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.
Last week Eli found out that the Champions are trying to keep people away from the creek. What else might these opportunists try in regard to ruling over the people in Mount Crested Butte?
The next morning at breakfast, Reinhold and Kimama had already packed their things in his rig. They were ready to go. I kind of wished I was going with them.
No sign of Dad, so I went to check on him. I pushed open the door to the room he’d shared with Reinhold. He was sitting on the side of the bed, his back to me.
“Hey, Dad? Reinhold and Kimama are about to take off.”
He jumped at the sound of my voice, sniffed. “I’ll be right out.”
His voice had sounded funny, like he’d been crying.
My dad doesn’t cry.
“You okay?” I asked.
He sighed, and his posture sagged on his exhale. “I will be.” He glanced over his shoulder at me, and I could see that his eyes were bleary. “Just missing your mom.”
Mom was this constant ache that I’d shoved to the bottom of my heart to deal with later. Seeing my dad like this threatened to pull to the surface everything that I’d been trying to set aside. Her loss was too much for me to think about, but it must be even harder for Dad.
“I miss her too,” I managed, but those four words brought a rush of emotions up to my throat and head. I took a breath. “I’ll tell them you’re coming.”
And I went back to the living room.
“He’ll be out in a couple minutes,” I told Reinhold. “Can you wait?”
“Sure thing. I actually wanted to talk with you before we leave.”
Reinhold pulled me out onto the terrace. He slid the glass door shut behind him and crossed his arms over his wide chest.
“Why don’t you come with us up the mountain?”
The idea lightened my heavy heart. “Seriously?”
“You don’t want to be here. And don’t give me that sap about you and Jaylee because I ain’t falling for it.”
Now, hold on just a minute. Just like that my mood went from sorrow over Mom to hope at getting out of here for a couple days to total annoyance.
“This place is full of nutsos,” he said. “Put together they wouldn’t be able to survive a week in the wilderness, living off the land. You and me, we’re different. And this place…” He twirled his finger in a circle. “It can only get worse.”
I didn’t doubt that. “I have no intention of staying here long term,” I said. “It would be a lot of fun to go with you guys, but I don’t want to leave my dad to deal with all this and the kids too. You and Kimama don’t need me to hike up the mountain. I’d feel better staying here to help him out.”
“All right. Well, we’ll be back in a couple days, and if all goes to plan, we’ll all get out of this place for good. I got something else I want you to think about. Kimama is going to need a husband someday, and you’re my pick. I really think you two could make a go of it once she grows up a bit more.”
Whaa…? I gaped at him. “Are you serious?” I couldn’t believe this guy was offering me his daughter. I mean, how awkward can you get?
“You ever know me to bluff?”
“Uh… well… I… um…” I swallowed.
“Spit it out, boy.”
“I’m, uh, honored that you think me good enough… Um… I’ll have to… I need to think about it.” Was he crazy? “Pray about it,” I added.
“Great. You do that. It would help you get to know her better if you come with us.”
I hung my head. I had no desire to go with them. How was I going to say that, though?
“No worries, boy. You want to stay here with your dad and that’s fine. I can respect that.”
Thank you, Lord. I scrambled to say something positive and helpful. “I’ll make sure to monitor the radios so we can hear what you find.”
“Yeah, I s’pose that’ll work.” He slapped my shoulder and squeezed. “I’d better get going.” He went back inside.
I stayed put a bit longer, recovering from the shock of all that.
By the time I came back inside, Dad was in the kitchen making himself some eggs.
“Reinhold and Kimama took off,” he said.
“Eli, can we go now?” Jaylee asked. She was standing by the door, holding her shower caddy with two hands. Her duffel bag hung in the crook of one elbow, and her towel draped around her neck. Krista, Lizzie, Hannah, and Shyla were also standing around the entrance, ready for showers.
“We’ll go when Dad and the boys are ready,” I said.
“But Davis and Cree are still sleeping,” Jaylee said.
“If we don’t go soon, we won’t all get through before the MP starts,” Krista said.
I didn’t want the girls whining about showers when my dad was having a bad morning. “How about I take the girls up now?” I said to Dad. “That way you can take your time and we’ll meet you and the boys up there.”
Dad nodded. “Thanks, son. Let’s do that.”
We parked as close as we could and walked to the compound. There was hundreds of people in line for showers, which seemed odd. The closer we got, we found out that people were ticked off and looked more like an angry mob than lines for showers.
“What’s going on?” Jaylee asked a tan guy with spiky blond hair.
“Water is off in the showers, and no one is answering at the house,” he said.
The water was off? A flutter of panic tried to bloom in my gut, but I pushed in down. None of this mattered. Reinhold would find access to the creek from above and we’d move. Then we wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore.
The girls, who take their showers very seriously, didn’t take surfer guy’s word for it. They dragged the rest of us through the mob, asking the same question over and over and getting similar replies. Some said the river had become contaminated and the Champions were likely trying to protect everyone. Others guessed a broken pipe or some alternate type of plumbing problem. Only when the girls entered one of the shower stalls together and turned the knobs, did the truth register in their minds.
“What do you think happened?” Lizzie asked Zaq.
“I’d buy the broken pipe story,” he said. “There are a lot of people taking showers every day. It probably overwhelmed the plumbing.”
“I agree,” Logan said. “And since they’re not plumbers, I bet they joined mismatched pipes when they put all this in. Galvanized steel can’t be joined with a copper pipe without a dielectric union. It corrodes and will leak. They should use brass.”
Where does he come up with this stuff?
“Let’s go sit on the lawn and wait for the Morning Party to start,” I said. I was pretty sure Logan Tracy would have something to say about the lack of water.
“What if there’s just no water left?” Jaylee asked me. “I need to wash my hair, Eli. It feels gross.”
“We could go back to the condo and heat up some of the drinking water,” Krista said.
“No one is wasting the drinking water on hair,” I said, incredulous that I would even have to make such an assertion after everything we’d lived through.
The Champions’ version of a wake-up call ended the debate. Rather that the military “Reveille” that frequented camps across the country, the Champions had remixed an instrumental version of “We Are Survivors” that sounded like a Mario Brothers video game. I headed over to the lawn with the mob, curious what they’d say about the showers. We congregated in front of the stage that had been built in the center of the grassy expanse.
When the song ended, Logan Tracy ran out onto the stage, microphone in hand. Applause burst forth, until a dozen Enforcers followed Tracy out. They divided in half and formed two lines, one on each side of the stage.
The crowd stood silent.
“Good morning, everyone!” Tracy yelled, and I winced at the unnecessarily high volume of the mic. “How are y’all this fine day?”
He received scattered applause. For most of this crowd, it was still pretty early—especially for those who’d partied late into the morning hours. Others were guarded, arms crossed, expecting an announcement that would end the so-called “good life” of this place.
I counted myself in with the latter.
“I’m sure y’all noticed there was no water this morning,” Tracy said. “I’m real sorry about that, but we needed to get everyone’s attention. Thing is, we’ve had too many rules broken lately. I need to remind everyone that y’all signed a contract agreeing to certain terms. We’ve kept our end of the bargain, and now we really need y’all to keep yours, m’kay? Going forward, the penalty for breach of contract will be the forfeiture of water privileges.”
Angry murmurs broke out among the crowd.
Tracy hurried on with his speech. “How long a person loses water privileges for depends on how badly that person violated the contract. We’ll have some construction here today that will change the way y’all enter the showers. There will now be two check-in stations on either side of the building. Y’all still need to show your pass to get in, but if you’ve been flagged as an offender, the Enforcers won’t let you in. We realize you can share a friend’s drinking water, and we really can’t stop y’all from doing that, but we can and will monitor the showers and withhold your daily water ration, m’kay?”
“Not m’kay,” I said to Zaq. “Water is a right.”
I wasn’t the only one objecting to this declaration. Around us, pockets of dissenters were getting louder.
“We hate doing this,” Tracy said. “We really do, but if the party life here is going to work, we need y’all’s cooperation. Our goal is to keep everyone safe. But we can’t do that when people are breaking rules.”
“What rules are people breaking?” someone yelled out.
“I don’t want to get into specifics,” Tracy said, “but y’all need to behave yourselves in town. No vandalism. No assault. No stealing. Be nice to each other and respect the establishments. Use your ration tags. Also, respect the boundaries and our construction workers. We need to keep the fences in place, and we need y’all to stay off the mountain, at least for now. This is all pretty obvious stuff. We’re doing what we can to make this place a safe home, and we need y’all’s help by being compliant, m’kay?” He paused for a full second, then dove right into a new topic. “A couple other things. Night parties are changing to three nights a week. We’re going to party on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The Champions have been stellar in giving a concert every night, but they’re getting burned out. They need a chance to rest. And we love them, don’t we?”
Applause rang out.
“Yeah! That’s right. We want to make sure they’re getting the rest they need. So fewer parties, but they’ll be longer and wilder than ever. Mandatory morning parties will remain once a week on Monday mornings. Anyone who skips will lose water privileges. If you’ve got friends back in their beds asleep, make sure you tell them what’s going on. This party is the last freebie. From then on, we’’’ be taking away rations. We’re only asking y’all to wake up early one day a week. I know you guys can handle that, m’kay?
“Thank you very much for believing in us. The Champions and I, we love you all so much.”
He waved and people started to disperse. Our group clustered closer together.
“They can’t do this,” I said. “Water is a human right.”
“We should refer them to the UN’s resolution that explicitly states that the human right to water and sanitation is inclusive in the right to an adequate standard of living,” Logan said.
“I’m not sure these guys care about anything but their own laws,” I said.
“Your dad is going to flip,” Zaq said.
That much was true. I scanned the crowd for him, but didn’t see him.
“Are they going to turn the water back on now?” Jaylee asked.
“Shh!” Hannah said. “Tracy is saying something off the mic.”
People had crowded the stage and Tracy was leaning over the edge, answering questions. The Enforcers had moved up to the front of the stage, guarding the man like he was the president or something.
We inched closer to the stage, but Tracy suddenly spoke into the mic.
“Yeah, the showers will remain off today while the construction crews install the new kiosks. To those of you who’ve been following the rules, we’re real sorry about that. Y’all will get a coupon credit for a special meet and greet with the Champions.”
The remaining crowd went nuts, Jaylee and Krista included. Those two squealed and jumped up and down like two middle schoolers.
“Eli, I can borrow one of your baseball caps, right?” Jaylee asked me.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, confused by how a chance to meet the rock stars had made everyone forget that they came here for a shower.
“We should protest,” Hannah said. “Remind them that they asked us to comply to the laws of this country so they should too.”
That got my attention. I turned to where Hannah was standing with Shyla.
“We can get materials for signs at the drugstore,” she said. “I saw they had poster board there.”
“I’m in,” I said.
“Me too,” Lizzie said.
“And me,” Zaq said.
“You guys are going to get in trouble,” Krista said.
“We have the right to peacefully assemble,” I said. “It’s in the First Amendment.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Zaq said.
“Shotgun!” Logan yelled, taking off at a sprint.
Zaq, Lizzie, Hannah, and me parted ways with Jaylee and Krista and headed for my truck. Logan was waiting at the passenger’s side door. I unlocked the rig and we all piled in.
“You guys care if we take a little drive before making the signs?” I asked. “I’m curious about this fence we’re not supposed to mess with.”
“We saw them building it up the mountain,” Logan said.
“Yeah, but Tracy gave the impression it was in other places.”
I drove down Gothic Road, like we were leaving town. I slowed as I passed the Mt. Crested Butte Department of Water and Sanitation building. The parking lot was filled with vehicles, and construction workers were putting a chainlink fence around the place.
“Wonder why they want to keep people out of there?” I said.
“To keep people from trying to turn on water to the houses and condos maybe?” Hannah suggested.
That made as much sense as anything. I continued on, following the road. I’d just about left Mount Crested Butte in the dust when, up ahead where Glacier Lily Way and Washington Gulch Road forked off to the right, I saw the way out was totally blocked by construction equipment. Crews were working to set up chainlink fence that ran off both sides of the road.
I slowed my truck to a stop in the middle of the road. “They’re going to fence this place in?” I asked.
“Looks like,” Logan said.
“Gotta protect their water,” Zaq said.
I cranked the wheel and did a U turn, my right front tires bouncing through the ditch. I hightailed it north on Gothic, slowed through town, then drove on until I met a similar sight. Just past Prospect Drive, construction crews were putting up more fence. They were farther along on this end, and the sections of fence closest to the road had coiled barbed wire on top.
“What are they trying to do? Make a Berlin Wall of some kind?” I asked.
“That one didn’t last,” Hannah said. “This one won’t either.”
“Yeah, but it took twenty-eight years to fall,” Logan said.
It was stupid, comparing some chainlink and barbed wire to the Berlin Wall, but I shivered nonetheless.
I u-turned again and drove back to the Snowcrest. I parked, and we all walked to the drugstore. We bought poster board and markers and went back to the condo to create our masterpieces. Our five signs were not all that varied. We had: “Water is a Human Right,” “SAFE H2O 4 ALL,” “Clean Water for Everyone,” “Water & Justice 4 All,” and Logan’s “FREE WATER.”
When we were done, we walked to the southeast corner of Crested Mountain Lane and Crested Butte Drive and started our protest. It was only a little after eleven, so it was still pretty quiet. People should be coming out for food soon, though, and we’d put ourselves right on the path to the restaurants.
The first group of people stopped and talked to us. Hannah told them that it wasn’t right that the Champions would take away water as a punishment, that both US and UN laws say people have the right to water and sanitation. The pedestrians nodded in agreement, wished us luck, and went on their way.
“You guys are going?” Logan asked. “You’re supposed to join in the protest!”
“Maybe later,” one of the guys said, and the group continued on.
The next people to walk by were three teen girls. Their gazes latched onto Zaq and they started giggling. Lizzie gave them the spiel, but they just giggled harder. So Lizzie elbowed Zaq, who invited the girls to join our protest. At this, they shrieked, clutched each other’s arms and ran off, laughing and giggling like lunatics.
“Girls are nuts,” I said.
“Zaq distracted them with his face,” Logan said.
Lizzie slid her arms around Zaq’s waist and gave him a quick kiss. “Not only your face, babe.” Another peck. “You’re the whole package.”
I grimaced and went back to waving my sign.
Mostly, people walked by in groups of three or four. We had a few good conversations about this morning’s announcement, but no one else opted to joined our protest.
A trio of men came toward us. They looked to be in their mid-to-late twenties and were wearing T-shirts, baggy shorts, and flip flops. Hannah gave them the spiel, but this time it didn’t go well. One of the guys snorted and laughed through Hannah’s entire speech. A second gave her the “you’re a psychopath” wrinkled forehead and raised eyebrows. And the third said,
“You guys are lame. The Champions are just trying to help people. There’s a lot of people here. It can’t be easy. I think they’re doing the best they can.”
“Helping people is one thing,” I said, “keeping people prisoner is another. Do you know they’re building a fence around this place?”
“So what? Did they keep you from leaving?”
I hadn’t tried to leave. Maybe I should have.
“Thought so,” the guy said. “You’re all just a bunch of dumb kids. Go play some video games or something.”
“Water is a basic human right,” Hannah said. “It’s unconstitutional that any entity would attempt to force people to purchase, earn, or use it as a punishment.”
The guy shook his head and urged his friends to move along. “You guys need to chill out.”
“You guys need to stop being idiots!” Logan said.
The speaker straightened, stuck out his chest, and strode toward Logan, who jogged backwards until he was near enough to Zaq to duck behind him.
“Say that again, punk,” the guy yelled.
Zaq had a few inches on the guy. He held out both hands and said, “We don’t want any trouble.”
“Sounds like your baby brother wants some trouble. Better put a muzzle on him or this assembly won’t be so peaceful now, will it?”
No one said anything. We all waited and watched as the speaker backed off Zaq. His friends were a few yards away. They waited for him to catch up before they all three continued on.
Zaq spun around and punched Logan’s arm. “Don’t be stupid, Logan! You’ll get us all in trouble.”
“Sorry,” Logan said.
“There are two types of protests,” Hannah said, “peaceful ones and violent ones. I’m not interested in getting beat up and arrested.”
“None of us are,” Lizzie said.
Things went a little better after that. We had some good conversations, and a few people said they’d go by the drugstore after lunch, get materials, then come and join us. We were all feeling pretty good until two cop cars pulled up.
The doors on both opened, and four Enforcers got out. They didn’t speak at first, just ambled toward us. They all wore sunglasses, and the guy in the lead pushed his up onto his head as he came to a stop before us.
“What’s going on here?”
We all looked at each other. I stepped toward him, about to speak, when Hannah said, “Water is a basic human right. That the Champions would use it as a form of punishment violates the US constitution.”
“Is that so?” the officer said.
“They made everyone sign a contract that said we’d abide by the laws of this country,” Hannah said.
“That you would abide,” the officer said, “not that they would.”
“That’s not fair,” Logan said.
“We had a report that you guys have been hassling people,” a second enforcer said. “We called it in, and we need you all to get in the cars and come with us.”
END OF CHAPTER
Are they really being arrested? What do you think of the Champions withholding water as a punishment?
The kids are home today, so rather than ignore them by working non-stop, I’ve decided to take this day off from THIRST in order to steal away a little fun time with my family. I’m sorry to make you all wait an extra week to find out what will happen to Eli. The time will go by quickly, I assure you. Enjoy your holiday!
Until next week!
In conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series I’m writing over on the Go Teen Writers blog, I’m posting the chapters for THIRST on my website. Subscribe by clicking here. And if you’ve just discovered THIRST, click here for a list of previous chapters, if you’d like to get caught up.
Is Riggs really in town? And if so, what might that mean for Eli and his new girlfriend?
“We don’t know for sure that Riggs is here,” I said. “Someone might have the same car.”
Jaylee points to the pewter skull hanging from rearview mirror.
Well, nuts. “Someone might have stolen his car.”
“Eli! Why would you think such horrible things about Riggs?”
Because I’m a horrible person, apparently. I just looked at her, unable to form any words that might make me look better.
Dad and Reinhold kept walking, so I did too.
“You guys are just going to leave?” Jaylee called after us. “Can’t we wait and see if he shows up?”
“It’s late,” Dad said. “And we should get these little ones in bed.”
Good point, Dad! I turned around but kept walking backwards. “Plus if he’s here, we’ll run into him eventually.” Then I turned back and jogged to catch up with the others.
Unfortunately Jaylee didn’t come with. At the end of the block, I looked back and saw that she and Krista had climbed up on top of the roof of the Evoque. I hadn’t even realized Krista had stayed behind.
“What are you guys doing?” I yelled.
“We’re going to wait,” Jaylee yelled. “We’ll catch up with you guys at the condo.”
Her words made my chest tight. “Dad?” I asked, trying to look like I didn’t care. “We shouldn’t just leave them, should we?”
“We’re not their parents, Eli,” Dad said. “I’ve already given it to you guys straight. You’re all adults now. You’ve got to make your own choices. I can’t help it if the girls would rather test fate than play it smart.”
So we left them there. It was so hard for me to just walk away like I didn’t care, because I really did. But I wasn’t going to go back and sit on Riggs’s Evoque, either.
We reached the vehicles, and I climbed into my truck. We’d only brought three vehicles this time—left the van back at the condo—but no one got in my truck but me. Whatever. I didn’t need friends. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay in this place. It felt so weird, to have concerts and dance around like this was some kind if party. I get that people are sad and could use cheering up, but the way the Champions talked, it was like they were living in a dream world, pretending nothing bad had happened. And that just felt wrong to me. Because bad stuff happened. And I wasn’t about to forget it.
I started my truck and waited for Dad to pull out. The passenger’s door opened and Hannah climbed in.
“Hey,” she said, pulling the door shut behind her. “Mind if I ride with you? Logan is attempting to rap the lyrics to Bon Bon Breakfast. It’s just a little much for me right now.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, Logan can be a little much sometimes.”
Dad’s truck pulled out into the road, so I did too. In my rearview, I saw Reinhold follow me.
“So you like Jaylee, huh?” Hannah asked.
Wow. Nosy much? I glanced at her but didn’t say anything.
“I thought I had you all figured out, but I didn’t see that one coming.”
She shrugged. “What do you like about her?”
The question took me back in time and I smiled. “Everything.”
“Really? You can’t give me one specific thing?”
“Uh, she’s gorgeous.”
Hannah rolled her eyes. “I didn’t peg you as the shallow type, Eli.”
“I’m not shallow.”
“So tell me what you like about her beyond the physical.”
“Why? Why do you care?”
“Just answer the question.”
“I don’t know, I’ve just liked her forever. Since the fifth grade. She’s always been so confident and strong and fun to be around. Her whole demeanor sometimes blows me away. I wish I could be so confident.”
“Okay, I can see that. That’s a much better reason that her being gorgeous. But what else? What do you have in common?”
“What is this? You think I need a shrink or something? Is the idea of me and Jaylee that far-fetched?”
“Yes, actually, but not the way you’re thinking. I don’t think she deserves someone like you. You’re smart. She’s not. I just want to get inside your head, understand your choice.”
