did, if you’re healthy. If we can figure out what it is or at least how it is transmitted, we can hopefully stop the disease from spreading.”
“If it’s bloodborne then it spreads like hepatitis or HIV,” Logan said. “With all the parties going on around here, I bet a lot of people are infected.”
“Oh, that’s awful,” Lizzie said. “I hope that’s not it.”
“It’s typical for partiers to be careless,” Logan said. “They think nothing will ever hurt them.”
“Not everyone is partying though,” I said. “I’ve studied the crowd at Morning Parties. “I’d say half of the seventeen hundred people Hannah mentioned are under the age of thirty. I only went to a couple of the night parties with Jaylee, but I didn’t see too many old folk there.”
“Good,” Logan said. “Let the sinners kill each other off.”
“Logan!” three of us said at once.
Lizzie scowled at him. “What a terrible thing to say.”
“Sure, like the rest of you weren’t thinking the same thing,” Logan said. “If all Tracy’s minions die, who will he have to boss around?”
“Everyone is someone, Logan,” Lizzie said. “Besides, Jaylee and Krista and Riggs are some of those partiers. You want them to die? God loves them all, and he wants everyone to know that.”
“They don’t care about God,” Logan said. “The just wanna have fun.”
Lizzie growled and stood. “I’m done with this discussion. If you guys want to talk about ways to help the problem, come get me, otherwise leave me out of it. Oh, and by the way, I’m going in Thursday to get tested. I understand protesting water punishments, but this is different. This is serious, and I don’t think we should be messing around or causing trouble.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Dad said.
“It could be dangerous,” I added.
“I got tested today,” Hannah said.
The room went quiet then. My heart sank. If Hannah sold out, so would everyone else.
“I’ll go with you on Thursday, Liz.” This from Zaq.
See? It was happening. Dad and I were losing them.
“They can test me if they want,” Logan said. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
“Have fun with all that guys. They’ll just have to test me in rehab, I guess, because I’m not going in voluntarily.”
I mean, seriously. At this point, all I had left was my pride. No one was going to take that from me.
Thursday came and went. Zaq and Lizzie were about to leave to go to the hospital and get tested when my dad brought Cree downstairs.
“Cree and I are going to come with you guys,” Dad said.
What?! I stood up from where I’d been lying on the couch. “I thought you were with me on this, Dad.”
“In principle, I agree with you, son. But Cree is a child. And I put myself down as his guardian when we checked in here. In this place, he is Cree McShane. I just don’t feel right making a choice that might get him put in rehab or anywhere apart from me. I claimed Shyla and Davis as mine too, so I’ll take them in on Saturday since they have the last name Taylor.”
“They wouldn’t put kids in rehab,” I said.
“You sure about that, son? Because I’m not.”
No. I wasn’t sure about anything in this place. I hadn’t realized my dad had put himself down as all three kid’s guardians. It made me feel like I had dropped the ball. I had been acting like a man, but the moment I was with my daddy again, I let him do the adulting and I went back to being a kid.
“If these kids get parted from us, we might never get them back,” Dad said.
“Fine,” I said. “I get it. But I’ve been to rehab. I can handle it.” See? I even sounded like a whiny adolescent.
“I understand what you’re doing, Eli,” Dad said. “If it wasn’t for the youngsters, I’d be with you.”
That, at least, made me feel a skosh better, but as I watched Dad drive my truck away with Zaq, Lizzie, and Cree inside, I felt like I was all alone.
That night, Hannah found me sitting on the deck, starting at the mountain.
“The hospital is still open for another two hours,” she said. “There’s still time for you to make it.”
“I’m not letting them poke me with a needle.”
“You’ll be fine. The nurses are very professional.”
“That’s not the point. It’s the principle. I know I’m not sick. I haven’t done anything that would make me sick. I’m a responsible person. One of, like, ten that live in this place, apparently. I should have the right to abstain from testing.”
“You’re mad at the rest of us for getting tested.”
“Yes, I’m mad. I thought we were in this thing together.” I hated how whiny I sounded. I guess I’d taken my role as emotional adolescent to heart.
“We are in this together,” Hannah said. “But you’ve already been to rehab three times. Don’t you think it would be easier to get out of this place if you weren’t ‘A Number One’ criminal around this place?”
I started laughing. Couldn’t help it. “Me. Eli McShane. ‘A Number One’ criminal.”
