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The highway’s a mess, all slimy fish guts and thin tires ploughing through ankle-high water. I flick on my wipers, but the water’s in the air, fog running down glass, and the fish smash against the windshield anyway. Poor travelling conditions, the highway authority warned. Right. That happens when fog thumps and rolls its way down the mountains and fish flick their way through the air, not obeying traffic laws or having the sense to be skittish like deer. The tiny yellow minnows are the worst, darting out in schools from the coniferous darkness. Each one lands with a thwick on my windshield, and wipers drag clumps of yellow and silver scales and blood into swishing semicircles.
I need to cancel my swimming classes, I remember. All of them. I pick up my clunky Samsung and sneak a glance at the screen, but still nothing.
For most of the day I’ve followed the same red taillights through the fog, but even they turned off a few kilometres back. The next town with its cheap yellow brick of a motel is still ahead, but it’s too slow going, especially if a larger trout were stupid enough to smack into my rusted Toyota.
The sign was a few kilometres back, but I’d told myself I wouldn’t stop. That she isn’t there. There’s nothing in the campground, really. Not this time of year, a month or two before the owners start sweeping up the debris from winter. But the roads aren’t listening, and so my eyes flick between the highway and the gaps in the branches in time with my wiper blades. I catch myself thinking the pines look familiar, but they’re trees.
When I turn off at the sign and finally bump my way down to the dirt clearing, the ruts in the mud are old and rained in.
The night before the search, Mom had me watching to make sure Alexa slept while she trekked up the path to see if the lodge had batteries for our flickering lantern. I was ten that year; Alexa was six. The tent flap was firmly zipped, but I kept hearing Alexa’s little feet kicking against the nylon. Her body was too busy to shut down, like it had been too busy digging for worms with a crowd of boys earlier to shake the sand out of her bathing suit when Mom told her. Meanwhile, I’d sat by our burned-out firepit and pored over Grandpa’s old tackle box. It was a fishing lake, after all. Cheaper camping spots.
I wrapped clear fishing line around a stick in the dark, the line slipping between my fingers with every knot. The back of my neck was crisped from dragging the line back and forth on the dock, but all I’d hooked that day was lake weed, dripping and green. After a few hours, I’d waded to catch minnows for bait in a Becel container, but their silver mouths gaped back and forth at me as they swam away. The ponytailed girls my age hadn’t said a word to me, just curious looks between screeching at the idea of fish tails brushing their bare legs.
A loud zip, and Alexa’s face peered out. “You’re gonna teach me to fish tomorrow, right?”
“I don’t know how to fish.”
“That’s okay,” she said, unperturbed. “You teach me, and I’ll know. Promise?”
I laughed, promising only if she’d go to sleep before Mom came back.
Alexa poked her caramel-coloured head fully out. “I can’t see them inside here. The tent’s in the way.”
I sighed and beckoned her, dropping the fishing line in the dirt. “You better be quick. Mom’ll be back.”
At home we had a skylight in our bedroom, right where our heads met. Alexa always slipped out of bed after Mom tucked her in, tried to jump across the sky. She’d find a star, then she’d look for the next closest and do a little hop in her pyjamas. Then she chose the next, and the next. She went on dipping trails through the starred darkness, hopping to another point in the sky.
Outside our canvas tent, her flip-flops made a snapping sound in the dark. When she was done, cheeks flushed, I brushed off the bottoms of her pyjamas and zipped the tent behind her.
Then I dragged my hands through the dirt, feeling in the grit for the smooth fishing line. It was invisible in the dark, and my fingers caught on nothing but poky twigs, rough-edged rocks, and the constant brush of browning pine needles.
Chlorine and echoes. About a month ago, I stood in a slick, high-necked one-piece in a too-warm pool, toes scrunching against the thin grout on the bottom. My whistle just added to the chatter of the seven-year-olds as I tested them on proper kicking, the backfloat. Alexa’s daughter, Presley, swims like a fish. She doesn’t stay up well, but she has a way of wiggling and then gliding until she starts sinking. Then her scrawny body suddenly jerks, like a fish flipping its tail for a new direction, and she goes with the momentum, flapping thin arms and gliding again.
