-Barely, but, yes, more than anyone else. I remember even in preschool when the teacher would grab her hand, she’d stare at the spot where their skin connected as if it were an affront to her existence. Just stand there and glare like she wanted to hurt someone.
-Junipera suffers from a rare phobia.
-Please, what does June not suffer from?
-When did she start chasing storms?
-In third grade she started obsessing about the rain. Full blown? I’d say after hurricane Katrina she never looked back. And she didn’t just chase them, June became those wild storms.
Junipera and Gemini Jones, Irish twins born during the month of June, survive a childhood of neglect and poverty by looking out for one another. Destined for a group home, the girls are rescued by a rich aunt and uncle who move them from Northern Minnesota to Fairfield, Connecticut. One sister thrives while the other spins out of control. A violent assault leaves Gemini searching for clues, but what she finds might be questions that are better left unanswered.
June drove almost all night. The farthest south she’d ever been was Oklahoma, going after a tornado, and she’d flown past the Louisiana state line around four in the morning. She wasn’t exactly sure where she would stay since she’d heard on the radio that all of greater New Orleans had been placed under a mandatory evacuation order. Experience told her that there would be at least one hotel open downtown where reporters were holed up. She’d followed their lead before, pretending to be chasing the story and not the storm. They usually had the best intel and she would leech off of them if she could. The storm had been given a name when she turned into a hurricane—Katrina, they called her, and she’d become a category three when she hit land in Florida. But now she had free rein over warm open water. That meant her hunger would gain and when she touched Louisiana, she’d do it with a vengeance. She was expected to hit land around six in the morning, as a category five. June had never actually seen a five before, but she knew roofs, cars and trees would go flying through the air like paper dolls, sucked up into the vortex and spit out indiscriminately.
Traffic snaked away from the Gulf in impossibly long lines of chrome and glass, rubber tires packed full of momentum wishing they could go faster. June had the speed they wanted as hers was one of the very few cars racing in the opposite direction. She came down I-55, and when she hit the I-10 bypass, the seriousness of the evacuation became apparent. Anyone who could was getting the hell out of New Orleans.
Storm excitement felt very much like a hormone—tipsy, punch-drunk and out of control. June got high off the anticipation; she tuned out the radio and the long line of evacuees and listened to the storm. She spoke its language. June lowered the windows in the Beamer so she could feel the pressure in the air. Her blood surged in her body like the ocean tides do in response to its pull. Her extremities tingled; so did her nose. She could taste the storm on the tip of her tongue, like a spike, a live wire, a sharp blade laced with coppery blood. Katrina called to her and June’s thigh muscles quivered.
June laid into the gas. Sometimes municipal law enforcement would block incoming traffic as well. June knew how to pose as a news reporter, but she wasn’t the most convincing candidate. Stringy blonde baby hair, lithe body like a cattail reed, clothing that was two sizes too big for her. She looked more like a painter or a homeless person despite driving a BMW. But her passion was always convincing, and her hope was that if Katrina was as big as she promised to be, whoever was watching would be too distracted to waste precious energy on just one life when hundreds of thousands were at stake.
“You a chaser?” the man asked her. He was a plainclothes officer, or maybe a reporter? She couldn’t be sure. He was the third person to stop her since she’d made it into the abandoned city. Anyone left on the streets was in transit, looking for a way out. More than one person had flagged her down and asked for a ride to the Superdome.
“No, I report to the Weather Channel directly,” June snapped. She stuck her anemometer on top of her small rolling suitcase. “I’ve got a room at the Riverside Hilton,” she said. She’d parked Uncle Ben’s BMW in the closest parking garage, reserved the room with his Mastercard. The receptionist only asked her if she knew there was a city-wide mandatory evacuation in progress. June looked up at her as if she were insulted. She smacked a press card on the desk. It wasn’t hers and the receptionist didn’t check it.
The cop or reporter was sold with the card. He figured hustlers or chasers couldn’t afford digs like hers. She walked briskly past him and flashed him her key card. What was he going to do? Arrest her and take her to jail? They had bigger things to worry about. This city was about to get slammed and everyone who’d stayed knew their lives would be in danger.
There were maybe a hundred or so of them in the Hilton. June recognized all the chasers, and not just because she’d seen them at other storms. It was their wily nature, their eyes holding the spark instead of the dread that was written all over the faces of the real press in the crowd. Some were there for the historic record and others, like Junipera, were there for the fix.
