A woman was passing out the neon-colored vests, while another was taking down the names of the volunteers and organizing them into search teams, each with a leader who was assigned a walkie-talkie. A man with a bullhorn was shouting out orders about where to check in and instructions on how to proceed once they got started. Everyone was handed a black-and-white flyer with a picture of the missing girl, and Violet was glad to replace the mental image she had of the stumbling, incoherent girl from the night before with this smiling photo.
She waited with a crowd of people who were hanging around one of the many uniformed police officers; she was hoping he might be able to tell her where she could find her uncle. Other people shouted out questions all around her.
How long has she been missing?
Was this where she was last seen?
Do they think the killer might have taken her?
Do they expect to find her alive?
Violet tried to push her way to the front of the gathering, to get the officer’s attention, but it was like swimming upstream, and she found herself making backward progress instead as she was squeezed toward the rear of the group. She didn’t want to yell out and draw attention to herself, so eventually she just pried herself free from those looking for answers.
She wondered if coming here had been a mistake. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so adamant about trying to help. But she felt guilty, riddled with a sense of at least some degree of responsibility for being among those who had last seen the girl…and one who hadn’t bothered helping her when she’d so obviously been in need.
She drifted around, feeling a little like a wayward snowflake caught in a breeze, finally landing near the cluster of volunteers who were busy checking in.
“Are you already assigned to a team?”
Violet looked up, caught off guard by the woman passing out vests. “No,” she answered, thinking to tell the woman that she wasn’t planning to join the search but never quite finding the words.
The woman handed Violet a vest and another woman assigned her to a team. She was introduced, only briefly, to her team leader, a man who was probably in his late fifties or early sixties. His gray hair was cut high and tight, army style, and he looked like he’d done a tour or two in some branch of the military. He handled his walkie-talkie like a seasoned veteran.
Surprisingly to Violet, however, especially since he gave the air of a man who had seen some action in his day, she sensed nothing at all from the über-militant team leader. John Richter carried none of the imprints of death she would have expected.
Maybe he wasn’t so tough after all. Or maybe he’d just been lucky.
The no-nonsense team captain took the lead, reading the coordinates on the map he held and piloting them to the area they’d been assigned to search, which was circled in red Sharpie. There were five other members of her team, two women and three men. Violet didn’t know anyone in her grouping, and she didn’t really care. That way she didn’t feel the need to make polite chitchat.
The farther they walked, passing other teams as they scoured the area, and moving deeper and deeper into the damp, darkening woods, the more ominous it all began to feel. Violet wasn’t afraid, but she was definitely troubled by what they were doing out here. She had the foreboding sense that this was an effort in futility, that they were out here simply to rule out the possibility that Mackenzie had wandered away from the party and had gotten turned around among the trees…when it seemed so obvious to Violet, and probably to almost everyone around her too, what had really happened to her schoolmate.
He had gotten her.
Violet could hear the others, in all directions, calling out Mackenzie’s name. They passed a few men who were carrying long wooden poles that looked like unpainted broom handles, and she could only imagine what they were meant to prod or uncover.
She followed her group until they reached their designated coordinates, and they were ordered by John Richter to fan out, keeping one another in their sights but spreading wide enough apart to cover as much ground as possible.
Violet moved with careful steps, losing herself in the process of the search. The familiar, reassuring smells of the woodlands drifted around her. The Christmassy smell of the fir trees surrounded her, along with the dank, earthy scent of fallen autumn leaves left to decompose. The air was moist and thick with the kind of misty precipitation that was common this time of year in the Pacific Northwest. It seeped through Violet’s clothing and her shoes, until it was pressing itself damply against her skin and chilling her all the way to the bone.
While she explored she was aware of several weak echoes around her, which she generally assumed were long-dead animals buried in the underbrush of the thickly overgrown forest floor. They were easy enough to ignore under the circumstances.
Other teams moved past and around them, moving in larger circles, widening the search and covering more and more area. The sheer number of people involved in looking for Mackenzie Sherwin seemed endless, and Violet took some amount of comfort in the fact that so many people were trying…that so many people cared.
She hoped beyond hope that their efforts would be rewarded.
But she wasn’t holding her breath.
She heard the musical ringtone of a cell phone, and even though the sound was far away, she instinctively patted her pocket to feel for hers and realized that she’d left it back in her car. Her mom would be pissed. It probably didn’t matter, though, since she doubted she would have gotten reception out here anyway.
She climbed up, and over, a rotting log that was lying in her way. Her hand touched the slippery film on top of it as she maneuvered it, and when she was on the other side she wiped her hand against her jeans to rub away the slick sensation. She thought of Grady, trying to cram his greasy tongue down her throat last night, and she nearly gagged.