Winterland, a novel excerpt

The wind swirled figure eights atop the yard’s lone tree when David pulled into the driveway, and the thick rain pummeled the pavement in erratic, grenade-like, bursts. Rain bands, from the outer arms of the storm—so Calypso was nearly there, and the supply run he’d just made would be his last. A futile attempt to find more 2x4s or plywood to better secure the open window on the south side of the garage, where he’d fastened a tarp. The streets were empty except for city emergency vehicles, the hardware stores long out of supplies and shutting down, curfew two hours away, besides. Even then the military troops stationed outside the stores had given him dirty looks in between wiping raindrops from their fresh faces, jaws set as they twitched, no doubt irritated and longing to be home, wherever that was, with their families. Upon exiting the last store, one of them had stepped over, said to him, “Little late to be out for someone your age, isn’t it?”—cocked his head, lips wet over straight teeth. Knuckles gripping his gun, the soldier nodded and said, “Best get on home now.” David stared ahead, hurried on.

The car radio made for oddly soothing company, despite the reports that the worst fears for landfall were being realized—a direct hit on Miami Beach, happening now, the path moving inland over Lake Okeechobee, and from there no one could be certain. “With the impoverished migrant camps that now circle the lake,” the reporter stated in her melodramatic lilt, “the path makes a haunting echo of the disastrous hurricane that struck a century ago when thousands of poor laborers drowned. Sadly, thousands more may meet the same fate today.” A century later, and the injustices had just grown worse. Why? Could this grim unravelling have ever been averted? He couldn’t begin to know, only that with every day more people understood that whatever might have been done needed to have happened decades before, and it was too late.

Now the tarp flapped like a sail against the cloudy sky, and the leaves rustled ceaselessly overhead. The ties remained firm, sound. What he didn’t trust was the laurel oak—although only sixty years old, the tree was dying. “Live fast and die young, these,” the landlord’s handyman had remarked once. “Takes up so much water, the species eventually rots from the inside out.” The laurel oak had been marked for removal by the city but who knew when that would happen, if ever. He swung open the backyard gates, drove his car in first, then Julie’s. He’d just ducked into the house, alone except for the cats, whining and skittish, when his phone rang. Bobby and Monica were holed up in the green room of the jazz club, where they guessed they’d be safest, and where Bobby hoped to keep an eye on the flooding and sandbags. “Miami-Dade and Broward just went dark,” Bobby said. “You sure you’re okay, riding this out by yourself in that house, man? Pack up the cats and come over here. We’ve got an extra sleeping bag. No bedbugs, I promise!” He laughed, and Monica did, too, in the background.

“Is that right?” David said. “Glad you’re set up so well over there.” He picked up a cat carrier he’d dragged out along with the storm supplies, set it atop the other one. “But I’m fine, really. I mean, I’m not thrilled, riding this out alone, but—I prefer to be here. Thanks.” Miss Fox, the slighter of the two greys, leaped atop the piano. The waning sunlight illuminated her fine fur, warm and airy beneath his palm. Spalding was the sleek one, she the puffball.

“Kind of can’t believe Julie would run off to her brother’s like that. Monica just kept bugging me to call you to come over, said she feels so sorry for you, but Julie has her reasons, I guess?”

“I had to stay,” David said. “Julie didn’t.” The piano’s surface, smooth and cool, had the faintest coating of dust when he lifted his hand. If there was a roof leak—maybe he should find the extra tarp and cover it? To Bobby he explained how Julie would have been terrified, so he also thought it was best for her to go rather than be traumatized which would help nothing.

“You know what the islanders say: inside a hurricane is where you get close to God,” Bobby said. Someone shouted, metal clanged on a TV; David detected the signature drone of mainstream news. Bobby continued, “That’s something people can be more afraid of than tornado winds. If you don’t find your strength, your faith—who you really are—then how are you going to help each other out, in the mess afterward?” They wished one another good luck and agreed to get in touch as soon as they could once Calypso had passed.

