"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LXXIX)
They had moved the still unconscious Lucas to a private room, his stretcher followed by the exuberant chatter of Jeannie, Michelle, and Archie.
But he had stayed behind, waiting for news of Ojeda.
The noise of Fay had gradually abated, to such an extent that after two hours of waiting, Michael had walked to the entrance of the emergency ward, and taken a peek outside through a small crack left open between two metal storm shutters.
There had been three other men, including a security guard, who periodically stared out through the opening, quietly talking among themselves. They all stood on the left side of the entrance, avoiding the strong breeze that blew through the slit with a periodic, undulating whistle.
“It’s starting to weaken,” the guard—a large-nosed man with a white shirt, dark blue pants, and a bulging holster hanging from his belt—said to Michael when the latter glanced at the weather outside.
The dawn’s glimmer had begun to seep through the early morning’s heavy clouds. The rain had started to taper off, stirred sporadically by bursts of wild wind that surged unpredictably, whipping into a frenzy the vegetation surrounding the building.
Scores of trees, mostly ancient, thick-trunked giants, had been uprooted and fallen one on top of the other, forming a jumble of wet branches and shredded leaves. The entire floor outside was covered with torn green, yellow, and brown foliage, which tumbled and whirled like a living, seething mass with a will of its own whenever a strong breeze blew through it.
Another big tree, Michael wasn’t sure what kind, had toppled over the truck that had rescued them, flattening its cab and hood. It had been a big vehicle, he thought, but Hurricane Fay had crushed it like an egg.
“You should have seen what happened a couple of hours ago,” the big nosed guard told him. “A tree just seemed to fall right out of the sky straight into that fountain,” he said, pointing to the grassy area where a partially crumbled fountain still stood in front of the emergency drop-off area, “And it stayed standing there, fairly upright, as if it had been planted there all the time for about what…Fifteen minutes?” he asked an older, blue-eyed man standing next to him.
The older man nodded. “Fifteen, twenty minutes,” he confirmed.
“Then this incredibly strong gale came out of nowhere and hit it from below__”
“Caught it from underneath,” the old man said. “Inflated it, like you see the umbrellas do during a windy rainfall.”
“And it lifted the tree, took it up and away!” the guard finished saying, shaking his head with amazement and laughing with admiration. “Just took the tree with it. I don’t know where it ended up!”
“The wind also blew into the lobby, tumbled a few chairs, and blew every paper in the reception area!” added the older man, while the third man in the group, a middle-aged man wearing the red jacket of an ambulance paramedic, nodded emphatically.
“So the tree just flew away?” Michael asked with a certain degree of skepticism.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the guard replied.
“Did you see it fly away?”
“No, not completely. At one moment it was there, and began to rise…It was dark, but you could see it. At another moment it was gone. I thought it had fallen, but now that there’s some light, you can see it’s gone.”
Michael continued to look through the entrance opening.
It was true. If a tree had indeed landed there—upright—there was no sign of it now.
A gray glow had begun to filter through the even grayer skies. It showed the fountain where the tree had supposedly rested, toppled and nearly demolished.
He looked at his watch, an inexpensive digital Timex wristwatch that to his great surprise had continued to work even after his repeated immersions in the water, and he saw that it was nearly six thirty in the morning. He had left for the hospital nearly twelve hours before, when he had dropped Sophia and Gabriel in his house.
The storm was passing. Soon, people would begin to come out of their shelters, to see the damage that the hurricane had inflicted, and to seek aid.
He had tried calling Vanessa about a dozen times throughout the long night’s wait, but it had been useless. Cell phone communications were down.
The corridors of the hospital continued to be lit by the emergency lights that were powered by one of the three generators of the hospital. The air conditioner was off, but the temperature was cool.
Some of the medical personnel was resting in the sitting area of the lobby, many of them asleep, but others were busy, checking on those patients that had been brought during the night.
