Laura Price Steele
Runner-up

A History of Fear

The violence is coming. We’ve been warned our whole lives that this might happen, but still the fear is thready. The thing is: we know that brutality is always doled out unevenly and we might be spared from it. We say we hope no one gets hurt, but that’s not true. Someone is going to take the brunt of this storm, and we will not waste hope on an impossible thing. So what we wish is: not us. We know it’s selfish, but every prayer, every thought curls into those two words. Not us, not us, not us.

##

When the hurricane is just a pinwheel spinning over the ocean, we look at the maps. They’re a mess—there are too many tracks to count and they spread over the coast like a tangle of hair. One track is thicker than rest. It runs right through us. We check and recheck the models. We are sure the storm will turn, maybe it will even curl back out to sea.

The fear has not come for us yet, but we begin to sense it at the periphery like smoke drifting over a fence. On the map, the tracks are gathering like someone is running a comb through them, pulling all the hairs together. Grocery stores begin to sell out of water, batteries, bread. Gas stations run low. They say she might land as a category four and all anyone talks about at first is the wind. I’ve driven across Wyoming with the wind raking at 60 miles an hour. I try to imagine double that, but some things cannot be so easily multiplied.

We talk about the water, too. She might drop rain like Harvey and we’ve all seen that footage—whole highways sunken into rivers, houses flooded up to their rooflines. We’ve seen the people wild-eyed and desperate as they wade into the sewered water. A friend from Houston gets in touch to tell me that if the house fills up I should go to the roof, not the attic. That’s how people drown inside their own homes, she says.

My wife is not allowed to leave. As a library employee, she has to stay and work the county shelters. She makes me promise that I’ll evacuate even though she can’t. She doesn’t want to worry about me and the pets. I try to make a joke about piling the dogs and cat in one car and my wife looks me in the face and says, “Laura, promise me.” She knows that I hate when people use my name like that, like a conversational hammer. “Okay,” I say. “I promise.” That’s when the fear sinks its hooks in for good.

My fear of being destroyed runs on a wire. When there’s a current, I can feel electricity singing up the whole line—leading me back always to the first time I understood I was something that could be destroyed. For the past year—the year of #metoo—I’ve felt the constant heat of that one jagged memory.

I’ve learned that fear can split itself in two, doubling like bugs that multiply just by cloning themselves. When I’m afraid, my body wants to tell me two stories at the same time even when there’s not room for both. As Florence strengthens over the Atlantic, I wonder whether it’s possible to be afraid without feeling the full history of my fear. Whenever I am scared, I can feel the past snagging me by the ankle, pitching me back to the worst fear I’ve ever felt. Every monster is the same monster, it seems. But maybe that’s what makes fear so potent—like shame—whenever we feel it, we’re touching the deepest well that we have.

##

I fill jugs with water, plug in the emergency radio, test the flashlights, raid the camping boxes for knives and matches and first aid supplies. The whole time the fear tugs at me, pulling me forward and backward at the same time—toward what’s happened and what’s coming. My hands shake. Stay busy, I tell myself. As if I can thwart the fear by pretending to ignore it.

In Wilmington, people are split whether to leave town or not. Some don’t have the option. Leaving means you’ve got somewhere to go and some way to get there. It means you’ve got the kind of job that’ll let you walk away well before the storm hits. Some people who can leave decide to stay all the same. Everyone has their reasons of course, but the truth is: violence can always attract an audience.

It’s impossible to know when it’s the right moment to break off regular life and go on the run. Too early and you end up burning time, money—you run the risk of driving right into the storm’s path trying to get out of it. But if you wait too long, you can get caught in the rush. You might run out of gas while you’re stuck in traffic on the evacuation route.

My wife and I make a deal. If the category drops to a one or a two I’ll stay. Anything over that and I’ll go. It’s an arbitrary line in the sand, but we need it. The decision is too impossible. The storm churns over the Atlantic. It’s a slow-moving thing, but it seems to be gathering strength. There are whispers of a category five. I wonder out loud whether maybe my wife should come with me. The county says people who don’t show up to emergency duty will lose their jobs, even people like my wife, who works half-time at the reference desk. Maybe this is worth the job, I say. But she’s not the kind of person who would shirk a duty just to save her own skin. If it’s her job to be in the eye of the storm, that’s where she’ll be.

