I stopped on the street corner and held up my hand. “Hey there. We’re friendly. No need to worry.”
The boy didn’t speak, he just watched me. Another girl, blond, pale, and exceedingly beautiful, took a step out from behind him, her eyes fluttering between her people and me and Walter.
Walter walked up beside me and stopped.
“Are they from Shallot?” I asked.
“Uh,” I began. “You guys okay?”
Another girl stepped out. This one was shorter, with long, auburn hair. Her brown eyes looked right through me. “We can’t get the pumps at the gas station to work.”
“You’re out of gas?” I asked.
The kids looked at each other. They were either really smart and didn’t want me stealing their ride, or they were too scared to speak. I didn’t think for a second the latter was the case for the redhead. I doubted she’d ever hesitated to speak what was on her mind in her life.
Walter’s screen door slammed and I turned to see Zoe standing next to Joy. She clearly wanted to leave the safety of the porch to be closer to me, but Joy kept a gentle hand on Zoe’s shoulder. I couldn’t hear what she’d said, but it seemed to calm my daughter.
I turned back to the kids. “You guys just passing through, then?”
“Yes, but like I said, we need gas. The pumps at the gas station aren’t working,” Red said. “Do either of you know anything about it?”
I took mental notes of everyone in their group. The tallest one had a nice face. The second tallest looked like he’d had some military training. I could tell by the tall kid’s shoes and his hands that he was a rich kid, but his eyes said he was a good kid. The other boy looked like a jock, possibly a frat boy. He watched the soldier and the redhead a lot. The soldier was the one to watch for sure, although the other two could definitely do some damage. Even with all the muscle and manpower, it was the redhead that seemed to be the boss. Oddly, she seemed to be the most trusting out of the five.
I looked to Walter. “I need to fill up myself.” I looked to the group. “I’m traveling with my daughter, Zoe,” I said, gesturing to the porch. “We’re leaving soon. I’m looking for a place out of the way. Some place safe.”
One of the boys smiled at Zoe and waved. I stared him down, and he immediately righted his posture. “I have a little sister about her age,” he explained.
“This is pretty out of the way. Where are you all headed?” I asked.
They all looked at each other again. They had a destination in mind. It must have been good if they were protecting it.
“We can help ya with the gas,” Walter said, “in exchange for helping Nathan and Zoe to a safer place. You have my word that he’s a good man. I don’t really want them to leave, to be honest, but he’s right. They need to be farther away from those things.”
They all watched us, especially Red and the soldier.
“We’ll think about it,” she said, turning and leading the rest away.
They left us, walking two by two except for the soldier, who brought up the rear. The redhead was with the second tallest, and the blonde was with the jock. I wondered where the soldier fit, and then when I saw them all crowd a Volkswagen Bug, I really wondered where he fit.
Walter and I returned to the porch to join Joy and Zoe. I sat on a rocking chair, and Zoe sat on my lap, watching the kids talk around their vehicle.
“They seem nice,” she said simply.
“I think so. I don’t really know them.”
“I suppose so.”
“We’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“No, kids aren’t supposed to talk to strangers.”
Zoe turned to me, her brows pulled in. “But what if the strangers are kids?”
I kissed her cheek and pulled her against my chest, rocking her and ignoring that her heels were digging into my shins. Her hair was starting to smell less like shampoo and more like sweaty skin. I imagined I didn’t smell so great, either.
“Joy?” I said.
“May we use your facilities? I’d like to make a good impression on this doctor.”
Joy chuckled. “I doubt he’s dressed for church, either, if you know what I mean.”
Joy shook her head and made a face. “Lord have mercy, I am so rude. Of course, Nathan. There is a shower in the bathroom in the hall. I’ll get you some towels.”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
The blonde sat on the bottom step of Walter’s porch, disinterested, and the rest of them stood before us. Having so many eyes on us was a bit intimidating, even if they were just kids. I looked down at a stain on my Oxford shirt. Now that Zoe and I were freshly showered, our clothes smelled horrible, and felt heavy with dirt and sweat. Joy had offered to wash them, but I was afraid they wouldn’t be dry in time and the kids would be antsy to get going and leave us behind.
The redhead spoke first. “I’m Miranda Hayes. That’s my sister, Ashley,” she said, nodding to the blonde on the steps. “Our father is Dr. Hayes. He lives about nine miles north, up the road, there, and then back west. It’s perfect for you and Zoe. If you help us fill up our tank, and a few gas cans, you can follow us. I can’t promise you that my dad will let you stay, though.”
“No deal,” I said, my eyes narrowing.
“He’ll probably let you,” Ashley said, finally looking up at us. “He won’t turn away your little girl.”
“But we don’t know how many people he’s helped already. I expect he will, but I can’t promise. Understand?”
“What about the guys with you? How will you get him to let them stay?”
“We have an open invitation,” the jock said. “Well, except him.”
He was talking about the soldier. They must have picked him up along the way. I decided that if they had done that, they must think the father is open to more guests. “I’ll take my chances.”
“It’s getting late,” Walter said. “Meet us at the station in the morning. You got a watch?”
The soldier nodded.
“Home sweet home,” Ashley said. She was holding an empty gas can, looking up at the two-story building just four blocks from the general store.