Gray Redmond drummed his fingers on the table as he watched the TV that hung over the bar. With nowhere really to go, he and Georgia had dragged their small suitcases from the port to the nearest chain hotel, where the desk clerk had been kind enough to stow them in back until they figured out if they needed a room. People in the more urban parts of Florida weren’t always the most pleasant, but most people tended to become more helpful during a hurricane, even if the storm wasn’t local.
Gray watched the same footage of the same scenes that the news had been showing for the last couple of hours, and the obligatory live shots of excited reporters in windbreakers, tilting against the wind and rain as they marveled over the gusts, the damage, the surges. The weather people were always so happy when a good storm hit; it could be a real career-maker.
According to the latest news, Faye seemed to have decided not to make landfall after all. After twenty-four hours of beating the coastline from Cedar Key on up to Pensacola, she was turning northwest and looking to make her way over to Louisiana. The experts predicted she’d hit somewhere between Biloxi and Baton Rouge sometime early in the evening. Meanwhile, the southernmost bands of wind and rain were still giving the Panhandle grief, but in smaller quantities.
Gray watched as they ran footage from early that morning, of the storm surge on Saint George Island and near downtown Apalach. There had been no film of the flooding further inland, caused by the incredible amount of rain that had been dumped into the river and the many creeks that threaded through the area. But Gray didn’t need to see it to know that Maggie and the kids were in a bad spot if they were still at home.
“If you were still oystering full time, I think I’d lay down and cry right now,” Georgia said quietly.
Gray looked over at her and noted the way worry was tugging at the skin beneath her beautiful eyes. “It’s bad. But we’ve been through worse,” he said.
The strength of the storm itself had done its own damage, but the incredible amount of rain being dumped into the bay would have its own effect. Part of the reason Apalachicola oysters were among the best in the world was the delicate balance of fresh to salt water found where the river opened into the Gulf.
One of the threats to the oysters in recent years had been Atlanta’s insistence on taking water from the river to fill its swimming pools, creating an increase in the bay’s salinity. But too much fresh water created the same problem from the other direction. The last time they’d had a really good storm, it had taken almost three years for the oysters to bounce back.
“I just hate to see it,” Georgia said. “The oystermen can never get a good break for very long.”
Gray nodded, understanding that focusing on the plight of the oystermen and their families was a lot easier for her than focusing on the whereabouts and well-being of her daughter and grandchildren. Georgia was not weak by any means, but sometimes she found strength in distraction. Gray lacked that skill.
He dialed Boudreaux’s number for the seventh time since they’d spoken, and again it went straight to voice mail. He didn’t bother leaving another one. He slapped the phone shut and ran a hand through his slightly long, light brown hair. Then he stretched out one long, lanky leg and stood up from the stool.
“Let’s go, Georgia,” he said.
She looked up at him. “Go where?” she asked.
He tossed a few bills down on the bar to pay for their tea, and shoved his cell phone in his shirt pocket. “We’ll walk back to the port and rent a car.”
“But Wyatt said we should stay here,” she said, though she stood.
“Maggie’s not coming here, baby, and I’m not going to sit here pretending she might,” Gray said quietly. “I’m going to go home and find out what’s going on with our girl.”
Maggie had fully expected the truck to crush her, and it took a moment for it to register in her mind that the truck had rolled over her, but not onto her.
She lifted her head from the water and got her feet under her, but when she tried to stand, she banged her head on the truck bed. The water was about four feet deep, and she only had about six inches of clearance above it.
It took her a moment to get oriented. There was little light, but by moving her palms around the truck bed she discovered that the truck was still on a slant. The other side of the bed was completely under water.
She moved back over to the other side and stayed in her semi-squat for a moment, breathing deeply of the air there and trying to focus. Then she moved back to the tailgate, to the side that was above the water. She felt around with her left boot, and could feel the small slope of ground that the truck was leaning against. She then tried to gauge how much space there was for her to swim out, but what her foot told her didn’t seem to enlighten her much. She took a breath and squatted down.
The way the truck was leaning against the slope, she had a wedge-shaped opening to get through. It looked like it would be tight, but it was definitely large enough. She straightened up a bit and took a couple of breaths, then went back under and straightened her legs out behind her.
Her upper half cleared the wedge-shaped opening just fine, but as she passed through, she felt a jerk at her waist and was stopped cold. She got a foot under her and tried to push through, but she was hung up.
