(Prospective YA Novel, Opening Chapter)
It’s happening. Just like Riley said.
Annalyse snaps back. Tries to breathe through her constricted chest. In. Out. In. Out. Meanwhile, she continues to ping back and forth with her sister Lana in the over-air conditioned living room, sheltering them from the outside’s lethal heat:
First things first. Check your Go Box. Got water? Food? Stove? Fuel? Okay. Check.
Now, the truck. How’s your gas? Oil? Good. You should have some in the back of the cab at all times. You know where to drain it from now, under the chassis. You gotta have oil. And power steering fluid. Cheap, no excuse. Don’t jinx yourself. Driving without power steering is a bitch. Windshield wiper fluid, well, that’s a luxury—but not a bad idea if you’re gonna be driving across the desert.
Or, then again, who knows where else.
Then, how far you going? Uphill? What’s your miles per gallon now? Need to pick up more gas? How many cans? Any places still have gas? Chances are there ain’t gonna be many. Or much gas. Have it beforehand. Things are liable to get crazy. Don’t count on restocking. Careful about trustin’ folks, especially with the heat. Makes for panic.
We gotta do what we can to make our own luck.
Having checked-chimed in, seeing if either forgot anything from that past conversation with Riley, the two of them stopped—they had their list.
“Alright, Lana,” Annalyse said, pushing her dreads out of her face. “You go grab the sleeping bags and camping stuff. I’ll check the truck. I don’t want to sleep in it if we don’t have to, but depending on what we find out there, we may have no choice. You know, for safety. That, or we’ll have to trade off and drive through the night”.
She paused. “Even if you did only just get your period,” her scattered attempt at a joke not falling quite right.
Not snarking back where she normally she might have, Lana asserted, “it’s best not to stop”. Pushing her dark brown bangs out of her face, looking up from their list—“and besides, I drive better than you, anyhow. Even if you are older, you’re basically a grandma behind the wheel”.
Then she broke into a smirk.
“Fair,” Annalyse conceded, looking at her watch. Even without it, she could tell it was past midday by the sun over the palms, by the direction the agaves cast their shadows—straight into themselves. The heat sink meant it would be higher than 100 degrees in Phoenix up through midnight. Too hot to leave the house for months. Except in an emergency.
Well, at least that’ll keep most folks inside. Probably, Annalyse mused, tugging at her shirt for some ventilation, out-back-out-back. We have most everything we need and could even maybe stop last minute without much trouble. In and out. No sightseeing.
Annalyse got up, touched Lana on the shoulder as she walked out to the truck to recheck everything they’d just gone over.
Make your own luck. Make your own luck.
Outside was parked their old silver Tacoma, “Ziggy Stardust”. They hardly used it since they didn’t haul much and it wasn’t like it sat three comfortably with its bucket seats anyhow. But it was “bulletproof,” Riley had said, and would serve them for anything—desert and beyond.
Damn, that girl thought of everything, Annalyse smiled to herself, feeling a little safer with each realization. It was as if Riley were there with them, their transfemme fairy godmother laying out stepping stones.
Everything in the car was analogue too—just like her. “Less likely to break and easy to fix,” Riley’d say. Annalyse stuffed her own bag in the cab, checked the ties and ratchet straps, making sure there was space for the last of the things Lana would bring out.
And the gas cans they’d probably need.
Satisfied with her triple check, she pulled out one of their water jugs and took a swig. Not too much. Gotta make it last. She stuffed it back in place and grabbed their map of the Southwest from the door’s side panel. Coming out a moment later, Lana said, “here’s the last of it,” her hands filled to the brim with camping gear. “How’s the rest look?”
“As good as it’s gonna get,” Annalyse responded. Or like Riley used to say, “even the Mona Lisa is falling apart”. Riley loved Chuck Palahniuk. Maybe that explained her cavalier and cynical approach to the future. I guess it’s paying off, though it seemed crazy at the time. Annalyse took some of the load from Lana’s hands, stuffing it where she could.
