Authors: The Outer Banks House (v5)
I sat near Mama so that I could hold the parasol over her on the trip back to Nags Head. But I turned my head just enough so that I could see Ben, standing on the end of the dock, a hand shading his eyes. We
watched each other until I couldn’t see him anymore, until Roanoke Island was a long, greenish smear.
As Leo rowed us quickly across the sound, Mama slumped onto my shoulder, warm and heavy. My mind raced, recalling in vivid detail the last two months. The more Mama slept in the shade of the parasol, the more easily I could picture Ben’s silhouette, still standing on the end of that dock, still waiting. He always tried so hard; he always wanted to please.
This cool, forgiving water that flowed beside the boat could take me back to him. I could swim. I could swim all the way back to him, the way he had taught me.
But we had almost arrived in Nags Head, and I was needed. Suddenly Mama spoke, likely stirred awake by the slowing of Leo’s oars. “A young woman named Eliza Dickens came to the cottage a few days ago. She returned the dress that you soiled, the first of the summer.”
“Oh?” I said, ripped completely from my reverie. I couldn’t believe that Eliza—the offspring of the rude market woman—had harbored my dress the entire summer. “Did you see her? Did she speak to you?”
“The poor creature came all the way upstairs, to my bedroom. From the sound of it, she pushed Hannah to the floor.” Mama’s eyes were tightly closed, and speaking seemed a great effort for her, yet she went on. “She was difficult to understand, with her blubbering. But the manner in which she threw the dress on my bed left no room for interpretation.”
She paused for a few moments. I watched her chest fill deeply, watched her exhale the used-up air through a small oval between her lips.
She whispered, “She believed that it was a mistake, our coming to Nags Head this summer. She hopes that we don’t return again.”
I nodded my understanding. My arm ached from holding the parasol just so, and my forehead pounded painfully. I asked tentatively, “Do you think we will? Return again?”
She sat up and opened her eyes, finally. She gazed at me for several minutes, lost in thought. Then she said, “Yes, I do believe this place suits you, Abigail.”
September 4, 1868
Besides the pleasure of talking to him, I had a singular satisfaction in the fellow himself. His simple unfeigned honesty appeared to me more and more every day, and I began really to love the creature; and, on his side, I believe he loved me more than it was possible for him ever to love anything before
MOVED SLOWLY AROUND THE BEDROOM, FOLDING
clothing and throwing stockings, books, and underthings into several cases propped on our beds. We were leaving Nags Head the next day, and packing a summer’s worth of belongings was the last thing any of us felt like doing.
Charlie and Martha were dreading the return of routine and discipline back at home, but I was glad to be leaving the cottage. Everywhere I looked now, I saw too much. Every time I glanced at the table on the porch, or at the shell chime dangling in the breeze, I wanted to cry. The empty hammock caused me so much grief that I took it down.
I would miss the ocean air, though, and the solitude of the beach, especially now that most of the vacationers had called it a summer. Just as I was thinking of taking one last walk down the shore, there was a knock on the eastern door of the cottage. My heart jumped, and I realized I was expecting Ben.
I listened carefully as Hannah answered the door. Soon after that, she popped her head into the room and said, “There a old man here to see you, Miz Abigail. A Banker man.”
My face drooped like a hound’s as I walked through the house and peered curiously through the screen. And I had to look twice, because there stood a man who resembled Ben, but many years aged.
I could see that he and Ben had the same startling blue eyes, the same stature. But Ben’s features were more subdued. The man had a bulbous red nose and layers of leathered skin around his eye sockets. His ears stuck out from the sides of his gray-frizzed head, and his blue eyes were bloodshot and watery.
“You Abby?” he croaked, looking past me into the house. A black Labrador sniffed around the porch, keeping half an eye on us.
“Yes, sir. You’re Ben’s daddy,” I said.
His forlorn eyes blinked.
I glanced around the side of the cottage, hoping to see Ben lurking somewhere close by. “Where is Ben? We’re leaving tomorrow, and I’d like to give him a proper good-bye.”
He rumbled, “Ben’s up and gone, down yonder to Hatteras. He’s
set to work the construction down there, and he won’t be back for a long spell, I reckon.”
Fighting tears, I whispered, “Oh. I didn’t know he’d left already. I just saw him yesterday.”
He eyed me for the briefest of seconds, then said gruffly, “I got something to show you. Come along with me for a pace. Won’t take long.”
“Let me get my shawl,” I said quickly.
“Suit yourself,” he mumbled.
As I grabbed my shawl, already packed in a case, I told Charlie and Martha that I was going for a walk, and then hollered up to Mama that I would be back in an hour. When I emerged from the bedroom, Ben’s daddy had already started walking south, away from the house through the sand, surprisingly fast for his age. The dog ran right next to him, his tongue lolling up and down. I hurried up and down the sand hills to catch up with them.
He grumbled, seemingly to no one in particular, “I says to him, you’re a fisherman. Simple as that. Only trouble can come, fiddling ’round with figures and books and such. And now look.”
“Ben was the fastest learner I’ve ever seen.”
“You don’t have to tell me my boy was bright. I raised him up, you know. Point is, he don’t need that kind of learning out here.”
“But it made him happy.”
He stopped in his tracks and looked to me with dislike in his old eyes. Then he swatted the air with a wrinkled brown hand and bawled, “Aw, shitfire. Ain’t no use.”
We trudged on in silence. We seemed to be winding our way down the middle of the island, along a sort of sand path that only the locals knew. We neared a slightly wooded area and he slowed his pace a bit.
Then he said, his voice low, “Almost here.”
Soon we stood in front of a house, a crude little one-room shack in a clearing of woods. It looked brand-new, the split wood glowing in the daylight.
He said, “It’s too near the ocean. But since he met
folks, he started waxing on about a house by the sea.”
