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The Side of the Creek

The search continued through the driving snow without trace. Not a mitten was found, not a hat was recovered, not even tracks in the snow. Nothing! The two-hundred plus volunteers combed the area around the boy's house – in creeks, bushes, swamps, a cranberry bog, frozen lakes – but came up empty, without sign of nine-year-old Corey Anderson.

Last seen hours earlier chasing after his dog, he disappeared without a trace. Max, his dog, was found in a neighbor's yard, but not Corey. And nobody had felt worse than Travis McBride, his best friend in the whole world.

It was Monday, the first day of February vacation week. They had been playing at Corey's house when the dog got loose. Carefree, with the rest of the week ahead, they chased out into the snow after the golden retriever. It was the last anyone had seen of Corey.

Travis helped his friend chase after the dumb dog who always seemed to run away. With darkness settling in and the snow still falling, he grew bored and cold. All he had wanted was to go back to Corey's to play Nintendo or build a snow fort or the biggest snowman in town, as they'd promised each other. This had just made him feel the cold all the more, causing him to fall behind. The dog was nowhere to be found. "I gotta go home now," Travis complained after a long ten minutes. "My dad'll kill me if I'm not home for dinner."

Corey planted his hands on his hips and flashed him a look. "Come on-n-n," Corey pleaded, "can't ya just help me find Max?"

"No, I really gotta go. Okay?"

"Okay," Corey agreed, prompting Travis to turn back for home. "Hey!" Travis turned around. Corey continued. "Tomorrow, let's build a snow-fort? Or maybe a big snowman—"

"Or woman!" Travis interrupted. The two boys burst into giggles. With that, Travis ran home and Corey continued after the dog.

side_of_creek2That was the last time Corey had been seen. And now, people from all over were joining in the effort to find Corey Anderson. Travis tried to help in whatever way he could, but his mind kept straying away, when a searcher would bump into him, thrusting him back into the moment. Corey was missing: Travis couldn't help but think it was his fault. He should've stayed with him. He didn't really have to go home. His dad wasn't even home at the time, and, in fact, wasn't expected until late. Selfishly, he just wanted to play Nintendo, a stupid video game. And when the snow let up, they were going to have some hot cocoa and go build a snowman or a snow fort.

The storm never let up. Corey and Travis never got a chance to build their snowman, something that haunted Travis each second his friend was missing.

II

Bright and early the next day, there was still no sign of Corey Anderson. The storm had drifted into the Atlantic, leaving clear, cold skies. The search continued. Massachusetts' State Police accompanied by volunteers from surrounding towns were out in force, determined to trudge through the snow to find Corey.

Police vehicles, gathering outside the Anderson house, parked on either ends of the block to close off the street from traffic. It served as a base for the search effort. Leaving no area untouched, Police split the overwhelming support into small groups and directed them to walk side by side as they combed through fields, crossed over brooks, and navigated the forests.

Travis helped in the search but stayed close to the Anderson house, as his mom had asked. State Troopers wanted to talk with him, so staying close to the Anderson home was—well, it seemed the right thing to do. Every hour he returned to the house, where his mom and a host of Corey's family members were comforting Corey's mom.

Suspiciously, everyone stared at Travis. He was sure, as this whole thing was his fault. If only he'd stayed with Corey. If only he hadn't complained he had to go home. If only—

Travis shook his head, trying to rid from it the thought that Corey might be…

The thought froze in his head. It was stuck in time, unable to thaw. That's when something he heard on last night's local news played again in his head: "As time ticks on," an on-spot reporter said, "hopes of finding Corey alive diminish." Again Travis shook his head, then squeezed his eyelids as tight as he could until black splotches fogged his view but not the guilt.

III

Noon on Tuesday came quickly. Travis' mom made a ton of sandwiches for the searchers and set them outside on a folding table. "Here," she offered Travis one, "come have some lunch."

