Sunday, October 8, 2017

24. The Scientist Dies

Perhaps what happened next was Mimi's fault.  But then again, like ghosts, a prayer-answering God may not exist, and in any case probably would not have granted the rash request of a single confused soul, a young woman completely incognizant of the might of an upper-category hurricane.

During the night, a deep trough bulled its way out from the Florida coast — where, apparently, a lot of people were praying too — and grabbed hold of Dexter, intent on shearing his top off.  A brawl of weather systems ensued, leaving Dexter with a bloody nose, weakening him from the category four he'd been since late the previous afternoon back down to a three, dropping his top sustained winds to only slightly better than one hundred and twenty-five miles per hour.  Not desiring to be weakened further, a coward who would never stick around in a fair fight, Dexter broke free of the belligerent low, gave up his westward drive and decided to head north to Halifax, a city overdue for some excitement.

The population of Bermuda, which only the night before had been assured by local newscasts that Dexter was no longer considered a threat, awoke to a strong drizzle and a low, fast-moving ceiling.  The cruise ships were steaming for open water like woodlice fleeing a burning log.

At 7:20 AM Harvey was on TV again, looking tired, but also agitated.  He was talking to Michael and Evie as they sat together on the sofa, listening intently.  "The outer bands of this fast-moving hurricane are expected to cross Bermuda by noon today," said Harvey.

Michael reached and tapped a barograph on the bookcase.  "Oh dear," he said.  The pressure’s plunging off the face of the planet."

Anna staggered into the living room holding Jeremy upside-down so that his alarming pink crotch was directed at her parents.  She was sleepy, not yet wound up.

"I don't think we'll be going out today, darling," said Evie.  "We'll stay home and watch the storm, okay?"  Anna nodded and stumbled back to her room.  Jeremy, as always, looked worried.

Michael shook his head.  "Damn," he said.  He phoned the weather channel and listened to the recording.  "Damn," he said again.  "Waves inside the reef are already at five feet.  It's going to be a hell of a ride out to Tea Kettle.  I'd better get going."

"Why didn't he come back yesterday?" Evie asked.  "Maybe he should have to stay there.  How many times do we have to rescue that boy?"

Michael frowned.  "There was no way to know any of this would happen."

She went to the kitchen and began banging breakfast dishes against the sink.  She slammed them into the rack, saying, "That stupid boy Derek!"

Michael looked at her again.  Evie said hurtful things at tense moments to cover her fear.

As if in response, the radio burbled.  Derek said, "Come in, Fisheries Two."

Michael snatched it off its stand. "Hello mate, enjoying the weather?"

"What's happening?  It looks very ugly out here."

"Pack up your gear as fast as you can, boy," said Michael.  "I'll be there within the hour."

"Is this the edge of the hurricane?"

"Yes.  It changed directions.  Make sure you pack up everything of value.  Anything you don't take off the island will be washed away."

"How much of it will hit us?"

"It looks like all of it."  There was thoughtful silence from the island.  "Keep your radio on."

"Okay," said Derek.

The American Airlines flight to New York had been rescheduled to depart at 10 AM.  Because of Dexter, other airlines had canceled flights from North America, but the New York flight had landed and was leaving several hours ahead of its usual departure time to be out of harm's way.

Adrian had rebooked his and Mimi's tickets for the New York flight, with a connecting flight to Toronto.  They had stayed at a hotel the previous night, because after meeting Adrian at the airport, courtesy of a drive from a very disappointed Michael, Mimi refused to go back to the Admiral's estate.  In the taxicab she said, "Your uncle is certifiably insane.  Perhaps criminally insane.”   

He replied, "That seems harsh, after all he's done to accommodate us."

She was on top of him immediately, grabbing his face with both hands, hard, so he could feel the nails of her tensed fingers denting his clammy skin.  Her knee was between his thighs and she was glaring deep into his eye sockets. “He assaulted me.  He hurt me, in front of many witnesses.  Do you understand?”

After checking in, they sat in the main lounge.  Adrian had intended to head straight on through pre-boarding customs, a necessity if traveling to the U.S., but Mimi wasn't ready for this irreversible step.  She abandoned the ticket counter, walked halfway down the long, snaking terminal and sat in the middle of a row of chairs with her back to the window and the growing rumpus outside.  Adrian followed and sat too, two seats away.

They were easily the most attractive couple in the airport, but other travelers and airport personnel sensed a problem, even above the giddy apprehension they felt about the storm, and knew to avoid them, leaving three vacant seats in either direction.  Few travelers wanted to sit anyway.  Most were standing at the windows of the lounge, watching the water of Castle Harbour grow whiter and wilder. 

Mimi said, "You’re a liar."

"I am not," he said.  "All along I thought his treasure story was a crock."