The wind started to scream at around eleven that evening. June wrapped her camera and her meter tightly in Saran Wrap, then stuck them in Ziploc bags along with her paper and pens. She packed all of the tiny water bottles and soda, peanuts and pretzels from the mini fridge into her backpack. Rolled up her blue tarp, Swiss Army knife, extra pair of underwear, waterproof pants and windbreaker and stowed them alongside the food.
The rain lashed the windows and splashed against them in sheets as if her hotel window were the windshield and she was moving slowly through a vigorous carwash. June stepped outside onto the balcony around two in the morning; the rain seemed to have died down but the wind was picking up, the trees across the way bending and straining, at times leaning almost horizontally. Her anemometer picked up wind speeds over eighty miles per hour. It’s the eastern side of the hurricane that packs the power punch. When that came calling, the hotel would be bending like the trees.
The television in the room blared with the constant evacuation warnings. June watched the Doppler radar image on a loop, circling toward the city like a hanging jaw going from red to purple. Hungry, angry wind and water were coming. June filled the bath tub, reinforced the metal stopper with Saran Wrap, did the same to the sink. She plunked down on the bed, splayed her limbs wide and stared at the ceiling.
The demon bared its teeth, and the windsong progressed from scream to roar, drowning out the warnings on the television. The beast was in the room, she was everywhere, surrounding them. June flinched every time she heard glass pop and shatter.
The window shook with the ferocity of a King Kong tantrum. Junipera imagined the tall Hilton as a toy in a child’s diorama reproduction of the French Quarter. Her fingers dug in and she held tight to the edge of the mattress. The room went black and the television silent when the power failed. The roar got louder, filling up her ears to find a way inside her skull.
At six-thirty in the morning her windows finally burst; the shades flew into the room and danced a madcap jig, wrenching themselves from the sliding track. June watched, eyes wide, as the one on the left took flight, a flash of soaring white in the dark sky before it flew out of sight. She crawled along the carpeted floor that was now soaked in brackish water, rolled to her back and filmed the macabre sky. The center of the hurricane looked like the center of a starfish, opening and beckoning, then folding in on its own hungry embrace. If there were Gods they were angry, monsters immune to the rules of give and take. June’s ears popped with the pressure while debris flew over her head, sometimes inches from her face. Then the rain began to plop down again in enormous drops. She stuck her camera under her shirt.
No sun rose and daybreak came in without color. From white to grey to a drab blue, the subdued tones of pigeons colored the horizon. When the roar finally moved far enough west to quiet, her ears still buzzed with its scream as if it had taken up house in her head. June could hear the beating of propellers—Army, she assumed, and not meteorological. The sound of periodic gunfire she decided to tell herself was exploding transformers and not ruthless people taking advantage of a ghost city with only a weary skeleton crew to protect it. She washed her face and armpits in the water she’d saved in the sink. Brushed her teeth, spitting in the toilet. She drank from the bathwater as if it were a baptismal font. It tasted as warm as the humid air around her.
It was still a good storm raging outside but June figured she’d head to the command center and hang with the reporters, hear their assessment of the damage. Running her fingers through her tangled hair was the best she could do for appearances. Nobody would care. The room, which had probably been a continental breakfast concierge haven, was now buzzing with reporters using an antiquated form of dial-up to communicate with the greater world. With a crashed electrical grid, the means for direct communication were severed. Someone had made coffee from instant crystals and bathwater. June helped herself to two mugs full as she listened to their chatter and took notes. Analog reporting, they were relaying messages like it was 1984. June heard reports of levees breeched, ruptured, possible flooding, but no one seemed to know for certain. She left the command center and went back to her room, pulled on her waterproof pants and rain boots, and put a sweater on under her windbreaker even though the humidity was stifling. She walked out the door with nothing more than her equipment and tiny rations in a backpack.
“Which way is the ninth ward?” she asked the security guard standing by the sliding glass doors. He looked her up and down reproachfully and Junipera tried to stand even taller than her already generous five feet ten inches.
“To your left. It’s a long walk, and believe me, from what they’re saying you don’t want to go there. Head to the Convention Center instead.”
“Thanks,” June said. She stepped out into the dense fog and turned left.
“There’s still debris flying. Hurricane ain’t over yet!” the security guard shouted after her.
She disappeared from his view, swallowed up by the insatiable mouth that wasn’t yet finished feeding on New Orleans