The storm that destroyed Puebla took a week to build strength. The meteorologists balked a bit about it’s severity. Some models said the front would hit, some said it would miss. The governor hesitated for days on a state of emergency, over budgetary concerns, but by then it was too late. Humanitarian aid workers arrived the morning of the updated arrival time. They were unprepared, undermanned, and out of time. I unfortunately happened to be one of them.
By then, the media dubbed the hurricane a new name; ‘Superstorm of the Century.’
It was devastating to see such an obvious tragedy before it happened. Most of the residents were poor families of workers on the dock and in the shops. They lived in small and outdated homes well downhill from gentrified McMansions built by tourists on the main through-way. The weather would be worse than any natural event in living memory. The wind alone would uproot their houses. The flooding and mudslides combined would sweep anything remaining out to sea. The rich could afford to rebuild, or fly away for the weekend, but the locals could not. We knew people would die. You always expected death in these kinds of situations. The question then was how many.
My group spent most of the afternoon in town, where we guided folks to the emergency shelter, located at the top of the hill. Some residents came willingly, with children, dogs, and cats attached. Others refused to even talk. My partner and I finished the evening in the neighborhoods, canvassing door to door, begging people to reconsider the risks. We explained repeatedly that, once the storm landed, we would not be able to help left anyone outside the shelter. They would be on their own for the night.
Half of the town’s population listened. The other half didn’t.
The sky darkened sometime before nightfall. My partner walked back to shelter at the first sign of rain clouds, but I insisted on staying out, because there were still a few houses remaining on our route. I remember that critical moment well. The moon stood out like a beacon for rising waves as foaming seawater lapped closer and closer to shore. The beachhead disappeared under the tide. A few meandering shapes, I thought children, raced each other up and down the last traces of sand, as a hint of drizzle kicked in under the wind. We didn’t have much time.
I walked up a cracked concrete path. Pretty palm trees, foreign beasts which once welcomed vacationers and honeymooning couples alike, slowly swayed with ghostly hints of incoming wind. The path led to a small home, with a red door, held together by not much more than a few rusted nails and sheer willpower. I knocked a couple times. My spiel would probably not make much sense without someone to translate what I wanted to say, but I had a flier, and at that moment, simply pointing to the rain clouds should have been enough for most people.
Nobody answered. So I knocked again.
The wind grew strong enough to push through rotted cracks in wood paneling. The red door blew open slightly, and closed unsteadily again, before collapsing in rickety hinges. I attempted to pipe down and listen for footsteps. I thought I heard someone inside; yelling, or talking, or trying to communicate. I thought they could be in trouble. The wind howled in my ear. I couldn’t hear them for sure. So I stepped forward into the dark home and called out –
And that was the worst mistake I could have made.
The paper thin flooring held for a moment. Then the rotted vinyl cracked and gave way. I tried to run. I tried to jump to safe ground. But quick movement only made me slip quicker. I fell fifteen feet until my head smacked into a drainage pipe.
I don’t remember the next few minutes.
I woke up to two very certain facts. The first was that the strength of the ‘Superstorm’ arrived in full force outside. The second was that every bone in my body must be broken.
I was lying face up on the floor. I tried to move my legs, to no avail. I tried to get up, but my hips gave way. The pain came in waves of white hot forks that poked barbs up and down my spinal cord. Out of place tendons and muscles grinded across one another. Muscles choked and spasmed like a first time drinker’s gag reflex. I saw stars that had nothing to do with the night sky. I screamed until my lungs heaved. But no one answered.
The storm reached a fever pitch somewhere outside my newfound coffin. Thunder broke and howled rhythmically alongside torrents of rain. The smell of fire irradiated somewhere in the distance. Panic crept in alongside my injuries. I was alone. And it was dark.
I needed to better understand my surroundings. I felt along the ground beneath my feet like a blind man in the night. Dirt and grime suckled underneath my hands. Cracks in the concrete shifted to form neat little lines. An inch of water covered the floor. Maybe more. I reached out further and felt the wall. I extended my arms upward to the best of my ability. My nerves groaned in response. But the walls kept going up.
My eyes were dried and caked with blood from the head wound. I rubbed and opened them just enough to see a light. I thought it could be the light that led me to the home. I wanted to walk towards it. I wanted to run towards it. But my useless legs refused to cooperate.
And so I waited, conserving my energy, listening to the symphony of anarchy above. The rain eventually found its way inside. A slow and steady dripping, somewhere to my left, gradually transformed into a waterfall. Filthy flood bile washed over me to fill the basement like a basin. Salt and dirt mixed horribly with spit in my mouth. I choked and caught my breath. I gargled shit before pushing my broken body to a dry spot. And then I listened. Because soon after my surroundings erupted with a fresh new horror.
The chirping came first.