It was like she’d complimented me and insulted me at the same time. I stopped behind Dad, waited for him to turn, then rolled up to the stop sign, looked both ways, and followed. I didn’t disagree. Jaylee was smarter than most people gave her credit for, but that was all an act she put on to mess with people.
“Since when does love make sense,” I said.
“You love her? Why? You guys have nothing in common that I can see. Nothing. Is there a past friendship that I don’t know about here? Did you guys used to build treehouses in the woods as kids or something?”
“No. Why are you doing this?”
“You remember me telling you about Shen, right?”
That ticked me off. “I’m not rebelling against my dad.”
“It’s not always about rebelling. Sometimes it’s just an illogical obsession.”
I couldn’t believe Hannah was lecturing me. “Jaylee is not an obsession.” Which was a lie. I’d been obsessed with her since fifth grade. I’d just admitted as much.
“I just don’t want to see you get hurt, Eli, and she looks like the type who wounds sweet guys like you. But I guess getting hurt is how people learn, so maybe it needs to happen.”
How people learn? “Ouch.”
“Sorry. That sounded mean. I don’t mean to be a jerk.”
“Yeah, well, you failed. You might think we’re totally wrong for each other, but I say opposites attract. You don’t even know Jaylee. She needs stability in her life. I can be that for her. I won’t give up on her.”
“That’s my point, Eli. I know you won’t give up.”
I wanted to yell at her. To tell her where she could take her opinions of my love life and what she could do with them. I mean, who asked her, anyway?
But we’d reached the condos, so I just parked the truck and got out, leaving her behind. I checked my watch. It was ten thirty. I sighed, wondering how long it would take Jaylee and Krista to get back here and trying to decide what to do with myself while I waited.
I was sitting on a bench outside the Snowcrest, watching the road when I heard Jaylee’s giggle. I jumped to my feet and scanned the darkness until I saw them, cutting across the parking lot from the restaurants.
Anger and relief warred in my chest. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to yell.
I checked my watch. One forty-five.
Krista saw me first and elbowed Jaylee, who looked up and gasped.
“Eli!” She jogged over to me and gave me a childish hug, patting my back softly like she was trying to be cute.
I played the role of tree and didn’t move.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked.
“Waiting for you. An hour ago I drove back up the hill. The Evoque was still there, empty. No sign of you guys. So I came back here.”
“Oh, Eli…” Jaylee’s bottom lip poked out and she batted her eyes. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I was worried.”
“We we’re fine. Riggs never showed, so we started walking back. And we met some people and hung out with them awhile at the Brown Lab Pub.” She bobbed up and kissed me. Her breath stank of alcohol and cigarettes.
I didn’t know Jaylee smoked.
“Don’t they card at these restaurants?” I asked.
“Not here,” Krista said.
“Not anymore, anyway,” Jaylee added. “The Champions changed the legal drinking age to sixteen.”
“What!” I said. “They made us sign a contract that said we’d adhere to the laws of America. They can’t just go changing the laws.”
“Teens who want to drink always found a way,” Krista said. “The new law will keep them from doing in secret and making more trouble.”
“The legal drinking age of twenty-one has to do with maturity,” I said. “Letting teens drink in public doesn’t change the fact that most of them are irresponsi—”
“Yo!” someone yelled. “Yo, Lime-a-Rita!”
Jaylee spun around and waved to a group of guys who looked to be in their early twenties. “Hi!” she yelled, then softer asked Krista, “That guy with the gauges, what did he drink?”
“Right.” She waved again. “Hi, Bourbon!” Then blew him a kiss and laughed.
That was it for me. I’d reached my limit. I walked past Krista to the entrance to the Snowcrest.
She rolled her eyes. “You’re such an old man, Eli.”
I pulled open the door to the lobby. “Yeah, well, I doubt Mr. Bourbon would have saved you from those creeps in Phoenix,” I said.
Jaylee just stood there, looking from me to Krista.
“Let’s go talk to them,” Krista said. “Real quick. Just to say goodnight and tell them where we live.”
“Wait here one minute?” Jaylee asked me, wincing. “We’ll come right back.”
I didn’t wait. I went inside, heard the door whoosh shut behind me, walked up the stairs slowly, straining to hear if anyone was following me.
Please let her follow.
I made it to the second floor before I heard the door open and footsteps running up the stairs. I paused on the landing between the second and third floors, and glanced back. Jaylee had caught up. She took hold of my arm with both hands, hugged it. “Why didn’t you wait?”
“I’ve been waiting for three hours!”
“I thought something had happened to you. But you were just off drinking with some random guys, who are way too old for you.”
Her eyes lit up. “You’re jealous!”
I pulled away and stomped up last flight of stairs.
Jaylee chased after me. She got in my way and pushed me toward the wall opposite the stairs. She set both hands against my chest and whispered, “Don’t be jealous.” Then she kissed me.
It was a good kiss too. She was really putting a lot of effort into trying to make it up to me, and while I tried to enjoy the moment, all I could think of was Hannah’s warning that this would never work out.
I woke up early. I have an internal alarm that rarely lets me sleep in. So even though I was tired from staying up so late, I was up by eight, roaming around the condo, bored out of my mind. Dad, Reinhold, Logan, and Kimama were up too. We decided to hike up the mountain and see if we could find access to the creek outside of the Champions’ property. I asked Zaq if he wanted to go, but he said he’d rather sleep. When I came back out, Lizzie had come over in her PJs to see why Kimama had never come back. When Lizzie heard where we were going, she begged us to wait for her. She’d just ran back to her condo to change when Zaq came out into the living room. He was wearing a pair of sweatpants and no shirt, his arms crossed over his muscular. swim-team chest, like hugging himself was a better way to warm up than putting on a shirt. His hair was sticking up, and he had pillow creases on his cheek.
“Did I hear Lizzie?” he asked sleepily.
“She going to come with us,” I said.
He perked up. “Then I’m coming too.” And he shot back into the bedroom.
My best friend would rather hang out with my sister than me, and my girlfriend would rather party with strangers. Welcome to my life.
“I’m going to go wait outside,” I told my dad. “See you down there.”
The cool summer air felt good in my lungs. It was quiet out this early. I wondered how many survivors had partied late into the night. How was I going to build a future in a place like this? Were there any families with kids around? Was there a tame side of town?
Maybe I was an old man, like Krista said. Was that so bad? I had a lot of people depending on me to make good choices. Could Cree and Shyla and Davis grow up normal with Loca and Liberté Champion as their commanders in chief?
When the group came outside, I was annoyed to see Hannah with them. I walked between my dad and Reinhold and tried to keep my distance. I’m sure she knew how late Jaylee and Krista came in last night, and I didn’t want any more lectures from her. I really didn’t need to worry because Logan was following her like a hound dog. It rather pleased me that she couldn’t escape from him this time by trying to hide in my truck.
I caught my dad eyeballing Zaq and Lizzie, who were holding hands. I wondered if he’d given them his peer lecture on being adults in this new world and making their own choices.
Somehow I doubted it. I figured a father-son relationship was a little different from a daddy-daughter one, but I also didn’t doubt that Zaq one of the only people on the planet that my dad might approve of for his only girl.
We walked over to the ski resort and began our hike at the bottom of the main ski lift near the Grand Lodge. A short hike up the grassy ski and snowboarding slope and across the mountain bike trail we came to a dusty service road. We followed it for a while, short cut a few steep slopes, but they tired us out quickly and we decided to keep to the road, which ran along the south side of the mountain. There were beautiful purple wildflowers all over the place. It crossed my mind to pick some for Jaylee, but she’d probably think it was dumb.
The road switched back to the north, but Dad continued on a narrow trail to the south that forced us to walk single file, putting Kimama right behind me. She’d been having a conversation with Hannah and Logan about last night’s concert, and now I could hear everything they said.
“It didn’t sound like music to me,” Kimama said. “Just noise.”
“People like that,” Hannah said. “Techno is fun to dance to.”
“Did you know there are different types of techno music?” Logan asked. “There’s hardstyle, jumpstyle, breakbeat, rave, electrohop…”
“You white people,” Kimama said. “You’re all so eager to conform.”
“I’m Asian,” Hannah said. “My parents are Chinese.”
“Do you speak Chinese?” Kimama asked.
“Not really,” Hannah said. “I know a few words.”
“…electronica, trance, club, drum and bass, ambient, speedcore…”
“I am proud of my Ute heritage,” Kimama said. “I can speak Ute too.”
“But your dad is white. Are you proud of your white heritage too?”
That shut Kimama up for a bit, and I couldn’t help but smile.
“Did you know that every race on earth stemmed from one of Noah’s three sons?” Logan asked. “Some anthropologists believe that the Chinese people were the descendants of Ham.”
My smile grew.
Hannah went on, “I think it’s great that you want to maintain your identity in your Ute culture. Do it. But I don’t think it’s right for you to worry about what everyone else is doing or not doing. You live the way you want to live and teach your customs to your children someday. But I’m not wrong to consider myself an American with an American heritage. And my parents weren’t wrong to raise me how they thought was best. Sure, I might not speak fluent Chinese or know much about China, but my parents gave me an education and helped me become a doctor. And that’s not nothing. I’m thankful for it.”
“If you lived in harmony with your family, that is success,” Kimama said.
A moment of silence passed but for our steps crunching through the forest grass and leaves, then Hannah said, “Thank you.”
Up ahead, Dad and Reinhold were discussing the terrain. We were high enough now to get a good look at the town below. That meant it would be another half mile at least before we were above the Champions’ compound.
We reached the creek long before then. It seemed to come down out of the mountain on a diagonal from north to south.
“We sure this is the same one?” Zaq asked.
I spotted a deer taking a drink upriver on the other side and pointed. “Looks like it to me.”
“Why couldn’t we build our own settlement up here?” Reinhold asked. “Or even farther up.”
“Let’s see what the land looks like up here,” Dad said, and he started upstream.
We wove our way around bushes and tree branches. The sky was clear and the sun was making me warm. I pulled off my hoodie and tied it around my waist. We were approaching a cliff, and I could hear the rushing of a waterfall. The trees had grown taller and thicker here, so we slowed to fight our way through.
We exited in a small clearing on the shore of the plunge pool. The falls weren’t overly high, but the water was coming down hard and fast and my first thoughts were how much fun it would be to dive in.
But we were not alone. Two dozen men were gathered on the upper ledge, sitting on the ground eating. They wore the brown uniforms of the Champions’ Enforcers. Behind them was a bulldozer, a heap of freshly dozed soil, and stacks of aluminum fencing.
One of the Enforcers saw us and scrambled to his feet. The next thing we knew, five of them were pointing rifles our way and everyone was screaming.
“We don’t want any trouble!” Dad yelled. “We’re just hiking the mountain.”
“The mountain is private property,” one of the Enforcers yelled.
“No one owns an entire mountain,” Zaq said.
“Our guns say differently, kid,” an Enforcer said.
“Actually, lots of people own mountains,” Logan said. “It just depends what acreage is for sale. And I think some people from Vermont own the resort.”
“Well, the Champions own it now,” an Enforcer said.
“Did they buy it?” Logan asked. “Because I—”
“Shut up, Logan,” Zaq said.
“Let’s get out of here, guys,” Dad said, turning around.
“About face, people,” Reinhold said. “We’re leaving.”
“Spread the word to any other hikers that this mountain is off limits,” someone yelled after us.
We didn’t answer. Not even Logan, thankfully.
“It ain’t right,” Reinhold said as we dug our way back through the thick forest. “They don’t have any right to keep people away from that crick.”
“They’ve got an awful lot of Enforcers on their side,” Zaq said.
“With rifles,” Lizzie added.
“Still ain’t right,” Reinhold said.
“Looked like they’re fencing the thing in,” I said.
“Aluminum fencing is mostly used for industrial purposes,” Logan said.
“Looked like they might be going to build a dam,” Dad said. “That would give them complete control of the creek water.”
Reinhold muttered some kind of Ute curse under his breath. “I bet you’re right, Shane. That’s exactly what them hippies are doing.”
A chill flashed over me. “That’s not fair! Why should they get to control it?”
“They’ve got fame on their side,” Dad said. “And because of their wealth, they came out of the Great Pandemic with a lot more resources than any of us. Plus they were here first, so they had a head start in staking a claim.”
“It’s still not fair,” I said.
“Life has never been fair, son,” Dad said. “It’s even less so now. We’re going to have to find a way to make the best of this.”
“Not me,” Reinhold said. “I’m not going to let a couple of hippie rock stars dictate my life.”
“You going home?” I asked.
“Not just yet.” He turned and gazed up to the mountain peak. “If they were building a dam, it’s not very high up. I’d like to hike up the other side of this mountain and see just how much of the crick they’re not using.”
“That’s a long ways on foot,” Zaq said.
“The summit is only 12,162 feet,” Logan said. “Just over eleven miles. They could climb it in probably five hours.”
“I’d drive around to the other side first,” Reinhold said. “Leave my rig at the bottom and climb from there.”
“Maybe we should all go,” Dad said.
“No,” Reinhold said. “We don’t know how many more pilgrims will come this way. I don’t want to risk you all losing your place in the condo. Kimama and I will take a drive tomorrow. See what we can make of it. I’ll take one of the radios. You should be able to hear me when I’m on this side of the hill.”
That was all that was said until we reached the bottom. We then went by the Woodstone Grill, ordered a bunch of sandwiches To Go, and took them back to the apartment. Jaylee, Hannah, and Kimama went to their condo to wash up, which me and Dad laid out the food buffet style on the kitchen counter.
The kids were up in our place, watching some Disney Channel show. When the food was ready, I went next door to check on Jaylee. I knocked and Lizzie opened the door.
“I’m not ready yet,” she said. “Can’t you wait two minutes to eat?”
“I was just going to check on Jaylee,” I said.
“Oh. Right. Sorry.” She opened the door wider and yelled, “Incoming boy!”
I caught sight of Hannah pulling plates out of a kitchen cupboard. She paused to watch me as I passed through the living room.
I knocked on the door to the master bedroom, then cracked it open. “Jaylee?” I whispered.
When no answer came, I opened the door all the way, squinting as the sunlight from the living room filtered in.
The bed was empty.
I took three steps into the bedroom, strained to listen for any noise coming from the master bath. Nothing. I checked. The bathroom was empty.
I went back to the kitchen where Lizzie was piling silverware onto the stack of plates. “They’re not here,” I said. “Jaylee or Krista.”
Lizzie sighed. “They probably went for lunch. Let’s ask the kids if they know where they went.”
I helped them carry the plates and silverware next door. And while they were laying the dishes out by the food, I asked the kids.
The kids didn’t know. No one knew.
I really didn’t want to be a jerk, but the world had just ended and Jaylee and Krista were treating this place like spring break in Florida. I get that things had been stressful and sad. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have some fun. But we shouldn’t be partying it up nonstop. We needed to be smart. We needed to make a plan that ensured we’d live through the year and maybe even longer. The Champions were working on some big time plans with their Enforcers. But, frankly, I didn’t want the Champions planning out my life, thank you very much. I could—and would—take care of myself.
Jaylee and Krista were gone all day. They came in around eight thirty, all excited. They’d met some girl at dinner who knew Riggs from the concert two nights ago. They were home to change for tonight’s dance party op on the Champions’ lawn.
“Another party?” Zaq asked. “Are they going to have them every night?”
“I hope so,” Krista said. “Do you know how much tickets cost for their concert when they came to Phoenix?”
“Over a hundred for the worst seats in the place,” Jaylee said.
“Yeah.” Krista kicked off her shoes and picked them up with two fingers. “And we get to go for free.”
“Before you go, I want to tell you a story,” Kimama said. “It won’t take very long.”
“Did something happen to you guys today?” Jaylee asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “We hiked up the mountain and met some Enforcers with guns. They’re building a fence around the creek so that the Champions can keep everyone away.”
“That’s smart, right?” Krista asked. “That will keep people from contaminating the water.”
“If they control the water, they control us,” Hannah said.
“Control us how?” Jaylee asked. “They’re giving us everything.”
“Until they run out,” I said. “Then they’re going to make us work.”
“They will not,” Krista said. “The Champions say we all need to enjoy life.”
“They chased us away with rifles,” Logan said. “I didn’t find that particularly enjoyable. If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves living in Orwell’s Manor Farm.”
“Logan,” Jaylee said. “I don’t even want to know what that means.”
“Yeah, well, it’s people like you that end up one of the pigs while I get sent to the glue factory.”
“Can I tell my story yet?” Kimama asked.
“Yes, please,” Jaylee said. “We really need to get going.”
“Okay.” Kimama smiled, but it quickly vanished in trade for a somber expression. “A Cherokee grandfather told his grandson. ‘A terrible fight between two wolves is going on inside me. One wolf is evil and ugly. He is angry, hateful, envious, at war with everyone, greedy, filled with self-pity, depressed, guilt-ridden, a liar, selfish, and arrogant. The other wolf is beautiful and good. He is peaceful, kind, loving, hopeful, humble, just, fair, generous, compassionate, thankful, and wise. This same fight is going on inside you, my grandson, and inside every other human as well.’ The grandson paused in deep thought over what his grandfather had said. He finally asked, ‘Grandfather, which wolf will win?’ The elder Cherokee answered, ‘The wolf you feed.’”
Kimama stopped and looked from one of us to the next, arms crossed as if she had just imparted a great wisdom to us all. I’d heard that story before, but I didn’t think her method was going to work with Jaylee and Krista—at least not when there was a concert to go to.
“So?” Kimama asked. “What do you think?”
“It’s good,” Jaylee said. “It makes me think of how the Champions are taking care of us all. They’ve given us places to live, food, water, and showers. We’d all be dead if it wasn’t for them.”
“No,” Logan said. “We had food and water enough to last a few months, right Eli?”
“Sure,” I said. “We’d have been fine.” For a while.
“Well, anyway,” Jaylee said. “We can live longer here a lot longer. The Champions are good wolves. That’s my point.”
“Kimama’s point was that both wolves live inside each of us,” Hannah said.
“Right, so the Champions are feeding the good wolf along with the rest of us,” Jaylee said.
“Can we go now?” Krista asked, walking to the front door.
“You coming with us, Eli?” Jaylee asked.
I didn’t want to, but maybe it would be better than sitting out in the parking lot all night.
“Yeah, we could use a lift,” Krista added. “Jaylee said you could probably drive us.”
“No,” I said. “I’m beat. I’m going to bed.”
“Eli!” Jaylee gave me her best pout, but I wasn’t falling for it.
“Be smart,” I said, then walked into the living room. I didn’t turn around until I heard the door slam shut.
“The Champions might seem like they’re feeding the good wolf,” Kimama said, “ but building that dam says otherwise. So what if the Champions are acting like they’re feeding the good wolf, but they’re really feeding the bad one?”
“Then we’re all in a lot of trouble,” I said.
END OF CHAPTER
Are Eli and Kimama overreacting? Does Eli need to stop freaking out and enjoy life a little? Pretending you know nothing about what’s to come, Safe Lands readers, how would you be acting? If say, Katy Perry or Lady Gaga was in your town offering free concerts every night, would you go?
In conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series I’m writing over on the Go Teen Writers blog, I’m posting the chapters for THIRST on my website. Subscribe by clicking here. And if you’ve just discovered THIRST, click here for a list of previous chapters, if you’d like to get caught up.
Before you start reading, I need to tell you a couple things. First, last week was my last pre-written chapter. As I mentioned before, I had started writing this book back in 2012. But I’d only made it as far as Chapter 13. So this week is all new material, and it’s not quite as smooth as what came before. So bear with me as I am now posting totally new material (in rough draft form)! Secondly, I deleted the last few paragraphs of Chapter 13 and re-did them here at the start of Chapter 14. I found that my summary didn’t work for what I needed to set up. So if you start reading and think to yourself… “Didn’t we already do this?” The answer is, “Yes. But then I went back in time and erased that, and now this is the way it REALLY went down.” *grin*
So… What did Eli and his friends find in Crested Butte? Let’s find out.
The city of Gunnison had been ravaged. As we cruised through town, I didn’t see one store that hadn’t been looted. Every window seemed to be broken, every door hanging open, and every few block yards we’d see a body on the ground. Reinhold, my dad, Zaq, Hannah, and I made it three steps into the lobby of the Gunnison Valley Heath Center when I saw this would be ten times as horrible as I’d imagined. Dad sent Zaq back out to warn the others to wait in the vehicles. With Hannah in the lead, we made quick work of the place. She seemed to know exactly where both the drugs and the medical supplies would be kept. There were plenty of medical supplies to help ourselves to, but Hannah seemed to think that someone had already picked over the drugs. Still, we left the place each carrying a heaping box. We put the stuff in the back of Reinhold’s truck since he had packed light, thinking the rumors of clean water were bunk and he’d be back home tomorrow.
