Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Caribbean Rescue

A story I wrote after being in the Caribbean on vacation a few years back. Life on the US Virgin Islands is still very different than our life in the states...

 

 The constant wash of the waves rhythmically beating against the coral beach filled my ears leaving me to snooze peacefully during the heat of the day. My brothers and their wives had left to do some snorkeling at a beach a mile or two down the road and left me behind to rest, but only after some strong reassurance from me that I was fine, just in need of some peace and quiet.
“Brrring, brrring, brrring, brrring.”
I jumped up from the couch, nerves jangling; wondering what would make such a sound. My brain scrambled towards the direction of the sound, trying to remember if there was anything in my memory to identify its source. The house phone. I grabbed the receiver and pushed the green answer button.
“Hello?” I sputtered as I tried to wake up my vocal cords.
“Suzanne. Something happened to Janie. Can you…” and the voice turned to static.
“Grace? I can’t hear you. Can you try again? What’s happening?” I tried to shout into the phone over the static pops and crackles.
“We are leaving…” and again more fizzled words and static.
“I can’t hear you, Grace. Can you call me back and try again?” I suggested. Only silence followed my words. I hung up the phone and waited, hoping that she had heard me better than I could hear her. I straightened my shorts and walked around the room wondering what I should do. Running my fingers through my tangled hair, I realized I had very little resources to use on this remote island. I did not know anyone and I did not have a car to drive to find a neighbor to help.
After about five minutes of looking out the windows at the sunny waves and considering hundreds of things that might have happened, I remembered that sometimes you could dial star sixty-nine on some phones to dial back the last number. I punched in the numbers and was relieved to hear the sound of a phone ringing in the earpiece. I counted the slow rings, one, two, three…until fifteen. I hung up realizing that no one was going to answer.
My heart was pounding in my ears and I tried to calm myself. Don’t make this out to be more than it is, I chided myself. My three brothers were there with Adam, Gracie as well as Deidra. They were all competent adults who could look out for her.
My husband Adam and I agreed to vacation with my three brothers and their wives for an exotic trip in the Caribbean. Everything was surreal about the trip from the massive villa to the beautiful kitchen overlooking the Caribbean Sea to moonlit nights with balmy winds, until now. I was not prepared to deal with emergencies out here so far away from the instant help always available back home in our little town in the suburbs of Baltimore.
My cell! I could call my husband on my cell phone. I ran up the winding concrete staircase to our bedroom on the second floor and scrambled to find my phone in my purse. Pushing his speed dial number, I waited anxiously for his voice. I heard his phone vibrating on his side table as my heart sank realizing that he didn’t take his phone with him. I hung up and tried Gracie’s cell number. Maybe she would answer. Again, I waited for the slow rings to pass, but no answer. After trying each of their cell numbers, I remembered that earlier in the week someone had mentioned that their carrier did not have very good reception on the island. Adam’s and my phone worked but whom was I going to call? I noticed that I had a little envelope on the front of my phone signifying that I had a message. Flipping my phone open, I scrolled to the message from Deidra.
“We can’t find Janie, have you heard from her?” the text read. Maybe they would have enough cell reception to get a text. I typed in the words that no, I had not heard anything and then waited.
Should I call 911? What if this was an emergency? Were they expecting me to call for help? I had to call someone. However, what if nothing was wrong and they were just out of phone range?
I opted to err on the side of caution and call for help just in case. I walked back down to the main building and into the living room to use the house phone. Three little numbers and I heard a voice.
“Hello, please state your emergency.” A calm lady’s voice spoke from the phone.
“I am not sure if this is an emergency but my husband, my brothers and their wives might be in trouble.”
“Where are you calling from?” the woman asked.
“We are staying at the Caribbean Coral Villa,” I answered trying not to get frustrated with the slowness of the dialog.
“Do you have a street address for that?” she asked.
“No, we are only renting this place for the week. I don’t know the address.” Feeling stupid, I scrambled through the papers in the desk. Maybe something would list the address. I found a glossy brochure but the address was only a post office box.
“We can find it. What is the emergency?” she answered in a monotone voice.
“I got a phone call from my sister-in-law saying that something had happened to my brother’s wife Janie but then we lost reception. I also got a text from my other sister-in-law that Janie was missing.” I tried to speak in clear sentences and slow down the myriad of words flying through my brain.
“How long ago was that phone call?” the monotone voice asked.
“I am not sure, maybe forty minutes ago?”
“How many people are in the missing party?”
I shook my head to think and used my fingers to add them up, “Seven”.
“And what are their names?”
I spouted off Adam’s full name and then realized I should state the couples’ names slowly so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself.
“Where were they when they called you?” her kind but slow voice asked.
“I am not sure of the name of the beach but it was only two miles from here, heading north on the island. They were going to do some snorkeling,” I offered.
“Will you be staying at this location so we can call you back?”
“Yes, call me back as soon as you hear anything, please. Thank you very much.” I hung up the phone, partially relieved to have asked for help, but also unnerved after vocally reliving the last hour.
I turned the volume on the phone to its highest setting so I would be sure to hear it if anyone called. I walked outside to the driveway to see if perchance they might have driven in. There was no one in sight. No cars on the road, no neighbors, just some goats off a little ways down the road. The warm sun calmed me a little and I tried to look around at the palm trees and vibrant flowers flanking the driveway. Instinctively, I walked back into the living room and looked at the phone as if it might ring.
