Taylor sat hunched over a grilled-cheese sandwich. He looked up when I entered, and his face seemed more relaxed, not tight with pain. “Where is everyone?”

I don’t know if it was because I’d reached home and didn’t find Miller as I’d hoped, or if I felt I could let down in Taylor’s presence, or if I simply could not hold my angst inside any longer, but I burst into tears.

Taylor leaped to his feet and put his arms around me. “What’s the matter, Mama?” His voice was the most tender I’d heard it since he returned home.

“Miller is missing,” I choked out.

I felt Taylor’s arms stiffen. “What do you mean, he’s missing?”

“He went out with Thor early this morning. We found the wagon and your father’s ax missing and figured out he went to the Marion National Forest to cut down a tree.”

“You’re kidding.” Taylor wasn’t joking. He was as stunned as I had been. He pulled back to look at my face. “He’s been missing since ten o’clock?”

“Earlier. He was gone when I woke up at nine.”

Taylor released me and put his hands on his hips, his face sharp with concern.

I quickly brought him up to speed. “Alistair and I looked everywhere, then notified the sheriff’s office. A group of us went out to the path Miller and I take for our Christmas Forage trips. Sure enough, we found the wagon and a cut tree along the path.” I lifted my hands in desperation. “But he wasn’t there!”

“Thor was with him?”

“Yes, thank God. I feel much better knowing he’s not alone out there.”

“So what are they doing now?”

“They’ve broken into teams and are searching for him. We all have maps.”

“Show me.”

I pulled out my map and handed it to him. He immediately opened it and spread it out on the table. He pointed to the X that I’d marked as instructed. “Is this where he was last seen?” he asked tersely.

“Yes.”

“Where’s the entrance?”

I pointed that out as well.

He marked it with a pen, then folded the map in quick movements. He had become another person. His eyes were alert, his stance erect. He was in command. I thought this was what he must’ve been like in war.

“Why didn’t you wake me earlier?” he asked tersely.

“You had a migraine. I thought—”

“No matter.” He lifted his hand to halt my excuse.

“Taylor, don’t go. It’s going to be dark soon. I don’t want both my sons lost.”

“Don’t worry, Mama. This is what I’m trained to do.” He bent to kiss my cheek. “I’ll find him and bring him home. I promise.”

“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.” “What is the matter?” asked the Spirit. “There was a boy singing a Christmas carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”

—A Christmas Carol

Chapter 21

Miller

I followed the sound of Thor’s barking through the trees, several branches clutching my coat and scratching my face. I called for him over and over, “Thor!” Finally I heard the thunder of his paws in the composted woods as he ran back to me. His tongue was wagging low and he had a goofy look on his face like he’d just had the best time. I wanted to be mad at him, but I was just so relieved to see him I put my arms around his neck and hugged him.

“Where’d you go, boy?” I asked against his velvety fur. He was warm and panting hard after his run, and his heat was comforting against my chilled body. Even with my long underwear I was starting to feel cold, and my fingertips were biting inside my gloves.

“This is as good a place as any to take a break,” I told him, letting loose my backpack. It fell to the ground with a soft thud. I pulled out a few of the carefully packed snacks from the bag. I brushed away mold and bugs from a fallen log and sat. It felt great to give my legs a break. I was more tired now than I’d ever been on any of the Christmas Forages with my mother. Part of it was the cold. My fingers smarted in the few minutes I took my hands out of my gloves to parcel out the snacks. I shared my cookies and nuts with Thor, and he ate them greedily. Then I drank water from the plastic bottle. Even though the air was cold, I was thirsty from all the walking. I poured some water into the plastic cup I’d packed for Thor and held it out. This, too, he gratefully slurped up. I watched as he drank, amazed at how long his pink tongue was. When he drank the last drop, I put the cup back into my backpack and zipped it up. In the back of my mind I wanted to be sure I had some for later . . . just in case.

“As nice as it is to sit,” I said to Thor, “we’d best get moving.” I looked around to gauge which way I’d come running after Thor. We were surrounded densely by trees of every kind, mostly pine. Everything looked pretty much the same. I didn’t have a clue which way to go. I felt a shiver of fear and walked around in a circle, hunting for a broken twig or footprints or anything that looked familiar. I saw depressed earth that could have come from my heels. It was the best clue I had.

“Let’s go that way,” I said to Thor.

Thor followed me trustingly, walking at my heels. But his tail was dragging low. I was feeling the cold in my fingers and toes and stopped from time to time to stick my gloves under my arms. I was worried about Thor. He didn’t have boots on his paws. We plowed on through the forest, past thickets of trees so thick I had to detour. When I reached a small, open arena where soft, jagged-leaved ferns blanketed the ground, thick and lush like a soft green blanket, I stopped. My heart began to pound in my chest. I’d never seen this spot before. My mouth went dry.

“I think I made a wrong turn somewhere,” I said to Thor.

Thor sat on the ground, his big tongue lolling out of his mouth, foamy at the top. I could see he was getting as tired as I was. I felt my first panic. I couldn’t deny it any longer. I was well and truly lost.

I was feeling plain scared now. Thor depended on me to get him out of here. I tried to calm down and think back to when I went hiking in the forest with my Boy Scout troop. My Scout master had told us what to do in case we ever got lost. And the first thing he said was not to panic! To remember that my best tool was my mind.


Tags: Mary Alice Monroe Lowcountry Summer Romance
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