We then made the half-hour drive north to Crested Butte. There were actually two towns up here. The historic mining town of Crested Butte dated back to 1800s. Less than two thousand people lived there, and the houses and layout reminded me of the old west. Three miles north at the base of the mountain sat the smaller, ski resort town of Mount Crested Butte. It was nothing but fancy hotels, spas, a few elite hotels, and expensive retail shops and restaurants for those rich enough to stay at the foot of the ski slope. It had about seven hundred locals. Mount Crested Butte had none of the glitz and glamour of Aspen—which was only about fifteen miles north physically, ten minutes by plane, yet over a hundred miles by car—but the smaller ski resort was well-known for its extreme ski and snowboarding terrain and an extremely laid back culture.
All these facts came from Logan, who was again riding with me. Oh, and this this gem too: “Did you know they call people who ski this mountain Crusty Butts?”
Charming, huh? The closer we got, the more signs we saw pointing the way to the “LLC Compound” and “Safe Water For All.”
I dared hope it could be true.
The city of Crested Butte looked no better than any other, though I didn’t see one dead body. We also saw the first signs of civilization in a long while. There were people here—work crews, sweeping up glass and picking up trash.
Three miles north, Mount Crested Butte was even cleaner. I saw two shops with broken windows, but they had been boarded up and a third store had construction workers out front replacing the glass. All the other cities we’d passed through so far had been destroyed by the Great Pandemic, but Mount Crested Butte seemed to be recovering. I didn’t see any trucks packed with supplies. I didn’t see anyone toting guns, either. It seemed wrong somehow, after everything we’d been through.
There wasn’t much to Mount Crested Butte. Maybe three dozen buildings. The mountain looked bare, the surrounding forest thin. When we reached the city center of the ski resort town, some construction workers stopped us at a roadblock.
A chill crept up my neck. I remembered the man at Target hitting me with the rifle, stealing my truck. These men looked harmless, though. None carried a weapon. One of the workers approached, so I rolled down my driver’s side window.
“Looking for the compound?” the man asked.
“Yes we are,” I said.
He glanced at the van behind me. “Y’all from Arizona?”
“Phoenix,” I said.
“We’ve had a few from there. I heard it got pretty bad.”
“Yeah.” I wasn’t here for small talk. “So how does this work? The mountain really have safe water?”
“A creek, actually. It comes down out of the mountain right behind the Champion’s compound. Continues down the mountain and joins the East River.”
“Why isn’t the creek contaminated like everything else?” I asked.
“What do I look like? A scientist? Follow the signs on up to the Champion compound. Don’t go wandering anyplace else unless you’re told to. People live and work in this town. We’ve got a no looting policy here and Enforcers working to keep it so.”
“Enforcers?” I asked.
“It’s what the Champion’s call their bodyguard staff.”
Sounded a little overkill. “What are you guys building here?”
“A fence. We’ve had trouble with some local warlords trying to loot the place. We want to keep them out and keep our people safe.”
“No one died here?”
“Oh, plenty of people died. But we took care of the bodies. We’ve got safe water and plenty of room for survivors. We’ve worked hard to clean up the town so we can all move on with the rest of our lives.”
Sounded too good to be true. I thanked the man and drove on. I followed the signs as they directed me through the ski resort area and to a road that turned south along the bottom of the mountain. The buildings fell away and soon we’d entered a forested, residential area. The farther I went, the more trees stretched between each residence and the fancier they got.
Empty vehicles lined both sides of the narrow street. I felt like I was trying to find parking for some major house party.
I failed to find parking before I reached a black iron gated entrance. I stopped and got out, taking my keys with me in case Logan got any bright ideas. My dad followed suit and joined me at the gate. Beyond, a gray stone mansion sat back on a grassy lawn like its own version of the White House. Tents and people covered the lawn like some kind of festival was going on. The drive circled around a rose garden and working fountain, passed by the front door, then ran right back to the front gate. A gaggle of kids were playing in the fountain.
Playing in the water.
“It really is safe,” I said to my dad.
“Seems to be.”
As we stood watching the children play, a man approached from the guardhouse and spoke to my dad.
“How many you got?”
“Thirteen,” Dad said. “We’ve got four vehicles.”
“You all family?”
“You could say that.”
“Don’t know that they can put you all together. I’m assuming you all want to stay together.”
“We’d like to, yes.”
“Go ahead and park right out front. Ask for Mr. Tracy.”
“We’re going to live here?” I asked.
“The house is full,” the guard said. “You’ll likely be put in a hotel to start. There’s a task force working to clear the houses, then we will start assigning those.”
Clear the houses. I shuddered.
Dad and I hopped back into our vehicles. The guard went back to his station, and a moment later the iron gate slid open on wheels, rattling as it went.
We followed the driveway that circled around the fountain. I couldn’t help but watch the kids as they played in the water, running and splashing and shrieking and laughing. I wanted to stop the truck and tell them to get out of there, tell them the water might hurt them. But apparently it was safe.
It all seemed too good to be true.
We parked outside the front doors, which were oversized and made of black iron that matched the gate. This place was like some kind of modern castle. Everyone climbed out and we let ourselves in.
The spacious foyer had dark, hardwood floors and a ceiling that stretched three levels above our heads. A staircase wrapped up the left-hand wall. Gaudy cream and gold carpets ran up the middle of the steps and stretched down the center of the foyer’s floor. Archways stood on both side walls. The one on the left seemed to be some sort of formal sitting room with fancy chairs and a matching sofa, all with carved wooden legs. I didn’t get a good look through the right archway before a woman stepped out to greet us. She was tall, had bushy auburn hair, wore a pink suit, and black high-heeled shoes.
“I’m Jennie,” she said. “Are you here to see Mr. Tracy?”
“Yes,” Dad said.
“Right this way.”
She herded us into what appeared to be an office that was filled with a variety of black leather furniture. A man came into view, sitting behind a glossy black desk. He stood as we gathered around his desk. He looked to be Indian or Middle Eastern and wore a three-piece black suit with white pinstripes. He was Jack Skellington skinny too, though his head seemed a bit small. He had cropped hair, thick eyebrows, and bulging eyes.
“Hi, there. I’m Logan Tracy. Why don’t you all sit down.” His voice was nasal and reminded me of that guy Chris Tucker from those cop movies with Jackie Chan.
Mr. Tracy leaned against his desk and folded his arms. “What a great looking group of young people. We’re so glad you found us. I hear it’s brutal out there.”
“It’s not pleasant,” I said.
“I promise that if you stay here, we will keep you safe,” Tracy said.
“How can you promise that?” Reinhold asked from the back.
Tracy’s fish eyes latched onto Reinhold and he stood up. “Oh, I didn’t see you back there, sir. These your kids?”
“Do we look like his kids?” Hannah asked.
“Okay, okay. My bad,” Tracy said, holding up his hands. “Here’s how it works. The safe water comes from a creek on the back of the Champions’ property. It’s the only water you can drink. It’s the only water you can touch. They’ve disconnected their house from the city water and pumped in the safe water from the creek. No one else has access to this water. We will set you up in hotels and eventually houses, but the water has been turned off. You cannot shower anywhere but here. You cannot drink any water but ours. If you turn on the water in the hotels or the houses and die, that’s not our fault. If you want to stay, we’ll need you all to sign a waiver, agreeing to our rules and releasing us from liability should you choose noncompliance.”
Was this guy for real?
“You’re a lawyer?” Dad asked.
“Consider me the Attorney General of this place. It’s my job to make this place run smoothly and to keep everyone safe. Now, if you’ll all sign the waiver, we can get you processed.”
He snapped his fingers and Jennie came running. She handed each of us a single sheet of paper. I read it. It was a bunch of legal mum I jumbo. We each got three meals a day, five showers a week, and four gallons of drinking water a week. We had to adhere to the “Laws of America,” whatever that meant. And we had to attend a mandatory “Morning Party” every Monday at ten a.m. where we would get updates on the water and housing situations.
Basically, we had to agree to their rules or get out. No trying to re-connect the old water. Oh, and we couldn’t sue them for any reason.
Like the city courthouse was still open for business or something.
I watched Dad for cues, but he scratched his name at the bottom and handed the paper back to Jennie. So I signed as well. All of us did, even Reinhold, who I had expected would abstain. But really, there was nothing on that paper that scared me. I didn’t have a problem agreeing to it.
“Welcome, all of you, to the LLC Safe Haven,” Tracy said. “We’re glad to have you as part of our populace. Jennie will get you set up with housing. And if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting.” He walked past us and out the door.
Jennie gave us instructions on how to get back to the downtown area, like I might get lost or something. “I put you all in the Snowcrest Condominiums, m’kay?” she said, then read from a card in her hand. “People say the Snowcrest has the best view of any hotel in Mount Crested Butte due to its slightly elevated and central location. It has easy access to the pedestrian footbridge, charming shops, and gourmet restaurants.”
“The restaurants are open?” Zaq asked.
“Oh, yes. Everything is open, except the hot tub in your condominium, of course, since there is no water to fill it. Now, I’ve given you rooms 33 and 34 at the Snowcrest. Both are three bedroom, two bath units. They each sleep eight. Obviously you can divide yourself however you like, m’kay, but I figured the seven men could sleep in one, and the six women could sleep in the other. The master bedroom and second bedroom each have a queen bed and the third bedroom has two twin beds. Also the living room has a sofa sleeper.” She handed my dad two sets of keys on plastic rings.
“That’s it?” Dad asked. “No charge?”
“No charge. It is the Champions’ honor to take good care of you all. Also, here are your vouchers,” she said, handing out lanyards with plastic tags on the end. “You must activate them online before you can use them. If you don’t have computer access there are computers you can use in the lobby of the Snowcrest. You cannot eat, take your showers, or claim your drinking water without your voucher. So be careful not to lose it, m’kay?”
“You’re going to feed everyone three meals a day for free?” Reinhold asked.
“Not me,” Jamie said. “The Champions are doing this for us all.”
“How do you have Internet access?” I asked.
“The Champions’ staff is technologically savvy. The vouchers use the same technology that is used for backstage passes at LLC concerts across the—excuse me! Don’t touch that, please.” She pushed past us and strode toward where Jaylee and Krista were admiring some award statues on a shelf on the wall.
“What do you think?” Dad asked Reinhold.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “They can’t feed all of us forever. At some point, they’re going to start asking us to earn our keep. And I didn’t see anything about that on their contract.”
“Let’s go see this hotel,” Dad said. “I don’t mind taking advantage of their hospitality for a day or two.”
Reinhold grunted, but followed us out.
We caravanned back to town and found the Snowcrest Condominiums. We went ahead and split it up just as Jenny had suggested. Dad said he preferred that the boys and girls be in separate rooms, and I wasn’t going to argue. They guy’s condo had brown furniture, a round woodstove in the center, and hotel bedspreads in red and blue geometric 90s prints.
Once we unpacked our vehicles and registered all our vouchers in the lobby, we went back to the Champion compound to shower. The shower building had been built behind the mansion. It was a single story beige building with a long line of people waiting. We got in the end of it, and the guy in front of Zaq told him there were only four shower stalls inside.
This was going to be a long wait.
As we inched our way closer, Krista started freaking out.
“I don’t want to shower,” she said. “What if we all die? How do we really know this water is okay?”
Jaylee gestured to a girl who’d just exited a stall, her hair wrapped in a pink towel. “She looks okay to me. Don’t be such a baby.”
“No one died right away,” Krista said. “It took three to five days.”
“You’re being stupid,” Jaylee said.
But Krista continued to whine and was still whining when I went in to take my shower. The water inside was lukewarm, which reminded me of taking showers at campgrounds. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
When I came out, there was no sign of the girls. I figured they were inside, so I looked around and spotted Zaq, who was sitting on one of the rocks that lined the back of the lawn.
I sat down next to him and put my bundle of dirty clothes at my feet, suddenly wondering if our vouchers had provisions for doing laundry.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about Lizzy,” Zaq said.
No, I didn’t want to talk about this. “It’s fine,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I shouldn’t have kept it from you. We shouldn’t have.”
We. I gritted my teeth. “Lizzy is pretty great,” I said.
“The greatest,” Zaq said.
“Which means you’ll treat her better than Bekah?” Bekah was Zaq’s previous girlfriend, and their breakup had gotten War of the Roses out of control.
“Of course,” Zaq said.
Silence stretched between us.
“Bekah is probably dead,” he said.
A strange thought. “Most everyone is.”
“Think we can really live here like this? It feels like camp.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. How long can it last before they run out of food? I didn’t see any fields or livestock.”
“I’m starving,” Zaq said, tugging on the voucher around his neck. “Wonder what these get us to eat?”
Once everyone had showered, we took our laundry back to the condo, then went looking for food. It looked as if the Champions were trying to keep the local restaurants open. We ended up at a place called The Secret Pizzeria, which oddly seemed to be serving up random grocery store frozen pizzas. I got the impression that whoever had run this place before the Great Pandemic was no longer around. After our meal we wandered around the downtown area. It was strange to see groups of people and not want to point a gun at them. One man passing out flyers said that there would be a concert tonight back up on the Champion compound lawn. Jaylee and Krista squealed and I knew I wasn’t going to get out of it.
Don’t get me wrong. I like music just fine. But I’d never been to a concert, and I wasn’t impressed. From the reaction of the crowd, it appeared that Loca and Liberté Champion were putting on a good show, but I didn’t see what the thrill was. The bass was so loud, I couldn’t hear the words. The people were screaming so loud, I couldn’t hear myself when I spoke to Zaq. And the techno beat made every song sound the same. Sadly, due to Jaylee’s indoctrination on the ride up, I recognized most every song. They played Fast Lane, Rage Right, Bon Bon Breakfast, Everywhere Love, Brown Sugar Night, and then the siblings gave a short speech.
“Hello, residents of Safe Land, USA!” Loca yelled. “Oh, my. You are all just so beautiful. I am so happy to see you all smiling and waving your hands and looking so beautiful and healthy!”
The crowd went wild over his French accent.
“Yes! Yes! We did it!” Liberté yelled. She had a thick French accent as well, but her voice was nasal and high-pitched. “We survived the end of the world! And we will continue to survive as long as we stick together.”
“But we’re not going to just sit around and be bored,” Loca said. “We’re going to party. Every. Day.”
More screaming. They sure knew how to work the audience.
“Because we’ve got a lot to party about,” Liberté said.
“Because we … are … survivors!” Loca yelled.
The crowd went nuts, jumping and screaming as the siblings began to sing the song We Are Survivors.”
I had a headache.
Somehow—and I really don’t know how I managed it—but I survived the night. On our way out, as we walked along the roadside past the long line of parallel parked vehicles to the van, Jaylee, who’d pleasantly been holding my hand, jerked away and started running ahead.
“Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” she yelled.
A few steps later, and I saw why. She was jumping up-and-down next to a silver Evoque. When I reached her, she threw both hands around my neck and squealed. “Riggs is here!”
END OF CHAPTER
Say it’s not so! Is Riggs really in town? And if so, what might that mean for Eli and his new girlfriend?
Will Eli answer? If so, who will he say was his last crush?
Zaq may as well have punched me in the gut. I couldn’t believe I’d just thought he was worthy of my sister.
“Zaq,” Lizzie warned.
“Yeah, my bad,” Zaq said. “I’ll ask something else.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Jaylee said. “He has to answer. Go ahead, Eli. Who did you like?”
I stared at her, speechless, wishing I would say anything at all. It suddenly seemed extremely warm in the house and I wished I could escape outside where the night was sure to be cool.
Jaylee’s eyes narrowed. “Is it someone here?”
I shook my head. What I wouldn’t give for ten seconds with Bilbo’s magic ring. I’d slip it on and run for the front door.
“It is, isn’t it?” Jaylee squealed, likely delighted at the thought of discovering some juicy gossip.
“Hey, Jaylee,” Zaq said. “I was just messing with him. It’s no one you know.”
Yes. Thank you. I relaxed a bit. Next question, please.
“Then why is he afraid to say?” Jaylee asked. She pushed to her hands and knees and crawled toward me, slowly.
I couldn’t look away. I wanted to, but I’ve already mentioned how pretty she was. And the way she was staring at me… I wondered if she had some kind of supernatural ability to immobilize people with her eyes.
She reached me and sat back on her ankles. “Is it Krista?” she whispered. “Krista’s cute.”
I glanced at Krista, who was looking at the floor in front of her. “No.”
“Hannah? You saved her from those bad men. That’s pretty romantic.”
I could feel everyone staring at us. But my gaze was locked on Jaylee. Her left eye. Her right eye. Her eyebrows. Her nose. The freckles across the tops of her cheeks. The curve of her lips.
What had she said?
Her eyes widened a little, showing all the whites around her brown irises. “Is it me?”
If I’d thought it was hot before, I wasn’t prepared for the way my cheeks started to burn.
She gasped. “Awww! Eli!”
I closed my eyes, cursing my biology. I should have just made up some random name. No one would have known.
The thing is, I knew Jaylee too well. She would act all cute about this, but she’d be patronizing me. Until she got bored of it.
I heard movement and opened my eyes. Everyone was standing. Hannah and Lizzie were creeping up the stairs, while Zaq ushered everyone else into the kitchen.
Oh, no. Don’t leave! I shot Zaq a pleading look. He motioned at Jaylee, and mouthed something.
Yeah right. No way could I make a move. I wasn’t like Zaq. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I couldn’t even speak.
“I guess you won the game,” Jaylee whispered.
“I guess.” Oh, good. I said something. And it was coherent.
“So…” She poked out her bottom lip. “You got a little crush on me?”
This time the heat that flashed over me was fueled by anger. I glared at her. “Why you gotta be like that? Just forget about it, okay?” I made to stand up, but Jaylee grabbed my arm.
“Wait.” She ran her fingers down to my hand and laced her fingers between mine. “You’ve always been my friend, Eli. You know I like older guys.”
Here we go. I could feel the smack down coming.
“But it’s not like there are a lot of single guys around here right now. And you’re cute and sweet and smart. So we could give it a try, if you want to.”
Give it a try? What did that mean? I didn’t want her pity. I didn’t want to be her last resort.
But then she kissed me. And I didn’t know what to do. I felt so awkward and embarrassed and clueless and thrilled. I also thought I might have been having a heart attack.
Before I could decide what to do about this, it was over.
Jaylee leaned back and licked her lips. “Now that was fun.”
The next morning over a breakfast of bruised apples and squishy bananas, Reinhold and Dad told everyone that they’d decided we should drive up to Mount Crested Butte to see about the Champion rumor.
“Once we know for sure, we can decide what to do,” Dad said.
“And along the way we can stop and scavenge more supplies,” Reinhold added.
“Can I open up a can of applesauce?” Jaylee said from the pantry.
“Put that down and get over here,” Reinhold said. “We’ve got to eat what’s going to go bad first. Save the canned stuff for when the perishables are all gone.”
Jaylee huffed and flopped down at the table. She was wearing a purple tank top and had a pair of black sunglasses perched on top of her head. She took an apple wedge from the bowl in the center, tapped it on the table top, then scanned the faces until her gaze locked on mine. She smiled, blinked at me a few times, then moved to sit beside me.
“Good morning,” she whispered in my ear, sliding her hand over my leg under the table. I jumped and grabbed her hand in mine. Man! She was the gutsiest girl I’d ever known.
“There’s lots of good land up around Crested Butte,” Reinhold said. “If there’s a fresh water source, we should just build our own place.”
“Is there a hospital there?” Hannah asked.
“No,” Reinhold said. “They airlift people out. Nearest hospitals are Gunnison or Montrose. There’s one up in Aspen. And we’ve got one down in Cortez. Why you ask?”
“It would be wise to stock up on some hospital supplies,” Hannah said.
“Smart girl,” Dad said. “Don’t think any of us have thought of that yet.”
“Smart girl,” Jaylee whispered. She let go of my hand and laid her arm on the back of my chair, scratching the back of my head. It was hard to pay attention with her touching me.
“Zaq and I scavenged the pharmacy at Walgreen’s,” Lizzie said. “We got all kinds of stuff that Zaq thought would be useful.”
“That’s great,” Hannah said. “But there are some things only hospitals will have.”
“But the hospitals are going to be really bad,” I said. “Hannah, remember Cree’s mom? Imagine that times… How many dead in the hospital in Phoenix, Liz?”
“Too many. Hundreds.”
Jaylee fed me an apple slice. How very… awkward. I chewed it some, then said, “Thank you.”
“We’re going to need medical supplies as some point,” Hannah said. “I’d rather be prepared than have to rush out in an emergency.”
“I agree,” Zaq said.
“Then we swing by Montrose Memorial and Gunnison Valley Health on our way up,” Reinhold said.
“Great,” Dad said. “Eat and clean up. Then let’s hit the road.”
People did just that. When it was just me, Jaylee, and Cree left at the table, Jaylee got up and sat sideways on my lap, wrapped her arms around my neck. She wasn’t choking me or anything like that, but I still found it difficult to breathe.
“Baby, I know you got some applesauce from Walgreen’s,” she said softly, her nose almost touching mine. “That still in the back of your truck?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Did you see how she just called me baby? I liked the sound of that.
“Can you get some for me? I’m hungry and I can’t eat this stale fruit.”