David had already tugged his desktop computer away from the windows, cords unplugged, and the unit stared back, screen dark, plastic shower curtain draped over it like a child’s version of a ghost. Some flimsy plastic likely wouldn’t do much if a tornado tore through, but he couldn’t afford a new computer, this one being on its last legs anyhow; he used the old Mac gingerly and sparingly. The oak tree incident last hurricane season had been a close call for the computer, as well as the piano. He padded into the garage and grabbed the remaining tarp; howls and whistles now pierced the winds, the gusts growing more sustained. The palm trees that lined the corner strip mall were bending, the fronds quaking madly. As he approached the piano and lifted the tarp overhead Miss Fox jumped off and, with a meow of protest, fled behind the couch.

Yanking down the plastic he bumped a few keys around middle C. Hard to believe those were the first notes he had played as a boy. The piano, a Depression-era Mason and Hamlin baby grand, had been his grandmother’s, and she’d kept up a little business for herself, giving lessons. Classically trained at conservatory, she had been quite talented, but having children ended the possibility of her being a professional concert pianist. Gail hadn’t inherited her mother’s gift— “I’ve got two left thumbs,” she still joked. Deborah learned the red Thompson book along with him but soon enough moved on to the flute. For David, those afternoons beside his grandmother and the songs she played so beautifully stayed with him, as did the piano. He could still remember her scent: Yardley Old English lavender and potpourri, from the sachets she kept in her bureau drawers. Her piano, nearly a hundred years old and bought for a steal at an estate sale, no one had much wanted after her passing, except for him. It had accompanied him from the homes of his first marriage to the rentals that followed. He wondered how many hurricanes the instrument had weathered, how many children those keys had taught. Hannah, his daughter. She must have been about six when he began to teach her—his grandmother long deceased, the lesson book by then faded red and tattered, but complete.

Much to his grandmother’s chagrin, David always loved jazz as well as classical music, Bill Evans in particular. Even after he finished his formal composition training at the New England Conservatory he played many more jazz gigs around Boston in his early years, and then again, later in Florida. Once academia dried up he considered himself extremely fortunate to be pianist for the house trio which accompanied the featured headliners who come through Orlando. Entire groups touring had become economically difficult, if not impossible. Bobby and Monica fought to keep their modest venue alive.

Yet lately, for as much as piano had buoyed his whole life, David couldn’t help but sense that his days making music were numbered—at least the way music had played its role up until now. Not only because of the silver-headed audiences, but what was happening outside. Too many disasters to count, and more and more cities falling under martial law, the state increasingly persecuting the poor. The latest horror was DRP, or the “Debtors Repayment Plan,” meant to sound helpful, even encouraging, but which now forced able-bodied adults who did not earn enough to repay their federal student loans to sign up for disaster zone deployment, mainly out West, to fight the massive fires and thus pay back those debts, as serviced and overseen by the Alliance Corporation. DRP assured those who signed on of three meals a day and lodging, enough to lure many. But many also ended up falling ill with lung ailments, injuries, exhaustion, or worse, because Alliance determined when your loans had been paid back in full, if ever. The Wilders had only heard of one person who was able to petition a well-off relative to pay the loans and grant her release, a rare occurrence; those who still had ties to any family money didn’t find themselves in the position of going to debtors’ prison in the first place. Elder status wouldn’t protect you, either; Alliance officers would pursue and harass any debtors under seventy, the amended retirement age, to “volunteer.” He didn’t have any loans left—thank goodness his university degrees had been paid for long ago—but Julie was still in debt and lived in fear of not being able to make the minimum payments. What place did music and composing have anymore, once civility crumbled to tyranny? Was there still a place for him, somehow, or were those days over? How to go on? Julie might have given up on her writing, but he didn’t want to, didn’t know who he was without music and beauty. Didn’t want to know.

