I had always been proud of my relationship with my stepfather. He never insisted that I call him “dad” or tried to take me camping; I never asked him to come to parents’ night or play catch in the yard. Without saying it, we both recognized that we were separate people, linked by nothing but love for my mother.
I felt that this was very mature of us. Many of my friends had unpleasant relationships with their stepparents, full of irritation and resentment, arguments and awkward silences. My stepfather and I avoided all that. We weren’t close, but we didn’t need to be. We understood each other—that was enough.
Over the years, my life changed a lot. I finished college and moved to the city. I got jobs and girlfriends, and I lost jobs and girlfriends. My mother got very sick. But through it all, my relationship with my stepfather was always the same. We had no ups and no downs. I could always count on him for respectful distance and polite conversation.
After my mother died, my stepfather sold their house, retired from his periodontal dentistry practice, and moved to a condo in Florida. He said I was welcome to visit him any time, and I thanked him for the invitation. We sent each other cards at Christmas.
He died at the beginning of August—heart failure. He’d had a condition for a few years, apparently.
His lawyer called from Florida to give me the news. The service, said the lawyer, would be on Thursday, and we could meet before that to go over the paperwork. He told me that the will was relatively simple: I was my stepfather’s only living relative. (His brother had died years ago, and he had no children of his own.)
I knew I should feel sad. I was sad that I didn’t feel sadder. Mostly, I was relieved. Like everyone, I had a lot of debt. I could barely keep up with the interest. But if I inherited my stepfather’s condo, I could sell it and pay off some of my credit cards—and maybe even start on my student loans.
I flew to Tampa, rented a car, and drove west on a long bridge across the bay. The lawyer’s office was in Clearwater, a few blocks from the beach.
The lawyer was small, bald, and very tan. We shook hands, and I apologized for being so sweaty. “Welcome to Florida,” said the lawyer. He laughed, so I did too.
He led me back to his office and found my stepfather’s papers. It would take a few months to get everything through probate, the lawyer explained. “There are some things we need to do to get the condo ready for sale—cleaning out your stepfather’s things, for instance. But you have time. I imagine you want to leave soon after the service, before the hurricane.”
“Of course,” I said. I hadn’t heard anything about a hurricane. I asked him when it was supposed to hit.
“Saturday morning, last I heard.”
“Oh, good,” I said. My flight was on Friday.
“Category five,” said the lawyer.
“Wow. That’s—bad, right?”
“That’s bad.” He told me not to worry: my stepfather’s insurance would cover any damage to the property.
I hadn’t heard anything about a hurricane. I asked him when it was supposed to hit.
Instead of getting a hotel, I decided to stay at the condo. The lawyer gave me a key and explained how to get there. The condo was on a barrier island called Doubloon Beach. “It used to be called Elias Island,” said the lawyer, “until about twenty years ago, when somebody dug up some Spanish treasure. The whole island rebranded.” The treasure, he explained, turned out to be fake—planted by developers to drum up interest in the area.
The condo was in a complex called the Seabreeze, a light-blue, three-story building on the southern end of the island, facing the gulf. On one side of the building was a mural of an enormous white seagull, wings outstretched.
I climbed the stairs, found unit #29, and stepped into a big, bright, cold room. There was a kitchen, a low counter, a couch and a TV, a sliding glass door, a balcony. The air conditioner hummed.
To the right, a hallway led to the bathroom and the bedroom. The door to the bedroom was open. A white collared shirt lay on the bed, and a silver watch glimmered on the dresser. His things. I felt like I’d walked in on him. But no—there was no him anymore.
I shut the door.
The condo’s balcony looked out onto the beach, which was mostly empty. I sat in one of my stepfather’s wicker chair and watched the pelicans dive into the water. The sky was blue and bright all the way to the horizon. It was hard to believe that a storm was coming.
I slept on the couch and woke up, just after dawn, with a sore back.
I had a meeting that morning with the priest who would be doing my stepfather’s service. I could see the church from the condo’s balcony, so I decided to walk. The temperature was already in the nineties, and by the time I arrived, I had sweated through my shirt.
