The sun had already risen by the time they emerged from the hotel. The sky was a pale blue with only a few wispy clouds left to remind them of the previous day’s tempest. That storm, however, left a lot of other reminders of its disruptive visit. The entire parking lot area, for example, from the hotel all the way over to the diner, was littered with debris. It wasn’t too major, though – mostly trash, with the odd shingle or piece of wood here and there.
Rennie did a once over of his truck and the rental trailer but didn’t find any noticeable damage. Stowing his and Josie’s bags in the back seat, he walked over to where she was saying goodbye to little Kylie and her family. Turned out they lived in Hendersonville, just outside Nashville. Kylie’s mother, Janice, and Josie exchanged numbers, with Josie even offering to babysit every once in a while. Hand in hand, they waved as the young family drove away.
Rennie and Josie started to make their way across the parking lot to the diner, when they heard someone call for them. It was Grant, so they waited for him to pack his suitcase in the trunk of his car and then walked over to the diner together. As they walked, however, it became obvious that something wasn’t right. First of all, there were no cars parked in front of the diner, and only one on the side. And as they drew closer, they could see that the diner was clearly not open. It was a little after seven in the morning and the diner was still dark.
Just as they got to the diner’s sidewalk, a petite young woman in what appeared to be a waitress uniform came bustling out of the front door. She was turning to lock it when she caught sight of them approaching.
“I’m so sorry,” she apologized as she finished locking the door. “We’re closed and I’m not sure if we’ll be open at all today.” It was clear she was in a hurry, as she moved to walk past them to the lone car parked on the side.
“Miss, I can’t help but notice something’s got you terribly worried,” Rennie called to her as she began to walk by. “Marge told us last night that the diner would be open at six, and here it is well after seven.” He looked down and openly noted her name tag. “Lila, is everything okay?” he asked, the concern evident in his voice.
The woman stopped and looked intently up into his face. After a few moments, her shoulders slumped and she shook her head. “No, it’s not.” She motioned back to the diner, “I normally start at seven but everything was dark when I got here. Marge and Henry, the owners, were supposed to be here at five to set up for breakfast but they never came.” Lila lifted up the cell phone in her hand. “And I can’t get them on the phone either. I call but it just rings and rings.”
“I was about to hop into my car and go check on them, when you walked up,” she finished, nodding to the green Chevelle off to the side.
Grant finally spoke up. “Where do they live?”
Lila glanced over at him and answered. “In a little town about five miles northwest of here.”
Grant studied her for a moment. “You’re worried it was the tornado.”
It wasn’t a question but Lila nodded, her eyes starting to well up with tears.
Turning to Rennie and Josie, he explained. “I was talking to the hotel manager earlier. It seems the tornado that sent us scurrying early this morning ended up touching down just north of here. A town a bit to the east of us got hit pretty hard, too ... maybe by the same tornado. But there were no firm reports of damage or injuries in yet from the north when we started to walk over here.”
“‘Yet’ being the operative word.” For Rennie, there was no question what had to happen next. “Let’s take my truck.”
The girls made quick work of all the stuff in the back seat, while Rennie and Grant unhitched the trailer. In no time at all, they were headed north, flying down the road to the little village of St. John. Lila sat up front with Rennie, so she could help navigate, while Josie and Grant hopped in back. Once on the way, however, Josie corrected an earlier omission by introducing herself, Rennie and Grant to Lila Waverly. She, in turn, thanked them profusely for helping her like this and then introduced herself.
Josie liked her immediately. Though they were about the same age, that’s where the similarities ended. Josie probably stood a good six inches taller than the short curvy blonde. She had heard the word “perky” used many times before, but this was the first time she actually thought it fit. Even though Lila was worried and distracted, her bubbly nature still shone through.
Turned out she had actually grown up in the small community where they were going. She had moved into Ferris – the town near where the hotel and café was – when she and her husband, Tom, got married right out of high school. When he was killed in a trucking accident about two years ago, though, it was Marge and Henry Steiger who’d been lifesavers to her and her little boy, Tommy.
They were like second parents to her, especially after her own had moved to Florida four years previous to be close to Lila’s older sister, Debbie, who had MS. She’d known the Steigers practically her whole life and even had their son as a babysitter a few times.
Upon mentioning the Steiger’s son, Lila gasped in horror. “Oh, no, I didn’t even think to call Rance.” Digging through her purse, she latched onto her cell phone only to groan in frustration. “No signal. Crap, he must be worried sick, too.”
