Sarah knew she had to move into the sprawling, ramshackle, make-believe town that had sprung up out of the chaos. Even though she’d seen more than enough to know the incredible power of the human spirit, it still impressed her how people picked up their lives and got on with living.
She saw victims aplenty, but these people knew that the way ahead meant denying any connection with that word ‘victim’. Out here, playing that card was a fast-track to nowhere. There was no benign army of government social workers and well-meaning, hand wringing dead-anters! Sarah knew the danger of creating a culture of dependence among people who had never had one. Making people dependent on aid might assuage the guilt of the more fortunate, but it offered little for the long-term sustainability of any local economy.
Sarah walked slowly, watching the faces of those around her. They all looked much the same: the classic beauty of the local woman, the weathered and lined faces of the older men. But although they looked drawn and tired, there was a common determination radiating out from their eyes. The time for sitting and grieving had passed. They knew they had to move on.
The locals acknowledged her, more out of curiosity than anything else. They must have wondered why she was there, so obviously searching for something or someone. And Sarah couldn’t have told them what or who, even if she could have managed more than half a dozen words in the local language.
The local hospital. Somehow she knew that’s what she was looking for. How did I know that? Where was it? Who would know? As if in answer to her question, she reached what passed for a corner and turned her head to see what had to be a European man some distance from her. Instinctively, Sarah knew he wasn’t the angel, but maybe he could direct her to the hospital.
Sarah allowed her feet to follow her gaze. The man would have been perhaps 35, tall, blond, with what looked like several weeks’ untidy growth, rather than a deliberate attempt at a beard.
“Hello,” she called out.
The tall blond man turned at the sound of her greeting. He smiled in her direction and waved a greeting in return. He began walking towards her.
“Hi,” she repeated the greeting. “I’m Sarah Long,” she announced as they drew nearer to each other. “I came in on the chopper. You couldn’t show me how to get to the local hospital, could you?”
“You don’t sound American.” His blue eyes showed a mixture of curiosity and humour.
“I hope not,” she replied, “because I’m not. But I appreciate the fact they’re the only ones providing buses along this route right now.”
The humour factor switched into the dominant place. The edges of his eyes and his mouth edged upwards in tandem. “Indeed. Hello, Sarah Long, I’m Bjorn McAllister. The hospital, such as it is, is down here. I’ll show you the way if you like.” His accent sounded European, presumably Scandinavian, she assumed. The name gave it away. Or did it?
“Thank you,” she said. “I’d like that.” And she wasn’t just being polite.
He turned and fell into step beside her while indicating they should carry on down the lane they were following. “So what brings you to our little corner of the world?”
“Two things. I’m on the chopper because I’m a journalist who is using the best that the free world has to offer to see and tell others what’s going on out here.”
A shadow crossed his handsome features if only for a moment. “You mean they’re still interested?” he asked, somewhat caustically. “I would have expected something else would have taken their attention by now. Are there no other pressing scandals to titillate them yet?”
She put on a look of mock contrition. “I’m sorry, sir, we’re guilty as charged.”
He laughed out loud. The fleeting cloud departed, and McAllister was like a big blond kid again.
“Why are you here, Bjorn?” she asked.
“Ah, not so fast, Miss Reporter Lady. You haven’t answered my question yet. You said you had two reasons for being here. What’s the other one?”
“I’m looking for someone,” she relied simply.
“And who would that be?”
“I’m looking for a man.”
“Well, don’t I qualify?” He was baiting her in a gentle, inoffensive way.
“No, not quite. He can give you a few years, Bjorn, and there’s a good chance he’s a Kiwi like me.”
He proved he could pull faces too, with a remarkably convincing display of disappointment.
“You’ve been here too long, McAllister,” she said. It wasn’t the normal way she would have reacted to a complete stranger in a completely strange environment, but Sarah didn’t expect him to take offence at her directness. She was right. The man’s distress evaporated in favour of his buccaneer grin.
