Chapter 8 – Circling Back
Francis has stopped just outside of town to map out a route to her aunt’s home in Wisconsin. It occurs to her that Kay doesn’t know that she’s getting a surprise visitor, but first things first. She finds a yellow and blue highlighter in the center console of the truck and begins to trace a logical path with the yellow highlighter to the north and east and off of US and State highways. If changes need to be made on the fly she will use the blue highlighter, any further changes can be done with both highlighters that will appear green.
Satisfied that the yellow path on county roads will be safer, open and have little traffic Francis sends a text message to her aunt. “Hi Aunt Kay. I’m headed north to your house. I hope that is OK. Let me know. Not sure how long it will take to drive there. The roads are pretty torn up down here. I love you.” She presses the send button, then pushed the call button on her contact card for Kay.
Before Kay can answer, Francis hangs up. Talking to herself, it dawns on her that phone service is now possible. “If I’m getting through to Kay, maybe I can get through to the police.” She begins to dial 911, then hangs up again. Not knowing how far she’s driven away from her home she chooses to not risk connecting with the wrong 911 service.
If she can get through to the police, maybe they will help her to take care of her poor mother and son. Leaving the area with them in that house was more than Francis can bear. She prays that someone, anyone answers the phone at the police station.
Fortunately, the local dispatch number is hyperlinked on their web site. Beyond fortunate, a dispatch officer answers the phone and says, “Granite City Police. Is your call an emergency?”
Francis excitedly and tearfully replied “Yes!” then explains to the dispatcher what happened at her mother’s home as she turns the SUV around and heads back toward Granite City. Dispatch has relayed a patrol unit to the scene. Thankfully she had not traveled too far north and east before connecting with law enforcement.
The address for Rita Long, Francis’ mother, is given. The nearest trooper not currently engaged is sent to the scene of the crime. Dispatch stays on the line with Francis during the drive back to her mother’s home.
Upon arriving back at Rita’s home, Francis sees one cruiser parked in front of the home, plus one ambulance in the driveway. Warning lights flashing on both vehicles.
On any other day that a double homicide occurs there would be as many as ten cruisers at the scene of the crime, and probably a yard full of media. Today, Francis is fortunate to have any response. Law enforcement and emergency medical services are overwhelmed in the entire metro, suburbs, and surrounding communities around St. Louis.
“I’m here now.” Francis call out from the open front door.
Bracing herself for the scene even though she knows what to expect, Francis calls out again to the emergency responders before entering the door. “Hello, I’m Francis Hart. Did dispatch tell you that I’m here? She talked to me on the phone until I got here.”
Officer Jim Booker deadpans a response from the kitchen and approaches Francis. “Yes, she radioed your arrival a few seconds ago. Officer Booker. I’m sorry, but we’re going need you to identify the victims before the paramedics remove them from the home.”
Officer Booker leads Francis into the kitchen where two paramedics are packaging Rita and Franky onto gurneys. One of the paramedics gets up and approaches while taking off his nitrile gloves and N95 respirator. “Captain Sparks Mrs. Hart. Sorry for your loss. We cleaned them up as well as possible. They will be transported to Gateway Regional after we make the identifications. One of the ER docs can make the proclamation there. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”
Cpt. Sparks turns to his partner. “Can you give Mrs. Hart some space please Mathew?” The junior paramedic gets up and backs away from the gurneys. “Of course,” is the mask muffled reply from Mathew.
Francis identifies her mother as Rita Long and her son as Frank Hart Jr. She gently touches each of her loved ones trying in vain to stifle her grief. “Take your time Mrs. Hart, we know this is difficult.” Comforts Captain Spark.
Francis turns and slowly walks away, holding her mouth as if to trap her grief inside. Giving into her pain she places her left forearm on the kitchen wall, leans her forehead across the arm and burst into a sob.
Officer Booker gives her a few seconds then interrupts. “I’m sorry Mrs. Hart, but I’m going to need to ask you a few questions about what happened here today. Would you like to step out of the house or talk in here?”
She thinks for a moment, looking around. “Um, outside, I guess.” The two step out of the house.
Francis relays all of the same information that she told the dispatch just 30 minutes or so earlier to Officer Booker, knowing that her conversation with dispatch was most likely recorded.
One detail that Francis neglected to tell both dispatch and Officer Booker was discharging her handgun to slow down the gang of looters. Discharging a firearm in city limits is a crime, she was aware enough to know that at best this knowledge would result in more time being questioned, possibly at the police station. At worst it would result in being arrested and losing all of the firearms and ammunition in her Suburban.
Once the interview was over, Officer Booker had a few more questions to ask her, “Are you planning to stay in the area Mrs. Hart? If your home is not safe, there are shelters set up in the civic center and several churches.”
