Maggie bent at the waist, leaned into the wind and took the first step back toward the house. It had occasionally seemed like a bit of a hike to the house from the garden or chicken yard, mainly when she was exhausted or Stoopid was throwing himself in her way in a fit of nerves or agitation. However, the hundred feet or so that she and Boudreaux now needed to traverse seemed like a great distance indeed.
Apparently, everything was far away if you needed to get there dragging a half-dead man through thigh-high water that was moving in the other direction.
The wind and the rain wanted to push them away from the house, as well, and Maggie almost appreciated the irony of her loving storms so much. She’d never had to fight one so hard. She’d always just prepared for them as much as she’d needed to, then hunkered down to wait them out and enjoy them as much as she could.
She’d always felt somewhat guilty and secretive about her love of bad weather, especially after storms like Katrina, but she couldn’t help welcoming a good pounding rain, or the rumble of thunder overhead. Some part of her mind that wasn’t preoccupied with survival wondered now if she would lose that pleasure.
Boudreaux spoke to her a few times as they fought their way toward the house, but his words were lost in the wind, and overwritten by her single-minded focus on moving forward. Every time Maggie looked up at the deck stairs, she felt like they should be closer than they were, but they were at least making progress.
Maggie could feel her legs trembling from the strain, and this seemed incongruous with all of the hours that she had spent in her lifetime, running out into the ocean against the surf. She’d always loved bodysurfing, and she and her parents, and she and David, had spent countless days at Fort Walton Beach or Destin, running out into the surf, then riding it back in, from sunrise to sunset, almost without rest.
How was it that the same legs she’d had then were trying to let her down now, after just a few minutes of work? If the situation weren’t so serious, she might have laughed at the idea that she could handle the surf at Orange Beach, but couldn’t handle the surf in her own front yard.
When Maggie felt her foot hit the old brick fire pit, she knew they were getting close, but looking up into the rain was excruciating and nearly pointless, so she kept her head down, and she and Boudreaux stumbled into it and stepped over the other side.
It was then that Maggie heard someone yell “Mom,” though it seemed to come from a long way away.
She looked up and squinted into the liquid needles, and her heart flipped over a few times. Sky and Kyle were on the deck stairs, standing at the water line, about three steps up. Sky had tied together the ropes that had been used to bind their wrists, then tied one end to the bottom of one of the balusters.
“Get back inside!” Maggie yelled, and it seemed pointless. She could almost feel her voice whipping past her own ears and into the woods behind her.
Sky either heard her anyway, or chose to look up at that moment. “Mom!” she yelled. She was hurriedly tying a bowline knot at the loose end of the rope to make a loop.
“Get inside!” Maggie yelled. She and Boudreaux were only about fifteen feet from the stairs, but it seemed like a mile, and the water wanted to push them along the side of the house and to the back. She felt as though she were pushing against an automatic door that wanted to shut itself.
Sky ignored Maggie and, one hand gripping the loop she’d made, she jumped into the water. It nearly pushed her off of her feet, but she managed to right herself, and once the rope had played out to its full six feet or so, she stretched her free arm out to her mother.
The idea that Sky would not be out of the water until she was spurred Maggie on, and she pushed against the water with her legs. She wouldn’t look away from Sky long enough to look at Boudreaux, but since she felt like she was dragging him, she thought he must have fallen unconscious.
She did glance beyond Sky to Kyle, and the sight of him standing on the stairs, gripping the rail with both hands as the wind and rain whipped at him, was terrifying but mobilizing at the same time. She would get there, and she would get the kids back into the safety of the house, and after she had clutched them to her, she would scream at them.
Suddenly, the water was higher, reaching Maggie’s waist, even though she knew she was moving to higher ground with every step. She looked up, and saw that the water seemed to be moving faster, as well. Her brain was still working this out when she saw her Jeep begin to move forward.
It took a second for what she was seeing to fully register. The Jeep was slowly moving toward the deck stairs. Kyle saw it, too, and looked over at her, his eyes impossibly wide. Maggie saw him turn as though to run up the stairs and she screamed at him.
Kyle was an amazing kid. He was kind and he was funny and he was incredibly smart, but if Maggie could change one thing about his character or behavior, it would be his tendency to be so distracted that she had to repeat commands several times before he acted on them.