“Applesauce is made from mashed apples, Jaylee,” Logan said, carrying his sleeping bag past the table and toward the door.
“He’s right,” I said.
“So? It tastes better than these browned slices.”
She wasn’t nearly as pretty when she was complaining. I pushed her off my lap and stood, thinking I needed to grab my sleeping bag and get out to the truck before Logan started packing things poorly. Jaylee hugged me around the waist and buried her face against my chest.
“Jaylee, I’ve gotta pack my—”
She raised onto her tiptoes, grabbed my face, and kissed me, doing so thorough a job of it that when she stopped I was dazed and breathless.
“Please?” she said. “I’m so hungry.”
“One can of applesauce coming right up,” I whispered, though I didn’t want to do it. Why couldn’t she understand how serious things were? And if I let her play me on day two of our… maybe it was a relationship, was I setting myself up for a life of being bossed around?
I decided to give her an order back, even things up a bit. “Go clean up your bed and bring your stuff out to the truck.”
“Okay!” She gave me one last peck on the lips and jogged off.
Kimama walked by then. “Be careful, Eli. The Coyote is a trickster. He is toying with her, and now she is toying with you.”
Gee. Thanks for ruining my moment, kid. “Whatever.” I stumbled to the den, rolled up my bag, and carried it to the front door. Zaq met me at the bottom of the stairs.
“You mad at me?” Zaq asked.
I grinned, my lips still buzzing from Jaylee’s kisses. “Nah, man. We’re cool.”
“Good. I’m glad it worked out.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Outside, my dad and Logan were standing at the back of my truck, not packing, thankfully. Logan was regaling my father with his theory on Comet Pulon.
I slipped into the space between them at the back of the truck, pulled out Logan’s sleeping bag, and put it back the way I had it. I felt relieved and a little guilty. Being a control freak was like that.
“You could be on to something, Logan,” Dad said. “Do me a favor and ask Reinhold if he wants me to take his generator in my van or put it in his truck.”
“Sure,” Logan said, running toward the house.
The question made me look at my Dad. Obviously a generator should go in the back of a truck. There was no room in the van for it.
Dad was staring at me, and I knew by the serious tilt of his eyebrows that he’d gotten rid of Logan on purpose. “How long this thing with Jaylee been going on?”
My stomach roiled. “Since last night.”
Dad chuckled a little too long and let it dwindle in a sigh. “Okay. You be careful with her. She’s a wild one.”
I studied my shoes and sighed. “I know.”
“Not sure you want a wild one?”
I looked back to Dad. “I don’t know. She wants me to give her some applesauce from our stash since Reinhold told her she couldn’t have any of his.”
Dad nodded. “I saw that.”
“Oh.” I hung my head. The idea of my dad watching me get played made me feel twice as stupid. “I told her I’d get her some.” The confession felt good, at least.
“Guess you’d better do it, then.”
Really? “But I agree with Reinhold. We need to be smart about the food.”
Dad grabbed my shoulder at the base of my neck. “Listen up, son. You’re a smart man. You need to trust your instincts. If your instincts says one thing, and a woman talks you into another thing with absolutely no logic, you know what you are?”
A nod. “Some call it whipped. You want to spend the next fifty years of your life being bossed around by someone half as smart as you are?”
“I guess not.” But I couldn’t help who I loved, right? These things just happen. Opposites attract or whatever.
“Keep in mind, Eli,” Dad said, “she’s only going to look like that for another five to ten years, depending on what having a few kids does to her body. You should choose your mate based on more than her looks.”
Blasted cheeks burning again.
“Give it a try if you want, but don’t let her change who you are. If she stops pushing and accepts you for you, you’ve got a winner. If she won’t, well, at least you tried, right?”
I could live with that. “Right.”
“Good talk, son.”
“So you’re okay with this?” I’d never had a girlfriend before.
“This is a new world, Eli. In this world, you’re a man. You’ve got to make your own choices. Are you asking me who I’d pick if I were you?”
“No.” Dad would probably tell me to pick Kimama.
“Good,” Dad said. “I try not to boss around my peers.”
“You’re welcome.” He walked back into the house, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I’d felt stupid when I came out here, but I didn’t feel stupid now. A little scared, maybe, since I knew I had to stand up to Jaylee, but I wasn’t going to let her play me.
At least I hoped I wasn’t.
We took four vehicles north. Zaq’s van, my new truck, Dad’s van, and Reinhold’s truck. Kimama and Shyla rode with Reinhold. Logan wanted to ride with me until he saw that Jaylee and Krista were riding with me, then he and Davis got into the van with Zaq and Lizzie. That left Hannah and Cree, who got into Dad’s van.
We headed out from Reinhold’s place in a caravan. Reinhold took the lead, then Zaq, then me, and Dad followed in back.
Krista sat alone in the back. Jaylee sat shotgun, but scooted over into the middle of the bench seat, right beside me. It made me feel like a man, until about five miles down the road when Jaylee turned her shade-covered eyes on me and asked,
“Where’s my applesauce?”
Suddenly the man was gone and I was a little boy again. Moment of truth, Eli. Man or boy? What was it going to be? “Sorry, Jay,” I said, my pulse racing. “Since we don’t know where we’re headed, it’s better to save it. I brought you these, though.” I grabbed the baggie of the browning sliced apples from breakfast that I’d tossed up on the dashboard. Leftovers were gold these days, and we weren’t leaving anything behind.
Jaylee tipped down her head so she could see me over the top of her sunglasses. Her eyebrows raised in two sculpted arcs. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope,” I said. “We’ve all got to play by the same rules if we’re going to survive.”
“One plastic dish of applesauce won’t starve anyone.”
“That’s not the point,” I said. If we let everyone do what they want, it’ll be trouble. We’ve got to have rules if we’re going to survive.”
“Your dad caught you, didn’t he?” she said, her tone nasty. “He told you no, and all this is what he said to you.”
“No, it’s how I feel.” Dad had just backed me up.
“Sure, Eli. Whatever.”
She plugged her iPhone into the USB port and Vivre La Vie Dixième by Loca and Liberté Champion blared over the speakers. The truck had a nice sound system. But after three times through the playlist, I sort of wished the truck had no sound system at all. I’d never liked LLC, which was what people called Local and Liberté Champion’s musical duo. It was so… techno and girly. I preferred rock, real instruments over synthesizers. English lyrics were also a plus.
Jaylee fell asleep, leaning against me like a pillow, which made it difficult to steer with both hands, so I put my right arm on the back of the seat and steered with my left. It was awkward but totally worth it. I had wanted to kill Zaq for his question last night, but he’d been right. What good had it been for me to keep my feelings a secret? All I’d had to do was speak up. And look how it turned out. I’d got what I wanted. Jaylee Jennings was my girl!
At some point Krista lay down in the back seat. I wondered if she liked LLC or if she hoped that by going to sleep, she could avoid a fourth tortuous time through the playlist.
When Vivre La Vie Dixième came on again, I carefully lifted my arm off the back of the seat and turned down the volume.
Jaylee sat up straight and yawned. “Where are we?”
“A half hour outside Montrose,” I said.
For a few miles we sat silent, listening to the now soft sounds of Vivre La Vie Dixième. Then Jaylee reached up and started playing with my ear.
“How long have you liked me, Eli?”
Her touch sent a chill up my arms. “Since Mr. Miller’s class.”
“Fifth grade! Are you serious?”
“Yep. You wore your hair in braids with different colored rubber bands that matched your outfit. I thought it was cute.”
“I can’t believe you’ve liked me that long. Didn’t that bother Rachel?”
“Rachel Moss. Wasn’t she your girlfriend?”
She knew about Rachel? “That was a date. I’ve gone on three actual dates, but I’ve never, you know, ‘gone out’ with anyone.”
She messed with my ear again. “So are you going out with me now?”
I laughed but it sounded weird. Too high and nervous. “I don’t know.”
“I say yes.”
I couldn’t believe it. Jaylee Jennings was my girlfriend. I tried to be cool about it. “Okay, then I say yes, too.”
Jaylee unbuckled her seatbelt, got up on her knees, and kissed my cheek. That seemed kind of sweet until she kept doing it, working her way back to my ear, then down to my neck. Her warm tongue on my throat shocked me so bad I made the truck swerve across the road.
She giggled and I got back in my land behind Zaq’s van, hoping my dad hadn’t noticed that.
But Jaylee wasn’t done messing around. She rained kisses all over the side of my face. When I felt her teeth on my earlobe and almost drove off the road.
“Jaylee, come on.”
She giggled and peeled up my T-shirt, scratching her fingernails over my chest.
Strangely, that didn’t bother me nearly as much, but it was still distracting. “Jaylee, cut it out.”
Then she grabbed the waistband of my jeans.
“Jaylee!” I hit the brakes and pulled off onto the side of the road, a cloud of dust billowing around the truck. She was still messing with my pants, so I grabbed her hands and brought them up to my chest, squeezing them. “You need to stop. Please.”
She giggled and tried to kiss me.
“Are you serious? Jaylee, come on!” I looked in the rearview mirror. My dad had stopped the van behind me and was out the vehicle, walking our way. I pushed her away just as Dad knocked on my window with the back of his knuckles.
I rolled down the window. “Hey, Dad.”
“Everything okay in here?”
“Can I ride with you, Mr. McShane?” Krista asked.
“Sure,” Dad said.
Krista got out of the truck.
“Me too!” Jaylee climbed out too. Once she was standing in the ditch, she looked back in the cab. “See you, Eli.” She slammed the door, making me jump.
“You okay, son?”
My heart was pounding, thudding in my ears: womp, womp, womp. “I’m fine,” I lied. Or maybe I was fine now that Jaylee was out of the truck. That girl was nuts.
“You want me to have Hannah and Cree come ride with you?” Dad asked.
“No. We’re almost to Montrose. Let’s save the musical chairs after the hospital.”
“You want to be alone.”
I managed to swallow my nerves. “Yes, please.”
“You got it.” Dad slapped the side of my door and walked back to the van.
I set my forehead on the steering wheel and took a few deep breaths. Apparently the word “wild” wasn’t enough to describe Jaylee Jennings. Add “experienced” to the list. She was experienced and I was not. But that was no big deal, right? I mean, if I was going to marry this girl, I’d figure out all that stuff then. I could ask my dad. I could learn.
Just not while I was driving.
END OF CHAPTER
Tune in next week to see what Eli and the gang find in Crested Butte, Colorado.
Another stand-off for Eli. What did he do this time?
“Sorry, man,” the guy said. “Looked like you were stuck. You sure got a lot of stuff packed in there. You guys headed up to Mount Crested Butte?”
“Uh, Cortez,” I said, instantly wondering why I’d told the truth. I didn’t like anyone looking at our supplies or knowing our business.
“Hey!” From the bathrooms, Zaq sprinted our way. He slowed, his footsteps plodding heavily over the asphalt, until he stopped beside me.
“Hey,” he said again, holding out his hand to the stranger. “I’m Zaq.”
“Artie.” The guy shook Zaq’s hand, then mine. “Stopped to let my old lady pee.”
“Yeah, us too,” Zaq said.
There were two of them? I instantly scanned the area for his old lady. No sight. I eyed his white Dodge Dakota. The back was piled high with gear.
“Pretty wild stuff happening, huh?” Artie said. “Everyone dying. Why you going to Cortez?”
“We know someone there,” Zaq said.
“I hear you,” Artie said. “Gotta check it out. See all who’s left. Yeah, this is some messed up living we’re doing right now. Almost feel guilty to be alive. We’re headed to Mount Crested Butte.”
I frowned. “The ski resort?”
“Yeah. You all haven’t heard about the Champions?”
“Champions of what?” Zaq asked.
“Nah, man, those French rock stars. Loca and Liberté Champion. They got a mansion up by the resort. Got clean water there. Word is they’ve invited survivors to come up and share. Gonna build a commune or something.”
“If they have clean water, why would they share it?” I instantly felt guilty for such a comment, but the water was only going to last so long. Then things would get ugly.
“Nah, man,” Artie said. “Some creek outta the mountains goes by their house. It’s clean. Well water’s clean too. Hardly anyone in Crested Butte has died. So they’re telling people to come on up and make a life there.”
“How can that be?” Zaq looked at me, as if I was some expert on the whole Comet Pulon water virus situation.
I shrugged. Frankly, I didn’t believe a word of it. Things like this happened during a crisis. It was like a mirage out in the dessert. People panic. They’re desperate. They’ll believe anything if it keeps the hope of survival alive.
Lizzie, Jaylee, Krista, and Shyla walked toward us in a pack, whispering, staring at Artie. I wondered if they’d met his old lady.
“Well, hey,” Artie said, “I’m gonna use the can. It was nice meeting you all. You guys don’t find what you’re looking for in Cortez, you should come on up.”
“We’ll think about it,” I said, knowing I wouldn’t.
Artie swaggered off to the stickman’s room and went inside. Just as the door closed, Hannah and Cree came out of the ladies.
“I’d like to get back on the road. We got everyone?” I asked, doing a quick scan of the faces around me. No Logan.
“Logan and Davis are still inside,” Lizzie said. “Logan is taking forever, as usual, and Davis is talking to him through the stall door.”
“Talking about what?” I asked.
“Zombie Kings, what else?”
“Hey,” Zaq punched my arm. “He was nice. Not everyone is going to hit you over the head with a rifle and steal your rig.”
“Yeah.” I knew Zaq was right, but I’d feel better when we were all safely locked inside the vehicles and moving away from Artie and his old lady at seventy-miles-per-hour.
“Eli,” Hannah said. “Can I talk to you a minute?”
“Sure,” I said, feeling nervous for who knew why. Maybe I was just intimidated because Hannah was older than me and had already graduated college and done international internships and had a tattoo. I walked up to where she stood looking off at the view and stopped beside her. “What’s up?”
“Cree is a boy,” she whispered.
I spun around and spotted Cree squatted on the sidewalk, poking some ants with a stick. “What makes you say that?”
“Anatomy 101.” She giggled.
“Oh.” I could feel myself turning red. Great. “No wonder he didn’t want to wear a pink shirt with a horse on it.”
“Maybe Davis has a T-shirt he won’t mind sharing.”
I could barely see Cree’s profile through his curtain of black hair. “That’s a lot of hair for a boy.”
“Lots of Natives grow their hair long.”
“I guess.” I felt bad that I’d mistaken Cree for a girl. I wondered if he knew.
“Logan!” Jaylee’s scream pulled my attention to the van. Jaylee was standing at the sliding door on the driver’s side, her hands on her hips.
I headed that way to see what was up. Logan was sitting in the van, buckled into Jaylee’s old seat.
“I was here first,” he said.
“No you weren’t,” Jaylee said.
“You said we’d switch seats later. It’s later.”
“Logan, get out of my seat.”
“It’s not your seat, okay? And I want to talk to Zaq.”
“Fine! Then I’m riding shotgun with Eli.” She ripped her purse out from near Logan’s feet and stomped to the truck.
Logan’s presence in the van changed a lot more than where Jaylee sat. Zaq, Lizzie, Logan, and Davis rode in the van. Everyone else got in with me. Hannah, Shyla, and Krista in the back seat, and Cree in the front between me and Jaylee.
It felt good to be on the road again, even better with Jaylee beside me—well, sort of. Cree was between us. And she and Krista were talking about both having gone to the same Loca and Liberté Champion concert last year in Phoenix and trying to name every song they’d played.
I headed north on US 160. We were about an hour and a half from Wilderness Way Adventures. Reinhold didn’t live at the campground, but I hoped to find his address in the office. It had to be there somewhere, right? I’d find it. Then we’d drive to his place.
But what if Reinhold was dead?
“The girl smells bad,” Jaylee said.
“Cree is a boy,” I said, “and I imagine we all smell bad.”
She scoffed. “Not me. I smell good.”
She actually did. I could smell her from here. Something citrusy.
“We should go to that place where Loca Champion is,” Jaylee said.
“Totally,” Krista added.
“Why?” Hannah asked.
“Because they have water,” Jaylee said. “And because Loca is hot.”
“He’s as old as my dad,” I said.
“So? Your dad’s hot too,” Jaylee said.
Ew. Just what I needed. The girl I liked telling me my dad was hot.
“What’s his dad look like?” Krista asked.
“Mr. McShane is a few inches shorter than Eli, but he’s really tan and muscular. And he’s a mechanic, so he’s always got smudges of black on him—oil or whatever. He’s got this deep, sexy voice, and thick black hair, except the hair just over his ears is salt-and-pepper, which is so cute.”
I wrinkled my nose. This conversation was killing me. “Old man hair is cute?”
“Your dad is not old,” Jaylee said.
“He’s forty two.” It sounded old to me.
“Loca Champion is forty-three,” Jaylee said.
“I heard Loca and Liberté were getting a divorce,” Krista said.
“I think it’s a done deal,” Jaylee said. “Maybe he’ll be looking for a younger woman!”
“Can we talk about something else?” I asked.
“I’m just saying we should go up there and see if what that Artie guy said was true,” Jaylee said. “Can you imagine living in the same house as Loca Champion?” Jaylee squealed, which made Krista squeal too.
I adjusted the rearview mirror so I could see Hannah, but she had her head against the window and her eyes closed. So not fair.
Once Jaylee and Krista stopped talking about how hot Loca Champion and my dad were, they moved on to such exciting topics as how hot Riggs was, how hot the guy on the channel 5 news was, and how hot Zaq was.
Nice, huh? Everyone was hot but me. Oh, and Logan, of course.
“Are Zaq and Lizzie going out, Eli?” Jaylee asked.
The question knotted my internal organs. Why’d she have to bring that up? I’d managed not to think of Zaq and my sister’s make-out session for several hours. “How should I know?”
“Don’t freak out. I’m just asking. They seem really flirty, that’s all.”
I pressed my lips into a line until it hurt.
“You know something, don’t you?” Jaylee said. She reached over Cree and slapped my arm. “Eli McShane, spill it!”
I kept my eyes on the road. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I read faces better than anyone. Tell me!”
“There’s hardly anyone left alive,” I said. “Why would anyone actually go out anymore? My guess is that we’ll all have to pair off at some point.” It made sense, and, really, who did I trust more in the world than Zaq? I chewed on that thought a moment, then said, “I can’t think of a better guy to marry my sister.”
“Marry!” Jaylee burst into laughter. “I highly doubt Zaq is going to give up his Olympic dreams to marry your sister and live in the woods.”
Really? We were back on this again. “There is no more Olympics, Jaylee,” I said. “The world we knew is dead. Things are going to be different. And Zaq isn’t going anywhere.”
“The world isn’t dead,” she said. “Everything will bounce back to normal at some point.”
“Cortez,” I said as we passed the sign on the outskirts of town, relieved to have a distraction from this conversation.
The town was abandoned. How could Jaylee look out the window and truly believe everything would bounce back?
Krista saw a clothing store and begged me to stop. Another time, I told her. Would this area become our new home? I doubted it. Because the deserted city was proof that the water was bad here too. And if the water was bad, Reinhold was probably dead, like Cree’s mother and Zaq’s family.
I didn’t think I could handle seeing Reinhold that way.
The turn off to Wilderness Way Adventures was another forty-five minutes to the east of Cortez. I turned right onto County Road 124 and headed north into the La Plata Canyon. Two-and-a-half miles in we hit the National Forest boundary and the paved road turned to gravel. The truck was kicking up so much dust, I could no longer see Zaq behind me. Another two-and-a-half miles and we passed Snowslide Campground on the left, a bit later, the Kroeger Campground. Wilderness Way Adventures was six miles in, on the right just past Kroeger. I turned into the gravel drive, feeling strange that I’d just been here two days ago.
No cars in the lot. That didn’t surprise me. Reinhold would’ve gone home to check on his family. I parked the truck, and everyone got out. I took my rifle and flashlight up to the front door. The place was locked up, so I found the key hanging on the nail on the back of the aspen and opened the place. The fishy smell still lingered, but it was fainter than it had been before. Or maybe everything would smell faint to me after Cree’s mom.
My flashlight made a big difference in the hallway and in Reinhold’s office. I checked his desk first. Found a checkbook with a PO Box, a customer rolodex, and a Christmas card from Reinhold’s mom. I started opening drawers and stopped when I saw a stack of opened mail. Halfway through I came across a letter to Reinhold at a different address: 23700 County Road X, Lewis, CO.
What I wouldn’t give for an Internet connection right now.
I spent the next ten minutes looking for maps. I found a US Atlas, but Lewis was nothing but a pinprick ten minutes north of Cortez on the 491. Reinhold was a guide. He had to have a better map in this place. Then I remembered the giant hiking map on the wall in the lobby. Duh, McShane.
I found Zaq standing there, looking at it. “Crested Butte is a ways from here. We’d have to take the 550 to Montrose and then—”
“We’re not going to Crested Butte. At least not until we see about Reinhold.” I found Lewis on the map, but even this map wasn’t big enough to show side streets. It did see a shortcut, though. “Found his home address. Looks like we’ll save time if we take the 184 to Lewis.”
“Done,” Zaq said. “Let’s roll.”
