PART ONE:

QUARANTINE ISLAND

“You ain’t going anywhere, today. We ain’t.”

“Why’s that?”

“There’s no flights going to New York.”

“Newark, then?”

“Nix, man. No place. No where. No York, No Newark. No Wark. No… Body.”

I shifted to the other desk.

“What about you?” Still no.

I ventured over to HeronAir.

“You guys going?”

“No can do, Sir. No flights. In or out.” They packed the remainder of their things away and closed down the computers.

This was puzzling and annoying in the extreme.

Something had happened. Between the time the great majority of the extended families and friends of the wedding party and I had left Miami International and arrived here, an event of some as-yet unknown but clear importance had occurred in the world.

Incidentally, I am supposed to be the bridegroom, as you may have surmised.

House of Orange Airport, or, HOOA, as I came to learn it was called, would be my home over the next three weeks. In my case, it was the House of Yellow, for I was in truth experiencing the most lily-livered, polar of cold feet. The small island airport concourse was nearly empty, and everyone was tightlipped and nervous.

No friendly Antillean smiles on from the natives. In fact, hardly any natives. Just us, the recently arrived.

I already knew Blue West Indies and BNNA weren’t going. No charters, nothing. No word as to why, yet.

This was bad. You see, I suddenly knew, with all certainty, that I needed to leave, the island. The whole engagement. The matrimonial rites. Right away, now. Yes, I know I had just gotten there. I had come to realize, in the two-and-a-half hours in the air between my arrival at Miami to my connection here, that I couldn’t do it. And now, logically, I knew I needed to leave.

You see, of all possible times for a Groom (your current Narrator) to get cold feet, “The Last Minute” is rated among the worst. Yes, at the apex-crisis moment of the blessed events, the culmination of “The Engagement,” when the high fever’s breaking, the worst possible thing is to pull the high-energy maneuver of the last-minute bailout. The Bachelor ejects clear of the incoming flights.

Both sides of the family, braving weather, economic downturn and now the actual danger of locking into a pressurized high-altitude jet with 300 other souls, any one of whom, or any number of whom may be… Well, they could all arrive to enjoy the most engaging possible result of all: the mystery, heartbreak, drama of a called-off engagement.

Both sides, finally funneled into the happy Caribbean catch basin of St Cyril, flown together for this happy event, a stewing squabble of aunts, of generations-long festering filial enmities suddenly forced into the open by the collision of new nieces, grandchildren, toddlers. Into this traveling imbroglio of embrace, sound, textures, odors of motion-sick infants and variably-leaking toddler grandchildren, a six-year-old nephew in shorts and a blue blazer, a stripe of dried vomit or toothpaste crossing his lapels, hearing-impaired cousins, perpetually buzzed college buddies, and the strange demographic of the actual bridal party, Uncle Cliff with his conspiracies, the bride’s brother Todd civilly detesting his father. My dad and mom chose not to come, disliking this arrangement from the outset. Happily, however, my sister and brother were among us, the now-stranded, and that meant my sister’s two kids, and my brother’s son, energetic delights to my eye, always in evidence–and everyewhere.

The kids couldn’t have been happier. When they learned that we’d be stuck here awhile, they rejoiced, but tried to hide it, sensing the discontent of the older people around them. The eldest, Otto, my brother’s boy, 11 years old, remarked sagely, “If you’re going to be stranded, Paradise isn’t a bad place for it,” and nobly sought to entertain the adults, many of whom were adapting badly to their new lifestyle.

Otto’s cousins, Melba, 9, and Dale, 6, readily assented, particularly when they learned that their school schedule might not resume for a little while.

I spent as much time as I could observing the little ones as they played on the gentle sand of the quarantined beach, delighting in their simple happiness. I am also a robust swimmer, and was thus lifeguard. The ten kids from our wedding party merged easily with the other children, caught here, from distant shores or natives to the island. I watched fast friendships form between kids as they darted into and out of the water, oftentimes with sea fauna, shells and skeletal remains of various kingdomsexplored the rock walls at the far ends of our beachhead, named by the locals Bardow Beach.

Every one of the travelers to the wedding with him his or her tale of personal odyssey, of battling through

Super-Blizzard Hernan

Extending its Wintry

Tropically Depressed

Blanketing from

Grand Rapids to

Grand Central Station

delayed or cancelled flights, lost bags, obscure connections made by moving north then counterclockwise against the storm (Uncle Louis’s JFK-Minneapolis-Albuquerque-Miami being the most Homeric), voyages of adventure replete with inevitable missing medications and all the innumerable plaguing details of what should, at its heart, be a simple and profound ceremony of Love.

