Searching for Shelter
No food. No shelter. No way out but through.
A calamitous pair of storms.
Two women on the run from their past caught in the whirlwind.
They'll either stand and fight - or be consumed in the aftermath.
Tired of the same old boring story? Welcome to your new, epically long addiction from #1 best-selling post-apocalyptic author Mike Kraus, Stephanie Mylchreest and Misty Zaugg.
Twin hurricanes obliterate the eastern coast of the United States, bringing with them a blight that devastates America's breadbasket.
As the nation's food supply withers on the vine, the population turns upon itself and millions die from starvation, infighting and disease within days of the storms' passing.
In the midst of the devastation left by the storms, two women in the Gulf Coast must fight against the dangers from their past to survive the aftermath of the storms and find a new order in a broken nation.
Aftermath is an oversized (100k+ words per book) six-book survival/thriller series from Muonic Press, the 3-year #1 indie publisher of post-apoc fiction.
Featuring a powerful cast of characters, Aftermath delves deep into a frighteningly realistic "what if" scenario, showcasing both the prepared and unprepared, and showing what tenacity, courage and drive can do in the face of insurmountable odds.
Release date: January 21, 2021
Publisher: Muonic Press
Print pages: 365
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Searching for Shelter
Day 1 - 25 August, 3:01 p.m., National Hurricane Research Station, Pensacola Naval Air Station, FL
“Have you seen these?” Angela asked, turning her screen to show the horrible images to Jake, her fellow research intern.
A tow-headed college kid with a perpetual smile, Jake didn’t respond as his fingers flew across his workstation. His eyes were alight with the same crazed panic that filled the research station as the staff tracked the two biggest storms of their lifetimes.
Jake leaned closer to his own computer and drew a shuddering breath before turning to Angela with a shocked gaze. “Alpha has annihilated Gulfport. It’s gone.” He shook his head, stared back at his screen. “Just gone.”
Angela leaned over, and her eyes widened as the silent scene, a bouncing image from a still-functioning camera, played on his monitor. It had already been one of the worst hurricane seasons on record, with twenty-one named storms. Out of options and as dictated by the World Meteorological Organization, they’d turned to the Greek alphabet to name the massive hurricanes bearing down on the Gulf Coast. And Alpha and Beta were bad. Very bad.
Alpha made Gulfport look like the set of some apocalyptic movie. Debris flew through the air, darkened by sleeting rain and driven sideways in the unprecedented wind. A car rushed past on the massive storm surge like flotsam, and pieces from demolished buildings kept breaking free as they watched.
A second later, the feed went dark.
“That was the last live camera. Everything else cut out earlier.” He swallowed, his voice dry. “Man, I hope they all evacuated in time.” Jake sat back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair.
Angela felt just as stunned by the brutal images, so much more real than the almost beautiful satellite images of the roiling hurricanes. Her computer dinged another alert on the fungal blight moving through Central America, leaving a wake of destroyed crops. And while it might not be as urgent as the storms right now, the fallout from a devastating plant disease could be even more fatal in the long term.
“Jake,” she said again, her voice sharp to be heard above the sounds of the hurricane outside. “Look at this.”
With an impatient noise, he squinted at the images before giving her a quizzical look. “That’s the blight down in Central and South America, right? The one killing all the corn and stuff?”
“Yes,” she said with a bit of impatience. “The one that might cause widespread starvation.”
“Starvation?” asked Jake, distracted as he worked to pull up more data. It was almost impossible to get his attention when there was one monster storm on the radar, much less two.
Their whole staff was tracking Hurricane Alpha as she made landfall, flattening cities along Mississippi’s coast. Her ferocious right side had already reached them and battered the reinforced research station with ominous force. Jake had reason to be focused.
But this was important, too.
Just as important as the storms, Angela thought. Or maybe even more important because of the storms.
“Jake,” she said, reaching out to grab his arm. “Listen to me for just a second.”
He made another tsk of impatience and spun in his chair to look at her.
“Quickly, two things,” she said, holding up a finger and speaking fast before she lost him again. “First, this new blight is hitting multiple crops simultaneously. Corn, wheat and some beans for now, but there might be others. Second, it’s destroying acres of cropland in hours and days, instead of weeks. Look at these fields in Cancun.”
Angela zoomed in on the image of devastated fields with a slide of her finger. As she sharpened the detail, the damage was much more pronounced: dying corn plants shriveled and splattered with dangerous-looking rust-colored spots. The novel blight had destroyed what should be a vibrant and green field of growing food.
Jake’s eyes widened, and he leaned in closer.
“This new blight is raging through thousands of acres of cropland and it’s showing no signs of stopping,” she said, still a bit stunned by how fast the news had worsened.
“We must have a whole host of fungicides we can try on this, right?”
An insistent beeping intruded, and Jake’s eyes flicked back toward the storm tracking screens.
“Here’s the really bad part, Jake,” Angela said as she toggled her screen back to a tracking image of the two hurricanes. She had his full attention back as she moved a finger along the path of Alpha, the hurricane already blasting into Mississippi. “Look where our storm has been.”
“Mexico? Cancun?” he asked as he followed her finger, brows drawn together.
Angela waited for a beat. Jake might be obsessed with storms, but he was smart.
Suddenly, he spun back to his own workstation and pulled up a map of the Gulf Coast showing the current storm movement.
He stared for a moment before speaking. “Alpha is dropping that blight all over our coastline as we speak,” he said in a horrified voice.
“It’s moving fast, too. Faster-moving storm means stronger winds farther inland. It’s going to drop the blight right up the Delta, if not farther.”
Angela waited, hoping he would come to a different conclusion than she had or find a solution she’d overlooked.
“Once it gets a foothold in the croplands on the coast, it’s going to spread much farther than the storms,” he said, confirming her worst fears. “There’s no telling how much damage it’ll do. This would seriously disrupt the food supply, not to mention how much food we import from Mexico.”
“And the rest of the world,” she replied grimly. “If we get our best people on it, maybe there’s something that can be done before it spreads,” she said, grasping at straws. “Pre-treatment with fungicides, planting new varieties, something.”
“Right now, all we can do is pass on the warning,” Jake said with a shake of his head. “We’re weather experts, not farmers.”
There was a crackle from the two-way radio on Jake’s desk, and he fumbled before answering it.
“The roof is gone,” shouted the tinny male voice on the other end. “The hurricane is tearing us apart!”
“It’s the guys at the naval base,” shouted Jake. A moment of quiet cut through the research station’s chaos, while outside, Alpha’s wind speed intensified. “I’m here. Are you all okay?”
“It’s gone. We’re gonna die in here.” A scream could be heard through the small device before it was overtaken by a cluster of static.
“Are you there?” shouted Jake.
But the radio was silent.
Knowing there was nothing they could do to help the poor souls at the naval station, but needing to do something, Angela stood and hurried to report her concerns about the blight to the director.
“Boss, I need to talk to you about something.” Angela’s voice was an octave higher than usual as she shouted over the howl of the unprecedented, city-destroying winds battering the research station.
Doctor John Peterson flicked a glance at his intern. The bright young PhD student from the University of Florida had a stricken expression on her face. It was obvious something had shaken her, but his whole staff was losing it. Everyone hurried with frantic movements, words terse, as barely contained fear spread like a contagion.
The screen and monitoring equipment in front of him pulled Doctor Peterson’s eyes like steel to a magnet. He ignored the room’s chaos, the incessant beeps and alarms, and waved her away. “Not now, Angela. This is getting bad. Very bad. Beta’s intensified much faster than we expected, and he’s closing the gap to Alpha.”
