The trees were too tall to stand on their own, they held each other’s branches and swayed in the wind together. All the leaves were on the ground, thick and slippery; the trunks were all skinny and it was easy to move through them. We were all in a row, five feet apart, one and after another. We all had an orange vest on. The whole time they were talking, I was thinking: Where did they get so many of these vests. We were told to find a ‘good stick’ and the search began.
The edge of the water was just behind and the helicopters were above, way above the tops of the trees. We walked forward together like the blind, grazing our good sticks inside the leaves, back and forth, step, back and forth, step. I looked down our line and saw someone find a dark log under the leaves. I hadn’t even found that much. The leaves felt like a massive pillow, they were dry on top but damp and stuck together just under the surface. I slipped and fell a little, my good stick caught me. By now everyone was moving differently, the line was not straight, it wasn’t even a line. I looked ahead and saw more of the same. I kept moving, swinging my stick slowly in an arc in front of me. I kicked at the leaves a bit, just in case, somehow a kick could uncover something. Some of the others, my fellow searchers, had done this before but this was new; searching for a person that could end up being a body. I wanted to help, but I didn’t want to be the one to discover. I kept that secret.
It was hard to imagine someone being hidden in these leaves, as many as they were, it wasn’t enough, even if they were trying. No one was that thin. Just the air, and the earnest desperation billowing off the others made me certain this was a lost cause. I had already heard the phrase: “If they’re out there…” and the “Yep, we’ll find ’em.” It felt like a mantra, repeated, a Hail Mary against the creeping doubt. I kept moving. When someone called out there was an excitement. Everyone wanted to run to them, to see it, whatever it was; but we had to stay in our spots. Only our overseers ran to see, the rest stayed on invisible leashes. There was a nervous anticipation, everyone waiting for the news. I felt like a dog, waiting, finding excitement for the same old brown food pellets, everyday. In one minute we got the message to continue. Any news would have been a horror and a relief. We didn’t get any more information. I guessed that they found a bloody sock, but I knew that would have been too good. When the overseer came by we learned that it was a mitten, but that it was an ‘unrelated mitten’, that’s how it was properly classified, and we learned that there we often unrelated findings on these searches. My new goal was to find something unrelated, to help without actually being much involved. It sounded perfect.
There was an indefinable shout and then two runners. I stopped and watched them race ahead of the rest of us. I saw everyone else with their good stick watching and that’s when I ran after them. I broke the rule. I didn’t run towards my runners, just forward, away from the group. I was guessing they knew where to find something related, that they would surely discover everything and that I could help by calling attention to it with hand and arm gestures. I turned in their direction although I couldn’t see them. I heard a few shouts behind me and made a high speed attempt at a ballet jump behind one of the trees. I felt like behind the tree the shouts couldn’t hit me and I was safe to keep running. I felt like being everywhere. I couldn’t miss a thing. I kept going. I didn’t see them and I didn’t know where I was. Now that I was going somewhere I wanted to be there. It felt important, more important than my good stick that I must have dropped somewhere back there. Maybe it found something without me. When I stopped, nearly on top of them, I was thinking about that man in the movie that started running and didn’t stop, that determination, came from no purpose and no need to arrive.
I looked down and they were like large plushy lumps on the ground in their oversize winter coats all puffy and full of fuzz. I remember saying ‘Hey’, but they didn’t seem to notice. One runner positioned his shoulder down real low and dragged the two feet over, nestled on his neck. The other runner pulled up on the arms, put a knee under the back and hoisted the head up to his head and put it on his shoulder. The sight, of two heads so close together, one vertical and angry alive, the other horizontal and tired looking; I was staring and they noticed. They were struggling to move and I quickly jumped in the middle and lifted up where the body was sinking, and we all went faster. My head was smashed up against some pants and some leg. I closed my eyes, it didn’t matter. I kept walking forward. I was trying hard to not think about who I might be holding.
