Leave it to Chance...
“Hurricane Charley made landfall on the southwest coast of Florida near Cayo Costa, just west of Ft. Myers around 3:45 p.m. EDT on August 13, with maximum sustained surface winds near 150 mph. This made Charley a category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. The maximum storm surge associated with Charley was six to seven feet on Sanibel and Estero Islands. Charley caused ten direct fatalities in the U.S. and an estimated $14 billion in economic losses. It was a harbinger of things to come, being the first of four hurricanes to affect Florida in August and September of 2004” (weather.gov).
These might be the facts about the hurricane, but it is by no means the story. This is my story, the hurricane’s story, and how chance affected my life.
It was 9 a.m. on August 13th, and Annie and I chatted in line at the supermarket like it was any other day. I couldn’t help but feel the excited charge in the air, however, and the butterflies fluttering in everyone’s stomach seemed to be contagious. The shelves were eerily empty, and the faked smiles paired with worried eyes made me anxious. Hurricane Charley was expected to hit Florida later that evening, and along with it came winds of uncertainty. It was predicted to miss our hometown Port Charlotte completely, but just in case we decided to make a trip to buy necessities.
“Next in line please”.
I went up to the register while Annie swiftly placed four packs of double A batteries, various canned-food items, three flashlights, seven large plastic buckets, and a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream that had mysteriously wondered it’s way into the cart.
“Ice cream is always necessary” she grinned.
“I understand the ice cream, but I still don’t understand the buckets. We don’t have a leaky roof” I teased.
“Oh, well, we fill all of the buckets up with water just in case our water is turned off because of the storm. My mom used to do it during huge storms. Better safe than sorry!”
I gave her a thumbs up as I reached for my wallet with the other hand. Annie brushed passed me and grabbed the grocery bags, anxious to get back to the house. She gazed out the large glass windows sprinkled with raindrops. It was mid-morning, but a blanket of clouds engulfed our town in a nighttime darkness. We made our way to the double doors, held our breaths, and ran through the rain to the safety of my navy blue Honda Civic.
“We should’ve gone to the grocery store yesterday, it looks like the storm is really picking up” Annie said as she twisted her long, curly, red hair around her finger. She then moved to the purple beret that she religiously wore and nervously played with it as she stared out the window. Although we were in the “cone of uncertainty”, a phrase we could not avoid every time we turned on the radio or television, it was very likely rain would be the worst thing we experienced.
Annie’s nervous fingers had moved to twisting the engagement ring I had given her a little over two months ago. I was twenty-eight, an age most of my buddies said was too young to get married. I didn’t really care what they thought though, I knew this was the right thing for me. I knew I wanted my future to be with her. It felt so certain, so stable, and something I didn’t have to justify like so many other things in my life. Like my career, for example. I decided to go into the medical profession and pursue a life in dermatology. This would guarantee me a job, money, and a future. I had wanted to be a writer, but where’s the predictability in that? I couldn’t dedicate my life to a career based on chance. My future with Annie though, did happen by chance. About two years ago I happened to stumble upon her in a bar. Cliché, I know, but it happened. But I didn’t fall in love with her because of her bouncy red hair, her laugh that always caught people’s attention, or her deep green eyes. It was the way she always smelled like fresh air. It was like having freedom bottled in a jar, an aroma of possibility. It was a reminder that there is still new in the world despite my daily routine. My thoughts wandered as the rain faithfully drummed on the roof of the car, like tiny children’s hands tapping a playful tune. The windshield wipers swayed to their own beat. I had almost forgotten that this peaceful rain was just the opening act to the hurricane.
“Watch out for that cat!” gasped Annie as the monotonous hum of the storm was pierced by the squeal of tires. A shadow of black bounded across the street, seeking shelter under a nearby deck. I kept my foot on the brake and let my heart calm to its normal rhythm.
“How typical. A black cat on Friday the 13th. You think it means bad luck?” Annie flashed a worried smile.
