by Ryan Pfeffer
I had a hurricane outfit, apparently: a blue towel with a hole torn in the middle that I wore like a poncho, completely naked otherwise. I’d wear it while watching every hourly update of the storm’s projected track, rooting for any squiggly line aimed at our roof.
“It was my damn fault,” mom admitted one time, when me, her, and Sam were having dinner at Rincón De Jalisco. "I told you that hurricanes were just god blowing all the monsters out of town,” she laughed, pushing ice around her very green margarita with a plastic straw. “You were still so scared of the dark back then."
By the time Hurricane Imelda formed, mom had left Redland, and it was just me and an extremely pregnant Sam. She was about seven months along but looked more like eleven. It snuck up on us both. She gained 20 pounds in three weeks, and all the sudden I couldn’t look at her without feeling a kind of nervousness that felt vague and endless.
Sam wanted to stay put for Imelda. She said these things were rarely as bad as the news made it seem, and she was right. But this was going to be the last opportunity I’d have to be alone — truly alone — for maybe the rest of my life. And that didn’t feel selfish at the time. I thought I’d earned it.
“Why even risk it?” I told her, and went on about the various concerns of having a pregnant woman in 96 degree heat with no power or safe drinking water. Sam smelled bullshit, because Sam could always smell bullshit, but also because she knew she was talking to the same man who allowed her two glasses of red wine on Saturdays and even a bimonthly cigarette without putting up the slightest fight.
I told her I’d stay back and watch the place, and she said “fine” in a voice that meant “fuck off.” But I think some part of her wanted the same thing as me, just a small break before an endless marathon. I wish I’d just asked her that. Instead I gave her a big hug, a phony smile, and the keys to my car. And she gave me a to-do list that was mostly a form of revenge for making her drive six hours to stay with my mom in Jacksonville. Baby’s Room was the big one, underlined twice and circled hard enough to dent the paper.
Sam found some stupid article about how an overwhelming percentage of Nobel Prize winners say blue is their favorite color. But after five weeks of deep research, she still couldn’t decide between Eggshell Ripple or Autumn Dolphin. I was apparently not being thoughtful enough about these kinds of details. Sam demonstrated that one night by asking me to choose between two paint swatches and, after I pointed to the one on the left, revealed it was a Chinese takeout menu, then proceeded to hit me with it.
She left only a few hours before the storm hit, because Sam’s time management skills were never the sharpest and those last 20 pounds didn’t make her quicker. She was supposed to text me her final decision on the paint when she got to Jacksonville, but that obviously never happened.
The thing about Imelda is that nobody knew what was coming because nobody had seen it happen before. We didn’t know they could do that. We didn’t know that a hurricane could get so big, so fast, and then just… stay put. Hover there. Like a spaceship trying to abduct an entire city. We didn’t know that a hurricane could find the exact perfect set of conditions that would allow it to remain completely still, stretching from South Beach to the Gulf of Mexico, feeding itself enough warm water to hold an entire city hostage for months.
I never talked to Sam after she left. Cell service went out just 30 minutes into the storm, and it didn’t come back. Every couple hours or so I’d turn my phone back on and try to text her. Just little things like “I’m safe” and “I love you” and, once, a video of me naked in the backyard waving a golf club over my head along with the message “EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF.” I wanted to make her laugh because I knew, wherever she was, that she was pissed. I just didn’t know if it was because I wasn’t out there with her or she wasn’t in here with me.
Four days in and the storm still hadn’t budged an inch. Imelda decided to stop with her eye directly over us. You could call that luck, I guess, even though it wasn’t exactly pretty outside. But it was possible to leave the house without getting shish kebabed by a grapefruit tree, so there’s that. And soon enough people were jogging and driving to go visit their friends. It almost felt like a town again, if you could manage to ignore the world outside the storm, which I learned could.
Ed Tiller drove by one morning with four people and a small mountain of avocados in the bed of his pickup. He invited me over to try an experimental batch of wine he’d been working on. Over at Ed’s that night, about a dozen people squatted around the radio, shushing the folks who’d already had a little too much avocado wine. At first the consensus from the meteorologists was that this would be over any minute now. Hurricanes were like sharks, one of them said. They had to keep moving or else they died. But the days passed, Imelda just got stronger, and theories adjusted. Maybe it wasn’t even a hurricane, but something different, a new kind of weather system. One scientist lady called it a “permastorm” and suggested it could last for a decade.
