Fiction | ‘Thought It Would Be Charley’ by B. A. Varghese

I didn’t know if I was ready for it. It was all new to me. Or maybe it was too much all at once. I tried to understand what my wife was going through, like every married man on earth going through this, but I couldn’t of course. She was the one who was carrying the baby. I could only be a part of her world from the outside. Then in the middle of it, came this storm, uninvited. I had hoped it wouldn’t come here, but isn’t it always like that? We wish a thing like this wouldn’t occur, but it does, to somebody. Wednesday was quiet and at the end of the day at work, I found myself thinking about the weekend already. I stared at the screen in front of me with an unfocused gaze until I heard the ding of a newly arrived email. It informed all employees that Tropical Storm Charley turned into Hurricane Charley and was near the Caribbean Sea, southwest of Jamaica. I clicked over to my calendar and noted all the scheduled items starting under the eleventh of August, before my eyes glanced over the next few days as well. There were too many things on my calendar; important things. But while reading the rest of the email, my thoughts drifted onto my wife and our baby and our house. I couldn’t escape the encroaching dread of the hurricane’s inevitability. 

When I arrived home that day, the TV was turned on and tuned to the local news channel, where a weatherman talked about how he could track Charley better than any other station. He showed real-time satellite images of Charley, which was still out at sea, closing in on Jamaica. Charley looked like mounds of puffy marshmallows swirling round and round in blue hot chocolate, melting with each turn of an invisible spoon. It didn’t seem so bad.

I glanced into the kitchen, and there she was, my wife. She was thirty-seven weeks pregnant, and our baby was due on August 31st. I watched her move around the kitchen while she prepared dinner. The swaying of her hips, the movement of her shapely legs, and the slight bounce of her breasts became hypnotic as if they all moved in unison to some rhythmic beat coming from deep inside her body. And then there was her belly. Growing up, I liked thin girls, and when I first met my wife, she was slim. But now I grew strangely attracted to something that I’d never been drawn to before. Her belly bulged out from under her breasts, and I became aroused by this protrusion. There was a magnetic pull to her new strangeness, a new mountain of territory.

“What are you staring at?” she asked.

“Nothing, sweets. Nothing.” I smiled.

“Work was tough today,” I heard her say. “My belly felt sore the whole day and I really didn’t get a long enough break and this baby’s pushing on my bladder and I was constantly going to the bathroom and I don’t know how long I can keep working like this and can you believe this baby keeps squirming around and what is he playing like soccer in there? Oh, I can feel it. The baby is doing it now. Do you want to feel it?” The effort made her slightly breathless.

I just smiled at her.

“Hello? Do you want to feel the baby?” 

I hurried over to her, and she lifted her shirt and exposed her hard round belly. I placed both of my hands on her and felt her warmth, her energy flowing into my hands, up my arms, and all over my body. I had seen her belly so many times, but I was still amazed by how warm it felt. Inside, there was life. She was the source. When my hands were on her, I felt connected to both of them. I moved my hands lower on her belly. Then I felt a movement under her skin, like bones and flesh in a machine-like motion. Startled, I moved my hands off.

“Did you feel that one?” she asked.

“I can’t imagine what it feels like on the inside.” 

We both laughed.

I moved my hands toward her again, but she lowered her shirt. She wanted to finish making dinner, and I was back to being the outsider again. I nodded and sat down to read the paper. There were some ads for flashlights, batteries, lanterns, and generators. I assumed we had batteries and flashlights, but what about a generator? Don’t all Floridians own a generator? If the storm knocked out the power, a generator would be handy. I looked at the picture of the generator which slowly became fuzzy. But how do you even set one up? 

I held the page closer to my face, but I wasn’t reading. I stared into the page until all the words and pictures blurred, and all I could see was her belly. I saw the child pushing against her stomach leaving an imprint of a hand or a foot. I reached out, but I didn’t feel the warmth or the joy. My wife’s belly disappeared into swirling white storm clouds. Batteries and flashlights pulled in by the strong wind, darkened the clouds with each rotation. A generator hummed and hovered in the center like a ship floating in space. My thoughts fell on the scene from the movie Alien where Sigourney Weaver’s shipmate carried an alien life within his body, and during his meal, probably dinner, the baby alien decided to rip and tear out of his abdomen, and all I thought about were those teeth.

 ***

Because of Wednesday night’s state of emergency declaration by Governor Jeb Bush, I made preparations the next day at work for the coming storm. I had been working in the Information Technology field for a while now, most of those years back in New York, and this was the first time I was dealing with hurricane-related matters. The University of South Florida had policies in place for contingencies such as these, so I was instructed to follow specific guidelines in protecting desktop computers. I became inundated with work, and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. It was a good distraction.

