Parched – Reading Sample

Parched is now available on Amazon: 

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01DR16USY

Pasted below is the first chapter for your reading pleasure.

 

Chapter One

The sun no longer shone canary yellow. It hadn’t done so for years. Instead, it glared down, obstinate, punishing—beet red, like the garden tomatoes that no longer existed. It stood guard over the desert-dry water taps that had likewise fallen prey to the relentless heat, even in mid-October. Livermore, California had been a town set on rolling hills, swathed in green grass and fragrant orange poppies. Now, each day played out like the one before it: sun, heat, illness, death.

On that particular day, relative calm engulfed them. Only a few trails of smoke rose up in the distance toward the west and the Oakland Hills. Usually it was worse—the smoke was more like the dense cloud of marine fog that used to roll in daily. Now, the arid air, once fresh with coastal mist and the scent of eucalyptus trees mixed with wild lavender and rosemary, smelled like burning hay. The sun’s transition from an earthly asset to man’s most vicious foe had been going on for decades, but you would never have known it. It had caught humanity ill-prepared. Those who once had awaited its daily arrival now despised its very existence.

Scientists had a word for it; scientists had a word for everything. They called it a Red Giant, a star that had exhausted the supply of hydrogen at its core and had switched to thermonuclear fusion. As a result, the Earth found itself baking, its waters evaporating, and humanity’s extinction imminent. No scientist or politician could explain why the sun had made such a drastic transformation; nor did it matter.

In the distance, the sound of a laboring sixteen-wheeler lumbering up the road startled James as he popped up from his sleep. Scanning the room, he breathed out his relief. Everybody’s okay, he thought, checking out their California king bed. For a brief moment, he recalled his dream, in which he had been frolicking with his brother along the beaches of Lake Erie, near where they had grown up. But, instead of laughing, shouting, and swimming in cool waters, he was perspiring. Sweat soaked the bed and stained his shirt and underwear. His mouth felt and dry.

What’s the truck doing here at this hour?

The clanking of the massive tires hitting the potholes brought him back to reality. Rising cautiously, he kicked into the nightstand and let out a yelp, awakening their infant, who began to cry.

“What is it?” his wife asked.

“Nothing. Just the water truck. Go back to sleep.”

His thirteen-year-old son, Silas, was now awake as well and was scanning the room with his eyes. His long blond hair was matted down against his boyish face and, despite his sleep, he still looked extremely fatigued. He was irritated not only at the unrelenting heat and his sister’s cries, but also that he woke up in the same depressing room where they almost always stayed. Sometimes he hoped his life was just a nightmare that he would someday wake up from. Looking around, he saw walls stacked with cardboard boxes, dirty clothing on the floor, and dirt-stained sheets on the bed in which he was lying. The two windows in the room were covered in a thick film of dust and sand. A loaded rifle and handgun were on a box next to the bed.

“Can someone keep her quiet?” Silas grumbled as he looked toward his crying infant sister, Charlotte. “It’s impossible to sleep around here.”

Already dressed, James grabbed his shotgun and several plastic gallon water jugs, which he had strung together with nautical rope, and sprinted down the steps, the jugs thumping with each step. He pushed aside the heavy desk and chair he had used to barricade the door and scrunched down to peek out through a two-inch crack he had opened. He saw the truck that had stopped in the middle of the road. As he struggled to focus, he smelled the burning air and saw the heat waves reflecting off the cracked and buckled asphalt. He made out several residents emerging from their deteriorating town-homes, guns and jugs in hand, walking toward the truck with its distinctive Red Cross logo. The sound of his baby crying and the rustling of his waking family echoed through the empty stairwell.

Already his body was screaming for drink as the heat immediately kicked in the dreaded feeling of thirst he so desperately tried to ignore. Once a natural resource as common as vegetation, water was now like an endangered species that was on the verge of complete extinction. Having a dry mouth had become almost as common as the blinding sun itself.

Sensing no imminent danger and knowing that a truck carrying such priceless cargo would be there for only fifteen or twenty minutes, he crept from his home and stepped out into the debilitating daylight, along with his neighbors.

“Thank God,” he said to one as the man emerged in pajama bottoms and a polo shirt. The neighbor looked at him coldly and did not respond. As the driver connected the hoses to dispense the potable water, several of the neighbors rushed the truck. Off to one side stood a guard. As chaos threatened to erupt, he pointed his gun in the air and fired several rounds. Any thoughts of a riot came to an abrupt halt as the neighbors stared at the two men at the rear of the truck.