“And what makes you think he’s here?” the pirate asked.
“It’s a long story. I’m not sure if he is, but I suspect he will be sometime soon.”
“I can pretty well confirm that he’s not here yet, Sarah. I’ve been here since the tsunami, and I’d certainly know if I had some competition.”
Sarah felt a twinge of regret that the angel wasn’t standing there welcoming her with open arms. “That’s a shame,” she managed to say, hoping her feelings weren’t too obvious. “Perhaps he’ll turn up soon.”
“But how else could he get here? You said it yourself; the US Navy has the only transport. If you didn’t bring him, then who else will?”
“You don’t know this man, Bjorn. He has a way of getting around. But I’ve told you why I’m here. You know how it’s supposed to work. It’s your turn now.”
“I’m stranded here. It’s that simple. I was just up the coast when the waves struck, and…well let’s just say I don’t have a boat anymore. I’m lucky to be alive. I’ve hung on here to help these people because of how they helped me. I did twelve years as a navy medic back home in Sweden and have been able to make a bit of a difference.” McAllister’s eyes clouded again. “But I doubt I can do much more now.”
They walked slowly down what was probably once a bustling village street, but didn’t see a soul. The locals had gone down to the helicopter. Sarah realised that the crew would want to move on soon, and she was AWOL. Would they leave without her? No, of course not. Would they come looking for her?
“Here we are.” Her worries were interrupted by Bjorn’s slightly accented words. He was pointing to a temporary shelter made from canvas, the remnants of old buildings, and the natural thatching of branches from local trees.
He pushed aside the canvas doorway, and she peered into the darkness beyond. It took a moment or two for her eyes to adjust to the dark and her nose to adjust to the smell. Then, slowly, the picture became clearer. She saw perhaps thirty people lying on mats on the ground. Others sat beside them—family members, she assumed. The pervading attitude was not one of despair, but one of joy and peace. And she could see why. There in the middle of the room was a man who clearly wasn’t a local. He was a man talking in a language she couldn’t decipher, but the locals obviously could. And it was a man she knew. How could he be the angel?
She stood there as if rooted in the soil. The people on mats were stretching and moving their limbs as if they had just woken up. The looks on their faces said it all. She knew what had happened. These people had been cured. She had no idea if it was a complete cure, but they were being transformed.
Such was the excitement that no one seemed remotely interested in the two white faces. The talking became shouting. The wonder became excitement, which soon became jubilation. The crescendo that followed would have driven lesser people from the shelter. People began jumping and rushing past Sarah and Bjorn out into the streets, yelling and laughing and crying tears of joy. Bjorn pulled Sarah to one side to avoid her being flattened in the rush.
As the crowd thinned, Sarah pushed her way towards the centre of the shelter, desperate to reach the man who had to be the angel. Her target greeted her with the most incredible smile. She could feel something flowing out of him, something that made her weak.
“Hello, Sarah,” the angel said.
“Daddy? Is that you?”
She stood there, completely unable to believe her eyes. It’s impossible. How could… But she had no doubts about the man’s identity. Sarah flung herself into her father’s arms. “Daddy, it’s been so long. Ever since Mum…“
He closed his arms around her, and they stood there for what seemed like a very long time. Finally she looked up and could barely make out the frame of the Viking through her tears. He was also lost for words, or so it seemed, because he offered none of the obvious ones.
“Daddy, this is Bjorn McAllister. He’s been helping out here since the tsunami hit. Bjorn, meet Sam Long, my father.”
McAllister was trying to disguise his goldfish impersonations, but failing horribly. Then he seemed to pull himself together and held out his hand to shake Sam’s.
“Mr. Long,” he said in a voice which conveyed a hundred emotions and a thousand questions. “How do you do, sir?” Then his voice gathered a little more strength. “What just happened here?”
“Hello, Bjorn. Delighted to meet you. Your patients tell me you’ve been a real blessing to them.”
