“Searching for Dad” Chapter 1

Chapter One – What Are Friends For?

Joe Astore picked up the small round hardball, gripped it in his right hand. He wrapped the handball gloved fingers around the ball making the ball momentarily disappear. He wiped the sweat away from his eyes with his left forearm. He stood in the right server’s box and took a glance over his left shoulder at Tony DelPetri and said, “Game point.”

Joe bounced the ball twice, took a deep breath, then dropped the ball and simultaneously twisted his body, brought his extended right arm up and back. His eyes never left the ball. To Joe, the ball traveled in slow motion. His body torqued, his hips began to shift forward and his arm followed. His knees began bending lower and his hips were almost parallel with the front wall when his sweeping right arm and gloved hand made contact with the ball six inches off the handball court floor. The small ball flew off his hand toward the front court wall ricochetting deep into the right corner of the court.

Tony, who positioned himself in the left-hand side of the backcourt to return Joe’s serve, followed the speeding ball. He move his feet and shifted his body to his left to position himself to catch the ball coming off the back wall return it to the front wall. Tony watched the ball careen off the back wall and quickly ricochet off the side wall sending it out of his reach.

Joe didn’t look back. He knew he made an ace when he hit the serve. He said, “Game.”
Joe peeled off his glove, walked to retrieve the ball, and then turned to see Tony staring at him. “What?” said Joe.

“I almost had you this time. I pushed you to game point. Either I’m really improving or you have something bothering you. My guess is something is eating at you. Want to stop for a beer and talk about it?” said Tony.

Joe picked up his towel, wiped the sweat off his face and neck, ran his hand through his wavy black hair, and said, “I don’t think you have enough time.”

Tony stared at his friend. The usually optimistic, kick ass attitude that was normally Joe’s persona, was gone. Tony said, “I’ll call Paula and tell her you and I are going out for pizza and a beer. She’ll understand. We can go to DiMarco’s grab a booth, order a pizza and a couple of beers. Don’t say a word. I won’t take no for an answer. We’re friends. What are friends for if they’re not there when needed.”

Joe turned toward Tony, “I appreciate it, Tony. You can’t help me this time. I’m working though some stuff only I can work through.”

Tony said, “Humor me. Go to dinner with me. If you don’t want to talk, you don’t have to talk. Fair enough?”

Joe gave his friend a half smile and said, “Okay. Let’s hit the shower and sauna.”
The two friends left the handball court and walked silently to the men’s locker room.

They sat in the sauna, their towels wrapped around their waists. Joe’s eyes were closed. Tony watched him, saw the beads of sweat running off Joe’s face and dripping off his chin. Joe never gave Tony an opportunity to start talking.

When Joe opened his eyes, he said, “Let’s shower. The sauna always relaxes me. I’ll be ready for pizza and a beer. It might be good for me to air it out.”

Thirty minutes later, Joe and Tony were in a booth at DiMarco’s. Sliced hot Italian bread and a small dish with olive oil and spices sat on the table. Joe swirled a piece of bread in the olive oil, smiled at the oil’s golden hue on his bread and then took a bite.

Tony took a pull on his beer and watched his friend. When Joe swallowed his food, Tony said, “Well?”

Joe was moving the remainder of his piece of bread in the olive oil. He swirled it through the oil and into the spices. He pulled it out and placed it in his mouth. He chewed it, swallowed, then pick up his bottle and took a drink. He looked at his friend Joe and said,

“I’ll keep it short and sweet. Last night Marie and I broke up.”

Tony said, “What? You guys are engaged to get married. You were, are the perfect couple. What happened?”

Joe held up his hand, traffic cop style, “That’s not all. I quit my job. I’m done as of five o’clock today.”

Tony jumped in with both feet. He said, “This better be good. Are you dying? Tell me you’re not dying? You’re not going off on some missionary work and living a celibate lifestyle? You’re making six figures in your job. You’re on the fast track to great things.

Why are you throwing your life away?”

“You sound like Marie,” said Joe. He took another pull on his beer, set it down to the side of the table to make room for the pizza that was on it’s way. “You really want to know why all this happened?”

Tony said, “Yes.”


Courage My Friends, Courage ~ Poem by Phan Thanh gian

Courage My Friends, Courage

by Phan Thanh gian

My friends, have faith and courage!
Their walls may be nine metres thick and twice as tall,
But your pure heart will overcome them effortlessly.

My compatriots, go forth and seek the truth.
As their arrows may descend upon you like the autumn rain,
But count on pervasive justice to shield you from harm

My dear brothers, be strong and persevere…
Their ruthless ruse may wreak momentary violent destruction
But your peace loving soul will be forever remembered

