He stopped for gas at an interchange fifty miles north of the Florida border. It was late afternoon in mid-August. The brilliant blue sky was clear of summer's perpetual haze but the air was still summer-hot.
The gas pump took his cedit card with no problem and he could have left after filling up, but a twinge of hunger sent him inside for a snack. It was cool and dim inside. Behind the counter, a large woman with china-white skin and curly auburn hair took his money and chattered at him while she rang up his purchase.
"Headed to Flarda? Lotta people who stop here are. Usually on the way to Disney World."
"No. Just roaming." He looked over a swivel rack displaying local and regional publications and brochures for tourist attractions. "Any decent campgrounds close around?"
"Hmm." The clerk thought it over. "Closest one's probably Lake Lucy. Take this road east, don't get back on the interstate. Half a mile it intersects with old Highway 41. Turn right, go south about six miles, then west on state Road 87. You'll see Lake Lucy Road in about two more miles. Lake's small, used mostly by folks that live around here, but it's got nice camping facilities -- RV lots, rental cabins and a real good camp store."
"Thanks." He nodded and settled his gray cowboy hat on his head, went back to the black SUV with Pennsylvania plates and slid behind the wheel.
The hefty red-headed chick was right on with her directions. He found the place with no trouble at all. At the camp store, he paid for a weekend rental. He hadn't even realized it was Friday.
The fatigue he'd lived with going on two years now, and the tension it precipitated, had begun to ebb at some point after leaving Pittsburgh last week. He hadn't noticed it until this moment.
He found the cabin and turned into a parking place paved with gravel and oyster shells. For a moment, he gazed at the structure through the windshield, unaware that a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Cinderblock walls painted shell pink. Jalousie windows. Tar and gravel coating the butterfly roof. Had to date back to the Fifties--back when there was plenty of money and leisure time, not to mention relief and optimism, after a war that had devastated the world.
It reminded him of beach cabins in his grandparents' flickering home movies, which starred his mother and uncle riding bikes, playing in the surf and ... growing up. He shook off the brief dip into nostalgia with a deep breath.
After giving the interior of the cabin a cursory once-over, he took a slow stroll to the water's edge. The lake was long and narrow and the water reflected the breathtaking blue of the sky. On the opposite shore, he saw other vacation cottages shaded with diciduous trees, huge and thick-foliaged, mingled with tall, dark pines. A few people swam near the shore, a couple of small powerboats pulled skiers and, far down the lake, a tiny red and white lateen sail floated just above the surface of the water.
Mellow day, idyllic setting straight out of childhood--
"Hey, mister?" His reverie was interrupted by a childish voice that seemed to fit perfectly with his thoughts. He turned to see a boy perhaps six years old clad in swim trunks and carrying a plastic float mattress. "Did you see a dog come by here?"
"No. But I've only been out here a minute."
"I'm kinda worried he ran off. See, he's afraid of storms and he was acting like he does when a big storm's coming. But I don't even see no clouds."
"Maybe there's weather headed this way. Sometimes animals sense things like that before people can see them."
"Yeah." The boy looked around, concern wrinkling his brow.
"You want me to help you look for him?"
"Would'ja? There ain't nobody else to help me. My uncle went to buy barbecue and it's hard for my mama to walk. She sprained her ankle."
"Is she nearby?"
"Right over there." The boy pointed to a small travel trailer with a colorful striped awning. The camp site was fixed up invitingly with webbed lawn chairs and a checkered table cloth on the picnic table.
"Let's go make sure it's all right with her."
They walked together to the small trailer, the boy chattering easily. "I had to get out of the water when Uncle Kenny left. Mama won't let me swim unless somebody's watchin' me. So I was playin' with Pepper, but then he ran off."
They reached the travel trailer and the boy carelessly tossed the air mattress on the ground, opened the door and stepped inside. "Mama!"
"I'm right here, Julian. It's a little trailer, you don't have to yell."
"Sorry. Mama, is it okay if this man helps me hunt for Pepper? He ran off like a storm's coming."
The boy -- Julian -- backed down the step to the ground as his mother came to stand in the door, favoring her left foot, which had an ace bandage wrapped around the ankle.
"Hi," she said noncommitally to the stranger.
He nodded. "Hi. My name's Daniel. I just got here for the weekend when your son came by my cabin looking for his dog. I'll be glad to help him hunt for Pepper, if it's all right with you."
"Oh, I don't think y'all need to go to that trouble. Pepper'll be back before you know it."
"Mama!" Julian exclaimed softly. "He's prob'ly scared. We hafta find him!"
The woman looked down at her son and back to the stranger and her eyes narrowed. "Could you tell me your name again, please?"
"Oh, my goodness." She put a hand to her cheek as recognition dawned. "You're Dan Rawson. Steelers quarterback!"
