Search and Rescue

He was not hung over, not even particularly sleepy. He was just lazy that spring morning.
He was already awake when the call came, but he didn’t answer it. He had been lying awake in bed for, what, about fifteen minutes, maybe twenty. It could have been four or forty. That was one of the delicious things about sleeping in, that you did not have to be at all accurate in your estimations of time. They would make no difference.

He had set the phone’s ringer volume low enough that it was inaudible beneath the buzz of it vibrating against the finish of his night table. When the buzzing started he turned to see the glow above the lit screen and its glimmer reflected in the desk lamp leaning over it. He didn’t raise his head to look at what was displayed on the screen. He was incurious. He rubbed his arm against the cool underside of a pillow.

After the ringing had stopped the screen was lit up again, and he raised his head just enough to see a voicemail notification. He hadn’t missed anything, then. He could check the voicemail later, after he felt like getting out of bed.

But he should check at least who it was from. He reached over and turned the screen on to check who left the voicemail. It was Chet, from the air search and rescue service. That’s right, he thought, I’m was on call this week. Ugh, do I have to, though? There was a reason, after all, that he was playing hooky from work. Today was a long-overdue mental health day.

Pressures had been building up in the office, underneath the cork of his temper, and he needed to drill a hole down through it and safely let out some of the gas so the cork didn’t fly out and put somebody’s eye out, and he lost another job to an impolitic outburst.

Eh, it’ll be fine. He was only the first in line on a long phone tree. They would be able to reach someone after him on the list. And anyway, now they had drones to do most of the heavy lifting, the tedious, taxing, time consuming pure search, which would take who knew how long.

So when he finally got out of bed some time later, after he had finally become bored of luxuriating in the bedclothes, he left his phone on the nightstand. He went into the living room and plopped himself in front of the TV. He browsed through the channel guide until he was tired of the ads and promos being played on the top half of the screen and just pressed the ok button on the next thing that was even mildly acceptable, River Monsters.

The host, Jeremy Wade, was searching for a giant salamander which was possibly the inspiration for the Japanese folk monster the kappa.

As he watched, his mind sank into a torpor, rising only at the end of the episode, prepared to expend more energy in order to decide what to watch next, when a voiceover announced another episode of River Monsters to follow. Now that he knew he didn’t have to change the channel, he redirected the newly awakened mental energy to getting some breakfast. He got up and walked into the kitchen, which still had a view of the television. He fixed himself a bagel and ate it at the kitchen table while watching the next episode, which featured an electric eel.

It was near lunch time. Sunlight shone on the magenta sofa and gave one spot a bright cast unknown by the rest of the room. He was still hungry. He poured himself a bowl of cereal and took it to eat sitting on the couch with his feet up on the coffee table. Next was a special episode with the Amazon river dolphin.
After he had watched three episodes of River Monsters, or part of one, another and then a special, he felt it was time for something else. So he flipped channels and landed on an episode of Pawn Stars in which some woman was trying to sell her husband’s collection of Playboy magazines.

That sucked him in. And then he liked how the cufflink guy knew at least as much as the staff did about the stuff they had in the store. And of course there was a World War II item in the episode. He wondered if there was one in every episode. It was a casual surmise, which could be probably be answered by a quick internet search, but his mind was satisfied with just the stated path to a resolution of the problem. He was not interested in actually seeing the path pursued. The proof is left as an exercise for the reader.

By the middle of Pawn Stars he was eating some generic corn-based salt-infused snacking product. They were coated with orange grains and left a yellow stain on his fingers.

After Pawn Stars was over he switched to headline news for a minute and saw a piece on hikers lost in the area north of his home. Oh shit! he thought. When they moved on to the next headline he switched to one of the main news channels where the thing was running a little more in depth. There was a map. There was mention of a drone. A talking head was explaining the sequence of events.