Dr. Peterson’s hand wrapped around his chin’s graying stubble, covering his mouth as he studied the swirling, digital representations of the two monster hurricanes with detached fascination.
The biggest hurricane on record, Hurricane Alpha had made landfall on Mississippi’s south coast with wind speeds exceeding 210 miles per hour, strong enough to flatten even well-built homes and send debris flying like missiles. Hurricane Beta, intensifying rapidly and following behind her like a savage dog intent on being the alpha, had his sights set on Florida.
“Incredible,” he whispered. He leaned closer to the screen, his breath condensing the glass and his left hand tracing Alpha’s huge low-pressure center. His other hand moved to the screen, a finger hovering over Beta’s massive eyewall. The hyper-color vortexes were now within 800 miles of each other.
Over the increasingly frantic voices, a gruff shout for quiet. The voices died down, and a radio competed with the freight train howl of the wind.
“Turn it up,” someone ordered.
An increase in the volume, and Doctor Peterson could make out the words. It was another National Weather Service emergency broadcast.
“As Alpha made landfall and moved up the Delta, early reports of devastating destruction are surfacing. Destructive winds and a forty-foot storm surge have hit Gulfport, Mississippi and are devastating communities along the Gulf Coast. An extreme wind and storm surge warning is in place for residents of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Take immediate shelter in the interior portion of a well-built structure.”
“We need to get into the safe room,” someone shouted.
The emergency broadcast continued over a renewed flurry of activity. Angela moved to his side as everyone else in the room grabbed what they could and fled to safety. “I need to talk to you about the novel blight from Latin America. Alpha is going to dump spores from it all over the Gulf Coast. We need to report it so containment measures can be put into effect.” She kept her voice calm and concise, but her fingers tapped the table in an agitated manner.
“Containment measures for crop blight?” said Doctor Peterson. “These are the two largest hurricanes to ever make landfall in the United States. There’s no containing the blight and there’s no escaping the destruction of these storms. The hurricanes will make sure of that. They’re heading directly for us.”
Angela’s attractive face reflected on the screen’s surface. He could see her blood shot eyes, the rapid movement of her lips as she spoke. “If we don’t do something, the blight will get a foothold here and start wiping out our crops. The hurricanes will destroy our coasts, but the blight will make sure we all starve.”
He could understand her pessimism. What they were looking at had no precedent. Two Category Five hurricanes, each far exceeding the size of any that had come before, both hitting within hours of each other? Such an occurrence was unheard of and the impact would be grim.
Add to that the blight . . . and this was a perfect storm.
As though confirming Angela’s pessimistic prediction, a loud, splintering noise joined the cacophony of terrible wind and rain that battered the outside of the station. He glanced through the laminated hurricane-proof window that normally afforded a wide vista of the eternal blue of Pensacola Pass. Now, rain smashed into the glass so hard he couldn’t see a thing.
Peterson had designed the research lab with aerodynamic features to divert and disperse force from intense hurricane winds. Although the force of Alpha’s powerful impacts would be a test, Doctor Peterson felt confident the reinforced building would keep his staff safe.
At least, he had felt confident.
His certainty had waned when the power flicked off about half an hour ago, before turning back on a few seconds later when the generator kicked in. There was enough power for the lights and monitoring equipment, but the AC was off, and the air was hot and muggy.
As the wind’s power increased rapidly around them, the images and data on their monitoring equipment painted an overwhelmingly terrible picture.
Wiping a neatly pressed white cotton shirt sleeve over his forehead, he experienced a strange sensation as the two vortexes on the screen shifted toward one another. His stomach flipped. It reminded him of the last time he went on a rollercoaster: that feeling at the very top when the cart suddenly plunged over the edge.
Beside him, Angela gasped. Tears tracked down her reflected face as they both stared at the screen, helpless to do anything but watch. Their data would be automatically fed to the upper levels of the NOAA and from there to DC.
An icy hand of fear traced its way down his spine as he took in the screen’s terrifying images.
A massive blast of air, and the glass across the room shuddered.
A split second later, a monstrous thud shook the wall to his left. Among the last few left in the lab, a woman let out a shriek and another scientist’s terrified moan was easily heard over the storm’s cacophony.
It sounded as if Alpha had ripped up the row of mighty oaks lining the lab’s parking lot and now smashed them into the side of the building. The sound gave Dr. Peterson a moment’s pause, but he couldn’t ignore the siren call of the data flooding in as the catastrophic disaster played out on the screen in front of him.
Reaching for his tablet, he inputted the data from the visible and infrared satellite imagery to track the motion and cloud patterns of both hurricanes in order to determine their projected paths. Now that the cyclonic vortices were close enough to interact, it changed everything.
He stared, stunned at his results.
All of their previous projections were irrelevant.
They’d need an entirely new classification for this mega-storm.
He finalized his calculations and forwarded his predictions to headquarters with numb fingers. Then he placed the tablet on his desk, right beside the cold cup of coffee Angela had given him when Alpha’s outer bands first appeared in the window.
“It’s happening,” he said. “It’s actually happening.”
Taking off his glasses, he massaged his temples.
Outside, above the wind, he heard popping and cracking as more trees and power lines went down under the brutal and relentless attack.
“Doctor Peterson!” shouted Angela over the escalating din that raged on the other side of the walls. “We need to get to the safe room.”
“Look,” he said, face grim as he slid the tablet over to her.
She took the tablet and as she read, her hands started to shake uncontrollably.
“It’s the Fujiwhara effect on steroids,” he said. “Alpha’s eye is up in the Mississippi Delta, but look, she’s already shifting back toward Beta’s direction.”
“He’s bigger,” Angela said, gaze stunned as her words came out stilted. “She’s going to orbit him and get closer until they join.”
“Correct. Ten out of ten, Angela.” He offered her a sad smile and glanced around the now empty lab. Everyone else was in the safe room. But he knew it wouldn’t do them any good. Not when Alpha’s eye would pass right over them in her rush to join Beta.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“We have to make sure NOAA got the data I just sent. It looks like they’ll join somewhere between Miami and the Bahamas with winds in excess of 250 miles per hour.”
“The Bermuda High will then guide the new, mega-hurricane up the east coast,” continued Angela, a cataclysmic prediction for the millions of innocent souls in the way. She closed her eyes, and Doctor Peterson knew she was picturing the inevitable, devastating loss of life.
“They’re gaining speed, moving in unpredictable and surprising ways. This could flatten cities along the entire east coast right up to New York. We have to make sure the warning gets through. Now. The more time they have, the more lives they can save.”
A sound like thunder roared through the building as a massive wave smashed into the front wall.
“Run, Angela. Get the satellite phone!”
She turned and disappeared behind him.
It was futile.
But it was the kind thing to do. Let her think she could do something to save everyone. Die a hero.
But it was too late for that. The hurricanes were already accelerating, moving faster than anyone could have predicted. There was no time to evacuate the cities, no time to save anyone.
It was a small consolation that no one else saw this coming. He hadn’t failed. Beta was only a tropical storm 48 hours ago.
A head-pounding clamor rang through the space as the swollen sea smashed across the station’s oceanic view. Doctor Peterson sat behind his desk and picked up the cold coffee, sipping it as his eyes locked on the laminated glass. A splinter spread from one corner, zipping along like a crack in ice.
He was waiting for it, but the smash still took him by surprise. His hand jerked back, coffee splashing on his white shirt. The sea and storm had finally won the battle against the station’s hurricane-proof shell, and the glass gave way under the immense power of the surge.