When I got home after work, the TV was left on again. I watched the same weatherman talk, as he motioned his hands over his background screen. Charley was upgraded to Category 2 and had moved closer to Cuba. This time they showed real-time images with different colors that represented the amount and size of the rain falling. The brighter the color, the more the rainfall. Charley looked large, and mostly green, with strips of yellow and a nasty red center. The weatherman stood in front of the images and explained each detail while motioning with his hands the projection of the hurricane’s path. Charley was poised to hit us tomorrow. It was going to hit Tampa and hit hard. I thought about my wife and the baby. What would happen? My heart felt caught in the cold wind and mist of an approaching tsunami, unable to act or even know what to do. The weatherman commented that the whole city might be flooded. He went back and forth, giddy with excitement. I imagined him like a preacher dancing in a cheap suit and stomping his feet around a stage, while a tower of water rose behind him. I heard him shout, “Yes, Charley,” and “Oh, Chaaarrrllleeeey.” He was sweating, smiling, telling us about the good news to come. “In the name of Charley, you will be destroyed.”

Later that evening, my wife told me that someone at her workplace said the weirdest thing.

“You’re going to have the baby this weekend,” my wife said.

“What?” I said.

“That’s what she said. She came over to me and whispered, you’re going to have the baby this weekend. Can you believe that?” We sat in the living room with the lights dimmed, but her face lit up with surprise, and a hint of incredulity.

“Was that it? What did she mean by that?” I asked.

“I have no clue,” she said.

And I had even less of a clue.

***

On Friday, the thirteenth, I woke up early in the morning and looked out the window. It was bright outside, and the trees stood motionless against the white sky. No wind blew. We were still in bed and happy that we had the day off from work. We imagined ourselves cuddling up and riding out the storm. Eventually, we got up and had breakfast in the kitchen, but noticed that our pantry was a bit empty. We decided that it would be wise to quickly go to Walmart for some last minute food items before the storm hit. 

“I know we have batteries,” I yelled from the bedroom. “But we should probably buy some extra ones if they have them. Did you hear me? Batteries!”

My wife didn’t answer. 

“Is everything okay?” I said, walking out of the bedroom. I looked at her, and she stared at me with a surprised face as if the storm just formed and rained in our living room.

“I think my water broke,” she said. 

I simply stared at my wife.

“My water broke.” 

I continued staring. I couldn’t move. I just stood there. 

“I guess you can’t come to the store with me then,” I said and walked out of the kitchen, out of the front door, out into the driveway. I grabbed the keys in my pocket and held it toward my pick-up truck. Outside the sky was calm and serene. There were no dark clouds; only a faint drizzle fell from the sky. After staring at my pick-up truck for a few minutes, I walked back into the house.

“I can’t go to the store. Your water broke. I can’t believe the baby wants to come out now. We should get to the hospital, right?”

My wife, as usual, remained very calm when she talked to me. Unlike in movies from Hollywood, the breaking of water can be just a trickle of amniotic fluid. And afterward, it could take an hour or more before contractions begin. This was the case for my wife. There was no running around screaming. No rushing back and forth mindlessly, as if your brain processed information in a glacial pace when compared to the electrified speed of your racing body. No grabbing whatever clothes and frantically shoving them into a suitcase. She was calm. She called the doctor. She called her mom. She painted her nails. She slowly packed her bag for the hospital stay. 

For me, my anxiety and worry started the minute my wife said the words, “I’m pregnant.”

My wife told me the doctor instructed that it was okay for us to casually make our way to the hospital as long as there were no heavy or frequent contractions. By the time we got ourselves into the car, the storm had started to twist trees and dump thick sheets of rain everywhere. Would we make it? Brandon Regional Hospital was only eight minutes away, so I drove carefully through the streets, avoiding fallen branches. There were no other cars on the street. During all this time, my wife kept track of her contractions. The week prior, we had gone to childbirth classes together where we learned what to expect with the pregnancy. In the rage of the storm, I couldn’t remember most of what I had learned from the classes. I did remember that I was supposed to help her with her rhythmic breathing during labor. It helped to cope with the pain. I did remember that I was to be encouraging and emotionally supportive.

I did remember the delicious snacks they gave out.

I did remember that one video. 

The one where this rather large woman was having a natural childbirth at home with the assistance of a midwife. No doctors. No drugs. No clothes. The husband wanted to be actively involved with his wife’s labor, so he was there coaching, rubbing, massaging, and encouraging her, wearing only his underwear. With every contraction, she screamed louder and louder, and her face became like that of a purple gargoyle. The midwife yelled in her face over and over again. Push. Push. Push. Finally, with an intense look of fury and with ear piercing screeches, she squeezed her child out into the midwife’s hand. The husband jumped up and down like a mad man yelling at the top of his lungs. And all I could say to myself was poor kid.