Thousands of little feet scurried over my body. Tiny hairless bodies brushed over my lips. Thin tails tickled my nose. I wanted to open my mouth to scream, but feared swallowing one whole because there were just so many. Each rat felt bigger than the last. Some stopped to bite. Some stopped to sniff. Most kept running away from the waterfall of rain seeping in from somewhere near the front porch. I waited like a perfect scarecrow. Vomit and bile caught in my throat.. The encounter must have lasted moments, but it felt like hours. After an unknowable period of time, the rodents were gone. I waited still.
I soon came to the realization that if the furry little creatures were able to find high ground, I could too. I dragged myself slowly in their direction across the filthy floor. The pain fired up like a morning alarm. The sheer power of it seemed unbearable. With each realignment of vertebrae, my spinal cord cracked and groaned in protest, and a fresh wave of agony crept from my feet to my neck. I thought I would pass out again. I thought I would die before getting anywhere. But I hung tough. BecauseI could see the light, now. The luminescence shone like a flare into the basement’s dilapidated shadows. I continued my desperate crab crawl towards it. I had to get there. I had to reach it.
Soon enough I could see that the light came from a window set against the wall. Visions of my savior came through like a mirage. I figured my partner came back to look for me. I figured another aid worker stayed out late. Maybe the roads were not completely flooded yet. Maybe I misjudged the time. I knew I had been out for a while, but it couldn’t be that late, I thought, could it? Maybe our chief decided to keep somebody on duty outside. Maybe he checked the houses with a flashlight.
The window grew closer still.
It could not have been more than four feet from the ground. I pulled myself up perilously to look out. Agony took hold of my back like a vice grip, but I didn’t care, because salvation was on the way. Someone had to be here. Someone had to be close. The window was positioned downhill and protected from the lapping flood water below. I rubbed my eyes again, and focused with newfound hope, before the truth crushed my dreams haplessly.
The light came from a small boat. The dinghy drifted lazily in the small current that once was the road. I screamed out to it. I pounded the glass so hard my hand throbbed in protest. But nobody responded. Nobody even looked to be controlling it. The ship bumped and scraped lazily in the current. It drifted further downstream. The light bobbed further into the distance, taunting me through the cracks and barriers, and then it was gone.
I was alone again.
I hit the glass window until I couldn’t hit it anymore. I screamed until I couldn’t scream anymore. I wanted, more than anything, to get up and lift myself out from that basement. I wanted to break through that fucking window. I kept envisioning myself, like the earlier mirage, running from the house and all the way back to the shelter. I pictured the disappointed but relieved faces of my coworkers. I imagined the shocked conversation with my mother. I could picture myself there but couldn’t make it happen. My useless and broken body just wouldn’t cooperate.
I was stuck.
I found myself a chair. The rain continued to fall. The wind continued to howl.
And then my consciousness started to slip again.
I don’t know how long it was before the voices.
I woke to find the water level at my waist. Couch cushions and VHS tapes drifted past me like seaweed. I trained my ears to listen for something, anything that could become my last chance at life. The humming of the storm echoed off the walls. And then came the shouting.
I couldn’t believe it. I crab swam myself back to the window. The ache in my back lit up like a Christmas tree. My neck cracked like a knuckle with each stutter step forward. But I pushed the pain to the back of my mind, and fought forward through a mouth full of seawater, dirt, and shit. I lifted myself up and clung to the molding. And I looked down again into the street.
A small family trudged through the storm. The storm made it impossible for them to stand upright. A young girl tripped and fell. A mother wrapped her arm under hers and they continued forward. They passed by my tomb, and I tried to call out to them, I tried to scream, again and again. But that proved to be a useless effort. The roar of the storm and the covering of my tomb erased my cries. The family marched onward, half swimming and half walking, shouting themselves into the wind, begging anyone who would listen to help, please help.
A shadow approached behind them.
My first assumption was that it would be rescue workers. My heart leaped out of my chest as the familiar shape of another human cut through the waves past my window. The man wore a wet-suit of some kind. A black mask covered his face. I slammed the glass harder, hoping it would break, hoping he would see me.
The shadow was only inches behind the family when they noticed. The father dropped his bags. The mother threw back her head gleefully. The man shouted a couple words at the family.
The rest happened quite quickly.
The young girl fell under another wave. Her father reached down to grab her. The man took the opportunity to do something unspeakable. He produced a long bat from over his shoulder. He reared up like a batter in the box. And without warning, he swung it forward so hard, that the poor mother didn’t even have time to scream. He pulled back and struck her again, then again, and again. Finally the woman’s hapless body and bloodied fell into the current like driftwood.
The husband of course tried to fight. He swung once, belligerently with a left hook, which the perpetrator quickly dodged and parried. The man in the mask snapped his head forward like a cobra. Then he wrapped brick like hands around the husband’s neck. The two of them struggled there, fighting each other in the current, before the victim finally went limp. He too fell back into the river like driftwood.
