Korech stood directly in front of me, and he took a small step back so I could get by. I nodded and slid past him. Lazlo said he’d go with me, following directly on my heels, and I half-expected Korech to stop him, but he didn’t.
In the front room, Nevaeh straightened the pillows and couches, and Blue helped her move the furniture. He smiled at us but didn’t come with.
As soon I stepped outside, feeling the warm breeze, I took a deep breath.
“Ripley! Kitty kitty!” I shouted, stepping off the porch into the sunlight. Lazlo stayed right with me, glancing back at the house. “Ripley!”
“We should just get in the SUV and go,” Lazlo whispered. He leaned in close to me, his dark eyes intense and worried. “Do you have the keys?”
“Of course I do.” I had taken them with me and locked the SUV behind me. I didn’t trust Korech, so I made sure to keep the keys on me.
“Let’s just go.”
“We’re not leaving Blue and Harlow here,” I brushed him off and looked around for Ripley. I saw a tiger a few meters away, eating what I hoped was a zombie arm, but that was all. “What happened that has so you freaked?”
“I don’t know.” Lazlo kicked at the ground. “You know the other ‘boys’ who live here? There are only three of them, and they’re twelve, nine, and five.” He looked at me, waiting for it to sink in. “Korech is the only adult male here.”
“I get it,” I said in a hushed tone and stepped further from the house. “But Harlow likes it here.”
“Then leave her here,” Lazlo said without missing a beat.
“No,” I scoffed.
“She is safe,” he pointed out. “They want her. They love her. And as much as this place creeps me out, it’s the safest place I’ve been to since this whole zombie thing happened. She’s not gonna get killed or infected here. She might even be happy.”
“Being indoctrinated into a cult?” I shook my head, and pushed away any of the points he made.
“Maybe it’s not a cult,” Lazlo shrugged, but I don’t think he even believed that. “It doesn’t matter. The world is a different now, Remy. Food, electricity, water, safety, those things might all be worth staying here for.”
“If you really believe that, then why are you telling me to leave?” I asked. “If it’s worth it to stay, then why shouldn’t I?”
He met my gaze but didn’t answer right away.
“You wouldn’t survive,” he said finally. “Even if you weren’t trying to find your little brother. Korech can’t break you.”
“Let me talk to Harlow. I can’t leave here without her.” I squinted up at the bright sunlight. “Until then, stop acting like such a spaz. He’s not gonna kill you right in front of everyone.”
“How do you know?”
“I won’t let him,” I promised, and that actually seemed to calm him down. “We better go back inside before the worship thing starts. I’ll look for Ripley later.”
“So you really just found that lion on the side of the road?” Lazlo asked as we walked back to the ranch.
“Yeah. Why? Did you just think that I had a pet lion?”
“Kinda,” he shrugged.
“You’re an idiot,” I sighed.
The worship wasn’t quite as disturbing as I had expected it to be. They sang a few songs, and it all sounded like basic evangelical music. The sermon, however, got a bit weird.
Korech read from the Bible, but he related all the passages about the second coming of Christ to himself. While he didn’t exactly say it, he clearly insinuated that he was the Messiah.
I sat on the couch next to Lazlo, since he refused to leave my side, and Harlow and Lia sat on the floor in front of us on pillows. I tried to see how Harlow took all of this, and she seemed to be going along with whatever everybody else did.
Blue sat on the other side of the room, and the only person who would sit by him was that Vega girl. She and Blue kept similar expressions throughout the worship – as neutral and blank as possible. Whatever was happening here, she stopped buying it.
Lia kept looking back at Lazlo. She tried to be inconspicuous, but Korech caught on. He called her into the middle of the circle and preached about temptation and casting the demons out. He laid a hand on her forehead and talked in tongues.
At that point, she sobbed and all the other girls chanted.
Lazlo took my hand and squeezed it. I couldn’t remember the last time I held hands with anyone, and I tried to concentrate on that instead of the scared, sick feeling growing in my belly.
After it was over, Korech took Lia back to his room for “private prayer,” and while that didn’t sit well with me, I didn’t know what I could do about it. I tried to sneak in a moment alone with Harlow, but Nevaeh followed her around like a hawk.
With Korech out of sight, Lazlo distracted Nevaeh by “accidentally” lighting a kitchen curtain on fire. It wasn’t a serious blaze, so I only had a few minutes with Harlow. I got her outside by convincing her to go with me to look through our clothes in the SUV.
“Nevaeh is going to show me how to make a dress today,” Harlow told me as I hurried out to the car. I kept glancing back over my shoulder as if someone would come drag me off.
“And you have to try the bread I made,” Harlow said as I unlocked the back of the vehicle. I had to look like I was doing what I said I would do, in case somebody came out.
“Don’t you wanna get out of here?” I asked.
“Why would I wanna do that?” She unzipped one of her bags and sifted through it, oblivious to my ulterior motives. “They have everything I need here.”
“Maybe. But doesn’t it seem weird here to you?”
“No weirder than most places I’ve been lately,” Harlow shrugged. She pulled out her panties, most of which consisted of lace and satin.
“They won’t let you wear panties like that.” I tried to appeal to her keen sense of fashion and her rebellious nature since logic seemed to be failing.
“Yeah, they will,” Harlow sneered at me. “Didn’t you see the underwear they had there? Nevaeh said that our body is our temple, so we need to cover it and protect it. But our bodies are beautiful, so under the humble clothing we need to dress it up.”
“Wait. What?” I gaped at how cavalier and unfazed Harlow sounded. “They’re encouraging you to wear sexy lingerie? That doesn’t seem weird to you?”