Maggie straddled her tree limb, her arms around the trunk of the old oak, and tried not to think of dry clothes, or sunshine, or hot coffee.
She had no idea how long they’d been up in the tree. Thirty minutes? An hour? It felt like much more than that, though she knew it couldn’t be. Her skin felt raw from the beating the rain was giving it.
She looked over at Kyle, squinting as the rain stabbed at her eyes. He was on another limb, a little bit higher than Maggie’s, and he hugged the trunk as he leaned against it. She could see that he was shaking, and she felt the weight and substance of her failure to protect him.
“Mom!” she heard Sky yell, and Maggie looked at her daughter. Sky was looking toward the front yard, and Maggie turned to see. At first, Maggie wasn’t sure what Sky was looking at, but then she realized that Boudreaux’s huge truck was slowly moving toward them.
It was a good twenty yards away, but it looked like it might hit their tree. It wasn’t moving very quickly, but it was a heavy truck, and they were in an old tree. Maggie yelled to be heard above the storm. “Hold on!”
Then she braced herself and waited for Boudreaux’s truck to hit the tree.
Boudreaux didn’t know he’d passed out until the water took him again and he woke up drowning.
He reached out his hands and felt the ground moving beneath him, felt mud and rocks and the roots of trees. He pulled his knees up under him, let the water drag his knees along the bumpy ground, and lifted his head up into the blessed air.
He was being carried through some woods, and he made out a few cypress and oaks as he passed them, heaving and coughing and leaving a trail of vomit behind him. He wasn’t moving all that fast, but it was fast enough given his condition, and he considered just going with the flow until he hit the river, and letting it take him out to his beloved bay.
But then he remembered how upset Miss Evangeline would be with him, and how upset God already was, and he wasn’t all that anxious to turn up dead before either one of them.
He paddled at the water with his arms, arms that felt like they’d been weighted down with chains, and tried to spot something to grab on to, but the water from the sky colluded with the water from the ground to blind and disorient him.
He tried to get his knees off the ground, to stop the beating they were getting from the rocks and roots beneath the surface, but the water wasn’t all that deep and he wasn’t all that buoyant. The best he could do was to keep them from dragging, but they still smacked against anything taller than a dandelion, and he wondered if he would soon have to contend with a broken kneecap in addition to his other immediate troubles.
Finally, he was pushed in the general direction of a large pile of debris, an assortment of brush, branches, a kid’s bicycle, a broken pallet, and what looked like a chaise lounge, all hung up between two trees. He unexpectedly felt his knees come off the ground, and realized that he’d hit some kind of dip or trough, and he managed to get one foot and then the other underneath him.
He wasn’t exactly walking, more being propelled, but he was able to use his feet to angle himself toward the debris pile. He grabbed onto the thin trunk of the nearest tree, and pulled his upper body up onto the pallet.
He threw up more water and the last of his chicory coffee, then rested there for a moment, his face pressed against the rough but comforting wood.
He blinked his eyes against the rain and looked at the woods he’d found himself in. He had no idea where he was. He wasn’t even sure if he was still on Maggie’s property. There were quite a few wooded areas along this section of the river.
It occurred to him then to wonder if this was where Maggie had been raped all those years ago, and the thought that it might be left him feeling more alone, yet suddenly surrounded by ghosts; ghosts of both the dead and of the living, as they had been twenty-two years ago.
The edge of the pallet was pressing uncomfortably against his torn abdomen, and he turned around so that his back was against the pallet, still gripping the wood with one shaky hand. He rested his head against the pallet, feeling more drained and weary than he could remember ever feeling before.
His eyes closed and he saw gentle morning waves flowing up onto the sand out on the island. Saw the sky lightening to a deep, bright pink and the seagulls hovering in the air in front of him. Saw Gregory standing there, pale as moonlight, with his ridiculous bag of bread, tossing out bits and pieces like he was on an early morning picnic.
“You’ve had your moment of peace, Gregory,” he’d said to him quietly. “Let’s get on with it.”
Gregory looked over at him, one eye twitching, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed once, hard. Boudreaux bobbed his .45 automatic at him, just once, to emphasize his desire to move it along, and Gregory stuffed the empty bread bag in his left pocket, then reached for the revolver tucked in the front of his waistband.
“You won’t cock that thing and aim it before I’ve had time to blow the genitals right off your body. You understand that, do you not?” Boudreaux asked him.
Gregory only nodded, then slowly drew out the old .38. “Easy, son,” Boudreaux cautioned. “Now put it in your mouth.”
“Oh, geez,” Gregory whispered.
“Do it now. Don’t you get that thumb anywhere near that hammer until you’ve done so.”
He watched Gregory turn the barrel toward himself, watched his hand shake uncontrollably as he slowly drew it toward his face. Then Gregory’s legs started shaking.
“Oh, sit down, damn it,” Boudreaux said, and Gregory practically fell to the sand.
