Chapter 9 – A Brief Respite
Kay Long puts her Bloody Mary down on the breakfast bar in her kitchen and wanders to the guest bedroom to make sure it is ready for Francis’ visit. Visit. Somehow, she does not think that Francis’ arrival will be the typical definition of a visit.
Francis answered the phone by blurting out “Frank?! Is that you?!” The words and the urgency in Francis’ voice has Kay wondering and dreading the reason. Frank, Franky and Rita should be with her. Their phone conversation was too short to know who was with Francis, however, it was clear that Frank was not with her and she was willing the call to be from him.
The bed as always is ready for a guest. Kay turned her attention for a few minutes making sure that there was plenty of room in the dresser and closet for any clothes that will need to be hung up or tucked away.
Francis pulls up into Kay’s drive at last. She is relieved to finally arrive safely but dreading the news that she must share with her aunt. Answering the call, the way she did must’ve thrown up a huge red flag for Kay. At least Kay will be ready for bad news. But THIS bad?!
The engine is shut off. Exiting the car, she begins the mental preparation of telling her story for the first time to someone who cares as much as she does. Before the doorbell can be rung, Kay opens the door, steps out and gives Francis as big of a hug as her small frame could muster.
“Oh, Auntie! My world is crumbling around me. I don’t know what to do!” exclaims Francis as she bursts into tears in the comforting arms of Kay.
The two remain in an embrace, as Kay gives comfort to her distraught niece. “It’s ok dear, let’s get you inside. You can tell me what has happened. It’s safe here, you are safe now.” They remain embraced until the sobs begin to subside.
Safe. All things are relative. Kay assures Francis that she is now safe, even knowing what happened to Kirk and Gwen Gage the night before. But whatever happened to Francis and her family must be far worse than the events in her little town the night before. Kay had no way of knowing how much worse the St. Louis area was, but she was about to find out.
Once inside, Kay ushered Francis to the couch. “Sit down dear.” They both take a seat on the couch. “Tell me what is happening dear. Why aren’t Frank, Franky and Rita with you?”
“Oh, aunty Kay. I do not even know where to start. It is hard to wrap my head around everything that happened yesterday. The earthquake was beyond imagination, but the events afterward are worse than any nightmare I could dream up…” Through many tears and several starts and fits, Francis was able to retell the story of the previous day to her aunt. “…the hardest part is not knowing what has happened to Frank. I can’t bear any more bad news auntie. He has to be alive!”
Tears begin to fall again. Kay embraces her niece. “I know this is hard, but you need to keep the faith. Let’s make a few phone calls. Maybe someone at FEMA or Missouri state government can help us find him.” Kay can see that Francis is exhausted. “How long have you been awake? You look so tired, dear.”
Francis thinks back. “I’ve been awake, except for a moment that I fell asleep behind the wheel an hour or so ago. Um, I got up to go fishing at 6:30 yesterday morning.”
“Oh, my indeed! That’s um…over 30 hours! We need to get you some rest. I’ve got a room ready for you. Come on, let’s get you to bed.”
“I don’t think I can sleep. I don’t know if I want to sleep. Dreaming about the last 30 hours is the last thing I need!”
Kay shakes her head slowly and calmly responds. “No dear, sleep is the next thing that you need. You need to be rested if we are going to find Frank. If there was chaos in Granite City, its worse in St. Louis. We both need to be at our best, to do that we need to be rested. Come on, I will get you some melatonin, that will help you fall asleep.”
Francis considers refuting Kay but thinks better of it and reluctantly agrees to get some sleep. “Here are my keys in case you need to move my truck. Do you think it will be safe on the driveway?” Kay takes the keys from her hand and nods. “Yes, it will be safe out there, but I can probably get Kirk next door to help me unpack it for you. I’ve talked about Gwen and Kirk, remember? Anyway, Kirk is off work for a while. The quake has altered business all the way up here. His factory is shutting down until things settle down a little. I’m sure Kirk will help.”
Nodding her acknowledgment Francis responds. “I remember you talking about Gwen and Kirk, and their big German Shephard dog.”
Kay interrupts. “Gunner.”
