A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Eli McShane, a young survivor, journeys toward Colorado and the rumored location of a clean water source.
In matters of life or death, what do you thirst for?
If you’ve just discovered the THIRST: weekly story blog, welcome! Click here for a list of previous chapters, if you’d like to get caught up.
I type one chapter per week in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series I’m writing over at www.GoTeenWriters.com. If you’re an author, come join in the fun. Otherwise, enjoy the story.
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.
More confessions. I’m having a VERY rough week. Too much going on. Trying to get kids ready to start school and stuff too. King’s Blood is due Sunday. Going on a day trip Thursday. Will be at two writer’s conferences next week. All that to say, I did the best I could with this chapter. It needs help and love. But this was always a first draft experiment, so I knew it wasn’t going to be beautiful. Please also keep in mind that I finished this in the wee hours of the morning and did not have time or the ability to keep open my eyes long enough to spell check it. So there are likely many typos. I will fix these later.
Thank you for your grace. I appreciate you, readers!
With that, here is the final chapter of THIRST! Will Eli and his friends make it to Dr. Bayles before Enforcers catch them?
What we were doing was insane. I knew that. But the alternative was to spend six months in rehab—likely longer now that we were about to bust into the Champion’s residence with guns.
A couple blocks away, Dad pulled off the road and around to the side of the pickup bed. “What’s the plan? We can’t exactly waltz into Champion House on a good day, and two guns isn’t going to be enough power to face off with all the Enforcers who work there.”
“If you drive around back, I can lure him out,” Hannah said.
“How?” I asked.
“He has been asking to spend time with me,” Hannah said slowly. “I’ve always turned him down, but I’ll say I’ve had a change of heart and want to talk.”
“Eww,” Logan said.
“It’ll work,” Hannah said. “Trust me. I’ll bring him out to the truck, then you guys have to take it from there.”
“Where are we going to take him?” I asked. “And how is he going to operate or whatever?”
“I have a bag of medical supplies in the back that I stole from the hospital,” Hannah said.
“Then we take him with us,” Dad said. “If we can get past the fence, they might not find us. Chances are they wouldn’t monitor outside the fence.”
“But how to get past the fence?” I asked.
“This truck has a toolkit,” Dad said. “It’s got everything I need.”
“Which is…?” I asked.
“Cable cutters and some thick, lineman’s electrical gloves.
“You’re going to cut through the fence?”
“That’s right I am.”
Seemed like as good a plan as any, so we climbed back into the truck and Dad drove up to Champion House. This time Hannah and I got in the cab with my dad.
My heart was throbbing. Adrenaline pounded in my ears. It was dark, and Dad took the delivery driveway that went around back of the house. He parked close enough to the back entrance so that it wouldn’t look strange, but far enough back that the back of the pickup with Zaq, Lizzie, and the kids would be out of the porch lights.
“Wait here,” Hannah said, getting out.
“What if someone comes out to talk to us?” I asked.
“No one will,” Hannah said. “They don’t patrol outside the fence. How about you guys get out of the cab. I’ll pretend this is my truck and start to get in the driver’s seat. When he—”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You drive a Waste Management truck?”
“He won’t notice.”
“Yes, he will.”
“When he starts to get in the passenger side, you guys sweep in with your guys and look scary.”
I frowned, thinking this just about the dumbest plan I’d ever heard. Hannah walked away then, and my Dad didn’t stop her. The engine ticked as it cooled down, which made me think of the seconds on a clock tick, tick, ticking as Enforcers tracked us to this very spot.
“This is a dumb plan,” I said.
“It’s all we’ve got, son,” Dad said. “We should get out. And we’ll need Zaq’s help to nab Dr. Bayles.”
It suddenly seemed beyond insane. We were going to kidnap this man. Point a loaded gun at a person to make them come with us. I pulled aside the sliding window on the back of the cab.
“Hey, Zaq,” I said. “Get out. You’re muscles are needed.”
We argued about what to do. Dad wanted us out of sight around the back of the truck, but I thought that was too far and would give Dr. Bales time to react before we could reach him. Zaq volunteered to jump out of the bed, but Dad was worried he’d get hurt. We settled on Zaq in the bed with the rifle. He’d stand and point it. Dad got behind the truck, and I hunched down on the floor of the passenger’s side with the handgun.
It was not a good fit for my legs.
It seemed like Hannah took forever. I started to worry that they’d arrested her or Dr. Bayles had coerced her to stay for dinner. I pictured her at a fancy table seated between Loca Champion and Tracy, laughing at something Tracy had said.
Where did I come up with this stuff?
I set the handgun on the seat. Then decided to hold it. The cold metal and how heavy it was started to freak me out. Handguns were for killing.
I reached out to set it back on the seat when I heard voices drawing near.
Laughter. Hannah and some guy.
I gripped the gun and aimed it at the door.
“It’s nice that your roommate loaned you her truck, but we can take my car,” the man said. “It’s a Lexus.”
“This will be faster,” Hannah said, opening the driver’s side door.
The passenger’s door creaked open. I tensed, ran my thumb over the safety to make sure it was on.
The doctor was so busy looking at Hannah, he didn’t see me until he kicked me in the leg. He frowned, looked down, and his forehead wrinkled up.
“What is going on—” He stiffened, lifted his hands in the air.
“Back up,” Dad said. He was holding the rifle against Dr. Bayles’s back. Zaq must have handed it to him.
Dr. Bayles backed away from the truck. “I demand to know what—”
“Shhh,” Dad said. “One more word and I hit you with my gun. Eli, get out.”
I squeezed out from my hiding place in a very ungraceful like manner. I climbed out of the truck and Dad prodded the doctor forward.
“Get in the middle,” he said.
The doctor got in and started scooting. Hannah, I saw, had gotten in the bed. She was currently sitting beside Lizzie, rummaging through a backpack.
“Cover me, Eli,” Dad said.
I stood in the open doorway, pointing the handgun at the doctor. Dad handed Zaq the rifle and ran around and got in the driver’s side.
“Cover him through the back window,” Dad told Zaq. “Eli, you sit right beside him.”
Great. I was still the handgun man.
Soon we were on the road again.
“Why doesn’t Hannah have a tracker?” I asked the doctor.
“That’s what this is about? The trackers? Why do you care?”
“We don’t want to be tracked,” I said. “Why doesn’t Hannah have one?”
“Because she’s smart enough to know she’s been injected with one. We didn’t inject trackers into any of the doctors or nurses.”
Dad drove around the U at the bottom of Summit Road. In the distance, a riot of police lights were headed their way.
“Hold on!” Dad yelled.
He slowed and drove right off the road. There wasn’t much vegetation at the foot of this high desert mountain, and Dad drove right over the steppe, four-by-fouring his way around the sides of two condo buildings.
I watched in the rear-view. It looked like the cop cars were going to continue on to the Champions, but then one stopped and turned slowly off the road.
Dad had a great head start, though. On the other side of the condos, he picked up speed in a parking lot, then turned onto Hunter Hill Road. He followed that to Snowmass.
No sign of the cop car. We’d lost him, it looked like.
“They’ll be expecting us to go for the gate again,” Dad said. “So we take another path.”
“What path?” I asked. “The north gate?”
“Well go to the fence. Same place Logan got shocked. But we need to split up. I’ll drop you at the bottom of the slope. Run over to Waste Management, see if the garbage truck is still there. If so, drive it to the fence. I’m going to lure them away.
“I don’t want to split up.”
“I’ll be fine. Trade guns with Zaq. He and Lizzie stay with me. You take the kids.”
Just past the hospital, he drove into the lot at the Crested Butte Mountain Resort and wove his way through the alley roads that outlined each resort. He stopped outside the snowboard rental shop, and I slid out, holding my gun on Dr. Bayles.
Zaq got out and I told him the plan. We switched guns, and before I was ready, Dad, Zaq, Lizzie, and Dr. Bayles were driving down Crested Butte Way. I could hear the sirens, could even see them flashing in the dark sky, but I didn’t know where they were.
“Is that a helpcopter?” Logan asked.
I heard it too. “Come on,” I said. “We need to get out of sight.”
Logan with Davis, Hannah with Shyla, and me with Cree, we each grabbed a kid’s hand and jogged around another set of condos toward Whetstone and the Waste Management building.
“I can’t believe it’s still here,” I said. “Keys too.”
“That’s what you get when you make Enforcers out of untrained civilians,” Logan said.
“They were too busy chasing us,” I said. “And why would we come back for this truck?”
“Can we all ride up front this time?” Shyla asked, pinching her nose.
“Yes we can,” I said. “But first let’s get some of our stuff out of the back in case we don’t have time again.”
We rearranged, piled in, and I steered away. We were golden all the way to Gothic. Then I figured we had maybe five minutes before someone saw a mysterious dump truck heading north.
Try thirty seconds. I swear, even with ten Enforcers on the trip to Dallas, Enforcers were trailing after our garbage truck like bees chasing a pot of honey.
“Papa Bear to Cub, come in.” The walkie talkie squawked.
“Logan, answer that. It’s my dad.”
“I hear you loud and clear Papa Bear,” Logan said. “This is Chewbacca Slim. What the word? Over?”
“Chewbacca Slim?” I asked.
“It’s my call sign,” Logan said. “It’s a cool name.”
“Change in plans,” Dad said. “We’ve got too many enforcers in the way to keep the plan going. Head back to our old homestead and take the Gunsight trail.”
“Tell him okay,” I said.
“Affirmative, Big Daddy, over and out,” Logan said.
What followed next can only be described as a car chase. Through the tiny town of Mount Crested Butte, some two dozen Enforcer cars chased one big blue dump truck. We headed north on Gothic, but I could see a major roadblock in the distance. Thankfully, I was able to veer right on Cinnamon Mountain Road and wind through the back streets just a bit. Cinnamon Mountain Road to Anthracite Drive, to Winterset Drive, and back onto Gothic.
No sign of the road block ahead. I whooped. “They set up that road block too early.”
It was tempting to just keep going on Gothic and try for the main gate, but my dad and the others were back by our old house and I didn’t want to risk losing them. I took a sharp right onto Prospect Drive and punched the gas. The dump truck took a moment to pick up speed, but once it got going, it really cruised.
Gunsight Pass crossed Prospect Road just before the second major switchback. I slowed some as I ran down through the ditch. Inside the cab, we rattled about inside the cab, and I had to slow down to fifteen on the narrow dirt trail.
I bounced through the rutted trail, and when I came to a copse of thick spruce trees, the branches of which scraped the sides of the truck, I stopped .
“Get out, quickly. I’m leaving this to block the road.”
We exited into a tangle of branches. I heard the Enforcer cars behind, still revving their engines over the rutted trail.
I swung the tent over my shoulder and pulled Cree with me. My heart was beating so fast I could hardly breathe. I saw the fence up ahead, saw that it had been cut open. Beyond the curling, severed wires I could see Lizzie, and Zaq with the rifle trained on Dr. Bayles.
Where was my dad?
I handed Cree’s hand off to Hannah’s free one. “Get through!” I yelled. “Hurry!”
Hannah and Logan ran ahead, but I turned around, gun gripped at my side, scanning the land behind me for Enforcers, my dad, anything else that might be a problem. The empty police cruiser.
It was on the ground, hidden by the backside of the copse of trees I’d driven through. It looked empty. No pilot. No passenger. Enforcers were working their way through the trees. They’d be here soon enough. Where was my dad? We needed to get out of here.
“Stop right there, Mr. McShane.”
The voice pulled my gaze back to the police cruiser. Mr. Tracy was standing behind it with Jaylee, a gun trained on her head.
“You look surprised.” Tracy grinned, then lifted a walkie talkie up for me to see. “I found this in my office. It didn’t take my techs long to repair it. Then I heard everything you said. Payback isn’t so great, is it?”
“What are you doing with Jaylee?”
“She’s the one you like, isn’t she?” Tracy asked. “I remembered she had wanted to go along with you when you searched for your house. You were going to leave her behind?”
“I told him I didn’t want to go,” Jaylee said.
“Oh, but I can see it in his eyes, girl. He wanted you to come.”
“What is the matter with you?” I asked, sickened that he would haul Jaylee out of her house to try and use her against me. “Am I really that big of a threat to you?”
“Everyone accepts me. Everyone but you and your little group. You think you’re better than me, but you’re not. And I will make you submit.”
I saw my dad then. He was behind Tracy, creeping closer. I kept talking, hoping to further distract the man. “How are you going to do that? You going to shoot Jaylee? You think—”
Dad lunged at Tracy and grabbed his arm. “Go, Eli! Now!”
Jaylee screamed ran toward the enforcers. “Help!” she cried. “Please help me.”
I wasn’t leaving my dad. I trained my gun on the men, but they were too close for me to take a shot.
“Eli, go!” Dad yelled.
I couldn’t go without him. Was he nuts?
A gun fired.
My heart jolted. Both men went down. I ran toward them just as Enforcers crested the hill.
“Catch!” Dad pitched something at me over the cruiser. I had to jump to the left to catch it.
The walkie talkie.
Dad stood up, hooked Tracy’s arm around his neck. “Elias McShane, don’t make this a waste,” he said. “You go take care of your friends. I’ll catch up soon. I promise.”
“Dad, come on. You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do, Eli. And you have to go. Now.”
“I love you, kid. Now, get out of here.”
He hobbled toward the first Enforcer, waved one hand. “Hey! I need some help here.”
I turned, picked up the tent, and ran.
We hiked just inside the trees by the East River. We’d used the walkie talkie to call Reinhold and tell him what happened, but he didn’t want to talk over the radios. Instead we made plans to meet in a few days. We only had the one six-man tent, but it was a chilly night and a pile of eight bodies packed like sardines wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
Lizzie had finally stopped crying, but only because she’d fallen asleep. She said she didn’t blame me, but I wasn’t so sure. Dad had only stayed behind to wait for us. And then he’d sacrificed himself for me.
Where was he right now? Had Tracy died? If so, what would they do to my dad?
“We need some logging blades,” Zaq said, drawing me back into conversation.
Everyone was asleep but the two of us. We talked about how we might try and build a house. Zaq thought logs were the way to go, but I’d rather find some lumber. Not that I knew how to build with lumber.
I wanted to talk about going in to get my dad back, but I knew what Zaq would say. I’d just have to wait and see. Dad would find us eventually, right? It had to be a lot easier for one guy to break out than nine people.
“I want to marry your sister,” Zaq said.
That got my attention. “Are you nuts?”
“No. I talked to your dad about it once. He seemed to think it was a good idea.”
Zaq’s voice went soft. “You think it’s a bad idea?”
“No. That’s not what I meant. I just… How? It’s not like there’s any churches or anything.”
“I’m asking for your blessing, Eli. And I’m trying to ask if you will marry us.”
“Me?” The fool was exhausted. That had to be the problem. Tomorrow morning, I doubt he’d remember this conversation.
“Lizzie’s got a Bible. You could wing it okay. Plus, well, you’re el presidente, man. There’s no one higher. Will you lead us?”
I sighed. Oddly, I wasn’t scared. I felt safe in the forest by the river. Out here, I knew what to do. “Yeah, I’ll lead us,” I said. “But not by myself. This isn’t going to be like Tracy. We’re a team. And I need every one of you to help me.”
“You got it, boss,” Zaq said.
It was the first time in a long time that Zaq calling me boss didn’t bother me. I could do this. We could do this. Together.
The [Temporary] End
Jill here. I realized at 1:32 this morning that I completely forgot Dr. Bayles!!! and the trackers in their arms. [Gah! So sad.] Clearly I am too tired to be writing climactic endings to books. THIRST needs a lot more work. Welcome to the world of rough drafts! Stories have never come out perfect for me on the first try. Rewrites are magical.