An uncomfortable silence. No one knew how to ask all the obvious questions. But that silence was broken by the distant sound of a helicopter starting up.
“Oh, God,” Sarah gasped. “My transport. They’ll be looking for me. Daddy, I have to go. Please come with me. I need to find out what this is all about. And Bjorn, if you want to move on, then this is probably the only chance you’ll get for a while.”
She physically dragged her father from the shelter and back towards the chopper. And, clearly, Bjorn wasn’t in a hurry to separate himself from them. No doubt he had his own questions, his own need for answers.
The three of them rushed back towards the helicopter, but the sound of its rotors began to diminish. They were shutting down again. Then they saw the people coming towards them, but then stopped and watched the trio from a safe distance. Their eyes held a strange quality, not knowing whether to be afraid or in awe of what was now common knowledge.
Soon the three of them found themselves walking a narrow path between two groups forming a guard of honour, or at least of curiosity, offering little more than low murmurs, accompanied by shy smiles. They couldn’t get lost since the path went all the way to the aircraft, and there at the end stood the crew, Terry and Eddie Nolan. While the others looked confused, Nolan’s face was lit up like a Christmas tree, reminding her of what she had seen on her father’s face only a few minutes before.
They finally made it through the gauntlet and stopped, greeted only by another incredible silence. No one knew what to say. It was not exactly the sort of thing one plans for. You just soak in the moment, knowing you’ll never see it repeated. “Gentlemen,” Sarah finally got out. “Meet Bjorn McAllister. He’s been helping out at a shelter that passes for a local hospital since being marooned here by the waves. And this is my father, Sam Long.” She spoke almost mechanically as if introducing her dad to a friend in the street, which in a way, she was. Then she added, “I know you need to move on, Mike, and we have to visit more places today. But is there any chance of these guys coming along?”
Sarah knew the Navy was cautious about who they would carry, probably for all sorts of good reasons. But she also knew that if enough of the story reached these men, then they would have already sent a report to the ship about what had happened.
“Hi, Bjorn.” Pilot met pirate. “I’m Mike Seymour. I’m the driver.” Then Seymour turned slowly and extended his hand to the man of the moment. “Mr. Long. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. We’ve been in touch with the ship, and the Captain has asked me to extend his invitation for you to join him for lunch.”
“But what about the rest of the mission?” Sam asked. “I wouldn’t want people to miss out just because we were enjoying lunch.”
“That’s been taken care of, sir. Captain Creen has tasked another aircraft to complete those duties.”
Sarah risked a quick check of Terry’s face. She wanted to know if this was a good idea. Terry gave an almost imperceptible nod. She still wasn’t sure, so she sought a similar assurance from Eddie, who was no help at all, having gone to another planet, where everyone alternated between grinning and glowing. But the choice was taken out of her hands.
“Well, I for one would be delighted,” Sam Long graciously accepted. He glanced across to Bjorn and added with a twinkle, “How about you Bjorn? Ready for a burger and fries for a change?”
“I suspect we can do a little better than that, sir.” Mike turned back to the Swede. “Bjorn, if you want to be repatriated, you might like to gather up anything you want to bring with you. I’m sure we can help get you back to wherever you want to go.”
“Thanks, Mike. I do have a few things I need to bring. You know, passports and stuff, and I’d like to thank and say farewell to a couple of people. Would you mind waiting a few minutes?”
“No problem. We’ll finish here and get ready.”
Bjorn melted into the crowd, and Mike turned to Sam and asked, “What about you, sir? Do you have anything you need to bring along?”
“No, thank you, Lieutenant. I have everything I need right here.” He leaned over and wrapped an arm around Sarah’s shoulder, drawing her towards him in a gesture of obvious affection. Sarah felt something flow into her again, just as she had felt when she’d first spoken to him back at the hospital.
“Daddy, let me introduce you to the rest of the crew and some friends of mine. This is Scotty McLean, he’s the crewman.”
