“Ryan, this is good work that speaks well to your creativity and ability to put a project together on a deadline. That said, I’m not sure, however, that it’s outstanding work, that clients would be willing to pay top dollar to receive. I mean it’s okay? It’s even good? But mediocrity comes in many guises, you understand.” The hiring manager at Johnson Westbury Advertising Agency, Judy Calder, a woman in her late forties, looked across her desk, over her designer, blue framed glasses at the aspiring candidate who was eager to gain a spot on the advertising firm’s copy writing team. After scanning his ten-page project for less than five minutes, it seemed her mind was summarily made up, not without a hint of malice. Judy had never had a serious romantic partner, much less, a husband. Family was not her thing. Her forté and battleground was the business world and she revelled not so much in building value and creating opportunity, as she did in demoralizing and defeating others.
Ryan Avery had been out of work now for twenty-four weeks, two weeks shy of the maximum term he was eligible to receive benefits that were woefully inadequate to meet a family’s needs, while cabinet ministers and senators of the federal government who make the laws gorged themselves at the boundless trough of Canadian taxpayers. At home, there was a quiet, but growing desperation brooding among his wife and three kids – two daughters and a son, aged from seven to twelve years. Prior to his unemployment, he had worked for the local daily newspaper in the advertising department for nearly ten years. With ever increasing competition from online advertisers, revenues had declined sharply at the paper over time, and inevitably, eventually, staff had to be let go, including Ryan.
“If Dad doesn’t find a job soon, what will happen to us, Mom?” asked Emily, their youngest, immediately after Ryan had left that morning. She had her arm around her pal Lucy’s neck, the family dog, like she was speaking on behalf of the two of them.
Her mother sighed, hesitating to address a seven year old’s valid concerns. “He’ll find a job, don’t worry. Come on, let’s feed Lucy.”
Ryan needed this job badly, and had just spent nearly three weeks on a mock assignment from Judy to create a project that would showcase his creative and writing talents. Now this matronly, mean-spirited, passive aggressive, woman, who had sent him on a wild goose chase three weeks ago, was feigning a warm smile and offering false encouragement, a perfect setup for the kill.
“I would suggest that you fine tune and develop your abilities further and approach us again in six months or a year. You’ve clearly got some native talent. Now we need to get a sense of your persistence, determination… your stick-to-itiveness, we like to call it.” She raised a clenched fist for emphasis. “But you’ll have to scoot for today, I’m afraid. I’ve got another meeting in five minutes. Best of luck to you.” She raised her eyebrows and smiled, as if victorious in abruptly dousing another person’s hopes.
Ryan tried not to look defeated, although inside he was simultaneously enraged and disgusted by her condescending posturing. He felt like a fool for playing into her phony little try-out game. He wasn’t auditioning for a part in the community theatre. He needed a job now, to pay the bills, to provide for his family, to buy food and clothing, to make the mortgage payments; and he certainly wasn’t about to go back to the drawing board at this spinsterly, bespeckled, old crow’s beckoning to toil away again for months on end for another pointless interview. Who the hell do they think they are, playing with people? he wondered internally.
“Miss Calder, in six months I’ll probably have been working for some other firm for around five months, possibly one of your competitors,” Ryan shot back, unable to contain his anger. “Best of luck? I’m not relying on luck, never have. I’ve got plenty of drive, rest assured. If you’re not prepared to find me a place on your team, I’ll work just as hard to land a position on someone else’s. Sorry, this was a big waste of time, especially mine.” He stood and made for the door as she sat there wide eyed at his audacity.
“Well if you think that kind of attitude,” she started… However, Ryan closed the door behind him and kept on walking, right past the receptionist and out into the corridor.