Also, I’ll likely write an epilogue of some kind for the final book. I’m not sure what exactly I want to show yet or how far in the future the epilogue will go. Just know that there will be one. But it’s very late. And I need to go to bed. So it will have to wait for the rewrite.
Thanks so much everyone for hanging in there with me and reading along! I apologize for the very messy last few chapters. They need a lot of work, and I’ll get to rewriting them eventually. Probably not until late this year or early next. I’ll keep you posted here on my website.
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.
Okay, so the ending is not coming together the way I originally planned. This isn’t uncommon for me when writing a first draft. I had to take some time to brainstorm what was broken with the story and how I could fix it. All that showed me that I’m going to need to make some significant changes in the rewrite to make this story build up to a major climax at the end.
Right now the book is kind of rambling along, and I don’t like that. Also, my antagonist doesn’t appear in the story until past the halfway point, which is strange, but I think the thing that bothers me most about THIRST is that it feels like two separate books. I have the “discovery of the Pandemic” story. Then I have a separate “arrive in Mount Crested Butte and try to make a life of it” story. We shall see whether or not editors agree with me on that later on. Perhaps it would be best to make it into two books. I don’t know…
For now, to finish these next two chapters, I’m going to write as if I’ve already made some changes, though I won’t actually make them until I go back to rewrite. The changes are:
So. As you read these last two chapters, pretend that you know the fence is electrified and that everyone got jobs when Hannah got hers. I will make all this so during the rewrite.
And now, on with the story…
Arrested again. What will happen to Eli now?
I had fasted before only a couple times in my life. The 30-Hour Famine was a favorite of my youth pastor. But going out food for a full week?
The week in rehab crawled by. Each day I desperately anticipated my small glass of water. Carelle Lawler’s obnoxious sessions didn’t help. When I was finally released, I felt like I could drink an entire lake and eat a herd of cattle.
I was released into the lobby of the rehab facility and bade to use a computer there to contact a ride. I sent everyone I knew a message on the Grid, and still it was another twenty minutes before Dad stopped the truck out front to pick me up. When he heard how Tracy had starved me, he nearly drove the truck to the Champion compound to give the man a piece of his mind.
“It doesn’t matter, Dad,” I said. “Tracy doesn’t care about right and wrong. He wants to be in control, and he wants everyone to obey without question.”
“It’s time to leave this place forever,” Dad said.
“I was thinking the exact same thing.”
We had barely stepped foot in the house and my dad started yelling for people to gather in the kitchen for a meeting. Everyone was home but Hannah. Once we’d all settled around the table and I was nursing a glass of apple juice and some crackers, my dad spoke.
“Eli and I are done with this place,” Dad said. “Who is with us?”
Hands shot up around the table. Unsurprisingly unanimous.
“It’s not going to be easy out there,” Dad said. “We’re going to be roughing it for a really long time. Maybe forever. That means hunting our own food. Living off the land.”
“What about water?” Logan asked.
“We don’t know for sure,” Dad said. “I figure on hiking north, looking for creeks coming off the mountain. I hope we’ll find one that’s clean. If not, we’re going to have to scavenge for a while and collect rainwater.”
“Maybe wait this place out,” I said. “At the rate they’re going, they might just kill themselves off.”
“They might,” Dad said, “but we can’t pin our survival on that hope.”
“Won’t they think to look for us by the river?” Zaq asked.
“Maybe,” Dad said, “but I don’t think they’ll waste too much time looking for us. They’ve got more important things to worry about. If we can get out of this place, we’ll be free.”
“Tracy will try and stop us,” I said, then filled them in on the conversation we’d had in the basement of the rehab facility. Then I told them about the guns I saw down there. “If we could get those guns, it would really help.”
Dad shook his head. “Not worth it. You get caught trying to get those guns, they lock you away for six months. We’ve got two guns left. Those will have to do for now. Once we’re settled, we can scavenge more.”
“So all we need is an exit plan,” Zaq said.
“Yeah, none of us got on the Denver trip,” Logan said. “How are we going to get out of here?”
“I still think the garbage truck is the best plan,” I said.
“And I agree,” Dad said. “Eli’s can pop the distributor cap on one of the trucks just before he leaves for the night. In the morning, when it won’t start, they’ll call me in to take a look. I’ll make up some complicated problem. They’ll rework the route for the day, leaving the truck behind for me to fix. I’ll drive it to the shop, but that night, I’ll steal it.”
“The house is too far away from the southern gate, so we’ll meet Dad at the public tennis court on Glacier Lily Way. There are no streetlamps there, so I’m guessing it should be deserted.”
“I thought we didn’t want to go south?” Zaq said.
“We don’t,” I said, “but we can’t think of a better way to get past the gates. We’ll just have to circle around the mountain and hike to the river from the other side.”
“What are you going to tell the guard at the gate?”
“They won’t ask anything,” Eli said. “The long distant drivers sometimes don’t leave until after dark.”
We sat around, hashing out all the details. Once we felt good about the plan, everyone split up to gather supplies. I ate a peanut butter sandwich, which gave me a stomachache, then took a nap. By the time I had slept it off and come downstairs looking for more food, the whole day had gone by.
Hannah, Lizzie, and Logan were in the kitchen making hamburgers. It smelled amazing.
I walked up to the counter, soundless, and helped myself to a slice of cheese.
“Ice cream,” Lizzie said. “And chocolate.”
“I’m going to miss video games,” Logan said.
“Doritos,” Hannah said. “I love Doritos.”
The things we’d be leaving behind when we moved into the woods. “I’m going to miss cheese,” I said. Unless we could figure out how to make it. Even if we did, it wouldn’t likely taste the same. “I bet we can still play video games, Logan. We just need to siphon gas and get a generator. Then we’ll have electricity.”
“How long will it take to scavenge the games I want, though?” Logan asked. “I should have brought my games from—”
The CB crackled. “This is Grizzly Adams to base. You got your ears on?”
I sprinted to the CB and yanked the receiver to my mouth, nearly pulling the unit off the table. “Yes! Hello, Grizzly Adams. This is base. Where are you? What took you so long?”
“Say ‘over,’” Logan said, standing right beside me.
“Over,” I added.
We stared at each other, waiting for the static to clear. It finally did. “That a story for another day. Calling to say that the original plan is good. I repeat. The original plan is good. You guys still in Alcatraz?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We’re ready to—”
“You have to wait until he says ‘over,’ Eli,” Logan said.
“Didn’t catch that, base. Please repeat.”
“Shh!” I said, turning my back on Logan. “We’re ready to find a new home,
I said. “Any recommendations?”
“It’s like anywhere else in the world. Best places are always on the water or in the hills.”
“He means by the river or in the mountains,” Logan said.
“Thank you, Sherlock,” I said.
“You going to stop by for a visit, Grizzly Adams?” I asked.
“No can do. I’ve made my home on the cliffs of paradise. You know where that is?”
I turned around and looked from Logan to Lizzie to Hannah. “What’s that mean?”
The girls shrugged.
Logan said, “He’s saying he lives in a paradise.”
“You copy that, base?” Reinhold asked. “Can you find my address?”
“Hold that thought, Grizzly Adams,” I said, then to the others, “Any other ideas?”
“He’s on a cliff, obviously,” Logan said.
“Maybe,” Hannah said. “He said the best places were on the water or in the hills, and cliffs would be in the hills.”
“Ha!” Logan said, as if Hannah agreeing with him was a pass for some kind of intelligence test.
“The ski map!” Lizzie ran into the kitchen and returned with the framed ski map that hung on the wall.
We all crowded around, scanning the colorful map for the words.
“Right there.” Hannah tapped the paper. “Paradise Cliffs.”
I pressed the call button. “We found you, Grizzly Adams.”
“Glad to hear that. You people serve your time yet?”
“Affirmative,” I said. “Our sentence is all most up. We’ll be sure and look you up fist chance we get.” I caught Logan staring at me. “Over.”
“Sounds like a plan, base. Catch you on the flip flop. Over and out.”
I set the receiver back in the cradle, then turned to the others. “There’s clean water outside this fence, just waiting for us.”
The girls squealed and hugged each other. Logan offered me a high five. I slapped his hand.
“It won’t be long now,” I said. “We’re almost home.”
At dinner than night, I started a small war when I told everyone that we should tell Jaylee and Krista about the plan.
“After Krista turned you in?” Lizzie asked.
“Yeah, Eli, that was so cold,” Zaq said. “I don’t think you can trust her.”
“I’m afraid I agree, son,” Dad said. “They might turn us in.”
“And even if they didn’t,” Hannah said, “they won’t want to leave. You know they won’t.”
I did know. “It just feels wrong to leave without telling them anything,” I said. “How about I just say we’re thinking of leaving soon, and see how it goes? If they act interested, I’ll tell them I give them more information once we know it. Then I’ll bring it back here for a vote. But if they don’t care, well, then I’ll know.”
No one objected to this plan, so I set off alone in my truck to visit the Snowcrest Condos.
No one answered. Considering it was prime party hours, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I decided to wait a while. I ran over to the restaurant and grabbed myself a milkshake to go, then sat in my truck, sipping it, savoring it.
Was this the last milkshake I’d ever have?
If we could find some cows… I wondered if any animals had survived the Pandemic. If we could find a cow or even a goat, we could have milk. Grains would be much harder to produce. I was pretty sure that flour and sugar would last a while if we could keep it in airtight containers, but once we ran out, we’d need to learn to grow our own or do without.
Do without sugar. Zaq might die.
I was so caught up in my reverie, I almost didn’t notice Krista entering the apartment with a takeout box. I pondered my next move and decided to talk to Krista first. She probably knew where Jaylee was.
I’d barely reached their door when it opened and Krista stepped out.
“Gosh!” She clapped her hand over her heart and scowled at me. “You scared me to death, Eli! Knock next time.”
“I was just about to.”
She looked me over, smirking. “Your face healed fast.”
“No thanks to you.”
“You got what you deserved, Eli. What do you want?”
“To talk to you and Jaylee.”
“I’m going out. Jaylee is resting.”
“That’s what I said.”
Had she looked through the peephole, saw it was me, and ignored me? Or had she been sleeping? “It will only take a minute,” I said, then plowed on ahead before she could try and brush me off again. “We’re thinking of leaving.”
Krista gave me a dirty look. “You can’t leave.”
“Well, we’re thinking of trying anyway,” I said. “We wanted to let you know and see if you were interested in coming with us.”
“You guys are crazy,” Krista said. “Why would you want to leave? This place is great!”
“I know it seems good now,” I said, “but the people in charge, they don’t have your best interests at heart. They’re in it for themselves. And it’s going to get worse.”
“I don’t think it’s bad, so worse wouldn’t mean much to me.”
“Where do they have you tasking?” I asked.
“At a clothing store.” She struck a pose. “I got this outfit there. Cute, huh?”
This was going nowhere fast. “Can I talk to Jaylee?”
“Whatever. Just be nice, okay. She doesn’t need your lectures.” She walked past me. I caught the door and turned around, but she was already halfway down the first flight of stairs. “Later, Eli!” she called, waving one hand above her head.
I took that as a no, she would not be joining us.
I found Jaylee on the couch, tucked under a pile of blankets. She looked awful. Her hair was tangled and frizzy, her eyes puffy and red.
“Hey,” I said.
“I’m not coming with you, so don’t ask.”
“You heard that?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to come, Eli. I mean, I wouldn’t have before, but now I would. Still, it doesn’t matter, so I’m staying here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m infected, Eli. With the Thin Plague.”
“What!” I lost my breath for a moment and sank onto the end of the couch. “How?”
“I caught it from Riggs who supposedly caught it from one of Liberté’s dancers.”
“Oh, Jaylee.” I didn’t know what else to say. I just sat there, arms pimpling with a chill that didn’t want to leave.
She burst into tears.
“Hey.” I swallowed my own sadness and scooted beside her. “Jay, I’m sorry.”
She threw herself at me, hugging me tight. I just held her while she cried. It was the saddest thing that ever happened to me. Sadder even then learning about my mom, helping Zaq deal with his family, or having a funeral service for Cree’s mom. All those people were dead. But Jaylee was still alive. She had to live each day knowing she was dying, knowing her choices had brought this upon her. It was too horrible to think about.
“How long do they give you?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Dr. Bayles says he doesn’t know much about this new strain, and that’s what I have. It seems to work faster than HIV or even AIDS. But it’s not the same disease either, really. It’s a new thing. But he says that since I didn’t have any health problems before, I might last longer than the other four.”
The first four Thin Plague deaths, she meant.
Again I fought back the emotions that threatened to undo me. Jaylee’s eyes met mine, saw the moisture growing there, and she started bawling again.
So I stayed with her for an hour or so and cried with her, prayed with her. And the weird thing was, she let me.
“You probably think I wasn’t listening all those years in youth group,” she said, “but I was. I know the truth. I’ve said all the right prayers. Me and God, we’re like this.” She held up two fingers, twisted. “So while you probably think, ‘Oh poor Jaylee is dying,’ just remember that I’m going to meet God before any of you perfect Christians get a chance to. I’ll be first this time.”
“We’re not perfect,” I said.
“But you try to be. You always try. And you never give up trying. And that’s what kept you alive longer than me. I’m glad you’re getting out of this place, Eli. You’re right to. The moment I found out I was infected, people stopped inviting me to parties. I don’t have any friends anymore. Because I got sick living their way. What does that mean?”
“That they were never very good friends to begin with.”
“Krista is. She takes care of me.”
“I’m glad. Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?”
She shook her head. “Krista needs me more than I need her. I’m hoping that my situation will knock some sense into her so she doesn’t end up like me.”
“That’s a good mission, Jay.”
“I think so.” She smiled, and I swear, I had never seen her more beautiful. It was a different kind of beauty, though. A pure beauty. Innocent. Vulnerable. Honest.
“Pray for us, Jay?” I asked. “If we get caught, Tracy is going to put me in rehab for six months.”
She squeezed my hand. “I’ll pray, Eli. And this time you’ll make it out.”
The next night as I left my shift, I removed the distributor cap and took it home with me, gave it to my dad. We had everything ready to go, and only when it was fully dark did we pack up the back of the truck. My glorious, powerful, amazing truck. I would miss it, but I supposed we could always find another truck someday if and when we needed one. Right now, we needed to get out of here and build ourselves a place to hole up for the coming winter. Colorado winters were not light, and we Arizonans were not used to the cold.
We still had the two walkie talkies that had been left in the vehicles, so I put those in my backpack. Dad had given me both guns, so the rest of my pack was filled with ammo.
At dusk, we drove over to the tennis court on the south side of town and got out while we waited. We didn’t have any tennis equipment, but Shyla, Davis, and Cree made a game out of walking along the while lines on the court. That, thankfully, kept them occupied and out of mischief.
We heard the dump truck before we saw it.
“Man,” Zaq said. “That engine is so loud.”
“Good,” I said. “It will hopefully muffle any noises we make riding in the back.”
“I can’t believe I’m going to ride in the back of a garbage truck,” Lizzie said.
We saw the truck then, stood in a group, watching it roll nearer. Dad pulled into the lot at the tennis court and circled around to park beside my truck. The door opened and he climbed out.
“We ready to do this?”
I looked from Zaq, to Logan, to Lizzie, to Hannah, then nodded. “We’re ready.”
Dad got back in the truck and activated the hydraulics to raise the tailgate. It reeked horribly, which was no surprise but still shocking to the senses. With six of us, we moved our gear from the bed of my pickup to the back of the garbage truck in two trips. I gave Dad his gun and one of the walkie talkies, which he clipped it to his front shirt.