St. Peter’s Episcopal had a tall white steeple and a red wooden door. According to a plaque by the entrance, the church had been built in 1911 and had survived three hurricanes. To its left was a pink condo complex called the Gulfview Estates; to its right, a Buffalo Wild Wings.
The priest was vacuuming around the altar and didn’t hear me come in. I walked up to the communion rail and waved at her. She shut off the vacuum, introduced herself, and said she was sorry about my loss. We went back to her office and waited for her computer to load.
“Did my stepfather come to church often?” I asked.
“Christmas and Easter.” She typed her password. “He came into my office once, a few years ago, after he was diagnosed with his heart condition. He wanted to get everything in order—plan the service, and so on. Very organized.”
She turned the screen and showed me the plan for the funeral service. My stepfather had chosen the readings and the hymns. Everything was in order. “I’ll give a sermon,” said the priest, “but you can speak as well, if there’s anything you want to say—any stories you want to share.”
I looked at the screen for a few seconds and waited for a memory to come.
The white shirt on the bed. The pelicans diving into the gulf.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
I ate lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings and tried to remember stories of my stepfather. I could picture him at the kitchen table, with the phone to his ear, waiting on hold, or at dinner, squinting into his water glass. But these weren’t stories. They were barely even memories.
I walked back to the condo, lay on the couch, looked at the internet on my phone, fell asleep for a while, woke up, and looked at the internet on my phone again. As the sun set, the room filled with blinding light. I pulled the curtains over the sliding glass door.
Above the couch was a painting of a sailboat. I had never heard my stepfather talk about sailboats; to my knowledge, he had never been on a sailboat. Maybe he had become interested in them in his retirement. Maybe he had sat on his balcony and watched the sails out on the gulf. Or maybe he just wanted something Floridian on the wall.
The refrigerator was nearly empty—a carton of baking soda, two cans of Heineken, three clementines, a nearly full bottle of ketchup. I drank one of the Heinekens on the balcony and watched the sun set. I kept my phone on my lap, with the notes app open, in case I remembered any stories about my stepfather. The sky was still cloudless, the pelicans still flew and dove, and the hurricane was still coming.
My thoughts drifted to money. The lawyer had given me an idea of how much the condo was worth, and it was more than I had imagined—enough to pay off my credit cards and my student loans. I would be free. I had never considered what that would be like, and I had a hard time picturing it even now. I had dedicated the years since college to developing the skills I needed for my current position in brand management and content strategy, but I had never felt that my work was meaningful: I had chosen my job because it paid well enough to keep up with my student loans. But I no longer had to worry about that. If I wanted, I could leave brands and content behind and do something I loved.
I tried to think of what that might be. I spent nearly all of my time working and sleeping and looking at my phone. Sometimes I went on dates with women I met on an app. When people asked about my hobbies, I said I was getting into bird watching; once or twice a year, I sat on my balcony, smoked half a joint, and looked at the little birds flitting through the tree in the courtyard my building. I kept meaning to look up whether they were sparrows or finches.
None of this had anything to do with my stepfather.
When it got dark, I went inside and turned on the baseball game. During the commercials, I stared at my phone—the blank yellow notepad, the blinking cursor. I started to think that my stepfather wouldn’t have wanted me to tell a story. He was very organized, after all. Surely if he’d wanted me to say something at the funeral, he would have told me. That made sense, but it didn’t feel right. The baseball game ended, and another started on the west coast. I drank the second Heineken.
I wished my mother were still alive. She would know what to say. I tried to remember how they met. It was at a conference, wasn’t it? But why did they come together? What drew her to him? She knew, of course—but she wasn’t here. That was why I had to say something: I was the only one who could.
The sky was still cloudless, the pelicans still flew and dove, and the hurricane was still coming.
The service was at eleven. I was the first to arrive. The closed casket was at the front of the church, and I stood there looking at it for a minute or two.
In the first pew was a green sign—“Reserved for Family.” I pushed it aside and sat down. The organist warmed up, playing long, heavy chords, building and building but never resolving.
The priest approached the pew and asked if I wanted to speak. I told her I still needed time. “That’s fine,” she said. “I’ll look at you after the sermon.”
