This could be a story about heroin in the heartland, about lives torn apart by a cursed and powerful drug devastating small-town America from Washington state to New Hampshire. It would be filled with terrifying statistics about overdoses, ideas for how to "fix" it, and quotes from this addiction expert and that political leader.
This is not that story.
This is about people I know. Or, rather, knew.
Two friends growing up in Republic, Washington, a tiny town in the northeast part of the state surrounded by mountains and lakes and nothingness, loved by families who couldn't shield them from the wider world.
This is a story about Rafe and Scotty.
Rafe Shores came to Boy Scout Camp Bonaparte that summer with what any observer would note as unhindered enthusiasm. He wasn't a Boy Scout himself, but he fit the mold. At nearly 17, he looked every bit like the future police officer he aspired to be: lean, muscular, with short-cropped white hair.
Rafe wouldn't have been there — wouldn't have ever been introduced to me — were it not for his best friend Scotty Webber.
The two were from 25 miles down the road in Republic, a town of about a thousand souls tucked into the mountains of Ferry County, one of those places where everybody knows everybody, whether they want to or not.
Scotty, his mom and his brother had worked on the staff at Camp Bonaparte before, and in 2003 Scotty convinced Rafe to come along for the summer.
Rafe and Scotty were the type of friends who, to someone on the outside like me, struck you as a real-life version of The Odd Couple. Rafe came off as the clean-cut, strait-laced nod to authority. He'd salute you and call you by your first and last name until you told him that wasn't necessary. Scotty wasn't exactly the opposite, but he was seemingly cut from a more relaxed cloth, with almost comical bowl-cut hair, a deep laugh and a football-player frame.
If the staff uniform standards didn't require shoes or shirts with sleeves, Scotty likely wouldn't have worn any. He'd pick hot coals from the fire when impressionable young scouts weren't around and toss them between his hands like a high-stakes game of hot potato.
The reality, though, is that their chemistry came naturally, or at least through osmosis after being around each other nearly non-stop. That's what you'd interpret from the outside — or, say, after watching them ham up their differences in a comedy routine for campers. At least that's what I interpreted.
And that's all there is left to have — an interpretation. Because as you can probably tell by now, there isn't a happy ending.
It's weird, though, that sometimes you find out far more about people after they die than you ever knew about them in life.
* * *
There's a spot on Highway 20 driving into Republic from Camp Bonaparte where the thick lodgepole pine and Douglas fir trees of the forest open up to reveal what anyone up here may think is the crown jewel of the Northwest: the Kettle Range. Tucked in between the Columbia River to the east and Okanogan Highlands to the west, the Kettle offers sweeping 360-degree vistas from its 40-mile crest trail and summits topping 7,000 feet.
It's the view we'd see as we drove from the camp to Republic for a quick overnight trip on Saturdays — for a resupply of junk food, hot pizza instead of dining hall leftovers and a beer snuck in the woods after watching the weekend stock car races on the town's dirt track.
For those who like small towns — the kind where a trip to the grocery store is as much a social event as it is weekly routine — Republic is the Norman Rockwell painting of Washington. It's the kind of place where you'd want to raise a family, to connect with the land, to know your neighbor, or be miles away from your nearest one.
Even then I remember it feeling safe, remote — but a little too remote, with too little to hold a young man's attention for long.
But for Rafe and Scotty, Republic was their home, where their parents stayed and had built lives for them. And unfortunately, sometimes you can't leave home behind even when it's in your best interest to do so.
* * *
The bowl where scout troops gather for campfires at Camp Bonaparte is at the edge of a lake, tucked into the corner where the reed stands blend into open water. Two fire rings frame the stage and provide heat and light for the performers doing skits and songs.
This is where we as a staff would gather every week to sing ridiculously boisterous songs, perform skits and generally scream our heads off, all in the name of entertaining hundreds of scouts seated in the rising amphitheater above.
Scotty came off as a natural actor, Rafe perhaps more reserved, but both fit the entertainment role of camp staff member well.
In one routine, each had to sing comedically about being something other than a camp staffer.