"But you sure fell over yourself to tell him it wasn't. You should have called Michael Spencer about the treasure, not him.  I wish I never showed you that piece of wood.  If I'd known what it was, I would've thrown it back into the water tank.  You made me be the bad guy!"

"What are you talking about?"

"You told me this course was going to help me become a better teacher, and that it was a legitimate course that the students would get credit for, but what happens?  An opportunity to advance your career comes along and you cancel it, and guess who gets to be the one to tell them?"

"For Christ's sake.  I told you not to become friends with them.  They should be grateful.  They got a cheap vacation in Bermuda.  What were they expecting?  An A-plus to save them from academic oblivion?  It would be difficult to find five more lusterless young people."

"You didn’t even bother to know them.”

After further angry silence, Adrian said, "Tell me, exactly what has been going on between you and Derek?"

"We talked a lot.  He's an interesting guy."

"Bullshit.  That's not what my uncle implied.  Who’s the real liar, Mimi?”

Without looking at him or saying another word, she got up and walked away. 

Adrian also said nothing as she left him.

Most of the staff had arrived at the Fisheries Division before eight o'clock.  There was a standard procedure for hurricanes: of primary concern were the boats, which had to be floated onto trailers and pulled up the ramp, then parked and tethered in the boatyard.  Michael knew this, but had assumed his whaler would be the last brought ashore, because it was the least valuable of the fleet, and being smallest, would be wedged in among the others in whatever space remained.  But he'd underestimated the efficiency of his crew.  By the time he arrived, his boat was already on a trailer, with two of the boys trying to hitch it to the back of a truck.  Their efforts were hampered by waves from the tide-heightened ground-swell surging up the ramp, lifting the trailer and tossing it to the side, against the stone jetty.  Stepping from the cab of his truck, Michael frantically signaled them to release the boat.  The swell beat them to it.  As one of the men reached for the lock on the trailer winch, a mass of water lifted the boat and snapped the cable to the bow-iron like a piece of yarn.  Several staff who had been on the jetty scattered as the next wave took the boat, its engine dangling, and sent it crashing down where they'd been standing.  The transom split and the engine snapped off.  Its plastic cowling was in pieces.

The retreating wave dragged the whaler off the breakwater and dumped it upside down in the flooded ramp, leaving only the maimed engine bleeding its gas-oil mixture on the stones.

Michael turned to the others, shouting,  “I need another boat, now!  It’s an emergency.  A life is in danger.”

The next wave came straight up the ramp and into the parking lot, slamming the up-ended trailer into the fence around the boatyard.  Two men were carried with it, then dragged back out, down the ramp.  They were rescued quickly with thrown lines, but not without injuries.  It was clear to everyone that no more boats would be launched.  Everything was an emergency. 

Michael tore into the Division Office and attempted to call the Biological Station.  He couldn't get an open line, so rushed back to his truck.  He hoped he would get there before all of their boats were secured.

He reached for the radio.  "Derek, are you there?"  He heard static.  "Derek?"  He waited, and Derek answered.

"Hello Michael," he said.  He sounded breathless.  Michael pictured him running about, folding the tent, gathering his clothes, looking anxiously at the sky.

"Sorry Derek, there's been a setback, my boat is out of commission, I'm going to the Bio Station to get one of theirs, I'll be a little later than I said."

"Okay," said Derek.  "Don't worry, I'm all right."

For now, Michael thought, but this is just the beginning.  He knew Evie was sitting next to the radio at home, watching the television.  He knew she had heard their conversation and was now circling the living room like a caged tiger.  He was grateful for the radio; he could let her know what was going on without having to argue with her about it.  He prayed she wouldn't pick it up and protest.  He didn't want Derek to know the danger he was in.

At the opposite end of the terminal Mimi found a payphone across from the public washrooms.  She expected Derek was at the Spencers’ house, that Michael had picked him up by now as he had promised.  She found the number easily in the slim Bermudian directory, but then ran into problems.  Like Michael she couldn't get a free line because almost everyone in Bermuda at that moment was checking on the whereabouts of loved-ones.  She tried for several minutes before giving up.  She remembered Derek's two letters still in her bag.  One was to the college in Nebraska.  She slipped it into a letterbox outside the gift shop.  The second was to Roy Delgato.  She wondered why Derek had written to Roy again.    She suspected this one was about her.  It had to be.  What had he said?  She recalled his jittery, nervous behavior, when he had seemed so sad, so hurt, and she had acted as hard-hearted as possible, trying not to be affected by the hostility of the students.  The letter would say he hated her.  A more terrible thought crossed her mind.  Derek's wife, his parents, his eye, his ears — and now Mimi Villanueva, making his life even worse.  She heard Michael's voice, "Derek would have to be suicidal to want to stay on that island..."

