BY EVAN HOWELL
Copyright is held by the author.
HURRICANE OPHELIA was coming. Authorities sounded the warnings, meteorologists pointed gravely to Ophelia on their green screens — a slowly churning orange mass easing its way across the Atlantic, headed right for the North Carolina coast.
Nobody panicked. Not the regular residents, anyway. Shopkeepers boarded the windows and sandbagged the doors. Families packed clothes for a few days and headed to stay with relatives further inland. They had done this all before; it was the price they willingly paid to live in a place that most people only went on vacation.
Ophelia started out innocently, just a tropical storm way out at sea, hardly worth taking the laundry off the line. But she grew overnight. Residents woke up Friday morning to a full-blown hurricane — Category 3 and getting stronger by the hour. Every local TV and radio outlet sounded the same message: “Get out of town.”
However, the man sounding this message the loudest did not himself leave Currituck. Police Chief Raymond Bell hadn’t left town for any hurricane in his 28 years on the force. They were his busiest time of the year – evacuations, search & rescue, looting control. Hurricanes meant untold headaches, but they were also invigorating, a shot of excitement into his sleepy county.
However, in spite of all that depended on him, he hopped in his car after lunch on Friday and headed north on Tulls Creek Road, away from town, towards the west shore of Tull Bay. It was a pleasant day, as the days preceding hurricanes usually were. A salty breeze blew in off the Atlantic, rippling the two-foot-high grass beside the road. Budget cutbacks meant that mowing occurred less frequently, but Ray liked the tall grass, the way it swayed as cars passed. He rolled down the window in his squad car and rested his arm in the wind.
The radio crackled.
He ignored it.
“Chief, what’s your 20?”
He waited a beat before answering tersely.
“Tull Bay. Back soon.”
The answer to this was obvious, so he didn’t reply.
“Couldn’t you have sent Baker to do it? Or any of the rookies?”
Again, he declined to answer.
“How do you even know he’s out there?”
“Where else would he be?”
“Why are you driving, though? You coulda just called to get next of kin.”
“I know. Back soon.”
Ray reached his turn at Deer Run Road. Moreland Morris lived at the end, out past where the county paved. Ray’s tires kicked up dust and slid around turns. He pulled into the driveway and parked behind an old minivan. Two cats scampered out from underneath and into the nearby woods.
Considering that an 80-year-old man kept it, the house looked good. The yard was a mess and the paint peeled, but structurally, it seemed solid. It had seen its share of hurricanes and still looked square, had a passable roof, even new shutters. Moreland built it himself fifty years earlier, as he’d told Ray during the last hurricane. Ray mounted three swaying wooden steps to the front door. It sat partially open, but he knocked anyway.
He waited half a minute, then knocked again. No one answered so he stepped inside. There were only three rooms. Moreland sat in the largest of them in a recliner, watching baseball with a collection of empty soda and beer cans on the floor around him. He wore only boxer shorts and a threadbare white t-shirt. His hands and feet were large — knobby and arthritic now, but evidence that he’d once been a powerful man. The house smelled like urine and Ray realized that his host likely didn’t have the energy to get up every time he had to relieve himself.
“Afternoon, Mr. Morris.”
Moreland nodded at him but didn’t take his eyes of the screen.
“Braves doing all right?” Ray asked.
“Only the third inning and we’re down by five. Already gone to the bullpen.”
Ray shook his head in disgust, then decided he’d sufficiently broken the ice.
“Know why I’m here?”
“I know, Sheriff. I been watching the news.”
“So why aren’t you packed?”
Moreland looked at Ray for the first time. The old man chuckled and shook his head.
“We’re not coming out to get you,” Ray said. “You pulled this stunt during Gertrude and two of my men about drowned trying to save your ass. It’s time to pack up and go.”
“Van out yonder don’t work. Belts are shot.”
“I’ll give you a ride. I’ll even help pack. No excuses.”
Moreland took a long sip of his beer and turned back to the game. “I appreciate the thought Chief, but I’m staying right here.”
“So that’s the plan?” Ray said, taking a step closer. “Hang tight ‘til the water’s up to your knees, then finally give us a call?”