"I am a Bonaparte staffer. A staffer always be. But if I weren't a staffer... "
It fit his public persona well that Rafe chose what he did.
"A fireman I would be!" Rafe sang, acting the next line by holding out an imaginary net to save someone trapped in a burning building.
"Jump, lady, jump. Psych. SPLAT!"
Scotty's role was as the anchor of the song.
"A farmer I would be... " he revealed. And after a brief pause, in the most obnoxiously loud, mocked-up backwoods hick accent you can imagine, he'd mimic milking a cow.
"Give, Betsy, give. The baby's gotta live!"
There wasn't anyone there, including the other staffers singing with him, not laughing uncontrollably.
Toward the end of these performances, the mood would change: songs would be less boisterous, the clapping less intense. Soon the scouts would head back to their campsites, the distant sound of "Taps" playing to mark the end of another day.
Tonight, Scotty and Rafe take the stage again. One carries a guitar. The other stands slightly behind, waiting for a cue. The guitar player strums the opening chords, and gives a nod to his duet partner.
"Mama take this badge off of me. I can't use it anymore."
"It's gettin' dark. Too dark to see," the second singer joins.
"Feels like I'm knockin' on heaven's door."
Rafe and Scotty sing the rest of Bob Dylan's lyrics together.
"Mama put my guns in the ground.
"I can't shoot them, anymore.
"That long black cloud is comin' down.
"I feel I'm knockin' on heaven's door.
"Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door... "
* * *
Rafe was found dead in a bathtub in the house on a rural road 20 miles from Republic. No one called paramedics or police until after it was too late. It was Mother's Day weekend, 2005. Rafe was 19.
"You could have knocked him over with a feather. He was in total shock."
That's how Scotty's mom, Karen, remembers breaking the news to him that Rafe had died the previous night.
It was unclear exactly what had happened. What was certain was that Rafe had gone to a party, and Scotty was elsewhere with other friends.
The police maintain that Rafe's death was suspicious, attributed to what Rafe's mom Mary Ciais calls "a ridiculous cocktail of drugs." It's unclear whether he took the ultimately lethal mix of his own accord, whether he had help, or whether he was in some way sabotaged.
Mary has heard plenty of theories, whispers about who was there and who may have had a grudge against her son. While knowing the truth and getting a sense of closure are important, she says it won't change what happened. It never does, of course. Rafe is gone.
Mary and Ron Ciais, Rafe's stepdad, both say he needed to get out of Republic after graduating high school, to get his life moving and working toward that career in law enforcement he'd talked about so much.
He stayed in Republic, though, working and saving money, but ultimately hanging out with a crowd his parents knew was bad news. They knew Rafe as the exceedingly funny yet strait-laced guy they called John Wayne — since everything to him was black and white, right and wrong.
But in the waning year of high school and immediately afterward, he stumbled on his path. Rafe just got caught, his mom and stepdad say together. Sometimes people do stupid, reckless things, and survive. Sometimes they get caught.
If only Rafe and Scotty had been together that night, instead of apart.
If only Rafe had lived, what might have become of Scotty?
* * *
The message on my cellphone was so garbled that I had to listen three times before I understood who it was.
The voice on the other end was slurred, but I eventually made out what was said.
Hey. It's Scotty. Webber. Call me.
He didn't leave a number. I figured it was a late-night drunk dial, one he probably wouldn't remember, and one I'd soon forget.
I hadn't seen him in — what? — five years.
That was 2012. It wasn't until another voicemail three years later that I realized what Scotty may have been calling about.
* * *
In the years following Rafe's death, Scotty struggled. Anyone who knew him would tell you that. His parents knew it. His friends in Republic knew it.
I knew it, to the extent I saw it. And I saw very little — by design.
Like Rafe, Scotty stayed in Republic after graduating high school, and he had trouble holding down jobs, despite how handy he was with, well, anything. If you needed something fixed, Scotty was there.
His parents believe that the lack of economic opportunity in Republic, and being around unscrupulous people who dealt him heroin, hindered his progress in life.
That's why when I saw him the summer after Rafe died, living on a friend's property in the woods outside of town, I barely recognized him.