I gave them all watery high-fives as they left the pool. Alexa was on the side, as usual. That day she was exhausted from showing houses, her normally smooth hair frizzy as she leaned against the windowed wall to the parking lot. It was a dark spring day and the clouds sank with their weight. The fish had started, then. Come down from the hills, but not many. Alexa watched an orange fish the size of her hand nibble at the glass.
“Mom told me you’re being evicted,” Alexa said.
She snorted. “Sure, renoviction. You found a place yet?” My lessons were cutting down, and she knew it. Then she offered a place to stay. She hadn’t thought about it. I could tell. She never thinks. Just decides she should do something, so she does.
I should’ve thought. Instead, like an idiot, I thanked her.
Everything in the campground – the parking lot, the lodge, the empty campsites – looks smaller than the pines, which crowd around the dirt lot. Their sappy needles stretch over the mud. My fingers shake as I shove my phone into my hoodie and start rooting around in the cluttered trunk. A flash of yellow to my right – I spin around, but it’s just a school of bright minnows.
The thick fog feels like pinprick raindrops on my skin. I need my rain jacket, but the back of the Toyota is a mess of haphazard boxes, bathing suits, half-empty cans of hairspray and jumbled spatulas. I find the jacket, finally, under my pillow and the torn grocery bag of unwashed laundry. Shaking off Dorito crumbs, I slip it on.
I know I’m alone, but it doesn’t stop me from squinting at the trees. My body is a branch bent away from the path, tense, threatening to whip back. Running shoes shuffle me forward, down the rocky, tree-lined path, and down to the beach.
The morning before the search, right after breakfast, I’d pumped my gangly legs and willed them to run to the little dock before anyone else. I’d stripped to my bathing suit in the mist and hucked myself into the cold water. My thin shoulders started to shake, but the ponytailed girls never shivered when they jumped in.
I was treading water and imagining chatting to the girls, maybe racing them to shore, when Mom came with Alexa. My sister was holding Grandpa’s tackle box tight, and Mom waved at me as she sent Alexa down the hill in her yellow bathing suit.
“Not now, Alexa,” I called to shore, trying to shoo her back.
She set the tackle box on a rock. “You said you’d teach me to fish.”
Trampling feet and whipping ponytails thundered down the path. They giggled, but it couldn’t have been at me yet.
”Alexa, I’m busy,” I snapped. “Go do something else.” I squeezed my eyes shut and sank below the cold water. Toes strained as I made myself a needle, piercing through the water to the lake weed that tried to wrap itself around my ankle.
I didn’t even see her enter the trees.
Wounded minnows are thought to release a “fright scent” from their skin, and it seeps across the emptiness to the other fish. They smell it, or breathe it, or maybe they just feel it tickle across their gills. Just as one of them gets hurt, the other minnows get the scent and feel fear welling up inside them. They start darting away, freezing, to avoid a predator they can’t see or smell or hear.
It was maybe thirty minutes into swimming with the girls that I felt it. That unknown fear filled my body from my callused heels to the ends of my hair as I called “Marco!” through screwed-shut eyes. That’s how I first knew that Alexa was missing.
The trees open up to the gash of rocky beach bleeding into the cold, still lake, but the slimy dock I remember isn’t there. Even so, I can still hear the creaking when each wave hits, the almost gasp of the boards with every icy drop.
I walk until the cold water squishes its way through the mesh in my running shoes. My phone hasn’t buzzed, but I light up the screen anyway. She still hasn’t texted me back.
Behind me, the fog drifts through the trees, and it calls her name. White socks now translucent brown with water, I slop up the hill. My feet hit the rocks slowly, and then faster, until I’m running headlong into the woods that swallowed up my sister.
Alexa’s house was white and taupe, granite and stainless steel. I started out seasoning the chicken, but somehow Alexa was the one basting, setting the timer, poking in the thermometer. I was put on peeling carrots, boiling water.
It had been three weeks. “Maybe I’ll try further north,” I said. “Cheaper rents, and they have pools.”
Alexa wrinkled her nose. “North? There’s nothing there.” She grabbed the milk carton and sniffed it. “Still able to pick up Presley on Tuesday, right? It’s not often I can do a showing then.” I nodded. Alexa poured tall glasses and swung open the side door. “Presley! Dinner!”
