Autumn looked at Ethan. He saw such fear on that little face, it was like a punch in the gut. Joanna held her hand tight and said, “Why don’t you tell him about it yourself, Autumn?”
She licked her lips. “It’s too scary, Mama.”
Ethan said, “You tell me and then it won’t be so scary anymore. I promise.”
She thought about it, then slowly nodded. “I was supposed to be asleep beside Mama, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them, how scary they were, how I knew they didn’t like Mama, even though they pretended they did. And they looked at me funny, you know, trying to pretend they weren’t looking, but they were.
“Mama started moaning in her sleep, so I got up. I put on my clothes without waking her and climbed out the window.” She swallowed. “I walked to the cemetery, and that’s when I saw them, and they were digging up my daddy’s grave and there were these bodies on the ground beside them.” She was shaking, both her voice and her small body, and she pressed even harder against her mother’s side, as if she wanted to become part of her.
Joanna gathered her close, kissed the top of her head, whispered, “It’s okay, sweetie, I swear it’s okay. Ethan is—” Joanna cleared her throat. “Ethan is going to help us.”
He swallowed hard at that vote of confidence. He looked at the mother and daughter and marveled at what life had dished onto his plate in a single day. He said, “Autumn, I told your mama I’m the prince of bad and that means I can help you with just about anything. Now, kiddo, tell me who you saw out there.”
“Blessed and Grace were digging, and Shepherd was standing beside the dead people.” Her voice caught, and she looked terrified.
“Okay, Autumn, that’s enough for now. I want you to take some deep breaths and shake your arms around; it’ll loosen you up. That’s it—good. Now, let your mama talk for a while. Joanna, let’s back up. After the funeral, what did you and Autumn do?”
Joanna said, “I made some excuse, and I drove us to Bricker’s Bowl, only about a half-mile away. Like Autumn, I wanted to get away from all of them. I was tempted to keep driving west, let me tell you. I wish I hadn’t gone back there now, wish I hadn’t taken Martin’s urn to be buried in a chicken coop.”
He wondered what would have happened if she’d kept driving west. Would they still have found her just like they found her here? “Okay, after you drove into Bricker’s Bowl, what did you do?”
“Just walked around. Everyone knew who we were—how, I have no clue, but I knew they were talking about us, wondering about us, I guess, wondering, maybe, if we were weird. I’ll tell you, I don’t blame them a bit.
“We stopped at the small grocery store because it was hot and Autumn wanted an ice cream. There was a woman in there who looked at us like we were members of the devil’s fold. I’ll never forget how she stared at Autumn and said, ‘She looks just like him,’ and she crossed herself. I was appalled and grabbed Autumn’s hand to get her out of there but the woman said then, ‘I was very glad Martin escaped. I’m very sorry he’s dead. Everyone liked Martin, but no one knew when he was going to be buried. Preacher Michael even called Mrs. Backman, but she didn’t tell him a thing.’ And then she shut up and shook her head.”
“The lady asked me what kind of ice cream I liked best,” Autumn said. “I told her I really liked butter pecan, and she said that was good because she’d just made some.”
Lula strolled into the living room, tail high. She meowed when she saw Ethan, padded quickly to him, and jumped up on his lap. She began kneading his leg.
Autumn leaned over to pat her and Lula stretched under her hand and kept kneading.
Of course Mackie wasn’t to be left out. He was soon seated on Ethan’s other leg, his claws sharper than Lula’s, who’d had a manicure only two days before when Maggie had come to clean up the cottage and managed to catch her. Mackie had escaped clean.
Autumn yawned and leaned back against her mother’s chest, all boneless, like the cats when they were with him in bed at night. “Mama,” she whispered, “I think we can trust Ethan. We started to tell him about those poor dead people. I think we should tell Ethan more of it, Mama.”
JOANNA WAS PALE and quiet. He gave her a moment to think about what Autumn had said, and slowly stood up. “I think both of you could use a soda. How about it?”
Joanna looked at him, drew in a deep breath, and slowly nodded. “Yes, a drink would be nice. Autumn, stay here, sweetie, sit on my lap.”