He paced, rains drumming harder now overhead, and dialed his mother’s house. Deb answered. “How’re you doing over there?” he asked. “How’s Mom? I could still make it over, if you need me. Even though it’s looking like the storm is going to hit Okeechobee and barrel right up the Space Coast.”

“Ah, I’m not so sure,” Deb said, and laughed. Voices chattered loudly in the background, and someone blasted a faucet. “Or it could cut straight up the middle and hit you. Hop in the car if you want—oh wait, you’re probably up against curfew by now, aren’t you?”

“Not quite. I could make it if I left right now.”

“What do you want to do?”

Shrubbery branches smacked the windows. A police car crept down the street, lights still blinding through the blur. David blinked. “Winds are kicking up pretty strong,” he said. “Guess I better stay put.”

“Look, don’t worry about us. We’re as tucked in as we’re gonna be,” Deb said. What she was more worried about was flooding, she said. A few years prior she’d moved into a caretaker’s cottage in Gail’s backyard, and the unit sat on a concrete slab, elevated but not by much. David had helped her move some of her more valuable items into the main house several days before, when they’d put up the shutters. Deb and a few of the neighbors—many of whom she and David had known for years—had decided to weather the storm in the Wilders’ mid-century ranch. “I’m more concerned about you,” she said to him.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Unless a tornado hits, of course.” He attempted a laugh. “No, I’ve taken care of everything I could think of.” Spalding hopped onto his lap, and Miss Fox perched upon the piano bench, stuck her head hesitantly beneath the tarp. “I covered the piano.”

“Piano—you still have that old one of Grandma’s?” Deb said, her tone incredulous. “I always forget. Somehow, I keep thinking you sold it in one of your moves, or after the divorce. Still sounds okay?”

“Nice as ever.”

“Ah, well, then. Best you stay there in case the roof leaks. Part of me hates Julie for leaving, the other part of me wishes I’d dragged Mom up to Charlotte’s. No place to run from something this enormous, anyway. Take care—I’ll tell mom you’re guarding Grandma’s piano.”

He sent his love and hug up, his lap too warm, the cat purring, immobile. He felt restless—the waiting killed your nerves, long before the arrival of screaming pitch black. What he’d wanted to say, that he wasn’t sure his sister would understand, was how he had so few possessions left anymore that meant anything from his collapsed former life. Some quality pieces of furniture, some wall art and décor from trips decades ago to southeast Asia, Thailand and Hong Kong—but funny how those souvenirs didn’t mean much to him now, certainly not what he’d thought they’d mean when he haggled over them in market stalls and quaint shops. No, the piano was the only artifact left that he loved. Deb and his mother hadn’t been there on the evenings at home when he’d sit down and play Beethoven and Debussy, and Hannah, little more than a toddler, would twirl and dance. Later, the piano would become even more theirs, fought over between his daytime composing and her trotting in after elementary school, flinging her bookbag, and prodding him off the bench. How he might not have protested her interruptions, had he known how short-lived her practicing piano would be—for quickly she became enamored of ballet, and showed a talent for dance. How exquisite and fleeting, those moments.

Sundown, and the darkness grew. The branches lashed the panes more wildly. He tried to phone Julie but no answer, possibly they were cooking dinner. He might have phone service for some time yet; then, on impulse, he thought to try his ex-wife, Allison. Rarely he heard from her anymore—after Hannah’s death she’d never recovered, joined some kind of spiritual community out in Idaho called The Meadows. Supposedly they offered sanctuary for displaced women and girls, but the charismatic leader who headed up the outfit David didn’t trust. Allison didn’t answer, either.

Gently he set down the cat, arose and lifted the tarp, folded it back. The bench cooled his thighs, his khakis worn thin. He rifled through some pieces by Rakowski and Ivanova, but some Berio fit the roar outside, maybe some Shostakovich —he played those. Then what? A song came to him he hadn’t played in years. Did he still know it? When he was young his grandmother would play it often, a piece from her youth: “The White Peacock” by Charles Griffes. David had played it for Hannah, although he hadn’t known the song had made much of an impression until that summer recital in Tampa when he and Allison had gone to watch their daughter perform. Hannah had just finished her freshman year as a dance major at USF, and she’d been so excited to debut her first-ever choreographed ballet solo. From the first measure of music David caught his breath. Her solo ballet was choreographed to Griffes’ orchestral version of “The White Peacock,” which incidentally, was originally used for a solo ballet.