Francis replies, “That will not be necessary. After arrangements have been scheduled for my family, I’m planning to stay with my aunt in Wisconsin”.
“That’s a long way. Do you have enough gasoline for the trip? Gas stations are closed in the entire surround area. Being stranded on the side of the road is not safe, the shelters are safer. My advice is to park your vehicle near the civic center and stay there until order is restored in Granite City”, warns Booker.
“Thank you, officer Booker, I will take that under advisement. I need to talk to hospital staff and the funeral home now”, Francis replies.
Officer Booker is still not done with the inquiry. Booker reminds her of the TV detective Columbo.
“One last question, Mrs. Hart. Do you have a way to keep your mobile phone charged?” Francis nods yes. Booker continues. “We will need to call you if we find out any information about your husband, or if we think of any more question for you. Good luck Mrs. Hart and you have my sincere condolences.” He then escorted Francis to Gateway Regional Hospital. This is where the ambulance delivered her mother and son.
Francis has no intention of staying in Granite City while the looters are still not under control. There are too many things in the Suburban that she and Frank may need to live on for a few days or weeks. Losing it, especially the firearms to any of these animals is not an option that she is willing to risk.
Another attempt to call Frank Sr. is made. No connection. She is not even given the option of leaving voice mail. A feeling of dread for her husband floods into her psyche. A tap of the brakes by office Booker brings her back to the task at hand. There is still more to do for her departed family members before restarting the trip to Aunt Kay’s home.
Emergency room staff directed Francis to the hospital morgue where arrangements were made to contact the funeral home of her choice. She hoped that the facility’s cremation service was still intact after the quake. The logistics of traditional body preparation and the likelihood of funerals in the near future seemed bleak. Besides, Frank Sr. is still unaccounted for and he’s on the wrong side of the river. How will he get home? When will she know if he knows where she’s headed for safety?
Francis returns to her truck and begins the journey north to Wisconsin for a second time today. Shady Acres Funeral Home and Cremation Services is called. There is no one there to take the call and it goes to voice mail. Francis leaves her name and mobile phone number in the message stating that her mother and son are in need of their services. She explains that cremation is the preferred method of service needed. Hopefully someone will be able to respond to her needs in a timely basis.
The journey begins by heading east, away from the epicenter. However, now the sun has gone down. In fact, it is now almost midnight. She will know the side roads for 20 miles or so, after that the terrain is unknown. She’s made a plan and she will work the plan…until the plan needs to be changed. Then she will work that plan.
Francis stays on county roads that were highlighted in yellow. The mobile phone is plugged into what used to be called a cigarette lighter in her truck. A USB adapter illuminates blue assisting in locating the open plug on the adapter. The battery indicator begins to blink in a sequential motion indicating that the battery is a little over half full and charging.
iHeart radio is tuned into looking for news out of St. Louis.
Why hasn’t Frank called her? Perhaps it was God’s will, but her mind refused to turn to the possibility of a third dead family member. Considering the circumstances Francis is willing the best possible universe to her as she could muster.
The news out of St. Louis was just as bleak as the last time she tuned in. Thousands of missing people, thousands of demolished and damaged properties. All bridges unpassable. Initial units of the National Guard and reserve who had been conscripted to the area are now in place giving aid to the displaced and wounded plus restoring order where anarchy had ensued. More troops will be deployed to help as the victims both living, and dead are discovered.
Francis shuts off the radio and begins to pray. Prayers for her husband, prayers for her poor mother and son. Prayers for anyone and everyone directly and indirectly affected by the quake.
Her mind goes back to the last time the entire family was in Wisconsin together. Aunt Kay invited everyone up for an Independence Day celebration. There was the annual community event called Lake Days at the same time. The celebration included fireworks, live bands, a Door County fish boil, carnival rides, boat tours of the lake, a water ski show, bass fishing tournament, a kid’s fishing tournament and food of all kinds everywhere.
When the family was not at the community event, they were in Aunt Kay’s neighborhood. Kay arranged a block party picnic for the Sunday of Lake Days on her deck and in her backyard. Families for several homes on her street attended.
Franky was 8 years old at the time and loved every minute of it. He spoke for years about catching his first fish there, he marveled at the water ski jumpers and huge human pyramids. Most of all he loved the fireworks. There were three firework shows that weekend. Friday and Saturday night at Lake Days and on the Fourth of July in a nearby town just 10 miles south and west of Aunt Kay’s town.
