Lake Michigan claimed the petite girl, swallowing her in its frigid maw in the dark of a winter night.
Helicopters whirled overhead. Their lonely spotlights flailed against the vast immensity of the second greatest of the Great Lakes, a titan that spanned states and even a national boundry.
The U.S. Coast Guard ship skimmed across the choppy waves near the shore, shining a light on the sable water, looking for any sign of the 19-year-old girl who had been missing for hours and whose fate was all but certain. Frothy waves battered the pier where she was last seen.
A seaman, fresh out of basic training, asked the petty officer if she killed herself.
“Now why would would you ask a thing like that?�? the senior enlisted man shouted over the roar of the motor.
The wind off the lake buffeted their faces.
“I thought they all killed themselves, that that’s what we did on search and rescue, dredge up suicides.”
The petty officer pursed his lips, spat some chewing tobacco juice into a crumbled water bottle he clutched and kept at the ready. He kind of wanted to spit the rotten brown saliva into the high winds, to accelerate this seaman’s education.
“They get drunk and fall off boats. They get carried away by riptides. They wade in too deep, not knowing how to swim. Freak waves have pulled in joggers just running along the shoreline.”
“Yeah, but it’s January and nobody’s out at the beach this time of year. It’s freezing out. What else could it be?�?
“Her friend reported it,�? the petty officer shouted over the motor’s drone. “They went to dinner then out on the pier together, which isn’t typical suicidal behavior. She wasn’t alone. She might have jumped, she might have slipped, she might have been blown in. The winds were roaring at 50 mph, that could send anybody into the lake. You probably weigh twice as much as she did, and you’d have tumbled right in yourself if a gust caught you right.�?
“Well, it wasn’t a good time to go to the pier. Maybe she… ”
“Well, it’s never a good time to drown. Or maybe it always is, depending on your perspective.”
The boat motor buzzed its incessant buzz. Search lights raked the dark water. Waves lashed at the ship’s hull.
There was no sign of her. Maybe they’d regroup in the morning.
“How long are we going to be out here?” the seaman asked. “How much time does it take to find them?�?
“Oh, we never find them,�? the petty officer replied, squinting into the bracing wind. “We look for something the family can bury, but we never find them.�?
Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist and Iraq War veteran who once won second place in the PBR Art Contest for poetry, a feat William Wordsworth and Gertrude Stein never accomplished. The Chicagoland native’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Zero Dark Thirty, Spirits, Pulp Modern, and elsewhere. Do not step to him in a gyros-eating competition.