"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LXXIII)
The rain was falling so hard that as quickly as the wipers brushed it away, just as quickly the windshield became awash with water again. To make matters worse, night had fallen. Its soupy darkness, combined with the total absence of lights, the cloud-covered sky, and the torrential downpour made it nearly impossible to see much of what was happening outside.
The deluge had transformed the street into a stream, the storm’s thick raindrops pelting the right side of the minivan with such violence that it was difficult for those inside to it to hear each other..
Constant gusts of wind rocked the van fiercely, and wailed through the nooks and crannies in the windows and doors, no matter how small, as if a chorus of demented women were trying to break in. Occasional sprays of water blew through the top of the vehicle’s left windows, and cascaded down its inner sides.
“How are you holding up?” Michael shouted in order to be heard, looking back at his sister-in-law through the rearview mirror.
Jeannie was sitting in the center row of the van. Lucas lay to her left on a reclining backseat, and Ojeda on the opposite side.
They were heading towards the Santa Trinidad Hospital, some six miles away from Lucas’ home.
During the first fifteen minutes of their drive, they had made very little progress, still struggling to get out of their neighborhood.
Jeannie had managed to reach Michael through her walkie talkie, just a minute after Da’ud had walked out into the storm.
Michael had answered almost immediately.
“This is the Del Valle residence,” said Michael in a facetious tone. “How can we help you?”
“Michael,” Jeannie replied somberly. “I need your help.”
Jeannie’s brother-in-law had immediately sensed the urgency in her voice, and his tone had changed instantly.
“What’s wrong, Jeannie? he asked anxiously. “Is anybody hurt?”
Jeannie had stifled a sob, and then told Michael everything that had happened.
Michael had listened quietly, interrupting only to ask a few pointed questions, mostly about Lucas and Jeannie’s health.
“I’ll be right there,” he told her when she had finished.
It had taken Michael ten minutes to get to Lucas’ house.
He was wearing a Mackintosh yellow raincoat, but his cap had been blown off his head by the wind, and most of his clothes had been drenched by the tumultuous downpour despite his outer protection.
Michael had barged into the house like a madman, and dashed to the sofa where Lucas was lying.
Sophia and Gabriel had run to him and embraced him. Trying to adopt a cheerful tone, he had picked up both of them and kissed them with exaggerated contentment.
“There’s no need to fear! Uncle Michael’s here!” he announced loudly, while eyeing warily his unconscious brother-in-law.
“Uncle Michael! Uncle Michael!” both children shouted, vying for his attention. “Daddy’s hurt! Daddy’s wounded!”
“That’s okay,” Michael responded, returning the children to the floor. “I’m taking him to a doctor.”
Michael embraced Jeannie, who attempted in vain to hold back her tears.
“He’s very hurt, Michael,” she said quietly, while placing a hand on each of her two scared children, who were hugging her legs.
“Were you two alone?” Michael knelt next to Lucas and examined his wounds more closely. Even in the flickering light of the kerosene lamp that Jeannie had lit, he could tell that his brother-in-law was seriously injured.
“Ojeda!” Jeannie said suddenly. “I completely forgot about him!”
“Where is Ojeda?”
“Upstairs,” Jeannie responded. “He killed a terrorist trying to sneak into the house through the roof. But he was also wounded very badly.” She lowered her voice. “He may even be dead.”
Michael looked toward the stairs with a worried expression.
“Stay here. You say he’s upstairs? I’ll take a look. You stay here with the children.”
“He’s by the office.”
“Mommy killed a bad woman, Uncle Michael,” Gabriel shouted after his uncle, as he began to climb the stairs to the second floor.
“Quiet, Gabo,” Michael heard Sophia say in a hushed voice as, turning on his flashlight, he reached the top floor.
He had been expecting to come upon a ghastly scene, but even so, he was shocked by what he saw.
There was blood everywhere, as if the two men had slashed repeatedly at each other while destroying everything inside the small office.
The intruder was definitely dead, his eyes gouged out, shot several times. But Ojeda still breathed. He was bleeding profusely from two deep stab wounds in his left shoulder, one dangerously close to his neck, and from a third knife wound in his right thigh.
Michael had immediately realized that if the wounded security man was not medically attended soon, he would die.
