The Surge

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by Roland Smith

  “Trying to save you from death by drowning,” John said. “There’s a rail line about a mile away. It should be dry and clear of downed trees. If we can reach it and get the rig up on the bed, it’ll take us to the main highway.”

  “So now it’s death by oncoming train,” Mark said.

  “Trains don’t run during hurricanes,” John said. “But there are any number of other things that could kill us on the way.”

  “Like death by flying tree stump,” Cindy said.

  “Yep, that’s one of them,” John said. Then he proceeded to give them a grim list of death by WPPs.

  04:25 AM

  A blast of windblown rain knocked Chase and Rashawn backward as they opened the bunkhouse door.

  “Window!” Chase shouted. “Over the sink!”

  They hunkered down and fought their way across the room toward the opening. The window was broken. Chase grabbed a large wooden cutting board from the kitchen counter. With the wind and rain hammering their faces, it took all of their strength to wedge the board into the window frame.

  “It will keep most of the rain out,” Chase said, out of breath.

  Rashawn leaned against the counter and wrung the water out of her hair. “And I was just getting dry!”

  Chase shined the flashlight at the four inches of water covering the floor. An armada of plastic cups and containers bobbed on the surface like little ships. He walked cautiously to the center of the room.

  “What are you doing?” Rashawn asked.

  Instead of answering, Chase bent down and pulled up a large frying pan by the handle. With the drain unplugged the water level started to drop.

  “Cement floor,” Chase said. “Three-inch central drain. Shouldn’t be too much damage after it dries.”

  “What is it with you?” Rashawn asked.

  “What do you mean?”

  “ ‘Cement floor. Three-inch central drain …’ You sound like an architect or something. And before our bus ran off the road and sank, you sounded like you worked for FEMA. I’m not complaining, but what kind of kid carries a satellite phone, several bottles of water, two headlamps, and a first aid kit to school in his backpack?”

  “A very strange kid,” Chase admitted, and then gave her a brief outline of what had happened to him the past two years. He finished just as the last of the water circled the drain.

  “I’m sorry about your momma and sister, Chase,” Rashawn said. “The last couple of years of your life sound like the water goin’ down this drain.”

  Chase smiled. “You’re right. It has kind of sucked.”

  “Your daddy really got hit by a lightning bolt?”

  “It went right through his shoulder. Blew his boots off his feet. He was in a coma for days. When he came out of it he looked like my father, but it was like someone else had crawled into his skin.”

  “So now he and this Tomás guy drive around the country looking for storm damage, then charge people an arm and a leg to fix things. And drag you along with them.”

  “Yup, that’s M.D. Emergency Services,” Chase said.

  “M.D., like in doctor?”

  Chase shook his head. “M.D., like in Masters of Disaster.”

  “At least your daddy has a sense of humor.”

  “Not really,” Chase said. “Not anymore. But he’s a good contractor and he’s taught me a lot.”

  “What happens to you after Emily blows through?”

  “Hopefully we’ll stick around awhile. I like it here. But my father doesn’t spend too much time in one spot.”

  “Your daddy sounds a lot like my daddy. I bet my daddy’s worked at a dozen wildlife refuges from here to Oregon. Our last name is Stone. Momma calls him Mr. Rollin’ Stone, but I think she likes movin’ around just as much he does.” Rashawn glanced at the rain blowing through a gap in the window. “I just hope they had the sense to stay out of this mess and not go out looking for me.”

  “Do you have brothers or sisters?”

  “A little brother, Randall … two years old.”

  “You live on the wildlife refuge?”

  “Smack-dab in the middle of it. The job always comes with a house.”

  “A sturdy house?”

  Rashawn laughed. “Brick. I made fun of it when we moved in. Called it the Three Little Pigs’ House. If it’s standing when this is over and my family’s okay, I won’t be making fun of that house anymore.”

  “I think they’ll be fine. I’m sure your parents have seen plenty of bad weather living out in the woods.”

