I sat on the grass by the side of the road, alone. I had one bar of service, if I held the phone just right, and I used it to call the boys I'd worked with at New River Academy. I don't know what I expected, but to hear those big, handsome boys breaking down and sobbing was horrible. In real life, they're callous and caustic and funny. I remember there were black flies circling me and I waved one hand around my face and used the other to hold the phone against my ear. Matt's voice on the other end was deep and cracking as he told me the details of the drowning.
Drowning is an absolute nightmare.
That night I told the girls about Stephen. They looked very serious and then asked if they could play with my hair. Naya went around and sat behind me and started pulling my hair almost aggressively into a braid. I held my breath and the parade of bad images in my head came to a halt.
There was a girl at New River, Taylor, this tiny girl, an unbelievable kayaker with no fear. She could always tell when I had a migraine at school and would come stand behind me and play with my hair. It sounds like a small thing, but it's more than that. It's an instinct, an instinct to reach out and touch someone who is in pain, and very soon after those teenage years that instinct seems to go away.
The next day we went into the Whites, a mountain range that never fails to administer an ass kicking like none other. Last year Liz and I hung on a rock face and watched helplessly as her backpack -with the food and the tent and all her gear- went bouncing over the cliff and into the densely forested oblivion. Eleven years ago in the deep winter, I nearly froze to death there, lost overnight in the Pemigewasset wilderness, and was sentenced to a wheel chair for six weeks with burnt, black feet.
I watched every step those girls took. Lightning, rain, rocks, creeks, whatever, I bared my teeth at anything I thought could cause harm. On the second day we went through the Mahoosick Notch, the most difficult mile of the Appalachian trail. It took us five hours to get through that one single mile. It's a very narrow pass littered with boulders the size of swimming pools that you have to crawl under, squeeze through and scramble up. By the time it got dark we were still fighting through it.
That night, our tents set precariously between trees on the side of the trail. There were cuts to clean and sprained knees to fix and half of them got bloody noses, which meant they were more than a little anxious.
I fell hard asleep that night and fluttered into one of the darkest dreams of my life. I was standing on the banks of the Payette with Will and we had found Stephen's body. I was insisting that I go to it and take him out of the water but Will wouldn't let me. He kept saying, "It won't look like Stephen." But I ran down anyway and pulled the body into my lap and said "It's him. You see? I can recognize his teeth." I was thrashing in my sleep and I broke my tent. I woke up halfway when the poles cracked and the nylon split down the middle. In the morning, they found me like this:
That next day it rained and rained. We were up on the ridge above treeline, walking up and down and up and down over mountain tops as it poured down. Liz and I pushed food on the girls and forced them to unpack and put on every layer they'd brought. We fought off Hypothermia with sticks.
Again we got into camp past dark. It was Liz's birthday and the girls tried to make brownies in a pan on the stove. The brownies were inedible. You could roll them into a ball inside your hand and bounce them on the tent platform. The next morning, someone knocked a pot of boiling water onto Lydia. Lydia made no noise as she stood there, glassy eyed, the boiling water soaking into her socks and boots. Liz jumped up and tore them off of her and poured cold water onto her skin. I dug through the dwindling med kit for the gel packs and burn ointments. I bent over Lydia and watched as blisters sprang up clear and yellow around her ankle. "Hey Liz," I said, "Let's get out of here."
We hiked out that day, the fourth day, and I hitched a ride from a truck full of old people back to where we'd left the van. The old people had tattoos and big, wobbling arms and were out for a joyride. They pulled over when they saw me loping down the dirt road and a woman leaned out and said, "Come on it. It's okay honey, there are ladies in here."
On the way back to town, I kept looking back at the girls in the rear view mirror. Sun-beaten, dirty, worn out. "You girls have a good time?" I asked, and they all screamed at once that yes they had. That hike was the coolest- the hardest- they were interrupting each other- never thought I could do it- can't wait to tell my friends about it- don't want to do it again but so happy-
In the middle of it I got a message on my phone. It said that Stephen's parents had flown out to Idaho but his body still hadn't been found. I found it sad to think that he was still under water.