Fiction: Search, Rescue, Recovery

Read More: A brief interview with Jamie Lyn Smith

That whole week brought havoc to Stowe Valley Camp and Canoe.  A domestic dispute among tent campers drew the Sheriff’s office out twice on Monday. A thunderstorm felled several trees Wednesday and knocked out electric to a whole block of RV glampers. It was humid as hell and insufferable along the hiking trail due to the swollen, rotting carcass of a llama that wandered over from the neighboring farm and dropped dead in the woods. Thursday, my kids were goofing around with a nail gun and we wound up taking a family trip to Urgent Care for tetanus shots and stitches.

By Friday afternoon we were so far behind on prep for Father’s Day weekend that I left my son, Jacob, to run the camp store. Diana was helping me replace Edison outlets on the RV hookup stations, which is to say that she was handing me tools, listening to me cuss, and preparing to knock me off the ladder with a 2×4 if I got electrocuted.  The hot sun beat down on us. I was hacking at molten plastic, ripping out miles of fried wire, muttering that I should’ve had the blankety-blank foresight to pursue a career in accounting or insurance sales, anything but following my father’s footsteps as the star-crossed, thunderstruck, aggrieved sole proprietor of a recreational facility when Diana touched my arm.

“Kenneth,“ she said. “Look.”

She pointed to a small crowd gathering around some kayakers at the put-in.  When we got to the river, the man– Steve was his name—was bellowing that they could not find their boy.  Steve had one of those dumb navy tattoos, a mermaid whose breasts jiggled when he clenched and unclenched his fist. Marla, the mother, had a sweetness to her face that seemed to say “Please” and I was certain that she spent her days at a cash register, meaning it when she told people to have a good day.  The girl with them was about fourteen. She kept pulling at a bunch of those silly band bracelets on her wrist, nervous as a hare.

Was their boy here? Had we seen him? Steve’s eyes sunk deeper in his head when Diana shook her head no, twisting a strand of blonde hair that had fallen loose from her ponytail.

“Goddamnit- I can’t take much more of his shit,” Steve said. I looked at him. “Devin… sometimes he runs off.” Steve said that the boy had learning issues, and he wasn’t quite right, that he wandered and was young for his age. While he went on and on about Devin, Marla stared at her shoes. She wore a pair of soaking wet sneakers that made squeaking sounds when she shifted her weight, and I remember being distracted by the flatulating squelch.

“Devin’s always rambling off a-looking for something,” Marla said, voice trembling. “He always comes back just plain tired and empty-handed…”

“We’ll find him,” I said. “Don’t worry.”

Diana called the Sheriff while I radioed the volunteer Fire Department.  My buddy Ross and his girlfriend organized a search of the grounds. Some tent campers brought bottles of water and snacks to the family while I hustled to hitch up the boat trailer.

“Dad,” Jacob said.  I looked up. “I know that kid from school.”

“Who is he, again?” I said.

“He played t-ball with me that one year,” Jacob said. “Remember? Flaps his arms all the time and had to leave the team?”

Jacob held up his phone and showed me a picture. Devin’s face was cherubic, naive. I remembered seeing him in the hallways after school, ducking his head low and letting his bangs fall over his face to avoid my hello.

“They call him Lockdown because he runs away all the time, and then the whole school gets shut in.”

“I better not hear you calling him lockdown.”

“I don’t,” Jacob said. “I don’t beast like that.”

He sounded so hurt. I wasn’t surprised. We’d been at each other’s throats all summer.  The boy formerly so eager to help with the canoe livery retreated into his PSP, his phone, the computer- anything with a pixel. It was infuriating for me to see my son thickening up, turning pale and chubby as a lump of bread dough from hours and hours cruising imaginary cities in stolen cars, blasting away at the cops with a pretend AR-15.  At Jacob’s age, I was already running rescue with my dad and cutting all the firewood for the campground, chasing real girls instead of picking up digital hookers and dying weird colors in my hair.

Diana made me lay off Jacob after he won a prize at some kind of gaming conference and started getting small sponsorships for his YouTube channel.  But that victory– and his burgeoning online “fame” with a following of 1,000 other nerdy game-wonks– just sucked Jacob deeper into the recesses of the world wide waste of time, and farther away from reality.

