I saw Sarah sitting with Hope outside the entrance to the backyard bunker. The thick steel door stood open, and the two of them sat with a space of dirt between them. Sarah drew something with a stick and said something to Hope I couldn’t hear.
Hope smiled at her. It wasn’t my imagination.
I watched them for a moment, watched Hope draw something and Sarah smile and nod her approval. The only color in the landscape was Hope’s yellow hair. I called Sarah over.
“Yes, sir?” Sir? They’d never been so respectful before. I was fortunate if every word I’d said back then didn’t get an eye roll and a sigh. Not now. Everything was different.
“Mom says you’ve been looking after the little ones on your own. That she’s been going out to gather.”
Sarah nodded. Her eyes were brown like mine. “Am I in trouble? Is Mom?”
I reached out and tugged her dark ponytail and smiled. “Of course not, Monkey! Why would you think that?”
She lowered her eyes and shook her head.
“Hey.” I tilted her chin up. “What is it?”
It took a moment, but she finally said, “You’re mad a lot.”
I sat down heavily on the bottom step of the deck. “But not at you, Sarah. You know that, right?”
She nodded but it was unconvincing. “I know.”
I looked out at Hope still drawing in the dirt. “You used to have that art set, with all the markers and pencils and paints. So many colors. Now you’re drawing in the dirt.”
“It’s okay, Dad.”
I smiled up at her. It felt forced. “No. It’s not. But it’s how it is.”
She smiled back. “We don’t need all that stuff. It’s not what’s important.”
I marveled at the difference in her. It was both sobering and impressive. I wondered if all children adjusted as quickly as my Sarah. “No. That we’re together is important.”
A cloud passed over her face.
“Listen. I just wanted to talk to you, make sure you’re okay taking care of the boys while we’re out. Do you feel scared? Do they listen to you?”
She dug her toe in the dirt. I heard a crow far off in the distance. It sounded like rain, but it hadn’t rained in months.
“Be honest with me, Monkey.”
“Yes. I mean, sometimes.”
“Sometimes it’s scary. But it’s the same when you and Mom are here.”
That crack in my chest deepened just a little.
“Eli is a brat sometimes. But Evan’s big enough to help.”
“Will you tell me if they give you trouble?”
“That’s my girl.” I pulled her into a bear hug. “You’re very brave, you know that?”
“But I’m scared all the time!”
“Me too. So is your mom. But being brave doesn’t mean we don’t feel fear.”
She sat back and looked at me like she didn’t believe me. “Then what is it?”
“It’s carrying on through the fear. Doing what we have to do.”
She appeared to swallow and digest that.
“What do you think of Hope?”
Such a strange thing, to see the lines of contemplation on a nine-year-old face. “She loves you, Dad.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. So I buried my bearded jaw into her neck until she fought and giggled and made her escape, back to Hope, back to their dirt imaginings.