Here If You Need Me
By Kate Braestrup
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2007 Kate Braestrup
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-316-06630-3
A-six-year-old girl has wandered off from a family picnic near Masquinongy Pond, and she remains missing after a long day of waiting. The Maine Warden Service has mounted a search. There are dozens of people combing the woods near the picnic grounds. Some are local guys, volunteers from the community, but most of them are game wardens in green uniforms. Handlers from the warden service K-9 unit have brought dogs trained to find people, and dogs-those braced in the bows of boats drifting over the surface of the pond's marshy edge-trained to alert to the signature scent of a cadaver.
The parents may or may not know about the cadaver dogs. They may or may not realize that when Chief Warden Pilot Charlie Later's plane buzzes overhead, he is scanning the brown bed of the pond for a small, pale human shape beneath the water.
The parents do know this much: they love their child, and their child wanders in an inhospitable environment. They know the dark is coming on. They have been told that the Maine Warden Service chaplain has been called. What else could this be about but death?
Around three in the afternoon, as my kids are trooping into the kitchen, dumping their backpacks in the mudroom, describing their school days, the telephonerings.
"Your Holiness!" Lieutenant Trisdale roars. "We've got a situation up here by Masquinongy Pond we could use your help with."
So by four, I am waiting by Chickawaukee Lake. Lieutenant Trisdale has sent a seaplane to fetch me. The lake is a ten-minute drive from my house, so I had time to eat a bowlful of supper's chicken stew and to swallow a Dramamine. I have heard that Charlie Later takes a dim view of wardens who puke in his airplane, and I don't want to test his tolerance.
My car is parked in the little lot adjoining what passes for a beach, a mud bank that the city of Rockland improves in summertime with sand and a lifeguard. If this were summer, there would be children paddling in the shallows, canoes and kayaks on the water, and-increasingly-"personal watercraft," or jet skis, zooming around.
But it is late October. The lake, abandoned save for a small flock of migrating mallards, is a placid gray mirror for the autumn afternoon. The sky boasts an archipelago of clouds so perfect in their imitation of islands that in the lee of the largest one, I can make out an inlet where a boat might find secure anchorage.
I blow on my hands and tuck them into the scratchy woolen armpits of my uniform jacket. I've forgotten my gloves.
People hear warden service and assume I am a prison chaplain. They picture me at the Supermax, counseling rapists and accompanying the Dead Man Walking to the electric chair. "Maine doesn't have the death penalty," I explain, and in any case, I work with game wardens, not prison wardens. Game wardens are law enforcement officers who work under the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Finding a lost child in the woods is among the many useful things these folks know how to do.
How old a child? "A little girl," the lieutenant had said. Unavoidably, the image of my youngest daughter, age eight, comes to me. Her name is Anne, but her nickname is Woolie, with manifold familial variations (Woolie-Bully, Wooglet, Woo), and her cheek was warm and soft against my mouth when I kissed her good-bye.
I dial my house to hear my children's voices. There are four altogether. Zachary is the eldest, at fourteen, and the rest follow in reasonably tidy, two-year intervals: Peter is twelve, Ellie is ten, Woolie is eight. "I know. You would think we'd planned them," their father would say, deadpan, when others expressed surprise (or was it dismay?) at the monotonous regularity with which he and I had reproduced.
Woolie answers the telephone with a complaint prepared: Peter has gone off with the electric pencil sharpener. He won't give it back, and he called Woolie a bastard. Such language is insulting and morally wrong. In addition, it's inaccurate, and I wonder whether this should be an aggravating factor in my adjudication.
"All right, Woogie-Piggie, I'll talk to him.
"Peter, share the pencil sharpener," I tell him when he comes on the line. "And no cursing."
"Okay," says Peter cheerfully. I can hear Woolie shrieking insults in the background. "Peace, Mom-Dude."
It's early in the search. There's hope-real hope, not the faint hope that families cling to as days drag on.
By now I know not to bother anticipating or planning for these calls. Hope and grief make a habit of presenting themselves in novel ways every time, and what is required in the way of a tender and appropriate response changes every time as well. It does an anxious family no good at all to have the chaplain arrive worn out with worry or projecting her own parental feelings onto a loss that does not belong to her.
"Incidents can be rated on a scale of one to ten," a Denver, Colorado, police detective once told me. "Sometime during your career, you might get one or two incidents worth a ten. A bad murder, maybe a young victim, or you shoot somebody, or maybe go through the death of a friend and fellow officer. Those are tens. Most incidents are going to be way down on the scale, like maybe a two or a three. But you know what? I think it's all those little twos, threes, and fours that add up over time. I think those are the ones that get you in the end."