Glass, salty water, seaweed and even a fish or two flooded into the once-pristine scientific space with all the uncontrolled violence of nature repossessing what was once hers. Desks flew, chairs upended, and vital equipment turned to worthless trash in an instant.
Dr. Peterson closed his eyes.
The raging water lifted him up and threw him against the far wall. Pain exploded through his body. His eyes burned and as he opened his mouth to scream, his choking gasps were drowned instantly. The vindictive storm sucked him and the smashed remains of the research station out the gaping hole so fast it felt like the drop from the top of a roller coaster . . . into Alpha’s eyewall itself.
Just before he blacked out, Dr. Peterson felt grateful he hadn’t heard Angela’s screams.
Day 1 - 25 August, 3:04 p.m., Warbler Farm, Valley Park, MS
The horrendous sounds of snapping trees reached them over the screeching winds, followed by the boom and pop of Fourth of July fireworks.
But it wasn’t Independence Day.
It was the sound of the world being ripped apart and shredded by a force mightier than April had ever experienced.
“Your body is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do,” she said, modulating her voice to hide her concern as she placed a calming hand on Maria’s back. The last thing they needed was for Maria to panic.
Maria leaned over the bathroom sink, gripping the basin’s edge as her swollen belly contracted. Fingernails dug into the white porcelain as the contraction reached its peak.
Gasping as the contraction eased, Maria looked up, her dark brown eyes bloodshot, her hair in damp tendrils around her face. “Where is Edward? I can’t do this without him,” her words came out in labored pants over the sound of the howling wind that raged around them like a wild animal.
“I’m here, darling, you’re doing so great.” Edward’s tall, muscular figure appeared in the bathroom doorway, the flashlight in his hands aimed at his feet and casting long shadows in the green tiled bathroom. The farmhouse groaned like it was in pain, and the shadows jumped.
Crack! A loud noise reverberated through the house just as Maria doubled over again, a cry of pain escaping her lips.
“A branch,” said Edward. “It’s nothing to worry about.” He sounded calm, but April saw the way he stared at the blood on Maria’s inner thighs, his hand nervously twisting the flashlight.
Outside, there was an uptick in the high-pitched keening of the wind. It sounded like someone was hurling entire trees at the farmhouse, and fear prickled the back of April’s neck.
Katrina’s scars were deep and etched in every Mississippian’s psyche. But Alpha seemed several orders of magnitude worse, and she wasn’t alone. The weather reporter on Edward’s small solar crank radio predicted her big brother, Beta, would make landfall a short time later.
April blinked and images flashed through her mind–evacuating her mother’s rented mobile home among the Delta’s cotton and soybean fields where she grew up, the crops bent sideways from Katrina’s ferocity, then seeking shelter in the school hall with hundreds of other desperate, scared people.
Maria groaned, pulling April back to the present.
“I need to check the weather advisory soon,” Edward projected loudly over the noise of the hurricane. “This seems much worse than I was expecting.”
April shot a pointed look at Maria and he added quickly, “But we’ll be fine. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Why don’t you come over here. You can help her through these contractions,” April said to Edward, as she shuffled into the bathroom and leaned against the wall beside the bathtub full of water. Edward was prepared for the hurricane, even if Alpha had taken them all by surprise when she’d changed course just before making landfall.
The flashlight went beside the lantern on the bathroom countertop, and Edward moved behind Maria, who wore only a bikini top. But April wasn’t worried about her getting cold. The power went out about half an hour ago, and the farmhouse was hot and humid, especially inside the roomy master bathroom.
Maria cried out again, and April directed Edward’s hands to her hips. “Press your hands tight on her hips as the contraction intensifies.”
“Like this?” He flashed her a faint approximation of his trademark easy smile.
“Don’t stop,” cried Maria to her husband, and he applied firm pressure as April rested a hand on Maria’s back. The three of them rode the contraction’s wave to its peak, and Edward released his hands as Maria draped herself, exhausted, over the sink.
“Can we move her to the basement?” asked Edward in a barely audible whisper. “I have everything we need to be safe there, and there’s enough food and water for us all. Equipment and basic medical supplies.” April strained to hear him over the storm raging outside.
Maria gave a guttural cry and slid to the ground.
“We’ll be safer there,” he said, louder than before as he dropped to his knees, cradling Maria’s head in his hands while April hurried to position towels and blankets to make her comfortable on the wooden floor.
“She won’t make it down those stairs,” replied April, catching her reflection as she stood to grab another stack of towels. Blond hair hung in lank locks, eyes rimmed in heavy circles. Her face betrayed her worry, and she made a conscious effort to loosen her jaw and force a smile. For Maria’s sake.
Moving to crouch between Maria’s legs to check her dilation, she lifted her voice above the howling wind. “She’s close. You’re going to meet your little boy, soon.” There was more blood than she felt comfortable with, but in the circumstances all she could do was stay calm. The ferocious storm had trapped them with nothing but her emergency midwifery equipment.
A scream of pain roiled Maria’s body. April placed her hands to support the woman’s quivering legs. “You’re doing so well. If you were a bit stronger, I’d have you on all fours. Let me know if you feel up to doing that, because we can change position anytime you want.”
“I’ll stay here,” Maria sobbed breathlessly.
April could see the fear in the woman’s eyes. “This is all fine. You’re doing really well. I want you to wait for the next contraction and then push. Push as hard as you can.”
Edward stroked his wife’s hair, his voice hoarse as he whispered encouragement. “Our boy will be so strong. Imagine the stories we’ll tell him about his birth. Born in the worst hurricane to ever make landfall in Mississippi. He’s going to be strong, a fighter like his momma.”
Edward stayed by Maria, but his eyes locked on the blood-soaked towel beneath her. April knew he was no stranger to the membranes and fluids involved in labor and delivery. During her prenatal visit last month, he and Maria had proudly shown her their newborn foal.
Doctor Monroe, the vet who lived on a neighboring property, had overseen the delivery. But Edward told April how he had removed the membranes from the foal and assisted the birth. That was part of life on a homestead, and it didn’t seem to bother Edward. But Maria’s bleeding was too heavy, and she could see he knew it, too.
Edward had already locked the horses, including the new foal, in the barn when she’d arrived earlier that day to an already strong gale and pouring rain. The outer bands of Hurricane Alpha had agitated overhead, but she couldn’t say no to Edward’s frantic call for help when Maria went into labor.
It was what she’d signed up for as a rural midwife. And it was what she wanted, after all. Being a midwife was as close to having children as she’d ever get.
As she’d parked her pickup beside their wide front porch earlier, Edward had been running around the modest farmhouse completing his last-minute preparations for Hurricane Alpha’s imminent arrival.
He’d already cleared the surrounding yard, anchoring big items like their large four-wheel wagon, and closed the impact-resistant shutters. She watched him turn off the gas and lock the last of the animals in the barn, which gave April a flash of relief. With Maria in labor, such things might have escaped him.
Now, she was regretting not moving Maria down to the basement when Edward had first suggested it.
The concrete home suddenly shook as though a freight train were running over it without pause, and the reinforced walls of Edward’s basement had never sounded so good. But the baby was too close for them to move now. They’d have to ride the hurricane out in the bathroom.
Her hands on Maria’s rounded belly, April felt the contraction coming. “Now. Push now,” she coached. Maria’s teeth gritted in fierce determination, and her entire body tensed from effort.
“I can see his head!” said April. The first glimpse of new life always lifted her up and away from the awful memories she kept just out of sight.
She waited for the next contraction and as Maria pushed, she kept pressure on to ease the baby’s head out slowly. With a suddenness that was always thrilling and surprising, the baby’s head emerged.