The hikers were dead. They had been found by a drone but no pilot could reach them in time. The drone had captured their death on camera. They had been half-buried by a sudden avalanche. A helicopter was on the way, but it did not reach them before a second avalanche buried them completely. Then Chet’s voice was on the TV. They had him on the phone. “Unfortunately you know we couldn’t get a pilot soon enough. We have several people on call, but you know how it is. You have to reach out to these people, you have to get a hold of them, and you know, unfortunately, in this instance we couldn’t do that in time.”

He put the TV on mute and went into the bedroom to grab his phone. He picked it up and hit the voicemail, and there was Chet’s voice again. “Hey Larry, it’s Chet down at the Air Service. We’ve got some work for you. A couple of hikers have been reporting missing, maybe you’ve seen the news. Or you will. Anyway, give me a call, hopefully on your way down.”

He looked down at his yellow-tinged fingers. He could feel them bloat, especially at the knuckles, as the salt made them soak up more water to dilute the concentration. Similarly, Larry opened his attention to as much of the present world as he could. The sudden eruption of guilt needed to be diluted. If he brought in enough other matter into his head perhaps the parts per million of remorse could be reduced to a level where he could get off the couch. It would take a while though. He lost awareness of the TV.


He only flew once that summer. He took a trip out to the hangar where he kept his helicopter, just to look it over, he told himself. It looked untouched. It was beautiful. Smooth paint. Tiny dots of rust but only in a couple spots, at the edge of one panel and on one landing skid. But it was super clean. The people at the hangar did a good job of keeping it so. It was a fine aircraft. Better than the fractional he had owned a piece of before this.

He told himself it would be a waste to come out all that way and not take it out, so he took the helicopter up. He flew in the direction opposite to where the hikers were found, but after an hour or two of flying, he swung back. He figured he’d take just a quick look.

He only had the vaguest idea of where the hikers disappeared. The bodies had long since been recovered. The snow that killed them had melted away. He wasn’t be able to recognize anything about the area. It was just mountains.

It was a nice day. He enjoyed the sunshine, although it still could not touch the empty gnawing feeling in his chest and stomach, the ice monster coiled inside his torso from his stomach to his heart.
He flew back to the hangar unsure if he was emptier than when he started out.


Some friends had invited him to fly out to their cabin for Labor Day. They were pretty obviously fishing for a helicopter to have at their beck and call during the weekend. Not that they needed it, but they thought it might be fun. And why not invite him for the things like that that he can bring to the festivities, as well as for his sparkling personality and his biting wit?

But he declined their invitation. He knew how morose he seemed, and he didn’t want to impose his mood on anyone. He didn’t think anyone could dispel it. In fact he didn’t want it dispelled. He was bearing it with pride, humbly, gratefully, dutifully. He bore it as penance. It gratified him. He would have felt more guilty trying to enjoy himself, which would cancel out and go against the whole point of whatever supposedly fun thing he would be engaged in, so why bother? Being alone was better. He was not isolating himself out of depression, as his friends might look at it. He was cloistered in sober reflection.


On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend two hikers texted an SOS. They had been expected by their friends the night before, so they had officially been missing through the night. The early morning text received by the friends said simply, “we’re lost.” The search was on, and Larry was watching it unfold on TV.
He picked up his phone and called Chet.

“No,” Chet told him. “We don’t need you. You know when we call someone and they are not available, they move down the list. Well we called, and you weren’t available. And you were on the first tier, Larry. You know we got a lot of people who are offering their services, so we go with the people who show themselves to be reliable. It’s just based on past performance, you know, demonstrated reliability.”

“You can’t give me one more chance?”

“I’m sorry, Larry. If I did it would be to put you back on one of the lower tiers, which we can talk about, but not today. I certainly can’t do it on the spur of the moment, the day of, when other people are already lined up and ready to go. Listen it’s a very busy morning, as you can imagine. I’ve got to go. Don’t worry about it, we’ve got all the help we need. Don’t you worry about that, now.”

That wasn’t what Larry was worried about.


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