By Isabel Yacura
They found the body in the creek when the tide went out.
They called it a creek on the island, anyway—it was more like a lagoon. The water came in and out with the tides, left it briny and sulfuric and studded with razor-sharp oyster beds at the low end.
The body had gotten caught on them—the shells. Wasn’t pretty.
Ethan was laying foundation for the new house when someone called out.
Well, wasn’t laying foundation yet—more doing a walk around the site and shaking his damn head at what he found. More than happy to leave the wet ground and look at some sack full of garbage that some idiot called a body.
It wasn’t a sack full of garbage.
Ethan stopped dead at the edge of the property, a mess of decaying leaves and half-churned earth, looked out onto the muddy ground carved with lines of the tides. Thick clusters of oysters, blackened with age, poked out of the ground. They didn’t look it, but they had fine, keen edges—a misstep would send you to the ER for stitches and a tetanus shot right quick.
The body was facedown, and Ethan felt a brief, ugly swelling of relief that it was. One foot was missing its shoe. It was swollen, pale blue-white, looked like it had been gnawed upon.
Ethan stared at where one of the toenails was missing and thought, Wonder if this’ll hold up the project.
Little while later, most of the guys were just sort of standing round the lot as police swarmed in.
The island wasn’t a big murder spot. Low country in general didn’t get a lot of murder.
“No one says it’s murder,” one of the cops said. “There’s no reason to suspect foul play.”
Yet, everyone thought.
Cops were climbing down into the bed, shells crunching under steel-toe boots. Ethan looked around when the examiner started to turn the body over.
There was an old guy standing out on the edge of his deck on the property next door, face like a thundercloud and arms crossed. Ethan made an educated guess, scrubbed his hand across the back of his head, wandered over.
“You see this?” The old man gestured toward the body, the cops, the lights. “Tragic. Terrible.”
“Yeah,” Ethan said. “Real sad.”
“You need the oyster bars for good fishing,” man said. “Gonna be hell to catch anything now.”
Ethan paused. “You fish?”
The old man spared him a look that was condescending at best. “You stupid, son?”
Ethan gamely looked toward the dock that hung out over the dry bed, connected to the deck by a long walkway. There were two rods hung up there, neat organized tackle, a fish-cleaning station built into the railing.
Nodded. “Me too.”
The old man grumbled in a slightly less aggrieved fashion, and the two watched the police meander around and screw up the fishing.
“Ethan,” Ethan said after a moment, wiping dirt off his palm and offering his hand.
The old man didn’t hesitate. “Randy.”
“You live here long, Randy?”
“How long’s long enough?” Ethan said, wiping his face with a bandanna and hiding a smile behind it. Curmudgeonly old men like this were a favorite.
“Forty years,” Randy said, and there was a note of pride there. “Before all these rich developers started buying up the land, subdividing and building all their houses on top of each other.”
“Ah, that’s right, this was pretty empty before,” Ethan said, gesturing at the empty lot with its sad-looking piles of construction supplies.
Randy grumbled again. “Used to be one of the last grand estates,” he said. “Knew the owner. Funny sort. His grandkids sold off the land to some developer and booked it. Damn shame.”
“Damn shame,” Ethan said.
There was some hollering from the site, and Ethan turned to see the foreman waving him over. “It was nice to meet you, Randy,” he said, and turned to go.
“You get a lunch break?”
Ethan paused. “I’m union,” he said.
“And you fish?”
“You’re welcome to use the dock, then,” Randy said, glaring at him even as he said it. “But bring your own damn pole and bait.”
“Yes sir,” Ethan said, not bothering to hide his grin. “Will do.”
He didn’t see Randy often. Just a few times while the work paused because of the investigation, and a few more while they laid the foundation and Ethan emailed, increasingly annoyed, the developer about concrete and fill soil and pier systems.
He’d wave to the guys when lunch was called, grab his gear out of the back of his trunk, and wander over to sit on the dock.
The first time, he sat with his feet dangling off the edge, not touching the water as the water slowly drained away with the tide.
The next, there was a beat-up camp chair, bleached beyond original color recognition, and Randy sitting in another one.
Ethan didn’t mention it, just sat down and started hooking up a topwater plug to his pole, something that wouldn’t get trapped and hooked on the grasping hands of the oyster beds.
“It’s crazy,” he said to Randy one day. “First they don’t want to properly compact the fill soil because of time, even though it’ll cause major problems later on, but now they’re telling me they want to put down foundation slabs instead of a crawl space foundation, even though it’ll make the house majorly vulnerable if it ever floods.”
Ethan shook his head, stared out at the lagoon. It was high tide, and the water was green and still. Fishing wasn’t that good right now. He was here anyway. So was Randy.
“Dangerous stuff,” Randy said. “Hurricane Matthew hit the island real bad a few months ago, back in October. Half the damn island flooded or destroyed.”
“Least it’s not too cold here, even in January,” Ethan said, shaking his head. “No real worries about the slab cracking.”
They were almost done with the prelims, getting ready to pour. Ethan wasn’t happy about it, but, technically, everything was regulation.
He was talking to the engineer on the project the day before the pour began. Pour on a Friday, peel the forms off on Monday was pretty standard practice. The weather in winter only dropped below freezing once in a blue moon, and all of January had been in the low forties. The engineer pulled out a FIRM map, taking a last look at the floodplain regs.
They were standing at the side of the lot that abutted with Randy’s property. When Ethan looked over, he could see Randy sitting on his deck, just staring out at the water. No fishing gear in sight.
“You hear that they identified the body?” the engineer said. Good guy, cheerful and a little awkward. George St. Something-or-Other.
“Yeah?” Ethan said. “Took ’em a while.”
