For the last two days, nobody has talked about anything except Meghan.
"Poor girl. I hope they find her soon."
"And this time of year, too! Dangerous."
Dad has just come back from the search party and, exhausted, collapses into his chair. Our border collie, Pepper, rests his head on Dad's knee as the TV news recounts everything we already know: she walked out after a fight with her parents, she was last seen walking along the road to her family's cabin, and how the search is focusing on the woods south of High Point Road.
"They need to search north of the road!" I say to the TV and Dad through gritted teeth.
"Julie," Dad says tiredly. He's exhausted and I've been telling him this since Monday morning. "There's nothing north of the road she would be trying to get to."
"The Old Cabin, Dad, I told you about it."
"That cabin's nothing more than a tin roof on stilts. Some farmer just parked his tractor under it years ago. There's no way she would be going there or have any shelter once she got there."
Dad is right about the Old Cabin; a tin roof on stilts. But a bunch of us from the neighborhood hang out there, and kids from town, Meghan included, would turn up if they could catch a ride.
The TV shows a picture of Meghan. "Meghan Shorehill is 16 years old, five-foot-one inches tall and approximately 105 pounds with sandy blonde hair reaching halfway down her back. She was last seen wearing blue jeans and a red and black plaid jacket. If you have seen Meghan, or have any information, call the Idaho State Police, your local sheriff or police department, or 911."
Hypothermia is on everyone's mind, but nobody says anything; tonight is going to be colder than the last two.
"You'd have found her by now if people would just listen to me."
Dad ignores me. I've said everything I can say and so has he.
I know I shouldn't, but I've got to. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to sneak out early and search by myself. Dad will be leaving at about 5 am to join the searching party, so I'll get up right after he leaves. If I leave early and am quick, I can still make the bus in plenty of time.
I run out to the workshop where Dad and I keep our hunting equipment. I gather up all the supplies: hat, gloves, boots, a flashlight, a whistle, a pocket knife, a hand-held mirror, my orange hunting vest, my compass, matches, and our GPS unit and stuff them into my backpack.
I hardly sleep. Every noise sounds like Dad leaving, but each time I look it's way too early.
Dad finally gets up about 4:30. I leap out of bed once he leaves at 5.
Pepper comes upstairs and wags his tail. He sees the clothes and I'm up at a strange time of day. He must think something is up.
"Oh, Pepper, I wish this was an adventure day. You can come, but it's business."
I mix up a thermos of hot chocolate, grab some beef jerky and a zipper bag of granola mix, get my cell phone and I'm out the door, Pepper trotting along behind.
It is still dark when I set out on my bike, but fully light by the time I reach High Point Road. Pepper sniffs in the ditches, sprinting to catch up when he falls behind. Traffic is heavier than usual, heading to the search party's rendezvous point. A helicopter thumps in the distance.
A rusty gate is all that indicates the existence of a disused private road, and it doesn't take me very long to get there. The fence to the side of the gate has been down for as long as I can remember, so I don't even have to get off my bike to get around it and onto the private road. I power through the narrow path through the overgrown parts of the road and am at the cabin.
"Meghan? Are you here?" My voice sounds small in the woods.
I straddle my bike and look around. I hold my breath to hear more clearly, but Pepper rustling through the brush makes listening pointless.
Pepper stops and looks up at me, but then goes back to sniffing an invisible trail.
There is no reply to that call or the next three.
"Well, Pepper. What next?"
I get off my bike and walk around. It doesn't look like anyone has been here lately, but if Meghan didn't bring any food or drinks there wouldn't be any wrappers or bottles to leave behind.
The private road continues downslope into the woods, and although I've never been all the way down it I know it leads to the river at the base of the valley. Maybe Meghan is at the river. I leave the bike and start down the road. This road is even more overgrown, and the footpath becomes hard to see as I approach the river.
The gurgling of the water over the boulders is all I hear.
"Sorry Pepper. It looks like there's no happy ending today."
