“A hurricane?” Pippen looked around. “Aren’t we supposed to go down into the storm cellar until it passes?”
“That’s tornadoes,” I said. “For hurricanes, I think you’re supposed to head away from the ocean, toward high ground.”
“We’re in Florida!” Tan said. “We’re surrounded by ocean, and there is no high ground!”
“I guess that’s why they have all the hurricane route signs,” said Conner. “When there was a hurricane, everybody just left the state. Maybe we ought to get out of here too.”
“Yeah,” said Pippen, “we’ve got the shut-off factor. Let’s go!”
“Wait!” I said. “We can’t leave without Jon’s email!”
I ran back to Jon’s office, with the others trailing after me. The printer had used all the paper, and there was a big stack of printed pages in the out tray. I started to stuff them into my backpack, then paused. Didn’t hurricanes involve rain and floods? I wasn’t sure if the ink in Jon’s printer was the kind that ran when it got wet, but I didn’t want to take the chance of losing information we’d never get again. I dumped Jon’s waste basket out on the floor and pulled out the plastic liner bag. I put the printouts of Jon’s email inside, put my own notebook in too, tied the bag as tightly as I could, and zipped it in my backpack. While I was doing this, Conner unhooked our deep-cycle battery. Jon’s computer screen went dark and the whine of the fan died out.
“Well, let’s go have a look at the storm,” I said. “Maybe it’s not that bad and we can still make a quick visit to Kennedy Space Center on the way home.”
We headed back up the hall toward the front door. Even before we got through the security door, we could hear a howling that got louder the closer we got to the exit. In the front lobby, we crowded up to the glass door. The rain outside blew past nearly sideways. The trees bent from the force of the wind.
“Maybe we should wait the storm out here.” I said, raising my voice to be heard above the wind. “This building’s been here for years; a little storm isn’t going to hurt it!”
I opened the door a crack to check on how bad it was, and the wind ripped the door out of my hands, smashing it against the side of the building. The glass shattered along with my hopes of seeing the Kennedy Space Center.
“Change of plan!” Conner yelled “Let’s get out of here!”
Tan and Conner dashed out into the storm. I started toward the door, then looked up at the sky. It was a dark green. I’d never seen a sky that color. Huge black clouds rolled across the sky, faster than any clouds should be able to move. I froze in the doorway, horrified. I had seen a sky like this before. In nightmares.
“Callie, come on!” yelled Pippen. She grabbed my hand and yanked me out into the storm.
The rain hit my face like a thousand tiny needles, shocking me out of my trance. The wind nearly tore Pippen away from me. I grabbed her hand tighter, leaned into the wind and struggled toward Arnold. In the few seconds it took us to reach the Humvee, I was soaking wet on one side, but still dry on the other. Pippen dove in the back. Tan climbed in, hugging the precious box of shut-off. Conner tossed the battery in the front and climbed behind the wheel. I heaved the battery back into its spot under the front passenger seat and reconnected the terminal cables with a few quick whacks from the handle of my screwdriver. Conner had the engine started immediately and spun the Humvee around on the rain-slick pavement. I struggled to snap the seat cushion back in place while being bounced around. As soon as I could sit down I grabbed the map and tried to find the fastest way back to the freeway. We hadn’t exactly taken a direct path to get here.
“That way!” I shouted.
Ten minutes later, we still hadn’t found the freeway.
“Are we going the right way?” Pippen asked.
It was hard to tell where we were with the rain and wind whipping the jungle into a tangle of blowing leaves.
Tan looked behind us. “Maybe we should have turned right on that last street.”
Conner didn’t say anything. Conner has different kinds of quiet. From being around him so much, I’ve learned to understand him. There’s an “I’m thinking” quiet, an “I’m angry” quiet, and an “I’m perfectly happy” quiet. I identified this one as “I’m worried, but I’d never admit it because it would make me look like a wimp.” Conner slowed to a stop, then without a word opened his door and slipped out into the storm. Confused, I watched as he leaned into the wind and ran around the front of the truck to the side of the road. He grabbed a handful of vines wrapped around a sign and yanked. Enough of the vines ripped off that we could see the unmistakable blue of the hurricane route sign. Conner turned and ran back to the truck just as a huge tree toppled over. It flattened the hurricane sign where Conner had been standing seconds earlier. Conner climbed back into the truck and wiped the rain off his face. “We’re still on the right road,” he announced calmly.
“Did you see that tree blow over?” I asked, shaken.
“I saw it,” Conner answered evenly.
“It nearly squashed you!” I said. “What if you’d been a few seconds slower?”
Conner shrugged. “Then I would have died a warrior’s death. A warrior accepts that he may have to die for his friends.”
He put the truck in gear again, and Arnold drove over the tip of the tree that had fallen just in front of us. I stared at Conner. He almost got killed! I don’t know what I’d do if Conner died, but he was treating it like it was nothing! Sometimes I really don’t understand the big dorp.
The rain was getting heavier, and even on high, the wipers could barely keep up. The trees were bending with the wind, and leaves and broken branches blew past in front of us. Pippen looked nervously out her window. “Is the storm following us? Tan, how fast can a hurricane go?”
Tan shook his head. “I’m a doctor, not a weatherman!”
“Not my specialty either,” I said. “I’m hoping when we get to the freeway we can outrun the storm.”
But there was still no sign of the freeway.
Finally, through a break in the rain, I could see the elevated freeway ahead and the on-ramp winding up to it. Suddenly, Conner hit the brakes and skidded to a stop. A muddy river cut across the road between us and the freeway.