“We’ll have to drive around until we find County Road X, though. I can’t find a city map.”
“Maybe we can find one in Lewis.”
We drove out of La Plata Canyon to the 160, headed back toward Cortez, then took the 184 north. It was about an hour on deserted County Roads. As we neared Lewis, we passed the occasional farmhouse. I started to get hopeful that by coming up on the backside of town, we might come across County Road X, but suddenly the 184 ended at Broadway, which was also the 491. I stopped at the T. A cluster of four buildings stood on our right along with a sign that indicated we’d found the local post office. A gas station, liquor store, and a diner completed the bustling metropolis. I took a right onto the 491 and drove slowly. “Watch the road signs,” I told Jaylee. “We’re looking for County Road X.” Only I didn’t see any road signs to watch for. “There must be more to Lewis that this,” I said.
But there wasn’t. Not even a grocery store.
Jaylee spotted County Road X about three miles north of “town.” It was a dirt road, wheel rutted and muddy in places. “Really?” I said. But I turned down it and after a quarter mile, came to another T. County Road 20. At least it was paved.
“That can’t be it,” I said. “There was only that one house and it had a Broadway address.”
“It must continue on further in,” Hannah said.
On that theory, I took a left onto County Road 20. A mile north we crossed over an irrigation ditch and the road went to gravel. Another mile and we T’d at County Road Z.
“Why do I feel like I’m driving through a Dr. Suess book?” I asked.
“Little Roads C, B, and A?” Hannah added from the backseat.
I grinned. “Exactly.” On Hannah’s theory of Road X continuing further in, I took a left on Road Z, kicking up a plume of dust behind me. I came to Road 21—paved!—took a right, and went south. Sure enough, a half mile down, we found County Road X on the left. Cheers filled the cab as I cranked the wheel and sped onto the paved road.
Like the 184, it was pretty barren out here. Every mile to half mile we passed a farmhouse. Lots of land and space out here. No wonder Reinhold liked it.
We found 23700 County Road X just around a corner. The land was enclosed in a split rail fence. Inside, stood a one-story light blue farmhouse, a real teepee in the grassy front yard, Reinhold’s truck, a white Ford Taurus, and a silver Honda Odyssey minivan.
My heart leapt. I pulled into the driveway, adrenaline all but shooting me through the roof of the truck like a rocket. Since Lizzie wasn’t driving the van, she required no such restraint. Before I’d even stopped, she came sprinting past the truck and up to the house.
I hit the brakes and high-tailed it after her. I found her in the open doorway, hugging our father, both of them weeping. I just stood there staring, shocked to see him alive. My knees felt weak and if Lizzie hadn’t stepped aside and my dad hadn’t hugged me, I might have gone down.
“I knew you’d come here,” Dad said. “Andy didn’t think so, but I knew my son’s mind.”
“What happened to you?” I asked my dad. “We saw the van on the way home but…”
“Ran out of gas. And let me tell you, gas wasn’t easy to come by that day. Where’s your mother?”
I’ll spare you the next twenty minutes. It was an awkward mess for pretty much everyone as we told Dad about Mom, Zaq told Dad about his family, and Reinhold told us about his wife and kids. It was just him and Kimama now. Pretty depressing all around seeing as Logan, Jaylee, Hannah, Krista, and Shaylee and Davis still didn’t know anything about their families.
Would they ever? Had I done a horrible thing, hauling everyone up here? How would they ever know? Would they always wonder? Would they want to go back?
Dad asked us to move the vehicles around back just in case anyone drove by and saw our load. So Zaq and I moved the rigs, and eventually, we all made it inside Reinhold’s house.
Dirty dishes piled in the kitchen sink and lining the counters, piles of folded laundry on the living room floor… The clutter gave me the impression that Reinhold and Kimama were unaccustomed to keeping house.
Kimama greeted me with a cheery “The shadow of the owl is still circling. Many more will die.”
“It’s nice to see you too, Kimama,” I said. “Sorry about your mom and sisters.”
“There is no reason to apologize, Eli. You did not take them from me. It is the way of the world.”
“Have you heard of people heading up to Crested Butte?” Zaq asked.
Dad nodded. “Two groups I met along the way mentioned it. Some news channels got a report out just before the electricity died, but it was clearly enough for people to spread the word.”
“You think it’s true?” I asked.
“Hard to say. I never trusted Hollywood rock stars.”
“They’re French, Mr. McShane,” Jaylee said, coming alongside my dad and hugging his arm. I couldn’t help but remember that she thought my dad was hot. Was she flirting with him just now?
“I don’t care where they’re from,” Reinhold said. “Famous people are all the same. Too much freedom, too much money, too many people watching their every move. All that adds up to equal crazy. That’s why half of them die young.”
I didn’t know if that was fair. The press tended to only show gossip and scandals where famous people were concerned. I’m sure they were just regular people doing their best with their situation.
“The water here bad?” I asked.
“Yep,” Reinhold said. “I’ve tried some different purifications. Killed a lot of birds trying. So far, nothing. I’ve got supplies to last a month or two. That’s nowhere near what I’d like to have. Was thinking of going down to Cortez and ransacking some stores and houses. You see any people in Cortez? They got power down there?”
“No power anywhere,” I said. “I didn’t see any people in Cortez, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Saw people in Phoenix and kept away. Some creeps were chasing Krista and the kids. In Flagstaff, some guy hit me over the head with his rifle and stole the truck and all our stuff. And a couple guys were chasing down Hannah. That’s where we met up with her.”
“Hi, I’m Hannah.” She extended her hand to my dad. “Your son saved me from a bad situation.”
Dad shook Hannah’s hand and smiled. “Is that so? Well, glad to know you, Hannah.”
“You think one of us should go up and check out Crested Butte?” Zaq asked.
He must have really wanted to go up there, because this was like the fifth time he’d brought it up.
“Probably should at some point,” Reinhold said. “Can’t imagine it’s true, but we can’t afford to ignore that possibility. Even if we rounded up all the bottled water in Cortez and Durango, it wouldn’t last more than a few years. We need a better plan if we’re thinking of living through this thing.”
“I still think things will go back to normal eventually,” Jaylee said. “One day we’ll flip on the TV and the news will be on saying that there’s a cure.”
“I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation, girl,” Reinhold said. “How do you think dead people are going to go to work, girl? Ain’t nothing going to snap this world back to what it was. Not for a real long time.”
“Whatever.” Jaylee waved her hand like she didn’t care, but tears misted her eyes.
“Let’s get some grub cooked up for you all,” Reinhold said. “We’ll put you girls upstairs in the bedrooms and the boys can sack out on the floor in the den. Bring your stuff in and I’ll see about dinner.”
“Thank you,” I said, thrilled that I’d sleep soundly, for tonight at least.
Kimama, Reinhold, and Lizzie cooked up a dinner of fajitas using canned chicken, black beans, salsa, and corn tortillas. How much longer would bread products last once things started to mold? Flour might keep a while longer. Could we figure out how to grow our own wheat and make flour? Seemed like a lot of work, especially without the Internet to show us how.
Reinhold lit some oil lamps for us in the den, then he, my dad, Cree, Davis, Kimama, and Shyla went upstairs. Dad took the little kids with him so we could stay up and talk. We started out mulling over our new world and what the future might hold. Somehow we got back to the apocalypse debate with Logan, and I wished my dad was down here to offer his perspective.
Jaylee put an end to Logan’s conspiracy theories. “Let’s play a game. It’s called Your Last.”
“I’ve never heard of that game,” Krista said.
“Because I just made it up,” Jaylee said. “If Eli’s right, and the world as we knew it is over, there are a lot of things we’ll never do again. So, I’ll ask first. Lizzie, name your last… shower.”
“Last Thursday,” Lizzie said, wrinkling her nose. “My hair is so greasy. I feel disgusting.”
“Don’t we all?” Krista said.
“Now you ask someone something, Lizzie,” Jaylee said.
My sister’s gaze fell on me. “Eli, your last pizza?”
My stomach growled just thinking of it. “Mom made one the night before I left for the camping trip.”
“Oh, man.” Zaq moaned. “I’m going to miss your mom’s pizza. Her crust was so good.”
I was going to miss everything about her. Except how she always nagged me for leaving my socks in little balls when I threw them in the laundry. The thought made me smile. I guess maybe I’d miss that too.
“Your turn, Eli,” Jaylee said.
“Logan,” I said. “Last movie.”
“How to Train a Dragon. I was babysitting my cousin.”
Zaq threw a pillow at Logan. “Sure you were.”
“Don’t judge,” I said. “That movie rocks.”
“Thank you, Eli.” Logan reached his fist toward me and we knocked knuckles.
“Logan,” Jaylee said, “you’re up.”
“Hannah, the last video game you played before Zombie Kings.”
Hannah wrinkled her nose. “Uh…does 2048 on my phone count? I don’t really play video games.”
Logan hung his head. “That is so sad.”
“Hannah, go,” Jaylee said.
“Eli, the last book you read.”
“You read the whole bible at once?”
“Over a year. I did it once. The last whole book I read was Huck Finn for my English class.”
I asked Zaq about his last pool swim, and the questioning continued. It circled back to me when Logan asked me when I’d eaten my last hot dog.
“Uh… junior high school?” I abhorred hot dogs. I tried not to eat anything that was processed. Ironic that all that processed food would now be keeping me alive.
This time, I wanted to ask Jaylee something. And the way we were all gathered, with Reinhold, Dad, and the kids all in bed, it made me feel gutsy, like I should ask something personal. The thought made my heart race. I chickened out, of course. “Last ice cream, Jaylee.”
She groaned. “Don’t remind me! I can’t believe there’ll be no more ice cream. I had a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream bar in Flagstaff on the way up to camp. It was cookie dough.”
“I had one too,” I said, smiling as if this somehow made us a special pair, thought mine had been Cherry Garcia.
“Zaq,” Jaylee said, smiling mischievously. “Your last … kiss.”
Zaq’s eyes widened. He glanced at Lizzie. If he’d been trying to look sly, he’d failed miserably.
Jaylee and Krista crooned, “Ooooooh!” grinning wide.
Zaq leaned over and kissed the top of Logan’s head. “There. Just kissed Logan.”
This sent everyone into a fit of laughter but did nothing to help Zaq and Lizzie keep their secret. It didn’t really bother me like it first had. If Zaq was willing to kiss Logan in order to keep Lizzie from being embarrassed, Zaq was a good guy, which I knew already.
I was just going to have to get used to him kissing my sister.
“Your turn, Zaq,” Jaylee said.
Zaq looked around the room and his gaze landed on me. His eyes narrowed. “Eli’s last crush.”
END OF CHAPTER
Zaq! What a jerk. Will Eli answer? If so, what do you think he’ll say?
What did Eli and Hannah find in the hotel kitchen?
I moved cautiously, shining my light over every inch of floor before I took a step. From the intensity of the pungent sweet smell, I was expecting to find a dozen dead people, but Cree led us to a lone body, lying on two couch cushions—likely the missing ones from the lobby. The woman had dark, Native American skin, but her body appeared black and blue in places, almost a sickly green. Flies swarmed and crawled over her skin. Cree plopped cross-legged onto the floor beside the cushions and slipped her hand into the dead woman’s.
I had no words. I closed my eyes and began to pray. I didn’t know what else to do. Why was all this happening? The poor kid had been sitting around with her mom like this? How many others had been abandoned like this?
“She hasn’t been gone very long,” Hannah whispered. “Maybe two days.”
I opened my eyes and looked at Hannah. “How can you tell?”
“The flies. It’s pretty warm in the building, but she’s barely begun to decompose. Her body is still in fairly good shape.”
“Should we try to bury her?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t. It would be difficult to move her at this stage and not have… difficulty.”
“Difficult not to have difficulty?”
“Well… she might not… hold together. If we wrapped her first, maybe…”
“Never mind. Let’s just find a blanket or sheet and cover her up, then try and talk to the girl into leaving with us.”
We wandered out of the kitchen and down the hall until we came to a laundry room where we found all the sheets and blankets we could ever want. I grabbed a nice thick blanket with flowers on it that I hoped Cree would like and carried it back to the kitchen. We found the little girl waiting outside the kitchen doors, her big brown eyes watching us.
I took a deep breath, went inside, and covered the body with the blanket. Cree stared up at me and took hold of my hand. A jolt of heat passed over me as Jaylee’s fears ran through my head. What if Cree was sick? What if I got sick from touching her?
But that was dumb. This wasn’t some mutation of cholera. It was waterborne. I couldn’t catch it from touching someone. As if to prove it to myself, I squeezed Cree’s hand, then started to sing.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
When Hannah didn’t join in, I felt stupid. I should have asked her if she knew any hymns, but this was the song Zaq had sung after he and I had buried his family, so I just kept going.
I once was lost but now I am found,
Was blind but now I see.
I stopped after once verse. I guessed I should pray too. I suddenly wished I’d made Lizzie come in. She was so much better at this stuff than I was. “God, we pray for the soul of this woman and ask for your mercy. We thank you for her life and the love she gave to Cree, and we pray that we can love Cree as much as her mother did. Amen.”
“Amen,” Hannah said.
My stomach heaved at the smell. I had to get some air. I tugged Cree toward the door, but the girl pulled away and ran back to her mother. She pulled at the blanket, but I scooped her up into my arms and stumbled away. She screamed and arched her back. It brought tears to my eyes, but I kept going, thinking it was best to do this quickly, like ripping off a Band-Aid. The way I was holding her, my flashlight was pointed up and the ceiling, but Hannah ran by, lighting the way with her flashlight beam.
Cree screamed like I was cutting off her hand, kicking and clawing at me, her little fingernails long and sharp.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s gonna be okay.” But what did I know? Too many people were dead. And what were we going to do when we ran out of water? Was I wrong to take Cree away from her mother only to have her die with me up in the mountains?
I didn’t know. And I was tired of not knowing.
Hannah held open the front door for me, and I swept past and into the blessed light. I took deep breaths through my nose, trying to cleanse my sinuses and calm myself, because Cree’s fingernails were starting to hurt and I didn’t want to lose my patience with the poor kid. She was still screaming bloody murder as if I had been the one to kill her mother.
Zaq climbed out of the van and came running. “What happened?”
“Mom was gone,” Hannah said, and I was thankful she’d answered. I didn’t trust myself to hold it together if I had to speak.
Zaq tried to take Cree from me. “Hey, there.” But Cree screamed louder and clutched my neck, nearly strangling me.
I tried again to comfort the kid. “Shhh. I got you.” I hiked her up against my shoulder and tried to bounce her. She was a bit too big to be carried like a baby, but I figured it was worth a shot. She wrapped her legs around my waist and squeezed my neck. At least she wasn’t clawing my face and screaming anymore.
“Want me to drive?” Hannah asked.
No. I did not. Driving gave me purpose. But I said, “Maybe.”
“I’ll dig out some food. She’s probably starving.”
“Good idea.” I followed Hannah to the back of the truck and watched as she opened the back.
“Where do I look?” she asked.
“The cooler,” I said, which was where I’d put all the candy bars. Cree needed something more nutritional than candy bars, but the canned goods were farther in and weren’t the easiest things to eat while on the road.
Hannah removed a handful of candy bars and set them on the bumper, then closed the cooler and slid it back into place.
“So we’re going to take her with us?” Jaylee’s voice caused me to turn around.
“Yes, Cree is coming with us,” I said.
“She doesn’t look so good. What if she’s sick?”
“None of us look so good,” I said.
“You’re the doctor,” Jaylee said to Hannah. “Is the kid sick?”
Hannah slammed the tailgate closed and locked the cover. “I don’t know. I never saw any sick people. But she looks healthy enough to me.”
“Were you camping too?” Lizzie asked.
“No,” Hannah said. “I wasn’t camping.”
“Then where were you?” Jaylee propped her hands on her hips, as if Hannah’s answers were somehow not good enough. “How could you possibly have missed everything that’s happened in the past three weeks?”
“I was kidnapped,” Hannah said, her voice calm and collected. She may as well have said she was on another planet.
“What?!” Jaylee screeched. “Kidnapped by who?”
“I don’t know. My dad owns MonkeyC. It’s a—”
“—publicly traded Internet domain registration and web hosting company,” Logan said. “It’s worth billions.”
“That’s right,” Hannah said. “Some guys grabbed me when I’d gone out for a coffee, put me in a van.” She opened a Milky Way and handed it to Cree, who merely stared. “I woke up in a basement, tied to a chair. I didn’t know where I was until a few days ago when I escaped. Found one of my captors dead upstairs but didn’t realize what had happened until I got to town and saw the CDC health alert signs.”
“You walked to Flagstaff?” Jaylee asked.
Hannah held the candy up to Cree’s lips, and Cree took a nibble. “Took an ATV from a farm, but it ran out of gas. Walked the rest of the way into Flagstaff, then thought I’d look for a car. I was at the dealership when Eli came in.”
Cree took the Milky Way in her hand and sat back in my arms, inspecting the treat.
“Wait, you saw her at the dealership?” Jaylee asked me.
I nodded. “She took the Honda.”
“Look,” Zaq said,” we can talk on the road. I feel really exposed in this lot.”
“Yeah, let’s go,” I said. I tried to offload Cree into the back of the truck, but she clung to me like a toddler not wanting to get dropped off at the daycare. So I climbed in front and held her on my lap. Hannah took the driver’s seat, buckled up, and started the truck.
It took some coaxing, but I finally managed to get Cree to sit between us on the seat. She was pretty enthralled with Hannah’s collection of candy bars.
I guess I hadn’t gotten enough sleep at ACE Hardware the previous night because I suddenly woke up and realized that I’d been sleeping. I sat up and noticed that Cree was sleeping too.
“Welcome to colorful Colorado,” Hannah said. “At least that’s what the sign said.”
“We’re in Colorado?”
“For about six minutes now.”
“How long have I been out?” I asked her.
“Hour and a half. We just left New Mexico. I kind of wanted to stop at four corners, but didn’t think now was the time for sightseeing.”
“Might as well be,” I said. “There’s not much else to do.” But I knew that was a lie. If power was really gone, we’d pretty much reverted to the dark ages. Or at least the pioneer days. We were going to have a lot to do to prepare for winter.
I looked over the seat and saw that Logan, Shyla, and Davis were all asleep in the back. “Sorry we all abandoned you,” I said.
“It’s fine. Logan talked my ear off for a while, but he finally fell asleep too. I kind of like driving. I’ve never taken a road trip before.”
We passed a black and white road sign. US 160. I perked up. “Wait. We’re in Colorado?”
“Yeah,” Hannah said slowly. “I already said that.”
I had totally missed the chance to look for my dad’s van. I grabbed the CB radio from the dashboard and pressed the call button. “Zaq, you got your ears on?”
“This is Zaq’s personal assistant,” Lizzie replied. “Go ahead, little buddy.”
The memory of them kissing rose up in my mind and brought with it a rush of anger. I shook it away. “Did you guys see Dad’s van?”
“No,” Lizzie said. “Let me ask Zaq.”
I took a deep breath, not sure what to do or think.
The radio fizzled. “Zaq has been watching for it, but he didn’t see it, either,” Lizzie said. “He thinks maybe Dad came back for it.”
The idea that my dad might be alive… Hope surged within me, made me feel hot and cold at the same time. I wanted it so bad, but at the same time, I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
“Thanks,” I said. “Over and out.”
But Lizzie came back with, “I’m praying for him, E.”
I tossed the radio on the seat and sighed. Pray hard, Lizzie. Pray hard.
“I’ve got to pee,” Logan said.
I must have woke him. Should have kept my voice down. I pressed the call button on the radio again. “We’re going to need a pit stop.”
“Us too,” Lizzie said. “But we’re looking for a little bigger place.”
“We girls are hoping for a sit down facility.”
I rolled my eyes. “The water is bad. What does it matter?”
“It just does, Eli,” Lizzie said. “We saw a sign a ways back. There’s supposed to be a rest stop in a mile or two.”
Yeah, whatever. “We’ll follow your lead,” I said, then tossed the radio back up on the dashboard.
I looked out the window. The land was getting a little hilly but was still barren and covered in sagebrush and chaparral. It would be another hour before we hit trees.
“You don’t want to stop?” Hannah asked me.
“No, stopping is fine.” Hopefully I could get the keys and drive again. I hated being chauffeured by a girl, though I didn’t know why. I just liked being in control, and holding the wheel made me feel in charge. “Thanks for driving,” I said, as if thanking Hannah would somehow cancel out my selfish thoughts.
“No problem,” she said.
Whee. Awkward chit chat. Where was this rest stop, anyway? I needed to get out of the truck. I needed to drive. To do something. I examined the vents, checked out the glove compartment, fiddled with the buttons on the dash. My gaze flitted to Hannah, who was staring at the road, intense, like there were deer lining the road or something. Her manicured nails gripped the steering wheel at ten and two. I took in that diamond ring again. She’d taken off my sweatshirt and was wearing her little tank top slip thing. I admired her arms. She was in good shape. Strong for a girl.
“You an athlete?” I asked.
