Claudia doesn’t know how long she’s slept or what time it is. She yawns, stretches cramped limbs. Her right leg gives a massive twang and begins to spasm, sending her sliding off Hal’s lap onto the floor. She catches herself on the arm of the chair, whonging her other knee. Definitely not a good sort of pain. The chair helps her lever herself upright until she’s standing on her rubbery legs. Tomorrow is not going to be a pain-free day.
Her fumbling makes Hal grunt and shift in the chair. So the man does sleep, after all. His face cracks nearly in half in an enormous yawn — the light is dim, but, God, are those his tonsils? The quiet is so pervasive that she wonders if she’s finally gone deaf from the racket caused by the hurricane. Then she begins to notice sounds — someone’s snore, the kettle whistling in the kitchen, two kids arguing over a pillow in querulous voices, another tremendous yawn from Hal. The wind that was shrieking all day has dwindled to a low howling that spatters rain against the siding. Well, the siding that was left, anyway.
She reaches down and nudges his shoulder. “Hal, wake up. I think the storm’s beginning to die down. Maybe it’s a good time for you to go out and see if you can reason with that bull. There’s probably still be a rope tied between the house and the barn to make it easier to get out there. It still seems pretty nasty out there.”
“Yup,” he grunts. “I’m going.” He yawns again and heaves out of the chair, then looks down and warms her with those eyes, brushes his lips against hers. “Be right back.”
“Be careful, ok? I’m going to check on the kids, then see what we’ve got to feed people with. I’m starving, and I bet I’m not the only one.”
The kids seem fine. Most of them are asleep, exhausted from excitement and stress and fear. She sees Lucas trot off toward the back bathroom. Dav sits with another boy, their heads together over what look like trading cards. Marcie is fast asleep in Drake Gerritson’s lap. The older man snores once, loud enough to wake himself up, jerks upright, then lays his head back down and goes back to sleep. He looks as worn out as the toddlers. But Ruby is still awake, her amber eyes shining eerily in the half light. Still watching. “Yeh, all the boys finally got that broken corner walled off to Penelope’s satisfaction–” Ruby grins, all white teeth in the dim light, “–and she tell Pen, hey, you go down cellar, get some rest. He folds like a pair of deuces. That man is not well.”
“We’ll find Estelle,” Claudia says.
Ruby grunts. “Yeh, we do that soon as we can.”
In the kitchen Haroldine and Penelope and Steve sit at Pen’s kitchen table, hunched over a pot of some foul-smelling tea like the Wierd Sisters over their cauldron. They mutter amongst themselves as Claudia starts to sort through the boxes and bags and coolers of food that people brought with them when they came. Twenty minutes and a completely-planned menu later, they’re still at it, debating softly and cutting quick little glances over at her. She really wishes that she could hear what they were saying, even though it’s none of her business.
No matter. She pulls a big pot out of the cupboard, fires up the second propane camp stove, and starts browning ground beef and venison for a huge pot of chili. They’re drowning in canned beans, might as well use them. Her throat clicks when she swallows. Ironic, to be so thirsty, cooped up in this sweltering, humid, rain-drenched house. Lucky her, to get the very last glass of kool-aid out of the pitcher. She leaves it on the counter, though, and starts chopping up the onions before they start to make her eyes water.
Haroldine stands up with a grunt and grabs the big battery bucket off the counter. She snags Claudia’s freshly-poured glass, drinking half of the blue kool-aid in one big swallow. “That just hits the spot,” she says, “Be right back. Batteries need changin’ in all those lanterns.”
She swings back through the door as Claudia is browning the onions. Aunt Frog has a bucket in one hand, a jug of something in the other. “Here y’are. Y’oughta be drinkin’ outta this one instead of that kool-aid anyways. Gonna need the therapeutic properties if Hal keeps pouring all that sugar on ya.” The older woman grins slyly as Claudia puts down the spatula and opens the plastic jug. It’s cranberry juice.
Oh, man, did everyone in the house know that she and Hal had gotten nasty in the linen closet?
Then Hal bursts through the back door, shaking himself like a wet dog. Steve and Penelope shriek in protest and find somewhere else to be. He saunters up to her and proves that he’s been doing some eavesdropping of his own.
“If I were you, baby, I’d drink the whole jug of that stuff,” Hal chuckles. “You’re gonna need it.”