Boy Missing Near Judith Gap

(Originally published in Camas.)

The governor had to call off his fishing trip in the middle of the holiday weekend to meet with the parents of the missing boy. It chapped him, but the Party insisted he go out to Wheatland County and settle things down. A five-year-old was missing two days and two nights after wandering off during a family camping trip in the Little Belt Mountains and the media had the whole state caught up in it. People were flooding the local 911 dispatch with crazy tips and false-alarm sightings. Do-gooders and ambulance chasers were coming from all over and getting in the way of things. It was a borderline hysteria situation. The governor had spent the last month tying up stoneflies and dreaming of cold, clear water rushing around his waders, maybe drinking a beer by a campfire. Now this.

On the three-hour drive from the capital the governor rode shotgun in the state Suburban, with his aide driving and the first lady chatting with the governor’s bodyguard in the backseat. Even breathing through his mouth the governor could taste the bodyguard’s shitty cologne. He thought he could tough it out but the smell parched his throat and his head began to throb and soon the governor announced he needed to take a piss. The aide checked his watch and said they were on a schedule; he was going to have to hold it. The governor groaned. The first lady leaned forward in her seat and told the aide again that the governor needed to pee. She used the aide’s full first name in the way she had of ending a conversation.

They stopped at a gas station. The governor went to the men’s and then found the first lady out back by a picnic table. Dark hair and green eyes and a chin a little too blunt. It nearly stopped his heart how much he loved her.

“You look like shit,” she said, smoothing his eyebrow with her thumb. “You look like nobody came to your birthday.”

There were whispers inside the Party that she might make a good candidate someday, if the governor scored the cabinet position he was hoping for from the new president. During the ride, he’d been thinking about the first lady and his bodyguard, who was really just a state trooper in a sport coat. He was pretty sure the two of them were sleeping together.

“I’m fine,” he said. “The fishing trip I guess.”

He felt stupid saying it like that. He knew this thing with the missing boy was important. It was only May, still freezing at night and there was a storm forecast for the end of the holiday weekend.

The aide showed up with the county sheriff on the cell phone and the governor walked away to talk.  Straight off, the sheriff said law enforcement was pretty sure the missing boy wasn’t really missing; that the parents killed him and dumped his body somewhere in the woods.

“You’re dry-fucking me,” the governor said. He watched the first lady walk back to the state Suburban, where the bodyguard leaned against the hood with his hands in the pockets of his slacks. “Are you sure?”

“That’s how these things go,” the sheriff said. “Generally speaking.”

The governor pinched the bridge of his nose and took a breath.

The sheriff said, “We’re waiting on you at the Knights of Columbus.”

Back in the state Suburban, the governor tore his aide a new one. This time he sat in back with the first lady and the bodyguard sat up front. Gripping the aide’s seat with one hand, he poked him in the shoulder with a finger to underscore his points about the right and wrong way to shape their message and get it out to the people. The wrong way, the governor said, included but was not limited to commiserating with the perpetrators of infanticide. When he was done the aide looked at him over the top of his glasses.

The aide said, “Alleged infanticide.”

For the rest of the drive, the governor buried his face in the dossier on the missing boy, which was just a folder of news clippings that his aide put together for him. Snapshots of the parents and the kid’s school picture. They all looked normal enough.

Steel wool clouds took over the sky and the wind battered the wheat fields that pushed in on the highway. Twice, gusts pushed the sate Suburban into the rumble strip and the governor grabbed the door handle and said, goddamn it. They made the county line and the Judith Gap wind farm appeared on the horizon. The governor closed his dossier and craned his neck to get a better look. Almost one hundred 90-meter wind turbines cresting the ridge like giant skeleton fingers, triangular blades spinning in the on-coming storm. From the distance there was something ancient looking about them, like they might’ve been there for centuries, though the wind farm was only a couple of years old.

One of the governor’s biggest campaign pledges was to put the state in the energy production business. Ethanol plants, clean-burning coal-fired generation facilities all over the eastern half of the state. The wind turbines were just the first step. Seeing them now stirred his belly and he squeezed the first lady’s hand until she took it away and went after her nose with the pad from her compact. They’d been out this way two years ago, for the dedication of the wind farm.

“People ask me what the weather’s like in Judith Gap,” the governor had said in his speech. “I say to them, ‘I don’t know, I’ll tell you when it clears up.’ ”

It got a pretty good laugh.