“How deep do you think this is?” Conner asked me.
“It looks like it’s just a low spot in the road that’s flooded. Keep going.”
Conner drove slowly into the river. The water rose higher and higher as we pushed forward. It was looking a bit deeper than just a low spot.
Tan leaned forward between the seats. “It’s up to the headlights now! Won’t the water kill the engine?”
“Diesel,” I said. “This engine can even run under water, but if it gets up to there–” I pointed to the round air intake cap at the top of the hood, “–we’re dead.”
“Callie!” yelled Pippen from the back. “There’s water coming in my door!”
Water was coming in my door too, filling up the foot well. I pulled my feet up.
“Just a bit further!” I said. “Arnold was born to do this!”
I could see the road rising back out of the water, only fifty feet ahead of us. Almost there! But now we were bumping around a lot. Was the road washing out beneath us? Suddenly I felt the back tires drop. The Humvee tipped backward, the front lifting up out of the water. I looked back over my shoulder and saw water pouring in around the edges of the back hatch. Half my brain was screaming that we were going to die. The other half was calmly diagramming how the Humvee’s traction control system sends power to the wheels still on the ground. “Go, Arnold!” I said desperately.
Tan and then Pippen and finally Conner joined in the chant. “Go, Arnold! Go, Arnold!”
Arnold’s gears growled, and slowly he climbed out of the hole and the front end dropped back into the water. A few yards further and we drove up out of the water and back onto the road. The water in my footwell drained out. I turned around in my seat. “Everything okay back there?”
“I think we got some water in the back,” Tan said, “but we’re okay.”
Conner drove up the on-ramp, and Pippen crawled into the back to check the supplies.
The freeway was clear of vines, and we were able to go faster. The storm seemed to be dropping behind us now, and the sky in front was light again, which made everyone less tense.
Pippen crawled back into her seat. “Most of our equipment is okay, but our sleeping bags got soaked. Where are we going to spend the night?”
I did a few mental calculations. “We could get back to the Seven Dwarves’ cottage tonight, but I’m worried the storm could catch us by morning. If we trade off driving, we could just keep going until we get back to Memphis, and stay at the hotel again. That will get us far enough from the storm that we won’t have to worry.”
Conner drove until we got out of the jungle. The sky got lighter again as we left Florida behind. We stopped just long enough to fill up Arnold’s tanks from the jerry cans and munch the last of Conner’s chips. Pippen took a turn driving. She and Tan sat in front and argued about what music to play on Tan’s iPod. I sat in the back and wrote in my notebook. Conner slept in the seat across from me. When I was done recording our adventures in the dungeon, I tied the notebook back in the plastic bag and put it in my backpack. We were passing through the enchanted forest now. Soon the sky started to get dark again, only this time it was a real night, not the creepy green dark of the storm. Tan wouldn’t let me drive, because I was on pain pills, so he drove while I sat in front and talked to him to keep him awake.
“Let’s do riddles,” I said. “What’s red and smells like blue paint?”
“Red paint,” answered Tan immediately.
I tried another. “What’s brown and sticky?”
“A stick,” said Tan.
“What has two arms and two legs and flies?”
“A past person.”
“This thing, all things devours–”
There are some disadvantages to only having nineteen people in the world.
I watched the miles tick away steadily on the odometer. “Hey look guys!” I said. “Arnold is about to have his one hundred thousand mile birthday!”
Arnold already had a lot of miles when I adopted him. The odometer only has five digits. It got to 99999 miles, then it rolled over to 00000. We sang Arnold a birthday song.
Conner took another turn at the wheel, and quoted favorite action movies with Tan. I sat in the back with Pippen. Pippen was asleep almost instantly, sprawled over the boxes in the cargo area. That girl has two speed settings, full throttle and off. I couldn’t sleep. The seats in the Humvee aren’t much more than a pipe framework with cushions. I rolled up a towel as a pillow and tried to lean against the boxes, but couldn’t get comfortable. I decided to work out a puzzle to get my brain settled down. Pippen knew Conner was in love with someone, but she wouldn’t tell me who. Solving this ought to be easy. Apart from me and Pippen, there were seven other girls in the clan. It was a simple matter of combining what I knew about love with what I knew about Conner.
What did I know about love? I remembered Moon had gotten really upset one day when her cat had left a mouse on her pillow. Half a mouse, actually. Vega had patiently explained to her that a cat will bring little gifts to another cat it likes. A dead mouse is a cat’s way of saying “I love you.”
I tried to think of who Conner had given a dead mouse to lately. Nobody really. For my birthday, he’d made me a leather calculator case with my initial carved in it, but that didn’t count, because we’re best friends.
I knew how humans in love behaved from reading Bonni’s romance novels. According to those books, when you fall in love with someone, you go all weak and trembly when they’re around, and then you start acting stupid. I hadn’t seen Conner act dumber than usual around any of the girls, and I’d never seen him act weak.
This was getting me nowhere! I decided the problem was I wasn’t an expert on love. I knew the other girls talked about boys a lot, but I didn’t spend much time with the other girls. I was always in the shop or hanging out with Conner and the boys. What I needed was a girl to talk to. But the only other girl within a thousand miles was refusing to tell me the answer. Maybe if I was sneaky and asked Pippen some really general questions about love, I could get her to leak some information.
But that would have to wait because I was finally getting sleepy, and the rattle of Arnold’s engine was steady and reassuring as he ate away the distance between us and home.