“Listen, and listen carefully,” one of the men said. “There’ll be peace and order here or the truck’ll move on. Plain and simple. Form a single line and have your bottles ready and open. This truck is only scheduled to be here for 30 minutes, and then we move on. Any further disruptions and we leave. Understood? Also, just so you know, the FEMA tent has been relocated to Livermore Labs.” He paused and gave the crowd time to contemplate his warning. “Now, one at a time. Quickly! Form a single-file line and move off to the side.”

Howling winds peppered the tent with dust, and James pulled from his pocket a wrinkled handkerchief to cover his face. His mouth was as dry as the ground below his feet, his body craving moisture. Having been fortunate enough to fall into line near the front, he fought off a fleeting thought. Just raise and cock the gun, and start firing. Then grab the truck and drive it back to unload. All eleven thousand gallons!

He shook off the thought. Once a man of faith and a respected member of the Catholic Church, he pondered what had become of mankind. He knew if push came to shove and the safety of his family was in doubt, he wouldn’t hesitate. All of the principles he had valued so dearly for the past 40 years of his life were fruitless in a world where three gallons of water could buy you a running car. Fair or unfair, he was a man of God—or had been. Now, he was merely another vigilante tasked with the job of protecting those he loved.

The driver turned the spigot on the tank and, as the water flowed, the man in front of James filled a ten-gallon container before moving on. James brushed his forehead across his shirt sleeve. He guessed the temperature was 120 degrees F. and climbing.

When it was finally his turn before the spigot, James got to claim as much of the precious commodity as possible within 30 seconds. The gallon jugs, strung together with rope wrapped around his body, proved an innovative system. Once the jugs were filled, he slung the rope around his shoulders, secured his shotgun, and hurried back to his home. Mission complete. We’ll have at least a few more days of water.

At home, James carried the water in, soaking up the relative coolness of the foyer. When he turned on his heels to climb the stairs, he locked eyes with the stranger looking back at him in the mirror—sunken face, scraggly salt-and-pepper beard, wild long bushy hair, and his once bright blue eyes now red and dry. With his bounty in hand, he slowly climbed the steps to share his largesse with his family.

He headed up the stairs and past the bounty of stored canned and dry food that lined every square inch of the home. There were boxes of food stacked in every direction, leaving only a walking path through the cluster of stockpiled goods. The six gallons of water made his skinny frame sluggish as he climbed the steps. He was greeted by his seven-year-old Boxer, Brownie, named by his eldest son when Silas was six years old. He attempted to pat the friendly dog on the head, but the overwhelming heat and weight of the water made him destined to reach the top of the stairs.

“James, is everything okay, honey?” his wife called from the third story.

He tried not to sound too winded. “Yeah, honey. I got the water. Everything’s okay.”

Fighting off the overwhelming urge to drink, he placed the jugs near an open spot on top of several boxes of food and made his way upstairs.

“Si? Where are you, son? I need your help bringing up the jugs.”

The boy—thin, lanky, and thirteen—came in, looking annoyed. Still in puberty, the child had long blond hair like his mother, bright blue eyes like his father, and sharp, angular features. His squeaky voice fell somewhere between boy and man.

“Right now, Dad? Come on. It’s so hot!”

“And it’s going to get hotter without this water. Come on, now. Get down here.”

The boy followed his father down the stairs, and together they carted the water up to the third floor, where it would be safe. The third floor was also where they lived and, more importantly, housed their guns. James locked eyes with the wife that he so devoutly loved. Just as it had on everyone, the conditions had left their mark on her as well. Her once golden, flowing hair had become dry, bushy, and streaked with gray. Her frame was far too skinny, her torn and soiled clothing appeared to be four sizes too large, and her eyes had large dark circles around them along with wrinkles that would usually come only to the elderly. Yet, in his mind, she was still as beautiful as the day he married her.

By that time, thirst had ceased to be an issue of urgency in the family’s lives and had become, instead, more of an annoyance. Electricity had been erratic for years and had finally gone out totally soon after the water dried up. There was little to do except sleep and read from one of the books lining the shelves. Or they could sort the food, or play with Brownie or baby Charlotte. At four months, she was small for her age, weighing around ten pounds. Her future written long before her inception, the child was destined for a difficult and short life. Yet, despite knowing her fate and the likelihood of her never knowing the beautiful Earth that her family had once taken for granted, everyone treated her as if she had a rosy-bright future. No one, James had resolved, would take away their hopes and dreams.

