Paul didn’t talk, but looked down and smiled at Ashley a few times as he walked. He took her straight in to his own bedroom and laid her on his bed.
“We’re going to put you and Sarah in here for tonight, okay?” he whispered. There were no lights on in the house because the generator had yet to be hooked up, and it was too early in the evening for the sun to have gone down, but his room was on the north-east side of the house so it almost felt dark.
He walked over and closed the blinds, thankful that at least this room still had windows, then came back over and started pulling her boots off. He wasn’t sure if she was even still awake as she hadn’t been very responsive for several minutes. He tried to pull some covers back and roll her in to the bed when she opened her eyes.
“Don’t leave me yet,” she whispered up to him. He sat down next to her and tucked her into the blankets. Both of their clothes were covered in dirt, but he didn’t care. He could change the sheets tomorrow. He got her comfortable, then laid down on top of the blankets and let her roll over into his arms. She was wrapped up in a little cocoon and he wished her could find a way to protect her from every bad thing in the world.
In that moment she was a little girl who was frightened beyond her own understanding. He wished it had been him that she had clung to when she had broken down, but he was glad that she was with him now.
She was still sniffling occasionally and he held her for a long time as she drifted off to sleep. He gazed down at her as she slept fitfully and couldn’t believe how beautiful she looked. He wished he could hold her in his arms every night for the rest of his life.
As his thoughts drifted in that direction he knew he shouldn’t stay with her any longer. He was sure their parents would disapprove of him being in bed with her, so he slipped out from under her and tiptoed from the room, closing the door softly as he left.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Ashley woke up screaming, sitting straight up in bed. It was very disorienting. This wasn’t her bed, and it wasn’t her room, and there was someone in the bed next to her. She stopped screaming and started crying when she remembered where she was and what had happened. Sarah looked up at her in the dark.
“It’s okay, Sissy,” Sarah whispered to her. It had been years since she’d called her that. Usually it felt like Ashley was the older sister, but there had been a time when their rolls had been correctly reversed. She reached up in the dark for Ashley and pulled her baby sister down to her. “Come here. It’s gonna be okay.”
Ashley let herself fall into her sister’s arms and allowed herself to cry for a few minutes.
There was a soft knock on the door and Paul opened it a crack. He must have heard her scream from where he was sleeping. She wasn’t sure where he’d been sleeping, probably with his little brother Jacob.
“You okay, honey?” He came all the way into the bedroom and knelt by the bed. She didn’t answer him but looked up from her sister’s arms. She still had tears falling from her eyes and he started crying also.
Ashley had never seen Paul cry. She didn’t pull away from her sister but reached her hand out to hold his. He cried silently into his sheets and all three of them fell asleep that way. He was gone when she woke up and they never spoke about it again.