CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO: "STORM OF AGES"
The rain pelted down steadily as Jack dashed straight into town towards Duke's house, which was technically the closest house to his that he could find. The winds were blowing harder than normal, picking up speed with every step he took. That hurricane was looming over the top of them, about to take their heads off. Jack knew if he didn't warn everyone, people would be killed. They had no preparation, no warning, no heed.
He arrived at Duke's house and didn't even bother with knocking, just yanked the door open and ran in. Manna, who was sitting behind the counter in her kitchen, saw Jack erupt into the room and screamed in surprise. "Jack!? What're you doing here?"
"Saving your butts!" Jack yelled, breathless from running. Man, he was really getting out of shape. His wind-span used to be huge, but here he was tired like a rookie. He chalked it up to no exercise and panic and a winter of indulging in laziness. The door came open again and Duke stepped in from the vineyard. "What's this? Jack, get out of my house!"
"Fine, but you're leaving too!" Jack said, pointing to the sky. "We're about to get hit by a hurricane."
Duke sniffed, looking down his nose at Jack. "Nonsense, we always get warning from Barley beforehand."
Jack grabbed Duke by his collar and pulled him to his face, "I don't have time to argue with you, Duke. A Category 5 is about to ram into Flowerbud! I saw it on my tv! Does the town have a storm shelter?"
Duke pulled himself away from Jack and looked out into the sky, gaping at the dark clouds approaching, then at Jack. "A Cat 5?"
"YES!" Jack said, "The storm shelter! Where is it?"
"Under the Inn!" Duke said.
"Get Manna there. I've got to run and tell the...the chicken people," Jack was so nervous, he could barely remember their names. "And Barley and May. You gotta warn the village!"
Duke nodded, "We'll split up. You head that way, tell Saibara and Gray. Go up the left side and get Zack. Round up the middle of town and we'll likely meet at the General Store. Go! Manna, come with me!" Duke yelled as Jack ran next door while Duke ran up to the Inn to let Doug prepare for everyone.
Jack dashed into the smithy to the surprised looks of Saibara and Gray, who stepped forward with a red poker in hand, "What do you—"
"Shut up, Gray. Both of you get to the Inn, there's a hurricane coming, a big one. Get to the storm shelter now! Duke's getting everyone else. I've got to get Popuri's folks and May and Barley and Zack!"
"When is it getting here?" Gray said, "We have to bar up the smithy!"
"It's here NOW!" Jack said, pointing to the window. Gray's face fell as he stared out the window at the ominous dark clouds and spattering rain. Gray spat out a curse and ran through the door into the village. Saibara looked at Jack, "I wonder when he'll remember he forgot me."
Jack looked at his watch, "3...2...1..."
Gray stuck his head back in, "Come on, pops! We gotta scoot!"
Saibara nodded, walking towards Gray. "I'm scootin', I'm scootin'." When the two of them were gone, Jack tracked across the wooded area to come out in front of Popuri's house. He tried to open the door, but it was locked. He banged on it with his fist, yelling incoherently until Rick opened it up. "What do you want, Jack?"
"There's a bad hurricane about to hit town. You gotta get Poe and your mother to the Inn before it gets any worse than this."
Rick looked up at the sky. "It's just raining. Go home, Jack. You're full of it."
Jack snarled and finally had enough of it. He shoved the door open and before Rick could complain, Jack snapped out with a right cross and put Rick on the floor, out cold. "I don't have time to argue with you, Rick." He made his way upstairs, where Lillia's bed was.
For the brief moment when he encountered Lillia in her bed, he felt awestruck by the woman's beauty. For a moment, he wondered if Popuri would one day lie in bed like that, unable to get up. Who would take care of her?
He shook his head. No time to think about that now. He gently shook her shoulders, "Miss Lillia, you have to wake up."
She stirred and looked up at him weakly. "Jack? What...why are you in here?"
"Miss Lillia, there's a very bad hurricane coming soon. There's no time to get anything or prepare the house, you have to get to the storm shelter at the Inn right now. Can you walk?" He helped her sit up in her bed and swing her legs over the side.
