05 Apr Solitude
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"Solitude"Written by AUTHOR_NAME_HERE
Estimated reading time — 24 minutes
Edward Harker waited in his office until the financial management firm of Harker, Parks & Associates was empty, and then took the elevator to the parking garage beneath the Manhattan skyscraper. He found his Lincoln Navigator and started it up for the first time in three months, and drove north on the Henry Hudson Parkway. He crossed the George Washington Bridge at night and plunged into the industrial wasteland of Newark with its endless lighted spires over the electrical grid substation. He drove through the night down I-95 then crossed into the peninsula of Maryland, pitch black with farmland. He listened to the radio. It spoke at intervals of a storm brewing in the Caribbean, slowly plodding and spinning its way north. Florida had issued an evacuation notice for its eastern shore. The Carolinas were preparing to issue similar warnings. It was all very dramatic, and the roads were empty. At about three in the morning, Harker crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. It stretched a long line of electric light across the blackness of the bay at night. He couldn’t see the water, just the black expanse that stretched on forever. A harsh November wind pushed against his SUV. He felt the great dark ocean heave in the night.
He reached Corolla on the outer banks of North Carolina by early morning as a light rain fell from an expanse of low, gray clouds pushed northward ahead of the hurricane. The bridges to the island crossed the chop of green ocean. His was the only vehicle on the road. The wiper blades beat a soft rhythm and he was tired now, all his regrets beaten back by lack of sleep. His four-story, eight-bedroom beach house–normally rented out during the summer for three thousand a week–had been empty for nearly a month. He stood on the deck of the third floor in the cold rain and watched the surf of the incoming tide break far out on the sandy shelf before rolling white and grey onto the beach.
The dunes were as large as mausoleums, and the wind picked up the sand and send it stinging through the air. It was a north-easterly wind and it shook the broomsedge grass and dune elder, caused the waves to chop and the fish to cease feeding. At the edge of the horizon the ocean seemed a vast and bloated belly. Harker left the deck windows open, took off his shoes and fell asleep in his clothes in the master bedroom.
* * * * * *
Harker woke in the late afternoon. His cellphone had vibrated with so many incoming calls the battery had died during his sleep. There was a mist covering the island which grew so thick it seemed the sea had mixed with the air.
He took off his socks and rolled his pant legs to the base of his knees. He walked barefoot over the splintered wooden bridge that led beyond the dunes to the beach. It was cold, and the wet air sent a chill to his bones. The sand, which had overtaken and swallowed the bridge at its end, was thick and damp. He stood on the beach looking out at the breaking waves. The surf left saltwater foam on the sand that shook like beached jellyfish, then kicked loose and rolled like tumbleweeds. The currents heaved up detritus from the seafloor, and the hard-packed wet sand was littered with refuse — ancient waterlogged wood, bottles, broken shells and seaweed. The currents were so wicked he could see them; rivers of water pulled through the surf as waves broke against each other and were sucked back out by riptides. He walked nearer the sea, and the cold water ran up the beach and over his feet to his ankles.
He could feel it — the power of it; the great storm generating kilotons of destructive force a thousand miles away had somehow reached out and touched him.
His white silk shirt was almost completely unbuttoned, and it rippled in the wind. Sand stung his face. He looked north up the misty, darkening beach, but could see no one. He turned south, and as far as he could see it was empty.
He walked north up the beach slowly, feet in the cold water, hands in his pockets, head down to protect his eyes from the sandpaper wind. He walked slowly. His mind turned but he didn’t think conscious thoughts. Indeed, he felt his mind to be blank — succumbed to the inevitable maelstrom. The cold water swept his feet. He walked until he could no longer see the bridge to his house through the rainy mist, and then turned and walked back in the growing darkness.
He stopped again where the sand had overtaken the bridge-walk over the dunes. There was only the light from the living room windows of his beach house, and he stared out at the tide. It had turned while he was asleep. He watched the shoaling waves, the fractal patterns and insane geometries of the capillary waves colliding, chopping and frothing; piling on top of each other till the shallows were overrun with depth. The sea churned. It seemed like a cauldron boiling, but unmoved. The waves grew higher crests and deeper troughs, and the white foam rode them up and down and mixed and bubbled.
