She shook her head. “It was bad, real bad.” Slowly she held out her hand to Mackie, who turned slinky now, twisting and turning around her, teasing her. Big Louie nudged her shoulder. Ethan said, “Listen, you guys, how can I get to know Autumn if you’re all trying to take over?”
She laughed, a very small laugh but still a laugh, and he found himself smiling in return. “Are you hungry? This trio sure was. You watched me play kibble Frisbee with them?”
She nodded. “They’re good.”
She fell silent, looked profoundly worried.
He wanted to ask her why she hadn’t come out then, but he knew why. She’d been too scared. He said, “I can make hot chocolate. I think I’ve got some Fig Newtons.”
She licked her lips. He had her. He held out his hand. And waited. It seemed like a year, but at last she put her hand in his. He rose. She walked beside him into the kitchen. “Why don’t you sit down and play with the varmints while I work. Are you hungry?”
Ethan thought about her mother. Another five minutes, he thought, get the little girl to tell him what was going on first. And he knew to his boot heels that whatever was going on with her mother, it wasn’t good. “You know, I’m hungry too. Why don’t I see what’s in the fridge?”
There was leftover pepperoni pizza, four big slices. The best kid food in the land. “Look what I found.”
“I was afraid to eat it,” she said. “I didn’t want to make you mad.”
What to say to that? “I’m glad you didn’t eat it cold. The cheese would stick to your teeth. Let’s warm it up.”
He turned the oven on high and laid the slices on a cookie tray that was so old he imagined the first cookie was baked on it during Prohibition.
He made hot chocolate from an old can of cocoa in the cupboard. As he stirred it into the milk on the stovetop, he said, “How did you get into my house?”
He didn’t think she was going to answer him, then in a near whisper, she said, “Your bedroom window was up a little bit. Big Louie was barking his head off. I got stuck, and he grabbed my shirt sleeve and pulled me into your bedroom.”
“You’re some watchdog, aren’t you, Big Louie?”
Big Louie wagged his tail. Ethan watched him nuzzle his face into the little girl’s hands as she sat all straight and proper on a kitchen chair.
He poured the hot chocolate into a mug. “Here, give this a try. It’s not too hot, I stuck my finger in it.”
He watched her sip, then she smiled. A beautiful smile, he thought, no fear in it, at least for the moment. “Are you a worrier, Autumn?”
She cocked her head to one side and stared at him. She nodded. “I have to.”
She buried her face in the hot chocolate. Mackie meowed and jumped lightly onto her lap. Mackie was sixteen pounds of muscle covered with gold-and-white fur. If he sprawled out over her legs, his paws might have reached the floor on either side of her.
Back off, back off. “I need to call your mama. She’s scared, Autumn. You want her to know you’re okay, don’t you?”
The little face sported a chocolate mustache. She looked pale and frightened. “I don’t want her to die.”
HIS HEART SKIPPED a beat, but he spoke easily, not a bit of uncertainty in his voice. “She won’t die. That’s why you came to me, you knew I’d take care of you, and I’ll take care of your mom, okay? Do you believe me?”
“You don’t know,” she said, her fingers stroking through Mackie’s thick fur. His purr went up a notch. Lula sprawled against Big Louie, who was lying on the floor on his side, tail thumping on the tile, both sets of eyes fastened on the little girl with Mackie in her lap.
“Then you’ll have to tell me, won’t you?”
She shook her head, rubbed Mackie harder, then buried her face in his fur.
“Okay,” Ethan said. He rose and pulled the pizza out of the oven. “It’s perfect. Let’s eat.”
After he watched her take a huge bite, Ethan said, “Do you like Titusville?”
She took another bite, chewed slowly. Mackie, now on the floor, meowed up at her.
“Take a hike, Mackie, no pizza,” Ethan said. Mackie meowed several more times, his patented “I’m starving” meow, and walked to sprawl down beside Lula, who was still leaning into Big Louie.
“Mama said she brought me to Titusville once, but I don’t remember it. She said I was just a little kid.” She chewed. “She said she took me to three caves she’d explored, and I thought if I really tried I could remember them and find them, but I couldn’t.”