© Kristine Simelda, 2015
“What happened to the beach?” Laura asked a local fisherman. She and her boyfriend Chad were on holiday from their jobs overseas; the fisherman was pulling in an empty net.
The fisherman shrugged. “Things tight,” he said.
“My family owns a condo nearby. We always swam in this cove when I was small,” said Laura. “The beach was so beautiful back then; it seemed the sand and palm trees went on forever.”
“Yeah. I remember,” he said. “But they taking sand day and night to build back the beaches at the fancy hotels.”
“The sea was such an awesome color back then—clear and aquamarine,” she rambled on as if she hadn’t heard him. “We used to snorkel here. The fish and the coral were fantastic. My dad said it was one of the best reefs in the Caribbean. Now the place looks filthy and disgusting.”
“Everything for a time,” the fisherman said vaguely.
Laura took a deep breath and continued talking. “I wanted my friend Chad to taste a jelly nut. But the trees where the boys used to pick them are halfway underwater and the coconuts are shriveled and rotten. There’s dead fish scattered all around the trunks.”
The fisherman sighed. “The sea just keeps coming in closer and closer.”
“Okay,” Chad piped up. “So there’s no beach. What about cooling out in the river?” Although he was wearing a straw hat, sweat was dripping off the tip of his sunburned nose. Dark, wet circles stained the armpits of his pink polo shirt.
Laura pulled a sour face. “It looks as if the river is all dried up. There used to be a waterfall.”
The fisherman nodded. “Since the drought.”
“I don’t get it,” said Chad. “If the river is low, then why is the sea level extra high?”
“So all you think it’s our little island alone that affects the sea?” the fisherman chuckled. “No, man. The Almighty have a bigger plan than that.”
“Like what?” asked Chad.
Laura didn’t want Chad to get started on religion. When he talked about God, it was as if he was the only person on earth who was enlightened and everybody else was still in the dark. “What’s your name?” she asked the fisherman to change the subject.
“Jefferson,” he said.
“So tell me, Jefferson, why don’t you catch any fish?”
The fisherman draped his net, which was shaggy with algae, across the hull of his overturned boat and indicated the dozens of juvenile fish that were decaying by the shoreline. “The sea too warm. The young ones die, and the old ones move way off,” he said.
Laura waved a plastic bag she had brought along in his face. As she did, the hot, dry wind whipped it from her hand and sent it flying down the beach. “You mean we can’t even get some fish? When I was a kid there were always jacks and tuna and snapper. One time we even ate some turtle meat.”
The fisherman sucked his teeth. “I told you, nothing can make it in this soup.”
Laura stuck a well-pedicured toe into the murky water as if to test it. “You’re right. It’s totally revolting.”
“So what’s all that brown stuff floating around and clogging up everything?” Chad wanted to know.
Jefferson opened his mouth and then shut it. It appeared he was tired of answering questions.
“It looks like Sargasso,” Laura volunteered.
“That sounds like some kind of Italian pasta,” Chad joked.
“Well if it is, I’m not eating it,” she said.
“Too bad,” said Chad. “I’m starving.”
Laura smiled. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. We’ll just stop and get some KFC on our way back to the condo.”
Chad guzzled the last drops of imported water from a plastic bottle he had carried with him. “I’ll drink to that!” he said, tossing the empty container into the stagnant lagoon.
Of course Jefferson didn’t have the option of dining on fast food. No fish, no money, no supper. When he got home, his wife, Bernice, was dressed in her maid’s uniform waiting to walk up the road to work. She had a part-time job tidying up after rich folks who flocked to the island despite the drought. She said most of them didn’t seem to mind the heat and the dust. Neither were they bothered by the lack of fresh water or fresh fish or fresh fruits and vegetables. They just turned up the AC, cracked open a soda or a beer, and chomped down on whatever version of junk food they happened to pass while they were out touring the island.
“Has the baby been fed?” Jefferson asked Bernice as she was leaving.
