Sally looked out the rain-streaked window at the broken branches and leaves whipping past at highway speeds. Running her hands through the mass of red curls that she’d always been so proud of, she turned to her companions. “I think that it’s getting stronger.”
Robert looked at his wife and sighed. Though he loved her, it was a bit tiring to be married to a constant nag and doomsayer. “Sal, the weather man said that the hurricane was expected to downgrade to a tropical storm by the time it reached here.”
Sally looked at her husband and wondered how she’d managed to stay married to the clod for ten years. In the beginning it was pretty good – as long as Robert didn’t rock the boat too much – but over the years she found herself getting bored and angry. She shook her head as she looked at his unkempt clothes and uncombed hair, and wrinkled her nose. She wondered when he’d last taken a shower. “You never listen to me,” she complained. “What I said was that I think that the hurricane is getting stronger. Besides, you know that the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about!”
Freckles speckling her nose or not, Robert no longer thought that Sally was even remotely cute. No more, he decided, than a wolverine was. He turned to his brother-in-law, who was sitting at his computer typing away at something or other. “What do you think, Chuck?” he asked.
Chuck looked up from the screen and the story that he’d been writing, brushing an errant strand of his thin, sandy hair from his face. “About what, Rob?”
Robert shook his head and chuckled. Sometimes, he thought, Chuck was just so oblivious. “About the hurricane. Do you think that it’s getting stronger?”
Chuck sighed in frustration. Anytime that he really got going on a story, somebody – usually his sister or her husband – always interrupted him to look at something or other. Usually stupid things that had absolutely nothing to do with the price of tea in China. He looked out the window, careful to keep his expression neutral. God forbid that his sister see him frown, he thought. That would ensure that he had to listen to her crap for a solid half hour. “I don’t know, Rob,” he said. “What did it look like an hour ago?”
Sally looked at her brother. “He’s asking you about the weather now. Not an hour ago!”
“Sally,” Chuck tried to explain, “If I only know how fast the wind is going right now, how can I know if it’s faster or slower than it was before?”
She sneered. “Whatever.” She turned to Wendy. “How can you stand your husband?” She pointed at her brother who was again looking at his computer.
Wendy looked at Chuck. Married to Sally’s brother for five years, she was still deeply in love with him. She knew that he reciprocated, with interest. “What’s to stand, Sal? I love him.”
Robert looked at his sister-in-law and marveled anew at the lustrous black hair that cascaded down to the small of her back and framed her classically-beautiful, creamy-skinned face. Must be her Italian-Greek heritage, he thought. He hid a smile so that Sally didn’t see it and think that she was being made fun of. “I’ve never seen Chuck happier!”
Wendy looked at Robert and felt sorry for him. Felt sorry for herself, as well, for being forced to live in such close confines for the better part of a year because of losing her house due to foreclosure. “Thank you,” she said, eyes twinkling mischievously. “He’d better be happy – or else!”
At Wendy’s husky, delightful laugh Sally looked up with her mouth turned down in a moue like she’d just bitten into a particularly sour lemon. Grudgingly she admitted that her brother seemed happy. Of course,” she continued, “as long as he sits on his ass doing nothing useful, what’s not to be happy about?”
Chuck looked up again. He’d been trying to write more of his story but had lost his thread. He seriously thought about packing up the computer and camping in his bedroom instead of at the kitchen table. “I’m intending to get these stories published and make money,” he said. “That’s what I’d call useful.”
She snorted and Chuck was reminded – for the umpteenth time – of his dead aunt who he was certain was chortling with glee. “That’s if you even get them published.”
He wanted so badly to ream her a new one, but didn’t dare. A couple of months ago he’d gotten into a small argument with his sister and suddenly she’d punched him over the heart twice – and she knew that he’d been worried about his heart – and slapped him in the face twice. As if that wasn’t enough, she then went on to tell her stunned brother that she’d never loved him and that she wished he were dead. Walking away, she yelled over her shoulder that she wanted Chuck and his wife to move out now, and that she didn’t care if they had to live in Wendy’s van. He’d retaliated by telling her that if she wanted them out of her house – which was actually a rather cramped trailer that was owned by her father-in-law – she’d have to evict them. “Go ahead,” he had said, his own face turning an alarming shade of red, “and Wendy and I will sue you for the sixteen-hundred that we lent you in good faith that you’ve conveniently forgotten about. How about paying us back, Shyster?”
