When All is Washed Away
There was a house that stood alone on the beach. It loomed, all dark wood, two stories raised on twelve-foot stilts. Long empty, it stared out at the blue-green ocean with windows boarded up and shuttered. Nothing escaped its gaze. It watched the dolphins leap in the morning with the sunrise. When the tide rolled in, foam lapped at the stilts then ebbed back out to sea, a promise in the white flecks left clinging to the wood.
We locals counted the days the house stood. It was one of the oldest on the island, easily over a hundred years, we estimated, certainly older than the brightly painted homes going up on every empty plot of land, those three- and four-story monstrosities that rose ever higher, giving vacationers in the middle of the island a clear, if distant, ocean view. The house probably saw the Wright brothers fly their first plane, its view unobstructed back then, with only sand dunes and scrubby trees and mustangs crossing the distance between Corolla and Kitty Hawk well over an hour south.
The house definitely saw those flights, we decided, when we heard the stories. First from our parents then from friends at school, in the halls between classes, during lunch. It didn’t matter how unlikely it was for a house built so close to the sea to stand for more than a century. In our minds, only people alive a hundred years ago could be so stupid as to build a house that close to the water. It was a joke. A marvel. It was asking for trouble.
We knew there were other houses here once, this close to the ocean. Built around the same time as ours. They’ve all long since collapsed, defenseless to hurricane-force winds, wooden pilings and doors ripped away beneath the unrelenting fury of an angry, storm-swollen ocean. The pieces are resting at the bottom of the continental shelf somewhere off the coast, we declared, impressed by our own surety.
But this one, this old house made of dark brown wood, survived. We were in love with its defiance. When we looked closely, we could see where it had been reinforced, where the stilts were once broken and now repaired. The house, for all it had seen, was structurally sound. The little room on the bottom floor was likely flood damaged, but then, so were the storage rooms in our own homes down south. This didn’t bother us.
Us locals knew a man owned the house, though he never visited the island. He wanted people to rent it, but tourists preferred beach houses behind the sea oats. Houses less at risk for flooding every time the tide came in, less likely to be blown down in a strong wind. The house had been for sale as long as we could remember—no sign, it would’ve swept out to sea before the house ever did, but we could find the listing online. No one wanted it—no insurance company would take out a policy on it. It was a disaster waiting to happen, they said. A total loss just waiting for a strong-enough wind to knock it over. The man paid someone to fix it up after each hurricane swept the island, usually one each season but sometimes two or three, dousing us with howling winds and drenching rains and usually flooding our streets. After each storm, he dropped the price, advertised unbeatable ocean views and serenity on the northern shore of the Outer Banks. Dolphins, mustangs, sea turtles, all at the new owner’s fingertips! No one made an offer.
There it stood, alone, the only house beyond the sea oats, every time we set out to find it. The wild mustangs that claimed this island as their own long before we ever did would amble between its stilts, seeking shelter from the sun, enjoying an ocean breeze of their own before they would turn and climb the dunes, searching for a place to nibble at the sea grass or bed down for the night. We’d watch them from the distance, how they treated the house like anything else on this island—like it was theirs. We decided it could belong to both the mustangs and us.
The house remained empty every time we visited, for years. Our infatuation grew. We begged our parents to drive us up to the 4X4 beach for lazy afternoons surfing and running through the sand. The beach up there was nearly deserted, even with the tourists that would rent the beach houses that far north. It was better than the crowded shores down in Nags Head and Kitty Hawk. We would tell our parents we were going for walks and trek up to the house, first a brown speck in the distance, then coming into focus, large and imposing, as we approached. Our parents didn’t care so long as we all went together. We would toss a frisbee in its shadow, dart between the stilts in games of tag or keep away. We would dare each other to test the door on the bottom floor. It was always locked, or jammed, the wooden door swollen in its frame. We couldn’t push it open, no matter how hard we tried. Before the stairs, old and dry-rotted, were washed away in a nor’easter, we used to see who would climb the furthest up them before they got too scared they were going to fall through. No one ever made it to the landing. And when the mustangs wandered too close, we headed back south to our parents and lunch and another round of surfing.
