"And Then They Came..." (Epilogue, Chapter V)
Lucas was discharged from the hospital nine days after his internment.
He and Jeannie were driven home by Michael, passing over the short bridge where they had nearly been swept away by the overflowing current of Hurricane Fay.
Jeannie looked at the channel, to see if she could spot her minivan, but it was nowhere to be seen. Either the swollen stream had carried it away, or it had been dragged out by the authorities.
She preferred it that way, she thought. The destroyed family Caravan would have brought back too many painful memories.
As if reading her thoughts, Lucas glanced at her and grinned reassuringly, grabbing one of her hands. Jeannie breathed in deeply, and directed a half broken, half frightened smile at him.
They drove in the opposite direction of the same route that they had taken to get to the hospital on the day of the hurricane.
Lucas observed with horrified fascination how nearly two weeks after Fay, the scars left by the storm had, for the most part, not begun to heal.
Avenida Central was lined with tall piles of dead vegetation and garbage that the municipal governments of San Juan and Guaynabo, despite a valiant effort to collect the debris, had swept to the side and still not gotten to. Several lamp or electric posts had been snapped in half, or still hung at inclined angles as if threatening to topple. Tangled webs of cable dangled limply from some of them, or lay in thick, snarled layers on the floor.
Most of the traffic lights had been destroyed, did not work, or hung limply, and of those that were still operational, the vast majority only flashed their central yellow lights intermittently. In the larger intersections, policemen directed the traffic, often under the intense protest of the horns of impatient drivers.
By the time they got to Jeannie and Lucas’ home, the afternoon was transitioning to evening, and the sun was beginning to drop behind the surrounding houses, casting lengthening shadows and imbuing everything else in a soft, pink glow.
Vanessa and the children were waiting for them on the sidewalk when Michael’s car approached.
Sophia began to jump and applaud, and her younger brother Gabriel imitated her immediately and enthusiastically. When the passengers’ back door opened, both rushed and jumped on their father, oblivious of his injuries.
He breathed in, absorbing the pain and gathering his children in his arms. He hugged them and kissed them and answered their breathless questions, laughing when Gabriel asked him to show him his “bullet holes”.
Then, getting out of the car, he stood up supported by his crutches, and kissed and hugged his sister. To his surprise, Michael led him and Jeannie not into their home but into his and Vanessa’s house, where a barbecue had been started and several familiar faces waited for him in the back terrace.
“I think you know all of the people here,” Michael said to him with a playful grin. “I thought that before you get into the nitty gritty of living in a house without any electricity, you’d share some time with some of your friends.”
Lucas was moved beyond words. Michael had taken the trouble of gathering most of the closest people in his life.
He saw his sister Michelle—discharged two days before him—sitting on a wheelchair, talking to her two work colleagues and friends, Doel and Correcaminos.
A dozen steps further away, Archie and Negrón stood near the lit barbecue, seemingly engaged in an earnest discussion while tending to hamburgers, hot dogs, and several chicken parts.
Picón and Hazard, the two personal bodyguards of the Governor, were also there, perched in a separate semicircle of chairs and apparently exchanging a joke with SWAT Captain Camilo Gomez, while the SWAT officer's younger, sandy-haired counterpart, Raymond Tavarez, stood behind Michael’s small bamboo bar, acting as bartender.
“Hey! Our leader has arrived!” Negrón announced cheerfully, as Lucas hobbled into the terrace.
The rest of the partiers began to cheer and applaud, while Sophia and Gabriel jumped happily around him.
“Jeannie reminded us that you are a hamburger freak,” Archie told him, leading him to a small sofa in the center of the terrace. “You take it medium, medium rare, right?
“Cuba Libre okay?” Tavarez asked him before he could respond, as he sat down, handing him a tall glass of rum and Coke with a slice of lemon.
Lucas smiled. He shook his head in amazement, sipping contentedly from the drink he had just been given.
“You guys are incredible,” he said, beaming at his family and his friends. He stared at his wife. “You were also in on this?”
Jeannie nodded, directing him a loving glance.
“We thought that after the hospital food, it would be good to reward you with something that you really enjoyed.”
“It’s been touch and go for a couple of days, not knowing exactly when you were going to be discharged” Gomez said to him, pushing his chair back with his legs in order to include Lucas in his group. “We’ve all been on high alert from Archie, ever since your doctors began to say that you were about to be released from the hospital. We finally got the go ahead from him about two hours ago, and here we are, those of us who could make it.”