We got to the hospital before the storm became fierce. The room in the maternity ward was well lit, and the walls were white which added to the brightness. The floor, probably mopped recently, filled the air with the smell of pine; the universal scent of cleanliness. It seemed friendly and inviting, yet I could never get used to hospitals. Everything about it reminded me of sickness and of death. The smell of Pine-Sol only masking the acrid odors, the constant beeps, clicks, and coughs, the feeling of people abandoned by loved ones; around every corner were all constant reminders that this might be the last time.

My wife changed into a white gown with a small light-blue floral pattern. She then sat in bed and started breathing the way the instructor from the classes had taught her, every breath bracing for each contraction. When we had walked down the hall earlier, we had both noticed that there were a lot of expectant mothers ready to give birth.

“During a tropical storm or hurricane,” one nurse had said, “there is a huge drop in the barometric pressure which causes your water to break. That’s why this place is jam-packed today. Don’t worry. It’s very common.”

I guess that explained it.

After an hour of sitting in the room with my wife, I got bored and turned on the small TV fastened to the corner of two walls. Despite the poor reception, I learned that Charley was upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane. It hit Fort Myers with a wind speed of 150 mph. Charley was heading north. I looked at my wife, hoping that she wouldn’t be too worried, but she paid no attention to the TV. On my wife’s stomach was a small device that had wires running out into a large machine that sat on a table. The large machine monitored the baby’s heartbeat. I turned my attention to the screen, and the small blue dot raced across from left to right with a large peak in the middle. I was mesmerized by its fluidity.

Later when my wife’s contractions got heavier, the anesthesiologist arrived and prepared to give the epidural. I thought the epidural was administered through a small syringe injected somewhere near the womb. The actual size of the syringe was close to that of a turkey baster, and the site for the epidural to be injected was near her lower back.

Into the spinal cord.

I cringed and looked away when it was being done. I couldn’t watch. My wife was strong. With her retaining water and carrying extra weight in her belly and the child pushing against almost all the organs in her body and the rollercoaster of hormone levels and the sleepless nights and the painful swelling of her breast and the constant running to the bathroom and the headaches and the backaches and the aches everywhere else, my wife still pushed forward ready for any syringe, any pain, any procedure, anything so that her child would be in her arms. 

I was in awe.

Hours went by, and I spent most of the time just sitting near my wife and looking out the window.

“It looks really bad out there,” she said.

I got up and walked toward the window to get a closer look outside. The sky was dark, and the winds made the trees bend unnaturally. The rain poured down into the streets, and I noticed that there were people still out there. I couldn’t tell if they were making their way from the hospital parking garage, or if they were just fearless and fighting the storm. Some people get a surge of adrenaline rush during times like these.

“It’s fine,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”

I turned towards her bed and noticed that the baby’s heart monitor wasn’t moving up and down; a straight line with no peaks. I went ahead and readjusted it on her stomach, but still, there was no movement.

Then in an instant, a sharp crackling alarm went off, and I saw a flood of nurses and doctors rush into the room. The air felt heavy, and the downpour of movement around me jerked between motionlessness and blinding speed as if I was watching them through a thick cloud of flickering lights. One doctor checked her vitals. The nurses checked all the machines and touched all around my wife’s belly. Another doctor shouted for her to be moved and prepped for surgery. 

The baby’s heart flatlined. No pulse.

They disconnected her from her IVs and pushed her bed through the doors. Everyone rushed out of the room, and my whole world went with them.

A nurse appeared in front of me and pushed both her hands on my chest. I felt the coldness in her hands flowing into my chest, down my arms, and all over my body. She told me to stay in the room.

“What?” I said.

“Sir, you need to stay here,” she said. “We have a critical situation, and our first concern is the baby and the mother. We will come and get you when we have things under control.”

“No, I need to help—” I said.

“Sir,” she shouted. “There are guidelines and protocols that we must adhere to in situations like this. You must stay here. I promise to come and get you.”

The nurse took her hands off my chest, but the coldness was still there. I wasn’t going to get in the way. I wanted to be there. But I was the outsider and I had no clue what to do. The coldness surrounded me, and I felt being caught immobile in the wind and mist of an immense impending destruction again.

I looked out the window. I couldn’t ignore it anymore. This storm that was building up for days, of which I was unprepared for, now crashed hard. There was nothing I could do for my wife or my child. Through the window, there was a dark haze all around as if the heavy black clouds reached up and shrouded the entire sun. The wind whipped debris up, down, and into every direction before smashing it against something solid, like a car or a building. The rain felt heavy and came down like streaks of raging waterfalls against the windows. The trees convulsed, whipping back and forth, bending beyond their limits. 