She stared at it in her hand, and then ripped it open.

A single sheet of paper was folded around a small, tapered, bone-yellow pin.  In block letters the writing said, "I SUPPOSE YOU KNOW WHERE THIS GOES."  It made no sense to her until she examined the pin more carefully.  It was a cactus spine.  Derek really did hate her.  Everybody hated her.

In heavy rain he dropped and broke the radio.  "Damn! Shit! Fuck!" he cursed, his profanity escalating with the wind.  The surf swirled around and pounded against the shore as though the island were the agitator in an ocean-sized washing machine.  He had given up hope of being rescued, but this was in some sense a relief.  Under present conditions, travel in an open boat would mean greater danger than finding shelter deep within the palmettos.  He was concerned at how quickly the storm was intensifying, but not yet in fear for his life.  Despite his frequent musings on leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge, the reality of his mortality was difficult to comprehend.  His life would not end here.  That would be crazy.  Earthquakes had taught him that most people survived natural disasters through a combination of instinctive ass-covering and pure dumb luck.  Derek was due for dumb luck, for any luck. 

He held the dead radio and told it he would ride out the storm, not to worry.  Then he tossed it aside and picked up his weapons and his clothesline.  As a last resort he planned to tie himself to the trunk of a cedar.  His ear-ringing boosted and, as if mechanically linked to it, the ferocity of the strongest gusts increased again, which caused the impact of rain, salt-spray, and flecks of detritus on exposed skin to become painful.  Then, with an abruptness that frightened him, the gusts boosted yet again, almost double the strength of only five minutes earlier and he found himself within a powerful flume of wet grit.  It was almost impossible to walk or remain standing.  He let himself be propelled downhill into the palmettos, where the wind was broken slightly by the trees and where he was safe from the mace-headed casuarina seeds raining down like sniper fire, until another howling burst folded back the palmetto crowns and found a new source of ammunition, the palmetto fruits, little sun-hardened shoe-buttons, which began zinging past.  One landed forcefully and stuck within the oversized corner of his mangled eye.  "Augh!" he screamed and pried it out with his thumb.  He was no longer protected by his sunglasses.  They were gone, blown off by one of the blasts that had knocked him flat.

The wind ratcheted higher still and sent the surf against the shore in low, heavy thuds that were followed by the hiss of salt water sucking down through crevices and fissures not reached in almost a hundred years.  Derek was spending more and more time accomplishing nothing, fighting in circles, unable to walk even the shortest straight line.  He resorted to crawling.  Clutching the spade and rifle he was well armed, but not against an upper category hurricane.  A cedar branch was hurled like a spear and bounced bluntly off the back of his neck.  He writhed on the ground, swearing.  I may die here, he thought for the first time, as he crawled further downhill.  The thought almost made him laugh, because it seemed utterly ridiculous.  This time a year ago he lived with a woman who baked cookies in a place where the sun never stopped shining from April to November.  Now he was here, alone on this oceanic speck, being beaten senseless by a hurricane with no idea where she was now.  He thought about the next woman, Mimi, and how if not for her he would not be here, about to be obliterated.  He imagined her on a plane with her seatbelt fastened, squinting at the bright sun shining down on the vortex.  Sitting next to her was a smug, unpleasant man who didn’t even love her.

His hands and knees were being pricked and gouged by sharp objects, animal, vegetable, and mineral.  He half-stood and blundered blindly, bullied further by the storm, which was penetrating deeper and deeper into the thrashing grove, until he was pressed against the side of the water tank.  Unable to see or walk or stand unaided, he gave up on his plan to tie himself to a tree and allowed the rope to be ripped from his fingers.  He sank back to his knees and was forced flat on top of the spade and rifle.  In the howling wind and spray he was no longer able to open his eyes and could breathe only by burying his chin in his chest.  The sting of salt and the sheer force of the hurricane pounding against his body was becoming too much to bear.  A cedar bough six inches in diameter slammed into the tank and fell on his back.  Had it hit him directly it would have gone through him.  He crawled from beneath it.  I need a bunker, he thought.

The water tank was the only man-made structure on the island that had not had its roof blown off in three centuries of cyclonic storms.  He reached to find that the door was open.

Mimi ran from the terminal and jumped up and down at a passing cab.  The driver didn't want to stop.  He wanted to head straight home to be with his family, but stopped anyway.  It was a short ride to the Biological Station across the swingbridge, which kept disappearing in sheets of spray.  He refused payment.  "Get yourself into shelter, Miss," he said.  Then he made the mistake of sticking his head out the window to make sure she got safely up the steps.