He'd always been a big guy, but he was noticeably slimmer, his eyes droopy, his speech more slurred.
I figured he was just having a hard time coping with Rafe's death, that he would rebound and go back to being the extremely happy, joking, singing-random-songs and walking-around-barefoot guy who I remembered from Camp Bonaparte.
I didn't realize how bad it was or how much he was really struggling.
As I found out recently, neither did his parents.
* * *
Scott, it's Karen Webber. Can you call me back? I have some news.
Though she didn't say it in her message, I knew what the news would be. I hate to say it — hate to admit it not just in public, but to myself — but I'd been expecting the call for years.
While I wanted to believe that he would overcome the speed bumps in life after Rafe's death, I knew he was on a path that would make it incredibly hard to turn around and go the other way.
I knew staying in Republic, at this time in his life, was going to kill him.
When I called her back, it was confirmed: Scotty had died late the previous night of a heroin overdose.
Christmas night, that is.
"We just had a wonderful Christmas together," she told me. "But the demons of addiction were too strong. He fought it, but he couldn't overcome it."
Sometime late that night and into the early morning of Dec. 26, 2015, there was a phone call. Scotty picked up. Karen could hear him talking to someone, but she left it alone.
In the morning Karen checked on him, knowing that he might sleep in. But knowing he'd been struggling lately, she wanted to double-check.
She found him hunched over, seated on the bed. And by him, the evidence: a needle.
Also by him was more evidence of the struggle he'd had for more than 10 years, though not something Karen had seen there before. But there it was, between the bed and the nightstand, tucked in a corner.
A picture of Rafe.
Suddenly the slurred, out-of-the-blue message I'd received from Scotty several years earlier made more sense. And in all honesty, I would have completely forgotten it, chalked up as a routine drunk dial, if Karen hadn't called — if Scotty hadn't died the way he did.
"Scotty looked up to you from your time at Camp Bonaparte," Karen told me. "He really loved that place."
Would I be a pallbearer at his funeral?
Of course, Karen. Of course.
* * *
Scotty's funeral took place two weeks after his death, on an unseasonably warm January day in Republic. The gravel lot of the Lutheran church was quickly turning from a sheet of ice to a slushy mess.
Karen and her husband Stan wanted an open casket to serve as a reminder to other young people in the community: This was our son. This is what addiction looks like. This can happen to anyone.
I'd sweated my job as a pallbearer; it was my first time serving as one. And it seems I'd overdressed. There weren't many other ties in the audience.
Though I'd been told by his parents — and knew well enough — that the dress code could reflect what Scotty was most comfortable in: white T-shirt and jeans.
Six pallbearers carried the casket down the church steps, lifted it over a railing of a narrow staircase, and loaded it into a minivan.
It seems an odd and inappropriate time for a laugh, but I couldn't help smiling at the sight of the minivan as a hearse. It was so Republic. Not in a derogatory way, but in a quaint, "this is just how it is around here" way.
The way of things in Republic that Scotty liked.
The burial of his ashes would come later in spring.
* * *
There was a threat of rain in Republic, but on a late April day this year, the sky 40 miles away in Tonasket was bright. Like the day of the funeral nearly four months prior, it was warm.
The spring had been so unseasonably warm, the lilacs that usually waited until early or even mid-May were in full bloom.
Kara Ahlson, one of Scotty's closest friends, gathers lilacs from a nearby tree. No one will notice, right? Or care, under the circumstances.
Stan and Karen greet family and friends who have come for one final goodbye, to put Scotty Webber's ashes in the ground.
Since the night he died, plastic butterfly figurines have been an almost constant presence in the Webber house. To Karen they represent new life, going on, moving past, creating something beautiful. Seeing them brings comfort.
Scotty's friend, Kara, unveils a gaggle of balloons, with little plastic butterflies attached to the strings. They had intended to release each balloon and butterfly separately, but they were tangled together.
It's OK. Life isn't always scripted.
The breeze catches the strings and rips off one butterfly. It flies away, almost like it were real, and lands in the grass directly in front of the gravestone — right there for everyone to see, there for Karen and Stan to see.
