So this week I’m cheating a little bit and uploading a story I revised this week, but the first draft of which I wrote last fall. I had two nonfiction deadlines this week that took up most of my time, and I’m sorry to say that the Challenge got put on the back burner. But this story is a better one than the one I would have written if I had rushed it, and it might have been the last one I wrote before deciding to do a challenge, so in a way it’s sort of a prequel (at least, that’s what I’m telling myself). I hope you enjoy it.
Red Sky in the Morning
by John Wolfe
Reuben, the old man who worked the gas pump at the fuel dock, could tell that the hurricane working up strength out in the ocean would be a bad one. Not because of some wisdom imparted by age, or from looking at the sky like a shaman of old. Three things tipped him off: one, the marina where he worked had been steadily filling up with yachts all week. Two, most of their owners had gotten into the old van the marina used as a shuttle with heavy bags and grim faces, and had Reuben drive them to the island’s little airport. Third, he saw it on the news on television.
Rapidly building strength, the weatherman had said. A ‘hundred year storm.’ Reuben wasn’t a hundred yet, but he had seen some weather in his day. Back in ‘52 when he was a boy they had a storm which picked up all the docks and flung them, with boats still attached, up onto the road that led to the beach. For weeks afterwards men in ties had descended on the town with clipboards, making notes of all the damage; by the next summer they had rebuilt everything better than it was before. The dockmaster had said it was the best thing that could have possibly happened, because the docks were old anyways and insurance had paid for all of it. It had taken a lot longer to rebuild the part of the island where Reuben lived. Eight people had drowned, there.
Presently a sailboat was approaching his dock, a thirty-five foot sloop with a forest green boot-stripe along the bottom of the hull and gray weathered teak decks. Reuben recognized the captain, leaning against the tiller; he had been buying ice and beer from the marina store all summer. His wife stood on the bow with a line coiled in her hand, ready to hop onto the dock.
“Ahoy, Reuben!” cried the boatman. “Mind if we tie up?”
Reuben gestured at the empty dock. There was plenty of room.
The skipper nodded, and brought his craft in neatly. His wife stepped off and made the bow line fast to a cleat. “Hello, Reuben,” she said. “Alright, there,” Reuben replied, nodding.
The skipper shut down the diesel engine, stepped out of the cockpit with the stern line, and landed on the dock with a little leap that would have been graceful on a lighter man. He knelt down to make his line fast, and rolled up the end into a neat Flemish coil on the dock.
“I guess you know why we’re here,” said the skipper.
“I’ll go grab some ice,” said Reuben, and started towards the little shack at the end of the dock that held the freezer. The skipper glanced at his wife, and jogged to catch up to Reuben.
“Actually, no – we’re all set for ice at the moment – we actually wanted to ask you if you had any more slips available to rent this week. We’re flying out to Virginia tomorrow to stay with my wife’s parents while this storm hits, and we’d like to put the boat somewhere where we know she’ll be safe.”
“Have to check with Mr. Johnston,” Reuben said. Johnston managed the marina.
“No need, we’ve already spoken with him, and he says you’re all booked up,” the skipper said. There was a quiet alarm in his voice. “But I thought I’d come and ask you anyways – we don’t need a slip, necessarily, maybe just some pilings or the end of a T-dock. Anywhere would be better than out at anchor in the harbor. There’s no wind break out there.”
“Mr. Johnston takes care of all that,” said Reuben. “I just run the fuel dock.”
“I know, Reuben, but I thought I’d come and ask all the same. I spoke with my insurance company yesterday on the sat phone, and they said they’d only cover us if we were in a marina.”
“I’ll check with Mr. Johnston again,” said Reuben, “but as far as I know we don’t have any vacancies. People have been coming in all week.”
“Well, what are we supposed to do, then?” the man said, his voice rising and his pale face turning red. “I don’t have enough money to replace the boat on my own.”
“Might run up in the mangroves and tie her off to the trees,” offered Reuben.
“And you think she’ll be safe there?”
“Safest you can get in a hurricane,” Reuben said, chuckling. The man did not laugh.
“Well. Thanks anyways, Reuben. I guess we may as well pick up some more ice, while we’re here. And another twelve pack of Carib.”
Reuben nodded, and walked down the dock to the little shack. When he returned with the two heavy bags and the cold glass bottles sweating in the sun, the man and his wife were talking in hushed tones.
“And he thinks that’s safe?”
“I guess he does. We don’t really have any other options. We’ll tire her up the best that we can, and take as much off of her as will fit in the dinghy.”
“But our poor boat…”
“I know, dear, believe me. I know. I hate to leave her behind. But she’s only a boat, after all.”
“Maybe she’ll be all right,” said the woman, and turned to Reuben as he approached. “Reuben, do you think it’ll be a bad storm?”
Reuben shrugged. “Guess we’ll see.”
“Oh, I hope it isn’t. We’re flying up to Virginia, though, just to be on the safe side. Are you evacuating, too?”
“Don’t you have family back in the States you can stay with?”
“I’ve got a cousin who lives up in New York,” Reuben said, “but the rest of us all live here.”
“Can’t you all fly up?”
“Plane tickets are expensive.”
“Well, sometimes you can find a good deal. We got our tickets for four hundred apiece. Had to dip into our savings, but you can’t put a price on safety.”
“Well,” said the skipper. “I guess we should be getting off your dock. Lots of preparations to attend to. Thanks for the ice and beer, Reuben.”
He handed Reuben a ten dollar bill and told him to keep the change. Reuben put it in his pocket.
As Reuben untied the dock lines and handed them back aboard, he caught the eye of the woman on the bow. She was looking at him, squinting, an odd mixture of fear of the unknown and pity.
“Be careful, Reuben,” she said.
The wind blew the little sloop away from the dock, and Reuben watched them return to the anchorage on the other side of the harbor. He was still watching from the shade of the shack twenty minutes later, when the couple stepped down into their dinghy and motored over to the mangrove forest which began where the river emptied into the bay. Later that afternoon they returned to their boat, weighed anchor, and brought the little sloop into the mangroves. Reuben could just make out their white masthead light above the treeline, deep in the forest, when the sun set that evening.
The next morning, as the barometer started to fall to 29 and the wind began to pick up and veer to the northeast and bands of low angry-looking gray clouds marched in across the last of the blue sky, they showed up on his dock again in their dinghy, with three very full bags. They gave Reuben twenty dollars to drive them to the airport. At the little airport bar, after dropping them off at the terminal, Reuben put the twenty dollar bill on the counter and ordered as many Strongback Stouts as it would buy and watched the weatherman’s grim face on the television.
Catastrophic damage expected, said the man, pointing to the angry red bundle on the radar, marching across the sea towards his island. Reuben sipped his beer and looked at the sky. It was starting to rain.