The carrying was hard and it took everything we had to do it. No one said a word. We were all facing forward, making eye contact was the last thing I wanted. Stifled grunts were all I knew of them. The runner with the feet on his shoulder was in front, we all went where he went. The weight of the body above me made walking awkward and difficult, every small stick or slippery spot felt like a near disaster. The leaves surrounding my feet continued making a swishing sound and I focused on it, knowing that as long as I heard it, carrying was all I had to do. My sense of time was gone, warped. It felt like I had been out here for days, working at some job, conscripted, obligated, responsible. The front runner let out low groan, quiet but insistent, not to be denied. He knelt down and let the feet slid off his shoulder. I knelt down as well and saw a large hollow tree trunk in front of us. I felt the rest of the body fall behind me and slipped out from under it awkwardly. In a second I realized I was the only one left touching it and I felt wrong. I let my middle fall and didn’t look or stand up. The tree was old and all that was left was the massive trunk, rotting slowly. They began dragging the body into its opening and I knew it was a good hiding spot. I stood out of the way, off to the side.
They were busy. I didn’t know what to do, there was no obvious way to help and they didn’t look at me. I backed away, looking around; I saw nothing but more forest and leaves. They were forcing it in, ripping at the trunk’s hole, making it bigger, grappling with it. The body looked unhappy and I turned and ran. I zigzagged between trees and jumped over spots that looked like a fall. I felt super fast, everything blurred. I had tunnel vision. I ran and ran. I fell once, rolled and got back up to keep going without a second to think if it hurt. I had a reason to run and knew it wouldn’t last long. I ran past them, the searchers still moving slowly towards. A few of them called to me, stayed in their spots and turned to watch. There was a delay before I heard anything, like I was moving so far, so far out of synch that the sound waves hit me slow. I put out my right arm and swung myself around a tree to stop. I slunk down to the ground still holding the tree, now with both arms. It was a good two minutes before the overseer arrived. I sat there hugging the tree and breathing heavy, my face pressed against the bark. When I stood up and started talking I could feel the impression on my cheek. I don’t know what I said, just that I was thinking I must look like an alien, and that I was perhaps the worst searcher, that if this wasn’t volunteer, I would be fired. No one said anything about the bark on my face, but I saw them see it.
When they stopped asking me questions, I was leading them back the way I was pretty sure I had just come. I told them it was pretty sure, I meant that I wasn’t sure, but that it had to be somewhere and so I started walk-running with the group behind me. The swishing of the leaves became a kind of din that surrounded us just like before. I felt like I was in a bubble. Not being able to see the surface that your feet were actually on gave the illusion of hovering. I noticed the overseer talking on both a walkie-talkie and a phone at the same time, both hands pressing each device into her face. I watched her for a long time, without looking where I was, she looked so successful. She knew what to do. I realized that it would have been too difficult to hold a device near her head while running, to position it in that hover spot. When we stopped she had impressions on both sides of her face and I realized I must have told them about the runners and the carrying and the hiding back when they were asking questions. Someone patted me on the back and I looked at them wondering why. I heard in the background someone say congratulations.
The body was hidden. It would have been easy to walk past this place, except the obvious signs of fresh damage to the massive tree trunk. The runners were gone and now the search was for them. The overseer was back on the phones, she would listen to one for no more than ten seconds and then talk into another, or another. She looked exhausted and ferocious at the same time. She told the group to stay back and after another quick listen that we had done a good job and made a clapping motion but no one clapped back at her much. We looked stunned to each other. I heard a couple groans, they already knew, their part of the exciting thing was about to be over. We heard dogs and spun around in unison. Men in black, armed and purposeful with dirty blonde dogs were suddenly everywhere. Each dog was sniffing and pulling at a leash. Each man was scanning around the area, looking at each face, inspecting the tree trunk. Helicopters were heard overhead. Three dogs were let loose and pointed in slightly different directions, they ran and were soon out of sight. The armed men ran after at a slow pace still scanning the area. The overseer stayed and told us we could leave but no one did.
When the overseer spotted me in the group, she came to hold my arm, she told me I had to stay and she didn’t let go of me until leader of the armed men arrived. Off in the distance I heard a dog bark several times and everyone got quiet and looked in some direction. We couldn’t tell where. The leader had a notebook and asked me who I was, why I was here, he asked what college I had attended. I told him that the men were the runners to me, nothing more, and that while they had faces for sure, they were to me puffy oversized coats. I told him that they didn’t talk much and that I was just trying to help. That got a small surprise out of him. He asked me who I was helping and I said that I was just helping to help, that I came out because I knew a lot of people wanted to help, that it was already a tragedy before we even knew any details, and of course you want to do something. I gestured with both arms to include everyone here. He nodded. There was a voice from his walkie and he turned his head to listen, and he put his hand on my shoulder as he did. I couldn’t understand what the voice said, but after he took his hand off my shoulder and told me that I had helped, and that I had done a good job.
