It's difficult to imagine the sang froid with which you can walk a dry creek bed looking for the body of someone you love, until you actually do it. The three of us who'd grown up here knew we'd have to go to this spot. It's wild, untravelled, overgrown, and close enough to her house that someone could have made it here with her unseen after midnight in the first hours of Sunday. We hike down the embankment from the river road into the ravine. I'm drawn to look under the bridge. The others begin walking the other way, toward the preserve.
It's hot and humid in this river valley town. Our clothes are drenched with sweat. The walk is slippery and the rocks wobble where the last of the water has collected. Here and there the stream pops into being, babbles over broken rock, fills a pool deep enough to swim. The ghost shadows of minnows race up and back along the last of the flow.
As we walk, we all look down at the gravel, sand and flat rock that line the nameless creek. Our conversation, before we split up, consists of deciding which direction looks like the more obvious way you'd drag a body or force someone to walk who is possibly barefoot. We look for bent grass and weeds, broken branches, anything that could indicate human passage along the creek bed, and into the woods on either side. I find a bootprint, and can recognize from the pattern that it's got a Vibram sole. My sister and my husband continue in the other direction, my brother, my niece, my son and I walk past the bridge, toward the river we already know has been searched by helicopter and on foot.
Suddenly there's a man standing near us. Are you guys looking for something? And then he says, is this about that girl who's missing? I'm from out of state, but I read about it. Yes, I tell him, we're family members. He says he's sorry, can't imagine what we're going through, the usual things people say when your life looks like hell from the outside. I check his boots to make sure they're not Vibram soles. He says he's writing a book about this little lick of water, that it used to be the mill race for a nearby town. He says he is rewriting the history of this area. It sounds so silly when he says it. But I'm sure to him it's a big deal. He's following this part of it back to the river, and walks on downstream, disappearing around a bend.
None of us cry, but we don't shout her name either. If she's here she probably can't hear us. We are looking for things we think she was wearing when she disappeared. A grey t shirt. A gold engagement ring. A red cellphone. And there's a grey t shirt tangled in the hanging roots of a tree. I take a photo of it, but it looks as if it washed into the roots during a storm. And I hope it's been there for longer than five days. Then my brother says, "What color was her cellphone?" And we all turn. There in the wet sand, he's probing at a red cellphone. We call my sister. She thinks it had some kind of lanyard or fob hanging off it, like a kid would have. That's how Kate was, nothing left unpersonalized. But it's not the right kind of cellphone. We photograph its location, then my brother picks it up to bring to the police station after we're done.
My son finds an abandoned camp site, with clothes and burn marks, but there's moss growing on the clothes. She's only been missing for a few days. He heads back down to the creek bed, but I step a little deeper into the woods, and find a trail. Ahead, there are branches hanging down and dying weeds that prove no one's walked this way in months, so I turn and hike back a ways toward the road and bridge, just in case. There's nothing. My family has moved down toward the river.
It feels odd to be alone in this abandoned place. I try calling out to the others and only my son responds-- by texting me to ask if I had said something. He and my brother and niece are at the river already. The historian has found some more bootprints, pointed them out, and then headed back. I never even heard him pass, from a few feet up the bank. When we meet at the cars, we plot out the next place to look, walking along the overgrown stretches, making sure there are no new breaks in the brush that would indicate someone might have been tossed back there recently. Then we drive back to clean up, because there's a vigil at a local church for her later tonight. And after that, we turn on the local news, and we're on every channel.