“Did you cut every one of my classes?” Richard Carlisle -- senior meteorologist for a major television network, professor emeritus of the meteorology department at Cornell, and generally mild-mannered Southerner on the receding edge of middle age -- stared at his former student with undisguised disbelief. He might have laughed if his safety wasn’t at stake.
Barely sparing it a glance, Richard pointed, straight-armed, to the breadth of paned glass behind him. The window framed the limitless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean beyond, from the steep, rugged cliffs dropping below him to a horizon nearly obscured by an encroaching, churning late-afternoon sky. Thick layers of cumulonimbus mamma clouds resembled sinister, undulating bubble-wrap as they stretched across the water.
“In case you were asleep at the wheel that semester, Denny, what’s brewing out there is called a tropical storm. The sustained wind speed is fifty-five miles an hour and gusts are hitting seventy-five. Does that mean anything to you, son?” He paused. “Let me refresh your memory. A person can’t remain vertical against anything stronger than that. And you want me to go out there -- on a rooftop terrace -- and do my stand-up? Are you plumb crazy?”
Freaking nuts is what he would have preferred to say, but there were too many between-shift waitstaffers bustling through the rooftop dining room of one of Barbados’s most luxurious oceanfront hotels on the eve of hurricane season. The island, the easternmost in the Caribbean and arguably the first that would feel the effects of the season’s weather, was facing the upcoming storm season in typical Caribbean style: With a languid shrug.
Twenty-four-year-old Denny Buxton, Richard’s former student and current assistant producer, grinned with the unique idiocy of someone who has seen just enough of life not to realize he hasn’t seen nearly enough. “Dude, c’mon. The Weather Channel guys do it. Hell, Jim Cantore is somewhere on a beach right now getting his ass sandblasted six ways ‘til Sunday.” Denny paused. “Okay, how’s this? We’ll tie you down. I saw some of those loop things in the floor that they use to tie down tents.”
Richard continued to stare at him, dumbfounded. The kid was a fool. Unfortunately he was also right. Viewership spiked during bad weather, but doing something crazy never hurt.
Denny’s idiot grin never faded. In fact, it grew broader. “You want to do it. I can’t believe it. You’re gonna do it.” Laughing, Denny aimed an exuberant high five toward the camera man, who was not much older and no more sensible.
Richard looked over his shoulder at the wall of windows and the dark, glowering bank of cumulonimbus clouds beyond it. The smooth, caplike pileus cloud had stabilized, as the last radar report had indicated it should, and the storm hovered over the ocean, threatening to come ashore at any moment in a rush of wind and hot rain that would be gone within the hour.
The storm would be fast and furious. Not overly dangerous, but it would wallop the coastline, annoy the residents, and scare the hell out of the tourists, dousing the hardiest, or fool-hardiest, among them who remained outdoors. And after the rain ended, the island would return to being steamy and still, the weather a suitably sultry backdrop for its summer season.
“C’mon. Let’s mosey. We’re on in thirty.” Denny and the cameraman pushed through the door, into the wind.
Richard took a deep, resigned breath and followed them onto the roof.
“We’ll just do the teaser out here. If it gets too bad, we’ll go back inside,” Denny yelled over the howling wind.
“A decision only a moron could make,” Richard drawled under his breath.
Denny squinted at him and mouthed, “What?”
Richard smiled tightly. “I said ‘good idea’.”
Denny nodded. “You stand there,” he shouted, pointing to an open area that afforded no protection from the elements. “That way if you get knocked over, you won’t fall over the edge.”
Shaking his head, Richard moved to his marks and grimaced against the wind as Denny gave him the countdown with his fingers. As the producer’s last finger folded into his palm, Richard flashed his on-camera smile.
“Hello, America, from the not-so-sunny Caribbean. On the day before the official start of the hurricane season, we’re already bracing for a close encounter with the second named storm of this year. In what is already shaping up to be a remarkable hurricane season, I’ll be providing you with a bird’s eye view of Tropical Storm Barney from the coast of beautiful--” He stopped speaking as he saw Denny’s eyes widen and jaw sag.
Microphone still in his hand, Richard glanced over his shoulder. His gut clenched as he watched the bloated, menacing clouds of a moment ago exploding over the open ocean with the unholy force of a mid-air detonation. Furious plumes burst in all directions and the sea’s dark, choppy swells erupted into a frenzied expanse of boiling, churning whitecaps thundering a crazed ambush on the suddenly puny cliffs and the beach at their base, fifty feet below.
Faster than his mind could register what was happening, the wall of wind hammered him, knocking him to floor and sending him skidding head first into the stone skirting wall that surrounded the roof. As unconsciousness rushed him, Richard remembered the last time, the only time, he’d witnessed anything like those clouds.