“Glitching… dad, you’re glitching,” he said.

“What?” I fumbled the canoe I was loading.Its plastic hull barked against the metal carrier.

“So… can I go with?”

“Can you be away from Call of Whoredom that long?”

“Why you gotta be like that? You’re on me no matter what I do– ”

I felt a blush of shame creep up my neck. He was right. Jacob shuffled his feet and said, “I rented them the boats this morning. I feel bad for Devin. He’s… he’s kind of lost all the time.”

“All right, all right,” I nodded. “Sure you can go. I understand.”

“Yes!” he said, pumping his fist and running up the hill. “Yeah!”

“Hug your mother,” I said, “She’s real worried.”

He nodded, his blue-tinted hair catching the sun as he sprinted away. Maybe this would be good for him. After all, I started running rescue with my dad when I was about Jacob’s age. Lord knows, Jacob could use a dose of reality.

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The family was waiting in front of the camp store when I pulled the van around.  Jacob helped the women into the bench seat, gesturing for Steve to sit up front by me.

Steve cleared his throat. “Thanks for helping us.”

“How far are we going?” I asked.

He wiped his face with his shirt. “I don’t know exactly…three or four miles upriver?”

This gave me pause.  The family had paddled right past Stowe. Why hadn’t they called for help then?  I cleared my throat. “Will you know where to put in if we drive along the road?”

“I think so.” Steve sounded hoarse, exhausted, and far from certain.

“I remember,” Marla said. She leaned forward and kissed Steve’s cheek so tenderly that I had to look away.

I glanced at my son. He was talking to Kylie,  both of them pointing at something on his cell phone, their faces fixed in the thousand-yard stare of the web- addicted.

“Hey Jacob,” I said. “Did you check the straps on the kayaks?”

“Yes sir, we’re game-ready.”

I saw the girl smile a little, tentatively – and much as I wanted to jerk Jacob by the arm and tell him that this was no effing game, I could not bring myself to do it. At least he was talking to a human female in real life, finally. The five of us were near-silent as we wound our way along the main road, through Stowe’s only stoplight, past the bar and the post office trailer and the turnoff for the ashram. Finally, at Quarry Church, Steve tapped the glass and said, “There. We was just down from here.”

Jacob radioed the sheriff while I pulled the van into the parking area, sandy soil whispering beneath our tires. Soon, the bank swarmed with searchers, the EMT’s in bright yellow vests, river rats in denim cutoffs and tennis shoes. I nodded to Randy and Brian, the divers from the volunteer fire department. “Glad to have you on hand,” I told them. They were both military trained, the best men we had.

“Hopefully you won’t need us,” Randy said. While Jacob and I geared up, Sheriff TC asked the family questions- was there a life vest in the kayak? Yes but the boy didn’t have it on. How long had the boy been missing? About two hours now, maybe a little more.  Did he know how to swim?

“He swam good,” Steve said, voice catching. “I taught him.”

TC stayed ashore with Marla and Kylie. I helped Steve into the canoe with Jacob and me.  The rest of the boats were spread out around us, waiting.  Steve nodded. We started to paddle.

I asked Steve questions he didn’t know the answer to: was the fishing hole before or after the house with the pink porch? Did he happen to remember if he’d passed the old canal locks? Steve just shook his head and said, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

You better, I thought. You damn well better.

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I listened with half an ear while Steve talked constantly- telling Jacob where he met Marla, that he loved Devin like his own boy, how  much better Devin did outside in nature than in school. Steve smiled shyly when he recalled teaching Devin to fish. “Loved it, just like me,” Steve said. “Took to it like a foal to milk.”

By then we were on a particularly lonely stretch of the river bordering the nature preserve. Pockmarked slabs of discarded concrete and sandstone boulders line the riverbank, and it drops off to a deep and muddy bottom. People like to bass fish there, but the previous night’s storm uprooted a huge live oak that lay fell across the river, and created a bottleneck.

Steve took a quick breath. “That’s it.”

Jacob’s eyes met mine. He’d paddled the river with me enough to know that water was likely rolling hard below that tree, pulling everything in, and down. I’ve found all sorts of things in whirlpools like that: crushed coolers, dead cows, waterlogged kayaks turning like dowel rods, scrap axles bent into strange and unimaginable shapes.  And a few times, I’ve found people.