But Travis wasn't hungry. He wanted to be alone and decided to go into the backyard. At least from there he could stand at the edge of the forest and watch the searchers. As he slipped into his coat and pushed through the back door, his mom called after, "Stay in the backyard, Honey!"

Hushed voices lost deep in the forest, somewhere behind the gray, leafless trees, called back and forth. "Over there, check that area out," someone – probably a Police Officer – said. Occasionally Travis could see movement, but he knew it was only a searcher. Then, like a broken record, he heard a familiar question: "Anything?"

"No!" was always the reply.

Miserably Travis squinted, attempting to catch movement of the searchers, when a chickadee flew onto a branch of a tall oak. It was by itself, lost in the world, far from home, but alive and well enough. But Travis knew, for he felt it in his heart, Corey was not.

His eyes fell upon a rusted jungle gym in the far corner of the Anderson backyard. Rusted monkey bars, cracked rubber seats, and a few broken chains dangling lifeless, seemed to freeze his memories in time. He and Corey used to climb and swing for hours. To the side, covered in snow, was a sandbox, where all summer long they used to play with Matchbox cars.

To the side and across the street, something on the neighbor's front lawn caught his eye. It was a snowman, all wushy-washy and melting away, with hopes of Corey being found alive.

And that's when Travis was reminded of the snowman he and Corey never made. He wondered: would he ever see Corey again? Was Corey even alive? Was he kidnapped? Would they ever build their snowman? He knew the answer … his guilty conscience told him so.

IV

Bursting through the brush, a State Trooper stepped into the Anderson's backyard, startling Travis, causing him to dropped one of his gloves he was supposed to be wearing. Travis looked up expectantly at the man in uniform.

"Sorry," the officer said, "didn't mean to scare you."

Travis remained quiet. He stared at the man while nervously squeezing his glove.

The officer held out a red knit ski hat. "This look familiar?" he asked. "Look like it might be Corey's?"

Travis looked closely, then again. A white pattern of snowflakes, barely discernable with matted snow, circled the middle. Finally he shrugged, "I don't think so." He voice was so low he had to repeat himself.

The State Trooper brought the hat inside to Mrs. Anderson, who behind tears confirmed what Travis had just told him – that the hat didn't belong to Corey. For even if it had, Travis knew that when he and Corey had gone out, before he left him, Corey hadn't been wearing a hat but the hood of his Bruins' jacket pulled over his head.

Moping around the living room by himself while the others were in the kitchen, Travis hung his head; he'd sit for a minute, get up, walk in circles, and then sit back down, always in a different place. He seemed, well, depressed.

Mom noticed. "Honey?" she called from the kitchen. There was no reply. "Honey," she called louder. Travis looked up, his eyes filled not with tears but great sadness. "Come here … come have some hot chocolate."

Slowly Travis stood and walked over. He was still wearing his jacket, still holding his glove.

"Here," his mom said, jerking on the sleeve of his jacket, "take your jacket off. And give me your gloves." Travis pushed up to the table, sliding onto the wooden bench. "Where's your other glove?"

Travis, sipping steaming hot cocoa from a mug – with a picture on it of his best friend, Corey, minus two front teeth – hadn't heard.

Outside in the backyard, a new coating of snow covered his lost glove.

V

The remainder of February vacation in this southern Massachusetts' community was filled with a hushed, solemn feeling that lingered over those who knew Corey. Like a gray, overcast cloud cover spitting rain and sleet at the land below, each day dragged but at the same time went too fast. The search for Corey Anderson continued, but now more than ever hopes were all but gone, melting away with the snow. Chances were slim that Corey was still alive, and if he was, it was almost certain he was in the hands of someone with a sick mind – a very sick mind.

After the fourth day, the Massachusetts' State Police came up with only a hat and not much else. So they called off the search. Of course, family and friends and those who believed – in hope, God, community spirit – continued. For, each knew it could've just easily been their son or daughter they were searching for. It wasn't fair. No one dared mention the obvious. There was no need, for the sad, discouraged faces indicated that perhaps Corey would never return.