And, speaking of “plaguing,” the possibility of an actual plague.

Or pandemic, as the medicos like to put it.

To cold-foot it out now, would be to face the embarrassment of the stories to be told of me in future, even the deathless resentments of those I’d invited hence!

I wanted to leave! Better: Just disappear. Maybe have to head in-country and defect to the Cyrilian Montagnards, the French-African-Caribbeans who allegedly dwelt in the dews and vales and atop Mount Huyghens, claiming allegiance to neither of the island’s two putative owners, the Dutch and the Russians, but to a mythical character known by various names like Wilhelm the Short, Francisco Montana, Joe Montana, and others, depending on the whimsy of the storyteller. Now in the news was someone calling himself–or herself–“XGringo”.

I looked over at Bill, already in position at a table at the airport cantina, a Red Stripe in his hand and a smile on his lips. He was a man prepared for the long wait, who sat a wheelchair lightly as anyone you’ve seen. He looked at me and mouthed, “Want One?”

I just as silently replied, “Coke.” Bill rolled his eyes. He wouldn’t bother budging his Brompton chair for something so inane. He found my new (two-year) sobriety something of a bother. We’d run together hard at school and then after, until he’d been sent overseas…

… And in the meantime, I’d given up drinking, for the time being. While he gave up walking, for good.

Anyway, he’d somehow already latched onto some weed. In the airport. Or he’d brought some. I could tell he was coasting from the happy forgetfulness of his smile, the same one I saw in school when everything lay ahead of us. I could see that he was exulting in the sensations of being on the Island, even if he was at the airport. Truth was, it was pleasantly warm, and lightly fragrant of… well, some kind of tropical blossom I didn’t know the name of, yet.

I sat next to him and asked for a coke from the waitress, a pretty, caramel-complexioned island girl of perhaps 21 years.

“She’s pretty,” said Bill.

“I can’t do this, man. We’ve got to leave.”

“Don’t think you’re going to be able to do that.”

“I can, Bill. I must.”

“No,” he continued. “No one can.” He nodded towards the “Departures” screen hanging above the wide interior space of the terminal.

All cancelled.

And no one permitted to leave the airport, it seemed, to judge from the heavyset, white-shirted men now visible in twos and threes near the exits. Strong looking men with ebon skin, perhaps a tad overfed on starchy carbohydrates but nonetheless formidable.

It was low-key, but it was clear we were boxed in here.

“Besides,” Bill carried on, as though reading exactly my earlier thoughts, and embellishing them, “And we shall speak of this moment of stark, pants-wetting cowardice on your part no more. You are Chief Wetsaddle of the Panic Indians. Your yellowed hepatic organ is your guide, not the stout heart of the Hussar or the Tsar’s Uhlans. You are the Non-Valiant, tasting of death a thousand times. Your escape now would be a worst-case of this type of retreat, when the Simple Love Rite has, in your Intended’s, in Martha’s hands, become now a Curtis-LeMay-scale logistical undertaking to stage roughly 3,000 planes carrying relatives and friends over this peaceful island, and to create a perfect masterpiece of self-sustaining energy, in much the same way the Eighth Air Force and the RAF created perfect storms of oxygen-sucking energy in Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden. An “Engagement” so complete that scarce one brick is left connected with another, an unleashing of an immense, suffocating firestorm sparked by white phosphorous descending on the “kindling” roofs of our minds, this vast man-made firestorm will clear the area of all things living.”

H continued his reverie.

“A wedding so masterfully undertaken and executed to exceed all other weddings, to smash the target to the last perfume bottle, to raze it, a marital masterpiece of planning and logistics, of B-17s and -24s rumbling on the tarmacs of thirty-five different airbases, topped off and loaded, the fighter escorts already launched ahead to clear the skies of enemy interceptors… and then… to have the Top Man call it off, on a whim! Eisenhower or Churchill would have carried on, my Feeble Comrade.”

“You hate weddings, don’t you?”

At times like this, you remember that Bill’s been sitting in that chair for six years now, and it’s scary to think what-all he may have been thinking during that time. It occurs to me that the words “Marital” and “Martial” are quite close. I remark on this to Bill.

“Nice pick up on that MARITAL/MARTIAL thing. The Marital Arts.”

Bill smoothly came back on-topic, all professional, sharp appraisal. I imagined this might have been his demeanor back when he earned a living as a Marine intelligence officer.

