Friday, July 06, 2007

The Holiday (continued)


The generators, all of them, were humming when Hugh approached the twilit house. He had an eerie sense that something was wrong. With each step,
he could hear the soft skrr of warm dry sand grains squeezing under his sea softened feet. But he was forced to move up an ancient embankment to avoid the rolling cream that covered almost the entire beach now. Even the strands leafy ground covers now spattered and choked through the outer tongues of brackish foam. All of it, all the soapy bubbles, reflected the violent orange cumulonimbus that still hung gigantically in what ought to have been a cool vault over the world. And so sometimes it seemed as though the whole world was on fire, or that he had stepped into a volcano. Rapidly the sunset colors deepened, from orange, to deep scarlet, and reaching the house, the color purple.

There was no one about, save the crackle and hiss and then the nasal tones of a voice, speaking urgently. Hugh went up the stairs and found them all there, silent in the shadows, listening. Now he was able to discern three voices. One a background of storm warmings from some derelict weather station, a message a few minutes long that looped, repeating itself. The other voices were Eric’s and someone elses, an old woman by the sound of her tired voice, coming over shortwave radio.
“El Nido this is Claire, yes I can confirm another category 5 superstorm to intersect the Palawan archipelago.”
“And this information is coming through now, over?”
“Yes, it’s updated, it’s confirmed, it’s being repeated around the clock.”
“Claire, what’s the ET, over.”
“ETA is unavailable. Satellite tracking is down. The reports come from on the ground, a boat in the Sulu Sea…”
“Jeffrey’s boat?”
“We assume so.”
“Oh my God Eric.”
“El Nido, we expect a similar pattern to the storm 3 weeks ago.”
Static. Then, “We need to get out of here.”
“Negative El Nido, remain calm. I repeat, Sylvia, take the necessary precautions – no non-essential transport – hunker down.”
Hugh managed to hear a murmur over the steaming radio: “He’s here.”
Through the dark he saw the camouflaged uniforms of two soldiers. Their powerful hands seized him by his neck and sunwarmed shoulders, turned him around and took him outside.
Some time after he had been bound in stringy hessian rope, and gagged with a filthy, greasy handkerchief, Eric pulled aside the tent flap and pointed fiery eyes at him.
“We’re missing at least three jerry cans of fuel. We have barely enough fuel to keep the generators going for another day, and with this storm coming, we are going to be in the dark without those drums.”
Hugh blinked.
“Now I know you took them. God help me, we ought to gut you like a pig right here. The only way we’re going to survive is together. It’s a loose cannon like you that’s going to get us all killed. Without these generators we can’t connect to the outside world, and without that connection, we’re blind. Do you have any idea what is happening out there?”
A hand slipped under the tent flap and on his shoulder.
Eric look surprised. The anger evaporated into shock, concern and fear.
He nodded, listened, nodded again.
“Okay,” he said, and turned to Hugh.
“The compass needles have turned. All over the world. Insects are going nuts. Fires are breaking out spontaneously throughout the Far East. My friend, there is nowhere to run.”
Hugh grunted against the handkerchief, and the silver haired man moved slowly forward and removed the gag.
“What’s your plan? To hide? To hunker down? This isn’t a one-off storm, at the very least it’s a carbon copy of what we saw three weeks ago.”
“This is our community here. The resources here are ours; they do not belong to you. We welcomed you as part of this community so that you could contribute, and in the few days you’ve been able to walk around my wife has died, food and water and fuel has disappeared, and worst of all, the community no longer trusts itself.”
“Eric, we have to get out of here. Your precious radio isn’t going to have any use when the mountain comes crashing down, taking your mast with it.”
“The cliffs protected us from the last storm, why would this one be any different.”
“Because in this world there are no more patterns. There’s just chaos.”
“No, that’s where you’re wrong. There is still day and night, rain and sunshine and all the rest. It’s people like you that spreading irrational fear.”
“Yes, irrational. What am I going to do with you?”
“I’m the least of your problems. The real question is, are you going to learn the lesson? Do you have any idea what is happening? Because it’s too late to make mistakes now.”
“You were a mistake. We saved your life, and this is the thanks we get.”
“We’re all sitting ducks if we stay here.”
Softly, Hugh said: “The message has been very clear. In the new world, this area is going to see terribly destructive storms again and again. That’s not going to change. So by staying here, you…”
“We have no choice but to stay here.”
“No, you don’t have a choice.”
“Well now that we have you tied up, you don’t have a choice either.” Eric put the gag back in place. “I realise now I don’t have to kill you. I probably couldn’t kill you even if I wanted to. I see though that I don’t have to do anything to you. I’ll leave that to the march of time. What’s coming is coming for you too, my friend. There’s no getting away, not for you, not for anyone.”
He looked very old and very tired. Looking at the blanket in front of his knees, the old man said: “I’ll give you some time to think about that.” Looking directly at him now: “Do you want to die tied up, on your knees, begging? Or do you want to tell us where those fuel drums are?”
Hugh puffed against the handkerchief.
“Think about it,” Eric said, then pushed hands on knees, turned on his haunches and stepped out of the orange tent.
Hugh squirmed so that he lay on his side, with his bound hands behind his back. The walls moved around him like sails, like lungs.

