Silver Blue Ripple
fiction by Natalie Sypolt
Today, the campground is about half full, but sleepy. The heat is thick and muggy, feels like everything is sticky. There’s a couple kids half-heartedly splashing around in the pool, and Jerry the teenager who lifeguards for us in the summertime, is slumped over in his chair asleep. No one’s checked in today, and I am just standing at the counter, leaning out the front window where people can walk up to check in or out, instead of coming inside the little main building, which serves as a front desk, gift shop, convenience store, meeting up spot. My job is to take reservations, handle customers, get people whatever they need, but my real job is this: keeping one eye on the campground and one eye on everything else.
The campground is called Rippling River, but the river is more a creek. It does ripple, I guess, and if you stay on the river side, and open the windows of your camper, or if you’re sleeping in a tent, you can hear the water and it’s relaxing as you sleep. I stay in one of the cabins out back of the lodge, and I like the sound of the water beating over the rocks to be the first thing I hear in the morning.
This morning, I woke up to dumbass Dale mowing the grass. I told him once, I told him a million times that people don’t want to hear that thing so early in the morning. We’ve had guests complain more than once about it (especially on a Saturday morning after they stayed up late drinking piss warm beer around a campfire). But Dale loves that mower—one of those crazy contraptions that looks more like an ATV mixed with a recliner that he controls with these big handle-like things on either side—and he’s going to keep doing what he pleases. Dale, for one, don’t listen to me.
“Grass got to be mowed, Win,” Dale says to me when I complain. “If it was up to you, we’d never cut a tree or mow the grass or kill a bug.”
They like to joke about me being a tree hugger, but I don’t care. I would sooner hug a tree than most people.
He tells me I should sleep with ear plugs in. How, then, would I ever hear if anything was happening in the campground? If some kid started letting off firecrackers, or someone started driving fast and loud through the campground, or if somebody started screaming? All those things had happened in the last two weeks alone.
I’m at the check-in window, when a blue car pulls up to the front of the lodge. It’s one of those little ones that looks like a box. Out of it steps a woman with long brown hair, wearing a red and white print dress, sleeveless and about to her knees. She doesn’t look like she’s here to camp, and when no one else gets out of the car, I figure she’s taken a wrong turn somewhere. People don’t usually come here alone, and they almost never get here by accident.
It takes her a long time. She stretches, up high on her tiptoes, raising her arms up above her head. She’s real tall, and skinny. She’s my exact opposite—her: stretched and brunette and hair like a shiny mane; me: thick and blonde and big frizzy curls. Like I say, people watching is the best part of this job, and how can anybody watch without also thinking about themselves?
After she stretches, the woman looks around her, like she’s surveying the campground. I see her wipe a finger up under her big sunglasses, and that makes me wonder.
She goes up on the porch, through the racks of sweatshirts and t-shirts and pool towels we have out there to sell, and in the door.
“Hi there,” I say, giving her my best smile.
“Hello,” she says. Up close now, I see that she’s not pretty really, but interesting looking.
When she pushes her sunglasses up on the top of her head, I see she’s got these big, spooky blue eyes, like a husky dog. You don’t see people with eyes like that much, especially not brunettes. Her mouth is small and tight, and she doesn’t smile back at me.
“Checking in?” I ask.
“Actually,” she says, and sits her big pocketbook up on the counter between us. “I don’t have a reservation. But if you have anything available, I would like to stay.”
I am surprised, and kind of just blink at her a couple times. There are hardly ever walk ins. People plan camping trips, and they call ahead or book their site online. Nothing about this lady says to me that she is going to be staying the night in a tent, so when I tell her that all the cabins are booked up—were weeks ago—she says she’s ready to “rough it.”
I turn to the computer and pull up the reservation map. “Well, since you don’t have an rv or camper, you’ll be staying in the rural camping area—that’s for tent camping. You park in the lot, and then carry your things down to the sites. It’s close to the river. Will that be okay?” I’m trying to make it sound as unappealing as possible, hoping she’ll decide to leave and go stay in a Holiday Inn, but she nods and takes out her wallet.
The name on her credit card is Andrea VanMeer, which sounds just about as fancy as any name I’ve ever heard.
“How many nights are you going to be with us, Ms. VanMeer?” I ask.
“It’s Turner, really,” she says. “VanMeer was my married name, but I’m divorced now, and I’m going to take my real name back.” Something about the name Turner makes the back of my head tingle, but it’s such a common name, so I try not to think much of it.