Afterward, when she hugged Allison, then him—the way Hannah smelled, of face powder and fruity vape smoke—and he asked her how on she’d decided on that piece of music, rather uncommon. “Oh, I always remembered that one,” she exclaimed. “It was so beautiful, and usual, I thought.” She squeezed his arm. “Are you surprised? I hope so.”

“Just that I don’t think I ever played it for you more than a couple of times,” he said. “I don’t even know if you were in kindergarten.”

“Good taste you’ve got—what can I say?” Her eyebrows she’d drawn into dark lines, and she looked like an old-fashioned Hollywood starlet; white feathers glinted in her hairpiece.

Love you, dear, he must have said. Well done.

A week later, she would be disappeared without another text or phone call. Months of agony turned into a year, going on two. Then the call, from the private detectives he and Allison had hired from crowdsourced funds; the police were too overwhelmed. A sex-trafficking ring was discovered, messages, photos of kidnapped teens, young women—he couldn’t look. The PIs were surprised the Wilders hadn’t been contacted for ransom money. But something had likely gone wrong with the traffickers’ plans, and Hannah. Their dear, sweet only daughter, was dead.

He hadn’t played “The White Peacock” since, couldn’t bring himself to do it. But now Calypso was fully upon him. Outside and above something blew loud like artillery and bright as flashes of lightening. Sparks shot high—a power transformer. Lights out. Inside the tunnel of screeching wind, debris tearing and slamming somewhere just beyond the lone layer of concrete block walls, he fetched two candles and bent before the keys. In the valley of darkness, you didn’t look back, or you would freeze, or burn alive, or drown. Where was he? Hannah dancing, ablaze in white, the stage dim. The rain struck sideways, the candlelight flitted and cast shadows. He played to the end and wept.

 

Until the weak light of morning Calypso whipped and pounded, clattered and drenched. David had nodded off in the middle of the night and fitfully caught a few hours of sleep. He arose to ragged gusts and sheets of relentless rain. The hurricane had tracked north just inside of the Eastern seaboard, the center passing over East Orlando and the universities, but now, as was feared, had crept back over the Atlantic Ocean just south of Jacksonville—the warm midsummer waters reshaping its walls, the wind speeds surging in strength. In under twelve hours, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and the Space Coast were left smashed and flooded, and the cities and towns in between. By some miracle—his gut clenched at mere mention of this—the nuclear power plants had been spared the brunt. Most worrisome of all was a ridge that threatened to keep Calypso stalled above Jacksonville, Savannah, and the barrier islands, dumping rain and churning up tidal surge to inundate both cities. Several text messages from an anxious Julie awaited him, but when he tried to call the network was down.

Weak-kneed, his head groggy, he swept a flashlight overhead, checking the ceiling room to room for cracks or leaks, but nothing. The piano’s tarp hung dry, the cars sat blanketed in leaves and twigs, intact. A few tiles had blown off the roof and checkered the sodden grass. He lit the camp stove; the espresso pot bubbled, and the cats meowed, undeterred. He paused before the cupboard, grasped one of Julie’s mugs that he’d always considered particularly ugly, with its cartoonish portraits of famous authors—Charles Dickens, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Zora Neal Hurston—but one she loved. He sat down and blew upon the scalding coffee for some time before he could take a sip, the space across from him at the kitchen table empty. Outside, through the pummels of rain, a convoy rumbled past, swung into the nearby shopping plaza.

When finally, his phone blinked with signal, he spoke with her. “I’m fine,” she said, “just worried. Didn’t sleep much. I wonder, when should I come back down?”