Lucas stared at all of his friends, his words failing him for some time. During the previous weeks, he had formed an unbreakable bond with all of them. They had all become his brothers-in-arms.
“How’s your neck?” Lucas finally managed to ask Tavarez, who at first directed a confused look at his friend, and then, remembering the nick in the throat he had received when he had been captured by the terrorists, shrugged.
“Oh, you mean this small cut?” he said, moving his hand to the base of his neck. “It’s healed completely. You can hardly see it.”
Jeannie directed a curious glance at her husband, but said nothing.
Even though she had pieced together from various previous conversations some of the events that had transpired between the men in the terrace, she preferred not to find out any details about them. She suspected that if she did, she would get incredibly angry with her husband again.
“And your leg?” Lucas asked Negrón.
“Almost good as new,” the young police sergeant answered, walking a few steps to show Lucas. However, he still moved with a slight shuffling gait.
“He admires me so much,” Archie said, “that he’s decided to limp like me.”
Those close to them laughed.
“What happened to him?” Vanessa whispered to Michael.
“Negrón?” Michael repeated innocently, “…He slipped and hurt his knee a few days ago, playing softball,” he said to his wife. Vanessa stared at the young policeman with curious concern.
For the next hour, the group relaxed and ate, rejoicing in each other’s company as the late afternoon extended into night.
Power had still not returned, and the terrace became progressively illuminated by various light sources, from scented candles to kerosene lamps and their most modern LED counterparts.
A nostalgic sadness overcame the collective mood.
Word that Lucas and his family were moving to New Mexico had filtered out to the inner circle of friends, and though most understood the move, few supported it.
Hardest hit were Vanessa and Michael, who had lived next to the Alfaros for more than ten years.
“What will we do?” Vanessa had asked his brother in a prior hospital visit. “I can’t imagine your house with other people living in it. And I won’t we able to see Sophia and Gabriel grow up,” she had added with tears in her eyes.
Lucas had stared sadly at her, uncertain of how to console her.
“This is just a tryout period,” he had said, grabbing her hand. “We’ll see how it goes. And we’ll visit you often, and invite you to visit us. And in the summer, Alfredo and you can spend a month with us.” He smiled. “Heck, you can even bring Michael with you. And if you can’t, it will be great to take a break from him, won’t it?”
Vanessa had smiled despite her dejection.
“You promise?” she had asked, a question she had often asked her older brother before, to find reassurance.
“I promise,” Lucas had answered with a false cheeriness, even though he knew that moving away from his sister would break his heart.
He had also discussed the move with Michelle. However, on that occasion, it had been he who had sought some kind of reassurance from his younger sister.
Michelle had visited him in his room, wearing her bathrobe, sitting on her wheelchair.
It had been late by hospital standards, over ten in the evening, after Archie had already left for the night and Jeannie was taking a shower.
Lucas had been watching TV when she had wheeled herself into the room.
“Hey,” Lucas had said to her with a smile. “How are you feeling?”
Michelle had shrugged.
“I’m getting better,” she had answered, moving next to his brother’s bed and extending her hand to grab his. “Vanessa told me today that you're leaving Puerto Rico.”
Lucas had looked down and grimaced.
“We’re thinking about it,” he had confessed. “Although we haven’t reached a final decision yet.”
“What makes you doubt?”
Lucas had taken a long time to answer.
“Many things,” he had said at last. “I feel like I’m deserting all of you, among other things. Deserting our grandfather’s heritage.”
“El Joyero de San Juan?”
“It was our grandfather’s second love, after our grandmother. His legacy to us.”
“But now it’s gone. It has been destroyed, along with a big part of its soul, our mother, María, Evelyn. Even if you rebuild the structure, it will be a different establishment.”
Lucas had kept silent.
“Listen, I think it’s safe to say that I loved our grandfather, our mom and aunts as much as you did,” she had said.
“And yet, they would have to tie me up and gag me to keep me working in the jewelry store. I have my own path to follow…as have you.”
Lucas had sighed and pressed his sister’s hand.
“There will be a definite advantage in our going to New Mexico,” he had finally said to her with a crooked grin. “You won’t be giving me grief all day long.”
Michelle had laughed, not taking her eyes off him.