“Well, Turner it is, then,” I say. “Number of nights?” I ask again.
“I’m not really sure,” she says. “Why don’t we say three for now and then we’ll see if I want to stay on a while longer. Will that be okay?”
“Sure thing,” I say, and smile at her as big as I can. I do a little more typing, and then tell her the charge, which is $150 for three nights. She nods and I print out the receipt for her to sign.
“Mind if I ask how you found us?” I try to make it sound like a question I always ask, but truth is, I still can’t figure this woman, standing here in her sundress, planning to sleep on the ground.
“Heard about it from a family member,” she says finally. The corners of her mouth have turned down into a little frown.
I want to ask a thousand questions, starting with does she know how to put up a tent—does she even have a tent—but she’s closed all her windows, locked all her doors, and it’s clear to me that she doesn’t want to small talk.
“Well, okay,” I say. “We love good word of mouth.” I take out a card and write the code to the bathhouse on the back. “Here you go,” I say. “The wifi doesn’t have a password, but it’s also pretty terrible. Sometimes it works a little better if you come up here.” I also pull out a map of the campground and circle the rustic camping area. “You’ll be site three,” I say. “You’ll see the numbers on stakes when you get down there.”
“Thank you,” she says. She barely glances at the map before shoving it into her big pocketbook.
“Do you need any help?” I ask. We ain’t full service here, but the thought of this lady hauling her stuff from the box car, down that step wooden stairway, and to her campsite makes me feel generous. I even think maybe I can call Dale and get him to come help her set her site up.
“I’m fine,” she says briskly, and turns to go out the door.
“Nice to meet you,” I call after her. “Campfire down at the pit at 9!”
I watch out my window as she gets back in her car and slowly crunches gravel away.
Turner. The name pinches at my brain again. Around here, it’s one of those names, like Smith or Jones. Maybe we all have a Turner or two in our lives. No reason to think this strange woman has any connection to that other Turner woman who I once checked into the rustic campground.
I wait a few hours, more than half expecting to see the little blue box tear out of the campground, or at least the tall woman, frazzled and dirty, coming in the main building to finally ask for help. After seeing nothing, I figure I should maybe take a little surveying walk, just to make sure everything is okay. It’s getting on to dinner time, and some people have pulled out their grills or are starting to make up their little campfires to roast hotdogs. Later, I’ll get Jerry to start the bonfire at the pit and we’ll keep it going for a couple hours. Sometimes we have local boys come and play music and that gets some people down there, but usually it’s just a family or two, and me, and sometimes Jerry or Dale or Bob Hindman who is a park ranger friend of mine. Some nights it’s just me and Bob, sitting close on one of the logs and not talking, but being happy feeling the heat from the fire and smelling that woodsmoke.
Most things I get tired of real quick, but I never will get tired of the smell of smoke in my hair or how another person’s face looks in the orange light from a campfire.
So, I take a stroll through the campground, past the big RVs and popup campers, then finally over to the parking lot that leads down to the rustic campsites. There’s that little blue box of a car, parked close to the stairs. That stairway is steep, so I take my time going down. Once or twice every summer somebody falls good on those stone steps and we have to call an ambulance over from Calhoun. One time, a girl broke her leg, and another time, a man busted his head clean open. I tell you, nothing bleeds like a busted head.
I get to the bottom of the stairway and boy am I surprised when I see a little grey tent, just as pretty as you please, sitting at Site 3.
I underestimated this woman and feel bad about that because haven’t people been underestimating me my whole life?
“Hey there,” I say when I get closer to the tent and see her just coming out of the flap. She doesn’t look as put together now. Her hair is mussed and there’s some dirt on her face, but all in all, I’d say she looks happier.
“Come to check up on me?” she asks, and I feel my face turn red.
“Oh, no, I’m just making the rounds,” I say. She laughs and pulls a camp chair out of its little carrying sack. No doubt about it that everything looks brand-new. The chair even has a Walmart sticker still on it.
“It’s okay,” she says. “I get it. I don’t look like your average camper. This was a spur of the moment trip, and I’m not really practiced at this sort of thing, but YouTube has been a lifesaver.” She motions to her phone, propped up on a tree stump near the tent. “You’re right though. The wifi sucks. Took me 45 minutes to watch a 10-minute video.”
“That sounds about right,” I say. “Well, I’ll let you get back to it.”
“Hey, wait,” she says as I start to turn away. “I didn’t get your name before. What is it?”