She turned her head to look at me, then focused on the road again. “I played tennis.”
A rich person sport. Should’ve guessed. She’d put her hair up in a bun on the back of her head. This called attention to her long neck and shoulders. My eyes latched onto black in between her shoulder blades.
“Why are you staring at me?” she asked.
Heat climbed up the back of my neck and burned my ears. I looked out the window at the landscape. “You have a tattoo?”
Her silence pulled my gaze back, and I chanced a quick peek at her expression. But there was no anger or embarrassment on her face. “It was my one act of rebellion against my father.”
“You didn’t get along with your dad?”
She shrugged. “He was always so busy. But he wanted me to do the things he wanted me to do, which I didn’t think was fair. Plus I was an only child. He didn’t like my high school boyfriend at all. Shen was a trouble maker—I liked that about him. He had a motorcycle, and he’d come to the house or to the country club and pick me up. Daddy hated that bike.”
“So what’s the tattoo of?”
“Chinese symbol for independence.”
Nice. “So you got a tattoo to tell your dad that you didn’t need him telling you what to do?”
“Yeah… it was pretty juvenile. I laugh about it now, and I’m thankful I didn’t get something even worse, like Shen’s name.”
“Didn’t work out with Shen?”
“Uh, no.” She laughed. “He was a little too wild for me. It was a phase. Girls go through a lot of phases. They just don’t realize it until they’re older.”
I wondered if my sister was going through a Zaq phase. Lizzie had never been the rebellious type. She’d never even dated anyone before. I wondered how long this thing with Zaq had been going on. Would she care what I thought about it? Let me look out for her?
One thing was certain: me and Zaq needed to have a talk.
Up ahead, the van pulled off into a truck stop. A single beige and green house marked the bathrooms with a stickman on the left and a stickwoman on the right. Regular parking spots ran along the sidewalk. Long, trucker parking spots filled the middle of the lot. The lot was completely empty.
Zaq pulled the van into a space in front of the bathrooms, and the van doors all seemed to open at once. Lizzie, Kayla, and Jaylee all sprinted for the stickwoman door.
Hannah pulled up beside the van, and before she had rolled to a complete stop, Logan jumped out and sprinted for the stickman side.
“Hope he makes it.” Hannah turned off the truck, pulled out the keys, and handed them to me. “You drive next?”
“Thanks.” I probably should have said “Sure,” or something less control-freak obvious.
Davis jumped out Logan’s door and ran to the bathroom. Shyla started humming.
“You need to use the bathroom, Shy?” I asked.
“In a minute.”
“Okay, but we’re not staying here long.” I climbed out and woke up Cree in the process. “Hi, Cree,” I said, hoping to look cheerful and kind. See, kid? I’m not kidnapping you. I’m just trying to be a Good Samaritan. “You want to get out?”
Cree unbuckled herself and crawled to my open door. I shoved the keys in my pocket and grabbed her under the arms. I swung her extra high and set her feet on the sidewalk. She was filthy and smelled faintly of the pungent sweet sickness. How would any of us get a bath? Then I remembered the baby wipes. I headed for the back of the truck, and Cree followed.
“Here, Eli,” Shyla said from the back cab, handing me a pink wad of fabric. “For the girl.”
I took it and held it up. “Look, Cree. A shirt!” I scrunched it up in my hands and tried to pull it over Cree’s head, but she wrinkled her nose at me.
“No pink,” she said.
“You don’t like pink?”
Leave it to a kid with nothing to be picky over color. “Cree,” I pointed to the building, “you need to go to the bathroom?” I hadn’t thought to give her anything to drink. The poor thing was probably dehydrated.
Cree’s gaze followed my pointing finger, and she smiled.
“I’ll take her,” Hannah said, looking at us over the front of the truck.
“Thanks,” I said. “Cree, go with Hannah, okay?”
Cree frowned but took Hannah’s hand and obediently went along. I liked that obedience. I hoped it stuck around. I opened the back of the truck and dug out the cooler of candy bars. Behind it was the cooler of drinks. Behind that should be the box with the wipes. I thought.
Five minutes later I had crawled into the back of the truck and was digging through tubs, looking for the wipes. I found some cracker packs with the rubbery cheese you spread over them. Cree might like those. Shyla and Davis were likely hungry too. I dumped some of the cracker packs and a few lengths of beef jerky into the cooler. I finally found the wipes and wiggled my way back down to the tailgate. I had barely put one foot out onto the ground when a strange voice spoke.
“Need a hand?”
Somehow between my heart failure and cramped position, I managed to vault myself backwards the rest of the way out of the truck. I whipped around to see a gangly man with greasy blond hair slicked back over his head and a week’s worth of scraggly beard on his face. He was wearing a wife beater tank top and a pair of dirty jeans with saggy, worn-to-threads knees.
And my gun was in the cab.
END OF CHAPTER
Gah! Another stand-off for Eli. What will he do this time?
Is Jaylee kissing Zaq?
If I was going to be the leader, I couldn’t freak out like some middle schooler because Jaylee had picked Zaq. I had to be a man about this. Deal with it. Move on.
Be cool, McShane.
I was debating whether to walk away or say something scathing when Zaq’s hand slid down to the girl’s waist, revealing the number 14 on the back of her shirt.
“Lizzie?” Jealousy morphed into shock. “What the Hades?”
Lizzie yelped, slid off Zaq’s lap, and clapped her hand to her chest. Zaq lifted his arms, as if this was a stick-up and I was the sheriff. He clunked his head back against the counter and closed his eyes.
“Yeah,” I said. “Caught you.” I slapped both hands on the counter and walked away. I felt stupid for thinking that Zaq would have gone after Jaylee, for suspecting him of something so low, but… my sister?
Dude. That wasn’t much better.
“Eli,” Zaq called after me.
I didn’t want to hear it. I walked back to the cluster of sleeping bags and yelled, “Rooster call! Time to go, Pumbaas. Up and at ’em.”
I had Logan look up Sparklets up in the phone book, but when I drove by, the lights were on inside. Looked like someone had already claimed that building. I’d passed a Walgreens on the way, so I doubled back and parked at the loading dock. It was just after 5:30 a.m. as we piled stuff into carts. They only had three rows with food, but I felt safer here than at a big grocery store. I prayed no one would come by and challenge us.
“General Mills is out of Minneapolis,” Lizzie said, looking at the side of a box of Cocoa Puffs. She grabbed a box of Frosted Flakes. “And Kellog’s distribution is in Michigan.” She picked up two cans of food out of her cart. “Campbells is in New Jersey. Rosarita Beans—”
“Dude! I love refried beans!” Zaq said.
“ConAgra Foods. Omaha, NE.”
Zaq took the beans from her and looked for himself. “Aw, man!”
“Kraft is Illinois,” Logan said.
“Sweet peas are from Marion, NY,” Davis said.
Hannah held up a can of tuna. “Chicken of the sea, San Diego!”
“That’s because it’s imported from Thailand,” Logan said.
“Ewww,” Lizzie said.
“Why is that eww?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’s just weird to think that my tuna salad sandwich came all the way from Thailand. That’s all.”
“Spaghetti sauce. Also Conagra foods in Nebraska.”
“Gunslinger Hot Sauce! Mesa, AZ.”
“I’m not wasting gas to stock up on hot sauce.”
“Dude! The west coast sucks!”
“So all our food came from the east coast? In semi-trucks?”
“That or by train,” Logan said.
“There has never been a lot of water in the southwest. Can’t grow food without water.” Logan said.
Lizzie held up a beef stick. “Hickory Farms, Ohio.”
“Gimme that, babe. I need that!” Zaq grabbed my sister, who held the beef stick behind her back, giggling while Zaq practically frisked her.
To which I thought, Ewww.
“Hamburger Helper, General Mills, Minneapolis, Minneso—”
I threw a pack of spaghetti powder at Logan. “We don’t have any hamburger, moron.”
Zaq snatched the box from Logan. “We don’t need no burger, Clark. This stuff does just fine by itself.”
“I love those movies,” Logan said.
“Movies!” Jaylee yelled. “There aren’t going to be any new movies, is there? You think Hollywood is dead?”
“Can we focus here?” I said, wanting to get moving. I didn’t like spending a long time in a store, and the sky outside was already starting to brighten. “Forget the Hamburger Helper, Logan. We don’t want anything that needs lots of water to prepare it. Get some plastic tubs from the home aisle and fill them with canned goods, tuna and canned meat, fruits and veggies, but not condensed soups, no noodles, no bread or baked goods. Get crackers, breakfast cereals and bars, things that won’t spoil. Packages of cookies and candy is okay, but only if we have room.” I paced at the front of the store, ideas churning now. “Also, let’s take all the baby wipes we can find—and those bleach wipes for cleaning.”
“What about hand sanitizer?” Jaylee asked.
“If you want. I’ve never liked it, but it’s probably better than nothing.”
“Think I can wash my hair with it?” Jaylee asked.
Was she serious? “I don’t think so.”
“We should all shave our heads,” Logan said. “We’re going to get lice if we can’t bathe.”
“I am not shaving my head!” Lizzie said.
“I might,” Jaylee said. “I’d be like Furiosa in Mad Max.”
Please no. “Also look for matches, lighters, stuff that’s useful,” I said, trying to keep people focused. “Use your head and you’ll know it when you see it.”
Hannah was staring at me.
“You are so smart.”
Heat rushed to my face as her compliment washed over me. I had to fight the urge to smile. “I want to leave in thirty minutes, so let’s go!”
Ten minutes later I heard girls yelling. I found them on the shaving aisle of all places. “What’s the problem?”
“Jaylee is filling her storage tub with shaving cream,” Lizzie said.
“We’re not taking shaving cream,” I said.
“What?” Jaylee said. “You can’t stop me from shaving my legs.”
“Jaylee,” I said, really not wanting her to be mad at me, “water is scarce and we have limited space. Why don’t you take one can for now, and once we’re settled you can find more. Is that cool?”
“Fine.” She dumped her storage tub and cans of Gillette went rolling everywhere.
That was my cue to leave, so I went to the loading dock and put myself in charge of repacking the vehicles. The water went in first. Thankfully there was a ton of it. Bottles and jugs—enough to last a few months, at least. I managed to get everything in the back of the truck and the entire back seat of the van. That left five seats free in the van and the whole extended cab of the truck open. We had plenty of room, as long as I didn’t pick up any more strays.
All we were really missing was clothes. Hannah found some cheap shoes, and there were Flagstaff T-shirts and sweatshirts, but this did not satisfy the girls. I promised them we’d go shopping again once we reached Reinhold’s place.
“It’s only five and a half hours,” I said. “We’ll be there before dinnertime.”
But would Reinhold be?
I told everyone to take one last bathroom break and went out and syphoned gas with my new shake syphon and gas cans. Once both vehicles were full and the gas cans re-filled and loaded into the back of the truck, I locked it up and climbed into the cab.
I was surprised to see Hannah sitting shotgun.
“Hey,” I said.
She had her feet up on the dashboard and her hands resting on her knees. She had a fancy manicure job with the glossy with white tips and that ring with the massive diamond gleamed at me. I wanted to ask about her husband or fiancé or whatever, but I didn’t want to risk making her cry.
“They’re fighting over who gets to sit where,” she said. “Lizzie is riding with Zaq, and Jaylee wants to ride with Lizzie but doesn’t want to ride with Logan. But Logan wants to talk to Zaq and said he was there first. Krista says she’s sick of the kids and wants to ride in the van and have the kids ride over here…” She sighed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been around teenage drama.”
“Sorry,” I said, wincing. “I’d rather not be around it myself. But I’ll tell you right now, Jaylee will win and Logan will be riding with us.”
“Jaylee always wins?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Not with the shaving cream, though.”
Oh. Right. “I guess.”
She smiled and her eyes shifted as they studied my face. “How old are you, Eli?”
Her question made me nervous, though I had no idea why. “Seventeen.”
“When is your birthday?”
“So you’re closer to sixteen than to eighteen.”
“Yep. You joined up with a band of teenage crazies. Sorry ’bout that.”
“You act older than most seventeen-year-old boys.”
The back door on my side opened and Davis climbed up. “Krista said you wanted us to ride with you.”
“I sure did,” I said, wondering who would parent these two kids since Krista didn’t seem to want the job.
“I like the new truck,” Davis said from behind me. “It feels bigger in here than in the van.”
“Not much room in there with all the egos,” I mumbled.
“Waffles?” Davis asked.
Shyla climbed in beside her brother, and Logan got in behind Hannah.
“I’ve decided to ride in the truck,” Logan said.
“Sweet. We’re glad to have you.” I grinned at Hannah. “Let’s roll!”
“Can you plug this in to the cigarette lighter?” Logan asked, tossing a cord over the seat.
“What is it?” I asked, starting the truck.
“It’s a charger for my DS. Zaq gave me his so me and Davis can play Zombies Kings.”
“Have at it.”
I pulled out of Ace and headed north on Butler. I turned left onto Ponderosa Parkway and drove north out of Flagstaff. Hannah fiddled with the radio. There were a few stations still broadcasting, but we didn’t hear any announcers. I wondered if there was still power in some cities. I bet Hannah wondered about San Francisco.
“Are you sure you want to come with us?” I asked her. “If I didn’t know what had happened to my mom, I don’t think I would have wanted to leave the city.”
“I called the house and nobody answered,” she said. “I called Dad’s office. I called their neighbors. I called the country club. I called my friends.” She shook her head. “No one answered anywhere. And from what happened to me in that dinky little Flagstaff town… there’s no way I’m going to San Francisco. It would be suicide.”
I didn’t doubt it.
I merged onto the 89 north, leaving Route 66 behind me forever. It felt weird, riding with a strange girl in front. I felt like I should talk to her, but all I could think to ask was, “So what kind of doctor were you studying to be?”
“General practitioner. I wanted to work abroad.”
“I went on a few internships to Guatemala with Doctors Without Borders. I was only an office assistant, but I learned so much. Stuff I would never have been able to see or do in the US. It’s so poor there. Children are malnourished and abused. There’s a lot of street gangs. A lot of rape. It’s horrifying. I was considering changing my major to OBGYN so I could go back and help.”
Wow. She was quite the humanitarian. Our youth group took a yearly trip to Mexicali to run vacation bible school. I’d gone three years running, but it seemed kind of small compared to all that. I mean, we just hung out with kids.
“What about you?” Hannah asked. “Did you have any college plans?”
“Yeah. I don’t know. My dad owns his own shop and I like working on cars. And owning your own business gives you a lot of freedom. I never saw any reason to put myself into debt for a degree I’d never use.”
“So you were going to work with your dad?”
“Maybe. I actually wanted to start my own business being an outdoor guide. Hiking, backpacking, river rafting, hunting. What you’ll see up in Colorado, the place we’re going. That would’ve been my dream job.”
“I’m going to design video games,” Logan said. “I’m a decent artist, and I excel at problem solving and love algorithms and programming. I’m going to go to MIT or Berkley for software engineering technology. Maybe Oregon Institute of Technology. I’ve been working on designing my own game. It’s tedious, but could sit there all day. Have you ever played Zombies Kings, Hannah?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“You want to play? It’s fun.”
Logan’s verbage gave me pause. As if his college plans were still a go, as if we were all going to wake up tomorrow and find the world was back to normal. Logan in denial. That was new.
“I want to be a rock star,” Shyla said. “I want to be beautiful like Taylor Swift and play the guitar and wear ball gowns in my music videos.”
“You don’t look anything like Taylor Swift,” Logan said.
“Hey, now,” Hannah said, glaring back at Logan.
What an idiot. I glanced at Shyla in the rearview. She was frowning at her lap. “Which totally doesn’t matter, Shy, because you’re already gorgeous,” I said.
I kept glancing back, and she didn’t look up, but I could see her lips twist into a smile.
“I was thinking about this pandemic, Eli,” Logan said, as if he hadn’t just insulted a little girl. “Maybe the water problem wasn’t caused by the comet so much as the comet affected certain aquifers. Maybe it only affected metropolitan communities. Because think about it. Groundwater is depleted from aquifers by over pumping or drought. And Florida has a serious problem with aquifer depletion because they overuse their freshwater supply, then salt water seeps in and contaminates everything. And Florida is where this all started in the US. And once people were infected, it spread across the country quickly.”
Sometimes Logan made my head hurt. “What about the comet, then?”
“Conspiracy. The government refusing to deal with the water problems, blames the comet.”
“Logan, that makes no sense what-so—”
“Why don’t you show me that video game, Logan,” Hannah said.
“Sure!” Logan thrust his arm over the seat and Hannah took the DS.
And Hannah suddenly became one of my favorite people on the planet. She allowed Logan to instruct her on the Zombie Kings game for the next hour while Davis and Shyla took turns on Zaq’s DS.
Two and a half hours later we approached the turn off to Kayenta, Arizona. We passed the Hampton Inn, and I thought how it might be nice to take over a hotel. Think of the people that could be housed in a hotel like that. It probably had over a hundred rooms. And there’d be a kitchen on the ground floor.
“The King!” Logan moaned as we passed by Burger King.
“Can we stop at McDonalds?” Shyla asked.
“Sorry, Shy. It’s not open,” I said.
“Look out!” Hannah yelled, grabbing the dashboard with her right hand.
Which just about gave me a heart attack. I looked back at the road and saw a child standing in my lane, just past the driveway of a Holiday Inn and Chevron that shared a parking lot. I clutched the wheel with both hands and slammed on the breaks, but the kid just stood there, didn’t even flinch.
I pulled into the driveway and stopped, rolled down my window. It was a little Native American girl. She was shirtless, had long black hair, and looked to be about six years old.
“Hey, there,” I said. “You lost?” I imagined that the kid had been given the Stranger Danger talk at whatever school she’d attended and I doubted she’d say anything.
“Mommy didn’t wake up.”
I put the truck in park and got out, walked up to the kid and squatted in front of her. Looked her over. She was barefoot, wearing only a pair of dingy blue jeans that were frayed at the hem. Her mouth and cheeks were smudged in brown.
“What you been eating?”
“What’s your name?”
“Can you show me your mom, Cree?” I had no desire to see any more dead people, but I wasn’t loading up this girl without making sure she was truly alone.
The girl took off toward the Holiday Inn, her bare feet slapping the pavement. I jumped in the truck.
“What are we doing?” Hannah asked.
“The kid is showing me her mom.”
“You think that’s a good idea, Eli?” Logan asked.
“Not really, but I’m not kidnaping any more kids.” I shot Shyla a look in the rearview and put the truck in drive.
“You kidnapped these kids?” Hannah asked as I followed Cree across the spacious lot.
“Not exactly. Well… technically. I’ll explain when I get back.” I parked under the extended roof in the drop off zone. The main building was beige with dark green trim, squat-looking, like a Flinstone’s house. The next building over was a two-story strip of hotel rooms with entrances on the outside. Classy joint.
I grabbed my dad’s rifle and climbed out. “Everyone stay in here,” I said through the open door. “I’m just going to go check it out, but we can’t afford to have anyone steal our rig. So, Hannah, why don’t you sit in the driver’s seat just in case you need to ditch me.”
“Oh-kay.” She started to slide across the seat.
“We’re not ditching you,” Logan said.
I shut the door and hit the auto locks.
“What’s the dealy-o?” Zaq asked out the driver’s side window of the van.
“Kid said her mom didn’t wake up. I’m going to go in and see if she’s is all alone. Wait here.”
“Eli, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Zaq said.
But I was already walking away. Cree was waiting in front of a set of double glass doors. When I was about three steps away, she pulled open the door and held it for me. I ducked past her and into the lobby. The walls were beige brick, covered with Native paintings and artifacts. It was darkish inside. No power here, but the wall of windows on the entrance gave enough light to see by. I followed Cree over a dark brown stone floor, past some gaudy furniture on a red and navy native rug. One of the couches had no cushions. We walked past a little dining area with white chairs and plastic plants, then down a dark hallway. The girl became a black shadow before me. She pushed inside two double doors that swung both ways. A kitchen.
The smell about knocked me flat. I gagged clapped my free hand over my nose. Hades, it was awful! And I couldn’t see squat.
Cree’s voice flitted out from the darkness. “Come to help Mommy?”
“I can’t see. Do you have any lights?”
“Broken lights,” Cree said.
Yeah, no kidding. “I’ll be right back.” I fled out the double doors, down the hallway, and back through the lobby. Out the front doors and the fresh air was mercy to my nostrils.
“What happened?” Zaq asked.
“Can’t see. It smells bad, though.”
“Like sickness?” Zaq asked. “Like my house?”
“Yeah. I was going to get a flashlight.”
“You sure you want to see that, man?”
“No, but… What are we supposed to do about the little girl?”
The sliding door on the driver’s side opened, and Jaylee glared at me. “You’re supposed to leave her, Eli. You can’t rescue everyone you see. I know you’re trying to be a hero, but you’re going to kill us in the process.”
“Kill you how?”
“There could be people with guns in there who want to steal our stuff.”
“There’s dead people in there,” I said.
“Then how do you know she’s not infected?” Jaylee asked.
