"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LXVIII)
The day deteriorated at breakneck speed.
Twilight came suddenly and prematurely, long before the rest of the hurricane made itself felt. Heavy clouds dimmed the entire neighborhood, enveloping everything in a murky shadow.
Lucas, Jeannie, and Ojeda stared with dread at the sharp contrast between the threatening landscape in the southeast, where Fay’s expanding presence was already manifesting itself, and the ever narrowing strip of blue sky to the north, where the storm was yet to reach.
The first rains followed, borne in the arms of powerful, carelessly random spurts of wind. In the distance, a dull rumbling hum began to herald the oncoming danger, ever growing in intensity, much like the grumbling sound of a heavy, approaching freight train.
“I don’t like this,” Ojeda said as he stared at the sky. “Is every hurricane like this?”
Lucas had been through two other hurricanes before, Hugo and Georges. Both had been very strong. However, he did not recall any of them announcing their arrival with such heavy noise.
“No,” he responded to his friend, grabbing Jeannie’s hand. “Nothing like this.”
The last remnants of the day disappeared quickly, throwing the day into a premature twilight.
The breeze strengthened into a steady stream of lukewarm wind, sweeping with it scraps of loose paper, small branches, and scores of leaves. The wind, however, blew from the opposite side of the house. Thus, nothing as of yet stirred in the unshuttered front porch.
To the south, too few and too distant to be heard, a few streaks of lightning flashed, casting an eerie, greenish glow on the surrounding skyline.
“Whoa!” Ojeda muttered in a soft, awed tone. “That’s spooky. I’ve never the sky glow green before!”
“Neither have I,” Jeannie said worriedly, while listening distractedly to the faint sounds of the television set inside, where Gabriel and Sophia were watching cartoons. She decided to make dinner before the power went out and headed to the kitchen.
As she walked away, Lucas’ cell phone began to buzz, and he saw in the screen that the call originated from his brother-in-law Michael, next door.
“Hey, big Mike,” he answered. “How are you, Vanessa and Alfredo holding up?”
“We’re hunkered down,” Michael responded. “This looks like it’s going to be pretty bad. In case one of the cell phone towers gets blown down, remember our ‘emergency channel’, okay?”
Their “emergency channel” was a pair of play-soldier ‘walkie-talkies’ belonging to Alfredo, which had a range of not more than 50 feet. Lucas and Michael had tested the toy communicators’ effectiveness earlier during the day, and after changing their batteries had confirmed that they worked fairly well.
“Roger that,” Lucas replied. He had already placed his “walkie-talkie” on the living room central table, where it would be available to everyone. “Take care of my godson and my sister.”
“I will. I imagine that your concern also extends to me.”
“You? That’s funny. Archie made me a similar comment earlier in the day, so let me give you the same answer.” Lucas said with a short laugh, “Vanessa and particularly your son, Alfredo, they’re irreplaceable. You…I can always get my sister a richer husband.”
“Ha, ha! You’re so funny!”
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” Lucas replied in a deadpan tone. “Just reminding you to be careful, since you sometimes tend to be a little reckless. And it’s not so much about you, as for the sake of your family. Maybe if you were handsomer.”
“You are such an ass! I’m too busy to waste any more time talking to you. I’ll see you after the hurricane. Just take care of yourself, okay?”
“You too, buddy,” Lucas replied, this time a little more seriously. "I mean it."
“Stay safe,” Michael added, ending the call.
Lucas walked to where his children were watching the Disney Channel, but two steps into the living room, the power went out, engulfing the house in a semi-dark gloom.
“Daaad!!” Sophia shouted. “The TV is off!!”
“It’s okay, honey,” Lucas said softly. “The electricity went away. Go with Mom. She will light a few candles, so that it’s not so dark.”
Lucas looked at Jeannie, standing by the kitchen’s door, looking frustrated by the fact that the storm had interrupted her dinner plans. He grinned mischievously at her.
“Maybe you can help mom light the candles,” he suggested to his children, evoking an instantly gleeful reply.
She grimaced and stuck out her middle finger at him. Then, with a forced smile, she turned to the children.
“Come on,” she said resignedly, walking out of the kitchen. “Let’s light up some candles!”