“You know what I mean.”
I sighed. “Yeah, I hear you. I just can’t do it.”
We stared at the mountain in silence for a bit. A mosquito buzzed near me, and I slapped at it in a panic. “Can mosquitos transport bloodborne viruses?”
“No,” Hannah said. “Mosquitoes aren’t built like a hypodermic needle. They actually have several channels in the appendage they use to bite. They inject saliva through one, suck blood up another. Any virus in blood they consume would be digested and destroyed.”
Man. “You’re really smart, you know that?” I said.
“So are you, Eli. But let me ask you this. You want us to leave this place. But where will we go? I’m not saying this place is ideal. It’s not. But they do have a clean water source. And they have the resources to get food, medical supplies, law enforcement. Can you do all that for us?”
Anger rushed through me at her attack—took me off guard. “Didn’t I do all that already on the ride here?”
“I’m not trying to take away what you did before,” she said. “You’re incredibly smart and brave. And I’m really not trying to be mean, here. I’m simply asking you to consider how you would provide for your own community. Because if you and your dad lead our little group out of this place, you guys need to have a plan that’s better than ‘We’ll figure it out.’ Because Cree and Shyla and Davis deserve better than that.”
“I’m not so sure I agree with you,” I said. “Yes, we need to know we can get safe water, but the rest? Loca and Liberté and Tracy… They clearly have a plan, and their plan is not in Cree, Davis, or Shy’s best interest. It’s all about holding on to their way of life. They need fans. A crowd to sing to. A people to rule. And they’ll risk who they must to hold on to that. So, yeah, I think my ‘We’ll figure it out’ plan is a whole lot better than staying here to be minions to a couple of narcissistic rock stars.”
Silence reigned for a few minutes, and I slapped away three more mosquitos.
“You could be right, Eli,” she said.
Her saying that surprised me. “I don’t want to be right,” I said. “I’d much rather live in this house than have to build my own out in the woods somewhere. And I certainly don’t want to be in charge of an entire community. It sucked coming up here. I hated having people depend on me. It was scary.”
“See? That’s what I like about you. You’re honest to a fault, and you don’t care how that makes you look.”
“What people think of me doesn’t matter,” I said. “You can’t build a nation on giving people everything they want.” Could you? Most the people here seemed happy to live off Loca and Liberté’s charity and live by their rules. But history had proved over and over what happens with that type of economic system. “It’s supposed to be fair and equal, and at first it looks that way. But at some point, it will crash. At some point, the people will realize it’s not fair. That they have no say. That it’s nothing more than slavery. They must do what the leaders say. They can have no ideas of their own apart from what the leaders decree is acceptable. They must conform. They become a slave. Maybe a well-dressed, well-fed slave who gets invited to every party, but they’re still slaves. And that’s the worst part. Loca and Liberté… they make it sound like they care about everyone, but you heard what they said. They need people to rule. This disease cropped up again, and did they cancel their night parties? No. Even though their ongoing party atmosphere is a breeding ground for contamination, they say, party on. That tells me everything I need to know about them. They don’t care about anyone but themselves.”
And I wasn’t going to let their desire for fame destroy our lives.
“Let’s go to the night party,” Dad said.
We had just finished dinner, and I was helping clear the table. “Seriously? Why?”
“I’ve been wanting to check out the security there to get an idea of the numbers of Enforcers they’ve got working for them. I’ve heard people say that the parties get so wild, they often have to call every Enforcer to work just to keep things from getting out of hand.”
Interesting. “Maybe we should try to escape during a night party, then,” I said.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Dad said. “I’ve been compiling a list of Enforcers names. If we can figure out how many there are and find out how many work the night parties, we’ll have a good idea of how many we’d face trying to leave.”
I dropped the paper plates into the trash. “I’m in.”
“Me too,” Hannah said.
“And me,” said Logan.
“Someone needs to stay with the kids,” Lizzie said. “Zaq?”
“You want me to stay? By myself?”
“I was thinking we could both stay,” she said.
“You’re actually going to watch the kids, though, right?” I asked.
Lizzie shot me a dirty look. “Yes, Eli.”
“I don’t know, Dad. Maybe we should ask the kids to watch them.”
“Just go,” she said, throwing a pillow at me.
We ran out of the house laughing.
“Thirty minutes to concert time!” the DJ called out over the beat of the music.