“All scenarios are bad. Bad timing. Regrettable. Expensive. The worst time. Except…” Bill paused, looking at me like I was supposed to deliver a scripted line.

I started nodding…

“Except for after, ‘I Do’.”

“That’s right,” said Bill. “Let’s get out of here. Or try, anyway. Wheel me.”

We sought a small plane. A canoe. Anything to abet the prospect of escaping St Cyril Island quickly. Pleaded infirmity, health crisis. Offered money. I even offered some gold (I always carry a little when traveling). I wheeled Bill around attempting to be casual, yet my heart was thumping. I sought escape.

I could not go through with this.

But, as nothing could be done about it for the nonce, and as nothing has been said, yet, save to Bill, I had not officially precipitated a crisis, yet. Martha and her maids busied themselves at the other end of the single bar in the pavilion, occasionally squealing with what one could tell, even from a distance, was off-color humor.

They paid us but little mind as I wheeled Bill around.

Cedar Rapids? Yes? Havana? Yes? No.

Anywhere?

Nowhere.

Because of the storm?

Don’t know, man.

I left Bill and approached the man with the shoulderboards, with whom I had established a cordiality over the last few hours. Little did I know that this familiarity would be enforced over the next three weeks of his, and our, enclosure in quarantine.

“Excuse me, Sir?”

He inclined his face to me. It was clear from his eyes that I was not the first of the day’s inquirers, and that, perhaps, I had overestimated our familiarity. He seemed not to recognize me. He answered the question without my asking, his eyes a little hard.

“I don’t know. Ask your Navy.”

I stepped out into the noon white sunlight and onto the observation deck of the tiny airfield, with its windsock and absurd runway leading into the sea. It occurred to me I had never encountered a silent airport before, of any size. This one was silent.

“You sure that’s mine?”

At one end of runway, the jet-exhaust enthusiasts stood, waiting, hoping at least one more plane would take off.

These folks were a constantly refreshed, merry-making band of tourists and locals who enjoyed pitting themselves against the heated hurricane of jumbo jet exhaust as the big birds throttled up to clear the highland ridges of the island’s Grande mountains, particularly the three spikes of its highest peak, at 1,900 meters, of what the Slavs call Mt Triglava and the Dutch, Mt Huyghens.

These fun-seekers sought to be blown into the surf by 747’s or 380’s turning tail and burning rubber into the wind at this end of the runway. All would emerge from the hot stinging granularity of blown sand hatless, with sandblasted idiot grins from ear to ear. Great fun. Jumbo fun.

No roar. No planes to cheer coming from the opposite direction, on final approach, so close you could almost jump and grab a wheel.

Just dead quiet. Almost dead. A helicopter purred in the distance, from the sea.

On the horizon I descried the masts and antennas and profile of a stealthy-looking, low-riding warship beneath the deep shadows thrown by the snow-white mountains of cloud towering, checkerboarding the deep blue Caribbean sky. Abreast them, farther out against the placid tropic horizon, a still larger ship loomed in the haze, standing sentinel.

The official, an older man with tight curls of thinning gray hair against almond skin, joined me in my observations. He now recognized me from my earlier attempts to get off the island, and the familiarity between us returned. He was almost paternal.

“Yours was the last plane in.”

“What’s happened?”

He looked out to the horizon.

“Something about the World Health Organization.”

Damn. I thought I knew what that meant, but, given what was to come, no idea. The “Eurasian Contagion.” 20-25% mortality. Had it mutated again?

“There will be an announcement from Geneva,” he consulted his watch, a well-traveled military model with a woven band, “In forty-five minutes.”

I eyed the sparsely attended airport bar with its TV, then the guards at the exits. They were locals, carrying intricately crafted weapons from Austria, I wagered. My correspondent seemed to possess the most stripes on his tunic. He was unarmed. I would have to find a seat at that bar, soon.

I regarded the ships cluttering the ocean. A couple big, low-lying gunboats. Additionally, three towering cruise ships stood at anchor, three miles out. Beautiful catamarans and high-masted yachts could also be seen, just at the territorial limits.

The uniformed man indicated. “That biggest cruise ship is the Absurdidam, out of Den Haag.”

I looked at the elder officer. He had a sly smile on his face.

“That’s well-said,” I smiled. I surveyed the tonnage visible on the sea. “That’s a lot of expensive hardware out there,” I commented, motioning towards the navy ships.

“Poor people,” he exhaled, eyes on the towering cruise liners. “I’m sure the throngs around the buffets are quite unmanageable by now.”

I laughed at the image and the dryness of the man’s unexpected humor.