No answer. “Presley!” The swing set was empty, the fence closed. A silver trout nibbled a blackberry bush.
The carton dropped, milk splashing and running along the lines and grains in the hardwood. I stared, carrot in hand. Alexa was forcing her way outside, her thin voice suddenly screaming. The sound of a lawnmower cut out, and Alexa’s panic echoed between glossy sidings. “Presley!”
“Mom?” A quizzical face poked out from under the porch. Like the fizzle after a lightning strike, Alexa slumped to her knees. She clutched Presley close, mumbling into her caramel hair. I only picked up one word.
As Alexa’s elderly neighbour gawked, I got out a rag to slop up the milk.
That night when I woke up from sweating on her leather couch, Alexa was standing at the living-room window, gazing up into the dark sky. I thought her knees were rocking back and forth, but then I realized the movements were subtle bounces. Her eyes were tracing paths across the stars.
Alexa doesn’t recall the exact moment of getting lost, just that she’d been following trails of bugs, looking under logs, and jumping over rocks. She was deep in the trees when she couldn’t remember if our tent was behind her, before her, beside her. She wandered, and then she picked up speed.
Short legs, dimples, running over the sticks and dry brambles. Air in dry slices – in, out, in, out. Sharp pain on her toe and then down to her knees as she tumbled, scraped. Her ankle twisted, throbbing. Soon it would swell in the summer heat. Little hands grasped in front of her. Her knees crushed pointy pine needles. Dry skin scraped to red dots. Mud smears on pale legs. A squished ant on her knee.
Almost every tent in the camp was an empty shell of nylon wilting in the grey air. We’d been searching for two hours, and my throat was raw. Before the police and the search-and-rescue (SAR) team had made it down the highway, we’d already criss-crossed all over their possible tracks in terrified loops.
The sand in my bathing suit itched, but the SAR commander said we had to totally concentrate on the woods. No small talk, no horseplay. Using every sense for clues, for a whimper through the trees. I waited ten seconds after every call, imagining the sound banging around the timber until it reached her. Looking for a bright yellow bathing suit, caramel-coloured hair. The SAR commander said we can hear farther than we can see.
Mom searched with me, her hair a wild peacock tail clipped up and straggling. Her eyes were frantic, but whenever she looked at me, I saw something else.
In minnows, tiny bones connect the ear to the swim bladder. So when calls skip across space, the sound vibrates through the tiny bones and then resonates in a tissue balloon, strengthening and amplifying. My body felt like a swim bladder, with every crack of a twig splintering through my frame.
The mud squishes under my drenched running shoes as I slow down and look around. The fog settles into the trees, a blanket slowly pierced and stuck with pine needles. The fish are more occasional here in the woods, but as I stop to breathe, to listen to my senses again before continuing across the crest, I see a few fat whitefish twisting around a tree trunk and more bright yellow minnows.
Phone’s still quiet. Keep my eyes on the ground, behind me, up above. Look for the ridged marks of a little girl’s flip-flops, the bruised poison ivy where she fell. She’s still farther on.
I unzip my jacket, its tent of sweat, and I breathe. In. And out. In. And I keep running.
I imagine Presley did this, this breathing, sitting on the bench in her class’s cloakroom, watching the playground through a small rectangular window. She’d been smart, and when she hadn’t seen Alexa, she’d stayed inside. Closed the door eventually, so she wouldn’t look so small as her stick-ish arms kept it open.
Mrs. Tychell’s desk was empty. The halls were shining, and Presley would’ve been quiet as a fish in a fishbowl when she walked by the library’s big glass windows and saw every teacher in the school. Staff meeting. She hung by the sides of the windows, trying not to be a pair of staring eyes, and wondering if she should – or really, how she could – gear up her fingers to push the door open and see the eyes of every teacher in school.
So after no one looked at her, she’d gone back to the cloakroom and cried, watching the darkening rectangle as the sweaty extra socks and forgotten pencil cases got harder to see.
When one of Darlene’s swimmers jerked like a fish in the rec-centre pool, I remembered. Tuesday. Water seeped from my bathing suit into the jeans I’d thrown over top as I called the school, called Alexa. Nothing.
The fog was already sinking over the playground, and every blue-painted door was locked.