Chapter 5 ~ She’s a Natural

Love to Run ~ A Story of Two Sisters

Chapter 5 ~ She’s A Natural

Coach Kappa parked on Lawson Street, a short distance from the bridge. She got out of her car and walked to where she had a view of the river trail, but remained unseen by anyone on the trail. She looked west toward the running trail on the East side of the river. Coach Kappa saw three bicycle riders, riding single file on the west side of the river. The second and third riders were drafting of the the lead rider. Coach Kappa thought they were trying for a PR. She saw a woman walking a Brittany on the east toward the direction she expected to see Lisa. The Brittany was tugging at the leash and pulling the woman onto the grass. Two early morning joggers came into view, they were running at easy pace talking with each other. They skirted around the woman with the Brittany.
Coach Kappa waited. Five minutes later, she caught sight of Lisa. Coach Kappa looked at her watch, smiled and then looked back to Lisa. It was a bit over a mile from where Lisa entered the trail to where Coach Kappa spotted her. She studied Lisa’s form. Lisa was running effortless, her arms swinging in perfect form and rhythm. If Coach Kappa didn’t know the difference, she would have thought she was looking at a shorter version of Nicole. Coach Kappa had a gut feeling Lisa was a natural. Her job was to help Lisa reach her potential.
Lisa didn’t see Coach Kappa watching her. Everything changed for Lisa after Coach showed her the text message from Nicole. She felt something inside her change when she left Coach Kappa and headed toward the river trail. She remembered her first three strides on the river trail where she repeated Nicole’s words, ‘Make me proud.’ She kept repeating the words with each stride. It wasn’t long before she forgot about Nicole leaving for college and only thought of running to make Nicole proud of her. She couldn’t wait to text Nicole and tell her about her run.
The Lawson Avenue bridge was the half-way mark where Lisa left the river trail and began her loop toward home. When she reached the bridge, she bounded up the steps, two at a time, to the road. She turned left on Lawson and headed for the high school athletic fields a mile and half away.
Coach Kappa anticipated Lisa’s route, it was Nicole’s favorite early morning run. She often told Coach Kappa about it. Coach Kappa got in her car, and drove over to Maple Street, just down from the entrance to the faculty parking lot, but with a good view of the athletic field. She got out of her car and walked a short distance to where she could get a view of where she expected Lisa to come out of the high school athletic fields and head home. It wasn’t long before Coach Kappa saw Law come through the far gate near the softball field and begin her run around the perimeter of the field.
Coach Kappa watched Lisa glide along on the back side of the field following the fenced in boundary. Lisa came up the west side of the field behind the football stands and passed through the gate near the teachers’ parking lot behind the high school. She crossed through the parking lot, and took a right onto the high school driveway. She turned out of the driveway onto Maple Street. Coach Kappa stood next to a large maple tree on the opposite side of the road out of Lisa’s view. When Coach Kappa caught sight of Lisa, she looked at her watch and absentmindedly nodded approvingly.