With the confidence of long practice, April wiped the mouth and nose with a clean cloth and ran fingers along his neck to check for a cord as she waited for the next contraction. A few moments later his wet, slippery body followed. As April rubbed him briskly with warm, dry towels, a cry, tiny under Alpha’s wail, filled the bathroom.
Edward’s smile was wide and Maria’s weary as April checked the boy over quickly—he was strong and breathing well—and lifted him onto his mama’s chest, ignoring the ache in her own.
“Get him nursing if you can,” she instructed as she waited for the cord to finish pulsing and give the little guy a last bit of precious blood. “It’ll help slow your bleeding and give your little guy a boost.”
The placenta soon followed, and Edward cut the cord after April clamped it off, before administering a dose of oxytocin. It was standard practice and would hopefully stop the bleeding.
“He’s perfect,” said Edward, wiping the corners of his eyes. “What a perfect little man. Thank you, April. You risked your life to come here and help us.”
“It’s nothing,” said April, raising her voice over the howl of the hurricane. “It’s just a minor storm. I’ve seen worse.” Her mouth turned up in a smile, but her eyes were on the blood coming from between Maria’s legs, her ears focusing on the frenzied chaos outside.
She reached for a clean towel and placed it underneath Maria. It darkened almost immediately.
“How do you feel?” she asked Maria, sliding closer to her head in the compact space. Maria had the intoxicated glow of a new mother, but her eyes seemed a little out of focus, and she was slow to respond.
Through the open bathroom door, April’s eye caught a sudden motion. With horror, she watched a storm shutter simply disappear followed by the unmistakable sound of breaking glass. A massive gust of air whooshed through the house and into the bathroom.
“Close the bathroom door!” shouted Edward.
On her feet in an instant, April put her shoulder against the door and pushed it closed, grunting from the effort. Just outside, furniture thudded as the strength of the airflow storming its way around the house forced it around the room.
Using all her strength, she shouldered the door closed. Clicking the lock in place, April rested her head against the shuddering wood and fought her rising panic.
“We’re in the safest room,” shouted Edward over the howling outside.
Other than the basement.
“April.” Worry laced Edward’s voice, and she forced herself to turn and face them. More blood soaked the towel under Maria’s legs.
April’s training kicked in, and she rummaged in her black equipment bag for the blood pressure cuff and checked Maria’s pressure. “Seventy over thirty-five,” she read—dangerously low.
The oxytocin vial was already in her hand, and she drew it up into the syringe, injecting the second dose into Maria’s upper thigh. She hoped it would be enough to stop the bleeding because she was all out of options.
Edward watched her with a grim expression on his face, his hand stroking Maria’s cheek. The baby boy was feeding well, but Maria was pale, her eyes closed.
“Keep her talking to you,” shouted April, blocking out the terrible sounds of destruction taking place outside. “I’ve given her a drug that will help, but a different one would be better—maybe a Foley catheter or sutures, but we can’t get to a hospital . . .”
Her voice trailed off. Her worst nightmares were coming true before her eyes. A woman was in trouble, and she had no way to help. Maria could bleed to death and April didn’t have the equipment or expertise to help. There was no doctor or hospital to race Maria to for surgery, or possibly an emergency hysterectomy, the last resort to save her life.
A once-in-a-lifetime hurricane tore through Mississippi, and they were in the middle of it. There was nowhere to go. No one to help.
All April had ever wanted was to prove she wasn’t as messed up as her past would have her believe. And now she might have to stand by and watch an innocent baby’s mother die.
The safety of the basement below their feet mocked April, while Alpha opened her mighty jaws, ready to engulf them.
Day 1 - 25 August, 3:11 p.m., I-55 north of Jackson, MS
Rita’s knuckles gleamed white on the steering wheel as she fought to keep control of her car against the buffeting wind that blew almost completely sideways. Rain slammed into her windshield, overwhelming the desperate flashing of her wipers, and making her lean forward, eyes squinting and searching for brake lights up ahead.
Lurching along the slow lane of southbound I-55, Rita’s little Ford sedan felt like it might fly off the road at any moment.
Rita cast a quick glance at the dark and ominous sky outside and frowned. Threatening, roiling clouds were dark enough for evening, even though it was only afternoon, and the sky split open with several flashes of lightning. Extremely dangerous weather, she decided, the knot of worry growing inside her.
Out of habit, Rita started counting as she waited to hear the thunder. Storms had scared her as a kid until her mom had explained she could figure out how far away the storm was by counting the seconds between the flash and the boom.
A long honk made her flinch and she lost count. Rita barely stopped herself from jerking the wheel as an idiot in a bright red truck swept past her on the left, spraying even more water onto her windshield.
She swallowed hard and amended her thoughts about the dangerous weather.
Fatal. This weather could be fatal.
Rita had to make up her mind. Her mom had asked her to come home only if it was safe, but Rita knew her mom would worry if she didn’t show up soon.
Should she find somewhere safe to pull over or power through to get home? Her family’s storm shelter in the basement sure sounded good right then.
With clear roads, she’d be home in twenty minutes, but with the hurricane blowing in . . .?
Plus, by heading south, she’d be driving straight into a hurricane that should never have made it this far inland. They’d had so many storm warnings this season it was hard to keep them all straight. And they never landed where predicted, the false alarms taunting the Gulf Coast residents as the storms changed direction on a whim.
What was the name of the latest one? Maggie or some such thing. Considering how awful things were outside, she probably needed to pay more attention in the future.
“Google, what is the weather in Jackson, Mississippi?” she said in a loud voice over the noise of the storm and water beating against her car.
A quick glance at her phone in its holder told her she didn’t have a signal.
Keeping her eyes on the small bit of road she could see, Rita fumbled blindly, pushing buttons to try and turn on the radio she hadn’t used in forever.
A crackle and suddenly the lyrics of the classic R.E.M. song chanted cheerfully about the end of the world. A bitter laugh slipped out of her mouth at the eye of the hurricane part.
The news and weather. How did she find that on the radio?
A few buttons later and she found the AM button.
“. . . while seen only in sporadic locations in recent days, this new blight has the nations’ mega-crop producers worried as the unusually active storm season threatens to spread the devastating fungus before a viable treatment is developed. The fungus, believed to have originated from Central America, attacks multiple crop types indiscriminately—”
“But how does a new fungus just appear?” interrupted a female voice.
“Scientists believe the fungus may have mutated following the application of a novel fungicide in the region, the spores then carried on the recent storms that battered the Gulf Coast.”
Rita jabbed the channel changing button on her steering wheel, flicking through static and classical music. Slowing further as the sky darkened again, a sudden twist of wind tried to wrench control of her car from her. She hadn’t seen another car on the road since the red truck passed. Anxiety tightened her chest.
Static on the radio, and then an anchor finally mentioned the weather, her somber tones sending a shiver of dread through Rita. She released the breath she’d been holding with a hiss.
“. . . historically, it’s unusual to see so many storms form and converge toward the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard at the same time. Warming Atlantic waters are increasing the intensity and frequency of hurricanes and Alpha and Beta look to be the biggest to ever make landfall in the United States.”
“Come on woman. Give me details,” shouted Rita.
“Initial reports of extensive damage are already coming in. A severe weather warning remains in place for the entirety of the Gulf Coast. Wall Street is preparing emergency shutdown plans as high winds and storm surges are predicted to batter the east coast.”
Rita pounded the steering wheel in worry and frustration. This was much more serious than she’d realized. Plus, the storm outside was getting stronger, and her family was in the thick of it.