She went behind the altar to dress, and I opened the notes app on my phone. A part of me hoped for a miracle—a message from beyond, left in my phone as I slept. The notepad was blank. The cursor blinked.
The organ began to play a hymn, and the priest came out in her robes. I looked over my shoulder. Three other people had come—three old women, each sitting alone. I wanted to invite them into my pew, but the priest was already reciting the service. As she spoke, I shut my eyes and waited for a memory to surface.
His Christmas card. The silver watch on the dresser.
The priest announced the reading of the gospel, and we stood. The reading was about Jesus taking his disciplines onto a mountain. “There,” said the priest, “he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” The prophets Moses and Elijah appeared, and a cloud came down and covered them. The disciples fell down in terror, but Jesus told them not to fear, and when they looked up, they saw no one but him.
I didn’t understand what any of this had to do with my stepfather, but the priest explained it in her sermon. On the mountainside, she said, Jesus offered us a preview of the glory of the resurrection. Someday, we too would shine like the sun. In death, we would all be changed. Or something like that. I tried to listen, but I was also racking my brain for a memory of my stepfather. When the sermon was over, we sang another hymn. I knew the priest was looking at me. I shut my eyes and waited and waited.
The nearly full bottle of ketchup.
The hymn ended. I did not open my eyes.
Some men from the funeral home wheeled the casket to the hearse and loaded it in, and we followed in our cars. The cemetery was on the mainland. Doubloon Beach didn’t have deep enough soil for burials.
I lay awake on the couch for hours, watching a long thin line of moonlight move slowly across the painting of the sailboat. It was my painting now. I didn’t deserve it, after my failure in the church, but it was mine anyway.
After a few hours, I got up and stretched and stepped onto the balcony. The moon hung high over the gulf, and the waves slowly rolled. In twenty-four hours, they would be surging up the beach, toward the condo. I would be gone, of course. The white shirt and the painting of the sailboat and the nearly full bottle of ketchup would be here, alone.
I fell asleep in the wicker chair on the balcony, and when I woke up, it was day. The sky was full of gray clouds, and the air was thicker than ever. I went inside, showered, packed, and sat on the couch with my suitcase between my knees. My stomach hurt a little.
Ten minutes passed, then twenty. I was running late, but I could still get to the airport in time. I didn’t get up, and I didn’t unpack.
By 9:30, it was clear I wouldn’t make my flight. I knew I should be frightened. And I was. A hurricane was coming—category five, apparently. And yet I was not scared. My stomachache was gone. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I was glad it was.
I drove to the Publix on the north side of the island for supplies. The shelves were almost empty, but I managed to get a twelve-pack of Heineken, a big jar of almonds, a packet of tortillas, and a couple of boxes of strawberry Pop-Tarts. The store was out of flashlights and candles, so I bought a tiki torch and a bottle of citronella-scented fuel.
I noticed that most of the buildings on the island had their windows boarded up, so I went to the Home Depot on the mainland and tried to buy some boards. When I got there, however, I realized hadn’t measured any of the windows. And besides, if I boarded up the sliding glass door, how was I supposed to get back inside? I decided to trust my luck. I felt good about my chances. I couldn’t explain it: I was well past explanations.
When I got back to the Seabreeze, the parking lot was empty. I turned on the baseball game, warmed up some tortillas, and drank a Heineken. Half the screen was occupied by a scrolling evacuation orders. The game ended, and another started. Rain sprinkled the sliding glass door.
As I watched the second game, I found myself thinking about the priest. It was good that she had been there to say the service and give her sermon. I didn’t believe in the glory of the resurrection, but at least it was something to say. Where would she go during the storm? Maybe the church: it had survived three hurricanes already, according to the plaque. I hoped it would survive this one too.
I didn’t believe in the glory of the resurrection, but at least it was something to say.
I slept for a few hours and then waited for the day to break. It never did—the clouds only turned a different shade of black.
I turned on CNN. A reporter stood on a beach in Sarasota and talked about the size of the waves. Another reporter in Doubloon Beach could barely stand in the wind. I looked out the sliding glass door, but couldn’t see her.
