A Wave Struck by journalism student Apoorva Dudani

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A floating market in Phuket, Thailand

Towering grey clouds drifted across a deeply orange sky on a busy Sunday morning at a floating market in Phuket. Cuckoos soared in groups, perching occasionally on hip-and-gable roofs, breaking into sweet songs and harmonizing with traditional Thai music playing softly from a pair of speakers. Large crowds of tourists in straw hats strolled on the riverside, exploring stalls boasting jewelry and coconut sugar and paintings and candles. The cloudy, grey waters of the canal rippled as vendors in headdresses and aprons rowed wooden boats across busily. 

Thirteen-year-old Narong sat beside a neat display of identical Black China Buddhas, beckoning visitors to look at them. His mother climbed out from a boat and walked over to him, wiping her brow with her apron. “Here, keep this change we just earned. It is 3500 baht! Everybody seems to be loving our mango rice today,” she said, pointing to the long queue near her boat with a proud gleam in her eye.

Narong watched his father slough the golden peel off mangoes he had seen drop from a tree in their garden that morning. The knife glided across the smooth, silky flesh, deftly dicing the fruit into cubes, its juice dripping across his father’s wrinkled fingers. He transferred the pieces into bowls with colorful glops of sticky jasmine rice, handing them out by the minute to excited tourists. 

“Looks like we should travel down the canal a little further than usual, towards the shore. Business had never been this good,” Narong’s mother said.

“Mama, will you and Papa be back soon?”

“Yes, sweetheart. You close our shop past sundown and wait for us to be back. We have a long day today!” she said smilingly before leaving for the boat.

He watched them as they sailed away and looked dreamily at his bustling surroundings.

A woman in a boat niftily cracked egg after egg in a large silver cauldron. The fluid spilled onto the pan, crusting onto the surface and crackling away, absorbing the puddles of butter underneath. She tossed in saucy shrimp and noodles, before expertly hurling empty eggshells into a wastebasket. She noticed Narong watching her and winked at him. He laughed.

Another boat set out seasonal tropical fruit in a giant mandala of scintillating hues. With everything from brilliant pink dragon fruit and lush green papaya to earthy brown kiwis and lightly spotted yellow bananas, the collection was laid out in a stunning concentric rainbow. The vendor in the boat cracked open a durian for a family nearby, and the pungent smell of the fruit wafted over to the children, causing them to scrunch their noses. 

“Who brought dad’s gym socks here?” one of them remarked cheekily in English, and the family whooped with laughter. 

Narong, overhearing this, chuckled with them, feeling proud about his improved English.

Suddenly, Narong found his chair trembling. The Buddhas beside him shuddered and wobbled, clinking against each other. A chill ran through his spine. 

It was an earthquake.  

The muddy canal water began to sway the boats. Confused looks unfurled across several faces. A loud, bone-chilling siren jolted everyone. 

“Look out!” someone screamed. A giant wave rode the river canal, recklessly tossing every boat out of its way, until all of them lay capsized. Vendors flailed about in the water helplessly, with some of them being swept away under the wing of the ferocious currents. Stray fruits, vegetable, clothes, packaging and rubble floated lazily, until another wave rode and catapulted them towards crowds of running tourists and vendors on the riverside, knocking some of them down.

Narong found himself being pushed and shoved in a frantic blur of bloodcurdling screams. He was anchored to the ground by resistant gusts of floodwaters, and the flurry of panicked people carried him towards the mainland. The crowd then dispersed, scurrying like ants on the main roads, forcing the traffic to screech to a halt and erupt into an orchestra of honks. Some vehicles collided into the crowds, knocking them down like dominoes.

A gigantic wall of water advanced towards the road at breakneck speed from the beach a few kilometers away. Curling forward, it plummeted on the crowds, thrusting gallons after gallons of forceful seawater, uprooting trees and snapping buildings and roofs into jagged halves and gobbling crowds and trucks whole. 

Narong found himself underwater. It was deafeningly silent, except for the echo of his pounding heart. He saw people thrashing about helplessly in the water, frantically looking for their loved ones, battling sinking wreckage and corpses that blocked their path. He felt like he was slowly sinking as darkness began to gradually envelop him.

Another wave struck. 

He was propelled out of the water and into a puddle, ramming painfully against a brick wall. The wave seemed to back down and take a different path. Narong winced and gained his breath, spluttering out the briny water. He heard distant hair-raising shrieks of carnage, and a foreign correspondent from a stray radio nearby. 

“It is December 26th, 2004, and an 8.9-magnitude earthquake originating in the Indonesian island of Sumatra has struck several countries. It is estimated to have displaced millions and killed thousands.” 

Narong could not believe his ears. He whispered, with tears trickling down his cheeks, “Mama. Papa.” 

But he would never find them.