“Not anytime soon,” he said. “You’d better wait it out at your brother’s a few more days before you go looking for a return. As much as I’d love to have you back.” She asked him if he’d been listening to the radio. Not really, he said. Miami might as well have been hit with a nuclear bomb, from the pictures, she said. Millions would have to leave; the city would never recover to what it was. The worst death toll was suspected at Lake Okeechobee, where so many lived in little more than shacks. He remained quiet. “Any word from your mom and Deb?” she asked.

“Not yet. I probably should have stayed over there with them.” He set down his mug heavily, pressed his fingers to his damp scalp. No A/C overnight, the air felt thick and stuffy already, his T-shirt sticking to his chest. “Who knows when I’ll be able to get over there now, if they need help? But I didn’t want to leave the house.”

“Look, don’t think the worst,” she said. “They’re not in Miami-Dade, or Broward, thank God. Thousands are dead down there, from the water. I can’t think any more about it. We’re going for a walk with the dogs and the kids, okay?”

He tried his mother’s house and Deb’s phone. No service. Next Bobby, who picked up. “We’re okay, but the place isn’t,” he said, voice husky from exhaustion. “Sandbags didn’t hold, the whole backstage is flooded out. Sure, we raised and tarped all that equipment, but we’ve got some pretty bad roof leaks. Carpeting’s destroyed, and the stage curtains.” And that was just all the damage he could see, Bobby continued, no doubt he’d find even more when he figured out how to get the water out of there, but the rain was still coming down.

“Just hold off tromping around, will you, please?” David said. “It’s bad, I get it. Last thing anybody needs is you tripping and landing in a hospital that’s running on generators.”

Bobby chuckled. “Alright, I’ll be good. But don’t you come down here. This whole street’s underwater like you’ve never seen. Unless you have a kayak.”

“How’re you staying dry?”

“Somehow the water stopped just outside the green room.” Bobby let out a long exhale, and said slowly, “I have the feeling this might be it for us—for this place. Do you know how much our premiums went up after last hurricane season? I wouldn’t be surprised if every carrier in this state pulled out. Only music left here’ll be the Alligator Orchestra. With a Burmese python as special guest, ha.”

“But you’re covered?”

“Course we are.”

“Well, don’t count your gator eggs until they’re hatched.” Bobby laughed, and David grinned, took a sip of espresso, now warm.

But when David hung up a chill rippled through him. The venue gone—no. They had just celebrated the anniversary; surely, if Bobby and Monica ran into trouble, the patrons would rally and somehow salvage the place. He tried his family again, but no luck. The Wilders’ corner neighbor, bevy of old cars clustering his driveway, backed out the sun-blistered Jeep Cherokee. Had the curfew been lifted? Likely only for a couple of hours. Did he dare just drive over to the coast? If so, he risked irritating the troops. Who knew if his mother’s neighborhood was even passable—so many big old trees, on the edge of a hammock, plus water and downed power lines. Had he been too complacent, even foolish, in believing his mother and sister would be fine, just because they had weathered previous hurricanes? Last year’s destruction and now Miami blown to bits, with months left in the season. And now what—if he showed up, would he be helping or hindering? On little sleep, street lights out, skirting downed lines, the looters braced for nightfall. Miss Fox and Spalding tumbled underneath the piano. Thieves wouldn’t want an instrument, never mind one as heavy as a piano, but still. After the floods came the fires.

No, he’d better not chance the trip. At least wait one more day, and if he hadn’t heard by then, by the time curfew had lifted in the morning he might drive over. He lit the candles atop the piano, fumbled among the desk papers he’d sealed in plastic for his songs-in-progress. The roof creaked, and a chorus of sirens swelled.