This one time, she didn’t have to.
If Maggie had had time to thank God, she would have done it as she watched Kyle leap from the bottom of the stairs into the water. He was almost shoulder deep when he landed, but landed not too far behind Sky, who already had a hand stretched out to him. The water started to push him past her, but he grasped her hand and swung around in front of her before he found his footing. Then the Jeep bumped into the staircase.
Even at the slow pace it was traveling, between the water and the one loose piling, the Jeep’s impact was enough to take the stairs down. Maggie and Sky watched them tumble, watched the railing tilt over sideways before breaking in two and falling over into the water.
As they did, Maggie saw Sky’s arm jerk violently, and realized Sky was still holding the length of rope.
“Sky, let go!” she yelled, and Sky looked at her hand like it was someone else’s, then let go of the rope. The portion of railing that the rope had been tied to spun towards the kids, then past them, nearly clipping Maggie on its way toward the garden.
The truck seemed to stop for just a moment, then started sliding again. Maggie watched, mouth open, as it slid underneath the deck and bumped into one of the concrete pilings on which the house sat. She waited for her house, her memories, her dog and her rooster to come crashing down in front of her eyes, but the square pillar was solid and it was deep.
Maggie looked away from the Jeep and back to her kids, who were struggling to get their footing. She looked past them to Boudreaux’s and David’s trucks, still sitting where they’d been left, as far as she could judge. She didn’t trust them not to go at any moment. They weren’t an option for getting out of the water, even if they managed to get to them against the flow of the surge.
Maggie looked to her right, rethought a strategy she’d never actually formulated, then yelled at Sky.
“The bushes, Sky!” Sky looked at her without understanding, and Maggie waved her free arm toward a stretch of overgrown brush and Hibiscus bushes that had been a nice hedge in her grandmother’s time.
Less than thirty seconds had passed since the truck had taken down the stairs, but to Maggie’s legs it felt like hours. She could feel her muscles convulsing from the effort spent to remain standing, and if her kids hadn’t been in the water, she might have let the water take her and hoped to end up someplace good.
She spread her feet a bit wider and tried to dig in as the water pushed her kids, stumbling, toward her. She saw that Sky had grabbed one of Kyle’s wrists and she reached out for Sky’s free hand.
“Don’t let go of him,” she yelled, as Sky grabbed her right hand. Kyle kept moving toward her, and she instinctively opened and closed her left hand, though her left arm was wrapped around Boudreaux’s waist.
She felt Boudreaux’s right arm lift off of her shoulders, and she didn’t know if it was intentional or accidental, but she felt him push her between her shoulder blades, and the weight of him left her side as he fell backwards.
She started to turn to grab him, but then Kyle crashed into her and she just managed to grab the back of Kyle’s shirt with her now free left hand, as she kept a death grip on Sky’s hand with the other.
The small impact from Kyle almost knocked her off her feet, but she righted herself, and stayed standing despite Kyle accidentally kicking her shins as he got his feet underneath him. When she turned around to look for Boudreaux, he was gone.
For just a moment, Maggie wanted to try to look for him, but which of her children would she let go of to do that?
Although Sky was just at the end of her arm, Maggie yelled to be heard over the rain and the wind, which refused to let up even a little.
“We need to get to the bushes!” Maggie yelled, her voice breaking from the strain. “Try to stay on your feet, but let it take us to the bushes!”
Sky looked at her questioningly.
“The tree! We can make it to the coon tree!”
The coon tree was a huge oak that grew near the corner of the back deck. It had gotten its name due to the mama coon and three babies that had liked to climb it in the evenings a few years ago. None of the branches overhung the deck, so it wouldn’t get them back up into the house, but the trunk had split decades ago, and the low “V” made it an easy tree to climb. They could at least get out of the water. If they could get to the overgrown line of bushes that ran along the back of the yard, they could use them to make their way to the tree.
The three of them, connected by cramping, white-knuckled hands, let the water push them toward the bushes, while trying to stay on their feet. This was most difficult for Kyle, for whom the water was almost chest high, but Maggie gripped his one wrist and Sky his other, and they eventually washed up against the overgrown hibiscus, volunteer oaks, and other bushes that were now half-submerged in water.
