“Jo, make your way home.” Arlen’s message haunted her as she made her return to Ocracoke Island. It had been three days since the hurricane made landfall over her childhood home. In recent years, she had settled in Atlanta. Still she had regularly returned home until the death of her Aunt Celia last year, but since her funeral, she had stayed away. Somehow thinking she could keep her grief at bay by avoiding the task of dismantling her Aunt’s life. Arlen had adopted Aunt Celia after Uncle Will died, first looking after the house and later checking in on her. He had found her collapsed in the kitchen when she hadn’t answered his knock and call through the back door.
One ferry was running from the Swan Quarter, but was told she would have only two hours on the island. As they made way over the Pamlico Sound, the last thirty years seemed to disappear as she remembered moving to the island, just a month shy of her ninth birthday.
”Jo, close your eyes now sweet girl and breathe in the salt air, I will wake you when we are home,” Aunt Celia had said as she comforted her only niece on the three hour ferry ride. Jo knew her Aunt’s salty tears were what she felt dripping onto her face as she hid in her lap. For she was also grieving, the loss of her only brother and his wife and Jo, their legacy, was now hers. Even now, years later, drifting off to sleep, she could almost feel the soft cotton of her Aunt’s khaki skirt on her cheek.
The ferry’s horn jolted her back to reality and upon opening her eyes, the devastation of her beloved island took her breath away. Even in this state of disrepair, she knew the island lived and its current caretakers would breathe life back into what the wind had taken away. Exiting the ferry the Captain reminded everyone, “Two hours people, remember the briefing from the National Guard, only bring back what you can carry on board, space is limited.”
Lost in thought, she hadn’t heard Arlen approaching, “You’re a sight for sore eyes and a tired soul.”
Arlen had a way about him, an average man in his forties with extraordinary appeal. She pulled back from a brief embrace, “You always said we had too many tourists anyway. This will keep them away for a while.”
He shook his head, “I should be more mindful what I wish for. The clock is ticking, these Guard guys are taking things serious and we need to be on our way.”
Arlen gently took her hand before they approached the house, “Jo, I wish I could prepare you, but girl it’s going to sting.”
Upon arrival, the first thing she noticed was the orange X which she assumed signified the house was condemned. Next she realized the structure was about 20 feet from its original location, the roof was missing and somehow two walls were still standing. Unable to speak, she walked to Aunt Celia’s garden. Beside her favorite peonies, she sank to the ground with her face cradled in her hands and wept.
Arlen gave her the time she needed and when she was ready they made their way through the remains. “It’s difficult to imagine a home that took a lifetime to assemble is gone in a day. How that kitchen window survived the storm I can’t imagine. I remember as Aunt Celia gazing at her garden through that window, cup of tea in hand, smiling to herself.”
Arlen handed her a sand bucket, “Didn’t this always sit on the shelf by the back door?”
Jo smiled, “Aunt Celia gave it to me my first summer. I used it to haul everything from my lunch to seashells. She used to say a child’s treasures were more precious than any Black Beard may have hidden on this island.”
Time quickly passed and she found herself on the boat catching one last wave from Arlen. She would rebuild and soon would be staring out the salt stained window that was sitting at her feet into a garden of peonies planted from the rescued ones she held in her treasured sand bucket. Arlen said that he would help work out the details and she knew that when it was finished, she would hear his voice once again, “Jo, make your way home.”