Luis Munoz walked along the waterfront, surveying the damage wrought by a Category Four hurricane on his small barrier island. The sky was finally clear, and the wind had calmed to just a warm breeze. Despite being on the leeward side of the island, the storm had ravaged their wooden dock; fortunately, the majority of the fishing boats had left for the mainland days earlier, where they were pulled from the water and sent far inland. Within days they would be back at work, and maybe within a week they would return home and life would resume, at least until the next storm. Hurricanes were an unpleasant but ever-present fact of life. The same tropical heat that warmed the waters, which drew the fish and American tourist dollars, also spawned the storms, and Luis and his people had learned to live with them.
He jumped from the concrete seawall to the sugar-white sandy beach below. They had been fortunate not to lose it. Docks could be rebuilt quickly, but the loss of a beach to the scouring winds would have been ruinous to the tourist trade, and therefore to his village. Already he could see a handful of workers using rakes to comb the sand free of the storm’s debris. It would take the morning, and dozens of other workers, but by midday the beach would be clean enough for digital pictures. He would then post them on the internet to reassure the world that Isla Maderas had not only survived Hurricane Michael, it was open for business. He turned and faced the jungle and found the sun was just rising above his island’s small mountain. He snapped several pictures, taking care to exclude the battered village. Most of the brightly-colored shops and restaurants faced the water and the mainland, situated both out of convenience and to take advantage of some of the greatest sunset views in the world. The sunsets would remain, but every structure in the center of town would need at least some degree of repair, and at least two of their restaurants would need to be rebuilt completely. Their two marquee hotels were more modern, built with cement blocks and hurricane shutters. Their biggest problem would be cleaning up the grounds and the swimming pools.
Luis walked a hundred yards down the beach and idly swept sand off a buried beach chair. To his surprise, he found it mostly intact. He flipped it over, tested its stability, and finally sat in it. There were drenched palm leaves all around him, but from this viewpoint they were the only indications that hours earlier a maelstrom had visited this very spot. A voice called to him from the road and he turned to find a man waving. He was too far for Luis’s poor eyes to make out, but the camera flash identified him as Raul Alvarez, the editor of their local newspaper. He waved back, hoping that Raul was also posting his pictures on the internet.
“Mayor Munoz enjoys the beach hours after Hurricane Michael,” he laughed to himself, the anxiety over the massive storm melting away into the glorious morning. His island, city, and people had survived virtually unscathed a storm that would be talked about for decades. He began to mentally catalogue all the things they would need to be up and running. The biggest impediment would be the damaged dock. They had an artificial floating dock that could be used for small boats, but they couldn’t use it for the ferries that shuttled tourists from the mainland and the other Bay Islands. Plus, it was no good for the fishermen. They were going to lose at least a week’s worth of income. He was weighing the possibilities of proposing a temporary tax on sport fishing and diving when he caught sight of a boat’s wake. He fumbled for the set of binoculars beneath his bright peach shirt and found his son’s 25-foot runabout powering through the flat water. Normally the eight-mile channel between Isla Maderas and the mainland would be busy with fishing boats, dive boats, and sailboats, but only Jorge’s powered catamaran was visible today. Jorge had ridden out the storm with his father in the basement of the Catholic Church, while his boat sheltered in their concrete garage. He had left for Tela, the nearest mainland city, more than four hours earlier with the island’s only nurse practitioner and a very pregnant Mayan woman. She had stumbled into the church with her family hours after the winds had started and nearly a day after she should have evacuated.
Jorge angled his boat for the dock, and after scouting it from the water turned the catamaran towards his father, who was now at the water’s edge. Luis raised his hands in confusion when he saw that Jorge was still accompanied by the nurse, the pregnant woman, and her husband.
“What happened?” Luis screamed over the revving engines. Jorge was too busy to respond and briefly held up one finger, telling his father to wait. He raised the props until they were just beneath the water line, pointed the boat directly at his father, and gunned the engines. The catamaran lifted its bow and gently slid across the sand, beaching itself. “What happened?” Luis repeated.
“What happened is that I helped to deliver a baby,” Jorge said as he pivoted himself off the boat and into the ankle-deep surf. The nurse handed down a small package, wrapped in a blanket. “Look, it’s a little girl.” He carefully walked through the sand as mother, father, and nurse watched.
