I Made Myself a Needle

Picture Credits: bhossfeld

The highway’s a
mess, all slimy fish guts and thin tires ploughing through ankle-high water. I
flick on my wipers, but the water’s in the air, fog running down glass, and the
fish smash against the windshield anyway. Poor travelling conditions, the
highway authority warned. Right. That happens when fog thumps and rolls its way
down the mountains and fish flick their way through the air, not obeying
traffic laws or having the sense to be skittish like deer. The tiny yellow
minnows are the worst, darting out in schools from the coniferous darkness.
Each one lands with a thwick on my windshield, and wipers drag clumps of
yellow and silver scales and blood into swishing semicircles.

I need to cancel
my swimming classes, I remember. All of them. I pick up my clunky Samsung and
sneak a glance at the screen, but still nothing.

For most of the
day I’ve followed the same red taillights through the fog, but even they turned
off a few kilometres back. The next town with its cheap yellow brick of a motel
is still ahead, but it’s too slow going, especially if a larger trout were
stupid enough to smack into my rusted Toyota.

The sign was a few
kilometres back, but I’d told myself I wouldn’t stop. That she isn’t there.
There’s nothing in the campground, really. Not this time of year, a month or
two before the owners start sweeping up the debris from winter. But the roads
aren’t listening, and so my eyes flick between the highway and the gaps in the
branches in time with my wiper blades. I catch myself thinking the pines look
familiar, but they’re trees.

When I turn off at
the sign and finally bump my way down to the dirt clearing, the ruts in the mud
are old and rained in.

*

The night before the search, Mom had
me watching to make sure Alexa slept while she trekked up the path to see if
the lodge had batteries for our flickering lantern. I was ten that year; Alexa
was six. The tent flap was firmly zipped, but I kept hearing Alexa’s little
feet kicking against the nylon. Her body was too busy to shut down, like it had
been too busy digging for worms with a crowd of boys earlier to shake the sand
out of her bathing suit when Mom told her. Meanwhile, I’d sat by our burned-out
firepit and pored over Grandpa’s old tackle box. It was a fishing lake, after
all. Cheaper camping spots.

I wrapped clear
fishing line around a stick in the dark, the line slipping between my fingers
with every knot. The back of my neck was crisped from dragging the line back
and forth on the dock, but all I’d hooked that day was lake weed, dripping and
green. After a few hours, I’d waded to catch minnows for bait in a Becel container,
but their silver mouths gaped back and forth at me as they swam away. The
ponytailed girls my age hadn’t said a word to me, just curious looks between
screeching at the idea of fish tails brushing their bare legs.

A loud zip, and
Alexa’s face peered out. “You’re gonna teach me to fish tomorrow, right?”

“I don’t know how
to fish.”

“That’s okay,” she
said, unperturbed. “You teach me, and I’ll know. Promise?”

I laughed,
promising only if she’d go to sleep before Mom came back.

Alexa poked her
caramel-coloured head fully out. “I can’t see them inside here. The tent’s in
the way.”

I sighed and
beckoned her, dropping the fishing line in the dirt. “You better be quick.
Mom’ll be back.”

At home we had a
skylight in our bedroom, right where our heads met. Alexa always slipped out of
bed after Mom tucked her in, tried to jump across the sky. She’d find a star,
then she’d look for the next closest and do a little hop in her pyjamas. Then
she chose the next, and the next. She went on dipping trails through the starred
darkness, hopping to another point in the sky.

Outside our canvas
tent, her flip-flops made a snapping sound in the dark. When she was done,
cheeks flushed, I brushed off the bottoms of her pyjamas and zipped the tent
behind her.

Then I dragged my
hands through the dirt, feeling in the grit for the smooth fishing line. It was
invisible in the dark, and my fingers caught on nothing but poky twigs,
rough-edged rocks, and the constant brush of browning pine needles.

*

Chlorine and echoes. About a month ago,
I stood in a slick, high-necked one-piece in a too-warm pool, toes scrunching
against the thin grout on the bottom. My whistle just added to the chatter of
the seven-year-olds as I tested them on proper kicking, the backfloat. Alexa’s
daughter, Presley, swims like a fish. She doesn’t stay up well, but she has a
way of wiggling and then gliding until she starts sinking. Then her scrawny
body suddenly jerks, like a fish flipping its tail for a new direction, and she
goes with the momentum, flapping thin arms and gliding again.

