The lost girl sat at the top of the steps, dressed in pajamas courtesy of Mona. Monty recalled that his sister had spent a while in the bathroom with the girl, and he could tell she had used their time wisely. The layers of filth that were seemingly caked on the younger teenager had been scrubbed away–her bath, coupled with Kris’ healing, brought out an amber glow he otherwise would not have noticed. Her umber hair was even curlier than when he found her, framing her thin face in tiny ringlets.
Her feet were hidden within pink fuzzy slippers that poked out from under blue pant legs; even folded up at the ends, Mona’s sleepwear was too large on their guest. Her knees were pulled up to her chest, held in place by her arms. She was embracing herself on the second landing, her chin resting on one of her knees as her russet eyes peered down at her hosts.
In this lighting, they almost look black, Monty noted.
“What do you mean, Lizzie?” asked Mona. She pulled away from Chris and leaned against the stair’s railing to better view the girl. “‘You are’ what?”
The younger teen did not respond but merely continued to scowl at them. Mona was about to try again when Kris spoke up.
“You’re the daughter of one of the Jesup bandits,” he stated calmly.
Her shoulders lifted and fell with a huff. “So?”
“So,” he continued. “What are you doing in Savannah?”
“My brother said it was safer.”
“You came here with him,” Monty remembered her words from earlier in the evening. “Why did he leave you in the park?”
Her expression hardened. “I don’t know.”
“C’mon, Lizzie. We need more to go on than, ‘I don’t know’,” the healer pressed. “Did he say anything to you? Why did you leave Jesup?”
Monty watched as she buried her face in her legs and hugged herself even tighter. She rocked back and forth in place for a moment before she stood and began to briskly descend the steps. She idled on the last one before the landing, her eyes lowered.
“For as long as I can remember, the plan was to run away and never look back–only reason it took so long was ’cause Clint tried to convince our brothers and sisters to come with us.” She crossed her arms over her torso, still avoiding their eyes. “He said they were all too far gone–twins are too much like Daddy and Lori, Maggie, and Addy are too broken by it. He told me he would go back for them after I was safe.”
A lump formed in Monty’s throat. “How many kids are in your clan?”
“Seven counting Clint and me,” she revealed. “And that’s not including all the other families in Jesup.”
“Jeez…” Monty buried his face in his right hand for a short moment before rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. Who knows how many kids are suffering because of these monsters?
“Back at the park, you said that Clint wanted you here in Savannah because of the Jovians,” Mona recalled. “Why would two bandit teens run toward a colony defended by angels?”
“Why does half the east coast send their kids here?” Lizzie retorted. “Angels patrol the walls. You guys make it look safe here.”
“It is safe here,” Monty promised, dropping his hand to shoot her a glance. He caught her gaze for a brief moment, taking in her uncertainty. “You’re safe here. We’ll make sure of it.”
“Yeah?” she challenged. “Can you promise your leaders won’t throw me out when they find out where I’m from? Who my parents are?”
The twins shared uneasy glances. “Should it matter who your parents are?” asked the advisor. “Them being bandits isn’t bad enough?”
Lizzie mutedly stared at the tile floor, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. The silence weighed on all of them like a thick blanket of tension until Kris took it upon himself to tug at the threads.
“The brand on your shoulder–I’ve seen similar brands on the bodies of bandits belonging to two of the most dangerous clans in the region: the Peters and the Shaws,” he analyzed. “They’re the only families I know of who scar their children as a way to identify them. Yours is new to me.”
“That’s ’cause none of us have died yet,” she shrugged, meeting his piercing eyes. “My brothers and sisters and me are part of a new clan. Our daddy is Jeb Peters and our momma is Kitty Shaw.”
“Fuck!” Kris grunted and scratched his head. “You got to be shitting me…”
“Should we know those names?” the porter clarified with his superior.