Boudreaux stepped over to one side of him, his gun pointed between Gregory’s legs. “Do it.”
Gregory looked up at him helplessly. “I said I was sorry,” he managed to say.
“I don’t care that you’re sorry,” Boudreaux answered quietly.
“But I confessed…I told you of my own free will,” Gregory said.
“And I appreciate that.”
“Please, I told you I was leaving. For good.”
“You also told me you’d considered suicide,” Boudreaux answered. “And it’s only because you’re my nephew that you’re being given the chance to do so.”
He saw Gregory look down at the gun in his lap, could almost see him thinking.
“I can shoot you three times before you manage to raise that gun, son. But I won’t. I’ll blow a hole between your legs and then cut you into seventeen pieces while you’re still bleeding to death, do you understand?”
Gregory nodded weakly, then shakily raised the .38.
“Both hands,” Boudreaux told him, and Gregory awkwardly gripped the revolver in his two trembling hands and slowly brought it toward him.
“Please. I didn’t know. I told you, I didn’t know,” he pleaded in a near-whisper.
“It doesn’t matter what you knew,” Boudreaux said calmly. “In your mouth”
He watched Gregory insert the muzzle into his mouth, saw a disgusting line of saliva drip from his lower lip as he did it.
“Point it up, moron.”
Gregory tilted the muzzle upward toward the back of his head.
Gregory’s hands trembled violently as he stretched out a thumb and pulled the hammer back.
“If you make me shoot you, you will die slowly and painfully and without any mercy whatsoever. I know you believe this,” Boudreaux said. “I know you know it to be true.”
Gregory closed his eyes, and Boudreaux saw a tear spill from the corner of his right eye. He felt nothing because of it. There was only the cold, deep, unrelenting anger.
“Do it now,” he repeated.
Gregory’s finger twitched within the trigger guard. Boudreaux leaned a little closer, stretched his arm a little nearer to Gregory’s manhood, careful not to put himself in front of Gregory.
“One…two…th—” he said, and the gunshot rang out, thumping Boudreaux’s ears. He saw a spray of red from the back of Gregory’s head before he looked away at the Gulf, heard a soft thump as Gregory’s body fell backwards into the sand.
The gulls had risen into the air at the report, and Boudreaux had seen them in his peripheral vision as they landed once again. Then he’d flipped his safety back on, tucked the gun into the back of his waistband, and crossed himself before he’d headed back up to his car.
Boudreaux swiped weakly at his face, trying to clear away the rain and one solitary tear. He still felt that it had been assisted suicide more than anything else, and he still believed it had been the right and just thing to do. Yet he knew that at some point soon, probably that very day, God might want to discuss it with him.
There was nothing Maggie and the kids could do but watch, as the truck was pushed along the side of the house. Then, when it was about fifteen feet away, it began to turn counterclockwise. The bed of the truck slowly came around, and Maggie was expecting it to coast into them broadside, when the right front bumper or wheel well slammed into one of the house’s concrete footings.
There was a loud, metallic groaning, and the bed of the truck kept sweeping slowly toward the tree, then stopped. They watched to see if the truck would break free from the pillar, but it didn’t. Maggie could see now that the pillar had caught between the wheel well and the right front tire. After a moment, the screech of grinding metal stopped, and the water coursed under and around the truck.
Maggie stared at the truck. It sat tall on its oversized tires, and the roof of the cab was just five feet or so below the side deck of the house. If they could get up on top of the cab, they could climb up onto the deck.
She looked at the limbs of the old oak tree. A couple of the sturdier lower limbs of the tree reached within about six feet of the truck’s bed. Theoretically, they could jump to it, but she had no way of telling if that would make the truck jerk free. They could also get down from the tree, make their way to the truck, and climb up into the bed, but they’d have to be on the ground behind it first, and that seemed far riskier. If the truck broke free, it would either coast over them or crush them against the tree.
Maggie watched the truck for a few minutes, trying so hard to detect the slightest movement that she began to imagine she saw it. But the truck got no closer, and she yelled at Sky.
“Sky!” Her daughter looked over at her. “I think we can get up to the deck from the truck.”
Sky squinted her eyes against the rain to look at the truck, then looked back at Maggie. “It’ll start moving again.”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” Maggie yelled back. “But we can’t stay up here indefinitely.”
Maggie slipped one foot down to the limb below her, then swung her other leg off of her branch.
“Mom! Let me go first,” Sky yelled.
“No! I’ll jump over there and we’ll see what happens,” Maggie yelled back. “If it holds, you come so I can get you up on the deck to help Kyle.”
Holding on to the branch above her, Maggie inched her way out on the limb. It was slippery, and the rain seemed to be intentionally sweeping sideways into her face, but she eventually got out as far as she could before the limb thinned out too much to dependably hold her weight.