“If you need anything, talk loud,” he said. “I can’t hear much in that cab.”
“I won’t need anything,” I said. “It’s going to be fine.”
“I hope so.”
Dad gathered us at the end of the garbage truck. We all linked hands, and he prayed that God would set us free and ultimately keep us safe.
We climbed inside the cargo box, and a few seconds later, Dad ran the hydraulics and the tailgate lowered. It was pitch black in there. Zaq held a flashlight, which kept Cree and Davis calm. And then we were off. Two right-hand turns and the truck sped along Gothic. None of us said a word. We just sat there, feeling the rumble around us.
When the truck slowed, I knew we were at the gate. I held my breath and prayed. “Please let us through, please let us through!”
I heard the muffled squawk of a megaphone but couldn’t make out the words. The truck accelerated, reeled to the left, then twisted in what felt like a major U-turn.
“What’s happening?” Shyla asked.
I pressed the button on the walkie talkie and yelled, “Dad? We okay?”
The walkie talkie crackled, and Dad’s voice broke through. “Half dozen squad cars at the gate. Told me to pull over.”
“How could they know?” Zaq asked.
The walkie talkie fizzled as Dad continued, “Something about tracking us. They’re probably tracking everyone.”
“How could they track us?” Lizzie asked.
I thought back to that other nurse, the one that had given me that vitamin shot. “I knew there was no such thing as a vitamin shot!”
Lizzie gasped. “Yes! That was weird.”
“Did you know about this, Hannah?” Logan asked.
“No,” Hannah said. “I never got a vitamin shot.”
“We need to get the trackers removed,” I said, “or we’ll never get out of here!”
“Can you do it, Hannah?” Lizzie asked.
“Conceivably, but I don’t know where the trackers were put or how they work. Dr. Bayles would know. He’s the only one who knows all the new medical procedures.”
“Then he’s the one who needs to take them out.” I pushed the button on my walkie talkie and yelled, “Dad, we need to go to the hospital to get these trackers out.”
“No,” Hannah said, grabbing my arm. “Dr. Bayles will be at Champions house tonight. All day he was bragging about being invited to dinner.”
“Change of plans, Dad!” I yelled into the walkie talkie. “We’re going to the Champion’s house to see Dr. Bayles.”
Dad didn’t answer, but the garbage truck swerved hard to the right, knocking me into Logan.
“I need to lose these cops,” Dad said. “I’m going to drive to Waste Management, park the truck with a bunch of others, and shut us in the garage. That should buy us enough time to get out and run. There’s a pickup out behind the garage with keys in the ignition. We’ll take that up to the Champions.”
We held on to each other as the garbage truck rocked around corners. Behind us, sirens wailed and the flashing red and blue lights somehow seeped in through the cracks in the truck and glimmered off the inside walls of the cargo box.
The tailgate started rising before the truck stopped. We paired off the kids: Shyla with Hannah, Davis with Lizzie, and Cree with me. Lights blinded us in a flash as the tailgate rose high enough to reveal the patrol cars on our tail. They first was about twenty yards back. I doubted we were going faster than thirty at the moment.
The truck turned sharply to the right and bucked over an indentation in the driveway. Dad accelerated and we shot inside a garage, the door already closing on the Enforcers.
“Go, go!” I yelled, and we scrambled from the back all at once.
We ran around the side of the truck toward my dad, who was holding open a door. I dragged Cree through the door, lifted him up into the tailgate of the truck parked there.
“Lay down!” I heard Dad say, and we all fell flat on our backs, except Cree, who lay on his belly, his head resting on my chest like a pillow.
The truck screamed to life and peeled away. I held Cree tight and prayed, waited, listening. The lights of Waste Management faded. Darkness fell over the bed of the pickup. I didn’t hear any sirens. Didn’t see any lights.
But they could track us. It wouldn’t be long until they found us again.
END OF CHAPTER
Will they make it to Dr. Bayles before Enforcers catch them?
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.
Plans to escape go awry.
I spent the next few days working with my dad on our map of the town. We had been monitoring the Enforcer shifts at the different gates and had stumbled onto a pattern. Four Enforcers were on patrol at each gate with the exception of the night hours of midnight to six a.m. and the 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. lunch hours.
Night was our best option, though we still hadn’t agreed on whether we’d take the northern or southern gate.
“The south gate will put us on the road back to Durango,” Dad said.
“Yeah, but it will also take us through Crested Butte and past a more populated area. That leaves us open to the possibility of trouble from outsiders. If we go north, we can drive around the top edge of the mountain, set up a camp, and start looking at creeks that pour into the East River. Could be we find one with safe water and can live right in the shadow of the compound without them even knowing it.”
“They’d know,” Dad said.
“Well, maybe they wouldn’t care,” I said. “I know I’ve caused my share of trouble for them. I’m thinking if we can get out of here, they’ll write us off.”
“Good riddance, eh?” Dad said on a sigh. “You could be right. It’s a gamble. But everything is these days. My biggest concern is that going north traps us. We’d be at the end of the road with no way out.”
“We could hike to Ashcroft if we needed to,” I said. “That would get us to roads that lead to Aspen or basically anywhere. But, Dad, there’s no place to go anyway.”
“We’re completely isolated in this compound,” Dad said. “For all we know the government survived and has started to rebuild and we don’t have a clue.”
“Dad, the Champions don’t want to live in Colorado. They’d much rather be in a big city, close to a major airport and a lot more people to cheer at their concerts. Plus they’d want to get Liberté’s friend to a hospital rather than sending some scavenging team all the way to New Jersey. If the world was coming back, the Champions would be the first ones out of here.”
“You’re right, son. I forgot about the New Jersey trip. I will say that the northern gate has a lot less traffic. If we were able to get past it, it would take Enforcers longer to reach us.”
“Okay, so who goes out of the gates each day?” I asked, wanting to at least settle on the start of a plan before Hannah got home. “Enforcers and garbage men?”
“That’s it mostly. Some trucks have gone south, come back in with bigger trucks and scavenged supplies. None of the trucks go north. Not even the garbage guys go north. The closest landfill in in Gunnison.”
Looking at the map, I saw that he was right. We needed the garbage trucks. We could haul a lot inside one, and odds were high that no one would want to look in back. “If we take a garbage truck, maybe we could take it all the way around. Drive south out of Crested Butte, then take the 738 north as far as it goes. It would put us on the north side of the East River, but we’d still be really close.”
“That’s the way Reinhold was supposed to go,” Dad said. “I’m hesitant to take that same route when we haven’t heard back from him. Could be there is something that way that doesn’t want to be found, like those warlords.”
“But where else could we go, Dad?”
He studied the map and wrinkled his brow. “Maybe we could hike out. My guess is the fence doesn’t go all the way around the mountain.”
“Zaq and I hiked it weeks ago. It goes up as high as the Teocalli ski lift, runs south along the Horseshoe trail, then cuts across the Upper Park where it hits Aspen Park Road, which if follows to the switchback. Then it comes down the mountain to the west of Peakview Drive, then cuts west until it reaches Saddle Ridge Ranch Road.”
“So that’s out,” Dad said.
The door opened and Hannah came in. So much for presenting her with a perfected escape plan.
“Did you guys hear about Liberté?” she asked.
“Did she break a nail?” Zaq asked.
“She’s infected. It’s all over the Grid.”
We weren’t exactly Grid people in this house, but for this, I could make an exception. I opened Lizzie’s laptop that she’d left on the kitchen counter and refreshed it. “With the HyrdoFlu or the new thing?” I asked as the page loaded.
“The new thing,” Hannah said. “They’re calling it the Thin Plague because it thins the blood and kills the immune system.”
“And there’s no cure?” I asked.
“Not yet. Doctor Bayles wants to try an antiretroviral treatment.”
“That’s for HIV,” Zaq said. “What makes him think that would help?”
“The Thin Plague is bloodbourne,” Lizzie said. “Right?”
“Yes. Doctor Bayles thinks that people who were infected with the HIV virus who also contracted the HydroFly didn’t die because the two viruses mutated into one.”
“But now they’re dying,” I said.
“Liberté has HIV?” Logan asked.
“She got it from her friend Barkley Kipp,” I said, reading the article on the Grid.
“The dancer who was sick,” Lizzie said.
“That’s why they sent that team to Jersey,” Logan said. “They must have been looking for HIV meds.”
“I overheard Doctor Barkley talking on the phone,” Hannah said. “They lost contact with the Jersey team.”
“How does that happen?” Zaq asked.
“There are more people out there,” Logan said. “More warlords with guns. Anything could have happened.”
That was a scary thought.
I kept reading the article. “Hey, this says they’re putting together a Technology Research Team to go to Denver and find medical supplies that might prolong the lives of infected individuals.”
“They need antiretroviral,” Logan said. “For the HIV.”
“And the Thin Plague,” Lizzie said.
“There’s no guarantee the antiretroviral will work on the Thin Plague,” Hannah said. “It’s just a theory at this point.”
“See?” Logan said. “I told you something like this would happen.”
“When did you ever tell us that?” Zaq said. “No, don’t tell me because it wouldn’t be true anyway.”
“Why are you mad at me?” Logan asked.
“I’m not mad, I’m just tired of you acting like you know everything.”
“Well, excuse me for trying to be helpful. Someone has to have a—”
“I’m volunteering,” I said, loud enough to cut through Zaq and Logan’s random argument. Only when everyone looked my way did I continue. “This could be our way out.”
“That’s dumb, Eli,” Lizzie said. “Did you forget how badly you wanted to get out of Phoenix? Denver will likely be just as bad.”
“I wouldn’t be going to Denver,” I said. “If I can get outside the gate, I can sneak away from the team and find my way back here. On the other side of the fence. I can test the water north of the mountain and know for sure whether or not it’s worth the risk. If it is, then I can find some bolt cutters and work out the best place to cut through the fence. Then I come back in and take you all back with me.”
“I still can’t believe we can’t find any bolt cutters here,” Logan said.
“Keep looking,” I said, “but I’m going to sign up.”
“Me too,” Zaq said. “The more of us who sign up, the better the chances of one of us getting chosen, right?”
“Right,” I said. I clicked on the button that said “volunteer” and entered my log in information.
The Denver Technology Research Team members were to be announced at the next Morning Party. It was the first time I’d even been excited to attend one, besides the time we scoped out Champion House with hopes of breaking in. Before they announced the lucky ten souls chosen for the adventure to Denver, Tracy thanked all who had gone in to have their blood tested.
“The patience and kindness y’all showed our medical staff was so impressive. We are thrilled to have such wonderful citizens living in this community. Give yourself a hand.” He began to clap.
As the audience joined him, I began to realize how very naïve I’d been to think Tracy would choose me for anything but an all-expense paid visit to rehab.
Sure enough, after the applause had died down, Tracy let the joy fade from his face. “Unfortunately, not everyone here shares the same values. We had eighteen violators who did not appear for their blood test last week.
Someone booed, which caught on, and a chorus of negativity rang out.
“I understand how you feel,” Tracy said. “I was disappointed, to say the least, and decided that it was important for you all to know who is causing trouble in our little utopia.”
My cheeks burned as the faces of those who had not yet been tested for the Thin Plague flashed across the big screen.
Hannah put her arm around me and tugged my sweatshirt hood over my head. “Don’t want that eye suffering a relapse,” she said.
As the faces of violators flashed across the screen, I stood on the grassy lawn, surrounded by my friends. With each face that appeared, the crowd grew more agitated, booing and catcalling some nasty names. Most the people were old—my dad’s age or above. I appeared about halfway through. A few faces later I recognized Andy Reinhold followed by Kimama Reinhold. It hadn’t occurred to me that they’d still be on the Grid, but how would Tracy’s people know they were gone when we had been collecting their rations each day?
The slide show ended, and Tracy calmed the crowd by announcing the chosen ten for the Denver trip. None of our group was chosen. In fact, I recognized five of the ten names as Enforcers. I wondered if Tracy had scared up some new recruits of if the Enforcers would be shorthanded in the coming weeks. Perhaps this Denver trip would work to our advantage after all.
I pondered this as we left the field and headed for our truck. We had just passed through the gate when I heard my name.
I looked up and met Krista’s gaze. She was sitting on the hood of a red truck with some girl who wasn’t Jaylee and an Asian guy.
“Hey,” I said, nodding.
“He’s one of the violators!” she yelled, turning to knock on the windshield behind her.
The Asian guy slid off the hood and started toward me. He was shorter than me, but ripped. He walked slow, like his muscles actually weighed him down.
I doubted that was true.
The truck doors opened and two big dudes climbed out. A white guy with gauges as big as half dollars and a Samoan, who looked like he played for the NFL. All three were heavier than I was, muscular not fat, with bulging arms and massive shoulders.
Zaq pulled me to his other side, putting himself between me and the muscle. “Run ahead to the truck, Eli,” he said.
“I’m not running from anyone,” I whispered, annoyed. I wasn’t about to run away scared from anyone.
The guys stepped toward me. The first one—the Asian guy—batted Hannah aside. She stumbled from the force and ran into Lizzy. “Out of the way, ladies, before you get hurt.”
Lizzie ran around the guy and got all up in his face. “Excuse me, but who do you think you are to push around a girl?”
He shoved her this time, and she knocked into Zaq, who caught her around the waist and spun her behind him. “Is there a problem, man?” he asked.
I was always glad Zaq was on my side, but in moments like these he often made me look incompetent.
Asian guy pointed at me. “You’re hiding a violator. We don’t like his kind. We’re trying to get along in this place.”
“Then let’s go our separate way,” Zaq said. “We’re happy to get along.”
“I don’t think so,” Asian guy said, reaching out and slapping my cheek.
“Cut it out,” I said.
Zach put a hand against Asian guy’s chest, and the next thing I know both were blurring in front of my eyes, arms locked, spinning like wrestlers on a mat.
I inched back until I saw gauges guy coming at me. Desperation fueled a few punches, and I swung wildly. When my fists did manage to land, the impact was soft and weak. My knuckles stung, anyway, though I don’t think I did any damage.
Samoan came at me too, and as his fist graze my cheek, I think it shred some skin as it went. My dad darted in front of me and punched the Samoan in the jaw. The dude staggered, and Logan took that moment to assist by kicking in the back of his legs. The big guy’s knees buckled, but he managed to keep his feet and twist around to threaten Logan, who sprinted away like a scared Chihuahua.
For a brief moment, things seemed almost even, despite the fact that Logan had fled and I weighted a good fifty pounds less than anyone out there.
Zaq and my dad held their own, keeping the worst of the fighting away from me. Time passed by in a mess of bodies and hands and shoving and pain. Lizzy and Hannah helped here and there, kicking someone in the back, pulling hair, slapping ears. Dad knocked gauges guy flat, but he was getting up again. If Zaq and Asian guy hadn’t practically been throwing one another around, threatening to flatten anyone in their path, Lizzie probably would have started throwing punches. I heard someone yell Enforcers. Samoan guy elbowed Lizzie in the ear and sent her sprawling, which snapped Zaq away from Asian guy. I heard Zaq scream but I didn’t see what happened since Asian guy, suddenly abandoned, charge me.
Asian guy grabbed my arm. I swung around, trying to break his grip but he pinched my nerve and used his other hand to punch my face. I moved my head just in time to take a blow to the ear, and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground shaking from another taser attack.
By the time I could move again, some Enforcer I didn’t recognize cuffed my hands behind me and shoved me into the back of a squad car. I was alone. I hadn’t been lucid enough to see what had happened to my dad and Zaq and the others. I felt some drool trickling from my mouth, but when I wiped it away with my shoulder, it was actually blood oozing off a fat lip. My face stung, and there was a sharp pain in my stomach that spiked if I moved too much.
