"And Then They Came..." (Epilogue, Chapter VI)
With the passing of the days, the storm’s grim reality started to fade away.
Many of the affected restaurants, malls, and movie houses gradually reopened. So did the gas stations, where at the beginning, long lines had formed very early in the morning to buy fuel before the day’s supply became exhausted. Cable TV worked—or not—depending on a patchwork of locations where the cable system had not been completely destroyed.
Ice, that most precious of all commodities, became abundant again.
About a month after Fay, tiny green buds began to sprout on thousands of branches that had been stripped bare by the hurricane, although dry, broken twigs still hung limply everywhere. The tender leaves began to reappear everywhere, many times growing in wild clusters or balls, as if someone had decided to trim the branches into French poodle shapes.
Ever so slowly, Hurricane Fay’s silent dark nights began to be replaced by the hustle and bustle of modern civilization. The hum and clatter of power generators gave way to the distant sound of television sets, the ring of cell phones, and the noise of traffic.
Life in San Juan went back to a new normal.
* * *
Power returned to Lucas’ neighborhood one day later after his release from the hospital, around seven in the evening.
A power company repair truck had arrived in the street shortly after noon. The repair crew had been received like conquering heroes and chased by several excited residents in the area. The crew had worked on various downed power lines further up the road, under the anxious gaze of a half dozen neighbors and then, to the consternation of the observers, the men had driven away.
Half an hour later, the light had come back on.
When the electricity returned, several lights in the surrounding houses had instantly flashed into life, along with some of the air conditioning units, refrigerators, and even a couple of TV sets, all of them left on from the time that Hurricane Fay had interrupted their functions.
* * *
`Jeannie never felt comfortable in her home again.
She avoided going into the kitchen—previously one of her favorite spots—re-living in her mind the moment when she and her children had nearly been killed. She also skittered around the area of the second floor office where Ojeda had been fatally wounded, its window still boarded up.
Not surprisingly, the Alfaros placed their home in the real estate market two weeks after Lucas’ return. Noemí, a close friend of Jeannie’s and a professional realtor, was recruited to show the house to prospective buyers.
Maybe due to Lucas’ fame—or as Jeannie referred to it, notoriety— the house during the next month was visited by scores of prospective buyers, some of which limited themselves to gawk at the owner.
Lucas accepted the President’s job offer while still in the hospital.
It was arranged that he and the rest of the family would leave during the school Christmas break, in order to avoid any serious interruption to the children’s education.
The house was sold to a moneyed uncle of police sergeant Negrón who was moving from the town of San Sebastián to the metropolitan area. The man, a somewhat older and slightly more eccentric version of his nephew, quickly became a friend of Vanessa and Michael.
* * *
The departure of the family to New Mexico was set for December 20.
On the day before that date, Lucas made a visit to the El Joyero de San Juan.
The jewelry store was boarded up with plywood sheets where its door and display windows had been originally. A temporary padlocked wooden panel provided the only access into the property, but Lucas had not intended to walk in, satisfied to stand outside and stare at the place where he had worked for so many years.
During the prior month he, Jeannie, Vanessa, and Michael had spent days inside El Joyero, mostly cataloging, taking inventory and carrying out the merchandise and equipment that could be salvaged. Lucas had also devoted a considerable amount of his time to finish the repairs of those jewels in his shop that had been brought to him by different clients, and interrupted by the explosion.
When they had finished, Lucas had taken with him his grandfather’s portrait, which for years had kept a peaceful watch from María’s desk over the store. It would travel with him to New Mexico, where he would keep it in a place of honor in his home.
It had all been particularly sad and painful work, all of it, since everything inside El Joyero brought memories of his mother and aunts, and of his grandfather.
And there was so much to remember.
His aunt María, the youngest of the Pietri sisters, rolling her eyes and arguing with Evelyn, while his mother Fanny egged both of them on, quietly enjoying their heated exchanges.
Antonio, the store’s guard, sitting on a stool at the store’s entrance—one of the gentlest persons Lucas had ever known—exchanging his daily greetings with some of the San Juan locals.
Fanny, sitting inside her small office, examining the merchandise recently received and painstakingly recording in her books the worth and appearance of each item.
He was forced to smile, despite his intense grief, remembering the moment when the Pietri sisters had told him about their unexpected encounter with Czecka—the giant terrorist—referring to him as “Frankenstein”, and describing to Lucas how a terrified María had been the only one with enough courage to address him. Afterwards, Evelyn and Fannie had hooted with laughter, while María had tried to look dignified, and refused to crack a smile.
He remembered the happy days after the terrorists had been defeated, when Evelyn—the foremost business-person of the Pietri sisters—had framed and hung in the jewelry store’s walls every newspaper article that described how Michelle and Lucas had helped rescue the hostages in the Grand Laguna Hotel and the Governor’s staff and family in La Fortaleza. Sales in the store had picked up significantly, as Evelyn did everything possible to capitalize on his niece and nephew’s newly found and unwanted fame.
He relived the joy with which the Pietri sisters had celebrated the Fiestas de San Sebastián, and how they had joked that Fanny was hoping to meet a millionaire there that would satisfy not only her future needs, but those of the rest of the family.
Tears stung Lucas’ eyes, and he wiped them away.
Taking a deep breath. he placed a hand on El Joyero’s doorframe, a part not covered up by a plywood panel, and patted it gently. The store had always been an integral part of his life, from the time he had been a young boy and his grandfather took him along in his morning walks to visit his clients and suppliers, to the last happy moments he had shared with his mother and his aunts.