“What you think? We have a cow in the backyard? I’ll stop at the shop and get a tin of milk on my way home.”
“But what if she starts to fuss?”
“Give her some biscuits. Soak them in water first, and don’t forget to clean up afterwards.”
Jefferson turned the radio on real low. It was time for the lunchtime news, and the Minister for the Environment was talking gloom and doom as usual.
“In the past ten years, we have experienced three major droughts on the island,” she said. “But the current dry spell is by far the most prolonged. The temperature of the sea is at an all-time high, and now that we’re in the hurricane season, we have to be on the alert. If and when it starts to rain, persons dwelling on low-lying areas should be on the lookout for storm surges, coastal flooding, and rising sea levels.”
“Right,” Jefferson groaned.
“Additionally, the public should be aware that several small earthquakes have been reported in the last seventy-two hours. Persons are advised not to drink water directly from wells due to possible salt water intrusion.”
Jefferson rolled his eyes. “Best we get used to it.”
“In the future,” the minister continued, “one hundred percent of portable water will have to be the product of desalination. The agricultural sector, which is already severely impaired, will naturally suffer the most, and fisherfolk should consider seeking other forms of livelihood.”
“Tell me something I don’t already know,” Jefferson said, flipping off the set.
The baby started crying as soon as he did. Her diaper was wet, so he changed her into a brand new Pamper. He threw the old one into the ditch drain that ran along the side of the shack. If and when it rained, as the minister put it, the diaper, like countless other pieces of discarded plastic, would eventually be washed into the sea.
By the time Bernice reached the complex of condos, she was sweating and covered with grime from the road. The paper slip in her box instructed her to clean #307 and #308. “What they think, I some kind of robot?” she said. Bernice took a handkerchief from her uniform pocket and wiped her forehead. She sat down on the step to catch her breath, and then gathered her supplies and shuffled down the hall to the elevator.
When she knocked at 307 and hollered “Housekeeping!” there was no response. Bernice unlocked the door. The occupants were passed out on the couch, stark naked and surrounded by empty bottles of rum. “I’ll just come back later,” she apologized as she tiptoed back out into the hall.
At 308, Bernice was more cautious. She had already knocked several times before Chad, fresh from an extra-long shower, answered the door with a towel wrapped around his waist. “Hi there. Come on in,” he said.
“I don’t want to disturb,” said Bernice.
“That’s okay. We were just getting ready to go out. Laura! It’s the housekeeping woman.”
Laura, still in her robe, appeared from the bathroom looking like a freshly boiled lobster. Her face was red and swollen and her legs were dotted with insect bites. “I can’t go like this! How did I get so burned and bit up?” she whined. “I mean, I was slathered with a super high powered sunblock, and had bug repellent on the whole time.”
“The mosquitoes and the sun plenty wicked these days,” said Bernice.
Laura stuck out her lower lip. “I used to get such a beautiful tan. Now I look like just another rookie tourist,” she pouted.
“Just put on some makeup and a long dress,” said Chad, “and the problem will be solved.” He tried to give her a hug, but Laura backed away.
“Ouch! That hurts!” she cried. “Why don’t you just go ahead without me?”
“No way,” he said. “Hurry up and get dressed, and I’ll do the same.”
Laura stood around moping after Chad left the room. Bernice reached into the pocket her uniform and withdrew a plastic bag. “Here. Try using some of this Aloe Vera. It’s good for burns and itching. I grow it at home in pots on the veranda, and always keep a few blades handy in case of emergency. Just split the leaves in half and rub the gel on the hot spots.”
Laura raised an eyebrow and regarded her suspiciously. “And what’s the cost for this miraculous local remedy?”
Bernice smiled. “No charge for you, Miss Laura. It’s on the house.”
Laura disappeared back into the bathroom. When she reemerged a half-hour later, she felt much more comfortable.
“Thanks,” she said to Bernice. “That Aloe is amazing.”
Chad followed her, smelling mightily of men’s cologne “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Better. How do I look?”