Chapter 33 – Doing It Our Way ~ The Conclusion

Chapter 33 – A Secret Revealed

Grace stepped out of the hospital room into the corridor when asked to by the nurse. Jane was standing outside the door. “How is he, Grace?” she asked.
“They’re cleaning Brad. He’s still unconscious. They’re trying to get his body temperature up. He made Matt wear the space blanket and he gave Matt the last bit of food and water. Matt wouldn’t have made if it wasn’t for Brad. And, now, I don’t know if Brad will make it. He’s listed in critical condition.”
“He’s strong, Grace. He’ll make it,” said Jane.
“He’s been out for two days, Jane. The doctors don’t know when or if he’ll regain consciousness, they said it’s unpredictable. I want to stay here for a few more days. I know Larry has to get back to work and you have things to do. I’ll be okay. I’d send Matt back with you, but he’s adamant about staying here. He’s even willing to skip basketball camp and you know how much he loves basketball. He went to the cafeteria to get a bite to eat.”
Jane looked at Grace, “Are you taking care of yourself? When was the last decent meal you’ve eaten?”
“Jane, I couldn’t hold anything down even if you force fed me. My stomach feels like its still in the middle of that storm.”
“You’ve got to eat. What will Matt do if you end up in the room next to Brad? Please, Grace,” begged Jane.
Grace took a deep breath, “I know you’re right. I promise I will eat something tonight.”
“I’m going down to the cafeteria now and I’ll bring you something to eat. I will stay with you until you finish every bite,” said Jane.
“You’re treating me like a child, Jane.”
Jane didn’t answer. She gave Grace a hug, turned and headed for the elevators. The nurse walked out of the room. She nodded to Grace and said, “You can go in now. He’s clean and resting.”
Jane walked into the room and stood by the side of the bed. She bent over and kissed Brad’s forehead, and told him thank you for saving Matt’s life. It was a ritual she performed each time she entered the room. She sat down in the chair next to the bed and placed her right hand on top of Brad’s left hand. It was the same chair Grace slept in the past two nights.
Grace felt exhausted. Her eyelids felt as if they had ten pound weights pulling them down. She started to close her eyes and she forced them back open. Once her head bobbed when she dozed and she pulled it straight up. The harder she fought sleep, the harder it became for her to stay awake. Her right leg twitched and her head bobbed. Maybe if I close my eyes for a moment until Jane comes back with my food. I won’t sleep, I’ll just close them and relax. It won’t be long, she thought. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.
Grace’s subconscious didn’t allow her to slip into non REM sleep, the deep sleep stage where the body begins to repair itself. She remained in the REM stage where dreams most frequently occur. Grace found herself on Indian Trail, Brad was lost, she had to find him. She looked at a hand drawn map Matt gave her. She came to the fork in the trail leading to the summit or further up Indian Trail. She heard Brad’s voice, “Over hear. I’m over hear.”
She looked around. She didn’t see him, “Brad where are you? Where are you? I don’t see you.”
“I’m here. I’m right here.”
Grace left the trail and ran through the thick underbrush, falling, hollering, “I’m coming, Brad. I’ll find you.”
Grace suddenly woke up, only she and Brad were in the room. She looked at Brad and said, “I had a nightmare, Brad. I dreamed you were lost and you were calling me. I couldn’t find you. It was horrible.”
Grace felt Brad’s hand move, he moved it out from under her hand and placed his hand on top of her hand and squeezed. Grace stood up, “Brad, Brad can you hear me?” She felt another squeeze on her hand. She bent over and kissed his forehead.
“I won’t leave you, Brad. I’ll be right here when you open your eyes. I promise,” said Grace, tears were rolling down her cheeks.
Brad rolled his head toward Grace and opened his eyes, barely audible, he mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
“You’re awake. Thank God, you’re awake. Oh, God, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
A small smile formed on Brad’s lips. He whispered, “I have to talk to you.”
“It can wait, Brad. You rest. We will have plenty of time to talk.”
Brad shook his head, “No. I need to talk now.” He squeezed her hand again.
“Okay, Brad. But, please don’t wear yourself out, Matt and I want you back.”
Brad managed another smile. He said, “My wallet?”
Grace opened the drawer on the small dresser next to his bed. Brad’s brown leather wallet was sitting among a few other personal effects. She picked it up and wondered about the wallet. The leather was soft and worn. It looked like it had been hand crafted and had carried it for years. She turned and faced him. “I have it.”
Brad said, “Open it.”
Grace laid the open wallet flat across her lap. “It’s open, Brad.”
“In the sleeve on right side, reach in and pull out,” Brad’s voice becoming weary.
Grace reached into the sleeve on the right and there was nothing there. She realized she was confusing her right hand with Brad’s right hand. She placed her fingers in the other sleeve and pulled out three items. She didn’t look at them, she said, “I have three things, what do you want me to do?”
“The photo, look at the photo.”
Grace moved an insurance card off the top, then a roadside assistance card, and then she came to the photo and gasped, “That’s, that’s Matt. Where did you get it?”
Brad’s turned his head slightly towards Grace’s voice. He struggled to keep his eyes open, “When I was deployed. They needed a fourth person for a dangerous mission, I volunteered. I only knew the other three by first names, that’s all. It started out well, we met with a native of the region who was supposed to help us. He set us up. Two of our group were killed in an ambush, one was wounded badly. I wasn’t hit. I carried the wounded soldier for two miles and scaled a cliff to escape. A helicopter came in to rescue us. The soldier’s name was Mike. That’s all I knew. He was in bad shape. The medics were working furiously on him. One of the medics looked at me and shook his head. Miked grabbed hold of my hand, he asked me to reach into his shirt pocket. I did. I pulled out this photo. He asked me to find his boy and mother and make sure they were okay. He died in my arms.
I didn’t recognize Matt at first and how many Mike’s are there in the service? I was telling you the truth when I said I didn’t know Mike. Later, after I passed the football with Matt, something about him started nagging at me. I couldn’t put it together. It wasn’t until after we swam that I looked in my wallet and pulled out the photo. I knew. I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
Brad closed his eyes. He held Grace’s hand tight. He breathed deeply, then he said, “Mike was a lucky man. You’re a special woman and Matt’s a special boy. When I get out of here, I’d like to know you both better.”
Grace’s face was streaked with tears. She whispered, “Yes, Brad. We want to know you better, too. I’d like nothing better.”



Chapter 31 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 31 ~ The Storm Strikes