I gave them all
watery high-fives as they left the pool. Alexa was on the side, as usual. That
day she was exhausted from showing houses, her normally smooth hair frizzy as
she leaned against the windowed wall to the parking lot. It was a dark spring
day and the clouds sank with their weight. The fish had started, then. Come
down from the hills, but not many. Alexa watched an orange fish the size of her
hand nibble at the glass.

“Mom told me
you’re being evicted,” Alexa said.

“Renovations.”

She snorted.
“Sure, renoviction. You found a place yet?” My lessons were cutting down, and
she knew it. Then she offered a place to stay. She hadn’t thought about it. I
could tell. She never thinks. Just decides she should do something, so she
does.

I should’ve
thought. Instead, like an idiot, I thanked her.

*

Everything in the campground – the
parking lot, the lodge, the empty campsites – looks smaller than the pines,
which crowd around the dirt lot. Their sappy needles stretch over the mud. My
fingers shake as I shove my phone into my hoodie and start rooting around in
the cluttered trunk. A flash of yellow to my right – I spin around, but it’s just
a school of bright minnows.

The thick fog
feels like pinprick raindrops on my skin. I need my rain jacket, but the back
of the Toyota is a mess of haphazard boxes, bathing suits, half-empty cans of
hairspray and jumbled spatulas. I find the jacket, finally, under my pillow and
the torn grocery bag of unwashed laundry. Shaking off Dorito crumbs, I slip it
on.

I know I’m alone,
but it doesn’t stop me from squinting at the trees. My body is a branch bent
away from the path, tense, threatening to whip back. Running shoes shuffle me
forward, down the rocky, tree-lined path, and down to the beach.

*

The morning before the search, right
after breakfast, I’d pumped my gangly legs and willed them to run to the little
dock before anyone else. I’d stripped to my bathing suit in the mist and hucked
myself into the cold water. My thin shoulders started to shake, but the ponytailed
girls never shivered when they jumped in.

I was treading
water and imagining chatting to the girls, maybe racing them to shore, when Mom
came with Alexa. My sister was holding Grandpa’s tackle box tight, and Mom
waved at me as she sent Alexa down the hill in her yellow bathing suit.

“Not now, Alexa,”
I called to shore, trying to shoo her back.

She set the tackle
box on a rock. “You said you’d teach me to fish.”

Trampling feet and
whipping ponytails thundered down the path. They giggled, but it couldn’t have
been at me yet.

”Alexa, I’m busy,”
I snapped. “Go do something else.” I squeezed my eyes shut and sank below the
cold water. Toes strained as I made myself a needle, piercing through the water
to the lake weed that tried to wrap itself around my ankle.

I didn’t even see
her enter the trees.

Wounded minnows are
thought to release a “fright scent” from their skin, and it seeps across the
emptiness to the other fish. They smell it, or breathe it, or maybe they just
feel it tickle across their gills. Just as one of them gets hurt, the other
minnows get the scent and feel fear welling up inside them. They start darting
away, freezing, to avoid a predator they can’t see or smell or hear.

It was maybe
thirty minutes into swimming with the girls that I felt it. That unknown fear
filled my body from my callused heels to the ends of my hair as I called
“Marco!” through screwed-shut eyes. That’s how I first knew that Alexa was
missing.

*

The trees open up to the gash of
rocky beach bleeding into the cold, still lake, but the slimy dock I remember
isn’t there. Even so, I can still hear the creaking when each wave hits, the
almost gasp of the boards with every icy drop.

I walk until the
cold water squishes its way through the mesh in my running shoes. My phone hasn’t
buzzed, but I light up the screen anyway. She still hasn’t texted me back.

Behind me, the fog
drifts through the trees, and it calls her name. White socks now translucent
brown with water, I slop up the hill. My feet hit the rocks slowly, and then faster,
until I’m running headlong into the woods that swallowed up my sister.

*

Alexa’s house was white and taupe,
granite and stainless steel. I started out seasoning the chicken, but somehow
Alexa was the one basting, setting the timer, poking in the thermometer. I was
put on peeling carrots, boiling water.

It had been three
weeks. “Maybe I’ll try further north,” I said. “Cheaper rents, and they have
pools.”

Alexa wrinkled her
nose. “North? There’s nothing there.” She grabbed the milk carton and sniffed it.
“Still able to pick up Presley on Tuesday, right? It’s not often I can do a
showing then.” I nodded. Alexa poured tall glasses and swung open the side
door. “Presley! Dinner!”