We stood still and quiet for a moment. He looked up into the trees and I noticed that some of the group had started to wander away, making their own calls. Then he asked me why I helped them, and nodded in the direction of out there. I assumed that he knew where they were, that maybe they already had them, that a dog was standing on their chest snarling at them nearly eating their faces off. He had to ask again. I said that I didn’t know what else to do, that I had to. He thought for a moment and concluded that I was probably right. I had had to.
The diner was dressed in chrome with white on the top. It looked ridiculous, but I think it knew it did and that felt charming. A group of us, the stragglers and myself, wandered out of the woods and into town. We were all hungry, but I think mainly they wanted to keep me with them. I was still part of the thing that had happened. I had already told the story to them several times, and I was getting better at it. I could tell from their reactions, even on the third round, where the exciting or terrifying parts were, where to slow or speed. It was tempting to add something different, something better; to invent a more exciting tale. Now and then I would remember or think of a new detail, real details, and say ‘Oh yeah, and…’, this kept them expecting and interested. I wasn’t going to turn down a free meal, it would have been too rude, but I felt I was already letting them down. I couldn’t make dead bodies fall from the sky, or pretend I had fought them, or that the body was a lover.
“What do you think about orange?”
I had to think for a while, long enough that they started looking out the windows. Finally I said, “The fruit or the color,” I delivered this not as a question, as if I didn’t know, but as a statement of profundity. And then it was their turn to sit, thinking, for so long I looked out the window.
“Do you believe in signs?”
I said “Yes” to this quickly; their eager, yearning faces told me to go on and so I started talking. “Signs are important. In ancient Greece times a shooting star with a long trail meant that a god son or daughter had been born. On the highway the speed limit sign becomes the speed minimum sign. A tribe of peoples in our current Mexico would stare at the sun until the color in their eyes transformed the world into another and this alternate view revealed hidden realities otherwise unknowable.”
“Did the murderers look evil?”
The quietest member of our group spoke up. She hadn’t been silent, now and then she commented, or smiled, it was enough, just, to go un-noticed. She was there, but not, like dark matter. Now she said, “I was next to one of them, before they ran ahead, he was next to me, searching like the rest of us. If we had been a stronger group, I don’t know, would he have still broken away?”
By now I was eating waffles. I was quite happily crunching away, crushing the little squares, feeling the reverberations through my head. They were searching for theories now. Not good ones, but many. I felt myself fade back. The quiet woman looked at me but then down to her waffles. There was a TV show, it was similar, and it was pointing the way towards resolution. They spoke about how good the show was, and how the mysteries were discovered. A single detective could be the key, a hunch, a lucky break, a chance meeting. It was just like the show, so much, that was the scary part. No one said it out loud, but maybe the show was better and smarter than all of this. So much seemed to be made of luck, good luck it turned out, but you could never know for sure. The man that held my shoulder, they wanted to know about him for sure.
First I nodded for them, took several moments to gather my thoughts, letting them see how seriously I was considering their questions. “Yes, he was in charge, and yes it seemed that he knew what he was doing. When one of the others contacted him, either through the walkie, the phone or in person he stopped everything with me and gave them his full attention. And yes, I was able to read his expression. I think. When he got the message about the body, I saw it on his face. I wasn’t able to understand what the voice said, but his face knew and therefore I know.”
“Do we know that it was the body? what if they found them instead?”
One of the men in the group, an older guy, slammed his hands down on the table making the plates and spoons jump before saying, “We don’t know anything for sure. But if that wasn’t the body they found than we would still be out there looking.” He sat back now that everyone was looking at him. His beard looked like steel wool scratching his neck. But he continued, “It’s a man hunt now, a two man hunt. And that’s why the dogs were there. Not to smell a dead body, anyone can smell that, those dogs are there to smell evil!” And he picked up his mug of coffee and took a sip.
“So they are still out there?” Everyone looked around. The diner was in fact empty, not even a cook in the back, we were the only ones. Gradually we all went quiet, but there was nothing to hear. We peered out the windows, but from a distance, trying to see without being seen. Everything seemed darker. Street lights were either off or so dim they could barely be seen, and certainly were not lighting anything but themselves. The typically shy woman seemed almost content, she slid open the small glass door, pulled out a large muffin and started absent mindedly chewing off the top. I watched her with a kind of awe and disgust. I couldn’t work out if she was brave or so stupid she couldn’t see the danger.
