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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

96 Miles

J. L. Esplin




DAD ALWAYS SAID if things get desperate, it’s okay to drink the water in the toilet bowl. I never thought it would come to that. I thought I’d sooner die than let one drop of toilet water touch my lips. Yet here I am, kneeling before a porcelain throne, holding a tin mug for scooping in one hand and my half-gallon canteen in the other.

Don’t worry, I’m going to boil it first.

Behind me, my brother, Stewart, is making gagging noises. “I’m gonna throw up,” he says, which is something Stew says all the time, but does he ever actually throw up? No. He doesn’t do most of the things he says he’s going to do lately, like run away, or kill himself, or kill me.

“C’mon, John,” he says, the whine in his voice setting my teeth on edge, “do we really need this?”

I stop mid-scoop and stare up at him, holding back the pink padded toilet seat with my elbow. “No, we don’t need it, Stew. I just thought, ‘Oh, look—water from a toilet. That sounds refreshing, let’s drink it.’”

His sullen, dark eyes narrow at me, and I thrust the canteen into his hands. He kneels down to help me, but adds in a mumble, “We have two canteens of water already.”

And that’s a perfect example of how my brother thinks. Two canteens of water, and we have a three-day walk down an empty stretch of desert highway before we reach Brighton Ranch, our last chance for help. I’m no math genius, but before this ugly pink toilet came along, I figure we were short in the water department.

It isn’t Stew’s math skills I’m questioning, though. If we’d found a pantry full of Aquafina in this abandoned shack of a home, Stew would have been the first one to start filling his pack. He knows how desperately we need water. What I’m questioning is his willingness to do anything hard—or in this case, anything revolting—in order to save himself.

Yet we were raised by the same dad, who preached self-reliance on pretty much a daily basis.

I wouldn’t have predicted this about Stewart. He’s younger than me by two years, but he’s always had a lot more determination when it comes to stuff like this. My dad calls it “a strong metal fortitude.”

I couldn’t say what my strengths are. I guess I’m good at yard maintenance and, according to my school counselor, using sarcasm to avoid conflict—and now that I think about it, I’m not exactly sure she meant that as a compliment. But my point is, in the face of a real natural disaster, or a terrorist attack, or a zombie apocalypse, or whatever the heck happened twenty-one days ago that caused all the power to go out, I would have predicted that Stewart would be the one talking me into doing hard things. Not the other way around.

Anyway, it’s not like I want to drink toilet water, boiled or not, but what choice do we have? What’s the alternative? It’s not like we’re at a restaurant and the waiter is asking Would you like the bottled water, or the toilet water from the creepy abandoned bathroom?

My mug scrapes the bottom of the porcelain bowl as I scoop the last of the water, and before I can stop myself, I give the bare toilet a quick inspection. It looks clean for the most part. Other than the faint, rust-colored ring where the water level once was. The water itself doesn’t look bad either. Still, it’s the stuff we can’t see that we have to worry about.

Stew is doing a bad job of holding the canteen over the bowl—that’s no surprise. He’s got this disgusted look on his face and he’s checking out the dirty corners of the small bathroom. I already told him not to look too closely. The place kind of creeps me out, with its cracked vinyl floor and sun-bleached lace curtains. Like something frozen in time. Like something out of an old horror movie.

Not to mention it’s hotter than Hades, and the air is as still as death in here.

“Move closer,” I say impatiently, motioning for Stew to bring the canteen over the bowl. He does it with a shaky hand, so I end up spilling toilet water on his fingers. His fault.

“Ah! Gross!” he says, jerking the canteen back. He switches hands and then wipes his wet one down the side of my pant leg before I can stop him.

“Real mature,” I say.

Real mature,” he mimics.

We’ve been together too long.

Before I realize what he means to do next, Stew is on his feet, upending the canteen, dumping all that water I just collected back into the toilet.

“Stop!” I yell, jumping up and making a grab for the now-empty canteen. “What are you doing?