The daughter resurfaced somewhere down the block. Her pink backpack bobbed listlessly in the waves. I screamed and pounded at the window. I begged for her to hide. I begged for her to swim away. I slammed the glass until my fists formed nice purple bruised. Then I slammed it some more. Blood and bone poked out of existing bruises and cuts. But I kept hitting.
The girl started to swim. After a moment she was around the corner. After two she was gone. I looked in the water for the man in the mask. But the world soon lost its color. The bruises on my hand transformed into stars.
I woke up to a door opening.
I moved my lips to shout but the seawater sealed them shut. Just as well. I listened instead. Light footsteps entered the house. The owners click clacked their way gracefully around the sinkhole, paused, and continued towards the back. And then they spoke.
The word sounded inhuman. Almost like a joke. Almost like an abusive husband coming home to a wife after work. A tone of disrespect. A light snarl hinted underneath. He was mocking me, or at least, mocking anybody who might be stuck like me. I didn’t take the bait.
The footsteps moved closer to the edge of the sinkhole. I held my breath and disappeared underwater. I waited there, longer than even felt possible, nearly drowning, afraid of who or what might be staring down from above. I surfaced to to the closing of a door and the ending of a sentence.
I hurried back to my lookout.
The flood erased any trace of the city streets. Tips of houses stuck out like swords in the waves. The rain slammed the surface ever as effortlessly. Lightning illuminated the carnage. My window was positioned down a massive hill, and therefore elevated above the water, but even that risked overflowing. I squinted to find the same familiar shapes under the surface, to no avail.
I turned to my left and saw a pink backpack bobbing in the current.
I feared the worst. Maybe the man killed her already. Maybe he chased after her and came back to kill me. But after a moment, a black mop of hair surfaced, and the backpack moved further upstream.
She looked lost. She could swim, and swim well, but the current had a mind of their own. Each swell threaten to pick up her tiny body and toss it down the road. The ocean gurgled ahead and begged for more victims. She wouldn’t last much longer. Neither would I. The flood in the basement inched up to my neck.
My broken body acted on instinct. I slammed into the glass one more time, with a closed fist, with all my might, and nearly screamed from relief as it finally gave way.
I allowed myself to be sucked out from the pressure as shards dug giddily into unmarked skin. My blood left a red taint in the current. But fuck it, I thought, there was more than enough of that to go around. One more wound to the pile.
The vacuum of water escaping the house created a distraction in the street. The man in the wet-suit appeared by the concrete path of my tomb. He held onto the house for support. Then he jumped in the river and swam downstream. I waited a moment, my crippled arm grasping a tree root for support, before he disappeared behind a row of houses on the adjacent block. I jumped in the water and fought the urge to scream.
I devoted every remaining ounce of my strength to the pink backpack.
Each stroke forward felt like agony. My shoulder clicked. My neck ached. By the time I arrived in the alley, the girl appeared on the verge of passing out, and so was I. A thick gash leaked fluid from her forehead. The string of her backpack was caught on a porch.
I grabbed my knife to cut it free.
The girl regained some awareness at the sight of the blade and screamed. The sound was shrill enough to carry over the wind. She looked at me with wild eyes. She tried to fight. She tried to slap. I attempted to tell her that it was alright. It’s okay. We just need to get to the shelter. But we didn’t speak the same language. I pointed desperately to the tattered badge on my decrepit jacket.
And the girl calmed a bit. She nodded. She pointed in the direction of the adjacent block and struggled to find the right words.
I nodded back. The girl considered this for a second. She could not have been older than ten. Dark black hair mixed in with blood to muddle otherwise ordinary features. She looked scared but confident, angry but determined. Wordlessly she allowed herself to drift back into the current. Then she grabbed my hand.
We floated down a route that did not look familiar based on my limited understanding of the town. We cut down one side street, then another, and another. All the while I kept my eyes peeled, looking towards the shadows and alleyways, expecting to see the man, swimming towards us with a weapon at the ready. But we never did.
The girl finally took me up the hill to the shelter. We could walk, or crawl, at this point; and we did so desperately. I reached up at the metal door and pounded on the cool steel desperately, begging one last time, for someone to please help. A scuffle of voices argued on the other side.
The girl squeezed my hand again. She pointed down the hill at the underwater ruins of her home. She beckoned for me to look.
“Stuck,” she said, and I nodded.
Then the lights went out one last time.
Four hundred and fifty souls perished the night the Superstorm slammed into Puebla. The search and rescue recovered one hundred and twenty-seven bodies. The rest are officially missing at sea. The unknown murderer of Maya’s parents may rest with them, for all the collapsed police department could care. The city lay in ruins. Suffering gripped every living soul on the night of the storm. Everyone had their stories.
There is a legend about hurricanes in the islands. Some say they are brought on by God. Some say they are made by the Devil. Regardless of the answer, and regardless of our own little plans, human beings will forever be trapped in the center of an unwinnable war.
Some are bound to get stuck.