“When Hurricane Alpha first emerged, it was with such intensity that some meteorologists proposed creating an entirely new category of hurricane for it—a Category Six. With wind speeds exceeding 210 miles per hour at landfall, hurricanes of this magnitude are without precedent. Alpha and Beta bring an increased likelihood of tornadoes and devastating floods . . .” droned the voice on the radio.
Rita couldn’t believe how fast the storm season was turning deadly. Still, she really needed to know what was happening here and in Jackson. Couldn’t someone just tell her what the hurricane was doing up ahead?
Impatient for the radio anchor to say something pertinent, Rita shook her head against the flood of regrets and second-guesses that flitted through her mind.
Why hadn’t she paid more attention to the storm warnings?
Why couldn’t she have said no to Carla and stayed home instead?
The desperation in the high school girl’s voice on the phone that morning had ensured she couldn’t ignore it.
With Carla’s parents out of town for the weekend, she had been home alone for the first time since the rape. She’d been ramping up to a full-blown panic attack when she’d called Rita’s personal number. Rita gave it to her most vulnerable patients for a reason. Someone had done the same for her, once upon a time, and it had saved her life.
The satisfaction she’d felt at leaving Carla on a much steadier footing warred with her regret at not leaving just a bit earlier.
But how could she have known the hurricane hitting the coast would send so much nastiness this far inland?
The blurry green rectangle of the next exit sign emerged from the grey soup in front of her, and her foot hovered between the gas and brake pedal.
“Okay, Google. Call Mom,” she said, praying she was in range of an active signal. If only she’d stayed to help her younger brother and parents put the finishing touches on the new deck they’d been working on all month.
Her phone screen flickered to life and hope flared until she saw the no connection message.
She could see the exit in the distance and kept trying, asking for the numbers of her father and brother, too.
The sound of numbers dialing made her catch her breath.
Then it stopped and dropped the call.
Rita let out a frustrated cry and pounded the steering wheel. She had to get through to them.
Logically, Rita knew there was nothing she could do to help her family against a hurricane, but not being with them made panic flare up inside her.
A screeching series of beeps suddenly blared out from her phone and a message box popped up on the screen.
The few words she managed to read with a quick glance made her breath catch in her throat.
EMERGENCY . . . HURRICANE . . . SHELTER . . .
The torrential downpour and terrifying wind outside reinforced the warning. This wasn’t a normal storm.
Then the radio emitted three screeching beeps followed by a long, continuous tone that turned her nerves to ice.
“. . . the National Weather Service has issued an extreme hurricane warning for Southeastern Hinds County and Southwestern Rankin County until 4:00 AM . . .”
The warning continued to itemize which areas were in danger.
Rita knew she was out of time.
She had to find shelter.
Sending a desperate prayer heavenward for her family’s safety, Rita pulled off the freeway exit and scanned the murky chaos ahead for someplace, anyplace, to take shelter.
Something hard slammed into the edge of her car’s roof, making her wheels slip as she wrestled for control. A spark of color caught her eye as the bouquet of flowers she’d set on the passenger seat flew into the air. Her worry about the anonymous flower deliveries and hang-up calls she’d been getting lately seemed so silly compared to the danger she faced now.
Rita shook her head to clear her thoughts and slowed for the intersection that appeared through the curtains of rain.
The power was out. The darkened lights danced frantically on poles that looked as if they might drop on her car at any moment. Water blew sideways in sheets as trees leaned at impossible angles, their leaves and branches in frenzied motion.
In the chaos, Rita could barely make out a handful of darkened buildings. She squinted through the rain, realizing many looked locked down with storm shutters or plywood in place. All the smart people were probably in basements or safe rooms and wouldn’t hear her pounding on a locked door above.
There had to be somewhere to shelter!
Driving slowly, her head pivoting wildly as she searched, a flicker of light up ahead on the left caught her eye. She carefully steered her car through the foot-deep water, hoping to find something open.
Tucked behind a copse of trees stood a low rectangular building with two cars in the parking lot and an iron gate blocking access to the back of the property. Rita could barely make out the words “Auto Repair Shop” on a cheerfully painted red-and-white sign.
From the corner of her eye, a dark shape loomed.
Rita saw the broken metal shed barreling through the air toward her and gunned her car.
A hard jolt clipped the back of her car as the front bolted over the curb in a teeth-jarring shock. Swerving for control, Rita slammed on the brakes and came to a screeching halt just inches from crashing into the building.
Desperate now, Rita reached under the passenger seat and ripped her go-bag free, glad she’d refreshed the food and ammunition in it just last month. Her mom would be proud. She’d been the one to help everyone in the family pack and maintain one.
Barely able to see through her windows, Rita tried to make out the front door of the body shop in the sleeting rain.
It had to be unlocked.
Because she didn’t have any other options if it wasn’t.
Day 1 - 25 August, 3:25 p.m., Warbler Farm, Valley Park, MS
Maria’s breathing was shallow. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but her skin seemed to have taken on a pale white sheen.
His cheerful grin now long gone, Edward’s terrified expression prompted April into action.
She pulled out sterile gauze and bandages and pulled the flashlight from the bathroom counter, angling it so she could see better. “This is going to be painful, but I'm going to do everything I can to stop this bleeding,” she said to Maria in a firm voice.
Maria remained unresponsive for a few seconds before giving a small dip of her head. Biting her lip in concentration, she identified what looked to be a deep laceration and packed sterile materials against the bleed. It would buy some time, but she needed to do something.
“This is going to hurt,” she said as she placed a hand on Maria’s abdomen. “I’m going to massage the uterus to get it to shrink down and slow the bleeding.” She looked up and held Edward’s concerned gaze. “Watch how I do this and keep doing it every few minutes. And make sure your son keeps nursing as long as possible. That helps, too.”
Maria groaned as April pushed down hard, doing her best to force the tired organ to shrink down again.
“How much longer do you think the hurricane will last?” she shouted to Edward. “She’ll do much better in a hospital.”
Edward blanched, glancing down at Maria as he took over for April. “I checked my radio before coming in here. That was about an hour ago. The eye hasn’t passed us yet, but it will soon. It won’t be safe to go out until nightfall, another five or six hours.”
“We don’t have five or six hours,” replied April as she stood and cleaned her hands, her mind putting a crazy plan together. “She could go downhill fast. What about the eye? How long will we have?”
“An hour, max. It will shrink as it moves over land. This is a massive hurricane, bigger than anyone’s ever seen. But the eye will be a brief reprieve before the madness starts all over again.”
April went quiet, listening to the surrounding thunder, the whistle and keening of the massive beast tearing up the Delta. She reached into her bag and pulled out a bottle of Pedialyte. “An hour isn’t enough time to get her to a hospital. I’ll get Doctor Monroe and bring him here.”
“But he’s a veterinarian,” objected Edward, his face twisted in anguish.
“He should still be able to help her, and it’s our only option. He’s only a few minutes’ drive. I can be back before the eye passes.”
April passed the Pedialyte to Edward. “It’s for Maria. She really needs an IV. I wish I had my things . . . why did this have to happen in the middle of a hurricane?” She swallowed her guilt and tried to remain focused.
They both stared at Maria as she drifted in and out of consciousness, her eyes rolling back in her head and her jaw going slack. Edward’s expression told April he knew things were grim. If they didn’t get help soon, Maria might die in front of them.
“Give her sips of the Pedialyte whenever she’s conscious,” said April, drawing in a deep breath to calm her frayed nerves.
The baby was asleep in Maria’s arms, supported by Edward, who continued to cradle her as he worked to tip a bit of the liquid in her mouth, one capful at a time.