I didn’t recognize the driver. “Where we going?” I asked, and my voice came out weak.
He didn’t answer.
The town was so small, it only took a glance out the window for me to know where we were headed. A few turns later the car stopped in the parking lot of the rehab facility.
I wonder if they offered cards for frequent visitors.
The driver got out and opened the back door, motioned to me. “Let’s go, kid.”
I sighed and wiggled my way out, which wasn’t so easy with my hands cuffed. Inside, rather than taking me to the booking room, he took me on a hike. We wound through a series of hallways, then went down a flight of stairs. On the basement level, a narrow hallway stretched out across the length of the building. An Enforcer was coming out of a door, and as we passed by, I saw inside. Guns. Lots of guns.
It looked to be where they were keeping the guns they’d confiscated. I glanced back over my shoulder at the door as the Enforcer pulled it closed. I didn’t see a lock. Nothing more than a key in a doorknob.
Wonder if Logan could pick it?
The Enforcer shoved me forward. We entered a plain, cinderblock room with a beat-up laminate table in the center and two chairs. The Enforcer made me sit behind the table. I perched on the edge of the chair to leave room for my hands. The Enforcer left me there. It seemed weird that I was down here all alone. I figured Carelle Lawler would come in at some point and lecture me, but this was a day of surprises. About five minutes later Mr. Tracy himself swept into the room. He shut the door and sat across from me.
“Mr. McShane,” he said. “You do cause a lot of trouble, you know?”
“I want a lawyer,” I said.
“Lawyers died with the rest of the world,” Tracy said.
“You can’t just change the law,” I said. “This is a free country.”
“Are we really going to do this again?” Tracy asked. “The United States of America was a free country. But it died. It’s history, like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. And the Safe Water Mountain Refuge is my territory. Here, I decide what’s law.”
“I thought Loca and Liberté were in charge,” I said.
“They’re figureheads, like the royal family of England. Here I’m the prime minister. The president. The Commander in Ch—”
His lip curled, but he managed to force a smile.
“Why am I down here?” I asked. “I’ve been here before. I know the drill. Put me in my cell and send Ms. Lawler in to try and brainwash me.”
“It’s not going to be so easy this time, Mr. McShane.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You missed your blood test and started a fight at the morning party.”
“I started the fight? You’re the one who flashed my face on the big screen. You practically begged people to go beat me up.”
“If the citizens of this town are upset at you, perhaps you should try a little harder to fit in. This is your third infraction, Mr. McShane. This time you will remain here for one week.”
“One week without water? I could die.”
“You will get one, eight ounce glass of water per day. You will get no food. The goal is to make you miserable enough that you will fall in line.”
“Look, you don’t want me here,” I said. “I don’t want to live here. Why should we continue to annoy each other? Open the gate and let me out. Then I won’t be your problem anymore.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Tracy said. “That’s too bad. Despite how much you annoy me, I can’t let you leave. One person gets to leave, then everyone wants to leave.”
“Gee, I wonder why? Maybe it’s because you’re a psychopathic dictator.”
“Next time you’re arrested, Mr. McShane, you will be sentenced to six months here. I promise you it won’t be pleasant.”
That sobered me. I didn’t doubt he was serious. But if we were going to break out of this place, I couldn’t get locked up for that long.
Tracy smiled. “From the look on your face, I see we understand each other. You will be transported to the medical center where you will be tested for the Thin Plague. You will cooperate fully. Then you will be brought back here to begin your week’s incarceration. Have a good day Mr. McShane.”
And he left me there alone, pondering my pathetic life in this place.
My wrists were burning from the handcuffs by the time the Enforcer led me into the medical center. We walked right through the waiting area. A nurse behind the counter nodded to the Enforcer and he took me right on back. One pro to being arrested: no waiting.
The Enforcer led me to a small exam room. He took off my cuffs, told me to put on the paper dress, and shut the door. I sat there for five minutes, thankful to have some alone time. Five minutes passed, and I got up, opened the door, and peeked into the hall. The Enforcer was standing just outside. He glared at me and pulled the door shut. I went back to the exam table, ignored the paper dress, and sat down on the crackly paper. Another five minutes passed before the door opened, and Hannah walked in. Her eyes met mine, widened. Other than that, she looked at her chart as if she didn’t know me.
“Mister, um… McShane. Let me inform you that this exam room is for criminals. Do not try anything. The Enforcer is right outside the door.”
Oh, so I was a criminal now? Wonderful.
“One blood test, coming right up,” she said. “Though you look like you could use a little more medical care than that. What happened to you?”
Ok-kay, weird. “Yeah, I got in a big fight. You should have seen the other guys. There were four of them, you know. None of us walked away.”
“Actually, the enforcer said everyone walked away but you.”
“Way to kick me when I’m down,” I said.
She smirked, which made me feel good, that I’d cracked through whatever act she was performing here.
“How are you feeling? You face hurt?”
“Any pain elsewhere?”
I wanted to say no, but the pain in my stomach put up a fight. “My stomach is a little sore.”
“Show me where.”
I sat up straight, winced, and ran my hand over the sore spot.
“Could be you have a cruised rib.” She picked up a blood pressure cuff and wrapped it around my arm. “You didn’t undress.” She smirked as she squeezed the ball and the cuff tightened.
I smirked back. “No, I didn’t.”
“At least take off your shirt, so I can listen to your heart and examine your ribs.”
I didn’t really want to take off my shirt in front of Hannah. I’d just gotten by butt kicked by a bunch of macho men. Did she need to rub it in? I didn’t have a logical reason to refuse, though, and I didn’t want anyone thinking I wasn’t cooperating with the staff here. Plus, the ache in my side was killing me.
I started to pull my shirt over my head, but halfway there pain shot through my side. I froze with my shirt tangled around my head and made a pathetic whimpering sound.
I felt Hannah’s hands on my back. She pulled the shirt the rest of the way off. I snagged it from her and held it balled up in my in my lap. “Thanks.”
She pressed the cold stethoscope against my back in several places, telling me to breathe in and hold it, then breathe out. She moved to my front and did the same on my chest. Then she asked me to lie down. I did, and the paper crumpled under me. I felt weird with my legs hanging off the end of the table at my knees. Hannah put her fingers against my stomach and pushed in several places. I tried to be tough, but she read my muffled grunts and pushed again in that spot.
“Whose side are you on, anyway?” I asked.
Another grin. “I think you have a bruised rib,” she said. “You should have an x-ray to make sure it isn’t broken.”
“I don’t want an x-ray.”
“Don’t be stupid, E— Mr. McShane. The technology is available. Use it.”
I said no more. She continued her examination, took my blood for the test, and the whole thing kind of impressed me. She was way smarter than me. I felt like a kid compared to all the things she knew. It didn’t help that my dad had fought that last battle far better than I had. It suddenly seemed ridiculous that my dad thought that she and I would make a good couple. What could I offer someone like her? A patient to practice on. That was about it.
It kind of made me sad. She was a pretty incredible person. I remembered how she’d pulled up my hood that morning, trying to help me hide my face. I didn’t know what to make of it. Did she like me? Or was she just mothering me, the way Lizzie did sometimes?
I was taken to the x-ray room, then brought back to the criminal exam room to wait wait wait. Hannah finally returned to tell me that two of my ribs were bruised, likely because that Samoan guy had Karate-chopped me in the gut. Hannah gave me some painkillers and sent me on my way as if we didn’t know each other at all.
The enforcer hooked my cuffs again and led me out. Some people were coming down the hall, so he moved me over to the right to wait. A nurse led a female patient past us. She was dressed in a paper gown and pink socks. Our eyes met.
It was Jaylee.
The Enforcer pushed me onward. I looked over my shoulder, but the nurse led Jaylee into an exam room. What was she doing here? She didn’t look sick. I hadn’t seen her face on the list of violators this morning, so she likely wasn’t here for a blood test.
Later. I’d ask Hannah tonight.
I turned back, shifted my cuffed hands and remembered I wasn’t a free man.
Fine. I’d ask Hannah in a week when I got home.
Stupid Tracy, anyway. As soon as I got out of here, I was planning my escape. I was more than done with this place.
END OF CHAPTER
Will Eli finally escape in the next chapter?
Pardon this interruption of THIRST chapters for a special announcement.
Calling all Spencer fans!
You’ve all been waiting SO PATIENTLY for Broken Trust, the third full-length novel in the Mission League series. I had planned for Broken Trust to release last year. Then life happened. Major. I’ve noticed that life doesn’t really care about my plans. It does what it wants.
Spencer waited patiently at first. Then he started to get mad. “Tell my story, Jill!” he said. “You promised!”
“But, Spencer. Life happened,” I told him.
“So? You left me with a torn ACL. Therapy is only supposed to take 9-10 months. This is getting ridiculous.”
That was fair.
So I worked on Broken Trust little by little. And finally. FINALLY I managed to finish the book. Broken Trust is now with the editor. (Yay!) She will send it back as soon as she can. Then I will publish it!
Spencer says you will not be disappointed. He promises action and adventure. In Alaska.
And this cover to get you all excited.
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?
First of all, I’m a little stuck. Writing a book is always an adventure, and right now, my adventure has hit a rocky patch. I had a very busy weekend, yesterday was my birthday, and I’m on track to finish line edits on Maelstrom this Friday along with the rewrite of Broken Trust.
I can allow nothing to get in the way of finishing those two projects on time. *cue dramatic music and a close up of Jill typing away, brow furrowed in concentration*
All that to say, THIRST has again been pushed aside at a time when it really needs some quality one-on-one time. So today’s chapter isn’t so much a chapter as a couple scenes. It needs some help. And I’ve also realized I need to go back and plant some things that I had intended to have come out in this chapter. Overall, I’m feeling like I need something a little more exciting to happen in this chapter, but I don’t know what. I covet your ideas, readers. Feel free to post in the comments anything you would like to see happen before the big attempted Exodus by Eli and his friends.
Oh, and while I’m confessing, I also need ideas for what has delayed Reinhold. I have no idea what’s taking him so long on the other side of the mountain. If you have some fabulous theories, I’d love to hear them. Perhaps they will inspire me to figure out what’s going on with that fellow.
[Note of change: I had been planning to introduce “the Grid” in this chapter, but as I wrote, I realized I needed the Grid to already exist. So when I rewrite, I’ll be going back and planting the Grid early on. What is the Grid, you ask? The Grid is the new Internet—but just for the Safe Water Mountain Refuge (which I also renamed, btw). Everyone under LLC care will have access to the Grid and newly invented social media knock off sites.]
And now I will leave you with today’s installment:
Arrested again? What will happen to Eli now?
I spent a week being brainwashed by Carelle Lawler that “guns were evil” and I must “trust the Enforcers” to protect me. She made me chant these phrases again and again, and played them over the speakers in my cell at night. There was no point in arguing if I wanted to get out of this place, so I said whatever she asked me to. But me trusting Enforcers was not going to happen.
When they let me out, I came home and found that my dad and the others had been making a plan to get Logan’s modified one-way CB radio inside Tracy’s office. I was excited to do anything to fight against this place, so the next morning, we all went to the showers early, more to case the LLC mansion than to get clean.
We spent a week on reconnaissance, taking turns watching the LLC mansion, specifically the windows that were Tracy’s office. What we learned shattered all our hope. There would be no easy way to sneak inside this fortress. Loca and Liberté Champion’s fame daily inspired at least three obsessive fans to try and sneak a peek at one of them, and security was tight.
The property’s perimeter was surrounded by a sixty-inch high wrought-iron fence. Infrared cameras mounted on the outside of the house monitored the fence for thermal heat signatures regardless of time of day. Any movement in unauthorized entry points set off a perimeter alarm at both the gatehouse and somewhere inside—the kitchen, maybe? Eli could hear it, but he couldn’t tell where the interior alarm was located. He had been hoping to make the first story window into Tracy’s office his entry point, but he witnessed a fan try that very thing and—besides setting off the heat signature alarm—the intruder also triggered a fog screen at the window that sent her screaming away and clutching her eyes.
After the warlord attacks, the outer doors of the Champions’s house had been changed out, wooden or fiberglass doors replaced with those made from kevlar-lined, bullet-resistant steel. Also, it seemed that more Enforcers had been put on patrol duty at the compound.
Logan suggested I show up on the front porch and ask to see Tracy, but even if the guy did let me in, I didn’t see how I could plant the CB without him seeing me. I toyed around with the idea of making a scene at the next Morning Party, but—repeat offender that I was—the Enforcers would likely take me straight to rehab rather than stop in for a lecture at Tracy’s office.
We had reached an impasse and could think of no way to achieve our goal until Hannah returned from the hospital one day.
“I think I can get inside Tracy’s office on Monday,” she said.
“How?” I asked.
“A certain someone who lives in that house is ill,” she said. “Dr. Bayles asked me to accompany him there today for a check-up, and I’m to return every day this week for follow-up visits.”
“Who’s sick?” Logan asked.
“Can’t tell you that,” she said, “but I was thinking that I could try to plant the CB during the next Morning Party.”
“So it’s not Loca or Liberté, then,” Logan said. “Since they’ll be singing on stage at the party. Everyone is saying that Loca is sick.”
“I’m not telling you who I’m treating, Logan,” Hannah said.
“I know, but if I guess, will you nod or shake your head?”
“No, I won’t.” She turned back to me, annoyed. “Anyway, I think it might be our best chance.”
It sounded like it, but I didn’t want Hannah to risk herself. “There’s no way any of us could help you?” I asked.
“Nope. You’ll just have to trust me. A girl. And hope I don’t blow it.”
Her tone seemed offended. “I trust girls just fine,” I said.
She chuckled. “You don’t trust anyone just fine, Eli, and that’s okay. I get it. But I can do this. Please let me try?”
It had been a while since anyone had treated me like I was the boss of our little group. But things were different now, especially with my dad here. Who was I to refuse a good idea? It’s not like I had a better plan, or any plan at all. “This is great,” I said, trying to sound supportive. “One of us should probably skip the Morning Party to monitor the CB. In fact, once we get audio on that office, we need to set a schedule so that there is someone monitoring at all times.”
“Good idea,” Logan said. “I’ll set up my laptop to record so that whoever is on duty can record when they think something might be important. That way we’ll be able to play it back.”
“Genius,” I said, tapping his knuckles. “Do it.”
When the next Morning Party came, Lizzie insisted we all stand at the back of the lawn, circle up, and pray for Hannah as she attempted to plant the CB radio. This we did, but we were done praying before Tracy even took the stage. Lizzie made us start again, and while I admired her stamina, I was too nervous to focus on praying. I kept my eyes on the house’s front entrance, waiting to see Hannah come out, either alone or escorted by Enforcers.
Tracy came out, doing his whole spiel of reminders of the rules: no protesting, no guns, be kind, obey Enforcers. Then he moved on to calling this week’s winners for houses.
It wasn’t until midway through Loca and Liberté’s third song that morning that Hannah exited the house, alone. Relief flooded me, and I pushed through the crowd, making my way toward her. She made eye contact with me and smiled, but it was several minutes until I reached her.
“It’s done,” she yelled over the crowd.
Relief washed through me. “Let’s get back and start listening.”
That first day, nothing much came through the CB. Tracy made a phone call to Captain Kane to ask about offenders, to which the Enforcer captain replied that there’d been only three—far fewer now that the guns had been confiscated, as if owning a gun made people rebellious.
Two more days went by, and we got a hint of something big: a meeting in Tracy’s office on Thursday morning with Loca and Liberté Champion and Captain Kane.