When Corey Anderson disappeared everyone lost a part of themselves, but no one more than Travis, who'd yet to cry, yet to talk about what he felt, or yet to come out of his guilt-driven coma. If only he hadn't left Corey? Every waking hour, it was the question he cursed himself with. What kind of best friend would do what he did to Corey?

Here he was, alive and well, and Corey…

He halted the thought, leaving a gaping hole in his heart – one so big, with his guilt, he hadn't noticed.

VI

Saturday night, five nights after Corey was last seen, the McBride's were sitting around the dinner table when the phone rang. Travis, with an elbow dug into the table and a hand holding his head up, twirled his spaghetti with a fork; he didn't look up from the plate.

Mom answered, "Hello," her smile disappearing. She listened for a long minute. "Uh-huh" she added from time to time. "I understand." A long silence, so eerie it caused Travis to look up, when his eyes met his mom's. She looked away. But Travis had seen enough of the look in her eyes to throw him into an emotional black hole laden with guilt. "Yes," his mom said quietly, "I'm fine, but I'm not sure about…" – she looked at Travis – "well, I…" Another long silence. "I just don't know how he'll take it."

Finally Travis looked back at his mom, the blue in her eyes drained to a pale blue, her fair skin paled to a ghostly white, and the sadness in her face mirroring his own sorrow. Exchanging words wasn't necessary. An unblinking tear trickling down his mom's cheek was confirmation enough.

Why, Travis cursed himself, did he have to leave Corey like that? Why did he lie and tell him he had to go home? All he wanted to do was play Nintendo – how selfish was that? And now Corey was—

Travis shot up and ran out of the kitchen. In the living room he slipped on his scarf, grabbed his jacket, hat, and gloves and stormed out the front door. Without a direction, rational thought, or reason, he ran. As fast as he could, he ran, tears streaking and freezing to his cheeks, until finally he ran out of breath and stopped. But the tears kept falling; he tried to look through them – up the road and then down – when his blurred vision locked on a corner house. Weak yellow light filtered through living room window but failed to reach the snow-covered ground. No one seemed to be home. And in the darkness, nobody was, even though Mr. Anderson's car was in the driveway.

It was minutes later before Travis felt a chill on his hands. He looked at his knuckles – raw and ghostly white – when he realized he forgot to put on his gloves, which were still in his hands. Then, a brisk wind reminded him he hadn't zipped his jacket. "Stupid-head!" is what Corey would've called him. Weakly he laughed at himself, for perhaps the first time since…

Tipping his head back, a snowflake suddenly blew into his eye. Snow… It was snowing! In fact, it had been snowing. Four inches fresh on the ground. He just noticed. All week he had moped, stayed inside, spoke little; he was confined within. But now, something about the snow: it was refreshing, reminding him of snowball fights he and Corey used to have. Sleigh riding at the Maple Street hill. Happy memories returned.

Travis started walking down the middle of the snowy road. He didn't think about if he'd get in trouble for running out of the house without asking. He didn't think about what had happened to Corey. And he no longer blamed himself for Corey's disappearance. Instead he thought about all the fun times they'd had together.

And he walked, as if guided from above, not knowing or caring where he went. Just kept walking – down Birch, around the block, back to the Anderson's house. He looked across the front yard, where in the window he saw the same light he saw minutes earlier. This time it had the flicker of a candle.

Then something on the front porch caught his eye. Drawn near, he crossed the road and walked up the driveway, leaving behind fresh tracks in the snow. On the porch, hanging over the top of a wooden rocker, was a hunter green knit hat with a pompom attached by a single long thread. On the floor was a pair of mittens. And he picked them up, not knowing why, just guided by some outside force. He carried them to the front lawn and set them on top of a crusted snow bank by the light post.

Looking up and down the street, he saw not a single car, heard not a noise, except the pleasant giggles of his best friend somewhere in the back of his head. Or up in heaven. But Travis knew, wherever he was, God was looking after him.