The cruiseliners each flew the yellow flag with the black circle in the center. The “Quarantine” flag. Some of their passengers must be showing symptoms. Yikes.

Our attention was arrested by a hatch opening iris-like in the hull of the larger naval ship. Out of this orifice spat a twin-engined racing boat painted in a garish white and black checkerboard pattern that reminded one of…

… A target? The boat began a series of evasive maneuvers. It began to run towards the nearest cruise ship, the horizontal high-rise of what my counterpart had amusingly christened the Absurdidam.

I had secured the monocular I happen to carry everywhere and took a look at craft as it sped away. With the 4-power magnification, I could see her stern as she charged away from us on the island at speed. I detected no one manning the boat.

“She’s unmanned,” I reported.

The craft cut through the light swells like a cigarette boat, all engine.

The crowd on the shore took note with a murmur.

The strangely painted black-and-white craft executed a sudden 18o, her two powerful outboards biting deep into the water and she sprang towards us.

At that moment, a big jet helicopter, like a fat fly, fairly jumped off into the haze from the nearer destroyer and started speeding in our general direction. The mottled sunlight of the cloud-flecked, humid sky sprinkled off the optics and matted window-glass of the pursuing helicopter.

Several seconds after that, the actual noise of all this overtook us, and the helicopter buzzing noise sharpened and deepened, the late-arriving report of its launch and acceleration… towards the speedboat. From the time delay between the action and the sound, I guessed the distance to the ship at perhaps three miles.

The chopper was coming closer, low, fast, feathering the sea below, inclining beneath its powerful rotor, cloud shadows alternately darkening and lightening its fuselage.

The aircraft enthusiasts on the shoreline began to guardedly rejoice. It wasn’t a jumbo jet, but, hey, a Navy warbird? Not too shabby!

I scanned it with my $29 telescope. No roundels. No identifying stenciled “USN” or tail numbers. Odd. An unidentified navy.

Looks like one of “Ours,” I thought. Looks like one of “Theirs.” I countered. Whose ships are those?

I scanned the ships, painted in their high-seas camouflage, all broken planes and false shadows in deep Caribbean tones. A beautiful sight, really. Plenty of flags, signal flags, but no national flag. Odd. Odd. Odd.

“You sure that’s My Navy? You know whose island this is.”

The old man caught his breath. “Half this island, you mean?”

“For now.”

He grew cold. Stiffly, he announced, “Forever, Young Man. I will not volunteer it to them.”

Thus reminded of my place in the older man’s strict, seemingly Confucian-Green-Mountain-Boy universe, I fell respectfully silent, and observed the chase.

The target boat still came our way, in a sharply zigzagging course. About a thousand yards out.

The boat reminded me of something you might have seen in old newsreels of White Sands Proving Ground, when the Army tested captured V2’s and its new WAC-Corporal single-stage liquid-fuel rockets. They were fiendishly temperamental, poisonous contraptions, prone to launch-site explosions or hilarious-seeming guidance failures, except this wasn’t a rocket, but a speedboat, painted the opposite of the navy ships, in an anti-camouflage pattern, in a black-and-white checkerboard format, designed to make its structure and attitude distinguishable by powerful lenses and tracking systems at great distances…

Or, say, from a nearby beach.

The gunship fired for one second with the 20mm chain-gun.

Because of the roughly one-kilometer distance between us and the action, there was still a brief time lag between the flash and the report. Before we heard the colossal shredding noise of 100 shells tearing the air, the target boat had already disappeared in a great flume of foaming sea and lofted bark. Then came the ripping noise and immense splashing sound. We all jumped at the frightful noise.

The crowd went wild, raising drinks and arms like concertgoers, girls whirling and screaming, guys roaring out with drunken enthusiasm.

The blue-toned gunship came closer, revealing its lighter-hued underbelly and bristling automatic cannons, stirring anxiety in some and enthusiasm in others. The electronically-sighted weapons panned the beach, silent, its instruments animal-like in their darting, reactive movements.

“Awesome,” boomed an immense, bearded man tented in a huge Bob Marley tee-shirt that failed to conceal the entirety of his hairy abdomen and navel, loose-fitting gym shorts and leather sandals.

The helicopter wheeled perpendicular to us, and hovered. One could see the occupants, clad in combat biochemical hazard suits.

They definitely wanted us to see them, and to see them dressed so.

The crowd quieted.

“It’s a no-fly zone, you see, Sir. A no-fly zone.”

“A no-boat zone, too, I’d say. The name’s Del.”

“And I, young man, am Brigadier Phyfe.”

We shook.

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