“Jorge,” Alanis, their nurse, called. “You think you could give us a little help?” The new father didn’t wait; he silently slid off the back of the boat, reached for his wife, and carried her through the water to a proud Jorge and their child.
“Never mind.” There was a splash, and an irritated Alanis joined the group. “Always the gentlemen, aren’t we?” She elbowed Jorge.
“Just as we got to the dock some guy started screaming at us. He wasn’t making much sense. We told him that she was in labor, and that’s when he started throwing things down at us. He actually hit Alanis in the head with a piece of wood.” Jorge pointed at an ugly knot on Alanis’ forehead. “I tied us up, and then he comes running down the stairs when someone shoots him in the back. Just blew this guy away right in front of us. After that we just took off. I tried the beach but there was way too much debris, we never would have made it, and then she starts to scream, and we have a baby.” He lifted the bundled baby as if she were a prize. Her mother gasped. Jorge said, “Oh, sorry,” and passed the baby over to her mother.
“I’ll take them up to the clinic and check them out.” Alanis stepped between Jorge and the new parents. “I don’t know what happened back there, but I’m not going back to Tela. I think that you need to contact the military,” she said to Luis, and then led the family up the beach.
“The military? Over one man being shot?” Luis asked his son.
“It was more than one. We got close enough to the beach to see maybe ten bodies. I didn’t get a chance to look real well, but I think there were more down the beach.”
“Drugs? Rebels?” For the most part, Honduras had been spared the bloody civil and drug wars that wracked some of its neighbors. Even the constitutional crisis that led to a coup d’état in 2009 had been largely peaceful. “After a hurricane?” It didn’t make sense. “Let’s push the boat back in the water. I want to survey the dock and then maybe run over to Tela and see this for myself.”
Three hours later Jorge was guiding the catamaran along the eerily quiet coastline. Luis directed him toward Tela’s long, tall dock, which had managed to survive the winds and storm surge. Through his binoculars he could see the body of the man who had attacked Jorge, as well as a second victim, sprawled face first down the stairs. A dark stain of what had to be blood surrounded the head and reached almost to the lower dock. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he said to himself.
“There are more bodies on the beach. It’s like they were brought here to die.”
“Tela had a mandatory evacuation. There should only be military and rescue personnel in the entire town.” After Hurricane Mitch destroyed nearly half the country in 1998, Hondurans developed a near-religious zeal for hurricane preparedness. “I can’t believe that there are more than a few hundred left in town.” Luis scanned the shoreline with his binoculars.
“Dad,” Jorge said, a moment before a sharp crack. “Dad, get down!” Both men dropped into the well of the boat as something pinged off of the boat’s tower. A second sharp crack followed almost immediately. A third was almost lost to the sound of the two engines as Jorge steered the boat from under cover out into the open ocean. After two minutes with the throttle wide open, he slowed the boat and hazarded a quick look. “Okay, we’re out of range.” He was breathless from the excitement. “I’m going to try the marine radio. Maybe the Tela harbormaster knows what’s going on.” He flipped open the watertight console and turned up the volume. He was greeted with static.
“What’s wrong?” Luis asked.
“Nothing. I was tuned to the Maderas harbormaster, and I have to find the correct channel for Tela.” He slowly turned the dial, resisting for the moment tuning directly to the emergency channel. “This is Whale Shark One out of Isla Maderas trying to reach Tela harbormaster.” He repeated the message three times on three different channels.
“Are you sure Tela has a harbormaster? They really don’t have much of a harbor.” Luis knew next to nothing about boats, fishing, or harbormasters. He was strictly a landlubber. Jorge, on the other hand, ran a successful dive and fishing charter service and was on the water almost every day.
“He’s not really a harbormaster; he manages the dock and relays search and rescue messages. I met the guy a few times and he takes his job very seriously. I doubt this guy would have evacuated, voluntarily or not.” He tried a fourth and then a fifth channel before a voice answered.
“Have you come to rescue us?” asked the voice of a frightened woman.
“I am trying to reach the harbormaster,” Jorge answered. He turned to his father and they shared a look of confusion.