Noticing the confused expressions around her, she tried to explain. “His first wife died of cancer a couple years ago and then, last year, he was almost killed while on vacation in Hawaii. He ended up losing part of his leg in the process. I sure hope everything’s okay, because while his life does seem to have gotten a lot better lately – what with a new wife and all – I don’t think he and his little girl, Hailey, could take any more tragedy.”
Josie noticed Lila begin to choke up, so she came to her rescue. “So ... what can you tell us about this town we’re headed to?” she asked.
“Well,” she paused, thinking for a moment. “Like I told you before, it’s called St. John. Only about 300 or so people live there – nearly all of them farmers. It used to be bigger but a lot of folks have moved away over the years.”
“There’s only one stoplight, a post office, a church, a couple of bars and a small convenience store—so if you blink, you’ll probably miss it.” She laughed.
“The town used to be called ... oh, wait ... I used to know this ... it was ... Ziffelbrau! I know, it’s kind of a funny name!” Her eyes sparkled at the remembrance.
With a wave of her hand, however, she quickly moved on. “Anyway, so the story goes, this whole village in Germany somewhere back in the 1800’s just up and decided to move to America. Somehow they all ended up here in Illinois and named their new place after the old village.”
“I bet they changed the name during either World War I or II.” Rennie observed.
Lila nodded. “Hey, you’re good! Yeah, it was World War I, I think.”
“Life was pretty tough for German-Americans during the World Wars,” Rennie started to explain to Josie and Grant. “Not as bad as those of Japanese descent had it during the Second World War, what with the internment camps, and all – but it was still difficult.”
“Right!” Lila chimed in. “My great-grandmother used to tell us how they weren’t allowed to speak German in public when she was a little girl. Some families even stopped speaking it altogether.”
“Well, for a time during the First World War, they had no choice.” Grant added in from the back seat. “In a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria at the time, Congress passed a law declaring speaking and teaching in foreign languages, such as German, to be illegal. It was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in the early 1920’s, as I recall, but the damage to a lot of minority communities was already done by then.”
Grant let out a deep hearty laugh when the other three occupants of the truck cab turned and eyed him with surprise. “Sorry,” he apologized with a chuckle and a shrug. “I’m a lawyer, and as my wife would have warned you, were she here, I’ve got a ton of useless trivia trapped in my cranium just waiting to pop out, whether you want it to or not.”
Rennie, looking at Grant in the rearview mirror, responded with a grin. “Actually, it’s a good point. I know a lot of German immigrants or their descendants around that time either took English nicknames or changed their names altogether to sound more American.” Turning to Lila, he continued, “So it makes sense that a whole town might change its name, too.”
“Problem was, they couldn’t agree on what to call it.” She responded. “So they finally decided to name it after the most noticeable landmark of the town, St. John Lutheran Church. It’s really a pretty church,” she said wistfully. “Beautiful stained glass. Hand carved wood everywhere. Tom and I were married there.” Lila gazed out the side window, her hand to her mouth. “I hope it’s still okay,” she wondered softly.
Josie reached over the seat and sympathetically patted her shoulder.
Lila was about to turn to say something to her, when she gasped out loud. The remains of what appeared to be a pole barn were strewn across the road up ahead, the twisted metal clearly blocking any immediate forward progress. Rennie slowed the truck and brought it to a stop just shy of the debris.
Before getting out, he reached down into the pocket of his door and retrieved a pair of leather work gloves. He indicated to Lila to do the same with the glove compartment. “I think my ex-wife’s gloves are still in there,” he told her. “They should fit you.”
Looking back at Josie, he continued, “There should be some additional gloves behind the seat from when we went to go get a Christmas tree. Be careful, though,” he told Josie with a big grin. “It’s been a while but they might still be a bit sticky from the sap.”
While Josie and Grant flipped the seat forward in search of gloves, Rennie and Lila got out to survey the damage. By the time Josie’s hands were suitably encased in leather – albeit a somewhat sticky variety of leather – the other two were already pulling some of the metal off to the side of the road. Josie and Lila then began to concentrate on the smaller pieces, while the men put their brawn to use trying to move what seemed to be a large part of the barn roof. Unsuccessful in their initial efforts, Rennie eventually called the girls over and the four of them were able to move it out of the way.