“Let’s go inside and check the map. Then let’s hightail it,” Annalyse said. “I don’t want to stay here too long”. Translation: I don’t want to stand in front of the house our family made. The house that already wasn’t a home, what with Riley gone.
And the home that she and Lana probably wouldn’t ever see again.
An hour or so before, Annalyse had turned the kitchen sink on and…nothing. Not even a drip of the brown, metallic, boiling stuff that usually came out initially this time of year.
Leaning in, she still didn’t hear the familiar whining sound heralding the arrival of liquid fire. No answer. No water.
She waited a little longer. Everybody knew you had wait for the water these days, plus let it run for a spell before touching it. That way the water from the pipes near the street surfaces—upon which it was rumored you could fry an egg (she’d never confirmed this)—would run through, and you didn’t end up with 2nd degree burns. Not to mention that water hadn’t been flowing predictably as of late.
Waiting. No water. No burns. No nothing.
Annalyse went to the bathroom she and Lana shared. Trying there and still nothing, she moved to the house’s remaining faucets.
No water anywhere in the house.
She looked at her phone, its weather app reading—yet again, for the nth day in a row—another low of 110. Nothing like summer in Arizona, she thought. Shielding her eyes, she went outside to try the hose, hoping for a burst of volcanic liquid for the first time in her life. Still, nothing.
It’s happening. Just like Riley said.
I have to tell my friends.
Looking down at her phone again while the heat dry-baked her clothes, she realized that the weather she’d been reading had been stored on her phone. She didn’t actually have any service.
Her gut tightened. No bars. No friends. No water.
And no Ren, either. Typical, she scoffed to herself, through with a twinge of anxiety.
Shaking herself out of it, Annalyse raced into the house, sheltered again from the furnace that is Phoenix in August. At least the electricity was still on. Their home would literally become an oven if not.
Besides, it’s illegal in Phoenix not to have A/C, true story.
Running through the house, she burst into Lana’s room.
“Hey! Don’t you ever knock?!” Lana reacted, looking up all annoyed sneer from the drawings and draft scribbles covering her bed.
“Not now, Lana!” Annalyse retorted. Since they’d gotten older, Lana was always shut up in her room alone. Growing up, they’d slept in the same bed every night until she and Annalyse started attending the same school. Then it was just too weird.
Things only seemed to go downhill from there.
They hardly read books together in the living room anymore. They used to spend hours after school, chilling out (literally), reading on the couch while Riley made them snacks. She sometimes read with them too.
Back when Riley lived with them. Back when they were a family.
Ren was their natal parent—they called him that instead of Mom as part of his gender transition. “Ren as in pa-REN-t”, they’d say to kids who didn’t understand.
Anyways, Ren didn’t read much. In that way it always felt like her and Lana and Riley’s time. Annalyse secretly missed the whole thing, but she never said so—she didn’t know if Lana missed it like she did.
She knew Ren didn’t miss it.
“What do you mean, not now?” Lana screeched having paused mid shading, shaking Annalyse out of her recall.
“I mean, don’t argue with me right now. There’s no water!”
“What do you mean there’s no water?” Lana said with a sassy disbelief. Yet, she sat up from her bed and shoved her art onto the floor with the rest of her scattered pieces of everything. The walls were no different, both betraying her inner world that she kept mostly to herself. Meanwhile, Annalyse’s room was orderly, everything with its place and meaning. Sharing a room with Lana for most of their childhood had been…eventful, on the regular, to say the least.
“I mean just what I said, dummy! There’s no water anywhere in the house! Not even outside!” Annalyse exclaimed, pointing to the door.
“Meh, I’m sure it’s no big deal. It’ll probably come back on soon. Don’t you remember that text alert that we all got on our phones while we were at school last week?”
Annalyse thought back to her phone screen. In red letters: “Do not panic. Do not leave the city. Services will be restored imminently”.
“Nothing happened, remember?” Lana affirmed, bringing Annalyse back. “Besides they’ve been rationing water all over the city. In Miguel’s neighborhood just last week even,” she said, looking back at her sketches absently. “I mean, it has to…right? It has to come back on?” Lana said after a pause, her voice betraying less confidence this time as she looked back up at Annalyse.