“No, I think it just means we should be getting to shelter too” I replied, trying to convince myself of that story too.
We pulled into our driveway, and the entire block felt frozen in time. Everyone was waiting, shut inside the boarded up windows and doors, isolated from the outside world. Rain droplets continued to play on the roof and in the deserted street. We grabbed our groceries from the back seat and ran inside our own boarded house.
I put the last board on the door after we closed it while Annie collected important belongings to store in the basement, along with the food we had bought that morning. Basements were rare in a Florida home, but we were lucky enough to have a house with one. Our last task was to fill up the buckets and carefully carry them down the steep stairs. My clumsiness didn’t attack me until the second to last bucket, which I spilled about a third of on my way down the stairs. Annie was on her way down with the last bucket, but at the first sight of the spill she turned around to grab a towel from the kitchen.
“The last thing we need is someone falling and breaking their neck” she teased as she soaked up the water.
With the buckets filled, our important belongings gathered, and the house shut in a cocoon of wood, we began the worst part of the storm: waiting. In times like these, you realize that time really is relative. Every second that… s l o w l y… t i c k e d… b y… made me more aware of the present than ever. Not just of the present, but of the future that could easily be altered by the unstoppable and unpredictable hand of mother nature. Annie saw my troubled face.
“Robert Wallace, are you panicking?” I realized I had been breathing heavily. Annie was usually the nervous wreck in times like these, and my panic seemed to actually calm her as she felt the need to switch to the role of the collected one. She took one of my hands and forced a spoon in the other. She opened the ice cream and dug in, and I copied. Annie flicked on the portable radio and switched it to the weather station as background noise. “As predicted”… “heading to Tampa”… “category two”… The reassuring words made me feel silly for being so worried. The storm was going to pass us by as predicted. Despite the accurate predictions, the storm was a reminder that there are many uncertain, uncontrollable aspects of our lives. There are chance events that can lead to devastation, which Charley was going to cause in other parts of Florida. There are also chance events that can lead to certainty and happiness, like meeting Annie. This storm made me realize how lucky I was to have some certainty in my life now.
After a few hours of waiting, talking, and eating ice cream, the radio signaled to us that Charley had finally ran it’s course. We slowly walked up the stairs and clicked on the evening news to re-connect with the rest of the world.
“Welcome back everybody…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sW59YDNFLk
After hours of being stuck in the present, I was thrown back into the quickly flowing stream of daily life. Football games, weather for the next few days, chitchat about a golf tournament. We were simply congratulated on surviving the storm, and that was it. What about other neighborhoods, what about the people that were effected? What were the stories that weren’t being told? I was shocked at their ignorance of heartache, but at the same time I knew they had been through a lot as well. Annie and I had been lucky this time. We had survived this storm, missed the hurricane completely. Hopefully we would be as lucky during the next one. I hugged Annie, and the fragrance of future certainty engulfed me. Chance can grip someone’s life, and out of chance are born life-altering events. Annie was chance’s gift to me.
“Hurricane Charley made landfall on the southwest coast of Florida near Cayo Costa, just west of Ft. Myers around 3:45 p.m. EDT on August 13, with maximum sustained surface winds near 150 mph. This made Charley a category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. The maximum storm surge associated with Charley was six to seven feet on Sanibel and Estero Islands. However, a slight easterly shift in Charley’s track toward the coast south of Tampa less than three hours before landfall caused some coastal residents to feel they had inadequate time to prepare. Charley then moved north-northeastward causing significant damage across the Florida peninsula from Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, Orlando, to Palm Coast (north of Daytona Beach). Charley caused ten direct fatalities in the U.S. and an estimated $14 billion in economic losses. It was a harbinger of things to come, being the first of four hurricanes to affect Florida in August and September of 2004.” (weather.gov)
These might be the facts about the hurricane, but it is by no means the story. This is my story, the hurricane’s story, and how chance ruined my life.