  Rashawn stole another glance at the window. “I don’t think anybody’s seen weather like this before.”

  “You’re probably right,” Chase agreed. He switched on the headlamp and handed it to her. “Not much light. Think you can manage to find some batteries while I look for the generator?”

  “No problem,” Rashawn said, slipping the headlamp over her forehead. “I’ll raid the cupboards for food too, and find some rice for that satellite phone of yours.”

  Chase shined his light around the room, which was a lot bigger and nicer than he’d expected. It was a combination kitchen/recreation room. The kitchen was equipped with shiny stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, and a commercial refrigerator big enough to hang a cow in. The recreation room had a pool table, leather sofas and chairs, and two gigantic flat-screen TVs.

  “Whoa!” Rashawn said. “When Momma Rossi said ‘bunk-house’ I was thinking bunk beds, cowboys, and a potbellied ol’ stove … but this is nice! Makes me want to switch my dream of becoming a biologist like my daddy and join the circus instead.”

  Chase smiled. He’d said almost the same thing to Nicole the day before. He opened the door to the right of the recreation room. It led to a hallway with several doors running along the left side and another door at the end. As he walked down the hall, he tried the doors on the left and found them all locked except for one. It opened into a furnished apartment with a sitting room, a bedroom, and a bathroom. There were no personal effects, which led Chase to believe the locked doors were for occupied apartments.

  The Rossis take good care of their roughnecks, he thought.

  He continued down to the door at the end, which opened onto the workshop. Like the kitchen/recreation room and the apartments, it wasn’t what he’d expected. It was almost as big as the circus barn, well equipped, and immaculately clean. With the assortment of tools hanging above the long workbench, the roughnecks could repair anything. Along another wall were three garage doors rattling loudly in the wind, each big enough to back a semitrailer through.

  The generator was in the corner along the common wall between the barn and the workshop. Chase knew the generator was on by the green light, but he couldn’t hear it above the wind. He walked over and checked the gas. It was close to empty. He picked up the gas can next to it and his heart sank. It was completely dry, as were the two other cans he found along the wall. It took him nearly twenty minutes to discover that there wasn’t a drop of gasoline in the workshop.

  Rashawn came in with her headlamp shining brightly again.

  “I see you found batteries,” Chase shouted above the rumbling garage doors.

  “And food, and blankets, and pillows, and towels, and a bag of rice for that phone of yours.”

  “Good job,” he said, then frowned.

  “Everything okay?” she asked.

  “Yeah,” Chase said, although he knew it wouldn’t be okay if he didn’t find some gasoline. In a little while it was going to be as dark inside the barn as a mine shaft. Chase looked at his watch. It was 5:01 am.

  05:01 AM

  Tomás’s 4×4 bouncing along the slick railroad ties was like an amusement park ride for the occupants — minus the amusement.

  “How much farther?” Mark shouted from the jump seat in back, where he was getting the brunt of the bounce.

  “About half a mile,” John shouted back.

  “How far have we gone?”

  “About a half a mile.�

  “You gotta be kidding me! I’m getting pounded back here. I need a helmet!”

  John turned. Mark was cradling the video camera like it was an infant. “You might want to let go of that camera and hang on.”

  “This camera is worth more than my life.”

  “It doesn’t even belong to you,” Cindy pointed out. “The station owns it.”

  “Yeah, but if I break it, I will own it,” Mark said. “And a busted camera won’t do me much good considering that in a couple hours, when I don’t show up at the station for work, I’ll be unemployed.”

  “So will I,” Cindy said.

  Cindy and Mark had both known when they climbed into John Masters’s truck and headed toward Hurricane Emily that there was a good chance they would not make it back to Saint Petersburg by morning. Cindy had accepted John’s invitation because, after spending half the previous day watching him work, she was curious about him. Mark had tagged along because he was curious about the hurricane. They had both gotten what they wanted. Cindy had interviewed John during the terrifying ride into the storm, and she’d learned enough about him to know that he would make a very interesting subject of a documentary. She was thinking of calling it The Man Who Got Struck by Lightning. Mark had shot some amazing footage of Emily’s fury, but the only way to save his job was to get that footage on the air. Without power there was no way to do this.

