“I’m Blue.” Blue shook his hand.
“Remy.” I took his hand, and it was warm and gripped too tightly.
He reached past me to shake Lazlo’s hand, and Lazlo hesitated for a moment before taking it. Harlow introduced herself, announcing her first and last name, and Korech smiled at her a fraction of second longer than I felt comfortable with.
Ripley roared, and I glanced back at the SUV. She moved up to the driver’s seat and peered out at us.
“I see you have one too.” Korech kept smiling. His teeth were perfect and white, and his sweater was fitted, so I could see his muscles underneath. “I thought we’d gotten the last of them.”
“What?” I cocked my head at him. “Where did you get your tigers from?”
“Probably the same place as you.” Korech’s smile faltered. “All the animal shows they did in Vegas, like the magic acts. That’s where the big cats came from. I like having them because of how much they hate the zombies. They sense evil.”
“Yeah, they’re good at that,” I shifted uneasily.
“Why don’t you come inside?” Korech stepped back and gestured to the ranch. “I’m sure the rest of the family is eager to meet you.”
“What should I do with her?” I pointed back at Ripley.
“Just let her out,” Korech waved his hand vaguely. “She probably grew up with these tigers anyway.”
As Korech walked up to the house, Harlow scurried to keep with him. Blue walked by her side, but Lazlo stayed back with me.
They didn’t leave me any time to wrestle with my indecision about releasing Ripley. I opened the back door, and she jumped out. Ripley sniffed around the sand a bit. I could only watch her for a moment, and then Lazlo and I followed Korech into his house.
“Oh wow,” Harlow whispered as she stepped inside. Nothing was particularly stunning about the ranch, so it must’ve been the electricity that had her so excited.
The front room was filled with couches, the worn variety found at the Salvation Army for $20. They sat in a circle, facing the center of the room. A small table was in the middle with a black, worn bible on top of it.
Cushions and pillows were scattered about the hardwood floor, as if people had been sitting on them. A large iron cross hung on the far wall, but other than that, the room was empty.
Korech led us into the next room, the kitchen. It was a large with a big wood burning stove, and two refrigerators. A woman stood by the sink. She appeared to be only a few years older than me, and so thin, she was on the point of being frail. Her blond hair was nearly white and had been pulled back in a ponytail.
The sleeves of her dress were short with puffy shoulders, and a matronly white lace trim embellished the waist. The hem fell just below her knee, and while it fit, it had a bag-like quality.
“This is Nevaeh,” Korech introduced her, and she beamed at us. She clapped her hands together in front of her chest, reminding me of a young child on Christmas morning. “She is as close to a saint as a woman can be.”
His use of the word woman versus person made me bristle, but I forced a smile at her.
“Oh I am so glad to see other people who are still alive!” Nevaeh squealed, and then to contain herself, she took a deep breath before continuing. “We have been praying for the Lord to let us help those who can be helped, and He brought you to us.”
“Thank you,” Blue laughed to mask his unease.
“Nevaeh, they’ve just arrived,” Korech said, not unkindly. “And it’s very late. Why don’t we see if they need anything?”
“Oh my, where are my manners?” Nevaeh gestured to the kitchen. “Do you need anything to eat or drink? We have food and electricity and running water and beds.”
“You have running water?” Harlow gaped at her.
“Yes, we are very blessed,” Nevaeh smiled.
“I would love to take a shower,” Harlow said.
That really did sound amazing. An actual shower. Even at the quarantine, I had been forced to wash myself out of sinks in the girls’ bathrooms.
“What about the rest of you?” Nevaeh asked, looking over the rest of us.
“A shower is all we really need right now,” Blue said, and even he was excited about the prospect. Showers were pretty magical things.
“Let’s show them around and introduce them to the rest of the family, then they can get settled in for the night.” Korech looked back at us to see if we agreed, but there was nothing we could really do except nod.
The next room was a dining room with a very long table that could easily seat twenty or thirty people. Korech gestured vaguely to two bedrooms, referring to one as his, and saying nothing about the second.
He opened the door to the bathroom, and I almost salivated at the sight of the shower and working toilet, but then he moved us along to show us the downstairs.
The basement instantly freaked me out. It was obviously fairly new, with clean slate bricks lining the wall and a simple cement floor. While it was very large for a basement, it had only two rooms.
The first was a “bedroom” containing twenty single mattresses that were little more than cots. In the corner, there was a sewing machine. That explained the bag-like quality of Nevaeh’s dress; they made their own clothes.
What disturbed me were the fifteen or so girls who inhabited the basement. They heard us coming, so they all sat awake in their beds, wearing matching white nightgowns. Most of them had long hair tied back in braids, and they were all thin and pale.
They ranged in age from four to around twenty-four. Nevaeh was the oldest female here, and most of the girls looked between fifteen to twenty. From the bump on the belly of a girl in the back, I guessed she was pregnant.
Nevaeh introduced us to all the girls, but I barely heard their names. Nausea rushed over me, and I wanted to leave. Harlow met the situation without any concern, but this was how we had lived in the quarantine. All the young girls had been kept together, separate from the boys.
But somehow, this felt different.
The girls sat on their beds, staring at us as we stood by the steps leading upstairs, but strangely, none of them seemed to recognize Lazlo. He was incredibly famous, especially for people in their age group, but they showed no recognition.
The other room in the basement was the bathroom, and it was more like a shower room from prison movies. Two toilets and four shower heads in one giant room with a drain in the middle. Privacy clearly wasn’t an issue here.
After seeing the showers, Harlow tuned everything out. She stared at them longingly.