I leave town before the first rain band slides over land. My wife helps me pack the car. One blanket for each dog in the back and the front seat for the cat. We find a way to wedge in my wife’s cello and the box of important papers. Before I get in, we hug each other and cry. We know that no matter what we do or how much we talk, we will each be alone in our trauma.

As I drive out on Castle Street and across the bridge, the fear swarms me from the inside. When there’s fresh terror, the old fear is like a bunch of goat heads—those sharps seeds I used to get lodged in my feet as a kid. Now it’s like they’re floating free inside of me, looking for new flesh to sink their spines into. I know eventually I’ll feel them them land. It’s needle pain, every single one of them. But also it’s a relief when they’re not moving anymore. My body knows enough now to grow a little pocket of tissue over each one to keep them in place, but always some other fear tears them loose.

The dogs are panting. The cat’s staring at me through the slats of her travel crate. I wonder sometimes what percentage of anyone is just what’s happening to them, and I think maybe the animals know the answer. Right now I think maybe it’s 100%.

I can feel the desperation in the cars around us. Back windshields are stacked with clothes, pillows, stuffed animals. Suitcases are shoved behind headrests. Even though the whole county is under a recommended evacuation, I feel guilty for abandoning the city, as if I should be willing to suffer her at her worst because I enjoy her at her best.

The hurricane is still days offshore, but the traffic is thick. The summer heat still hasn’t burned off and so I don’t know how to stop to use the bathroom. I can’t take all the pets out at once, and I’m too nervous to take my eyes off the car while it’s running. I don’t stop. I drive nine and half hours to Atlanta. In the last fifteen minutes the cat pees and the dog vomits, and I get that sea-weary sensation like I’m not in control, like the highway has tides that are pulling me along.

##

The morning before she has to report to the shelter my wife wakes up sobbing. The storm hasn’t hit yet. She’s barely slept. The house is quiet and out of sorts. The outdoor furniture is stacked up in the laundry room. Even with an advanced warning, there’s only so much you can do. We talk on the phone, but we both know that fear is no shared thing. We are each encased in our own stories. She runs through her list of supplies to bring to the shelter. I tell her to cook as much food as she can before the power goes out. She bakes cookies, boils eggs. She buys a case of canned food. We watch the whorl of the storm, its arms arcing toward land. As much as we dread what’s coming, there’s a hurry up already sensation too. We are tired of gawking at the computer simulations and the forecasts, of trying to picture as best we can three feet of water in the living room and the kitchen. Already we have burned through so much adrenaline and the rain has barely begun to drop.

At the same time the storm makes landfall, a woman comes forward to tell her story. A man has held her down, covered her mouth, tried to rip off her clothes. The man is waiting to be confirmed to the supreme court. It’s the sort of story I would have avoided in the past, the kind of trap door into my own memory that I’ve learned to side step. I cannot bear to hear the accounts. I appreciate that for some, sharing stories splits the toll in half, but for me it does the opposite—it doubles and redoubles that slick-gut sensation.

People complain that the woman has waited too long to tell this story. Three decades is much too much, they say. But I know how time can fold back on itself. It’s a distance that can’t be measured in years because those memories are as close as fear itself. A sharp noise, a sour smell, the warm heft of a body, a shadow, anything around the neck—even a snug shirt collar.

On TV, newscasters brace themselves against the wind, standing as close as possible to evidence of destruction—a downed tree limb, a peeled-apart sign. They shout the storm’s statistics with the giddiness of sideline reporters. I don’t blame them for their misplaced enthusiasm. We are all hungry to feel the ruthless power of something inhuman. Even as the storm bears down on the place and people I love, I feel that same itch. We all long to be awed by something.

I spend the hurricane curled over my computer in my aunt and uncle’s basement. I watch the images appear. First it’s the beach—the storm surge cascading over the dunes, the piers splitting apart. But the storm spins west and soon I’m seeing my home. Not my house, but the streets I know well. New Center Drive floods between Target and Lowe’s so badly that cars fill up, people are stranded. Downtown, the river edges over the boardwalk. Trees begin to uproot.