By my lights, a one is when they find the lost person alive. Ones are good. A ten is-well, a ten is a dead warden, I suppose. Still, line-of-duty deaths are rare, if not quite rare enough. (The Maine Warden Service has the highest number of line-of-duty deaths of any agency in the state, a total of fourteen in the 125 years of the service's existence.)
Where is the Masquinongy Pond search going to fall on that Colorado detective's scale of one to ten? If the child is dead, it's going to be up there around seven or eight for all the wardens as well as for me.
My children are all alive and well, if not well behaved. I can count on a solid little hit of adrenaline to clear my head when I arrive on scene. So I kick idly at the gravel, take some deep breaths, blow on my hands, wonder whether Peter and Woolie's issues merit intervention by a shrink, fantasize idly about sailing to the islands in the sky.
Those ducks had better get a wiggle on; winter is definitely on its way. There are ice crystals forming around the woody stems of the cattails. Turtles, their metabolisms slowed to geologic speed, have hunkered down in the mud for six months of cold coma. It won't be long before the surface of the lake freezes into a solid pane of ice, and anyone who wants to walk on water can. By January it will be thick enough to drive a truck onto, in theory at least. (Every few years, the dive team is called out to retrieve the body of a driver whose estimate of the ice's thickness proved tragically inaccurate.) When the ice is that thick, I'll be willing to let my children skate, maybe.
Right now, my four children are sitting at the kitchen table, eating the cookies they were supposed to save for after supper, doubtless still arguing over the pencil sharpener or, if they've finished with that, arguing over which video they will watch tonight if Mom is still away and unable to enforce the "no videos on school nights" rule.
"It would be nice if this little girl turns out to be alive," I suggest out loud.
Barely audible at first, above the adenoidal agreement of the ducks, a faint buzz grows steadily louder. The warden service seaplane suddenly pops up above the high blueberry barrens at the far end of the lake. Its appearance breaks the island illusion; the clouds are clouds again. The plane gives a friendly wing-waggle and swings toward the water. It is aimed at the wrong shore, but I know by now not to jump and wave. The pilot has to land the plane nose into the wind. When the pontoons have made contact, flinging up twin plumes of white spray and carving sleigh tracks in the lake's silvery surface, Charlie will turn the plane around, and it will grumble gently to my shore.
Once I'm installed in the passenger seat, Charlie drives the plane hard into the wind, the pontoons skid off the water, and we ascend over the peak of Ragged Mountain.
"The lieutenant is going to meet us at Masquinongy Pond," Charlie says. "I guess it's not looking so good."
I nod, looking carefully out the window at distant objects to forestall nausea. Penobscot Bay lies to our right, gleaming blackish blue around the shreds of land that form Islesboro, Northaven, Vinalhaven, Isle au Haut, and myriad little islands. I can pick out details: Owl's Head Light, the break-water in Rockland Harbor, the square hull of the ferry backing out of the slip at Lincolnville Beach. Old mountains, smoothed by glaciers and time, roll off to the north and west. Charlie turns westward and flies behind the sun.
Charlie's hands rest lightly on the plane's steering wheel. I have an identical yoke in front of my seat that tilts in tandem with his as Charlie makes small adjustments to the variable air. Charlie's father was a warden service pilot too. Charlie grew up flying all over the state, and his relationship with an airplane seems at least as natural as my relationship with my feet.
And so, though I am prone to motion sickness of all varieties, I do like flying with Charlie. I like to look at Maine from this new angle and from the sky rediscover its familiar features-seacoast, church spires, winding roads, huge tracts of forest, silver lakes, trailer parks, rolling meadows. The tree-lined edges of the pastures below us are accented with a startling yellow, as if a giant artist used his thumb to smudge the vivid dust of a pastel landscape. It takes me a little time to realize that the dusty smudge is where the fallen yellow leaves of the maples have drifted.
"It's harder when it's a child," Charlie is saying, and I remember again the warmth of my daughter's cheek.
The parents of the missing girl are standing, stage lit, within a cone of lamplight at the far end of the Masquinongy Pond Recreation Area parking lot. Insects whirl drunkenly above their heads, and among them I note the disconcerting, flitting motion of little brown myotis bats taking their evening meal.
Perhaps thirty yards away, a modified RV belonging to the Salvation Army casts its own circle of light and supports its own rave of light-drugged insects, its own dance of bats. Through the open back door of the vehicle, I can see Brian Clark, a plump, walleyed veteran of many search scenes, washing pots. He will have spent a long afternoon cheerfully dishing up coffee, doughnuts, and Dinty Moore beef stew to search crews as they came in from the woods. Most of the volunteer searchers have reluctantly gone home for now. In the darkness, they can do no more than spread their scent, contaminating the area that the K-9s will continue searching through the night.
