Allie woke up in a panic. She had a driving urge to pack supplies, but she didn't know why, or how much to pack, or what to pack for. She couldn't remember what she had dreamed, but she had a feeling that something bad was going to happen. The feeling had an almost physical presence to it, like a weight; it was unlike anything she had ever felt before. So, at 2 o'clock in the morning, Allie found herself in the kitchen packing reusable grocery bags as efficiently as possible with bottles of water and shelf-stable milk. A day or so earlier, she had picked up some boxes so she could pack away some extra kitchen items. She was in need of better storage space in her cabinets. Instead of kitchen gadgets and extra dishes, however, the boxes now held cans of vegetables, fruit, chicken, tuna, beef stew, and soups. She packed some utensils, two can openers, and a couple plates and bowls on top of a cast iron skillet. She finished that box off with a pot and its lid. Being uncertain of what to do with the bags and boxes, she set them in the floor in the corner of the kitchen. She wasn't even sure if they'd need them, let alone when.
Once she had finished in the kitchen, she went to the hall closet closest the bathroom. She and John kept it stocked with various first aid items. There was a couple black gym bags on one of the shelves. She took one and began putting bottles of hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, and iodine in it. In the second bag, she placed bandages, ointments, wraps, and several different over-the-counter medicines for headache, fevers, and the like. After everything was neatly stored in the bags, she placed both of them back on one of the shelves before returning to bed. She didn't know why, but packing those items gave her a sense of calm. She was incredibly tired all of a sudden. The sleep she couldn't find just an hour ago would now not be ignored.
WWWWAAAAAAAHHHHH! WWWWAAAAAAAHHHHH! WWWWAAAAAAAHHHHH!
The emergency tone blared from the cellphone in her back pocket. Allie stood at the tub where she or Nikki, the salon owner and groomer, would bathe all the dogs. Lucy, the curly-haired Cocker mix she was bathing, turned her head side-to-side, inquisitively. Her floppy Cocker ears perked, inasmuch as floppy Cocker ears could perk. She didn't know whether to be playful or fearful. Allie rubbed the side of her soapy face to help her calm down.
“What in the world? It's okay, Lucy Lu,” she dried her hands on a towel that hung by the tub. Lucy stood and watched with an odd curiosity as Allie pulled the phone out of her pocket and looked at the screen:
PUBLIC SAFETY ALERT
*** There is an emergency alert active for this area until further notice ***
“What emergency alert? That's nice and specific, ain't it, Luce?” She scratched the top of Lucy's head. “Hey, Nik,” Allie called out from the tub. She heard the humming buzz of the clippers stop as Nikki told Winnie, a small-statured Yorkie, to settle down.
“Did you get an emergency alert on your phone?”
“No, I haven't heard anything.”
“Okay.” She heard the buzz of the clippers start back up. “Well, that's odd.” Allie finished bathing and rinsing Lucy, and proceeded to give her an initial once-over with a towel. She took her from the tub and set her in one of the wire drying kennels, where a warm flow of air awaited.
Allie walked back to the front of the salon, to her desk, and sat down. She pulled the phone from her pocket, but it didn't offer any additional information than it had a few minutes prior. “That was weird. I'm bathing Lucy, and next thing I know, the emergency tone is going off in my pocket. Scared the crap outta me. Lucy wasn't very impressed either. When I looked at my phone, there's a Public Safety Alert that said there was an emergency alert active for this area until further notice.”
“Huh. That is strange. I haven't had anything come up on mine.” She had paused from trimming Winnie's paws to glance at her phone, in case she had missed something. When the emergency tone went off, she almost dropped it. “Geez!”
“Well, that's good timing.” Allie's tone was flat. She wasn't one to run to the darkest corner, but something didn't sit right with her – it hadn't been sitting right all morning. From the time she woke up, everything felt off. The thought flitted by, like a half-whispered word, what if today was the day she had packed for? The town was quieter than normal, and the overcast skies didn't help. Her husband, John, had noticed the same thing as he was bringing her to work that morning. It was a warm September morning when she came in to work, but there was a chilly undertone to the breeze that she didn't expect. Nothing felt right. Even the dogs were fidgety.