As snow fell lightly, the quietness of the neighborhood twinkled in Travis' eyes. Or maybe they were wet. Dropping to his knees, he began to cry. Tears poured from his eyes and froze as they crossed his cheeks. But Travis wasn't cold. Nor was he hot. He felt something different, a feeling he couldn't place; perhaps it was one he only before shared with his family. Love…

But there was another element to it, something he had yet to experience: loss, great and substantial loss…

Now, knees in buried in the snow, Travis scooped a handful of snow and packed it into a snowball. "And when you spit on it," he heard Corey's voice in the back of his mind, "that's how you make an ice ball – especially when the snow doesn't pack." But a snowball was not what Travis had in mind. He packed snow, making it bigger, then dropped it and began rolled it around the front yard, around the baby maple, a large rock by the street with the number 39 painted on it. He continued to roll it until in came up to the height of his bellybutton, when he finally nudging it back to center, a close twenty feet from the living room bay window. Leaving it, he went on to make another not nearly as large. And he pushed it up against the first, and then with a heave managed to push it on top. Then he rolled another, this one much smaller, perhaps the size of his head, and put it on the very top.

Travis snapped a dead branch off the young maple and broke it in half over his knee. He stuck one end into the left side of the coming-to-life snowman and the other into the right. Remembering there was a handful of small rocks under the chair on the front porch, he trudged over the embankment of snow that was shoveled off the driveway and retrieved them. While there, he noticed not a carrot but a screwdriver with a red handle. He brought the rocks and screwdriver to his snow creation and pressed two rocks on the top snowball as eyes, five for a mouth with an upward curve, and another three along the tummy. Finally he stabbed the screwdriver so that the red handle stuck out as the nose.

Travis stepped back to look the snowman over. But something was missing. And Travis knew exactly what it was. He retrieved his best friend's mittens and funky hat with the long streaming pompom. He set the dark green hat on top and then stuffed a mitten on each branch.

He stood back and looked, and looked, while going over in his head the memories he and Corey had shared. It wasn't Travis' fault; this he now knew. Corey would want him to go on, to keep the memories but move on and create new ones so that he could tell him all about them when they met up sometime in the future.

A sense of closure set in for Travis. Was it his way of saying goodbye? It didn't matter. What did matter was he felt better. Guilt no longer consumed as vacant darkness in his head. It no longer froze feelings and thoughts in time.

With these thoughts, Travis said goodbye, prayed for Corey, his best friend in the whole world, and turned and walked away. He stepped over a snow bank into the street, where he stopped and turned back a final time. Tears watered in his eyes. A sudden chill ran through him. Before he knew it, he ran back up the front lawn to the snowman. He unzipped his jacket and yanked off his scarf. Then he took his red and blue New York Ranger scarf and wrapped it around the snowman's neck, knowing it would keep him warm forever.

The chill he felt turned tingly, and warm. And now the sensation was unmistakable: it was love. Caught with his true feelings exposed, he turned and ran down the street for home.

Only a block away, something caused him to stop. He turned and looked back, when he saw there, on the Anderson front lawn, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson standing in the snow on their front lawn. Arms around each other, they faced the snowman, each holding a flickering candle, in a twilight vigil of prayer for their son, Corey, Travis' best friend in the whole world.

What happened next told Travis he would be able to put this all behind him. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson picked their heads up and looked up the road. Raising their candles, they waved. More tears came to Travis' eyes, more than he had ever cried. He rubbed them away, but they kept coming, purging the guilt from his soul. It was only now that he knew Mr. and Mrs. Anderson didn't blame him. They didn't blame anybody. Corey was now in God's hands. Everything would be okay.

Copyright March 6, 1999 by Thor Kirleis
Dedicated to Corey Anderson…
who put his life in front of his dog.
You have touched the lives of more than any would imagine.
Losing you is like losing a part of ourselves.
Sometimes life isn't fair, nor do we always have answers,
such as now…

 

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