Francis looks confused. “Gunner?”
Kay smiles. “Yes, the dog’s name is Gunner.”
“Oh! The dog’s name. Yes, I’ve seen pictures of them on your social media pages.” Francis pauses. “This quake has split the country into two parts. It’s unbelievable. Anyway, you don’t need to do that auntie; we can get it after my nap.”
The longest 30 hours of her life is finally coming to an end. She knows that there is much to do, finding Frank is foremost in her mind. But aunt Kay is correct, rest is needed for what is next. Within minutes of sliding into bed, Francis is sound asleep.
“Knock, knock. Finally got that tent up and Gunner is back in the house. Where’s my bloody?” Kay looks up startled to see Kirk Gage at her deck door.
“Shush!” Kay whispers loudly. “Francis is here. She’s asleep in the spare room. The poor thing drove all night and all morning getting here from St. Louis. Take a seat on the deck, I need your help.”
Kirk and Kay sit across from each other around the deck table. “Of course.” Replies Kirk. “Just name it. Francis? You mean Francis and family, right?”
“No, just Francis. It’s a long and sad story.” Kay holds up the Suburban keys. “Can you help me unpack her car? I can fill you in on what happened while we work.”
Kay fills Kirk in on what Francis experienced at the Mississippi river, the condition of the Hart home, all of the looting and, of course, violence that determined the fate of Frank Jr. and Rita while they remove Francis’ items from the Suburban.
Kirk stops to reflect. “Oh man! That makes what happened around here look like child’s play. It is hard to imagine that we are some of the lucky ones. What can we do?”
Kay shrugs a little. “Francis will not rest long. She will want to find Frank as soon as possible. I don’t know where to start. Perhaps I try to contact FEMA, or our federal reps. I don’t think she’s eaten in a long time and I’ve got a pretty lean pantry right now. Who prepares for something like this? Do you have any ideas?”
Kirk thinks, begins to speak, then thinks again. His response is a portion of the original thought. “I stopped at the grocery store after filling up with gasoline yesterday. We have some fresh foods. I tried not to over buy, but yes, I was thinking of putting a large shoulder roast on the smoker out back. It will be dark before the roast is done. It would not have been responsible to buy more fresh produce and meat than Gwen and I could eat. So, I didn’t buy too much. I did anticipate that grocery aisles would empty out quickly. Remember what happened during COVID19?”
Kirk stops to think, then continues. “That was nothing compared to this. Supply lines west of the Mississippi are closed to ground transportation. Until bridges are inspected, repaired, or rebuilt; airfreight will be the main way to get products over the river. I suppose trucking to the river, unloading, boating across, then reloading on another trailer could be an alternative.”
Kay nods knowingly. “I got caught a little off guard. Francis and her family are always welcome here, but it was unexpected. I’m just glad to be here for her. This is a nightmare.” I know that it is a lot to ask for right now…”
Kirk cuts her off. “We have plenty Kay. I get the feeling that we are all going to need to keep our strength up for whatever lies ahead. I’m going to get the smoker grill fired up. Don’t worry about food tonight. We’ve got this. I will let you know when the food is done. Goodbye Kay. We will pray for Francis and Frank’s safety.”
Kirk turns to leave as Kay thanks him and says goodbye.
Gunner is once again let out of the house to join Kirk in the backyard. The briquet chimney is moved from the kettle grill to the offset smoker grill, filled with newspaper under the basket, and charcoal in the basket, then lit. Man and dog go back in the house to season the roast with dry rub while the coals heat up.
Kirk’s mind races while he works, the events of the previous night at the gas station and Francis’ harrowing story are weighing heavy. What could possibly happen next?
After the roast has been seasoned, Gunner knowingly heads for the door. Kirk obediently follows with the roast. They both head to the smoker grill with this evening’s main entrée.
When the coals are orange hot, they are transferred to a hot box on the side of the smoker. Hickory blocks about 4” long are stacked in the box as far as possible from the heat while he begins to clean three grates with a long handle wire brush. When the grates are clean, the wood is placed on top of the coals. Kirk waits, watching the internal temperature until it reaches 250 degrees, then sets his vents to the opening that he instinctively knows will maintain the heat at this magical temperature.