No answer. “Presley!”
The swing set was empty, the fence closed. A silver trout nibbled a blackberry
bush.

The carton dropped,
milk splashing and running along the lines and grains in the hardwood. I
stared, carrot in hand. Alexa was forcing her way outside, her thin voice
suddenly screaming. The sound of a lawnmower cut out, and Alexa’s panic echoed
between glossy sidings. “Presley!”

“Mom?” A quizzical
face poked out from under the porch. Like the fizzle after a lightning strike,
Alexa slumped to her knees. She clutched Presley close, mumbling into her
caramel hair. I only picked up one word.

As Alexa’s elderly
neighbour gawked, I got out a rag to slop up the milk.

That night when I
woke up from sweating on her leather couch, Alexa was standing at the living-room
window, gazing up into the dark sky. I thought her knees were rocking back and
forth, but then I realized the movements were subtle bounces. Her eyes were
tracing paths across the stars.

*

Alexa doesn’t
recall the exact moment of getting lost, just that she’d been following trails
of bugs, looking under logs, and jumping over rocks. She was deep in the trees
when she couldn’t remember if our tent was behind her, before her, beside her.
She wandered, and then she picked up speed.

Short legs,
dimples, running over the sticks and dry brambles. Air in dry slices – in, out,
in, out. Sharp pain on her toe and then down to her knees as she tumbled,
scraped. Her ankle twisted, throbbing. Soon it would swell in the summer heat.
Little hands grasped in front of her. Her knees crushed pointy pine needles.
Dry skin scraped to red dots. Mud smears on pale legs. A squished ant on her
knee.

Almost every tent in
the camp was an empty shell of nylon wilting in the grey air. We’d been
searching for two hours, and my throat was raw. Before the police and the
search-and-rescue (SAR) team had made it down the highway, we’d already
criss-crossed all over their possible tracks in terrified loops.

The sand in my
bathing suit itched, but the SAR commander said we had to totally concentrate on
the woods. No small talk, no horseplay. Using every sense for clues, for a
whimper through the trees. I waited ten seconds after every call, imagining the
sound banging around the timber until it reached her. Looking for a bright
yellow bathing suit, caramel-coloured hair. The SAR commander said we can hear
farther than we can see.

Mom searched with
me, her hair a wild peacock tail clipped up and straggling. Her eyes were
frantic, but whenever she looked at me, I saw something else.

In minnows, tiny
bones connect the ear to the swim bladder. So when calls skip across space, the
sound vibrates through the tiny bones and then resonates in a tissue balloon,
strengthening and amplifying. My body felt like a swim bladder, with every
crack of a twig splintering through my frame.

*

The mud squishes under my drenched running
shoes as I slow down and look around. The fog settles into the trees, a blanket
slowly pierced and stuck with pine needles. The fish are more occasional here
in the woods, but as I stop to breathe, to listen to my senses again before
continuing across the crest, I see a few fat whitefish twisting around a tree
trunk and more bright yellow minnows.

Phone’s still
quiet. Keep my eyes on the ground, behind me, up above. Look for the ridged marks
of a little girl’s flip-flops, the bruised poison ivy where she fell. She’s
still farther on.

I unzip my jacket,
its tent of sweat, and I breathe. In. And out. In. And I keep running.

*

I imagine Presley
did this, this breathing, sitting on the bench in her class’s cloakroom,
watching the playground through a small rectangular window. She’d been smart,
and when she hadn’t seen Alexa, she’d stayed inside. Closed the door
eventually, so she wouldn’t look so small as her stick-ish arms kept it open.

Mrs. Tychell’s
desk was empty. The halls were shining, and Presley would’ve been quiet as a
fish in a fishbowl when she walked by the library’s big glass windows and saw
every teacher in the school. Staff meeting. She hung by the sides of the
windows, trying not to be a pair of staring eyes, and wondering if she should –
or really, how she could – gear up her fingers to push the door open and see
the eyes of every teacher in school.

So after no one
looked at her, she’d gone back to the cloakroom and cried, watching the
darkening rectangle as the sweaty extra socks and forgotten pencil cases got
harder to see.

*

When one of
Darlene’s swimmers jerked like a fish in the rec-centre pool, I remembered.
Tuesday. Water seeped from my bathing suit into the jeans I’d thrown over top
as I called the school, called Alexa. Nothing.

The fog was
already sinking over the playground, and every blue-painted door was locked.