It was 9:00 in the morning on Friday, August 13th. I was standing on line at Publix grocery store in Port Charlotte, Florida, waiting to pay for my food and supplies. Hurricane Charley, a Category 3 that was supposed to hit Tampa around 6:30 this evening, had projected a sense of impending doom throughout the community. But we were Floridians; we knew how to handle this. Staring at the items in my cart, I knew I would be prepared for anything nature had to throw at me. I had matches, toilet paper, soap, instant coffee, batteries (AA and AAA), peanut butter, rice, cooking oil, canned beans, canned soup, canned tuna, canned fruit, canned vegetables, and crackers. The child in me also wanted to get the gallon of mint chocolate chip ice cream that always calmed me, but the adult in me knew it wasn’t necessary.
Staring at the weary looking people on line, I knew my face must have been a reflection of theirs. We had been in a cone of uncertainty for the past four days, under hurricane watch for 35 hours, and under hurricane warning for 23 hours. Now, in less than 11 hours, that which seemed to be dominating our lives was finally coming to fruition. It was strangely relieving to think that all of your hard work and preparations were finally going to be put to use. Not that a hurricane making landfall in my home was relieving, but I was anticipating the sense of accomplishment after the storm; the sense that even in the darkest of times, mankind can still persevere.
It was 9:30 in the morning on August 13th when I turned onto my road. People were buzzing about like bees serving their queen, except this time, the queen was Hurricane Charley. The air was uncomfortably still as though anticipating the oncoming storm, and it took an experienced Floridian to realize that there were no birds chirping in the background. Even the trees seemed hesitant, and, as though waiting for their impending doom just stood in their spots, drooping with the promise of future life ticking away with the approaching storm. Everywhere, people seemed to be in a repressed panic as they ran around gathering everything from fire extinguishers to a few cherished possessions. This was the time of year when you were made to decide what was worth saving, and what you were willing to give up.
As I pulled in to the driveway, there was Annie, waterproofing her boots. Staring at her curly flaming hair drape so elegantly over her neck, I could not help but think about how lucky I was to have her. I thought back to our first meeting in a bar, and our subsequent dates on the beach and playing laser tag, her favorite. Her signature purple beret held back her unruly bangs, causing them to teasingly curl over the clip. Her deep green eyes met mine, the same shade of green she wore when I proposed to her two months ago.
Working on her project outside, her engagement ring glistened in the sun. I had saved up for months to be able to afford the 0.5 carat round cut diamond ring, and yet I still felt that it wasn’t good enough for her. Perhaps a part of me felt that I wasn’t good enough for her; she was way out of my league, and yet somehow I, Robert Wallace, this average dermatologic intern apparently managed to sweep her off her feet.
Always prepared for any situation, Annie was the one who made me go shopping while she stocked the basement with blankets, hot-pots, and important documents. She was, in fact, so frugal, that she was even planning on putting tap water into pots just in case we ran out of water. And even when I told her that I thought that was a bit excessive, she insisted on it. She had also insisted that we board up the windows in order to protect the interior of the house from the elements. We started this undertaking about a week ago, but since it was very time consuming, and the weather was such that it was better spent at the beach, we still had not finished.
I stepped out of the car and began helping her prepare our basement. It was around this moment that, unknown to any of us, there was a slight easterly shift in the winds of Hurricane Charley, turning it into a category 4 monster. It was about an hour later when we heard on the radio that Charley was now expected to hit at around 3:30 as opposed to the predicted 6:30. Upon hearing this, I, along with many others on my street, could no longer keep their feelings of panic subdued, and practically started running to adequately finish preparing our basement. After all, a three hour difference was an enormous time difference in which very little could be accomplished, and I worried that we would not be ready for Charley’s fury.
