Haalie and I had fallen asleep on the second floor of the Miccosukee Embassy watching the lights twinkle on the skyscrapers in downtown Miami, our heads resting on the building's 10-foot-tall glass windows. We went there every night hoping to see Nokosee, my husband and her father, stepping out of the shadows to save us from this in-between world, to take us back into the Everglades where we can actually be a real family. But after all these years doing Sanctuary at the Embassy, he never came. Although Nokosee was there for Haalie's birth in the middle of an Everglades fire fight with Army Rangers (see my second book), she's never known her father except through Skype chats, never felt his strong arms around her like I have.
Now, since the plague, the world has slowed down and with it, hope, too. With the advent of the coronavirus, thousands of cars and trucks that use to pass by every day and night have just about vanished.
And then he came through the Embassy's front door, shattering the glass with a pipe and setting the alarm off, a thing so loud it wakened us with a start and I'm sure the dead Miccosukees buried beneath and around the Embassy's sacred ground.
"Stormy!" he yells up into the high atrium lobby. "Haalie! It's daddy! I've come to get ya and mommy!"
His voice rises over the alarm and echoes throughout the building.
"Mommy!" Haalie screams. "Daddy's here!"
"Dammit, Nokosee! You couldn't push the doorbell?"
That's Houston Cypress shouting over the ear shattering alarm. Never heard him curse before. Or raise his voice. He's the bespeckled 30-something Reverend, my spiritual guide, and the Ambassador of this Embassy. Without him, I'd probably be in jail and had Haalie taken away from me, put up for adoption. He's tightening his Miccosukee bathrobe of many colors as his partner Jimi Billie joins him, shirtless and zipping his jeans up.
"Houston, where the hell are they?'
"Up here!" I shout down at them standing there on the atrium's floor, now scattered with shards of broken glass and thousands of yellow alarm lights flashing off their fractured surfaces like an exploding disco ball. I lean over the glass railing and wave into the sound and fury of my new life.
And see a different guy. I can't digest it all at once as Nokosee looks up and shouts through one of them antivirus masks-- only this one is black and has been decorated with... warpaint.
"I bring gifts!"
He's holding up two face masks. One's pink-- I figure it's for Haalie-- the other is black with warpaint.
"C'mon, let's get outta here!" he yells up at Haalie and me.
I look at Haalie. She's holding her ears and looking down at daddy through the glass panel on the balcony railing. From the look on her face, she's not all that sure the guy down there looking up at her behind the scary mask is someone she wants to run too.
"It's okay, darling," I say to her. "Daddy's finally here to take us home."
I grab her hand and we rush down the steps.
It's been years since I touched Nokosee. Maybe that's why I slow down as I get closer until I finally stop. I don't know what to expect. What if he's changed so much that we have nothing in common. And then he rips off his mask and shows me that crooked crazy smile that helped me fall in love with him. Oh, my God, I can't help it but I'm 17 again. I drop Haalie's hand and rush to him. We embrace and we kiss like it's our last kiss on this disease infested planet. I start crying and begin hyperventilating. I bury my head in his bare chest and hear his voice. It's cracking.
"Haalie. Come here, it's daddy."
I look up and turn to our baby girl. She's trying to smile but is still unsure.
"Come on, Haalie," I say as softly as I can over the blaring alarm. "Daddy won't bite. He loves you as much as I do."
Nokosee pushes away, kneels and opens his arms wide.
"C'mon, little girl. Let me hold you. It's been too long."
Haalie offers up a tentative smile and takes a couple of unsure steps toward him through the broken sparkling glass before he gets up and runs toward her, grabbing her up and swinging her in the air, vanishing and materializing in the alarm's yellow strobing light. She screams with delight; I think.
We hear police sirens.
"Better get out of here now!" Houston shouts.
Nokosee stops spinning and, cradling her on his hip, turns to Haalie. "Look what daddy got you. Your own mask!"
He gives it to her. She looks it over and then looks up at him. "Pink?"
"What, you don't like pink?"
She shrugs. "Where's the warpaint?"
Nokosee is taken back. He looks at me. I'm wiping away tears and laughing. Welcome to Haalie's world.
