“Yeah. It does,” Harlow said. “I’m not an idiot. I get that they’re probably crazy, but they’re nice, and I can shower. I can have friends and a life here. Nevaeh said that we can be a family.”
“We?” I asked.
“I know that you’ll leave to find Max, but we don’t have to.”
“Lazlo and Blue won’t stay here. Korech won’t let them,” I told her firmly.
“That’s not true,” she said but refused to look at me.
“Lazlo is scared to death of him. There’s no way he’ll stay here even if Korech doesn’t make him leave.”
“No. Lazlo is just scared because you are. He trusts you.” She kept trying to sound casual, but her voice had gotten small and tight. “Just leave Lazlo here. You don’t need him to find your brother. He’ll only slow you down.” She paused before quietly adding, “We’re all slowing you down.”
I couldn’t argue the merits of that. It would be easier for me to simply leave, letting Korech take care of them.
The only people who had been prepared for an epic disaster had been the zealots living off the grid, leaving the rest of the straggling survivors to barter with them. The cost of everything was so much different now.
I didn’t want to leave Harlow here, but it wasn’t my decision to make, especially not when Korech could offer more protection than I could.
“I won’t force anybody to leave,” I said finally.
“But I won’t force anyone to stay either,” I said.
She stopped going through her clothes and just stared down at them for a minute.
I heard the front door slam shut, and my whole body tensed. I leaned back, peering around the SUV, expecting Nevaeh and afraid of Korech. But it was only Blue, his hand shoved in the pockets of his jeans as he walked towards us.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Blue asked when he reached us.
“Nothing,” Harlow shoved her panties into the pockets of her dress. “I need to get inside before Nevaeh starts looking for me.”
She went back to the house. I wanted to stop her, but I couldn’t think of a good enough argument.
“What’s with her?” Blue watched her walk away, and I just shrugged. “I thought you guys might be making your escape or something.”
“I wish,” I sighed.
“We are leaving, right?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “I just don’t want to leave her behind.”
Ruth came out, telling us we needed to come in to help her with lunch. Reluctantly, I shut the back of the SUV and headed inside.
I ended up peeling about fifty potatoes, and Blue and Lazlo got conned into helping clean a rabbit and fox for dinner. Lazlo didn’t last very long, because he threw up, and then he got to go lie down in the living room.
We all ate lunch at the table, including the three little boys that lived here. The only one missing was Lia. When I asked about her, Korech informed me that she was fasting to get closer to God. Other than that, the meal didn’t seem that different from any other family dinner. Lots of talking over one another, even laughing.
Blue kept getting suckered into doing manual labor, like fixing a hole in the roof and the rickety backdoor. Korech tried on several occasions to get a moment alone with me, but I always made some excuse.
It helped that Lazlo followed me like a shadow. Harlow spent the whole day learning how to be domestic, and somehow enjoyed it.
After supper, I caught sight of Ripley running by, but she was very far away. The tigers kept her at bay, and I didn’t like it.
That night, I allowed myself one more shower, even though I had to take it with three other girls. I didn’t want to condemn Harlow to this life, but she wasn’t my responsibility. She wasn’t my sister.
I didn’t want to leave anyone unless I had to, but I had my brother to think about. He needed me more than she did. I couldn’t stay here much longer.
I was curled up in bed, getting a good night’s sleep while I still could. I thought I heard something, but when I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see anything in the darkness of the windowless basement.
I closed my eyes, settling back in to sleep, and then the bed started to move. My heart stopped as fear spread over me.
– 9 –
I rolled onto my back so I could punch whoever had crawled into my bed. I hoped to catch sight of them, so I could figure out where to fight back.
“Remy,” Lazlo whispered, realizing just in time that I was about to hit him. “It’s me.” I finally started making out the contours of his face.
“What are you doing?”
“We gotta go.” Lazlo looked back over his shoulder.
“Now? Right now?” I asked.
“Yeah, Blue is upstairs being a lookout, but we can’t stay. Korech told me. I’m sinful and corrupting the girls, and if I stay, he’s going to have to take action to cleanse me,” Lazlo informed me hurriedly.
“What does that even mean?”
“I didn’t want to know, but Blue asked, and all Korech’d say was that people don’t always survive a cleansing.” He shivered, his body shimmering like a mirage in the darkness.
“He basically threatened to kill you?” I struggled to keep from shouting.
The thought of Korech just talking about hurting him enraged me. I felt surprisingly protective of Lazlo.
“Yeah. Unless I leave. So… we gotta go.” He’d been leaning on the edge of my bed, but he stood up.
“Is that the truth?” Harlow asked quietly, her voice coming from the bed behind me.
“I haven’t lied to you yet, kid, and I’m not gonna start with this,” Lazlo said. “If you wanna come, you gotta do it now.”
“I’ll go with you,” Lia piped in, shocking all of us, I think.
I looked up at Lazlo, but it was too dark to see his expression. If she wanted to come with, I wouldn’t stop her.
I sat up and threw my feet over the edge of the bed, feeling around in the dark. My clothes were folded on the end of the bed, but I didn’t bother changing into them. If we had talked loud enough to wake Lia, I’m sure we had woken other girls. It was only a matter of time before they sounded the alarm.
“Harlow, get your stuff,” I commanded.
She didn’t say anything, and for one unnerving minute, I was afraid I’d have to drag her out of here against her will. Then I saw her silhouette as she sat up, and I let out relived breath as she gathered her own clothes from the end of the bed.