Grace and Jane were in the ranger station standing in front of the counter. Ranger Stone was behind the counter on the phone speaking with the search and rescue team. Grace only heard one side of the conversation.
Ranger Stone said, “The boy’s mother got a text, we were searching in the wrong areas. Apparently, the boy went up Indian Trail. Can you do a quick search before the cold front?”
Ranger Stone paused, he turned toward Grace and shook his head. He spoke into the phone, “I know the weather bureau changed its forecast from a warning to a watch. There are several super cells associated with the storm. We need to get them out of there before it hits. Is there anything you can do?”
“They have to try. Can’t they make a helicopter sweep before the storm hits?” Grace begged. Jane had her arm around Grace’s shoulder.
Ranger Stone nodded to Grace letting her know he heard her, but his attention was on listening to the search and rescue commander. He kept nodding his head. He finally spoke, “I understand. I’ll explain everything. Thanks for your help.”
Ranger Stone turned to Grace, “They can’t go. It’s too dangerous, the winds have already picked up and their swirling creating dangerous updrafts. The Search and Rescue commander said they’d go as soon as the storm passed. He estimated they might get a chance to make a sweep of Indian Trail before sundown.”
Grace felt her knees starting to shake. She squeezed her eyes shut tight. If she wanted to say anything to Ranger Stone, she couldn’t. Her jaws closed so tight, the jaws of life couldn’t pry them apart.
Jane held onto Grace. She said, “Brad’s strong. He’s been through tougher things, you know that. He’ll survive and he’ll come back with Matt. I know he will.”
Grace opened her eyes and turned her head toward Jane and gave her a half smile, her eyes filled with tears. Grace and Jane embraced. When they finished, Grace looked at Ranger Stone and said, “Is it okay if we stay here with you?”
Ranger Stone nodded and said, “The storms should pass through within the next 90 minutes. The weather bureau is now saying that tornados are possible. We have a shelter at the campground. We need to go there before the storm hits.”
Jane said, “Let’s get Larry. He probably doesn’t know.”
Grace and Jane left the ranger station and headed to Jane’s cabin. Grace turned toward the west and saw the black wall off in the distance coming toward them. She tugged on Jane’s arm, “I’m scared, Jane. I’m really scared.”
Jane said, “Me too. Let’s hurry, we need to take shelter.”
_ _ _ _
Brad found the trail and started to follow it. The rain pelted Brad as if he were being hit with rocks. He ran on, his chin tilted down, his eyes on the trail. The trail turned into a series of switchbacks. New streams seemingly emerging from nowhere suddenly appeared and cascaded down the mountainside oblivious to the switchbacks. Brad stumbled, fell forward, bracing his fall with his hands. He turned slightly over his shoulder, “You okay, Matt?”
“Yes sir. I can run. It will be easier for you,” said Matt.
“You stay right there, hang on tight. The path is getting more and more slippery.”
“Brad, what’s it mean when the sky starts to turn green? I’ve never seen a sky like this one,” said Matt, his voice shaking.”
Brad didn’t mince words, “It’s tornado weather. We’ve got to find shelter, fast.”
A flash of white lightening struck a pine thirty feet from where Brad and Matt stood toppling the top half of the tree. Matt screamed. Brad kept running, his eyes darting searching for any kind of shelter. He spotted a large set of rocks, placed one on top of the other through some cosmic design millions of years earlier. He went off trail and headed for the rock formation.
When Brad reached the rocks, he said, “Get off me, Matt. Lie face down on the ground as close to the rocks as you can get. Rest your head on your arms so you can breathe.”
“What are you going to do, Brad?”
“I’m going to cover you with the space blanket and I’ll be on top of you. Can you hold my weight?”
“Why do you have lie on top of me, Brad?” asked Matt.
“No questions now, do as I say,” said Brad with urgency in his voice, the winds were gusting to nearly seventy miles an hour. Brad cast a wary eye toward the trees nearby and their bending branches. A lightening bolt struck another large pine close by splintering it in two. Brad felt Matt shudder at the deafening thunder that followed the lightening strike.

Chapter 27 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 27 ~ Will Brad Find Matt Before The Cold Front Arrives?

Brad studied the area around the mountain lion’s kill. He slowly walked in the concentric circles with the deer carcass being the center of the circles. He made each circle three feet further away than the last circle. It was almost as if he were an anthropologist looking for signs of a lost civilization. He was meticulous in his scouring the area for any clue that might lead him to Matt.
He took the large machete-like knife from its holster and began swishing at the thick underbrush. He worked hard, his shirt now soaked with perspiration. Brad continually wiped away sweat droplets from his brow with his forearm. He worked for an hour and had not seen a trace of Matt. He felt his blood sugar level hovering near the warning signal. He stopped his search and spotted a large cropping of rocks and made his way to it. He climbed on top of the cropping, opened his backpack, took out a protein energy bar and one of his water bottles. Brad closed his eyes, quieted his mind, said a prayerful thanks for the bar and water and that Matt would safely return.
Brad opened his eyes, and tore open the protein bar wrapper. The sun was now at an angle where it seemed almost parallel to the tree tops. Brad knew it wouldn’t be long before the sun dipped down behind the mountains and he would be surrounded in total darkness. As much as he wanted to continue his search, he knew that ignoring the natural ebb and flow of the day in the forest could end in disaster. Even though it was still sunny, Brad knew sun quickly set in the mountains. One moment it is blazing bright and the next it slips below the mountain peaks laughing at hikers who thought they knew the ways of the sun. Brad knew the ways of the sun, he became its friend in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. He stilled his mind and thought now of searching for shelter, he knew he needed a good night’s sleep if he was to have any hope of finding Matt before the cold front hit.
Brad estimated the sun would set within forty-five minutes. He finished his protein bar, folded the wrapper and slipped the wrapper into his backpack. He flipped open the top of the water bottle, placed the tip of the bottle into his open mouth, and he squeezed the bottle. A thick stream of water quickly filled his mouth. Brad took enough liquid to hydrate his body, then capped the water bottle and slid it into his backpack. He stretched and slowly pivoted around. His mind repeatedly saying, ‘Where are you, Matt? Give me a sign.”
He made three-fourths of a complete turn when he stopped. He stooped to one knee and peered over the edge of the rock. He jumped off the rock, landing on both feet and walked ten yards away from the rock formation. He stopped and bent down and picked up three pieces of an orange peel not yet completely dried out. He placed the peels in his backpack, stood up and caught the dancing light of the last rays of the sun.
Brad walked back to the rock outcropping. He had fifteen minutes before it was pitch black. He quickly scavenged for kindling and some pieces of firewood. He used his machete to hack at dead branches of fallen trees. He scurried around grasping at dead grasses to act as starter fuel for the kindling. He placed the kindling on top of the dead grasses in a small circle, and put two larger pieces of dead wood on top of the kindling. He opened his backpack and pulled out his waterproof matches. He struck a match and lit the dead grass. He bent low over the flames from the dead grass and blew on it to provide oxygen to fuel its igniting of the kindling. The kindling began to glow red, then suddenly burst into flames engulfing the two larges pieces of firewood.
He raised himself tall on the rock outcropping, cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered, “Matt! Matt! Matt!”
There was no return call, only the echo of his voice. Brad squatted in front of the fire and placed his hands over the top of the fire. The heat from the fire felt good against the night’s chill. He wondered how Matt was handling the chill. Fortunately, the temperature wouldn’t go below freezing tonight. He expected it bottom out at relatively mild 60 degrees. Matt would get chilly, but hypothermia was not an issue, tonight. Once the cold front came through with the pouring rain and chilly temperatures, hypothermia became both Matt and his greatest enemy.
Brad reached into his backpack for his space blanket. He pulled it out and his extension cell phone caught his eye. He took a deep breath, he remembered he hadn’t text Grace his cell number. He type in her number from memory and hit send. Within seconds the message came back with the big red exclamation mark and message, message not delivered. Hit try again. He hit try again, and again the same message. He turned the phone off to save the battery and slid the phone into the backpack. Brad placed two more pieces of wood on the fire and lied down on top of the waterproof space blanket. He did not want his body to be chilled by the rocks. He placed his machete within arms reach. He closed his eyes and began to breath deeply. Within minutes he was sound asleep. A pair of large green eyes stared at him from thirty feet away.