“Me?” I ask. “Oh, I’m Winnie, Win for short. I stay in a cabin back behind the main building, if you need anything.”
“Thanks, Winnie,” she says and smiles, a tight little thing, but a smile none-the-less. “I’ll remember that.”
I watch for Andrea Turner at the bonfire, but she doesn’t come. I try not to worry about her, if she has anything to eat or what she’s doing for light down there or if she can build her own fire. I underestimated her before, and she was just fine. Her and her YouTube. So I chat with the families. The one is Hispanic and neither of the parents speak much English, but the little ones do, chattering at their parents in Spanish and then to me and Dale in English and then making little these weird little sounds and hand signs at each other, their own language. I recognize it because my sister and me once had that. We wouldn’t even have to talk, just a look in a certain way and we knew just what the other one was thinking. I haven’t seen her now for 15 years or more. It’s so easy to fall out of touch with somebody, even if you love them.
The other family is your typical hearty bunch, wearing the name brand camping clothes, all the best stuff. Blond and full cheeked and the kids boring and well behaved. See that type all the time here, the mom just as comfortable making dinner in the little RV kitchen as in her own kitchen at home, Dad setting up a folding table and chairs out in front. All the roles from home, transported out into the wild. It never looks any fun to me. Serious campers are so serious, always planning every little thing. Shouldn’t half the fun be the unknown? The wild isn’t all that wild here, not usually anyway.
Bob doesn’t come either, and I decide to turn in early, trusting that Jerry can put out the fire without burning the whole woods down.
The woman is the last thing I think about before I drift off to sleep. I smell the woodsmoke in my hair, now down long and loose, and I think about the woman’s marble-colored eyes, giving me that look over the counter when I asked how she knew about Rippling River. Turner.
I can’t see anything at first. It’s all hazy and weird and like everything is too close to my eyes to make out. I hear someone screaming and I hear a clunk. Clunk. Clunk. A wet pounding. I hear someone screaming for me to help, to come see, to make whatever is making that noise—that sick, sucking and thumping noise—stop, and I think that I am running, but everything is too close. Branches and leaves and even the fog feels thick, hitting me, and no matter how much I think I’m moving, the sound and the screams seem just as close and just as far away as ever.
It’s another sound, a tap, tap, tapping at my window that wakes me. I am breathing hard, sweating and the sheet is tangled up around my throat. I make a scared, shocked sound that surprises me when I look at the window and see a face, pressed up close to the glass. Then I realize it’s just Bob, looking in at me with his forehead creased. I motion for him to come around to the front door.
I don’t bother to grab my housecoat or put on slippers. I just pad my way to the front door, flipping on every light in the cabin as I go. I blink again and again, trying to get those branches from my dream out of my eyes, but the room still looks hazy and tunneled.
“Jesus, Bob,” I say when I pull the door open, him standing there in his Ranger’s uniform, still wearing that creased look.
“You about scared me to death.”
“I walked up here to see if you were still awake,” he says. “And when I got up on the porch, I heard you in there. Sounded like you were crying or something. I come around the back to make sure you were okay.” I see his eyes glance down to my chest, my see-through sleep shirt, and I don’t cross my arms over my breasts like I probably should. I move out of the doorway and let him in.
“What time is it?” I ask, rubbing my eyes again.
“Quarter of one,” he says. This isn’t the first time Bob has come over late after a bonfire. I think about what excuse he’s going to give me for needing to talk to me tonight. Maybe a bear sighting or even a mountain lion. “Wanted to tell you about a big storm coming up tomorrow,” he says. “Figured you might want to warn some of your campers.”
“I can watch the weather on the tv down at the lodge,” I say, and Bob is already taking off his jacket and sitting down on my couch.
“All the same,” Bob says, pushing off his boots and stretching his legs, feet up on my coffee table. “Gotta do my duty to tell you, right?” He smiles at me, and we both know why he is here. I think that I should tell him to get his feet off my furniture, and that a lady doesn’t let some man in for a late-night fuck. I think about the dream again, and about going back to my bed where the tree branches stretch and poke at my face, and where I can never get to the place where the screams are coming from.
“Okay,” I say, flipping the lights back off as I walk towards him. “I guess you saved the day.”
I am a grown woman, but I don’t need nobody knowing my business
and making things more complicated than what they are. Bob and I
have an easy respect, a mutual need for companionship in this world,
and that’s all.