And Lucas was not faring much better.
Neither man could afford to wait for the end of the storm. Michael would have to take them to the hospital at once.
Taking out his switchblade, he cut a piece of rope from the office’s window blinds, and did a tourniquet around Ojeda’s thigh.
Then, stepping gingerly over the other man’s body, he darted into the children’s bathroom, and found some bandages, cotton, and a bottle of alcohol in the medicine cabinet.
He returned to Ojeda, and dousing with alcohol some of the cotton, applied it to the wounds in the bodyguard’s shoulder.
It must have stung, since the security man opened slightly his eyes, and glanced at Michael with calm resignation.
“Is the rest of the family…is the rest of the family alright?” he whispered worriedly.
“Jeannie and the kids are fine,” Michael answered.
Ojeda closed his eyes gratefully.
“Thank God…And Lucas?”
“Is hurt, but he’ll pull through,” Michael muttered, as he placed a gauze over the wound closest to the neck, and began to apply white tape over it.
“I don’t think I’ll make it…Concentrate on Lucas…Save him…” Ojeda said.
“You don’t know shit,” Michael told him, continuing to work on his injuries. “The stab wounds are not so bad. You’re both going to make it.”
Ojeda laughed weakly.
“Thanks for the heads up…but I think this is it for me…”
Michael had stopped briefly, and looked directly at his companion. “Look, let’s make a bet. I’ll bet you a hundred dollars that you make it. You’re in my hands now, you know?”
“That’s a rigged bet…” he said. “How…how am I going to collect my winnings?”
His comment prompted a sneaky smile from Lucas’ brother-in-law.
“I’ll buy you the most beautiful funeral flowers anyone could hope to get. Now, can you walk?”
“No…I don’t think…I can move…”
“That’s what I was afraid you would say,”
“Fortunately, you’re not very big.”
Michael, on the other hand, was a big, well-muscled man, measuring over six feet one inch, who used to refer to Lucas—five feet ten—as “the runt” when the former was dating Vanessa.
“This may hurt you a little,” he said to Ojeda, easily raising the wounded man off the floor and sliding him over one of his shoulders.
Ojeda had grunted from the pain as he was being lifted, but then remained quiet, making Michael wonder if he had fainted.
Michael had descended the stairs slowly, and then stood next to Jeannie.
“I need to take Lucas and Ojeda to the hospital,” he told his sister-in-law. “I don’t…” He stopped himself just in time from saying that the two wounded men would not survive the hurricane, but seeing the children’s anxious faces, said instead, “It’s too dangerous to wait for the storm to blow over.”
“I’m going with you,” Jeannie had replied.
“I don’t think that’s__”
“Michael, this is not up to you. I’m going with you,” she stated flatly, rejecting any other alternative.
“But Sophia and Gabriel__”
“Can stay in your house with Vanessa,” Jeannie interrupted again. “I will go with you, or I will go alone.”
Michael nodded reluctantly.
“You have the keys to your minivan?” he asked her.
“I’ll get them,” Jeannie said, rushing up the stairs to her bedroom and returning a few seconds later.
Confirming that Ojeda had lost consciousness, Michael carried him to Jeannie’s minivan, a turquoise-colored Dodge Caravan parked in one of the house’s two interior garages. Then, he came back for Lucas.
With the power gone, the garage was dark, and Jeannie had to lead the way with a flashlight.
“Come on, runt,” he said to his unconscious brother-in-law, picking him up from the sofa and taking him to the Caravan, followed by Jeannie, Sophia, and Gabriel.
After placing Lucas inside the minivan, Michael squatted and addressed the two children directly.
“Now listen to me,” he said. “We are going to go out into the storm, and I am going to carry each of you to Titi Vane’s house. You’re going to stay there with Titi Vanne and Alfredo while your mom and I take your dad and Ojeda to the doctor, okay?”
Illuminated by Jeannie’s flashlight, the two children nodded, looking scared.
“Will Daddy be alright? Sophia asked.
Michael smiled at her and nodded.
“Yes. Your Uncle Michael is taking care of him, and you know that he is the strongest man in the world.
“My Dad is the strongest man in the world!” he replied, under a reproving gaze from his sister.
“That may be,” Michael responded, “but since he’s sick now, I’m the strongest man in the world.”
