Late in the summer Charlie Runk saw something floating in the reservoir. He called Sam over from the pile of wood he had been arranging into the firepit and they stood together for a moment and watched the black water, the shape in it, which was not moving and reminded Charlie of a hair caught and curled on a big still eye. Beneath them the thick muck shore glistened in the moonlight and extended back into the brush, and there a few fallen water-worn trees and apple-sized stones were scattered around. Even here, twenty some miles from the nearest city, there was garbage. There was a torn grocery bag in the limb of a split-backed juniper, and a broken sandal on a rock, and half a beer bottle beneath that with its label washed off. The moon was both in the sky and reflected in the lake.
“That’s not a log, is it?” Charlie said.
“No, I don’t think it is.”
“That’s a person. Christ, Sam, it is, isn’t it?”
“It alive, you think?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
Charlie called out to the shape and asked if it was alive. He threw a handful of mud out into the water, which broke apart into ripples, and took apart the vision of the moon and did not stir the shape.
Sam looked out behind them at the dirt trail, which led to the decommissioned turbine house where the men had been sleeping now since the fall. The walls were mostly whole still, but doorless, and the corrugated roof had collapsed in some areas where stones had fallen from the overhang above. In other areas the roof was bent and holding rocks and threatening to collapse at any moment, perhaps at night as Charlie slept right beneath it, straight upon him, like cracking his head open, sending him from one dark to the other without any moment of consciousness. He thought about this sometimes, but the worry was not enough to keep him awake. The men slept curled around paint-chipped turbines and gears and stale rubber machine belts that had split and littered the place with black splinters of rubber.
And some distance beyond the turbine hall there was the white glow of headlights buried in the dark of the forest. Sam turned back to Charlie, who was watching the figure in the water carefully, flicking his fingers with his thumb.
Sam said, “That car probably belonged to it in the water.”
“What do we do?”
“Not sure there’s anything to be done.”
“Could still be alive.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Go check,” Charlie said.
“You go. I already know what I’ll find.”
“I can’t. My foot, Sam. I’m still drying out the infection.”
“The car must have belonged to it there in the water, don’t you think?”
“Maybe it’s alive.”
“Couldn’t be alive.”
“Would you just check, Sam?”
“I dunno, Sam. But if it were me, I’d like for someone to give a damn, even if I was dead. I’d like for someone to check anyway. Just to know. Wouldn’t you?”
“No one would give a damn, Charlie.”
“Well, even so, that’s what I’d want.”
So Charlie sat on the stump and pulled his boots off and his socks, which had fused to his misshapen foot. He hung them from a half-fallen tree.
“Christ. The stink, Charlie,” Sam said. “The stink of it.”
“I know,” he said, and eased his foot down into the coolness of the mud, felt it soak into his split skin. The pain was more distinct every day. It was as though his body was waking up to another world, which was more real, and more painful. The feeling of it oscillated between aches, low and warm and steady as love, and lances of white agony, which shook the whole of him, up to his rattling eyes. Walking on it was possible, but only barely and there was then the feeling that this possibility was nearing the edge of itself—and after that? He imagined he’d have a long time to sit and to think about this when it happened that he could no longer stand. He knew that he would come to depend on Sam for his life, and felt pangs already of the guilt he was sure to feel for it.
He waded out and found that the shape was a woman and the woman was dead. Charlie called out to Sam, “It’s a lady.” The dead woman turned over effortlessly in his arms in the water. He held his ear to her lips and didn’t hear anything. Charlie hadn’t touched a woman in a very long time.
“Dead?” Sam asked.
“I said so.”
“She’s a pretty thing, Sam,” he said. Her hair was dark and smooth and galvanized with silver bands of moonlight. Her skin was colorless mostly, except for a faint purple beneath her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. She was wearing jeans, and a sweater floating loosely about her torso in the water—which was trim and built as though to cradle a pair of hands, there at the hips, like this, with the thumb pressed into the muscled back and then the fingers there down the curve of the abdomen. It was a haunted beauty in her face, which came to him like a lullaby but across a great distance. Her eyes were open. Sam yelled at him to leave her, but Charlie took her anyway beneath the arms and towed her back to shore.
“Can’t leave her out here to sink—not to the lake bottom.”
“Sure you can. Seems like as good a place as any.”
“Not here in the algae and the weeds. She’ll fall apart.”
“She’ll fall apart anywhere, Charlie.”
He pulled her ashore until her feet were just above the waterline. Charlie knelt down beside her and Sam followed.
“You’re right,” Sam said. “She is a pretty thing. Shame.”
“Where do you figure her shoes went?” Charlie said.
Sam considered her feet for a moment and then he said, “Car must be hers. She must have drowned just here. She must have walked right by us.” Charlie moved the strands of hair from her face and Sam patted her front jean pockets, and then he pushed his hands beneath her to go through her back pockets, which made Charlie wince. “No wallet. But here—” Sam removed his knuckles from her pocket with some difficulty, “—here we are.” He held a keychain out in his palm. “Sure those must be her lights out back.”
Sam looked down at her bare feet, traversed the length of her body, pausing over a pale strip of midriff. He ran his thumb over the nub of her hip.
“Hell, Sam,” Charlie said. “Cut it out.”
“Cold, isn’t she?”
“I’m serious, Sam. Cut it out.”
“Cool off,” he said.
Sam left to find the car and Charlie stayed for a few moments and looked at the woman and wondered how long she’d been dead. He struggled with his socks and his boots, and was unable to fit the second boot back over his infected foot, because it was swollen and because it hurt and because he worried he might pull it apart, so he left the boot and put the foot instead into a plastic grocery bag and tied it off around the ankle.
He found Sam in the driver’s seat of an old Volvo, rummaging through the glove compartment. Illuminated by the interior light, Sam looked like an animal in a terrarium. “No wallet here either,” Sam said. “Registration though. Car belonged to an Evelyn Barnard. Figure that was her in the water.”
Through the tinted windows Charlie saw a child’s safety seat illuminated by the light above the center console.
“You didn’t see a kid out there in the water, did you?” Charlie asked.
“I didn’t. Why?”
“Kiddie seat back here.”
Sam looked back for a moment and he said, “Go figure.”
“Think she was a mother?”
“Appears so,” he said as he rifled through the center console, finding only a pack of tissues, a comb and a travel-sized bottle of hand moisturizer. He knocked down the visor and knocked it back up.
“I don’t get it,” Charlie said. “What was a mother doing out here in the dark?”
“Quiet a place as any for it.”
“Dying, it seems.”
“I don’t think that’s it. Something else must have happened.”
“Even mothers kill themselves.”
“She doesn’t look the sort.”
“My grandmother,” Sam said, “she took the family car out into the fields with a grill in the backseat. Suffocated herself with the fumes. That’s how they found her. Didn’t matter that she was somebody’s mother.” Sam wrenched around and went through the pockets at the back of the seats. “And how would you know anyway what sort she was?”
“Should we be rifling through the car, Sam?”
“Nobody’s car anymore.”
“We ought to tell someone about her.”
“Somebody must be looking for her. Someone will wonder where she’s gone.”
“Suppose we could drive the car into the city. Tell the police.”
Charlie backed away from the car a ways, hobbling. “I don’t know,” he said. “Doesn’t seem right, driving her car. Feels like stealing.”
“We’ve stolen before.”
“This feels different.”
Sam gave up searching the cab and stepped out and made for the trunk. “All right, Charlie. How then? Should we shout about it until a hiker hears us?”