He laughs, looks back at her with that big crooked smile of his and gives her a big kiss. He turns to Houston. "Thanks for everything, Reverend. Cehecvkarãs."
With Haalie in his arms, Nokosee whips around, puts his arm around me and starts to usher us out the busted front doors.
"Wait!" Houston shouts. "Take the caves."
Nokosee pauses and turns around.
"Unless you want the cops to catch ya," Houston says as the sirens grow louder. "C'mon!"
Suddenly flashing blue lights and sirens mix with the yellow strobe and the alarm's klaxon as the cops arrive, braking hard on the street, barricading it with their cars and blocking any way for escape.
Nokosee sees the cops getting out of their cars, their guns drawn. "Kind of an overreaction, don't you think?"
"Hell, Nokosee," Houston shouts, "this place has been under a 24-hour watch since Stormy started doing Sanctuary. Now get out of here! I'll delay them." He turns to Jimi. "Jimi, take them down to the caves. Here's the keys to the gate." He tosses a janitor's ring full of keys to him.
"C'mon, Nokosee," Jimi shouts. "Let's go!"
As we cross the glass strew floor of Disco Apocalypto, I look over my shoulder at the only person I'll really miss. "Thank you, Houston. I'll never forget you."
"Same here. Stay safe and try to keep a low profile this time around. Now get!"
He raises one hand and splits the fingers like Spock. I have to laugh. It's his take on living in both worlds as an Indigenous American. I return the salute as my memory-- already overtaxed with sensory overload-- is flooded with laughter and good times as we-- including Haalie-- watched Star Trek films and TV shows together. When I turn away, an unsettling thought races to the forefront: will I ever see him again?
"Guys," Jimi says as we exit a door into the caverns, "I gotta get a picture of you all before you leave."
"What?" I shout over the commotion above us. "We don't have time for that!"
"No, wait," Nokosee says. "I want one. Make it fast, Jimi."
So, with our lives on the line, this crazy Osceola family pauses in the maelstrom to catch its breath to take a picture.
"Relax," Jimi says, "and smile for the camera."
"And now one with your masks on. You know, to remember the time."
And that picture you see above is of us at that crazy moment in the time of the plague, caught on a smartphone; the past, the present, and a floodlit future just up the steps locked behind black, rusting wrought iron gates.
Jimi checks out the image. "What do you think?"
We all agree it's not bad considering.
"Okay, let's get going," I say.
"Make sure we get that picture," Nokosee tells Jimi as he grabs up Haalie.
"Don't worry, Nokosee," Jimi replies while looking at the image as he leads us through the cavern. "What's your email addy?"
Nokosee turns on him. "It's Nokosee@f-u-c-k-y-o-u dot com."
Nokosee, surprised, turns to Haalie to study his daughter.
"Mommy says I shouldn't use those words."
Nokosee turns to me. I offer up a shrug and a limp smile.
Nokosee turns back to Haalie. "Your mom's, right. I'm sorry. I'll try to watch it from now on."
Haalie smiles and hugs her father. "Oh, daddy, it's okay. But you need to change your email address."
Nokosee looks at me and smiles as he hugs her tight to kiss the top of her head but kisses the feather in her hair instead. He looks at the feather and laughs.
Jimi leads us up stairs toward the gate where even at that depth, we can still hear the noise above us. We wait impatiently as Jimi races to find the key to open the padlock. I look back up the stairs thinking the cops will be running down the steps at any moment with their guns drawn.
"Don't worry, Stormy."
I turn to Nokosee's voice.
"If anyone can make you a true believer in what he says, it's Houston. He's probably got those cops headin' for the nearest Dunkin Donuts right now."
And then I hear Houston's muted voice yelling over the alarm and sirens. "Stop! This is an embassy! It's protected by sovereign immunity! You just can't come barging in here like that with guns drawn!"
"Step aside," a cop orders. "We're here because of the girl. She's wanted by the Feds and we're-- they're-- no longer listening to anymore of your legal mumbo-jumbo bullshit."
The padlock snaps open and the chain is yanked free of the gate's post.
"Haalie, go with mommy."
I reach out for her and hold her on my hip.
