By Joel Tagert
Published Issue 113, May 2023
Aloe Vera was riding to the rescue, and not for the first time. In a previous life, the truck had been an ambulance, and Manuel saw a connection between the name he’d given her and that history: a healing salve, a balm in Gilead (though the real source of the name was a long-departed girlfriend, who had turned out more acid than aloe.) Vera had carried people to safety before; she would do it again today.
With the real force of the storm due to arrive by nightfall, and the chance of flooding and landslides very high (many roads were already washed away in the torrent), the authorities had ordered the evacuation of the area. Manuel, whose truck was the closest the neighborhood had to a bus, had volunteered to make one last survey to make sure everyone made it to the technical college in Palma Norte that was serving as a shelter. The ancient cab-over-engine was no stranger to wet and wind, and despite the crashing sheets of rain the engine grumbled reassuringly beneath Manuel’s seat. He drove slowly and carefully along the road through Caña Blanca, stopping at each house and honking his horn.
North of the school the road was covered in running water. He stopped, got out, stomped around. Just passable, the flow six or eight inches deep, though it was risky if the water increased. But there were several houses still to the north, and he hadn’t seen old Luis Perez at the college.
Sin problema, fácil, fácil. A moment’s splashing and he was through. It was good he was going now and not later. At night it would be even harder to see the road, assuming it was still there at all.
Luis’s house was nestled in the jungle close to Arroyo Esmeralda, which had spilled its bounds and was filling up the front yard. A miscellany of pots, urns and vases were scattered about the porch; though he was at least eighty, Luis still sat down at his potters’ wheel now and then to feel the clay under his fingers. (A nearby building housed the kiln.) Repeated honking brought no one to the door, so Manuel got out and banged at the door.
Luis! Es Manuel. ¿Estás ahí?
Noise from within, then Luis’s long face and foggy eyes. Ah, ah, hola Manuel. Entra, entra.
No, no. Tenemos que irnos. Es una evacuación.
¿Pero por qué?
La tormenta, Luis. Vamos, vamos, viejo.
Luis made more noises of protest, but he had lived long enough to remember other storms, deadly ones, and seemed to appreciate the effort Manuel had made in reaching him. At last Manuel got him out to the truck and seated in the cab. Feeling the mission successful, he put the vehicle in gear and lurched forward.
… Only to jam on the brakes in alarm as a slight figure leapt in front of the headlights, arms waving. A young girl in a very insufficient violet windbreaker, dark hair plastered to her head.
Help me! Help!
Manuel turned to Luis. ¿Quién es este?
A shrug. No sé.
Manuel got out. ¿Qué estás haciendo aquí?
My family’s sick.
She pointed up the road. Squinting, he could just see a light. Suddenly he remembered the old Jimenez place. They’d moved out two years prior and the house had stood empty since then, but he seemed to recall Oscar Navas had been up there doing some renovations. Okay, he said. She turned and started to run back up the road. No, no, he called after her. Sube al camión. He waved her into the truck. She got into the back seat, instantly creating a puddle on the taped-up vinyl, while Luis turned his head curiously.
When he got back in the drivers’ seat, he turned to his older passenger and asked if he knew the girl. No, came the reply, but he’d seen the family. He thought they were tourists.
Well, they’d chosen a hell of a time for a vacation. Luis looked with concern at the back seat, which could fit four if everyone squeezed. Normally he would have set up a canvas topper over the bed for more people, but he’d been using the truck recently to transport lumber and hadn’t expected more than one or two people to be dumb enough to not have evacuated.
¿Cuántas personas hay en tu familia?
I don’t speak Spanish.
How many? How many personas?
She held up a hand with her thumb folded in. Four! And none of them listened to the radio, or saw an alert on their phones before the service went out? He cursed under his breath.
The house was nicer than he remembered. New windows, a new front door, the roof freshly tiled. The girl stood in the doorway as he jogged up, waving him on. Come on!
The interior was warm, dry and well-lit. Someone was lying on the couch, curled beneath a blanket.
What’s your name? he asked the girl.
Okay, Margot. Where your mama y papa?
Upstairs. Come on.
Both were in bed. Hola, he said, and again, and told them his name. No response. He came closer.
They were only a little sick yesterday, but now they’re like this, said the girl. Tears streamed down her face. Do you think they’re going to be okay?
The face of the mother was bright red, but the father’s was yellow. Luis checked his pulse, but he’d seen that color before and knew the man was beyond the realm of okay or not okay. He leaned in toward the mother, whose breathing was ragged and clogged. ¿Senora?
The woman coughed and he felt a fleck of moisture on his still-wet face. He flinched back. There was blood on her pillow, as on the father’s.
¿Hay alguien más? He shook his head. More?
The girl ran to the other upstairs bedroom. A boy of twelve or so, burning with fever.
Luis’s mind raced as he stumbled down the stairs. He’d expected confusion, resistance, tears, but not this. Nothing to do with the storm. An infection, obviously. Had he understood the girl correctly, when she said they’d only been “a little bit sick” yesterday? Sick with what?
He wiped his face, wiped it some more, went to the kitchen sink and washed it and his hands with soap. He felt the shock of the situation. Five people. Four, really – nothing urgent about the father. And when they got to the college? What then? There was basic medical care there, sure, but of a field-hospital type, not the intensive care these folks obviously needed. From the look of her, he wondered if the mother would survive the trip.
Some kind of virus. Respiratory, fast-moving. It had incapacitated four out of five, and killed one so far. He saw again the packed ranks of Palma Norte’s residents in the college’s gymnasium. Imagined what such a virus would do. And he knew he himself had already been exposed.
On the other hand … it might be nothing of consequence. A bacterial infection, bad drinking water. What was the alternative? Try to weather the storm here, hope the place didn’t flood, maybe end up a yellowing corpse himself?
A healing salve, a balm in Gilead. We go to town, he said aloud. Todos. Everybody.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast and INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.