From where she stood, there was only about five feet of air between her and the bed of the truck. If she pushed off well enough, it was an easy jump to the back of the truck. She took a deep breath, and jumped.
She cleared the tailgate by a good twelve inches, but the bed was as slick as ice, and she went down onto her knees with a thump. She heard metal and concrete give a short chorus of complaint, but the truck held. She stood up carefully, feet planted wide, and waited for a moment before looking over at Sky, who was already making her way over to the other limb.
Maggie glanced up at Kyle, and felt a pressure in her chest at the wide-eyed look of fear on his face. She tried to give him a reassuring look, then turned her attention back to Sky. The girl was inching out on the slippery branch.
“Be careful, Sky, but push off as best you can,” Maggie yelled, moving over to give Sky more room to land. The truck bounced a bit, but held.
Sky got out as far as she could, her hands gripping the branch above her, then looked over at her mother. Maggie nodded at her, and she took a deep breath and jumped, one leg out in front like she was jumping a hurdle.
Maggie’s eyes closed involuntarily as Sky went airborne, then opened again as she felt her daughter’s weight hit the bed of the truck. Sky slid, almost did a split, and nearly took Maggie down, but Maggie gripped the chrome side rail of the truck bed and held on.
They both remained motionless for a moment, as they listened to the short grind of metal up front. The truck might have slipped just a bit; Maggie wasn’t sure. But it held. She looked over at Sky.
“Okay. I’m going to get over to the cab, then I’ll help you get up on the roof,” Maggie yelled. “It’s gonna be slippery up there. Get hold of the deck rails as fast as you can.”
Sky nodded, wiping the rain from her eyes, and Maggie made her way over to the cab, just behind the passenger seat, hanging onto the rail to keep from sliding. There was a slight incline to the truck that made it difficult to walk on the slick metal.
Once she was at the cab, Maggie hung onto the rail with her right hand, and turned and stretched her left hand out to Sky. “Come on,” she yelled.
Sky reached out and grabbed her hand, and made her way over to the cab.
“Get one foot up on the front of the bed there, and one on this rail,” Maggie yelled. “Then see if you can reach across the roof and grab that light rail over the windshield to help you get up there.”
Sky did as she was told, using Maggie’s hand to help steady her until she had both feet up on the frame of the truck bed. Maggie moved up against the back window of the cab so that she could hang on to Sky’s hand while she got on all fours on the cab roof.
“I’ve got it!” Sky yelled back, and Maggie reluctantly let go of her hand, and watched Sky carefully rise up and grab onto the deck rails. Maggie was relieved to see that she’d misjudged the distance from the cab to the deck. Once Sky was standing, her knees were just below the deck.
Sky held onto the deck rail and climbed up, swung a leg over the top rail, then vaulted up onto the deck. The relief that Maggie felt, seeing her daughter back to the safety of the house, was almost overwhelming.
She turned and looked back at the tree, where Kyle was starting to make his way out onto the limb from which they had jumped.
“Kyle, that’s far enough,” Maggie yelled when he got to the point where the branch became too thin. “You can jump from there!”
Kyle looked over at the truck bed, then looked at her and nodded, though whether he was agreeing with her or reassuring himself, she wasn’t sure.
He paused for just a moment, then kicked one leg out and jumped.
The truck shifted just a bit as he landed and fell to his knees, but it didn’t pull loose. Maggie reached down and helped him up, still holding onto the side rail, and she steadied him as he made his way to the cab.
Sky was bent over the deck railing, one arm stretched toward the truck. Kyle held onto Maggie’s hand as he got up on the edge of the truck bed, then climbed up onto the roof of the cab on his hands and knees. Maggie had to let him go so that he had his hands free, and she held her breath as he slid around a bit before reaching up and grabbing Sky’s hand.
“Come on, Buddy,” Sky yelled. “I got you.”
Kyle finally reached up and snatched Sky’s hand, and she held him as he grabbed onto the deck rail. Suddenly, the truck shifted just a bit, with the sound of metal against concrete, and Kyle’s feet slipped out from under him. Maggie instinctively lunged for him over the roof of the cab, though she couldn’t quite reach him.
He hung onto the rail, and Sky hung onto him, and after a moment, he got his feet back underneath him, put a foot up onto the deck and hauled himself over the rail. As his weight left the cab roof, the truck groaned again, and Maggie could feel it shifting.
Maggie couldn’t reach the light bar from the bed of the truck, so she put a foot up on the side of the bed, and lunged across the roof for the light bar. She grabbed on, then pushed herself up to a crouch so that she could reach Sky’s hand, just as she heard the metal screeching once more and the truck seemed to slide out from under her.
She reached out to grab the light bar once again, but the truck jerked and she fell backwards off of the roof and flat onto her back in the truck bed. Her head slammed against the floor of the bed, and just before she passed out, she heard Kyle yell for her and saw the deck slipping away.