Late at night, when we were supposed to be asleep out on the beach, long after our parents wrapped themselves in their sleeping bags, we would roll ours up and carry them north to make our own camp on the expanse of sand between the house and the dunes. With only the stars and the moon for light, we’d listen to the waves crash as we snacked on candy and told stories. Stories about the house—all the famous people who must’ve stayed in it at some point. Dave Matthews, we decided, for sure. We all knew he used to visit the island all the time. Maybe Kenny Chesney, too. We could picture his songs being written on the upper decks, where his view of the ocean and the taste of salt on the wind would be unparalleled.
And, as the night hours stretched on, we would joke about one day buying the house. We talked about how we would go to college, get big, important jobs, make more money than we could really imagine ever having while we worked for minimum wage during tourist season, scooping ice cream and waiting tables. We fantasized about pooling our money, buying the house, living in it together, just those of us who grew up here. Who could love it more than anyone us. We would rebuild the outside stairs, but we wouldn’t paint the exterior the gaudy bright colors the tourists love. Brown was natural. The house was as much a part of the land as the sand and the mustangs and the sea oats.
But the inside—we could do whatever we wanted. Rip out the boards shielding the windows, letting the living room flood with natural light. We would paint the walls white or creamy yellow, the better to make the place warm, welcoming. We’d have to share bedrooms, but none of us minded. We picked roommates and daydreamed about what each would look like. We settled on wildlife motifs—seahorses, jellyfish, the mustangs.
We would spend our mornings surfing, when the weather was warm enough. We’d stock up the kitchen in the summers with canned goods and pasta and whatever would keep so we wouldn’t have to drive to the stores too often and fight through the hoards of vacationers. We would watch the storms roll in off the ocean, the lightning flicker closer. In the winter, we would walk out on the upper decks in sweatpants and coats and embrace the cold morning air with a hot cup of coffee clutched in our hands. We’d run a blog, we decided, chronicling life on the edge of the sandbar. The tourists would eat it up.
We already knew what we would name it, the blog and the house. We would have to nail the sign to the house so it wouldn’t wash away, but we didn’t mind that so much, because it meant it would finally be ours. Driftwood Manor.
At the tail end of the summer we were sixteen, a hurricane hit like we’ve never seen before. It was all they would talk about on the news, where it would make landfall, what category it would be, how deadly the storm surge would prove if we all didn’t evacuate. It glanced off the coast of Florida, then moved north, putting our island in a direct collision course with the eyewall.
The tourists fled, abandoning their rental homes with their punny names and lamenting their lost vacations. They all wanted to move here until bad weather struck. Then they were the first to leave, packing up their cars and driving across the bridge back to the mainland, back to their real homes, nestled safe and sheltered inland.
Us locals, we wouldn’t leave. Even with the mandatory evacuation orders, we knew what we were getting ourselves into by staying. We’d survived Irene, Matthew, Florence, Dorian, even if we couldn’t remember them all. We’d seen the pictures of the flooding posted up in local restaurants. The tourists loved to point and stare at them. It was a commodity to them, not a way of life. Whereas for those of us who called this island home, we’d live and die here. That’s what our parents said. The general island sentiment. We bought food—bread, peanut butter, bottled water, granola bars. Things that wouldn’t go bad when the power went out, when it could take a few days or more to get it back. Things that didn’t need to be cooked, either. We cleared the Wal-Mart shelves of Pop-Tarts. Our parents never let us have them any other time.
The island was deserted with the tourists gone. The massive beach houses empty, locked, their driveways bare. We nailed wooden boards over our windows, crisscrossed the glass with duct tape, and hunkered down in the windowless bathrooms, our families crammed into too-small spaces, the safest places we could find. The wind howled outside, tore at our roofs. Rain pounded against the sidewalks, the siding, the windows. We could picture the sea flooding past the dunes, reaching the streets on the other side. The diner we went to after basketball games was probably flooded, and the ice cream shop that always had a line out the door during tourist season. They would be fine—they had insurance, they would rebuild, replace whatever they lost. They always did.
The power went down quickly. It flickered twice, then was gone for good. The tiny battery-powered radios our parents perched on the bathroom counters crackled with news. The storm was a strong category three, then a weak four. It was moving slowly as it approached. They weren’t sure when it would make landfall, or where exactly. High tide would be coming in soon. The reporters reminded us that could mean a devastating storm surge.
We watched as our parents’ faces grew grey in the wan light from flickering candles. There was video from the pier cameras, from news broadcasters, of waterspouts erupting out over the ocean, barreling close to shore. Before our phone batteries die, we watched the videos and the live feeds. We can’t begin to estimate the damage, the reporters kept repeating. We urge everyone who chose to remain on the island to stay inside until this has passed.