Chapter 26 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 26 ~ Friends Count When The Going Is Tough

After Brad disappeared into the forest, Grace began knocking on cabin doors. She counted forty-seven cabins. She and Brad already spoke to Jane about Matt, and if she discounted her cabin and Brad’s cabin that left forty-four cabins. After having no answer to first five cabins, she decided to go back to the Ranger station and find out which cabins had occupants.
Grace jogged over to the Ranger station. Ranger Stone was at the counter, he looked up at Grace, and said, “Any word? Where’s your friend?”
Grace shook her head, “Brad went into the forest to search for Matt. I wanted to know …”
Before Grace could finish, the ranger interrupted Grace, “Your friend Brad has made the problem worse. If your son is missing, we’ll have two people wandering around in a national forest where nature doesn’t take prisoners. One mistake and it is often the final mistake. It takes lots of training to survive in this country. Everybody thinks they can watch a reality show and survive under the conditions you find out here, most of them don’t. That’s the sad part. Do you have any way of contacting him before it’s too late?”
Grace fixed a glare on the ranger, “Brad can take care of himself, he was with the 82nd Airborne.”
“Ma’am. That may be the case and he may have survival skills. Was he aware of the cold front coming in here tomorrow bringing torrential rain, potentially large hail, and significant lightening? That’s frightful for even the most experienced woodsman. He may be a former 82nd Airborne soldier, but unless he is prepared for this kind of weather, he’ll have a tough time of it if he doesn’t return. Please try to contact him and have him return. I promise you, I will be in this office at dawn and if Matt has not returned, I will put everything in motion to start the search ASAP. I’ve already alerted all the key people to be ready to go at dawn if they get they call.”
Grace was taken aback. She thought the ranger was an obstructionist, and now knew he was on her side and was doing everything within his power to help. She said, “Thank you, Ranger Stone. I really appreciate your help.”
Grace lifted her cell phone, she checked her text messages. There was none from Brad. He forgot to text her his extension service cell phone number. She looked up at the Ranger, “Brad works for the extension service. He was going to use their cell because it has better service. He forgot to text me the number. I don’t know how to get in touch with him. He’ll be okay. I know he will.”
The ranger took a deep breath, he waited a moment, “Is there anything else I can do for you ma’am?”
“Yes, can you tell me which cabins are occupied? I want to ask them if they saw Matt after we left.”
There are only three cabins occupied this weekend, ma’am because of the trails being closed due to the mountain lion and black bear scare. We posted it on our website. That’s where all the reservations are made.”
Grace felt a panic attack coming on, she remembered Brad’s advice to her to focus on what she can do not on what ifs. She looked at the ranger, “What can I do to help?”
“Whatever you do, don’t go looking for either of them. Stay with your friends. You need support. I promised you I will be here at dawn. Stay inside a cabin tonight, it’s quite common to have wildlife come into the campground at night scavenging for food.”
Grace nodded, she knew the ranger was right. At the moment, she couldn’t stand the sight of Jane. She didn’t want anything to do with her. All Jane thought about was Jane, a voice in Grace’s head said.
Grace looked at the ranger said, “Thank you, Ranger Stone.” She turned and walked out of the ranger station.
Grace walked slowly back toward her cabin. She passed Jane and Larry’s cabin. The door was closed. She smelled wood from the burning fireplace behind their cabin. She heard no sounds. She assumed they ate and were sitting in the cabin relaxing. Grace reached her cabin, walked up the few steps to the small porch, and placed a hand on the door nob. She took a long look to where Brad entered the forest, said a silent memorized prayer twisted the door nob pulled the door open. She stopped when she heard …
“Grace? Grace? Wait a minute, please?”
She turned and saw Jane running toward her. Jane was wearing jeans and Texas Women’s University sweatshirt. Jane stopped at the foot of the stairs. She looked up at Grace, “Grace, I’m sorry. I was a jerk. I made a fool of myself. I hurt the best friend I had in the world. Please forgive me. And, have you heard anything about Matt? I want to help. I really do.”
Grace paused for a moment, let go of the door nob, and hurried down the steps. Jane and she embraced. The stayed that way for minutes.
When they broke the embrace, Jane wiped tears from her cheeks, and said, “Look at us? No, don’t look at us. We’re a sight. Do you forgive me, Grace?”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Jane. It’s already forgotten. The ranger told me he’ll organize a search at dawn. You can bet I’ll be in his face at the first peak of sun. Brad went after Matt. The ranger said Brad’s in severe danger because a big cold front with torrential rains, hail and dangerous lightening is coming in tomorrow afternoon. I’m scared for Matt and Brad, Jane.”
Jane squeezed Grace’s hand, “Stay with Larry and me. We’ll all go to ranger station at dawn.”
“I’d like that, Jane,” said Grace.