Once in the car, he sat blankly, dumbly, bewildered at his predicament. He started the engine, then turned it off, unable to continue. Now he was going to have to go home and face his wife, tell her he didn’t get the job, again, after months of trying. She would try to be sympathetic, as usual, but after six months of applications, interviews, scanning dozens of job boards on the internet, meeting with personnel placement firms, and desperately trying everything imaginable to find gainful employment, he wondered if even she was losing faith. How many times can you get turned down before you begin questioning your own worth? His eyes welled up and he put a trembling hand to his forehead. “Can it get worse than this? I’m supposed to be the provider. My wife, my kids, my family, our house… Oh, God!”
It was the middle of June and the weather seemed to be in sync with Ryan’s dark mood. Heavy, rain laden clouds bubbled up almost daily and dumped a deluge of water on the city, sometimes just for an hour or so, but other times for most of the day, until pools of water lay on the lawns and streets that were slow to drain away. In late spring, soggy weather was not unusual, but this year it seemed worse, if only perhaps, because of the string of bad luck Ryan had faced in recent months. First, the recession had lasted much longer than anyone would have predicted; the worldwide economy was still mired in debt and restraint and companies everywhere faced cutbacks and austerity measures; Ryan couldn’t find work anywhere; and he sensed a growing estrangement between he and his wife due to their financial troubles.
By the time he arrived home, his wife, Julia was finishing up folding laundry that had just come out of the dryer. “Well?” she inquired, with evident anticipation.
“No cigar,” he replied dejectedly. She looked on with an expression of despair and impatience.
“You’ve got to be kidding. So you worked on that silly assignment for nearly three weeks and they sent you home without an offer?”
“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” Ryan replied matter-of-factly. He was beyond trying to put a positive spin on another turn-down.
She threw down the remainder of the clothes she was handling and marched into the kitchen. Ryan followed.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked, attempting to pivot the conversation to something more positive.
“On our budget, it’ll be something along the lines of canned Chef Boyardee, or sardines on toast with a side of steamed frozen vegetables,” she snapped back. “It’ll pair nicely with a classic jug of vintage ice water – for the whole family. Milk for the kids is just on weekends now.”
“Look, I’m trying,” Ryan replied. “I’ll find something. This can’t go on forever. Lots of good people are out of work.”
She paused and looked back at him. “I know. I’m sorry. Maybe I could ask my family for a loan. They’d understand.”
“No,” Ryan shot back emphatically. “We’ll get through this on our own.” He was too proud for that. As a young man, when he and Julia first married, he never doubted for a moment his ability to make a good living and provide for a family. It was how he was brought up. This was just a run of bad luck that would pass in time, he tried to convince himself. He walked into the family room and turned on the TV. It was five-fifteen and the evening news was on.
The weather segment was just beginning and the affable weather man was explaining the forecast with the aid of a large map. “And to our South, we have a high pressure system developing that is rotating counter clockwise in our direction. This is out of keeping with our usual weather patterns, which normally come from the west. The system approaching is a big one and we can accurately predict that it will bring rain, and lots of it,” he said, cheerfully. “So wherever you’re heading for the next few days, make sure you bring an umbrella, because this system will be with us until at least the end of the week, perhaps longer.”
“Perfect,” Ryan mumbled to himself. “That should help cheer everyone up.”
That night, by ten o’clock the rains began falling at an unrelenting rate that seemed to increase by the hour, all night long. It pounded against the bedroom window and hammered the roof above. Trying to get some sleep, all Ryan could hear was the constant whoosh of water running down the eves and all about the house.
“God, when’s it going to let up?” Julia whispered, pulling her pillow up around her head.
“Not ’til next week, according to the forecast,” Ryan said, still wide awake himself.
“You’d better check the basement. Remember, that crack by the window leaks when there’s a lot of water,” she reminded him.
“Ya, good idea,” he acknowledged, and threw back his covers. Once downstairs, he snapped on the lights and sure enough, a steady trickle of water was in progress down the concrete wall from an almost hairline sized crack. It was nothing serious however, and it was being channelled straight towards the drain in the floor. He’d deal with it tomorrow.
