D. A. Ratliff – The Boat

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The Boat

By D. A. Ratliff

“Boys, come help me.”

Olivia Carter raised the hatch on her SUV and began to collect the bags of groceries from the back. Her sons, Micah and Elias, popped out of the kitchen door into the garage. Eli lowered the garage door to block the driving rain spilling out of the first strong feeder band from Hurricane Anna.

Grabbing the bags from her, Micah grinned. “Geez, Mom, did you leave any food for anyone else?”

“No one else has kids like you two that eat so much. Luckily, the store still had lots of food and water left.”

He nodded. “I guess since the storm is only going to pass by just off the coast, no one panicked except us.”

“Funny boy. It’s the beginning of hurricane season, might as well stock up now.”

She and Eli followed Micah into the kitchen with the other bags. As she put the food into the storage bins to keep it dry, the boys brought in the water she had bought.

“Mom, there’s enough food and water here for the neighborhood.” Eli grimaced as he and his brother carried two cases of water each into the kitchen. “There are eight more cases out there.”

“That’s the idea. Your dad knows a lot of people don’t realize how long power could be off. He wants to be sure we can help them. Even the fire station might need water.”

Micah ripped open a box of granola bars and took a couple out. “We got all the shutters closed, and all the outside stuff in the shed, and the grill is on the lanai. Drained a few feet of water from the pool and shut off the pump. The generators are full of gas, and we moved them out on the pad with the covers still on, and the cords are ready. Dad called while you were gone. Said it looks like the storm is staying offshore, but he wants Eli and me to go check on the boat.”

“Did he say when the main feeder bands were going to get here?”

“Not until about four p.m. when the winds began to kick up.” He yelled for Eli. “So we’re going to go now.”

“That is only three hours. You come right back.”

“We will.” Eli pointed to the back yard. “Pete’s outside on the lanai, thought he’d like to stay out as long as he can.” Both boys kissed her on the cheek and took off.

She wanted all the clothes in the house clean in case they lost power and had just put the last load of clothes in the dryer when Micah called. “Mom, Jose at the dock asked us to help him. He’s got a boat stranded about a half-mile offshore, and he needs it towed in. Won’t take us long and then we’ll be straight home.”

“Micah, I really wish you would come straight home.”

“Mom, it’s okay. There’s a family on board, engine died. They’ve been out there for a while. Just a quick trip out and back.”

Unease crept into her thoughts, but she pushed it aside. Her sons were smart, and they had been boating since they were small. They could handle themselves.

Olivia busied herself getting the last of the laundry folded, then reviewed the checklist her husband had made for them when they moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida from Buffalo. She always teased him about being a Boy Scout, but he had been a firefighter for so long that preparation was second nature to him. She and the boys had managed to accomplish everything they needed to do to prepare. She took the clean clothes and towels they might need and put them into a large plastic storage bin. If water came into the house, they would at least have dry clothes and clean towels.

She decided to bake oatmeal raisin cookies for the boys, all three of them. Entering the kitchen, she flipped on the TV before heading to the pantry. As she opened the door, one of the local weather forecaster’s words stopped her cold.

“We just received an emergency update from the National Hurricane Center. Aircraft flying through the storm report that the pressure is dropping more rapidly than expected. In fact, faster than we have ever seen. The storm was a low Cat 1 on the last fly-through. While the Hurricane Center hasn’t released the numbers yet, it appears this storm has strengthened to a possible strong Cat 3. Steering winds are changing and folks, this is beginning to look bad.”

The news anchor for the station responded. “We are expecting a message from the governor within a few minutes. Everyone, we suspect that this hurricane is going to come closer to shore and be at least a Cat 3. We cannot emphasize enough that this is now a highly dangerous storm that will impact us more than we expected. Please make your preparations now and get to a shelter if possible or to your home as quickly as you can.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when her phone rang. It was Dan, her husband.

“Baby, this storm is getting worse. I want you and the boys to stay put, too late to go to a shelter so …”

“Dan, stop. The boys … they’re out on the boat.”

“What? What are they doing on the water? They were supposed to check the moorings and come straight home. I told them not to stay there.”

“A family was stranded about a half-mile from the dock. They were the only ones with a boat able to get to them. Micah said they’d be home as soon as they got the family onshore.” Her voice trembled. “Dan …”

Her husband’s calm voice echoed in her ears. “Liv, they’ll be fine. Both are level-headed, they won’t take any chances.” He paused, and she knew he was trying to stay composed. “This storm is going out of control. I am going to notify the Coast Guard to look for the boat. I am sure they are back at the dock by now.” She heard someone yell his name. “I’ve got to go. Keep listening to the weather, and I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Don’t worry about the boys. They’ll be okay.”

