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There was nothing in the trunk except a pair of sandals and an empty water bottle.
Sam stood back with Charlie for a moment and looked the car over and jostled the keys in his palm absently. “I’ll drive it in to Estacada. Let them know we found her.”
“I think I’ll stay.”
“I’ll just wait for you here. You tell them and I’ll be here. Just to be sure.”
Sam nodded and got in the car and twisted the key in the ignition and idled there a moment. He rolled down the window. “You can just wait here then,” he said. And then he drove off. The red glow of the taillights dissolved into the forest and then the sound too, of the car, and of the gravel beneath the tires, went quiet and there were only the lonely noises of the trees and the nighttime and a bird somewhere hoot hooting.
Charlie sat on a rock some yards away from the woman and watched her lying there. He saw the stillness in her chest, and the lifeless angles of her feet and her fingers. It was cold out and the fire was dying. Sam would not be happy about it, but Charlie decided anyway that it would be best to take her inside the turbine house to protect her from the elements. He thought she would do better there. Charlie was once able to carry a woman in his arms, but he was not anymore. She was too heavy for him and his hurt foot, and she was ragdoll limp so that he couldn’t get the right hold on her. He knelt in the mud beside her and tried to rock her up into his grip. He slipped his arms beneath her back and beneath her thighs. Her head tossed around in the effort, lolling about on her little birdlike neck, so he gave up and caught his breath and apologized to the woman. He took her beneath the arms and dragged her over the threshold of the old stone room and laid her down in a corner where the roof still held.
“This’ll be better in here,” he said.
Charlie set up that night on the opposite corner of the room beneath a hole in the roof, beneath a small and starless cutout of overcast sky and he fell asleep thinking about her name—Evelyn Barnard—and how it seemed to suit her somehow.
In the morning Charlie remembered her and found that she was still there and saw her for the first time in the daylight. Her hair had dried some and was auburn now and her mouth was slack and half open. Open eyes. My lord. It was as though she was about to say something, or to ask what became of her. Charlie felt desperately sorry for her. And then he felt guilty for looking at her so shamelessly when she hadn’t the ability to consent or to leave or to adjust her shirt over her white, crescent slip of midriff, so he stepped outside. On the other side of their camp there was a deer standing like a statue of a deer, which ran off after a moment that seemed much longer than it was.
Charlie, with tremendous effort, walked the shore, watching for stray fishhooks and bottle pieces. He paused occasionally to rest his foot and to watch the water exhale wisps of steam into the morning light. There was a bark-stripped pine limb there between the rocks, which Charlie took as a walking stick. He didn’t notice the smell of the place anymore—of the water, the fish in it and the algae, and the wet dirt, and the tree needles. Someone else might have stood here with his hands on his hips and a foot there heeled on a stone and he might have surveyed the green distance of the world. He may have felt at peace here. Ahead there was a creek that entered the reservoir, which was where Charlie and Sam cast the wire crawdad pot. Charlie picked up the nylon towline and hauled it in and felt the cage trundle along the creek-stone floor. He found four of them there—four copper-brown and bug-like bodies. Tiny divers. One was half-formed and missing a claw. As he plucked them up with his fingers, just at the start of the tail, they arched back and pinched their claws and tried to catch hold of him too. He set them in his jacket pockets and threw the pot back midway into the creek and walked back with the muddy crustaceans pulsing dully against his thighs.
Charlie started the fire and a pot of water on that and then the crawdads into the hot crackle of it, where they clicked about for a while and died and turned a pretty shade of red. Except for two he set aside for Sam, Charlie cracked their tails open and sucked the meat from the claws, then crushed what was left into chum, which he’d bait the crawdad pot with later. He poured a tin mug of still-warm crawdad water and sipped on that, leaning against the wall of the turbine shack. These were the necessities of life and for a long time he had made do, except there was now a woman behind the wall, which made Charlie feel both more and less alone all at once.
The afternoon wore on and the shadows of trees receded beneath the trees. Charlie watched the road, and sunlight on it falling through the forest in heavy slabs. Sam needed perhaps only a few hours to reach the city and relate the news and return. It had been longer than that. Charlie thought maybe it was the precinct—that they’d held onto him for some reason, or that they’d been away dealing with drunken railroad workers who had lost their jobs. It was possible too that Sam had stopped somewhere. It was possible that Sam still knew people other than Charlie. He and Sam only met each other out here, like this, already the way they were.
Sam didn’t return that night. The firelight did little against the coming dark—and then the wholeness of it—the height of the forest blocking out the small relief of the moon and the stars.
In the night it rained hard. Turned the firepit ash to black mud. Pellets of water panged against the metal roof and collected in the corrugated grooves and ran down into the shack in dark ribbons. Charlie woke to it and pulled up his blankets and his cardboard padding and stood for a moment undercover. The room wasn’t large, and felt even smaller for the rows of turbines and forgotten machinery, which rarely occasioned for the shape of a man lying down. All that was left was the space next to the woman and the wall. So Charlie lay there next to her. This is how he and Sam had slept too when it rained, or in the winter when cold fronts came and froze the mud shore into little stalagmites. They lay like this and matched the patterns of their breathing and fell asleep, waking each other some nights with soft sleeptalking pleas for forgiveness.