“Good enough to eat,” Chad grinned.
“I swear,” she giggled. “Everything is about food for you.”
“Yep,” he said.
Laura spent the next several minutes posing and adjusting her elaborate flower trimmed hat in front of the mirror in the foyer. “We’ve been invited by the governor to a cocktail party at the State House,” she explained to Bernice. “It’s to be held outdoors in the rose garden. I just hope it doesn’t rain and spoil everything.”
Bernice swallowed thickly. The entire island had been praying for rain since the beginning of the year, and now it was July. “No telling what could happen, Miss. It’s the hurricane season, you know.”
“Come on, Laura. Stop primping. We’ll be late,” Chad interrupted.
Laura turned to Bernice and said, “Help yourself to what’s left of the takeout. We have reservations at the club for dinner after we finish with the governor’s hors d’oeuvres.”
Chad grabbed a drumstick from the red and white striped cardboard bucket on the table on their way out. “See you later, Bernice.”
The condo was a mess. It was well past five o’clock by the time Bernice finished cleaning. She was locking the door when she spied the half-empty bucket of KFC on the dining room table. “Best I take it home for Jefferson and the baby,” she said wearily. As she waited for the elevator, she felt the building shudder and shift. But then again, Bernice had been lightheaded all day; she hadn’t had anything to eat since morning. Outside, a strange sense of foreboding hung in the overheated air. The sea was dancing a crazy jig, and the sky was an odd shade of green. Dust stung her eyes as she headed back down the road.
When she reached the shop, the place was in an uproar. “Bernice! You not hearing? There had another earthquake! Tsunami on the way!”
Bernice left the bucket of KFC on the counter and hurried home. Jefferson was standing in the yard, holding the baby and gazing out to sea. “Something not right,” was all he said.
On the drive around to the other side of the island, Laura noticed that the surface of the sea was covered with a net of miniature waves like something was boiling down below. An occasional fish, covered in Sargasso, leapt into the air as if trying to escape from a hot frying pan. A couple of large seabirds wheeled in the air, watching with interest as the poor creatures floundered and died. Laura was attempting to focus her attention elsewhere when a jet ski bearing two scantily clad tourists zoomed into the bay. The machine screamed like a banshee and belched toxic exhaust as it plowed through the choppy, gray water. A sole lethargic dolphin dove out of its way in the nick of time.
Laura shook her head. “I think this will be my last trip down to the island.”
“Why ?” Chad asked distractedly.
They were passing by a dump that was stinking to high heaven and swarming with flies so the answer should have been obvious. “Things aren’t how they used to be,” she said. “The beach and the river is messed up, the sea looks ugly, and it’s too damn hot.”
“Yeah,” said Chad. “Just like back home.”
Their rental jeep was the smallest car in the State House parking lot. The rest of the vehicles were gas-guzzling SUV’s, mostly black with tinted windows and official license plates. After cruising around the perimeter, they were able to squeeze the undersized vehicle into a wedge-shaped space left between two badly parked monstrosities. Laura adjusted her hat and smoothed her dress as she and Chad stepped up to the gate to the courtyard.
The doorman asked to see their invitation, and then ushered them inside. Copious rum was flowing and the pitch of the conversation was deafening despite the early hour. Chad guided Laura through the crowd to a table near the corner. A waiter brought them each a “Welcome to Paradise” rum punch and a plate of fancy canapés while they waited for the governor to acknowledge them.
“Which one is he?” Chad whispered.
“I’m not sure. I haven’t seen him in years. I think he’s the one puffing on that humongous cigar.”
Just then, the table where they were seated started to shake violently. Rum sloshed over the rims of their glasses and soaked through the cloth. Chad waved at their server and pointed to their soggy hors d’oeuvres. When he finally arrived to replace them, Laura asked if earth tremors happened often.
“Of course,” the waiter replied brightly. “No cause for concern.”