The two men shook hands, and Scotty looked like something had hit him hard. Sarah gently removed his headset and spoke into his mike. “Todd, this is my dad; he’s coming back to the ship with us.” Todd was sitting at the controls, and he gave the traditional thumbs up through the window. Sarah handed the headset back to Scotty, who put them back where they belonged without giving any sign he’d even seen them.
Sarah spun around and drew her father across to the other two. A red light indicated Terry was recording. She wasn’t surprised; she wouldn’t have expected anything else. “Terry Gunn, my right-hand man,” she said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr Long.” Terry really did mean it, for a lot of reasons.
“Sam, Terry, Sam. You and my girl have been working together for a while as I recall.”
“We sure have. She’s a great partner.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Terry. And thank you for looking after her so well over all these years. I imagine she has been a handful more than once.”
“I’ve worked with a lot worse. She’s a good operator, but more than that, she’s a lady, and they’re not always easy to find in this game.”
Sam continued the smile as he released Terry’s grip.
Sarah guided him to where Eddie stood, still beaming. “And Eddie Nolan. He’s a priest we picked up along the way while we were in California, not long after you…I mean not long after we arrived there recently. He’s helping us out with some research for the story we’re working on.”
“Hello, Father. Sam Long. I must say I’m a little surprised to see someone like you in such rough company.”
“Life is full of surprises, Sam. But then I’m sure you know about that. This is a real privilege, and one for which I owe your daughter a huge debt of gratitude. Please call me Eddie.”
“That’s great, Eddie. You sound like you’re a long way from home.”
“I am that, Sam. But life sometimes puts us in new and exciting places, does it not?”
“You’re not wrong, Eddie. You’re not wrong. But at least you get to meet some interesting people that way, don’t you?”
“Daddy,” Sarah interrupted. “There is so much I want to ask you, and I’m sure Eddie has as well. It’s just that finding you here is such a surprise. I don’t know where to begin.”
“There’s no hurry, love,” her father answered. “We’ve plenty of time. And the story needs to be told. I know that now. And I’m ready—or as ready as I’ll ever be.”
Sarah had never seen her father so relaxed and at ease. She remembered him as a reserved man, always fiercely protective of his family and cautious of others who came into their world. But Sam Long had changed. She couldn’t think of the right words to describe how, but he certainly was different.
They let the awkward silence return. Each had his and her own unanswered questions, but didn’t know how to ask them. There was also a sense of reserve and maybe more than the glimmerings of fear. His answers to their questions would take them into a previously unknown place. There was always some fear of the unknown. Even the idea of taking her father to the ship had Sarah worried. Are the bad guys already there? Are they waiting for us? What can I do about that? Nothing at all. Daddy has walked right into it. We can’t change our minds now.
They simply stood there, watched by a crowd of silent onlookers. Thinking about it later, Sarah knew it was surreal. Terry shooting it all, Mike returning to the captain’s seat, Scotty doing his start-up checks—as if nothing had happened. And the three of them standing there looking at the crowd who were looking back at them. No, not at them. They were looking at Sam.
The moment in time thawed as the crowd parted to allow a tall blond frame to come through them, prompting greetings and farewells to Bjorn. But for the most part, the spectators remained in a trance. It remained like that, even after the four of them boarded the aircraft, and they rose out of one small island of hope in the midst of a sea of destruction.
* * * * * * *
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The ship looked the same, but it didn’t feel anything like the same. Sarah cowered on her canvas seat, clutching her father’s hand like a small child in a crowded amusement park. She could feel hundreds of sets of unseen eyes probing the sides of the helicopter, long before the rotors stopped and the doors opened. You’d need a very sharp knife to cut the air of expectation that settled on them and the welcoming committee, including the captain, that greeted them on the flight deck.
Even though Sarah and Terry had been on the ship for days at a time, neither had met the captain, let alone spoken to him. He’d fronted up to one of the very early briefings, but then kept well out of the way. Unlike some career officers whom Sarah had met, Captain Horatio M. Creen was not the type to court publicity. Now he was joined by a couple of other senior officers whom Sarah hadn’t seen before, the Senior Chaplain and the Media Liaison Officer.