Pepper makes his own happy ending splashing in the river before shaking off and following me back up the path.
I stop short when I come to a clearing; we didn't go through a clearing on the way down. I know we didn't. The clearing -- about a half-mile wide and very long -- is filled with boulders and waist-high weeds, now golden.
"Pepper? Where are we?"
Pepper noses into the clearing.
The clearing follows the river on one of its long ends, and extends upstream to a ridge, while the woods make up the other long end.
"This must be that farm on High Point Road. I'll bet the road lies along the far tree line off to the west."
The clearing will make easier walking than will the woods, and High Point Road lies at the top of the ridge anyway. I'll just walk there and follow the road back to my bike. I can probably still make the bus if I don't waste too much more time.
I am enjoying the sun when I hear the chop-chop-chop of a helicopter. The copter floats over the trees, but then suddenly lurches forward and heads straight for me and Pepper, sending up dry weeds and dust. The roar is deafening and I shield my eyes from the flying debris.
Pepper jumps back, barking furiously as the helicopter hovers over us.
Two men in black ninja suits and helmets look out of the side of the helicopter. It slowly descends, more closely than I think it should. I crouch down out of reflex.
"Meghan Shorehill?" booms a voice from a loudspeaker.
"NO!" I scream over the rotors, shaking my head wildly.
The two men study me carefully. My hair is much darker and shorter than Meghan's.
"Have you seen anyone else out here?"
I shake my head no.
The helicopter continues to hover for a long time. The two men talk to each other, sometimes pointing at me. Finally, one of them shrugs.
"Are you lost?"
"No!" I mouth, shaking my head.
The men look confused. They probably don't know what to do with another girl in the woods, and not the one they were looking for.
They finally wave to me and the helicopter flies away, following the river upstream and toward the road. Pepper and I continue walking.
"Hey Pepper. Have you heard this one?"
Pepper looks up when I say his name, but quickly goes back to sniffing.
"Two cows are in a pasture. One of them asks 'So, are you worried about mad cow disease?' 'No,' says the other. 'Really? Why not?' asks the first. 'Because I'm a helicopter! Thump thump thump thump!' "
Well, I think it's funny anyway.
Pepper and I eventually get to the other side of the clearing and --
There's no road.
I look in disbelief at the lonely ridge and the woods beyond.
"But I could have sworn this was the field along High Point Road. I've seen it a million times! It had to be!"
I get out the GPS unit and push the display button. It comes up for a few seconds, but then fades and dies.
"No! Don't go out!"
I try to turn on the unit again. My heart sinks as, within seconds, the display goes blank.
"No, no no!"
I take out my cell phone, the tower icon with the red X indicating no signal.
I fight back tears. Okay, Julie, think! You must think!
I take a few deep breaths and remember what I can about the woods, the river, and High Point Road. I must still be north of the road, since I haven't crossed it since leaving the bike at the cabin. Therefore, if I go south I have to find the road eventually. That's what I'll do. From the sun I know more or less which direction is south. I'm sure to miss school today, but that's just going to be too bad; getting home is more important.
"Well, Pepper," I say, energized now that I have a plan. "Looks like we've got some walking to do."
I head towards the forest to the south, Pepper ever faithfully trotting behind.
Just inside the tree line, Pepper stops and perks up his ears. He sniffs the air and listens. The hair on his back rises slightly.
"What is it, boy?" I whisper, afraid he smells a bear.
Suddenly, Pepper takes off like a shot through the woods.
He disappears into the underbrush but I can hear him crashing his way through.
"Pepper!" I run after him.
I come through on the other side of a thicket and Pepper is standing stock-still, listening and sniffing.
I reach for his collar, hoping to catch him before he runs off again. He darts ahead a few feet, knowing my intent.
A hurt wailing sound floats through the trees. Pepper hears it too and runs toward it.
A wounded rabbit is no big deal, a skunk is a problem but not a serious one, but a hurt coyote or rabid raccoon can be deadly.