Outside the Knights of Columbus a herd of reporters loafed around waiting and somebody must’ve had a pack of gum, because they were all chewing when the governor got out of the state Suburban and held the door for the first lady. He kept his head up and smiled, but didn’t respond to any of the questions about the missing boy before they ducked in through the building’s big glass doors.

The sheriff turned out to be a young guy with glasses and a dirt-farm mustache who hitched his gun belt up around his gut when he saw the governor. The only other people in the lobby of the Knights of Columbus were the parents of the missing boy. The governor recognized them from the pictures in his dossier. The father was tall, almost as tall as the governor, and had a belly on him. He was wearing a flannel shirt tucked into jeans. The mother was skinny and looked finicky in the face. A long nose. They stood up from naugahyde chairs, cups of coffee in plastic holders sitting on a glass end table and the governor gathered them both up in a big, rough hug before shaking their hands. He introduced himself by name and asked them if they were hungry. He was hungry.

“Can we get you folks something to eat?” he said.

The governor did a lot with food. Casual luncheons, breakfast buffets, black tie fundraisers for the party. He was at his best when he had a full plate in front of him. A big appetite, the bolo tie – that stuff played.

The father said he could eat. The mother didn’t say a word. They were both bleary and pale and the governor told the aide to run out and pick them up something. He looked at the first lady and she said she just wanted black coffee. She took his arm when he offered and he felt his mood start to lighten. He glanced at the bodyguard, who stared straight ahead.

The four of them all sat down at a big meeting table in the back office and the first lady touched each of the parents on the hand. She said they were all so sorry. She said that the state’s top people and best resources were one hundred percent dedicated to resolving the situation. That was a good way of putting it, the governor thought, not too committal over guilt or innocence. Slick and smart. She still had the nose of a prosecutor.

The food came and they all ate, except the mother, who just pushed it around in the Styrofoam container with a plastic fork. The governor reassured them that everything that could be done was being done to locate their boy. He asked them some questions, whether the boy was into sports, what he’d been wearing the day he disappeared. The parents didn’t say much. Finally the father sighed and said they were pretty anxious to get back to the base camp and help with the search. When they all stood up from the meeting table, the governor noticed the boots on the father of the missing boy. He had the smallest feet the governor had ever seen on a grown man.

Back out in the lobby, the governor put his lips close to the sheriff’s ear. “They’re guilty as grave robbers,” he said. He made sure to shake hands with everybody and hugged the parents one more time before they went out and piled back in the state Suburban.

At the motel, the first lady set up her laptop on the round table by the window. The governor sat on the bed with the TV going and stared at her back. He wanted to say something to take away the distance he felt between them.

“They didn’t even have the Internet here a few years ago,” he said. “It’s the wind turbines bringing the whole area back.”

She didn’t look. “You think you’ll be really late?” she said.

He hoped not. He didn’t want to be out in those woods much after dark. He said: “I told you the sheriff said the kid’s dead already.”

She turned in her seat. “You don’t really believe that,” she said. It was her courtroom voice, the kind that could cut either way. It chapped him, but he didn’t say so. The first lady went back to her computer and the governor sat looking at a baseball game with the sound down. After a while he got up and changed into a plaid Woolrich shirt and a stiff pair of carpenter’s jeans. He checked himself in the mirror and asked the first lady how he looked.

“Gubernatorial,” she said. She stared out across the parking lot where the aide and bodyguard were unloading bags from the state Suburban. It looked like rain.

“I’m taking John with me,” he said. John was the bodyguard’s name.

He watched her for a reaction, even though he knew there wouldn’t be one. She nodded and kissed him on the cheek, then went into the bathroom and closed the door. In a minute he heard the shower running.

For the volunteer search they were split into two-man teams. Each man got an orange cap. Some of the guys passed out rifles and the bodyguard handed the governor a double-barreled shotgun and he broke it over his arm. There were a bunch of police cars and TV satellite setups and trucks from the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife. Somebody spread a topo map out on the hood of a cruiser and they got instructions from the state trooper who’d charted out the search. They would walk a loose parade line and the teams would get separated, the officer said, but they all had GPS units and radios, so it wouldn’t be a problem. The whole time the guy talked, the media stood around taking pictures of the governor with his cap and gun.

It didn’t take long after they set out before it was just the governor and his bodyguard alone in the hills. They hiked and he studied the man from behind. Thick through the shoulders, but shorter than the governor and with a bald spot showing above the adjustable snaps on his hat. Big, meaty hands swinging at his sides. They shared a canteen of water and talked about their prospects of finding the boy, which they both agreed were nonexistent. They talked about football and whose colors the governor would wear when the two state university teams played each other in November. It surprised the governor how well they got on.

