McIntosh Trail

In the Cold

Meghan Jaczko, Staff Writer

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It was the dead of winter: the trees had shed their protective coatings, leaving only skeletons with branches for bones. My feet crunched the pristine white snow as I struggled to keep up with the group. Fogging my vision, my breath hung in front of my face, and my throat was raw from breathing in the frigid air.

We spent two hours walking around the forest looking for him, hoping to find something that would lead us to his location. The cold had finally gotten to my bones, and suddenly it was the only thing I could focus on. As I pulled my coat closer to me, one of the dogs cried out. I rushed over to him and knelt down, the snow soaking my pants and chilling my knee. The dog gently licked his paw, and his blood stained the blinding white snow. When I picked up his paw, he let out another whimper – the only sound that pierced the air. A thorn had made its way through the snow and into the dog’s paw. I moved my numb hand and grasped the thorn; it pricked my finger, but I didn’t notice the pain until I successfully removed it from the uncomfortable dog. Standing up, my knees cracked, and my wet pant leg stuck to my skin. The dog gingerly put its foot down, but recoiled at the pain.

We started to trudge on again; we were slowing down, but no one wanted to admit that, no one wanted to be the weak link, no one wanted to give up. The ashen sky provided a visual for our feelings and the lonely caw of a crow was the soundtrack. Finally, the leader announced that we were finished for the day with our desperate search. My heart lifted at the news, and the feeling began to return to my hands. I abruptly stopped and pivoted in my spot, an action that caused me to smash into a fellow searcher. As I looked at his face, the warmth left my body. His eyes were emerald green and his red fiery hair hung loosely over his forehead, peeking out from under his black hat. His soft jaw line left no doubt — this was the younger brother of the man who we are looking for. My heart stopped at the inevitable realization, and I muttered, “I’m so sorry” and rushed past him.

There was a stone rolling around in my stomach as I thought about my encounter. I had never realized that the guy we were looking for was an actual person; I had always thought of him as someone who was a nobody, someone who was just a name and a face, someone who had no backstory, but looking into the eyes of his brother and seeing the pain in them, the hopelessness in them, made me finally connect the dots. Without warning, I was pushed out of my thoughts as I slipped on a patch of ice. My feet lost contact with the ground, and my hands shot out to catch me. Slamming my hands down on the ice, they slipped out from under me, and my body came crashing down onto the frozen water. The slip left me on my stomach gasping for air that lit my throat on fire with each ragged breath. After I caught my breath, I slowly stood up and continued to make my way back to the town. I mechanically stepped up the hill, my legs burning from the relentless cold and the excessive walking, and finally the town was back in sight. As I relished in the idea of sitting by a warm fire and drinking a mug of ale, I couldn’t help but think about the brother of the missing man; something about him stuck with me, something I could not put a name to.

The next morning, I followed the same routine set by the previous day: out of the town and over the hill I trekked. To my dismay, I had arrived ridiculously early, and there was only one other person who had arrived at the meeting spot for the search. As I approached the lone searcher, my blood pressure rose; all it took was a glint of his red hair to clue me into his identity. We locked eyes and I offered a measly half-wave in a futile attempt to break the awkwardness. Standing next to him in the piercing cold, I was at an impasse: should I talk to him, or just pretend he wasn’t there? Both of the options are undesirable. If I decided to strike up a conversation with him, what would I say? “I’m sorry your brother is missing”? “Cold weather we’re having.”? Nothing felt right. And if I chose to just ignore him, then I was no better than those who aren’t out here helping.

“Thank you for showing up and helping,” the man spoke. “I’m John Myers.”

“Yeah, you know, it’s not a problem. I’m, uh, sorry your brother is missing,” I said. He cast his eyes down to the frozen ground.

“It’s been almost two weeks and everyone is starting to give up hope. I really know he is still out there, but people don’t want to look anymore. They don’t think it’s important enough.”

I was at a loss for words. I mean maybe it was time to stop looking for this guy; like, he has a family but he isn’t an integral part of our town, so why are we wasting our time looking for him?

“Uh, of course. How long, do you think, will it be until the rest of search group is here?”

“Shouldn’t be more than a few minutes.”

We stood under the barren sky and the naked trees painted black streaks on the gray clouds. Nearby bushes rattled with the sound of small woodland creature scurrying around, trying to find any bits of vegetation they could. The familiar crow was back from yesterday; his echos filled the frozen air. A large group of men came over the hill behind me and John; their black silhouettes provided a stark contrast to the sky. As they came up to us, I was reminded of my short stature, and we got into the same clump as yesterday.

Although everything was physically the same, everyone’s attitude had changed. The mood of the search went from being desperate to apathetic. I could tell this would be the last day we would look for this man. I felt bad for John but it’s what had to be done; just because one life was missing didn’t mean we should miss out on living our own lives. But that might be drastic thinking, because we’d only put our lives on hold for two weeks. Two weeks is nothing in the grand scheme of things.

I was pulled out of my racing thoughts when we heard a shout coming from the front of the group. John gave me a worried glance before gliding through the group. The searchers all parted when they saw him coming. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. The wind had died down and the crow was quiet. I stepped forward and followed the path John had made; my legs were filled with lead and my heart was racing even though I knew what was happening. I wanted there to be a person who could still be saved, but I knew it was just a body.

In complete silence, John sank to his knees and hunched over the body on the ground. As his wool cap fell off of his head, I saw the same red hair on the ground beside him. The entire group lowered their heads in silence; no one made a sound. John let out a few tears that melted the snow. Someone came forward with a blanket in his arms. He unfurled the plaid blue blanket, and laid it over the body. Two more men came forward and they lifted the body up; John remained on the ground — frozen.

I didn’t know what to do. John and I barely knew each other; what was the appropriate thing to do? What could I do that would even matter? How could I help him?

I placed a hand on his shoulder. And he looked at me with tear stained cheeks.

“Want to get a drink?”

He nodded and slowly stood up. He threw his arms around me and squeezed the air out of my lungs. My ribcage compressed under his pressure and I began to feel light headed. Just as I was seeing spots, he let go and held me at an arm’s length. John turned and began to stumble up the hill. We walked in step until the outline of the town cut through the darkening sky.

I led the way to my favorite pub and John picked a small table that was tucked into the corner of the loud tavern.

“So, what was your brother like?” I asked, setting down two hefty mugs.

“He was really great, you know? There’s no one else like him. He wrote a lot of poetry, but he didn’t like people reading it,” John’s voice cut above the loud patrons.

We talked for the rest of the night, and in the morning the ice had begun to melt.

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In the Cold