"I'm afraid I'm a bit too weak to walk very fast, Jack. Getting into town would take me about thirty minutes."
Jack bit his lip. "Well, we don't have thirty minutes." He reached down and scooped the woman into his arms, despite her squeal of surprise, and began walking downstairs. When he came upon the fallen Rick, he sighed. "I forgot about him." He set her down, then pulled Rick into a fireman carry and then picked Lillia up again. With close to three hundred extra pounds on him, he had a bit of trouble, but it was nothing he hadn't done before. Jack marched through the woods with the two of them in his arms, through the now downpour of rain and finally reached the Inn in less than ten minutes.
He kicked the door in and found Ann, Manna, and Doug inside with a door in the floor behind the bar. Jack set Lillia down and then put Rick on the nearest table. "He's out cold, help him to the bottom." Jack said, heaving for breath.
Cliff looked at the prone Rick and then to Jack. "What happened to him?"
"He fought the Ace and the Ace won. Get him down there, I have to get May and Barley." Without another word, Jack spun around and was dashing through the woods again, making it to the Yodel Ranch in record time. He found the inside empty. "Hello?!"
"Jack?" A voice said. Jack went to the closet and opened it, looking down at a huddle Barley and May with only a flashlight in their hands. She squinted up at him. "Mr. Jack?"
"Barley, what're you doin' down there?"
"Hurricane, Jack." Barley said in a hushed tone, "Big one. My fault, I...I didn't feel it in time. Gotta do something. I can't make it into town, it's already here."
"I'm not leaving you two in a closet." Jack said, reaching down, "Get up."
"I'm too slow, Jack." Barley complained, "I can't walk fast enough."
"You're not the one walking." Jack said, reaching down and picking up May, then handing her to him. Barely took her and Jack scooped the old fellow up in his arms. Grabbing a nearby coat, he slung it over the two of them and then went out into the storm again. The winds were howling now, blowing the trees aside in a maddening dance of twigs and leaves, the rain falling hard now. He was about to step into the woods when a cry caught his attention.
Looking to the side, he saw Gotz and Harris coming up from the side path that led to Gotz's house. "Jack, what're you doin'?"
"Hurricane!" Jack cried, "A bad one!"
Harris ran up to him, "Are you serious!"
"As a heart attack, man. Look, go get Zack for me! He might not know yet. I got to run Barley and May back to the Inn!"
"Got it. Go on." Harris ran for the beach as Gotz followed Jack through the woods and into the Inn again, where he deposited May and Barley into the Inn. "Alright, you two get into the shelter."
May suddenly clung to his leg. "Mr. Jack, I'm scared. Will you stay with me?"
"Not now, I still have to...Sparky, who's missing?" He asked when Cliff ran up to him.
Cliff thought for a minute, "Uh, I think Duke went to go get the Mayor and, uh, the Doctor and Elli are still missing. So is Pastor Carter and..."
The door swung open and Karen stepped inside, brushing the rain off her slicker, "Whew, quite a storm outside..." She trailed off when she saw Jack, "So much for my afternoon of peace at the Inn. Excuse me, I'm going home."
Suddenly, Jack caught her arm and pulled her back. "That's no storm, Karen, it's a hurricane. Get into the shelter with everyone else. Where's your parents?"
"Hurri..." Karen gasped as the realization dawned on her, "They're at the Store. They have no idea."
"Right, on my way." Jack pried May off his leg and rushed out into Rose Square, hitting first the Clinic as it was right there in front of him. He burst in and found Elli and the Doctor, standing as calmly as you please and talking at the counter. They saw him, but before they could ask him, he told them, "There's a very large and very dangerous hurricane about to hit Flowerbud. Both of you have to get to the storm shelter at the Inn!"
"What?" They asked in unison. Suddenly, Elli's hand caught the Doctor's. "Jacob, my grandmother. She can't walk, how will I get her there?"
