By Harlan Yarbrough
“It's OK. We've got insurance.”
“That'll buy us another house,” Audrey said, “but this house—”
Damian started to say something, then stopped
Damian and Audrey had hired a local contractor to build their new house on the Peninsula nine years ago. They made sure the slab was poured a full eight feet above the highest recorded high tide level, nearly twice the hundred year sea level rise predicted in the latest report from the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change—enough to keep the place high and dry for their great-grandchildren, probably longer.
Now, the combination of a king tide, rising sea levels, and a storm surge brought water between and around the decking to form a surface half an inch above it—and high tide was still two hours away. Damian and Audrey had spent the past hour moving valuables out to their car and then rolling up the carpets and placing them and the most expensive furniture on top of less expensive pieces.
Every so often Audrey asked, “Is it really going to get high enough to come inside?”
“With it coming up for two more hours, it’s bound to,” Damian replied every time.
Alternately, Audrey wailed, “What are going to do!”
Each time, Damian said, “Keep on doin’ what we’re doin’, then go spend the night in a motel.”
The next day, Audrey expressed her horror at the damage the flooding caused to their beautiful hardwood floors and to most of their furniture. Three days later, Damian expressed outrage that the county building department decided to condemn all the homes that suffered flood damage.
“The insurance company will build us a new house, just as nice.”
“Yeah, but not like that one. At high tide we could just about dive into the river from our deck.”
“In that high tide this week, we could've sat in the river on our deck.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Property that close to the tidewater is going cheap. We could buy another lot, maybe a little bit higher, and they'd pay to build on it.”
“They would, they'd have to, but they wouldn't insure it.”
“So, then, what?”
“So, we find out how close to the water they will insure and buy there.”
So, Damian did exactly that. He found a half-acre lot that the sellers offered a year earlier for half a million dollars, and he managed to buy it for under three hundred thousand. Not quite a hundred feet back from the high tide line and fifteen feet above it, with a commitment from their insurance company to provide cover. The company kept its commitment, but Damian threw a fit when he saw the size of the premiums—five times what he paid on the previous place. He argued, he threatened, and in the end he paid.
“All I want,” Audrey said, “is a place that we can stay in, y’know? I don’t want to move again. And I sure as heck don’t want to have to move like we did this time.”
Damian felt the same but refused to say so, because he liked to appear stoic and tough. He’d grabbed an opportunity for early retirement almost two years earlier but then went back to work for his old employer as a contractor, at consultant’s rates. He planned to retire for real at the end of this year and liked the idea of a place where he and Audrey could live out their years in comfort. Keeping that to himself, he said only, “We’ll be fine here. You’ll see.”
Feeling only slightly less enthusiasm than with their previous house, the couple watched their new place take shape. They noted with relief and approval that the highest of the high tides they saw reached less than halfway to the house. Because they learned from the now-condemned house, they suggested changes to the builder. The changes resulted in a house that suited them even better than the other one, and they settled down happily to enjoy Damian’s retirement by the shore.
Because the new house sat less than a mile from the site of the old one, since demolished, Audrey and Damian socialized with the same friends plus most of their new neighbors. They still enjoyed an evening of bridge once every two or three weeks and still enjoyed walking the same beaches they had walked for ten years. Damian continued grumbling about their insurance premiums, but most of the time both he and Audrey felt content. On the odd occasion when they discussed the situation, they agreed they had made the right decisions.
The happy couple felt somewhat less happy when a big storm brought the tide to within thirty feet of the house on the fifth anniversary of their taking up residence there. They worried again and more a year later, when another storm brought the water within twenty feet of the posts on which their deck rested. Two years on, Cyclone Ephraim brought water sloshing around beneath the deck. That was still more than two feet below floor level, though, so they congratulated themselves on getting it right. Audrey didn’t like that the storm made her cancel an evening of bridge but rejoiced that no water made its way into the house. Damian hired local tradesmen to repair the slight exterior damage and to restore the eroded soil and didn’t make a claim with their insurance company. The sixteen hours they spent without electric power during and after Ephraim motivated Damian to go out and buy a generator, but otherwise both of them felt good about the choices they’d made and felt secure in their home.
