“Shh…shh…” Mom said, hugging us. Her body slightly rocked, and I instantly felt at ease. “How long have you been alone?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “A week? I think.”
“Wow,” our neighbor said. “Tough like their mama.”
I smiled and rested my cheek against Mom’s chest. “That’s what Dad said, too, when we left him. He said we could do it because we were tough like you.”
Mom looked at Nathan, who was holding the other two little girls close. I could tell Mom was unhappy that we had been alone.
“If you hadn’t cleared the way for them, it would have been tough for them to make it past Shallot alone, if not impossible,” Nathan said. “You were right. It wasn’t for nothing.”
Her eyes glossed over, and she hugged us again.
I was wrong. She was more slender than I remembered, but she was still our mom. She hadn’t changed so much. I hadn’t realized how afraid I was that she wouldn’t be the same person I knew. But now, in her arms, the past months fell away. It felt like a lifetime since she had dropped us off at school, but at the same time, it also felt like yesterday.
“Come on, babies. Let’s get you cleaned up,” Mom said. Halle whined, but Mom kissed her hair. “You’re safe now.” She looked to me. “When is the last time you’ve eaten? Or slept?”
My eyebrows pulled in, thinking about the small bit of rice we’d eaten two days before. “It’s been a while.”
She hugged me. “Okay. Okay, that’s all over now. Nathan?”
“I’m on it,” he said, leaving the room.
After a couple of minutes, he returned with two sandwiches. Halle and I grabbed them from his hands before immediately chomping into them. I thought that I would have to ask for another one, but by the time I took the last bite, I was full.
Nathan handed us each a glass of water, and we gulped it down. Halle wiped her mouth with her wrist.
“Okay,” Mom said. “Time to wash.”
We stood outside and peeled off our clothes. They were so dirty that they were stiff. Mom was on her knees, using rags and a basin to scrub Halle, and I washed myself. I was more concerned with getting clean and washing the awful summer off of me than being undressed outside.
Several graves were under the tree, and Mom glanced behind her.
“Dr. Hayes, his girlfriend, and our friend Cooper,” she said. “He was Ashley’s boyfriend. Remember her? She’s Dr. Hayes’s daughter.”
“Her boyfriend died?” I asked.
Mom pulled her mouth to the side. “Saving Zoe. That’s the little girl in there. She’s Nathan’s daughter. And Elleny is the other little girl.”
“Is she Nathan’s daughter, too?” Halle asked.
Mom poured a little water over Halle’s head and then lathered bar soap in her hands. She scrubbed Halle’s hair until it was blonde again. She shook her head. “She found us.”
“The big guy was our neighbor in Shallot,” I said, pulling an oversized but clean T-shirt over my head
“Skeeter?” Mom said, her eyebrows shooting up.
“That’s Skeeter? I wish I’d known. He lived a few houses down from us in Shallot.”
She paused. “Wait. What do you mean?”
“I saw you,” I said as I dried off. “Your whole group, the day you left with Skeeter. I didn’t know it was you though.”
Mom shook her head, her eyes falling to the concrete patio we were sitting on. “You were right there?”
She closed her eyes tight. “So, you were there this whole time? And last night when we spent the night?”
“Joey came into our house,” Halle said. “When he found out it was us, he was going to bring us to you, but he got bit, so we stayed inside.”
Mom covered her mouth and listened while Halle recounted our entire ordeal—from the moment Dad had picked her up from school until we’d reached the top of the red dirt hill.
“Jesus,” Mom said, shaking her head, her hand trembling. She closed her eyes and then took a deep breath, willing it away. “Joey was a good man. It makes sense that he tried to save you. I’m so sorry about your dad.”
“Mom?” I said. “We didn’t leave him.”
“What do you mean?”
“He was bitten. He got really sick, and…” I trailed off, unable to say the words.
“Oh no. No, no, no…”
At first, I thought she was disappointed in me, and then she wrapped me in her arms and squeezed.
“I’m so sorry you had to do that, Jenna. My God, you are so brave.” She sucked in a faltering breath. “You’re here now, and we’re together. I know that your dad would be so proud of you for that.”
Once Halle was dressed in her own oversized T-shirt, Mom walked us to the table and let us eat again. This time, it was canned peaches. We practically inhaled them, and then we each drank another glass of water.
With full bellies, we were guided into Mom’s room, and she turned down the covers.
“You’ve had a long day.”
We climbed into bed and settled in.
Halle gripped her fingers tightly around Mom’s wrist. “Don’t leave, Mommy.”
She shook her head, brought Halle’s hand to her mouth, and gave it a kiss. “We’ll never be apart again.”
“You promise?” Halle asked.
“I promise. You are so brave,” Mom said before kissing Halle’s forehead. Then, she looked into my eyes and touched my cheek. “So brave.”
Mom sat in a chair in the corner of the room while Halle and I lay quietly, waiting to fall asleep. She stared at us as I stared at her. I was almost afraid to close my eyes. I was afraid I would wake up in Shallot, and it would all be a dream.
I had spent the last four months with one goal in mind. Now that we were finally with Mom, after fighting so hard and surviving so much, the fear that it would never happen was replaced with the fear that it would be taken away.
Soon though, my eyes grew heavy, and I drifted off to sleep. The last forty-eight hours replayed, swallowing me, and then spit me out into the halls of Bishop Middle School where I was giggling with my classmates and teachers and then waving to my dad as he arrived to pick me up after school in his dress blues. This time though, Mom was with him, and I knew everything would be all right.