Everyone gathers closer as Stan peels away the green carpet and places the box containing Scotty's ashes in the hole. One last look.
The balloons are released; with the weight of them together with the other plastic butterflies, they dip and bounce close to the ground — 10 feet up, 20 feet.
Finally the wind picks up and sends them higher. Higher still. Until they aren't visible anymore.
Before putting the carpet back and concluding the ceremony, someone picks up the butterfly from the grass — the one that got away — and puts it in the hole with Scotty's ashes.
It didn't get away.
* * *
Rafe's mom, Mary, doesn't think of herself as particularly religious. She and Ron think of their ranch, with its wide, expansive views, as their church.
Even so, she believes in something out there, some spiritual connectedness, some overall divine force, whatever it is.
She sees signals too, little reminders of Rafe, indications that something bigger is out there beyond the land we live on and the spaces we occupy here.
Like the time the flowers bloomed and moved into a cross shape on their own, and moved back at night. What was that? Something, right?
Karen, too, has those feelings, though her Lutheran faith is more traditional. She sees the signs as well. The dozens and dozens of little plastic BBs she keeps finding in the oddest places, knowing they weren't there before.
Scotty was a trickster like that. "A character," as Karen says.
They may not share the same spiritual beliefs, but these two mothers share a burden. And now in an unexpected and uncomfortable way, I'm somehow between them, having inserted myself into their world, asking questions they would probably prefer I not ask.
* * *
I left Scotty's burial that day in April and spoke with Rafe's mom and stepdad about his time at camp, about his friendship with Scotty, about the life that was cut short.
Afterward, I went a few miles down the road to speak more with Scotty's family.
Karen was looking up from her yard at the broken storm clouds, at once threatening hard rain and in another instant producing long rays of sunshine. She was standing in her yard with the backdrop of a rainbow, holding a picture of Scotty.
That's when I got a text and snuck a look. It was a picture of the sky with a message from Mary. "Came home to this cloud opening after our talk," she wrote.
It was the same sky, the same break in the clouds, that Karen was standing under.
These two families, drawn together and sucked unwillingly into this shared club of bereavement, were both finding significance in the same sky. And I realized where they once shared their sons between them, I'm the common connection they have now.
Which makes the job of an unbiased journalist impossible. Because I'm part of this story.
The story of Rafe and Scotty, a story unfolding in small towns all across America. ♦
Heroin in America
In the past 50 years, heroin's deadly grip has spread from large urban areas into suburban and small-town America. The typical profile of a heroin user in 1960s America was a minority male, about 16 years old. He was probably living in a large city, and he bought his first taste of the insidious opiate from a street corner. A new profile is emerging. Today's heroin users are white males and females in their mid-to-late 20s. They're living in affluent suburban neighborhoods and small, rural towns. One study found that 90 percent of the people who tried heroin for the first time in the past decade were white; 75 percent first got hooked on prescription opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin, which are chemical cousins to the street-level heroin. (MITCH RYALS)
Deaths from prescription narcotics in Washington peaked at 512 in 2008 before declining to 319 in 2014, according to numbers from the state Department of Health. However, over the same time period, the number of heroin deaths rose. In 2014, 293 people in Washington died from heroin overdoses, about twice as many in 2008.
In Idaho, 64 people died from overdoses from opioid pain relievers in 2009. That number peaked at 95 in 2012 before dropping to 79 in 2013. The number of heroin-related overdose deaths in the state has risen from one to six in the same time period.
In 2014, 28,647 Americans died from a drug overdose involving opioids, more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (JAKE THOMAS)
How to Get Help
If you have a problem with opioid dependency or know someone who does, help is available by calling the Washington Recovery Helpline at 866-789-1511. The confidential and anonymous line is funded by the state Department of Social and Health Services, is available 24 hours a day and is answered by trained volunteers and staff who can refer you to local treatment options and other community services. Another option for Washington residents is their local Behavioral Health Organization, which administers publicly funded addiction treatments. In Spokane County, the local BHO's number is 477-5722. In Idaho, the state Department of Health and Welfare's substance abuse referral line is 800-922-3406. (JAKE THOMAS)