Pepper is out of sight again, barging his way through the underbrush.
He explodes into a fit of barking, having cornered what he was chasing.
I run towards his barking, nearly tripping several times.
I am surprised that Pepper sounds happy about what he's found; that's not his fight bark.
Pepper's back end is sticking out of a thicket, his tail wagging. He backs out, trying to pull something heavy. He has red fabric in his mouth, and hands?human hands -- have a hold on his collar.
"Julie!" she says when she sees me, her voice a hoarse croak and her dirty face smeared with tears. "Oh, Julie, I was so scared!"
"Meghan, what were you doing in the thicket? We'd never have found you!"
"I was so cold. I tried to make a shelter with leaves and sticks, but I just couldn't stay warm. I was so cold. And hungry."
"It's okay now. We're going to get you home."
I put my arms around her. She's shaking violently.
"I tried to get to the Old Cabin. I thought I knew a shortcut. I tried to turn around once it got dark, but I couldn't tell where I was going and then I fell and I think I broke my ankle."
I held Meghan close. "It's okay. You don't need to explain anything to me."
We sit on the ground, holding each other until Meghan stops shaking.
The hot chocolate I brought is now cold. I give some to Meghan, but her throat closes on it and she coughs, spraying it on herself and me. She coughs for a few seconds then tries again. Again, she can't swallow and coughs. Good old water would have been better, but I didn't bring any.
As Meghan recovers from coughing, I check the cell phone again. There's still no signal.
I pull some leaves out of Meghan's hair.
"Helicopter," she whispers.
"Shhh," I say, pulling more leaves out of her hair. "Try not to talk. A helicopter flew over a while ago, but it's gone now."
Meghan was shaking her head violently and pointing upward. "No. Now."
The sounds of the helicopter get louder as it approaches. I jump up and look around. I can't see the helicopter, which means it will never see us.
"Meghan, how is your foot? Can you walk?"
"It's broken. I can't walk on it at all."
I dig my whistle out of the backpack and put it around my neck. I put my arm around Meghan and lift her up. We hobble to the clearing as the helicopter gets closer.
The helicopter passes not far from us, making a beeline for the clearing.
"Hey! Here!" I yell, waving my free arm. I grab the whistle and blow as hard as I can. The helicopter keeps going.
The helicopter stops and hovers, but still too far away for them to see us. But at least it's not flying away.
"C'mon, Meghan! They know we're here!"
I try to hobble faster, but Meghan is exhausted. She looks at me helplessly.
"Meghan, you've got to try! We're almost rescued! You can do it!"
We hop toward the helicopter, but the effort is too much for Meghan. She stumbles and falls face first to the ground, landing on a rock. Crying, she rolls over on her back and covers her face, now bloody.
Her sobbing intensifies as the helicopter pulls away.
I sit on the ground next to Meghan and smooth her hair from her face. Pepper walks forward and licks the blood. I push him away, although I know he is trying to be helpful.
I now realize what Meghan has been through. This isn't a twisted ankle on the soccer field. She's spent three nights in the woods, one of them bitterly cold. She had no gloves and her hands are now cut and caked with dried blood. For the first time, I notice the telltale signs of frostbite on her ears. This is the real deal. Some people lost in the woods never get found. This is how some people die.
I start to cry as well. It would be dangerous to push her too hard. It can't even be noon yet, and they aren't going to stop the search anytime soon. I can -- and need to -- be patient.
The helicopter is hovering again, this time farther away.
I rip a piece of my shirt and use it to clean the blood off Meghan's face. Why didn't I bring a first aid kit?
The helicopter moves on down the clearing again.
Meghan sits up and holds her hands out to me.
"Up," she says.
I pull her up and we hobble to the edge of the clearing.
We catch our breath and with effort make it about ten yards into the clearing. The helicopter is well down the clearing, from here looking not much larger than a dragonfly, facing away from us.
I help Meghan sit on a boulder and then flail my arms wildly.