Several prospective buyers were interested in the property. Vanessa and Michelle would be handling their sale.
Lucas’ gaze shifted upwards, to where the sign of El Joyero de San Juan still hovered over the store, the same sign originally proudly installed there by his grandfather. Part of the “y” had been blasted away by the explosion, but otherwise it continued to boldly display the name of Don Jorge’s store.
So many dreams.
So many memories.
So hard to leave them all behind.
“It’s so sad, isn’t it?” a voice next to him unexpectedly said, snapping him out of his thoughts.
Lucas stared at the stranger standing next to him.
He must have been in his early twenties, wearing an Army uniform, his hair shorn in the military fashion, more or less of Lucas’ height. He was holding hands with a similarly aged girl, with hazel blondish hair and wide, curious blue eyes.
“Did you know the people who worked here?” the girl asked Lucas.
“Yes,” he replied softly.
“I heard they were good people,” the soldier said.
* * *
Lucas knocked on Vanessa’s door, and was immediately greeted by his sister.
“Is he here?” he asked her.
She moved her head affirmatively.
“He’s in the back of the house, in the terrace. He’s been miserable all day long, with your leaving tomorrow and all of the final preparations,” she replied, nervously wiping her hands on her skirt.
Lucas walked to the terrace and, unnoticed by Alfredo, watched the boy sitting alone on sofa, staring vacantly at the yard.
Alfredo finally saw his godfather as he approached him, and straightened up, trying to smile.
“Mind if I take a break from the packing, to sit with my favorite godson?” Lucas asked him gently.
Alfredo nodded, with wide-eyed silence.
“Your only godson,” he corrected, his voice cracking.
“Doesn’t matter. Even if I had a hundred other godsons, you’d still be my favorite.”
They sat quietly for several minutes, sharing their grief.
“You know,” Lucas said at last, “I don’t think I’ve ever told you how proud you've made me feel.”
Alfredo shrugged and opened his mouth to speak, but his uncle interrupted him.
“No, I mean it. Last year, when we were being pursued in the tunnels by El Alacrán and his men, it was really a terrifying thing. I know many grownups, men who were in the Army with me even, who would have lost their nerve in a situation like that. But you, you fought on, helping the others, giving them support. You gave me the strength to go on.”
“You would have gone on even if I wasn’t there,” the ten year old protested weakly, but a shadow of a smile appeared in his lips.
“Maybe,” Lucas acknowledged. “But you made it a certainty and a lot easier. And in the process, you made me the proudest godfather in the world. I also heard that when they kidnapped Francisco, a few weeks ago, you stood over him when he was knocked down and fought for him. That was so brave!”
“I was scared.”
“So are most of us, most of the time,” Lucas agreed. “It’s__”
“__what we do even though we’re scared, that makes us brave,” Alfredo finished for his uncle.
“Right. And you fought on.”
“I’ll miss you, padrino,” Alfredo said with a broken voice, and embraced his godfather.
“I’ll miss you too, Alfredo,” Lucas replied, hugging him tightly. Then he pulled the boy back and stared at him. “But I won’t be leaving your life. Don’t think you’ll be free from me so easily.”
Alfredo smiled sadly.
“Somebody has to take care of your mother. And even more, of your dad. You know I love the guy, but he’s got a few screws missing.”
Alfredo laughed, despite himself.
“I’ll visit Puerto Rico often, I promise,” Lucas added. “And in the summers, I’ll pay your airplane fare so you can spend at least a month in New Mexico with us. We can go exploring to all sort of neat places I intend to learn about.”
The boy’s eyes brightened, and he nodded enthusiastically.
“I need you to do me a favor, though,” Lucas continued.
Alfredo stared at him with curiosity.
“I need you to take care of this,” he said, and began to unbuckle his watch’s wristband.
He slipped the watch out of his left hand.
“This is your great grandfather’s watch,” he said, holding it up. “My grandfather, your great grandfather, Don Jorge Pietri, gave it to me when I joined the Army. It’s a Pietri tradition, even though the Pietri last name will soon not be carried by any of his descendants. But his legacy will, and so will his blood. He passed it on to me, I now pass it on to you. Wear it with pride, until you find the right person in our family to pass it on.”
Alfredo stared at the watch with the sense of wonderment only a small boy could could feel. Then, he sniffled, and embraced his uncle tightly.
Lucas embraced him back, neither of them speaking for a very long time.
* * *
“Wait for the other people to walk in,” Sophia warned her younger brother.
They were in the ramp that took them to the plane where they would fly to Miami, and from there to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
An excited Gabriel had walked past two couples standing ahead of him in the line, to the consternation of his older sister.
The four year old had grinned defiantly at Sophia, but stopped advancing.
Lucas stood behind them, Jeannie clinging to his arm.
He had just said goodbye to Michael and Vanessa, the latter turning at the last moment behind her husband’s back and weeping as the travelers went through the security check.
Lucas had not imagined it would have been so hard to leave. Raising his right arm to wave goodbye to his sister and brother-in-law, after clearing security, had required a distinct physical effort, as if the arm had been weighted by lead.
Walking to their terminal, he had listened to the happy chatter of his surrounding countrymen, realizing for the first time how much he would miss them, how much he would miss everything that made his island unique.
Sensing her husband’s silent sadness, Jeannie looked up at him.
“Are you all right?” she asked him with concern.
Lucas nodded, and after a moment he smiled.
“As long as I’m with you,” he answered.
(A final Postscript will be posted on Monday, February 15)