“That’s what happens when fish eat your face,” George said, shrugging.
“Who was it?”
“Some surveyor,” George said. “Don’t think he was an island guy, but he was local-ish. Was on a job out here, and they think he had some sort of accident, hit his head, and got trapped under by the oyster beds.”
The lagoon was empty now, and it was hard to imagine anyone drowning there. The oyster beds just looked dull and muddy.
“Huh,” Ethan said. “No foul play.”
“No evidence,” George said. “But it’s still weird.”
“Yeah,” Ethan said, and cast a glance over his shoulder at the materials being dropped at the site, and then to Randy’s still form staring out at the dry lagoon bed. “Weird.”
Next day was pouring day, and there was no time for Ethan to go and drag his feet over at Randy’s dock. Randy didn’t appear anyway, and the pour occupied enough of Ethan’s mind that he didn’t think much of it.
The concrete was laid, they knocked off half an hour early, and Ethan went home to cook dinner and have a beer.
His girlfriend, Caroline, came over. She swung her feet like a kid, perched on one of his kitchen stools. “That’s so sad,” she said.
When Ethan turned around from the stove, she was looking at the TV. News was playing.
“The body of Michael Jorgenson was identified two days ago, found in a tidal lagoon on Hilton Head Island,” the newscaster said, solemn. “Michael Jorgenson was a surveyor for the National Flood Insurance Program and leaves behind a wife, a daughter, and two grandchildren. The police say there is no evidence of foul play.”
The pan sizzled sharply, and Ethan turned back to the onions. On a whim, he pulled out his phone, opened up Safari.
One hand absentmindedly pushed onions around, slow and thoughtless. With the other, he awkwardly typed into the search bar:
flood insurrance rste map hilton head island
Google autocorrected for him, and he was pulling up a PDF a few seconds later. It was difficult to find where the new development was, even trickier to zoom in with one hand.
At the bottom of the page, something caught his eye.
Town of Hilton Head Island
Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM)
Effective Date: March 23, 2016
Six months prior to Hurricane Matthew.
“Ethan,” Caroline said. “You can’t caramelize onions on that high of heat, they’re smoking.”
“Ah,” Ethan said, snapping back. “My bad, babe.” He pulled the pan off the heat, slid his phone in his back pocket.
He went back to the site on Monday to supervise the forms getting pulled off. Got a call that night from an old friend of his, desperate to find a replacement for the foundations guy who had quit the project unexpectedly.
The job was in Savannah, and Ethan spent the next few days exhausted from the hour-long drive there and back each day, and he didn’t think of bodies in muddy beds or floodplains.
And then there was a rash of fast pours and arguing with developers again while they tried to throw up new condos as fast as possible, and all be told, it was near summer before Ethan saw George St. Something-or-Other again.
“Come grab a beer with us,” George said, slapping Ethan on the shoulder. “I haven’t seen you in months.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ethan said, cracking his neck. “All right, but one, my girlfriend gets in tonight and I’m tryna be home.”
“You’re still dating that flight attendant?”
“Good on ya, man, dunno why she stays with your ugly ass.”
“Fuck off,” Ethan said, laughing. George dodged the smack upside the head and threw himself into his own truck.
The bar wasn’t doing too bad for a Wednesday, and they were waiting on their drinks when Ethan thought to ask, “Hey, how’d that one job end up looking?”
“Which one?” George asked, nodding at the bartender as he slid two bottles their way.
“The murder house,” Ethan said.
George laughed. “Ah, good lord, what I would pay to hear you say that in front of that developer,” he said. “What a piece of fucking work. Guy was twitchy as hell.”
“Never met him. Was too good to come out to the jobsite, I just got a million fucking emails from the son of a bitch. Though if someone got murdered on something I was trying to sell for two-point-five mill, I’d be twitchy too,” Ethan said, taking a long pull.
“Police say he wasn’t murdered,” George said, and snorted. “Yeah, right. Not like those tidal creeks get that deep. Still, enough to scare some buyers off.”
“Hope Randy tells every rich asshole who goes in to tour the house that story,” Ethan said.
“That old guy next door? I fished off his dock a couple of times.”
George looked at Ethan then, a frown etching itself into his round face. It was a strange expression to see on him, and Ethan found himself straightening out of the familiar barstool slouch.
“Ethan, did no one tell you?”
“Tell me what?” Ethan said, and though it was near summer, 85 degrees even at night, he suddenly felt very cold.
“That old guy died,” George said, his brows drawn together, mouth tilted down at the corners. “They found him on that little dock. Heart attack, they think.”
“You’re kidding,” Ethan said.
“No, I’m sorry, man,” George said. “I didn’t know you—well, I’m sorry.” He ended his sentence awkwardly, the jovial mood soured.
“Right,” Ethan said. “Shit.” He downed half his beer, shook his head. “Damn shame.”
“Damn shame,” George echoed, and clinked his bottle to Ethan’s.
It was about three months later, and Ethan was back on the island for another job, talking to the engineer of the project.
“It’ll have to be a pier-and-beam foundation,” the engineer said. “They just updated the FIRM maps, this is a A0-30 zone now.” He shook his head. “Just got way more expensive to build here.”
“Can I see that map?” Ethan asked.
“Sure,” and the engineer shuffled aside.
Ethan found the little area where Randy’s house stood. It was marked in green.
Looked to the key, to where it had a little colored box with A0 marked next to it.
At the very bottom of the map, it read:
Town of Hilton Head Island
Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM)
Effective Date: June 7, 2017
Isabel Yacura is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. She
is currently represented by Haley Casey at CMA Literary, and can be
found at @isabelyacura on Twitter.