The helicopter continues to hover. After a few minutes, it starts to move even farther down the clearing.
Wait! The mirror! I saw this on TV once. I dig in the backpack and pull out the mirror. You make a V with two fingers, with the person you are signaling in the V. You then hold the mirror next to your face and shine the sun's reflection through the V. Then you pray.
The reflected light bounces off my fingers as I move the mirror back and forth.
"C'mon! C'mon! See us!" I cry quietly.
I look at Meghan. She's just sitting on the boulder and staring at the ground.
I look back, and the helicopter starts moving away.
The helicopter gains altitude to clear the trees and leave the clearing. It doesn't see me.
"No! No!" I scream, flashing the mirror back and forth furiously.
Just before it passes out of sight, the helicopter makes a sudden sharp turn and heads straight for us. I keep shaking the mirror. The helicopter speeds up.
"Oh, thank God!" I scream, jumping up and down. "Meghan! They see us! They're coming!"
Meghan doesn't look up. Although her eyes are open, she sits still, slumped over on the boulder.
Pepper barks as the helicopter gets closer.
With a roar, the helicopter stops and hovers over us, the two helmeted men looking out the side door.
I jump up and down, waving. I point with both hands at Meghan, still sitting on the rock, listless, too exhausted to move.
The two men talk excitedly into their headsets, and then study the ground below them. They shake their heads and soon a boom swings out from the door and a rope snakes to the ground. One of the men has put on a harness and rappels to us.
"Is she hurt?" he asks me as he runs over to Meghan.
"Her ankle is broken. And she hit her head on a rock."
The man pulls out a first aid kit.
"Meghan, look at me," he says. "Okay, you're safe now. We're going to get you home. Now, where are you hurt?"
Meghan mumbles and weakly points to her head and her right foot.
The man flashes a small pen light into Meghan's eyes and then looks at the cut on her forehead.
"Send down the basket," he says in to his headset.
Nearly instantly, a rescue basket, looking like a little yellow mesh canoe, is lowered from the helicopter.
The man picks up Meghan and in no time has her secured in the basket. In seconds, Meghan is hoisted up and in. After about a minute, another basket is lowered to the ground.
"Get in," the man tells me.
"What about Pepper? I can't leave him here."
"He'll ride with you," the man nods.
I'm unsure, but have no other options.
"Here Pepper," I call and pat my stomach once I'm strapped in.
Pepper comes to the side of the basket, sniffs my belly, but doesn't get in.
"C'mon, boy," I say, patting again.
The man and I grab Pepper's collar and pull him into the basket with me. I wrap my arms around him and make him lie down on top of me.
"Hold him tight!" the man warns. With thumbs up to the other ninja, we leave the ground.
Pepper starts when we lift, and he looks quickly off both sides of the basket and tries to stand. For a second I'm afraid he's going to jump.
"Good boy," I say soothingly, stroking his neck and back. "Good boy. Stay down. Good boy."
Pepper hunkers down and whimpers, hair on end, shaking.
Once inside the helicopter, Pepper cowers down, not liking the vibrating, pitching floor. The second man hoists the first man from the ground. They shut the side doors and we roar off over the treetops.
The two examine Meghan as well as they can while I release myself from the basket.
From up here, I can see where I had been wandering: the clearing and river, High Point Road, and even the short strip of the road to me and Dad's house. The field I thought I was in is very small compared to the clearing, but is not far. I can guess where the cabin is, and it didn't take much of a wrong turn to get me thoroughly lost.
We fly directly to the hospital, landing at the helipad.
Word has already gotten out and TV cameras film the landing. Paramedics rush up as soon as the rotors stop and whisk Meghan to the emergency room.
A policeman lets Pepper stay in his cruiser as they take me in to be examined, but of course I'm all right.
Meghan's parents rush past me to the room Meghan is in.
Dad shows up not long after Meghan's parents. He tries a couple of times to say something, the first time mad, then scared, but then he just holds me tight.