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For the sixth time, Hannah stumbled into Wes. Lack of water was making it hard to focus on anything, including walking.
"Easy." Wes caught her. Hannah felt him shaking with the effort. Looking up at him, Hannah realized how pale he was. With his dark hair, he looked even paler. They were in trouble.
"We're not gonna find anything out here, Hannah," Wes said. "We should get back to the others. We can try hopping a train and going somewhere else--"
"Skyler won't go." Hannah shook her head. "You know he won't. If he stays, I stay. You can go if you want."
"Believe it or not, I'm not leaving either of you to do something stupid." Wes rolled his eyes. "We might have to sneak into the city, Hannah. You know that, right?"
"I know..." Hannah nodded. "But we'll worry about that if we can't find anything. How many stores do we still need to check?"
"Two," Aggie said, consulting their map. "They're both about the same distance from us, but one of them is closer to the city."
Hannah looked up at the sky. They had already been out overnight, and it was getting close to the afternoon. They would have to hurry.
"Let's try the one closer to the city," Hannah said. "Maybe the homeless or anybody else out don't want to risk sneaking so close."
"And we do?" Wes grumbled as they staggered to the store.
"Yes," Hannah panted. "Because we have people waiting for us. Counting on us."
Wes grunted, but said nothing more. They traipsed through the old, abandoned streets, keeping an eye out for anyone who might be lurking in the shadows. So far, they had only seen a few small clusters of the poor or homeless. No one tried to stop them. Everyone was struggling, and fighting wouldn't help anybody. It wasn't worth the risk.
The store ended up being a small Wal-Mart. It took all three to force open the once-automatic sliding doors, and they all had to rest for a few minutes.
Hannah coughed, her mouth and throat so dry it hurt. They stumbled inside and started searching. The place was pretty much stripped clean of anything. A few toys, books, DVDs, video games, and other random items were all that had been left. All food was gone, any liquids (even alcohol) were gone, and nearly all clothing had been taken.
"We might be able to get to that other store," Wes rasped when he met up with Hannah after searching for several minutes. "There's nothing here--"
"Guys!" Aggie shrieked. Hannah whipped around as Aggie came running, holding a very full jug of clean, pure water. "There's lots more! More than we could ever carry!"
The three took turns drinking from the jug, wetting their dry throats. Hannah sat down and let herself cry, joy mingling with relief. They were going to be okay. Everyone was going to be okay.
"Let's grab whatever we can carry," Wes said. "Hannah, find some rope or something we can use to string jugs on. Aggie, see if you can find a wagon."
"Why is there so much water here?" Hannah asked, letting Aggie pull her to her feet after a brief hug. "I mean, so much water... and no one's claimed it?"
"Like you said." Wes shrugged. "Maybe no one's risked coming over here because it's so close to the city."
"Maybe." Hannah looked around. "Let's get started. The others are waiting for us."
It didn't take long to collect water. They found a tiny wagon to haul water, and they each took as many jugs as they could carry in their hands and backpacks. After another brief sweep of the store for any other useful items, Hannah and the others headed back to the garage.
"Hannah!" Wes called from the back. Hannah turned, walking backwards, as Wes came up to her and handed her the wagon handle. "Take that for me for a bit, yeah? I thought I saw something down that way."
"You're not going alone, idiot." Hannah frowned.
"I'll be fine," Wes replied. "Just a quick glance. It's probably my imagination or something. Lack of water. You keep going and I'll catch up."
Before Hannah could protest Wes trotted back down the street and turned left. Frowning, she turned and continued walking, dragging the wagon behind her. Their trip back was as silent as it had been when they first left the garage. It made Hannah tense and jumpy and wish she had a weapon. A gun, preferably. A loaded gun, even better.
"Hannah," Aggie said after an hour of walking. "Where is Wes?"
Hannah stopped dead and turned quickly, berating herself for not keeping track. Wes was nowhere in sight. Biting back a curse, Hannah called Wes's name. She whistled. Aggie called. Wes didn't reply.