Thursday morning we all crowded around the CB in the living room to listen. It took a while for everyone to arrive in Tracy’s office, then they moved into small talk.
“How is Barkley?” Tracy asked.
“Worse, I think.” This from Liberté. “He’s so thin and weak. My heart breaks just looking at him. He needs his meds.”
“Who is Barkley?” I asked.
“One of Liberté’s male dancers,” Lizzie said.
“Shh!” Logan hissed at me.
“Any word from the research team?” Loca asked.
“They sent a message through the Grid,” Kane said. “Made it to New Jersey. They’re trying to make sense of the pharmaceutical company, but it’s going to take time.”
“We should have sent Dr. Bayles with them,” Loca said.
“Barkley can’t do without Dr. Bayles right now,” Liberté said.
“We couldn’t risk our most experienced doctor to a trip that far away,” Tracy said. “There’s no way to know they’ll make it back.”
“They’ll make it,” Kane said.
“Besides, we only need to increase our supply of meds,” Loca added. “The pharmaceutical rep will do fine to help the team find what we need.”
“He’s got fifteen years in pharmaceuticals, working out of Dallas,” Tracy said. “He knows his stuff.”
“We’re going to need to learn how to produce everything eventually,” Kane said.
“Eventually, but not now,” Tracy said.
“I don’t like so many people milling around my house,” Liberté said. “I feel like I have no privacy.”
“Even after the increased security?” Kane asked.
“I still see them out my window all the time,” Liberté said. “Loca and I bought this land because we liked the ski resort, the view, and the small population. I don’t feel safe with so many people milling around all the time.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t have invited us all up here,” I said.
Logan glared at me. “Shh!”
“We’ll find a way to get rid of them,” Tracy said. “They shouldn’t be bothering you.”
“But this is where you wanted the showers built,” Kane said.
“There weren’t so many people in my yard then!” Liberté said.
“People won’t need the showers forever,” Tracy said. “Once we get the dam up and running, we can work on redirecting the city water supply. Then people can shower in their own homes, and they won’t need to come here.”
“We want them to need us,” Loca said. “We just don’t want them on our property all the time.”
“Let’s post some showering hours,” Tracy said. “People can only shower from nine to five or something like that.”
“That sounds marvelous,” Liberté said.
“We don’t want to upset anyone, though,” Loca said. “Are people still trying to leave?”
“No one has challenged with force for a few weeks,” Kane said, “but people are still grumbling.”
“Let them leave if they want,” Liberté said. “Who needs the ungrateful leeches? Let them try and find a better place to live than here with us.”
“We can’t let them leave, darling,” Loca said. “If people go, we lose our work force. Who will clean this place? Who will hunt or grow food? Do you know how to hunt food? Because I don’t.”
“Vegetarians don’t hunt,” she said.
“We’ve been over this,” Loca said. “She knows what’s at stake.”
Liberté huffed. “Don’t talk about me like you’re my handler.”
“How many have refused task assignments?” Kane asked.
“Too many,” Tracy said. “You think we need to threaten rehab?”
“Not yet,” Kane said. “You just took their guns. Too much too soon and you’ll have riots.”
“We should do something, Libby and me,” Loca said. “You can record us working, then the people will see that everyone, even us, has to take jobs if we’re going to make this place work.”
“But we already have two jobs!” Liberté said. “We’re musicians and we’re the rulers of this place.”
“King Loca and Queen Liberté,” Tracy said.
“There’s no point in being musicians if no one is listening,” Loca said. “And no point being a king or queen if you have no people to rule.”
“That was well said, Loca,” Tracy said. “You’re so wise.”
“What a suck up,” I mumbled.
“But I don’t want to work,” Liberté said.
“If we’re going to make this work, we need to be seen out there, setting an example,” Loca said.
“Not for a whole shift, though, Liberté,” Tracy said. “Just long enough to get some footage we can use on the Grid.”
“You always wanted a movie, darling,” Loca said. “Be an actress. Play your role well. The people will love it.”
“It would be so much easier if I’m only acting,” Liberté said. “But I’d want to do something fun, like operate one of those soft ice cream machines.”
“Done,” Tracy said. “You’d be great at that, by the way, and your fans would love it. The Grid ads are pulling in great feedback on the two of you.”
“But not everyone is on the Grid,” Loca said. “How do we get everyone to participate.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Kacy said. “You could force them to go on the Grid to activate their credits. Until they do, no food, water, or showers.”
“Great,” Dad said. “More hoops to jump through.”
“That could work,” Tracy said.
“It won’t stop people from wanting to leave, though,” Kane said.
“He’s got that right,” I said.
“How can we convince them to stay?” Loca asked. “I don’t want this to turn ugly. This isn’t meant to be a prison camp.”
“Could have fooled me,” Zaq said.
“If we had something they needed,” Kane said.
“We have the water,” Tracy said.
“Yes, but they could try to look elsewhere for water,” Kane said. “Could be there are other safe water streams out there. Or they might simply decide to scavenge bottled water.”
“I’d rather not have perfectly healthy people dying off in the wilderness because they don’t like us,” Loca said.
“So what can we do?” Liberté asked. “I can’t believe there are people who don’t like us.”
“I have an idea, but I’m not sure…” Loca said. “It seems deceitful and a bit reckless.”
“I love it already,” Tracy said.
“Speak up, darling,” Liberté said. “We can’t read your mind.”
“We could get everyone hooked on something,” he said.
“Barkley won’t give up his pot,” Liberté said. “He’s running low as it is, and he needs it for the pain.”
“We can easily grow more,” Loca said.
“But not everyone smokes,” Kane said.
“Have the cooks put it in the food, like with brownies,” Liberté said.
This comment got a good laugh from those at the meeting and a round of groans from us at the house.
“Wait, why couldn’t we?” Loca said. “Not pot, though. Not something so obvious. Something addictive that they would crave and withdraw over. But not something that will turn them into weaklings. We need them physically able to work.”
“Nicotine,” Tracy said. “It’s the most addictive substance known to man.”
“It is not,” Loca said.
“No, he’s right,” Liberté said. “I read about it in Cosmo. It’s even more addicting that coke or heroine.”
Loca snorted. “I suppose that’s why you can’t manage to quit smoking.”
“It is, actually. I don’t like who I am when I try to quit. I get very irritable.”
“Not you,” Tracy said. “You’re always such a joy to be around.”
The conversation went on as the four of them discussed other ideas to keep all of us here. They came up with nothing better than their grand addiction scheme, and Kacy promised to contact his New Jersey team and ask them to look for Nicotine. The meeting fizzled after that as they talked about which songs to perform at next week’s party and how Liberté was going to get new clothing made.
Once they all left and Tracy’s office went quiet, we all sat around and tried to decide what to do next.
“They can’t keep us here,” I said.
“Loca doesn’t want this to be a prison camp?” Hannah said. “That’s exactly what it is.”
“It’s kidnapping,” Logan said. “It’s communism. It’s a dictatorship.”
“It’s nuts,” Dad said.
“That’s not all,” Hannah said. “There’s something I haven’t told you. It’s the real reason Dr. Bayles didn’t go on their scavenging trip to New Jersey.”
We all stared at Hannah, waiting for her to drop whatever bomb she’d been holding.
“There have been several patience come in to the hospital with similar symptoms. Dr. Bayles thinks it’s the HydroFlu.”
“How long has this been going on?” Logan asked.
“He just told me last night,” Hannah said.
I blew out a long and frustrated breath. “It’s becoming increasingly apparent that we need to get out of this place soon if we’re going to survive.”
END OF CHAPTER
Uh oh. Is the HydroFlu back? Or is Dr. Bayles mistaken?
Is Eli right to worry that Enforcers took Hannah away to work? Or is he overreacting?
Around four thirty that afternoon Hannah called us on the CB radio that Lizzie had left in Krista and Jaylee’s apartment.
“Can someone come and pick me up?” she asked. “They let me go but there was no one to give me a ride back.”
My sister reached the radio first. “This is Lizzie. We’ll come get you now. Over.”
The radio crackled again. “Can we get something to eat? I’m starving.”
Lizzie looked at me and Zaq, who were lounging on the couches in the living room. “We need to go get Hannah. And she wants to eat.”
“I could eat,” I said. Lizzie and Zaq had made us all a lunch of tuna salad sandwiches, but with our daily rations, we could get pizza or burgers.
Zaq jumped to his feet. “Let’s do it.”
In the end, only me, Zaq, Lizzie, and Logan went to pick up Hannah. I drove my truck to the condos and Lizzie ran up while the rest of us waited in the truck. Hannah came out with Lizzie, looking tired. Her hair had been pulled into a ponytail, but the part around her head was all frizzy and she had creases under her eyes.
Lizzie, who had been sitting shotgun on the ride over, climbed in back with Logan and Zaq, giving Hannah the seat up front.
Hannah climbed in and sighed. “Thanks so much for coming to get me. I was so frustrated until I remembered that Lizzie left Krista and Jaylee a radio. I thought I was going to have to walk back to the house.”
“Where is their hospital?” Zaq asked.
“There’s one down Gothic,” Hannah said. “It’s not far from here.”
“I can’t believe no one would drive you back to the house after they came for you there,” I said. “What are you hungry for?”
“Pizza,” Hannah said. “Then a chocolate ice cream cone. Rocky Road if they have it.”
How very specific. “You got it.” I steered out of the lot and turned toward The Secret Pizzeria.
Logan leaned over Zaq’s lap so that his head poked over the seat. “I would have come to get you, Hannah, ” he said. “Next time we’ll send you with a radio so you can call us when you’re done.”
“Will there be a next time?” I asked.
“Looks like it,” she said. “They had me working as a nurse. There are quite a few sick people, and they don’t have many qualified medical personnel to care for them.”
“What kind of sick?” Logan asked. “Plague sick?”
“I never saw the plague, so I wouldn’t recognize it,” Hannah said. “Most people had regular problems. I treated two sore throats, one nasty cough, a second degree burn from a guy who fell into a campfire, and three cases of seasonal allergies. There was a twisted ankle, an upset stomach, four cases of dehydration, and a guy whose back went out. There was another guy who had cancer and had just finished chemo two weeks before the plague hit. He really needed to see a specialist. There was a bipolar person looking for meds, an HIV guy who also needed meds, and five or six diabetics needing insulin.”
“Should you be telling us this?” Logan asked. “Isn’t all that doctor-patient privileged information?”
“I didn’t tell you who had what,” Hannah said. “I’m just talking about my day. That’s allowed.”
I parked on the street in front of the pizza place, and we went in and claimed a booth. With our combined credits, we were able to order three extra-large pizzas and sodas. I sipped my root beer while we waited.
“Do you think they’re going to start tapping other people for jobs?” Zaq asked.
“I don’t even remember what I put down,” Lizzie said.
“I put mechanics and hunting,” I said.
“I put being a lifeguard,” Zaq said.
“I put web design, graphic design, programming, and engineering,” Logan said.
“What engineering?” I asked.
“That’s what I was going to study in college.”
“I thought you were going to study video game design,” Hannah said.
“Well, sure, if I could. But that’s a very competitive field. Engineering would get me a job a lot faster.”
We talked more about careers, about the house, then moved on to Reinhold and what might have happened to him.
The pizza came, and we scarfed it down. It wasn’t just frozen pizzas anymore. They’d found someone to make real pizzas, and they were good. I wondered if the new chef had noted some kind of cooking ability on his hosing contract. How weird would that be? Picked up by the cops to make pizza?
When we were done, we decided to walk to the ice cream shop, since it was only a street away. The sidewalks were crowded. We’d eaten an early dinner, and now that we were ready for dessert, everyone else was just about to start in on dinner.
We turned the corner to the street the ice cream shop was on, and ran into Jaylee and Krista.
“You guys found Hannah!” Krista said, hugging Lizzie.
“We just had dinner,” Lizzie said. “What are you guys doing?”
“Going for pizza,” Krista said. “Jaylee won’t eat anything else.”
“I like pizza,” she said, looking just about everywhere but at me.
She was so pretty it made me ache. It shouldn’t be fair that some girls looked like Jaylee, especially when they were mean old wicked witches inside. Okay, so maybe I was overreacting a little, but then I saw the necklace she was wearing.
That dumb puka shell necklace.
She was wearing Riggs’s his necklace!
What did that mean?
I reached out and tugged on it. “What’s this?”
“A necklace,” she said, still not looking at me. “Riggs gave it to me.”
“Classy, Jay,” Lizzie said. “What did you wait two minutes after you and Eli broke up before moving on?”
“I haven’t moved on,” she said, glaring at Liz. “Riggs and I are just friends. Besides, Eli and I were never going to work out. You all knew it.”
No one said anything, as if they all agreed with that statement.
Then Jaylee grinned at me, her old self again. “It was fun, though, yeah, Eli?”
No, it was not fun. It had been torture, letting this girl mess with my heart. And the way she made it all sound like a game made me feel stupid, like there was something wrong with me because I felt so low about the whole thing.
This girl was twisted like that.
“Yeah, sure,” I finally said, walking on.
An engine revved nearby. Gunfire rang out, echoed with people’s screams. We all stared in the direction the sound had come from. An Army Jeep barreled around the corner, straightened out, and accelerated toward us. People on the sidewalks scattered, screaming as two men, standing in back of the Jeep fired automatic guns. A second Jeep rounded the corner behind the first.
“Run!” Zaq yelled.
We took off, back toward the pizza place, a dozen of others with us. Zaq darted into a tourist shop, and our group followed. We hid in the back of the shop, ducking under clothing racks. From where I crouched, I could just see out the wall of windows that faced the street. The first Jeep rolled past, gunmen spraying both sides of the street with bullets.
Glass shattered. I ducked down and squeezed my eyes shut, praying that someone would stop these madmen and that no one would die.
Engines continued to pass by the shop. I counted three, then risked a peek.
Jagged shards of glass rimmed the store’s window frames. Outside, an army van rolled to a stop. The back doors sprung open and a dozen men poured out, each packing a semi-automatic.
Most of them scattered, but two entered our store. The first walked right behind the counter.
“Out!” he yelled. “Come on!”
A middle-aged man stood slowly, hands lifted in surrender.
“Load all this in the van.” The gunman jerked the gun around the store, pointing at the racks of ski coats, sweatshirts, and T-shirts. “Move it!”
The clerk ran past him and grabbed an armful of North Face jackets off a rack. The second gunman followed him out of the store and to the back of the van, where two other gunmen stood guard.
Who were these guys?
Gunfire and screams sounded nearby. I wished I had my rifle. The clerk came back for a second armload of coats. The first gunman shouldered his gun and started filling a backpack with candy bars from the front counter.
Should I try and get his gun? I wanted to make eye contact with Zaq, see if we could make a plan, but I didn’t dare move for fear of behind discovered. If we stayed put, however, we’d get found eventually when the clerk emptied our clothing racks.
The clerk came back for trip number three. He’d cleared off one rack and started for the second, but the gunman yelled, “Hey!” distracting him.
“This one,” he said, gesturing to a Patagonia rack.
The clerk grabbed an armful of coats and carried them out, leaving behind a gap in the rack that totally revealed Lizzie, crouched and wide-eyed.
I reached through the T-shirts on my rack and waved at my sister but she didn’t see me. She stood, still crouched, and staring at the back of the first gunman, who had resumed filling his backpack with junk food. She lifted one leg over the metal bar on the bottom circle of the rack. Her foot reached the floor and she moved her weight to that leg and lifted out her back foot.
I held my breath. Hurry, hurry, Lizzie!
She had just set both feet outside the rack when the clerk returned. He stopped suddenly, staring at Lizzie. She put her finger over her lips and took one step away from the rack.