“The second strongest,” Gabriel automatically corrected.
“Gabo, listen to Uncle Michael,” Jeannie gently told her son.
“That’s okay, that’s okay, Jeannie,” Michael said with a smile. “I’ll settle for second strongest. But still very strong, right?” he asked, returning his attention to Gabriel.
The four-year old nodded.
“So we’re all going out in your mom’s car,” Michael stated to him. “You and Sophia will be in the front seat, next to me, and your mom will be behind you, to take care of your dad. And of Ojeda. We’ll drive as closely as we can to Titi Vanne’s house, and then I will take each of you separately to the house, okay?”
The two children moved their heads affirmatively, casting sideways glances at their mother to confirm if what their uncle was saying was acceptable to her.
“The wind is going to be blowing very hard, and you may get wet, but I’m going to wrap you inside my raincoat, and you’re going to hold on to me with your legs and your arms as tightly as you can, like little monkeys, or koala bears, until we get to the house, okay?”
Again, the two children nodded.
“Jeannie, can you call Vanessa and tell her what we’re doing?”
Jeannie had attempted to contact her sister-in-law through her walkie talkie, but Vanessa’s voice had come through garbled.
“I think I’ll have to go into the living room,” she said to Michael. “The reception in the garage is not good.”
While Jeannie tried to reach Vanessa, Michael had ushered the children into the passengers’ front seat, and then pulled upwards with his hands the garage door.
Fortunately, the hurricane’s wind was blowing diagonally from the opposite side of the house, so very little of its fury surged into the garage. However, outside, the world churned with uncontrollable violence.
Water rushed over the entire street like a small river, spilling over its curbs and flooding the sidewalks, carrying at great speed all kinds of debris and vegetation. A small tree on the opposite side of the street had fallen on the chainlink fence that surrounded the neighborhood park, crushing part of it.
Jeannie returned from the living room, and for a moment stared at the frenzied scene unfolding in the street. Then, she walked to her minivan, and opened the driver’s door, but Michael shook his head.
“Like I said before, I’m driving, you take care of the wounded. Did you get Vanessa?” he asked her.
“She’ll be waiting for us to receive the children,” she responded.
“We can always pick her up and bring Alfredo and her to stay here. Less hassle, less risk for the children, don’t you think?” Michael suggested.
“And stay here with all of the dead bodies in the house? No, thank you. The children and Vanessa will be safer in your house,” Jeannie responded.
After a moment’s hesitation, Michael nodded. Jeannie was right. He would be glad to abandon the house.
“But you don’t have to come with me,” Jeannie said to him. “This looks like a suicide mission to me, driving in this storm. I don’t think we have much of a chance to reach the hospital. No sense you losing your life. If Lucas dies, the children will need a father figure.”
Michael had looked at her as if she was insane, raising one of his eyebrows a la Elvis Presley.
“Are you kidding me? We are going to make it. Together. Piece of cake. I know you want to hog all of the glory for yourself, but let me take some credit.”
Jeannie stared at him, and tears welled up in her eyes. She kissed Michael on the cheek.
“You are a hero, and the best friend anyone could ever have,” she told him. “God bless you.”
“We’d better go.”
As the minivan backed out of the garage, it had begun to shake sideways, buffeted by the wind.
“Hang on!” Michael said to the others.
Slowly, he had guided the Caravan onto the street. Through his sideview mirror, he watched with growing concern the van’s back wheel roll into the gutter. A rushing stream of water had crashed against the tire, and covered it almost completely. Then the wheel had rolled onto higher ground, where the rainwater swirled around it at about one third of its height.
Michael had turned the vehicle uphill, in the direction of his home. The house was located less than one hundred feet from that of Lucas, a walk that normally took only a few seconds. But in the dangerous storm, walking that distance would have entailed serious risk, and even greater difficulty.
Fortunately, Michael and Vanessa’s house partially shielded the vehicle from the wind, lessening the impact of the storm. Nevertheless, Michael was shocked to see that two houses further up the street, a huge oak tree had fallen, its branches blocking all access beyond it. Michael had decided not to tell Jeannie about it until her kids had safely reached his home.
