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Magnolia Storms

By Janet W. Ferguson

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Chapter 1


Fear and loss snaked around Magnolia Marovich’s heart like they always did when she studied the satellite images on the three computer screens in front of her. Not again. The waters should be calming down in November, not churning up a monster.
Maggie twirled one of her untamable, dark curls around her finger and blew out a shaky breath. The mid-morning hurricane hotline conference call had left her stomach roiling like the spinning air mass out there in the atmosphere.
Sure, they’d had an unseasonably hot year—okay, a sweltering year—which fueled the tropical weather, but why couldn’t God keep the seas calm a little longer? They’d been so close to the end of the season. Yet here it was almost Thanksgiving, and the Mississippi National Weather Service office hummed with activity. The storm had hammered Haiti and Cuba before barreling into the mouth of the Gulf overnight. Already a category two in the warmer waters, the long-term forecast placed the trajectory cone over the Mississippi and Alabama Coasts.
Though Maggie’s current house and office in Jackson were located three hours north of the Coast, memories of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath pounded on the doors of her mind. The fury of the wind, the fierceness of the rain, and finally the savage cruelty of the tidal surge that ripped away so much of her beloved hometown.
And her heart.
Another email notification popped up, pulling her from the recurrent nightmare of emotions. She clicked on the forecast track. More data on the storm. She needed to live in the present and stay on top of the computer models, so she could warn others to get out of harm’s way.
Others…like the few left of her own family.
Would her stubborn sister come inland or wait until the last minute as usual? She pictured Cammie working in the quaint antique store in downtown Ocean Springs—much too near the coastline. She imagined Cammie’s daughter, Dahlia, drawing pictures or doing homework behind the checkout counter while her mom worked. Familiar nausea swept through Maggie’s midsection. Cammie didn’t have to stay and endanger her little girl. Their great aunt’s store could close for good this time, and Cammie could find a job here in Jackson, where she’d have help with Dahlia and Aunt Ruth.
Maggie rolled her shoulders to loosen the building ten-sion. There was plenty of room in her empty house for her family. If only they’d come.
“You look like you could use a neck rub.” Her co-worker Jane’s voice chirped as she leaned over the cubicle’s half-wall. “Your tendons are poking out like the spokes on my bike, and Steve hasn’t taken his eyes off you all morning. I’m sure he’d love to oblige.”
With a vehement shake of her head, Maggie scowled. “If he touched my neck, he might find my latest lukewarm cup of coffee splashed across his expensive loafers.” The weight-lifting womanizer had made her his target for months now, despite her continued refusals.
Her petite blonde friend offered a compassionate smile. “Staring at those screens won’t change anything, Maggie. You can’t control the weather.”
A fact she knew well…which partly explained her stale life. “But I can prepare for what’s coming and warn others to do the same.” And save some of them from enduring the heartbreak and grief she’d suffered.
“I’ll be praying the storm passes and your family stays safe.” Jane patted the laminate at the edge of the desk. “Come eat dinner with us after work. There’s always enough for one more at the table with the latest Crock-Pot creation I’ve de-vised, and it’ll save you from pacing around your place all night. At least for an hour or two.”
Jane was sweet, her blue-eyed children adorable, and her husband a kind man. Maggie’s fingers ran across a scratch in the coating of her desk. Being with Jane’s happy family underscored Maggie’s own shipwrecked life. Isolated and alone. The ancient debris from her relationship with Josh al-ways muddied her odds for finding someone who could measure up.
Josh. Maggie’s heart still pinched as she dredged up his memory. The last person she wanted to think about during a hurricane.
“Earth to Maggie.” Jane touched her hand.
“I don’t know.”
“The kids will be excited if you come.”
“Sure. Thanks.”
Not like she had anything else planned. Playing preschool-level board games would be a good distraction. “I’ll pick up cookie dough ice cream for dessert.” May as well stress-eat with a crowd…or else she’d devour the whole carton herself.
Maggie managed a small smile and turned back to her monitors. The swirling form waiting there mocked her. She’d gotten too comfortable, too secure that Mississippi would make it through another year without mass destruction. Sink-ing into the deep pain of the past, her mind conjured up the eerie roar of wind, the crack of splintering trees, and the earth-shaking boom as they fell to the ground, rattling the walls. Her father kissing her forehead before he disappeared through the door. The last she’d ever see of him.
Maggie mashed her eyes shut. No. Stop.
Please, Lord, let me forget.
Her phone’s vibration on the desk jerked her back to the present. Cammie’s number. Maggie grabbed it. Maybe she could talk some sense into her sister this time.
“Hello.”