Then, in the great rising and falling water, he saw something — a small, pale white face sputtering in the surf.
Edward Harker stopped and squinted and tried to look closer. He could see the tiny face — that of a little girl, gasping for air. He saw a small, bone-white hand grasp for surface. He saw her eyes and nose. He saw her mouth gasp for air, and he knew then he was not seeing a figment of pareidolia caused by the white-water and darkness. His heart quickened. He called out, but the girl only struggled to keep her tiny face above water in the devastating toughs, fifty yards from where he stood. He looked up and down the beach. There was no one; no towels or beach chairs; no footprints beside his own; no family or lonely beachgoers. No sign of anyone but himself.
He saw a tiny white hand break the surface again.
Edward ran into the surf, lifting his knees high to his waist until the water pulled too hard and slowed him, and then he dived into an oncoming wave and began to swim. He’d always been a strong swimmer, competing in high school and then in college until greater monetary pursuits took hold. His arms left the water only to be swallowed by an oncoming crest.
He kept his head up and focused on the girl’s face, which disappeared and reappeared with each breaker. He closed in, the water too deep for him to stand and the rip-tide flushing him out to sea faster than he could swim. Just yards away he saw her face so clearly — saw her eyes dark and wet, saw her mouth open, gulping air, and thin strands of wet, dark hair which clung to her face. She dipped behind a swell and Edward pushed through, reaching for her arms.
He crested the last wave, but she was gone.
He treaded water, sputtering, breathing hard, swallowing salt-brine. He turned and looked for her, but she wasn’t there. He saw the beach, far away now. He felt his hands and legs heavy and freezing. He searched the water with his arms, dove below the surface and swam the swirling currents in the darkness. He reached and strained, but there was nothing except an empty, swirling abyss. When he surfaced, there was only thrashing surf and dark sky, and the light from his living room windows to guide him to shore. Edward took one last dive and resurfaced farther from shore, nearly out to sea. He began to panic. He swam parallel to the beach to escape the rip current, and when he was far enough down the shoreline he began to swim toward land. Waves broke over him and helped push his body closer. He put his feet down, stumbled to knee-deep water and heaved for breath. His clothes felt an extra fifty pounds. He shivered and shook on the dark sand. He sat for a moment staring out at the great black sea wondering, questioning what he’d seen, or what he felt so certain he had seen.
The white crests rolled like lips of a great dark mouth opening to swallow him whole, dotted with little bits of foam-white faces.
* * * * * *
The police took forty minutes to arrive at his house. There was only one unit patrolling the island during the off-season, and the nearest hospital was twenty miles away. When drownings did occur, there was often little that could be done. The officers stood in his doorway and took his statement. Still sopping wet because he had no other clothes, he walked them to the beach and pointed out where he thought–swore–he’d seen the little girl. The officers, a portly man — officer Dunkirk — and a young, brown-haired woman — officer Tannenby — both wore jackets and wide-brimmed hats. They stopped taking notes. They looked up and down the beach.
“It’s not likely,” Dunkirk said, “a girl that age would be out here on her own. Particularly in this weather, at this time of year? Hell, you’re probably the only one around here for a mile. You do know that hurricane is coming, right Mr. Harker?”
“Low light and all the chop in the water can play tricks on the eyes, sir,” Tannenby said.
“I almost reached her,” Harker said. “I saw her. I was only a few yards away.”
“You sure it was a girl?”
“Yes, I’m sure it was a girl, I could tell by her face.”
“About how old do you think?”
“Young. Seven, nine, maybe? Too young. I have a ten-year-old daughter. She looked younger. I was that close to her. I don’t know what she was doing out there. There was no one else. No one else at all.”
The officers spread out, one questioned the houses to the north, one to the south. Few houses were occupied. No one had a little girl and no little girls were unaccounted for. They called into the island station. There were no reported missing persons and – so far – his was the only call that night.