Kirk sets the roast fat side up in the middle of the grill, grabs a beer from the fridge and sits down on a patio chair and waits. Gunner curls up just off to the right in front of his master.
After taking a few sips from the beer bottle, Kirk thinks to let Gwen know that Francis is at Kay’s house and that he is cooking for all four of them tonight. The following text is sent. “Hey beautiful. Kay’s niece Francis from St. Louis showed up this afternoon. Alone. Her mother and son are dead, and she has no idea where her husband Frank is or what may have happened to him. It sounds like things are pretty ugly at the quake site. I’m cooking for the four of us. The menu will include a smoked pork shoulder, mixed greens and sauteed yellow beans from the garden. We can take food over to Kay’s house. I’m sure they will want their privacy”
Once his beer bottle is empty, Kirk tosses it in the recycle bin then checks the smoker to be sure his vent settings are good. The thermometer shows 250 degrees, perfect. Attention is now turned to the garden. He sees plenty of fresh lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and peppers that can be used for this evening’s greens.
Most items have been harvested. The indeterminate plants like cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini are still producing harvestable veggies. They sowed extra lettuce and spinach as other plants came out. This turned out to be a smart activity.
Kirk looked over their garden, pleased not only that there was plenty of fresh greens to make a salad for four, but also in the bounty that was harvested throughout the summer. Radishes and carrots had all been consumed shortly after pulling them, but most items were either canned or dehydrated and stored for future use.
For future use. The future may be now. Perishables and canned goods cleared out fast from the grocery shelves yesterday. The good news is that produce and fruit coming up from the south east will have a direct path to retailers east of the Mississippi river. Stores should be able to replenish these items over time.
States west of the fault line will be able to get items from the west coast and north west Mexico. Supply lines issues are suddenly quite local.
Quite local indeed. Kirk thinks about Kay who, like many, buys food mostly to prepare as she needs it. An overly stocked pantry for someone who lives alone was not a thought on the front of Kay’s mind. Suddenly she has someone to care for and a limited pantry. The limited food supply is compounded.
Kirk knows that there will be many in the same boat as Kay. He and Gwen have been diligent to plan for the two of them, they didn’t plan for any other dependents. Will they have any unexpected guests during this time? Will any unexpected guests be of the unwelcome type? Like the rubber knife gang at the gas station last night.
Thoughts such as these fill Kirk’s mind between trips to the smoker grill. Optimistically, he hopes for the supply chains to recover quickly. Or at least adapt quickly. Human nature is to overreact at best and panic at worst. Times like these can bring out the best in some and the worst in others. How will this neighborhood, this community, the nation as a whole respond?
Gunners ears perk up. He can hear their cars blocks before pulling up into the driveway. Gwen is almost home! “Gunner; come.” Kirk summons the dog into the garage where they wait for her arrival. “Gunner; heel.” The dog sits at Kirk’s left hip as Gwen’s car backs into her usual spot in the garage. Once the car is in park and shut off the dog is released from any further commands for now. “Good boy Gunner!” Gunner gives a bark of approval as Gwen approaches, first giving Kirk a kiss, hands over her backpack and scratches the dog behinds his left ear.
“Welcome home baby, how was the ER? Crazy, or no?”
“Crazy? No. But…different. There were more than a normal number of people complaining of chest pain. Most of them, thank god, were just stress related pain. Few MIAs. The maternity ward saw a spike in admittances today. This quake really got people in an uproar. How was your day? Tell me about Francis, did you talk to her?”
Kirk leads Gwen outside to the deck. “I’m still watching over the smoker, come out with me. No, I have not seen or talked to Francis. She was sleeping while Kay and I unloaded her car. You are not going to believe what Francis told Kay.”
Gwen pulls up two patio chairs, grabs Kirk by the wrist. The couple sits and Gunner lays down in front of them with his right hip resting on Kirk’s right foot. “If I’m not going to believe it then we need to sit down. Go ahead, tell me what Kay said.”