There were not that many of them, Michael noticed. It was probably due to the severity of the storm, which impeded much movement along the roads. That, he suspected would change soon, as the injured and the sick began to trickle into the hospital.
Michael had lived through two previous hurricanes. Apart from his terrifying experiences of the night before, he knew that the worst part of the storm was its aftermath.
Hurricanes tended to suck out the breeze away for days, and—because power was interrupted, sometimes for weeks—those days were usually followed by humid, oppressive, air conditioned-less heat and sleepless nights.
Travel would be difficult, if not sometimes impossible, and gas would have to be saved because gas stations would—for the most part—be unable to operate.
Even those that had their own power generators would quickly run out of fuel, since the tank trucks from the gasoline companies would be unable to travel through the debris-strewn roads to replenish the depleted reservoirs.
Such usually mundane things as drinking a cold glass of water would become a luxury, since there was no power to refrigerate ice or cool the water. The noise of small, home generators would soon resonate through most residential neighborhoods, as would the smell of burning coal and barbecues, as people tried to consume their frozen foods before they spoiled.
Michael returned to the waiting room, and confirmed it was still empty. He wondered if during the time he had been away, there had been any news about Ojeda.
He walked to the floor’s reception desk, and found the area semi-dark and empty.
Leaning over the counter, he shouted, “Is anybody here?”
He repeated his inquiry several times, and finally a nurse emerged from a small room behind the desk.
She was in her forties, on the plump side, with a brown, nondescript hairdo that sprouted out of her green cap, brown eyes, a wide nose, and a kind, tired grin. A name tag identified her as Marisol Lopez.
“Hi,” she said yawning and smiling at her visitor. “I was taking my morning break and drinking some black coffee,” she said to Michael.
“You have coffee?” he asked, smiling back.
“Would you like some? We just made some in a sterno.”
“I would love some, if you can spare it,” Michael replied.
Lopez started to move towards the back room, but Michael stopped her before she left.
“Wait, before you go,” he said to her.
“Sure, how can I help you?”
“I’ve been waiting most of the night to find out how my friend is doing. He was in the O.R.,” Michael said tiredly. “I’d love to get any news about him that you’re able to discover, so that I can sleep easy.”
“Of course. Wait here and I’ll find out. What’s his name?”
“Ojeda…er…Alex Ojeda, I think his full name is,” Michael responded.
Lopez looked at him with curiosity, wondering what kind of friend would wait all night for news from the O.R., and not be certain about his friend’s first name.
“Wait here. The phone system is down. He’s probably in the recovery room, in the next floor.”
“Thank you!” Michael said gratefully. “And after that__”
“Some coffee!” Lopez cackled happily.
It took the nurse ten minutes to return. When she did, she brought with her a doctor.
“This is Dr. Velez,” she said noncommittally. “He’ll tell you about Mr. Ojeda.”
Velez, a pale, pleasant man in his early sixties, eyed Michael with detached weariness. “You are Mr. Ojeda’s friend?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“We tried to send word a while ago, but found no one in the waiting room,” he said, staring past Michael at the room behind him. “I am so very sorry, but we couldn’t save your friend. He passed away half an hour ago, in the recovery room.”
The news struck Michael like a physical blow. He swooned, and had to hold on to the counter in order not to fall. Dr. Velez saw his reaction, and grabbed him by an arm.
“Nurse,” he called to Lopez, afraid he would not be able to hold the taller visitor if he fainted.
The nurse rushed out from behind the reception desk, carrying a small paper cup with coffee.
Between the two of them, they led Michael to one of the chairs in the waiting room.
* * *
Jeannie sat next to Lucas’ bed, her right arm extended, holding on to his hand. After a very brief awakening, he had quickly fallen asleep again and remained unconscious during all of the time that she had been with him in his room.
The notion that something was wrong, that he would never wake up, terrified her.
Exhausted, she would drift in and out of an uneasy sleep, her dreams always taking her back to the terrorists in her house just as they were about to kill her and her children. Then she would be jerked back into the present, awaking abruptly.