“Kitty Shaw is the daughter of the leader of the Shaw bandits,” Monty explained. “They control everything north of no man’s land–their reach goes as far north as Philadelphia and as far west as St. Louis.”
“And the other one?”
“New leader of the Peters clan. They control all bandit traffic in this region from their base in Jesup–their reach isn’t known, but we suspect they acquired most of it through all the clans they’ve brought into their gang.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Chris stole another couple hits before offering the smoke to Monty. When the advisor refused, he held it out to Mona, who took it without question. “I thought bandits were just assholes who attacked travelers and camps at random, not organized groups with strategies and leaders–no offense,” he gestured to Lizzie, who cocked an eyebrow at him.
“No what?” she asked.
“He means he hopes you aren’t upset with him over what he said about bandits,” explained Mona.
“Not upset,” she shook her head. “They want you to think it’s random–you won’t try to stop what you don’t see coming.”
“None of this explains why your brother left you here, kid,” Monty said. “I get why he got you out of there, but I need something to give our leaders.”
“I don’t know why he left me!” she screeched, tears brimming her eyes. She threw her fists to her sides and came down the final step, joining them on the first floor at last. “Don’t you think I would’ve gone with him if I could’ve? I fell asleep in his truck and when I woke up I was in a park in the middle of nowhere. I don’t want to be here, but I don’t have anywhere else to go!”
Mona handed the cigarette over to Kris and rushed to Lizzie’s side, wrapping her arms around the girl’s quivering form. “It’s going to be okay, Lizzie. We’re sorry for asking you all these questions, but we want to make sure we have all the information we need so we can give you a home here.”
Lizzie buried her face into the older woman’s shoulder, her arms tight around Mona’s waist. “P-please don’t let Daddy f-f-find m-me,” she begged them.
The twins shared another look as Mona announced, “I’m going to get her some food.”
“Yeah, okay.” As his sister led Lizzie away, Monty turned back to the porter and healer. “Guess you should go home now… Thanks for helping us out.”
Kris nodded. “Guess so. And don’t worry–I can keep this to myself. Your people’s politics can’t sway me.”
“Appreciate it.” Then the royal advisor nodded to his subordinate. “Fill in Alexa when you get back and ask her to keep it between us. I’ll tell Frankie everything before I meet with the council.”
“I’ll pass it along,” smirked Chris. He turned and led the healer out the front door, waving at his superior without a backward glance. “Bye Mona! See you around, kid!”
“Bye, Chris–and Kris!” shouted Mona from the adjacent kitchen. “Thank you!”
Monty walked over to the sofa and leaned against the arm, his hands in the pockets of his hoodie. His eyes were trained on the hallway that led to the kitchen and dining area–neither Mona or Lizzie was visible, but he could hear the clicking and scratching of silverware against ceramic as their guest ravenously consumed their leftovers. He could also hear Mona’s low, soothing voice, and guessed that she was doing her best to warm Lizzie up to her. Just outside their home, thunder reverberated throughout the neighborhood as lightning touched down on their driveway, allowing Chris to take his passenger home.
All alone, the angel pulled his sketchpad from the large pocket. He flipped the black moleskin cover over and skimmed through the first few pages, debating on who to send.
If I’m serious about doing this, he reasoned. Then I’ll need someone who’s nocturnal and light on their feet… Like Leah.
He focused his energy on the open page, watching as the canine creature he had drawn began to squirm on the page. She then lifted herself out of the booklet, hopped down to the floor, and grew until she was the relative size of the animal she depicted.
When Leah granted him a blank stare, he met her at the front door, his sketchpad to his lips.
“Perimeter search,” he whispered as he opened the door. “Report all movement–and if you find someone who isn’t supposed to be here, hold them ’til I get there.”
The fox answered with a single nod and sprung onto the porch, down the steps, and off into the night. He shut his book as well as the door, turning to join the girls in the kitchen.
He froze as he came face to face with Lizzie, her eyes wide with surprise.