The forest got thick and mossy and they found bear tracks in the mud as big as the governor’s head. The two of them squatted by the tracks and rested and then the bodyguard nodded at the shotgun and the governor made sure it was ready to go.

They came to a ridge that looked out into a valley of soft yellow wheat. In the distance, the wind farm, propellers spun in the jet stream. The bodyguard glassed the valley with his binoculars. The governor stood and drank from the canteen. His face felt hot and he was sweating from the hike. He wondered if he could push the bodyguard off the ridge and say he fell. The drop was a ways, but it might not kill a man.

The bodyguard put the glasses down and reached for the canteen. “What’s funny?” he said.

“You think I could really kill a bear with this thing?” the governor asked. He shouldered the shotgun.

“Scare it maybe,” the bodyguard said. “Or just piss it off.” They both smiled and the governor nodded and they set off back toward the base camp.

The storm hit full over night and in the morning there were tree branches and tumbleweeds lying in the streets. The governor stood at the window of the motel room watching teams of men clear the parking lot while the first lady tapped away at her laptop. She’d quit her job as a county prosecutor to be the first lady and now she earned twice as much as the governor doing consulting work for big firms.

He touched her shoulder and she smiled at him without really looking up from her computer and her coffee cup. It made him feel like something had broken loose inside him and for a minute he forgot to move or even breathe. When he found his bearings he went into the bathroom and called his aide and they met in the lobby of the motel.

The aide carried the date book that controlled the governor’s life. The governor asked him what was in the book for next week. A meeting with the mining board, the aide said, and then the ribbon cutting at the new high school that would open in the fall.

The governor said to cancel it all. He said he and the first lady were taking a vacation, maybe to the lake or to that resort she liked. They needed a week or so and would pick it all up again when they got back. The governor talked in a rush. He looked the aide in the eyes and said please. He tried to keep the desperation out of his voice.

“Not a chance,” the aide said. “I’m not canceling on the mining board.”

“You’re fired then,” the governor said.

“I’m also not fired,” the aide said.

The mood at the base camp shifted from rescue to recovery. Even the reporters chewed their gum and wisecracked under their breath with an air of grim acceptance. Still, they drove out there for one last walk. This time the bodyguard carried the shotgun. It was hard going over the wet ground and it drizzled on and off, but they managed to cover more ground than the first day and still found nothing. Near dusk, the bodyguard said they’d better turn back and the governor grunted his approval. He was tired and his legs and hips ached.

They found a clearing with a flat rock for the governor to sit on and tie a boot that had come undone. The bodyguard stood with his back to him and pissed against a tree. A breeze came through and the governor took off his cap and tipped his face back and sighed.

After a minute, the governor asked the bodyguard if he was fucking his wife. The governor had a small rock in his hand and said it without looking up, running his thumb over the rock and concentrating very hard on the texture of it. When the bodyguard was done, he zipped up and came back across the clearing and took a second to think before he said: “If I were, I wouldn’t tell you.”

“I want you to stop,” the governor said.

“It’s not really up to you,” the bodyguard said.

The governor stood up too fast and it made his head wobble, the colors of the woods swelling around him. He dropped the rock and said: “Now you listen to me,” but trailed off. He was very close to the bodyguard, smelling his cologne, his body tense and shaking.

The bodyguard spat into the weeds. “What if I was in love with her,” he said. “Then what?”

“The whole state is in love with her,” the governor said. “Have you seen her?”

“She’s going to leave you,” the bodyguard said. “She told me she was.”

But as soon as he said it, his face went slack and the governor saw the anger drain out of his eyes. He could tell it was the first time the bodyguard had said that out loud and he was just now realizing how ridiculous it sounded. The first lady of the state running off with the governor’s bodyguard. The state trooper in a sport coat. His lips went thin and colorless and he had a look of such complete, pitiful sincerity that the governor had to shake off a wave of aching sadness for him.

“Jesus,” the governor said. “Do you have any idea the things I could do to you?”

The bodyguard sneered. He said: “Don’t bother,” and pushed past the governor into the trees.