For now, he had to go to his young daughter who was always frightened by storms and was crying out from her bedroom. “Daddy,” Emily sobbed. “Is the storm going to wash us away, like in the Wizard of Oz?”
“No, honey. It’s only rainfall. It happens every spring and summer. You’re safe, don’t worry. Daddy’s here, and I love you. And so is Lucy, and she loves you too.” He held his little angel tightly to his chest as a loud clap of thunder echoed across a blackened, starless sky. Lucy growled at the thunder.
“Can I come, get in with you and mommy?”
“Sure. Then we’ll all be safe and warm together until morning,” and off they tip-toed like midnight bandits down the hall. Lucy followed along faithfully.
By morning, however, the rain was falling even harder. It was unimaginable how much water was pouring down from the sky. Like waves of storm surge that you see pounding the shorelines from a hurricane, it was falling to the streets from an angry, blue-black sky. Ryan turned on the morning news and that same weatherman was at it again. This time he was not so cheery about the developments.
“Well folks, we said it was going to rain and you’ll need no convincing that the rains are, indeed, upon us. So much so that Environment Canada has issued a flood alert. If you think it’s raining here in the city, it’s even worse in the foothills and at higher elevations in the mountains where the snow pack may suddenly melt and overwhelm all the river systems that head straight into Southern Alberta. That happens, there is a real possibility of flooding, so stay tuned for updates as they develop.”
Julia looked genuinely concerned. “Oh good lord, I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve lived here all my life. Do you think we’ll be alright if there is a flood?”
“Ryan thought about it. “I’m sure we’re safe here. The river must be a mile away. These weather people exaggerate the case to build a better story, encourage viewers to keep watching. It’s good for advertisers.” In truth, he was not nearly so optimistic as he pretended.
“Boys, finish up,” Ryan’s wife encouraged Zack and Jeremy, as they fiddled with their cereal bowls. “Dad will drive you to school today.”
“There is no school today,” said Zack, aged twelve. “It’s in our email. They got no electricity.”
“Yaaay!” chimed in his younger brother, Jeremy. “School sucks, anyway! The teachers are dumb.”
“Jeremy, I told you never to use that disgusting expression,” Julia admonished her young son.
“Well, it’s true… And what’s wrong with dumb?”
Distracted by a reminder that they had a leak in the basement the night before, Ryan pushed away from the table and proceeded downstairs to check on it. What he found was more than a leak by now. That minor crack in the concrete wall was spreading open like a fissure in the earth from a geologic tremor. Now it had widened to more than an inch and water was spurting in like a water line behind it had ruptured. A little river was running across the basement floor straight to the drain where it was being swallowed up like water running down the sink.
Ryan thought first of calling a plumber. Then he realized that the job required a concrete mason to fix the wall. After looking at the wall further, he noticed that it was slowly tilting inward, opening the crack ever wider. This problem was structural, and a general construction contractor would need to be hired. It would be an expensive fix. And I’ll pay him with what, Canadian Tire dollars? Ryan wondered.
Just then he was startled by a frantic scream from his wife upstairs. “Ryan, Ryan come here. Where are you? Water, water… Oh my God!”
In about three steps Ryan ascended the stairwell to the kitchen, where water was now coming in under the back door. Only weeks earlier had he put new weather stripping all around the doorframe to keep out drafts and bugs. But it was not enough to stop the torrent of water that was now assailing its lower perimeter.
“Towels, get me some towels!” he shouted to the boys.
“There’s beach towels in the hall closet,” Julia added.
Moments later Ryan had a half dozen towels in hand, which desperately packed all around the base outside the kitchen door. The rain pounded down with menacing intensity. When he re-entered the house a few moments later, he couldn’t have been more soaked than if he had stepped, fully clothed into the bathroom shower.
“What are we going to do?” Julia demanded. That water coming under the door had been slowed, but not stopped. Ryan gave no answer.