April moved to the door, waiting. Hurricane Alpha shrieked around them. The door April leaned against shook as gusts burst under the narrow gap at the floor.
But as the minutes ticked by, the intensity lessened.
“This could be the eyewall coming,” said Edward, his eyes hollow. Maria was still not responding and needed help soon. Feeling helpless, April massaged her abdomen one last time.
They waited a few minutes more until the winds dropped further. “It’s the eye,” said April in the unnatural quiet as she got back to her feet.
“Be careful,” said Edward, locking his gaze on her. His pale blue eyes burned. “You won’t have long.”
An aching pain lodged in her throat and all April could do was nod before she opened the bathroom door. Trembling fingers held the flashlight as she surveyed the destruction of the master bedroom beyond. Splintered furniture littered the floor, and torn, wet clothes clung to every surface.
Stepping carefully over the mess, April hurried into the living room and waited by the front door. At its peak, Hurricane Alpha had ripped several of the reinforced shutters from the house, totally wrecking the interior.
Edward and Maria were not wealthy, and the destruction of their possessions on the eve of the birth of their first child felt painfully cruel.
Choking back the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her, April focused on the view out of the broken window. The wind finally stopped and the light in the room shifted, brightening.
Opening the door, her pickup sat where she’d left it, although the hurricane had stolen her front windshield—a gaping, splintered hole in its place. Sliding into the soaked driver’s seat, she said a quiet prayer and started the engine. The vehicle roared to life.
A flash of panic smacked her as her hand found nothing but empty space when she reached under the passenger seat for her emergency bag, but there was no time to think about its loss. Sitting up, she finally looked around her.
Alpha had flattened every tree in sight. Mighty oaks, torn up and tossed about. The barn, gone. The foal and other animals, nowhere to be seen.
Above her, a mocking, clear blue sky filled a large circular space. But it was just an illusion. All around, a towering, churning eyewall crackled with lightning. It seemed to pulsate with unbridled, violent energy.
Only Maria’s unconscious face gave her the courage to put her foot on the gas and move down the winding drive littered with storm debris. But that’s as far as she got.
The road to Doctor Monroe’s homestead was covered with felled trees, twisted sheet metal and snaking power lines, crushed together by Alpha’s relentless energy. Massive puddles formed where the water in the flooded fields spilled onto the road. Her vehicle would never make it.
Every fiber of her being wanted to run back inside. But a nervous glance at the pulsating eyewall forced her to make a fast decision. If she didn’t go now, Maria would die.
Climbing out of the pickup, April started running. The corn fields that had lined the road only a couple of hours ago were gone, flattened by the powerful fist of Hurricane Alpha and flooded by her unrelenting downpour. A stalk on the ground caught her eye as she ran through several inches of water, the oddly brown leaves standing out against the bright green her brain expected to see.
But there wasn’t time to dwell on the terrible destruction or unusual stalks of corn. The hurricane would return soon. Maria was bleeding out with her new baby in her arms. This was a matter of life or death, including—possibly—April’s own.
As she ran, it dawned on April that with the roads impassable, they wouldn’t be able to get Maria to a hospital until the hurricane had completely passed and a helicopter could airlift her. The thought sent a bolt of determination through her, and April sprinted the rest of the way to the vet’s farm.
The storm had wrecked Dr. Monroe’s property, debris everywhere. But a concrete core had saved his house, and it still stood.
Catching her breath at the top of the drive, the veterinarian’s familiar voice reached her: “Why did you drag me out here? Do you have a death wish? This is a hurricane. The radio said it was the worst that has ever made landfall!”
“Relax, Doc, it’s the eye,” came another, deeper voice. “We have a bit of time. Besides, if this is what I think it is, this will cause way more damage than the storm.”
April shouted the vet’s name as she ran toward the voices. The elderly man emerged in a hurry from around the side of his house, followed closely by his farmhand, Isaac, and a dappled gray hunting dog with a tan and black mask. April registered the fact both men held corn stalks. Browning cornstalks, that seemed to wither before her eyes.
“I tell you, it’s the worst blight I’ve ever seen,” said Isaac, his voice trailing off as he took in April’s appearance. Isaac’s ebony face creased in concern.
She was sure her expression betrayed her terror.
“Please, sir, it’s an emergency,” she gasped out, staring at the veterinarian and trying to slow her breathing and her pounding heart.
“What is it? Are you hurt?” asked the vet. “This storm is crazy, and now Isaac just showed me something troubling going on with the crops. I don’t know what we’re going to do. But we can’t do anything until the hurricane passes. It’s not safe, April. You need to get back home or shelter with us. We just came out for a minute, because Isaac insisted we get a closer look at the crops.”
“It’s Maria Coombs,” said April, her breath still coming out in pants. “She went into labor early, and her little boy was born. He’s fine but she’s got postpartum hemorrhaging. I’ve tried to help her, but I don’t have all of my equipment, and she needs a doctor. Please, she needs your help.”
A cloud passed over the vet’s face as he connected the dots between the medical emergency and inaccessibility of medical care, and he held up his hand. “Just a minute.”
He turned back to Isaac, pushing his glasses further up his nose with a slight tremor in his hand. “Get on the satellite phone. You need to report this blight. Tell Betty I’ll be back once the storm passes.”
The veterinarian disappeared inside and came back with his medical bag. An older man, almost retired, with thick glasses and an arthritic shake, he was the only hero Maria had. Around them, the wind seemed to pick up.
The churning eyewall moved closer. The flashes of lightning that lit up the charcoal monster mesmerized April.
“We better hurry,” shouted Doctor Monroe. “Alpha’s about to make a reappearance!”
Day 1 - 25 August, 3:36 p.m., I-55 north of Jackson, MS
If I don’t move now, I’ll die in here. And I need to get to Mom, Dad and Benji.
With no more reasons to wait, Rita pulled on her door handle . . . and shrieked as the door was ripped from her hands. A huge fist of wind and rain slammed her back into her seat and stole the breath from her lungs.
Fighting to move, Rita tucked her chin, tightened her core and pretended she was in the sparring ring against someone bigger and stronger than she. The focus she’d learned from karate had given her stability and determination during a time in her life when she had none. And being a woman in a male-dominated sport, she was used to being an underdog. She told herself that fighting this storm was nothing new.
With eyes slit almost shut, Rita staggered out of her Ford. She pushed and stumbled her way to the door, grabbing for the handle after long seconds of struggle. If she didn’t get inside, she was going to end up like Dorothy in a second.
The knob turned, but when she pulled, it didn’t open.
Something crashed behind her, and a roar as loud as an oncoming train swelled from her left.
She pulled harder, frantic, her yells swallowed up by the wind.
And then the door was pulled from her hand.
“Get in here, already!”
For a split second, Rita stared in shock at the blurry image of a wiry older man wearing worn coveralls and an impatient frown, who held the door open a crack as he reached for her.
His surprisingly strong grip latched onto her wrist just as a strip of corrugated metal slammed into the brick wall beside the door, rebounding with a vicious clang and disappearing in an instant.
With a burst of terror, Rita leapt forward and scrambled through the small opening he held for her. Once inside, she immediately turned to help him push the door shut against the railing wind. It took their combined weight to manage it.
As the door latched shut, the quiet slammed down with palpable force and the roaring pandemonium stopped in an instant. Rita could still hear the storm raging outside, but it suddenly felt a lot less dangerous. She sagged back against the door.
Peering into the gloomy space, she recognized they stood in some sort of carpeted front office. A dark vending machine was against one wall and vacant chairs were scattered around the repair shop, a few tipped over on their sides. The only light came from an open door leading further into the building.
