Wyatt turned the windshield wipers on high as the rain began to get heavier. He was on US-19, which would eventually take him to Hwy 98, which would eventually take him straight to downtown Apalach, but eventually was starting to seem very far away.
He was one of very few drivers on this stretch of highway, which was lined on both sides by a seemingly endless forest of scrub pines. He made a mental note to never come this way at night, as he’d probably start having hallucinations, or just pull over and kill himself to avoid having to drive it much longer.
It had been raining for the last fifty miles or so, but the rain had picked up quite a bit the further west he drove. He was a good fifteen miles from the coast, and Hurricane Faye was a good ten miles from the coast in the other direction, but she was making herself known. To Wyatt, it was starting to feel like it was just the two of them there on US-19, and he was grateful when his cell phone rang.
“Hey, Wyatt. It’s Gray,” Maggie’s father said.
“Hey, Gray. Have you heard from Maggie?” Wyatt hoped Gray had, but he was all set to get pissy if she’d just shown up in Jacksonville.
“No, we haven’t,” Gray answered. “I was calling to see if you had.”
“No,” Wyatt said, sighing. “I’ve called a couple times. Straight to voice mail.”
“Is it raining in Orlando?” Gray asked.
“I couldn’t say,” Wyatt said.
“Where the hell are you, son?” Gray asked quietly.
“I’m on 19, just outside Chiefland.”
There was a short pause on the line.
“You’re on your way to Apalach,” Gray said.
“I thought you said we should stay put.”
Wyatt pulled into the right lane to avoid a branch from a scrub pine. “No, I said you should stay put, because she was supposed to be headed to Jax,” Wyatt said.
“I see,” Gray said. “And what about your surgery?”
“They’ll have to have it without me,” Wyatt said. “It’ll be good practice.”
“Maybe the airport will be clear tomorrow and you can fly back in time.”
“Maybe,” Wyatt said, though he had no intention of scrambling to make it. He’d simply reschedule. “I tried getting hold of Dwight and a few other people at the SO, but I’m just getting ‘all circuits are busy’ or somebody’s voice mail.”
“Well,” Gray started, then paused for a moment before going on. “I got in touch with Bennett Boudreaux about an hour and a half ago, and he said he’d go check Maggie’s house, but I haven’t been able to reach him again. It’s ringing; he’s just not answering. I’m a little concerned about that.”
Wyatt stared out the windshield a moment. “Why would you call Boudreaux?” he asked.
“Because I knew he’d be there.”
That sounded simple enough, but it didn’t really sound true enough. It also didn’t explain why Boudreaux would care to go driving around in a hurricane. Wyatt decided to let it go, though. Maggie’s parents were stressed enough.
“I’ll let you focus on driving,” Gray said. “But thank you. You’re a good man.”
“Basically, I’m an idiot,” Wyatt said. “But it serves the occasion well.”
“Well, drive carefully,” Gray said. “We’ll wait to hear from you.”
“You’ll know it when I know it,” Wyatt said, and hung up the phone.
Freaking Boudreaux. Every time he turned around, there were Maggie and Boudreaux, connected by invisible string. It was frustrating enough to know that Maggie felt some kind of connection to or even liking for Boudreaux. But Gray was about the most straightforward and transparent man that Wyatt knew. So what the hell was up with him calling the local killer to check on his daughter?
Boudreaux’s back slammed into something large and hard, and as it did, a rush of water spewed from his lungs and out his mouth, though his face was already underwater. He jerked his head sideways and brought his face out of the water, then coughed several times, but it seemed like the rain he took in and the water he brought up were about equal in volume. His back was being pressed against something, but the rushing water all around him was pulling on his legs.
He blinked a few times before he could keep his eyes open, then reached an arm out and grasped the first thing he touched. A cypress. He was hung up on an old tree. He gripped the thin cypress knee that he’d grabbed hold of and pulled himself up into more or less a seated position. He at least had his back fully against the base of the cypress, and his head out of the water. He’d get his breath and his bearings, then see if he could stand.
He couldn’t see his wound, as he was submerged to the shoulders, but he knew it was bad. He was freezing, he was lightheaded and he wanted more than anything to just sleep. He knew he was probably losing a good deal of blood and was most likely in shock. There wasn’t much he could do at the moment about either one.
He put his head back against the base of the cypress, closed his eyes, and took in a mouthful of rain. He held it in his mouth for a moment before swallowing, then he looked around, as though he might discern his location. It was pointless, really. He’d never been out this way much, and all he knew was that he was somewhere near Maggie’s house. He also knew he had to be fairly close to the river, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
He needed to pull himself together and start making his way back to Maggie’s property, or anyplace further away from the river, but pulling himself together suddenly seemed like it would require far too much effort.