“She’s not infected,” I said.
“But how do you know?”
“She’s not,” Lizzie said, leaning over Zaq’s lap. “While you all were camping, I saw what infected people looked like, and she looks fine.”
“That Hannah girl is a doctor,” Jaylee said. “She should go check.”
“Check what?” Hannah asked out the open window of the truck.
“Go inside with Eli and see if that little girl is sick before Eli gets himself infected and kills us all.”
“Jaylee, I’m not going to get infected. This is a waterborne bacteria.”
“I’ll go in with you,” Hannah said.
I shook my head. “You don’t have to. It smells bad in there.”
But Hannah was already climbing out of the truck. I was just about to ask Lizzie to get in the driver’s seat when Hannah put the keys in my hand. “In case Logan gets an urge to drive,” she whispered.
I opened the back of the truck and dug out two flashlights. “Logan says he can hotwire any vehicle.” I handed Hannah a flashlight and closed up the back of the truck.
“Logan thinks pretty highly of himself, doesn’t he?” she asked.
I headed for the entrance again, this time with Hannah beside me. “Well, his dad is a real piece of work. Being a bit messed up runs in their family. Actually, it practically sprints.”
The door swung out just before we reached it. Again, Cree held it open, a self-made doorstop with her back against the door.
I flicked on my flashlight and wiggled the beam over her bare feet. “Working light,” I said.
Cree ran ahead.
“Wow,” Hannah said. “This is…classy.”
“You stay in a lot of hotels like this?” I asked.
“I’ve only ever stayed in hotel penthouses. My dad is really picky. Was. I wish I knew.”
I didn’t answer. I was still holding out hope that we would run across my dad alive and well before we reached the Colorado border.
I stopped outside the double doors, already sick with the faint smell of what was inside. I pulled my T-shirt up over my nose and mouth and followed Cree inside.
END OF CHAPTER
What did Eli and Hannah find in the hotel kitchen?
Who is running toward Eli?
It was a young woman. She stopped when she saw me, her face a pale mask of shock. She was Asian, and her hair was long and straight and messy. She was wearing a filthy white blouse and a pair of short jeans, the kind that end midway between a girl’s knee and ankle and have a special name that I can never remember no matter how many times Lizzie explains it to me. She was also barefoot and wore a silver toe ring one of her middle toes.
All this I noticed in the space of a breath.
“Please don’t shoot,” she said, her English perfect.
I lowered my rifle. “I’m not going to—”
She ran, sprinting past Logan and me as if her life depended on it.
“Wait!” I called after her. “We’re not going to hurt you.” But she had already slipped out the jagged opening in the door and was running across the parking lot toward a silver Honda Civic.
Good gas mileage, I thought.
“Dude!” Logan called from inside Jim Robert’s office. “She found the keys for us!”
I joined Logan in the office. He was looking into a narrow cabinet filled with rows and rows of hooks with keys on them. Jackpot.
“You think she picked the lock?” I asked.
“Of course,” Logan said. “She’s probably a ninja. Asian’s are born knowing ninja skills.”
“That’s racist. And since when is lock-picking a ninja skill?”
“Lock-picking is stealth. Ninjas are stealth.”
“Whatever. Look for the Suzuki.”
“I wish she wouldn’t have run off,” Logan said, combing through the keys. “I’ve always wanted to date an Asian.”
Forget dating. I doubted Logan had ever had a conversation with a girl that wasn’t completely one sided. “Guess you should have chased after her.”
“Ninjas are fast too, Eli. I never would have caught her unless she wanted me to, and since I didn’t get a chance to speak, I didn’t get a chance to impress her.”
“You’re a nut job. Find the key so we can get out of here.”
* * *
I found the key. Logan was too busy trying to decipher the code of how the keys were organized. I just searched for the word Suzuki.
On our way out, I stole a phone book off one of the desks in the cubicle area. If we could find someplace to lay low, we could make some lists and find some smaller stores to gather supplies. I didn’t like being out on the main strip.
Inside the cab of the Suzuki felt like sitting in a kiln. I tossed the phone book on the seat between Logan and me and started her up. Sounded like a good engine. I drove around back where Zaq was parked. Sadly, my new wheels were already running on empty.
I pulled up alongside the van facing the opposite direction so that my driver’s side window paralleled Zaq’s. “There’s a gas station in the parking lot of Fry’s Food Stores. Let’s try and gas up, then park somewhere to make a plan.”
“You got it, boss. Sweet ride, by the way.”
“Thanks.” I drove around the dealership and east on 66. Zaq was waiting and pulled out after me. It wasn’t even a full mile to Fry’s, but as we coasted into the gas station, I remembered that we couldn’t get gas if the electricity was out. There had been so many windows at the dealership, I couldn’t remember if the lights had been on or not.
I coasted to a stop beside the pumps and had my answer. All the displays were dark. No power. No gas. What now?
With all these abandoned cars, there was plenty of gas to be had. I just need a syphon hose and a gas can. Preferably a shake syphon, but I’d only find one of those at a hardware store.
“Logan, look up Ace or True Value or Lowe’s or something,” I said, steering into a U-turn. I was just about to drive around the back of the gas station to get out of sight when I saw the Honda Civic parked at a pump closest to the gas station building. The words “Low Gas Mileage” were scrawled on its windshield in neon orange and white paint. The driver’s door was hanging open and a gas nozzle stuck out of the tank. No sign of Logan’s Asian Ninja.
Could the gas be working at that pump? I pulled up on the other side of the Honda and looked over its hood at the fuel dispenser. This display board was dark too. So where’d the girl go?
I peered inside the gas station itself, but the chains coiled around the door handles seemed to have kept people from going inside. None of the windows had been broken yet. I put the tuck in drive and rolled just past the station so I could look beyond it to the vast grocery store parking lot.
The radio fizzled. “This is Krista. Zaq wants to know what you’re doing.” [Note to readers: I went back to chapter eight and planted that Eli took a spare radio from the van with him into the car dealership.]
Logan dropped the phonebook and fumbled for the radio. “This is Transport One. Hold for an answer. Over.” Logan looked to me. “What are we doing?”
There. Two men weaving between vehicles in the middle of the lot. I’d bet anything that they had showed up when Asian Ninja had been trying to pump gas. What was with all the sickos right now? And where was the girl hiding?
“Tell them to stay put,” I said. “Say we can’t get gas here because the power’s out. And tell them you’re going to find us a hardware store.”
Logan relayed that message over the radio as I continued to watch the two men. They were about twenty yards apart from each other. One was wearing a white T-shirt, the other short sleeve plaid. The guy in plaid approached an old Chevy pick-up and peeked in the back as he passed by. He jerked back, reached in, then jumped up on the tail end just as Asian Ninja popped up and scrambled up onto the roof of the cab.
I hit the gas.
“Ahh!” Logan yelled, grabbing onto the dashboard. “What are you doing?”
“Asian Ninja is in trouble.”
The guy in plaid lunged across the bed and managed to snag the back of the girl’s shirt. She threw herself over the cab, sliding down the windshield until she was hanging by the back hem of her shirt. She grabbed the front and ripped it open like Clark Kent about to transform. She held back her arms and slid the rest of the way down the windshield and off the front of the hood. Her shirt peeled off her arms as she went, leaving her in a white tank top.
“Dude!” Logan coughed out an impressed laugh. “I told you she was a Ninja!”
The girl sprinted away from the Chevy and the guy in plaid, but his buddy in the white T-shirt was heading her way. I floored it, hoping to get between them.
“Logan,” I said. “I’m going to stop the van and get out. I’ve got to let them see the gun to scare them, and I can’t do that while I drive.”
“Give me the gun.”
So not happening. “I need you to get behind the wheel,” I said. “But don’t go anywhere until I can talk the girl into coming with us, okay? Logan? Tell me you understand the plan.”
“Okay, okay. I can’t do that.”
“And open the passenger’s door so we can jump in. Don’t do anything else. Just stay put.”
“Yeah, fine. I got it.”
I sure hoped so. I stopped halfway down the row. The girl was midway between her two pursuers now, curving slightly toward us. I don’t think she’d seen my truck yet. I climbed out, gripped the action of my dad’s rifle with my right hand and held my left in the air, giving the peace sign. I felt stupid as I edged around to stand in front of my new wheels, but I didn’t know how else to signal to the girl that I wasn’t with those other guys.
Her gaze landed on me and her eyes widened in recognition. Her sprint slowed to a jog. She glanced behind her, then to the guy in the white T-shirt. I hadn’t shot her at the dealership, so maybe… just maybe…
She put on a burst of speed, running straight toward me. I edged around to the passenger’s side of the truck. Logan had thankfully opened the door. The girl was almost here, but the guys weren’t far behind. They had slowed, though, eyeing my rifle.
Asian Ninja’s bare feet slapped against the pavement as she neared, her hair a stream of black smoke behind her. She blew right past me, and I yelled, “Get in the truck if you want to live!” It was a bold declaration for a guy with no water or supplies and who’d already been robbed once, but it seemed like the right thing to say.
I heard the truck door slam, so I guess she’d decided to take her chances with us.
Since she’d shut the door and the guys were almost to me, I wasn’t really sure what to do next. I hefted Dad’s rifle in both hands and flicked off the safety inching back, hoping the girl would open the door and let me in. For some reason, the truck started to roll backwards. Logan had it in reverse.
What was that idiot doing?
The white T-shirt guy reached me first. “Nice gun, kid.”
“I don’t want any trouble,” I said.
“Then why you pointing a gun at me?”
“This isn’t going to happen,” I said. “So why don’t you just let it go?”
I glanced over my shoulder to see that Logan had backed up the truck about a twenty yards from me. Great. What an idiot.
The guy in plaid arrived. “What’s with the gun?”
“I think he likes holding it,” T-shirt guy said.
“The girl doesn’t seem to want to play tag with you anymore,” I said. “So we’re going to give her a ride to her car.” I stepped back, knowing I’d never catch up to Logan this way, but seriously, why had he left me here? Did he want me to shoot someone? Did he want me to die?
“You know what they say about a man and his gun, don’t you?” T-shirt guy said.
I couldn’t let these morons know they were scaring me out of my mind. I chambered a round and flipped off the safety. “That he knows how to use it?” I said, then took aim and fired at the back end of a Ford Taurus in the row to the right of them.
They both screamed. T-shirt guy cowered. The guy in plaid hit the pavement on his stomach. I turned and ran like the Olympic sprinter I wasn’t.
Logan seemed to get the hint and the truck accelerated toward me. The passenger’s door opened long before they reached me. Logan slammed on the breaks, and I jumped in beside Asian Ninja, slammed the door, hit the locks, breathed.
“Someone talk to us!” Lizzie’s voice said over the radio, which Asian Ninja was holding clutched to her chest. It was then I noticed that her tank top was more of a silky undershirt. Embarrassed, I glanced up to meet her eyes and saw that they were fixed on the two men, who were walking away down the middle of the row.
Good thing neither of them had a shotgun.
“Get in the back, Logan,” I said.
“You’re not driving anymore.”
Logan opened the driver’s side door.
“Logan!” I dove for the driver’s side door, falling across Asian Ninja’s lap. I grabbed the handle and pulled the driver’s side door shut. Hit the locks again. I pushed off the steering wheel to sit up again. “Climb over the seat, you moron!”
“Gosh, Eli, you don’t have to be such a jerk,” Logan said. “I did just save your life.”
I took a deep breath and glanced at Asian Ninja. “Sorry,” I said.
And Logan said, “I forgive you.”
I closed my eyes a moment, reigning in my temper. I checked the safety on Dad’s gun and flipped it on. “Would you hold this for me?” I asked the Ninja.
“Sure.” She took the rifle in her free hand, holding it like it was an unstable nuclear warhead or something. I noticed a ring on her left hand. A massive, glittering diamond. She was married? She looked like a high schooler.
I checked the passenger door locks again, checked the door locks on my side of the extended cab’s back door, then stood and braced myself with my left hand on the back of the seat and my right on the dashboard. “Could we switch places, please?”
Asian Ninja nodded and slid across the seat toward me. I sat down in the middle and nudged Logan’s shoulder. “Over the seat, now. Move it!”
“Okay, I’m going. Calm down.” Logan climbed up onto the seat and dove head first into the back, unknowingly kicking me in the ear with one knee and the back of my head with his shoe—right where my lump was.
I gritted my teeth against the pain, then took my spot behind the wheel and pulled on my seatbelt.
“Eli, please answer. Do you need assistance?” Lizzie. Still worried.
I glanced out the windshield. The men had walked away—were already over by the entrance to the store, apparently unwilling to be shot by a skinny teenager. Excellent. I reached over to Asian Ninja and motioned for the radio. She handed it over.
“This is Eli,” I said into the radio. “Everything is fine. We’re coming back around. Hold tight.” I dropped the radio in my lap and turned hard right, making my U-Turn. I scanned the cab and saw the phone book on the floor. I slowed enough to crouch and throw it over the seat into the back. “Find me a hardware store, Logan. Now, please.”
“Hold on,” he said. Moping.
I drove back to the gas station and up beside the minivan. Lizzie was riding shotgun and she rolled down her window. “What was that?”
“Sorry,” I said. “Picked up a hitchhiker.” I pointed my thumb to Asian Ninja.
“Hi, I’m Lizzie!” my sister said.
“I’m Hannah,” Asian Ninja yelled past me. Hannah didn’t sound like an Asian name to me—or a Ninja name, for that matter.
“Ace Hardware is on 1763 East Butler Avenue,” Logan said.
I blew out a breath. “Is there a map?”
“A funny one.”
I reached over the seat. “Give it.”
“You don’t have to be so grouchy.” Logan passed the book to me.
I snatched it and looked at the map. “Nice. It’s right across the tracks.” I tossed the phone book back to Logan. “Follow me,” I yelled to Lizzie and pulled away, watching my rearview for any other vehicles, cowboys, or brown labs.
I whipped out onto Route 66 and about a half-mile later, took a right.
“Eli,” Logan said.
“Are you mad at me?”
“You could say that.”
“What’d I do?”
“You drove away from me when I asked you to wait.”
“I was giving you your Old West duel moment.”
I glanced at Hannah, who gave me the “is that guy for real?” look and said, “Are you out of your mind?”
“You’re all into that chivalry, code of honor stuff. I figured since that other guy beat you up and stole the truck, you needed a win.”
Of all the… “Logan, chivalry only works in a duel if both sides have the same code of honor. Those guys didn’t seem like the chivalrous type.”
“Definitely not,” Hannah said.
“I’m sorry,” Logan whispered.
Another deep, and I mean deeeeep, breath, and I was able to say, “I forgive you, man. It’s all good.” I took another right onto Butler, keeping a close eye in my rearview, hoping Zaq was doing the same. “Hannah,” I said, “I’m sorry about the Honda. Maybe we can go back for it later. Do you have the key?”
“Left it in the ignition.”
“Well, it might still be there.”
“I don’t want to be by myself.”
I couldn’t blame her. “We’re headed to Colorado. We think there might be safe water there.”
“What makes you think that?”
“We were there when the comet passed. And we’re alive, so we thought…” I shrugged.
Hannah’s eyes filled with tears. “Comet?”
“Comet Pulon,” Logan said over the seat. “It’s been in the news and everything.”
“Right. I think I remember something about that.”
“Are you from Flagstaff?” I asked.
She shook her head. “San Francisco.”
“Long way from home.”
A tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. It clung to the edge of her jawline, dangling. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“No problem. If you want to get back to San Fran, I’m hoping to gather some stuff at Ace that will help me get gas. I can fill the Honda—or another car—teach you how to do it. Gas stations are useless without power.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“Sure, but, uh… you really got to be careful. We came from Phoenix. The cities aren’t safe.”
“The whole place is on fire,” Logan said. “And people are killing each other for water.
“We didn’t actually see anyone kill anyone for water,” I said. “But that’s why I wanted to get us away from the metro areas, for a while, at least. My guess is that San Fran will be pretty bad too.”
Her brow wrinkled. “This water problem is nationwide?”
“Worldwide, from what I could gather.”
“Everyone is dead?”
“You just passed Ace,” Logan said.
I flipped a U-Turn in the road and drove into the parking lot. To my delight, all the front windows were intact. “Looks like no one’s gotten to Ace yet. It’s all ours.”
I drove around back to the loading dock. The garage-style door was open. I swung around and backed up to it. Zaq did the same, parking right beside me.
“Bat cave exit,” Logan said.
“Right you are, Logan.” If anything went wrong, I’d be able to shoot out of here without needing to back out or turn around. “Hannah.” I shrugged off my hoodie and passed it to her. “You want to come in?”
“Yeah, thanks.” She put on my sweatshirt and climbed out.
The moment she shut the door, Logan said, “I should have thought of that. Of giving her my shirt.”
“You’re only wearing a T-shirt. I have layers.”
“So? She’s gorgeous. How old do you think she is? It’s hard to tell sometimes with Asians.”
“I have no idea.” I got out, made quick introductions for Hannah and everyone else, then said, “Let’s go shopping.”
“I’ll just wait in the car,” Krista said. “I don’t like shopping at hardware stores.”
“No way,” I said. “If you’re coming with us, you’ve got to do you share. The stuff we get here is going to keep us alive. You need to know what that stuff is. Because if we get separated, you’re going to need to be able to find your own stuff.”
Krista rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She got out and slammed the door.
I led the way inside, feeling on edge. I didn’t like conflict, and there had been way too much of it today. But the smell of rubber and metal inside the store made me smile. Sporting goods stores were my favorite, but this was close enough.
“Lizzie, you, Krista, and Shyla, head over to Outdoor or Power Equipment or whatever and see if you can find a small generator. Get some extension cords too and some outdoor lights. Maybe a charcoal grill and some charcoal. If there’s any kind of camping dishes and flatware and cups. Be smart. Think small. Zaq, you and Logan and Davis go to tools and get whatever you think we’ll need. Jaylee and Hannah, you can come with me and help me find some other stuff.”
“What stuff?” Jaylee asked.
“I’ll know it when I see it.”
“Well, you don’t need two people to help you think. I’ll go with Lizzie.”
“No,” Zaq said, “You go with Eli. He’s in charge.”
“It’s fine,” I said, not liking the attention of everyone staring at me. “She can go with Lizzie. Get carts, everyone, and fill ’em up.” I grabbed a cart and headed for the Hardware department, stung that Jaylee didn’t want to come with me. I hadn’t tried to put her in my group on purpose. I just knew that Lizzie would have been good at knowing what we’d need for cooking and figured Krista could help and I didn’t want to separate Shyla from her… Whatever.
Wheels rolled over the tile floor behind me, and I turned and saw Hannah right on my heels. “We got to get you some shoes,” I said, looking down at her bare feet.
She smiled. “I’m sure I’ll find some soon.” She reached past my arm and pulled several packs of batteries off an impulse display. She raised her eyebrows. “Yes?”
I nodded and stepped back so she could drop them in my cart. We found four large gas cans, a half-dozen shaker syphons and some hand pump syphons. I took them all. I figured they were going to be one of our most valuable commodities.
“So,” I said, “are you in college?”
“I’m in my second year of med school.”
“Really.” Med student. I bet she knew way more first aid that Zaq the lifeguard. “So that makes you… twenty-two?”
“Twenty. I graduated high school at fifteen. Did college in three years.”
Dang. “Well, Zaq will be thrilled. He’s a lifeguard and the closest thing we had to a doctor until now.”
“I don’t know that I’ll stay with you guys.”
“Right. I know. I just mean… Hey, matches. We should take all of them.”
Hannah and I gathered the matches. We also found flashlights, three big tents, two easy ups, eight sleeping bags, a half-dozen tarps, a bunch of fleece pullovers, rain gear, some fishing poles and hooks—though I wasn’t certain we could eat fish if they lived in poisoned water—canteens, a few camping chairs, a variety of knives, a couple axes, a small chainsaw… and that’s where we ran into Zaq and Logan at the gun counter.
“Guns in an Ace Hardware store?” I said.
“If they’re independently owned, they can stock what they want,” Logan said.
I rubbed my forehead, not liking the gleam in Logan’s eyes as he drooled over the rifles. “Well, let’s get all the shells they have for Dad’s 30.06. Ooh, crossbows might be handy. But I don’t think it’s a good idea for us all to have a gun. We need to do a gun training first, or something.”
“Yeah, I’m with you on that, man,” Zaq said. “But we might not have another chance at weapons like this.”
He was right. “Okay, grab the smallest gun safe they have and we’ll fill it up, but it stays locked and I keep the key. Once we settle somewhere, I’ll make sure everyone learns how to hunt their dinner.”
“Eat meat?” Hannah said.
“Sure, if you want to live. Canned food is only going to last so long.”
“It’s really that bad?”
“It’s the apocalypse, baby,” Logan said.
“Logan, come on.” I gave him a look that meant “shut up,” and sent him to find some rope and twine.
Once he was gone, Zaq and I packed a gun safe with weapons and ammo. By the time we had everything loaded in the back of the truck, it was dark. We didn’t have much space left for food and water, but there was always the cab or the back row of the minivan. We had enough seats to fill some with supplies, unless I kept picking up strays.
