Bluff Road ran northwest from town for about five miles, before it abruptly dead-ended. Just before the dead end, a dirt road led onto Maggie’s five acres on the river. Maggie turned off onto the gravel, and they bumped along through woods for a quarter mile before reaching the cypress stilt house that her father’s father had built.
The back of the property curved outward into the river, and was bound on the northwest side by the respectably-sized Cypress Creek, so that there was water both alongside the house on the northwest side, and, several hundred yards back in the woods, also on the northeast. It meant they almost always had a decent breeze, and Maggie was pretty sure Grandpa had positioned the house the way he had to take advantage of that. A wraparound deck made the most of it.
The dirt drive ended in a mostly-gravel circle out front that they used for parking, and Maggie pulled the Jeep in next to the old Toyota pick-up that had belonged to Sky’s father, and now belonged to Sky.
Before Maggie had turned off the engine, their Catahoula Parish Leopard Hound, Coco, came barreling out from behind the house somewhere. She threw herself into the grass at Maggie’s feet and commenced writhing in joyful agony, despite the fact that they’d only been gone a few hours.
As Maggie squatted down to rub Coco’s belly, the sounds of an elderly man having a coughing fit came from across the yard. She looked up to see her Ameraucana rooster flailing toward her at his typical breakneck pace, wings and neck feathers extended to their fullest and most impressive potential.
In his oddly broken crow, he advised her with his usual urgency that she had returned, or that all was well, or that all was not. His reports tended to be vague, but vital.
“Thank you, Stoopid,” Maggie said as she stood up, and then whistled sharply at Coco as the dog chased Stoopid for a few steps. Coco and Stoopid were roughly the same age, and had grown up together more or less, but it amused them to torment each other on occasion.
Coco halted, and Stoopid ran a few more feet, then turned and showed Coco how menacing he looked with wings akimbo, before stalking off in obvious triumph.
“I swear, our animals are like other people’s crazy relatives,” Sky said as they headed for the stairs to the deck.
“Yeah, but they suit us,” Maggie answered as they climbed the stairs. The third step from the top sagged and swayed a bit, reminding Maggie that she and Daddy needed to finally replace the support pole beneath it, or have a professional come do it. She made a mental note to take care of it when they got back from Orlando.
After letting Coco in and dumping her purse on the dining room table that sat just inside the front door, Maggie started packing suitcases for herself and the kids. Her ten-year-old son, Kyle, had gone on a camping trip in Tate’s Hell State Forest with his friend Brian and his family, and would be back around dinnertime. She planned to get them all to bed early, and head out around five in the morning.
Around noon, Maggie’s cell phone rang, and she saw that it was Brian’s father, Jason.
“Hey, Jason,” Maggie answered.
“Hey, Maggie. Listen, we’re going to head on back to town,” Jason said. “I hear on the radio that Faye’s been upgraded to a Cat 1, and she’s beating the crap out of Naples right now.”
“Yeah, I was watching the Weather Channel earlier,” Maggie said. “But they said she was headed northwest, back out into the Gulf.”
“Well, now they’re thinking she might just keep moving straight up the coast,” Jason said. “She hasn’t veered off yet.”
Maggie sighed, as thirty-seven things added themselves to her to-do list. “Okay, thanks, Jason. Are you coming back now?”
“Yeah, we’re breaking camp right now. We should be dropping him off in an hour or so. You home?”
“Yeah, I’ll be here. I think I’ll board up, then we’ll go ahead and leave tonight.”
“You still need us to come by and feed the dog and the chickens while you’re gone?”
“No, I’ll take Coco with me,” Maggie said. She’d take the chickens, too, if she could. “The chickens are going to be put up in the concrete shed, and I’ll make sure they have enough food and water to last.”
“Okay then. We’ll see you in a bit,” Jason said, and hung up.
Maggie sighed again, and headed down the hall to Sky’s room, Coco on her heels, the dog’s toenails tapping against the hardwood floor.
Maggie stopped in Sky’s open doorway. Sky was packing. Tinny, obnoxious music leaked from her earbuds. She looked up and spotted Maggie, pulled one earbud out.
“We’re gonna have to go ahead and get ready for a storm,” Maggie said. “Faye might move up the coast.”
“What about Coco?”
“She’s coming with us.”
“Do they allow dogs at the hotel?”
“They will,” Maggie said. “Let’s get the windows boarded up, then we’re going to need to move Stoopid and The Girls over to the shed. Kyle will be home in about an hour to help.”
“Chicken herding. This is gonna be awesome,” Sky said with an eye-roll.
“Yeah, all kinds of fun,” Maggie agreed, and she and Coco headed back up the hall.