Sky got there first, and grabbed onto a thick trunk with her free hand, then Maggie let go of her hand and grabbed some branches. By silent agreement, all three of them rested there a moment once Kyle had a grip on the shrub Maggie was holding. She still held firmly to his left hand. The water passed through and around the bushes, but the growth was thick enough to keep them from being carried through.
Sky looked over at Maggie, her chest heaving, her loose bun now plastered to her head like a small, sodden animal. “I am not drowning in my own yard!” she yelled angrily at her mother.
“No, you’re not,” Maggie yelled back. “Just hang on, and move toward the tree.”
She watched Sky reach out her left hand, grab a bunch of branches on the next bush and pull herself over, then Maggie looked over at Kyle. She moved his hand to the back of her shorts and put it on her belt. “Grab onto my belt!”
She felt the tug as he wrapped his fingers around her leather belt. “Do not let go, do you understand me?” The boy nodded. “We’re going to make our way as close to the coon tree as we can, okay?”
Kyle nodded again, and Maggie used both hands to grip the branches as she followed Sky. It took several minutes, and one battle with a drowning lawn chair that Maggie didn’t recognize, but they finally managed to get to the end of the line of bushes.
There was a good six feet between the last bush and the base of the old oak. Maggie and Sky stared at the space between them, and Maggie wished they still had Sky’s rope. Sky turned and looked at Maggie, and Maggie tried to look like she wasn’t as frightened as she was.
“You can do it, Sky,” she said. “Just stay on your feet.”
Sky nodded, and stepped toward the tree, still gripping her branch in her right hand. It bent beneath the water, and she didn’t let go until she had to. Then she pushed toward the tree trunk and grabbed at the small hole in the “V”, now underwater, where she and Kyle used to tuck apples and raisins and other treats for the raccoons.
Sky swung her left leg through the split trunk and straddled it, then scooted up the trunk a bit until she could reach the first decent branch. She grabbed it with her left hand, then leaned out just above the water and stretched out her hand. It wasn’t close enough for Maggie to reach, and with Kyle hanging onto her, she was afraid they’d pull Sky out of the tree. She turned to Kyle.
“We need to switch places, baby,” she yelled. She reached underwater and grabbed his wrist, pulled his hand from her belt and put it on one of the branches in front of her face. He grabbed it, and she pulled him in front of her. For the briefest moment, she buried her face in his neck, then helped him pass over to her left.
“Okay, listen,” Maggie said, grabbing his right hand in her left. “I need you to get as close as you can to Sky and get her hand. I’ve got you, do you understand?”
Kyle nodded. “It’s okay, Mom,” he yelled back, his already high-pitched voice cracking with the effort.
“Okay.” Maggie held his poor hand in a death grip, and watched him get as far as he could before letting go of the branch he was holding. Maggie followed, felt the weightlessness through his hand when he lost his footing, started breathing again when he got it back.
She got as far out as she could without letting go of her branch, and her and Kyle’s arms were both stretched to the limit, but Sky was finally able to grab his other hand.
“I’ve got him, Mom! Let go!”
“Are you sure you have him?”
“Yes! Let go!”
Maggie let go of Kyle’s hand, and watched without breathing as Sky swung him through the water to the trunk. He grabbed on, and scrambled up the other side of the trunk to a decent-sized branch. When he looked back at Maggie, she almost felt as though all was right with the world again, save the rain and the wind and the water.
“C’mon, Mom!” Sky yelled, and she grabbed onto a smaller branch beside her, leaned out a little bit farther, and stretched her hand just a few inches closer.
Maggie tried to plant her feet a bit more firmly before she let go of her bush. The water seemed to be moving less quickly, but there also seemed to be more of it. It was up to her waist now, and it wanted to go down to the river. The weight of it against her legs, as it kept moving toward its goal, was unbelievable. It didn’t need speed; it had the power of its volume and the power of gravity.
It took two good steps, then she was able to stretch up and grab her daughter’s hand. Sky swung her back toward the trunk, and then Maggie let go of her hand and pushed forward to the trunk’s “V” and grabbed it. She stood inside the split and hugged the tree a moment, her head leaning against it, as she tried to let her legs recover. They shook as though she’d been running for an hour. She took a few deep breaths, then looked over at Sky.
“We need to get higher,” she called out hoarsely.