Harker sat on the couch as the officers conferred with the dispatchers at the station. Outside was pitch black. “You see, Mr. Harker, we don’t have any missing persons reported or even pending between here and the mainland,” he said.
Harker, head down, nodded. “I know what I saw.”
“Are you all right, Mr. Harker? I mean, personally… is everything okay?” she inquired.
“Why do you ask that?”
“Have you had anything to drink tonight? Any prescription medications?”
“It happens sometimes, Mr. Harker. People think they see things in the surf. It wouldn’t be the first call I’ve answered like this where somebody thought they saw someone drown or go under. It’s a trick of the light. You think you saw the face of a little girl drowning in the waves. It was probably just seafoam. It’s rough out there, and cold, and no one else is around.”
They left, and Harker stood fully clothed in a hot shower to wash all the salt and sand off his pants and shirt, and then put them through the washing machine and dryer while he walked naked through the many rooms of his house in the dark.
He fell asleep on a couch on the upper floor.
* * * * * *
In the morning, he realized he hadn’t eaten in two days. He dressed and stopped at Ike’s Diner for breakfast and then drove to the Food Lion for groceries. He bought beach clothes at discount prices from Waves, along with several pairs of sweatpants and sweatshirts. He paid with his black credit card that was thick as a page from a picture book. The clerk swiped the card and it cleared, and Harker was relieved the card hadn’t been cut off yet. He stopped at a liquor store and loaded up with beer, bourbon, and wine. He planned to forget about the previous evening… and the previous three months. He stopped at the local post office and scanned the walls for photographs of missing persons. There were only two, both from the ’80s; two women with feathered hair and grainy smiles, caught in some candid moment when the entire world wasn’t being recorded and splashed over the media. A radio played in the post office. A voice urged people along the coastline to travel inland. The high grey clouds were building upward, layering heavy atop one another. The governor was going to make an announcement.
Edward Harker left.
* * * * * *
He dressed in warmer, dry clothes, ate more food, drank some beer and started feeling more like himself. He thought about the girl he’d seen, and decided that maybe he had been imagining things, a result of his overnight drive from Manhattan, the stress, the lack of food, the chop and the low light. Maybe he was cracking. But now he felt warm and full. From inside the house, he could watch the waves and feel more of the peace that he’d hoped for when he left the city.
He turned on the television and watched digital images of the big swirling mass over the edge of Florida. Meteorologists predicted it would head up the coast, a category 4 which could grow even stronger. Images flashed on the television of houses whipped with wind and rain; palm trees bent, leaves slashed the air, a storm surge rose and careened over storm walls, and washed down Main Streets up and down the Florida coast. He turned it off and drank some more, then looked to the ocean outside his window and wondered how it would be here in his safe haven; what would it look like when the waves toppled over the dunes and washed into this house? What would it be like to stand on the porch and let the 130 mph winds blow over him? What would it feel like as the storm approached?
The land-line rang, and it sounded like a fire alarm in the silent house. He nearly jumped from his skin, his nerves frayed at the sudden encroachment. He’d forgotten there even was a landline. He stared at the ringing phone and waited. It kept ringing. He finally answered.
“Edward? Edward? Is that you? It’s Meredith.”
“Edward, they’re looking for you. You need to answer your phone. Answer an email. Something.”
“How did you find me here, Meredith?”
“I actually keep a Rolodex. What can I tell them, Edward?”
“Tell them I’m taking a leave of absence.”
“That’s not good enough. It’s not just the partners, Edward. The FBI, SEC and the IRS are here. They’re actually here… in the office!”
“I’m out of town. I will be for some time.”
“I can’t tell them that. They’re talking about issuing a warrant. You need to come back here.”
“Forward it to my attorney,” Edward said. “And don’t tell them that you’ve talked to me.”
“What should I tell Lucy?”
“You talked to her?”
“She’s called here looking for you.”
“What about Suzanne?”