Nikki was reading the message with a confused look on her face. “A Public Safety Alert but it doesn't say what kind of alert it is.” She looked up at Allie. “So, do we prepare for a tornado or an asteroid? This is stupid! Aren't they supposed to tell you what to prepare for? Do I need to go get Jenny from school? Or is this just another Amber Alert?” Allie could tell she was trying to keep her anxiety under control, but it was roaring under the surface, like a deadly undertow.
“Why don't you call the school and ask them if they know anything about the alert? Maybe they'll know more than we do.” Allie was always trying to offer suggestions to help Nikki with her anxiety. Neither girl realized it, but Allie had become a source of consistency for Nikki. They complimented each other well, and worked together seamlessly. They had both found the friend each had spent the last 35 years looking for.
“Good idea,” she was pulling up the school's number on the phone as she finished her sentence. While Nikki was on that call, Allie's phone rang. John's picture popped up with the name Home underneath.
“Honey, I'm coming to get you. There's an alert coming over the phone. I've talked to Mike about it. I'll tell you more when I see you. Be ready to go, OK? Tell Nikki she needs to be ready to leave, too. It's an emergency. I love you.” The phone beeped and the line went quiet. Her stomach dropped. She knew something was wrong, but wasn't sure if not knowing was better or worse. In the 20 years she and John had been together, half her life now, he had never sounded like he did on that call. He was worried, but focused. And scared. Looking over at Nikki, Allie saw she was grabbing her purse and her keys while she was still on the phone.
“I don't care. You'll have her in the office and ready to go by the time I get there, or I'll go in the classroom and get her myself. Either way, she's coming home now!” Nikki disconnected the call and stopped in front of Allie. “I've got to go get Jenny.” Her hands were shaking.
“John's on his way. He's been talking with the sheriff. He said you need to be ready to leave, too. There's some kind of emergency. I'll call Lucy's and Winnie's moms and let them know.”
“The school said the Chinese are talking about a missile heading this way. Possibly nuclear.” Nikki was short of breath and tears spilled down her cheeks. She was shivering. “That idiot at the school said they didn't want a panic, so they weren't sending anyone home. She's stupid enough to think they're going to keep my daughter. I've got to go.” She had a thousand-yard stare. Allie could tell Nikki was trying to process what she had been told, and think of what to do next at the same time, but wasn't able to think at all. Nikki rolled her eyes up and stared into Allie's. “Al, what do I do?”
“Get on the phone with Rich as you go get Jenny. Tell him to start packing a bag for each of you. In each bag, tell him to pack a couple pairs of socks and underwear, one pair of cold weather shoes or boots, one pair of tennis shoes, a warm shirt and pair of pants, and a short-sleeved shirt. A blanket a piece would be good, too. Pack quick, but pack smart. Tell him to get all your all's toothbrushes, toothpaste, and a hairbrush, some soap and shampoo, pads, and some toilet paper. Put it all in a box or a bag, doesn't matter. Wherever there's room. Then, he'll need to get as much food and water together as he can pack. Again, pack quick, but smart. Use a couple of the boxes you guys have left from the move. Water is most important, then canned food – chicken, tuna, ravioli, peanut butter, veggies. Shelf-stable stuff that doesn't need to be refrigerated. You pick up Jenny, then you guys help him finish up when you get home. Be quick but be careful. Don't forget the cats and their food. If you don't have a carrier, take one of the extra kennels from here. I'll find out what I can from John and Mike and call you. Be ready to go in case there's a shelter we can all head to.”
“Thank you.” Nikki's voice was barely a whisper. “You think this could be a joke or something? What about the salon cats? What do I do with them? What if there's no shelter?” The tears continued to fall.
“I'll gather the cats here and get them in a kennel. I won't leave them behind. And no, I don't think it's a joke. I would think if it were, the sheriff would be wise to it. Compartmentalize what you can, you have to be sharp and fast right now. Go get Jen, I'll call you soon.” They hugged each other. Both had tears at this point as neither of them was certain whether this was a “Goodbye,” or a “See you later.”
“We'll keep in touch as long as we can. Y'all be careful, Nik. Keep your mind on your driving while you're in the car, OK? Don't be distracted.”
“You guys, too. Be careful.” And with that, Nikki was out the door. As Allie called the girls' owners and those due in throughout the day, she brought a medium-sized kennel from the back drying area up to the grooming area. She put a blanket and a few towels on the kennel pan, then grabbed the four cats that called the salon home, and put them inside. Even they were quiet.