Jeannie and the kids carefully began to clamber up the stairs that led to the house’s upper floor, in order to retrieve the candles. But as they did, a tremendous gust of wind suddenly crashed into the house, violently slamming shut the door to the porch, leaving Ojeda stranded outside, and causing Jeannie to audibly curse with surprise despite herself.
Ojeda pushed the shut door open, looking at Lucas and grinning.
“Jesus! That startled me! The hurricane’s just arrived. Take a look outside!”
Lucas joined Ojeda, and from the door, the two men watched as Hurricane Fay began its terrible romp through the neighborhood.
What seemed to be tons of water fell almost horizontally, striking everything with uncanny savagery, pelting the front yard fence’s metal bars with thick drops of water so hard that they produced sounds like an off-tune xylophone.
The trees of the park across the street bent at severe, unnatural angles, their branches thrashing in the direction of the relentless wind, sometimes bobbing upwards briefly as if gasping for air, only to be crushed back by the inexorable weight of the storm.
Only the palm trees failed to bend. Their fronds flailed helplessly in the wind like stringless kites, and more than a few were blown away, but their trunks stubbornly stayed upright, refused to yield.
Even though the hurricane’s force was assailing the house from its opposite side, the spray of the windblown rain began to drench the porch and the two men.
“Let’s get inside before we get soaked,” Lucas said, ushering Ojeda into the living room.
The loud sound of something slamming repeatedly suddenly grabbed their attention. The noise seemed to originate from the backyard, a random, metallic sound, sometimes booming violently, other times repeating itself in less intense thumps.
Lucas walked into the kitchen and strained to look through a thin crack between two of the metal storm shutters, but his view was blocked by the small flight of stairs that descended from the kitchen to the yard.
“What the hell is that?” Ojeda asked.
“There’s a room in the back, facing the backyard, that’s not connected to the rest of the house. This is an old residence, built in the early fifties, when many people had live-in maids.”
“Which now would be me,” Jeannie said, coming down the stairs, holding on to Gabriel’s hand, while Sophia trailed behind her, carrying a box of candles.
“Well, I wouldn’t call you just a maid,” he said. “You’re also the cook, the nanny…”
Jeannie struck him hard on the arm as she finished descending the stairs, making him wince.
“And the boss,” the latter added.
Lucas directed Ojeda a mock, hurt glance.
“Thank you, my supposed friend,” he said.
“I’m not your friend,” Ojeda replied innocently. “Just your bodyguard.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lucas said in an offended voice. “Anyway, It sounds like the door to the maid’s room somehow got open, and is being slammed by the wind,” Lucas concluded. “We stored most of the large terrace furniture in that room. I must have not closed its door correctly, or the wind blew it open. I’ll have to go out and shut it.”
“Is that safe?” Jeannie asked with genuine concern.
The two men briefly considered the question.
“I’ll be partially protected by the walls of the kitchen,” Lucas concluded. “In any event, we can’t let the door bang against the wall all night long. It will either crack the wall, or fly off its hinges, and in either way drive us crazy. We’re only experiencing the outer fringes of the storm now, with tropical force storm winds. So now is the time to shut the door. We can’t risk to be hit with the hurricane strength winds, or it will be worse.”
“I’ll go,” Ojeda volunteered.
“No.” Lucas shook his head. “There’s some wire that I can use secure the door by tying its inside door handle to the window’s iron grill. That will be the best way of making certain that the door doesn’t open and bother us again later.”
“So give me the wire. I’ll secure it,” Ojeda said.
“The wire is inside that room, which right now is a mess of furniture and boxes where you can hardly walk,” Lucas responded. “I know precisely where it is. You’ll never find it. I’ll be alright,” he said to Jeannie, who stared worriedly at him. “Just get those candles going.”
Jeannie seemed to hesitate for a moment, then relented.
“At least, put your raincoat on,” she said grudgingly.
By “raincoat” she referred to one of the flimsy plastic ponchos that the family had purchased earlier that year in Disney World.
“It will blow right off if I do, or if not, I’ll probably go flying off with it.”
“You’ll be soaked,” she insisted stubbornly, not wanting him to go.