He guided the van as close to the sidewalk as he dared, but he still was forced to stop near the center of the road, where the ground was slightly higher. He feared that if the front wheel moved into the gutter, the considerable volume of water rushing downstream would stall his engine.
“Gabo, you’re first,” Michael said to the little boy, opening his raincoat. “Remember, I want you to hold on to me like a monkey, with your arms and legs wrapped around me as if you were climbing a coconut tree, okay?”
The boy nodded nervously, and scurried from the passenger seat to the driver’s side.
He hugged his uncle so tightly that Michael had laughed. “Wow! You’re really strong! I can hardly breathe!”
“Yes!” Gabriel responded with his eyes closed.
Michael covered Gabriel with his raincoat, and heaving against van’s door, pushed it open with his left shoulder.
It was difficult, but he managed to squeeze through the opening while holding on to the boy. The door slammed violently after he exited, shut by the powerful wind.
The rain momentarily blinded him, but then he saw Vanessa and Alfredo, nervously watching him from the door of his house.
He waded though the rushing torrent streaming down the street, stumbling several times, but finally managed to get a foothold on the sidewalk. It was also covered with water, but only ankle deep, and as he walked into his driveway he cleared the water altogether.
Several branches, some of them large, had fallen from the tree in their courtyard, but there was still enough room for him to squeeze by and get to the house.
“I bring you a present,” he said to his family as he reached the door and opened his raincoat.
Gabriel was still holding on tightly to him.
“You can let go now, buddy,” he told the boy, who slid down his wet pants and rushed to embrace Vanessa.
“I’m going back for Sophia,” Michael told his wife before she could ask him anything.
Walking again into the storm, he circled the van and made his way to the front passenger side.
“Your turn now, precious,” he said to his niece, opening the door with less effort, as the Caravan blocked the wind flowing from the opposite direction. “Hang on like your monkey brother.”
Sophia directed an anguished look at her mother in the back seat, who nodded to her reassuringly.
“Don’t worry, honey, we’ll be fine. I love you,” Jeannie said to her, blowing her a big kiss.
“I love you, mom,” Sophia responded with a frightened voice.
She embraced her uncle and, covered by his raincoat, was whisked out of the van.
This time Michael advanced with more confidence, splashing as he moved over the ankle deep water in the center of the road.
However, as he neared the gutter next to the sidewalk, his legs sunk deeper in the rushing stream.
Suddenly, something hard in the murky water tripped him, and he lost his balance.
For an anguished moment, he stumbled forward, and then he fell, toppling into the torrent.
The water covered him and Sophia completely, its current stronger than he had expected.
He was forced to release Sophia and use both of his hands to push himself up. As he cleared the water, he felt her slipping from him, and desperately grabbed her by the collar of her shirt.
Trying to regain his balance, he sat on the sidewalk, his back against the rushing water, and embraced the terrified girl.
“It’s okay, honey. It’s okay. I just tripped. Are you okay?”
Sophia nodded, blinking to see, coughing from the water she had swallowed.
Michael stood up and slowly renewed his march, finally making it to the safety of his house. There, he released the small girl to the open arms of her crouching aunt, who was waiting for her with a towel.
“I have to go,” Michael said hastily to his wife. “Before the street gets any worse.”
Vanessa stood up and kissed him passionately.
“Please be careful. Don’t do anything foolish,” she said to him breathlessly. “I love you!”
“Whoa!” Michael exclaimed with a crooked smile. “I’ll definitely be back. As soon as I can I’ll be back. We have to pick this up where we left it!”
“D-a-a-d!” Alfredo, standing next to his mother, said in a warning tone. “Gross!”
“Lock yourselves up, okay?” Michael shouted as he began to walk away. “This hurricane is far from over. You’ll be safe, but just try to be…extra safe!”
Michael sloshed his way back to the Caravan, and climbed back into it from the passenger’s side, where the door was much easier to open. Then he slid into the driver’s seat.
“Let’s go,” he muttered, dripping wet. “There’s a tree ahead of us that is blocking the road. We’ll have to exit in the opposite direction, and then take Avenida San Patricio.”
Michael backed the van into his driveway, and began to travel downhill.
The street descended to the main stormwater drain, the drain that Novas a few hours before had been clearing of debris. From there, the road again tilted upwards until it reached San Patricio Avenue some one hundred yards away.