"I'm Reverend Braestrup," I announce. "I'm the chaplain for the Maine Warden Service."
"Ralph Moore," the child's father says. "This is my wife Marian. We're not churchgoers." The woman smiles apologetically as if I might have been offended by her husband's abrupt tone.
"I'm not a church minister." I shrug and smile. His face does not relinquish its skepticism, but Mr. Moore tugs once on my proffered hand, like a man testing the strength of a knot.
"Actually, I should probably tell you: we're atheists."
"I'm not offended," I say. "What a long, hard day you two have had."
"Yes," he says.
"I'm so sorry this has happened to you."
Mr. Moore looks away, toward the edge growth that fringes the parking lot. "I am too."
Mrs. Moore stands still, but her eyes scan constantly for signs from the surrounding darkness, her arms wrapped tightly across her chest. It's work to wait this way, aching physical labor.
"It's miserable to wait," I observe, and she nods, still scanning, her mouth taut.
Beyond the parking lot, the edge growth gives way to mixed deciduous woodland that rolls on for miles, interrupted only by an occasional swamp or swiftly flowing stream. It's been nine hours since the family dog returned and Alison did not. The Moores are tourists on vacation from a large Massachusetts city, but even if they were locals, the forest and the nearby bog and water would seem increasingly menacing as the hours wore on past mealtime, past bedtime. The people with uniforms, guns, and dogs had arrived in their emergency vehicles, blue lights flashing, as well as airplanes and boats, verifying the seriousness of what is, the awful plausibility of what might be.
"Look, Reverend," Mr. Moore says, gesturing into the darkness. "I know all these guys have to keep looking. I can tell they are putting on a brave face for Marian here. But you can tell me the truth."
Unbeliever though he may be, Mr. Moore is not asking the lady in the clerical collar for an objective assessment of a practical situation. He wants the God's honest truth. He wants me to tell him, with all the weight and authority my presence conveys, that his daughter is not dead.
"Do you think she's dead?" I asked Lieutenant Trisdale after Charlie Later landed me safely on Masquinongy Pond. We were driving to the search scene in his truck, bouncing over the old roads, the lieutenant's paperwork, coffee cups, and collection of cell phones leaping about my knees. Fritz Trisdale has nearly three decades of experience behind his assessment, whatever he says, I will believe.
Fritz scrubbed thoughtfully at the five o'clock shadow on his jaw. "I'll tell you what, your Reverendship," he said slowly. "I think she's still okay, to be honest with you. It's not like the kid was retarded or suicidal or something. She's just good and lost. Those woods have been cut over so many times that there's plenty of scrub and low growth to keep her hidden from us. Hell, you'd practically have to step on someone to find 'em in there. She's probably scared of the voices she hears, if she hears 'em at all. I think she's alive. Ronnie Dunham's bringing his dog Grace up this evening, and Grace'll have a fresh nose." Fritz stopped and gave it another thought but came to the same conclusion. "Yeah," he said. "I think we're going to find her."
"Listen," the child's father is saying to me. "I'm an engineer. I work with statistics. You don't have to bullshit me."
His wife is holding onto my hand, tightly, and her hand is cold. She turns her eyes to me as her husband continues: "I know that the longer this search goes on, the greater the chances are that my little girl is dead." Mrs. Moore flinches sharply at the word, and grips my hand even more firmly. Later my knuckles will ache, and I'll find the marks of her fingernails in my palm.
"I have been on many searches with the wardens," I answer him. "These guys are good at what they do. They have a lot of experience between them. And I've been with them on searches where they really don't think they are going to find somebody alive."
I pause and both parents lean closer, as if my voice might suddenly soften beyond the reach of their ears, but I speak boldly. "If the wardens have told you that in their professional opinion they think they will find your daughter alive, I believe we're going to do just that."
Mr. Moore's knees visibly wobble. Mrs. Moore gives forth with a weak exclamation, and her hand softens in mine.
Oh, please, Jesus, let this be true. Let the little girl be alive.
If it isn't true, then one of the searchers will find the body. It is a small body to begin with, no more than fifty-five pounds according to the report, and it will have dwindled in death. There will be no vital signs, no spring of skin or tapping pulse beneath the warden's gentle fingers at wrist or throat, no warmth. The clothing will correspond to the description each searcher carries: khaki pants, light blue jacket, blue sweatshirt with a picture of Elmo on the front, gym socks, and Teva sandals.
Excerpted from Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup Copyright © 2007 by Kate Braestrup. Excerpted by permission.
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