The World I knew
 
As an African in America, I did not fully understand the concept of 'a tornado'.
 North Carolina6pm
 
 The sirens went off and everybody at work started running.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"It's a tornado warning!" someone yelled. "Everybody's presence is required in the break room."
"Why the break room?"
"That's the designated tornado shelter in the building."
          I had just finished my eight hour shift and did not like the direction things were taking. The break room was packed like a crowded stadium and the manager started addressing the employees as I walked in.
        "I just received a phone call from our home office that a tornado is headed in our direction. We are probably going to be here for a long time so I want everybody to stay put in the break room until this thing has passed." He turned to his assistant Manager. "Please make sure that you have everybody's name on the list. I want an exact count in case we get hit."
Americans were always so organized, I thought. Always ready to hold hands and support each other in the not so easy times in life. In Africa, the rules were different and survival for the fittest was the going trend. Just like in the jungle, the weak died and the strong survived.
In the midst of all the chaos, nobody saw me as I crept out of the building and into my car. I drove away as fast as I could. If a tornado was coming, then it would find me at home and in the comfort of my apartment: my feet up on the couch, remote in my hand, sipping mai tais... and not squatting in a dingy break room like an animal!
 
North Carolina6.20pm
 
          The highway was deserted and creepy as my car swerved recklessly from side to side. I was in a hurry: one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding my cell phone, a bad habit that I had subconsciously picked. Where was everybody? And why was my car shaking?
The sound in the air suddenly changed and I felt it before I saw it: a dark monstrous cloud advancing towards me in an imposing way ... roaring, groaning, creaking, whooshing... violently rotating clouds towering above me. The car leaped into the air and landed hard on the tar and I knew that it was time to get off the road. The sight ahead was the scariest thing I had ever seen and nothing close to what they show on the weather channel. This thing... this monster cloud covered the whole sky and reminded me of the powers that existed above those of man.
          
I pulled into a Walgreens Pharmacy and jumped out. The wind pushed me forward and threw me against a wall. I used my palms to protect my body from getting hurt as my eyes desperately searched around for an escape. How could I have been so stupid? Suddenly, in the frenzy of the moment, the break room at work looked like paradise. I should have stayed there, under the protection of the building and the comfort of other human beings. Any moment now, I would be toast.
         And then I saw it and dashed for it: a drain storm, an idea born out of desperation. Its appearance was as unexpected as my call to action. My survival instincts went on full alert and I braced myself against the wind and dove into the four feet tall tunnel. Once inside, I advanced on a crouch, deeper into the darkness and away from the storm tearing at the entrance. A few seconds later, the tunnel shook dangerously and the impact dropped me hard on the concrete floor. The concrete walls vibrated like plastic paper and just when I thought that they were going to cave in, the noise stopped and everything went quiet. I sat in the darkness and prayed that the tornado had passed. A part of me knew that it had, but I was too shaken to believe that the worst was over. My pants were wet; the air above me was filled with eerie noises.
The tunnel shook again and I looked up in the direction that I had entered. Oh, no! I knew that sound all too well. From the frying pan to the fire. I hunkered down into a less vulnerable position and rigidly waited for the worst to happen. I felt like someone had pinned a giant target onto my back.
          The water came like a river and picked me up like a twig, twisting my body and slamming me against the walls. My hands and legs flailed in the water, my eyes opened and closed whenever they could and all I saw was pitch black as my body cascaded and slithered down the tunnel. Sometimes my whole body was submerged in water, but occasionally, my nose found air and I took in deep breathes. My mind was too shocked to accommodate fear.
    I sunk in and out of consciousness as the debris filled water carried me down the pipe and dumped me into the ocean. The waves roared towards me and tossed me into the air like a piece of paper. I remember the fear and regret. I remember the blue sky ... before the darkness came.
      