Nova’s’ efforts to clear the rubble had not been totally in vain, since the gutter had disposed of an enormous volume of water. Even so, the drainage pipes could only absorb so much of the cascading stream.
In addition, new debris and rubbish had been carried by the downward currents that now flowed from both ends of the street, partially clogging the drain again. Consequently, a substantial pool of brackish water had formed at the bottom of the V-shaped street.
In the night’s inky darkness, the Caravan’s headlights faintly illuminated the flooded area, where thousands of splashing raindrops made it nearly impossible for Michael to gauge how deeply the water had accumulated.
“This is going to be close!” he said to Jeannie, driving the minivan onto the relatively higher ground of left sidewalk, opposite to where the street’s main drain lay. “Let’s hope the car doesn’t stall.”
Climbing onto the sidewalk, the Caravan slowly rolled into the surging pond of dirty rainwater until its wheels were completely submerged. The threatening sound of swirling water under the floor and along the sides of the vehicle made Michael cringe. The minivan felt dull and sluggish, as it encountered heavy resistance against its forward progress.
Fearing that water would get into the exhaust pipe and kill the engine, he increased the van’s speed, listening with concern as small waves rippled against the Caravan’s doors.
For a scary moment, the engine shuddered and sputtered, as if about to go out. But then, the minivan surged forward, as it began to clear the water.
With its engine belts squealing, the vehicle climbed out of the pool, and reached the other side of the road.
“Good car! Good car! Who said Americans don’t build great cars any more?” Michael said to himself, sighing with relief.
He continued to head towards San Patricio Avenue. There, he turned left, and started to travel up the long, steep incline that led to the Avenida Central, half a mile away.
“I told you we’re going to get there,” he said confidently to Jeannie, looking back and smiling. In the darkness, he could not see any of his passengers.
The avenue was eerily deserted, littered with broken branches of various sizes, overturned trash cans, and other types of debris, and criss-crossed with wires dangling like black vines from light and electric posts. Some of the cars lining up both sides of the street had been damaged, some heavily, showing shattered windows and dented hoods, trunks or tops, some entirely covered by toppled trees. And like in the street where Michael lived, various inches of water cascaded down the road’s pronounced slope.
About midway up the tall hill, the van’s headlights had illuminated the thick trunk and branches of an enormous tree that had collapsed across most of the avenue. Michael had paused to examine it briefly, seeing that its roots had sprung out of the ground, bringing with it a portion of the sidewalk under which they had grown, while its opposite end had crushed two of the parked cars.
There being no way to bypass the fallen giant, Michael turned to one of the side streets to his right, and traveled perpendicularly one block. Then he turned into a narrower road parallel to San Patricio Avenue.
The minivan slowly continued its journey, going up two more blocks through a residential street. The houses on both sides were made entirely of concrete, including their roofs, and so far they had withstood the fury of the elements with little apparent damage.
However, several terraces and carports, built of wood and sheet metal roofs, had been demolished, turned into mangled wrecks, often entangled with nearby fences, bits of crushed vegetation, and other unrecognizable debris.
Michael stopped at an intersection that, to its left, led back to Avenida San Patricio. The avenue—one block away—looked clear.
Hoping for the best, Michael turned left, then right, back into San Patricio Avenue. As his vehicle continued to climb towards the Avenida Central, he saw in his rear view mirror the dark, tall outline of the tree that blocked the street. Even though lying on its side, the tree looked enormous, its branches extending upwards more than three stories high.
For the first time, Michael realized that the rain ahead and behind him had thinned down considerably.
“The storm is weakening,” he told Jeannie.
“Let’s hope so,” she replied.
She was holding on to both of Lucas’ hands, watching him with intense anguish.
Her husband looked very weak, his face deathly pale. Every few minutes, she would place a hand on his chest, to see if he was still breathing.
“Hold on, my love,” she whispered tenderly, her voice broken by a sob. “Please hold on.”
Michael heard her, but preferred to say nothing.
Finally, the minivan reached the highest part of San Patricio Avenue, where it intersected Avenida Central.
From there, it was almost a direct drive to the hospital, less than five miles away.
And then the rain and the wind stopped altogether.
(Chapter LXXIV will be posted on Monday, January 3, 2021)