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?”

“Might be.”

“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?”

“What for?”

“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.

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“Must be.”

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.”

“For what?”

“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.”

“Who?”

“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?”

“I dunno.”

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.”

“What for?”

“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.

Charlie nodded.

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?”

“That’s it.”

“Come on,” the man said, “let’s go try our luck.”

The kid trotted off and walked backward for a ways to see if he couldn’t catch a glimpse into the turbine house, but Charlie made sure he couldn’t. The man studied Charlie cautiously for a brief moment. He had the look of someone about to say something, but then he smiled curtly and nodded and followed his kid to the water.

For a couple hours the father and his son stood out there fishing, and for a couple hours Charlie sat against the turbine house and watched them. A few times the boy tangled his line around the rod or hooked it on a drowned tree and the father stooped with his pliers and righted it. Charlie wished first that they’d move on soon, but after a while he relaxed and listened to their voices travel out across the water in soft echoes. He saw low-flying birds chase their reflections over the lake and vanish into the woods.

Then the kid went hip hollering and Charlie could see the rod buckle over and he heard the father shouting out instructions. What they pulled from the water, he could see from this distance, was a rainbow trout. He saw the color catch the sunlight, throwing off sharp glances of ruby and green. The father and the son marveled at the fish for a while. The boy ran his fingers down the wet, shimmering body. They looked back at Charlie and held up the fish for him to see.

They walked back to the camp, the father holding the rod and the kid holding the line and the fish hanging from it. The three of them looked at the fish in silence for a moment and agreed in that way that the fish was good. It was the best looking trout Charlie had ever seen. The father nodded to his kid.

“Here,” the kid said to Charlie. “Have it.”

Charlie thought about this and he said, “That’s your catch. Trout’s a good fish.”

“We normally catch and release,” the man said. “My wife’s back home. Probably got the meal ready. So go on. Or we’ll turn it loose.”

“All right,” Charlie said.

“You got some place to put it?”

Charlie gestured to the bucket.

“RJ,” the man said to his son, “why don’t you go fill that bucket with water.”

“How much?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

The kid handed the line and the fish to Charlie and then ran off with the bucket. The metal handle had cracked off in some past life so the kid held it in his arms against his chest.

Charlie watched the kid go and felt the man watching him. From this vantage, through the shack door, through a series of gaps in the old machinery, Charlie could see the dead woman’s feet.

“Let me ask you something,” the man said.

“What?”

“Have we met before?”

“You and I?”

“Yeah,” the man said, a bit embarrassed. “You look familiar to me. Did you grow up nearby?”

“No,” Charlie said. “Not nearby.” He had grown up two states over.

“You look familiar is all. You ever know a Charlene Elligsen?”

“No,” Charlie said. “Not that I recall.”

“There was a guy who used to run with her sometimes. Used to see him coming and going. This would have been something like fifteen years ago.”

Charlie shrugged.

“You’re sure?”

“I am.”

“Huh. Well then you look a lot like someone I used to know.”

Charlie had not thought about his appearance in a long time. Being called back into that visible existence, which he’d long ago either lost or discarded, inspired a vague uneasiness to well up in him. He felt his mind go to work closing those doors that had come ajar, and managing the floodgate of memory, and yet still remote visions of his old life came to him as softly, and as indistinct, as voices conversing through the wall. Then the kid returned with the bucket brimming with water, sloshing some over the lip as he labored nearer, and Charlie remembered the fish that hung from the fishing line, wrapped tightly around his own dirty hand, which was just then purpling darkly from lack of circulation.

The kid set the bucket down at Charlie’s feet. “There you go,” he said.

Charlie lowered the trout into the water, which was murky with sediment from the lake floor. The fish slipped noiselessly to the bottom where it lay stilly for a few moments, and then it turned itself upright and glided a lap around the bucket, which surprised Charlie. He’d imagined it was dead. It had seemed dead in his hand. And yet there it was, claiming its last few moments of life, even with the line in its mouth and the hook in its gill.

“What do you know?” Charlie said. Then he looked at the kid. “Thanks for the fish,” he said.

“Say you’re welcome,” the father told his son.

“You’re welcome.”

The boy’s father smiled and scratched the stubble at his throat. “Listen,” he said. “Figure we’ll call it a day here. Going to head back to town soon.” He looked at his son. “See what your mom’s cooked up, huh?” He patted the boy’s shoulder, then he peered up at the canopy and inhaled. “It’s a pretty place,” he said. “I came here once or twice as a kid. It is a pretty place. I’ll say that.”

He waited for Charlie to reply, but Charlie only nodded and stared.

“All right,” he said to his boy. “You ready?” Then the man turned his attention back to Charlie. “You know, if you were ever looking for a ride to town—It’s gotta be a full day or so’s hike, isn’t it?” He glanced down at Charlie’s bagged foot. “Well. We’d be happy to give you a lift, is what I mean. If you were looking to stock up on provisions or anything.”

Charlie stood with his hands in his pockets and squinted down the dirt road, which disappeared into gathering of pines.

“No,” he said. “That’s all right.”

“Really, we have the room. Wouldn’t be any trouble.”

“There’s a friend I’m out here with. He ought to be driving back in soon enough.”

“Is that right?”

“Figure I’ll wait for him.”

“Right. Suppose it wouldn’t be polite to leave him without saying so.”

“I don’t suppose so either.”

“Right.” The man seemed relieved. He exhaled. “Well. Saddle up, RJ.” The kid tromped off to the car with an untied shoe. “Thanks for sharing your spot,” the man said to Charlie.