By now, the news had gone to round-the-clock coverage of the storm and, as predicted, the snow pack in the mountains had succumbed to the relentless, pouring rains and the rivers had become raging torrents of unbridled and unstoppable floodwater, and it was heading straight for the city. Residents were advised that a flash flood was on its way and to prepare for emergency measures. A water crisis was imminent.
Outside, Ryan noticed that the lawn was no longer visible and that a pool of water, perhaps a few inches deep covered the entire front yard and street. Water was flowing out of the storm sewers onto the street. The rain continued to pelt the ground at an astonishing velocity.
Lucy, their Sheppard-Lab cross, hadn’t been out of the house since yesterday and she huddled under the table, refusing in dog language to go anywhere near the door. Little Emily sat down beside her doggy and stroked her ears. “It’s okay, girl. You can wait in here with us. We’ll protect you.” The water was rising.
The weatherman continued. “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we are advised that the Bow river has breached its banks and water is spreading to the surrounding areas at an alarming rate. As well, if it hasn’t already, the Elbow river is certain to do the same, and that translates to an imminent flood, the severity of which we can only wait out at this point. Emergency responders advise that evacuations will be likely so anyone in low-lying areas is advised to gather your essentials – medications, identification, cash, and the like, and be prepared to leave your premises if ordered to do so.
Julia: “Ryan, that’s us. We have to get out of here. Look at the rain coming down. It’s not letting up. This is definitely a low-lying area. “
Ryan replied, “Well, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. The river is a mile or so away. It couldn’t flood this far inland… Could it?”
That day the water pounded down relentlessly from all directions. It seemed to be coming from the sky, from all sides, from the ground, from every direction. Like refugees waiting out an invading army of marauders, they huddled together as a family and watched the watery storm outside their windows.
Julia’s parents had called and offered to share their house with them as they were situated on higher ground, but non-essential travel was not advised by the authorities as the streets were awash with now waist-high water in many places. As a family, they slept all together in the master bedroom. The boys removed the mattress off one of their beds and pulled it in to camp out on the floor. Kids can make almost anything fun. All night the water thundered against the walls and roof like a great flood of biblical proportions was being re-enacted. The water was rising.
The next morning after a sleepless night, Julia wandered down the stairs to put on some coffee, try and shake off the grogginess. When she reached the bottom stair, without really looking where she was going, she stepped ankle deep into floodwater pooling on the main floor of their house.
“Aahhhh!” she sighed at the surprising, cool wetness on her feet. She waded over to the kitchen door and looked downstairs. The basement was gone. It was now a sea of water to the top of the stairs, and it was still pouring with demonic ferocity outside. Overcome with frustration, she wept uncontrollably, “Oh, God, no, no, no!”
Ryan heard her crying from their bedroom and loped down to see what was wrong. “What is it now?” he almost plead.
“The water, it’s everywhere!” Julia sobbed. Now Ryan was on the bottom floor as well and he too was standing in water half way up his lower legs.
He reached for the light switch and flipped it on, as he had a thousand times before. At once there was a snap and a flash and he was thrown back against the wall. He fell to the floor, stunned by the jolt of electricity that had just surged through his body, before the power went off completely.
“Ryan! Oh, God, are you alright? Talk to me.” She held his head up out of the water. His body began convulsing and he coughed weakly. Miraculously, perhaps, he had survived what might well have been a death by electrocution.
“Is Dad okay? What happened?” It was Zack, standing at the top of the stairs with his arm around each of his younger siblings: Jeremy and little Emily, now bawling herself.
“Zack, call 911,” Julia barked out. “Dad needs medical help. Hurry!”
Outside, Julia heard heavy machinery coming down the street. She looked out. Amidst steady, unremitting rain, a procession of emergency vehicles was coming – fire trucks, ambulances, a bull dozer, a dump truck, a school bus, all of them slowly wading through at least three feet of water. Emergency responders were going door to door. A full evacuation was underway.
Zack returned. “The phone don’t work, not even a dial tone,” he advised, militarily.
