Even after agreeing to share her story, Sara pulled another truculent maneuver, one that only worked when its user was under fifteen years old.
“I’m hungry,” she announced, crossing her arms and glaring at me. “And all I’ve had is cold food because I don’t know how to plug an oven into a generator.”
Want proof that I don’t know how to handle kids? For a second, I considered arguing with her, trying to get this girl to tell me her story before I bothered helping her with warming up any food she might have.
Fortunately, Henry stepped forward before I could shove my foot into my mouth. “C’mon over here, then,” he said to Sarah, offering his hand to her. “As a proud citizen of France, I can’t let such a horrible fate as eating only cold food continue to befall you. Let’s go take a look in the kitchen, shall we?”
I looked after the two of them as they headed into the apartment’s little kitchen area. Jaspers sidled closer to me, wearing a frown that mirrored my own.
“This just keeps getting bloody weirder, doesn’t it?” he murmured to me. “Now we’ve got a single survivor, and it’s a little girl?”
Apparently, he hadn’t spoken softly enough. Sara turned in the doorway to the kitchen, glared back at Jaspers. “I’m not a little girl!” she insisted, stamping her foot. “I’m twelve! That’s not little!”
And to my amazement, Oliver Jaspers, a man who once threatened to literally bite a terrorist’s thumb off if he didn’t drop a grenade, backed down. “Not little,” he said, his arms twitching as if he was about to lift them up above his head.
Sara gave the cowed SAS fighter one last glare, and then marched triumphantly into the kitchen. I stared, mouth agape, at Jaspers until he finally noticed and slugged me in the shoulder.
“I grew up with four little sisters,” he sighed. “It’s instinctual at this point.”
In the kitchen, Henry dug through the cupboards. Sara reached for the fridge, but immediately wrinkled her nose upon opening it. “It smells awful in there.”
“It’s the milk,” Henry said, peering over her shoulder. “Spoils quickly, quite bothersome. Especially because we cook so much with it as a base.”
Her look become considering. “You can cook?”
“Moi?” Henry drew himself up, placing one hand on his thin chest. “A Frenchman? If I could not cook, I would not be able to call myself a true son of liberty! I might be as bad as…” he lowered his voice, leaning in towards Sara as he gave a conspiratorial waggle of his eyebrows, “…an Englishman, like that brute with the black beard out there.”
Sara giggled at his silly expression. “Can you cook macaroni and cheese? That’s my favorite.”
“For you, my lady, I shall do my best!” A search of the cupboards turned up some pasta shells, and while the milk had gone bad, Henry found some shredded cheddar that appeared serviceable. The stove in the apartment didn’t work – but they’d brought some camp stoves from a nearby camping and sporting goods store, and he soon had a pot of water boiling merrily away.
“Now, will you be my assistant and slowly stir this?” Henry asked Sara, passing over a wooden spoon. “Not too fast – we don’t want to spill the water. Just keep the noodles from sticking.”
She nodded, stepping up and scrunching her face with concentration. Henry nodded as he watched her. “Good. You’ve been a cook’s assistant before, I take it?”
She glanced briefly at him before returning her attention to the water. “I cooked when my dad was out late at work and didn’t get home to make me dinner.”
“With your mother, I take it?”
Oops. Wrong comment. “No.” Her face shut down.
Time to steer the conversation back to less deep waters, Henry considered. “You are better than I was at your age, I do confess,” he lamented. “Do you want to know why I learned to cook?”
She was still mostly shut down, but he knew that the appeal to her curiosity would get the better of those mental shields. “Why?” she finally asked, glancing briefly at him before glaring back down at the noodles in the pot.
“The food that they served us at training camp, where I went to become a soldier, that’s why!” Henry tossed himself against the counter, leaning back with such a dramatic sigh and over-emphasized fluttering of his eyes, mustachios quivering, that Sara couldn’t keep in a little smile. “Sacre bleu, it tasted worse than the mud we crawled through! It was there, surrounded by other sweaty men, that I finally mastered the art of fine French cuisine.”
He sighed, momentarily forgetting about his audience. “An explosives expert, I am,” he said softly, looking off into the distance as his eyes unfocused. “But creating something new, something useful and edible, is a far better activity for enjoyment.”
After a second, he snapped back to the present. He stepped forward, dipped a spoon into the pot to withdraw a noodle. “Now, my assistant, taste and tell me if it’s soft yet,” he commanded, lowering the spoon.
Sara obediently popped the noodle in her mouth. “Mmm.”
“I shall take that as a yes.” Henry scooped up the pot, carefully straining off the pasta water while keeping the noodles inside. Dashes of seasonings, some butter, the scavenged cheese, a splash of the starch-heavy water, and mixing. Quite serviceable pasta shells and cheese.
Sara’s eyes lit up as Henry spooned a generous helping into a bowl, but he held it up, still out of her reach. “But first, some answers,” he said. “Sara what?”
“Sara Hobbson. My dad is Nathaniel Hobbson.” Sara said this as if Henry ought to recognize the name, her eyes locked on the bowl. “Gimme.”
“And where do you live, Sara Hobbson?”
Her eyes darted briefly over to him, narrowed in annoyance. “Waxahachie.”
The name meant nothing. “Waxa-what?”
“Waxahachie, Texas.” She planted her little fists on her hips. “Give me my food, I helped cook it!”
Henry lowered the bowl, but withheld the fork. “And for the eating utensil,” he grinned, “what are you doing all the way out here in Virginia?”
For a moment, Sara looked as if she was considering eating the food with her hands instead of getting the fork from him. “My dad had a trip out here to talk to his bosses,” she finally said. “I came with. And then…”
She froze, her eyes drifting off. Henry didn’t consider himself an expert in body language, but it was hard to miss how the little girl withdrew into herself, her eyes big and scared.
“Good enough for me,” he said loudly and jovially, dropping to one knee to bestow her with the fork he’d been holding. “And now, eat! Look at you, all skin and bones! Good French cooking should put some muscle on those skinny little chicken legs!”
Sara’s frightened look was replaced by laughter as Henry pretended to pinch her. “No, no, let me eat!” she cried, laughing, dashing for the living room of the apartment with her bowl of pasta.
Henry rose up to his feet but didn’t follow after her, the big, silly grin slowly fading from his face as she went around the corner. He glanced over at me, watching from the doorway. “You hear that?” he asked.
I nodded. “Texas again. Maybe there’s another reason for us to head there.”
“More than that,” he said. “Whatever happened here, she knows about it – but it scared her something awful. She won’t trust us right away.”
“We’ll have to win her over.” I looked again around the apartment, trying to ignore the smell of the remaining pasta in the pot. I lost the battle. “Say, can I get a bowl of that stuff?”
To be continued…