The radio reports fueled our imaginations, even as they provided less concrete information. We passed the hours imagining the flooding, the salty ocean water rushing inland just a few streets away, probably a foot or more deep by now. Would it reach here? Were our cars underwater yet? Were our stilts, ten-feet tall as building codes required, high enough? Our parents told us to be quiet, not to worry so much. But they were worried. Our parents, who always weathered these storms with games to fill the time and reassuring smiles, were worried. We could feel it.
We ate peanut butter sandwiches and warmed up Pop-Tarts over the flames of Yankee Candles. In low voices, we wondered about Driftwood Manor, close as it was to the ocean. At least our houses were further back, or most of them anyway, closer to the middle of the island, almost dead center between the Sound and the ocean. Would this be the storm that took it out to sea, to the bottom of the continental shelf, miles off the coast with the others? We texted our friends until our phone batteries ran low, about the house, then repeated messages of are you okay? until our parents scolded us for wasting their lifespans. What if there was a real emergency?
As the storm bore down, Driftwood Manor became an afterthought. We reported to each other that the first floors of our houses were completely underwater, or our roofs were starting to come off. We left the bathrooms and closets when we had to. The wind was so strong, it felt like we were being pushed aside, even within our homes. We wrapped electronics in plastic and moved them to tabletops and counters where they would be less likely to be destroyed. The ones we could fit in the bathrooms and closets with us we did, along with blankets, pillows, food. Our houses, on their nimble stilts, leaned in the sweeping pulses of wind. In our living rooms, our kitchens, we helped our parents secure tarps to gaps in the roofs, place buckets beneath leaks. We worried about the windows being blown out. As the wind blew harder, it became the only thing we could hear, a hellacious roar, drowning everything else out.
This lasted for hours—the worry, the leaks springing from new places in the ceiling, our houses rocking enough to make us seasick. Then came that silence—the eerie, heavy silence that comes in the eye of a storm. We pushed out of the bathrooms, out onto our decks. Across the island, all our necks craned skyward, towards that yellow glow. There was no glimpse of blue, not like what you’re supposed to see in the eye, only the grey clouds on the horizon, menacing in the distance, bruised purple-black. The streets were flooded, but not bad, only a couple feet deep. Our cars were partly underwater. Our trucks’ tires were only partly submerged. Not as bad as it would be closer to the ocean. Or like they would be at Driftwood Manor. Was the whole thing underwater now? Could the storm surge be twenty-some feet high up there? We knew it was possible. The radio certainly made it sound like it was the case. We couldn’t picture what it would look like. Water twenty feet deep was unfathomable.
The wind picked back up. It blew stinging cold raindrops into our faces. We pulled the doors shut behind us, returned to our bathrooms, our closets, wherever our parents deemed safe, and waited out some more.
The storm passed in the night, dying away to a soft pattering of rain as the worst moved back out to sea. We awoke in our own beds, our parents having carried us back to our rooms, or they woke us up and we staggered back of our own bleary accords.
In the morning light, we cleaned. We waited for the floodwaters to recede and mopped out our first-floor storage rooms, the only structural support of our houses beyond the stilts building codes required homes be built on. Clear plastic storage containers floated in six inches of water, packed with extra towels or old clothes or countless other things. Our parents shifted and reorganized them before banishing us to the yard to clean up debris, the storm-scattered tree limbs and broken glass from the recycling the neighbor three doors down or across the street never bothered to bring in. We stacked shingles by the curbs—those from our roofs or our neighbors’, we couldn’t tell the difference. It took a couple days, for the water to recede, to clean the debris, to make sure our cars still worked, and our neighbors who’d stayed behind with us were all right. We helped our parents secure the tarps to the roofs in the daylight. Our power wasn’t back yet. We kept eating peanut butter sandwiches by candlelight. Our phones were long since dead.
When they were satisfied, when the floodwaters receded completely and they released the car keys into our possession, we congregated at Nag’s Head Fishing Pier. There was no group text, no phone call that went out. We just knew where we had to go.
Its end once jutted over a hundred feet out into the ocean, rebuilt after Dorian. It had collapsed, completely washed away. Swept up in one of the waterspouts and the storm surge. Signs were already posted, warning us away, that what remained of the structure was unsound. But we weren’t interested in walking out to the jagged end.