Moments later someone was banging on the front door. Emily opened it and the rain showered in like a fan from a movie set was driving it. A torrent of water a metre high spilled in, bringing even more water into the house.
“Time to go Ma’am,” a man in a fireman’s yellow rubber garb ordered. “It’s a full-scale flood. You and yours can hop on that school bus. We’ll get you to safety. What’s the matter with him?” He looked down at Ryan, sitting on the stairs holding his head in his hands.
“Just a little accident. I’ll be alright,” Ryan spoke for himself.
“Kids, come on. We’re going, now!” Julia shouted up the stairs. “Let’s get going, hon,” she said to Ryan. “It’s our best chance to get to safety. The rain pounded in the front door like a scene from James Cameron’s ‘The Titanic’. The water was rising.
At once there was a groan and a sickening cracking sound from way below. The fireman jumped back, sensing imminent danger unfolding. “The house is moving… Everybody out now, now!” he demanded. “Your foundation is giving way. The ground is too soggy to support the weight of the structure.”
As ordered the family quickly exited the building and splashed their way through the watery street to the waiting school bus filled with other evacuees. Ryan and Julia looked back at their house from the bus just as it listed heavily to one side and the torrent of moving floodwater eased it off its footings. As if in slow motion, it disassembled itself in the murky water and drifted off in pieces. Their house was now completely destroyed, washed away like discarded lumber. Eddies swirled around pieces of remaining roof jutting out of the water.
“All gone,” little Emily said with a child’s innocence and sadness.
“Yeah, baby, all gone,” Ryan replied. He wondered how his life could have dissolved into such chaos and cried openly in front of his family and other onlookers.
Julia closed her eyes also and shed tears of unimaginable loss and grief: All their life possessions, hundreds of photos of the kids growing up, family, vacations, all their furniture, including her grandmother’s dining room suite passed down first to her mother, and then to Julia, her wedding dress, all of Zack and Jeremy’s sports memorabilia – trophies and awards, little Emily’s entire collection of teddy bears and dolls, all their legal documents, their appliances, their home theatre that Ryan was so proud of, everything. She had never thought of herself as a materialistic person but her sense of loss and defeat was overwhelming beyond imagination. Now what?
“Daddy,” little Emily tugged at her daddy’s sleeve.
“What about Lucy?” Emily’s big blue eyes were fixed on Ryan’s.
Ryan and Julia looked at each other in horror.
“Oh, God,” Julia put her hand to her mouth, biting back tears even harder now.
“Daddy?” Now little Emily’s voice was registering heightened anxiety. She wanted an answer about her pet.
“We can’t worry about Lucy right now, sweetie. We have each other, and Lucy might be okay.”
“But she was in the house,” Emily reminded him of the obvious. And along with the rest of her family, Emily just saw the house disintegrate and float away.
Ryan looked at his young daughter, realizing that without lying outright, there was no satisfactory answer possible at this time. He put his arm around her as she sobbed quietly, and he felt another sense of failure. He should have remembered the dog and gotten her out of the house too. And he failed.
Hours later, the family was sitting on rolled out cots on the floor of a school gymnasium wrapped in blankets and towels supplied by the Red Cross. If nothing else, they had the assurance of sleeping someplace warm, dry, and safe tonight. Still, the shock and sadness of their loss was overwhelming and they were silent and grief stricken beyond words. A soup line had been set up at the far side of the gym and people were shuffling over in pairs and small groups to relieve their hunger and thirst. A pall of disaster hung over the evacuees and people were crying and talking softly in every corner of the building. How could something so devastating have happened in the course of two or three short days? The magnitude of loss and destruction across the city was beyond comprehension.