“I haven’t heard from her. She and Lucy are still with her parents in Connecticut as far as I know.”
Edward took the phone away from his ear for a moment, looked down, and sighed. He thought for a moment. He wanted some deep and meaningful message to send to his only child, but there was nothing. Anything and everything he could say would be meaningless. “Tell Lucy that Daddy will be home soon. I just… had to take a trip.”
His assistant of twenty years said nothing, but he thought he could hear her cup her hand over the receiver of the phone for a moment. What she was doing on the other end he could only imagine. Maybe she was hiding the fact that she was on the phone with him; perhaps talking to federal officials, telling them where they could find him. He didn’t know, and all he had now was trust, as tenuous as it was.
“I don’t think I can hold them off much longer,” Meredith said.
“Don’t worry. You’re not in any trouble. It will be fine.”
He hung up the phone before she could continue, and then unplugged the line.
* * * * * *
Fronts clashed in the evening and the swirling wind and rain blew both warm and cold by the time Edward was drunk. He watched the television. He saw nothing of himself on the news. Every channel talked of the impending storm. The first hurricane in five years, and everyone treated it like it was royalty. The swirling red mass that quickened its step up the eastern coastline stretched 250 miles across and sustained winds of 140 miles per hour. In his alcohol haze, the image on the screen became somewhat ominous and humorous at the same time. With the eye of the hurricane a deep black and the surrounding areas red, it came to resemble the profile of a human skull.
Edward laughed and threw a beer bottle behind him, which smashed on the hardwood floor, and he cried out that the apocalypse was never-ending. He yelled at the screen, “I’m not leaving!”
He left his house in the brooding dusk and walked to the ocean again. The whitecaps rose and fell like dim stars blinking on and off in the great expanse of the universe. The wind was whipping. His clothes pulled against his skin. The breakers were crashing. He thought, in the distance, he saw a fisherman with his surf-rod arching up fifteen feet in the air, but his eyes were blurred from the alcohol. He shook his head to clear his vision and looked again, seeing nothing. It seemed that everything around him was a ghost. He turned and looked back at the waves, and there in the surf he saw her again — a pale white face, struggling in the waves, eyes wide and terrified, dipping below the surface and rising. He saw her little pale hands break the surface.
His mind hesitated, but something deep in his core urged him on. He didn’t care if it was a hallucination, the sight of her struggle, the idea of her slipping to her cold death in the raging sea was overwhelming. He was in the water, the shock of the cold sobering him up momentarily before the blur of the waves and the shifting currents plunged him into a spinning morass of confusion. He swam, pumped his arms, kicked his legs against the froth. One hundred yards from the beach, he stopped and looked about. She was gone, and he was collapsing under the crush of the waves. He turned in all directions again. She was lost. That tender, terrified face was gone again. This time he struggled back to shore. He swallowed too much seawater and collapsed onto his hands and knees then retched on the beach. He turned onto his back and sat up. The cold water washing over his lap, he stared out at the ethereal tide and listened to ghosts in his head, and he prayed to God that he could, one day, do one good thing like save a little girl from the chaos.
But, of course, he couldn’t even save himself from the chaos, let alone save his own daughter from knowing her father would be sent to prison – she would be a victim of it, too.
He stared out to where he’d last seen the drowning girl and, in the darkness, saw her face once again struggling, gasping for breath.
In that moment he felt sheer terror. He stood up and knew he saw something preternatural — a memory drudged up from the murky bottom, set to toss about in the waves to torment him. Or perhaps a hallucinogenic product of his tumultuous mind breaking under the waves of pressure.
She struggled and gasped and slapped at the waves. She dipped and reappeared, and her mouth opened wide to scream, but there was no sound he could hear over the crashing surf. He stood and watched her for an hour in horror, his mind spinning, questioning what it all meant. She never drowned. She never swam. She just struggled in the current.