Instead of relaxing, the older man moved quickly to the side and worked to shove a large wooden desk toward the door.
A noise from the darkness made Rita flinch in surprise as a teenage boy hurried past her to help move the desk.
“Feel free to help us get this in front of the door, lady,” the old man said with a pointed glance her way between grunts of effort.
Rita felt her cheeks flush and hurried to pitch in.
As soon as the desk was flush against the door, the two men moved through the doorway toward the light, waving wordlessly at Rita to follow. Their tight expressions conveyed the urgency of the situation, and she sensed it wouldn’t be safe to stay where she was.
But the reality of being trapped with two strange men ahead of an oncoming hurricane sent a burst of adrenaline spiking through Rita. She adjusted the straps on her backpack and suddenly wished her gun was loaded and accessible instead of secured in its case at the bottom of her bag.
She took a few deep breaths to calm herself before following them.
Not every man is as bad as Anthony, she reminded herself.
The large concrete and brick workspace was full of shadowed vehicles, tools and other shapes she couldn’t make out. A light shone from the center and Rita could hear what sounded like a radio.
Something slammed into one of the metal bay doors to her right with a loud boom, followed by a scraping and a metal screech. Rita picked up her pace and was relieved when she saw a light coming from a sunken repair pit with two heavy trucks parked over the top.
The teenager’s head popped up above the steps leading down to the repair pit. He wore a grin, his wheat-colored hair sticking out in all directions. “Hurry up and get down here where it’s safe. The hurricane’s getting stronger.”
She hurried into the almost cozy space, where a battery powered lantern and an array of radio-type equipment sat on two overturned crates. A mishmash of supplies spread through the available space around the two red-and-white camp chairs, each with a company logo across the back.
The old man looked up from his radio and frowned at her. “What the heck were you doing driving out in that mess? Don’t you know there’s a hurricane tearing up the coast?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but the man didn’t wait for an answer before turning back to his equipment.
“Don’t mind him,” said the boy with a wave of his hand. “He’s just grouchy because he might miss some of his storm data.” He paused and shoved a few items aside with his foot, piled others on top of a case of water bottles and popped open a chair for Rita.
She just stared, soaked to the bone and still a little stunned that she had found somewhere safe to weather the storm.
“I’m Josh,” said the teenager as he motioned toward the chair with a smile.
Rita sank gratefully into it and set her bag securely down between her feet. A wave of weariness washed over her, but she despaired of getting some sleep any time soon.
“And this is my Uncle Walter. We’re the only ones here because everyone else left after the storm warnings, but we don’t have a basement at our house. And Uncle Walter says the repair pit is the safest place to be—”
“Shh!” hissed Walter with a sidelong glance at his nephew. “I’m trying to hear what they’re saying about the hurricane on the radio. It’s hitting all of Jackson and the surrounding areas right now. Western Hills is getting leveled and that’s not far from here.”
The spark of relief and hope Rita felt at finding safety was snuffed out instantly. She could hardly breathe and forced the words out anyway. “Did you say Western Hills?”
Walter turned and when he saw her face, a hint of compassion softened his expression as he nodded.
Rita fumbled with the zipper, drew out her phone and dialed her family’s numbers, one after the other, with shaking fingers.
In the background, she heard Walter cycling through stations, reporters calling out information in increasingly tense voices. She heard city names being listed from up and down both coasts, wind speeds, wave sizes, and even initial death tolls.
None of it really mattered to her as she frantically called the three most important numbers in her world. She prayed one of them would answer. Were they still alive?
They had to be.
“Is that you, Rita?”
Rita almost dropped the phone in shock as she heard her father’s familiar voice crackle and spurt out of the small speaker. She could even hear Toby’s warning barks in the background.
“Dad?” she almost yelled as her eyes stung with emotion. “Are you okay? What about Mom and Benji? Are you in the storm cellar? Has the hurricane reached you?”
“. . . and Benji hurt his leg . . . in the basement . . . door blocked . . . bringing tools from garage down . . . are you . . .”
A frustrating spat of static poured out of the phone as Rita gripped it tightly against her ear and willed the connection to hold.
“I’m safe, Dad, sheltering in a body shop until the storm is over,” she said, almost shouting at the phone as her tears spilled over. “I love you. Tell Mom and Benji I love them. Please stay safe. Please.”
Rita looked around, desperate to do something, anything. She barely registered both Josh and Walter staring at her with silent sympathy.
The phone crackled again, jerking Rita’s attention back to it.
“. . . Danielle!” her dad yelled her mother’s name in panic. Then she heard a loud crack followed by a barrage of crashing booms and Toby barking. A heart-rending scream burst from the phone, making Rita jerk the phone away from her ear.
“Mom!” she yelled at the phone, pressing it close again. “Dad!”
And then the call terminated, mid-scream, her phone suddenly silent in the makeshift storm shelter beneath broken-down trucks.
Small shocked pants huffed in and out of Rita’s lungs.
The next words from the radio barely registered past her panic and grief.
“The initial reports of destruction are staggering. Experts are predicting these storms will cover an unprecedented amount of the coastline, with their inland reach, as yet, unknown.”
“It’s too soon to speculate how long it will take for these areas to recover from such destruction.”
Day 1 - 25 August, 4:07 p.m., River Homestead, Valley Park, MS
“You need to hurry if you want to make it to Edward’s place before the storm picks up again.” Isaac shaded his eyes with one hand as he stared at the churning eye wall closing in on them. “Don’t let this calm fool you. She’ll be back before you know it.”
April’s stomach flipped, and she knew Isaac was right. She and the doctor needed to hurry if they were going to risk heading back to Edward and Maria’s farm before the hurricane passed.
The eyewall was bearing down on them at frightening speed.
Picturing Maria bleeding on the bathroom floor with her innocent babe in arms, her husband's desperate face watching the door for her return, wedged a hard lump in April’s throat.
“Make sure you call about that blight,” said Doctor Monroe as he cast a worried glance at the fast-moving eyewall.
Isaac nodded, looking as if he wanted to help but didn’t know what to do.
Despite the circumstances, Doctor Monroe seemed unfazed; a weathered rock who had seen enough to know that even the worst storms would pass, eventually.
The doctor rummaged through his large black medical bag and then gave a curt nod as though he had what he needed. Looking just behind Isaac, he whistled a single sharp note. “Come, Scrumpy.”
A black-and-tan face appeared behind Isaac’s legs, the dog’s body tense and ready. Doctor Monroe whistled once more, and the dog bounded to his master’s side. Doctor Monroe turned his attention to April. “Are the roads blocked?”
“Blocked and flooded. We have to go on foot.” April looked the veterinarian up and down. He was strong and fit for his age, but still pushing eighty, and she felt a pang of worry. Would he even be able to make it? “We’ll have to run.”
He brushed it off with a wave of his hand. “You came just in time. I was feeling claustrophobic down there in that safe room, and my legs needed a stretch.” The doctor smiled, and before April could reply, he strode toward the road.
April raised a hand to Isaac, who stood in the doorway. The concrete core had saved the house itself, but the shutters hung askew, some torn away by the blistering winds and portions of the roof caved in.
Her eyes paused on the empty space where Betty had nurtured a rose garden that once ran the length of the verandah. April felt bad for the veterinarian’s wife, sheltering in their small safe room, unaware that the hurricane had stolen all the plants away, leaving nothing but debris, garbage and piles of twisted, unidentifiable metal and felled branches where once pale pink and deep red flowers bloomed.
