Simon dropped to a walk and did a slow three-sixty.
He searched, but drapes shrouded the windows of each sound-side house—except one, yet the interior was too dark to see inside. He shrugged and jogged on.
Sand sprayed in gentle gusts across the sidewalk as Simon pounded out the morning run, savoring the moist air with each breath. Three decades away hadn’t diminished his ability to recognize the hint of a coming storm. Island residents had already begun evacuation. Hotel and condo guests would leave next.
At category two and a day away, Hurricane Bess would certainly strengthen before landfall, but Simon wasn’t quite ready to flee. If by chance the storm veered toward New Orleans or Texas, he might even ignore evacuation orders and stay. He had so missed the beauty of storms irritating the usually glassy Gulf of Mexico into a froth of white-capped, giant waves. Now that he was back, he wasn’t willing to abandon the gift so readily.
The dawn brightened as he crossed the 2.5-mile mark. Twenty years ago, no markers existed, and the gulf was still visible between dunes. Now markers divided the run into short challenges, small victories while gulf-side condos and hotels obliterated both the dunes and gulf view. As for the bay side, it wasn’t much better with its multitude of garishly colored, stilt-supported houses.
Simon reached the three-mile mark. Another quarter-mile would put him among protected National Seashore dunes, but he was tired and knew he’d end up walking most of the way back in these slowly strengthening outer-band winds. The last time he’d jogged here, Carolyn had been with him, pressing for a faster pace, steps ahead, laughing as he pursued her.
When did she stop laughing?
Maybe the third time she caught you cheating…
He groaned with angry embarrassment at the thought. He’d phoned her before this trip, yet another attempt to reconcile, only to be told, “Simon, we just don’t have good karma.”
Karma? “What the hell does karma have to…?”
“Simon,” came her voice, cold and resigned. “At some point, you have to let go.”
Clouds hovered on the southern horizon in rich oranges and bruised purples. Simon stopped and braced himself with hands on his knees to catch his breath. He straightened gradually and reversed direction. By now, Carolyn would have been a good forty yards ahead, and he would’ve spent the rest of the run trying to catch her, doing so only if she slowed to let him.
He stopped, this time certain he’d heard a distinct knocking. Same as before. Frantic. He scanned the same houses, settling on the one with open drapes. In brighter light now, he saw her, trapped inside, pounding on the sliding glass door. He sprinted up the driveway and terrace steps, stopping on the deck, unable to reconcile what he saw inside. Water had begun to flood the room, rising quickly. As the level reached the woman’s chin, Simon grabbed one of two steel-frame patio chairs to the right of the door and slammed it through the glass. The door shattered, and the chair came to a cockeyed rest against a massive oaken end table.
Simon braced for a rush of water that didn’t come.
He took a step forward.
The woman had vanished. The room was dry.
He sat slowly down in the deck’s remaining chair. At some point, he fished his phone from his shorts’ pocket and contemplated the keypad. Finally, he focused enough to dial 9-1-1.
Simon ordered a beer. Besides the bartender and himself, only a waiter remained in the hotel bar, looking glum in the far corner, texting.
“Heard?” the bartender asked. “Mayor’s ordered evacuation by four tomorrow afternoon.”
The bartender set the mug of beer on the counter. He paused. “Would you be the one who…?” A smile played about his lips.
The bartender shrugged. “Who busted the door at the Caulfield house today?”
Simon’s face flushed.
The bartender chuckled. “It’s an island. Word gets around.”
“Then you also know I had it fixed.”
“Didn’t mean to suggest anything,” the bartender said. “Let me guess: you saw a woman trying to get out, busted the door, and she vanished.”
“You aren’t the first. ’Bout twenty years ago, authorities ordered evacuation ahead of Hurricane
Theodore. You might remember that storm. Big one. Anyway, the woman living there refused to leave. She was never found. Ever since then, someone occasionally sees her inside, usually when another hurricane’s coming. And each one who sees her says the room’s filling with water. Some call police, others break the door. Owner’s never pressed charges. Just asks for repair.” He shrugged.
“Anyone live there now?”
“Owner checks it occasionally, stays a day or two, but it’s empty most of the time.”
Simon finished his beer and slid off the stool, leaving five bucks by the glass. In the lobby, a man and woman struggled with several cases while their teenage son fiddled with his phone. An uncomfortable, insulated quiet settled over the lobby as the family exited and Simon entered the elevator.
In his room, Simon for the umpteenth time reexamined the day’s events. He’d felt a fool, especially when he’d glimpsed the smirks exchanged between the two responding cops.