Alexa’s pristine house was next, but a garbage heap spilled out front. When I pulled in, I saw my boxes, my spatulas, my winter boots and even my half-used shampoo from the shower. When I knocked on the door, the curtains twitched closed. I texted.
The anger. The all-caps. Then: “Just go.”
I threw my stuff into the trunk, and I didn’t realize where I was until I hit the highway.
It was near midnight when the SAR team started their sound sweep of the area furthest northeast, after they found a piece of little footprint looking to curve to the other side of the dark, fish-filled lake.
I was supposed to be lying in my sleeping bag, listening to the wind rattle the tent screen back and forth. Instead I sat at our empty firepit, holding Grandpa’s tackle box in my lap now that the SAR commander was done with it. Mom had barely looked up when the tent unzipped. She was supposed to be resting too after a long shift of searching, but as I sat beside her, she kept scraping mustard onto dry bread for the searchers’ sandwiches.
The clear fishing line was looped under and between and over all the shiny hooks and lures and pliers in the tackle box. I tied knots in the line, little clear knobs. Hooks and lures and bobbers came in between and I tied more knots to keep them on. Clinch knots, turtle knots, blood knots.
I saved the biggest hook for last, but when I grabbed it, I heard a rustle in the trees and sharp pain pricked my thumb. A shaking branch – just a squirrel. Mom’s breath exhaled with mine, but when I looked, she still couldn’t meet my eyes.
Slowly, carefully, I unhooked the sharp metal. The fish hook was smeared with blood, but I stuck it back in the dusty box. Ignoring the drip of my finger, I threw all the line, bobs, and lures back inside and snapped the box closed. My finger smeared red on the flimsy latch, but a swipe with my shirt made it shine silver. It looked even cleaner than before, a little latch holding the rusty tackle box shut.
Across the trees and the tip of the lake, a piercing blast came from a SAR team full of whistles. Ten, twenty seconds of silence. Listening. It was a dance, a march. Crackling radio count. “Three, two, one, BLAST.” Screeching. Listening. And then moving forwards, headlamps slicing up the treed search area until the next count, blast, and stillness.
Alexa had curled up in the overhang of a giant spruce when her ankle got too big to move, but the piercing whistles jerked her awake. Her eyes were still crusty from sleep, but strange boots shuffled closer, and she scooched back towards the trunk, silent. Mom taught her not to talk to strangers.
On the eleventh blast, though, a searcher saw a flash of her yellow bathing suit in his headlamp beam and then the flinching of a small child against bright light. She watched a giant with a light for a face come closer, but his words were gentle as he switched off the headlamp and crackled the radio.
Back at the firepit, after a word from the SAR commander, Mom was gone, running against the trees. My butt stuck to the log as I heard the clump of hiking boots and the whispers of SAR personnel as they wiped sweat off their headlamps, checked their batteries for the next search. When Mom came to the tent with a slumped yellow figure over her shoulder, I froze. Mom zipped open the tent and laid Alexa inside, whose eyes barely fluttered. I stayed still, not blinking, until Mom noticed me and her soft hand led me back inside.
I fell asleep with my arm over Alexa’s dirt-covered body. Her length seemed longer against mine than before, or maybe I had shrunk, waiting.
There’s a big spruce near the tip of the lake, but there’s another a few hundred yards away, and another again. My eyes sweep the trees and I catch yellow, but it flicks and separates. Minnows.
It’s dark. I look at the spruces and watch as a single minnow, like a thin yellow leaf swirling down, inspects the branches and knolls of the second spruce tree. The rest of its school flicks closer, and little mouths open and close on my hair. Pulling. I’m under the spruce, legs collapsed.
We always think of the fish who spawn, fulfill the cycle. Of the fish who thrusts every inch of her muscle against the current even as silt and leaves silk past, when a single second without struggling would sweep her downstream. Of the fish slapping her way up each step of the creek’s ladder, defying gravity, defying water, defying her body to carry her eggs to the same gravelled creek she was born in. We never think of the fish who can’t get up the ladder, whose tail gives out in exhaustion.
I settle in the soft dirt under the spruce, feeling soft lips as the minnows nibble me to sleep. My body is too long for the curves of the roots, but as my eyes close, I feel a smaller body against my skin, curled up in the roots and growing as my own starts to shrink.