The reminiscent smile on Fran’s face gives way to concern when she comes up on a T intersection that she can’t find on her map. Did she make a wrong turn somewhere? Thankfully, she still has the option of using the GPS application on her mobile device. At first Francis uses the app as a map which is conveniently illuminated. She zooms the map out just large enough to find the road she wants to be on and sets her GPS to lead her back on course.
By this time, she is over 40 miles north and east of Granite City. The road conditions are improving, and traffic is fairly light. Francis determines that her original plan to travel county roads is still the safest and continues toward south central Wisconsin.
Road signs on the county roads are not always in good condition and some of them were missing. This caused her to go off course a few more times. Each time using her maps application to get back on course. After eight hours of this zig zag path, fatigue set in on Francis. She decides that using the maps application for the remainder of the trip is needed to shorten the route.
The GPS settings are changed to utilize state highways only. Her GPS showed many red sections on the interstate highways indicating slow or stopped traffic. Staying on the roads less traveled was the only way to assure less stoppage.
The estimated time of arrival is still 4 hours away. What should have been a six-hour drive will be completed in no less time than 12 hours.
Before getting on busier roads with higher speed limits, Francis stops to empty the gas cans on top of her Suburban into the tank. The sun has now risen, she can see what she is doing without getting out a lantern. Emptying the cans will be good for the quicker speeds on main highways. They can be laid flat on top of the roof, cutting down wind resistance and the risk of the cans being blown off.
Gas cans are not designed to fill up automobiles, but she remembers seeing an adapter next to the spare tire. The spare tire is located in a compartment at the back of the cab. Several items must be taken out of the truck to access the storge bin. The adapter is exactly where she remembered it to be. Thirty minutes later the tank is full, the cans are back on top of the cab, all items are repacked in the back and she is on good highways.
The remainder of the trip would’ve been easier if not for the fatigue setting in on her. She got up at 6:30 am yesterday, it is now 9:00 am. She’s been awake for twenty-six hours. Twenty-one of those hours have been since the earthquake and not knowing what has happened to her husband Frank. Thirteen hours of them were with the knowledge that her mother and son are dead. A fatigue like she has never felt before. A fatigue that should not be wished upon your greatest enemy.
Francis is desperate to get to Aunt Kay’s home before she stops. Safety is not assured anywhere else. Safety is a commodity that she is in desperate need of. Her solution to fatigue is to roll the driver’s side window completely down. Turn the thermostat down to its coolest setting and turn the fan up full throttle high. She has to find a new radio station occasionally, but it is tuned to oldies. Songs she can sing along with. Songs that most people know by heart. Well, people of a certain age that is.
Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin. Kay Long is sitting on her deck sipping on a Bloody Mary while Kirk is pitching a tent in his back yard. The task would’ve been done several minutes ago, but Gunner keeps stealing tent stakes from the tote that the Gage’s keep the tent in. The dog carries one stake at a time under his favorite tree and then proceeds to chew on it. “Gunner! No! Ugh! Silly dog!” Gunner is enjoying playing a backward game of fetch with Kirk. Kay is quite entertained by the action. “Ha! Hey! I made a pitcher of Bloodies. It looks like you could use one.” Kirk stops, looks up at Kay’s deck and smiles. “I’m glad someone is enjoying this.” Then he strikes his best Russell Crowe stance from “Gladiator” thrusting a tent stake into the air. “Are you not entertained! Is this not why you are here!”
“Such drama.” Replies Kay. “The offer stands. Unless you wait too long. Inventories are limited.”
“Thank you for the offer. Be up there as soon as Gunner lets me finish pitching the tent. It should not be too much longer.” Kirk turns back to Gunner who has pilfered another stake.
Kay continues to laugh. “I’m going in to try calling Francis again.” The couple wave as Kay enters her kitchen on the other side of her patio doors.
Francis is nearing Kay’s town. The cool breeze and songs are no longer working to keep her awake. The truck veers slowly across the center line while she slowly gives into slumber. Then a horn blasts and her mobile phone rings in unison. Her eyes fly wide open in terror as she jerks the steering wheel back to the right in time to miss an oncoming vehicle.
Francis begins to bring the truck to a stop on the side of the road as she grabs her phone, answers it and says hopefully, “Frank?! Is that you?!”
“No sweetheart, its Aunt Kay. I’m so glad to finally get ahold of you. Where are you dear?”
Francis looks at her Maps App. “Less than 10 miles for your home. I should be there soon Aunt Kay. I have so much to tell you.”
Kay is full of questions. “Why did you think I was Frank? Why is he not with you? Where’s Franky and Rita? Is your home okay…?”
Francis cuts her off. “I can’t talk right now Aunty Kay. I will be there soon. We can talk then. I have so much to tell you. I’ve got to concentrate on the road Aunt Kay. See you soon. Goodbye.”