Dan took off his hat, stepped forward and extended a hand. "Former quarterback," he corrected with a polite smile.
The woman scrunched her shoulders with an answering smile and said softly, "Wow." She returned his firm handshake. "A celebrity right here at Lake Lucy Campground! I'm Cassie Shipley. And of course you've met Julian."
At that moment they heard nervous yipping behind them growing stronger, and Dan glanced behind him as Julian yelled jubilantly, "Pepper!"
The brindled mutt trotted toward his young master, tongue and ears flapping.
"Hey, boy! Where'd you get off to?" Julian leaned over to give Pepper's back a scratch. "C'mere, let's put you on the chain." He tethered the dog to a lightweight chain staked to the ground near the picnic table.
His dog's wellbeing out of the way, Julian trained his gaze on Dan. "Are you really a professional quarterback?"
"I used to be; I'm retired now."
"Wow. Hey, would you like to eat with us? Uncle Kenny's bringing barbecue from the best place in town. He always buys more than we can eat."
"Well, thanks, but I don't want to intrude."
Cassie looked at Dan, half embarrassed. "Oh, it's no intrusion. He just doesn't think sometimes, that you might have family or someone with you. Of course, they'd be welcome, too."
"No. I'm traveling alone. And I have to tell you, barbecue sounds real good."
"Well, it settled, then. It's too hot to eat out here, so I've put everything on the dinette table inside--there's cole slaw, potato salad, Texas toast.... We have soft drinks and iced tea and Kenny's got a few longnecks in the fridge. All we're waiting for is the barbecue."
"I think my stomach just growled," Daniel said, a smile lighting his face. "Had a snack before I got here but I guess I'm hungrier than I thought."
"It should be here in a few minutes." Cassie gingerly stepped to the ground and nodded at the lawn chairs. "Might as well sit while we wait."
They settled into comfortable webbed chairs and Julian sat the end of the picnic table bench, swinging his legs. "You reckon Uncle Kenny will bring Lindy back with him?"
"I didn't hear him say, but you'd like that, wouldn't you?" Firming her lips to control a smile, she explained to the visitor, "He's got a crush on his uncle's girlfriend."
"I do not!" Julian protested. "She's just fun, for a girl."
He glanced to the side and saw Pepper straining to get to the trailer door, trembling and whimpering. The chain stopped him about a foot short of his goal. Julian ducked his head to see as much of the sky as possible beyond the awning. Still cloudless. The sun, dropping lower in the sky across the lake, cast long, sharp shadows on the ground.
"Why's he actin' like that?" the boy asked his mother. "There ain't no rain around."
"Let's see," Dan said, pulling his cell phone from his shirt pocket. He pressed a few keys and grunted. "Look," he said, turning the instrument toward Julian. The tiny display showed a map of south Georgia and north Florida in brilliant green. Blobs of red and yellow overlaid it. "Front coming in, to the west of us. Maybe that's what he's sensing."
"Poor puppy," Cassie said, sympathy on her face as she looked at the dog. "Put him in the trailer, Julian." She glanced at Dan. "He likes to ride out storms in his dog bed with his toys all around him."
Julian put Pepper in the trailer and made it back to his seat just as a car crunched into the campsite's parking area.
"Yay!" the boy said, jumping up. "Barbecue!"
The adults stood and turned to see a young man emerge from a late model compact carrying a large white paper bag. As he approached, Cassie said, "Ken, we have a celebrity guest for supper. Dan Rawson, my brother, Ken Shipley."
"Well, well," Ken said, extending a hand for a shake, a smile splitting his face. "Honored to meet you. What brings you to these parts?"
"Just visiting family here and there, doing a little traveling."
"That's nice. You got family around here?"
"Kenny!" Cassie exclaimed, and then shot Dan an apologetic look.
Kenny grinned. "Sorry. Didn't mean to pry, but peggin' a newcomer's kinfolks is a Southern thang. We can't help it."
"Oh, I know," Dan said with a chuckle. "I grew up in North Carolina. Most of my kin are up there. The rest, scattered all over."
Kenny stepped to the trailer door and pushed it open for the others.
"It's pretty small in there so you fellows go on in and sit down," Cassie said. "I'll fix drinks. What does everybody want?"
"Co-cola," said Julian, bouncing inside with the energy only children have.
"Go ahead," Kenny said to Dave. "You, too, sis. You're supposed to stay off that ankle another coupla days. I'll do the drinks."
Dan removed his hat and slid into the booth as Cassie took a seat across from him.
"Julian," she said, "Put Mr. Rawson's hat on the shelf over there."
While Ken busied himself in the small kitchen, Dan handed Julian his hat and glanced around the interior of the trailer. It looked showroom new and personalized with books, magazine, CDs and framed photos on the walls, but not cluttered. He looked at his hostess.