Forecasters predicted a major storm three months before the new house’s tenth birthday, and Damian and Audrey worried anew. Rain fell for twenty-four hours, heavily for six, and several local roads and one state highway were blocked by rising rivers and creeks. They worried more, when the Tuesday evening news said onshore gale-force winds would coincide with a predicted king tide late the next evening. With twenty-four hours warning, Damian spent the Tuesday evening and part of Wednesday morning on the ’phone tracking down laborers and a source of sandbags. Because many other people in the area came up with the same idea, he had to pay top dollar to get people to fill and place the bags, but by early Wednesday afternoon the sand and the bags sat in his driveway, and four laborers filled them and placed them below the deck and alongside the house.
Audrey and Damian were determined to protect this house and avoid the losses they suffered a decade earlier. They filled a few of the bags themselves, and Damian supervised the placement of the bags on the seaward side of the deck. He had procured enough bags and sand to create a wall a little taller than the deck along all three sides and up along the sides of the house. When the power went off late Wednesday afternoon, Damian rolled the generator out of the garage and started it. By the time the evening sky grew fully dark, four floodlights illuminated the back of the house.
By the time the lights went out and Damian fired up the generator, the top of their wall of sandbags stood almost eight inches above level of the deck. Working in the pouring rain but mostly out of the rising water, the laborers worked to get the wall to that level all the way along both sides of the house. They stopped, when they ran out of sandbags, with not quite two hours to go before high tide.
Damian paid his workers the agreed amount and offered each of them a beer. Two accepted, and two elected to hurry home. Audrey and Damian and the two workers who remained to consume his beers—two in one case, three in the other—sat inside looking out at the deck. Although wet from the rain, the deck suffered no salt or brackish water from the estuary. The four congratulated themselves on a job well done, and the two hired hands went home.
Damian poured two glasses of wine, Pinot Gris for Audrey and Pinot Noir for himself, then returned to the living room sofa to watch the storm, illuminated by their floodlights, lash their backyard. They listened to the news bulletins on the radio on the hour and the half hour and chatted a little, but mostly watched the rising water beyond their wall of sandbags.
When the first tidewater spilled over the top of the sandbags, neither said anything. The amount of water spilling over didn’t amount to much, and the tide must turn soon. When, a few minutes later, the water began spilling over across the full width of their sandbag wall, Audrey screamed, “No!” That didn’t deter the tide, of course, and soon a surprisingly placid surface stood a good inch above the deck.
As the water continued to rise, Damian thought Audrey might weep, but she was beyond tears. When the level reached almost to the threshold, she leapt up from their leather sofa, picked up a flashlight, and ran through the house toward the garage. Damian called out to Audrey, but she didn’t reply. A moment later, she returned carrying a purple plastic bucket. She opened the sliding glass door and, closing it behind her, stepped out onto the deck and into the rain. There, she began frantically scooping up the water above the deck and throwing it out beyond the sandbags.
Damian, although thinking such action futile, felt obliged to join her. He grabbed another flashlight and emulated her trip to the garage, returning with a blue bucket. He joined Audrey on the deck and bailed as she did, even though the level of the tidewater stood higher than the top of the sandbags. They were still bailing, and didn’t notice when the level exceeded the height of their threshold and began pouring into their house.
Educated as a scienctist and graduated as a mathematician, Harlan Yarbrough has been a full-time professional entertainer most of his life, including a stint as a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. Repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as a librarian, a physics teacher, and a city planner among other occupations. Harlan lives in New Zealand but returns to the US to perform. He has completed three novels, and his short fiction has appeared in the Galway Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Red Fez, Veronica, Degenerate Literature, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, and other literary journals.
Photograph: The First Evening by the River, Marketa, CC 2.0