But when she stole a glance at the governor, the extreme look of alarm on his face told her otherwise. One of his aids continued to whisper urgently in his ear as he extinguished his cigar in a potted palm and headed upstairs. “Carry on without me,” he announced to his guests as the building continued to rock and roll.
In a flash, the courtyard erupted into chaos. Women crammed canapés into their handbags, and men grabbed bottles of rum from behind the bar. Chad, who at one time had been in the Air Force, recognized the whir of chopper blades revving on the rooftop and leapt to his feet.
“That sounds like a helicopter getting ready for takeoff,” he shouted over the racket. “What the hell is going on?”
“Tsunami!” hollered one of the staff.
Laura’s hat was blown into the swimming pool in the confusion. She was trying to retrieve it when Chad grabbed her roughly by the arm. “We’ve got to get off this island! Right now!”
“But how?” she bawled.
Chad looked up to the roof as if it held the answer. He and Laura galloped up the stairs two at a time. But when they tried to climb aboard the chopper, the governor pushed them back. “Diplomats only,” he said, slamming the door in their faces.
Laura started to cry. She could hear the giant wave coming in the distance. It sounded like a freight train that was plowing a tunnel through the sea as it roared toward shore. “Oh, my God!” she wailed.
“Maybe we can outrun it!” Chad panted. “Get to the car!”
“But there’s nowhere to go!” cried Laura. “There’s no place higher than a mole hill on this whole island!”
Chad grimaced. “We’ve got to try something.”
The rental jeep was racing toward the condo when they passed Jefferson and Bernice standing by the roadside. The baby, who had sensed the gravity of the situation, was screaming her head off. The local couple waved frantically as the vehicle whizzed by in a cloud of dust.
“Aren’t you going to stop?” said Laura. She couldn’t believe Chad was so hardhearted as to leave them stranded.
“It’s every man for themselves!” Chad ranted.
Laura was stunned by his callousness. “But what about the women and children?”
Chad stared straight ahead. When they careened into the condo’s parking lot, he left the keys dangling in the ignition and bolted toward the elevator. “Our only chance is to get to the top of the building.”
“You go on. I’m going back for them,” Laura said. Chad looked at her as if she’d lost her mind as she slammed the vehicle into reverse.
Jefferson and Bernice and the baby were waiting just where they’d passed them. “Hop in!” she instructed. The tsunami, bearing its load of trashed vehicles, capsized boats, parts of destroyed buildings, and, yes, even the governor’s helicopter, was right behind them. So instead of turning back, Laura headed toward an 18th Century fort that she had explored when she was a kid. It was situated on a rise that overlooked the entire island. “We might be safe here,” she said without conviction as they skidded to a halt.
The group rushed up the old stone staircase and positioned themselves at the lookout on top of the stronghold. They were just in time to witness the condo building across the way being demolished by the huge wave. “Chad,” Laura exhaled.
“Here it comes!” yelled Jefferson. “Grab onto something heavy and hold on!”
He laid the baby lengthwise along a cannon barrel and pushed his wife down to cover her. Then he wrapped his arms and legs around both of them with the determination of someone trying to climb a coconut tree during a hurricane. The baby shrieked and Bernice began to pray, but Jefferson lifted his head and kept his eyes wide open. The initial surge pummeled his back with stinging salt water and loose stones. Debris rained down on his head with hard, unrelenting blows. At one point, he and his family were completely underwater. There was a moment of reprieve when he was able to catch his breath, but the backwash, when it came, was even worse. It was as if the undertow wanted to turn him inside out— rip his limbs clean from their sockets. Yet through it all Jefferson held tight to the two most important people in his life.
After it was over, he peeled his wife and daughter off the lifesaving cannon and fell on his knees. He was so busy hugging them and thanking God for their salvation that he forgot about Laura. When he finally got around to looking for her, she was nowhere to be found. The fisherman hung his head and remembered something he had said earlier that morning. “So all you think it’s our little island alone that affects the sea?” No, man. The Almighty have a bigger plan than that.”