 

Morning, and a blue sky blazed, the clouds scant and far-flung. Calypso had pulled the precipitation north. David left for the coast. Hesitantly, he crossed intersections, their lights dark and dangling, and zigzagged his way to the highway. Fallen trees blocked neighborhood streets, the inhabitants peering out from behind sprawling roots and trunks. Some residents had donned work gloves, dragged out trash bins, and were pitching debris. One small girl in bright pink rubber boots waved at him, smiling as she tottered too close to a choking gutter. Downed power lines snaked across pavement. A young man dressed in black, knit cap drawn down to his eyebrows and skinny ponytail flying behind, deftly skirted the jagged limbs and kept pace with David’s car—an e-biker, hopefully not on his way to join others in smashing and robbing the smaller stores that didn’t qualify for military protection but also couldn’t afford to hire private police.

When David at last reached the outskirts of the city and the St. John’s River, the vista shimmered on either side of him to the horizon. Slowly, the estuary’s waters drifted north among its grassy islands, an ever-shifting landscape, never the same twice. No cattle today—sometimes the herds scattered upon the patches of dry land to graze, and horses, too, boldly swam across the channels teeming with alligators. The water crested the banks and swelled at the highway’s shoulders, the highest he’d ever seen the St. John’s. Halfway across the bridge and a long convoy of National Guard followed by fuel tankers sped by. He held his breath but the usual checkpoint before the Space Coast appeared empty, an unmanned booth. He loosened his grip, settled back. Afar off from the glassy S-curved waterways a dome of young cypress cast its shadow.

Ten miles inland from shore and water covered the residential streets—more water than in Orlando, the ditches invisible, yards transformed to ponds. Roofs lay torn from buildings, signs twisted, glass shattered. Tornado damage. His pulse quickened, and he swung to avoid a dog trotting loose. At the first entrance to his mother’s neighborhood he met floodwater and backed up, drove around to the other entrance, clear except for some downed branches. Her driveway had been washed out, and the muck of woodchips and mud sucked his soles to the ground with each step to the front door, which stood wide open, and the house, storm-shuttered, loomed darker than usual. “Mom?” he called. “Where is everyone?”

“I’m here,” a voice answered, throaty and determined. A weight shifted upon cushions, handles and wheels jangled—the walker—and Gail emerged in the sunlit doorway, face drawn.

“Are you okay?” he asked. He told her how he’d tried to call and just decided to come, when he hadn’t heard. “Where are all the neighbors? Where’s Deb?”

“They took her,” his mother said, and gulped a breath. “She got bitten by a snake—the coral kind. Very dangerous.”

“What? Are you sure—those are usually docile.” A memory flashed—of his father interrupting his yard chores to grab his hunting rifle and shooting a coral snake he’d found. As kids they’d stumble across that species often back then. Not so much anymore. In fact, he’d thought those snakes were gone, like the manatees and the rest. He said, “How did this happen?”

“Right here, maybe forty-five minutes ago. She wanted to start cleaning up the yard, went in the shed for something, and the snake was in there. Probably was hiding from the storm and all that water in the yard.”

He ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, well, where did they take her?”

The sun, high now, seared his skin. Gail told him the name of the hospital, pressed the doorframe to steady herself. He grabbed her arm and the walker and steered both back inside, to her chair. Quickly, the temperature outside would reach the mid-nineties Fahrenheit if not there already, the moisture heavy and suffocating. He rummaged through closets until he found an old standing fan, but no power. Hadn’t his sister the good sense to buy a generator? Or did he recall seeing one—in the shed, likely now guarded by the distempered coral snake. He groaned, pulled out some old sheets instead, ran the kitchen faucet.

“Don’t use the water!” Gail cried. “You’ve got to boil it first.”

“Relax, I’m just fixing you up some old-fashioned air-conditioning.” The sheets grew sodden; he wrung them out in sections, hands cramped. “We’ve got to try and keep this room cool for you, or else get you moved to someplace with A/C. Otherwise it’s going to get hot enough to kill you in here, Mom.”

“I’m more worried about Deborah,” his mother said. “You know that old saying they used to teach us? ‘Red and yellow, kill a fellow’? That’s the coral snake.”

“The hospital will have anti-venom. I’m irritated that no one stayed with you here.”