She reached around behind her and found that one of the belt loops on the back of her shorts was caught on something at the corner of the tailgate. She tugged at it, but wasn’t able to tear it free, and she felt panic starting to assert itself in her chest. She wasn’t close enough to the surface of the water to be able to curve upward and get a breath of air, and when she tried to back up under the truck bed, she couldn’t do that, either.
Her animal instinct wanted to thrash around and tear at the shorts, but she forced herself to move more deliberately, reserving oxygen in her muscles and avoiding full on panic. She reached around back one more time to try to work her shorts free, but quickly saw that she was wasting time by trying to free something she couldn’t see.
She grabbed at her belt buckle and quickly undid it, then started to pull herself out of her shorts. She got far enough to break the surface of the water and take a gulp of air, then gasped as one of her boots refused to clear the leg of her shorts. She kicked and pushed at it with her free boot, but finally had to curl up back underneath the water and push the hiking boot off of her foot.
She surfaced again, reached overhead to slap the boot up on the underside of the truck, then submerged again and wrested her shorts from the corner of the tailgate and pushed herself back up to the surface. She grabbed onto the truck and stood, and when she did she saw the body.
It was Dewitt Alessi, with one arm bending in entirely the wrong direction and wrapped around the front axle. He was on his back, more or less. A gaping, almost bloodless slice from one side of his neck to the other looked like some kind of macabre smile but, judging by the expression on his face, he hadn’t been very cheerful at the end.
Maggie made herself turn away. Boot in one hand and shorts in the other, she scrambled over the two foot incline and pushed herself over to a large holly bush.
She looped an arm around one of its thicker branches and went through a laborious process of turning her sodden shorts right side out while she gripped her boot between her knees, then pulling her shorts back on, and sliding her boot back onto her foot one-handed.
The boots were common sense; the last thing she needed was to slice up her feet on some kind of debris. The shorts…well, dead or alive, she wasn’t going to be found in her freaking underwear.
The task was surprisingly wearying, owing much to the fact that she was waist-deep in moving water, and she hung onto the holly bush for a few minutes afterward, getting her breath and her bearings.
She had a rough idea where she was, judging herself to be in the woods at the back of the Grahams’ property, just downriver from her own. The easiest thing to do, physically, would be to go with the flow of the water and hope that she came out somewhere near their dock, where she knew they kept a small aluminum flat-bottom. But that was a big hope. She could come out even just five feet down river of the dock and be screwed. Or, she could hit the dock head on and find out the boat was gone.
She looked back at the woods and sighed wearily. She was going to have to fight the water all the way back to the house. If she was right about her general location, it meant a good quarter of a mile. Nothing to it on dry land, but a bit of a trek as things were. On the positive side, the rain had let up noticeably and the flow of the water seemed to have slowed.
Maggie took a few deep breaths to gather her resolve, and started wading against the current in what she assumed was the general direction of her house.
Wyatt coasted to a stop in front of the yellow traffic barriers that had been lined up across 98, a good fifty yards before the bridge. Two National Guard trucks sat on the side of the road, and a few Guardsmen in military-issue rain ponchos stood on the swale. One of them approached Wyatt’s rental car, and Wyatt rolled down his window.
“Sir, the bridge isn’t passable. You’ll need to turn around.”
The guy was young, maybe in his early twenties, with white blond hair and dimples his mother probably doted on.
“Not passable, or not advisable?” Wyatt asked, as he lifted his butt enough to fish out his ID.
“Sir, the bridge isn’t safe at this time and we’re not allowing anyone to pass.”
“Well, I can understand that, but I’m the sheriff of this county and I’m heading into Apalach,” Wyatt said as he flipped open his badge case.
The soldier looked at Wyatt’s ID and looked back up at him. “I see, sir. However, the bridge isn’t safe to travel.”
“Is it washed out?”
“Not necessarily, no, but it’s got some surge damage,” the soldier answered. “We’ve got trucks on the way with sandbags to shore up the retaining walls, but it’s basically underwater at the Apalachicola end, there where it meets that little island.”
“The fill,” Wyatt said.
“The what, sir?”
“The fill. We call that little piece of land there ‘the fill’ because they used dirt from the landfill to make it.”
“I see. Yeah, well, it’s currently underwater.”
“How much water?”
The young soldier thought about that for a moment. “I can’t say exactly, sir, but enough that your car’s unlikely to make it off the bridge. I don’t advise you attempt it.”
“Well, while I appreciate your advice, I’m going to have to ignore it,” Wyatt said politely. “Now, are you authorized to shoot me or anything if I just keep going?”
