Going down the stairs was a lot easier than going back up was. “We’ll have power tomorrow,” I wheezed to Lucia as I finally reached the top of the five mile staircase.
“Well we need water now,” she snapped while she tried to clean Bennie’s now shirtless arm with some baby wipes she’d run to the truck to get. The first aid kit that always stayed in the linen closet except when in use was open on the table beside her.
“No kidding,” I said fighting the dizziness and pain in my own arm.
Lucia stopped then shook her head. “I’m hormonal so ignore me. Sit down and let me look at your arm before it goes septic.”
“Listen to you and your bad ol’ nursing self,” I joked, trying to put off the inevitable.
“Geez don’t remind me, right now is nightmare enough. Dad is going to kill me for flunking out. Why I needed all that math and science is beyond me. All I wanted to do was help people. I wanna do first aid, not be a friggin’ pharmacist.” I let that one go. I knew nursing wasn’t as easy as some people made it out to be and these days it was even harder because of the types of loads they had to carry. Lucia played at being a nurse when all she really wanted to be was a glorified candy striper that made people happy.
“Sit!” she ordered. I sat; she didn’t exactly give me much choice. I nearly puked while she cleaned the gash on my arm where a bullet had grazed me. “It didn’t go in like Bennie’s but it left a mark.”
“Furrow,” Bennie called it sounding even queasier than I felt.
“Whatever,” Lucia said nodding anyway. “Both you bums got off lucky and I oughtta let you have it for scaring me like you did.” I let that bit of illogic float by too without a comment. “Bennie you need to lay down and get your feet up; you’re clammy. Joey …”
I shook my head at her. “Get Bennie settled in the … the back bedroom I guess. Its’ the only one that’ll fit him downstairs. I promise you the last thing he’s gonna want to do is climb stairs.”
“I’m fine,” he objected but his eyes were crossing like he was having trouble focusing.
“Sure, and Lucia is a nun from St. Agnes.” Lucia gave me a dirty look and told me to watch my mouth before I cursed her. “Go on Bennie. Sooner you give in the sooner you can get up.”
When Lucia came back to the kitchen she said, “Seriously Joey, you need to lay down too.”
“I will but I wanna see the chickens first. If they have food and water I’ll leave them alone and if not … I’ll have to think of something else. That’s food for us and besides, I don’t like the idea of any animal suffering if I can help it, not even a bunch of dumb chickens.”
In the end I had to get out the tractor and wagon and bring the nasty things back to the barn. There was an old chicken yard my dad used to store construction material in and that is where I turned the chickens loose. I’d thrown a half dozen or so dead ones out into the brush at the enemy camp and a couple of the ones just sitting in the yard didn’t look too healthy either. None of the dumb clucks seemed to know what to do with themselves at first but eventually most of the three dozen birds that remained started scratching around and foraging through the grass. I poured a bucket of water from the stream into a shallow trough and prayed they’d learn to drink from it – drink, not drown – before dying of thirst.
The chickens weren’t the only things I brought back. I pulled some of the lighter items – mostly just paper products – out of the panel truck and brought them back to the house and Lucia helped me to bring them in and find places to stash them.
Sticking my head in the door I asked, “You think Bennie is OK by himself for a while? I could use some help with …”
Lucia interrupted, “Yeah, he’s sleepin’ it off but you ain’t going nowhere. You taken a look at your face Joey? You’re the color of moldy provolone.”
I started to say something smart aleck back but having been born with a modicum of commonsense I closed my mouth and came in and sat at the table while she ladled some minestrone soup into a bowl that she then put in front of me.
“Tastes like horse crap but it’ll fill the holes. Here wipe your hands with this and use some of that hand sanitizer before you pick up your spoon. I hate those lousy store brands; just look at this stuff. Why did you get a whole case of it?” she asked aggrieved.
Realizing the soup was probably from the items I had bought at that Dollar General I told her, “Because it was on sale and I figured we could doctor it up.”
“There ain’t no doctoring what came outta that can. There are a buncha jars in the pantry but I didn’t know if they were still good or what.”
I got up and stumbled over to the door that opened into a space dad had called the coal room but that he had stripped and then remodeled into a pantry for Mom. Sure enough there were shelves and shelves full of jars of home canned and dried stuff. Using the flashlight I was still carrying around on my belt I looked at the dates on many of the jars and whistled. “Wow, Mom must have been on a real tear last time they were here.”
“Huh?” asked Lucia having only caught the last few words of what I had said.
Talking more to myself than Lucia I muttered, “Oh wait, I remember. She said something about the outrageous deals she had picked up as some fair or farmers market or something like that … or maybe both? My heads too fuzzy and I can’t remember.”