A sea of bodies writhed in the darkness. Shirtless men moved through the crowd, blinking bicycle safety lights strapped across their chests. Dancers surged around them as they passed something to the crowd.
“What are they giving out?” I yelled.
“I’ll go see.” Hannah slipped into the crowd and started dancing, which totally took me off guard. She looked like she belonged in the scene. Logan hadn’t been lying all this time. Hannah was a beautiful girl. And right now she looked like she was on some kind of techno band’s music video.
“I’m going to circle around to the right,” Dad said. “It looks like there is a cluster of Enforcers over by the stage exit. I want to count them. Come with me, Logan?”
Logan, who had also been starting after Hannah, jerked his head toward my dad. “Huh?”
“I could use another set of eyes,” Dad said. “Will you help me?”
“Sure, Mr. McShane,” Logan said, moving to follow my dad.
To his credit, he only looked back once. I wondered why dad had taken him along. Logan had never been his favorite person.
I found Hannah in the crowd. She had danced her way right up to the nearest guy with flashing lights. She yelled in the guy’s ear, then leaned back and smiled, said something else. The guy threw back his head and laughed, then withdrew whatever he was peddling and handed her some. She nodded a thanks and turned back.
Hannah made it halfway when what looked like a Harley biker grabbed her. She elbowed him and moved away, but the guy came after her again. I heard her yell something. The words “Get lost” I think. The next thing I knew I was pushing my way through the mob, headed for them. When I arrived, the guy had ahold of Hannah’s wrists and appeared to be trying to force her to dance. He was about my height but twice my width and swathed in black leather and denim. I grabbed his wrist and pressed my thumbnail into the top of his hand, between the bones, then pulled Hannah’s hand away from his.
“Excuse me!” I yelled, releasing his hand. “But I don’t think the lady likes you!”
He let go of Hannah and shoved me, two hands to my chest. I knocked back into Hannah, both of us falling against the mob like dominoes.
The crowd was too thick to fall, though, and it also pushed back. I felt myself propelled toward the Harley guy again, saw his fist a moment before it smashed my eye.
The events immediately following that were confusing at best. My face felt like it split in two. I fell. Someone stepped on my hand. I couldn’t find my feet. Couldn’t get them to move. Someone tugged at my sleeve. A girl yelled in my year. Something about being okay. Everything was dark and loud.
I felt hands grab my legs and arms. Lift me. The crowd parted as I was carried into open space.
The thought crossed my mind that the Harley guy might have knocked me out.
Oh, man. How embarrassing.
“He looks okay.” Dad’s voice. “Eli?”
“He might have a concussion.” Logan.
“Eli, can you look at me?” Hannah.
“Hannah okay now?” Me. I said that. Classy.
“Eli, I’m fine,” Hannah said. “Can you look at me? Look into my eyes?”
Eyes. They rolled around in my head but I couldn’t find anything to focus on.
“Let’s get him out of here,” Dad said.
Then I was on my feet, stumbling between two bodies. My legs moved from instinct alone. And the more I walked, the more my head cleared. The pulsating music faded some, which eased the ache in my head. I squinted. Focused straight ahead. Logan waving people out of the way. Looking back, eyes wide and worried. We walked by cars and trucks. A parking lot. No, this was the street. We were leaving the LLC compound. Dad had his arm around my waist. So did Hannah. My arms had been slung over each of their shoulders.
I suddenly realized just how terribly pathetic I was. I seized control of my body and tried to stop, to get away from them. I could walk on my own, for Pete’s sake. I wasn’t a baby.
But they only grabbed me tighter and continued to compel me forward. The next thing I knew I was sitting in the backseat of the truck next to Hannah. Dad was driving. Logan sitting shotgun but hanging backwards over the seat to stare at me.
“What was it?” I asked, coming back to myself.
“Hey, Eli,” Hannah leaned in front of me, looking into my eyes. My left eye, anyway. My right one was closed. I reached up and felt puffy and foreign skin. “You got punched in the face.” She smiled. Smiled! It’s wasn’t really funny, was it? And why wouldn’t she answer my question.
“What did that guy give you?” I asked again. “The guy with the lights.”
“Oh,” she said. “Ecstasy out of a TicTac container. He also said he had tina, whatever that is.”
“Crystal meth,” Dad said.