When we were all there, we split up into trucks, four-wheel drive only, the higher lifted, the better. It took three to carry us all, piled into the cabs and the truck beds. As we drove north, along the two-lane Virginia Dare Trail, the one that ran closest to the ocean, we passed around charges, taking shifts plugging our phones in. We drove past beach houses with their shingles blown off, windows still boarded up. A few with caved in roofs, the top floors collapsed under the weight. Past houses with the windows blown in completely, and ones blown completely off their stilts, the sand-coated driveways the only evidence something more substantial once stood there.
Debris littered the roads. We drove around it where we could, pulled over to study the damage when it blocked our path and mumbled something about how it was good the tourists got off the island. We climbed out, pushed what we could out of the road, then we threw the trucks back in gear and kept driving. Past more houses, over or around piles of sand and wood that covered the road in places, past the public access boardwalks that once cut through the dunes, now washed away. Only the signs remained. The dunes were completely reshaped, new mounds formed where the boardwalks once stood.
We knew the island was transient—that all that was built here would one day litter the ocean floor. But seeing it up close was different—we drove slowly, taking it all in. We didn’t talk. Those of us with more juice in our phones took photos, videos, documentation.
We drove past other people, other locals, walking along the sides of the roads, stacking debris in trucks to haul away. They waved, shouted hello and tipped their baseball caps. A couple times, we stopped to help lift particularly large pieces of driftwood into truck beds.
We passed the closed ice creams stores, seafood joints, all the places the tourists would normally be packed into, even in the middle of the afternoon. The second truck in our caravan turned left, cut over a few blocks to the center of the island. The others followed, the first truck circling back. We wound our way to the high school, parked, climbed out. We’d only been back in school a week and a half before the evacuation orders came.
We scuffed our shoes against the pavement and squinted towards the building. The roof was gone in a couple places, the section right over the entryway collapsed completely. The parking lot was mostly dry—it didn’t flood, not this far in—but shingles littered the pavement. Power lines dangled from broken poles. We didn’t get too close to them. We wondered what the inside looked like, if the hallways were under a couple inches of water, if our classrooms were a mess of debris and broken desks, if the textbooks we’d left in lockers were soaked and swollen. We decided it looked like a tornado went through here. We guessed how long the clean-up would take, when we would have to head back. We hoped for two weeks. We had a project due in English we didn’t want to think about just yet.
Instead of cutting back to the Virginia Dare Trail, we climbed back into the trucks and followed Croatan Highway north. The beachwear stores looked cold, decrepit, with their lights off and huge pieces of plywood covering their windows displays. A few had their windows blown out completely. One was a darkened husk—a fire must have sparked during the storm, from the downed electrical wires or lightning or something else.
Debris was still scattered in the road. As we drove through Duck, we slowed to study the neighborhoods we passed. These weren’t all tourist rentals up here. These neighborhoods were full of locals, of retirees. We didn’t know if they had evacuated or not. Several of the houses were missing roofs. Several closer to the road had trees take out roofs, windows, walls. Powerlines drooped low. We couldn’t see much past the wind-crumpled trees piled on top of each other and the few three-story houses blocking the rest of our view. We couldn’t tell if any of the ones closer to the ocean had been swept away.
We stopped, right in the middle of the road, by the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. No one was coming. The few trees surrounding the lighthouse, lining the road, were flattened. Some, that had fallen or been blown into the road, were already pushed to the shoulder. The top part of the lighthouse was gone—not bent or damaged. Just gone, both the metal roof and the glass that protected the light. We couldn’t see if the light was damaged, or the brick tower. The railing that surrounded the ledge remained. We lifted our phones, zoomed our cameras in as much as we could, snapped a couple pictures each. The lighthouse was close to 150 years old. We couldn’t remember if it’d ever been damaged in a storm.
They’ll fix it, we repeated to each other, as we sat and stared. A car meandered up behind us. We waved them past, over the double yellow line. Another local, doing the same thing we were.
We sat there in the middle of the road until the shadows stretched long. As one, we restarted our trucks and pulled away. Our eyes followed the lighthouse until it disappeared, obscured by the trees and the houses that choked the sides of the road. We drove until the asphalt met sand and the ocean was right there, turbulent, churning blue gray.
