I’m sharing this excerpt from Following Frankie, book four in the Boone Series, to mark the publication of the fifth book. Choosing Family is scheduled for release in May of this year. In this selection, Boone and Frankie are on the road, visiting some of the places his friend Melvin had suggested. Their next stop is the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.
When I get to Waycross a guy in the gas station where I fill up and use their ATM to get some more cash tells me that Highway 121 will take me to the east side entrance to the refuge and tells me how to get to the highway without going through town.
Using a machine in a gas station to get money is weird. Nobody else is around, which is good, because I get my PIN wrong the first time and have to start all over. Plus it subtracts an extra $3.00 from my account for some kind of fee. I get $80.00, buy a couple of candy bars and three or four drinks, and head back out to the truck before somebody like Abigail comes along with a rock or a brick to rescue my dog.
Frankie is sitting in her seat waiting and thumps her tail at me when I climb in. I pull out of the station and head in the direction the guy said would get me to 121. We’re in south Georgia now, which is a lot of pine trees and red clay, too flat to feel like home but more familiar than the beach. We get to Folkston and the east entrance to the refuge after about an hour drive and park at the visitor center.
I find out pretty quick that Melvin either didn’t know or forgot about the rules here. Frankie isn’t allowed in the canoes, which is no big deal, since I’ve never been in a canoe in my life and don’t want to start in a place with alligators hanging around. She also can’t go on the boardwalks, which is kind of a big deal, since a lot of the trails are boardwalks and that knocks out quite a bit of the park for us.
When I first got Frankie and the whole time I lived at home I never ran into any of this shit about not being able to take my dog with me. I mean, she couldn’t go into the grocery store with me or anyplace like that, but if I hadn’t run into that guy that told me about Caswell Beach I would have wasted a trip to the ocean, and now here I’m running into the same thing. Never thought of Frankie as a problem before; she’s the best thing I’ve got going right now, and if there’s a place she can’t go then I don’t want to be there either.
Course that’s not entirely true. I’d like to have gone out on the boardwalks at least a little ways. Melvin was right about one thing. The swamp is like a whole different world, and I had to stand kind of on the edge of it to see what it was like. But I can’t take Frankie except on the trails that are on solid land and I’m sure not leaving her with some stranger just so I can go out into the swamp a little ways on one of the boardwalks.
I have to say, though, that being back in the woods, even though it isn’t the same kind of woods I’m used to, feels awful good. I guess I’d forgotten what that’s like. Then I think, it’s been like a week, actually less than that, since you got on the road and you’re homesick already. That’s pitiful. I can hear Melvin saying, “You need to see some other places while you’re young, Boone; you never can tell what will happen. You might find the perfect place to live or a vacation spot to keep coming back to, or maybe even the love of your life!”
He was grinning at me when he said that last part, I remember, because he knew about me and Nancy and was just giving me a hard time. He was a good guy; a lot of those old folks couldn’t hardly remember their own name, but Melvin was pretty sharp.
By the time we get back to the truck from the two or three trails we can take, it’s close to the end of the day and time to find a place to park and sleep for the night. I’m about to get in and head for the exit when I hear somebody yell, “Hey, Tennessee!” I don’t think anything about it but then I hear it again and when I look around some guy’s pointing at me and saying, “What part of Tennessee are you from?”
At first I don’t say anything because I can’t figure out how he knows that I’m from Tennessee, since I don’t know him from Adam. He points at the license plate on the truck and says, “I saw your truck when we pulled in. Nice dog.” He’s walking over to us and Frankie is watching him. She’s not doing anything, not growling, hair not standing up along her back, but she’s not wagging her tail either. He gets a little closer and I can hear a growl, so low I almost miss it, but when I look down Frankie is all tensed up.
He’s a big guy, not as big as Tiny, but big. He steps in way too close to me and Frankie’s growl gets louder. I say, “You ought to step back a little. Getting kinda close there. Frankie doesn’t like it and I don’t much like it either.”
“Maybe you ought to keep your dog under control,” he says, and stays right where he is.
“She is,” I say. “This is her being under control.”
He stands there for a second, and then steps back. “I didn’t mean anything by it.” He raises his hands up in front of his shoulders. “Sorry.” He doesn’t look sorry.
“No problem,” I say. “What can I do for you?”
He shakes his head. “Never mind, man, just trying to be friendly.” He turns around and heads back to his car. There’s two other guys there and I see him talking to them and pointing at us. They’re too far away for me to hear.
One of the guys looks around the parking lot and says something to the rest of them. They all turn the same direction and look, so I turn that way too. I see a guy walking up to a big SUV. The first guy, the one who came up to me, says, “Hey, Virginia!” and the car owner stops and looks around the lot.
“Let’s get out of here, Frankie,” I say, and take her around to the passenger side. She jumps in and I start around the front, but when I look over at the SUV all three guys are standing around the driver almost shoulder to shoulder, and he’s backed up against the rear fender of the car.
I never liked bullies; got pushed around plenty in school and couldn’t do much of anything about it. Back then I knew nobody would back me up if I tried to stand up to them, especially Mr. Timmons’ gang. If you don’t have some kind of backup it’s hard to stand up to anybody. That makes me think about Jerry and I reach up and touch the scar on my arm from the knife fight. Tiny stood with me then, and so did Nancy. I don’t know whether these guys are bullies or thieves, but I’ve dealt with both kinds, and they both piss me off.