“Hello?”
I whirled around at the sound of a voice, startled by the broken silence. A man was standing there with long dreadlocks and soiled clothing. I stared at him, not sure of what words to use for a fraction of a second. The doors were open as usual, since we enjoyed the breezes from the ocean in the house and he was standing at the door leading to the interior garden area of the villa.
Sensing my confusion, he added, “I am the gardener and wanted to let you know that I am going to be trimming some of the palms out here.”
“Oh, okay.” I shook my head slightly to shift my focus away from my possibly hurt sister-in-law. “Sure, sure,” nodding my head in agreement.
I turned back to the phone and he stepped back out into the courtyard. I picked up the phone and went to dial, but realized there was no one I could think of calling. Placing it back in the set, I walked over to the window to look out over the ocean.
“Is everything okay?” He startled me again, standing there quietly in the doorway.
I hesitated, not sure why I would talk to a stranger, but in the moment, I wanted to do something, anything, just so that I wasn’t standing there worrying. “I am not sure. I got a phone call from my sister-in-law saying that one of the girls in our group is missing. They went out to go snorkeling up at the beach. I called nine-one-one but I haven’t heard back from them.”
“Missing? In the water? Come with me. I can help you faster than the police. Come.” He motioned for me to follow him.
Not sure if I was completely out of my mind, I followed him, leaving the house door open. An old, white, banged-up pickup was parked in the driveway. He opened the passenger door and pushed some old clothes to the floor to make room for me. He backed down the driveway at a good enough speed to make me brace myself with the dashboard.
“Which way?” he asked in his thick island brogue.
I pointed to the left and we swung out into the road to the right and then went left, hugging the left shoulder closely. After only a second or two, we pulled into a driveway with chickens everywhere. He shouted something unintelligible to me and a thin wiry man shuffled out from a shed. My driver babbled something and the man gave me a quick glance and climbed into the back of the pickup.
Dust followed us as we backed out, honking to warn oncoming drivers on the tightly winding road. With one hand on the wheel and the other resting on the door, he waved at every person he passed, as if he were showing me the neighborhood. My apprehension mounted as I wondered if I had been stupid in trusting this strange man.
Over the next mile, we stopped three more times to pick up three more guys, each obviously an islander by their dark skin and thick accents. No one seemed to have a schedule to keep, but all seemed happy to be joining us. As we passed the entrance to the beach, I blurted out to the driver that he had passed the beach.
“No, I know. Be calm. I have better way.” He raised his palm to me as if to stop any further words.
I shut my mouth and gritted my teeth. Instead, he pulled into a long driveway thick with low mangrove bushes and a few sparse coconut palms hiding some trashed cars and other debris along the sides. A few old boats littered a sandy lot next to a lean-to of gray weathered boards. There was a rough path leading down to the ocean, but we stopped in the opening.
Everyone jumped out of the back of the truck and joined the driver. I figured out how to open the door on my side and went to follow them.
“No, you stay here. We know water. What color hair of girl?” he demanded and asked in one breath.
“Blonde,” I answered, knowing that I could not argue with these people. This was their territory. I watched somewhat helplessly as they ambled down the path in long strides. Three old dinghies appeared from the scrub bushes as the men bent over and dragged them to the clear blue water. My gardener stepped out into his boat alone while the others paired up in the other two boats. A few sputters and kicks later, three boats were running at full throttle straight out into the ocean.
How on earth could they find a single person in this choppy water? I asked myself. I shivered in spite of the afternoon sun and walked down to the water’s edge. Hugging myself, I watched as the boats slowly changed direction to the left, forming a wide arc and then slowing down. They must have known the currents of the water to know where to point their boats.
The minutes ticked by - ten, then fifteen. My head was getting hot in the sun. I splashed a little water on my face to cool down a little and looked out again at the now tiny boats. It seemed as though they were closer together. I squinted and realized they were coming back.
Already? Did they find her? Why are they coming back? the thoughts ran through my brain. I strained to see but could not discern any additions in the silhouettes in the boats. The glare of the sun on the water partially blinded my eyes.
“Wait. I think I can see something in the single boat,” I muttered to myself, as they got closer. The boats formed a single line as if they were following an underwater channel. I saw a hand go up and a wave from the front boat. I waved back, assuming they had good news. The boats throttled back and I could see Janie sitting low in the front boat, her bright pink bathing suit contrasting sharply against the whites and browns of the boats and the islanders.
I stepped back to give room for the men to pull their boats up on the sand.
“Janie. Are you okay? They found you!” I jabbered as a sudden love for this girl flooded over me. The gardener stretched out his long arm to help her step from the boat and I stepped in to hug her and help her onto the land.
Janie started jabbering about swimming after a shark not realizing how far out she was. I turned to the men and thanked them with an outstretched arm as she continued talking.
“Foreigners. They don’t know our waters. Strong currents.” He grinned and nodded his head at my thanks and he shook my hand. “Yeah. Sure. I take you to others?”
We clambered into the truck, the men in the back and Janie and I in the front. A few seconds up the road, we turned into the beach area where the rest of my family was huddled together; still waiting for a police boat to help them search.
My new friends left us with lots of waves and a cloud of dust obscuring their smiles as they went back to their homes. I was more than happy to get on with our vacation but we didn’t let Janie out of our sight.