“You ok?” I asked Jacob. He nodded, lips pressed thin.

Steve leaned over towards me. His voice sounded like it was being wrung out like a towel. “I didn’t want to say nothing in front of his mother….But when we was looking, I thought I saw the boat under that log.” Steve avoided my eyes and stared down at his hands. “I didn’t want his mother to see.”

“You thought?”

Steve stared at his hands. “I didn’t want his mother to see.”

You dumb son of a bitch, I thought. Jacob’s head jerked up, and for a moment I feared I had said it out loud. Steve stared at my, jaw working. I sighed, blew the signal whistle and radioed the Sheriff, pretending not to hear my son whisper to Steve that sometimes I act like a total ass.

Steve stood up and cupped his hands and yelled, “Devin. Devin. Devin. Devin. Devin.” The echo came back to us on the water.

I wanted to ask Steve to stop. Instead, I busied myself testing the river. When I lowered my paddle into the water, it pulled hard towards the logjam, and I had to hold onto it with both hands to keep the current from snatching it away. I never did touch bottom.

“Dad,” Jacob said. “Are you going in?”

“Too dangerous.” I shook my head. “We have to wait for the divers.”

Steve blanched, and his lip quivered. My son- my sweet son- knelt on the floor of the canoe and patted Steve on the back.

“Don’t worry,” Jacob said. “We’ll find him. He probably just wandered off—”

“Let’s not get our hopes up,” I said. Jacob flinched as if I had slapped him.

“He was just trying to help,” Steve said. He reached over and patted my son on the shoulder, “It’s all right, boy.”

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I could smell the river, the mix of fish, decaying leaves, sand. The sound of its current filled our silence while the divers worked, Randy manning the jonboat while Brian dove. I hear the radio crackle when the search party from downriver reported there was no sign of Devin. The volunteers at Stowe gave the all-clear a few minutes later.

It nagged at me, Steve being fool enough to leave Devin alone on the water. Steve abandoned that kid to the mercy of a river that my father always said gave the protection that vultures give to lambs.

I studied Steve.  His face had the creased wear of someone who used hard drink, and I wondered how much patience a man like that would have with a boy like Devin. He clearly thought the boy was a burden- cussing that he was tired of his shit, now what kind of a father was that? I know you cannot judge a man until you’ve walked in his shoes. And I know that panic, and shock, and fear will do strange things to a person’s mind, but if that was any child of mine there in the river, I would not stop diving until I found him, or drowned myself trying.  And I just kept thinking, why didn’t he stop for help?

Brian surfaced, hanging onto the boat with one arm and lifting his dive mask with the other.  He spoke quietly to Randy.

Steve stood, nearly tipping our canoe. “What’s going on?”

“Gonna run the line,” Randy said. “Found a boat.”

“What’s it look like?”

Brian rubbed his eyes, avoiding ours. “Blue kayak.”

It was one of our boats. Steve sat heavily, and brought his knees to his chest.  Jacob bit his lip, and folded his hands. Brian put the regulator in his mouth and tipped backward into the water.

TC, Kiley and Marla stood on the riverbank, making their way to the sandbar.  Fire and rescue trucks idled roadside, and a couple medics were high-stepping through the waist-high weeds with an empty gurney, defib kit and oxygen tank. The lights of the emergency squad strobed red, white, and blue across the surface of the river.

We could hear everything: the birds chirping like it was just any other day.  The winch grinding as it drew the kayak up out of the river, water pouring from its hull. There was a percussive, choking sound when Steve leaned over the edge of our boat and vomited into the water. […]


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Jamie Lyn Smith is a native of Knox County, Ohio. An alumnus of Kenyon College and Fordham University, she is the recipient of a University Fellowship from The Ohio State University, where she completed her MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Pinch, American Literary Review, The Low Valley Review, The Boiler, The Watershed Review and Barely South. She has work forthcoming in Bayou Magazine and the Mississippi Review. Jamie Lyn teaches Creative Writing at Bluffton University, where she edits Bridge: The Bluffton University Literary Journal. She is working on two new projects – Ever After, a collection of short stories, and her first novel, Appalachia.

Read More: A brief interview with Jamie Lyn Smith