Now, the newscasts were reporting and filming the effects of the flood in virtually all corners of Southern Alberta. The City of Calgary and many surrounding towns were in ruin. Mud, debris, overturned cars and dumpsters, uprooted trees, and the wreckage of buildings were everywhere. Over 65,000 Calgarians had been displaced from their homes, many of which would never be salvageable. The drinking water had been compromised in most places and truckloads of bottled water were being distributed. The electricity had been completely turned off or destroyed throughout downtown and around other parts of the city. The transit system was out of commission. The site of the famed Calgary Stampede, billed as “the greatest outdoor show on earth” was completely submerged in water and mud. The home of the Calgary Flames and site of every major concert event that came to the city, the Calgary Saddledome, was filled with water to the tenth row of seats, and all the mechanical and electrical systems within it destroyed and irreparable.
Major roadways and traffic arteries were covered in mud and had been washed away in sections resulting in their closure indefinitely. Animals had been evacuated from the city zoo. Parklands and green spaces had been reduced to fields of soupy mud and silt. Southern Alberta was in a state of paralysis. Surveying the city of Calgary now, it was doubtful that it could ever be restored to any semblance of what it was three days ago. Mother nature had demonstrated once again the awesome destructive force she can casually unleash on mankind and how powerless we are to mount a defense. William Shakespeare had put it, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”
The City Mayor, Provincial Premier and Canadian Prime Minister had toured the destruction by helicopter (because roadways were impassable), and were now making statements and pledges of support and a commitment to rebuilding the entire region. The cost would be well into the billions and the Premier announced that it would take at least a decade for the province to recover financially.
Droves of volunteers sprung into action almost immediately initiating a cleanup effort. Complete strangers numbering in the thousands were working side by side helping others in any way possible to recover from the disaster. Companies large and small were pledging donations, some in the millions of dollars toward disaster relief. Banks were suspending mortgage, loan, and credit card payments so people could pay for emergency needs. The military had been brought in and young soldiers were working with shovels, sand bags, and water pumps aiding the civilian effort. In times of crisis like this something calls people to action, prompting them to pull together and set aside all other differences. The words of the late Irish writer William Butler Yeats, “A terrible beauty is born,” were cited by one reporter commenting on the massive cleanup effort underway.
And Ryan Avery and his family had lost every single thing they owned in the world. There would be no relief from any insurance they held because this was categorized as an “act of God,” and therefore did not qualify for compensation. Ryan had no job to go back to, and his employment insurance would provide only two more weekly payments.
Julia exhaled heavily and asked the rhetorical question, “What on earth are we going to do now? We’re ruined.”
Ryan had no answer that would provide any comfort. He stared at the floor.
“I’m going to live with my family,” Julia announced. “I’ll take the kids.”
Ryan still had his pride. “No, there has to be some other way we can get through this. Look around. There are thousands of other people in our shoes. We have to stay together.”
Julia would have none of it. “And stay together where? We can’t live in this gymnasium forever. Our house is gone. We have no equity in a house that’s no longer standing. We have no money to rent someplace else. We’ll need to eat.”
She paused, lost in thought. “The kids and I will go to my parents’ house. If you’re so determined that we can build a new life someplace, then go get it started. Let me know when you’re back on your feet and we’ll talk about it then. I wish you luck, Ryan… I really do. I’ll always love you and I want to see you thrive again in life, and business, and family. But right now we are desperate and we literally have nothing left in the world. My options right now are my parents’ house or the women’s shelter. Which do you think I should choose?”
Try as he might, Ryan couldn’t build an argument to counter her plan. He was speechless.
Julia stood, gathered the kids around her, and gave Ryan a pat on the shoulder.
“I love you.”
“Love you too… “
She and the children walked out of the gymnasium.
After watching them leave the building, Ryan looked around at all the survivors and decided that he was down but not out. His own father had once made a remark to him that stuck in his memory ever since boyhood, “Every man gets knocked down, son. But not every man gets back up. Show the world that you can take a punch.”
Ryan walked over to the volunteers at the soup line. He found the woman who seemed to be in charge. He approached her and she looked at him sympathetically.
“Hungry?” she asked.
“No. I’d like to help out.”