He waited till he was soaked to his core with cold, then finally turned his back on her and walked the bridge to his home. Every thought he’d entertained until this moment suddenly flushed from his mind. Edward kept trying to speak, as if his own words and sounds would suddenly make the world real again, but he couldn’t summon the breath, or the words, or anything but a tearful squeak and gasp.
In the night he wandered, dripping wet, bottle in hand, through the various rooms and levels of the beach house. The lights were off, and he passed before windows and mirrors which refused to show his reflection. He eventually sat straight up on a couch on the top floor, staring out into the darkness at the seizing waters beyond the dunes. In the night he could see the whitecaps of the sea and in them he saw a million drowning faces of a million little girls struggling for breath.
* * * * * *
He woke to an alien sunlight over the coastline dunes. The water churned but looked restrained, as if holding back from the land. The bottle was on the floor beside him, its remaining contents spilled out. The salt and sand irritated his skin. His mouth was bone dry and there was an ache behind his eyes, as if they had strained too much. He felt lost and disoriented looking out at the calm sun and slight breeze which bent the cordgrass stalks. He stood and walked to the massive windows and wondered for a moment if he were still dreaming. The pain in his head was too great to be imagined.
His shirt and pants had solidified with salt over the course of the night and the material was stiff and creased. He opened the sliding glass door to the porch. The air was light and unusually warm. He looked around and everywhere was silent but for the crashing waves beyond the dunes. Edward turned and went back in the house. He showered for a long time, drinking the water falling from the showerhead to wet his cracked throat. Images of the girl — what he had seen, coupled with a foreboding sense of death — flashed through his mind, and he tried to force them out.
He was dried and dressed in the clothes he’d purchased from the beach shop. His head felt momentarily reinvigorated. He found his cell phone and plugged it into the charger, watching as it powered on and came alive again with text messages, emails and voicemails that had been held back. The chimes seemed to echo in the house for hours, and then there was the heavy-fisted knock on the door.
Edward cautiously walked down two flights of stairs to the front door and could see an official-looking jacket and broad-brimmed hat through the clouded glass of the entry door. Officer Dunkirk, his belly spilling out over his belt, sidearm holstered and barely noticeable against his bulk. “Good morning, Mr. Harker.”
Edward looked around as if expecting an armada to be waiting in the wings. “Good morning,” he said. “Is something wrong?”
“Why don’t you step outside for a moment so we can talk?”
Edward stepped out onto the porch landing. The air was unseasonably warm, the light breeze seemed to be holding back, waiting.
“I come here for two reasons,” the Officer said as if orating before a southern congregation. “For one, we received a request to do a wellness check on you.”
“To make sure you’re okay. It seems there are many people quite worried about you and wondering where you are.”
“I’m fine,” he said.
“I can see that. The second reason I am here is that the state has issued an evacuation order for the coastal areas.”
Edward looked around at the bright sky and warm sun. Dunkirk half grinned. “Don’t be fooled, Mr. Harker. This is what they call ‘the calm before the storm.’ All the weather we’ve experienced this week has been pushed out, making way for the big granddaddy of them all. It is not going to be pretty and I suggest you start packing and leave. Landfall will be tomorrow.”
“May I ask what brings you down here at such an inopportune time?”
“I was just looking to get away,” he said. “I needed to clear my head.”
Dunkirk stared at him knowingly for a time. “A little solitude can refocus the mind, I suppose,” he said. “I understand there may be some issues you are dealing with up north.”
“Nothing that involves local law enforcement,” Harker said.
“Mmm,” Dunkirk smiled. “Not yet, anyway. It’s not really my purview and I don’t much care one way or the other, Mr. Harker. Powerful men have powerful problems. I’ve always preferred a simpler life.” He looked around the empty streets and the empty houses. “I can’t make you evacuate, Mr. Harker. Probably wouldn’t even if I could. But the truth of the matter is I’m getting the hell out of here, too. These islands are not the place to be — even for law enforcement — when a storm like this hits. I don’t have the time or resources to be making sure every individual gets out of Dodge. We pull our forces back inland, wait for it to blow over and then come out to clean up the mess. If you think that you can ride out this storm in this house, I’m sorry to say, you are sorely mistaken. Whatever you’re dealing with in New York is nothing compared to what’s coming up this coast.”