Ed ran out of fuel for his generator about a week later and the batteries in the radio died not long after. Ed’s generator lasted 72 hours longer than the other generators in town because he convinced Ivan to siphon fuel from the monster truck he was restoring in his front yard. My phone died around then too, but I sent one last text to Sam. I told her not to worry about me, that I was doing just fine. And I tried to not think about how much I meant it.
One night at Ed’s the wine was flowing pretty heavy when all the sudden Ivan started shouting and pointing at the sky. A silver box the size of a coffee table was floating down to earth, blinking red lights on each of its corners. It looked for a second like it was going to hit Ed’s truck, but missed by a few feet, and landed with a hollow thud. There was a handle on top of the box next to the words “Pull Here,” so we did, and the top slid off to reveal an impressive selection of canned beans.
“They could have squashed someone,” Ed said, stacking cans.
“They could have sent beer,” Ivan said, checking the empty box a fourth time for booze.
After that, the sky drops — I’m not sure who coined the term but it stuck — started coming about every three days, and kept coming for the next month. Sometimes you’d find one smashed to pieces in an empty lot with a crater around it. But most landed safely, full of food, batteries, a little gasoline, firewood, cell phone chargers, first aid kits, water purification tablets, toothpaste, toilet paper, playing cards, and socks, which seemed odd at first but quickly became the most sought-after sky drop item. One of the boxes had radios too, so I got my own and started listening in the morning while I stirred instant coffee with a fork.
Imelda was getting less airtime every day, because different things kept tugging at the country’s attention span: a pop star stabbed on the red carpet of the Grammys by a crazy fan; the first daughter caught doing heroin in the White House bathroom; Osceola, beloved horse mascot for Florida State University, poisoned by a rival UF fan, and collapsed on the 50-yard line during an important playoff game.
But Imelda was still a daily news story. One morning, NPR interviewed a scientist who said that if Imelda wasn’t gone by March, things could get real bad. El Niño was coming, he said, and all that warm water could hypothetically sustain the storm for another nine to twelve months.
I turned off the radio and tried to imagine it: another year of this life. Quiet walks and potatoes wrapped in tinfoil, cooked directly on the fire. Drinking Ed’s wine in the backyard while the sun sets. Falling asleep to the sound of wind and peeing outside, wherever I wanted. It didn’t scare the shit out of me, and that’s when I first started to wonder if I was on the wrong side of these clouds or the right one. And then a year didn’t quite feel long enough.
The next day I woke up to a knock on the door and there was Ed, lacquered in a layer of sweat and dead mosquitoes.
“You’re gonna want to come see this,” he said, and waved me into the truck.
One of the sky drops had a little armored military laptop inside. When Ed opened it, a video started playing. It was a video of our various loved ones, hundreds of them, reciting pre-written words of support. It began with a statement from the president, who said, “We’re going to show this storm who’s boss,” while nodding solemnly.
The video was nearly over when mom came on screen, eyes all red and looking like this was her fifth take.
“Hi, baby,” she said. “We love you so much. We’re all thinking about you every day, and we know you’re going to be alright.”
She kept saying “we,” but there was no Sam. Mom paused to look at someone off camera, probably signaling her to wrap things up.
“Baby, there should be a letter for you in the box. I need you to read it. Everything’s going to be fine. I’m here and I’m taking care of it. But read the letter.”
When the video ended, I found the white envelope with “JOSH” written across the front in jagged black marker. Definitely mom’s handwriting. I tore it open, and the words registered in bunches, like my brain was one of those claws that could only grab one stuffed animal at a time.
“Premature… baby’s okay… named him Josh… complications… bad infection… medically-induced coma.”
I could see Ed staring at me so I tried to keep a poker face, because I didn’t want to cause a scene. But then I felt the wine in my stomach all at once, like a water balloon exploded in there. I stumbled to the kitchen and Ivan was leaning against the fridge, peeling an orange. I didn’t even look at him, just went straight to the sink because I couldn’t tell if I was about to throw up.