Maggie and Sky were almost halfway through boarding up the windows when Kyle got home. Jason had offered to stay and help, but Maggie knew he needed to make preparations at his own home, and she and the kids had gotten pretty good at it over the years. Maggie held the sheets of plywood up and Sky drilled them in. With Kyle to help hold them up from the bottom, the rest of the job went more quickly.
Moving The Girls from the chicken yard to the concrete shed went less smoothly. The shed was a small, concrete block affair, which sat on a foundation of even more concrete blocks, that her grandfather had put up to store tools and parts for his oyster skiff. Those had been gone for years, though the skiff itself was still moored to the dock behind the house.
A few years back, Maggie had cleared out the shed and added some perches for the chickens, in preparation for a tropical storm that had gone fickle and decided not to show up. She had Kyle throw some straw down and fill the automatic waterer and the food and grit pans. She and Sky commenced herding the dozen hens from the chicken pen to the shed twenty feet away. It was a lot like chasing clowns from one clown car into another. Stoopid actually helped out somewhat, chasing Miss Mathilda around in circles until she wore out and allowed herself to be yanked up and carried.
Stoopid himself wasn’t that easy. The three of them chased him around the yard until he finally flapped up onto a tree limb just out of reach. Maggie tried coaxing him with feed, lettuce, and finally Cheetos, to no avail. She eventually threw up her hands, tossed him a few choice words, and vowed to catch him later.
By six o’clock, the wind had picked up considerably, the sky had grown steely gray, and the Weather Channel was reporting that Hurricane Faye was still a Cat 1, but had stalled just west of Cedar Key and was picking up a great deal of water to add to the already torrential rains. Panhandle residents were being advised to prepare their homes and move inland.
Maggie and the kids had loaded up the Jeep and were grabbing a few last items when Maggie dialed Wyatt on her cell.
“Hey,” he answered. “What’s going on with your weather?”
“Things are starting to get windy,” she said. “No rain yet, though. Kyle came home early, so we’re getting ready to head out now.”
Maggie turned around and looked at Coco, who was growling and pacing in front of the door. She’d been agitated for several minutes. She hated storms, and the wind had started rattling the porch furniture and flower pots and other miscellaneous things outside. Maggie slapped her thigh to call Coco, but was ignored.
“How long’s it going to take you to get to Jax?” Wyatt was asking.
“Well, I’m thinking quite a few people are heading inland, so traffic might suck a little. We should be there around eleven or so, though.”
“I’ll probably be asleep by then,” Wyatt said. “I have to be at the hospital at seven-thirty. But call me if you need to.”
Coco let out a low bark at the front window. “Coco, it’s fine,” Maggie said, then turned her attention back to the call. “I will. I’ve gotta run. I need to charge my phone and catch Stoopid.”
“Is he coming to Orlando, too?”
“Maybe in a crock pot,” Maggie said. “Get some rest and I’ll call you in the morning.”
“Okee-doke. Be careful.”
Maggie hung up and went to the window by the front door, where Coco stood growling. When she looked out to the yard, Maggie’s heart flipped a bit. Stoopid was in the middle of the gravel parking area, flapping and crowing, leaning into the wind. Coco barked sharply, and Maggie took her collar, led her back to her bedroom, and closed the door. She didn’t need Coco outside, too.
As Maggie opened the front door, Stoopid started toward the house, then a gust dumped him onto his butt. He righted himself, only to get blown a few feet through the gravel. Maggie ran down the stairs.
The winds had picked up considerably, and Maggie judged them to be a good 20mph. She hopped over a terra cotta flower pot as it rolled toward her feet, and ran after her rooster, who was rolling into the grass.
Apparently, he wasn’t panicked enough to be sure he wanted rescue, because he flailed away from her when she reached down to pick him up. She cursed him, as she heard Kyle call into the wind from the deck.
“Mom?” he called, his voice uncertain.
“It’s okay,” she yelled over her shoulder. “I’ll get him.”
She ran a few steps, then had to pivot as Stoopid got blown to the side.
“Mom?” Kyle called again, sounding worried.
“Kyle, it’s okay! Wait inside.”
She made one last leap at Stoopid as he flapped on his back, and scooped him up with a grunt. “Peck me and I’ll punch you right in the face,” she growled.
She didn’t want to risk opening the shed door and having one or more of the hens make a dash for it. She was going to have to set Stoopid up in the house and deal with the chicken poop when she got back. She turned around to head for the house, and felt as though all of her internal organs had stopped functioning at once.
Kyle stood at the top of the stairs. The man from the flower shop stood behind him, one hand on the neck of her little boy, the other holding a gun to his temple.