Captain Creen came forward to greet the party, but it was clear who this reception was for. He headed directly for Sam and introduced him to the rest of the group before inviting the rest to join them for lunch. Sarah got a surprise when she glanced down at Terry’s camera. He’s covertly recording this. I wonder why. Has he picked up on something I’ve missed?
The party made their way through the ship to the room that had been set up for a sit-down meal. One long table, with Captain Creen on one side at the centre, and Sam carefully positioned opposite him. It was like they were still back in the village. Small talk, with everyone wanting more, but not quite knowing how to ask for it.
Stewards delivered a first course. The chaplain said grace. This was theatre in the raw. Did anyone believe this was how lunch was normally eaten, even for senior officers?
Suddenly, Sam looked up from prodding his small fork into a delicious looking prawn and spoke directly to the captain. “Captain, you may want to call a temporary halt to this beautiful meal. I think you may have a situation arising.”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Long?” Creen was sure he must have misunderstood what Sam had said.
“I’m sorry, sir. I meant no disrespect. It’s just that I have this feeling that one of your helicopters is about to…”
Sam didn’t get the words out. The sound of alarm bells cut him off. That was followed by an announcement that an aircraft was on fire on the flight deck.
Creen turned a few shades whiter as he looked at Sam. “You’re quite right. I don’t know how you knew that, but please excuse me while I go to my station.” He paused only for a moment then summoned his officers to follow him. “Padre, will you stay here and look after our guests? Gentlemen.”
They rose as one and followed their captain from the room, leaving the chaplain and five civilians looking at one another, but mainly at Sam.
“They lost power shortly after take-off and crashed landed onto the deck,” Sam explained. “I don’t know why. The crew have all suffered burns and other injuries. But thank God, they’re all still alive. Some of the deck crew were also affected.”
Silence. Five mouths were open. Then the crash of dishes sounded behind them. Sarah’s and all the other sets of eyes shifted in reflex reaction. One of the stewards had obviously heard it as well.
Sam looked at her obvious confusion and smiled that same smile she had warmed to back in the village. And ‘warmed to’ was more than a benign descriptive phrase—her whole body had actually warmed. She could feel it.
“Daddy, how did you know…?”
“It’s a long story, Pumpkin.” Sam leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “And it’s not finished yet.”
“You’re him, aren’t you?” she murmured quietly. “You’re the one who’s been popping up all over the place and leaving before anyone knows who you are.”
His eyes settled on hers, and she could feel the intensity coming out of them. She had known her father all her life, but she had never seen him like this. As she looked at him, even though his lips never moved, she heard a clear voice somewhere inside her that said, “Yes, it’s him.”
“Madre de Dios,” came a muffled whisper from behind her. Again she turned, expecting to see the same steward, but where there had been one, there were now five. Three of them were crossing themselves. Sarah realised she wasn’t the only one who heard it. But if her father didn’t say it, who did?
Her father’s eyes moved to the chaplain. “Could you please show me the way to the sick bay, Eric? I think I may be able to help those who have been injured—if they will allow me.”
The request shook Chaplain Eric Kennedy out of his almost paralysed state. “Of course, Sam. This I have to see. Please, follow me.”
Sam wiped his mouth with his linen napkin and rose to follow the chaplain. As he was about to pass through the doorway, he looked back to the group of stewards who were still standing there, transfixed. “Thank you for the wonderful meal, gentlemen. I hope we will be back to enjoy it soon. Please pass my thanks on to those who prepared it. May God bless you and those you love.”
He turned and followed Kennedy out into the corridor beyond it, followed by Sarah, Bjorn, Eddie and Terry. Sarah heard a crash behind them and stopped. “What was that?”