“Francis was fishing along the banks of the Mississippi, stopped to have lunch. While sitting on the back of her SUV the ground shook so hard it threw her onto the ground!”
“No! Threw her out of the car?!” Gasps Gwen.
“Yes…out of the car! But that’s not the weirdest part.”
“I gets more weird? Go on.” Replies Gwen.
“Yes. There are explosions toward St. Louis and behind her. At first, she thought it was a nuclear attack. Then the RIVER STARTED FLOWING BACKWARD, TO THE NORTH!
“Oh, that is weird.”
Kirk holds up his left index finger. “That’s not all. Then the river goes dry. That’s when she gets in her car and headed for home. Except her home was damaged severely by the quake, so she packed up all of the items she thought the family would need for the journey to Kay’s and went to get her mom.”
Gwen touched his right wrist. “You said her son and mother are dead.”
“Yes, this is where it gets tragic. She arrives at her mother’s home to find them dead. Her son must’ve gone to check in on his grandmother when looters got them. Francis ran outside to yell for help because all the phone lines were down, except the looters were the only people to hear her. No 911, no law and order. Chaos. Long story short, she got in her SUV and escaped. Now she’s here, sleeping in Kay’s guest room. She has not heard from her husband. We are lucky compared to this.”
Gwen’s hand moves from Kirk’s wrist to his hand. “I can’t imagine. Nor do I ever want to.”
The couple gets up from their chairs for a kiss and a long embrace.
Gwen breaks from their embrace. “I need to change clothes beautiful. Do you want anything before I come back out?”
“Yes.” Responds Kirk. Can you get the roaster oven out of the cabinet please? I want to finish this roast the easy way. It’s been smoking for several hours. I will finish it at 250 degrees for a few hours. I’ve been babysitting this grill long enough. It’s our time now.”
Gwen gives him a quick kiss and turns to go in. “After my shower baby. I’ve got to wash the ER off of my skin. I thought I was done with the ER. Guess not. I will get the roaster out later. Beside it will give you something to do while you wait for me to come back.”
Kirk smiles, follows Gwen as far as the garage refrigerator, grabs another cold bottle of beer, opens it and heads toward his faithful grill. Gunner follows Gwen into the house. The temperature is still a steady 250 degrees. Satisfied that all is well with the pork, he settles into a chair to enjoy a cold brew.
For the moment, Kirk is enjoying this time in the backyard. Gwen is home, his roast is smelling great 4 hours into the smoke. The afternoon is unseasonably warm like the day of the quake. Kirk can’t help by think that this day feels more like late spring than early fall. The leaves have not hinted at changing colors yet. If it had not been for the day before, he would be reveling in this day. Before he knows it, his beer bottle is empty.
Kirk is jolted from his ease by the sound of an unfamiliar voice behind him. “The smell of whatever your cooking woke me up.”
Startled, Kirk’s head snaps backward as he bolts from his chair. The events at the gas station have him uncharacteristically suspicious of strangers.
“Can I help you?!” Retorts Kirk.
“Oh! I’m sorry, I’m Francis Hart. Kay’s niece. I didn’t mean to startle you. I couldn’t find Kay, I smelled something good coming from here and just followed my nose.”
Frank’s posture now takes on a more submissive posture, knowing what Francis is and has gone through the last two days. “That’s quite alright. I’m Kirk Gage. Please have seat.” Kirk offers her his chair. “Would you like something to drink. Beer, water, soda, anything.”
“No but thank you for offering. I need to find my aunt. I thought she might be here.”
Gunner notices the stranger talking to Kirk and begins to bark from the inside of the Gage house. Soon Gwen comes out in a robe to see who Kirk is talking to. “Hi, I’m Gwen Gage, Kirk’s wife.”
Francis holds out her hand. “I’m Francis Hart. The smell of your barbecue drew me over to see what was cooking.”
Kay emerges on the run from her home. “Francis! Francis! Your phone was ringing, but I didn’t get to it fast enough!”
Just then the phone begins to ring again. Francis looks at the display. “It’s a St. Louis number, but I don’t recognize it.” She answers. “Hello. Can I help you? Frank! Frank! Is that you! Is it really you!”