Dan ended the call and tears spilled down her cheeks. She knew him too well. He was worried. So was she.

The howling wind was becoming stronger, the rain pelting against the metal hurricane shutters. She hurried to the lanai to let Pete inside, then pulled the metal shutters across the wide sliding glass door, secured them and locked the doors. The golden retriever brushed against her as if he knew she was upset. Olivia knelt and hugged Pete. “They’re going to be okay, Pete. I promise.”

She needed to keep busy. The boys would want cookies when they got home. Returning to the kitchen she started the cookie batter, the TV on and the laptop monitor tuned to the security camera on the front door. She wanted to know the minute when the boys arrived.

The storm predictions were becoming ominous. The pressure was dropping and the winds increasing. A storm which was supposed to be passing them by with a glancing blow was becoming a serious threat. Olivia packed the cookies into a plastic container and put it with the other food and cleaned up the kitchen. Coffee in hand, she and Pete curled up on the couch to watch the weather reports.

The storm had stalled just south of them, gaining strength. The weather experts at the Hurricane Center had no idea what was going to happen next. Her mother and Dan’s father called to check on them. The storm’s erratic behavior had everyone on edge. She tried to call Dan at the city emergency center, but the call went to voice mail.

Pete snuggled closer to her and whimpered. She scratched his head and sighed. “We’ll be okay. All of us.”

As rain once again plummeted the house, Olivia jumped when her phone rang. She answered without looking. “Micah? Eli?”

“No, baby, sorry.” The pain in her husband’s voice ripped through her heart.

“Dan, no …”

“I don’t know anything. The Coast Guard tried to locate them, but they couldn’t keep the helos in the air. The storm is far too strong. We know the boys. They’re smart. They would have seen how the weather was deteriorating and headed for shelter.”

“I’m scared.”

“I am too, but let’s have faith in them. Now listen, we received a warning from the hurricane center that the storm may turn toward shore. It’s stalled right now and continues to gain strength. If it hits here, you are six blocks inland and shouldn’t get caught in the storm surge if we have one. I need you to stay calm. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Baby, I love you.”

She gripped the phone so hard her hand began to cramp. “I love you. Stay safe there.”

“I will. And the boys … I feel it in my soul. They’re okay.”

The grandfather clock in the foyer chimed five times, and her heart fluttered. Her sons had been gone since one p.m. with no word. As the minutes ticked away, she stared mindlessly at the TV barely comprehending what the cable weather team was saying. She switched the TV to the local station, which was broadcasting from the city emergency center, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dan. His job during a storm emergency was to coordinate damage reports and plan deployment of all fire rescue teams so they could begin search-and-recovery operations once the storm passed. When the emergency weather broadcast alert blared from the set, she and Pete jumped. Her heart thumping in her chest, she wrapped her arms around the dog as she listened.

The National Hurricane Center has issued a hurricane warning for the southwest coast of Florida. As of five forty-seven pm, Hurricane Anna is now a Category-3 storm with sustained winds of 121 mph and pressure at 956 millibars. Storm is eight miles offshore, moving rapidly at 12 mph and beginning to track to the east-northeast and is expected to turn due east and reach landfall somewhere between Siesta Key and Venice around eight pm this evening.

Her blood turned to ice as the emergency broadcast ended. All she could think of was her sons somewhere in the middle of a hurricane. Dan had to be right, the boys had to be safe. Micah and Eli had learned to drive a boat by spending a lot of time on Lake Erie with Dan and his father. That they knew what to do wasn’t a concern. The power of the storm was, and she was scared.

For the next hour, she sat curled on the couch with Pete watching the endless loop of radar as the storm began to turn. Rain beat against the metal hurricane shutters covering all the windows and doors of the house, incessant drumming sounding the same pinging thud. Wind gusts were stronger with each feeder band that came through.

The intense rain let up for a bit, but the wind was relentless. The howling wind was becoming more persistent. Sitting inside her closed-up house, she could sense the barometric pressure dropping, or was it the fear growing within her that weighed so heavily on her chest. She didn’t fear the storm but what her sons were facing. She prayed Dan was right and they had found shelter.

As the torrential rain returned, another weather alert sounded. The storm had turned due east. They were going to take a direct hit. Seconds after the alert ended, the power went off. Using her phone’s flashlight to light the way, she grabbed her laptop from the couch.