"This is nice. Roomier than it looks from the outside."
"Kenny and I bought it last summer, mainly for Julian. We thought about buying a cabin out here, but they're really expensive and we can take this to the beach, the mountains... wherever. We've really enjoyed it."
"I like it," Julian told his guest. He perched on the end of the bench next to Dan and said, "Can I sit here?"
"Absolutely," Dan said, giving the boy a wink.
It took Kenny only a few minutes to bring drinks and a platter filled with a variety of barbecued meat to the table. He slid into the booth next to his sister, nodded to Julian and said, "Want to say the blessing, hotrod?"
"'kay." Julian laced his fingers in front of his chin and said, "For food and friends and happy times, for families together, for sun and rain, for woods and plain, we thank Thee, O Our Father. Amen."
"Amen," Kenny echoed. "Everybody dig in."
* * *
Cleanup was quick and easy, since there was little food left to put away and plates, cups and flatwere were throwaways. Julian went to the small bedroom to check on Pepper while the adults, sated and mellowed out, headed outdoors.
They stepped into a moderate wind that ruffled their hair and made the awning flap. The air had grown much cooler while they were at supper.
"Goodness!" Cassie exclaimed as a sudden gust blew Julian's air mattress past them. Kenny grabbed it before it got away. Another gust billowed the red checkered tablecloth half off the picnic table, and threatened to toss the lightweight aluminum chairs on their sides. Cassie grabbed the tablecloth while the men folded the chairs and slid them under the trailer.
The front Dan had showed Julian on his phone screen was almost upon them. Kenny looked westward across the lake and uttered a low whistle. "We're in for it."
The others followed his gaze to the roiling bank of greenish gray clouds above the treeline and approaching with frightening speed. As they watched, a finger of gray slowly formed and snaked downward as if to poke the trees below.
Kenny streaked back to the travel trailer door, tossed the air mattress inside and yelled, "Jules! Bring Pepper and get out here, now! Hurry!" The three adults looked at each other, alarm growing on their faces, and Kenny muttered, "We gotta get outta here."
"No time," Dan said. "Don't want to be in a vehicle, anyway. Let's go to my cabin. It's concrete block, just a few yards away."
"Arright," Kenny said as Julian stepped outside clutching a quaking Pepper in his arms. Kenny grabbed them up and said, "Tornado."
They struck out along the lake front. Cassie's limp slowed her and Dan held out his arm to her. "Grab hold and speed up if you can."
Rain and pea-sized hail, sudden and hard, pelted them as they ran past a couple of empty campsites and a row of shrubs that separated the RV section from the cabin area.
Kenny heard the roaring of the tornado behind them grow alarmingly loud and feared the gusting wind would sweep them off their feet before they made it to the cabin. But in moments, he saw Dan standing beside the open door, ushering Cassie inside. Kenny followed, set Julian on the floor and said, "Bathroom's probably the safest place. Y'all get in there, huddle together. I'll bring the mattress to put over us.
Dan and Cassie did as he told them, hunkered in the bathtub with Julian and Pepper between them. Kenny drug the mattress off the bed and wrestled it into the tiny bath. He sat on the floor beside the tub and they pulled the mattress over their heads, held it there, and waited.
The wind grew wilder, louder around the cabin and they heard a roaring pass over the house along with the faint tinkling of breaking glass. Pepper wailed softly and Julian trembled.
"It's okay, sweetheart. It'll be over in a minute. Everything'll be all right," Cassie soothed, although her voice quivered with fright.
Kenny muttered, "Bet the trailer's a goner."
They waited a few moments, listening to the roaring grow distant and the wind gradually die. After a good five minutes of silence, Kenny crawled out from under the mattress and pulled it out of the bathroom. Dan unfolded himself and helped Cassie and Julian out of their shadowed, pink-tiled haven.
They stepped into the main room of the cabin to find the front door open and Kenny disappearing through the doorway.
"Stay here," Dan said, following Kenny outside. Cassie and Julian, still clutching the dog, waited anxiously, in silence. In a few minutes, Dan reappeared. "Trailer made it through. Got knocked off it's jacks, sitting crooked in the campsite but seems okay. Awning is shredded. Picnic table upended. Looks like the twister didn't touch down until it passed us."
"Oh, thank goodness!" Cassie said. "Nothing but woods and swamp for miles to the east."
They walked out into the wet, dusky evening. The chaos of minutes before had settled down to a soft rain. They found Kenny disconnecting the propane tanks at the front of the trailer.
"Don't want to take any chances of a leak in the lines anywhere. We'll have to head back to town for tonight, at least." Around them, other campers were inspecting their trailers and RVs for damage.
"Best I can tell," he continued, "most of the damage is tree limbs down. Still got power," he said, pointing toward the cabins on the opposite shore where lights glimmered through the rain. He looked toward their visitor. "Let me finish here and I'll come down, help clean up your cabin."