After ten minutes or so, they were all sweating and breathing heavy but satisfied there was nothing left on the blacktop that could take out a tire. Looking further to the north, the road appeared clear but the debris trail through the fields on either side was all too obvious and continued on for a ways. “That was one wide tornado,” Josie murmured to herself. A sentiment, shared by the other three, as well.
Returning to the truck, they drove on in silence until their destination came into view. Josie placed her hand firmly on Lila’s shoulder as the woman began to cry. It was sadly evident to the four of them that they were presently looking at was what was left of St. John.
Reaching over, Rennie put his hand reassuringly on Lila’s leg. “I know it looks bad,” he began, more optimistic than he felt, “but it really could be a lot worse.” He had stopped the truck and pointed up ahead. “See, it looks like most of the structures are still standing. Now, our first priority is to locate Marge and Henry’s place – so I’ll need you to point the way for me, okay?” he said rather forcefully, staring into Lila’s eyes.
She nodded as she blinked back some tears and wiped others from her cheeks.
“After that, we’ll just play it by ear,” Rennie finished, exchanging a look with Josie in the back. The expression on her face matched what he felt but dare not show to his passenger in the front seat. This looked bad, but he needed Lila with him for as long as possible.
Lila cleared her throat a few times and then pointed. “Stay on this road until it curves left and then turn right on the first road past the curve.” Her voice was shaky but stable.
Rennie had to go very slow, all the while dodging downed trees and other debris that was lying out in the road. There was not a house or building that was not damaged in some way. Most of the windows he could see were broken. And nearly all the roofs had a least a section missing. For a few homes, the entire second floor, along with the roof, had been torn completely off and dumped somewhere else. And then, here and there, were men, women, and children emerging from their broken dwellings to assess the damage.
As they made the turn, Lila kept looking around, shaking her head. “It’s all wrong. I’m not sure where to go next. I don’t really recognize anything anymore,” she admitted.
Rennie came to a stop.
“There! Turn left up there by the downed tree,” Lila pointed.
“The downed tree?” he asked with a loud chuckle. He couldn’t help himself. There were downed trees everywhere, though he was pretty sure he knew which one Lila meant.
Lila began to giggle and covered her mouth with her hand. After a moment, she patted Rennie’s shoulder and smiled. “Thank you,” she told him. “I really needed that.”
The truck began to inch forward again and Rennie turned where Lila had indicated.
“It should be the fourth house down there on the right,” Lila pointed out. “It’s a blue-gray house that ... oh, my!”
It was all she could say as they got closer. The houses on either side of the one she had indicated were seriously damaged. But the two-story bluish gray house that evidently belonged to the Steigers had taken quite the hit. Two hits, actually.
As they pulled up in front of the house, Rennie could see that two different trees had collapsed into the structure. What appeared to be a large oak in the neighbor’s side yard had blown over onto the two-car garage. While another tree in their front yard – it looked to be a maple – had been knocked over into the front of the house, doing an untold amount of damage. Still, the house was actually standing and most of the roof was intact, which was more than could be said for some of the other homes on that street.
They’d all gotten out of the truck and were standing on the lawn, taking everything in, when the front door opened. Rennie glanced up and saw Marge emerge from the doorway. Dressed in ratty clothing, with dirt smudges on her shirt and face, it was clear she had been hard at work.
Their eyes met and she smiled.
“We were just in the area looking for firewood.” Rennie’s deadpan deliver was smooth. “Would you happen to know where we could find some?”
Marge burst out laughing.
Lila had been looking elsewhere but once she heard Marge’s voice, she yelped and ran to her.
Marge just stepped down off the porch, took Lila into her arms and soothed her as she cried. “Hey, now,” she said softly. “Henry and I are fine. We’re okay, really. Just a few holes in the house, that’s all.”
Looking over Lila’s shoulder, she spoke to Rennie, matching his delivery. “I suppose we could help you out with the firewood, though you’ll have to cut it yourself.” Then she laughed again.
Rennie was laughing with her when he felt fingers intertwine with his. Knowing it was Josie, he affectionately squeezed her hand. She responded in kind. Glancing down, he saw tears in her eyes.
“Hey, what’s this all about?” he asked as he turned and lightly wiped them away with his other hand.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” she smiled weakly. “I’m just being silly.”
“That’s fine by me,” he said as he leaned over and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“A little lower, please,” she whispered, her eyes locked onto his.
A mischievous grin stretched across his face. He leaned over again and, without breaking eye contact, proceeded to kiss her on the tip of her adorable nose.