“Hey!” the gunman yelled. “Don’t move!”
The gunman circled my sister, gun trained on her. He was youngish—maybe late twenties. He looked her over, appeared to like what he saw, and motioned her toward the door.
“Get in the van. Take a load of coats with you.”
I popped to my feet at the same time as Zaq.
“She’s not going anywhere,” Zaq said. He was on the gunman’s right, so when the man turned his weapon on Zaq, his put his back to me.
“You going to stop me, big guy?” the gunman asked Zaq.
I needed a weapon, searched around me, and grabbed a blue and black Burton board off a snowboard display on the back wall. I crept toward the gunman, pulling back the board to strike. Zaq and Lizzie were cool and didn’t look my way, but the clerk spun toward me, gaping, and totally gave me away.
The gunman spun around just as I slammed the board against his face. He fell backwards into a rack of snow pants. Zaq was on him in seconds, ripped away his gun, and ejected the magazine.
“Is there a backdoor in this place?” I asked the clerk.
He nodded and led the way behind the counter. We all trailed after him, passed through a small storage area/office, and out a door that emptied onto a dirt road separating the store from the pizza place. The air smelled like oregano, yeast, and gunpowder.
The clerk stopped outside and looked both ways. I did too. Gunfire and screaming came from both directions. Too bad we couldn’t wait out here, but our gunman would likely follow any minute.
Zaq dropped the magazine in a dumpster. “Where to?”
I didn’t know, but with only two choices, I went right, away from the front entrances to the ski shop and the pizza place. This let us out on the backside of an apartment complex. We circled the building and peeked out around the front.
Two more army vans were parked on the street, and gunmen were herding people inside. Who were these guys and why were they kidnapping people?
“Stop right there!” someone yelled from behind us.
Our ski store gunman and his partner were running toward us. Only the partner held a gun, gripping it by the barrel.
“Run,” I yelled. “Go, go!”
Zaq and I pushed the girls ahead. The clerk was still with us, and he and Logan went next. Zaq and I brought up the rear as we all ran out onto the street in front. “Cut across to the bar!” I yelled from the back of the line.
Lizzie, who was in the lead, did what I’d asked, and sprinted across the first army van, Logan and Hannah on her heels. She stopped suddenly and lifted her hands above her head.
Zaq and I slowed to a stop just as two new gunmen stepped out from the other side of the van.
“Around back, folks,” he said. “We’ve already called shotgun.”
Lizzie, Logan, and Hannah backed up to us, and we all stopped together in a group. The gunmen pressed forward, and behind us, the gunmen from the ski shop arrived.
We were surrounded.
A chorus of sirens screamed over the distant gunfire as police cruisers sped upon the scene. The gunmen turned their weapons on the Enforcers and started shooting.
The Enforcers shot back.
The clerk took a shot to the neck and collapsed right in front of me.
“Run!” I yelled, pushing Lizzie back toward the bar.
We sprinted toward the building, reached the door, and found it locked. I ran around the side into an alley between the bar and the ice cream shop. The alley ended in a brick wall, so I sat down against the building and pulled my knees up to my chest. The others lined up along the wall on my right, everyone sitting like I had.
“We should be safe here,” I said, panting. “For now, anyway.”
Adrenaline pulsed in my head. That clerk! That could have been me. Lizzie. It could have been any one of us. Had I gotten him killed? Should I have ran the other way out of the store?
I could just barely see the street. Even with the wall acting as a partial barrier, the gunfire was deafening as the two sides shot each other up. Sitting there like that, my mind got a chance to calm down a little. I should go back out there and see if I could help that clerk. Or the people in the vans.
But walking into gunfire would be suicide. Right? I had to leave it to the Enforcers to do their job.
I didn’t much care for that plan, but what else could I do?
The gunfight ended with the sounds of squealing tires and sirens. None of us moved for quite some time. My heart was still thudding when my sister gasped.
“Is that your blood?” she asked.
“I’ll be fine,” Zaq said.
I looked down the line and saw Lizzie on her knees before Zaq, who was looking quite pale. The right shoulder and sleeve of his white T-shirt was drenched red, and a stream of blood had wound its way down his arm where it was dripping off his elbow.
That wasn’t blood spatter. Hannah and I reached him at the same time.
“Go for the truck,” Hannah told me.
I sprinted away. The street looked like the aftermath of a warzone. There were clusters of people here and there, gathered around the wounded. I ran past the dead clerk and three dead gunmen, who were curiously missing their guns. I encountered no resistance. The rest of the gunman and the Enforcers were gone.
I drove the truck back for Zack and the others, then followed Hannah’s directions to the hospital.
“We need to start carrying our guns,” Logan said.
“You don’t have a gun,” I said. “And I can’t carry a rifle everywhere. It will freak people out. Better to just stay in the house until we figure out how to leave this place.”
“We took all those handguns, didn’t we?” Logan asked. “And you said I could have one.”
“No, I said I’d train everyone to use them. I’m not giving you one until you’ve been properly trained.” The idea of Logan packing heat terrified me almost as much as those mysterious gunmen.
We reached the hospital and all went in as far as the emergency waiting room, where Hannah told us to sit down. She walked Zaq past the counter.
“Excuse me,” one of the receptionists said.
“It’s me, Hannah Cheng. I’m a nurse here.”
“Oh, Hannah. Right,” the woman said. “I thought you’d gone home.”
“I did,” she said. “There were some gunmen in the downtown area. Get ready to receive a bunch more wounded.” She continued walking Zaq down the hall where she met a doctor.
“What have you got, Nurse Cheng?” he asked.
“Eighteen-year-old male sustained a single gunshot wound to his right shoulder. Airway is patent and he’s hemodynamically stable.”
“Bring him on back and we’ll take a look.”
Then they were gone.
“What did she say?” Lizzie asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
Lizzie broke down, and I hugged her. “He’ll be fine,” I said, but I really had no idea.
“‘Patent airway’ simply means the airway is open or unblocked,” Hannah said.
“And what does ‘hemodynamic’ mean?” I asked.
“I said ‘hemodynamically stable.’ That meant he had stable blood flow. I’m really sorry you guys were so worried. I mean, it was a serious wound, and without prompt and proper treatment, he certainly could have died from blood loss or a resulting infection.”
“But you don’t think he will,” Lizzie asked.
“No,” Hannah said.
“Those words just sounded so… important,” Lizzie said.
“Doctor lingo,” Hannah said. “I’m really sorry I didn’t explain myself better.”
“It’s totally fine,” Lizzie said. “I’m just glad he’s going to be okay.”
We were driving back to the house, having left Zaq at the hospital overnight for observation. Hannah thought he’d be able to go home in a day or two. “Once they were certain the wound was healing and there was no sign of infection,” she’d said.
Two days later, Zaq was released. Hannah told us that there’d been twenty-eight people come into the hospital that had been injured in the attack, and that fourteen of those had been gunshot wounds, three fatal.
“Three people killed in this supposedly peaceful city,” I said. “We should try Reinhold again. We need to get out of here.”
“I tried him just an hour ago,” Dad admitted. “What I’d like to know is who those people were.”
“I heard an Enforcer tell a doctor that they were from outside the town,” Hannah said, “but that’s all I heard, and who knows if it was true.”
“Did anyone actually get taken?” I asked.
“One doctor said eight people,” Hannah said. “But I also heard a nurse say three people, another nurse said eighteen people, and an Enforcer said none. So there you go.”
None. Stupid Enforcers. “We need to know what’s going on,” I said. “If we knew, we could try and do something about it or at least protect ourselves.”
“We could check the CB frequencies,” Dad said, “but I bet they’re communicating digitally.”
“I could rewrite a CB to transmit and not receive,” Logan said. “If we could sneak it into Tracy’s office, we could listen in on them until the battery died.”
“Or until they found the CB.”
“Do it,” Dad said. “I like that plan a lot.”
It wasn’t until next week’s Morning Party that we found out what really happened with the gunmen—at least what the LLC peeps wanted us to believe. Loca and Liberte opened the party with a new song—a tribute to those who lost their lives or were taken by the warlords, they called them. After the song, Loca spoke to the crowd.
“We are grieved by this tragedy, saddened that these shooters forced their way past our blockades and committed violent atrocities against our populace. We have been trying to create a fence around this community to keep everyone safe. Our crews are working tirelessly to complete the fence. Until it is complete, we remain vulnerable to attack. We would ask that you remain indoors as much as possible. We also ask that all guns be turned in to Enforcers. There are two reasons for this. First, our officers need a bigger arsenal of weapons if they are to do their job well. Just as we’ve asked those of you with medical abilities to come forward, we would ask that those of you with weapons to donate them so that our Enforcers can stand up against any future attacks that might come against us.”
Who would be dumb enough to donate their guns to the Enforcers?
“Second, this is meant to be a peaceful city. Guns are a vehicle of death. Only in the hands of trained Enforcers can guns benefit our peaceful town. So we ask you, people of this community, to give up your desires to kill and let our enforcers protect you. Any who turn in a gun voluntarily by the Safe Day Deadline of next Wednesday will receive an extra week’s worth of rations. Any who are caught withholding weapons will be treated as a lawbreaker.”
“Lawbreaker!” I looked from Dad to Zaq.
“Shh,” Dad said.
I stifled a groan of frustration. No way was I giving up our guns. These people were on the fast track to creating a dictatorship. Dad and I exchanged several more glares as Tracy stepped forward to rave about the brave residents who would donate their guns to Enforcers, but it wasn’t until we were driving home in the truck that any of us voiced our opposition to the new gun law.
“We’re not turning in the guns,” I said.
“But, Eli,” Shyla said. “Loca said we have to.”
“Loca is wrong to say that. Loca is not the boss of us. He can’t simply declare himself the ruler of everyone. I didn’t vote for Loca for president. Did you?”
Shyla blinked her big eyes. “I’m too young to vote.”
“I know you like them,” I said. “And they’re talented musicians. But what they’re doing is wrong. It’s against the constitution for them to take our guns away.”
“The constitution means squat to those people,” Dad said. “They’re not even Americans. They’re French. And they’ve been given the opportunity to start their own nation. Can’t blame them for trying, but I don’t want to be a part of it.”
“Me either,” I said.
“But where else can we go?” Lizzie asked. “We need safe water.”
No one had an answer for that.
A week passed by in relative peace. At the next Morning Party, Mr. Tracy reminded residents to turn in all weapons before the Safe Day Deadline, so I went home and hid the gun safe in the attic under a bunch of empty suitcases. Then I hid a few other guns around the house. One handgun—unloaded—went in the drawer under the kitchen stove—under all the pans. A second handgun I put in a Ziploc bag and duct taped inside the toilet tank. A third I stuffed under the couch cushions. Dad wrapped his rifle in trash bags, and put it up a tree in the backward.
We did all this for a reason. I was a little worried that enforcers might remember some of our party had guns since I had a gun rack in the truck and had one in the cab when we’d first arrived here.
And I was right.
Thursday morning, bright and early, four Enforcers knocked on our door. It was Officer Harvey and his friends.
“We have a warrant to search the premises for illegal weaponry,” Harvey said.
“I don’t have any illegal weaponry,” I said. “The constitution of the United States gives its citizens the right to bear arms.”
Lizzie winced, and I knew she was worried I was going to end up arrested again, but I couldn’t just let these jerks barge in here and take whatever they wanted. When would it end?
Harvey made everyone sit in the living room, and he stayed to keep an eye on us while the other three Enforcers searched the place. The first to be found was the gun in the toilet tank. Yeah, I suppose that had been a cliché hiding place. Second, they found the gun in the kitchen. I’d thought those two had been better hidden that the gun safe, so I wasn’t surprised when two Enforcers carried that down into the living room.
“Check this out,” one said to Harvey. “There must be thirty guns in here.”
Maybe I should have tried harder on this gun hiding thing, but they hadn’t found the one in the couch cushions. Lizzie was still sitting on it. And no one had gone outside to search, so Dad’s rifle was likely safe in the trees.
“This many guns, Mr. McShane…” Harvey said. “You’re going to be in rehab for a long time.”
“You don’t have the right to take my things,” I said, standing. “You don’t have the right to make us live here. We want to leave. Let us take our stuff and go.”
“So you can join up with those deranged gunmen?” Harvey asked. “I don’t think so. Guns are for killing, and we’re not going to let anyone have that responsibility but us.”
“Guns are also for protecting myself and my family from people who would try to harm us, Enforcers included,” I said. “You take my guns, you give me no way to protect myself from people like you.”
“Obey the law and you have no reason to fear me,” Harvey said.
“I obey the laws of my country: The United States of America. Loca and Liberté Champion and Mr. Tracy don’t get to make laws for me.”
“They already did, Mr. McShane,” Harvey said. “Now, are you going to come peacefully or would you like to try the taser?”
“Why arrest only Eli?” Dad asked. “We all live here. Half these guns are mine.”
“This house is registered to Eli McShane,” Harvey said. “Therefore whatever is in this house belongs to Mr. McShane. He would do well to remember that in the future.”
Enforcer Harvey cuffed me, took me out to his police cruiser, and drove me to rehab. Again.
END OF CHAPTER
Arrested again. What will happen to Eli now?
Sorry I’m a day late on this! I turned in King’s Blood on Sunday night (yay!), so I wasn’t able to write this until yesterday, which put me a day behind. Thanks for your patience.
Where are they taking Eli? Do you think he’s going house hunting or somewhere else?
Shockingly, they actually did drive us all around to a bunch of houses.
Of the eight of us, (I changed it to eight from last week’s twelve) I was the youngest by far. Most of the people looked somewhere between their twenties and middle-aged. We were each given a slip of paper that listed eight address and were told to rank our top four. The guide—a lady in a fancy brown suit—told us that she’d do her best to make us all happy.
First they drove us to two houses off of Summit Road that were across the road from each other. They were really close to the LLC compound. Everyone went nuts over the places, but I didn’t think they were that amazing. Then we drove out Gothic and down a bunch of side streets where we found the next three houses. These were what you might find in almost any city across America. Suburban, three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath homes with tiny yards. Some were newer than others, but all were nice inside. We were told that each house came furnished.
While the houses had indoor plumbing, it was turned off. There was a port-a-potty in each yard, which our guide told us was temporary.
“Once the dam is complete, the Champions plan to re-route the water to all the houses. It’s a major project, though, and might take a year or more to complete.”
After that, we went north and stopped at a house on Cinnamon Mountain Road. At 3986 square feet, it had four bedrooms, three and a half baths, a great room, and a wet bar. People freaked out over the place, and I couldn’t help but think this much space would be enough to fit everyone in our ragtag family.
The seventh house was even better. A bit farther north on Gold Link Drive, coming in at 4200 square feet, the five bedroom behemoth looked more like a log cabin hotel resort. It had massive windows overlooking the mountain, quick access to National Forest hiking trails, and bathrooms and balconies in each room. Everyone went nuts over the place, so I knew there was no way I’d to get it.
I got really caught up in the fun of it all and had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t want to live in this town with these people who felt they could do whatever they wanted and we’d all fall in line.
We all piled back into the van and drove to the last house. It was way on the north side of the mountain at the far end of Prospect Road. With three bedrooms, two baths, and 2300 square feet—which included a two-car garage—it was smaller than some of the other houses we’d seen. Several people said the place was ugly outside compared to the other houses and too far away from the LLC compound. It was built into a steep hill. The ground level was stone masonry around the two-car garage. The next two stories were sided in pine. A porch wrapped around the front of the second story, and unless you entered through the garage, you had to climb a full flight of stairs to reach the front door. Everyone complained about this, as if walking a flight of stairs was too much work. The inside was nice but a little outdated. It smelled old. Our tour guide said the house had been built in the 80s.
