“I’m Kevin. This is my daughter, Elleny,” he said, breathing hard through his smiling lips.
“Hi, Elleny,” Scarlet said, her smooth mom voice automatic and natural.
When Elleny didn’t acknowledge her, Kevin shrugged. “She’s been through a lot.”
Scarlet tilted her head. “How old are you, Elleny?”
“She’s fourteen,” Kevin said. “Is this your place?”
Scarlet looked at Kevin, and then at me. He was a little weird, but Scarlet and I both knew we wouldn’t turn away a child. “Pretty much. There’s water and food inside,” she said, gesturing toward the door. “But you’ll have to leave your weapon outside.” Scarlet looked down to the fire poker in his right hand.
Kevin wasted no time, laying down the poker and pulling Elleny along with him.
Scarlet showed them around the kitchen while I got Zoe situated at the table with Ashley.
“Who is that?” Ashley whispered.
“Survivors,” I said. “A father and daughter.”
Ashley made a face. I knew what she was thinking. Kevin looked like a skeleton, and Elleny was nearly plump, the baby fat still bulging her cheeks just enough to make her look younger than fourteen. Her green eyes and chestnut hair were opposite Kevin’s ice-blue eyes. Her round features stood out from his boney face and pointy nose.
“Zoe doesn’t look like me, either.”
“Yes she does,” Ashley said, smiling down at my daughter, who smiled back.
Ashley and Zoe worked on her times tables and read for about half an hour, and then they worked on an old puzzle of Ashley’s, putting together all fifty of the United States. Once they were finished, Zoe returned to the porch again.
“So what do you think?” I said to Scarlet. She was cleaning out the refrigerator, throwing away uneaten food.
“This is a goddamn waste, that’s what I think.”
“I told him they could sleep in the doctor’s bed until we get things figured out. He didn’t say if they’re staying or going on. I figured you and Zoe could sleep downstairs for now. I didn’t really want them down there with all the weapons and supplies. Oh, unless you think that will bother Zoe?”
“No, no. I’ll explain it to her. She’ll have plenty of time to prepare.” I looked into the living room and saw Elleny sitting alone on the couch. I walked toward the porch to start the process of preparing Zoe for the move, and saw Kevin sitting next to my daughter, side by side, on the top step. He had his arm planted on the porch, a bit behind her.
“Zoe,” I said, opening the door quickly. “I need you inside for a minute. We need to talk.”
Kevin immediately pulled away his hand, but his expression was calm and relaxed. “You got a cute little girl there.”
I nodded, holding the door open for Zoe to pass, and then brought her to Ashley’s door and knocked. Ashley opened it and allowed us inside, even though I could tell she was surprised.
“Zoe,” I said, kneeling in front of her. “First, we don’t know Kevin, yet, so until I say otherwise, what is he?”
“A stranger,” she said confidently.
“And what is the rule about strangers?”
“We don’t talk to them.”
I nodded. “Good girl.”
“I told Kevin the rule, but he said he was a nice man, and he had met you, so he wasn’t a stranger.”
This made my stomach turn, although I reasoned that Kevin had a daughter of his own, so maybe he just knew how to talk to children. “Meeting someone and knowing them are different. Until I say it’s okay, I don’t want you to be alone with Kevin. Deal?”
“Deal,” Zoe said.
Ashley and Cooper were standing next to us in a silent exchange. They would look at each other after certain points of my and Zoe’s serious talk, never speaking, but having a conversation, nevertheless.
“Next, I need to tell you that to make room for Kevin and Elleny, you and I are going to move downstairs.”
Zoe made a face, but I was prepared. “I like our room.”
“I do, too. This is just for a little while, and then we can have our room back.”
The skin between Zoe’s eyebrows creased.
Ashley kneeled beside us. “Zoe, how about you and I bring your things downstairs and I’ll help you decorate it just the way you want?”
Zoe thought about this for a while, and then nodded. She still wasn’t happy with the move, but her already agreeing, and without a fight, was momentous. I couldn’t hide my appreciation to Ashley, and when we stood, I reached out with one hand and pulled her against my side, pressing my cheek against her hair in a half hug.
Ashley took Zoe to gather her things, and Cooper and I went into the living room where Kevin and Elleny were sharing a sandwich.
“You can make another sandwich,” I said. Kevin was so thin; I couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t. Maybe he thought he might overstay his welcome if they ate too much right away.
“We share everything, don’t we?” he said, lovingly patting Elleny’s thigh.
Elleny didn’t speak or react. She just sat next to him, chewing the bite he’d just given her. I wondered if she’d lost her mother or someone else that had made her shut down so completely. Scarlet had been trying to get through to her since they arrived, but Elleny stayed in her own world, blocking everything and everyone out.
That, I somewhat understood. What I didn’t understand was Kevin’s dismissal of her behavior.
Elleny stayed quiet through dinner, although she ate more than she had earlier, having her own plate to herself. She ate slowly, though, making sure to savor every bite. No one discussed anything that we normally discussed. Somehow everyone knew to protect our house, our secrets, and our family from strangers. Even from a waif of a man and his strange little girl.
Kevin was the first to finish. “Man, I am tired. About what time do you all turn in around here?”
“It depends,” Scarlet said. “You can go ahead.”
Kevin put his hand on Elleny’s. “You ready for bed?”
She took another bite.
He patted her hand. “Come on, now. I think you’ve had enough. Time for bed.”
She scooped up more rice. “I’m still really hungry,” she said, her voice just a breath.