Wyatt tried not to hold his breath as Axel’s truck tires rolled over yet another bony pine tree lying across Bluff Road.
They’d been climbing over trees for the last hour it seemed, and Wyatt’s hip was screaming from all of the jolting. He supposed driving four hours and wading around downtown might have contributed as well, but he mostly blamed Axel’s ridiculous truck.
Once the back tires rolled over the tree, Wyatt leaned his head against the window jamb. Axel looked over at him.
“You’re not getting seasick or anything are you there, Wyatt?”
“No. It’s the damn hip. I think it might have come loose.”
He had a sudden vision of himself climbing down out of Axel’s truck and falling to the ground, his left leg missing and inexplicably naked, like an unwanted Ken doll.
“Hey, look at the bright side, man,” Axel said. “You might qualify for a discount on one of those Hoveround things.”
Wyatt tossed him a look. “You’re adorable. I can’t imagine why you get divorced so frequently.”
“Yeah, I’m a real enigma,” Axel said back.
Sky and Kyle had left the window seat only to use the restroom, get a bottle of water, or take turns wiping up rooster poop.
After a while, Kyle had leaned against one side of the window and nodded off, and Sky was left alone, and able to stop trying so hard to look or sound hopeful. She had no idea how long it had been since she’d watched the truck slide past the chicken house with her mother’s body sprawled in the back of it, but it had been a long time.
It was still raining but not nearly as hard, and she had been able for the last little while to see most of the yard pretty clearly. She had stared through the trees until she was sure she saw something every time she blinked.
She had stared at the chicken house, or what was left of it after the roof had blown away, waiting for her mom to come to around the corner, but she’d never materialized. For the last several minutes, Sky had been planning what she could say to Kyle when he woke up, to keep him from getting too discouraged. She had even started seeing the two of them in her head, moving into Grandma and Granddad’s guest room when their mother failed to return.
She rubbed at her eyes and gave herself a good mental shaking, then reached out and scratched at Coco’s jaw when the dog started whining. Then she got up and went to look for something to eat, more to occupy her mind than to fill her stomach.
She was halfway to the kitchen when she heard Coco let out a sound that was half baying wolf and half dying lawnmower. Sky turned around as Coco scrambled up onto the window seat and started pawing at the window.
Sky ran back over, as Kyle sat up and looked around, then looked out the window. They spotted her at the same time.
“Mom!” Kyle yelled.
Maggie had just cleared the trees beside the chicken house and waded into the open when she heard the slightly muffled sounds of Coco going berserk. The sound was almost too joyful, too welcoming for Maggie to bear, and something like a balloon came up from her chest and out of her mouth, sounding half sob and half laughter.
She looked up toward the house as Coco continued to call out to her, and tried to smile. “I’m trying,” she said, but she was so out of breath that even she could barely hear it.
Her right arm was numb and yet shaking violently, and she stopped to turn around and change the hand that gripped Boudreaux’s belt. Then she trudged on, at least feeling a new strength in her legs.
She focused on the area of water just in front of her, made herself not look at how far she had to go yet, even though it really wasn’t that far at all.
Then she heard Coco barking, and it was much louder and clearer, and when Maggie looked up, she saw Coco running back and forth on the side deck, saw her two children, saw Sky doing something at the rail, and then realized that her daughter was throwing the rope ladder over the side.
Maggie almost cried from the sight of it, but then she turned and looked at Boudreaux, and looked back up at Sky with resignation. She wanted to call up to her, but she just didn’t have the air. But then she saw Sky look beyond her to Boudreaux, and seconds later the girl was over the rail and climbing down the ladder.
Maggie wanted to yell at her not to come down, but she couldn’t do that, either. Instead, she just watched, hanging onto Boudreaux’s belt buckle, as Sky almost ran through the water, calling out to her.
“Mom!” she yelled one last time as she threw her arms around her Maggie’s neck. The force of it almost knocked Maggie down. She wrapped her free arm around Sky’s back, buried her face in her hair, but she found she couldn’t say anything at that moment. She thought so much—so much—but couldn’t say any of it until Sky pulled away and looked down at Boudreaux.