No one knew what was going on. While we were speculating as to what might happen something had actually happened. Something we didn’t expect. And we missed it. A town seemingly abandoned and running at half power. The hunt consumed near everything, but the few of us and the dim lights left over. The old man and his steel wool beard suggested that it was to keep the people safe, move them out of harm’s way, and then to slow down the murderers by cutting power. Most nodded and seemed to agree with this logic. I chose not to offer my thoughts. The shy woman had finished the top of her muffin and had started on the top of another. She resembled a squirrel, holding the oversized thing in both hands and taking quick but tiny bites. She couldn’t have been hungry, but somehow she didn’t look nervous, if anything she looked bored.
The group was talking strategy. There was a police station, but it was about five blocks away. Someone had a car but all of us would not fit, and then a car might draw attention. The talk suggested that they might have multiplied by now, who knows how many there actually were, two was only the minimum possibility. When I stepped away they were discussing silent running while ducking and avoiding capture. I had to know what she was thinking. I walked over to her and looked at one of the remaining muffins. It worked and she leaned over and whispered to me, “Go for it, no one will know you took one.” I smiled back. I was going to argue that plenty of people would know I took one but instead I just took one and started eating the top off, just like her. I stood next to her, facing the same direction. I could see the rest of us still forming a plan and through the door window, across the street, the bank with its flag pole slowly flapping in the light wind. I guess she saw where I was looking. In another whisper she told me, “Keep looking, right there. You will see it.”
The group wanted to leave now. Suddenly it was very important to be out of here. Between their shoulders, as they explained the plan to me I kept looking at the flag pole. There was an excitement, a heat from their voices, they had prepared and were ready to execute. Telling and re-telling the plan, each part, the way to go, the way to run; they were imagining each step and living it as if already gone, breathing heavy and racing through the danger that could be anywhere while invisible. Just as I felt I couldn’t merely nod along with them anymore, that I would have to shift my view, I saw it. There was a dull orange light in a cone shape, moving slowly beyond the pole, inside the large glass windows of the bank. Without looking my hand reached out and I grabbed the shy woman and said, “Is that it? Was that?” I kept my eyes fixed on the light until it passed from view. I knew she couldn’t have seen it through the forest of wild people in front of us, but she said, “Yes.”
The group missed it all. They didn’t even notice our exchange, they had no idea because their plan was ready. I squished my remaining muffin in my hand and said “Let’s go!” as intensely as I could. The group responded and reciprocated with stifled cheers and scary facial expressions of commitment. I motioned for them to go forward and we all ducked and silently left the diner. Unaware of the plan I followed behind as we crossed away from the bank. It was hard not to look. We stuck close to the buildings and zigzagged through the streets and buildings. I had no idea where we were. We saw no lights and no people. Every home and business we passed felt abandoned, but recently enough that the seats were still warm. Just stepping into one of these places could start a new life, to walk into the now empty space and pick up where someone left off. At times, usually for only a moment, all the uncertainty shifted into a sense of possibility and the excitement from squishing muffins felt very real. I wanted to be everywhere again. And I started to lag behind, my motivation to run was less intense than I had portrayed it to be. I looked behind to see the shy woman close by with two muffins, one in each hand, both without tops.
I had only just thought of stopping when we all heard a loud crash, something like a metal trash bin being crushed slowly, the sound of it seemed to echo for longer than is possible and our terrified expression ran out before it did. Everyone was frozen during the sound and then after all moved faster to make up the lost ground. We raced through the shadows of buildings and trees, and sometimes across the un-lit streets, all following whoever was in front. When my legs grew weary I noticed similar shadows, the unique shapes in the small amount of light left to us. When next the group turned a corner, at the very corner I stopped, spun around and caught her in my arms. They went on, I could hear that, all those little feet. When I looked down I saw her muffin crumb covered face as if for the first time, slowly I let her go and whispered, “Let’s go back.”