Charlotte, despite her slight stature, was strong and healthy. Her life, confined to the three-story condominium they called home, seemed happy. She knew only what she had—a family that loved and nurtured her.

That evening, with the setting of the sun, the temperatures dropped to a more tolerable 95 degrees. But with darkness came terror. Crime by night ran rampant in the streets of the waterless world. While Lexie spent her evenings feeding Charlotte and warming their canned dinners or military MREs (Meals Ready To Eat), Silas and James prepared the house for lock-down by stringing cans around the stairs, near the windows, and by the door to alert the family of any intruder. It was the closest thing they had to a security system. Once the house was secured, James checked to be certain the guns were locked and loaded on the third floor and ready at a moment’s notice. He’d never before needed them, but he instinctively knew that, when the time came, he’d have to act fast.

Silas looked up from a dinner of canned chili warmed by two Jesus candles. “This sucks,” he said. “I’m tired of chili. Can’t we eat something else?”

Lexie looked up from feeding the baby, her long golden-blond hair falling from her brow. “You know we have to be careful with our food. We’re lucky to have what we have. Most people don’t have anything. Count your blessings.”

“Guess you’re right, Mom,” Silas sighed. Despite his complaining, any chance to eat and drink was truly a luxury. He savored every bite and the feeling of food, any food, hitting his stomach was a remarkable feeling. Even more incredible was the sensation of any beverage on his pallet. With thirst always a burden, the water Silas was drinking tasted as good as anything he had ever had.

Our blessings, James thought, as he wiped one of his pistols clean of oil. That’s a laugh. He heard sounds coming from Selby Lane, quiet, distressing sounds. The sounds of people making their way out of their homes and onto the streets in search of anything of value. Darkness so black and void of any unnatural light, the stars lit up the sky unlike anything seen prior to the blackout. The only light besides the moon and stars was the slight flicker of candles in a few select homes in the large subdivision. Those who did walk the night were most likely those one would prefer not to meet. They were likely looting the little remaining items left behind as more and more families fled their homes in search of food and dreams of lands with water. Many had left that afternoon in search of the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) tent near the Livermore Nuclear Laboratory.

Lexie turned toward her husband. “What are you thinking?”

“Hmm?”

“You look preoccupied. I was just wondering what you’re thinking.”

He shook his head. “Just the usual. Just how we’re going to make it through one more night safe and sound.”

She smiled and continued with her chores.

 

With dinner behind them and the heat beginning to lift, James started to nod. He looked around, his eyes falling on Silas, sprawled out in his boxers next to Brownie, who was having a series of doggie-mares and jumping in his sleep from time to time. Lexie had likewise fallen asleep, with Charlotte cradled in her arms. Minutes later, the entire family was snoozing by the light of a single dwindling candle and an ancient oil lamp.

Suddenly, several loud thumps, followed by the shattering of glass, awakened James.

“What was that?” Lexie whispered, her eyes still heavy.

James strained his ears. “Sounded like it came from downstairs.” He paused, thinking. “Probably nothing. Just kids throwing rocks at the windows again. I’ll go check it out. You go back to sleep.” Charlotte stirred in her mother’s arms. “I’ll try to be quiet.”

Shit, he thought, pulling on his shoes as Lexie rolled her head to one side, her chin nestled against her daughter’s hair. The clanging sound of tin cans followed by the heavy sounds of footsteps on the stairs suddenly split the night. He grabbed for his shotgun and double checked to ensure there was a shell in the chamber.

Fuck! Looters. And they’re in the goddamn house.

“Silas! Son!” James whispered. “Wake up!”

Before he could react, the door flew open as two men, camouflaged and armed, burst in. Lexie let out a scream and Silas popped up from the floor. The dog yapped several times before turning and ducking behind the sofa. The men, with bushy beards and stringy hair, had painted their faces with camouflage. James looked past them into the hallway where he spied a string of empty cans, betraying their means of access to the house.

Shit. Now what? He realized that desperate men act unpredictably desperate in times such as these. No time for indecision. Lexie was continuing to let out a bone-chilling scream.

“You!” one man growled at Lexie. “Stop yer whining and sit still.” He shifted the muzzle of his pistol toward her. “Or else!”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute,” James said, moving the muzzle of the shotgun in small circles. “Okay, nobody needs to get hurt here. Nobody needs to die.”