"This isn't goo--"
"I know, Aggie," Hannah snapped. "Come on, we'll backtrack. He might've gotten in trouble with the locals."
Hannah tugged on the wagon to turn it around. She still felt weak from the lack of water, but the drink in the store had helped a lot.
The gunshot ricocheted off of an old Ford pickup. Hannah squealed and ducked behind a huge chunk of fallen wall from a nearby building. Aggie dove for cover behind the pickup.
"Aggie?" Hannah called.
"I'm alright!" Aggie called. "What the hey was that?!"
"Listen up!" A new voice, male, shouted from down the road. Hannah tried to peer around her wall, but another gunshot made her jerk back down. "We have your friend. Now he says you got people who need water. So you go and give them what they need, and bring the water back to the store you stole it from."
"Stole?" Hannah called back. "It was just sitting there! If it was yours you needed a sign saying so. Let our friend go!"
"We get our water back, and you can have him back," the stranger called. "If you don't return the water by tomorrow night, you won't be seeing your friend again."
"You little--" Hannah started to her feet.
"Hannah!" Aggie said sharply. Hannah looked at her, distress and anger welling inside her. "Hannah, just chill for a minute. We can't risk them hurting Wes."
"We can't leave him there!"
"We can't let the others die of thirst either," Aggie said calmly. "These people are letting us take them some water. We'll get the water back to the others, and bring it back when we're done, alright?"
Hannah scowled, but she nodded. She peered around the debris again, but no one was there. Aggie crept out from behind the truck and to the wagon.
"No holes," she announced. Hannah joined her, still looking around cautiously.
"Who d'you think these people are?" She asked as they trudged back to the garage. "They have a gun."
"I don't know," Hannah huffed as she pulled the wagon. "But they'll be sorry they picked a fight with us."
They arrived back at the garage late afternoon. Hannah struggled to hurry inside with their treasured water. It was too quiet in the garage, and it made her panic.
"Skyler?" Hannah called. "Skip? Ethan? Jonah?"
Hannah hauled the wagon into their main living space. It was dim inside, but Hannah's eyes darted around, locating her friends and brother. All were lying down, barely alert.
"Hurry," Hannah's voice trembled as she scrambled for cups. She and Aggie began rousing the others to drink.
Hannah knelt down by Skyler after she had given Skipper a drink and left her with a second cupful. He was leaning against the wall by his bed, and his eyes fluttered open when she shook him gently.
"Hey." Hannah smiled. "We found water." She held the cup to his lips. Skyler leaned forward, eager to drink. Hannah bit back tears as she tilted the cup for him.
"Slowly, little brother," she warned. "Easy, there's plenty more. Slowly, Skyler, slowly!"
Skyler slowed down, drinking quietly. Hannah smiled. "There we go. Just take it slow..."
"The others," Skyler rasped.
"Shh," Hannah soothed. "They have water too. We found a lot of it in an old Wal-Mart. There was plenty left even after we took some."
Skyler watched her, listening. He was too weak to even try thinking about moving there, like she had suspected he would. Hannah couldn't help a tear. She had almost lost him again.
"Something's wrong," Skyler said. "What happened?"
Hannah sighed and glanced at Aggie. "We ran into... people," Hannah said carefully, giving Skyler another drink. "They say the water's theirs. They have Wes."
Skyler stared at her. Hannah hurried on. "If we don't get the water back to that store, they'll.... They're gonna kill him."
"And you brought it here?" Skyler looked shocked.
"You guys needed it," Hannah defended. "They said we could bring it back here, but we have to get it back to them by tomorrow night."
Skyler nodded. "Then let's get going!"
"Skyler, you're not well enough to go anywhere!" Hannah protested. She gently pushed him back down. "Lie still, dork. We'll figure out something."
"They have Wes, Hannah!"
"I know they do." Hannah frowned. "I heard them. But right now my job is to keep you people from dying, so shut up and drink."