But it was silent.

I was inside. 

The room blazed bright, and I was surrounded by whiteness. There was no sound of cracking branches. No sound of wind pressing against the building. No sound of the rain smashing against the windows. I felt alone.

This must be what sorrow was.

Engulfed in light, I could not pull my eyes from the darkness. In it, I saw the nurse coming back to the room. She paused at a distance in front of me. Her eyes gave it away. She said, very quietly, that my baby and my wife didn’t make it. She was sorry.

She disappeared, and I waited in the room alone. Then I appeared in the morgue. I saw their bodies. They were cold and lifeless. I signed papers in an office. I stepped outside the hospital, and I saw death all around. The hurricane destroyed it all. I went home. There was no home. Only debris. I kneeled down and my legs crumbled beneath me. I was lost in pain. I prayed. Oh God, I know you’re not like this. They are my world. Maybe I deserve this, but please let me be a dad again. I closed my eyes and pulled them from the darkness.

“Sir.”

I was jolted out of my thoughts by the nurse’s voice. She placed her hand behind my back to lead me to another room.

“What’s wrong?”

“Let’s go, sir,” she said. “Get these coveralls on quickly, and I’ll take you to surgery.”

I quickly put on a white gown, placed a mask over my mouth, and the nurse led me to another room. I saw my wife on the operating table with a curtain over her lower half. Two doctors moved in and out of the curtain. There were four or five other people there helping and monitoring my wife’s condition. I peeked over the curtain and saw the doctors working on her lower half, her body cut and flesh pulled open. Blood was everywhere. I felt an incredible fear rising, but when I looked over the other side of the curtain at my wife, she smiled and waved. 

“Are you okay? Does it hurt?” I asked.

“I don’t feel a thing,” she said.

“Okay,” shouted one doctor. “Get ready dad, here he comes!” 

My son emerged out from behind the curtain crying, kicking, shivering. My heart soared. I looked over at my wife. Tears ran down her cheeks. She had done it. The doctor placed him on a long tray, to be scrubbed and cleaned by the nurses. I could tell he hated it. Then they wrapped him in a colorful swaddle cloth and placed a tiny wool hat on his head. He stopped crying. He looked so little laying there. His eyes opened, and he looked around.

He looked straight at me—his dad. 

One of the doctors walked over to me and told me that they had performed an emergency C-section on my wife. Once she was open, they found out that my son held onto his own umbilical cord and stopped the flow to his body much like how the flow of water stopped after one crimped a hose. I looked at him while he lay quietly in the small bassinet and shook my head. Crazy kid.

***

The next day, the three of us were still at the hospital’s maternity ward. I went home to shower up before another night’s stay. On the way home, I saw Charley’s aftermath. One or two broken telephone lines blocked a street. A tree branch crashed through someone’s front window. Some flooding made it hard for cars to pass through. One tree toppled over with the roots sticking out into the air. Minor stuff for our area. Not what I had expected.

When I got home, I saw that my neighborhood had received little damage, and I went inside my house relieved. I jumped into the shower and let the warm water rush through my hair and over my body. Staring past the tiles in front of me, my thoughts fell on my son and his tiny hands and feet. I thought about his strong grip on my index finger. I thought about his brown eyes looking straight at me. I covered my eyes with my hand and wept. How can you fall in love so fast with someone who just didn’t exist the day before?

On Monday, it was nice to be home again after a long stay at the hospital. I watched the local news station, and all they talked about was Charley. It was the strongest hurricane to hit Florida since Andrew back in 1992. I turned to watch my wife sing lullabies and rock our little boy to sleep. We were lucky. Charley had quickly upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane before it hit Fort Myers and Punta Gorda. My wife stroked his hairless scalp lightly and rubbed his forehead. Tampa was predicted to be hit by Charley, but the hurricane went north and then swerved eastward, passing the city. My wife looked at me, and I saw the joy in her smile. It still didn’t feel real. Charley hit parts of Lakeland, then Orlando, and exited the state near Daytona Beach. I felt as if it happened in some other world. Or maybe even in a dream. I felt an unusual guilt for being glad. I wasn’t ready for any of this, but I realized that no one could be completely prepared. It all seemed too much to bear, but I would do it again. I was the outsider no longer and was able to be part of their world, part of what tethered them together. I touched my boy’s little head, and the warmth stayed with me. I loved the name we gave him and whispered it again and again even though others thought it would be Charley.

B. A. Varghese graduated from Polytechnic University (New York) with a degree in Electrical Engineering and is currently working in the Information Technology field. Inspired to explore his literary side, he has earned a B.A. in English from the University of South Florida. His works have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Apalachee Review, FRIGG, and other literary journals.

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