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David B. Seaburn
When their four-year-old son, Danny, dies suddenly, Mitch and Kate’s grief overwhelms them. Conflicted about going on with their lives, Mitch and Kate decide to leap from a cliff at Chimney Bluffs. When the couple is found by park rangers, Clancy and Bobby, Kate is still very much alive. What follows is a poignant and powerful story of three strangers, each facing a tragic loss, who together find friendship and healing.
Chimney Bluffs is a story about tragic loss, painful decisions, and the healing that can be provided through relationships, even relationships among people who are wounded by life. After the death of their four year old son, Mitch and Kate, for very different reasons decide that suicide is something that would resolve the dilemma of their grief. At the last moment, Kate reconsiders this decision, although Mitch goes forward. Kate is eventually befriended by Clancy and Bobby, the park rangers that find her at the bottom of the cliffs. They create an unlikely friendship that enables each of them to heal from their individual losses. This is a story of hope, in which the power of human connection is revealed.
Clarence Brisco, Clancy to his friends, peered through the
driver's side window into the white VW van parked in the middle of
the lot. He pulled on the door handle, but it was locked. What the hell?
he thought, shaking his head with disapproval. There was a half-eaten
banana on the dashboard and an open bag of peanuts on the
passenger's seat, a few having fallen on the floor. There was a half-full
bottle of water in the cup holder between the seats, cap off, and an
unopened one on the passenger side floor. He walked to the back of the
van and checked the license plate—New York. Clancy looked around
the empty lot. The sign at the entrance was clear—Park Hours: 8 a.m.-
Dark. He checked his watch. It was nearly 6 a.m. Clancy looked at the
VW van again, its bumper rusted and its side panels scratched and
dinged. He listened for the whir of his partner's truck, but all he could
hear were mourning doves and a few woodpeckers. As usual, Bobby
was late. The trail up to Chimney Bluffs was challenging during
daylight for most hikers, but it would be nearly impossible to follow at
night, especially in the rain. Last night's storm had left the trail muddy;
droplets from the maple leaves left drizzled designs on Clancy's
shoulders. He wondered if a bunch of college students had partied near
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the bluffs the night before, had gotten high on God knows what, and
then had gotten themselves completely turned around and lost. "Damn
fools," he said, right out loud, and then realized no one was there to
hear him. He listened again for Bobby's truck. The main trail had to be
checked before the park opened and families started pouring in.
Clancy figured he'd better get going, even without Bobby.
The bluffs were so high and the erosion under them so deep that
it wasn't uncommon for a few feet of trail to fall away in a massive
jumble during the night, piling up on the beach below. It wasn't like
the bluffs were a wall of granite. Chimney Bluffs was little more than
glacial till, a mix of sand and silt and gravel pulverized and pasted
together under the mountain of ice that had created Lake Ontario
thousands of years ago. Wind and rain and time had carved the
humped-backed drumlin into stunning, yet delicate, earthen pinnacles,
razor-sharp at the top, scratching the air and drawing wonder-seeking
visitors from miles around.
Whenever there was a nighttime collapse anywhere along the
one-and-one-half-mile cliff-side trail, it was up to Clancy and Bobby
to find it quickly, tamp down a trail detour for the hikers, line the new
trail with decaying limbs and small boulders to keep visitors from
wandering off the beaten path, and then hammer in a sign warning,
"Unstable Bluff—Stay Back!"
As Clancy started up the trail, he turned and looked at the VW
van sitting amidst the puddles. He shook his head again. The driver
hadn't parked in one of the clearly marked spaces. Instead he had left
the vehicle in the middle of the lot. Clancy couldn't wait to find the
owner of the van that would create a nuisance for the park's more
He took the Garner Point Trail through tall, wet grasses and up a
slight incline until he reached Bluff Trail, famous not only for its
panoramic view of the lake and the bluffs, but also for its eye-popping
drop to the beach, sometimes causing the first-time visitor to wobble
with vertigo. Clancy stopped at the top of the trail, where he gazed up
the north shoreline as it wound its way toward the smoke stacks in
Oswego, some thirty miles away. The morning breeze was cool, and
sunlight insinuated itself through the tall oaks that lined the bluff, their
young leaves a glistening green. Clancy looked out across Lake
Ontario to the northwest, hoping for a glimpse of Toronto, but a fleet
of last night's storm clouds lay on the horizon, blocking his view. A
flock of Canada geese rose from the pond behind him, so near that he
could hear the persistent whoosh of their beating wings as they
organized themselves into a V, their desperate honking echoing across
the water below; they were on a morning practice run before making
their final flight across the lake to their summer home. Clancy smiled
and squinted as a beam of light caught his eye. "My gosh," he said.
Being a park ranger was a far cry from his years with Mott's before he
was laid off. He had seen a lot of apples in his twenty years with the
company, but little else. Every day on Chimney Bluffs, on the other
hand, was a brand-new canvas.