Chapter 25 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 25 ~ Brad Races Against Time to Find Matt

Five minutes later, Brad came out of his cabin, he wore a gray zipper hoodie, lightweight waterproof hiking shoes and dark lightweight stretch pants with zippers at the knees to convert the pants to shorts. He carried a backpack in his right hand. He stopped by his pickup truck, opened the tailgate, and climbed in the truck bed. He slid a key into a lock on a large metal chest that was fixed against the cab. He took the lock off the hinge and opened the metal chest. Brad followed a simple principle he learned from a friend in 82nd Airborne. His friend called it the survival triangle. He knew if the weather turned bad, you could die in three hours, you could survive three days without water, and if you were lucky enough to have good weather and water you could survive three weeks without food.
He set his backpack down and picked his extension service cell phone out of the chest. He turned it on and checked the weather forecast for Big Elk State Park with the U.S. Government Weather Service. The first thing he saw was a red alert highlighted on the website. A cold front was pushing down from the northwest and was expected to hit Big Elk around five the next afternoon. The temperature was going to drop from 70 degrees F to 53 degrees F. The temperature drop didn’t bother Brad as much as the forecast for violent thunder storms and torrential rains causing flash flooding in mountain areas.
Brad moved a few items around in the chest and took a personal locator beacon known as a PLB. When activated, the PLB could signal a satellite even if there was no cell phone service. Brad picked out a space blanket, a first aid kit, a large, machete-like knife he strapped to his belt, water proof matches, a signal mirror, nylon braided line, high protein energy bars, and three liter water bottles.
Brad strapped the backpack shut and slung it over his shoulders. He closed the metal chest and placed the lock back on it. He jumped down from the rear of the cab and lifted tail gate back into place. He turned toward Grace’s cabin, and waved. He started jogging west around the lake following the path where earlier he and Matt ran.
Grace was standing in the doorway, she returned Brad’s wave. She didn’t say anything. She watched Brad jog until he slowed to a walk when he reached the edge of the lake and the forest. He stopped and faced the lake. He closed his eyes and quieted his mind shutting out all sounds. Grace wanted to scream at Brad to do something. She forced herself to push her anxiety away. She watched and waited.
What seemed an eternity to Grace was no more than two minutes. Brad opened his eyes and ran parallel to the lake until he reached the trailhead a hundred and fifty yards ahead. When Brad reached the trailhead, he noticed the sign warning of mountain lions and black bears. He looked at the ground for some sign Matt had come this way. There were several footprints in the ground. He didn’t pay any attention to Matt’s running shoes and the prints they’d leave. The footprints were not help. He ducked under the metal pole and turned back toward the cabin where Grace still stood, arms folded across her chest watching.
Brad stepped back three paces and looked toward the cabin. Again, he closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. He walked to the metal pole guarding the trail, bent over and saw a tiny piece of cloth, from a white t-shirt clinging to a metal barb on the pole. The same color t-shirt Matt was wearing when Grace and he left for the coffee shop. He pulled the small piece of cloth off the barb and tucked it in his pocket. He glanced at the sign again, Indian Trail. He turned and headed up the trail.
Brad kept a steady jogging pace. His eyes constantly searching for more evidence of Matt. The trail continued to wind and climb until Brad came to a fork in the path and a sign pointing one way to Strong Summit and the other to the continuation of Indian trail. He walked a dozen feet toward Strong Summit, turned around and returned to the sign. He walked further up Indian Trail. Ten feet up the trail, he stopped and picked up a small branch, it was snapped in two holding together by the strands of its bark. He held the small branch in his hands and stared up Indian Trail. He dropped the branch and began to jog up the trail.
Brad scrambled up a rocky slope looking more like an orangutan than a human. When he got to the top of the slope, he again broke into a jog. He stopped suddenly when he saw a deer carcass off to his right. Most of the deer was consumed. He knew it was a relatively fresh kill otherwise smaller animals would have cleaned the carcass and left only the bones. He stopped and studied the ground. He found the path the mountain lion dragged the deer across the trail. Brad thought it was unusual for the mountain lion to drop his prey where he found it instead of taking it to his lair. He wondered if the mountain lion’s attention was drawn elsewhere.

