SEARCH PARTY • by Michael Snyder

Their uneven line inches forward, seventeen concerned volunteers trespassing lawfully in dew-stained sneakers. The morning is bright, unseasonably warm, but she can still see her breath. Maggie walks and watches, barely aware of the faraway scent of burning cedar nearby or the Lord’s Prayer looping on repeat in the recesses of her brain.

Each member of the search party carries a mimeographed copy of the same photo, as if they might somehow forget the image that leads every newscast, towers over them on billboards, scrambles their prayers — first name Tracy, last name Stevens, last seen walking home alone from the Independence Day Parade. Now the air is crisp; the leaves crackle and shatter under foot.

 “Can we at least talk about it?” Patrick has moved close again, despite the sheriff’s stern instructions to remain at least two arm lengths away. In reply, Maggie squints at something in the middle distance and angles toward it, her shoulder both a blade and a shield.

At some point they break for water and energy bars and more awkward silence. The deputies stopped offering pep talks sometime around Labor Day. Hope, it seems, is tolerated but not encouraged. Maggie excavates the ruts of her hiking boots with a twig. She doesn’t have to look up to notice Patrick’s over-ripe expression, his beseeching eyes, that stupid frown. Folks around them begin to mill and fidget. Patrick leans in, his voice an urgent whisper, “At least admit you know I didn’t cheat.”

Maggie finally meets his gaze. “I’m not even sure you’re capable.”

She watches her husband process this. Is she questioning his manhood, his loyalty, his resolve? When he can bear it no longer, he says, “Of what, exactly?”

“Growing up.”

This is both oblique and painful enough that it just might buy Maggie enough time to lose herself in the small crowd.

The dogs lead their handlers into the damp field as the volunteers resume their unsteady march. Patrick has retreated to the far end of the line, likely at the behest of his buddies: Just give her some space, man. He’d always been derivative, and gullible, and thus even more susceptible to the Trish Livingstons of the world.

The occasion was a big-screened college football party, which was just another excuse to indulge in copious amounts of lager, brats, and tired nostalgia. Wives were neither forbidden nor invited.

Donny Blankenship never missed these get-togethers. He’d been Maggie’s lab partner their senior year and had nurtured a blatant crush all through college, their respective marriages, and his recent divorce. Donny had called Maggie after the game. As she heated water for tea Donny backpedaled his way through the sordid details of witnessing Patrick emerge from a bedroom with “that skank, Trish Livingston, her blouse unbuttoned to her navel and no bra in sight.”

When it was finally over Maggie said, “Thanks for the call, Donny.”

“Forgive me, Mags. Guess I should learn to mind my own business.”

“It’s fine.”

“Do me one favor?” His voice was painfully earnest. “Please.”

“What’s that, Donny?”

“Stop forgiving that asshole.”

“Trust me,” she said, staring at her own distorted reflection in the teakettle. “I don’t think I can.”

Heads rise in unison toward the sound of barking dogs. “Probably just another squirrel,” someone says.  “Somebody’s glass is half-empty,” comes the reply. The voices are familiar, friendly, but the names remain just out of reach.

Maggie walks in lockstep but her mind roams. When the authorities had asked for any information that might aid in their investigation, Maggie had remained mute. She didn’t want to get involved. Besides, what could she really tell them? That she may (or may not) have seen a blond girl in a sleeveless Spiderman tee?

But she knew better. It had been Tracy Stevens stomping through puddles on the shoulder of the road as drizzle turned to downpour, hugging herself as she walked. And there was a boy there too, maybe a man, hard to tell under the dark hoodie, gesturing and shouting. But Maggie had the windows up, the AC cranked, something ridiculous on the radio. She’d planned to ease her car to the curb and offer the distraught girl sanctuary. Had even signaled. But for reasons she may never understand, Maggie drove on.

The thing is, Maggie cannot be sure. But somehow she still knows. And that’s hard to explain to men with badges.

She dreamed once that it was Patrick in the hoodie, that he’d caught up to her — Maggie — in the rain, that he made her endure unspeakable things, then began to strangle the life out of her. When she woke, Maggie was visibly shaken. Not with fear, but something more akin to relief.

“Probably got what she deserved,” a voice down the line mutters. Maggie blinks, wondering if she’d been dreaming out loud.  

Donny’s admonition now mingles with her own looping thoughts… as we forgive those who trespass against us. Then she hears shouting from just inside a line of trees. Maggie watches as the handlers release their hounds toward the mouth of the forest. The voice, she realizes, belongs to Patrick.

Maggie squints in that direction until she can finally see past the present. He will be the hero, the one that finally gets the girl. Patrick will accept the praise with the thinnest veneer of humility, basking in newfound celebrity, oblivious to the irony. And when the sheen fades he will come looking for Maggie, for the approval she’s never been willing to give. She will continue to avoid his calls, drink her fancy tea, seek other causes to devote herself to, and try to ignore the lingering consequences of her serial indecision. She will keep walking fields and forests, retracing the last known steps of Tracy Stevens, conducting her one-woman search party that will eventually earn Maggie a reputation as that kinda pretty lady that’s always walking, always mumbling to herself, forever retracing the path she’s on to find some elusive fork that only she can see.  

Michael Snyder lives in and writes from Middle TN, where he lives with his amazing family.

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Every Day Fiction