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Sunday, September 10, 2017

HILDA (Part One)

   "What are we going to do?"
   One minute Chuck worried about the Emperor of Japan Tent holding off the storm. The next minute he worried about Ann holding herself together. If he were to be allowed the luxury of alternating third worries, he would have also worried about his broken ankle.
   The Emperor of Japan Tent, which had been manufactured in Argentina, shook with each arhythmic blast from the Category 5 hurricane. The orange and yellow structure had been marketed as nearly indestructible, the adverb jumping from that sentence like a coked-out cheerleader whose boyfriend had just sunk the game-winning basket. Chuck had screwed the twelve flexible aluminum poles deep into the south Florida soil and even took the added precaution of securing half the poles by tightening nylon line around them that hooked to nearby palms. If the trees held, the tent would be inclined to do the same. Their new temporary home was, after all, nearly indestructible. 
   The tent had set them back seven grand, but it was the thirty dollar Coleman lamps that they valued more than anything. The early September temperature had dropped from the typically balmy eighty degrees to what felt to be the low fifties. Even though their watches said the time was a few minutes past noon, the four lamps fought against the dense darkness and even added some warmth that Ann in particular appeared to appreciate.
   His wife of twenty-one years never vacillated. Ann McCormick had hated storms her entire life. Chuck had made a half-assed effort to remind Ann before they moved from Tucson, Arizona to Okopie, Florida that nasty storms made their presence known along the Gulf Coast side of southern Florida, but once their daughter Elizabeth had opted to attend the University of Florida's branch at Okopie, all reasonable discussion ended and the only thing left was buying the necessary supplies and finding suitable accommodations. 
   They had handled the first of those matters when an eighteen-wheeler bumped them off the causeway and sent their vintage 1967 Ford Falcon into a spin. The Ford could no longer be called vintage. Indeed, it no longer resembled what might properly be called an automobile. 
   None of the people in cars heading the other direction stopped to help them, what with evacuation warnings alerting people to get out three days earlier. Chuck and Ann had decided they still had time to find a place, maybe just something temporary, until Hurricane Hilda faded into memory. After all, Elizabeth and her new college friends were told they would be safe as long as they stayed in their dorm rooms. So how bad could the storm be?
   "What are we going to do?"
   The tent had plopped out of what was left of the trunk and the lanterns (which they had intended as a gift for Elizabeth) had not suffered at all. Ann crawled out the passenger side window, no worse for the wear. For the first minute or two, while the power of adrenaline still anesthetized Chuck's injury, he felt unharmed and even had the presence of mind to hug his wife and assess the vehicular damage. It was only when he lifted his end of the bagged tent that the pain from his ankle roared up his right side like the blaze of a flame-thrower.   
   Chuck collapsed about a hundred yards west of the road. When he woke up, he noticed the pain had turned to numbness, so while Ann made useful suggestions, he set up the tent. Chuck was the first to acknowledge that he had limited "man-skills," so he had learned to take his wife's advice without many questions. Her father, Big Bill Buckley, had been in the Coast Guard most of his adult life and Ann had paid meticulous attention to the old man's every word. Chuck had been more academically oriented and although an understanding of social stratification surely had its place in the world, south Florida in the first throes of Hurricane Hilda was not necessarily one of those places.
   "What are we going to do?"
   He looked up at his wife and his heart filled with the same love he had felt the day they had married, more than two decades earlier. Those fiery blue eyes of hers had not changed at all. She still wore her blonde hair the same carefree way. She hadn't gained more than a pound a year since their wedding and she had been thin even then. The changes, he knew, and knew that she knew, had been on the inside. She had been stone-cold sober for the last two years, three months and four days. Not once had she faltered, not once had she complained, not once had she so much as behaved in what might be called an irrational manner. But he had noticed that when stress entered their lives, she seemed to struggle with her thoughts. The ideas would still come to her. It was just that she appeared to be choosing her words with more caution than when she had been drinking. "People with her level of addiction often keep themselves wrapped tight," the therapist had told him. "You may just have to get used to that."
    "One more time: What are we going to do?"
    "Sorry. I was just woolgathering." 
   "It is not wool that we need just now, darling. We have a thermos of cold coffee. We have one can of Spam and a baggie of crackers. We have this nice tent of yours."
   "Our tent. And don't forget the lamps."
   "Right. The lanterns are great. Oh, we have our lighters. We have our phones, which don't work, by the way. I suppose the cell towers have blown down. No offense, but you're no MacGyver. Neither am I. What we are is totally screwed. How's your ankle?"
   He reached down and felt the swelling. The pain was making its way back.
   "I wouldn't mind an aspirin, even if I had to dry swallow it."
   She reached into her purse. "We have three left. Here, bite this one in half. We may need to make these last. You want cold coffee?"
   Less than one hundred miles south of them, the Florida Keys had transmogrified into tiny dots visible to no one. As the southern wall of Hilda's eye dipped and swelled, any humans who had remained on the fifteen Middle Keys were either drowned or drowning. The Upper and Lower Keys had been luckier, to the extent that anywhere from eighty to ninety percent property devastation can be called lucky. The storm was more than five hundred miles across, with internal wind speeds in excess of two hundred forty miles per hour. Having wasted the tiny keys in its path, Hilda turned herself with unprecedented determination north and slightly east, bypassing most of the Everglades and making a destructive lean toward Route 41. From the flooded highway to the Gulf was less than ten miles. Halfway between was an Emperor of  Japan Tent with two occupants. 
   

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