“Is he dead?” Sky asked.
“I don’t know,” Maggie managed. “But I can’t get him up there.”
Sky spun around, looked around the yard and then turned back to Maggie. “Here, give him to me,” she said, and reached down and snatched at the belt buckle. Maggie let her take it.
“Come on,” Sky said, grabbing Maggie’s wrist with her free hand.
She pulled Maggie toward the driveway, and Maggie noticed David’s old Toyota truck, submerged almost to the tops of the tires, but only about three feet closer to the house than it had been when Sky had parked it the day before. It was then that Maggie realized that Sky had parked right in front of the pile of gravel that Gray had brought to widen the driveway. The truck must have been pushed up against it instead of being carried away.
They made their way over to the back of the truck, and Sky reached up and pulled down the tailgate. It was a few inches above the surface of the water, but Sky turned around and shoved her arms underneath Boudreaux’s.
“Grab his legs,” she said to Maggie, and Maggie reached under the water and took hold of Boudreaux’s calves. It took two tries, but they finally slid him on to the bed of the truck. He landed with a wet thump, and Maggie looked for signs of pain or discomfort on his face but saw none.
“Do you have a beach blanket or anything in the truck?” she asked Sky.
“No. Wait,” she said, and spun around and ran to the cab as Maggie picked up one of Boudreaux’s wrists and felt for a pulse. She thought she felt one, a very weak one, but her own heart was pounding so hard, and her hand shaking so much, that she wasn’t certain of it.
Sky came running back with a bundle in her hands, and Maggie’s chest ached when she saw that it was one of the tarps David had used to cover his lap during culling when he sometimes went oystering.
She pushed the thought from her mind and took the tarp, then climbed up into the bed of the truck. She wanted to cover Boudreaux’s face to shield it from the rain, but that would be too much like covering a body, so she spread it over him and tucked it underneath his shoulders and legs.
“Mom, we need to get you inside,” Sky said, and Maggie turned around to look at her.
“I can’t just leave him out here, Sky.”
“Yes, you can. You’re bleeding.”
“Where?” Maggie asked, reaching up to feel her nose.
“The back of your head, Mom.”
Maggie reached up and placed a palm to her head, but she’d been wet for forever. If she was bleeding, she couldn’t feel it. But when she brought her hand back, it was red.
“Oh,” she said quietly. “Wow.”
Sky reached out and took her mother’s bloody hand and pulled. “Come on.”
Maggie slid back out of the truck bed and into the water, and she and Sky made their way to the rope ladder. Maggie was to go up first, and when she looked up at it, Kyle was leaning over the rail, staring down at her. He was soaked anyway, but she could tell that he was crying.
She took a deep breath, then climbed the ladder, which seemed twice as long as it should have. When she got level with the deck rail, she grabbed onto it and threw a leg over. Kyle grabbed her upper arms and helped her get over the rail, and Maggie sat down hard on the deck floor. Then, without planning to, she collapsed onto her back, wishing that she hadn’t as soon as her head connected with the wood.
Kyle knelt down beside her and she pulled him down with one arm, clutched him to her and buried her face in his hair as he laid on her chest. Coco bounced from one side of them to the other, then flopped onto her side next to Maggie and furiously licked her face.
Over Kyle’s shoulder, Maggie saw Sky vault over the deck rail, and it was at that moment that Maggie felt like she could breathe again. They were all out of the water.
As Sky knelt down next to her on her right, Maggie’s eye caught movement to her left and she turned her head. Stoopid was standing there, and even though the rain was falling almost softly now, he hated any form of precipitation, and Maggie was touched that he’d braved it to come out and give her the one-eyed rooster stare.
He emitted a couple of his hen-like brrps, updating her that he was stuck upstairs, or out of grit, or that they’d been having some weather.
“I know already,” she said quietly, and he shook the rain from his feathers, put his wings partway out, and tapped away awkwardly, looking like a day-old paper airplane.