“We don’t need this,” he insists, hiding the canteen behind his back like he’s ten years old or something—he’s eleven, which may not seem that much older than ten, but I swear, under normal circumstances, he’s the oldest eleven-year-old I know. “We could end up finding one of those hot springs along the way,” he says. “You never know.”

“Or we could find a chocolate factory with a chocolate river inside!” I say. Stew looks like he wants to hit me. “What? Am I not allowed to come up with any what-if scenarios?”

He does this heavy-sigh thing that he’s been doing a lot lately. “I think we should stop at the reservoir for water,” he says. “It’s only a short detour.”

The “short detour” he’s talking about is sixteen miles out of the way. I don’t know if he’s thinking about this in terms of walking, but I’ve already made up my mind that we aren’t stopping at the reservoir. With the supplies we have (and I’m including the toilet water), we’d be lucky to last three days out there in the desert. So we’ve got three days to get to Brighton Ranch. We can’t afford to add sixteen more miles to our already insanely long walk.

“We’ll decide about the detour when we get to the turnoff, all right?” I say.

He nods reluctantly, but I can tell he sees right through me.

“For now, we have to take as much water with us as we can.” I hold out my hand for him to give me the canteen. He sighs again … without handing it over.

I should be the one sighing, not him.

“Do you want us to survive or not?” I say, throwing my hands up in frustration. But one look at Stew’s face, and I regret I asked.

“What is the point of surviving?” he shouts at the low ceiling.

His question freaks me out. It really freaks me out. Because I’m not sure there is a point to all of this anymore. But I’m not going to tell him that. Instead I say, “I told you I would get you across this desert, all right? All you have to do is trust me.”

“You mean all I have to do is lie to myself. All I have to do is pretend like I’m not already a goner.”

My chest tightens with familiar dread. “Don’t say stuff like that. That was part of our deal, remember? I’m going to get you across this desert, and you’re not going to say stuff like that.”

He stares right at me, and he’s thinking about pushing me a little further—I can tell by the tic of his jaw. But then he just says, “Fine, I trust you.”

I don’t believe him. He doesn’t trust me at all. I mean if he did, he wouldn’t be acting like this, right? He wouldn’t be calling himself a goner. But I decide to drop it, pretend I believe him.

It’s like that annoying dry spot at the back of my throat that won’t go away. If I pretend it isn’t there, then it doesn’t bother me so much. But if I let myself think about it, even for a second, then I become obsessed with working my tongue against the roof of my mouth, trying to gather up enough saliva to quench it. But you can’t cure a thirst this powerful with spit, and all I end up with is a tongue that aches, a sore mouth, and the spit never seems to hit that dry spot anyway.

So yeah, sometimes you’re better off ignoring things you can’t do anything about anyway.

“Listen,” I finally say, “I’m going to give you my clean water.” I go to the pack I left leaning against the chipped bathtub and unhook my one full canteen. I walk it over to him, but he won’t take it. He just stares at me with hard eyes and a clenched jaw. I squat down next to his pack and find his empty canteen opposite his full one, and switch it out for my full one. “Your pack’s evened out now.” Without looking at him, I add, “I don’t mind the toilet water.”

Positioning myself in front of the bowl again, I unscrew the plastic cap on Stew’s canteen, grab my mug, and start filling.

“Stop it, John,” Stew says in a quiet voice.

“Stop what?” I say, focusing on the narrow opening of the canteen, ignoring the obvious drop in Stewart’s mood. Anger I can deal with, but not this.

“Stop acting like I’m some helpless baby and it’s your job to save me.”

I open my mouth, ready to disagree with him, but nothing comes out. I’ve never thought of Stewart as helpless before. But lately, that’s exactly how he’s been acting. So I guess I’ve been acting like it’s my job to save him. Isn’t it, though?

Before I can come up with a response that will snap him out of this mood, I hear a noise outside. Stew hears it too. I can tell by the look on his face, the way his whole body tenses up.

If this were just your average, everyday massive power outage that we were dealing with, the sound of footsteps on gravel outside wouldn’t exactly send up alarm bells. But two days ago, everything was taken from us. I mean, everything that Stew and I needed to survive this blackout. Including a decade’s worth of dry and canned goods that my dad had been hoarding away, and all six of his fifty-five-gallon water tanks.

