The sun was too low on the horizon by the time Corey Porter jumped out of his pickup and hustled through the gravel toward base camp. DPS officers and the Red Cross were already onsite, setting up first aid and communication hubs next to the ranger station at Slide Rock State Park.
Tracking should be easier at this time of day, Corey reminded himself, but it was small comfort. Ten-year-old Gloria Chee had already been missing for three hours and temperatures in Oak Creek Canyon would drop quickly after dusk.
Corey’s voice echoed from the walls of Oak Creek Canyon two hours later. His team stilled behind him, expectant. Only the creek interrupted; bubbling, splashing. Even the trees were silent, as if they too were listening for the cries of a lost little girl.
Corey was beyond hoarse, but he waited ten seconds then called her name again. When he heard no answer, he took a quick sip of water then returned to the trail, picking up his pace, ignoring his angry throat. Dusk was less than an hour away.
A few minutes later, his radio squawked. For a moment his heart stilled. Incident command had given them a death code, but thankfully all he heard was Team Two checking in with base camp. Corey followed suit as his team dropped into the third mile of their search grid along the Bear Sign Canyon trail. Helicopter surveillance and hasty searches had been unsuccessful, but another ground team found Gloria’s father just two miles away. Still disoriented from a bad fall, he believed she had gone looking for help after he lost consciousness.
Corey’s heart shuddered at the thought of his own little girl, scared and helpless in the woods by herself. He stumbled over a rock and grabbed a tree, correcting himself.
“Want to take a break?” Ben asked.
Embarrassed, Corey shook his head. Sleep had been elusive again last night; he had spent most of it sitting by Grace’s bed, watching her sleep.
Focus, he told himself, but he was struggling.
“Observe, don’t look,” his sergeant always said. “Search without expectations; to rescue someone, you need to first accept what is instead of imagining what might be.”
Corey blinked, trying to visualize Gloria’s dark eyes and apple cheeks.
He pictured Grace instead.
Grace, his six-year-old daughter: Safe at home, but already far beyond his rescue.
Grace; who could repeat one hundred and seven words, but couldn’t string them together; who screamed when he hugged her and never looked him in the eye; who had seemed typical until age two.
Shelby was quick to accept Grace’s diagnosis, attacking it with vigor; school meetings, therapies, special diets. Stacks of books penned by celebrity mothers covered her night table; she joined online support groups and wrote copious notes. Her friends listened while she talked, cried and organized. Corey’s friends couldn’t seem to look him in the eye anymore – not when he mentioned Grace. One offered a few clumsy words of support before quickly changing the subject to football. Another, a new father, only wanted to know if Corey was for or against immunization, considering.
My uncle died as an infant of diphtheria, he wanted to say. You really think death is better than autism?
“Grace learned a new word,” Shelby told him yesterday, adding it to the list on the refrigerator. Corey smiled and sat down next to Grace at the table.
“Can you say ‘music’ Grace?”
“Say music Grace,” repeated Grace, looking at an unfixed place near Corey’s elbow.
Corey drove them to Phoenix for countless evaluations. He dutifully read e-mails from groups that lobbied Congress for funding and organized races.
What about right now? he wanted to ask. What about Grace?
When Grace was born, life had been laid out in front of them like a map of possibilities. Now it seemed that only one path was open to them. It was hazardous and no one really knew what was at the end. Even more frightening, Corey felt like he had to clear it himself, all while keeping his eyes open for landslides.
When he pushed her on a swing, she screamed. She couldn’t ride the bike he bought her. The puppy had been a complete disaster.
“Corey, honestly. What were you thinking?” Shelby had asked.
Disappointment was a shameful word; one he never spoke out loud. But guilt was his constant companion. What little progress Grace made, she made with Shelby, not with him. Corey resigned himself to the only role he played well – the payer of bills. But it was taking a toll.
And Shelby’s way of dealing with things – retail therapy, she called it – wasn’t helping matters. “It’s how I cope,” she told him after they got the last credit card statement.
Corey coped by volunteering with Search and Rescue, where he actually could make a difference – tracking someone, rescuing them. By the end of the day a little girl could be reaching for him instead of turning away. But Shelby didn’t see it that way.
“What would Grace and I do if something happened to you?” she asked.
Their arguments always circled that way, tightening like a coil.
Corey felt most adrift at night when the darkness grabbed his fears, expanding them. He usually ended up by Grace’s bed, where he sat and watched her sleep. With flushed cheeks and dark curls pressed against her forehead, she looked like the baby she once was, back when he slept easy, dreaming of her bright future.
He couldn’t remember when he first began to sing to her. His voice had been little more than a whisper, barely cutting through the stillness of night. When Grace didn’t stir, it grew stronger. A thrill of warmth coursed through him; a thread of connection. Corey returned nightly, not singing songs like those he had once crooned in the off-campus club where he and Shelby first met, but songs his mother taught him; lullabies about ribbons and springtime, star-crossed lovers. Lost babes in the woods.
Smoky twilight settled on the canyon and the wind responded like a desperate mother, stirring up the trees.
Corey waited, counting. The trees fell silent and a faint cry followed, but was it real or just the work of a hopeful imagination?
Corey called her name again, holding up his hand for silence. The men stilled too, listening. This time, her cry reached them all.
Corey turned off the trail. Running down a steep slope, he pushed through foliage until he reached a sharp edge. Dropping to his stomach, he leaned over, searching.
Wedged behind a boulder, wide-eyed and dirty, was the most beautiful sight Corey had seen all day.
“Hang on, Gloria! We’re coming down to get you.”
With shaking hands, Corey unclipped his hand-held and shared the good news.
An hour later, Gloria and her father were reunited at base camp. Search and Rescue workers surrounded them like a prayer circle, clapping and grinning.
“Praise God,” Ben said, cuffing Corey on the shoulder. “This could have turned out so much worse.”
Corey nodded, pushing down an unexpected lump in his throat. He turned away and headed toward his truck. He didn’t want to stay and celebrate. He wanted to go home to see Grace.
It was late by the time he opened the front door, but Shelby was waiting up for him, pacing in front of the fireplace.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, noticing her wet eyes.
“Grace sang to me,” she said. Her voice was thick.
Corey dropped his bag, shaking his head. Grace didn’t sing; she barely spoke.
“I don’t understand.”
“She came in our room and said, ‘Daddy sings.’ I was so surprised; I didn’t know what to say. But I told her you would be home very late.” Shelby lifted her shoulders, a triumphant shrug. “And then she began to sing. I’ve never heard anything so beautiful, Corey! She sang some kind of lullaby – every word, perfectly.”
Corey sat down in front of her. For a moment, he couldn’t speak.
“I’ve been singing to her at night,” he finally admitted softly. “I never knew she was awake. I never knew she heard me.”
The next night, Corey put Grace to bed. For the first time, she listened to his lullaby with her eyes open, observing him solemnly. Two nights later, she sang for him. Corey wasn’t ashamed of the tears that ran down his face.
“She’s gifted,” Shelby said from the doorway. Speechless, he nodded.
“I’ve read about this kind of thing,” Shelby told him late that night. Her eyes were brighter than they had been in years. “Kids who can’t express themselves typically – when given a chance, they find another way.”
All Corey knew was that Grace’s voice had melted the fear around his heart, giving him hope.
“I once read that a successful rescue leads a wanderer home, and the rescuer toward grace,” Corey told Shelby. “I think I finally understand what that means.”