But Annie, with her calm demeanor, insisted that if we continued rushing in such a way that made us seem like, “Alzheimer infected squirrels frantically searching for lost acorns… in a pile of acorns,” we would forget something important in our panic. And so, we continued on as calmly as possible, but with a small fire under our feet. How naïve we were…
There is nothing, I repeat; nothing that can prepare you for the terrifying experience that is a category 4 hurricane. You can board up windows, you can stock up on water and canned foods, but you can never know what to expect, or how you are going to come out of the experience.
The first warning gusts of wind came around three, when we were finishing boarding up the last of the windows. While this might have been a warning to some to get inside and take shelter, we felt that the wind wasn’t even that strong. Annie even said that she wouldn’t start to worry until the swing on the tree in the front yard was horizontal from the wind.
Thirty minutes later, the storm was peaking with winds at 145 mph, and the outside swing steadily hovering horizontally against the lawn, we decided that that was a good moment to go to our bunker in the basement. I was hurrying along gathering the last of the flashlights and candles when Annie realized that she forgot to fill her pots with water. Even though I thought this was hardly the time to fill pots, all I had to do was look outside and realize that there was probably not going to be any fresh water for a long while.
While making room in our basement for the pots, Annie filled the pots with water, with the howling and battering of the wind increasingly beating up against the house. With quick steps, she picked up one of the full pots, and, sloshing a bit of the water over the side, put the water backup system in the basement.
I was drilling last minute nails into the window boards, so I didn’t hear her fall.
I first went to the kitchen so I could help her move the pots. I called out to her to see what I could do. I went to the top of the basement stairs. I saw my fiancé, my Annie, sprawled on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, with her red hair fanned out behind her, making it look as though she were underwater. Her lifeless green eyes were staring lifelessly at the wall. Her neck was twisted at an unnatural angel. The cracked pot and spilled water several lay several feet away after their tumble down the stairs.
I was in such a state of shock, my feet didn’t move, my mind couldn’t process the situation, I was helpless. All I could do was stare at the puddle of water on the second step going down on the staircase. This was what murdered my fiancé, this is what took her from me…the remnants of her efforts to ensure our survival.
There was nobody to go to for help, not during the hurricane. I sat with the body of my fiancé cradled in my arms for the remainder of the storm. I rocked back and forth as I thought about how I would never be with her again. I thought about how she would think it was ironic that she had died from a puddle of water created by herself, when the world seemed to be dumping nothing but water on our house.
What was it that had caused her death? Was it the random, unpredicted change in the easterly winds that caused the hurricane to unexpectedly land as a category four, that lead us to rushing to complete our preparations, which then lead to her forgetting about the pots of water, which in turn caused Annie to rush, spill water, slip and die? Or was it simply bad luck and that chance was not in our favor.
Despite the enormous amount of damage that small, but ruthless hurricane left behind, somehow, people seemed to forget about the suffering of the victims. One newscaster even congratulated the viewers for surviving the storm.
The audacity of it! The fact that somebody felt they could congratulate me for surviving while my family died in front of me, does not, for some reason, make me feel as though I deserve a gold star. How can the world move on, while chance left me here to rot alone?
“Whatever happened to anyone else could happen to you and to me- And the end of my youth was the possible truth that it all happens randomly.”
We chose to write about a parallel universe to display how large of an impact randomness and chance can have on someone’s life, both individually and communally. While brainstorming possible locations for the stories to take place, we ultimately decided to have it somewhere we were both familiar with. What better place than Florida? And what is Florida known for besides it’s nice weather…it’s bad weather. Thus we decided a hurricane, an unpredictable killing machine, would be the catalyst for change, and driver for the plot.
After picking a time frame within the last ten years, we discovered that hurricane Charley had hit the gulf coast of Florida in 2004. We wanted to take something that had happened in reality and make a story out of it so it would be more believable and relatable. We also thought the name of the hurricane was fitting because of the names of Charles Darwin and Charlie Kaufman from Adaptation.