God was punishing him, and he knew it. He’d made God angry, and now he was feeling the fruits of his sins. God the angry Father was punishing the murdering son, and the wind and the rain were his fists.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” Boudreaux said quietly. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
As he started in on his next Hail Mary, he thought to himself that if he did survive this day, Miss Evangeline was going to kill him anyway, so maybe he ought to just pray for his soul.
Miss Evangeline stood on the front porch near the wide steps, gripping her walker with both hands as the wind blew the rain into her face. She’d torn a hole in the bottom of a black garbage bag, and pulled it over her head to cover her clothes, but the wind whipped the bag around so bad that her house dress was soaked through anyway.
The water had come up to the second step, and she looked at the places where she knew the kalancho and impatiens to be. Poor plants was gonna drown good, and Mr. Benny yard gonna be naked.
She looked back up, squinting against the rain, and peered up one side of the street and down the other, hoping to see his big truck crawling through the water. She just wanted the truck to come back, wanted him to wade through the yard and back to the house, so she could yank him up outa the water and choke his neck dead.
She remembered then, back when they lived in the old white house on Bayou Petit Caillou, a day when he was six or seven years old.
She’d had his breakfast ready by the time the sky lightened, but seen no sign at all of the boy, and he hadn’t come when she called him. She wore herself out walkin’ all ’round the hen house and the yard, and no Mr. Benny. Finally, while she was out in the middle of the yard, callin’ and cryin’, there he come up to the dock, paddling his daddy’s pirogue with oars that was bigger than him.
She ran down the bank to the dock, wood clothespins rattlin’ in her apron pocket, and Mr. Benny just smile up at her like nothin’ bad wrong.
“What kind of crazy you are?” she yelled at him as he tied off the boat. “Why you make Miss Evangeline heart attack itself like that?”
“I wanted some redfish,” he said, holdin’ up a stringer of four or five fish.
“You too little be out your daddy pirogue by yourself,” she said.
He squinted his blue eyes up at her and told her, “I’m almost as big as you.”
She walked over to the pirogue, her slippers slappin’ against the dock, and put her hands on her hips. “You thinkin’ it’s a good day to sass me some, then.”
“But I am almost as big as you.”
“You get up here ’fore I snatch you out that boat,” she said, and glared at him while he got out. Then she turned and walked back up the yard, him trailin’ her, with his stringer in his hand.
“Miss Evangeline, you gonna cook me these redfish for breakfast?”
“I already cook your breakfast, me. I gon’ slap you senseless with them fish.” She stomped as best she could in her slippers, and yanked the screen door open. “Come in the house an’ don’t scare Miss Evangeline no more.”
To make sure he knew she was mad for true, she hadn’t said not one more word to Mr. Benny ’til he had got done eatin’ them fish.
Now she heard the front door open behind her, and the screen door squeak, but she ignored them, and stared out at the water until Amelia loomed over her shoulder.
“What you doin’, you crazy fool?” Amelia snapped. “I about walked myself through the floor lookin’ all over this house for you!”
Miss Evangeline straightened her shoulders and stared out at the street. “I been right here,” she said.
“You need come in the house,” Amelia said.
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere ’til Mr. Benny come back here,” Miss Evangeline snapped.
“He come back, you be dead from pneumonia, and he shoot me in my face,” Amelia said. “Look at you. Your house dress all soak through, and your slipper drench, too.”
“You go inside. I gon’ wait right here ’til that fool come home.”
“He come up that driveway, see you standin’ out here in a garbage bag, he gon’ lose his mind.”
“He done lose it already,” Miss Evangeline said.
“You wanna do somethin’, you come back in the house and pray for him,” Amelia countered, taking her mother’s elbow.
“I been prayin’, “Miss Evangeline said. “Prayin’ he don’t come up wrong ’gainst the juju, goin’ out that girl house like so.”
Amelia gently but firmly turned her mother toward the house. “Juju scared to death of that man,” she said.
“He need to leave her be,” Miss Evangeline said as they walked back into the house. “I tol’ him that for true, me.”
“He do what he do, Mama,” Amelia said. “Nobody tell him nothin’.”
She closed the front door behind them and led her mother down the hall toward the kitchen.
“Fifty-seven year,” Miss Evangeline muttered. “I been raisin’ him now fifty-seven year.”
She inched along down the hallway, the tennis balls on her walker leaving snail trails of water on the hardwood floor.