"Nothing to do except put the mattress back on the bed. I think I can manage that," Dan said with a grin.
"You got a broken window, too. I'll stop at the camp store and report it on the way out."
"Thanks. So you folks live close by?"
"Yeah, in Verona. About eight miles to the west of us. I'll be out here tomorrow, try to get everything fixed so these two can come back out a few more days. Last fling before school starts."
"I'll be in the first grade," Julian said proudly, still clutching Pepper. The dog's trembling had toned down considerbly.
"That's a milestone in a man's life," Dan said with a wink. He shook hands with Cassie and Kenny. "I enjoyed meeting and visiting with you folks. Thanks again for supper." He glanced around the campsite. "Let me know if you need help with this. I'll be here through the weekend."
Around eight, a teenager from the camp store stopped by Dan's cabin and taped plastic over the broken window. It was above the sink in the pullman kitchen and the rain had done no damage inside.
"Just one jalousie broken," he reported to Dan. "Should be able to replace that for you tomorrow."
"That's fine," Dan said. When the job was done and the kid departed, he toed his shoes off and shucked his still damp jeans and shirt. Sprawled on the sofa, he found the remote control on an end table and turned on the television, wondering if cable might have been interrupted by the storm.
Apparently not. A hundred and two channels in all their inanity were available. He flipped past the sports channels -- he did not want to even think about that right now -- and finally settled on a mindless war movie with lots of violence, explosions, death and dying. After a few moments of that, he turned off the TV and laid his head against the backrest. He opened himself up to register the unfamiliarity around him.
Thoughts of his hosts earlier in the evening came to him, and he began to wonder about things he hadn't paid much attention to at the time. Kenny and his sister and nephew all had the same last name, Shipley. There had been no mention of a husband and father, and he grew mildly curious.
Julian was a cute kid; brown as a berry, probably from playing outdoors all summer. The sun had streaked and tipped his dark hair a shade or two lighter. Dan had not been around children much in his life, and he found them somewhat intimidating, but Julian was as likeable as he was cute.
And his mother....a pretty woman, slender but shapely in a pastel shorts set. She had pulled her shoulder length dark hair off her neck with one of those big, toothed clamps that looked like an instrument of torture; but it had come loose as she hobbled through the wind and rain to his cabin ... clutching his arm....
She had been so scared ... and so brave, as she cuddled Julian and Pepper and murmured comforting words to them at the height of the storm. Her voice, and laugh, were a touch husky, he'd noticed at supper. And the way the rain had plastered her clothes--
No. Huh-uh. Forget it. Two days, you're outta here. So forget it.
* * *
"You want me to leave the nightlight on, sweetheart?" Cassie sat on the edge of the bed in Julian's room, with its cowboy-Jaguars-Braves-outer space decor.
With Pepper curled at his side and sleeping soundly, her son lay back against the plaid-cased pillow and shook his head. "I ain't scared."
"Okay." She leaned forward to kiss his forehead and accepted his kiss on her cheek. "'Night, my brave little man."
Cassie stepped softly down the hall to her bedroom and slipped out of her terry bathrobe. By now only slightly damp from her shower, she pulled on cool, cotton knit sleep wear.
Julian might not need a night light but she did. Her nerves were still jangled by their close encounter with the tornado and her mind kept going back to the chaos-- the windwhipped rain, the pelting hailstones, the roaring of the twister as it passed over head while they huddled in the bathtub in Dan Rawson's rental cabin.
Dan Rawson. Professional football player ... rich, famous, good-looking. But so down-to-earth. Weren't pro athletes supposed to have gargantuan egos? Weren't they supposed to be self-centered hedonists with a glitzy, big-busted woman on each arm?
But Dan had been cordial and respectful at supper. Now that she thought back--the first chance she'd had to think about supper since the'd stepped outside into the storm--she realized there had been very little football talk. Kenny had certainly asked enough fan-type questions and Dan had given interesting or funny replies, but several times he had managed to smoothly change the subject, usually with a question of his own.
The three adults had talked more about Kenny's landscaping and decorative concrete company than Dan. He was a great listener. She remembered attentiveness on his face, the the smiles that would come and go, the occasional laugh--and what a marvelous laugh!
Several times, she'd caught herself staring at him, and she'd had to force herself to look away. Once or twice, their knees had bumped under the table. He hadn't seemed to notice but she had -- felt a mingling of mild embarrassment with mild...titillation....
Didn't mean anything. It was just because there was a handsome celebrity unexpectedly gracing their table. He had the cabin for the weekend only. He'd leave after that, and they'd never see him again. He would become nothing more than an anecdote to tell her friends and customers at the beauty shop.
This is a work in progress and may differ when completed and edited