Chapter 20 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 20 ~ Grace Was Speechless

Grace emptied her handbag searching for lipstick, lip gloss or anything to make herself look a bit more attractive. She found a tube of hand cream, a tampon, her cell phone, a package of gum, rosary beads, a prayer card, a wallet with her ATM and credit cards and photos of Mike, Matt, and her parents. She sighed, “I don’t even have a mirror.”
Grace’s thoughts were interrupted by Matt, “Mom, I don’t feel like going. I think I’ll stay in the cabin for a little while. You don’t mind, do you?”
Grace was working on her hair with her fingers, she had no comb and brush. I remembered Matt’s favorite socks and I forgot my brush. Forget about asking Jane, she said to herself.
She called to Matt, “That’s fine Matt. Did you bring your hair brush?”
Matt called back, “Why? Did you forget how short my hair is?”
Grace rolled her eyes. Matt’s blond hair couldn’t be more than a half inch high, if. She decided to go with her old reliable. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail. She pressed her loose-fitting white t-shirt against her flat stomach and tucked it loosely into her jeans. She looked in the mirror, not too bad, Brad will know I’m low-maintenance, natural, and approachable. For the first time, she felt comfortable and a surge of confidence flowed through her.
“Mom, you look great,” said Matt standing in the doorway.
Grace turned, “How long have you been watching me, Matthew?”
“I just got here. I wanted to tell you something,” said Matt.
Here we go, thought Grace. I wonder what objection Matt has now. She said, “What is it, Matt?”
“I’m okay with you dating Brad. He’s really a cool guy. When you guys come back, he’s going to work with me on my jump shot.”
Grace was speechless. She tried to think of something to say. She wanted to say thank you. She wanted to hug Matt. Instead, she blurted out, “You sure you don’t want to come along? You can talk sports with Brad.”
The second she said it, she said to herself, “Are you crazy?”
Matt smiled, “No, Mom. You and Brad need some time away from me. I’m all set. I’ll see you when you get back.”
Grace walked over to Matt, and hugged him and kissed him on the top of his head, then said, “Thank you, Matt.
Matt shrugged, and pulled away. “It’s not a big deal. There’s nothing for me to do at a coffee shop, anyway. Besides, the park has Wifi for the cabins.” Matt turned and went to his cot, he climbed on his cot, lied down, picked up his tablet, and turned his tablet on.
Grace had her handbag over her shoulder took a quick glance at Matt, then walked out of the cabin. Brad was standing up against the side of his pickup truck.
“Where’s Matt?” said Brad.
“He said he didn’t want to go. He’ll be okay. Jane and Larry are in the next cabin. He has his cell. He was looking at his tablet.”
Grace walked around the pickup to the passenger’s side. She stopped and looked at Brad who was staring at her cabin. “What’s wrong, Brad?” she asked.
“Nothing’s wrong. You sure Matt is going to lie on his cot all the while we’re gone?” said Brad.
“He must be exhausted. He went running and swimming and he wants to play basketball with you when we return.”
“I’ve only known Matt for a few hours, I don’t think he’ll stay on his cot, he’s all boy,” said Brad.
“He’ll be fine,” said Grace reaching for the door handle.
Brad turned and said, “Let me get the door for you.”
Grace nearly fell over. Even Mike never opened her door. What kind of man is Brad, she asked herself. Her heart started beating a bit faster.
Brad closed her door, Grace fastened her seatbelt, and Brad returned to the driver’s side. He got in, fastened his seatbelt and started the engine. He turned toward her, and said, “It’s only a ten minute ride. You have a nice natural look. It’s a good look. Thank you.”
Grace felt like crying, she was so happy.
Brad shifted from park into drive and pulled out.
Matt stood in the cabin doorway, not visible to either Brad or Grace. He watched the pickup drive past the registration and ranger’s office and head toward the park entrance. He turned, walked to his cot, opened his backpack, checked to see if he had two water bottles, an orange and the knife his dad gave him three years ago.

Chapter 19 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 19 ~ Two Gray Hairs and a Modest Bathing Suit