“I’ll be soaked anyway. I’ll change when I come back,” he told her. He saw that she was still worried, and added, “Look, if it makes you feel better, Ojeda can keep an eye on me from the kitchen while I close down the room.”
The security man, not looking totally convinced either, nodded.
“Okay,” Jeannie said. “Just be careful. Don’t do anything stupid out there.”
* * *
Lucas dashed out of the kitchen, while Ojeda watched from behind him.
The moment that Lucas had opened the kitchen’s door, the wind had caught it and flung it aside. It had taken Lucas’ full strength, holding on to its handle, to keep it from smashing it into the wall behind it. He had then stepped outside, and instantly been buffeted by the storm’s fury.
Slowly, blinded by the thick waves of unwavering rain, he had fought his way down the eight steps of the kitchen’s stairs, holding on to the balustrade on his left. Then, he had taken a couple of stumbling steps into the yard, and turned toward the maid’s room.
Just as he had suspected, the door to the room was open and flailing wildly. It moved sharply back and forth almost as if with a life of its own, sometimes slamming violently against its frame, then opening again and swinging wildly, sometimes quickly, other times with insolent hesitation, as if daring him to approach it.
Having turned his back on the wind and the rain, Lucas was shoved unevenly forward. It took all of his strength to stay upright and not be propelled towards the room.
Everything around him felt weird and threatening, as if he had stepped into an alien world. Inside the house, Fay had shrieked as it crashed against the walls, seeking to enter through every nook and cranny that it could find. Outside, the storm had a different sound altogether.
It was the roar of thousands plants and trees being buffeted by the unrelenting wind, and the brash sound of constant, pulsating waves of rain, punctuated by the occasional crash of solid objects carried away by the storm. The entire world outside moved and whirled around him. It enveloped him, pressing him forward, moving over, under, and through his clothes like some live, fluid entity, much as an eel slithering through water.
To his surprise, the storm felt surprisingly tepid, as tepid as the breath of a live being, and even the rain felt much warmer than he had expected it to be.
It all scared him. He quickly became convinced that the hurricane was alive, that is had a will of its own, conscious and evil, and that it fed on the destruction it wreaked.
As he neared the open, thrashing door, he noticed that it was warped. It was made of white-painted aluminum simulating wood, and apparently the powerful storm gales had pushed it inward to the point where in had deformed, bending in the middle, pried open by the wind. It would never close by itself.
Lucas had approached it awkwardly, moving in clumsy spurts, until he had reached the open entrance. Grabbing the door’s edge, he had pushed it open and rushed into the room.
Inside, a light blue ceramic lamp he had placed on a table had fallen and broken into various shards. The rattan chairs closest to the door and their padded orange cushions had been soaked by the gusts of windblown water, but most of the furniture seemed to be okay.
Lucas moved further inside, and began to seek for the few loose feet of coiled wire he had mentioned to Ojeda. He planned to tie one end of it to the door’s inside handle, step afterwards outside, and pull the door shut as much as he could.
Then he would tie the opposite end of the wire to the iron grill covering the room’s outside window. The door would remain a crack open but, if the wire held, the room would be shielded from most of the hurricane’s fury.
With the power out and the day’s light failing, it was difficult to see inside. Lucas made his way through the cramped space, cursing himself for not bringing a flashlight.
He moved through one of the three tight corridors he had left open in the packed room to move about, toward an old dresser where he remembered having left about twenty feet of plastic-covered wire.
It was fairly dark, but as he swept his hand over the dresser’s polished surface, he was rewarded by the reassuring feel of the coiled wire.
He grabbed it, and turned to head back toward the room’s entrance. However, at that very moment, something heavy struck him hard on the left side of his face.
It stunned him, causing a thousand multi-colored stars to explode inside his head.
He struggled to stay upright, trying to grab onto anything that would keep him from falling.
However, as his consciousness began to wane, his hands slid over the dresser’s smooth top, and he crashed backwards between two of the stored rattan chairs, some of the nearby stacked boxes toppling on top of him.
“You disappoint me,” he heard a distant man’s voice say to him in an amused tone. “I expected a lot of more of a fight from you.”
And then, everything went black.
(Chapter LXIX will be posted on Thursday, December 17)