A short story by
Stephen R. Bonniol
Author's note: The following work of fiction is based on two actual events; the nest of waterspouts I witnessed at the height of Hurricane Irma, and the glowing man witnessed by a family I once knew, in the aftermath of Hurricane Jean in Palm Coast FL.-SRB
9/11/17 3:33 AM Bunnell, FL
Neil McDonough took one last look at the outside world before evacuating to his tornado “safe space”. He had spent the previous day and part of the day before glued to local weather coverage recording the deadly advance of Hurricane Irma. As she roared through the Caribbean islands, she left a trail of devastation and at least two dozen dead. She had 185 mile per hour winds and was almost off the chart of a category 5 hurricane. She was the largest hurricane to develop in the Atlantic basin since records had been kept. She was, quite frankly, a dangerous killer. She was roughly four times the size of Andrew, which had left a track of devastation across southern Florida. Neil had visions of a post Irma Florida, swept clean to the cement floors of homes where people had lived and thrived only days before. For the past several hours he had been watching the deadly storm closing in on him. The tornado warnings had been part of his life that night, seeming to be constant. His area was under a tornado watch and had been, for the last twelve hours. That wasn't that disconcerting. That just meant the conditions existed for a tornado to spawn. But when the warnings started; meaning tornadoes had been either spotted or indicated by radar, that he began to get nervous. He himself had been spawned in Rhode Island and tornadoes were cool things he watched on the discovery channel. It was when he heard that warning tone we all grew up with; the loud, annoying tone that often interrupted our TV programming, that he began to get terrified. This time the voice didn't inform that this was a required monthly test. This time the stern, authoritarian voice informed him that “MULTIPLE TORNADOES ARE ON THE GROUND AND HEADING WEST AT THIRTY-FIVE MPH”. This was right toward his very location! The voice further ordered him to “SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY IN AN INSIDE ROOM OR BATHROOM”. “What the Hell!” he thought. This was not the audible warnings on the weather Channel, nor was it the live announcements he had been glued to on WESH2. This was the goddamn Government! This was how they told you, or would tell you of a nuclear or terrorist attack. The wind outside was now howling like hounds from hell. It whistled as the tremendous force sought to tear the roof off so that it might find him. The wind wailed with the sounds of a million lost souls, begging, beseeching. The eye wall was a mere thirty miles away, roughly two hours. Neil had a feeling he had waited way too long to seek shelter. He had even heard, on a couple of occasions a loud rumbling, almost like a freight train, and a different sound in the wind. It was sort of like the familiar “whump, whump, whump” of a helicopter rotor. He knew it was a tornado. He should run, but instead he sat still, frozen to his chair, unable to move, next to a vulnerable window. He jerked himself back to reality, pulling the curtain aside for one last look at a world he might not see for quite some time. He did not know when, or if, he would ever see it again. He had tried all day to ignore the distinct possibility that he might die tonight.
And now as he looked out of the window, he witnessed an amazing sight. The rain was blowing horizontally like a wall of water. But in addition to that, there was something else. There were a dozen or so, tall columns of water and cloud vapor. They were like mini tornadoes. Each of them no more than a foot wide, reaching high into the sky, dancing side to side like some hula girls of death. He thought he must be seeing things or that they were some sort of rain anomaly, but he noticed that whenever they would reach a puddle of rain, they would suck the water up like a vacuum cleaner and become a visible waterspout. There were ten of them now and they danced this way and that, some of them coming straight at him, before veering away at the last minute. It was almost like they were intelligent, and knew that if they interacted with a building, they would be torn apart. As he watched in fascination, he saw one of the larger waterspouts absorb a few of the smaller ones and began heading straight for him. Alarm bells started sounding in his brain. Thoughts of “RUN! RUN! RUN!” were overruled by feelings of sheer awe at what he was witnessing. He sat there, his nails digging into the cushioned arm rests of his chair, his legs cocked like two springs, ready to bounce him into the imagined safety of the bathroom; unable to do anything but watch. It came to him and seemed to pause not five feet away, almost as if studying it's intended prey before pouncing. He watched as it assaulted his windows with all the force of a fire hose. He heard it battering the underside of the roof awning, as it sought a way to tear the roof off and get to him. The sound it made was not the ominous freight train sound of a tornado. Its was more of a whooshing, sucking sound, very similar to the sound of the wet and dry shop vacs most men had near their work benches or in their sheds. He felt quite sure he was about to die. Then it backed up a bit, almost as if it possessed some sort of intelligence, and knew that it couldn't get Neil - yet. It moved off to the right, out of his limited field of vision.