 
          Everything around me felt surreal. It was like I was floating through the air but I knew that I wasn't because there was vast water around me. I turned in a circle and searched for land but there was none. The waves were calm although monstrous in the middle of the ocean but somehow I swam with little effort and glided along without gasping for air. There was no fear or panic in my body. I felt nothing but the power of my strokes as I swam.
I swam for a long time and gave no thought to time or despair. It was as though I was born to ....
          And then I saw her and my strokes faltered. She swam towards me with ease, her tail gently pushing her forward, her hands stretched on the water in front of her. She smiled at me and I stared, thunderstruck by her beauty.
        "Hi there!" she called and stopped near me, gently floating on the water.
        "Hi!" I replied and before I could stop myself. "Are you a mermaid?" I asked in disbelief.
        She laughed and dove under to show me her fin out of water. "Is that real enough for you?" she asked.
        I nodded. And the questions that followed were so many that I didn't know where to start. She was a mermaid yes, but the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Her red hair covered her face like a mane and fell all the way to her waist. Her smile was simple and yet mysterious in an attractive way. I was hypnotized.
"Follow me!" she yelled as she dove into the water. She didn't wait for my reply and thus didn't leave me with much of a choice.
          I dove after her and at the back of my mind wondered about the reality of the moment. How was it possible that I was floating in the middle of the ocean chasing after a mermaid?
          "Ariel!" she yelled.
         "Sorry?"
         "My name is Ariel," she clarified
         "Call me Zanab!"
         She laughed and zigzagged through the water, her fin a flash of green. I followed her path and was very impressed that I could actually keep up with her.
        "We are almost there! She yelled.
        "Almost where?" I asked.
        And then I saw it and my heart skipped a beat. It was the biggest ship I had ever seen.
          The SSR Stealth glided smoothly on the water leaving behind a trail of white waves, its bow strip angled away from the horizontal.
         "Follow me!" Ariel yelled and I swam fervently after her.
  With powerful strokes, we managed to swim to the starboard side of the big ship and give it a closer inspection. At first I saw nothing but boat, but then, and a few seconds later, I took a closer look and my heart raced with joy ... people on the deck. A family enjoying the view! The little girl on the deck was staring straight at me and I waved desperately for her attention in the hope that they would rescue me.
        
        "Help! Help me!" I yelled. But the ocean roared and drowned my voice. On the contrary, I could hear the conversation on the deck as though I was standing next to them… see and hear the band playing by the pool. The little girl looked very excited at my sight. 
       "Mum! Dad!" she yelled and two adult faces suddenly focused in my direction.
       "What is it honey?" The mum asked calmly.
       "Look, down there! Dolphins!"
       I looked around and searched for Dolphins but all I saw was Ariel floating on her back staring dreamily at the folks above. The little girl was pointing straight at me and simultaneously yelling dolphin. I was perturbed. They could not see me!
 
"Don't you just love them?" Ariel said with a sigh.
          "Who? The people?"
          "No. Feet. I wish I could get me a pair and feel the land underneath me: the softness of the grass, the pain of hard surface." She sighed.
          Ariel's words gave me pause and I took a closer look at her, suddenly realizing how different our dreams were. Hers had caught me completely by surprise.
        "Your world is beautiful Zanab," she said. "Treasure every moment that you live."
        "What about you Ariel?"
        She shrugged. "It doesn't matter any more. I will never be human. My world is here, in the water."
         Even in my state of mind, I felt sorry for her.

 

By now, I was beginning to get worried and I knew that something was not right. Where was I and who was Ariel?
The ship was suddenly gone and all around me clouds begun to darken. Black waves rose high into the sky like monsters and I desperately looked to Ariel for help.
           "Ask me," she said.
           I didn't understand and so she tried again.
           "Ask me Zanab."
           Lightning cut through the dark sky and the water became unstable. Any moment now, I knew that I would be washed into oblivion.
"Help me Ariel! Help me! I don't want to die!" I yelled at the top of my voice.
          She smiled and said. "Grab my hand!"
She stretched out her hand and I took it. Immediately I felt myself being pulled at lightning speed. Everything around me was a blur of bright light. And then gravity took over and I felt myself falling from the sky. I looked down in the hope of seeing water underneath me but all I saw was dry land, rushing to meet me. I tried to flap my hands like wings but it wouldn't work. I accelerated and right before I hit the ground, my body jerked and I opened my eyes.
 
   North Carolina6.30pm
 
 I was lying on the beach, an old couple bending over me.
"He's coming around." A woman's voice said.
Their faces were a blur around me but I could feel the sand underneath my body. I doubled over and water rushed out of my mouth and nostrils.
"Where am I?" I asked.
"You are on the beach son. The water must have washed you ashore," the old man said.
And then the woman's voice followed and she was crying. "It's a miracle son. Someone must love you very much. There is no way anyone could have survived that storm."
 
I sat up and looked around me: uprooted trees lay on the beach amongst other debris. A house was floating on the Atlantic Ocean: a broken bridge cast a gloomy ambience.  In the distant horizon, I saw the first sunlight cutting through the clouds, and with its arrival, a dazzling streak of rainbow. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
 
Tornado: definition.
What is a tornado? It’s a very very big... scratch that... anything that can make a grown man hide in a bathtub not only needs to be feared, but also respected.
 
 
 
Second chances: In the beautiful world that we live in, there are no second chances in life ... but then again ... maybe there are.

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