Winnie and Lucy sat and watched as Allie ran to the cats' room and got the plastic pail that held their kibble. She placed what cans of wet food she could find inside the pail. When she set it down by the kennel, she stopped and looked at the cats inside. They all stared back, so innocent and trusting. She burst out in heaving sobs. The dogs came over to comfort her, Winnie sitting by her foot, and Lucy placing her two front paws on one of her legs. Allie sat down in the floor, her back to the check-out counter, and hugged them both.
While in the floor, she heard the electronic chime of the front door go off. There was a footstep or two, then the metallic clink of the pet gate let her know it was John. If it had been Winnie's or Lucy's ride, they would not have come through the gate – they would have come to the counter. He was to her within seconds.
“Baby, it's alright, but we have got to go. We don't have much time and we have our own babies to get ready.” He squatted down and wrapped his arms around her. She hugged him tightly, then he pulled away and looked at her. “We have to grab everything we can and meet Mike back here in town. According to him, there's a tunnel from the early 1900s that runs under Main Street. Not many people here know about it. We have to get the babies and some supplies and get down there. We only have about 20 minutes til impact. They suspect it'll hit around Yellowstone, affect the farmland and maybe the Supervolcano. The 1,600 miles between here and there will give us a little more time, but we still have to hurry so as to stay out of the aftermath.”
“I have to tell Nikki. And we have to take the cats, I told her they'd go with me. The dogs' moms are on their way. They should be here anytime. I can't leave them, they're so scared.” When she looked at him, he knew he wouldn't say no. He grabbed the kennel, and took it outside to their Expedition. He laid the third row seat down and situated the kennel safely inside. Allie was on the phone with Nikki while he was outside. She told her what she knew about the tunnel, and where to meet to gain entry. Sheriff Chamberlain would be there letting in whoever showed up, and directing them where to go once inside. The girls agreed to find each other there before they hung up.
The dogs' moms showed up at the same time, just as John was finishing up with the cats. Allie felt a wave of relief when she saw them. She handed the girls off, and told the women about the tunnel. They both expressed their gratitude for the information. “I hope to see you guys there,” Allie said as she threw up a hand to wave goodbye. Both ladies returned the sentiment and rushed out the door to call their families. The thought of not seeing Winnie or Lucy again hurt her heart. They were so good to try and comfort her when she needed it, she did all she could to try and return the favor.
Allie closed and locked the salon door for the final time. It felt like she was closing the door on everything in her life as she had known it. When she walked through it earlier that morning, life was normal. She and John had plans for the weekend, there were bills she needed to pay when she got paid, she was going over a mental list of what she needed to get at Wal-Mart after work that afternoon. All those daily machinations were shut up inside the salon, never to be dealt with again. She climbed into the passenger seat of the SUV, closing her own door on that kind of thinking for a while. She told Nikki to compartmentalize, and now it was time for her to take her own advice. There would be time later to ruminate over things lost, and if there wasn't, then that meant she wouldn't be there to miss them anyway.
She and John headed home, discussing their plan of action as he drove. They had a 10-minute drive into the county before they reached their house, so by the time they got there, they knew how they were going to tackle the task of packing up their furry family members, as well as themselves. As soon as John shut the truck off, they set forth to divide and conquer. John packed four kennels into the back of the SUV, and loaded their German Shepherds into them. Allie went inside and put their two cats into a small wire kennel, then placed it next to the salon cats. Two 50-pound bags of dog food, four 4-pound bags of cat food, and several cans for both were packed into the back alongside the kennels.
Thanks to Allie's previous early morning escapades, packing the truck didn't take them but about 10 minutes to complete. By this time, the bomb would have hit near Yellowstone. John and Allie took about three minutes and packed some clothes into a suitcase. They came from their bedroom and paused for a minute in the living room for one final look around. Allie picked up her mother's urn and a couple of her paintings. John grabbed a picture of the three of them from the wall, and one of his parents that hung next to it. Suitcase and photos in hand, they walked out the front door and left their house for the last time. As they pulled out of the driveway, John laid his arm over on the center console, like he often did. Allie grabbed his hand without thinking. Many of their rides together had started in this fashion. Allie's thoughts turned to their phone call from earlier that morning, to his picture coming up with the name Home underneath. It's the home, not the house, that matters, she thought. And, together, with their family, they would always be home.