And then, almost as if they were playing follow the leader, they seemed to gather into a single file line, and one by one, they headed to the far end of the building, before lifting up and over the building and disappearing in a westerly direction. It was then, with a loud “THUM” the power went out for good. Neil sat there in shock, not believing what he had just seen. As he scanned the pitch black, stormy darkness in both directions, his eyes spotted faint light coming from somewhere on the other side of the Marathon station. He thought at first it might be glow from a nearby traffic signal. Some of them had battery back up. But this was a constant color, not alternating red, green and amber. This was a faint, steady green; not the green that says “GO”, but the green that says “BOO!” This was the phosphorescent green of a Halloween glow-stick. For a few minutes, the howling of the winds outside; the ongoing whistling of a crazy freight train were relegated to the back of his brain, beyond his consciousness. He kept his eye on this strange glow, which appeared to be moving. When he had first spotted it, it had been over near the Sunoco sign. Now it appeared to be lighting up the underside of the big awning at the Marathon station. It was very bright now; the whole area bathed in day-glo green. Then he saw it.
It was a man, but this was no ordinary man. People were not green; nor do they glow in the dark. It stood there now, adjacent to the corner of the building, as if scanning the area for any signs of life. It almost seemed as if it spotted him. For an instant Neil sensed an annoying buzz between his ears, as it began walking toward him. Neil began drumming his feet nervously as he watched this strange being approach him. He could see that he appeared to be dressed in some sort of uniform or suit. When he got closer, Neil could make out that he wore the coat and hat of an eighteenth century sea captain. He could see he sported a neatly groomed mustache and beard. When he was about ten feet away, Neil stood, and went to open the door, as if he was greeting an old friend. When he opened his door, he was in for another surprise. There was a cacophony of voices everywhere. Or more accurately, it sounded as if the faint, barely audible buzz or mumbling, of ongoing conversations was everywhere, in the very air and wind of the storm. He stepped outside into the raging hissy fit of nature and was nearly bowled over by the wind. He grabbed onto one of the ornamental wrought iron awning supports, and just stared, slack-jawed, at the approaching phantom. When it was no more than two feet away, it opened it's mouth as if to speak. What Neil heard instead of any sort of speech, was an odd mix of echoing, stretched out, distorted sounds, that would confound Hendrix. These were mixed in with vocal snippets, screams, and unearthly howling of creatures he had no knowledge of; nor would he want to. In the midst of such haunted, terrifying sounds, he was able to distinguish two words; “Jacob” and a few moments later, “Galveston”.
Anyone with even a remote interest in hurricanes, has no doubt heard of the great Galveston hurricane of September 8, 1900, a category 4 storm that had destroyed Galveston Island, Texas with 145 mile winds, killing anywhere between six thousand and twelve thousand people. When the surviving populace had finally gotten their wits about them in the aftermath, they had ferried the dead into the Gulf of Mexico for burial at sea. They were flummoxed and horrified, when a few days later, the now rotting dead began washing up on shore. The stench of the dead was totally overwhelming, leaving the survivors no choice but to incinerate the deceased in massive beach-side bonfires.
“You from Galveston?” was all Neil could manage to yell in the midst of the increasingly loud, unearthly howling of the storm winds. Neil almost didn't recognize the sound of his own voice. It sounded more like a Clint Eastwood-esque growl than his normal voice. He thought maybe it had to do with the extreme low pressure of the storm.
The man just stared back at Neil, uttering nothing, but instead raising his arms into the swirling air as if to inquire, “What the hell is all this?” Neil could think of nothing to do but extend a hand to the man, or spirit, or whatever it was. The minute he did so, Neil regretted his polite gesture. Suppose the being took hold of his outstretched, earthbound hand. What then? Would they both “bounce” to another dimension; another time? Maybe he'd be electrocuted or something. He was relieved when the man reached out, but instead of shaking his hand, he dropped something into it. Neil saw that it was a silver dollar. It too was green; as green as the ocean depths.