Now I followed her. She was a dark shape moving swiftly, following the same kind of route, through the shadows, hugging the corners. I recognized some of the scenery, we had just been here and there. I knew they were still out there, the group and maybe the killers too, some dogs and police as well. I savored our escape, expecting it to be cut off around any corner. I didn’t know this little city, out in nowhere, it seemed like an island, disconnected, that it was in fact a joke, that someone threw a dart at a map and as a prank started building, just to see if anyone would show up. And somehow we did. It didn’t matter to some, why they were where. The father, the mother, on this place, they stopped here and stayed and then staying felt right and so we all remain. I wasn’t from here, just happened to still be around. I the constant visitor, always about to leave. I wasn’t a tourist, more a gawker, a pair of eyeballs with no lids on some legs, always wandering around, staring at things. I could list, on my list of abilities, staring, looking at things was a past time, and it passed my time. We were moving.
I stood up and stopped running. I looked and spotted the flag up on its pole, still waving slowly. I caught her by the shoulder before she rounded another corner and stood her up next to me. I told her I liked her muffins and she blushed, even in the dark I could see. I asked her if she wanted to go to the bank or get more muffins from the diner. She told me that the muffins weren’t hers, that she didn’t make them. I told her I didn’t care and we walked towards the bank together.
The front door was locked, and so we knocked. First she did and then I tried it. The orange light appeared, and then pointed right at us. A figure walked forward and hesitated, looking at us a long while. Finally she knocked again and the figure moved, pushed the door open and we walked inside. We followed the light as there was no other. We snaked our way around silent desks and computers, moving further in. One of the screens still had a screen-saver running on it. I almost laughed, and pointed at it in the dark but they didn’t see me. It was just three colorful balls, bouncing at the edges of the screen in predictable patterns, over and over. It was hypnotic. I found myself transfixed watching it, until I heard what sounded to me like a draw bridge opening and slamming into the ground. I turned to see the vault, a giant silver metal box with a sort of steering wheel stuck to the front door, a door that looked two feet thick. For all its size, up close it still looked like aluminum, everything I knew about ostentatious over-size packaging made me think that inside were some packing peanuts and empty space. A bank had to have tall ceilings, excessive amounts of stone facade, a projection of power; but hiding a desktop computer decades out of date. A very bright light shown from inside the vault as I approached. I stopped at the threshold and saw inside another figure and my Muffin stuffing paper money into lots of identical duffle bags. I didn’t turn my head once. I just watched. I couldn’t let them think I was looking for a way out, and I was tired of running myself.
Muffin kept looking at me and smiling, she seemed very happy with me, but I wasn’t doing anything, just standing and stuck, unable to think of any move to make. Plus my legs were tired. They had to be the killers but there was no hurry here, no fear or excitement, just some people stuffing money in some bags. There was a flat ordinary calm. After her last bag was full and zipped shut Muffin stood next to me, my shoes just outside the vault, and hers just inside. She leaned over, covered her mouth and whispered to me: “See, after you left I circled back around and joined you. We’ve been together for so long now. I felt your breath on my hip, you held me the same way each time.” She paused and lifted a bag onto each shoulder and turned to leave. “I’m the body.” She smiled with delight. “I’m not dead.” And she made a cartoonish dead face at me.
I don’t know what my face did. If it was possible to have every expression all at once that’s what happened. And so I did the only thing that presented itself to me. I picked up bags of money, felt the weight bare down on my shoulders and slowly turned around to follow them out. We made a pile of bags at the base of the flag pole and then waited for the van. Some minutes went by, then maybe five or more. It was nice out there, in the slight breeze and the low light, nothing challenged it and I felt a focus that was rare. I knew where I was, at the flag pole, standing and nothing more. Her voice was more than a whisper this time, but she spoke quietly and only to me. She said, “I starved myself for two weeks. To be the body. That’s why I wanted those muffin tops so bad. I used to have one. A muffin top.” Her smile was huge.
I helped load the money bags into the van. I slid the side door closed and stood on the sidewalk in front of the bank. She leaned so far out the passenger’s side window, she was more out than in, and she whispered at me: “Don’t worry, no one knows anything. I’ll come back.” She looked like the happiest person I’d ever seen. I could think of nothing to say and waved goodbye. After she squirmed her way back inside the van, it drove away and the diner was in front of me. I walked across and went inside. The cushions on the booths were not comfortable, lumpy and hard and cold; but I laid down and fell to sleep. Everything seemed finished.