Lucia gave me a strange look. “Joey what are you talking about?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lucia wasn’t a bad cook – our mothers wouldn’t have allowed that – but she was a reluctant one and she had absolutely refused to have anything to do with learning skills like preserving food or making breads and pastas from scratch. She got food poisoning one time at her aunt’s and it influenced her from there on out about all of that stuff; a mental block sort of thing. She didn’t trust anything that didn’t come from the store with a label on it, preferably in a box or can.
“Did you get Bennie to eat?” I asked as I finally started to eat the tinny tasting soup with some stale crackers.
“Bennie could be three-quarters dead and sliding fast and he’d still eat. The guy’s got a cast iron stomach that is never too full to tuck a little more into,” she snorted.
I smiled because while it might have sounded like an exaggeration I’d witnessed that it was pretty close to the truth. But my smile fell away as I began to slow down long enough for reality to creep in.
“Joey, when do you think they’ll get here?” Lucia was quiet and serious – something she isn’t normally – so I guess reality was beginning to set in for her as well.
Trying to believe in the “when” and not think “if” I began speculating aloud since it is what I had been doing in my head already. “Geez … it’s a tough call Luce. Traveling I64 the whole way it is 900 miles from The City to here but there’s no way they’re going to be able to do that. We saw for ourselves that any type of interstate or highway was a snarled mess. It took us two days, driving around the clock, to go about 450 miles. And unless Tony works some serious magic they’ll have some fuel issues to deal with too. That tank your folks drive sucks for gas mileage.”
“And? That still ain’t saying when they’ll get here.”
Shrugging I agreed. “I know Lucia but anything I come up with is just a guess.”
“So guess already,” she snapped impatiently.
“Fine,” I snapped back, irritated at the pressure she was putting on me. “But don’t go blaming me if I’m wrong. If it took us two days – or a full 48 hours of driving – to go about 450 miles that means we made roughly ten miles per hour including breaks, traffic congestion, and that stop at that store. Getting off the interstate is going to add at least a hundred miles to their road trip, let’s be conservative and add two hundred but for all I know it could be more. That’s around eleven hundred miles which gives us 110 hours of driving which is about four and a half days straight if they drive round the clock like we did.”
After a breath I continued, “But they’ll be moving through denser population areas and the traffic is going to be much worse than what we saw, at least until they can get into West Virginia, so add another twenty-four hours for that and the fact they may have more road blocks to deal with. New York plates might make them a target too … but if I’ve thought of it Tony probably has and who knows what he’s got up his sleeve. And there is no way they are going to be able to keep up the round the clock pace for that long the way we did even with their extra drivers; the cars will overheat if nothing else. So add another twenty-four hours for that. A hundred and ten plus forty-eight is …”
“Don’t look at me,” Lucia complained. “You’re the friggin’ human calculator.”
“I know … I’m just fried. Cut me some slack. It’s 158 hours or about six and a half days; let’s call it an even seven or a full week. We’re in day three so seven minus three …” I stopped, my head truly aching. “Look, at best I think it will be another four days before they get here.”
“Four more days?!” Lucia yelped. “How am I supposed to wonder if they’re all right for four more days Joey?!!”
“By staying busy. Tony didn’t say for sure but it sounded like there were in three vehicles. Let me think … gah … my head is killing me.”
Suddenly pulling out her proverbial nurse’s cap Lucia admonished, “You need to rest. You’re having caffeine withdrawals too. I’d give you something but I don’t want anything thinning your blood or messing with your circulation at all or you could just make your arm worse and leave it open to infection.”
“Fine but if my head explodes it’s on you,” I told her tiredly trying to remember the pressure points for headache relief I learned in that screwy intro to health and the human psyche class.
“Why did you say they were coming in three cars?” she prompted me.
“Stuff Tony said. My brothers were taking turns driving my parents with Leo – that guy Tony went to school with I guess is who he meant – riding shot gun for them; that’s one car. Actually probably a truck since they knew they would need the clearance. I think it’ll be that Chevy that Dad bought when I was home for spring break. Then I know Tony was in a different vehicle but he wasn’t driving and Ana was in the back seat.”
“Tony’s riding with the twins?!” Her shocked laugh echoed off the kitchen tile.
I winced, her shrill voice peeling a layer of my brain away. “Yeah, that’s what I asked but he blew me off. The only reason he’d ride with even one of them is if he had to which means if there wasn’t room for them any place else. I only heard Tony, then Ana screaming about someone’s driving, and you know she wouldn’t do that to your dad.”
“Naw ‘cause Dad would reach back and smack her if she did. So that means Tony had a driver and my family is in a third car,” Lucia finished.
“Yeah and probably with a driver which is why Ana would have been riding with Tony.”
After a resigned paused she asked, “So … what is so important that it can keep us busy and sane for four days?”