The names of our characters were not random. The main character, Robert Wallace, was inspired by two men who were significant in the life of Charles Darwin. Robert Edmond Grant, who Darwin assisted in investigating the anatomy and life cycle of marine invertebrates, and Alfred Russell Wallace, who served as the selective pressure that pushed Darwin to publish his Origin of Species. Annie is named after Annie Darwin, the beloved daughter of Charles, who passed away prematurely at the age of ten due to complications from tuberculosis and scarlet fever.
Our stories differed in the fact that the winds had randomly changed in one, causing the hurricane to make landfall earlier than expected, while in the alternate reality, the winds and, therefore hurricane, had stayed on the predicted path. This simple random occurrence would seem like an insignificant, meaningless change, but it lead to devastation and destruction, not only on a communal scale, but also on an individual scale.
In the death universe, even though the storm didn’t kill Annie directly, the unexpected change set off a chain of events that led to her unnecessary death. It is striking to think that even the smallest, most insignificant mistake, paired with chance, can ultimately end a life.
In the alternate version, chance plays a more positive role. The winds do not change, giving the couple more time to prepare and, therefore, chance is indirectly giving them the opportunity to escape the tragedies that occur in the alternate reality. While there is destruction on a communal scale, it is on such a level that they are not robbed of their futures. This chance can be compared with changes in nature, where mutations can result in success or failure. In one reality, the predictable weather resulted in a happier outcome for the couple, whereas in the other reality, they have the opportunity to survive, but chance dictates the ultimate outcome.
After a semester of analyzing and critiquing others’ work, writing this creative piece made me realize how hard it is to come up with an “original” creative story. The cliché of man vs. nature and true love might have been torn up in our classroom discussion. What I came to realize, however, is that when you are trying to convey a certain emotion or idea to the reader, it’s important to write about the familiar.
In my story, Annie is Robert’s certainty. He believes there may be chance in the world, but he is ok with that because he feels important parts of his future are settled. The story ends with this continued certainty, but the alternate reality demonstrates just how fragile people are and how subject to chance life can be. Chance isn’t always bad, however, depending on who is telling the story. In my reality, chance brought positive things into Robert’s life. In Sarah’s reality, chance took is what robbed Robert of his imagined future.
After reading Sarah’s alternate reality, I was struck by how differently we had portrayed Annie. In my story, Annie was the nervous one, while in Sarah’s story Annie was much more calm about the situation. Both Annies were the one’s to organize getting supplies and being prepared for the storm, however. It was also interesting to see how we each incorporated specific elements we had agreed on including in our stories. For example, starting out at the grocery store, how Annie looks, Robert and Annie’s relationship, the setting. These were the bare bones of the story, and it was interesting to see how we each applied the skin.
After discussing the overall plot line for our stories with Katie, I set to work on trying to create the appropriate environment for the characters. It was difficult to imagine the kind of grief one experiences when going through such a destructive force of nature, but in order to create a convincing story, I put my imagination into full gear.
After reading Katie’s story, it was amazing to see what different writers we were, and how we had constructed the alternate realities in diverse ways. I was a bit uneasy at first, knowing I was going to create a world full of death and destruction for the main character, and so I thought it was only appropriate to make him fretful, and make the doomed Annie calm. Interestingly, Katie saw Annie as the worrier and Robert as the calm one, an example of our dissimilar writing styles. In addition, I tried to write Annie as a dependable and trustworthy character with whose death the reader is left saddened. Not that my goal was to upset the reader, but I felt that if there was a stronger emotional connection to a character, then that is a reflection of the effectiveness of the writing.
While I have never personally had to experience a hurricane, I do have family in Florida who are constantly prepared for the possibility of the devastating storm. They all say that you can be the most prepared person in the world, but you are still never fully emotionally ready for it. That sense of fear and foreboding, along with the hope that, just by chance, the hurricane will pass you by, is what I tried to convey into my story.