He opened his laptop on the desk and logged onto the internet. Nearly an hour later, he followed a link to an archived story on a Destin paper’s website:
“Jennifer Caulfield, 42, is presumed dead after defying a city-wide evacuation order regarding Hurricane Theodore. According to a police spokesperson, Ms. Caulfield’s husband, Nathan Caulfield, was in Montgomery, Alabama, on business when the storm struck. Mr. Caulfield reported to police that he contacted his wife by phone during the story. The call, he said, was disconnected after a few moments. He then contacted police who informed him they would not be able to return to the island until sometime after Theodore made landfall the following morning.
Tidal surge caused minor ground-level damage to the Caulfields’ stilt home, with little damage to second floor living space. The home’s safe room was found secure but empty. Police believe Ms. Caulfield attempted to evacuate during the height of the storm and was caught by the surging tide.”
Simon noted the man and woman in the photo accompanying the article, both in their thirties, an obvious tension in the way they stood slightly separated rather than appearing in an intimate pose usual for studio portraits. A second photo pictured the house, surrounded then primarily by vacant lots. A square facade ran from ground level into the base of the house, apparently the twelve-by-twelve safe room mentioned in the article. Submergible with dual-source ventilation, the internal air supply sufficient to sustain four adults for twenty-four hours, safe rooms had been so outrageously priced, most homeowners refused to install them. Developers eventually phased out availability altogether.
Simon returned to the bar and ordered a beer in hope of mining more information from the bartender.
“Tell me about the ghost woman,” he said.
The bartender grinned and set the mug on the counter. “No secret she and her husband weren’t getting along. They came in here one night not long before the hurricane and got into an argument. Bitch was used a lot by him, and she raved on about how things would come back to him in time, that he was piling up bad karma. I had to ask them several times to keep it down, and they eventually left, but not together.”
“Did the cops investigate her death?”
“Her parents pushed them to, but nothing ever came of it.”
“I read online they had a safe room…”
“Yeah, that’s the thing,” the bartender said. “The owner renovated that room shortly before the hurricane, shortly before he went out of town. Did most of the work himself. So why didn’t his wife stay in it? Most folks here thought she’d gone with him until they heard she was dead.”
The phone behind the bar rang. The bartender answered, listened. “Yes, ma’am,” he said and hung up.
“Boss. Hurricane’s category four now. Evacuation deadline’s been moved up to eight in the morning.”
“Between Mobile and Pascagoula tomorrow night, which means serious surge and wind here. Last one this close dang near submerged the island.”
Simon laid a five on the bar and said, “Goodnight.”
He paused in the doorway, suitcase in hand, and glanced around. He considered moving his laptop from the desk to the bed, dismissed it, and departed. He rode the elevator to the lobby and checked out, telling the clerk he’d left the electronic key in the room.
Two blocks down, he drove his car into a residential condo’s vacated garage and parked. He made his way on foot back up the beach to the hotel. Wind and spray from an increasingly agitated Gulf of Mexico, already pressing well beyond its normal tidal boundary, forced him close to the buildings. Twice, he leapt over waist-high picket fences designed to protect the few remaining dunes. He entered the hotel from the pool deck, taking the rear stairs up to his room. He slipped the electronic key he’d kept into the lock and entered, closing the door quietly.
Simon logged onto the National Weather Service website. Bess’s clouds now covered most of Florida in the satellite image, with bands spiraling across Alabama, Mississippi, and into Louisiana. Locally sustained winds had reached fifty miles per hour and were strengthening.
His mobile phone rang. His breath caught at the name on the screen. Carolyn… He started to answer, hesitated, then pressed “cancel,” sending her to voicemail.
Karma, my dear.
Simon returned to the online story about Jennifer Caulfield and searched the photo for some kind of clue.
Finally, finding nothing more than the obvious tension in the couple’s stance, he lay back on the bed and closed his eyes.
I was not hallucinating…
The wind moaned against the balcony door, and Simon dozed. He woke hours later as gales now howled in the coming dawn. The light over the room’s desk flickered and winked out. Rain and sand sprayed against the balcony door glass.
Simon slipped his computer into a plastic bag from the bathroom trash bin and left with it underarm, descending the stairwell in darkness to the ground floor where he exited through the pool entrance. On the street, a police cruiser passed slowly, headed toward the bridge that linked the island to the mainland. Simon waited in the hotel’s empty garage several long minutes for the police to move out of sight as torrential rain fell laterally with the wind. He then jogged down the street to where he’d left his car, legs pumping as he leaned into the wind and rain. He tossed the computer into the backseat and got in. He drove out of the garage, turning in the direction opposite the bridge that connected the island to the mainland.