I’m trying to decide what to do about it when another car pulls in and parks one spot over from the SUV. Two people get out and the woman on the passenger side says, “When were you going to join us, Raymond? The grill’s about ready.” Then she looks at the three guys that have the driver, I guess that’s Raymond, backed up against the car and says, “What’s going on here?”
The one that had come over to me says something to her and she just stands there like she’s not sure what to do. I can see Raymond’s face enough to know he’s scared, so I get Frankie back out of the truck and go around to the front.
“Y’all okay over there?” I shout, and start walking toward them. Frankie is right beside me and I’ve got the leash wrapped tight around my hand. She’s growling loud now, and when we get a little closer she barks once. Now she’s pulling hard on the leash and everybody’s looking at her. I’m wondering whether I should have gone into the back of the truck and picked up my shotgun when the three guys look at each other and start heading back to their car.
They get in their car and start to pull out of the parking lot, but turn in next to my truck on the passenger side. I can’t really see what’s happening but I hear glass breaking and then the car backs out, turns hard, and heads out of the lot. When I turn back around all three people, Raymond and the two others, are staring at me.
“I got the license number,” the woman says. “Georgia plates. I’m going to call the police. Maybe they’ll . . . .” She kind of trails off and looks at Raymond.
Raymond nods. “Maybe they will what, Denise? The police are not going to set up roadblocks for a broken window. Sorry,” he turns to me and then back to her, “I say definitely call it in, but I would not expect anything to happen.”
She nods and Raymond looks over at me. “I would like to thank you, young man. I do not know what would have happened had you not been here in the parking lot, but I am sure it would have been unpleasant at best.” He holds out his hand. “My name is Raymond, as I am sure you have guessed by now. And who might you be?”
I grab his hand. He’s got a solid grip. “Boone. This is Frankie.”
Raymond smiles. “A great pleasure to meet both of you.”
This guy talks like he’s giving some kind of speech, even though it’s just us and I’m sure he already knows Denise and whoever that other guy is.
Now he’s calling them over. “Denise, Jeremy, come meet our rescuers. This is Boone, and this fine looking animal is Frankie.” He looks at me. “With a name like Frankie, this could be either a male or female dog.”
“Frankie’s a girl,” I say. I feel like I ought to do something besides just stand here, so I stick out my hand and we all shake, which feels weird because I don’t ever do that. It’s so serious, like we’re making some kind of business deal or something. Then I say, “Frankie, this is Raymond, Denise, and Jeremy.” She looks at the three of them and then back at me.
Raymond laughs. “Not easily impressed, is she?”
“She just doesn’t know you,” I say, not sure whether I’m supposed to get mad about that or not. “She’s really a good dog.”
“I have no doubt,” he says. “Now, how shall we reward you? Aside from paying for a replacement window, I mean. Jeremy,” he looks over at the guy, “Is your brother-in-law still working at his friend’s body shop?”
“Would you call him, please, and find out how much a replacement side window, parts and labor, would be? What year is your truck, Boone?”
I tell him and Jeremy steps away and pulls out a cell phone. He talks for a minute or two and comes back over.
“He says about $400.00.”
Raymond nods. “Thank you, Jeremy.”
“About what happened with those three assholes —” I stop and look at Denise. “Sorry about that.”
She laughs. “No apology needed, Boone. I’d say that’s exactly what they were.”
“I didn’t do anything besides walk over here. Those guys thought they had you cornered. They came at me just a couple of minutes ago, used that same trick on me they used on you. Backed off because they didn’t want to have to deal with Frankie, so maybe she’s the rescuer.”
“Well said, Boone,” says Raymond. “We will say both of you, then, since the two of you showed up together. Just in the nick of time, right?”
I shrug. “I guess so.”
“Definitely so,” says Raymond. “Now, you will join us for supper, of course. Where are you staying?”
Here we go again. I’m so damn tired of people asking me that. When I don’t answer right away, Raymond takes the hint, I guess, and says, “No matter. We are in the RV park just outside Waycross. Did you come that way?”
“If you will follow us, then, we will have a meal together, you can meet my wife Charlotte, and you can tell us about your travels with Frankie. Oh, I sometimes wish I was young again and able to just pick up and leave on a whim.”
Denise laughs. “Ray, you’re always picking up and leaving on a whim. I’ve known you for twenty years and this trip isn’t new behavior for you.” She glances at me. “You and Boone may have a lot in common, now that I think about it.”
I don’t know about all this, but I get in my truck and follow them out onto the highway anyway. I hope this doesn’t turn out like it did with Jericho.
We’re behind Raymond’s car and Jeremy is out ahead a little ways. Denise said something about getting the steaks on the grill as soon as they got there so we wouldn’t be too late eating. Raymond drives pretty fast for an old guy and I have to pay attention so he doesn’t get away from me.
There was this family back home, the Binfields, that had a house set so it looked out on the valley one over from us. You could see that place from anywhere, especially late in the day when the sun hit all those windows. I remember Daddy used to say those people had enough money to burn a wet dog, which I thought was pretty damn funny until I got Frankie. Anyway, that family was richer than anybody else in the county.
I don’t think Raymond has that much money, but he’s sure got a nice RV.