My wife calls when she can. She’s not sleeping. The shelters are leaking. They’ve run out of cots. A dog at the shelter dies, then a person does. There is chaos of course, nights of trying to hustle people out of flooded rooms, of walking dogs out in the storm. But there are long stretches of boredom, too. Her speech changes shape. Suddenly her sentences are boiled down to a few key words. She forgets that I can’t see what she’s looking at—she talks to me as if I’m standing right next to her.

One night she calls me panicked. It’s midnight. The shelter is flooding. The rain hasn’t let up. No one is in charge. The power is out. She thinks maybe they’re trying to make people move across the street. Now that the emergency’s hit, everyone is caught up in their own survival. There is no plan. She asks me to call the media. Someone needs to know what’s going on here, she says. Her voice is barbed with fear. I don’t know how to tell her that the media is already there, that this is how it feels even when people are paying attention.

##

This past year has been one long reckoning. The stories are all different and all the same. A man, men, boys, a woman, a girl. A girl. A girl. A girl. Witnessing the #metoo movement has been like standing between two mirrors and seeing the worst version of myself projected infinitely in both directions.

Maybe years from now, when we look back, we will find that this cataloguing of all the ways that men scar women did something to galvanize us. But for now, every story in the headlines of some man splitting a woman’s life into before and after is just a reminder that the knife doesn’t feel a goddamn thing, even as it slices you open.

For the first six months of #metoo, the fear threads its way into my limbs, my heart feels constantly like the freshly peeled flesh of a soft fruit. Some nights, I can’t quiet my own pulse enough to fall asleep. There’s the original fear—a bodily terror that spreads like a spider web across my lungs. But there’s another layer, the fear of someone catching the fleck of recognition in my face. As long as I’ve known I can be destroyed, I’ve known that the worst thing I can do with that knowledge is let it show. I spend whole days with the low hum of fight or flight in my ears, the constant reminder that my body has always chosen the useless third option—play dead.

For a while I think the rest of my life will be shaped like this, curled around that fear of being seen. But eventually the panic begins to burn off and I find the thing I have never touched before. A great big well of rage. It’s hard to keep the rage from spilling over and spreading, soaking unfairly into anything it touches. When I see the headlines, I’m angry at what happened, but I’m angry too that I’m forced to look at it, bitter that my grief—even after all this time—can still be compounded.

##

The city has become an island. As the storm churns toward the mountains, the inland rivers spread over the roads. Every route to Wilmington closes. It’s just going to get worse, they say, as the rivers begin to crest. The power is out for the whole city. They say the water might go next. It’s time to fill up the bathtubs. A series of tornadoes jags across the north part of the county. The rain finally stops. People come blinking into the street to find power lines whipped to the ground, whole trees dropped sideways. Roads are clogged with debris.

Already the newscasters are back in the studios talking about other things. They came to witness the record-breaking rain, the wind, some version of god. They leave before the stink sets in, before the drowned pigs start to rot, before generators burn through their full tanks and people pull guns on each other in gas station lines.

It’s days before I can think about returning home. My wife is still at the shelter. People have begun to arrive wet, freshly airlifted from their porches and roofs. Some of them had to leave their pets behind. They have the hollowed-out look of people trying in vain to catalogue what they have lost. A few people check out of the shelter to go home and they come back because there’s nothing to go home to. Others leave because they’re going into withdrawal. They return glossy-eyed, their heads tipping back on their necks.

My wife is through the worst of the fear, but I can hear that it’s reshaped her. Even over the phone I can tell that her head is on a swivel. The pitch of her voice is different, like something has crawled down her throat and nested there. I know that this is the fear her body will learn to grow over. But I know too that this is the fear that’ll come back for her again and again.

After eleven days I make my way back to Wilmington. For long stretches the route home is the same as it’s always been, but in some spots the road disappears completely under the shimmering glass of standing water. It’s a strange mirage, so matter of fact in its violence. Where there was once a road, now there is water. I take the back road detours that wind me around the impassable portions of 74. In South Carolina, I go over a stretch of road where the swamp has edged up to the asphalt. The road is clear, but just barely. To the right, the black sludge is thick and deep. As I pass, I see a white SUV settled between two trees, twisted around so that it’s facing the road. The water has pushed up over it’s hood. I wonder if anyone has been through here yet to check for bodies.

