The summer I was 17, I worked at a camp in Northeast Ohio, on the Lake Erie shore. I was courting the girl who would later become (and still is) my wife, and many nights we would be up late, watching the slow progress of the oreboats and gazing at the stars over the water. I was on maintenance, and, being the only one who could drive the tractor, I had to get up at five-thirty in the morning and coax the old red Farm-All to life and hook up the homemade, plywood-sided trailer so we could collect the camp's garbage and scrub the latrines. I didn't sleep a lot that summer, but late one night, or more exactly, early one morning while I was enjoying my two hours of rest, the state police knocked on the door of the male staff's dorm.
There had been a bad accident a little ways down Lake Road . A car had hit a tree. There was blood on the seats, but the two passengers reported inside of it were missing. The police needed us to put on our clothes, grab our flashlights and help search the woods on both sides of the road.
It wasn't a request, and we never thought of saying no. We put on our sneakers and hauled on our sweatshirts and followed the cops down the road.
I don't remember the car--seeing it off the road, the hood crumpled against a tree trunk. All I recall is how dark the night was, and the tall grasses and weeds passing through the circle cast by my flashlight. I remember parting the waist-high grass with my free hand to see what might be hiding in it. There were no streetlights, only the police car back on the road, its red-and-blue lights strobing. We pushed farther in, skirting trees. Around me, other flashlights probed the brush, and I was sure that with my luck I would find one of the mangled, bleeding bodies.
I didn't. Nobody did. The man and woman in the car were drunk. They were found on the front steps of a nearby house, passed out, cut up but not badly hurt. We all went back to our bunks, and in the morning the search was the talk of the whole camp. To me, maybe because of my lack of sleep, it seemed like a dream, or a nightmare, something strange and barely understood.
It still does, and probably always will. The search for or pursuit of a missing person underpins several of my stories and novels, including Snow Angels and Wish You Were Here. For twenty-five years I've been circling that dark night on Lake Road . In Songs for the Missing, I've gone back there to face it, back to the lake, and the camp, and the road, and to those people hoping (against hope) not to find what they're looking for.
To learn more about the author's work, please visit his website.
(photo by Trudy O'Nan)