“We should sleep here,” I said. “Get up early and hit a grocery store, before the town wakes up.”
Apparently, no one had any better ideas, so we rolled out some more sleeping bags and had a dinner of beef jerky, candy bars, chips, and soda courtesy of the checkout aisle. I hadn’t realized how hungry I’d been until I ate my third Snickers bar.
“We should pack up this candy,” Logan said.
“We should see if they have any power bars,” Zaq said.
But no one went anywhere. I had a feeling we were all too tired to move.
“Lizzie, didn’t you have some paper?” I asked. “We need to make a list.”
“Sure.” She reached for her duffle bag and pulled out a notebook. I was glad she’d had her bag with her in the van. At least her stuff hadn’t been stolen.
“The way I see it is,” I said, “we’ll continue to have plenty of food as long as we can scavenge nonperishables from stores or homes. It might be a good idea to see if we can figure out where some food production plants are. There’s probably none in Arizona, though, but if there are, we could stock up on canned goods.”
“Or chips,” Zaq said, crunching down on a Dorito.
“We can’t live off chips for the rest of our lives,” I said.
“Heck yes, we can!” Zaq said. “Chips are awesome!”
“So as we go through whatever store we end up in tomorrow, check the canned good labels for addresses. We should also raid the seed row before we leave. We’ll need to start planting our own stuff.”
“I’m sure the country will bounce back,” Jaylee said, “once the government figures things out.”
I had a feeling there was no government left. “But if they don’t, we need to be ready. Seeds. Lizzie, write it down.”
“Yes, King Eli.”
It was then that I realized that I had totally taken charge. I hadn’t meant to. I hadn’t even wanted to. Zaq was supposed to be the leader. “Look, does anyone have a problem with me making plans? I mean, I don’t have to. Zaq should probably—”
“Dude, you da man, boss,” Zaq said. “I’d die without you.”
“Yeah, Eli,” Logan said. “You complete me.”
I rolled my eyes. “All joking aside, guys. You want me to do this?”
“You’re obviously the smartest one here,” Hannah said. “About staying alive, anyway. You probably can’t name all the parts of the musculoskeletal system or tell me the Kreb’s cycle, so… If any of you get hurt, I’ll do my best to help you live, but that’s where my survival skills end.”
“It’s not that difficult,” Jaylee said. “I mean, we just camped in the woods for two weeks. I think we all know what to do.”
“Yet when you had the chance to gather supplies at Target, you chose nothing but makeup,” Lizzie said.
“Why do we need a leader, anyway?” Jaylee asked. “Let’s just each do our own thing and contribute when we feel like it.”
Zaq snorted. “Yeah, we need someone to make sure that everyone contributes or some of you never will.”
“Fine.” Jaylee shrugged one shoulder and looked at me. “Do I call you Mr. President?”
“No,” I said. “Everyone calls me Eli. And I need help, okay? I’m just making this up as I go, so…”
“It’s settled then,” Zaq said. “Eli’s in charge. And I’m his enforcer. Capiche?”
“Great,” Jaylee said, rolling her eyes. “I’m going to bed.”
And eventually, we all followed suit.
I slept hard, but woke when I heard a noise. Dawn had started to creep in the windows at the front of the store. I could see forms around me, dead to the world. I lay there listening to Logan snore, straining to hear another sound, wondering if it had been anything to worry about, hoping no one was out front, thinking about breaking a window.
Then someone giggled. A low voice answered. I sat up, scanning the dark forms around me to see who was missing. It was impossible to tell.
I thought about flipping on my flashlight, but that would give me away, so I got up and inched slowly toward the voices. As I went, my eyes adjusted to the low light. I looked back at the cluster of sleeping bags and counted six bags, including mine.
Two were missing.
I quickened my steps and followed the sound of the whispers to the customer service counter, which was a square booth with chest-high counters on all four sides.
A girly moan sent a prickle up my spine. Oh man. I should go back to bed. I didn’t need to see whatever was happening here. Yet I stepped up to the counter and peeked over.
A guy was sitting on the floor, his back against the inside counter, his legs lost in a sleeping bag, his hands gripping the back of the girl who was straddling him. They were clothed but… yeah. It looked like they were trying to eat each other’s faces.
Betrayal filled me with hot anger. Logan was still snoring, so this had to be Zaq. And I somehow knew he was with Jaylee. He’d told me that she’d hit on him a month or so ago. Said he’d turned her down. Said she wasn’t his type. Yet here he was going behind my back.
I guess the end of the world changes things.
END OF CHAPTER
Gah! Is Jaylee kissing Zaq? What do you think?
Who was the guy with the shotgun? And what will happen to Eli?
I knew we shouldn’t have stopped at Target. I knew it!
My heart lurched inside. I had my right fist around the barrel of my gun, my left hand on the handle above the door. I let go of the handle, hoping to get my hands into position on my rifle. Lost my balance and slid out of the truck. My hiking boots twapped on the pavement.
“Don’t do it, boy!” Shotgun Man yelled. “It ain’t worth it. Leave the rifle in the cab and walk away.”
“I can’t do that,” I said.
But I just stood there, staring, daring myself to move my rifle into position. Pick it up, McShane, you gutless coward!
I was the worst surveillance guy to every grace the planet earth. Where had this guy come from, anyway?
Shotgun Man whistled, and the brown lab came running, pink tongue flapping in the breeze. Stupid dog! What did I care about a stupid dog?
“Come away from that truck, now,” Shotgun Man said, jerking the gun toward the bed.
I took a small side step that way, unsure what to do. I couldn’t let him take the truck. I couldn’t!
I had the keys, at least. I could run into the store. Maybe with Zaq’s help, the two of us could scare this guy off. Except the store was the opposite direction, and to get there, I’d be putting my back to this guy.
I took another teensy step toward the back of the truck, thinking that maybe if I could get behind it, I would have a chance to lift my gun.
Two months’ worth of water in the back of my truck. Two months’ worth that we wouldn’t have if I gave in. That stupid brown lab that would be lapping up my share.
I inched another step to the left. My hands were shaking.
Lord help me, Lord help me, Lord help me, Lord help me, Lord help me.
“Move a little faster, will ya?” the man said. “And put down that gun.”
I shook my head, and in one quick breath, I lifted my rifle, trained it on my adversary, and flipped off the safety.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Shotgun Man yelled. “Let’s not do this!”
“Get out of here!” I yelled back, my pulse pounding in my ears.
“You don’t have the guts!”
“Neither do you!”
We stood there, standing off between the van and the truck. A dozen scenarios flashed in my mind. Try and shoot him in the arm or leg. Run around to the other side of the truck. Run inside the store. Or jump in the passenger’s side and hit the locks. Drive away. Shoot the dog. Cry.
I stood there, trembling, praying he wouldn’t shoot me, wishing I were smarter and could think of some way to get myself out of this. The brown lab came along side me, sniffed my leg and panted, oblivious to the tension around him. His head cocked, and his eyes focused behind me.
Something hard struck the back of my head, the force so strong I collapsed to my knees. Someone took my rifle. My skull felt like liquid fire. Had he shot me? I hadn’t heard a shot. Was I dying?
Since I seemed to have no control over my body, I decided to die—or at least pretend to. I slumped to my left side, the pavement hot under my cheek, the truck keys an uncomfortable lump under my left hip.
The dog’s breath blew hot on my face. His tongue lapped my cheek, my lips.
I didn’t move.
“He’s out,” Shotgun Man said. “Get in the truck.”
Footsteps scuffed over the pavement. Only one set. The driver’s side door clicked shut.
I squinted open my eyes. Saw that Shotgun Man hadn’t moved. He was smart. I stayed put, unsure what else to do.
The driver’s side door opened again. “No keys!” the woman yelled.
Shotgun Man started toward me, gun trained on my head. “Get over here and check his pockets,” he told the woman.
Lord help me. I kept my eyes slitted as the woman crouched over me. I wished I’d studied Karate or Jujitsu or something that could get me out of this fix.
Hands patted down my right side. If they didn’t find the keys, maybe they’d think Zaq had taken them inside. Zaq. I willed him to come out here and check on me.
I should gotten up and run. The moment the woman had climbed inside the truck, I should have taken off. Too late now.
“They’re not here,” the woman said.
“Roll him and check the other side,” Shotgun Man said.
She rolled me. The moment I felt her hands on my pants pocket, I curled into a ball, rolled back.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Shotgun Man said, then bashed the butt of his gun against my head.
Things blurred together as pain spiked through my skull in a second place. I felt the keys slip from my pocket. Someone whistled and called for the dog. Doors slammed. The truck started. Peeled away.
My head pulsed with waves of pain. I wanted to get up and stop them. To run into the store. Get help. Tell everyone we had to follow them. But I just lay there, immovable, feeling stupid and useless and pathetic.
I opened my eyes. Logan’s face appeared over me, looking down.
“What happened? Oh my gosh, the truck!” He ran off.
I turned my head to follow him with my gaze. He was standing in the parking space where the truck had been and was turning in a circle, scanning the parking lot.
“Logan.” I tried to yell his name, but it came out more of a grunt.
He heard me, though, and came running back. “Are you shot? I didn’t hear any shots. Did their gun have a silencer? Where are you hit?”
“I’m fine.” I stretched out my hand. “Help me up.”
He took hold and pulled at the same time as I pushed myself off the ground with my other hand. I did most the work, but Logan’s weight made it a bit easier. My stomach lurched as I came to stand fully on my own feet. I held my breath, set my hands on my thighs, took a few slow breaths.
My head felt like it was going to implode.
“You sure you’re not shot, Eli?” Logan asked.
“You don’t think I’d know?” I gingerly touched my head, but when I looked at my fingers, I saw no blood. “Am I bleeding?” I had to be. It hurt so bad.
Logan walked around me. His fingers trailed through my hair. “I don’t see no blood, Eli. You think they shot you in the head? They must have missed.”
“They didn’t shoot me in the head, man. They hit me with their gun.”
“Oh. Well, there’s no blood.” It was then I noticed Logan was holding a black shirt in one hand. He held it up to his chest and grinned. “What do you think? Cool, huh? It was the only one. The place is pretty picked over.”
The shirt had the TARDIS in the center and the words “You never forget your first doctor” underneath.
I so didn’t care. Logan could be so clueless sometimes. “Dude, the truck was stolen! Go inside and tell Zaq. We’ve got to get out of here before they come back and try to take the van.”
Logan’s face paled as he looked out over the parking lot. “Right. I’ll get everyone moving.” He sprinted about four yards, then stopped and ran back, tossed his shirt at me. “Hold this so Jaylee doesn’t try and steal it.”
Before I could reply, he took off running again. “Come on!” he yelled over his shoulder.
I couldn’t do much good guarding the van with no gun, plus Zaq had the keys. I followed Logan as fast as I dared move. By the time I made it inside, I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him screaming.
“Guys! Eli’s hurt! Someone stole the truck! We gotta get moving! Guys, come on!”
Nice way to induce panic, but effective. Zaq and Lizzie came running up the aisle, Zaq pushing a cart full of medicine.
Jaylee arrived next, pushing a cart filled with makeup and—you guessed it—feminine products. “They took the truck? Eli, how could you let this happen?”
Ouch. That hurt worse than my head.
“Shut up, Jaylee,” Lizzie said. “Eli, are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” I said before Lizzie could start freaking out.
“They bashed his head in with a gun,” Logan said, appearing on my right and taking his Doctor Who T-shirt out of my hands. “Eli thought it was bleeding but I could find any blood.”
“I’m fine,” I said again, as both Lizzie and Zaq surged toward me. “We need to get moving before they come back for the van.”
“We’ll go,” Zaq said. “Just let me take a quick look.” He walked toward me.
“I’ll go find Krista,” Lizzie said, running off.
“He might have an intracranial hemorrhage,” Logan said as Zaq stopped beside me. “Think you could do a craniotomy if you had to, Zaq?”
“He looks fine to me,” Jaylee said, glaring. “I can’t believe you lost all our stuff.
“None of it was your stuff, Jaylee,” Zaq said. “Your duffle bag is in the van. The rest of that stuff came from Logan and Eli’s house.”
“You guys said we have to share everything from now on,” she said.
“Jaylee’s right,” I said. “I messed up.”
“No, we all messed up,” Zaq said. “We shouldn’t have left you out there alone. And if we’d have listened to you in the first place, we never would have come to Target.”
His defending me took the edge off my guilt. Jaylee pushed her cart over to a checkout stand and started bagging it up. I didn’t like her being mad at me.
“Show me where it hurts,” Zaq said.
I did, and Zaq’s fingers moved over the two swollen spots. One on the back of my head, and another on the top right side.
“It looks like they both kind of missed. The lumps are on the surface, like the gun grazed off the curve of your head both times. Broke the skin a little, but it didn’t reach the bone. The back one is just a lump. The front one is hardly bleeding. You dizzy?”
He made it sound like nothing. My head was still pounding. “Maybe a little.”
“Confused about what happened? Nauseous at all?”
“I don’t think so. It just feels like someone drove over my head.”
I told Zaq about the dog and Shotgun Man and his woman. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I wanted to fight back, but I … I just couldn’t shoot him.”
“You did the right thing,” Zaq said. “We can find more stuff.”
“But the water,” I whispered so Jaylee wouldn’t hear. “I only put one flat of water in the back of the van so you’d have some bottles to drink on the drive. That’s all we got.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll get more.”
Lizzie returned, holding hands with Shyla. “Krista’s coming.”
And did she ever. She and Davis each pushed a cart heaped with clothing up to the entrance. “We didn’t even get a chance to look for shoes yet,” she said.
“You were only supposed to be grabbing a couple things,” I said. “We can find new wardrobes later.”
“Most everything good has already been picked over,” she said. “If we don’t take this stuff now, someone else will.”
“There are hundreds of stores and thousands of homes that we can scavenge once we’ve got a safe home base,” I said. “Right now we’ve got to move before those guys come back. And I don’t think we have room for all that in the van.”
“That’s why I got these.” Krista dug into the cart and pulled out two large duffle bags.
“Great,” I said. “You can hold them on your lap.”
She glared at me, like I was some kind of jerk. Maybe I was.
I hated this. I especially hated the guilt of losing the truck and all our supplies. I tried not to think about it, because it was making me sick to my stomach, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Zaq would have been able to run that guy off. Was it my being so skinny that made me look like an easy target?
And he’d taken my gun. I knew there was dozens of personal possessions Lizzie and I had brought along, but my gun… I loved my gun.
We managed to load the van. No sign of Shotgun Man or his wife and dog. We had to put all the bags on the floor because the back was already crammed full, but no one complained. Zaq drove. I sat shotgun. Logan sat behind Zaq, Krista behind me, and Jaylee, Lizzie, Shyla, and Davis crammed into the back seat.
Zaq pulled out of the Target and onto University Drive, then went north on Milton Road. I drummed my palms on my knees, which were uncomfortably high since my feet were perched on a stack of Jaylee’s feminine products.
“Well,” I said to Zaq, “we might not have any water, but at least we have eight years-worth of tampons.”
Zaq laughed, but Jaylee had, unfortunately, heard me.
“They’re not tampons, Eli,” she said with enough attitude to shut me up for good. “They’re maxi pads. The tampons are back here. You sister doesn’t like tampons.”
“Can we talk about something else?” Zaq asked, steering the van onto the 40.
I didn’t want to talk at all. I just wanted to run through a forest and scream at the top of my lungs. Maybe burn something or smash something.
“What’s the plan?” Zaq asked me.
Why did I have to be the one to have a plan? I’d had a plan. No stopping. But no one had listened. We’d stopped at Target and lost all our stuff. I’d never wanted to be in charge, anyway. Zaq is the one people listen to. Zaq should be in charge.
I shrugged one shoulder and stared out the window. “People listen to you, Zaq. You need to be the leader.”
“Come on, Eli. I’m not leadership material.”
“You are too.”
Zaq snorted. “Am not. I’m the heavy. I’m the guy who gets behind a good cause and makes it happen. But I’m no idea person. I don’t have a clue what to do. You’ve always been the smart one. If we’re going to live, it’s going to be because of you.”
Zaq had never said anything like that to me in my entire life. I’d had no idea he thought of me as smart or a leader of any kind. “But I didn’t want to go to Target.”
“You were right. You shouldn’t have let the girls twist your arm. And I should have backed you up.”
“But the…” I kicked the stack of “feminine products” under my feet.
“We can’t let the girls play us, man,” he whispered with a quick glance in the rearview mirror. “We’re going to have to be smarter than that. I know they’re looking to us to lead—at least Lizzie is.”
I doubted any of them wanted us to lead. Girls liked being in charge. Feminism and all that. “We should take a vote. Make sure that’s what they want.”
“Maybe. But first, this is the last big town before Durango. What should we do?”
“We need another vehicle. A truck. Maybe a Ford Ranger or a Toyota Tacoma—something with good gas mileage.”
“How can you tell which trucks get good mileage?”
“I wrote a paper on it for auto tech.”
“We also need supplies and food and water. Lots of water. I had almost everything in the back of the truck. The tents, the tools, the gas can… This sucks.”
“It’s fine! We get to go shopping. And everything is free. It’s going to be awesome!”
“Aren’t there a few dealerships on Route 66?” I asked. “We could take our pick. Then we’ll need to get some stuff together again. Get a syphon hose to get some gas.”
Zaq nodded in slow motion. “I like. Let’s go get us some new wheels!”
We found Jim Robert’s Used Cars two blocks past San Francisco Street, where we’d found the destroyed Downtown Diner when we’d passed through yesterday. The dealership reminded me of an Altoids box, flat and low with red trim around the top and solid gold windows in the front—the kind that looked like mirrors. You could see out of them but you couldn’t see in. The building sat in the center of a scummy slab of old pavement filled with shiny cars and trucks with colorful writing on every windshield that said things like, “Low Miles!” “Loaded!” “Big Savings!” “Gas Saver!” or “Drive Today!” Zaq pulled into the lot and drove around to the back of the building.
I turned in my seat and addressed everyone. “Listen up. Wait in the van. I’m going to go find us a new truck. Keep the doors locked and your voices down, okay?”
“Yes, Mr. McShane,” Jaylee said.
I ignored them and grabbed my father’s rifle. “If anyone comes around, drive,” I told Zaq. “Head for Reinhold’s place, and we’ll meet you there.” I got out of the van and called over my shoulder. “Logan, you’re with me.”
“Thank you!” Jaylee called.
Logan and I walked around to the front of the dealership. I scanned the lot, looking for the best truck. There was a 2008 Ford Ranger, royal blue with two fat white racing stripes running down the hood and over the cab like the stripes on a skunk. “That’s pretty sweet,” I told Logan.
“Check out that convertible, Eli,” Logan said.
“No convertibles, man. We need a truck.”
There was one Toyota Tacoma, silver, but it had been converted to have big wheels, so that would mess with the gas mileage. There was a shiny black Nissan Frontier that I would happily make my own if I wasn’t looking for better camouflage color. Black wasn’t bad, but green or brown would be better.
I felt better, having a mission. I still tried not to think about my stolen truck and all our stuff. We passed by a yellow Dodge Dakota and a white Dodge Ram. “No and no,” I said. “Too much gas.” I also ix-nayed a Subaru Baja and a Chevy Surburban.
“Ohhhh,” I moaned when I saw the 2010 Suzuki Equator that had been painted in flat army green paint. “That’s my girl right there.” Plus it had a hard folding bed cover on the back that would keep people from knowing what we had.
“Why that one?” Logan asked.
“So we can park in the trees and no one will see us.”
“What about when it snows?”
“It’s July, Logan. We’ll worry about snow later, okay?”
“I like the Tacoma better,” Logan said. “What if we have to drive up a rocky hill?”
“Why would we? And if we did, the Suzuki would make it. No on the big wheels. The black Nissan is my second choice. Let’s go find us some keys.”
We crossed the lot to the front of the dealership. The mirrored windows along the front of the building also had colorful window marker writing on them, the way old supermarkets used to advertise. Several of the windows had been busted up, making it hard to read what some of them had said. The front glass doors had been broken too, but the window to the left was still intact. Neon orange and green writing proclaimed, “Guaranteed Financing Available.”
“My kind of financing,” I said, carefully wedging myself through the jagged hole in one of the doors.
Logan followed, creeping along beside me like some kind of cartoon ninja. I ignored him lest I receive a lecture on what he was doing and why.
The keys would likely be kept in some sort of safe or lock box in an office of some kind. We passed by a cluster of cubicles, peeked into a few offices, and headed for the big office at the end of the hall. The door was halfway opened, but the name Jim Robert on the nameplate seemed like a good sign.
Then I heard a noise. I held up my hand and stopped, then trained my gun on the open door. A shadow moved inside.
Oh, come on! Couldn’t we catch a break? I was just about to urge Logan into one of the smaller offices to hide until the mystery person made their exit when the door swung in and a someone came running out.
END OF CHAPTER
Who is running toward them?