Clancy headed up Bluff Trail and soon entered the woods, the
temperature falling ten degrees. He pulled his collar up and zipped his
jacket to the top. He stood for a long minute listening, hoping to hear
the college students and planning what he'd say to them. "Damn
fools." But there wasn't a hint of human noise in the air, just the
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cawing of restless crows and the occasional skittering of hungry
chipmunks and squirrels. Above him, the canopy of slender maples
leaned with the breeze, shedding the last drops of the nighttime storm.
He continued down the trail, the floor of the woods wet, pools of water
here and there. A small clearing of knee-high ferns surrounded him as
he headed up the first slope. The trail made an abrupt left turn toward
the cliffs, and by the time he reached the edge, he was already one
hundred and fifty feet above the water. Dead trees lay across the path,
while others tilted precariously over the edge. The cliffs sacrificed a
dozen or more trees per year depending on how much rain, ice, and
snow hit the shore.
For a while after leaving Mott, Clancy had made a modest living
mowing lawns, cleaning gutters, and, in the winter, clearing
driveways; his Dodge Ram had stayed healthy, and life was good
enough. He had kept the house where he and Darlene had lived, even
though it was a struggle to make the mortgage. Now in his early
forties, Clancy wondered if his future would ever improve on his past.
Things had started moving in the right direction when he
answered the state park service ad and was hired immediately at
Chimney Bluffs State Park as a ranger, which sounded more
impressive than it was. He traded in his dungarees for a navy blue shirt
and trousers, a stitched name tag over his left breast. He and Bobby
checked the trails each day, cleaned up any messes left by thoughtless
campers, and answered endless questions from scores of visitors. Not
much of a people person, Clancy preferred walking the trails where he
could be alone but still do his job.
The phone on his belt vibrated. "Bobby," he said, shaking his
head. "Where are you? I'm already on the trail."
"Sorry, man. The state boys out on 104 are checking inspection
stickers, so I had to turn around and drive back to the cutoff."
Clancy listened but didn't speak.
"And, hey, Clance, it was lucky I came this way because the gas
station just past Drumlin Road is about four cents cheaper than the one
up on 104." Bobby laughed while recounting his good fortune.
Clancy finally replied. "Look, Bobby, when you get to the west
lot, let me know if you see a white VW van still there."
"Okay, Clance. Anything wrong?" Bobby asked, but Clancy had
already hung up.
Clancy shook his head. It was no surprise to him that Bobby had
never gotten any further than his parents' basement and a drunken
semester at Oswego State. Though he was in his early twenties, Bobby
was still a kid in most ways. He'd spent much of his time smoking
weed until his mother demanded he a job or else. "This is as close to
being paid for doing nothing as you can get," he'd announced to
Clancy their first day together as park rangers. For some reason, he
thought of Clancy as a friend: "Me and you, Clance."
The bluffs were just ahead. Even after seeing them for six years,
the sight of them made Clancy pause. Those tall gleaming spires
looked like giant shark fins or switchblades, their tips long and sleek
as if carved by a knowing hand. Clancy had never been much of a
churchgoer, even though his mother had tried to make him into an altar
boy at one point. "But, Mom, I thought we were Baptists," he'd
shrewdly half-stated, half-asked, effectively nipping her dream of him
taking up the cloth in the bud. He didn't see much evidence of God's
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hand in the world, which was always in some mess, what with
terrorists and welfare cheats and crooked politicians, greedy bankers,
and Wall Street scum. People were the problem as far as he could tell;
they didn't appear to care at all about one another; everyone was out
for himself, making excuses, never even taking responsibility for
setting their alarms and getting to work on time. He thought about the
VW van and how inconsiderate the occupants were. Leaving it right in
the middle of the lot and wandering into the park when they weren't
supposed to be there, just so they could have a good time.
Clancy took a few steps forward and stood right at the edge of the
precipice. He gazed down at the moonscape that formed the base of
the spires, its ruggedly sculpted surface angling quickly away to the
water's edge. He took a deep breath. "How in the world did all this get
here?" He looked at the pencil-thin horizon, the azure blue surf, a
smattering of white caps, the sky awash with pale clouds dragging
His phone buzzed again.
"Clance, it's me. The van's still here."
"See anyone around who might belong to it?"
"Okay. Meet me at the east lot. I'm near the bluffs."
"Hey man, I stopped at Tim Horton's and got you a large joe. Two
sugars, just the way you like it."
"Thanks, but I'd prefer you just get yourself here on time,"
Clancy concluded and stuck the phone back on his belt.
Turning around and to head back, he noticed something near the
base of a tree about ten yards away, something pale green but clearly
not a plant, and definitely not an animal. Something different,
something that stuck out amidst the fallen tree limbs and mud and
knotted roots that surrounded it.
He walked towards it, knelt down to get a closer look, and then
smiled. He picked up the light green teddy bear, not much longer than
his hand, its button nose and eyes a little muddy from the fall.
"Someone sure cried themselves to sleep last night," he said,
wiping it off on his sleeve. He looked at the bear, its fur thin and its
joints limp. A smile crossed his face and then faded as his thoughts
turned to Darlene.