Jack groaned, "I'll go get her, Elli. And Stu, too. Doc, do me a favor and warn the Pastor; Elli, you warn Sasha and Jeff." Jack turned around and rushed off, his side hit with a bad pain as he ran as fast as he could for Elli's house. He ran across Duke, who was getting the Mayor from his house.
He saw Jack and said, "Basil, Anna, and Mary know. They should be on their way."
"Everyone else should know by now, too." Jack said, "I gotta get Ellen and Stu and that should be it. Doc and Elli are telling Ben and Jeff and Sasha, so we should be good." Duke and Jack exchanged nods and went about their separate ways.
Jack rushed into miss Ellen's house and found the elderly woman sitting in her rocking chair, reading a book to Stu. She looked up and adjusted her glasses. "Who's there? I can't see too well."
"It's Mr. Jack." Stu said, waving happily, "Hey, Mr. Jack. You come to play?"
"No," Jack said, coming forward, "There's a very bad storm coming. I have to get you two to the Inn and into the storm shelter. Stu, think you can take a little rain and wind?"
He nodded, pointing to his puffed up chest. "You know me, I can do anything!"
"Good, because I have to carry your grandmother." He said, reaching down to pick her up. Miss Ellen, however, didn't take too kindly to the thought. She reached over and grabbed her cane and proceeded to beat Jack senseless with it.
"You are not carrying me, Jack. I can take care of myself, I just need some time." She said.
"We don't HAVE time, the hurricane is here and you have to get to the Inn as soon as you can." Jack said. He was going to have to knock her out, he just knew it.
Ellen blinked. "Goodness, a hurricane, you say? Well, we'd better hurry."
"I'll carry you." He said, moving to try and pick her up. He got a cane to the face for his efforts.
"I told you, Jack, I'm not being carried."
"But you can't walk there in time!" Jack cried.
"Well, that's what my wheelchair is for." She said, pointing to the other side of the room, where Jack saw an old wheelchair sitting in the corner. As Stu helped her up, Jack fetched the chair and held it for her until she sat down in it. He then placed an old slicker over her to shield her from the rain. Stu came running out of his room in a yellow slicker and a pirate's hat. "I'm ready, Mr. Jack."
"Alright." Jack said, then smiled, "Hey, Stu...who lives in a pineapple under the sea?"
Stu looked at him, confused. "Huh?"
Jack shook his head. A sudden crack, like thunder, sounded, "Nevermind. Let's go and be careful." Jack wheeled Ellen into the storm, the rain coming sideways now and the winds heavier than they had been earlier. If there had been doubts before, there were none now...and it was only going to get worse. Pushing her like a Nascar racer at the Daytona 500, Jack sped her down the path, through Rose Square, and then into the Inn. Stu stayed close behind, like he had promised, and Jack brought them both safely.
"Last two!" He said.
Cliff shook his head. "Not yet. Sasha and Jeff haven't gotten back yet."
"Elli was going to get them." Jack said.
Cliff shrugged, "She said they had to get some things to bring with them."
"This isn't a damn campout, it's a hurricane." Jack sighed, his clothes were soaked, his body was drenched to the bone, but he figured since he was already wet...might as well get back to it. He rushed back through the Inn's doors and back down the Square and to the General Store, where he noticed something was different.
That crack he had heard minutes earlier. He had thought it was thunder, but he could see that it must have been the trunk of the thick tree that now had split the General Store in two. It had fallen right on the middle and crushed the home. If they hadn't come by now...
Jack's gut lit on fire as terrible thoughts rushed his mind. He exploded through the wreckage and went inside. He saw no one at first, heard nothing due to the wind and rain and howling...but then he saw a flash of black in the window leading into the back. He kicked the door in and looked inside, suddenly feeling very sick.
Jeff kneeled in their kitchen, his body hunched over the form of his wife, who was lying very still with the tree trunk pinning her legs, a terrible scrape over the side of her face, blood streaming in rivulets down her face. She was very white. Jeff, his pale face panicked, looked up at Jack, "The tree...it fell! Jack, I can't move her!"