He sighed and decided to keep his mouth shut. He was certain that he was heading for another ulcer to match the one that he’d gotten twenty years ago for bottling up his emotions. No more anchovies or beer for me, he told himself. Doctor’s orders.
When another hour had went by, Chuck looked up from his computer and glanced out the window at the bits and pieces of debris that skittered and swirled in the hurricane’s dying spasms. He turned and looked at Sally, ruefully thinking that the saying you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family was so very true. “I think that the hurricane’s almost over.”
Sally looked out the window. Her own sense of superiority wouldn’t allow her to admit to making a mistake. As far as she was concerned, she hadn’t made a mistake.
She’d show them! She got up from the couch – she slept on that ragged piece of furniture in the living room far more often than she did on her own bed – and pulled on a light jacket. “I’m going to go and see.”
Robert looked at his wife in alarm. He knew how stubborn and stupid she could get when anyone had the balls to contradict her in anything. Unfortunately, he’d once made the mistake of telling her that only her opinion counted – not anybody else’s. “It’s too dangerous, Sally!”
She sneered. “Whatever. I’m over eighteen, free, and white – I’ll do what I want.”
Chuck shook his head sadly. He’d never figured out where she’d picked up her racist attitude. When he’d questioned her about it one day, she insisted that she wasn’t prejudiced. Then went on to complain about the Mexicans – wetbacks, she’d called them – taking all the jobs. He’d tried to explain that illegal immigrants took jobs that nobody else wanted. “Would you want to clean up the dog shit at the park?” he’d asked. She didn’t deign to answer.
“I wish that you would wait until the hurricane’s over,” he said.
Outside the door now, holding on to the metal frame to keep it from being torn back and slamming against the trailer’s siding, she turned around and looked at Chuck. “Gee, I thought that you said it was almost done?”
“Key word being almost, Sally. It’s still got a little kick left.”
She shook her head, the damp curls looking like blood, and shut the screen door with finality. “I’ll be back,” she said. “Maybe.”
Looking out the window Robert watched as his wife went around to the back of the trailer, heading towards the woods. He sighed and started to put on his own jacket. “I have to go after her,” he said.
Wendy shook her head. “Robert, I’m sure that nothing’s going to happen to Sally.”
He shrugged. “Maybe not, but I still have to go.” He knew that if he didn’t go, then his wife would spend days – or weeks – busting his chops for not caring enough about her to endanger his own life. This is so stupid, he thought.
Chuck looked at his brother-in-law and sighed. He was so glad that Wendy was nothing like his sister. He didn’t think that he’d be able to stand it, otherwise. “Want me to go with you?” He made an effort to stand up and reached for the jacket that draped the back of the chair that he’d been sitting on.
“No,” he said as he opened the door and flinched when a leaf slapped into his face, just missing his right eye. “You and Wendy stay here. I’ll be back in a little bit.”
Chuck turned to his wife. “I really hate this.”
She agreed. The majority of the problems that the four of them faced seemed to be caused, either directly or indirectly, by Sally. She sighed, wondering when they’d hit it big on Powerball. With the odds of winning some money at 35 to 1, you’d think that they would have won something, but no – after nine months of buying two tickets per week, they had yet to win even three measly dollars. “Yeah, me too.”
He turned to the Senseo coffee machine sitting on the counter and raised his eyebrow. “Want a cup?”
“Sure – but iced, with lots of ice cubes.”
“There’s no half and half,” he told her. “We do have some powdered creamer and milk, though.”
She grimaced and shuddered at the thought of coffee with milk. “Uh, I think that I’ll just skip the coffee. Thanks anyway.”
He made himself a cup of dark, Colombian lightened with a bit of the creamer. He’d never had coffee made with a french press, but he’d heard about it and thought that maybe their coffee machine – and he absentmindedly patted the Senseo – would give it a run for its money. Sure beats regular brewed coffee, he told himself. Hands down.
After taking a sip, he looked at the round clock that hung on the wall above the television set and thought that it belonged in a classroom. “I wonder where they are,” he said to his wife. “They’ve been gone almost half an hour already.”
Wendy shrugged. “I don’t know. You don’t think…”
“No. I think that they’re fine,” he said. “Maybe a little wet, but okay.” He looked out the window and saw that the rain was still coming down. Instead of falling horizontally, as it had been a couple of hours ago, it was now falling at a 45-degree angle. Okay, he grinned, maybe a lot wet.
“I hope so.”