“Aunt Maggie?” Her precious niece’s voice quivered.
“Is something wrong, Dahlia?”
No answer except a sniffle and a quiet sob that wrenched Maggie’s insides. “Sweetie, are you having a bad day? You can tell me anything, you know.”
“I need you to come to Aunt Ruth’s house. Mama’s been in an accident.” Another sniffle and a hiccup. “Hit by a truck. They took her in an ambulance.”
“Hit by a truck?” Her voice came out way too loud. In an instant, Jane and Steve hovered by her workspace with anxious expressions clouding their faces.
Maggie pressed her burning eyes closed as she tried to make sense of her niece’s words. A truck. An ambulance. The hospital.
No, Lord. Don’t take my sister, too. Let Cammie be okay.
She needed to help her family.
Her mouth dried as she tried to swallow the lump of panic strangling her.
Not down to the Coast.
Not in this weather.
“I’ll be there in three hours.” For Cammie. And for Dahlia.
Jane kneeled near the swivel chair and rested her hand on Maggie’s. “What’s happened? What can I do?”
“It’s my sister. She’s in the hospital…” Her stupid voice quivered.
God, help me do what I have to do.
Determination rose in her chest, ran down to her fists. “I have to go home and help my family.”
“Maybe I can go with you.” Her friend’s eyes welled with tears. “I know the storm has you upset already.”
Steve slipped closer. “I can take her.”
Maggie shot up. “No.” Again her voice came out louder than she’d intended. A few other heads in the office rotated her way. “I need you both here keeping an eye on the hurricane.”
~~~
Wind whipped Josh Bergeron’s face, and the spray of salt water filled his eyes as his boat battled the swells rocking the Gulf of Mexico. Most days he loved his job as a river bar pilot, gulping in the sun and briny air. The tides and the marsh and the sandbars had been a part of him for as long as he could remember. But stormy days like this made him wonder whether he was crazy after all. Like Magnolia Marovich had insisted so many years ago.
Maggie. Much like a storm herself, she’d been on his mind during this hurricane season. And every season since Katrina. With the new storm moving into the Gulf overnight, he couldn’t help but wonder what she was doing right now. Stocking up on supplies and advising everyone who’d listen to scurry inland, no doubt. Staring at some computer screen to monitor the storm. She’d never gotten over her father’s death.
Josh pictured his own son back home. Those innocent eyes that hung on his every word.
Lord, take care of J.D. if anything should happen to me.
Enough. Nothing was going to happen.
Mr. Marovich’s death was a rarity in this industry. Pilots and their crews took precautions, but an attempted rescue during a monster hurricane like Katrina…too many variables, too much devastation.
The pilot of Josh’s vessel maneuvered close, and the massive tanker alongside them slowed, preparing for him to make the swap so he could board and pilot the larger ship up the mouth of the Mississippi. The chain on his waist clamped him to the rail system surrounding the pilot boat while he waited. The ladder from the tanker undulated as even the enormous vessel pitched in the waves. If visibility and winds hadn’t been so bad, they could’ve used a helicopter to get to here. His partner edged their boat ever closer. Josh took a deep breath and prepared for the switch.
The two vessels seesawed in the whitecaps. It had been a long time since he’d seen the waves this brutal. He’d have to time the transfer carefully. A stumble in this weather, and he’d be swept out, lost to the sea’s wrath despite his rescue beacon.
The ladder neared. Josh unclipped his harness and reached for the closest rung. He caught hold and held on with fingers tightly clenched. The other ship rocked away and left only the ladder keeping him from the churning waves below. Rain bludgeoned him, cold and blinding. He pushed one foot and then another up the rungs, counting his steps as he ascended. Almost there. Near the top, his shoe slipped, and he lost his footing. Dangling with white knuckles, he grappled to catch the step with his toe.
A gale force wind whipped up, challenging his grip. A rush of adrenaline heightened his senses and gave him a burst of strength.
“Are you kidding me?” He fought to swing closer and, finally, his right ankle made contact with metal. After wrenching his leg around the rails, he stood and scrambled the rest of the way up by sheer will—and determination to see his son again. At last, he made his way to the captain’s bridge and assumed control of the ship.
The orders he gave the helmsman would deliver the tanker around the underwater obstructions in the mouth of the Mississippi River. The routes, depths, and current flows were etched in his mind, like everything Mr. Marovich had taught him. Bittersweet memories stirred an ache in Josh’s chest. Once the deliveries were wrapped up, he’d return home tomorrow for his two weeks off. If he hadn’t promised to help Cammie at the store, he’d grab J.D. and go inland until the hurricane passed. But he’d keep his promise. He wouldn’t bail out.
Unlike his own father.
The thought of the skirt-chasing deserter tightened Josh’s fists. He’d never let his son down like that.
Other than his faith in God, being a pilot and being a good father to J.D. were everything to him.
Maybe because they were all he had.

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