Lexie was doing her best to muffle her sobs, her shoulders rising and falling with each desperate breath. The man shifted his gun back to James, who stood his ground, shotgun pointed directly between them.

“This is a no-win situation, guys,” he added softly. “You don’t wanna do this. You really don’t.”

The men looked baffled, caught off guard by a family that was actually armed. James guessed that was a first. Finally, the leader waved his gun at him. “That’s right, that’s right, motherfucker! It’s a no-winner for sure. That goes for you and yer family. Now, drop the fucking gun before I shoot the shit out of yer wife and take yer baby.”

James glanced at Silas and winked, hoping the boy wasn’t too frightened to catch the signal. James had coached his son many times before that “the wink” meant serious business. The boy knew what he had to do. James turned back to his assailant. “Please. You can take all the food we have and go. Just leave me and my family alone.”

“Fat chance, asshole. What’s going to happen is that you’re going to walk down the stairs and leave. I’m the new husband now. This is my bitch and this is my house. So you got about three seconds to make up your mind. Drop the gun and go. Now!”

The man’s partner had a crazed look on his face, not knowing how to react. Obviously, the other man was winging it.

“You got to the count of three before we open fire.”

James wracked his brain for a plan.

“One…”

The man’s partner took several slip-steps to his right, making it more difficult to hit the two men with a single shot.

“Two…”

The second man stopped in front of a picture window overlooking the sleepy little hamlet James’s family called home.

Before the man reached three, a shot rang out and the man flew backward before hitting the floor. His partner whirled to face him, stunned, before James sent a second shot that caught him in the shoulder, sending him hurtling backward against the window. As the glass gave way, the man let out a blood-wrenching scream before disappearing from sight. They could hear his body hit the concrete below.

Silas lowered the gun to his side. He stood there, stunned.

“Dad…I did it just the way you said to. Did I do good?”

James crossed over to him and grabbed him around the shoulders. “Just the way I said. Just the way we practiced. You did good, son. You saved our lives.”

“Is he…” Lexie had settled Charlotte into the chair. “Is he dead? For sure?”

James crossed over to the man, still clutching his .45, and knelt down beside him. Blood trickled out from a hole in the left side of his head, staining the carpet.

“It was your choice, motherfucker,” he whispered.

James stood up, went to the window, and looked outside. In the soft, distant glow of the haze on the horizon, he saw the second man prone on the ground, shards of glass surrounding him.

“Let’s check the hallway, son. Make sure no one else is in the house.”

The boy, holding his gun high, did as he was told, slipping silently through the doorway and out into the hall. James followed.

“James!”

He turned toward his wife.

“What’s going to happen to us?” Lexie asked. “What are we going to do?”

James threw his arms around her. “It’s okay, baby. It’s all over. It looks as if that’s all for now. We’ll move them tomorrow, dump them in the field. And that will be that.”

“No, I mean, what’s going to happen to us? To our future?” She looked down at their daughter, who had once more fallen asleep against the cushion. “How can we go on living like this?”

For once, James didn’t know what to say. He forced a smile and, squeezing her arms, took several steps toward the door before turning back. “I’d better go help Si. We need to board up the window and reset the alarm system. We’ll be back soon as we can.”

 

That night, there was no sleep for anyone in the family. James did his best to console Silas who was still shell-shocked from having to shoot a man for the first time in his young life. Charlotte cried most of the night from the ruckus and Lexie rocked her and stroked her back. James held his arm around Silas as Brownie curled up next to them. Silence filled the remainder of the night.

James looked around the room. How the hell did I end up here? From an usher at St. Anthony’s, a youth minister, a prayer-group leader—to this! He shook his head and dropped his hands. They had moved to a smaller bedroom adjacent to the sitting room, dragged the corpse down the stairs and outside next to the man’s partner, and cleaned up the mess as best they could. Now, once again, Silas snoozed next to Brownie, and Lexie nestled with their daughter in her arms. It was all like a bad dream, a horrendous side trip through the bowels of hell. Sure, he felt like a hero, a protector of his family, and he felt proud of Silas. But the Bible was no longer the ruler of his life; instead, it was but a distant memory. The world had changed—and changed him.

I know one thing. I will fight to my last dying breath to protect my wife and my children, no matter what. Three of the best, strongest, most loving people in the world. Three people who deserve better than this. And I’m going to see that they get it!