“Maybe. But there was something off about that alert,” Annalyse said. “Like they were trying not to make it seem like some kind of red alert”. Annalyse had a sixth sense for these things. Like she could feel misrepresented intentions, could smell half-truths.
“Maybe it is nothing, but we can’t count on that,” Annalyse said. “Haven’t you been hearing around, like at school and all over Insta and stuff, that Phoenix and Colorado haven’t reached their water agreement yet this year? Usually they’re done with that by the end of Spring. At the latest!”
“Nah, I don’t really pay much attention to that stuff. That’s been going on forever. Besides, it’s someone else’s job to take care of that,” Lana said, distractedly picking some graphite up and looking around for something else in her floor of mountains.
Ugh, so frustrating, thought Annalyse, rolling her eyes. She never takes anything seriously. I always have to be the one to worry about and take care of things. I swear too that she wouldn’t know anything if she wasn’t interested in Miguel.
Wordlessly, Annalyse turned away from Lana and went and sat on her own bed, mind spinning like the ceiling fan above her. As usual, she struggled to keep her cool no matter what. Looking up above her headboard, she focused on the spot where a world map had been tacked up until about a year ago, replaced by vision boards. She’d looked at that map for years, daydreaming off it enough to burn a hole straight through—having been born and raised in Arizona all of her life.
The map thus being emblazoned on her psyche, she pictured Phoenix—check, easy enough. She could see the huge 10-laned octopus tendrils of highway branching out—the 10 West to California, East to Tucson and cutting due across the Northern Sonoran desert all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The 17 went North up to Flagstaff, hugging the Grand Canyon, on its way to Salt Lake City and beyond.
She only knew this because she’d planned her 18th birthday escape route (several times) and she had just gotten her learner’s permit. Not that it mattered, practically speaking. Riley’d taught them both to drive years back. Stick shift, no less. But legal freedom of mobility was within her grasp. Make your own luck.
Or maybe legal freedoms weren’t going to matter much soon.
In any case, she was certainly ready to get out of this house. And this city. Life seems to have a funny way of bringing us what think we want, she mused through her anxiety.
What was ironic is that she’d often told Riley she’d never want to leave Arizona, that it was the best place ever. That was until she realized that she’d been told that her whole childhood. Not because she necessarily actually believed it. Before her excommunication so to speak, Riley had proposed moving Annalyse and the rest of the family to Northern New Mexico.
“So they can learn the skills they’re going to need in their lifetime,” Riley had told Ren. “They’re not going to need a college degree. They’re going to need to know how to find water, how to hunt, how to make shelter. It’s all gonna collapse at some point, you know”.
This was before Ren had lost his gourd. Then Riley wasn’t in their life anymore. Like, overnight. It wasn’t the first time that’d happened. Annalyse realized that now.
Before that day, Annalyse remembered overhearing the two of them talking in the front seat of the car after Ren would come back from appointments at the local V.A. She’d heard words from the front like, “diagnosis,” “depression,” “BPD”. At the time she had no idea what any of that meant.
But years later, well, now she did. And then everything made sense.
Nope, that goes in the box for tomorrow, Annalyse thought to herself. She had a knack for etch-a-sketching what she didn’t need at certain times. Part of making your own luck.
Annalyse continued to trace the highway lines in her mind. She remembered sitting on the bed with Riley doing the same. Riley had suggested a game.
“Think of it as a strategy game, like, predicting what you and everyone else would do,” she’d said to Annalyse. “We both know that you do that 24/7 anyway,” Riley winked, reminding Annalyse without shame that she knew the intimacies of her mind. Riley had really seen her like no one else ever had. She observed and predicted Annalyse’s strategies—like the ways she watched and tested people, even her friends. The way she played it safe and looked like she didn’t care; but all the while she waited for one of her friends to mess up. To betray her.
It was the first time in Annalyse’s life that someone had always been a step ahead of her. Annalyse was surprised. She was used the being the smartest person in the room. Especially in her own house. That had both disturbed her and ironically, helped her, to trust Riley more.
