“That’s a really pretty necklace,” Shiloh nodded to the gold cross around Harlow’s neck.
I wondered if that’s why they thought she would fit here. Or if it was just because she looked so eager and hopeful. Or maybe it was because she really was beautiful, and that was all Korech was looking for.
“Thanks.” Harlow touched her cross. “My mother gave it to me.”
“Your mother brought you to us,” Ruth said confidently.
I groaned inwardly. If they started convincing her that this was her destiny and what her beloved dead parents wanted, there would be no way I’d convince her to leave.
“You really think so?” Harlow asked.
“We know,” Ruth nodded.
“Korech is a prophet for God, and God has a plan for everybody,” Shiloh agreed solemnly. “Korech is helping lead us back to Him and keeping us safe.”
I must’ve groaned audibly that time because they all looked at me.
“What about you?” Lia asked. “What brought you here?”
“My little brother is missing, and I have to find him,” I said.
Nobody said anything for a minute, probably thinking what I’d be thinking if I were anybody else. There are no “missing” people anymore. Once they’re gone, they’re dead or zombies.
“God will watch out for him,” Vega said from the far corner of the room. Everyone turned to look at her, surprised she spoke.
Nevaeh opened the door to the stairs, informed us all we could talk in the morning, and turned out the lights. She never did come back downstairs, and I assumed that she shared a bed with Korech. I wondered if she was his wife, or if she was just a mistress. Or if they were all mistresses.
Shiloh and Ruth went back to their beds, and I curled up deeper under the sheets. I needed a shower and a good’s night rest. These people had only been kind to me so far, so I decided to just go with it.
In the morning, I would try to talk Harlow into leaving. But then again, if I didn’t, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. I’m not sure what Korech’s deal was yet, but he had managed to keep all these people alive, and that was far more than anyone else. That had to count for something.
– 8 –
Harlow was up before I was, but then again, everyone was up before I was. Lia waited in the basement for me, saying that they thought I needed my rest after my travels, while all the other girls had gone upstairs for breakfast.
Lia encouraged me to wear their clothes, but I slipped back into my jeans and t-shirt. It felt safer somehow.
When I went upstairs, I found Harlow in the kitchen, mixing something in a bowl. She wore one of their ill-fitting garments, a pale yellow dress, and her hair had been pulled back in an intricate braid, matching several of the other girls’ styles.
Harlow laughed and smiled brightly at me with flour on her nose, and I realized sourly that she thrived in this environment.
Really, I should’ve known. She had done wonderfully in the quarantine. Harlow had been the girl that everyone liked. I kept to myself a lot, and that’s that probably what drew me to Vega. In the kitchen, several girls ran about to cook or do things, but Vega was nowhere in sight.
Nevaeh forced me to eat some kind of weird tasting toast. I was about to ask where the boys were when Lazlo rushed in from the dining room. His skin had gone pale, and his wide smile managed to look relieved and terrified. Like me, he stuck with his street clothes, and he had a hand shoved in his back pocket.
“Did you sleep okay?” Lazlo asked and ran a hand through his hair. His eyes darted around the room, trying to keep sight of all the girls flitting about, and he stepped closer to me.
“Yeah. Slept great,” I gulped down the toast without really chewing. It tasted sour and flat, and I didn’t even want to know how they made it. “How about you?”
“Yeah,” Lazlo said, staring intensely at Nevaeh as she left the room.
Lia had been wiping a counter with a rag, but when Nevaeh left, she moved a bit closer to us. She stopped, twirling the rag in her hands, and smiled sheepishly.
“Did you get enough breakfast?” Lia asked him.
Lazlo was too preoccupied to read how she looked at him, all doe-eyed and dreamy. I don’t think she recognized him, but he was an attractive young guy, and she was a very sheltered young girl. He took her gazing offensively, though, and moved closer to me.
“Yeah.” Lazlo nodded, refusing to even look at her.
“Good morning!” Korech boomed and appeared in the kitchen doorway.
Lia blushed and lowered her eyes. Korech walked over to us, and Lia mumbled an excuse and hurried away.
“Morning,” I said, still trying to swallow the awful toast.
Lazlo moved so he was almost behind me. He bowed his head, looking as if he wanted to disappear into the cupboards.
Korech glanced at him diffidently before settling his gaze on me, and I forced a thin smile at him.
“I trust you slept well,” Korech said, putting a strong hand on my arm.
To onlookers, it probably appeared to be a comforting, warm gesture, but I only felt him trying to show his strength and dominance over me.
“I was just telling Lazlo that I slept fantastic,” I smiled as wide as I could and leaned back against the counter, pulling my arm away from him. He was much stronger and bigger than me, but that didn’t mean I would let him dominate me.
“That’s excellent news.” Korech crossed him arms over his chest. “We’re going to be having our morning worship shortly, and we would love it if you joined us.”
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” I nodded. I wasn’t ready to rock the boat quite yet, not without talking to Harlow, and I didn’t even know where Blue was at. “I should just check on Ripley, the lion, first.”
“I’m sure she’s doing alright. Shiloh fed all the cats this morning when she went hunting,” Korech said. I must’ve looked confused, because he continued, “The women hunt every day, usually killing small game like rabbits or coyotes for us to eat. They also find the occasional zombie or other food not meant for human consumption, and they bring that back to feed the tigers.”
Other food made me swallow hard, because I’m sure that meant bodies of the uninfected human variety.
“I’d still like to check on her,” I insisted with a plastic smile.
“As you wish.” Korech made no attempt to hide the displeasure in his voice.
The kitchen had several girls in it, but as the tension thickened, the room fell silent. Harlow watched me as she helped make more of the sour bread, but I couldn’t read her expression.