“Sick of this palace too?” he said in response to my dry heave. “Me too, papi. Me too. That’s why I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“What do you mean leaving?” I asked, once I managed to swallow.
“I found more gas. There was a tank at the station everyone missed. But not Ivan. I got in there with a jackhammer and now I have enough fuel to run up the Turnpike. They say the wind’s not so bad after Boca. Annoying, yeah, but it won’t kill you.”
Ivan was an alcoholic, but he was also a pretty competent mechanic. And the truck in question, which used to go by the name Deadbolt in its performing day, could run over sedans like they were speed bumps. I’d seen it with my own eyes at the rodeo three years ago.
“Tomorrow at noon,” Ivan said, heading out the back door on the hunt for more wine. “I’ll drive by and honk.”
As he swung the door open, I could hear laughter. People were breaking into the latest batch of avocado wine, which came out like shit this time. The same fucking Eagles song was playing on the radio. Ed and his daughter were working on that night’s dinner: more unseasoned canned beans and freeze-dried packets of buffalo chicken nuggets that were more rubber than chicken.
I left without saying bye and when I got home, I went straight to the baby’s room, grabbed the screwdriver on the floor, cracked open Autumn Dolphin, and stirred the paint. It was an executive decision, but I just knew Sam was leaning toward Autumn Dolphin. She was just waiting for me to say it too.
Sam had never been to a hospital. It’s not that she never needed to go to one. She was covered in scars if you knew where to look, and at least several of her toes had been broken, judging by their angles. But she would rather super glue a bagel-related laceration shut than take it to the professionals. She claimed it was due to a scary movie she watched at too young an age. She could not remember the name of the film, only that it had an evil nurse who liked to murder people with a sharpened tongue depressor.
That’s what really freaked her out about being pregnant — the thought of spending the night in a “death hotel,” as she called them. I told her that, if she gave me the word, I’d break her out of there. Me, her, and the baby. “What are they gonna do?” I said. “Arrest us for stealing our own baby?” And she laughed and kissed me on the neck.
I’d only finished one wall when I heard the beep outside. There was Ivan, as promised, with one arm hanging out an open window, dangling
just above the D in the word Deadbolt, which was painted across the truck in melting green letters.
“Road trip time!” he screamed over the truck’s gurgle.
I had to take a running start to get into the passenger seat. It smelled like cigarettes and gasoline inside, and I couldn’t hear Ivan over the sound of the engine. I flashed him a thumbs up and we pulled out, my house getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror until I couldn’t tell it apart from the horizon.
When we reached the Turnpike, we were right up against the Everglades, and I could see for miles since the truck was so tall. It was just an even buzz cut of sawgrass as far as you could see, but if you looked up, you could tell where the eye of Imelda ended, and the sky turned black.
Lightning flashed inside the clouds silently, and I could feel the humidity getting sucked out of the air. It suddenly occurred to me that there were no windows in the truck. I looked over at Ivan as he lifted a red cup to his mouth and swallowed hard.
I really didn’t know where we were going. I never bothered to ask. Ivan didn’t seem to have any luggage in the car and I noticed that he was only wearing underwear from the waist down. He looked straight ahead, at the same clouds I saw, only he didn’t seem to see them at all.
“Stop,” I said, but Ivan didn’t respond. So I said it louder, right in his ear. And when he still wouldn’t, I unbuckled my seatbelt and dove headfirst to punch the break myself, which sent Deadbolt into a fishtail that lasted forever. I scrambled out of the truck and landed on my ass while he was messing with the shifter. Then Ivan pulled away, middle finger out the window until Imelda swallowed him up.
Standing there on the shoulder of the Turnpike, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. And then again and again. Cell reception must have poked through the clouds, for a brief moment, because the notifications were coming in machine gun bursts, one after the other. My pocket kept
shaking for the next ten minutes, and I just stood there crying. When it finally stopped, I forced myself to look, the way you force yourself to jump into a cold pool. You just do it without letting yourself think about how bad it’ll sting. I only read one message, the first one that popped up, and it was from Sam. All it said was eggshell ripple.