Alexa’s pristine
house was next, but a garbage heap spilled out front. When I pulled in, I saw
my boxes, my spatulas, my winter boots and even my half-used shampoo from the
shower. When I knocked on the door, the curtains twitched closed. I texted.

The anger. The
all-caps. Then: “Just go.”

I threw my stuff
into the trunk, and I didn’t realize where I was until I hit the highway.

*

It was near
midnight when the SAR team started their sound sweep of the area furthest
northeast, after they found a piece of little footprint looking to curve to the
other side of the dark, fish-filled lake.

I was supposed to
be lying in my sleeping bag, listening to the wind rattle the tent screen back
and forth. Instead I sat at our empty firepit, holding Grandpa’s tackle box in
my lap now that the SAR commander was done with it. Mom had barely looked up
when the tent unzipped. She was supposed to be resting too after a long shift
of searching, but as I sat beside her, she kept scraping mustard onto dry bread
for the searchers’ sandwiches.

The clear fishing
line was looped under and between and over all the shiny hooks and lures and
pliers in the tackle box. I tied knots in the line, little clear knobs. Hooks
and lures and bobbers came in between and I tied more knots to keep them on.
Clinch knots, turtle knots, blood knots.

I saved the
biggest hook for last, but when I grabbed it, I heard a rustle in the trees and
sharp pain pricked my thumb. A shaking branch – just a squirrel. Mom’s breath
exhaled with mine, but when I looked, she still couldn’t meet my eyes.

Slowly, carefully,
I unhooked the sharp metal. The fish hook was smeared with blood, but I stuck
it back in the dusty box. Ignoring the drip of my finger, I threw all the line,
bobs, and lures back inside and snapped the box closed. My finger smeared red
on the flimsy latch, but a swipe with my shirt made it shine silver. It looked
even cleaner than before, a little latch holding the rusty tackle box shut.

Across the trees
and the tip of the lake, a piercing blast came from a SAR team full of
whistles. Ten, twenty seconds of silence. Listening. It was a dance, a march.
Crackling radio count. “Three, two, one, BLAST.” Screeching. Listening. And
then moving forwards, headlamps slicing up the treed search area until the next
count, blast, and stillness.

Alexa had curled
up in the overhang of a giant spruce when her ankle got too big to move, but
the piercing whistles jerked her awake. Her eyes were still crusty from sleep,
but strange boots shuffled closer, and she scooched back towards the trunk,
silent. Mom taught her not to talk to strangers.

On the eleventh
blast, though, a searcher saw a flash of her yellow bathing suit in his
headlamp beam and then the flinching of a small child against bright light. She
watched a giant with a light for a face come closer, but his words were gentle
as he switched off the headlamp and crackled the radio.

Back at the
firepit, after a word from the SAR commander, Mom was gone, running against the
trees. My butt stuck to the log as I heard the clump of hiking boots and the
whispers of SAR personnel as they wiped sweat off their headlamps, checked
their batteries for the next search. When Mom came to the tent with a slumped
yellow figure over her shoulder, I froze. Mom zipped open the tent and laid
Alexa inside, whose eyes barely fluttered. I stayed still, not blinking, until
Mom noticed me and her soft hand led me back inside.

I fell asleep with
my arm over Alexa’s dirt-covered body. Her length seemed longer against mine
than before, or maybe I had shrunk, waiting.

*

There’s a big
spruce near the tip of the lake, but there’s another a few hundred yards away,
and another again. My eyes sweep the trees and I catch yellow, but it flicks
and separates. Minnows.

It’s dark. I look
at the spruces and watch as a single minnow, like a thin yellow leaf swirling
down, inspects the branches and knolls of the second spruce tree. The rest of
its school flicks closer, and little mouths open and close on my hair. Pulling.
I’m under the spruce, legs collapsed.

We always think of
the fish who spawn, fulfill the cycle. Of the fish who thrusts every inch of
her muscle against the current even as silt and leaves silk past, when a single
second without struggling would sweep her downstream. Of the fish slapping her
way up each step of the creek’s ladder, defying gravity, defying water, defying
her body to carry her eggs to the same gravelled creek she was born in. We
never think of the fish who can’t get up the ladder, whose tail gives out in
exhaustion.

I settle in the
soft dirt under the spruce, feeling soft lips as the minnows nibble me to
sleep. My body is too long for the curves of the roots, but as my eyes close, I
feel a smaller body against my skin, curled up in the roots and growing as my
own starts to shrink.