Lori started us off with Part 1, centered around a frantic mother and her missing child.
Elsa Winckler continued the story with Part 2, adding to the drama. Here is my contribution, Part 3 of I Looked Away, a story in eleven parts by the writers of Written Fireside...
Like a rock the size of a boulder landing in Garrett’s stomach, the other ranger’s mention of little Noah Tucker made his gut clench. He didn’t want to be reminded of last year’s failure. His failure.
Not again. I’m not losing another. Damn. Why can’t parents do their jobs? Don’t they even care these days?
“I left her sitting at the picnic table over there,” the mother, Madeline Buell said, and pointed down the path.
“And why did you do that?”
“Like I told your colleague, Judy, I went back to fetch our jackets because of the rain.”
“Leaving her sitting alone over there.”
“She wanted to watch the ducks. She could see them from there.”
“At what time did you lose track of her?”
Madeline Buell frowned at him. It wasn’t the frown of an uncertain person trying to recall details. It was the frown of someone offended by his question and tone.
“The time,” she said. “You’re expecting me to have thought to check the time at the precise moment I noticed Megan gone? I was busy…looking.”
Her focus left him. He watched her gaze jump from spot to spot in the distance past his shoulder, never resting on any one thing. Garrett couldn’t read her. Was this the behavior of a young mother who was worried sick? Or did she have something to hide?
“I don’t know what time it was,” she said.
With those words, a near echo to those another woman had uttered, he was instantly thrown back to last summer.
“How long has Noah been gone, ma’am?” Garrett stood in the open doorway of the Tucker’s RV.
It was a little after 11am on July 5th, a Monday. The Tuckers had rolled in on Friday evening, the 2nd, for the three-day holiday. According to park reservations, they were scheduled for departure that afternoon.
Natalie Tucker, Noah’s mother, had wedged herself up into one corner of the camper’s dinette. She was slender, in her late twenties. Her upper body hunched over into itself, while her legs stretched out across the dinette’s bench seat, crossed casually at the ankles. Going by her eyebrows, he guessed her to be a dishwater blonde, but black was her current color choice, the dull black of shoe polish in a tin. Stiff and brittle from over-processing, it had a life of its own. Red rimmed her eyes. They weren’t puffy from tears, just red. She wasn’t crying. She didn’t sound too upset. She didn’t sound much of anything.
“I don’t know what time it was when I saw him,” Natalie said. She didn’t look up at Garret, but instead picked at a hangnail, raising her thumb to her mouth to chew at it with her teeth. “Jordan?”
Jordan Tucker, the boy’s father, sat across from his wife at the dinette. Forearms resting leadenly on the tabletop, he looked ready to keel over in a face plant. “What?” he asked.
“He wants to know when we saw Noah last,” Natalie said.
Jordan was slow to respond and when he did, Garrett could see he had trouble formulating his answer. The man reached for it, but his recollections of the previous hours weren’t coming. “Next to the campfire? I don’t know. Maybe one o’clock? One-thirty?”
“One-thirty yesterday afternoon?” Garret said. He barely succeeded in clamping down on the incredulity he felt, preventing it from leaking into his voice. They hadn’t seen their child in close to 24 hours and were just now coming forward?
“One-thirty in the morning,” Jordan said absently, and then shook his head “No. Couldn’t have been that late.”
“No,” Natalie said. “Sometime around dinner I think?” The way she said dinner, it sounded like a guess, not about when she’d last noticed her son’s presence, but whether or not there had been dinner. “He was sitting by the fire, playing with it with a stick. I remember I….I looked away…at…at…” She shrugged. “It was just a minute, I think, and then I don’t remember what we did after that.” Her voice rose toward the end of her statement, making the sentence into a question. She looked up at Garrett at last. Was she expecting him to fill in the blanks for her?
Garrett could supply an answer easily. Their camper reeked of pot smoke. Were he to conduct a search of the vehicle right now, he wagered he’d find more than the odd recreational baggie of weed.
Jordan groaned loudly and his chin dipped closer to the tabletop. “Poor kid. Can you find him?”
“We’re organizing a search now,” Garrett told them.
“Do you need me…us to help?” Jordan asked.
“It’s best if you stay here, in case Noah comes back.”
“Okay.” Jordan pursed his lips and lifted an eyebrow. “Whatever you say.”
Garrett emerged from the RV grim in the knowledge he had no timeline to use as a starting point for the search. When had six-year-old Noah gone missing? Last evening, late last night, early this morning? He knew he wouldn’t be successful in pulling additional information out of the couple. Yes, he’d leave another ranger, Judy Willis, behind to go over it all with them again, but he didn’t kid himself. Jordan and Natalie Tucker had probably spent most of the weekend getting wasted.
He immediately assigned two rangers to organize ground search teams. He couldn’t contact the Forest Supervisor for a helicopter or other equipment until they had more to go on. Logically, there was only so far a six-year-old could wander, and it made sense to start with the easiest possible answers first, commonly used trails, public restrooms and—he shuddered—the river. He also dispatched teams to spread out through the campgrounds, talking to other campers who hadn’t already packed out for the weekend, asking if anyone had seen the boy and when.
Garrett did everything right. He pushed his people, but no harder than they pushed themselves. Vehicles exiting the park were stopped and drivers questioned, even more intensely when initial search parties turned up nothing and he and his teams feared Noah might have been abducted. An amber alert was issued. Water rescue covered the river. Hundreds of volunteers came out for the search.
Six hours, nine hours, working until darkness forced a halt to the search, they turned up squat. Not a single hint of Noah or what might have happened to him emerged. Their best shot at last known whereabouts had been the retired couple in the space next to the Tuckers who thought they might have seen him around the Tucker’s campfire at five-fifteen the evening before.
A full day passed. Garrett tried not to think about temps that had dipped into the twenties during the predawn hours. To their credit, none of the volunteers showed any signs of giving up on the second day; combing the forest well beyond the range even the most curious and determined child his age could have traveled.
Not once did the Tuckers stir from their RV. They couldn’t continue to use, not with Judy Willis and others watching, but sobered up they weren’t any more help. They remained curiously detached about Noah’s fate until it eventually sank in an arrest for child neglect was in their future.
Garrett couldn’t say if it was desperation or a hunch that prompted him to search the old logging trail at the far north end of the park. Just before sunset on the second day, he got in his truck, utterly frustrated with himself and the boy’s parents and drove eighteen miles over terrain only a dedicated off-roader could handle until he reached the trailhead.
Noah lay curled up at the base of a Douglas fir less than a hundred yards in. A stuffed toy, a tiger with its bright orange and black stripes, gave away the child's location. Noah, wearing only a tank top, shorts, and sneakers with no socks, lay curled around the animal as if sleeping peacefully. He wasn’t asleep. He’d died of exposure, no doubt during the early morning hours before light, when not even a helicopter would have been of assistance in locating him. How had the boy come to be here? Where had the stuffed animal come from? He already knew it didn’t belong to Noah.
He knelt next to the motionless form, touched the tiger’s face, traced a finger along that happy, childish grin and broke down, too exhausted to do anything but weep.
Yanking himself forcefully out of the past, Garrett studied Megan Buell’s mother, and wondered if he had another Natalie Tucker on his hands. Madeline's shoulder length honey blonde hair was fine and wispy, but it suited her equally delicate face. She appeared frazzled, not just worried, but permanently frazzled, and again, he received the impression she was hiding something. She was also livid with him.
“Look,” she said. “Believe anything you want about me. Call me anything you want. Irresponsible. A bad mother. I’m not who matters. Megan does. Find my baby!”