The Arrival

Salvation is available to the human mind in many forms. Most people find it during their search for a higher power, finally finding a reason for their existence. Some discover it after an oft tumultuous personal battle in the form of victory over substances or physical abuse. There are even those who find salvation with the sort of simple realization that only a bent and twisted mind would use to justify evil. Mine was a wind-swept rock the size of a flattened bus.

The landing was everything but smooth. We came in hot and I gave zero care to what a direct impact might do to our only means of transportation. 

“Backpaddle! Backpaddle!” Ross screamed.

I could hear the rush of water from his paddle as the canoe turned, but never having heard the term, it took the gears of my brain far too long to engage meaningful action. In fact, for some unknown reason, my unplanned reaction was to turn around to see what he was doing. Center of gravity is important. It wasn’t the first wave that got us, that one was just enough to throw us both off-balance. The second one felt like it had horns on its head. We were the matador that turned his back, unexplainably deciding to use our red cape as a turban, mid-fight. 

My elbow went in the water first, and even though there was no saving us, I clung to the hope that we could recover much longer than the actual time it took to send me fully into the cold lake. Panic skews time even more efficiently than hope. 

The canoe was clearly done with us. Probably sick and tired of the way we treated it and all of the hell we had put it through that day. It tipped over and spit Ross and I out along with one pack and our paddles, pausing just long enough to take on a significant drink of water. The remaining gear sloshed and shifted in the compromised boat like plastic toys in an over filled washing machine.

My body made decisions that my mind was incapable of during the ordeal. The life jacket kept me up, I dog-paddled with desperation towards the large flat stone. My knuckles scraped hard against the granite, still wrapped around the paddle that for some reason my body thought I needed.

“Oh thank God, thank God, thank God.” My praise marred by the cold spittle of lake water pouring over my face.

I had survived. The huge flat rock marked the end of the most painful physical journey I had ever undertaken in my entire life. Capsizing was a fitting end to the torture. The cold, the panic, and the pain were all badges of honor I could wear the rest of my life if I was ever going to be allowed to live it. I wept as I pulled myself triumphantly onto salvation.

I would have to help him, even if it meant putting my life back into peril, even if it meant re-entering the water, selflessly tossing myself headlong into harm’s way. I turned and stood to face the water, to look my enemy in the eye and issue the ultimate life or death challenge. I flung my wet hair aside and tossed the paddle behind me, sans any care in the world as to where it might land. I finally let my mind take over. I knew I had to manage my panicked breathing, wipe the fear from my face, and grip my inner power if I was going to save him. 

It only took a fraction of a second to achieve all of the above. If memory serves, I even stopped breathing for a few seconds, my freshly started brain needing to halt all normal bodily functions in order to use the energy to grasp the real-time horror before me.

“Well? You about done drama queen?” Ross asked.

He was standing in about three feet of water holding onto the canoe, making sure it didn’t crash against the rock of salvation. He was not happy.

“Because if you’re done with your church moment, I could use a hand unloading some of this gear. Grab that one first of all,” Ross said pointing to the red backpack that joined us in being jettisoned prematurely.

I felt too stupid to care that he was treating me like an idiot. I’d never admit it in a million years, but there’s an outside chance I might have earned it.

“If you gotta dump, at least dump in front of the campsite. What the hell was that anyway?” Ross asked.

“What?”

“What do you mean ‘what?’ Backpaddle? Means to paddle backwards, so we don’t hit anything. I don’t know, something like, like, the shoreline?” Ross also dripped with sarcasm.

I wanted to let him have it, but if the next word to leave my mouth was ‘look’, then it was most likely going to get ugly. Also, he had every right to be angry. He was just as wet and cold as I was. Instead I put my hand out to halt and arrest a symbolic, forward fall. It was the universal sign for a person to stop, although I wasn’t sure which person to whom I was referring. 

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.

“Oh, you’re sorry?” Ross asked.

“You’re sorry,” he said again, only this time as a matter of fact.

He stared at me for what seemed like forever. I decided to throw myself on his mercy and wait for his unpleasant response.

“Lets get this boat turned over and get a fire going. Most of these packs are supposedly waterproof so I’m hoping we should be okay. Right now we gotta stay ahead of hypothermia. Stay moving, stay busy. A lighter.”

Ross paused, taking a cold personal moment to think.

“A lighter and some dry clothes and let’s hope you didn’t crack that paddle,” he said, pointing.  

The paddle I tossed in the heat of the moment was wedged in the rocks. The blade appeared to have cut through solid stone, standing tall against the tyranny of mother nature. In reality, it was merely a one in an unknown quantity shot that lodged it firmly into a pre-existing crack, a ‘touch and feel’ type metaphor, begging us to realize that what we see isn’t always what is, and what is, is almost always more than what we can see.