Jack went forward and felt Sasha's wrist. His blood chilled as he felt nothing. He pushed harder and...there, a very faint pulse. He looked down and saw her legs pinned by the tree's fall. Not crushed, but certainly stuck. He set his face hard and turned to Jeff. "Jeff, you take her hands, you get ready, because this may be the only chance we have."
"Jack, we have to get help."
Jack turned away from him, his hands grasping the tree's underside. "Time is something we don't have."
"You can't do that!"
Jack put everything he had into turning his body into a flesh and blood 'jaws of life' as he pushed with his legs, lifted with his arms, and used every muscle he had into lifting something that, by all rights, he had no business even trying to lift. Jack let out a bellowing scream as he fought to move the tree, lifting as hard as he could in a monumental effort that Samson himself would have been proud of.
Finally, Jack couldn't lift anymore and he collapsed, his hands, cut by the hard bark, bled freely and his arms and legs screamed in protest of what he'd tried to do. But it wasn't enough, he told himself...it just...wasn't enough."
He looked to the side and saw Jeff, pulling Sasha well clear of the tree. Jack's eyes widened. He had done it, hadn't he? He'd lifted it. Barely, just an inch or two, but enough for him to slide Sasha out. One look at her legs and he knew they were broken.
Jack rushed over and took Sasha in his arms. "Come on, we have to go." He said. Jeff followed him as he charged through the rain and wind and hail. Now that the storm had rushed in. Limbs were blowing through the street, leaves slapping hard against bared flesh, uprooted bushes tumbling wildly to the side. Jack could no longer run like he had, but he still managed to get into the Inn to find Cliff waiting for him.
"Thought you weren't coming back." Cliff cried, "Everyone's here. Let's go!"
He carried Sasha into the sparsely lit storm cellar, surprised to find it big enough for the entire town to fit into. There were some cots, a few chairs, and food supplies. Jeff and Cliff ran in and Cliff locked the door behind them, the howling just a distant noise. Jack brought Sasha over to the nearest empty cot and laid her down, then turned to the Doctor. "Doc, she was pinned by a fallen tree. I think her legs are broken."
"Mama!" Karen rushed forward to her mother, but Jack held her back. "Let me go!"
"She's hurt, Karen. Give her some room, let the Doctor do his work." He held her as she cried, waiting as the Doctor examined Sasha, the turned to Ellie.
"Elli, I need four CCs of morphine. Good thing I thought to bring some medical supplies. Gotz, Doug, find me some straight planks so I can tied her legs to them. She'll be fine for now, but I'll have to get her some more medical attention when the storm passes."
Jack sighed, catching his breath. They were safe. The town was going to be hit hard, but they were safe. He looked around at the villagers, who were looking at him silently in sideways glances. They weren't saying it, but they owed him their lives. Had they just been home when the storm had it, it could have been worse. He saw Rick sitting up, rubbing his poor cheek and his mother sitting with him.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to him. He looked over all the villagers to make sure he was seeing right what he was seeing. The realization struck him like a lightning bolt and he immediately verbalized it, "Where's Popuri?"
Everyone looked around, but she was nowhere to be found. Gotz spoke up, "I saw her heading towards the mountainside path earlier, just before the storm hit."
"She wouldn't...still be up there, would she?" Lillia asked. The horrible thought that she was out in the storm, without any shelter...
Jack turned around and lunged towards the door, cursing as he found it padlocked. "Cliff, gimmie the key!"
"Jack, hold on!" Cliff said, "That's a major storm up there, it could kill you!"
Jack reached down and grasped Cliff by his collar, pulling up to his face, "If you don't unlock that door, I'm going to kill you!" Fumbling, Cliff unlocked the storm door and let Jack out. The farmer heard Cliff shut it back and lock it into place again.
It was Jack and the storm now. He rushed through the doors and into a great mixture of howling winds, stinging hail, and biting rain all pelting him. He didn't know how long he had until the winds were enough to carry him away, but he had to find Pouri. He did the only thing he could do: run.