##

The pressure to tell a story has a way of clawing up the back of the throat. I feel it sometimes, like teeth sinking into my soft palate. This is new, this lead weight of responsibility— for so long I felt like I owed it to some greater good to stay quiet, and now that’s flipped on me. But I think that trying to pull the barbed thing out of me would tear me open. I’m not sure it’s something I can survive. Plus trying to put words to what’s happened sounds like using a flame to turn a pile of ash back into wood. I have no need to tell this story; the story has been retelling itself to me for years.

Even as the woman gives her testimony, we know exactly how the hearing will end. The man will be appointed to the court; we know all too well that a woman’s pain has never been enough to stop a man from getting the thing he wants.

When I pull into our driveway, my wife is working in the yard, already clearing branches from the property. I can see something in her face is pulled shut. When the dogs erupt from the car, she is overwhelmed by them, by their neediness, by their desire to press up against her. We don’t know how to greet each other at first. We hug. I am sticky from the car, she’s speckled with dirt. It will take time for the fear in each of us to settle—I know it’s not the kind of thing that can be rushed.

##

In Wilmington, the trees have taken the brunt of the storm. It’s a town of hundred-year-old oaks and long leaf pines. Trees so tall we forget about them, forget that when we see them at all, we are looking only at their ankles. Some have uprooted, loosening sidewalk and grass; the tangles of their roots sit exposed like nests of dead snakes. Others have broken at the trunk. Some break at the base, but others snap in the middle and their tops halfs hang upside down. With their branches pointing toward the ground, we are reminded just how absurd it is that they’ve lasted this long, working against gravity as they do.

Of course there are plenty of trees that have not fallen, but on almost every one you can see a wound where a branch is missing. None of them could stay standing in that storm without sacrificing at least a small part of themselves.

It was a dangerous thing to do—to forget about the trees. All over our neighborhood there are houses that have been completely leveled. It’s sobering to see how easily a sturdy house gives way to a tree. Bricks crumble. Siding folds like paper. Framing splinters. Most people make it out alive, but some don’t.

There are also houses that look like they’ve survived, but they haven’t. Branches punch fist-sized holes into roofs, holes that let the water pour in. The homes look okay from the street. But they’ll have to be gutted. Rain pools in the attic, seeps down the walls. Mold eats into the insulation and the flooring. These are the homes that will be the hardest to look at. Within days people have begun to drag their stuff out to the curb. Beds and couches, dressers and tables, chunks of drywall, cotton candy sheets of insulation. A rocking horse, a bean bag chair, a crib, an electric keyboard.

There’s a cruel randomness to the damage. Whether you prescribe to luck or fate or the hand of god, the reality is simple: some houses get hit and some don’t. This lets us nurse the idea that even in the midst of the violence there are pockets of safety. It’s an empty assurance though because you can only find the safe places after the storm has cut its path.

People and machines make quick work of the tree bodies. Their corpses are sawed apart and stacked at the edge of the street. It’s not until we see them this way—in pieces—that we grasp the enormity of them. They have been towering overhead for so long, but now that we can see the raw meat of their insides and the neat rings of their age, we understand for the first time the power in their limbs.

Soon enough large trucks with mechanical arms come to take the trees away. We are tired of them anyway, ready to be rid of the evidence of the storm. All that’s left now are the jagged edges where the branches tore off, the pale blades of wood, which will darken and dull over time. And the stumps that have been left to rot. Round disks staring straight up at the empty sky. They remind us vaguely of what once stood, but these sawed-off footprints do nothing really to conjure up the entirety of what lived before this storm.

##

Even when the violence comes for us, we can’t help but blame ourselves for allowing this kind of destruction. At first we feel a rush of guilt, the narrowing of the vessels behind the eyes, the sticky heat under the sternum. But that dissipates quickly. We are nothing when compared to the whole human landscape. What we have done or not done does not matter. It’s freeing of course—to feel the weightlessness of our choices. But in the same breath the reality wraps around us like a snake, crushes us, because we know that no matter what we do we will always be trying to climb out from under what’s already been done.

 

 

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