Harker looked at him and then looked away and back into his home. “I appreciate your concern, officer. I don’t yet know what my plans are.”
Dunkirk nodded and looked down for a moment. “That’s fine, I understand. You know, twenty years ago we had a direct hit from Hurricane Samantha. I was only twenty-five years old at the time. It was a category 3 I believe. We pulled back, same as we do now, and after the full brunt of the storm had moved north, we came back in with firetrucks and ambulances and a fleet of emergency electricians from the electrical company — you know, the guys that make a year’s salary wading through all the leftover shit from one of these storms. Anyway, I just want to tell you so you know what you’re looking at. We started moving up Ocean Trail Drive checking houses, looking for anyone that might have been left behind, getting the electrical wires out of the road. Everything you see here around you had nearly been washed away. Houses toppled over, trees uprooted, cars taken by the waves and planted in people’s back yards. Sure, it was bad but most of it was just things, stuff, material objects that could be replaced. Until we got to 74 Ocean Trail just down that way.” Dunkirk pointed south. “The doors and windows had all been blasted out and inside was an old man sitting in a rocking chair. I knew him vaguely. Tough old bastard — the kind of tough old bastard that would rather wait out a storm than leave his house. But he was dead, sitting in that chair. The storm had picked up a bit of fencing and sent it through his window and right through his chest. Rain came in through the windows, flooded the place. He was dead and soaked and looking like a fish you see washed up on the shore. Way it looked to me, he had pulled his chair around in front of the windows to watch the great and powerful show. But you don’t — and even I don’t — know what goes on in the middle of these kinds of storms, Mr. Harker. Especially out on these islands. We don’t know because no one sticks around to find out, and the ones that do usually don’t make it.”
“A category 3?” Edward said.
“That’s right. Not so bad compared to this big boy that’s at our doorstep now. Don’t let the pretty weather fool you. Take a look in the sky. You know what you’re not seeing?”
“Birds, Mr. Harker. They’re all gone, and you should be too.”
* * * * * *
Harker walked the beach during the day while the sky was still clear and the ocean maintained a cordial surface calm. He wouldn’t come back out at dusk or night. Not just because the storm was expected to make landfall, but because he couldn’t handle any more potential lapses of his sanity. Instead, he walked during the highest sun and trudged far north on the island. After an hour he rounded a bend which signaled the final tip of the island. He stood for a moment, legs tired from the long walk in the sand, but his mind feeling remarkably clear — the ease of having left something completely and totally behind. He decided he would not be returning to New York now or ever. If they wanted him they could come find him, and then he would take the punishment that would be dished out, much to the chagrin of rival hedge-fund gurus and the public. He would be forced into bankruptcy, possibly serve jail time. He was about to be reborn into a new life, one of shame and unimportance and, most likely, poverty. He was about to become a very small man, and that was feeling fine with him.
His soon-to-be-changed life was not without its regrets. Suzanne had married a rich man. She’d been bred to do so from the finest Greenwich stock, and now that his empire was collapsing and his fleeting wealth sucked up by the world, she would surely find another way to maintain her lifestyle. Marrying Suzanne had been a bad decision, but at the time he envisioned a different kind of life, not one corrupted by money, but one that was suffused with love. Between them, perhaps, that was a dream, but with his daughter Lucy, that dream could have been reality. He and his daughter were bound by nothing so superficial as money. She was the one thing in his life that could be said to be true and real. But he had become so wrapped up in his high-powered, high-stakes life — so lost in the chaos of it — he had squandered his opportunity to truly find a bond with her. To truly be a father and protect her.
But there was still time. Now with his former life being laid to rest, there would be infinitely more time. He would be a different man than Lucy had known, but he could still be her father. This obstacle in his life — the press and the federal investigation — could not break him yet. There were other ways to be strong. Other things that could be faced down. He would weather this storm and then anything beyond would merely be a desert of overcast skies. Being here and facing down the hurricane was a stand against it all.
