July 3, 2018KR OnlineFiction

Fowler’s Lake

Fowler’s Lake is out past the National Forest Campground, about nine miles or so from McCloud, off Highway 9. It’s not a lake, it’s a swimming hole, a place where the river widens out. We call it a lake, a mountain lake, and it’s so cold you can swim only in August when it’s hot enough outside. Sometimes in July, maybe a couple of days in September, depending on the year. Billy and I liked to go out to Fowler’s in the late afternoon when the sun was just about to drop beneath the tops of the trees. The place was usually less crowded with campers by then, and we could pretty much have the lake to ourselves. I read a philosopher once who said heat and cold are pretty much the same thing, that their contraries are mirrors. Whatever that meant, he never swam at Fowler’s. Heat, isn’t it amazing how it vanishes? Seems so heavy when you’re in the thick of it. As soon as the sun began to drop, no matter how hot the day, the shadows always brought a sudden chill, and that was the exact moment we chose to swim.

It was a Wednesday, and the parking lot was empty when we got there except for a pregnant woman with a flat tire and no spare. She said she was from Shasta City and that her boyfriend wasn’t answering his phone. There’s no reception at all out at Fowler’s, so she must have told us that in order to seem less helpless. It turned out there was a boyfriend in Shasta, just no evidence she tried to call him. Apparently, she didn’t even have on a cell phone. She was sort of hippy, the boyfriend told the police later. She was against phones on principal. Billy, who was an expert on everything, said the rim of his truck’s spare wouldn’t match the wheelbase of her little Honda. Otherwise, he said, he’d lend her his tire just so she could get back to McCloud. So instead he said he’d drive her into town where she could get some help or arrange a cab back to Shasta City. “You can leave the car and deal with it tomorrow,” Billy said. “The rangers will wait at least a couple of days before they ticket you for overnight parking.” Would she mind, though, waiting a half hour while we swam? She didn’t say yes or no. She just smiled at Billy. She only looked at Billy. She was pretty far along, maybe seven and a half, eight months. She stood there the way I’ve seen other pregnant women stand, with her feet pointing a little outward, for balance I guess. We figured OK, so we dove into the water, and fuck, it was cold. And you couldn’t warm up a little out of the water anymore because the sun was already farther down past the trees, and the whole lake was in shadow. But as Billy said, that’s when your body has no choice but to acclimate fast and become fishlike, no longer dependent upon the sun for survival but on the water itself that is only, Billy said, as cold as your brain permits it to be. This load of bullshit was weirdly right. Freak that he was, Billy sometimes made sense. And the more I swam around, the more I got, if not warm, something, yes, maybe a little fishlike, fishish. We swam, Billy and I. We didn’t talk. We didn’t touch. We just splashed around in our own worlds for a while because that’s what you do if you’re going to stay in that water at all. You’ve got to concentrate. Hard to imagine what we must have looked like to her. And she was a woman, not a kid. We found out later she was thirty-two. She’d spread a blanket on the little patch of rocks that passed for a beach and watched us. That’s what I remember, and that’s what I told them after, that she was just sitting on the rocks on a blanket, watching, holding her stomach in front of her like you might a large bowl. We may have ended up swimming more than a half hour. It might have been forty-five minutes. It might have been closer to an hour. Once we got going in the water time was different. And a late August day, even the shadows of it, drags on forever. Anything was possible. Maybe I’d finally fuck Billy. Maybe I finally wouldn’t. He never pushed his case, though I know he ached, and sometimes his little hard-on would win out against the cold and push against his shorts like a ruler. We were considered smarter kids, college bound. There weren’t that many of us. Maybe I was thinking about Billy, about yes or no to Billy. Or maybe I was just breaststroking around, looking at the light, the thick green and yellow light, how it merged with the gray-blue lake water and made everything the only word I can think of is radiant, but that’s not right. It’s too loud a word. There was something stealthy about the light that didn’t call attention to itself. It was glowing, but not in any showy way. But toward the end of it we were still swimming, still trying to stay ahead of the cold, knowing that getting out would be worse because now there was hardly any sun at all in the trees. So all told, it had to have been at least longer than forty-five minutes.

We checked her Honda, thinking maybe she was lying down in the backseat. Billy knocked on the door of the porta-potty. We didn’t know her name, which turned out to be Linda, so we just shouted into the woods, “Excuse me, Miss, we’re ready to go now. Miss? Miss? We’re ready to go!”

Billy jogged up to the road to see if she was up there waiting to hitch a ride. She wasn’t there but that’s what we figured, or Billy did anyway, that she’d gone up to Route 9 and been picked up. The next day the boyfriend reported her missing, but it wasn’t until the day after that it was in the Shasta paper and the Redlands paper. Billy and I went to the sheriff’s office and told them what we knew, which wasn’t much. We told her we’d give her a lift, and she didn’t wait. Her car was still there. Teams searched the woods for three days running. Divers searched the lake. But the working theory has always been, and it’s been almost three years now, that she got tired of waiting for us and ended up hitching a ride on Route 9. My own small thought about the whole thing, for whatever it’s worth, and it’s not worth much since it won’t help find her, is that when we got out of the water she was still at Fowler’s. That she was somewhere on the edge of the woods, looking at us, hearing us call, but for some reason not answering. Whatever happened to her, I say, happened later. I never mentioned it at the time because what good would it have done since they were already searching the woods around Fowler’s? When Billy ran up to check the road, that’s when I really felt her eyes on me. I stood there in a bikini and cutoffs, teeth clacking, and I know she was still in the woods looking at me through the trees. Miss! Miss! She’d been watching us swim. Maybe she noticed me toying with Billy? Maybe she envied the fact I could still toy? Or God knows, maybe whatever made her refuse to answer had nothing directly to do with me. I’ve just never been able to shake the certainty that she would have done just about anything than ride in a car with me to McCloud. Billy yes, me, no. Maybe there’s something to this. In her refusal. That one refusal may have led to another refusal and another and that whoever she accepted a ride from, if she accepted a ride at all, had no choice but to drop her somewhere. Somewhere—or a stop on her way somewhere—she’d always wanted to go, she just hadn’t known it until she got that flat?

Author photo
Peter Orner is the author of two novels and two short story collections. His most recent book, a collection of essays, Am I Alone Here?, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Orner teaches at Dartmouth College.