“And with the snake!” She waggled a trembling finger.

He chuckled. Sheets wrung, he lugged them over to the living room—now, how to rig these up?

“It was bad, the storm,” she said, and stared blankly at the carpet. Her hands lay folded in her lap. “Worst I’ve ever been in. When I said I wanted to die in my house, I don’t really mean like that.”

“What, you mean by tornado? Or flood? Heat stroke? Take your pick.” He knotted one end of a sheet to a curtain rod, stretched it across the room and did the same on the other side, his mother boxed in a damp tent. The carpet would get wet, but no matter. He said, hands on hips, “Look at that! Now all I need is to power that fan somehow, and we’re in business with your bona fide swamp cooler.” He fetched her a bottle of water and a damp washcloth for her neck. “Drink that. Keep yourself cool, no moving around, unless you need to use the bathroom.”

Gail swiped the washcloth from him. “Will you stop fussing over me?” she said and shook her head. “Go find Deb. I’ve been through a lot of storms in my life. I’ll be fine.”

He drove as quickly as he dared, stomach tight and gnawing with hunger; he’d forgotten that morning to eat, he’d been so desperate to get there. The A/C struck his face full-blast. Too soon, and that buttoned-up ranch would become a sweatbox. He touched the gas, hospital a ten-minute drive. His chest loosened upon seeing its lights. A helicopter flew low overhead, blade beating its hum, and peeled off into the blue.

Pure bedlam greeted him—patients’ families huddled in lines or in every corner, a cacophony of wails and shouts. A man about his age grew heated with a staffer, blocking the woman’s way, insisted he wanted answers about his father who’d apparently suffered a heart attack during the storm. “We’re operating at minimal capacity right now, on auxiliary power—please be patient, okay?” she said, her gaze barely lifting from the file before her. David stepped forward and asked about his sister.

“Oh, yes, the snake bite. We don’t have that anti-venom here, unfortunately—the manufacturer stopped making it years ago. Now there’s a substitute, but even that is extremely difficult to get.” She quickly explained how coral snakes released a neurotoxin that proceeded to shut down the victim’s nervous system; even a couple of hours delay in treatment could lead to respiratory failure and death. “It’s a much more lethal venom than vipers, for instance. She had to be airlifted to Tampa.”

“Tampa?” he echoed. A wave of queasiness rocked him.

Her brows lifted, and she scribbled on a scrap of paper the name of the hospital. “She’s lucky they could take her. Only three hospitals in the state have any type of substitute anti-venom for that bite at all, and Tampa General is one of them. But someone will have to go and pick her up when she’s discharged. Should be a couple of days.”

He shoved the paper in his pocket without looking at it. The doors swooped shut behind him, and again he smacked into the stagnant wall of steam, the sun a wicked diamond. Florida, where the billboards of his boyhood had once advertised the Fountain of Youth. Water of life, water of death.

One of Gail’s neighbors had a generator chugging outside, and once David got his mother settled over there for the night, he headed home. This time he took a different highway. Trees and branches littered the lanes; he had to swerve several times to miss either the debris or the troops and workers clearing it, a few DRP workers among them. The uniforms—light blue shirts with neon orange shoulder stripes, matched with dark blue slacks, the same stripes running vertical down the sides—hung baggy on more than a few of them. As he grew closer he slowed. More women than men, he counted, and several of the women were Julie’s age. Brown curls dulling to grey crowned the woman who held up the stop sign, and her spotted neck sagged. The National Guardsmen who milled and stooped among the “Orange Stripes” as the DRP were often known, appeared younger, tanned and toned, no women in sight. A khaki-clad official, blue cap taut and automatic sidearm bulging, spoke on a walkie-talkie and paced aside a white pickup of the Alliance Corporation. The DRP woman switched the stop sign to SLOW; David drove on and her gaze met his—close enough to see the crow’s feet and age spots when she lifted a hand to wipe her lip. He shuddered—Julie must never end up like this. But he as getting older himself. For how much longer could he protect any of them, but especially Julie? His mother didn’t have much longer, and Deb was tough, with a naturally steady demeanor. To leave Julie alone to face the horrors—he couldn’t. He would fight as long and as hard as he could to prevent that day from coming. The light they shared might be small, it’s warmth no larger than the kitchen table, but it remained the light by which he could see.

