Ebb and Flow

Author’s Note: This was written a decade before the tragedy that struck Indonesia and the surrounding coasts on December 26, 2004, and is only a fictional description of what I had imagined a tsunami might be like.

Over two hundred thousand souls were lost that fateful day.


I was startled awake by the jarring impact and noise of the earthquake. It took me a moment to get my bearings in the bright, cluttered room. Ah, yes. My father’s bungalow. At least that’s what he called this prefabricated box on concrete stilts. The tremors continued to shake everything that wasn’t bolted down, although it was hard to tell what had been knocked over by the earthquake and what had been left overturned from before. My father was not a tidy person at the best of times, and ever since Mom had died, his quarters had been unbridled chaos. Some fragment of Victorian morality forbad him from keeping a housemaid when he worked so much of the time alone here. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway ‒ an hour after a thorough cleaning, the place would be returned to its former state of disarray.

From the vantage point of the old couch where I’d slept, I could look out on the left side to the sea and the interior of the island on the right. Behind me the sun had risen some time ago, yet was still low enough to spill into the room through the blinds, painting phantom stripes on everything. I couldn’t see any movement in my father’s bedroom/study/library, which was partitioned by a badly tattered oriental screen. “Dad!” I called. I heard a muffled grunt, possibly a snore. How could he sleep through all this? The whole structure was rattling, producing a weird symphony of wooden boards clattering, hinges creaking, Venetian blinds slapping, and mugs and glasses clinking. The vibration itself was like being next to a passing freight train. Perhaps I imagined it, but it seemed to increase in intensity. Something hit the floor in my father’s room with a resounding whack and, finally, I saw him sit up and take note of the situation.

“Steven!” he yelled. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. But the quake seems to be getting worse.”

“We should go outside. I don’t think the bungalow will collapse,” he continued, emerging in his shorts and terry-cloth robe, “but I don’t like the idea of being hit on the head by falling encyclopedias.”

“Was that what fell?”

He opened his mouth to answer but was interrupted by a sudden vertical upheaval that knocked us off of our feet and left our ears ringing from the loud BANG that the house made on having its walls slammed against the roof. Luckily, I only fell onto the soft couch, and my father was able to grab the end table and steady himself. The various bits of junk that had been left out were rolling or scooting across the floor freely, but the shaking seemed to be settling down. “Not much longer now, I hope,” I said as I led the way to the sliding door onto the verandah.

“I’m glad I put my computer in the briefcase,” my father commented. “At least my work is safe, barring the total destruction of the house.”

I walked out and looked down the ladder at the ground. It seemed like a long way, but in reality it was only fifteen feet. My acrophobia always made me balk here. Coming up isn’t a problem, since you don’t have to look down, but if I let myself hesitate too long before taking this plunge, tunnel vision would set in and paralyze my legs. I forced myself to move, one steady step at a time, trying not to remember the time I had become transfixed there in my father’s presence. He hadn’t laughed or teased me like my brothers had, but I knew I had disappointed him ‒ or rather, I had fallen in his estimation. He’d never expected much of me, so I don’t suppose it was a surprise for him to discover that his youngest son had a serious defect, and he didn’t treat me any differently afterwards. Still, it was hard for me to swallow that I hadn’t been able to hide my greatest flaw from him, as I had promised myself to do. Maybe the worst part was that I’d disappointed myself.

This time, though, I made it to the ground safely. My father followed on my heels ‒ or, in this case, my head ‒ and we walked briskly down to the beach. The tremors had subsided so much that we could barely feel them. He kept looking back at his workpost to make sure nothing was seriously damaged.

“I wonder what magnitude that was,” I asked, not able to think of anything else to say. We encountered many awkward silences when we were alone together. Neither of us is good at conversation, which must be proof of my paternity. The reason he paid for my college tuition and basic living expenses, and why I regularly came to visit him here and give him a report of my life. The reason we were standing on the beach together after an earthquake.

“I’ll turn on the generator and see if we can get FEN on the radio. They should have some news on it by noon.”