Grace stood in front of the bathroom mirror staring at the image. Her first thought was this is how my grandmother dressed to go swimming. She wore a modest one piece bathing dark blue bathing suit. She took a deep breath and looked at her auburn brown hair, She didn’t notice the deep richness of her hair, instead she saw only two hairs, both gray, just off the center of her forehead. She played with them, tucking them under, then restyling her hair. “Oh hell, I’m not going to pull them. If Brad doesn’t like them, too bad.”
She looked at her face. It was still there, all the cream in the world wasn’t going to make the tiny line next to her right eye disappear. She wore no makeup. Her eyes moved to her figure. She gave a small smile, and thought, I may be small but they’re real.
Why is Jane competing with me? She’s married. She’s taking her flirting too far. Why did she set me up with Brad, if this was her plan? Maybe that was it. They only way she could get to be with Brad and make a play for him was to use me as a pretext. No, Jane wouldn’t do that, would she? Grace started to feel faint. She sat on the toilet and began deep breathing. She knew she had to get herself under control.
Five minutes of deep breathing and Grace began to feel better. She stood up and faced the mirror. She stared at her reflection in the mirror and said, “You look, girl. This is who you are. If Brad doesn’t like who you are then too bad. You are not going to be something you’re not. You are who you are. Now go out there and ignore Jane. You were a lifeguard, give Jane and Brad and good thrashing.”
Grace suddenly felt a deep sense of peace come over her. She didn’t have to compete with anyone. And, she wouldn’t be caught dead in a fringe bikini. She laughed at her jealousy or was it envy toward Jane. She wasn’t quite sure. Jane was everything she wasn’t. Jane was self assured, outgoing, flirtatious, adventurous, and didn’t have a care in the world.
“You and Matt are all you got, girl. Toughen up, that’s what Mike would tell you if he were here. Oh God, I wish he was here with Matt and me,” Grace said out loud to no one.
Grace walked to the cabin door, opened it and looked toward the lake. Jane was still there. Now Jane was standing, facing toward the east with her arms outstretched welcoming the sun. Grace wondered how long Jane could hold that pose. She didn’t have to wait long.
She caught a glimpse of Brad and Matt sprinting toward the lake. Oh, oh, she thought, they’re going to dive right in and start swimming for the raft. No head start, not on my watch, she said to herself. Grace took off for the water, Brad and Matt were already ten yards in front of her.
When Brad and Matt were five yards from the water, Brad called out, “Race is on.”
Brad and Matt ran full speed into the water. Once they were waist deep they dove in and began swimming the fifty yards to the raft. Jane dropped her arms, pivoted and ran into the water. Grace was the last one in. She didn’t care. When the water touched her thighs, she dove and began swimming.
Grace’s body was perfectly parallel to the bottom of the lake and her strokes were long and powerful. She looked like a shark cutting through the water. She caught a quick glimpse of Jane thrashing through the water. Grace glided by Jane as if Jane were floating. She paid no attention to Brad and Matt. Grace knew Matt was a good swimmer. If it wasn’t for summer basketball league, he would have been on the swim team. The swim coach pleaded with her to change Matt’s mind.
Grace caught Brad and Matt ten yards from the raft, when she turned her head to breath, she caught a smile from Brad. She gave her last bit of effort, and touched the raft. She placed her hand on the raft and turned. Brad touched it, followed quickly by Matt. Jane was halfway across plodding along. Grace, Matt, and Brad climbed on the raft.
“Looks like I’ll be getting a free coffee, said Grace.
“Mom, Brad let you win. Didn’t you, Brad?” said Matt.
“Your mom beat me fair and square. She’s a very good swimmer. Did you swim competitively, Grace?” said Matt.
Before Grace could answer, Jane screamed from lake, “Brad, I think I have a cramp in my thigh. Help me. Please help me.” Jane was waving her hand frantically.
Before Grace could react, Brad was in the water. He was not playing around, he cut through water like a heated knife through a stick of butter. Grace realized Brad took it easy on Matt and her. She didn’t think Jane was in any trouble. She’d seen Jane swim laps in a pool. She wasn’t a great swimmer, but she wasn’t afraid of the water and knew how handle herself in case of trouble.
Grace watched the muscles on Brad’s back and shoulders gracefully rising and falling with each stroke. His kick was effortless. He quickly reached Jane. He swam behind her and slid his arms under Jane’s arms, reached across her chest and grabbed hold of her shoulders and began to swim the sidestroke toward the raft.
When he reached the raft, Brad placed his hand on the raft and said, “Jane, you’re safe. I’m going to let you go. Grab hold of Grace’s hand. She’ll help pull you onto the raft.”
Grace reached down and grabbed Jane’s hand. Jane gave her smile like a rattlesnake waiting to strike gives its prey. Grace gave Jane’s arm a good yank.
Jane yelped, “Owe, Grace. Watch it. That hurt.”
“I’m sorry, Jane. I didn’t realize my strength,” said Grace.
Jane rolled onto the raft, lifted herself to her knees, and turned her face into a grotesque look of pain as she struggled to get to her feet. Grace thought Jane was auditioning for a part in an upcoming movie. It was an Oscar worthy performance.
“How do you feel, Jane?” said Brad.
Jane put her arms around Brad’s neck and clung to him, she sobbed, “I was going to drown and you saved me. What can I ever do to repay you?”
Grace felt like sticking her finger down her throat. Instead, she watched the scene play out.
Brad plied Jane off of him and said, “Jane, you’re too weak to swim back to shore with us. I’ll have Larry take a canoe and come and get you. Grace and Matt and I will be in the coffee shop if you feel up to joining us.”
Grace said, “That’s a good idea Brad. Jane is worn out fighting her leg cramps. You need to relax or take a nap, Jane. You’re not a spring chicken anymore.”
If eyes were a licensed weapon, Jane would be charged with manslaughter one and Grace would be the victim.
Matt said, “The race is on to the shore.” He leaped off the raft and headed toward shore.