My job as a medical equipment sales representative took me to a new hospital in Port Charlotte, Florida. It was late August, and the moment I stepped off the plane I was met with the smothering effects of the humid heat and tropical vegetation. Before I had left home in Atlanta there had been a report of an impending hurricane in Florida, but no one had mentioned it, so I assumed it had moved on to another target, as hurricanes will do.
I planned to take advantage of the trip to southwestern Florida to visit my friend Amelia who had recently lost her husband. She and he had retired to this area to raise horses, and it had been ages since I had seen her. We planned to get in a good visit over the week-end before I returned to Atlanta on Sunday evening.
After my business meetings were completed I drove to her home, the address to which I had entered into the GPS. It took longer than I had anticipated, and it was dark by the time I turned into the driveway of the small ranch, complete with white fences and a big barn.
She returned from the phone call, saying she would have to leave for a bit – it was her attorney calling to say that she needed to come to his office to sign papers releasing the last of the horses she was selling. He also mentioned, she said, that with the bad weather coming, she needed to do it as soon as possible. She asked me if I wanted to go with her, but I begged off, feeling sleepy from the heat. She said she would stop by the deli near the attorney’s office and buy some things for dinner. Tomorrow we would go for a nice brunch before I headed for the airport.
Amelia left and I lay down on the guest room bed, so soft and comforting that I fell into a deep sleep.
The ringing phone startled me awake. It was Amelia, her voice shaky, her words coming fast. She was stranded at a bridge, closed because a sailboat had crashed into it while trying to get to port. It was then I noticed that the rain outside the window was coming in a horizontal direction, driven by a ferocious gale. According to Amelia, the storm had taken a sharp turn and was practically on top of us. “What should I do?” I asked Amelia.
“I think you should take a flashlight and slicker from the back porch and go to the barn. There’s a storm shelter just inside the door on the left – you’ll see the opening to it on the floor. Don’t worry; there are batteries and some snacks there, all in air-tight containers. The storm shouldn’t last too long, but I always worry about a tree falling on the house when the winds are so strong. I’ll feel better knowing you are safe.”
I had always heard that one should go to a closet or bathroom in case of a tornado, which made sense to me, but Amelia had lived here for several years, so I heeded her advice and headed for the back porch. Sure enough, there were yellow rain slickers and a box with three or four flashlights, batteries and all.
I took a raincoat and two flashlights (just in case) and opened the back door, which was at the head of a sidewalk to the barn door. The wind and rain hit me like a truck. I took a deep breath and ran down the walk to the barn. When I opened the door, the wind hit it and ripped it out of my hand and off of its hinges. I stepped inside – sure enough, to the left there was a four-foot square wooden panel on the floor with a large ring handle. I pulled the ring, and the door opened easily to an 8-step stairwell. Shining the flashlight down the steps, I hurried down and pulled the door closed behind me.
It was very warm and damp – and small, barely the size of my walk-in closet. Unbidden claustrophobia suddenly made my breath come with difficulty. I forced myself to relax and breathe evenly. As I made my way down the steps, a sticky spider web fell across my face. I screamed and pushed it away. I felt my heart clog my throat as the spinner of the web landed on my hand. I dropped the flashlight; its beam aimed at the two shiny eyes of a rat under a bench against the wall. My anxiety was morphing into panic.
I shivered and bent to pick up the flashlight and heard the rat rustling back into a corner. Shining the beam of the flashlight around, I assessed the remainder of the creepy surroundings. There was the bench with a couple of shelves over it. On them were the plastic waterproof boxes Amelia had mentioned. One had six or seven large bottles of water; a second one held various snacks, granola bars, packages of crackers, peanuts and cookies; a third held first aid items.
I could hear the rain coming down harder and the wind beating on the wooden door above the stairs. I wished the barn door could have been closed. The neighing and moaning of the horses led me to believe that they, too, were frightened by the storm, which continued to grow louder and stronger. I was tempted to lift the door to see what was going on, but the wind’s intimidating power held me still.
Suddenly a deafening crash sent me reeling to the back of the tiny space. The door gave in with a sickening crunch made by something very heavy – a tree, perhaps, or a stall from above. A board at one side of the door cracked and collapsed onto the steps. I looked to the hole but it was covered by whatever had fallen against it. I stepped up to get a better look with the flashlight. My heart stopped. I could not believe what I was seeing. Straddling the opening in the door was the head of a horse, its dead eye wide open, daring me to come closer.
My knees went weak and I sat down on the bench to regain some semblance of sanity. Then the weight of the broken door cracked the corner wall, and water came rushing onto the floor, bringing with it huge clods of soil and bits and pieces of trees and bushes. I was paralyzed by fear as the water sloshed around my feet and up to my knees. My only thought was to get out of this prison I found myself in. I looked at the door, then went up a few steps and pushed up on the door with my back. Not a budge. The horse must have fallen on top of the door!
Maybe I could get out through the hole the rushing water was making larger by the second. But as I approached it, the force of the water was too much for me to get past. Desperately, I clawed at the soil surrounding the hole, trying to make it larger so I could climb through it. My efforts were met with an even greater rush of water. I was horrified to see that it was swirling around my waist. I was having difficulty keeping my feet on the floor. I was floating in an eddy of dirty water! There was little strength left in me, but I told myself I could escape.
But how? The water was now up to my shoulders; I let it move me while I tried to collect my thoughts. It lifted me onto the steps. All this time, I tried to avoid looking at the horse’s eye. Defiantly I stared back. He glared at me watching my dilemma, mocking me. The water pushed my head toward the hole; I could feel it filling my ears and lifting my hair off my neck. Suddenly, I realized that I could not escape this watery tomb. I floated toward the hole – I was eye- to- eye with the horse. It was the last thing I ever saw.
Mary Bowers has been writing for most of her life, beginning as an English major and teacher, and continuing in the workplace as well as with volunteer organizations. Now, as she describes it, “in the evening of her life” she loves being a part of Marilyn Myerson’s writing group. Highly respected by her colleagues, Mary is referred to as “the queen of narrative” by fellow group members. Three of Mary’s stories can be found in the 2013 publication of member-created works. Reflections: Prose, Poems, Photos, and Artworks, a 374-page volume consisting of written and visual materials submitted by OLLI members to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the OLLI chapter on the USF Campus.