“I don’t know why I do that,” she’d confided, once when Riley pointed it out in her silver-tongued way. But somehow she knew that Riley spoke it aloud, named it, because she cared.
“Sweetie, you’ve been through a lot in your life. A ton before I met you and Lana,” she’d said. “It’s just part of how you learned to take care of yourself. But, if you keep at it, you’ll be incredibly lonely. People don’t like to be manipulated, and eventually they figure it out”.
After a pause, she added, “and even if they don’t, you won’t have real intimacy anyway. You’ll be alone, even with others”.
“I may be ahead of you now, but that won’t always be the case,” Riley had conceded with a smile. “But for now, I am, so I hope I can teach you something,” she’d said with a fond concern.
Ren on the other hand, didn’t understand Annalyse on these deeper levels. Ren tried, but just…never could get there. Annalyse had learned early on that he just couldn’t be relied upon despite his intentions. The love was there but the follow through was always lacking.
Birthday candles without a lighter, that sort of thing.
In either case, here she and Lana were, at the moment of truth—without either of them.
Feeling the beginning of a tear, Annalyse shook herself out of it and looked back to the map. Okay, there’s no water. Which in Phoenix means there’s no life. Even the indigenous people here were called the “sinagua,” by the Spanish. Translation? “No water”. They left or they died. Same with us, we leave or we die. So what do we do? she thought, recalling the memory of Riley’s game again.
“Okay, Annalyse. What would you do if there was no water all of a sudden?” Riley had asked playfully, yet with—what at the time seemed like—an oddly penetrative gaze. Sneaky bugger, Annalyse thought. How had she seen the writing on the wall?
“Well, we could wait ’til it came back on,” Annalyse had said.
“Sure…and what if it doesn’t?” Riley responded, eyebrows raised.
“Well, we’d have to leave”.
“Okay, yeah, that’s a good idea. But remember, there’s also 6 million other people that probably have the same idea,” Riley riposted with a slight grin.
“Hmm, yeah,” Annalyse said with a sulky frown.
“Let’s skip the logistics of that part for just a sec. Let’s say our car is ready to go, and we get out. Which way do we go? What’s our plan?”
“Well, if we go West, there’s desert. If we go South or East, there’s more desert. And our water comes from the Colorado River so…I’d say we’d want to head North,” Annalyse concluded.
“That’s a great idea, good thinkin’,” Riley said. “But let’s say we get there…Colorado, or Utah, which is actually more dead North for us…there’s a lot of people there who don’t want—and haven’t for a long time—to share their water with us. Or with California or anyone else for that matter,” Riley said.
“They might not take too kindly to us rollin’ up, perhaps leading a train of folks, what with all of that bad blood and history,” Riley said, turning her attention back to the map.
“Yeah…” Annalyse trailed off, then sat up sparked by inspiration. “We’d have to have something they want! Something to give, or trade. Or some kind of skill or offering that would get them to trust us, let us in. Be a part of or let us through!”
“Interesting thought, sweets. But what do we have? What could we give?”
“I don’t know yet,” Annalyse conceded.
“Well, me neither, kiddo,” Riley admitted, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “But given the way the world is going, if we’re gonna stay in Phoenix, it’s best we start thinking about these things,” she said, as she got up and walked out of Annalyse’s room.
Okay. So we can’t stay here. At least if we get a quick start, we’ll be ahead of the shmucks waiting faithfully for the water to miraculously come back on, she thought to herself. Checking her phone and still having no service, it was becoming clear that there was no way they’d be able to get ahold of Ren before they’d have to make a move.
What would Ren want us to do?
That’s, like, a beyond complicated question, Annalyse begrudgingly joked to herself. We don’t have time to wait or wonder, her Aquarian attributes kicking in. That’s what Riley had called them. If we wait, we’ll miss our chance. Ren is an adult, he’ll find us. Or at least get out.
At least, I think he would.
Annalyse sat in silence for a second, taking that possibility in. The possibility that, if they left without Ren, well…
She and Lana would be on their own. And they might not find Ren.