We raced each other along Highway 12, the 4X4 beach. Wet, stinging grains of sand spit from our tires into the faces of those of us hanging out the windows, leaning over the sides of truck beds, searching for a glimpse of a brown tail flicking away flies. Someone would shout when they saw the mustangs. We counted them as we passed, twelve total in three different harems, spread along the beach, picking at sea oats on the dunes. Twelve horses we knew survived the storm. It was better than none. We hoped the rest were only hiding somewhere, the way they’ve rode out a hundred storms. Though the herd’s numbers dwindled every year—one day they might all be gone, drowned in a hurricane or forced to swim when their island washed away for good. Would they make it to the mainland, the way their ancestors struggled to shore when their Spanish galleons sank? Or would they go down with the island, their survival instincts diminished over the centuries? Would the mainland even want them, if they made it there? Or put them in pens and sell them, making a profit off the last of North Carolina’s wild horses?
And what about us, we all wondered. When our houses were reclaimed by the ocean, would the mainland welcome us back? Would we be a commodity, the Outer Banks refugees, gawked at and shuffled around to the far corners of the country the way the horses would be?
Would we ever see each other again?
We grew subdued as the seafoam swept in to kiss our tires. We dodged the orange plastic flags that marked sea turtles’ nests—still there, somehow, stakes buried deep in the sand. We hoped the eggs were safe. In the truck beds, we reached for each other’s hands. A chill settled in under our skin as the sun crept towards the horizon on the other side of the island, sinking below the dunes. Our headlights flipped on. We drove slower, searching fervently for more horses, for seagulls, for signs of life.
Then: we were scrambling to our feet, unsteady in the truck beds. Then: shouts of I see it, whipped and distorted by the wind. More heads popped out of windows. Pointing. Indistinct screams. Joyous. Smiles visible in the rearview mirrors.
We saw the roof first, its sharp angles and gables. The rest slowly took shape as we pressed harder on our gas pedals. A brown behemoth rising from the sand, almost at the furthest northern point of the island. Criss-crossed stilts, a small storage room on the ground floor. Two stories. A wrap-around porch. All in place. We parked, cut the engines, climbed out and approached the house, our arms crossed, our hands rubbing over goosebumps raised against the chill coming off the ocean. We circled, surveyed the damage, slow, the same way our parents surveyed their own houses. We squinted at the wooden exterior, at the stilts and joists, searching for cracks or places in need of repair. The water, churned high from the storm surge, reached almost the top of the twelve-foot stilts. There was a clear line visible on the wood, where it was wet and where it wasn’t. Not as high as we feared. White flecks of foam clung there, high above our heads, but no further.
We found a few cracks. A few supports broken clean through, but the stilts bore weight. The house wasn’t slumping to one side. Seaweed hung from the crisscrossed intersections. Dead jellyfish cluttered the sand. We tugged on the saltwater swollen ground-level door. It didn’t budge in its frame. It never did. We pushed against those broken pilings, guessing at how sturdy they were. Saw if we could push the broken pieces back together, if they could be repaired like we assumed others had been. When they didn’t give way under our soft hands, we decided the house would survive to see another storm.
We guessed at whether the owner would think it was worth it to fix the house at all. We decided it was—the damage wasn’t bad at all. The roof was intact, far as we could tell. And even though it was missing its front steps, even with the cracked stilts, we thought it looked perfect.
Satisfied, exhausted, we collapsed into the sand. We passed around the bottles of liquor we stole from our parents’. The house stoic above us, solid, sturdy. There would be more, nor’easters and hurricanes—they were already talking about another one on the battery-powered radios our parents listened to. It was out to sea, they weren’t sure where exactly it was going to hit. It was all they could talk about: wouldn’t it be devastating if it hit here, so soon after the last one?
We didn’t talk about it, though not even the alcohol could numb the worry completely. We kept passing the bottles around, laying on the sand as it grew dark. We knew the storms were becoming more frequent, one or two a season instead of one every couple of years. The beach houses were taking longer to be rebuilt. The dunes were disappearing, carried out to sea when the storm surges rushed past. But they weren’t all gone yet. Our island was still our island. This wasn’t the storm to drive us away. Not yet. And we felt like celebrating.
Rebecca Burke is an MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University. Her fiction has appeared in Awakened Voices and Homology Lit, and her nonfiction has appeared in the Nasiona. You can follow her on Twitter @BeccaBurke95.