The trail became steeper as Clancy headed towards his favorite
spot. A green sign with a stick figure of a hiker was just ahead, a thick
white line drawn through it. A slender finger of land jutted out beyond
the trail. He stepped past the warning sign and walked slowly along
the finger's spine like a tightrope walker on a high wire. He felt for
firm footing on the grassy knuckle of the finger. Then he took three
more steps forward onto its craggy tip. The west wind slammed him;
his arms went out and he caught his balance, avoiding a fall to the
rocks below. His brown hair swept back off his forehead; he squinted,
watching a hawk glide by at eye level. He stretched his arms out, and
his jacket filled with the chill morning breeze. Clancy faced west,
looking at a line of jagged spires rising above the blue backdrop,
Sodus Bay hidden beyond the next bend. In the distance, a speckled
sail fluttered into view.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then another. And
another. He felt clean and clear. For a moment, he was the only person
in the world and nothing mattered at all: not his job, not Bobby, not
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Darlene, not the past, not the future, not even himself. He held the bear
in his right hand and gazed at the narrow beach some two hundred and
fifty feet below.
Clancy had stood on this spot hundreds of times and had never
noticed the two boulders below him at the water's edge. He settled his
gaze, looking hard, examining them, wondering about the way they
seemed to flutter in the wind, then realized they weren't boulders at all.
They were two sacks lying still in the lapping waves. He took a final
step forward and leaned out over the edge to get a better look. "My
God," he said when he saw the bodies, one on its back, arms extended,
clearly a man, the other curled in a ball. Both as still as the sacks by
Clancy gasped and his foot slipped. He righted himself and
stepped back. He couldn't catch his breath, and the horizon started to
waver. He sat down, head in hands, and then lay back on the grass, his
stomach balling into a knot. He felt like throwing up, but kept
breathing, until perspiration began to cool his body. He closed his eyes
and there they were: two people dead on his beach, on his watch.
"What the hell," was all he could venture.
He sat up just as the hawk soared by again, its indifferent eyes
scanning the scene below. Clancy pulled the phone from his belt.
"Bobby…yeah…you still in the lot? Listen, I'm out on the point, and
there's something below me on the beach…no, just stay where you are;
I'll be there in ten minutes…no, wait for me; we'll go together."
"Are you kidding me!" said Bobby as he caught up with Clancy
and heard the news.
"No, I'm not," said Clancy, wiping his face with his hand.
"C'mon, let's go."
"What? Why don't we just call the cops? Do you really want to
go out there?" Bobby's round face was flushed.
"Look, Bobby." Clancy took another deep breath. "Look, this is
our park and this is our responsibility. Stay here if you want, but I'm
going." And with that, Clancy headed down the beach. Bobby waited a
minute. He didn't want to go. He didn't want to see. But he also didn't
want to let Clancy down, so he followed.
"Whadaya think happened, man?"
"Don't know. If it was night, they could have missed the sign and
just stepped out into nothing."
"Oh, my God, can you imagine it? Falling that far. I mean, they
must have been freakin'."
"Not for very long." Clancy was thinking about the van and the
half-eaten banana and the bag of peanuts and what must have been an
overnighter; they must have figured it didn't matter where they parked,
because they'd be gone in the morning before anyone was the wiser.
College kids. He was glad someone else would have to call the
Around the second bend, they could see the sacks soaking in the
shallow water. Beyond them, the bodies.
"Look, man, I don't know…" said Bobby, shaking his head and
sliding his hands deep into his pockets.
"Just stay here, then," said Clancy, a snap in his voice.
"Look, Clance, don't get upset," said Bobby, but Clancy had
already walked away. "Okay, okay," called Bobby, already twenty
yards or more behind Clancy.
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Clancy was standing over the bodies when Bobby reached him.
The man's face was cut from the fall and clotted with blood; his hand
was curled and one leg was twisted across the other; he didn't move.
The other body was a woman in a fetal position, her arms pulled tight
to her chest and her knees up to her elbows, hair covering her face.
There was a flashlight lying beside her. These weren't college kids out
for a romp.
"Jesus," said Bobby.
"Call 911," said Clancy, and then he walked over to the sacks.
Clancy knelt down beside the first sack, which had a gash in its
side. He pulled on the hole, and out fell a toy tractor. He reached in
and pulled out a stuffed dog and then a plush cat and a green dinosaur
and a handful of Hot Wheels cars and a Fisher Price farm set full of
plastic animals and a farm family. Clancy stared at his find.
"What is all this?"
Then he went to the second sack, which was pulled tight at the
neck and tied shut. He tried to pick it up, but it was heavy and
awkward. He pulled out his pocket knife and slashed the neck of the
sack. He reached in and his face turned white. He opened the sack
further to take a look and then fell back, completely limp. He knelt in
the water, unable to stand; he knelt there hoping that he was wrong,
hoping that what he had touched was something else altogether. He
looked at the sack again, afraid. He crawled on all fours, took the sack
up in his hands and tore it wide open.
"Oh, my God!" There he was: blonde hair, a sleepy face, not
much older than three or four, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, faded blue
jeans and Nike sneakers. A little boy. And not a breath.