The four of them looked back to see all five stewards flat on the floor as if asleep. Then Sarah realised her father and his guide were gone from sight. There was no time to investigate further. They certainly didn’t want to miss out on what would happen next. Sarah led the three men in hot pursuit of her father. It wasn’t hard to follow his trail through companionways littered with unconscious or barely conscious bodies, just lying where they had fallen. They could hear the occasional low scream or moan ahead, so they kept stepping over bodies as they tried to catch up.
They took nearly 15 minutes to reach sick bay. Sarah wanted to get closer, but also didn’t want to get in the way. She peered around the doorway to see her father holding his hands across the chest of a man groaning while he lay on a stretcher. It was eerie. There was barely a sound, apart from the scraping of tables and litters, and the background ship noises they had long since ceased to hear. Then she heard her father’s voice.
“He’ll be fine. Now, I wonder if you gentlemen could point me to the head.” His tone was so matter of fact that he could have been asking for a cup of coffee.
“Sure,” another voice replied. She didn’t recognise it. “Right this way.”
“Thanks.” Dad again.
The sound of people talking slowly returned. As it began to build, Sarah pushed her way slowly into the room. The man lying on one table was Mike Seymour. But he wasn’t groaning anymore. He smiled up at her with the same smile she had seen from her father, back in the dining room.
“Are you okay, Mike?” she asked.
“I have to tell you that I’ve never felt better in my life, Sarah. I don’t know what your father has or what he does, but I’m telling you, I want a whole lot more of it.”
“What about the others? Are they okay too?” Terry asked.
“You had better believe it. They’re over there.” The pilot nodded his head towards other tables surrounded by confused, frightened men united in their animated disbelief.
A man in a surgical gown came over to them. “I’m sorry, but you’re in a restricted area. I have to ask you to leave.”
“They’re alright, Brendan,” Mike Seymour chipped in. “Sarah is that man’s daughter. She was the one who found him today. If she hadn’t, then he wouldn’t have been here for this.” Seymour waved his hand around the medical area.
Brendan mellowed. “I’m sorry, Miss. I didn’t know. But this is still a hospital and not a place for spectators. Would you mind going back to wherever you were before.”
“Sure.” Sarah didn’t want to frustrate the crew who were only trying to do their jobs. “If we can borrow the chaplain back—the man who brought my dad down here. We’d better wait for Dad too. Is that alright?”
“That’s fine, Miss. But please wait out in the corridor.”
They left to do as the doctor requested. While they waited, they could see burly men picking themselves up from where they had fallen. There was no real sense of any of the confusion she had seen inside the sick bay. The people just got up—some helping others onto their feet—and walked away, talking to one another in that same animated way about what had happened.
They stood there for perhaps five minutes, but there was no sign of Sam. What’s keeping him? He should have been here by now.
Sarah took the initiative. She opened the door again, expecting to see her father talking to the medics. But he was nowhere in sight.
“Excuse me, is my father still here?” she asked.
“He went to the head, Ma’am,” was the reply.
“That was 10 minutes ago, Doctor. It shouldn’t take him that long.”
“Go and check the head will you, Jackson,” the man said to one of his orderlies.
There was a brief delay until Jackson retuned and reported. “He’s not there, sir.”
“What do you mean he’s not there?” came the exasperated reply.
“Just what I said, Doctor. He’s not there.”
“Well, have a look around, will you? See if anyone saw him leave.” The doctor named Brendan turned back to Sarah. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I don’t know where he’s gone. I’ll get the padre. He can take you back to where you were having lunch. When we find your father, I’ll have someone bring him up there. Okay?”
“Thank you, Doctor,” she said.
“It’s Brendan, Brendan Hosking. I’m sorry I was a bit short before, but we’ve had a rather challenging day.”
“It’s Okay. You’re not the only one. Just give us our guide, and we’ll leave you to it.”
She saw the chaplain coming out of the huddle of people around the tables. “Padre, can you please take these folks back to where you had lunch?” Hosking asked.
“Of course, Brendan. Would you follow me, Sarah. Gentlemen.”