“Oh, don’t think you’ll get rid of me so easily. I travel a lot. I’ll be taking every opportunity I have to end up in your new residence.”
Lucas had smiled.
“I’m banking on it.”
The two siblings had continued to hold hands in silence for a long time, their thoughts taking them to a happier, more innocent time, when their mother had been alive, when El Joyero de San Juan still existed.
* * *
Lucas’ thoughts were abruptly wrenched back to the barbecue, as somebody began to tap on an empty beer can. Searching for the source of the noise, he saw it was Negrón.
It was nighttime, and in the power-deprived neighborhood, oil and LED lamps provided a mixed and subdued type of illumination to Michael and Vanessa’s backyard.
In the distance, two power generators, one from a large condominium and the other from a neighboring house, resonated with their distinctive hums.
And without any city lights to dim their glow, thousands of stars dotted the night sky overhead.
Negrón continued to tap on his empty beer can with a spoon, until everybody else had quieted down.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” the young sergeant said in his still developing, high-pitched voice, “but I have been asked to introduce our speaker of the night.”
He turned on a large flashlight, holding it in his right hand.
“So without any further ado, I leave you with…Doel!”
Negrón flashed the powerful beam of his flashlight on Doel’s face, momentarily blinding him.
The news editor shielded his eyes until Archie moved next to his policeman friend and lowered the hand that held the flashlight, removing the beam of light from Doel’s face.
In the meantime, Vanessa had appeared with a tray of thin glass flutes filled with champagne, and begun to distribute them among her guests.
“So,” said Doel, walking to the center of the gathering, “being the oldest__”
“And the ugliest,” Correcaminos interjected, staring innocently at the floor and provoking several laughs in the group.
“__in this celebration,” Doel continued, ignoring his friend. “I’ve been asked to say a few words about the Alfaros.”
Vanessa reached the news editor, and handed a champagne flute to him. Doel turned to Jeannie and Lucas, who were sitting together at the sofa holding hands, Michelle resting in her wheelchair on her brother’s opposite side.
“I had the very good fortune of meeting your dad, a strikingly handsome man, a great actor, and the best television director I ever worked with. But most of all,” he said to them, “he was an outstanding person: generous, humble despite his well-deserved fame, with a great sense of humor and an intense devotion to his family. I was instantly starstruck with him who, even though I was just a rookie starting in the news department of WKPA, treated me as an equal and incorporated me into his circle of friends.”
Doel stared at Lucas.
“You must have been what? Thirteen? Twelve then? I saw you several times, mostly in small gatherings or parties in your house, or when your dad took you to WKPA, to one of his shows. You were a shy, quiet boy then, but I instantly liked you. Of course, I later got to know a lot better your sister Michelle, who seemed to me to be an unstoppable force of nature, and whom I’ve tried to help develop the considerable talents that she has,” he said, switching briefly his gaze to Michelle, who blew him a kiss.
Doel paused, smiling at the floor.
“And then there was your mother, that tiny wisp of a woman from whom you all inherited so much of her strength, her drive, her personality, and her grace. She was the perfect foil to your father. You, Vanessa, are the one that reminds me the most of her, by the way.”
Vanessa blushed, and unconsciously grabbed Michael’s arm.
“Anyway, I digress. When Mario, your dad, died of heart complications, I was…of course, devastated, disconsolate. But at the same time I knew his legacy continued in his children. You, Lucas, had been back from the Army for about a year, and I had kept abreast of everything you did there because your father would proudly read to me your letters, or parts of them anyway, where you described your experiences in Mogadishu, and before that where you talked about your training as an Army Ranger. And I used to be stunned by some of your observations, so profound and wise for someone of such a young age. I must confess, though, that I was a bit surprised that you chose the rather sedentary life of a jeweler in El Joyero de San Juan when you came back.”
“That was his alter ego, his secret identity, like Bruce Wayne and Batman,” Negrón interjected, provoking various snickers.
“I don’t think you’re very far from the truth,” Doel said. “Because a real super hero lives within him.”
He stared at Jeannie.
“I got to know you long before you knew me,” he told her. “The descriptions of you in Lucas’ letters to his family were quite vivid, and I thought exaggerated, until I got to meet you in person. Then I thought that Lucas’ vivid descriptions did not do you justice, paling in comparison. Jeannie, you are something else, a strong, brave woman, a loving wife who would not think twice in sacrificing her life for her children or her husband, and like Fannie with Mario, Lucas’ perfect complement.”