“Are you here to rescue us?” Her scream was so angry and wretched that Jorge answered without thinking.
“Yes, we can rescue you. Where are you?”
“I’m in my house.” Frustration caused each of her words to become successively louder.
“We are trying to reach the harbormaster. Do you know where he is?” Jorge asked, hoping for a more lucid response.
“He’s DEAD!” She screamed. “He had to go out and now he’s dead.” Her wailing was cut short by Jorge.
“Okay, calm down.” He waited for her to stop crying, but it took several seconds and two more reassurances from Jorge that they were here to help before she allowed him to continue. “All right, can you tell us what’s happening?”
“What’s happening is that my husband is dead and there are people outside with guns shooting everything that moves.” She was back to screaming now, and her words were starting to slur together. Both Jorge and Luis needed a moment to understand exactly what she had said.
“Are the police there, or the military?”
“They’re the ones with the guns.” She began to curse him for his lack of intelligence and breeding. Jorge and his father listened quietly, waiting for an opening.
Luis took the microphone from his son’s hand. “Can you get to the dock?”
“Yes,” she said after a long second, her anger now exhausted. “I think so. What should I bring?”
The two men shared a confused look. “Nothing. How long will it take you?”
“I’ll have to wait for the bus.” The next word—another curse—was cut off. “Sorry, I don’t know what I was saying. I can be there in five minutes.”
“All right, five minutes. Now go,” Luis ordered, and he replaced the microphone.
“We aren’t seriously going back in there?” Jorge asked his father.
“We can’t just leave.”
“If you say so, but you’re paying for any bullet holes in me or my boat.” Jorge swung the boat around, away from shore, and steered east, then turned south once they had passed the long pier. “Here we go,” he said, turning west and then north back towards shore. After closing the distance by half, he pulled the throttles back and let the boat coast to a stop. “It’s probably best if we stay out here until we see her.”
“Good idea. I am officially making you the admiral of Isla Madres’ navy. Congratulations.”
Jorge laughed humorlessly at his father’s attempt to break the tension. Five minutes passed slowly, and then another a little faster. “How long do we give her?” Jorge asked after another five minutes.
“I don’t know, but we can’t leave her.”
“We could contact the military with the satellite phone.”
“Look,” Luis said suddenly. They both scanned the dock with their binoculars. A frail woman had just stepped onto the long pier. “What’s that she’s dragging?”
“I don’t know,” Jorge said after scrutinizing the woman for several seconds. She was pulling a large black object, about half her size, behind her. When she was three-quarters to the end he dropped his binoculars and gave the two marine engines a little gas. They purred quietly and the boat glided towards the dock at the end of the long pier.
Luis continued to watch the woman with his binoculars. She was struggling under the weight of her mysterious burden. “I think, as crazy as this sounds, it’s a vacuum cleaner.” His mind had been trying to fit any known item into the puzzle of the black object, and an old-fashion vacuum cleaner was as good a fit as he could come up with.
“Well, she needs to drop it and move her ass,” Jorge whispered needlessly, because they were close enough to hear her swearing at both her burden and the bodies that lay in her path.
“Jesus, what is that smell?” Luis asked, watching the woman finally reach the stairs to the dock. He checked the last two bodies that she would have to negotiate, and then panned upward. He saw her bare feet, then her legs; she turned her back to him and began to drag the black object over the first body, and Luis finally got a clear look at it. “Oh my God,” he screamed. “It’s some kind of bird.” It was hideous, huge, and very dead. Jorge had retrieved his binoculars. “What is that?” Luis asked again.
“Dad, I think that’s a vulture. Look at its bald head and legs.” He adjusted the zoom on the lens. “Vultures aren’t that big.” Having negotiated the last body, the woman turned and faced them.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Munoz senior said and quickly made the sign of the cross.
“Oh, fuck!” Jorge said. Her face and arms were covered in sores that ran red with blood and pus. He looked lower and found the blisters covering her legs as well. “We can’t let her in, Dad,” he said flatly.
“Let’s get out of here,” Luis said. Jorge turned the boat on its keel and sped out to sea.
Brian O’Grady is April’s Story Plant Author of the Month, which means you can get the e-book versions of his novels Amanda’s Story and Hybrid for a great price all month. Read more about it here.