Mimi found where her students were staying and materialized disheveled and wet in front of them as they huddled, grumbling, in a common-room darkened by closed shutters.  They were unsure what to think of this. 

Molly said, "Hi."

"I'm staying," she said.  "The course is still on, if you want — we can at least try, even though we don’t have a professor."  She sat on a faded plastic chair. “I’m sorry you guys.  You have been treated really unfairly.”

"What about Professor Lyon?" asked Shana.

"Gone," said Mimi.

They were confused.

“I’m the only instructor now."

"Excellent," said Stew.

"Where is Dr. Lyon?" Brian asked.

Mimi made a gesture like a plane taking off, and then left them and went to a washroom.  In the mirror, under the sick-green of fluorescent tubes, she saw someone she did not immediately recognize.  It was as if the mirror were at an angle, sending her reflection to a young dark-skinned girl whose reflection was bounced back to Mimi.  The image, which Mimi realized was her own, scared her.  She didn't look like herself.  She couldn't remember ever having been so dark, even as a child.  Everything had changed so much, so fast.  She ran water in the sink and watched it flow as she tried to figure out what she had to do next.  Her ears popped and the lights went out, followed by a crashing of glass and masonry, and a scream.  It sounded like Molly.

She ran back to the common-room where the students stood scattered and shaken.  Molly had been hit with the sash as the window had blown out, but wasn't hurt.  The shutters were flapping and slamming wildly against the outside wall, allowing blasts of spray onto the furniture.

"This is unbelievably cool!"  Stew yelled.

A drenched, panicky official of the station ran in and told them to get to their dormitory, to stay away from the windows.  He told them to sit on the floor between the beds, and if another window failed, to go into the washrooms and hide in the stalls.

"What's happening out there?" Shana asked.

"Tornado!" he shouted.  "Go!"

All six Canadians bustled into a single dorm room and sat on the floor between the beds, as far from the window as possible.  The wind continued to screw upward.  Just before it blew out the common-room window it had wailed like a freight-train.  Now it was screaming like a jet-engine, and was approaching the thundering intensity of an artillery barrage.  It was a monster, hammering all three exposed walls of the dormitory wing, probing for a weak spot, searching for a way to reach inside and take them.  More windows blew out on the floor above and they wasted no time running to the washrooms.  Each took a stall and there they cowered, unable to hear themselves yelling.

Mimi looked down into the bowl between her thighs and numbly watched the water as it rose and fell with the mad fluctuations in air pressure.  She wondered where Derek was.  She was angry at him for his sneakiness, and hurt too, but hoped he was safe with Michael.  She started to pray.  Please make it stop, please make it stop, please make it stop...

Derek was in darkness, feeling the rise and fall of water around his neck.  There was little danger he would drown, provided he remained conscious.  The tank was too deep for him to stand, but he could grip a spot on the wall with one hand and tread water with the other.  All in all it wasn't too bad, except for the chill, and the stench, organic and rotted.

He had left the door open, but before long the wind slammed it shut.  No matter, he thought.  He could deal with the stress of riding out a massive hurricane inside a frigid water tank as dark as a coffin.  He found the rope, and pulled.  He ripped away a can, and guzzled.  Then he guzzled another one.  And another one.  And another one.

After an hour, and four cans, he was feeling the warmth of the alcohol only slightly, not enough to counteract the creeping chill of the water.  After one-and-a-half hours and another can-and-a-half, the false internal warmth began to overtake the external chill.  After two hours and eight cans, he felt warm, and almost safe. 

And then, as had happened the previous day, the pail became snagged.  He pulled, and submerged.  "Damn!" he said, surfacing.  He pulled on the rope again, this time inverting himself and bracing a heel against the doorframe.  He forced himself down into the cold blackness and ran his hand to the object in which the beer-pail was imbedded.  It was a disintegrating wooden crate.  As he attempted to pry the pail free he felt a metal object about the diameter of a beer, but not round in cross-section — and heavy.  He popped to the surface.  He passed his hands over it then reached and used it to bash open the door.  He saw what it was.

"Holy shit," he said.

No amount of beer would have counteracted the new chill.  "No Derek, I don't think it's significant," he heard her say.  She had pretended she didn't know the significance of what he had found in the tank — what he had delivered into her hands — the clue they needed, those "archeologists."  How elaborate was their scam?  Who among them was real?  Was timid little Molly even real?

He shouted, his voice reverberating off the stone walls, “Is this why you stayed with me, to keep an eye on me in case I found this?  Well guess what?  I found it!  But you already know that now, don’t you?”  He held up the ingot, panting, clinging to the corner of doorframe with his other hand.  He said, “What the hell kind of a person are you?”  He shot-putted the ingot against the far wall of the tank, and lost his grip on the doorframe an instant before the door slammed shut.

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