Simon parked in front of the vacant lot beside the Caulfield house. He trotted up the driveway and climbed the stairs to the deck, taking them by threes, only to freeze on the landing as his eyes met those of the woman he’d seen the day before, the woman he now knew was Jennifer Caulfield. She pounded the glass, screaming in a voice he couldn’t hear. This time, he watched the room fill completely until the woman’s struggles ceased, her body floating back from the glass. The water whirlpooled to the center of the room and down into the safe room. Jennifer vanished.
Simon descended to ground level to the safe room that rose from the concrete base slab and found its entry door padlocked. He searched the adjoining vacant lot, locating a substantial chunk of concrete in the scattered rubble. He raised it high in both hands and slammed it against the lock, concrete shattering.
The lock gave. He yanked open the door. Gales gusted, caught it, snatching from his grasp, slamming it fully open against the wall.
The empty room appeared small within the reinforced, padded concrete walls. A ladder led up to a hatch for entry from the house above. Thick, floral linoleum covered the floor—the owner’s personal handiwork, Simon recalled. Then he saw a flaw in that work, a piece in one corner, peeling up to reveal a recessed hinge in the floor beneath. He gripped the linoleum as best he could and began pulling. Slowly, the glue gave way, and the flooring revealed a trapdoor.
The wind gusted. The entry door swayed on its hinges, bouncing off the wall, threatening to shut, only to pivot fully open again and again. Simon lifted the heavy trapdoor, swinging it up, lodging it into the open entry. With the trapdoor trembling in the gusting gales, Simon shifted to one side and peered down into the room. Dim daylight seeped in, and he could make out bones and remains, dressed in a paisley blouse, blue jeans, and tennis shoes, supine against the back wall.
Simon placed his hands on opposite sides of the hatchway to lower himself in. The wind screamed, and the exterior door swung inward, slamming hard against the trapdoor.
Simon reached into darkness and felt nothing.
…safe room, skeleton…
Voices sounded from somewhere beyond the darkness, undefined and muted. The foundation trembled, a weight descending, crushing down until the voices vanished, replaced by stifling black silence.
Images formed, colors seeping through the fabric of darkness—a stormy beach, his beach, beyond a sliding glass door, and Simon realized he was in the woman’s room as her figure shimmered into existence. He gradually became aware of another figure, a man, standing on the deck beyond the glass, hair shifting in growing winds, a smirk on his lips. The woman flung herself against the glass. The man flinched back. The woman struck the glass with her fists, again, again, but it held firmly. Water began to rise in the room.
Simon’s eyes met those of the man on the deck. The man cocked his head slightly to one side, his face registering slight surprise, perhaps bemusement, but little if anything more.
The woman struck the glass. It rattled in its frame.
And Simon understood.
He found me in the room, but he couldn’t call the cops because they’d discover her bones, what he’d done. The bastard closed me in…
The man on the deck laughed. “Stupid bitch! At least you’ve got company now! How’s that for payback?”
The woman railed against the glass, and water continued to rise. With each blow of her fist rattling the door, Simon realized that, although he and the woman were prisoners, they weren’t completely dispossessed of power, wholly divorced from the world beyond the glass.
Rage engulfed him, and in complete concentration Simon turned to the huge oaken end table. He concentrated fully and grasped the table by its sides, lifting it from the rising water to heave it toward the glass. He watched it glide across the room, past the woman, and shatter through the door. It slammed into the man’s chest, knocking him backward and over the railing to the pavement below.
The woman’s image stood transfixed for several long moments, glaring out toward the railing where the man had tumbled backward. Finally, she turned slowly, deliberately toward Simon, acknowledging his presence for the first time. Her gaze met his, and both Simon and the woman shimmered and began to fade.
As he became little more than smoke, Simon gave in to the growing winds he’d always loved, one thought evaporating with awareness of the body in the driveway: Karma’s a bitch.
C.S. Fuqua’s books include White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems ~ Vol. I, Hush, Puppy! A Southern Fried Tale (children’s picture book), Rise Up (short fiction collection), The Native American Flute: Myth, History, Craft, Trust Walk (short fiction collection), The Swing: Poems of Fatherhood, Divorced Dads, and Notes to My Becca, among others. His work has appeared in publications such as Main Street Rag, Pudding, Dark Regions, Iodine, Christian Science Monitor, Cemetery Dance, Bogg, Year’s Best Horror Stories XIX, XX and XXI, Amelia, Slipstream, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, The Writer, and Honolulu Magazine.
Image by John Spade