Shit. She hated profanity, but it’s all that seemed to make sense. If we stay for Ren, we may lose our chance. If we leave without Ren…I don’t know. I don’t think Lana would understand. She’ll have a hard time leaving Miguel too.
Hand on one hip, the other propping her up as she leaned her forehead against the wall, Annalyse breathed deeply. A flash of clarity, of electricity in her chest pushed words out of her mouth though no one was around to hear them.
“We have to go. We have no choice,” she uttered to herself.
Several tears rolled down her bronze cheeks, a few dotting her dreads. Then, with a deep breath, she stood up straight, wiped her tears, and looked around. Annalyse still wasn’t particularly comfortable with other people seeing her cry. Only when things were really bothering her did her walls finally come down in the presence of others.
“Okay,” she said aloud—to herself, and to the coming endeavor. She walked back down the hallway to Lana’s room. Opening the door again, this time with more groundedness, she said, “Lana”.
“Huh? What now?” Lana responded with uninformed annoyance.
With more authority and without hesitation, Annalyse said, “I need you to pack up some clothes, your best portable art stuff, and your favorite stuffy. Whatever you need, but only what you can fit into a backpack”.
“What? Why?” Lana said with a scrunched forehead.
“We have to go. We can’t stay here. There’s no guarantee that the water is going to come back on and if we wait…we’ll miss our window to get out because 6 million other people are going to be trying the same thing. The time to go is now, while folks are in shock or stuck in hope,” Annalyse explained.
“But what about Ren?!” Lana exclaimed. “And Miguel?!”
“Ren can take care of himself. Miguel has family. I don’t know where Ren is, and my cell doesn’t have service. Does yours?”
Lana looked down at her phone. “No, no service. But it’s pretty much fully charged”.
“Okay. Turn yours off to save the battery. We might need it later. I’ll keep mine on in case Ren or our friends call, but we have to move like they’re not going to. We can meet up with Ren and the others later, once we get out of the Valley ahead of everyone else’s panic,” Annalyse said firmly.
Seeing the concern on Lana’s face, she added, “and if the water comes back on, if it’s a false alarm, we can just come back”.
“But,” Annalyse asserted, “we can’t take the chance that it’s not”.
“I don’t know. It just…doesn’t seem right,” Lana started to protest. “And what about Miguel? And our other friends?”
“Look, I know!” Annalyse cut her off. “I know this is hard. But this might be the only chance we have and if we stick around trying to help everyone else who we can’t even get ahold of…,” Annalyse trailed off. “Well, then we might not get out. And if we don’t get out, well…there won’t be much left of us for folks to be friends with,” she said with a barely disguised anguish. Again, Annalyse pushed it all down and composed herself.
“Lana. I need you to get your stuff together. I’m going to go check some things”. Annalyse about-faced and started down the hall and then stopped, turning around abruptly.
Walking back up to Lana, she said, “Look, I’m sorry I cut you off. And I know this is hard. It’s just that, I think this is really serious and we have to get going”.
“No, I get it. But don’t do it again,” Lana said, her face going stone cold neutral in a way that only a triple Scorpio can. After a minute or so of silence they both laughed, neither able to hold a straight face any longer.
Walking into the garage, Annalyse was ironically thankful for all the periodic water shortages, rationing, and rolling brown outs—they already had emergency water and other provisions ready. Riley had taught them to have a “storm box,” having lived in New Orleans, though storms weren’t their worry so much in Phoenix. Unless you counted dust storms and flash floods during monsoon season. Ren had helped too, having been in the military when she and Lana were young kids. Ren could surprise them occasionally.
Because Ren was technically their only legal parent, he had all the power after he cut Riley out. Afterwards, Ren had let the rumor of Riley’s move slip while on the phone with a friend. He wasn’t very good at keeping secrets. But still, there was no way after the fallout to try and contact Riley—Ren monitored their email accounts and at the time neither of the girls had cell phones. Riley apparently had moved to Northern New Mexico, as originally intended.