The meteorologist said that the hurricane would come ashore by 10:00AM—winds were expected to reach 150 miles per hour. The eye would pass over the coast in the afternoon, and there would be a brief lull before the back end of the storm. Wolf Blitzer appeared on screen and cut to a press conference with the governor of Florida, who urged everyone to evacuate. “This storm can kill you,” he said. He repeated it several times.
All at once, I understood my stupidity. Why was I here? What was I risking my life for? I was going to pay off my debts! I would be free! And I was throwing all that away for—what? Who would I please? My stepfather didn’t care. He was gone.
I grabbed my keys and ran out of the condo and down the stairs. The wind made a horrible low whistling, and before I understood what had happened, I was blown into the hedge. I pulled myself out and crawled to the rental car. In the rearview mirror, I saw the palm trees, snapped in half, blocking the road. I tried to call 911, but the network was down. The car shook. I sat there for a few minutes and then crawled back to the condo.
I had left the TV on; CNN was replaying the press conference. “This storm can kill you,” the governor repeated. I watched it for a long time. I didn’t like watching it, but I felt like I should be doing something. If I watched for long enough, maybe Wolf Blitzer would cut in and announce that it had all been a mistake and the hurricane was turning around, back into the gulf.
At noon, the power went out. For the first time since I’d arrived, the air conditioner stopped humming. I sat there, looking at myself in the reflection of the blank TV. The low whistling grew louder and louder. Outside, everything seemed to be cracking and scraping against everything else.
The glory of the resurrection—this seemed more real to me now than it had last night. Of course, a part of me knew that I was just afraid and grasping at anything that might make me feel better. Still, I shut my eyes and prayed. Or rather, I wanted to pray, and spent a few minutes wondering what it would be like to pray. Then I opened my eyes again.
Without the air conditioner, the apartment grew warmer, the air thicker, my body heavier and heavier. I lay on the couch and dreamed that I was on a sailboat.
I woke to silence. A dim light glowed behind the blinds, but everything around me was dark. I flicked the switch a few times; nothing happened, so I lit my tiki torch, and the smell of citronella filled the condo. The kitchen, the painting, the TV—everything was there. Everything was fine.
The rain had stopped. I opened the sliding glass door and stepped onto the balcony. For the first time since I arrived in Florida, I felt cool air. The beach below me was scattered with stones and wood and seaweed. The big complex next door had crumpled, and the Buffalo Wild Wings was a pile of concrete. The sky looked strange and empty, and after a moment, I realized what was missing: St. Peter’s. The church was shattered; its steeple had broken in half and toppled into the sanctuary.
But I had been spared. Not even the sliding glass door had been damaged. God had heard my prayer. I exhaled, over and over, through every pore, it seemed, of my body.
And then I looked out at the gulf and understood. The sky was still black. The clouds were all around. The waves were still surging. I was in the eye. The storm would keep coming and coming. I might get lucky again. More likely, I would end up like everything else. Not even the church had survived.
I stayed on the balcony for a long time, leaning on my tiki torch. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, I decided. I was sad that I couldn’t save the sailboat picture, and I would never know whether the little birds in the courtyard of my apartment were sparrows or finches, but besides that, there wasn’t much to mourn. It had to happen somehow. Hurricane or heart failure—the end result was the same. One of my coworkers would struggle for an anecdote to tell at the service, and my roommates would clean my things out of the refrigerator, and then I would be like my mother and my stepfather and everyone else in human history. Maybe that was enough.
Or maybe not. Either way, it was coming.
The rain started to fall again, and the wind to blow. The flame of the torch sputtered. Finally, I went inside. But as I turned back toward the condo, something caught my eye—a person, behind me.
I froze. The other person stood before me, flooded with light, bright and still. We stared at each other, and after a moment, I understood: I was looking at my reflection in the sliding glass door.
I continued to stare. It was only a trick of the light—the flame of the torch and the glare of the glass. But there I was, shining like the sun, totally changed.
Ryan Napier is the author of Four Stories about the Human Face (Bull City Press). His stories have appeared in Queen Mob’s Tea House, minor literature[s], and others. He lives in Massachusetts. Twitter: @ryanlnapier