The winds were shrieking now, cursing him, assaulting him with their fury, merely for being a living, breathing being. A sustained gust of wind attacked him and would have knocked him off his feet, had he not grabbed the wrought iron support with one hand, all the while keeping the silver dollar clasped tightly in the other. He felt his skin being blown, stretched back on his face. His flesh hurt from the constant fusillade of rain, which were more like bullets than any sort of precipitation. In the background of his cluttered consciousness, Neil became aware that the horrendous winds were increasing as the innermost bands of the maelstrom approached the parking lot. It became clear to him that he was standing at the edge of a man-made wind trap. The building he stood in front of was a structure in the shape of a giant “C”. Across the parking lot stood a restaurant and to the left a gas station. These structures effectively corralled the winds which entered the right side of the parking lot and had no place to go but to follow the perimeter of the parking lot, in a gigantic oval of ever-increasing wind speeds. He was standing at the edge of a giant tornado enhancer!
Beyond this strange, glowing phantom, there was now a sheer wall of horizontally blown rain. His ears were assaulted with an obscenely loud whistling, more like the sound of some crazy train whistle, than any wind he had ever heard, even in the midst of a New England blizzard. It looked now, like the entire parking lot was filled with one large waterspout. He could hear it scouring the parking lot like some street sweeper from hell. The wind now, was more like the mournful wail of a million disembodied voices screaming in unison, “OHHHHHHHHH NOOOOOOOOOO!” Neil had a sense that he might be living his last moments, yet he was powerless to move.
And then a sight began unfolding in front of him; something that surpassed all of the amazing things he had seen up to this point. The screaming wall of water behind the glowing man, opened, almost like curtains, or a doorway. Neil could see a strange calmness in the middle of the killing winds. He felt his ears popping over and over again. He saw clearly now, as a look of recognition, or perhaps reservation, came over the ghostly, glowing sea captain. Neil stood there, drenched with rain, realizing for the first time, that his own clothing was now in tatters. Not even realizing he was doing it, he snapped the man a military salute. His mouth hung open as the man touched his hat in return, before turning and walking through the strange, watery doorway. A sudden change came upon the parking lot. The wind was suddenly quieter now, almost as if it was far away. He could hear the scrubbing, brushing noises, as this now singular, massive waterspout, receded a bit, toward the middle of the parking lot. That was odd enough, but this devil's vortex now glowed with the same eerie green as the sea captain had been. He watched in a state of almost catatonic shock, as the enormous sky-borne vortex, tightened, shrinking in size, before lifting off into the sky. In the sudden silence, he heard the government alert warning him that “TORNADOES HAVE BEEN SPOTTED IN BUNNELL MOVING WEST. SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY” He could see and hear more wind and rain approaching, so he went to his bathtub, and covered himself up with anything he could think of, before exhaustion and adrenaline crash finally took him and he fell asleep.
He awoke approximately two hours later. It was the silence that seemed to wake him. He lay there in the tub, realizing that, yes, he was alive, and yes, the storm had passed. Pushing the coverings off him, he took stock of his immediate surroundings. There was still a ceiling above him, which he was thankful for. One of the last things he remembered before falling asleep was feeling and hearing, a strong breeze in the room before he had crashed last night. He had thought the roof was about to fly off. He eased himself out of the tub and walked slowly toward the door, not knowing what sights awaited him. He opened the door, relieved to see no sign of building destruction as he had feared. There was, however, something almost magical that had taken place. The walls of all the buildings had changed. At first he thought the paint had been scoured off the building across from where he stood, but then he checked his own building, which was unpainted brick. Looking closer, he saw that the walls were covered with bits of shattered coral, sea shells, sponges; even live starfish, and smaller fish, still wiggling weakly. As he moved his gaze, Neil spotted something on the ground where he had been standing during the storm. It was a shiny Spanish gold coin dated 1780.
Among those seafaring nations that have plied their trade in the Caribbean Sea for the last five hundred years, there is a legend that says that occasionally, in those thankfully rare, once in a human lifetime storms, the lost remains of past shipwrecks are stirred up, disturbing the final resting places of sailors lost upon the stormy seas. It's been said that this will occasionally stir the souls of lost sea captains, who will prowl the land for brief periods of time - emissaries of their long lost crews that slumber beneath the waves. They will do this, it is told, until some such force can bring them back to their watery resting places.
9/11/17 & 11/3/17
© 2017 Stephen R Bonniol