“9,000 feet up, plenty of water from the snow melt. Desert and mountains all the way around. Not many would be able to make the trek there in a crisis, what with inevitable gas shortages and the like. We could live close to land and not have to worry about the inevitable chaos that will ensue, at some point, in your girls’ lives,” Riley had said when proposing the move.
We have to find Riley, Annalyse thought. Riley, in her parenting, had thought years, decades ahead for her and Lana. If anyone knew what to do next, it was Riley. She could be in New Mexico.
Or she could be anywhere.
They had no certainty. Just memory and a hunch. But some idea, some direction, was better than nothing at this point.
Back inside the house after the truck check, Annalyse and Lana laid the map out on the floor. Annalyse saw the freeways that she’d traced in the her mind earlier. Those are gonna be packed, she predicted. Looking over the roads out of Phoenix and in the direction of New Mexico, she paused.
“The 87!,” she exclaimed.
“Huh?!” Lana said.
“Don’t you remember?” Annalyse said, tracing the road on the map.
They’d taken the 87 once, back into Phoenix, after Riley and Ren had picked her and Lana up from the airport in Albuquerque—when they’d come home one summer from visiting their dad. Annalyse remembered already feeling the tension in the car when Ren and Riley picked them up. Something had happened while she and Lana were gone.
The fracture wasn’t far behind.
Coming back to the city, the 87 dropped through the Tonto National Forest into the Valley of the Sun. It was an almost immediate transition from forest to the emblematic sahuaro cacti that told them they were close to home. It’d be different this time, the fat sahuaros and their many prickly limbs raised in farewell.
She traced the map further. They’d have to climb about eight thousand feet and pass through Apache, Navajo, and Zuni territories to get as far North as they’d need to see if Riley was still there.
If Riley is anywhere in New Mexico, it’ll be near the place where they’d all first met. At the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There’s not many people up there. If she’s there, we’ll find her quick, reasoned Annalyse.
“New Mexico, Lana. Riley might still be in New Mexico”.
“You think? After years?” Lana’s voice impregnated with a combination of hope and skepticism.
New Mexico was composed primarily of Native Americans, New Mexicans (or “Spanish” people as they liked to call themselves), and some white folks. Being mixed race, Annalyse hoped she and Lana could pass over the bad blood and distrust that existed between the three communities. Distrust that certainly would only be made worse by more scarcity of resources.
But it’s not like they had a choice.
“Okay, we’ve got a plan,” she said aloud. We’ve got something, I guess, she conceded inside herself. Looking up at Lana, “you ready?” she said.
“I think so. But I can’t stop thinking about Ren. What’ll Ren do? What if we’re leaving him and he needs our help?” Lana lamented quietly, looking down.
“I know. But what can we do? We’ll keep checking our phones and try to be in contact. I think taking care of ourselves is what Ren would want,” Annalyse said, trying to convince both of them.
“We can leave a note. And besides Lana, Ren was in the military. He’s spent time in the desert under rougher circumstances,” Annalyse said with a smile.
“I guess you’re right,” Lana smirked back.
Nudging Lana affectionately, Annalyse stood up, map in hand. “C’mon, let’s go”.
Truck packed with survival essentials, Annalyse crawled into the drivers seat. She looked down at the manual shifting stick, numbers and letters nearly rubbed off completely by time and use.
“Lana, let’s go!”
“I’m coming!” She retorted. “I just had to get one last thing”.
It’s always one last thing, Annalyse thought to herself. Well, whatever brings her a sense of security. We can’t afford a meltdown right now.
Annalyse started up the truck, the underused V6 rumbling as if saying hello after a long break. She let it run, put the AC on lightly so as not to tax it.
“We’re gonna have to be a little hot in order to conserve things,” she said as Lana climbed in. “Not like we’re not used to it though, right? I guess that’s one benefit of being an Arizona native,” she smirked. Lana smirked back.
“If anyone has a sense of what to do next, it’s Riley. We have to find her. Or at least try. But first we need to chance one stop,” Annalyse said.
“Adventure awaits,” Lana added sarcastically.
“Let’s pray it’s not too adventurous,” Annalyse said, shifting into reverse and they drove off into the city, not knowing what they’d find.