  “It was a lousy television station anyway,” Cindy said. “Look on the bright side. We won’t have to put up with Richard Krupp anymore.”

  Richard Krupp was the station’s lead anchorman and the most popular television personality in Saint Petersburg.

  “It’ll be nice not to have to deal with that gasbag anymore,” Mark admitted. “But how am I going to make a living?”

  “With me,” Cindy said. “We’ll go freelance.”

  “Without a camera?”

  “I have some money put away. I’ll get you a camera. In the meantime hand the station’s camera up front. We’ll hang on to it while you get a grip.”

  Mark happily gave Cindy and John the expensive camera to guard for a while.

  John looked over at Tomás, who was hunched over the steering wheel, trying to see through the watery windshield. He’d offered to take over the driving again, but Tomás shook his head just as he had every time John had suggested it.

  Three minutes later they hit something lying across the track. The truck went airborne, rolled counterclockwise, slammed back onto the track on the driver’s side, then slid for thirty feet between the rails, with the air bags deployed, before coming to a teetering stop.

  “Is everyone okay?” John asked.

  “I’m good,” Cindy said.

  “Okay,” Tomás said.

  “Soiled underpants,” Mark said.

  “Too much information,” Cindy said.

  “How’s the camera?” Mark asked.

  “It’s jammed between Tomás’s shoulder and my ear,” Cindy answered. “But I think it’s fine.”

  “Put it in park, Tomás,” John said. “Don’t turn the engine off. We may not be able to get it started again.”

  “That seems moot since the truck is lying on its side,” Mark said.

  “With some luck we might be able to right it,” John said. “I’m going to try to climb out through the window. Nobody move. I don’t want to flip it over on the roof, on top of me, or over the trestle.”

  “As in bridge?” Mark asked.

  “I can’t see very clearly through the windshield, but it looks like this section of track is ten to twelve feet above a swamp. If we go into the drink, we’ll be on foot.”

  “Providing we don’t drown,” Mark added.


  “Just so you know, I can’t swim.”

  “That’s good to know.”

  John slipped his headlamp on and opened the passenger window. When he stuck his head outside, the wind nearly pulled him out of the cab.

  05:13 AM

  Chase put the battery back into the satellite phone, then turned it on.

  “No go,” he said.

  “Rice time.” Rashawn took the phone and put it into a Ziploc bag filled with uncooked rice. “You’ll be talking to your dad before you know it.”

  “I hope it works,” Nicole said.

  “I’ve never seen this fail.” Rashawn started unloading the other goodies from the large box she’d brought from the bunkhouse kitchen.

  Chase looked at the electric heater, then at Momma Rossi. “Maybe we should switch the heater off to conserve power.”

  “Not until you dry off,” Momma Rossi said. “How did you and Rashawn get so wet?”

  Chase told her about the broken window.

  “Did you top the generator off?” Nicole asked.

  “I would have, but there wasn’t any gas. The cans were all empty.” Chase walked over to the heater and put his cold hands in front of it.

  “You didn’t tell me that,” Rashawn said, joining him in front of the heater.

  “I thought I’d let everyone know at once.” Chase looked at Nicole. “I searched all over the workshop. Is there anyplace else your dad might store it?”

  Nicole shook her head. “There are three cans next to the generator. He fills them in town when they’re empty.”

  “There were three cans,” Chase said. “And they’re all empty. Unfortunately, the generator is just about empty too. I’d guess we have about an hour before the lights go off. Maybe less.”

  “Not good,” Nicole said, glancing at Pet. “This barn is dark as a tomb, even during the day.” She pointed at a small window to the side of the ring. “That’s it for daylight. Dad’s been so busy with Pet and taking care of the farm, I guess he forgot to pick up gas.”

