“My dad and I have had our ups and downs,” I said, keeping my voice low and steady. “But if you try to make him pick between you or me, you’ll lose.”
I pulled open the bedroom door and walked out, passing the den where Halle and Tobin were sleeping soundly.
When I got to the kitchen, April was sitting at the rectangular table, sipping her coffee by candlelight. “Morning,” she said, watching me with knowing eyes. “Your dad’s outside.”
“I know,” I said, taking a seat at the opposite end of the table.
April’s long hair was pulled up into a bun at the crown of her head. She had changed into an oversized white oxford and capri jeans with white slip-ons. She noticed me taking in her appearance, and she glanced down to her shirt. “It’s Dean’s. Probably weird, but I was looking through our closet for something to wear, and I just pulled it right off the hanger.” I didn’t respond. She continued, “I slept with a pile of his dirty clothes last night. Now, that’s bizarre.” She chuckled to herself and then began to cry.
Halle stumbled in with narrow eyes and wild hair, clumsily trying to put on her glasses as she made her way to the table.
“We’ve got to find you a brush,” I said, pulling her onto my lap.
“What’s for breakfast?” she said with a raspy voice.
Air so foul it should have been bright green wafted from her mouth to my nose, and in reaction, I turned my head.
“We’ve got to find you some toothpaste, too!”
She giggled and rested her cheek on my shoulder. Normally, she wasn’t that affectionate with me. After Halle came home from spending the weekend at Dad’s, she would wallow in Mom until she was finally ordered to bed, and even then, she’d ask for Mom to come to bed with her to snuggle. Dad wasn’t an affectionate person by nature, so Mom had been the one who satisfied Halle’s need for hugs, kisses, rocking, and holding. After Halle had come into the world, she had demanded everyone’s attention, and I’d learned to live without it for the most part.
It occurred to me that Halle and I weren’t really that affectionate at all, not since she was a toddler. Now, she was curled up in my lap like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“I can make you something,” April said. “What would you like? The other kids will wake up hungry, too.”
“Do you have biscuits and gravy?” she asked.
“I do,” April said, standing.
I stood up, bringing Halle with me. “Come with me. We’ll find a way to get all those rats out of your hair and some toothpaste.”
“I don’t have a toothbrush,” Halle said.
I held up my index finger, making motions back and forth, while I bared my teeth.
“With my finger? No!” she whined.
“C’mon,” I said, using her shoulders to guide her like Mom used to do.
We walked into the hallway to find the bathroom. I flipped on the light and closed the door.
April had given us the tour before bedtime the previous night, and I was glad that between eight kids and five adults, there was more than one bathroom. April had one in her room, too. She’d also said that because this room had only one window that was small and up high, it was okay to turn on the light but only during the day when the sun was bright, and it wouldn’t draw attention.
The first drawer I pulled open had dozens of scattered ponytail holders, barrettes, and bows along with a comb and a brush. I imagined it was the bathroom where April would get her daughter ready.
Halle brushed her hair while I searched the other drawers. I found half a tube of toothpaste, a purple mermaid toothbrush, and a Spider-Man toothbrush. In the back of a drawer was a package of new toothbrushes. I was afraid if I asked, April would say no, so I opened the package, pulled out a toothbrush, and squeezed out a dab of the minty green gel.
“What are you doing?” Halle hissed.
“There are eight kids, and this package has four toothbrushes in it. Do the math,” I said before scrubbing my teeth.
“You’re stealing! At least ask!”
“Halle, you need to learn something right now. This is not going to be fixed tomorrow. Things are going to get worse, a lot worse, before they get better. You need to learn to take what you need now and say you’re sorry later, especially if it’s just a toothbrush!”
“No,” Halle said, shaking her head. “We’re not supposed to steal, especially not from people who are trying to help us.”
“It’s not stealing. It’s borrowing.”
Halle pressed her lips together, glaring at the toothbrush when I held it out to her. Her hair was brushed but poofy at the bottom and greasy at the roots.
“Brush your teeth,” I demanded, pointing the toothbrush at her.
She grabbed it from me, holding it, while I squeezed the tube of toothpaste.
After a few spits into the sink, she rinsed out her mouth and wiped the water off with her arm.
I glanced at the overhead light. “I wonder how long the water and electricity will last?”
“What do you mean?” Halle asked, still frowning.
“It takes people to keep those things running. If everyone’s infected, who’s running it?”
“Everyone’s not infected.”
Someone knocked on the door, making us both jump.
“Are you about finished?” Connor asked, his voice muffled through the door.
“Coming right out!” I called, taking the toothbrush from Halle and corralling her to the door.
When I opened the door, I noticed that Connor had dark circles under his eyes, and his skin was pale, making his freckles stand out even more.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“I didn’t sleep great.”
“Nightmares?” I asked.
“None of your business.”
I stepped to the side and held Halle’s shoulders as he passed by us and then shut the door.
“He’s cranky in the mornings,” Halle said.
“He misses his parents, and sometimes, it’s easier to be angry.”
We made our way back to the kitchen where April was spooning out gravy into bowls full of biscuits. Brad, Darla, Madelyn, and Logan were already seated, chatting about how good the food smelled.
Dad came in and locked the door behind him. The heaviness had left his face. “I found some metal posts we can use,” he said to the adults. “We’ll talk about it after breakfast.”