The governor asked him where he thought he was going, but the bodyguard just kept walking. Soon the governor couldn’t see him, could only hear the sound of his boots crunching in the dirt and the leaves and he yelled for him to stop. The bodyguard had the GPS and the radio clipped to his belt and the governor didn’t know if he could find his way back to camp on his own. He yelled again but got no answer. It was getting dark in the clearing and the breeze was turning to stiff wind. It would storm and freeze again overnight and the governor felt a rush of panic at the thought of being alone out there. He started into the woods after the bodyguard, calling out for him to stop. He listened for the sound of the bodyguard’s footsteps, but the woods were silent except for the wind.

The bodyguard had left the shotgun leaned against a tree while he took his piss and governor thought of firing a shot into the air. It was getting dark fast. He checked the shells in the gun and then snapped it shut and put the butt to his shoulder. He was about to pull the trigger when he heard the bodyguard yelling his name and he put the shotgun down and ran. He found the bodyguard in a small gulley, a place where a thick stand off trees partially hid a sharp dip in the ground. The bodyguard was crouched at the edge of it and the governor came and stood behind him. The missing boy was down in the little hole, curled in a ball with one leg twisted out away from his body. The boy was blue and dead.

The two of them stayed there a long time without moving or saying anything.

The boy must have wandered in through the trees, maybe in the dark, and fallen in the hole. He’d broken his leg in the fall and was trapped down there and died, from the cold or from hunger or shock. Whatever it was, it probably took a while. The governor caught his breath and then said every curse word he knew. The bodyguard stood and asked him what they should do. The bodyguard said the state troopers would want to come out and tape off the area, run an investigation, but the governor said no.

“He just fell and died,” the governor said.

He stumbled down into the hole and wrapped the boy’s body in his jacket. The body was light and hard and smelled of stale urine and pine needles. The bodyguard took his hand and helped pull him back up into the trees. He carried the body across his chest and it was cold without his jacket, but governor did not put him down or stop again to rest.  It was dark when they reached the camp and the big temporary light towers brought in by the highway department were blinding as they came out of the trees. The flock of reporters rushed to meet them, toting cameras and extra lights and shouting questions. The bodyguard stepped up to head them off and the governor took the boy’s body to the medical tent and made sure the EMTs wrapped him in a sheet and put him in the ambulance before the reporters could get any more pictures. Then he went to see the parents.

They set up another tent in the rain for the press conference and when the first lady showed up she made them turn the stage and the podium so the cameras would pick up the wind farm in the background. The governor stood in a line with the parents, the first lady, and the country sheriff, all of them squinting in the glare of the cameras and the portable light towers. There were not a lot of questions and nobody had much to say, but the governor had to stop talking a couple of times to clear his throat and wipe his eyes. The reporters tried to ask the parents some things, but finally the governor said to give them a break.

It was after midnight when the press conference finally wrapped. They were on their way back to the motel in the state Suburban when the cell phone rang and the aide said it was the new president. The president said he’d seen what the governor had done on the television and said he was still keeping him in mind for that cabinet position. The governor said thank you, Mr. President and that was it. The governor hung up and the first lady smiled and squeezed his hand.

At the motel, the first lady went into the bathroom to brush her teeth. The governor was standing by the window again, watching the first glimpses of purple light start to play above the mountains, when she came out and slipped an arm around his waist.

“I’m sorry about fishing,” she said.

He leaned into her and they kissed. Underneath her jacket she was cold and the governor slipped it off and pushed his face against her neck. They sat on the bed and he rubbed her hands until they were warm. She stood and faced him and took off her clothes and the governor put his hands together on the small of her back and kissed her belly. Her fingers went into his hair, pulling him closer and he bit the point of her hip bone, her stomach tightening in little quick beats, and he moved his hands down and around her thighs. She undid the first two buttons on his shirt and he did the rest.

He slid her down onto the bed and got on top of her. There were two small moles just below one of her breasts and he kissed them for a long time before he inched down her ribcage and between her legs. She sucked in a breath and held it. In a minute she pulled him back up and helped him inside her. The governor kissed her nose, moving as slowly as he could until she rolled him over and got on top.

She braced herself against his chest with two hands pushing. Her hair fell around her face and he watched her.  “I love you,” she said, shifting her hips back and forth on him. “I love you.”

He knew he was going to lose her. Not to the bodyguard or anyone else, but to the rest of it. She would never leave him, but he would go to Washington with the new president and the Party would make her governor and then senator and then who knows what. She was better at all of it than he was and he was damn good. Someday they wouldn’t be like this. Someday he would forget how she looked when they woke in the morning and how she tasted when they made love. He would hate her for it. Someday, he thought, but not today.