“Drugs? Really? For free?” Logan asked. “That’s crazy!”
“Not exactly free,” Hannah said. “They scanned my lanyard.”
“So they can keep track of which people use and which don’t?” I asked.
“That’s good information,” Dad said. “They can see who can be controlled by their addictions and who can’t.”
“It sucks,” I said, annoyed. Not that I need a last straw, but this is it. “Our new government is handing out meth and ecstasy in the midst of an outbreak. They’re idiots.”
“It is pretty irresponsible,” Hannah said. “Do you think it’s related to their plan to get people addicted so they stick around?”
“No,” I said. “Those shirtless guys have been here from the start. They were at the night parties I went to with Jaylee. I just didn’t know what they were doing.”
“They see no problem in handing out recreational drugs,” Dad said. “To them, they’re just being good party hosts. Helping people have a good time.”
“You think this is a problem, Hannah?” Logan asked.
“Absolutely it’s a problem,” she said. “Those are two very dangerous drugs. People can die.”
“They don’t seem to care about that,” I said.
But I did.
Back at the house, I let Hannah nurse me a little. She made and ice pack for my eye, then sat up with me in the living room, talking. We talked about all kinds of things. My home in Phoenix. Her home in San Francisco. My mom. Her parents. School. Hobbies.
“What would you do if we could get out of here?” she asked me.
“We don’t even have to go far,” I said. “The clean water creek runs down into the East River. We could set up a village right before the rivers meet. With access to the water, we’d have everything we needed. We could scavenge for medical supplies. We could even take a trip to Denver and look for some books on natural remedies. I had a great one in my truck before it was stolen. Dad knows how to garden. He used to grow tomatoes and cucumbers for my mom in a little greenhouse out back of our house. Mom called it her salsa garden. We’d need a big garden, though. We’d need to plant a lot and store it in a cellar for winter. Winter would be the hardest, but we could hunt.”
“Vegetarians in summer and carnivores in winter?” Hannah asked.
“If we had to, why not? People lived like that for centuries. No reason we couldn’t.”
In my injured state, it never occurred to me to wonder where everyone else had gone. Especially Logan, who usually hovered around Hannah like a shadow. It was just the two of us, sitting in the living room. Hannah asked me a ton more questions, and I talked and talked. I don’t know what possessed me, but it was like I’d been holding it all in for so long I just needed to get it out. All my ideas. All my plans. I really believed that life would be better outside this place. Sure, we might not have access to restaurants or the Grid or concerts or drugs. But we didn’t need any of that.
No one did.
I must have fallen asleep, because I woke the next morning sitting in the same chair, a blanket tucked over me. I still couldn’t see out of my right eye. After I got over my confusion of the time and day, I remembered last night. Then I was just plain embarrassed.
What had I said to Hannah last night, anyway?
I had talked. A lot.
I went into the bathroom to see what I looked like and wished I hadn’t. My right eye was the color of a plumb and swollen just as big. It didn’t really hurt, but I wondered if my eye was okay underneath. I tried and failed to force my eyelid open. Whatever.
I wandered through the house, but it was totally empty, so I went out back and found my dad watching the kids play with a ball.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“Went into town to get our daily food ration. We figure we should hoard as much food as possible if we’re going to try and leave.”
That made good sense. “Where did you go last night?” I asked.
“Hannah was taking good care of you, so I went to bed. But not before encouraging Zaq and Lizzie to challenge Logan to a game of Trivial Pursuit.”
Logan felt he was the king of TP, and I instantly saw through my dad’s innocent comment. “You left me alone with her on purpose?”
“I’m sorry, did you require a chaperone? Some sort of babysitter?”
I scowled. “That’s not what I meant. I was not myself last night. I think I talked to her nonstop for over an hour. I might have told her my eighth grade locker combination.”
“Good,” Dad said. “It’s about time you paid attention to a real woman.”
My cheeks blazed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I thought I was perfectly clear. She likes you. This is a good thing. And she likes you even more after you tried to help her last night.”
I snorted. “Tried.”
“You don’t have to win the battle to win the war, son,” Dad said.
I rolled my good eye, but the phrase played over and over in my head. We’d tried a lot of things so far. Lost a lot of battles. But the war wasn’t over. In fact, the time had come to plan the final battle.
A battle I intended to win.
END OF CHAPTER
Are you ready for Eli’s final battle?