Ashley walked by, on her way somewhere, and reached out for Cooper. Without looking back, he reached his hand behind him, and their fingertips grazed as she walked by. I wasn’t even sure how he knew she was coming.
“I can,” she said as she walked through the dining room to the back hallway. Her bedroom was back there somewhere, so I assumed that’s where she was headed.
“That will be so good for her. You have no idea. I can’t thank you enough.” I said the words to Cooper, even though it was for Ashley. Speaking to one was like speaking to both.
It was odd watching them interact and move about, orbiting each other, like an old couple who’d been married fifty years or more. If reincarnation was possible, these kids had to have found their way to each other again, many times over.
After an hour, Scarlet returned inside. She smiled at Zoe. “Do you have horses?” she asked.
Zoe held up a tiny horse in each hand. “Just these.”
Scarlet nodded her head, her expression absent of condescension. “Better than that bull out there, that’s for sure.”
“Butch?” Cooper said. “He’s not a bad guy. He’s just sick of being cooped up in that pen. You’ve been feeding him, haven’t you?”
“He has hay,” Scarlet said, “and water. I’m worried he’s going to attract shufflers, though.”
“Attract what?” Cooper said, chuckling.
Scarlet glanced at me, and then back at Cooper, clearly taken off guard by the question. “Shufflers. I can’t call them zombies,” she said, rolling her eyes at the word. “Zombies are from Hollywood. Zombies aren’t real. Those things need a name that’s real.”
“Yeah, but shufflers?” Cooper said, making a face.
“They shuffle!” Scarlet said, mildly defensive.
The conversation had drawn the attention of the rest of the group, and everyone else was congregating in the living room, too.
“I’ve been calling them sick, or infected,” I said.
“Those things,” Ashley said. Everyone craned their neck in her direction. She shrugged. “That’s what I call them: those things.”
Miranda crossed her arms. “I can’t call them zombies, either. I call them dead ones.”
“Biters,” Joey said.
“I like biters,” Miranda said, nodding.
“Well, I like shufflers. They shuffle,” Scarlet said.
Joey laughed once without humor. “They also bite.”
Scarlet frowned, but everyone seemed to be amused with the conversation.
“I think we should call them cows,” Zoe said, still playing with her horses. “They sound like cows.”
I laughed. “They groan.”
“Hmmm . . . ,” Zoe said, thinking very hard. “What about ted? It rhymes with dead. ‘Oh, no! There is a ted! Hide! Run, Cooper! Shoot the ted, Scarlet!’ ” She made all sorts of faces while she acted out the different scenarios in which we might yell ted. Everyone was smiling, everyone but Scarlet.
“Why me? Why do I have to shoot the ted?” Scarlet asked.
“Because you’re the best shot,” Zoe said.
“I like you,” Scarlet said, smiling only with her eyes.
“I like you, too,” Zoe replied.
Scarlet lifted her arms and let them fall to her thighs. “All right, I’m sold on ted. Anyone disagree?”
Everyone shook their heads.
“Good choice, Zoe,” Cooper said.
Zoe smiled wider than I’d seen in years, and in that moment, it was easy to believe everything was going to be okay.
Zoe had been spending a lot of time outside on the porch before and after her studies with Ashley. Scarlet may have inspired her, I couldn’t be sure. When Zoe was asked what she was doing, she would barely explain.
“Waiting,” she would say. She alternated between examining her fingers as they rested in her lap and squinting to see beyond the hill.
I’d learned not to ask what she was waiting for. She wouldn’t tell me. I worried that she was missing her mother, but if Aubrey wasn’t who or what she was waiting for, I didn’t want to upset Zoe by bringing it to her attention. I worried that being safe wasn’t enough for my daughter. Then again, she seemed happy and hadn’t had an episode in over a week, so maybe I was so used to having something to worry about with her that I was overthinking things.
“Zoe?” I said, joining her on the porch. She’d been waiting quietly for nearly half an hour, and Ashley was waiting for her at the table. “Miss Ashley has made up some multiplication flash cards for you to try.”
“I don’t really like math,” she said.
I smiled. “I don’t really like math, either, but sometimes we have to do things that aren’t fun.”
Her expression was thoughtful. “We have to do that a lot.”
“Some days more than others. Are you ready?”
Zoe shook her head. That took me off guard. Zoe had never flat-out told me no before. I wasn’t sure how to react.
She pointed at the road. I turned, seeing a man and a girl just clearing the hill. At first I was startled, but then I realized they weren’t sick.
“Is that Scarlet’s family?” Zoe asked.
“No. I mean, it doesn’t look like them.” The man was very tall and lanky, with his bald spot obvious from and vulnerable to the morning sun. His arms were abnormally long, and the closer they came, the longer they seemed to be.
“Scarlet!” I called, wanting to mentally slap myself the second I yelled her name. Just like I feared, she came running out the door, already breathing hard from hope and anticipation.
“Is it them?” she asked, just as they came running for the farmhouse.
“Oh, God, no, I’m sorry,” I said, feeling like a complete ass.
Scarlet kept her eyes on the pair, swallowing loud as they approached. Her whole body tensed and leaned in such a way that it looked like her heart was breaking on the outside of her body.
I reached out and grabbed her hand, unsure of what else to do.
“Hey,” the man said, holding the girl’s hand loosely in his. His head, lips, and nose were badly sunburned, his eyes were sunken, and his cheekbones had just begun to protrude. The girl didn’t seem as affected by the elements or hunger as he did, but she didn’t lift her eyes from the ground. Even though she was tethered to the man by the hand, she didn’t stand close to him.