If my dad had been around, he would’ve taken a bullet for those water tanks.

Maybe Stew is remembering our water tanks, because he’s suddenly eager to protect what we found first—the toilet water. He crouches down next to me and picks up the empty canteen he tossed aside moments ago and motions for me to hurry and finish with the one I’m working on. Like it’s all of a sudden Evian.

I got everything I could out of the bowl, so I set down my mug and quickly close the canteen, handing it off to Stew. Then I shut the toilet seat and quietly lift the lid off the back tank. As I’m doing that, I check out the window, craning my neck both ways, but the early morning sun is glaring off the dirty glass and I can’t see who’s out there. I hear them, though. It’s a shack of a home, an abandoned double-wide trailer in a patch of trees about a mile from our property line. The walls are like papier-mâché, the whole house like a giant piñata waiting to be crushed.

I can hear muffled voices speaking to each other now, and footsteps treading through the gravel around to the side where the entry is. I hear the rusty spring of the screen door opening, then the high-pitched squeak of metal hinges.

Stew’s beside me with the mug and the empty canteen, and he motions for me to get out of the way so he can take over. I nod and move silently to my pack, wiping away the sudden trickle of sweat at my brow. I unzip a side pocket and pull out my long hunting knife. Adrenaline has kicked in, and I feel blood rushing just below the surface of my skin. Still, my hand is visibly shaking.

I grip the knife and position myself in front of the open bathroom door, ready to strike, ready to take down whoever comes around that corner … I think. But then I hear something that causes me to make a split-second decision.

Standing up straight, I reach behind my back and hide my knife, slipping it blade-down into the waist of my jeans so I appear unarmed. And just as I do, a kid wanders into view.

He looks younger than Stew, scrawny, dirty, with messy blond hair, and he’s looking around the connecting bedroom, inspecting a few of the dusty knickknacks and figurines sitting on the nightstand and dresser. He thinks he’s alone. Well, except for whoever’s banging around in the kitchen, opening and shutting cabinets and drawers. He doesn’t notice me or Stew, and we’re not even more than five feet away.

A girl’s voice calls out, “Will?”

The kid turns, and that’s when he sees us. He sort of jerks to a stop, his small chest inflates like he’s about to scream, but then he completely freezes up. I hold out my hands to show him I’m harmless, but the girl is suddenly there, wrapping an arm around him from behind and pulling him back protectively. She’s got what looks like a steak knife in her hand, pointing it at me. She stares at me with wide blue eyes.

She’s kind of pretty.

Her dirty blond hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail at the base of her neck, she’s covered in road dust, and she looks slightly crazy, with red-rimmed eyes like she hasn’t slept in days. But even with everything that’s going on, I can’t stop the stupid thought from going through my head that she’s pretty.

And then this weird moment passes between us. It couldn’t have lasted longer than three or four seconds, but I lock eyes with her. And when we hit that half second where it would have been awkward not to look away, we just keep looking.

I swear I’m not usually this overdramatic.

As soon as our eyes unlock, her vision seems to expand to take in the whole scene before her, and her expression turns to one of horror.

“What are you doing?” she asks, like she just caught us drowning puppies.

I look over my shoulder at Stew and see him hovering over the toilet tank, water still dripping from the canteen. He’s got this guilty look on his face that isn’t helping, and I turn to the girl again, wanting to tell her that we’re going to boil it first—

“That is disgusting!” she says, adjusting the grip on her steak knife and pulling the kid closer against her chest. “You are disgusting!”

Okay, on second thought? She’s not that pretty.

“Get out of our house!” she yells. “Now!”

Stew makes a scoffing sound behind me, because clearly, nobody has stepped foot in this place in a long time.

“This is your house?” I say as if I don’t know the truth. “Not to be rude, but maybe you should hire a maid.” I nod at the wall just left of her, where a really big cobweb hangs in the space between a cracked mirror and the low ceiling. It almost looks like a prop from the same horror movie that was filmed in the bathroom, it’s that scary.