He ran through the woods, yelling angrily as he rushed forwards, trying to stave off his fear. "IS THAT ALL YOU GOT, GOD? YOU THINK A LITTLE STORM WILL TAKE ME DOWN!?" But his threat was more empty than it sounded. Jack was scared, scared for his life and scared for Popuri's life.
The trail was littered with flying branches and more than a few hit Jack, scraping him, poking him hard enough to make him bleed, but he ignored it all. He rushed up the mountain side path, calling her named, "POPURI! POPURI! POPURI!"
She had been in the meadow, he realized. She loved to go to the peak. The peak was a good enough place to look for her, so he set off for there and stopped when he reached the bridge.
There she was! He saw her halfway across the wooden, rope-suspended bridge, clinging to the ropes for dear life, her pink hair whipping to the side violently. "POPURI!"
She looked up and saw him, "JACK!" She screamed back at him.
"POPURI, COME ON! WE HAVE TO GET TO SHELTER! MOVE!"
She was trembling, though he couldn't tell. She was crying but he couldn't see, "I CAN'T! I'M SCARED!"
"POPURI! YOU HAVE TO MOVE! HURRY!"
The sound of a snapping tree trunk resounded in the air and Jack looked up with horror to see a pine tree on a ledge above falling down. His prayer that it would miss the bridge went unanswered as the tree fell onto the bridge and snapped it easily, sending tree, bridge, and a screaming Popuri flailing into the stream below.
"POPURI!" Jack screamed. Her fall seemed like slow motion as the stream devoured her like a monster. Jack felt nothing, only the insistent call to save the girl who loved him so much. He ran down the ledge and leaped off into the stream with abandon. The rushing water hit him like a ton of bricks and he started swallowing water before he broke the surface.
When he managed to reach air, he was coughing and sputtering, trying to catch his own breath, but also looking for Popuri. She was easy to see, her red dress marking her some fifteen feet above him. He swam for her when she suddenly vanished from sight. Jack only had a moment before he realized that they were tumbling towards the waterfall. With a final, large breath, he went over the side and into the pool by the Hot Springs.
Underwater, Jack opened his eyes and saw Poprui sinking to the bottom of the pool, her eyes strangely open and staring, her form unmoving. He swam for her and grabbed her hand, pulling her up.
Weary, feeling more tired than he had in ages, Jack hauled Popuri's lifeless form onto the beach and felt as if he was still in the water. The storm was simply too powerful. He couldn't make it back, but his only salvation was the tiny shack at the Hot Springs and it was simply too small to offer any protection. His gaze landed on the cliff wall nearby and it hit him.
He grabbed Popuri and pulled her inside, the tiny entrance giving them only a marginal amount of wind and rain, but the rest of the small cavern was safe and dry. He laid Popuri down and suddenly saw how lifeless she had become. His eyes widened as he slapped her cheeks gently, her limp head lying uselessly, her eyes staring into nothing.
"Oh no...Poe, no." His lips were on hers instantly, not to love but to deliver life-giving breaths into her lungs. Every breath he put in, she put out a bit of water, leaking down the sides of her mouth. A large red mark, now bleeding, was on her forehead. "Poe, don't you leave me." He said, nearly in tears. "Don't you leave me, Poe. I love you too damn much."
He worked her chest, pumping down on it while putting breaths into her lungs. He must have done it forever when he put a long breath of air into her lungs and she sudden spasmed and coughed water into his mouth. He backed up and Popuri gasped and coughed violently, struggling for breath but obviously and delightfully more alive than she had been minutes before.
Her coughs turned to tears and Jack wrapped her in his arms, kissing her head. "Oh Poe, you had me worried."
"I'm scared, Jack!" She cried, "I didn't mean to get caught in the storm, but it came so suddenly, I thought I could wait it out in my little cubby on the peak, but I knew I had to get back and then the tree fell and I...I...Oh Jack, I'm so scared!
"Sssh, it's okay now." Jack said, sitting down and cradling her in his arms like a frightened child. "It's okay, Poe. We're in the mine, the storm can't hurt us now. We're alright, I'm with you now."
"You're always with me, Jack." She said. "Always."