I gazed in surprise at the house Ben had built. I saw the porch, wrapped around the house lovingly. I saw the windows looking out to the sea. Then I saw the hammock, hanging around back between two strong oaks.
“Looks built good enough,” he said, cracking the porch step with his knuckles.
Ben was always busy with so many things; I couldn’t imagine when he would have had time to construct an entire house. “When did he build it?”
“Couple weeks ago. He didn’t tell me what he was up to, but you can’t hide nothing from no one out here. I found out soon enough.”
“Will he live here? When he comes back from Hatteras?”
He shrugged. “If he ever
I walked up to the door and pushed it open, the black dog brushing past me, his tail darting crooked as he followed a scent. The room was so simple—four walls, fixed space. But the ocean breeze blew straight through the open windows, whipping my dress around my legs.
Love and hope resounded in every board and nail. I had told him I couldn’t stay in Nags Head with him, but he went ahead and built an entire house, anyway. I started laughing, an odd, high-pitched whinny, and Ben’s daddy looked askance at me.
“Something funny to you? Missy, most of us out here would kill for a house like this’un.”
I straightened and said, “Your son is the most exasperating …
most prideful … oh, mercy.” I crumpled to the dusty floor of the house. My eyesight goggled in and out; I was unable to focus on anything except the loss of Ben.
Ben’s daddy thumped over and bent down to peer into my face. Tears glistened in his sunstruck eyes, too. He rasped, “Listen, what’s done is done. But I wanted to show you what he’d built. He would have wanted you to see it afore you leave.”
He wiped his face with a grizzled hand and exhaled deeply, spewing the sweet smell of chewing tobacco.
I started sobbing so hard I thought I’d retch onto the sawdust floor. He just looked at me writhing on the floor, never saying a word, never touching me. As if he were watching a fish gasp its last, still wrapped up in his net. He stood up, knee and ankle joints popping, and slowly hobbled out of the house, the dog following reluctantly after him.
After what seemed like a very long time, I sat up blankly and removed my suede shoes. I took one in my hand and looked at it. When I had first worn these shoes last spring, they had rubbed the backs of my ankles so hard I had biting blisters for two weeks straight. But Mama had insisted that I wear them despite the blisters because they had been costly.
Eventually calluses formed on my ankles, and the suede stretched a bit, making the shoes more pleasant to wear. Now the soles of the shoes were worn almost all the way through, and the soft suede was rubbed clean off the leather, from my time in Nags Head. The shoes were ruined.
I got up, leaving my shawl behind, and walked barefoot out into the sand. The ocean wasn’t far at all, maybe four hundred yards away. The sunlight glittered on the water, as if a mass of souls were engrossed in happy conversation. It was peaceful and innocent,
but I had seen it at its worst as well. It made me love it that much more.
I started to ask something of Uncle Jack, but I stopped before the words could take flight. I hadn’t heard his voice for a long while.
I retrieved the reticule from my skirts and took out the letter, once as familiar as my own hand. Without even reading it, I gently crumpled it and tossed the ball of haunted, yellowing words into the frothing surf. I watched as the paper floated, and then melted, into the sea.
Then I walked back to the little shack to say good-bye. I sat down on a step, thinking I should go back to the cottage now. We had a steamboat to catch in the morning.
I rubbed the smooth boards under my feet and pictured Ben dragging the logs over and splitting and sawing and nailing them all together. He must have done it quickly, with hope in his heart.
I found myself sitting and sitting, unable to get up.
A gigantic seagull stared at me suspiciously from the beach. “Come on, get up, Abby,” I said out loud.
The sea spray smelled potent and hinted at the autumnal. Cooler weather would arrive in a few weeks, rendering the summer heat a memory. It was back to a cluster of people for me. Back to a madman for a daddy, a sickly mother, two needy children. Back to a fiancé I didn’t want.
Yet instead of going back the way Ben’s daddy had led me, I walked over to the old gray hammock Ben had hung. I got in with some difficulty, then settled back and took in the view. I saw why he had hung it here. The branches arched over me, but allowed plenty of sky to peek through in patches.
I closed my eyes and a tear rolled down my cheek. It cooled on my face as it evaporated.
I dozed for a bit, and in a dream I heard cracking twigs in the
scrubby woods, then the seagulls bickering. I heard the ocean folding its hands in prayer and moving up the beach in peace. I heard the sound’s slapping in between the pulses of waves.
My heart pumped my blood like honey, flowing evenly.
I awoke to Ben’s face, looking down at me. The sky behind his head matched his eyes perfectly. He wasn’t smiling at me, but he had a look of serenity about him.
My sleepy mouth mumbled, “I miss you, Ben.”
He touched my forehead with his rough palm, gentle as an angel’s blessing, and the drowsiness fell away. I sat up quickly, making the hammock sway.
“Ben?” I cried. Light off the ocean blinded me so that I couldn’t see.
He laughed. “You’re not mad with me anymore?”
He tried to help me out of the hammock, but I fell into his arms with a crash. I hugged him for a long time. “I thought you had gone to Hatteras to begin work on the lighthouse. Your daddy told me you already left!”
“I did. But Mr. Stetson ain’t ready for crews just yet. Men just standing ’round, breakfast and supper for the gallnippers.”
“Oh.” My smile evaporated.
“And too, I couldn’t not give you a proper farewell. You rowing away with your mama was about all I could think on for two days straight. I stood there on that dock for hours, mulling over what I wanted to say to you. But nothing seemed good enough.”
“So you came back to try again, after going all the way down to Cape Hatteras?” I laughed.
“Yeah, I did. Being away from it all made the words come easier.” He smiled shyly at me. “I didn’t reckon you to be
, though. Seeing you here, at this house, made me forget everything I planned to say!”