“Orange Stripes” again dotted the highway the following day when he drove to Tampa. Deb had recovered enough to call and tell him she’d be released by late afternoon. The snake she’d swatted away quickly, a good thing for it had perhaps not delivered much venom, and aside from some dizziness and vomiting, she showed no signs of organ failure or stroke. “Groggy but otherwise fine,” she told him. South of Kissimmee, wide swathes of woods lay broken and flattened. Nearer to Tampa the traffic picked up, the suburbs bright with electricity. Residents pumped gas and shopped, police and soldiers patrolled corners, but their manner was routine, leisurely. Here was maintenance and order, not triage. Off the exit he passed a city park, the tent-villages settled in—washing hung to dry, signs flapping from trees. So, Tampa hadn’t seen much wind at all. OUR ISLANDS ARE BROKEN – WE CAN’T GO HOME – PLEASE, SEE US WITH GOD’S EYES! read one. Another said: TOO HOT, TOO HUNGRY, NO JOBS. BE KIND.”

At Tampa General, authorities had barricaded the streets for emergency and patient traffic only, overhead the roar deafening as Medivac and military helicopters landed and took off in every direction. He and Deb rode along in silence while he navigated back to the interstate. “So, still glad you stayed?” he said at last. “Doesn’t this beat sitting around Charlotte’s cabin, playing—what’s that game she likes? Parcheesi?”

“Pinochle,” Deb said, and stared ahead. She mumbled something about the price of gas, how strange to see the city so undisturbed here, except for the homeless camps. “I guess I didn’t realize Tampa had so many,” she said.

“We do, too, all over Orlando. I think every city does now. Down along the Gulf I hear’s got refugees all along the water. So many homes abandoned from last year’s storm here, and the dead fish smell they say’ll burn your eyes and give you early dementia.” He paused. “They say the refugees get used to it. Which I don’t believe.”

“Was I a naïve fool to stay?” Deb asked. “Maybe I should have dragged Mom out of here early, gone to Charlotte’s as soon as we heard. Somehow, I just didn’t conceive that it would be this bad. Miami, wiped out, all of South Florida, gone. Feels like 9/11. But worse.”

“We can’t all leave—you’ve said it before.” They idled at a traffic light before the on-ramp, BP station to the right. A dusty blue pickup had stopped for gas, its bed crowded with landscape seedlings and topsoil, the truck’s every inch plastered with bumper stickers and decals, many of the causes now defunct: YES for the GREEN NEW DEAL, SAVE THE MANATEES, EXTINCTION INSURRECTION. The truck’s owner, not in sight, had painted atop the cracked and weathered stickers, in black: EXTINCTION IS COMING! The light changed; David hit the gas.

Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee's latest book, Perfect Conditions: stories (Curbside Splendor) is the winner of the Foreword Reviews’ 2018 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for the Short Story. She is the author of the novel, Juventud (2015) and Train Shots (2014), both of which received awards and accolades. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Kenyon Review Online, and many other places. Follow her online at Instagram@vblakeslee, Facebook.com/VanessaBlakesleeAuthor, and on Medium.com@vanessablakeslee.
Vanessa Blakeslee

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Author: Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee's latest book, Perfect Conditions: stories (Curbside Splendor) is the winner of the Foreword Reviews’ 2018 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for the Short Story. She is the author of the novel, Juventud (2015) and Train Shots (2014), both of which received awards and accolades. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Kenyon Review Online, and many other places. Follow her online at Instagram@vblakeslee, Facebook.com/VanessaBlakesleeAuthor, and on Medium.com@vanessablakeslee.