I liked it.
As we drove back toward the LLC compound, everyone was talking about which place was their favorite. I wasn’t sure if people were being honest or not. I mean, we were competing with each other for these houses. Most people were stuck on the first two that were near the LLC compound and the mansion of a house on Gold Link Drive. While I had no plans to stick around this place long term, I would much rather live in a house than in the condos, and if I could get one close to the mountain, that would be ideal. I had no desire to be close to the LLC compound, but since everyone was obsessed with Gold Link Drive, I chose Prospect Drive as my number one. It was perfect for my needs, and the fact that no one else seemed to want it made me hopeful that I’d actually get it.
We got back to the compound, and our tour guide told us to wait while she took our slips of paper inside. It took forever for her to come back out. My guess is they were rocking off between seven people having chosen Gold Link Drive as their number one.
She finally came back with a shoebox of keys. I wondered about all the families that had lived in these houses. I knew some of the places were vacation homes or rentals for skiers, but not all. They owners had likely died like the rest of the world, and LLC had sent their people in to clear out all the owners’ worldly belongings so that their homes could be given to perfect strangers. So weird.
Gold Link Drive went to a middle-aged guy who looked like working out was his life. He pumped his fist in the air while several others in the group shot death glares his way.
When the guide handed me the keys to Prospect Drive, I was relieved. She had me sign for the keys, then they told me I was free to move in.
I went back to the condo and told everyone about the house. Jaylee and Krista weren’t here, of course.
“Can we go see it?” Dad asked.
“Sure,” I said. “We can move out there. Why don’t you guys pack up and we’ll take a load out after lunch?”
Everyone agreed and took off to pack. I went next door.
Jaylee answered and grinned when she saw me. “Well?”
“I got a house,” I said, dangling the key in front of her face. “Want to go see if before everyone else?”
She snatched the key out of my hand and took off past me, running down the stairs. I chased her all the way to my truck. We got in and I drove north on Gothic Road.
“It’s really far out here,” she said, watching the houses we passed by. “You think that’s why they are giving these away?”
“Don’t know,” I said.
“Is it big? Tell me about it.”
So I did. And I told her nothing about any of the other houses. Jaylee would never have chosen Prospect Drive. So the less she knew about the other houses, the better.
We arrived, and Jaylee jumped out before I had fully stopped the truck. I heard her squeal, which made me feel good. I shut off the truck and joined her where she stood before the garage, looking up.
“I like that deck,” she said. “Race you up the stairs.”
She took off. I chased her but let her win.
She slapped the front door. “Ha! I beat you.” She fiddled with the keys. “Which one opens the door, I wonder.”
I snatched the keys from her hands and held them behind my back. “Hold on, I want to ask you something.”
She smirked and set one hand on her hip. “What?”
I was suddenly nervous. This girl had always made me nervous, but what I was about to say… it could go badly. I hoped it wouldn’t. “You really want to live here with me?”
She narrowed her eyes. “I already told you I did.”
“Yeah, but this place is big enough for everyone. We’ll all live here. But I was thinking—”
“You want to share a bedroom.” She reached out, grabbed the waistband of my jeans, and pulled me toward her. She slid both hands around my waist, slipping them up under the bottom of my T-shirt where her fingernails lightly scratched my lower back.
My cheeks burned. “Actually, I was thinking we should get married.”
She looked up at me, her eyes huge.
I swallowed, wondering what she was thinking.
She burst into laughter.
Nice. That’s just what a guy wants to hear after he proposes. “Come on,” I said.
“I’m sorry, Eli. I just did not expect you to say that!”
I took a deep breath, thankful the asking part was over, but still nervous about the answer part. Was she going to answer? “Well…?”
“Married. Eli? Why?”
“I’m not going to live with a girl before I’m married. I’m just not.”
“My mom never got married, and she has always been fine.”
“Really.” The woman had always treated her apartment like a bed and breakfast. Whichever guy she was currently hooking up with got to move in until she dumped him.
“I don’t expect you to understand—your parents were always so loyal or whatever. But I think that’s boring.”
“It’s boring to fall in love with someone?”
“Uh… no. It’s boring to vow to stay in love with someone forever. You can’t know that you’ll even like them a month from now, so there’s no point in making promises you can’t keep.”
“It’s a vow. It’s not supposed to be easy all the time.”
“Because you stop loving each other, and then comes the guilt, and that’s when divorce happens. Why do that to each other? Be together if you want to. And when you don’t, move on.”
“I’m not like that,” I said. “I want one person to be mine. And I’ll be hers. That’s how it should be.”
“So says your parents and Pastor Scott and thousands of years of archaic traditions.”
“I like those traditions.”
“Well, I don’t.”
I backed up to lean against the porch railing. “Okay. So, I guess that’s a no.” I’d gotten my answer. Now what?
“Don’t be mad, Eli,” Jaylee said. “It’s not a big deal. We’ve only been dating a few weeks. You’re moving a bit fast for me.”
Maybe he was.
“And you know what? I’ve been trying to do things your way. I really have. But you haven’t even tried to do anything I want to do. That’s not really fair.”
The statement hit hard. She was right. I’d been asking her to change, but I hadn’t been willing to change anything about myself. Not that I would, either. And that did sound unfair.
Hannah’s warning came back to me. Perhaps Jaylee and I were just too different.
“We should get back,” I said. “The others will be waiting.”
She turned her head away and stuck her nose in the air. “Not until you smile.”
Really? Everything was a game to this girl. “Jaylee, let’s just go.”
She folded her arms and sat on the porch, cross-legged. “Nope. Not until we make up.”
What? “I asked you to marry me. You said no. I think we’re done here.” I should have seen this long ago, and I felt really stupid all of a sudden. Embarrassed.
“Break up? You’re breaking up with me?” She sounded totally shocked.
“Let’s just say it’s mutual.”
“Mutual? You’re such a bore, Eli.”
“And you’re mean,” I said. “Look, if it makes you feel better, tell everyone you dumped me, okay? I don’t really care.”
But I so did. I jogged down the steps and climbed into the van. Jaylee stayed up on the balcony for a while. She finally stood up and made her way down to the truck. She got in, slammed the door.
“I’m dumping you,” she said. “You’re a jerk.”
I released a slow breath and started the truck. It was weird. I’d been in love with Jaylee for years. I’d spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be her boyfriend. Reality paled in comparison, which as I drove back to the condo and Jaylee glared out the passenger’s window, shocked me. I had wanted this for so long, but I’d never really understood what it would look like. I think, deep down, I’d always believed that I could save her. That if she would just get to know me, she’d realize that we were meant to be and she’d stop making reckless choices and stop drinking and clean up her life.
But she didn’t want to. And at the moment, I really didn’t care anymore.
Three blocks from the condo, I stopped at a red light and someone knocked on my driver’s side window.
I jumped, saw that it was Riggs, and rolled down the window.
“Hey, losers,” he said. “You really get a house or what, Eli?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Dude, you should have a party, man. That would be sweet.”
“Eli doesn’t party, Riggs,” Jaylee said. “He’s too good for all that.”
“Well, sure he is.” Riggs reached in and patted my shoulder. “You’re one of the good ones, man.”
I was starting to think he was a little drunk.
Someone honked behind me. The light had turned green. “See you later, Riggs,” I said, stepping on the gas.
He held onto the window and ran alongside the truck. “Hey, wait! Whoa! You guys should come meet my friends. We’re going for cupcakes.”
“Some other time,” I said.
But Jaylee was already climbing out of the cab. She shut the door and stepped back from the truck without a word.
I nodded to Riggs and drove on.
Good riddance, right?
When I got back to the apartment, I found the door wide open. Stuff was piled by the door. Lizzie was wiping down the counters with some Clorox wipes. I should probably go pack my own stuff, but I just didn’t feel like it. I came in and sat down at the table. My sister didn’t see me, she just kept cleaning. I wondered where everyone else was. Didn’t hear any voices. It wasn’t until I leaned back in my chair and the wood cracked that Lizzie looked up.
“Eli.” She stopped cleaning. “Where’s Jaylee?”
I slouched down. “With Riggs.”
She nodded. “Well, this stuff is ready to load. Hannah and Shy are next door, packing their stuff. The guys went for sandwiches. They’re getting them to go. We weren’t sure when you were coming back.”
I stood up, glad to have something to do. “I’ll start loading the truck.”
By the time the guys returned with lunch, I had loaded the pile by the door. We crowded around the table and ate sandwiches while I told them all about the houses I’d seen that morning and why I picked the one I did. Krista criticized me for it, and I almost hoped she’d tell Jaylee.
We didn’t have anything more than we’d come with, so we moved to my new house in one trip. Then we went back out and used up our daily food rations at the market, stocking up on supplies. It would be nice to be able to cook our own meals, though we’d have to be careful about dishes since water was still scarce.
We stayed up late that night playing board games. There was lots of laughter, and I started to feel better. The girls all went to bed, and us guys went out onto the deck.
“This was a perfect night,” Logan said. “She likes me, don’t you think so, Zaq? Me and Hannah? She volunteered to be on my team.”
“Yeah, I don’t know, man,” Zaq said. “It was just Pictionary.”
“We did good together, though. I guessed everything she drew.”
“Because she’s a good artist,” I said. “She didn’t guess half the things you drew.”
Logan ignored that. “I’ve been thinking of what Reinhold said about us all need to pair off and procreate. Repopulate the world.”
“He didn’t mean right now,” Zaq said. “He was talking long term.”
“Still, you and Lizzie. Eli and Jaylee. And Hannah and me. Right?”
“You can cross me and Jaylee of that list,” I said.
“Why?” Logan asked. “What did you do?”
“Why do you assume it was my fault?” I asked. “She’s always liked Riggs.”
“Oh,” Logan said.
“But, Eli,” Zaq said. “Riggs doesn’t stick with anyone. If they hook up, it won’t last.”
“I’m not waiting around for Riggs to dump her,” I said. “Hannah was right. You were right, Zaq. Jaylee and I are just too different.”
“No worries, Eli,” Logan said. “You can go for Krista, instead.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Pretty sure Krista has her heart set on any of the guys in that condo at the foot of the stairs,” I said.
Logan groaned. “Then fix it, Eli. Fix things with you and Jaylee.”
“I’m not fixing it,” I said. “I’m done.”
“Don’t worry about me, Logan. Reinhold wants me to marry Kimama, so I’m all set.”
Zaq and Logan stared at me, mouths gaping. Then they glanced at each other and cracked up.
I don’t know if they thought I was joking or not, but I’d had enough talk about girls. “You guys do what you have to do, but I’m going to focus on getting us out of this place. That’s all I care about right now.”
When I came down to breakfast the next morning, Lizzie ran up and gave me a hug. “How are you? I made you some pancakes. Come and eat.”
She dragged me to the table and pushed me into a chair. Logan and Zaq were playing war across from me. Hannah was sitting in the living room with Shyla and Davis. No sign of my dad or Cree.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“It’s eleven thirty, Eli. You slept in. It’s no wonder, considering.”
“Krista came by this morning to give me some stuff I forgot. She and Jaylee are going to keep living in the condo. I can’t believe it, Eli. I’m just so sad for you.”
“What are you talking about? Because Jaylee doesn’t want to live here?”
“Because you asked Jaylee to marry you? She said no? You guys broke up?”
I stared at my sister, felt every eye in the room fix on me. My face burned. “It was mutual,” I said.
Zaq put down his cards. “You proposed? Seriously, man?”
I shrugged. “Pancakes ready yet?”
Lizzie brought me a paper plate with three steaming pancakes on it. I picked up the butter knife, cut off a slab of butter, and slathered it onto the top pancake.
“Why didn’t you say anything last night?” Zaq asked.
“Didn’t feel like it,” I said, reaching for the syrup.
“She’s a moron,” Zaq said.
I squeezed my frustration into the syrup bottle and ended up drowning my pancakes. “I’m the moron. We’re too different. Everyone said so.”
“Being different isn’t the problem,” Zaq said. “You guys want different things.”
I set the bottle of syrup down on the table with a thud. “You’re right,” I said. “I’m going to spend the day on the radios, trying to get in touch with Reinhold. It’s weird that he hasn’t checked in.”
“I hope something didn’t happen to him,” Lizzie said.
“He could have gotten bitten by a rattlesnake,” Logan said. “That’s the only venomous snake on the mountain.”
“How would his getting bit keep him from using the radio?” I asked. “How would it keep Kimama from using the radio?”
“Maybe he passed out and—”
The doorbell rang.
We went silent, staring at each other. Who could that be?
Jaylee, perhaps. She realized she was wrong to reject me and had changed her mind. Well, I wasn’t going to forgive her so easily. I got up and walked to the door. Opened it.
Two Enforcers stood there. It was Officer Harvey and a guy named Bell. Below, they’d parked their police car beside my truck.
“Hey,” I said.
“We’re looking for Hannah Cheng,” Officer Harvey said.
Hannah? I suddenly grew suspicious. “What did she do?”
“Is she here or not?” Harvey asked. “One of her roommates gave this as her new address. You know you’re supposed to report a new address with LLC headquarters.”
“I didn’t know,” I said. “I’ll be sure that we all do that today.”
Hannah stepped up beside me. “I’m Hannah Cheng. How can I help you?”
“You’re to come with us, miss,” Harvey said.
“On what charge?” I asked.
“You’re not being arrested,” Harvey told her. “When you filled out your application to live here, you acknowledged having medical training. There is a growing need, so we’re bringing in anyone with medical training for a meeting.”
“Let me get my shoes,” Hannah said, walking away.
That left me with the enforcers. Hannah was a generous person. I knew she’d happily go with these guys if she thought she might be able to help someone. Problem was, I didn’t trust these guys or the people who pulled their strings. It wasn’t my choice, though, and Hannah returned momentarily, shoes on, and left with the enforcers.
I stood in the doorway, frowning as the police cruiser sped away, kicking up a plume of dust on the dirt road. This was just the beginning. Soon they’d find “jobs” for all of us. Jobs that didn’t pay. We’d have to do them in exchange for the housing, food, and water that LLC provided. Freedom was important to me, and I didn’t like being forced into a new way of life. I should get to choose. To vote. To have a say. It was time to get in touch with Reinhold and get out of this place. The sooner, the better.
END OF CHAPTER
Is Eli right to worry that Enforcers took Hannah away to work? Or is he overreacting?
Eli and his friends have been arrested. What will happen to them now?
The Enforcers took away our protest signs. We were searched, handcuffed, and divided between the two vehicles, girls in Officer Harvey’s car, guys in with Officer Miller. The Enforcers drove us up the hill to the Champion compound.
Construction around the showers was well underway. They were not simply raising a couple of kiosks. They were building a full-on fence around the place.
“They really must want to keep people from sneaking into the showers,” Zaq said.
“They’d have to if they’re going to use them to keep people in line,” I said.
“I could scale that fence if I had a wetsuit and leather gloves,” Logan said. “Barbed wire couldn’t rip through either.”
“Yes it could,” Zaq said. “I was surfing in San Diego once and a scrap of barbed wire tangled around my leg. Stopped me in a hurry.”
“If we’re arrested, why bring us here?” I asked Officer Miller, the driver.
“Those are my orders. I’m to take you to Mr. Tracy.”
The Enforcers parked outside the front doors and led them into Tracy’s office. The man was sitting behind his desk, leaning back in his leather chair, hands folded over his stomach, talking softly with an Enforcer, who stood on the other side of the desk. The Enforcer was slender and very tall. If Tracy was Jack Skellington, the Enforcer was Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, thick, intimidating, and silent.