Isaac raised a hand to his short afro. A salute to their bravery, perhaps. As he dropped his hand, his worried expression intensified the anxious tightening in April’s chest.
April glanced longingly back at the house that was circled, momentarily at least, by an oasis of blue sky. A small part of her brain urged her to shelter there until the eyewall passed. Her old self-preservation instinct had kicked in, the one that told her to look out for herself first because it was a hard-luck world, and no one else would look out for her.
Sometimes she had to remind herself that she was no longer that scared little girl wondering if her mother would come home, and if she came home, whether she’d be sober enough to remember to buy food for her and Max.
With a final pang, she tore her eyes from the veterinarian’s house and hurried after Doctor Monroe.
The doctor surprised her as he’d already reached the end of the drive, maneuvering himself around obstacles with relative ease. As she watched, he climbed over one of the massive trunks that lay toppled as though some tempestuous goddess had enjoyed bowling them over like pins in a fit of spite.
Increasing her stride, she caught up to him, and they continued in silence for a few minutes, both breathing heavily. April tried not to think about the fact that the wind was picking up and hurricane Alpha’s gigantic, hungry wall edged ever closer. It was a world destroying storm: a soul sucking, home crushing monster, and it was coming for them.
“Can you tell me about Maria?” asked the doctor, his eyes on where he stepped as he carefully navigated the debris in the road.
April swallowed against a dry throat. “She’s not well. She was drifting in and out of consciousness when I left.”
She retold the events of Maria’s delivery, reliving each painful detail as she filled in the veterinarian. She couldn’t help but wonder if she had made a misstep somewhere. Not having her IV equipment was a major mistake, but in the circumstance—running to an emergency call as a massive hurricane made landfall—was it an excusable one? She hoped so.
Doctor Monroe seemed to process her words as they approached a dip in the road that steadily filled with water from the drowned field beside them. What was left of the corn crop was either submerged or scattered all around them, floating on the surface of the growing body of water. Brown leaves mottled by the blight caught her eye.
A large puddle had covered the road when she first passed, but the water levels were rising at an alarming rate as the hurricane continued to dump water all around them. Each drop sought the path of least resistance downhill to join the growing floodwaters.
The obstacle in front of them was already twenty yards wide and at least a few feet deep based on the tips of the waist-high bushes she recognized now barely above the water.
“We’ll have to go through that,” said April. “There’s no way around.”
A gust of wind raced over her, whipping her hair into a frenzy around her face.
Scrumpy barked and sniffed the edge of the water. It was brown and murky, churning with mud and vegetation and who knows what else.
“Come on, girl,” said Doctor Monroe, stepping into the water. It rose up to his knees and got deeper with every step.
There was something about putting her feet into a body of water where she couldn’t see the bottom that stirred up primal fears. As her foot hovered over the surface, behind her the wind blasted again.
It occurred to her that compared to what was coming, the murky floodwaters were nothing but an inconvenience.
April gritted her teeth and splashed through the water, her sneakers and the bottom half of her jeans soaked through by the time she got to the other side.
Edward’s house wasn’t far now.
As they rounded the last corner, rubble and wreckage obscured the driveway. The sweet red letterbox was long gone, but the house itself was visible on the top of the slope to their left. Like the doctor, Edward had built on the highest land on his property to protect against the flooding that frequently plagued the Delta.
A large piece of sheet metal on the road lifted with the next powerful gust of wind. Fear sent a frigid chill down April’s spine.
Instead of letting up, the wind intensified.
All the pieces of their old lives that Alpha tore off, shredded and dumped, were now shuffling and moving as though they were living parts of the storm.
“It’s almost on us,” shouted the doctor, the wind snatching his words away immediately. “Don’t look back, just run.”
He was already huffing as he jogged up the driveway. He leaned against the wind and held one shaking hand to his face, shielding his eyes from the onslaught. Despite his advice not to look back, April couldn’t help it.
What she saw stole the breath right out of her lungs, and she staggered backward, tripping over a tangled cable.
The eyewall was so close; it felt as though she could reach out and touch it.
Its scale was beyond anything she’d ever seen. It was taller and wider than the biggest building. No longer an abstract churning gray, the eyewall pulsated with electrifying energy and ferocity. It almost seemed to pull her forward, closer to it. Alpha wanted her.
“April,” shouted the doctor, jolting her out of her shock. “Get moving. Now!”
Spurred on by the urgency in his voice and the howling, keening winds that rushed her up the driveway, April sprinted the rest of the way to safety.
She passed her pickup and overtook the doctor just as they reached what used to be the front garden.
Looking at the house from the outside, she finally saw the extent of the damage already inflicted by the storm. One of the impact-resistant shutters had been torn away, the glass shattered. Others creaked and groaned as the wind tried to pry them off the wall.
April shouldered the front door open as she ran into the living room, Scrumpy racing ahead of her and the doctor coming in behind, pulling the door closed against the wind.
The animal had a crazed look in her eyes when she came to a stop outside the bathroom. Edward opened the bathroom door just as they reached it. Relief tightened his face as he saw them, and emotion rippled through him.
“You came,” Edward said, his voice thick as he stared at Doctor Monroe.
“Of course,” replied the doctor. “How could I not?”
Edward’s eyes widened as he looked past the doctor through the broken window at the dark behemoth bearing down on them. “It’s about to start again?” He sounded like a man on the very edge of what he could endure.
“It’s already started,” replied the doctor, pushing past Edward to stand in the doorway. For a second, he paused, as though assessing Maria. The harsh light of the flashlight inside the bathroom lit up the doctor’s features, revealing each wrinkle in startling clarity.
“April, get the baby,” said the doctor.
“Don’t waste time. We need to get them both into the basement.”
“But can we move her?” objected Edward.
“We don’t have time to argue,” said the doctor, his voice calm despite the tremor in his hands. “The house is already weakened. Alpha could take everything above ground on her second run through.”
Remembering her previous regret at not getting Maria into the basement, April pushed past the doctor and sidestepped to Maria. Edward had wrapped the baby snuggly in a towel and he slept peacefully on the floor beside Maria, who could be sleeping too but for her unnatural pallor and shallow, rapid breathing.
April froze, an internal demon pinning her arms to her side, not allowing her to scoop up the baby.
“Now, April. Move,” came the doctor’s voice behind her, urging her on and helping her break free. Picking the baby up, she backed out of the bathroom, grabbing the flashlight as she passed. Stepping into the hallway, April stumbled sideways as a fierce wind heavy with rain slammed into her.
“Go downstairs,” shouted Edward. “Get him into the basement.”
“Where’s the basement?”
“End of the hallway, turn right. Down the stairs.” Edward had his back to her already, hands lifting Maria’s legs. The doctor groaned as he picked up Maria’s hands. His arms were shaking from the strain, but the two men managed to shuffle out of the bathroom with Maria suspended between them.
“Run!” shouted Edward. “Get the baby somewhere safe.”
Fighting off her rising panic, April sprinted down the hallway with the baby held tightly in both arms.
She found the heavy basement door and hauled it open to reveal the pitch-black interior. Piercing the blackness with her flashlight, she jogged down the stairs. Even though it was dark and dank, the wailing of the hurricane seemed quieter, the shrieks unable to carry through the earth and reinforced walls.
Behind her, Alpha slammed the door shut with a resounding bang.
Once she reached the bottom, she spun, careful of the baby still asleep against her chest. No one followed her down the stairs. Scanning the space, her light played over row upon row of cans and jars that lined every wall.
Hurry up, she thought, her eyes moving back to the darkened doorway at the top of the stairs. This food will be no good to you if you're good.
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