I chose not to say much besides basic survival communication. I looked for no clues pertaining to Gage, but my mind couldn’t help but move in that direction. Eventually, the snapping fire logs dominated the air, the hanging smoke replacing the smell of wind. The lake that tried to kill us was now glass, occasionally cracked by something alive. I worried for the slightest of all moments about what the night would bring. My body probably thought I was stupid and punished me accordingly with every move. I was apologetic to not think of such foolish things again, not at least until I woke and realized I had rested harder than anytime in recent memory. 

My body was obviously still angry but would have to take a backseat to business at hand. My guide was busy preparing a sad breakfast and I was too cold to hate the small, wet box in the woods where nature took her calls. 

“Mornin’,” Ross said enthusiastically.

“Morning,” I said mid-yawn. 

“How do you like your oatmeal?” Ross asked.

“Is that coffee? Do I smell coffee? You brought a percolator?” I asked.

“For sure, nothing like a hot cup of coffee in the morning,” he said.

“I hate you a little less right now,” I said. 

“You know, I think that’s twice you said you didn’t hate me as much. Who knows, maybe by the time this trip is over you might actually like me,” Ross said.

Answering him with something snide was going to be too labor intensive before I had a chance to drink that coffee and might even be construed as endearing unless I were to lay down a new level of hate and vitriol. It just wasn’t going to be worth it.

“Pull up a log, here,” Ross said while handing me a canteen cup brimming with black coffee and a blue tin plate of runny oatmeal.

“So, where do we start?” he asked.

“Well, we’re going to have a good look around you and I. I want to know where he slept, what he ate, where he fished, what he did to pass the time, everything. That’s where you come in. You’re his friend, you boys spent plenty of time out here, so in a way, it’s up to you where we start.”

“A look around for what?” Ross asked.

“How many people do you think camped here since Gage?” I asked.

“Probably very few, if any. There wasn’t much season left when he went missing, and we’re in here pretty early so, yeah, probably no one.”

“Well then we’ll look around for something like that,” I said, pointing to an empty knife sheath hanging by its belt loop on the nub of a tree branch.

“What?” Ross said.

Ross sprung to the tree and grabbed the sheath.

“Shit, this was his.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Look, look here. It’s embossed with a Boy Scouts emblem. The handle had one too. We’d laugh because even though he had it, he was never a boy scout.”

“Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that this area might be visited by boy scouts now does it?” I said.

“Bullshit, I’ve seen this a thousand times. It’s his for sure. Here, this tree. He always kept his gear all in one place by either a tree or a rock or something. He’d hang things on the branches. This is Gage’s for sure.” 

“So where’s the knife? Do you remember it coming back with his gear by any chance?” I asked.

“No, no, I didn’t see it,” Ross said.

“Tell me Ross, did Gage ever bring a gun along?”

“No, never. He was big against camping with guns. Always said the weight alone made them useless.”

I was no stranger to the dead, in my line of work, it happens. On the rare occasion, in the bayou, a person might run across an old dead gator. You know they haven’t been dead long if you find them, if for no other reason because nothing else found them first. One thing about every gator, alive or dead is their teeth. They always have sharp, new teeth. Whenever they lose one, a new one takes its place. They have something like 80 teeth in their mouth at any given time and by the time I find them, dead, they may have already lost a thousand. A thousand new knives, sharp and at the ready. 

“I wonder if he had it with him, in the boat,” I said.

“Seems like he’d bring the sheath, otherwise it’d just be laying around,” Ross said.

“Right, and it wasn’t in his fishing gear was it?” I asked.

“No, sure wasn’t”

“And maybe you’d know better, but he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would have a dull knife,” I said.

“No, for sure. A knife could mean life or death up here,” Ross said.

I spent a few minutes looking out over the water. At one point, Ross stood behind me to check my line of sight, presumably to see whatever it was he thought I was looking at.

“Tell me Ross, have you ever seen a gator with no teeth?” I asked.

“Um, I don’t think I’ve seen a gator at all, I mean, besides a zoo or on TV or something, but no.” 

“A gator without teeth is gonna die, its all he has. It’s his knife, his gun, his everything. A strong bite and sharp teeth, that’s what they are, that’s all they are. There ain’t much out there that can take down a full-grown gator with all his teeth,” I said.

“What’s your point?” Ross asked.

“When you find a dead gator, they still have their teeth. The ones you never find, well nobody knows because nobody has ever found them.”

“So you think they lost their teeth?” Ross asked.

“I can’t say, like I said, nobody’s ever found one, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” I said.

“You lost me,” Ross said.

It wasn’t the first time I confused some poor unwitting soul while I spoke. What they never seem to understand is I was never really talking to them in the first place. Usually they get angry and storm out, thinking somehow, I was insulting them or questioning the veracity of their manhood. Although that did occasionally happen, mostly I was just enjoying the scenic route on my way to answering my own question. Even if it has nothing to do with the destination, a person hitching in the wrong direction is worth mentioning.

“I think what we’re looking for is a gator with a new tooth. He’s patient, watching you but you never know it. He’s slow when it’s cold, careful, and it’s cold now. He waits but never too long, he don’t need you, not yet. He’ll save you for later, on the bottom, in the mud. He ain’t evil, it’s just his way.”

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