“Come on, Pete. Time to go hide.”

When they bought the house, Dan was more excited about the large interior walk-in closet nestled at the end of the hallway than any other feature. He thought it was perfect as a place to keep his family safe. She opened the door and turned on the camping lantern sitting on a shelf. The floor was padded with cot mattresses and pillows, the boxes of food and clothes to get them through the storm stacked in the corner. An audible sob spilled from her, and she sank to her knees. Her sons were supposed to be there, and they weren’t. The closet was too empty.

Pete pawed at her arm, and she rubbed the dog’s head. “No worries, big guy, I will keep you safe.”

She closed and locked the door and opened the vent in the ceiling that Dan had installed to keep fresh air circulating in the closet. Settling on the floor, back against a pillow and Pete snuggled beside her, they began to wait.

A constant stream of storm updates floated from the battery radio but as the eye of the hurricane grew near, the wind was howling so loudly Olivia could barely hear the voices. A constant roar filled the room, coupled with the torrential rains pounding against the house. The bad side of the storm with the winds at their peak was wreaking havoc. The house creaked and moaned as it withstood the wrath of Anna.

Olivia felt as though she was being compressed. Pressure was building in her sinuses, and she felt dizzy. Pete whimpered. No doubt he was feeling the same effects that she was. She slid down to lay next to him, wrapping her arms around him. The emotions she had tried to keep in check couldn’t be contained. Sobs racked her body as the pain of not knowing where Micah and Eli were overwhelmed her.

The boat. That damn boat. Dan had spent months looking for a seaworthy boat that they could afford. He knew how much the boys loved being on the water, but he had wanted them to be safe. Her heart felt like lead, each heartbeat a struggle. They shouldn’t have bought the boat. Now her sons were missing, and it was their fault. She pounded the floor with her fist, crying uncontrollably. They shouldn’t have bought the boat.

Sensing her fear, Pete pushed against her, placing his head on her lap. She hugged him tightly. “They have to be okay, Pete. They have to be.”

The storm raged for another hour violently. Over the roar of the wind and rain, occasionally she heard a loud crack, certain one of the tall palms in the neighborhood had fallen. She wondered if Eli’s car, parked as close to the house was damaged. Throughout the night, the winds calmed, and about three am she fell asleep.

A scratching noise woke her. Pete was standing at the door, looking back at her. She glanced at her phone, a little after six am. Should be light outside.

She stood up and scratched Pete behind the ears. “Bet you need to go out … I will let you in the garage if there is one.”

Walking through the house, she decided to see if she could call Dan since she had a couple of bars. Despite being frightened about what she might learn if she talked to him, she needed to hear his voice.

His phone rang, and as he answered, Pete ran toward the front door. “Liv, you okay?”

“I’m fine … the boys?”

“Open the door, I’m outside.”

Her hands trembled as she unlocked the door. When she opened it she stepped back seeing Dan in the doorway, a huge grin on his face. “You know these two, baby?”

He stepped out of the way and her knees buckled as Micah and Eli entered the house.

Eli grabbed her. “Mom, we were worried about you.”

Through tears, she replied. “Worried about me? I was so scared for you guys.”

Micah hugged her. “Yeah, Mom, we hated leaving you here alone. Glad you are okay.”

“I am glad you are okay. What happened? Where were you?”

Her oldest son smiled. “Winds and the waves were getting rough. That family was on vacation, had rented the boat for the morning. Eli checked the motor … no oil, so the engine seized. We tried to tie a rope to it, but the waves were too high. So, we got the family aboard and left that piece of junk there. But the waves were getting wicked and the rain and wind horrible. Got the family in the cabin and since we were up the coast a bit, we decided to head directly to shore.”

Eli interrupted. “When we got to the shore, I realized where we were. Remember where I was a lifeguard last summer?” Olivia nodded, and Eli continued. “The county has a main water pump station there, a big one. I’d been in it when the water company dudes were there working. Sturdy concrete building — door facing away from the water. I figured we’d be safe there. Lucky for us, the door wasn’t locked. When the storm let up, Micah left and found a police officer. She said they were looking for us and took us to Dad and the family to their hotel.”

Micah laughed. “For once, little brother was right. And Mom, the boat … we drove it up on shore and tied it to some palms. Came through like a trooper and in all that weather, she got us to safety.

Looking toward her husband, she saw tears in his eyes, mimicking hers. Their boys were safe. Not a bad boat after all.

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Please visit D. A. Ratliff’s blog at https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com

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