“Well, no sir, just to detain.”
“Are you going to attempt to detain the Sheriff of Franklin County for responding to a state of emergency?”
“Uh…” The soldier looked around, probably hoping to find someone more enthused about answering that question.
“I need you to move that barrier for me, okay?”
“Sir, I really need to speak with someone—”
“You’re speaking with me, son, and I’d prefer that you move that barrier for me before I proceed. But I am proceeding.”
Wyatt felt a little sorry for the kid as he watched him run over and pull one of the barriers aside. He was probably just trying to earn some college tuition, and he was unlikely to be having a great deal of fun out here in the storm. Nevertheless, Wyatt needed to get to town.
He put the car back in drive and pulled through the barriers, then slowly eased onto the bridge. Normally, there was quite a nice view of the bay from the roughly five-mile crossing, but today visibility was minimal. Although the rain had calmed somewhat, it was still there, and all Wyatt could see was choppy water on either side.
A strong gust made the rental car shimmy, and Wyatt slowed from twenty miles an hour down to fifteen. He sighed. He could be relaxing in a nice dry hotel bed, watching ESPN and ordering room service cheeseburgers.
Instead, he was driving through a hurricane across a screwed up bridge, and doing it in a freaking Ford Focus, no less.
Sky had eventually had to come in out of the storm. The wind and rain were too much, and the occasional debris was a hazard. Before she did go in, she grabbed the cordless drill from the toolbox and removed the plywood from one of the living room windows. Mom would be pissed if the window broke, but Sky could deal with pissed. What she couldn’t deal with was watching for her mother from the deck.
After she dragged Coco out onto the deck and finally convinced her to pee there, Sky and Kyle both changed into dry clothes and took up a post on the window seat, where they had a fairly good vantage point to watch for their mother’s safe return.
Stoopid was on the kitchen floor, talking to himself while he tucked into a plate of what Kyle called “cantaloupe intestines.” If Stoopid’s enthusiasm was any indication, these were apparently God’s greatest invention since the hen.
The power was still out, so the stove clock was no help, but Sky figured they’d been sitting there for almost an hour.
“What if the truck went into the river?’ Kyle asked after several minutes of silence.
“How do you know?”
“Because there’s too much crap between here and there,” Sky said quietly. “Something stopped it eventually.”
“What if it didn’t?”
“It did,” Sky said, unable to stop the annoyance from creeping into her voice.
She glanced over at Kyle and felt badly; he was a kid and he was scared, and he’d been given plenty of reasons to be scared.
“Look, dude,” she said more kindly. “In a couple of days, everything will go back to sucking in a more general way. You’ll be over at Thing 2’s house killing your brain cells with Minecraft and I’ll be nodding politely at Mom while she suggests that I might try listening to Clint Black or some kind of crap, and everything’ll be cool. Okay?”
Kyle looked at her and sighed, then gave her a nod.
“Okay,” Sky answered herself.
Maggie’s legs were already trembling with exhaustion, and she hadn’t made as much progress as she thought she should have, given the effort she’d expended. She was also incredibly thirsty, but she’d thrown up the few mouthfuls of rain she’d tried to take in, and she figured that this, along with some dizziness and confusion, pretty much confirmed her suspicion that she had a decent concussion. Either that, or she no longer cared for rain.
The water was definitely moving more slowly, which was helpful, but it was still waist deep, which was less so. Maggie was grateful, though, that the wind had died down a bit and the rain wasn’t quite so torrential. Even so, she was fairly well convinced that she would never be dry or warm again.
She slogged over to a spindly pine and grabbed on, then leaned against it and took a few slow breaths. She thought then that if a bed had floated by, she’d have climbed on and pulled the wet covers over her head. The last time she was this tired, she’d been in the maternity ward at the hospital, listening to Kyle’s first wails.
She waited a few minutes, then forced herself to push away from the tree and continue making her way toward the house. She’d gone about fifty feet when she stopped to grab onto another small tree, and glanced over at a pile of junk that had collected about fifty yards to her left.
Something too bright caught her eye, and she squinted at it through the rain, then wiped her eyes and looked again. White. It was Boudreaux’s white shirt, though what she could see of the lower portion of it was red. His back, arm and head were on the junk pile and out of the water, but the rest of him was submerged. He wasn’t moving, but she hadn’t expected him to be moving the next time she saw him.
She changed direction, and started working her way diagonally toward him.