"I'm gonna hold them off," Nokosee continues. "There's a bithlo waiting for you. I'll catch up with you later."
"Nokosee! You can't leave us now!"
"And there's someone you know waiting for you there, too."
And then he disappears behind the oolite outcropping shouting at Jimi who has followed him.
"Jimi, you best get the fuck out of here, too. And make sure Stormy gets that picture!"
I'm waiting with Haalie in my arms, hoping for the best, that Nokosee will return, hoping for the will to turn and run to the bithlo when Jimi appears. He's scared shitless.
"C'mon, Stormy, let's get the fuck out of here."
"Not now, Haalie."
Jimi leads us through the gate and down the steps to a bithlo hugging the river bank. I stop short. My father is holding the bithlo against the coral rock outcropping with one hand.
"Stormy! Hurry, let's go!"
I thought he was dead, killed in a helicopter crash at the New Seminole's final battle with Army Rangers deep in the Everglade. I stumble toward him with an open mouth-- and a granddaughter he's never seen.
"I thought you were..."
"Dead? Not yet. Just a little fried. Come here, Haalie."
Haalie recoils, hugging me tightly.
"It's okay, Haalie. It's your grandpa."
"Grandpa? I thought--"
"Not yet, little girl. Despite your mom's stories about me, I'm still pretty much alive. Now come here."
He reaches out from a time of bad memories, when I was a teenager, when he and I were at odds with each other, when he abhorred the idea of me and Nokosee together, much less married. He was the Great White Park Ranger of the Everglades helping Uncle Sam to round us and the New Seminole up by any means necessary. And now he's sitting in a bithlo wearing camo and black face, his once infamous Marine jarhead haircut now a salt and pepper shaggy mess.
"C'mon!" he yells, waving us closer.
I don't know if I can trust him.
Jimi is looking at me and past me at the Embassy. His eyes are wide and scared.
And then there's a loud explosion behind me. I turn to see smoke escaping out of the cave entrance. Haalie grabs her ears and screams.
"Nokosee!" I scream.
"It's a concussion grenade!" dad shouts. "He's got a couple of them with him. Now let's go!"
I turn to his voice. He's got his arms out for Haalie. But I can't let her go.
"Give me that kid!"
Jimi rips her from my arms and hands her off to my father.
I run after her as my dad wrestles with her kicking and screaming.
"Don't you dare--"
Dad sets Haalie down in the bithlo and, with one hand gripping her blouse, whips around to me with a gun ripped from his pants.
"Stop! Get on the bithlo and let's get the hell out of-- Goddammit!"
Haalie has sunk her teeth into his hand. When he turns to her, I jump him and wrestle for the gun.
"Don't your dare touch my kid!"
"Stormy, stop! Here, take the gun. I'm on your side."
He gives me the gun. It's a Glock 22. I pull the slide back making sure there's a bullet in the chamber and point it at him.
"Let her go."
"Stormy," dad winces, "as soon as she gets her teeth out of my hand she's all yours."
"Haalie! Stop biting your grandfather!"
When she does, her mouth and baby teeth are bloody and grandpa's hand-- an ugly mess of burn scars-- has a horseshoe imprint of tiny holes oozing pinpoints of blood.
"Don't shoot him, Stormy!"
I turn to see Nokosee running out of the smoke towards me.
"Dad's one of the good guys now. Get on the bithlo!"
Did he just call him.. Dad? I can't move.
Nokosee grabs me under the arm, takes the Glock out of my hand and gives it to my father.
"It's okay," he says as he ushers me onto the bithlo. "He's flipped. He's seen the light."
Yeah, he's flipped alright I think as I grab Haalie and sit in the bithlo facing dad. He's sucking at his baked hand while the other one stuffs the Glock in his waistband.
Nokosee pushes the bithlo along the embankment before jumping on board behind us. Dad flips a switch on an electric trolling motor hanging off the stern and before I can comprehend what the hell is happening, we are sucked up by the dark night and the last thing I see of the Embassy is Jimi running away from us, screaming and trailing a stumbling masked police posse with guns raised, shouting "Stop or we'll shoot!"
And the last thing I hear at the Embassy is gunfire.
"I will see you again."