“It was my uncle’s voice, but …”
She had repeated the words several times, never finishing, but they waited patiently. Some of the story—well, some of the backstory—they had pieced together over the years. They shared an extensive common history, the group did. Full of bravado, they called themselves the Nighthawks after the Hopper painting. They had grown up together, gotten drunk together, loved together (oh yes!); but then there were the bits and pieces that came trailing along, the beforehand bits. One of them involved Laura’s misadventure in the Owyhee Desert when she was little—misadventure for her, bad business for her uncle, who had left the family party to look for the lost girl, never to return, although the lost girl herself wandered back a while later clutching the lizard she had been chasing.
She blamed herself a little, couldn’t help it. Who wouldn’t? Yet the uncle was an experienced hunter and hiker, if not quite a mountain man. It was bizarre. The search parties—there were a lot of those—eventually wore themselves out, concluded that he had fallen down a crevasse—and there were a lot of those too. Anyway, that was the backstory, that and the fact that Laura returned, by herself, every year to the scene of the, well, event. Every anniversary. Okay. But this year had been different.
“It was my uncle’s voice …”
They waited, watching her carefully. The fire crackled.
“It was my uncle’s voice, but his face—” She screamed and they jumped up to hold her. She was shaking, couldn’t stop. But then she pushed them all away, sat back down, scooted back closer to the fireplace and told her story.
+ + +
She had driven into the mountains, per the usual routine, to the very spot where the family had parked their station wagon that year. Just over the rise by the creek. She knew the place perfectly well, but the routine helped keep the experience at bay for the rest of the year. This time she was a little late, the shadows were stretching out over the hummocks and down the gullies, and a cold breeze had sprung up, but that didn’t matter, did it? She never stayed long, just hiked around a bit, sat for a time on one boulder or another, stared at the creek.
She didn’t expect anything, just knew she had to complete the routine and then drive back and meet up with the group for the rest of the evening. She was alone, but she was a tough girl, and smart—always kept a little canister of pepper spray on her key chain. Was fiddling with the chain, in fact, twirling it around her index finger and watching a solitary bird sailing across the sky, when she heard someone calling her name, stretching it out into long syllables. Lau-ra. Lau-uu-ra. Kept calling. Lau-uu-ra—from … somewhere. The voice was familiar.
To make a long story short, and she desperately wanted to do that, the figure of a man eventually appeared over the top of the rise on the other side of the creek, striding along, looking this way and that, calling. For an instant she thought of the other Nighthawks, the only people left in this life who would know she was there, right there, right then. But no, of course not, the voice was wrong, wasn’t it? Plus he was approaching from the wrong way, there was nothing over there, no place to park, just a hundred miles of nothing. Desert. But there he was, still striding toward her and calling. Lau-uu-ra.
The rest happened all at once. Just as she recognized the voice, the sun, low in the sky now, broke through the clouds and shone on the man’s face.
+ + +
She screamed again, remembering the face, and they held her again.
“It was him, looking for me!” Sitting back down. “But his face—” Took a breath. “This is the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me. Things like this don’t happen to anybody, not really. God, I must have driven here like a sonofabitch. Give me another beer please.”
“Okay, I’ll say it. It was my uncle, he was looking for me, the way he must have been looking for me twenty years ago, it can’t be but it is. Was. I don’t know what to do.” She drank again. “I don’t know what to do. What if he’d—?” Drank again. “I have to be careful or I’m going to be sick.”
She took a deep breath, did indeed feel more than a little sick. It might help to be sick, might be just what the doctor ordered, ha ha. She turned in her chair, started to get up, felt self-conscious but at the same time knew that she had never loved them so much, the Nighthawks, all of them together, loved them all. They’d help get this straight, whatever it was, help her understand. She started to smile, looked up at the faces she loved, and—
“No, NO, NO! NOT YOU TOO! NOT YOU TOO! What’s going—”
She tried to break free but they were holding her again, not tightly, just holding her, holding her up, as if she’d understand if they held her long enough, but she wouldn’t, she wouldn’t, she wouldn’t, not ever.
“Nighthawks” was published most recently in Hauntings from the Snake River Plain. Ed. Bonnie Dodge, Dixie Thomas Reale, and Patricia Santos Marcantonio. Twin Falls, Idaho: River St. P, 2014.
Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure, Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal, and former Assistant Editor of Art Patron.