He was awakened by Stella, who quickly cut the hessian fibres and pressed a finger against his lips.
“Hurry,” she whispered, taking him by the wrist. “We don’t have much time.”
As they walked under the moon, restless winds tugging at their cotton t-shirts, Hugh asked: “Where is everyone?”
“Listening to the radio. I fucking can’t sit here listening to that doomsday stuff all day.”
“Wait,” he grabbed her arm. “What are you foing? I said you can’t come with me.”
“After what I just did?”
He hesitated there with her.
“C’mon!” she hissed, pulling his arm.
“We need to get the fuel.”
“I moved it. And a few minutes ago we got it into the boat.”
A small fish of hope jumped in his stomach.
“That’s my girl,” he said softly. Then, “We?”
But she couldn’t hear him. She had grabbed his hand and now he ran after her, surprised at the speedy urgency of her movements.
They finally emerged at a section of beach obscured by a large jutting log, and leaning palm tree. She tossed aside brown palm leaves to reveal the boat, and the whites of children’s eyes.
“C’mon,” she said.

Like spiders they crouched and the four of them pushed at the boat, not far, since the entire beach was already submerged in water, in fact it had begun to pour and sway back between the stems of the outermost palm trees.

“Okay jump in,” Hugh said. The water was deeper. Once in, he pushed further over the calm water, and once the water hit his chest, he tried to clamber in. But he’d lost strength in his core thanks to the haemorrhage. There was a moment of panic as he lost touch of the banca, but Stella caught his shirt, hauled him closer, and then the others grabbed him and helped him up.

It was in that moment that they they heard voices behind them, saw dark figures kicking through the shallow sea towards them, only a few metres away.
Hugh, seized by adrenalin, moved forward over the slick wood, knocking over one of the girls. He seized an oar. Stella immediately did the same. And slowly they moved beyond the striving limbs of the old men in front.
They paddled briskly and chaotically, puffing and panicked, but getting the boat to move more and more decisively through the sweeping seawater. Once a hundred metres out, they were rebuffed again and again by a series of breakers. They remained stuck for two desperate minutes while the group on the beach were running around, shouting, waving, organising something. With a final co-ordinated pull, they managed to sword through a breaker and over the swell behind it. They let out a choked cheer, then breathlessly rowed some more.

Bright sparks suddenly erupted from the edge of the forest. Bullets zipped over their heads, imbedding themselves in the water around them.
Stella abandoned her oar, stepped over him. Ratatatatatatatat… Bullets and the sound following them seconds later. Shouts.
Time seemed to stand still.
Fuck, we’re sitting ducks…
A full minute passed. Hugh attempted to row with one oar. The boat had begun to turn and drift closer.
Another volley of bullets. A swell almost carried them with it, and now another was rising. Hugh clenched his teeth. He needed to straighten; he grabbed the other oar and missed…

Stella yanked at something, and the motor chugged. They moved forward with the swell and at the last moment, Stella swung the handle, and they switched back over the breaking wave, one of the arms diving deep into the water, then lifting again to stabilise them.
She gunned the engine, drowning out the hail of bullets.
Hugh pulled in the oars and found the twins behind them, their bodies warm, but portions of their faces ripped or torn away completely.
He swallowed and tasted metal in his mouth.
They raced over the restless sea under the stars, fingertips tingling, while behind them the soldiers exploded one last hail of bullets over the beach. This time it cut down their civilian friends, leaving a number of giant red ink stains that spread across the beach.

It was only much later that they stopped, and in the silence, the water lapping against the wooden hull, they offloaded the small bodies into the quiet blackness of the ocean. Stella wiped her eyes and nose quickly with the back of her hands. She didn’t want him to see her crying. Then, saying nothing, they started the pumpboat engine once more and went deeper out to sea, into the night.

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