He took a last look at the dark strip of land to the north and turned to head back home. In the distance to the south he could see a dark haze that built miles up into the sky. A stiff wind was beginning to pick up again. He heard something heavy move at the periphery of his sight. He turned and saw a lone wild horse hoofing the sand, spooked, and shaking its long triangular head.
* * * * * *
That night, the rain and the wind started. The house began to creak and groan under the gale, to the point Harker could feel it shift beneath him. Spats of rain pelted the windows and it sounded like some demented child throwing pebbles against the glass. He sat on the couch and watched the weather forecast on the television. It was only a matter of time before the power cut out, so he listened to the last reports from the outside world. The edge of Florida had been devastated; images of roofs torn off, uprooted trees and entire towns flooded under water. Occasionally, the television news feed would cut to a panoply of 80’s color with a warning alert screeching across the audio.
He sat and listened to the warning echo throughout the empty house. He stood and stared out of the windows. His house was the only light in the impenetrable darkness. He looked but could only see his reflection streaked with horizontal streams of rainwater. Even the white froth of the rising ocean was hidden from him.
A sound came from a floor below. Faint at first. Harker ignored it as just another instance of the house complaining under the onslaught. Then it came louder and more insistent. Knocking. Someone at the door. Confused and concerned, Harker went to the front door on the second level, which opened toward the road. He flung the door open, but there was no one there. The wind blew him back. He shut the door and locked the deadbolt. The knocking came again from the basement door on the bottom level, which opened to a concrete landing with the in-ground pool and the bridge to the beach. The knocks were heavy, like a giant fist was trying to break it down. He looked down the stairs to the dark rooms below. The knocking came louder. Harker walked to the bottom floor. It was a family room with an old couch and television and a bedroom set off to the side with two sets of bunk beds for renters with big families. The window blinds were all drawn shut. He flipped on the light. The knock came again, echoing throughout the empty house, threatening to knock the door off its hinges.
Harker paused for a moment and then flung the door open. The light reached out into the darkness but there was nothing there. He pushed his head out and looked left and right along the side of the house. So far, the landing remained fairly dry, shielded by the second and third story decks, although water was beginning to creep in at the edges. Harker called out into the night, but there was only the sound of wind. He moved to shut the door again, doubting his sanity.
Then he looked down and saw two small, wet footprints fresh on the concrete; the bare feet of a child come in from the rain.
Somewhere in the darkened bedroom, a child laughed, and feet pattered across the floor toward him.
Harker scrambled to the stairs, panicked by the sound of someone else in the house. He stopped at the second-floor landing, bracing to run, and turned to look back at the basement living room. The lights flickered and browned as the hurricane winds gained force. He caught a glimpse of something moving through the shadows, a flash of pale, bare feet and a dripping white nightdress. His senses whirled. He scrambled again as the lights fought back and returned fully illumined.
He ran to the third floor. A child’s laughter followed. He was back in the great room and the sliding glass doors that looked over the dunes to the sea. The lights were flickering again as the storm ripped away his last hope of being able to see. Then all was black and gone. The wind blew and leaned against the house like Leviathan had come ashore and rested his back against the side. It may have been true for all the darkness he knew at that moment. He was left blind.
Then he heard the footsteps. Light at first, like a little girl’s, and then growing heavier as they turned at the second-floor landing and ascended toward him. He pushed against the glass doors and felt them push back with the power of the storm. His eyes adjusted to the dark so that he could discern faint outlines of furniture and doorways. He watched as a thin, pale figure rose up the stairs, footfalls booming throughout the house. He watched until she neared the last step. There was nowhere left to run from here, except the balcony room — a tiny, windowed chamber that reached over the roof, a place that would surely be blasted out by the tearing winds.
He turned to run but she was already there, standing in front of him, her dark wet hair hanging over her pale, drowned face and her eyes frothing white. When she spoke, it sounded like a bell rung from the bottom of the ocean.