She doesn’t look, and she’s still pointing that knife at me. Not that I’m worried she’s actually going to stab me—it’s just harder to break the ice when someone’s pointing a steak knife at you.

I force a smile and say, “We’re your neighbors to the west, then. It’s nice to finally meet.” And she looks at me like she’s trying to figure me out. I hear Stew wrapping things up behind me. I add, “I hope you don’t mind that we’re borrowing the water from your toilet—”

“We’re taking it because we know you don’t live here, and we found the water first,” Stew says, not politely.

“We do live here,” the little kid fires back with more nerve than I expect from him, “and that’s where we pee, you sicko!”

The girl grabs him by the upper arm, because he’s pulled free of her grip, and leans down to whisper something to him without taking her eyes off us.

Stew pushes past me. He’s got his pack on, and he doesn’t bat an eye at the steak knife, would have walked right into it if she hadn’t backed up. “Don’t worry, we’re leaving now. So you can have your house back,” he says. He heads out of the small bedroom, the floor shuddering with every step.

I turn to get my pack off the bathroom floor. Stew has already hooked on my canteens, and even though one is slightly fuller than the other, it feels like he’s shifted some stuff inside my pack to even the weight. I take the knife from my waist and put it back in the side pocket, then lift the pack onto my shoulders. I fiddle with the straps and adjust the sides, but really I’m just stalling.

The girl and the kid are sitting on the edge of the sagging double bed now, watching me. The mattress is so old and worn out that they are sunk pretty low. She still has that knife in her hand, but she’s resting it on the bed beside her, as if she’s run out of the strength needed to hold it up.

We know pretty much everyone who lives within a hundred-mile radius of us, and since the girl looks about my age, I’d definitely know if she lived in the area. I wonder where they came from and how they ended up way out here. I can tell they’ve been on the move for a while. They’re both dyed in desert dirt from the shins down.

I notice for the first time that the girl has a gray backpack slung over her shoulder, and it’s kind of deflated. They’re probably relieved to have found this shelter. Probably eager for Stew and me to get out of here so they can crash on that old bed. I know I have to say something to her. At the very least, warn her that there is nothing here for them.

I walk over to stand in front of her, gripping the shoulder straps of my pack, jittery and wound up. “You’re not planning to stay here, are you?”

Her chin tilts up, and she just sort of squints at me like it’s none of my business.

“Because you can’t. It’s a shelter, but that’s it. It won’t do you any good if you don’t have food and water.” Unless you’re looking for a tomb. She doesn’t volunteer the information, so I ask, “Do you have food and water?”

I already know the answer. They are half dehydrated, half starved. And I’m suddenly very aware of what little food I have left in my pack, the two canteens hanging from the sides.…

The girl is still squinting at me like she’s trying to keep something deep inside her from coming out, and the boy’s face is starting to crumble, like he’s on the verge of bawling his eyes out.

Stew calls from the other room in an almost bored voice, “Let’s go!”

Every instinct in my body is telling me to walk away now. Just leave. Don’t ask any more questions. I can’t help them, so what’s the point? But something compels me to turn my head and call back to Stew, “Just trying to be neighborly.” I look back at the girl and press my mouth into a smile, and though she’s still squinting up at me with that same expression on her face, her eyes start to well up a little.

I check out that cobweb on the ceiling for a minute.

Finally, she says in a quiet voice, “We’re just resting for a while. Then we’ll move on. We have somewhere to go.”

I want to feel relieved. Really, I do. I wait for the relief to wash over me, but nothing happens. So I say, “Where? I mean, maybe I can point you in the right direction.”

She hesitates, and then says, “Jim Lockwood’s house? My grandparents know him and said he would take us in. For a while.”

I force myself to nod, but otherwise hold back my reaction to her answer. “Who are your grandparents?” I hear myself ask. Though it doesn’t even matter.

She starts to answer, then tears up for real this time, so I walk out of the bedroom and leave them alone.