“You have to be strong to live with this one,” Jeannie said in a deadpan voice, generating various laughs and earning a humorous, resigned look from her husband.
“So…getting back to my very long toast, I first got to get a brief glimpse of Lucas’ ‘secret identity’, as Negrón calls it, earlier this year, when he helped rescue the Governor, his family and his staff out of La Fortaleza, after being captured by the terrorists.”
“He did more than ‘help rescue’ us,” Picón, the Governor’s chief bodyguard said. “He almost single-handedly saved all of us.”
“That’s not true,” Lucas protested, but his voice was drowned out by Picón and Hazard’s contrary assurances.
Doel raised his hands in front of him, gently pleading for silence.
“I had the opportunity to finally see you in action during the…shootout we had with the terrorists in El Yunque a few weeks ago. For those who were not there, let me assure you that our group was surrounded, and that we would probably all have been killed, except that Lucas took matters into his hands, and almost single-handedly wiped out most of the terrorists, and made the rest of them run away. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I doubt I ever will again. I can honestly say that I am standing here tonight because of him.”
Everybody cheered and clapped.
“But our champagne is getting warm, and it took some time to get it passably cold in one of our portable ice coolers, with the limited supply of ice we were able to secure. So let me finish this.”
Again, he looked at Lucas and Jeannie.
“We have all heard that you will soon be leaving for New Mexico, searching for new horizons. And that will be our loss. We will sorely miss you, even though we think, most of us anyway, that it is the best thing for you to do. And we want to assure you that we will never forget you, and that we will always be here, whenever you need us, for whatever it is you may need.”
Doel raised his glass of champagne, while several in the group followed suit or wiped away their tears.
“And so, a toast! To Lucas and Jeannie, and Sophia and Gabriel. To their new life in New Mexico and the new adventures that await them. We love you, and wish you the very best.”
“Hear! Hear!” Michael—standing behind Lucas—said, raising his glass and slapping his brother-in-law on the shoulder.
Correcaminos walked to Doel and clouted him hard on the back, making him spill part of his drink.
“Good toast,” he said to his friend. “Not bad for an old man who’s rapidly losing his mind.”
Lucas stared at the rest of his friends, grateful he did not have to speak, because he would not have been able to do so.
He loved each and every one of them, and it would be very hard to leave them.
He saw Vanessa, wiping away new tears, as Michelle and Archie exchanged a brief kiss after sipping from their champagne glasses.
Gomez was smiling, apparently lost in his own thoughts, while Tavarez and Negrón clicked their glasses together—two birds of the same feather—and took two deep swallows, beaming at him. The latter seemed to choke, seemingly from a joke that Tavarez had told him.
Hazard watched Lucas and Jeannie with curiosity bordering on hero-worship. The Governor’s bodyguard had never met Jeannie before, and seemed to be smitten by her.
Picón, sitting next to Hazard, stood up and approached Lucas, squatting in front of him. The cast that had covered his right shoulder and arm had been removed a few days before, but he still favored his left arm, holding the champagne flute in it.
“I bring a message from the Governor,” he told Lucas in a low voice. “He sends his regards and regrets for not being able to attend, and says that he is very sorry to see you go. He also asked me to tell you that you are welcome back any time you want, and that he will do anything in his power to help you decide to come back, in whatever way he can.”
Lucas nodded and smiled.
“Tell Pietrantoni that I will visit him back soon, and that if he ever needs my help, I’ll only be a call away. And in the meantime, if he’s ever in New Mexico, he is welcome to our home. As are you. And Hazard.”
“I will let the Governor know. It would be nice to take a trip to New Mexico.”
As the Governor’s chief bodyguard, Picón usually traveled with his boss anywhere he went.
The barbecue went on until ten thirty in the night, way beyond the early bedtime hours that most of the attendees kept during the evenings when no television or any other social media was available, and where most of them went to sleep by eight to nine in the night.
It almost seemed as if the visitors were reluctant to leave, knowing that the odds of all of them getting back together would be slim at best, if ever.
But finally, they all departed, leaving the empty back terrace to the coquís, who reclaimed the night with their carefree, boisterous voices.
(Chapter VI of the Epilogue, the final chapter of this book, will be posted on Thursday, February 10)