  “You open that big door after sunup,” Rashawn said. “There’d be plenty of light.”

  “The storm might not be over by sunrise,” Chase pointed out. “Which would mean no light, or at least not very much.”

  “And if Pet saw an opening that big,” Nicole added, “she’d try to pull her leg off trying to get to it.”

  “We have plenty of gas in the Shack and Shop,” Chase said.

  The Shack was the fifth-wheel where Chase and his father lived. The Shop was his father’s tractor-trailer rig. It was filled with tools and building supplies. Tomás had a small apartment built into the front end of the Shop.

  “You can’t go out in this,” Nicole said.

  “It’s either that or we’ll be sitting here in the dark listening to an elephant being born,” Chase said.

  “We have flashlights.”

  “We have one flashlight and two headlamps,” Chase corrected. “Which aren’t going to do us much good if there’s a problem with the calf.”

  “What about the four-wheeler?” Rashawn said.

  “What about it?” Chase asked.

  “I don’t know what the Shack and Shop is, or where it is, but we rode down here on a four-wheeler and it’s parked right outside the door we came through to get into the barn.”

  Chase smiled. Rashawn. Always thinking. He had no desire to fight his way on foot to the Shop to get gas, especially in the dark.

  “Is the tank full?” Nicole asked, looking as relieved as he felt.

  “Yeah,” Chase answered. “Or pretty close to full.” One of his father’s many rules was that all gas tanks were to be kept full at all times for situations just like this. He had topped the four-wheeler’s tank off the previous morning before he’d picked up Nicole and driven her to the road to catch the school bus. “It has a five-gallon tank. We could siphon it into one of the cans and we’d have enough to keep us going for several hours.”

  “Let’s get it inside,” Nicole said. “We can crack the big door open and pull it in.”

  The big door was in fact big enough to drive a semitruck through. But the door wouldn’t budge, even with all four of them pushing and pulling on it.

  “The wind’s too strong out there,”
Chase said. “We’ll never get it open. I’ll have to use the small door.”

  “The four-wheeler won’t fit through that door,” Nicole said.

  “You’re right. But I can push it up to the door, and we have to siphon the gas out anyway.”

  “I’ll get the hose and a can,” Rashawn said, hurrying off into the darkness toward the bunkhouse.

  “That Rashawn’s a go-getter,” Momma Rossi said. “I like her.”

  “So do I,” Nicole agreed.

  “Where does she live?”

  “Up the road a few miles. Her dad’s the refuge manager.”

  “We need to turn the heater off,” Chase said. “And any lights we don’t absolutely need.”

  Momma Rossi walked over and unplugged the heater. Nicole opened a panel on the wall and switched off everything except for a couple of spotlights over the ring.

  A few minutes later, Rashawn returned with a watering hose, an empty gas can, and an armful of pillows and blankets.

  “Don’t know about you, but I’m going to take a nap after we get the generator gassed up.”

  “On the big ol’ hammock?” Chase asked, taking the gas can from her.


  “What are you two talking about?” Nicole asked.

  Momma Rossi laughed. “I think they’re talking about the catch net for the fliers.”

  “Fliers?” Rashawn said.

  “The trapeze artists,” Nicole explained.

  Chase took out his pocketknife, cut a length of hose, and walked over to the door with Nicole and Rashawn. “I’ll get the four-wheeler as close as I can, and we’ll figure out what to do from there. Ready?”

  He turned the handle. The door banged open, nearly dislocating his arm. Water and debris flew through the opening.

  “Watch out!”

  Nicole and Rashawn ducked to either side. Chase dropped to his knees to give the wind a smaller target and peered outside with his headlamp. Shingles, broken furniture, and other house debris lined the outside walls like a four-foot snowdrift of garbage.

  WPPs, thought Chase. We were lucky to get inside the barn when we did.


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