Four: A Compilation of Short Stories by Four Authors
Splintered Shadows by Ashley Williams
Lori Keasling gripped her flashlight and pressed deeper into the darkness. Another gust of wind slashed through the pine trees, snapping her windbreaker in the air and whirring its sick sound across the water. Her eyes tore away from the river and lifted to the sky, to the framework of aspens that sat like a serrated blade against the low, yellow moon. Something frightened her about the way the moon looked tonight, like a sick flashlight that would soon flicker out.
I’m here, Murphy. I’m coming.
Lori’s jeans brushed faintly against a berry bush, awakening her to realize that she was falling behind the search team. “Murphy!” She called out his name again and listened. They were all calling out his name—Sheriff Jeremy Cooper, his two deputies, and search and rescue volunteers Kurt Asherby and Tim Douglas.
Another burst of wind. Another drone of pain through the thick blackness. She numbly sensed the thin material flutter wildly against her cold skin. The windbreaker Murphy had bought her.
Lori couldn’t breathe in this place, couldn’t think of anything but that name.
She tipped her flashlight a little higher, noting how that small difference elongated the shadows from the rock-strewn terrain near the river. Rain began to drizzle lightly against the surface of the water. She took in a lungful of the moist air and lowered her flashlight beam to touch where the sagging weeds and water met. The very places Murphy might have been standing while fishing earlier this evening.
“Murphy!” The rock face was steeper here, forming a vertical bank against the river. She steadied her flashlight below. So many crevices in the rocks. So many places to fall and not be seen.
A quiet step. Then another.
Lori sucked in the frigid air and turned. Deputy Morrison was facing her, the beam from his flashlight crossing hers on the ground. “Ma’am, be careful. We have experienced guys who’ve already checked that location.”
“I’m sorry. I just thought…”
What had she thought?
The wrinkles on the deputy’s face became accentuated from the light below. “Team’s moving south.” He said that last sentence with a slight toss of his head, willing her to go.
Lori squeezed her flashlight, wanting to go and yet yearning to stay. “You checked it good?” Her words dropped off somewhere in the wind. She was shaking now, cold.
“Yes, ma’am.” He turned to go, then paused. “You said your husband never ventured past Lower Mesa Falls, is that correct? Not past the base, at least?”
She nodded, the streaks of rain on her jeans chilling her suddenly. “That’s what he told me.”
“Did he ever head past the Upper Falls at all?”
Lori started toward the others slowly. “No. He used to park on the dirt road near the campground, but now he uses the overlook.” She steadied her footing against the uneven terrain and let her eyes wander to the moon again. It looked paler now. “I don’t really know if he wandered a lot while fishing or if he stayed in one spot.”
“I understand.” Deputy Morrison stayed close her side as he ran the information again through his mind, hoping that this time something would click. Instead, everything became more frazzled with the ever-increasing roar of the falls and the knowledge that, according to Tim Douglas of Fremont County’s Search and Rescue, they still had roughly six-hundred meters left of ground between their current location and Lower Mesa Falls. That, coupled with the fact that the ground was turning dangerously slick, he doubted very seriously that any fisherman would have wanted to venture this far.
Lori focused blindly in the direction of the crashing falls. The lodgepole pines were heavily concentrated here, forming a sort of giant encasing that held the thick mist in its clutches. Ahead, the veins of light were searching both sides of the trail. She let her eyes wander across the uniforms of Fremont County’s Sheriff’s Department. Wander and stray as she struggled to piece together the hope that had fragmented the moment she had first realized something was wrong. Murphy had never stayed out this late fishing. He was always home when night fell.
Except this time.
“Murphy!” Whooshing, surging pain as another gust of air violently stirred the tree limbs. Dark strands of hair tore loose from her ponytail and brushed across her neck. Sent another chill down her spine.
Somewhere ahead, the falls roared loader. The terrain was worsening the farther they hiked, becoming practically impossible in most areas. “Murphy, please!”
He should have answered. Even if he were hurt somewhere, Lori knew that Murphy would have made every effort to stay conscious.
Sheriff Jeremy Cooper came to a halt, swung his flashlight across the ground, then traced with his eyes the rain-slicked rocks that lay just within his cone of light.
“Basalt’s too dangerous when wet,” Kurt commented, stepping beside him. “Going any farther is too much of a risk in this rain.”
The sheriff measured out the silence. “Yeah.”
“We could get back on Highway 47 and work our way backwards from the Lower Mesa Falls overlook. Use the campground access she was referring to.”
“He parked near the Upper Falls though.” Sheriff Cooper took another long stare at the sunken rocks with its network of shadows and underlying warnings. The heavy circulation of night air through his lungs told him his body was wearing out, but not so severe that he feared he was falling out of shape. “Would he have really ventured this far? The guy had a bum leg.”
Kurt shrugged, the muscles in his face visibly stiff.
“Maybe we should think about accessing the other side of the river in case he used a drift boat to—”
He shook his head. “Already covered that. Lori said her husband never used a float. Wasn’t afraid to get his jeans wet, so he just waded right in without all the fancy stuff.”
“Even though his leg was bad?”
Kurt just shrugged again.
“So…fly fishing, then?”
“Yeah. Which means if we don’t find him after the initial sweep…” His eyes studied the black currents and its glassy tips dancing in the moonlight, wondering and yet not wanting to know. Not yet, though it’s not like it hadn’t happened before. Rain beaded down his face and as he finished his sentence in a low, controlled voice. “Then we search the river. It’s your call.”
Sheriff Cooper turned toward the rest of the search team, rubbed the rain off the face of his watch, and double-checked the time. Nearly half past midnight. “We have no choice but to postpone the search until morning. The rain’s getting heavier. Too much of a risk at this point.”
Lori scanned the darkness and breathed slowly. He was out here somewhere, maybe hurt. Maybe worse.
No, not worse.
“I’ll radio in additional search and rescue to be here at the crack of dawn, along with a helicopter. By that time, we’ll have additional equipment and can thoroughly search the canyon.” Sheriff Cooper sidestepped a broken tree limb and made his way to Lori. “We’ll find him,” he said, low enough for it to be just their conversation.
Lori nodded, though something inside her disagreed. She stared up at the rim of the canyon one last time. Thunder groaned behind the veil of clouds, the moon like the eye of a starved monster.
She turned to follow the team back down the rugged terrain where their vehicles and blankets were waiting.