“Well,” Charlie said. “Not my spot anyway. Only where I’m set up.”

“All the same,” the man said.

“Thank you for the fish.”

“Like I said, normally we catch and release.”

Then they drove away, and left Charlie with the forest’s immense quiet, and with a fish in a bucket of lake water.

 

Charlie went back to the turbine house and stood above the drowned woman. He looked at her hair, which had dried in lank, clumpy strands. He felt, after the fishers’ visit, he should check on her, though he wasn’t sure why. It was not as if she could have left, and of course there was nothing she could need from him. Still he stood above her, and felt some sort of relief. Perhaps she had meant to die, but he resolved that he would never understand what she had meant, and it felt then as if he had relinquished something burdensome. “They seemed like good people,” he said.

It troubled him dimly that he had been mistaken for another man. To have been mistaken for any living man at all was a surprise he had not known to imagine, not in those days, when his last and only company was a dead woman, even pretty as she was—not when he felt as though he himself had already suffered through some amount of dying. It had seemed to Charlie somehow impossible to go into town, even if he had been able to reach it, as though he might have passed through it as a ghost passes through a wall he cannot see. And yet, to have been mistaken for a living man gave Charlie, however fleetingly, the feeling that he had mistaken a dream of his life for the real thing, though now, in any case, things had settled as they were.

Charlie put another few pine boughs on the fire, though what reserve of firewood he had left was scant. The woodpile was reduced to a few twiggy limbs and a scatter of pine needles so that a stranger come upon it would not know it was a woodpile unless he’d been told so. The task of replenishing it, Charlie knew, was becoming too much for his foot. Though it was not just the foot anymore, he admitted to himself. The strength was leaving his arms too. His hands were weights that he could not set down. It was becoming troublesome to keep focused. A sort of smoke thickened in his mind. The color of the smoke was the color of light that shone through his closed eyelids. He was probably running a fever, it occurred to him, though, when he placed the back of his hand on his forehead, his hand felt warm against his head, and his head felt warm against his hand. It was his skin, he decided. It was a whole warm suit of skin he wore, and it was a tired scaffold of bones upon which he wore it.

Charlie took the fish from the water without any struggle. It floated there and watched Charlie’s hand eclipse the sun, come down and pick it up, and then, without motion, the fish let the water pour off its body in a small shower. The smell of the fish and the water was pleasant, and the scales were slick and cool and the fish’s eye seemed as lifeless to Charlie as a marble, though the fish continued to open and close its mouth as if it meant to speak but could find nothing to say. He turned the fish belly-up in his grip and, in a swing of the arm and swift snap of the wrist, he cracked the fish’s head against a stone. It was, undeniably, an easy way to go, Charlie thought—held in a great warm hand and killed instantly, with gratitude and without any malice. Charlie imagined he’d have gone ten years before his time if he’d been guaranteed such a way out.

There was no knife to clean the fish with, so Charlie used a nail, which he’d sterilized in the fire, to split the fish from end to end, moving slowly and messily, perforating a path he could tear apart with his fingers. The dark ribbon of innards, the red pebbled organs, the head and spine, Charlie collected into his palm and laid upon the sun-warmed face of a flat stone. It would make for good bait, though he knew the walk to the creek and the trap may be too far to manage. He put the fish on a wooden skewer and leaned that over the fire and watched the skin roast and curl, and for a while thought of nothing except the skin roasting and curling.

Imagine, if he had said, “Yes,” he wondered, to the man and his son. If he had rode with them to town. And where would he go once he had arrived? They would have had to drive with the windows rolled down, or else the cab would have gone putrid with the smell of his foot. No, it had not felt like a real possibility then, though now, slowly, and safely after the fact, it dawned on him that he might have changed his circumstances if he’d found the wherewithal to do so. Sam was not coming back, he thought. There was no sting in it. Sam was gone, he thought again.

If he had known then that those were to be Sam’s and his final words, he might have said something more. He might have said that, in their time together, they became like brothers, though he knew, even then, that it would not have been the exact truth. Perhaps he would have given Sam his forgiveness in advance. It was the greatest gift he could have wanted from anyone else at least. It would not have been fair, Charlie thought, to expect Sam to assume the burden of his condition. Charlie would not have wished it on him. He realized then that he had never known when he’d come to a final parting, not as he occupied the very moment of the parting. Neither had he ever apprehended the reddest day of fall as it came, only the day after it had passed, when the trees were just a bit browner, and when the wind bit just a little harder. Charlie had never once said a goodbye and thought it the last one. He had thought he’d see everyone he’d ever known at least one more time again before the end. And there was no sting in that realization either. It occurred to him as though he’d already known it, but forgotten.

Then the fish was ready. He picked apart pieces of that white flesh and sucked his fingers, and thought that he had eaten only crawdads for too long. He thought he had never tasted anything so good as that trout. There was nothing else to think about except for the joy of that white meat. Charlie only ate half the fish. He did not have the appetite for it. He had eaten enough. The fullness in him was not just a fullness of the stomach, but the sort that touched the heart, as in that overfull feeling one has after reading a long, sad book about love.

Charlie was very tired. He decided he would sleep. His pad and blanket were still, as they had been, laid beside the drowned woman in the corner of the turbine house. Though it was not raining, Charlie did not have the energy to move the pad back to the far, exposed corner, and he decided neither did he have the desire to move it there. So he settled down beside her again, and looked up at the ceiling, where she too appeared to be looking. Sure, he thought, it was a pretty place. And though it was not yet night, he knew the dark would meet him if he waited.

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