As she stirred out of her last nightmare—her arm feeling numb from the exertion—she tried to let go of Lucas’ hand and sit back into her chair. However, Lucas held on to her.
Hopeful, she searched her husband’s face for any indication that he was awake, that his grasp on her hand was not a reflex reaction.
At first, she could not detect any sign that he had regained consciousness. But then, Lucas’ eyes opened slightly, and as he saw her, a thin smile formed on his lips.
“I must…be…in Heaven,” he said softly.
She tried to speak but could only produce a loud sob, standing up and covering his face with kisses.
“Where…where…am I?” he asked her, as she took both of his hands into hers and pressed her cheek against them.
“In the hospital,” she finally managed to say, briefly wiping her nose with the back of her hand. “How do you feel?”
“As if…if a truck…drove…over me,” he answered, slowly examining his surroundings. “Did it?”
Jennie shook her head, smiling.
“They’re okay. They’re with Vanessa. Michael drove us to the hospital.”
“Michael…” Lucas repeated, as if slowly recognizing the name. “Where is he?”
“He’s downstairs, waiting to hear about Ojeda,” Jeannie replied.
“Ojeda was injured?”
Jeannie nodded quickly, wiping away more of her tears. “Yes, some of the terrorists broke into our house. I’ll tell you about it later.”
Lucas winced with pain, as he tried to move.
“Do you want me to call a nurse, make you more comfortable?”
Lucas closed his eyes and shook his head.
“My left leg is in a cast?” he asked.
“It has a hairline fracture,” Jeannie confirmed, nodding again. “You feel a lot of pain?”
“Not…a lot of pain…no,” he responded.
He examined her and smiled more broadly.
Her hair was totally disheveled, and she had a gauze on her left cheek. Her shirt, a yellow, sleeveless blouse that she normally used to do heavy work in the house, looked dirty and rumpled, and was splotched with brown, rusty-looking stains, and a large bandage spilled from under it over her left shoulder.
But he could not take his eyes off her.
“I love you,” he told her, and she began to weep.
“You’re taking advantage of how tired I am to gain points with me,” she said, smiling weakly.
“I hope…I hope…to redeem them later…for…some hot action,” he told her, grinning.
Jeannie eyed him with apparent indignation, struggling not to laugh.
“You and your one-track, filthy mind! Here I was, thinking of this as a sublime moment, and you cheapen it with…with…sex!”
Lucas closed his eyes, still smiling.
“Definitely not…cheap,” he said tiredly.
He pulled her hand gently to his face and kissed it.
“I love you…my princess. Never…forget it.”
She stood up from her chair and embraced him, still crying, and he held on to her, not saying another word.
* * *
Michael stood next to the stretcher where Ojeda’s body lay, and gently, almost reverently, pulled the sheet off his face.
The security man seemed to be peacefully asleep, as if resting after his desperate struggle with the terrorist.
“I am so sorry,” Michael whispered to him. “I hope…” he began to say, but choked up on his words. “I hope that you don’t feel angry that I almost abandoned you when we were stuck in the minivan. But Jeannie came first, you must understand that…”
Tears began to stream down his eyes.
“I think you do,” he continued. “I think if you were awake, you would have told me to leave you behind and save Jeannie…In fact, I know you would have. But Jeannie was right. We couldn’t leave you behind. I’m glad we didn’t.”
Michael took a long breath, trying to steady himself.
“Anyway, you were right, buddy. You won the bet. I owe you one hundred dollars, plus the best flower arrangements you can get,” he said, patting softly Ojeda’s shoulder. “I should have known better than to bet against you.”
He paused, watching the dead security man
“Thank you. Thank you for saving Jeannie and the kids. We never got to talk much,” Michael told him softly. “But I know that with time, we would have been great friends. Lucas…he always tells me that I talk too much. And I guess I do. But…I wish I would have talked more with you.”
Michael covered Ojeda’s face with the sheet, placing a hand on his chest.
“Goodbye. God bless you.”