Moreland shook his head. “I didn’t call last time. Son called on me.”
“Yeah, I know you didn’t call, which is why I did this visit myself. You don’t seem to grasp the gravity of these situations. And this one’s even bigger than Gertrude. You have to evacuate. I’m telling you now and washing my hands of it. Ain’t risking my life or the lives of my men for a stubborn old man. I drove out here in the middle of a busy day to tell you in person.”
Moreland took a sip of beer, unfazed, clearly aware that Ray was bluffing.
“Right now, Mr. Morris.” Ray thumped the wall with his fist and the sheetrock rattled. “This is a well-built house, but it can’t weather this kind of storm. Between the wind and all the water from the bay, there’s a fifty-percent chance this place is leveled by Sunday. We won’t even take you far. They’re running a shelter in Gates County. You can hunker down there, then we’ll have you back out here as soon as it blows over. Assuming there’s a house left.”
Moreland’s expression changed and, for a moment, Ray thought he was coming around. It was just the game, though – Atlanta had given up two more runs. Ray turned his attention to the TV, knowing the futility of his situation but not wanting to leave yet. They watched a New York Met pop up to end the inning.
“Ain’t going to be that bad,” Moreland said.
“You’ve got a TV. I know you’ve seen weather reports. You don’t even need to hear them, just look at that damn thing on the screen. It’s huge.”
The old man snorted. “Think I’m going to pack up and leave cause some haircut on the news says so? Lived here my whole life and this one ain’t bad.”
“You’re wrong. And you were wrong last time. But this time we’re not sending anybody out to get you.”
“Didn’t ask for nobody last time. Done toldja that.”
“What about your family?”
“My daughter thinks I’m at my son’s place and my son thinks I’m at my daughter’s. And since they ain’t on speaking terms, nobody knows where I am. ’Cept you.”
“No, I mean what about your family if you drown? Or get smashed by a pine tree?”
“It won’t be that bad.”
“You keep on saying that. What gives you that idea? We get lots of storms that ‘aren’t bad,’ then every few decades we get something like this one.”
“Category 3 . . . 4 . . . 5. All the same to me.”
Ray grunted in disgust. Moreland’s house was slightly above sea level, only about ten feet, but it had saved him in the past. Ray knew better, though. He knew how much this year’s heavy rainfall had swollen the bay. He was tempted to invent a crime for which to arrest the man, just to get him out of harm’s way, and did a cursory scan of the room to see if he could locate anything illegal.
He dropped that idea though, knowing that he had other things to tend to, people back in town waiting on him.
“Well, if you’re going to be an idiot, you’ve got the right. You know as well as me that I can’t forcibly evacuate. All I can do now is get your next of kin,” he said. “Got your estate in order? Is your will going to get washed away with all the rest of your worldly possessions?”
Moreland focused on the TV, and Ray couldn’t tell whether he was being dismissive or was genuinely interested in the game.
“Listen, Mr. Morris. Give me this info and I’ll get out of your hair.”
“My will’s at the credit union in a safe box. My son lives down in Barco — same name as me. Easy to find. Everything’s wrapped up, Sheriff. You done your duty.”
“Have it your way.”
Ray turned to go, nearly tripping over a cat that had snuck up behind him. He stepped over it and around a stack of folded newspapers. He grabbed the front door, then stopped and turned around, “I dragged myself all the way up here. At least give me a reason why you’re staying put. Something I can tell your family if I have to.”
Moreland looked up from the game, giving Ray the same look Ray used to give his own kids when they acted impudent.
“This is where I live.”
Ray sighed and left, resisting the urge to slam the door. He tramped across the un-mowed lawn, eyeing the towering loblolly pines that surrounded Moreland’s house, top-heavy trees that seemed primed to fall. He shook his head. His squad car rumbled to life, and he eased it onto the gravel road. He radioed into town, told them he’d be at the station in half an hour. The local classic rock station was playing commercials, so he shut it off to ride in silence. At the intersection, he turned onto Tulls Creek Road and headed south towards Currituck, where he lived.