When another hour had passed, Chuck sighed and put his jacket on. Soon he knew that it would start getting too dark to see. Especially in the North Country where street lights were, for the most part, just rumors told by the town folk when they wanted to lord it over their backwoods brethren. He opened a drawer and pulled out a large, black flashlight which he momentarily flicked on to make sure that the batteries were still good. They were. “I’m going to make sure that they’re okay. Who knows, maybe they got lost.” He shook his head. “I’m sure that it’s already pretty dark under the trees and I don’t think that either one of them has a flashlight.”
Wendy leaned close to her husband and gave him a gentle kiss. “Please be careful.”
Chuck grinned. “I will,” he said. “But, just in case I’m not back in an hour or so, maybe you should call 911 and tell them what happened.”
She promised to do that and watched as Chuck disappeared into the storm. She looked at the clock and waited, hoping that they all came back before an hour passed.
“911,” the voice intoned mechanically, having heard it all, “what’s your emergency?”
Wendy related all that had occurred and when the voice promised to send someone as soon as possible – which the woman had told her might be a while because of all the downed power lines and fires that had cropped up courtesy of the hurricane – she thanked the voice and slowly hung up the phone. She wanted in the worst way to grab her coat and find Chuck but knew that she had to be here to direct whoever came as a result of her emergency call. Tears trickling down her pale cheeks, she sat on the couch and starting biting her nails – something that she’d given up doing over twenty years ago.
When she heard the screen door open and slam against the side of the trailer, she launched off the couch and threw the door open. Chuck and Robert came stumbling into the living room, shedding water and trailing bits of leaves and branches. They looked grim, defeated.
“Where can she be?” Robert cried.
Chuck shook his head slowly, sadly. He’d found Robert staggering in the dark, a nasty lump forming above his right eye from a fall that he’d taken over an unseen branch. His voice gone scratchy and hoarse, he’d been yelling Sally’s name over and over. Together, they had used the flashlight to comb the nearby woods but hadn’t found anything. Not even a footprint. It was like his sister had disappeared. “I don’t know,” he said. They had even checked with the neighbors, but nobody admitted to seeing her. “I just don’t know.”
“I called 911 about…” she looked at the clock. “…two hours ago.”
“They haven’t come, yet?” Chuck demanded. He was shocked at the length of time that had passed. Good thing that none of them had been having a heart attack or something!
Wendy explained what the 911 operator had told her about all the calls that they’d received.
He sighed. “Yeah, I guess that it makes sense. Still, you’d figure that it being an emergency and all, they’d pull in more people to handle everything.”
Another hour passed before the three saw flashing red and blue lights through the windows.
Robert ran to the door. “Thank God!”
Chuck and Wendy followed at a slower pace. They got outside and found that Robert was already explaining what had happened to the officer, who was taking notes.
“Slow down, Sir,” the officer said. “You’re talking way too fast.”
Robert took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. His mother always told him that he should be an auctioneer, he talked so fast when excited or upset. “Sorry,” he muttered, then went on with his story.
The officer, Sergeant Walker by his badge, unclipped his hand radio and called it in, and in a few minutes a rescue truck arrived, turning the surrounding area into a surrealistic canvas with the strobing lights.
Though Chuck and Wendy couldn’t make out what the sergeant was saying to the team that had been assembled, they saw him gesturing and motioning towards the woods that lay darkly behind the small trailer. Finished, Walker led the rescuers and entered the woods which were now day-bright with the million-candlepower spotlights that several of the men and women held in front of themselves.
A month later they all sat down at the kitchen table to eat the tuna casserole that Chuck had whipped up. He’d debated making a pot of chili, but finally decided against it as his ulcer wasn’t totally healed. He grimaced at the thought of all the cabbage juice that he’d been drinking lately because Sally had told him that it would help heal the ulcer.
“This is good, Chuck,” Robert said around a mouthful of the macaroni. “Thank you.”
Chuck swallowed his own mouthful and told him that he was welcome.
Wendy thanked her husband as well. Though not very hungry she didn’t want to let one of Chuck’s delicious concoctions get by without at least a little taste – and it was good. She turned to ask Sally what she thought about the casserole, then her face froze and she coughed in embarrassment. She was so used to this little routine that she’d totally forgotten.
Robert looked out the window at the clear blue sky and sighed. A single tear tracked down his cheek. “As usual,” he said, “she was right.”
Chuck and Wendy looked at each other, then looked at the headline of the month-old newspaper that sat on the table in front of them. Hurricane kills local woman. As it turned out, Sally had been the only casualty of the storm.