I nodded and glanced at the sea. The water fringed the sand a long way out, where the color of the beach was actually different. As we both watched, wordlessly, I thought the waterline receded even further. “When does the tide turn back in?” I asked, glad to find something else to say but knowing my ignorance would not go undetected. When he didn’t answer, I turned to him and was shocked to see that he had turned pale, his lips pressed tightly in a line. I followed his gaze but couldn’t see what had affected him so.

“Steven,” he barked, his tone harsh, “get back into the bungalow!”

I looked at him quizzically. His eyes were starting out of his skull as though in rage. After a last glance at the sea, he shouted, “NOW!” and grabbed my arm and started running. I followed, still confused, and scrambled up the ladder when he shoved me towards it. I reached the top and, turning around to face him, blanched upon realizing the cause for his urgency.

Far out at sea was a darkish line, from one end of the horizon to the other. It was still distant enough to be a vague thread across the view, but I knew what it was ‒ a tidal wave, the time-delayed effects of the earthquake on surrounding shores. Just as my father climbed up next to me, the siren started to wail at the other end of the island. The noise pierced through my chest with a sickening whine and I was frozen where I stood, my eyes immovably fixed on that distant yet approaching line. As in a trance, I heard my father cursing as he picked his way through the litter inside, and shortly he was back beside me with his briefcase. A numb silence hung between us for an eternity. Then he shook his head.

“It’s no use. It’ll sweep this building right off of its foundations ‒ we need to head for higher ground. Come on!”

He started down the ladder. I stood dazedly staring at him, as though he had spoken in another language. “Steven! Get moving!”

There was a dreamlike quality to everything… the blueness of the sky, the remote scream of the siren, my father’s shouting. Move? Was that even possible, when my body felt like marble? Had I ever moved before, or had I only dreamed of moving? It didn’t really seem to matter, anyhow.

I saw my father come back up the ladder. In one hand he was carrying the briefcase with the research from the last eight years of his life. How could he get down the ladder, I wondered, carrying something that heavy? Wasn’t he afraid it would knock him off balance, or pull him headlong to the ground with the sheer force of its gravity?

He was yelling something in my ear, but I couldn’t hear him. Maybe it was the siren. Maybe it was because I really was a statue, and stone ears have no auditory nerves. I saw him drop the briefcase (Was it possible to for me to see that, when my eyes were made of stone?) and lean down in front of me. The next moment, I was bent double over his shoulder, being carried like a sack of flour down the ladder.

Wasn’t he scared of falling off with such an unwieldy burden? Wasn’t he going to take his briefcase with him? Maybe he was going to go back for the briefcase. Yes, that had to be it. But wasn’t he too old to carry such a heavy load? I had to weigh a ton ‒ ten tons, now that I was made of stone.

We reached the bottom safely, for the second time this morning, and he propped me against the ladder while he caught his breath. He looked back at the sea and as I did, too, I saw that the tsunami had come close enough to gain terrifying proportion. The added shock snapped me out of my trance. “Dad! I can’t believe it, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened‒”

“Save your breath! We need to move,” he panted, staggering up the dune.

“But the briefcase, your work! I’ll go get it,” I said and turned to the ladder yet again.

No! Forget the briefcase, there isn’t time. Come ON!

Torn by panic and confusion, I didn’t know what to do, so I did as I was told. We fought over the cloying sand, which must have been much worse for him after having already exerted himself. From the top of the dune we could see the treeline below. The actual terrain of the island did not rise for a mile away. We turned for a final view of the incoming wave. It had risen to twice its height from the time before and was only a few miles offshore now.

“We’ll never make it,” I said, although it was obvious. “I’m sorry, if I hadn’t frozen up, we could’ve made‒”

“Shut up and stop blubbering,” he interrupted. Until he said it, I hadn’t realized that I was crying. I rubbed at my eyes with my knuckles but was unable to press back the sobs that ripped through my chest. Then I felt his hands on my head, ruffling my hair like he used to in the distant past, back when Mom baked cookies and my brothers’ laughter was not unkind, before my unsatisfactory report cards, long before my fear of heights. Before fear itself.

“Oh, Steven,” he sighed. “I love you.”

I love you too, Dad, I wanted to say. But I couldn’t get it out. He embraced me, and I hugged him back as hard as I could. Maybe it was all right, though. Maybe he already knew…

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