It wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did. Not like that. It all went wrong. Terribly wrong. How could the meteorologists have been so off target? My family was supposed to be fine. My father was great with these kinds of things. He knew about them. He knew. He was a sailor, for Pete’s sake. He had all that stupid equipment at the beach house. He would track those things incessantly, like a kid following his favorite baseball player. But he didn’t know … couldn’t have known. No one knew. Not even NOAA. It took everyone by surprise. Most of all, me.
God, how I wish it had all played out differently … how I wish my mother hadn’t urged me to go.
“Honey, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. This will catapult your career. Genetic engineering is your love. You can’t pass up a chance to attend this seminar at Duke. Only a handful of students in the world are invited. You have to go,” my mother had insisted.
“But Ells,” I said.
My mother scoffed. “What? I can’t take care of my grandbaby for a week while you’re away? It’s not like I don’t babysit for her on a daily basis as it is.”
Guilt flooded me, though. It was my fall break … a chance for me to spend some quality time with my little girl. My nose was in the books most of the time and I rarely had a spare minute to play with my daughter.
“I know,” I moaned. “But I want to be with her, too.”
“Carter, listen to me. When I found out you were pregnant, I never thought you’d make it to this point. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel now. You’re on your way, honey. One day soon, you’ll have that coveted Ph.D. and the hard work will have been worth it. I am so proud of you. This is one short week. It’ll be Thanksgiving before you know it and you’ll have a few days off, and then Christmas will be here. Ells will be all yours then. This invitation you’ve gotten is huge. Don’t pass this up, baby.”
“Oh, Mom. I never knew it would be this hard.”
My mother hugged me. What I didn’t know— couldn’t have known—was that urging me to go was the worst thing she could have possibly done for me.
I took my mother’s advice and went to the seminar. It was on genetic engineering, specifically in the oncogene, which is my area of interest. Yes, I am a geek … a scientist or whatever you want to call me. I study cancer using mice that have been genetically altered making them susceptible to invasive cancer cells. And no, I do not believe it is cruel. What I do believe, however, is that it’s cruel to see children suffering from devastating illnesses. If I can, in some way, make headway against those atrocious diseases by studying them in the oncomouse, then so be it. I really don’t give a fuck what the mice savers of the world think. My lifetime goal is to be a child saver and to, hopefully, find a cure for cancer.
However, by going to that specific seminar, and by reveling in scientific geekdom for a week, I ended up being a child killer. My own. Because had I stayed home, I would have insisted that Ells get off Sullivan’s Island that day. I never would have taken that risk. And Ells, along with my parents, would be alive today.
It was the beginning of October and the storm that was brewing was only a Category One hurricane. It had formed off the coast of Cape Verde as a low-pressure system, wobbling its way across the Atlantic. When it hit the Caribbean Sea, it gained strength and developed into a tropical storm. By the time it made it to the Bahamas, it was a hurricane. No one, not even NOAA or the National Hurricane Center, was greatly concerned about it because all the tracking information had led everyone to believe that it would remain at either Category One status or be downgraded back to a tropical storm. Charleston, South Carolina was its target, and Charlestonians were well versed in hurricane preparedness. After all, they were Hurricane Hugo survivors. They took all storms seriously.
But this one fooled everyone. The predictions had the storm making landfall during the day at low tide. However, something dreadful happened that changed everything. A low-pressure system that had rapidly developed over the Bahamas collided with this storm, turning it into a monstrosity. The waters of the still-warm southern Atlantic only fed this beast, and it grew into a Category Five, gaining speed and strength overnight until it slammed into the coast of South Carolina, catching everyone by surprise. Evacuations were still taking place before emergency preparedness had to close off bridges and turn people around. Roads were crammed with cars trying to escape impending doom. The hurricane hit at high tide, bringing with it a thirty-five-foot storm surge and leaving behind a swath of death and destruction that left the coastline and state numb with shock and despair.
My seminar had occupied most of my waking moments, so I hadn’t paid the least bit of attention to the news or weather. But on the morning of the storm, talk was running rampant. My phone was useless. “All circuits are busy,” was the recording I kept receiving. Panic ripped through me. Surely they left the island. They wouldn’t take any risks, not with Ells staying with them.
Later that morning my phone rang. It was my mother.
“Carter, listen to me.”
“Mom! I’ve been trying to reach you all day. Where are you?”
“Listen to me, Carter. I don’t have much time. The cell towers are jammed and this call may drop any second. Write this down quickly. Do you have paper and pen?”
“Yes.” I quickly grabbed both.
“10-21-57-3-28-88. Do you have that?”
“Yeah. Mom, what is it?”
“That’s the combination to the safe in our closet on Murray Boulevard. Inside you’ll find a copy of our will, one hundred thousand dollars in cash, and all of my jewelry.”
“Why all the cash?”
“No time to explain. Carter, in all likelihood, we’re not going to make it.”
“What are you saying?” Her statement confused me.
“The storm. We’re on the northern front of it. The eye is going to pass just south of us. That means we’re going to take the brunt of the surge.”
Oh, Jesus. God, no.
“You stayed? You stayed on Sullivan’s?” I was instantly sick. My body violently shook. Shock. I went into shock as my ass hit the chair behind me.
“We didn’t know, Carter. They had it all wrong. We never would’ve stayed had we known. I’m so sorry, baby. I love you so much. We all love you so much.”
A loud buzzing filled my ears and then a high keening. Someone yelled out my name, but I can’t recall who. That’s all I remember. And that’s the last conversation I had with my mother.
No one was allowed on the islands around Charleston for days. It was presumed that there were broken gas lines and possible live electrical lines, though I doubted that because all the main electrical trunk lines had been knocked down by either wind or water. The National Guard did thorough searches of all barrier islands and declared there were no survivors. It was official. My parents and daughter—my entire family—had perished in the storm.
There were very few homes left standing, and what remained were husks that I imagined a post World War II town in Europe to look like. Nothing but the skeletal remains and bone fragments of what were once fine and stately oceanfront homes. A wall here and there, odd pieces of furniture scattered around, most of it pushed against whatever remained standing, as it had been shoved by the wall of water that crashed onto shore. I walked the island from end to end, looking for some sign, but there wasn’t a single thing that remained from my parent’s home. Nothing. It was all gone, chewed up by the sea that came to claim them that night.
My mother had been wrong after all. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. There never would be for me. From this day forward, I would live in darkness, alone, without my parents and without my sweet baby Ells.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish