Chapter 24 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 24 ~ I’ll Be Strong

Brad and Grace stood in front of the rustic, log building in front of them. a sign post n front said, Ranger Station. An olive colored four wheel drive was parked on the side of the building. A symbol on the side read, “US Forestry Service. Brad assumed the four-wheel drive belonged to the Ranger. He walked up to the door and didn’t bother knocking He twisted the nob and walked in. Grace followed, a half-step behind.
Brad noticed a long counter with a desk behind it. On top of the counter was a map of Big Elk State Park covered with a glass top. A series of photographs of wildlife in the park hung on the station walls. There were photos of mountain lions, coyotes, feral pigs, black bears, eagles, red tale hawks, and a variety of poisonous snakes. Off to their right stood a large rack filled with brochures and maps.
Brad called, “Hello?”
A door behind the desk opened. A thin man, a head shorter than Brad, dressed in khaki colored pants and shirts, wearing a khaki colored ball cap stepped out. On the right front pocket of his shirt was a name plate that read, Todd Stone. On the left side of his shirt in cursive were the words US Forestry Ranger. “Can I help you,” said the Ranger.
Grace spoke up, ” Matt is missing. He’s my son. You’ve got to help. I’m afraid something terrible has happened to him.”
The Ranger looked at both Brad and Grace. He said, “You’re Matt’s parents?”
Grace said, “I’m his mother, Brad’s a friend. We went to town for coffee. We invited Matt. He wanted to stay home. Brad thinks he went hiking.”
“How long has he been gone?” said the Ranger.
“I don’t know. I don’t know when he left. We were gone about two and half hours.”
The Ranger gave half a smile, “Two and a half hours isn’t much time, Ma’am. It’s not unusual for folks to be gone on hikes for six hours or more. I can’t count the number of moms who’ve come in here worrying about their teenagers who went off hiking. We’ve never lost one.”
“He’s not a teenager. He’s eleven years old,” said Grace with an edge to her voice.
Brad eyes could have burned a hole in the ranger’s skull. The ranger averted Brad’s gaze and looked directly at Grace, and said, “Could he have gone swimming? I don’t want to think something happened to him in the lake, but you never know. We have to think of all possibilities.”
“We all swam this morning. Matt is an accomplished swimmer. He would never have a problem in the water. We checked with Jane and Larry in the cabin next to mine. They came with us. They didn’t see Matt either. Can you do something, anything? Can you call a helicopter search, call for a search party, use search dogs. Do something, please,” Grace pleaded.
The ranger shrugged, gestured with his hands and give her his best hangdog expression and said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. It’s against regulations to start a search unless someone is missing for at least 12 hours. I’m required to follow policy. I understand your anxiety. I’d feel the same way if it were my son, but I can’t help you until the morning. Do you have any idea which trail he may have taken? We have four trailheads. All of them are closed right now, but it’s really easy to slip under the bar and hike the trail. Lots of folks do it.” The ranger gestures to the four trails on the map that lie on the counter.
Brad knew the ranger’s gestures were as empty as his words. He tugged on Grace’s arm and said, “Grace, let’s go. We’re not going to get anything done here. We’ll be back at dawn if Matt hasn’t returned.” Brad turned away from the ranger and headed for the door. Grace followed Brad out the door.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Grace placed her hand on Brad’s arm, “Brad, what are we going to do? I don’t want to wait until morning.”
Brad turned around. He put both of his hands on Grace’s shoulders and looked into her eyes, “I am not waiting. I’m going after him. I want you to stay here in case Matt shows up. If he doesn’t show up and I haven’t come back, go to the Ranger station at dawn and refuse to leave until they put out a search team. Take a piece of Matt’s clothes for them to give to the search dogs. I also want you to call the Sheriff’s office.”
“Do you think you’ll find him before dark, Brad?” Grace’s eyes were filled with tears.
“The only thing I’ll promise you Grace is that I won’t come back until I find Matt or you call me and tell me Matt returned safely. Please don’t leave the cabin area. I don’t want to worry about two people. I’ll give you cell number to my extension cell phone. If you can’t reach me, I’m out of cell service. I think I’ll be okay. I’ll text you number before I leave.”
Grace put her arms around Bard, and said, “Please, Brad. Please find Matt. I can’t lose him.”
Brad stepped back and placed a hand on each of her upper arms, and looked into her brown eyes, and said, “Grace, it’s time for strength. Together we can deal with whatever we have to face. Don’t allow yourself to think about what ifs, they’ll only take you down a road that is counterproductive to helping Matt. Let’s only think about what we can do right now. What I can do is to use my training to search for Matt. You can check with all the other people who are staying here. Maybe they saw Matt. If you get any information, text it to me. Don’t get into a fight with the ranger or anyone else. We have one concern only, to find Matt.”
Grace looked into Brad’s eyes, “I’ll be strong. Thank you, Brad.”
Brad, nodded, smiled, and said, “I’m making a quick stop in my cabin. I have to change. There are a few things in my truck I’ll want to take along and then I’ll be gone.”
Brad turned and ran toward his cabin. Grace stood there watching him and wondered what she would have done without him helping her. Grace closed her eyes and repeated prayers she learned as a child. Each prayer ended with a petition for Matt’s safe return.


Chapter 23 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 23 ~ Matt Confronts His Fears

Matt sat on the narrow ledge, his back pressed tight against a smooth rock wall with the colors of a beautiful sunset, red, purple, pink, and yellow etched over millions of years into its hardened surface. He was facing west and watched the sun slowly dip closer and closer to the horizon. A lone red tail hawk soared high above in the distance searching for a rabbit, squirrel, or gopher who dared venture out while there was still daylight.
Matt scooted closer to the edge. He placed his right palm flat on the ledge surface close to edge and braced himself. He leaned over far enough to peer over the edge and involuntarily shivered when he saw how close he came to falling to his death. Only a single brush growing impossibly out of a small crack in the side of a stoney edifice was all that had kept him from a fall to a sure death over five hundred feet below. He didn’t even know how he grabbed hold of the brush as he tumbled down. He turned and looked up toward where he had seen the mountain lion staring twenty feet above him. The mountain lion was gone. Matt wondered if the mountain lion was lying quietly waiting for him to fall asleep. His eyes searched for a way to climb out, but he could not see any. He looked to his right and saw the ledge narrow and gradually disappear. He looked to his left and saw the ledge continue and curve around a corner.
Panic shot through Matt’s body. He felt tears starting to form in his eyes. He fought them. He said, “Dad would tell me to be strong. Dad would tell me not to quit. Dad would tell me to use my brain, God gave it to me for a reason. He repeated these words over and over and fell into a deep sleep. It was well after midnight when Matt awoke. He was shivering. He sat up and pulled his knees close to his chest. He couldn’t stop his teeth from chattering. He thought of his mother and he thought of Brad. He wondered what they were doing. He didn’t think they were sleeping. He knew his mom wouldn’t sleep. And, Brad, he was in the 82nd airborne like his dad, he wouldn’t quit looking for him until he found him. Brad was just like his dad, you could count on him.
Matt looked up into the clear mountain sky. He spotted the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and Hercules. His dad taught him how to pick these constellations out of the summer night sky. Seeing the constellations gave Matt a boost of courage. Somehow, he knew he’d survive. He knew it deep down someplace where his dad told him courage lives in all people.
Matt closed his eyes and he soon drifted off into a deep sleep. The sound of a helicopter roused Matt from sleep. He rubbed his eyes and saw it circling off to the southwest. He stood up and began to frantically wave his arms. Matt kept waving his arms at the circling helicopter. As he did, the helicopter kept circling moving slightly further to the west away from him until it flew away.
Matt felt thirsty. He looked in his backpack and searched for the second bottle of water. It wasn’t there, he must have lost it on his fall. He knew he couldn’t stay here. If he did it was sure death. He carefully stood up. He splayed his arms out against the side of the mountain wall. The ledge was no more than three feet wide. He forced himself not to look down. He braced his back against the wall and began to slowly slide his foot to the left. He first moved his left leg, then his right leg. His steps were slow and sure. Matt knew one mistake might be his last.
Matt moved slowly along the ledge. He froze when a red tailed hawk landed ten feet away. It spread out its wings puffed its feathers and shrieked at Matt. Matt edged backwards. The hawk began to weave back and forth and hissed as it came toward Matt. Matt wanted to press himself into the stone wall and disappear. Instead, he stood as still as he could, shut his eyes, and began to count slowly. When he reached fifty, he opened his eyes. The red tailed hawk was no longer on the ledge. He scanned the sky with his eyes and way off he caught the sight of a hawk circling high above a grassy meadow. Suddenly, the hawk plunged toward the earth in rapid descent. Matt used the opportunity to edge his way back toward the place where he saw the hawk.
When Matt was at the place where the hawk landed, he heard the screeching of baby chicks. He lifted his head and scanned the side of the wall and saw ten feet above him a nest and the heads of three baby chicks peeping out. Now he knew why the hawk was so aggressive. He turned his attention back back to the ledge and continued to work his way along the stone wall. The side of the wall gradually turned and he could no longer see where he had spent the night. Matt moved along the wall for another twenty yards until the ledge seemed to disappear into the mountain forming a nearly perpendicular angle it.
Matt’s mouth dropped open. He dared look down and here the drop was as far, but rocks jutted out along the side of the mountain and Matt wondered if it were possible to climb down. He sat down on the ledge to rest and think.

Chapter 22 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 22 ~ Grace Discovers Matt Is Missing

Brad pulled his pickup truck in front of Grace’s cabin. He turned to her and said, “Grace, I really had a great time this morning. Thanks for having coffee with me.”
Grace extended her hand toward Brad, “I did as well, Brad. Now, I’m going in and find out what Matt’s been up to. He’ll say, ‘Nothing much, Mom. You know. I hung around.'”
Brad laughed and said, “Matt’s sounds a lot like me when I was his age. I’m going to change and if you don’t mind, I’ll stop by and walk over to the fireplace with you and Matt. I’ll bet Larry already has it fired up and is making a great lunch.”
“I don’t mind at all. Give me five minutes to freshen up,” Grace said. She opened the door. Stepped out of the pickup truck, grave Brad a smile, closed the door, turned and walked toward the cabin. She heard the pickup drive off the short distance to Brad’s cabin. It was only when she was at the cabin door she dared to turn back towards Brad’s cabin and watch him. Grace watched he get out of the pickup. He closed the door and raised his arms over his head and stretched. She thought he was happy and peaceful. When Brad turned toward his cabin, Grace quickly turned away and opened her cabin door. She stepped inside, she didn’t see Matt, She called, “Matt?”
Thirty seconds later, Grace swung the cabin door open and raced towards Brad’s cabin. She opened the door to the cabin, Brad was stripped down to his boxers. He looked startled to see her. Then, he sensed something was wrong, he grabbed hold of his dirty jeans and said, “Grace, what’s wrong?”
“It’s Matt. He’s not in the cabin. It’s not like him. I should have never left him alone,” said Grace. Her brown eyes wore all the marks of a coming super storm.
Brad slipped on jeans. He sat on the edge of his cot, and pulled his boots on. “We stayed a bit longer than we expected. Matt may have taken a walk around the lake. Do you have your cell? Call him,” he said.
“Why didn’t I think of that? That’s the first thing I should have tried. My cell is in my handbag. I left it in the cabin,” said Grace as she turned toward the door.
“I’ll go with you, Grace,” said Brad following her out the door, hitching up his pants, holding his boots in his right hand, and running in stocking feet behind Grace.
Grace ran to the cabin, jump up the two steps and went through the door. Her handbag was on the floor by her cot, right where she dropped it when she called for Matt.
She picked up her handbag and began to dig through it for her cell.
Brad said, “Matt left his phone on his cot.” Brad walked over to pick it up. He turned and took a step toward Grace handed it to her.
“I just know something terrible happened to him. I just know it, Brad. We’ve got to look for him,” Grace said with a sense of urgency.
Brad took hold of Grace’s hand, “Panicking is the wrong thing. We can only help him if we are calm. Remember how Matt said he wanted to go for a hike? Boys are boys and the lure of the hike may have gotten the best of him.”
“You think so, Brad? I couldn’t bear to lose Matt after losing Mike.”
“Let’s think positive. We’ll talk to Jane and Larry and see if they saw Matt. If they haven’t, we’ll go to the park ranger and get help. We’ll find Matt, don’t worry,” said Brad.
Grace felt reassured. There was something in Brad’s voice that settled her and eased the deepest fears within her.
“Give me a moment to slip my boots on and we’ll head to Jane and Larry’s cabin,” said Brad.
Grace walked over to Matt’s cot. She looked underneath it. She looked behind it. She said, “Brad, I think you’re right about Matt taking a hike. His backpack isn’t here. Do you have any idea where he might have gone?”
Brad pulled his last boot on and slipped his jeans down over the boot. He stood up and motioned toward the door. Grace followed Brad’s arm and walked out of the cabin. Brad was right behind her. He said, “When we went running this morning, I saw four trailheads. All four were temporarily closed because of the frequent sightings of black bears and mountain lions.”
“Oh God, no!” said Grace and turned around to look at Brad. Her eyes were filled with tears.
Brad gently placed his right hand on Grace’s arm and turned her toward Jane and Larry’s cabin. He said, “Animals generally stay away from humans, unless they think the human is a threat. It’s hard to predict how an animal will respond. I think Matt may be in more danger from poison oak and poison ivy than a bear or mountain lion.”
“You really think so,” said Grace.
“I do, Grace,” said Brad, knocking on the door to Jane and Larry’s cabin.
The door opened, the fringe bikini clad Jane answered, “Oh Brad, I’m so happy you came by. I’m feeling better now, thanks to you. Larry went to town to get some steaks, do you want to come in. Oh, hello, Grace.”
Brad said, “We’re not here for lunch or a social call, Jane. Matt’s missing. Did you see him after we went to the coffee shop?”
“No, matter of fact we didn’t. When Larry came to pick me up in the canoe, we decided to lay out on the raft for a while and enjoy the sun. Why? You know boys, they have a mind of their own. He’ll come home when he smells the steaks cooking.”
Grace was about to say something, when Brad said, “Thanks anyway, but we’re headed to the Ranger station.”

Chapter 21 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 21 ~ Matt Get’s Lost

Matt slung his backpack over his shoulders and opened the cabin door. He searched the campground for park rangers, He didn’t see anyone. He closed the door and headed for the trailhead. Entry to the trailhead was closed by a single metal pole gate stretching across the trail. A sign was posted to the right of the gate.

Indian Trail is Closed Until Further Notice
The Trail Is UNSAFE due to the frequent sightings
of black bears and mountain lions

Matt looked back and saw Larry paddling a canoe to the raft. Jane was frantically waving to Larry, urging him to hurry. Matt looked toward the Ranger station next to the registration house. He saw a jeep, but no Ranger. He swiftly ducked under the metal trailhead bar. He caught his shirt on a metal barb on the pole and heard it tear. He freed himself from the barb, and felt his shirt with his hand. There was a tear. He shrugged and headed up the trail.
Matt walked Twenty yards and the trail narrowed. He was swallowed up into a tall pine forest. The trail veered sharply to the right and a steep climb before turning into switchbacks. Matt stood in the middle of the first switchback and let his eyes follow the zig zagging trail up the side of the mountain. He followed the switchbacks until they ended and opened to a beautiful still deep blue lake. Matt, climbed on top of a large boulder near the edge of the lake and stared it. He’d never seen water so still. A small family of ducks were close by at the water’s edge. He heard a cacophony of frogs come to life. And, on the other side of the lake four elk were walking in single file away from the lake. Matt wished for a moment he could tell Brad and his mom about these things, but he knew, he’d be in big trouble.
Matt slid down off the boulder and followed the trail around the east end of the lake before turning back into a grove of aspen trees. He jumped when he heard rustling in the underbrush. He froze, not daring to move. When he saw a squirrel run out, Matt laughed and called to squirrel, “You won’t fool me next time.”
Matt kept his eyes on the trail looking for arrowheads, or other artifacts he might take back with him. He turned where the trail turned. He scrambled up over rocks when the trail took a short steep climb. At the top of another slope he spotted another sign. It was wooden. The words were gouged into the sign. It read:

Elevation 7,450 feet
Indian Trail – 4.1 miles to Indian Lake – >>>
<<< – Strong Summit – 12,300 feet, 5.4 miles

Matt regarded the sign, he’d never been to a mountain summit before. He calculated the distance, 10.8 miles counting the return trip. He’d have to climb nearly another 5,000 feet to reach the summit. The trail toward the summit looked like more hikers took it. It was well worn. The trail toward Indian lake was a simple narrow path that disappeared into a steep upgrade fifty yards further up the trail.
He took off his backpack, he reached into it to check the time on his iPhone. He couldn’t find it. He sighed when he remembered he left it on his cot. He was too excited when he left. He looked for the angle of the sun. It wasn’t overhead, so it was still morning. He thought of his mom and Brad. They were probably still at the coffee shop. He decided to continue up Indian Trail for a little while, then he’d turn back.
When Matt turned onto the steep upgrade, he heard the sound of an animal crying and a ferocious growling. He froze. He was sure it was a mountain lion attacking its prey. Was it a deer? A coyote? Or, some other animal the mountain lion killed, Matt wondered. He stood still and listened to the life and death struggle taking place.
He told himself he should have listened to his mom. He heard another sound of crashing through the brush. Matt panicked. He turned and ran through the brush away from the noise, His mind told him he could turn to the right and pick up the trail back to Big Elk. He ran down the slope, jumping over fallen trees. He tripped on a branch. He fell to his knees, bracing himself with his hands. He looked at his knees, both were skinned and bloody. He took off his t-shirt and wiped the blood and dirt of his skinned knees. He stuffed his t-shirt into his backpack, stood up, and continued to run down the side of the mountain.
Twenty minutes later, Matt stopped. He still hadn’t reached the trail. He looked up through the aspen trees to find the sun. He couldn’t see it. He set his backpack down, opened it, and took out a bottle of water. He drank half the bottle, put the top on and placed it back in his backpack. He glared at the lone orange and decided he’d wait to eat it.
Matt knew he’d been climbing further and further up the side of the mountain, so he figured if he couldn’t find the trail, he could walk down the side of the mountain and it would take him to the bottom right near the lake. He no longer ran, he walked on for two hours and he hadn’t crossed a trail or come to the bottom of the mountain. Twice he thought he saw places that looked familiar.
Matt knew by the shadows, it was afternoon. His thoughts were about how mad his mom was going to be. He knew he was in for it when he got back. He sat down, opened his backpack and pulled out his orange. He peeled it and ate it one section at time. He heard sounds in the thicket behind him. He reached into his backpack and pulled out the knife his dad gave him.
He set the knife down by his feet, closed up the backpack, put it on his shoulders, picked up the knife and began to walk. He gripped the knife tightly in his right hand. “Hello, hello, anybody?” he called time and again.
The only answer he received was his echo.
It wasn’t much longer before Matt yelped with joy, he was on the trail. He’d be back in time for dinner. He’d only have to say he was sorry and he was wrong and it wouldn’t happen again, he’d promise. Matt, stopped, set his backpack down, and opened it. He pulled out the half full bottle of water and drank the remainder. He put the empty bottle in his backpack and resumed walking.
Matt didn’t have a care in the world until he saw a mountain lion sixty yards ahead dragging a deer carcass across the trail. Matt froze. His eyes bulged. He’d never seen a wild, ferocious animal in the wild. He seen them in zoos. The mountain lion let go of the deer carcass, turned and stared, blood dripping from his teeth. It let out a deep low growl.
Matt knew he shouldn’t run, but that’s what he did. He couldn’t help himself. He bolted into the brush on the side of the trail and ran. He didn’t know if the mountain lion was chasing him, he wasn’t about to stop to find out. He thought he heard crashing sounds behind him.
Suddenly, Matt found himself falling over the edge of a precipice. He threw out his arms, hoping his hands could grab hold of something to stop his fall. His left hand found a bush and he grabbed hold. His descent stopped. He looked down toward his feet and saw they were hanging over the edge of a cliff. Matt twisted around and put both hands on the bush and pulled himself up to a small ledge, no more than two feet wide. Matt rolled onto the ledge and lied there, trying to catch his breath. He turned and looked above him and saw the mountain lion looking down at him.

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.

Chapter 18 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 18 ~ The Gloves Come Off In The Dating Game

A bright sun peeked through the tops of the tall pine trees sending streaks of light through its boughs. Matt was sound asleep on his cot, his Cowboys’ football blanket pulled up around his neck. Grace was standing over him watching him sleep. She saw the smile on on Matt’s face, whatever he was dreaming, it must be a happy dream, she thought. Grace was wearing a modest one-piece navy blue bathing suit. She walked to the cabin door, opened it and felt a cool breeze embrace her and took a deep breath. It felt refreshing. She looked down toward the lake and saw five deer drinking water. She glanced to her left and spotted Brad, He was wearing swimming trunks and no t-shirt. He was doing pushups. She could see the muscles on his back and arms ripple with each pushup. She stepped back, she did not want Brad to think she was staring at him.
Grace walked back into the cabin over to Matt. Matt was now on his side. She gently shook him calling, “Matt, Matt, wake up. You’re snoozing you’re losing.”
Matt rolled onto his back, and rubbed his eyes, and said, “What time is it, Mom? Did I oversleep?”
“No, you didn’t oversleep. I thought you might want to see the five deer down by the lake. And, by the way, Brad is exercising. He is doing pushups.”
Matt jumped out of bed, “Why didn’t you wake me earlier. I wanted to exercise with Brad.”
“Matt, you didn’t know Brad was going to exercise,” said Grace chasing after Matt as he ran toward the cabin door. She called, “Matt, stop. Change into your bathing trunks and put your Nike’s on.”
Matt stopped at the cabin door and hollered, “Brad, I’ll be right there to exercise with you. Wait for me.”
Brad looked up in the middle of a pushup and said, “I’ve just started. I’m going to run three miles before we go swimming. Want to run with me?”
“I’ll be there in five minutes,” called Matt.
Grace stood aside and let Matt race by him.
A moment later she heard Matt, “Mom, I need my Cowboys’ t-shirt. Where are my running shorts, you brought them, right?”
Grace said a quick prayer of thanksgiving that something told her to pack these items. She said, “Look in my suitcase. They’re in there.”
“Thanks, Mom. Tell Brad I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Mom, I can’t find my socks, you know, the socks with the Spur’s logo. Didn’t you bring them?” hollered Matt.
“They’re in the backpack with all the other socks. Don’t make a mess, Matthew!” said Grace.
“I won’t, Mom. Thanks for packing everything,” said Matt.
“You’re welcome, now hurry on. I can see Brad is waiting for you.”
Grace walked to the door to call to Brad. She opened the door, and stared toward the lake. The deer were gone, in their place was Jane by lake doing yoga in a fringe bikini. What is she trying to do? Grace felt a sudden flow of anger surge through her body.
“Excuse me, Mom,” said Matt bounding past her hitting the cabin door with his outstretched hand, and banging the door against the side of the cabin.
“Let’s go, Brad. Want to do four miles?” called Matt racing toward Brad.
Brad had a Cowboys’ t-shirt on and called over to Grace, “We’ll be gone about a half hour. We’ll go for a swim when we get back.”
Grace hollered, “I’ll be ready. We’ll all race to raft. Loser has to buy coffee in town.”
“You’re on,” said Brad as he waved and he Matt started off on their run.
Grace waited and minute and watched Jane’s eyes follow Brad up the trail. Grace decided to walk down to the lake.
When she was within speaking distance, she said, “Good morning, Jane. Isn’t it a little cool for the outfit?”
Jane was lying on a yoga mat pulling on a yoga strap and stretching her hamstring. “I must be going through the change. I feel so hot. I heard you and Matt making a bet. I’ll be finished stretching in a few minutes. I’ll join the competition if you don’t mind.”
Grace didn’t stop to think before she said, “I don’t mind competition.”

Chapter 17 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 17 ~ Grace couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.

Brad stood in front of the picnic table, smiled at Matt and Grace. He said, “Is this seat taken?”
Matt blurted out, “We saved it for you, Brad. Did you get a hamburger and veggies, too? That’s what I got.”
Brad tilted his plate toward Matt and smiled, “Looks like we like the same kind of food, Matt.”
Matt looked at Grace, “I told you so, Mom.”
Brad sat down opposite Matt and Grace. He looked at their untouched plates, “Thanks for waiting me.”
Grace smiled and said, “Do you mind joining hands with us and saying grace?”
“It’d been an honor,” said Brad.
Matt and Grace joined hands with Brad. Brad said, “Thank you Lord for this food. Thank you for the fun I had tossing footballs to Matt. And, thank you for Matt and Grace and Jane and Larry. Bless each of us and guide us on our journey. Amen.”
Matt had no sooner blessed himself with the sign of the cross when he said, “Brad, tell Mom how you blew out your knee in the OU game.”
“I think your Mom might not be as interested as you, Matt. My knee’s okay now, that’s what counts. Let me start from the beginning. I’m Brad Silva. I work for the State’s extension service, so I’m out in the field working with farmers, ranchers, and that kind of thing.I love the outdoors. I don’t think I could stand being cooped up in an office. As far as my knee goes, I partially tore my ACL in a football game. That’s what Matt refers to blowing out my knee.”
“He didn’t tell the coaches he injured his knee until after the game, Mom. They beat OU that year,” said Matt.
“It would have been wiser for me to tell the coaches how bad it hurt right away, Matt. I think I made the injury much more worse than it actually was and that’s what caused my football career to be shortened. It didn’t stop me from serving four years in the Army. Everything works out in the end. I’m happy with my life. What about you, Grace. What do you do?”
Grace stared at Brad. He served in the Army, I wonder if he met Mike? “Huh? My mind wandered for a second. Do you mind repeating your question?” said Grace apologetically.
Before Brad could speak, Matt interrupted, “My dad was in the Army. He was Ranger. He was with the 82nd Airborne. He was a captain when he was killed.”
Grace put her hand on Matts forearm, “I’m sure Brad doesn’t want to hear the story. He was asking me a question, remember your manners.”
“Sorry, Mom. I just got excited, that’s all,” said Matt.
“Brad smiled. I understand how you feel. I’ve never been associated with a better group of people in my life than when I was with the 82nd.”
Grace was fighting an emotional storm. She needed some help and needed it quick or she was going to start crying. She tried to think of something else, her mind kept Mike fresh in front of her eyes. Grace said, “I need a Perrier. I’ll be right back. Anyone else want anything?”
Before Brad could offer to get Grace her Perrier, she stepped away from the picnic table and headed toward the cooler. The tears began to flow, she couldn’t stop them if she tried. Grace didn’t sob, it was the damn tears, they had a mind of their own flowed whenever they wanted to flow. She was nearly at the cooler when she heard Brad’s voice.
“Grace, it’s okay. Don’t run away from it.”
Brad was standing five feet behind her. Grace turned and said, “I’m sorry. Sometimes it just happens.”
“Jane told me your story. I understand. I didn’t know Mike and I’m pretty sure our paths didn’t cross. If they did, it wasn’t in a formal way.” Brad stepped closer to Grace and put his arms around her shoulder the way a friend would console another friend.
Grace turned and rested her head on his chest and let the tears flow. The storm vanished almost as soon as it started. Grace pushed away from Brad and said, “I must look a sight. It’s a good thing I don’t wear makeup, I probably look like someone out of a horror or sci fi movie anyway.”
“Let’s get that Perrier and enjoy our meals with Matt,” said Brad.
They walked to the cooler as friends would walk. Grace said, “My full name is Grace Conti. Mike and I were married ten years when he was killed in action. I was never told exactly where or how, but he received the Silver Star posthumously. I still cry. I probably will never forget Mike. I work as a 911 dispatcher during the week. It’s Matt and me against the world. We’re doing it our way. That’s my story.”
Brad didn’t say anything. They walked quietly back to the picnic table. Matt was nearly through eating his hamburger when they returned. He looked up at Grace and Brad and said, “Did you see the sign at the entrance? It said beware of black bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and feral hogs. I’ve only seen them on TV. Can we go for a hike tomorrow, maybe we’ll spot a bear or a mountain lion?”
“That’s your mom’s decision, not mine,” said Brad.
“There’s enough to do around camp. We can swim, canoe and go fishing. Besides, I didn’t take my hiking shoes,” said Grace.
“Can I go, Mom. I’m not afraid. I won’t go far, promise,” said Matt.
“Matthew,” said Grace.
“Okay, Mom,” said Matt.

Chapter 16 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 16 ~  Is Jane Flirting with Brad?

Larry and Brad built a large fire in an outdoor fireplace behind the cabins. Brad must have thought he picked up a second shadow with Matt staying as close to him as his skin. Matt fired sports question after sports question at Brad. And, Brad fired back answers just as quickly. They talked about football. They talked about baseball. And, they talked about Matt’s favorite, basketball.
Grace and Jane sat in their chairs watching the three work around the fire. Grace joined Jane and had a bottle of beer. She sipped it slowly. She nudged Jane, “I have not seen Matt so animated in three years. He is happy for the first time. I’m jealous. I haven’t been able to get alone with Brad for one minute. Matt is by his side talking sports to him. To me, talking about sports is like listening to a foreign language. I can seek Brad likes Matt. Do you think Brad has any interest in me?”
“We’ve got the whole weekend, girlfriend. Don’t rush things. Let them unfold naturally. Let Matt continue his great selling job. Brad will have to think it took a great mother to raise such a great kid. The matchmaker queen knows these things. I know how to manipulate the perfect ending. Put yourself in my capable hands,” said Jane raising her bottle to Grace. They clinked bottles and laughed.
Thirty minutes later, Larry called out, “Dinner’s ready, girls. Bring your paper plates and appetites. The three amigos have hamburgers, steaks, fresh trout, and grilled veggies waiting for you.”
Matt was first in line. Grace was next to him. And, Jane followed Grace. Larry was relishing his role as top chef. Brad had the duty of serving food to the three.
Matt held out his plate, “I’ll take two hamburgers and some veggies, Brad.”
“I grilled them just the way you ordered, Matt. If you have any complaints give them to Larry,” said Brad. Everyone laughed.
After his plate was filled, Matt turned to Grace and said, “Mom, let’s sit over at that picnic table. I asked Brad to join us. Is that okay?”
Grace said, “I’d like that a lot, Matt. Thank you for inviting Brad to join us.”
Jane discretely jabbed Grace in the back with her index finger. Before Grace could say another word, Brad said, “Let me guess, trout and veggies? Am I close or out in left field?”
I think Brad is using a sports metaphor. I’m not sure. I don’t want to ask. I’ll ask Matt later, she thought. Grace smiled, “You were reading my mind, Brad. Thanks,” said Grace as she extended her plate toward him.
Grace followed Matt to the picnic table. They set their plates down and sat together on the side of the picnic table facing the fireplace. Grace watched Jane. She was still at the grill talking with Brad. Grace couldn’t tell, but it seemed to her that Jane might be flirting with Brad. Then, she thought, it couldn’t be happening, Larry is right there with them and he looks as happy as a clam in mud, whatever that means. She couldn’t see Brad’s face, Jane was obscuring the view.
Matt interrupted Grace’s thinking, “Mom, did you know Brad played football at UT until he blew out his knee? He might have made the pros. He played tight end. I bet he would have better than the Gronk. What do you think?”
Gronk? Who is the Gronk? I never heard of the Gronk? Is he science fiction? Grace kept watching Jane and said, “Much better. Much better, Matt.”
“That’s exactly what I thought, Mom. Tomorrow, Brad said if there was time he is going to show me how to shoot a jump shot. He said there is a hoop in the parking lot behind the park headquarters. Do you want to come and watch us?” said Matt getting ready to take a big bite out of his burger.
Grace’s hand went on Matt’s arm. “Let’s see what tomorrow brings. In the meantime, wait for Brad to join us so we can say grace together. He’ll be here in a minute, he’s putting food on his plate.”
“I bet Brad’s eating the same as me, Mom,” said Matt.
Grace glanced at Matt and smiled, then she turned her eyes toward Brad who was carrying a his plate toward them and smiling. She saw Jane’s eyes following Brad. She shook her head and thought, Jane’s an incurable flirt. She’ll never change.

Chapter 15 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 15 ~ I Need To Get On With My Life

Grace stood in the entryway waiting for Jane and Larry. She took a moment to scan her checklist. She read the list aloud, “Matt, tell me if I forgot anything. I’ve packed bug spray, bathing suits, sunscreen, sunglasses, first aid kit, ointment for bug bits and poison ivy, and protein bars, nuts and three Snicker’s Bars, your favorite. We don’t have to worry about food, Jane and Larry are taking care of that. Plus, we don’t have to sleep outside, Jane and Larry rented our cottage for us. It will be you and me inside one of the rustic cottages. Doesn’t it sound like fun?”
“No, but I’ll act like it’s fun, don’t worry about me,” said Matt.
“What’s wrong, Matt? Let’s get it out in the open before Grace and Larry pull into the driveway. They’ll be here any minute,” said Grace called to Matt.
Matt walked into the entry way holding a basketball in his hands was squeezing the life out of it. He looked at Grace and said, “Mom, remember the barbecue?”
“Yes?” Grace had a sense where this was going.
“Jane didn’t invite us to the barbecue to be nice, did she? She invited us the barbecue to set you up with that guy, am I right, Mom?”
Grace took a deep breath, “Yes, what you say is accurate, Matt. That was then, this is now.”
Matt stared at Grace, “Tell me she’s not setting you up again and there are only the four of us going camping.”
Grace knew she couldn’t lie. She knew Matt would find out sooner and not later. She said, “You know Jane. She can’t help herself. She said she invited a friend she wants you and me to meet.”
“I’m not being fresh, Mom. I don’t need another father. Nobody can take dad’s place for me. Don’t do this for me, please,” said Matt again squeezing his basketball.
“It’s been three years, Matt. Maybe I need to get on with my life. It’s not easy trying to mother and father to you. I don’t know anything about basketball or football or baseball. If you didn’t tell me, I wouldn’t know or care who the quarterback is for the Cowboys. I think dad would want you and me to move on with our life.”
Matt was about to speak, when a horn honked in the driveway. Grace said a silent prayer of thanks. The conversation with Matt made her very uncomfortable. Matt was angry and Grace knew when Matt was angry he shut down.
Matt went to the garage, opened the garage door, grabbed the gear and carried it to the large blue SUV parked in the driveway.
Larry was waiting at the rear of the SUV with the hatch opened. “Hi Matt. Put it all in here. No basketball? I seldom see you without a ball in your hands.”
Matt simply said, “No, I’m going to follow Mom around.”
Grace got into the rear seat while Matt was handing the gear to Larry for loading in the SUV.
Jane turned toward Grace and said, “He’s not a happy camper, is he?”
Grace rolled her eyes, “We had a little spat right before you pulled in. He told me he doesn’t want another dad. He had one.”
“Ouch,” said Jane.
“I was happy when I heard your horn, it was starting to get ugly. Honestly, Jane, I don’t know what to do. I really don’t. One or both of us needs counseling. Maybe, I’m not ready to start dating again.”
“Nonsense. Wait until you meet Brad. You and Matt will love him. He’s all guy. Matt will love him. And, he’s all man, that will satisfy you,” Jane laughed.
“Where did you find him? said Grace.
Jane was about to speak when Larry and Matt got into the SUV. Larry half turned his head toward Grace, “Matt was real big help hefting the gear in. He’s strong for his age.”
“What do you say, Matt?” said Grace turning toward Matt.
“Thank you, sir,” said Matt.
Grace felt the rock hit her stomach again. Matt was being overly formal and polite. She always knew this was a sign that he was unhappy.
“It’ll be ah hour and a half ride up to Big Elk. I got three cabins together. The first one is for Jane and me, The middle one is for you and Matt. And, the third one is for Brad. It’s the smallest of the three.”
Matt spoke up, “Brad? Who’s Brad?”
Grace felt a sudden urge to say something, but pushed the feeling back. She’d make a mental list and then have a good talk with Matt when they were alone. She also wished, Jane coached Larry a bit. Larry was not helping matters.
Grace may as well wished to win the Powerball lottery. Larry continued, “Brad is a big sports guy, Matt. He’s about your mom’s age. He was a two sport star at college. He played football and baseball.”
“He doesn’t play basketball?” asked Matt.
“I don’t know about that, but he loves to talk about sports. Not with me, since I’m not a big sports guy. But every time I see him, he’s talking sports with somebody.”
“Thanks,” said Matt. He placed his head against the side of the door and closed his eyes and feigned sleep,
Jane glanced at Matt and then at Grace. She mouthed the words, “Wait and see. It will all work out.”
Grace smiled and thought, “I bet, just like James worked out.”