I swear it’s ten degrees hotter in the room where Stew is waiting for me. Sunlight filters right through those pathetic window curtains, catching bits of dust suspended in the air. Stew’s sitting on the armrest of a faded old couch, his feet flat on the ground, his forehead dotted with perspiration. He’s taken off his pack, and he’s giving me this look because he overheard everything the girl just told me.

Holding up my hand, I separate my dry lips with my tongue and say, “I’ll hear you out, but then you have to listen to me.”

He says in a not-so-quiet voice, “You gonna leave them here to die?”

Warmth flushes through my chest, and I glance over my shoulder before moving to stand closer to him. “Thanks, Stew,” I say, lowering my voice. “That’s really fair.”

“I’m just wondering,” he says with a shrug, as if he’s not trying to push my buttons.

I go through a mental checklist of our food—it’s a short list, so it doesn’t take long—and we definitely don’t have enough to keep four people alive for three days. I mean, maybe if we were staying in one place, we’d be okay. But walking through a desert in the middle of summer? We’ll burn through a crazy amount of energy. There’s small game out there, wild jackrabbit. But we don’t have time to trap them.

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m even thinking about food when the real problem is water. Or lack of it.

I drag my palm across my mouth, wiping fresh beads of sweat from my upper lip. “I’m not leaving them anywhere, all right? I already warned them not to stay here.”

“Yeah, I heard.” Stew looks up at me with dark eyes that match mine. “They’re going to Jim Lockwood’s.”

I don’t break his stare. It’s just our eyes that match. Any similarity between my brother and me pretty much ends there. “I probably don’t need to remind you,” I say carefully, “but we just scavenged water from a freaking toilet.”

He doesn’t say anything, because, let’s face it, he really doesn’t care.

I feel old anger rising to the surface. I’m the one responsible for getting us across this desert, not him. Stew knows it. And it’s not just because I’m the oldest. The minute I put up the fight to leave home, insisted that it’s totally possible to walk three days across a desert with barely any food and barely any water, we both understood that the responsibility to actually get us to Brighton Ranch alive was mine. And things are already going badly for me.

I’m telling you, it’s like Stew’s hoping I’ll fail, hoping we don’t make it, just so he can prove that he was right all along.

I finally say, “I want to help them. You know I do. But we are in no position to help anyone. I have to get us”—I motion between us—“to Brighton Ranch. Not them. I can’t … do … both.” I emphasize each word so he’ll get how serious I am.

Stew bites at the side of his dry lips like he’s thinking, then sort of shrugs. “Dad would do both.”

Yeah, my brother knows exactly how to push me.

“Well, Dad’s not here,” I say, forcing the words out calmly so he won’t have the satisfaction of knowing he’s getting to me.

“You gonna at least tell them?” he says.

“Tell them what?” I snap, frustrated that he’s twisting the conversation in another direction.

“You gonna tell them that Jim Lockwood is our dad?”

I hear the floor creak behind me, and shut my eyes for a second before opening them again and meeting my brother’s.

His eyebrows are pinched together like he’s really curious about this. “I mean, before they walk all the way to our place. Are you gonna tell them that our dad isn’t here and everything is gone? The food is gone, the water is gone, and if they thought they were this close to filling that empty pit in their stomachs, they’ve just hit a major setback.”

I was going to tell them. I swear I was.

“Your dad is Jim Lockwood?” says a voice from the bedroom doorway.

I turn and the girl is standing there, holding the boy’s hand so tight I can see her white knuckles from here.

Her eyes are narrowed at me, like she’s accusing me of something—lying, I guess. Even though I was going to tell them.

“Yeah, about that—” I start to say.

“Yep, he’s our dad,” Stew says, pushing away from the couch. He lifts his pack up off the floor, heaves it onto one shoulder.

“Wait,” she says, “where are you going?”

Stew raises his eyebrows at me, like he expects me to answer that question.

Before we left home, I promised myself that I would get my brother across this desert. Promised myself that I’d do whatever it takes.

But I didn’t expect something like this. I didn’t expect a choice between getting my brother to Brighton Ranch alive or helping two complete strangers.

And the worst part is that Stew is right. He’s exactly right. Dad would do both.

Copyright © 2020 by Jenny Esplin