And he could suddenly see.
It was as if he could see all of it at once, the whole storm, the totality of the chaos. Night became clear as day. He saw cyclones churning between the sky and the earth; he saw the sea rise, and waves break over the dunes and flood the ground, break through the doors and windows of the first floor, rise around his SUV and push it back across the road till it rolled like a river stone. He saw the wind sweep down and break tree limbs and send them sailing through windows. He saw a great and malevolent eye shining down from miles above the earth. He saw a great force rise up from the sea. He stood in his living room untouched, as if he had been separated from time and space and left to bear witness to the things man cannot see in the darkness of his limited mind.
He saw a great swelling out at sea as if the ocean were suddenly pregnant. There rose a sloping mountain of water that came closer and closer to his shore. The water split into streams that ran down its back, and a great beast emerged from the depths and slouched toward shore. Its massive mouth let loose a dim blood-tide, its hands were filled with anarchy and deceit. It stripped away dunes and homes and, in its rage, it let loose a terrible, screeching howl like a thousand-mile-per-hour wind. Everything was suddenly raised up into the sky. Cars and houses turned in the air like a toddler’s mobile. Harker watched all this — he saw — and the girl stood with him, her eyes flashing white, her hair dripping in an endless tide.
The great beast lumbered toward Harker, secluded in his brittle home. It saw him and lowered its massive head and opened its terrible mouth so wide it could swallow the beach-house whole. Harker pressed his hands up against the glass panes and stared into the abyss of its throat. There he could see, standing innocent and unknowing on the beast’s tongue, Lucy. All seemed still for a moment as he gazed upon her, wearing the same clothes she’d worn when he last saw her, as if the beast had stolen her right out of his memory.
“No,” he said. “Why?”
And the girl spoke. “All are lost. No one is spared. The storm swallows them all.” The girl turned and looked at Harker, her eyes washing white with foam.
The beast snapped its massive jaws shut and it sounded as if a crack opened up in the earth.
* * * * * *
It took the police and clean-up crews two days before they reached Corolla and, in his forty-five years on earth, Dunkirk had never seen such a sight. “This was a devil of a storm,” he told a crewman, and the old bird nodded in agreement. The whole place had been rolled flat as a prairie. Even the low tide was nipping at the edge of multi-million-dollar properties. “This place might have seen its last,” he said, but it was really more of a prayer. Dunkirk pretended for a little while that he was immune to the curiosity, that he was taking the problems of work as they came, moving with the crew northward up the washed-out island, but his mind kept wandering to Edward Harker. They spent countless hours trying to get power restored so the real work could begin, but finally Dunkirk said he was heading off. When the chief engineer asked where, Dunkirk didn’t say, but just hopped in his 4WD and drove further north on what used to be a road.
He found Edward Harker’s residence collapsed, pushed over as some great hand had set its palm against the southern wall and knocked it out of the way. Across the street, Dunkirk saw Harker’s Navigator — beautiful vehicle that it was — upside-down in some deep scrub brush, laid over with trees. Dunkirk sighed deeply. It wasn’t regret he felt, but the knowledge of what he would find inside, and the knowledge that he had to go in to see. It was his job, and it was more.
It was bright out that day, and unnaturally warm. Dunkirk made his way around to the back of the house where a great tear had opened up the eastern wall and shattered all the windows to let in the ocean. The house itself looked like a great whale had washed ashore and been eaten open by the wildlife. He tested the wood with his heft a moment, snapped on a flash-light and climbed inside.
There, on what was previously the third floor —now only a platform hanging precariously in the air — he found Edward Harker seated in his fine leather chair. His mouth was open, his head tilted back at an unnatural angle, and his eyes white with death. A cross beam of wood rose out of the center of his chest like the mast of a ship run aground.
Dunkirk squatted beside the man and took his hat off and held it in his hand. He said a brief prayer for the dead and for all those who have been lost at sea or drowned. He put his hat back on and cautiously climbed out of the wreckage, mumbling to himself that it was a crazy goddamned world.