“Ah, our little troublemakers have arrived,” Tracy said, standing. “Come in, come in.” He chuckled, as if Eli and his friends had started a food fight in a school cafeteria. “I want you all to meet Captain Gary Kane. He is the head of our Enforcers. He and I have just worked out a system for bringing order to this place. Want to hear it?”
I didn’t, really. I just wanted to get out of there, contact Reinhold on the CB, and find a way to live anyplace else. “We didn’t mean to cause any disorder, sir,” I said. “The First Amendment gives us the right to peaceful protest, so that’s what we were doing. We recognize that you and your Enforcers have the right to uphold the law and punish lawbreakers, we just don’t think it’s constitutional to withhold water as punishment. It’s inhumane.”
“I see. ‘Water is a…’” Tracy gestured to Officer Miller, who was holding our signs. Miller held them up, and Tracy read from the one on the top of the stack, “‘A human right.’ That’s very profound. But here’s the thing. The United States of America died with ninety percent of the world’s population, so while I applaud your knowledge of the constitution, it no longer applies. Captain Kane and I, we make the laws around here. Water is what gets people to obey, so water is our great motivator, m’kay?”
“You can’t just declare our country dead,” Logan said.
“Who is going to stop me?” Tracy asked. “A half dozen teenaged fundamentalists? I don’t think so. In fact, I’ve brought you here for a reason. We’re going to make an example of you.”
“You’re going to put us in jail?” Logan asked.
“Jail… prison… the pen. Those all sound so… oppressive,” Tracy said. “The Champions want to keep things positive around here. They know that you all just got a little carried away. We all do. I’m sure you know that Loca Champion has been to rehab several times for his addiction to heroine. A little heroine is fun, but too much and you need to get help. No shame in that. Now, you kids, you’re addicted to complaining. Negativity. I get that you want to make a difference—I can respect that—but you’ve got to learn the rules first. And since we are still writing the rules, you need to learn trust. Your offense is minor—I could let you off with a warning—but since I mean to make examples of you so that people understand how things work around here, I’m checking you all in to rehab for twenty-four hours, where you can learn. That includes loss of water privileges for the time you’re there.”
“How is dehydrating us good for our health?” Hannah asked.
“So we can learn what?” I asked.
“What it means to be a resident of Safe Haven,” Tracy said.
Rehab turned out to be in the renovated city jail, which was a tiny building with two holding cells. They still had bars across the front of each cell, but I guessed that the pine bunk beds, the sage green wall paint, the framed poster of Loca and Liberte, and the brown suede chairs were all new.
The two cells were side-by-side facing a plain hallway that was also freshly painted and adorned with more posters of LLC, touting song lyrics. Like before, the girls went in one cell, guys in the other. The cells shared a center wall, which made it impossible to see the girls, though we could talk to each other easily enough.
We were brought out of our cells for group therapy, which was held in a room painted a dull blue. A circular table surrounded by chairs was the only thing in the room with the exception of a dozen LLC posters, three on each wall. Seeing them all together, I noticed the words weren’t merely song lyrics. I mean, most of them were, but it looked to me like they’d been carefully penned as propaganda.
“You are safe in the haven.”
“Rage right. Rage together.”
“We are survivors.”
“Party. Every. Day.”
“Glory to Safe Haven.”
“LLC will keep you safe.”
“Let there be peace, love, and techno.”
“We keep the peace.”
“No work here. Be beautiful and party.”
“Find joy in life.”
As we took our seats around the table, Lizzie whispered, “This feels like a dystopian novel.”
“That would be funny if this wasn’t really happening,” I said.
“Shut up,” one of the enforcers said. “You sit quietly until the counselor arrives.”
So we sat in silence, looking from each other. I wanted so badly to say something, but the enforcers had taken position right behind our chairs. There were only three of them, to our five, but they were wearing guns and tazers, and I really didn’t want to push my luck.
The door opened, and tiny blond woman breezed in. She was wearing a beige skirt suit and had purple shoes with spiky heels and so much makeup on her face she looked like a Barbie doll.
“I’m Carelle Lawler,” she said, “rehab counselor. I’m here to help you work past your issues.”
“Being oppressed is not an issue,” I said, “it’s a fact.”
“If you have something to say, you may raise your hand,” she said, “but do not speak unless spoken to.”
“This is crap!” Logan said, standing. “We haven’t done anything wrong. We don’t deserve to be here. You people don’t have a right to keep us prisoner when we didn’t even—”
Something clicked and Logan grunted, his face contorted in shock and pain. One of the enforcers had tazed him. When the clicking stopped, he tipped to the side and fell out of his chair. Zaq, Hannah, and I all jumped up at once, but the other two enforcers trained their tazers on us.
“Sit down,” Carelle said.
“I will have order in this room. You cannot grow and heal if you are being rebellious. And if you want to stay out of rehab, I suggest you pay attention and participate. Because if I don’t sign your dismissal, your sentence here will be lengthened. Safe Haven is not in the practice of putting dangerous residents on the street.”
So much wrong. There was so much I wanted to say. First, none of us needed healing! Second, Tracy hadn’t said anything about a shrink needing to dismiss us from our twenty-four hour sentence. Third, Safe Haven was barely a month old. It wasn’t in the practice of anything. And fourth, we were not dangerous residents.
“The Champions seek to create a place of freedom and joy,” Carelle said. “To succeed, they require people to get along with one another. No judging. No expressing hostile ideas.”
I raised my hand.
“Yes, Mr. McShane?”
“You want conformity.”
She pinned me with a fake smile. “We want kindness. Over the next two days, you will learn ways to react to all situations with kindness. You will learn to adjust your attitude. To be positive. Only then will I allow you to reenter society.”
So this was attitude rehab. Our little protest had been too much free thinking for these people. We could stay here, but only if we did exactly what they said.
I wished I’d gone with Reinhold.
I honestly couldn’t say that any of us did well in Tracy’s rehab. We pandered in our answers, telling the woman what she wanted to hear. I didn’t think she believed us for a second, but that didn’t seem to matter. This Safe Haven didn’t care what you believed. It cared about conformity. As long as we obeyed, we’d be “free” to go about our business.
We were released at the end of our twenty-four hours and went back to the apartment. Dad was relieved to see us and ticked when we told him everything that had happened. Shyla ran next door to tell Krista and Jaylee that we’re back.
“We’ve got to get out of this place,” Dad said. “I’ll check in with Reinhold and see what he’s found out. The sooner we leave this place, the better.”
The door opened and Jaylee came running in. She threw herself at me. “Eli!”
I caught her about the waist, but had to take a step back to keep my balance. She smelled like spicy perfume and tropical shampoo. She kissed me like we were married and I’d been sent gone for two years and had just returned from the front lines of a major war.
“I was so worried about you,” she said when she came up for air.
“Yes!” She whacked my arm. “No one knew were you’d gone to. We thought something terrible had happened until we saw you on the monitors.”
“Jay told everyone you were her boyfriend,” Krista said. “People were very sympathetic about you being in rehab.”
“Give me a break,” Zaq said. “Mr. Tracy said he could let us go with a warning, but he wanted to make examples of us. If you disagree with how they do things around here, you’ll get arrested and brainwashed.”
Jaylee whacked my arm again. “I told you you shouln’t protest.”
“What? No you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did. The Champions are nice, and it was rude to protest them.”
“We weren’t protesting the Champions,” Hannah said. “We were protesting the fact that they—”
“Yeah, we know,” Krista said. “You don’t have to keep telling us. We’re not dumb.”
“I never said you were dumb,” Hannah said.
“Well, you all treat us like we are!” Jaylee yelled. “Why won’t you all just come to the parties and have some fun instead of complaining all the time? This isn’t school. It’s real life. And you guys are missing out.”
“Maybe Jaylee’s right,” Lizzie said.
“No, babe,” Zaq said. “They tried to brainwash us.”
“I know,” Lizzie said. “I’m just saying that maybe we should lay low for a while and see what Reinhold finds out. Try and stay out of trouble until then. Okay, Eli?”
“I’ll try,” I said. “But it’s not going to be easy.”
The next Monday, we rode to the Morning Party in the van and made our way up to the main stage. The new bathrooms had been finished, but the line was short as the majority of the crowd had already congregated around the main stage. I was happy to linger near the back, but Jaylee took hold of my hand and dragged me through the crowd toward the stage.
“I want to get a good spot, Eli,” she said.
And though I wanted to protest, I didn’t. I recalled my dad’s warning about being whipped. It was far too easy for Jaylee to talk me into things I didn’t want to do. Why did I let her? I was about to pull away and tell her I was going back to Zaq and the others when I heard it. That familiar guffaw that sent a shiver crawling up my spine.
Riggs. He was standing with a group of people his age, mostly girls who were dressed in shorts and tank tops.
Oddly, Jaylee didn’t say anything—acted like she didn’t see him, but she must have because she led me right toward him. She didn’t say anything to him or look his way. She stopped on his left, positioning herself between him and me with her back to him, then she grabbed the neckline of my T-shirt and pulled me down to kiss her. I jumped a little, surprised, and her hands slid around my neck and into my hair. My face burned; people were watching us. She let go, drew back enough that my eyes blurred hers into one.
“You’re getting good at this,” she whispered, then pulled me off balance. I tried to get my feet underneath me but failed and stumbled into her. She knocked back into Riggs, giggled without looking at him, then threw herself at me and kissed me again.
“Jaylee?” Riggs’s voice. “Oh, my gosh! Eli?”
Jaylee released me and whirled around. She gasped, acting all surprised. “Oh, hey, Riggs!” But rather than hugging him, as I expected she would, she slid her arm around my waist, tucking herself against my side.
His sunglass-shrouded gaze seemed to stare at us both simultaneously. He was still wearing his puka shell necklace and that made me hate him more than ever. I felt instantly bad for hating him, but I let myself indulge in the feeling regardless.
“How have you been?” Jaylee asked him.
“Good. I’m good. You been back to the Alpine yet?” he asked Jaylee.
“Not since that first time,” she said. “Too many creepers. Besides, Eli doesn’t like those places, do you, baby?”
That Jaylee had already seen Riggs here and kept it from me registered in the back of my brain about the same time as the realization that she’d dragged me over here so that Riggs would see us together. She was using me to make Riggs jealous. I couldn’t tell if it was working or not. He seemed to just be staring. Couldn’t really tell with him wearing the sunglasses.
“I have to go tell the others you’re here!” Jaylee said, and she took off through the crowd like a rabbit, leaving me behind.
I watched her go, feeling ticked off for so many reasons, the least of which was that she’d ditched me with Riggs, who wasted no time making things more awkward.
“So, you and Jaylee, huh?” Riggs said.
“Yeah,” I said.
He shook his head. “I don’t buy it.”
“No one’s asking you to,” I said, walking away.
I was almost back to Zaq and the others when the Morning Party theme music started and Tracy’s voice came over the loud-speakers. “Gooood morning, party fiends! How is everyone today?”
The crowd cheered.
I tried to tune it all out. If this were summer camp or spirit week at my high school, I could see acting like a bunch of happy, hyper people just wanting to have a good time. But our world had ended and Tracy and the Champions, who had a chance to keep it going, we’re trying to change everything in ways I very much didn’t like.
Tracy reminded us all that we were not to climb the mountain until the construction of the dam was completed. “It’s just too dangerous for y’all up there, m’kay?”
Too dangerous for us to find out what they’re doing.
Next came a video, shot like a docudrama, where Tracy was interviewing the Champions about their dreams for this place.
“We want this to be home for everyone,” Liberte said in her thick French accent.
“Not only that,” her brother added, “we want to help people who struggle.”
And then my face was on the screen, up close. I was in the group room in rehab, saying something, but the words had been drowned out by the video’s techno music score. The camera flashed from my face, to Carelle’s and back.
“Eli, you’re on the screen!” Jaylee said, grabbing my arm.
“Oh, gosh,” Lizzie said.
“No way,” Logan said. “None of us signed waivers.”
“Like they care about any laws but their own, Logan,” I said.
“Clearly you’re getting the help you need,” Zaq said.
The video went on to show people rocking out at concerts, eating together at some of the restaurants, then ended with Loca and Liberte, sitting side by side on a cheetah print sofa.
“If you know someone who is struggling to adapt to life here, the Rehabilitation Center is ready to help,” Liberte said.
“We want everyone to feel at home in this place,” Loca said. “If you need help, stop by the compound office and let us know. There is no shame… no judging. Let us help you find joy in life.”
“They’re going to let people check themselves into that place?” Zaq asked.
“They’re trying to build a positive reputation for the place,” Hannah said. “That way when people end up there, they won’t feel so bad about it.”
“They’ll probably be excited,” I said.
“Oh, cool. I saw this place on that video at the MP. I’m so happy to be here?” Lizzie asked.
“Something like that,” Hannah said.
“Shh,” Zaq said. “They’re talking about houses.”
I listened up.
“…called the Lottery Draw,” Tracy said. “As houses get cleared for habitation, residents will randomly receive a notification. Those winners will come down to LLC headquarters, get a tour of the available houses, and choose one. Totally free, totally random. There’s nothing you can do to increase your odds of getting chosen. We have twelve houses ready today. Twelve of you have been notified. Your badges should be lit up green.
I glanced to my wristband, surprised when I saw the bright green light glowing under the jellied white rubber. I held up my hand to Zaq and Lizzie. “Check it out.”
Jaylee squealed. “Eli! You won! You won a house!”
“Winners, make your way to the Champion’s front door,” Tracy said. “A van is waiting to give you a tour of the available houses. Do we have any winners here this morning? Let’s see those lights. Lift those bracelets up! Nice! We have a winner right there in the pink blouse. Congratulations. And you sir, there’s another. Hold them high!”
“Come on, Eli,” Jaylee lifted my arm in the air and waved her hand. “Here! We have a winner here!” She dragged me out of the crowd and toward the Champion’s house. Sure enough, there was a white van waiting by the front door. Three people with glowing wristbands were waiting to get in.
Behind us, from the sudden screams on the field, I knew that Loca and Liberte had taken the stage.
“Bonjour, bonjour, mes amis!” Loca yelled, his booming mic somewhat muted by our distance from the speakers.
“Just think, Eli, a house!” Jaylee said. “I would so love to live in a house. Do you know I never have? My whole life in that same apartment.”
We reached the van and Captain Kacy was there. “Only winners inside,” he said, waving Jaylee back.
“But I’m with him,” she said. “We’re going to live in the house together.”
I gaped at her, but she was too busy batting her eyes at Kacy to notice.
“That’s not my business,” Kacy said. “Only winners get in the van. The rest of you, get lost.”
Jaylee gasped. “Rude much?” she muttered, then to me, “Take pictures for me.” She shoved her cell phone into my hands.”
“You still carry this around? It doesn’t have service.”
“But it works for pictures,” she said. “Take lots, okay?”
I climbed in the van.
But as we drove away from the MP, I couldn’t help but wonder if this van might not be going to mystery houses at all but some sort of place where they make troublemakers disappear.
END OF CHAPTER
Where are they taking Eli? Do you think he’s going house hunting or somewhere else?
Hello, readers. Well, I tried. I really did. But life happened and there just weren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. I had to prepare for my talks at this year’s amazing One Year Adventure Novel conference, so my regular night for writing my THIRST chapter was taken, so I tried to write it on the plane, and while I made a good effort, I did not finish. So I am forced to confess I failed you. I am sorry. Alas, I am only human with no time stopping or time traveling ability–no clones, either, sadly. Just me with too much on my plate this week. So, THIRST will return next Monday. We will find out what happened to Eli and friends after they were arrested.
Thanks for your patience.