Charlie adjusted himself deep into his bundle of blankets and caught the woman with his elbow, but she did not move. The quiet of the place was beaten up by the metallic pitter-patter above them.
There was a smell in the room. The smell was small enough still, but it was with them in the room. Something spoiled. Charlie knew the smell may be her—there was every few hours a more distinct hollowness to her cheeks, and clouds in her eyes, a color in her skin—but then he thought perhaps the smell was him too. There was the bag over his foot, though it had small holes enough to let some amount of water in and maybe some sick out. It was hot and it was thick with moisture and he remembered vaguely how it had looked uncovered in the dark—the shape of it. He was afraid to inspect it in the daylight anymore. The smell of rot was on them both perhaps.
It wasn’t just rancid. That was what lingered afterward in Charlie’s nostrils—but there was a sweetness beneath it, which reminded him of something he couldn’t recall. The memory was gone but there was the place where the memory used to be, and there was something Charlie recognized in the shape.
Charlie ate the other two crawdads and re-baited the crawdad pot, and later stood in the doorway to the shack, leaning against what little was left of the wooden doorframe. He did not want to imagine she had meant to die. He thought about the child seat in the car—its little buckles. He thought about tiny hands.
Sam was not there in the morning. Charlie tied a second bag over his foot since the first had begun to tear, and then he followed the old fire road up a ways, up through the first curves along the hillside. It led only to the lake, not through to anywhere. He tried to ignore his pain. In the noon hour, the mounting heat dulled his focus. Occasionally, a stick seemed to leap before his shuffling feet and transform into a grasshopper. Boulders of volcanic stone, from the extinct cinder cone in the distance, were piled so numerously there that it seemed as though someone had meant to build something with them once, before learning how brittle the red rock was, and abandoning the stockpile along the road.
Charlie went on until he reached the pair of crosses there at the shoulder. There was, on each, a wire ring hung at the joint, which had been strung once with a wreath of flowers, or paper hearts, or handwritten admissions of love. One cross slouched crookedly, so Charlie hammered it into the gravel with a stone and he looked at them a moment—at their twin shadows—and then he turned and began walking back to camp. For the first time, it felt as though there were only so many footsteps left in him anymore, and that each was one forever expended. There were places he had not planned to travel to, but now he was unable. He had not planned to return home, wherever that was, but now he could not anyway. This was it. This was the extent—these hills, these shores, these the exact bounds of human existences, so far as he was concerned.
Night came again and the rain with it. Charlie returned to the dead woman’s corner and settled beneath the blankets beside her. The smell of decay was there with them and it was stronger now. But there was some small relief in it—that it was both of theirs maybe, and either of theirs maybe, and it was good not to know which. He breathed a while through a mildewed blanket, but slipped soon enough into half sleep—he felt the size of the world throb and tremble in the dark with his heartbeat—and he let the blanket slip. Charlie took the scent to sleep with him. He traced through to the sweetness of it. Peeled through the layers of it, down to the heart. He forgot himself and wanted to breathe it in and feel it from the inside.
In the morning there was the sound of a car and then the sound of car doors opening and closing. Charlie left the woman and stood out by the fire pit with a blanket shawled around his shoulders. It wasn’t Sam who had come, and it wasn’t the ranger. It was a man who had come down the path and his kid son beside him holding a fishing rod. When the man saw Charlie standing there he stopped and the kid, a few paces after, saw this and stopped too. The man surveyed the camp.
“Morning,” he said.
Charlie nodded. “Morning.”
“You set up here?”
Charlie looked around, at the few pots and a plastic bucket and his boot still upright in the dirt. “Yeah.”
“You’ve got the view.” He gestured to the water and the opposite shore.
The boy studied the turbine house behind Charlie and edged out a ways and leaned his head to the side. Charlie stepped back a few paces and rested in the doorway.
“What’s in there?” the kid asked. His father put a hand down on his shoulder.
Charlie said, “Nothing. Just where I’ve set up.”
“What’s it for?” the kid asked.
“Nothing anymore. Just where I sleep.”
“You live here?” the boy asked incredulously.
The man slung his hand down across his kid’s chest and pulled him back a step. “He’s camping out, bud. We’ve camped out.”
“That’s right,” Charlie said.
“We use a tent,” the kid said.
And the father told him, “This works too.” He thought a moment and watched Charlie. And then he said, “Much to catch out there?”
Charlie looked down at the reservoir. “Crappies mostly. Some trout.”
“Is your foot okay?” the kid said.
“Just a bit swollen is all.”
“Is that your shoe over there?”
“Come on,” the man said, “let’s go try our luck.”