I always want Bob gone before anyone knows he’s been there, but goddamn that Dale and his lawn mower, the next morning before I can even get myself awake. When Bob hears the mower, he sits straight up in the bed like a shot.
“What is it?” he mumbles, half asleep and half awake.
“Dale,” I say. I’m already thinking of what excuse I could make for Bob being here so early. Of course I am a grown woman, but I don’t need nobody knowing my business and making things more complicated than what they are. Bob and I have an easy respect, a mutual need for companionship in this world, and that’s all. “Get up and get out,” I say and push my hands up against Bob’s bare back. His skin is warm, and if not for getting him out of the cabin, I might be tempted to curl back into it.
“I feel so used,” he says as he throws his long legs out of the bed and down onto the chilly cabin floor.
Bob gets dressed fast and so do I. I’m just about to push him towards the door when I hear a quick knock. Well, that’s it, I think. We’ve been caught. I steel myself for it, and pull open the door, Bob just behind me doing up the buttons on his shirt.
It’s Andrea, her fist poised to knock again, but when I open the door, she drops it and smiles.
“Good morning!” she says, her chipperness forced. I can see the tired in her face.
“Hi there,” I say. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m so sorry,” she says, and I see her see Bob for the first time. I watch him give her the once over, head to foot and back up again. Man style.
“No problem,” I say. “This here is Ranger Bob.” I feel him cringe beside me. Bob hates when people call him Ranger Bob, like he’s a children’s tv character.
“Hindman,” Bob says, and sticks his hand out to Andrea. “Ranger Bob Hindman.” She takes his hand and gives it a quick squeeze.
“What do you need?” I ask again.
“It’s nothing really,” Andrea says, but I can tell that’s not true. “I just, I can’t make coffee at the campsite, and I thought there might be some in the main building, but it’s locked, and I just really needed a cup of coffee, so I thought I’d come up and ask if you knew when there might be some, but I didn’t mean to bother you, and like I said, I can wait.”
“Clearly,” Bob says and chuckles a little.
“Maybe I’m addicted,” Andrea says.
“We all got something,” I say. “I shoulda been up and at ‘em already. Just let me put some shoes on and I’ll be down there in a few minutes.”
“Oh, okay.” Andrea’s relief is visible. I can see the lines in her face start to ease out almost immediately. “If it’s no trouble, but there’s no hurry. I’ll just meet you down there.” Before I can say anything else, Andrea has turned and started away from the cabin.
“Live wire there,” Bob says. He’s gone back inside and is putting his wallet and other pocket things in his pants.
“Bob,” I say. “Did she look familiar at all?”
“Nah,” he says. “Not that I can think of.”
“Her last name’s Turner,” I say, and watch him stop, his arm halfway in his jacket.
“That’s a common name,” he says, and pops his jacket the rest of the way on, but does not look at me. “She alone? What’s she doing here?”
“Don’t know,” I say. “Just camping over in one of the rustic spots. She’s alone.”
“Win,” he says, and comes over to me. He puts his big hands on my shoulders, and I think he might hug me or kiss me, things we don’t do in daytime, but he just looks me in the eye and says: “It’s a common name.”
I find Andrea standing on the front porch of the lodge, arms crossed and hugging herself. There’s a bite in the air, but it’s not too cold, and I figure she must be used to warm weather all the time.
“You’re an angel,” she says when she sees me.
“Not hardly,” I say and unlock the door. “How was your night?”
“Cold. Uncomfortable. But I did it.” She raised her arms a little in celebration.
“Good for you,” I say. I flip the lights and go right for the coffee maker.
“Angel,” she says again. “Sweet angel of mercy.”
Andrea sits at the counter and hugs her cup like it’s some magic heater while I open up for the day. I decide what racks will go out on the front porch—sale rack and hooded sweatshirts—and when I look at her, freezing in some filmy sweater, I pull one of the hoodies from the rack and take it back inside.
“Here,” I say and push it towards her. “You look like you could use this. On the house.” Later, I’ll pay for it myself, won’t be much with my employee discount.
“Are you sure?” she asks.
“Yeah. I don’t want you to freeze to death.”
I go back behind the counter and pull up the reservations for the day. As I work, she sits there, slowly drinking her coffee. At some point, she slips on the hoodie, but I don’t see her do it. I just turn and there she is in a magenta sweatshirt, too big and silly looking with the flimsy sweater hanging out underneath it.
“Is it okay if I just sit here?” she asks after about 45 minutes have passed. “I’m just trying to warm up.”
“Sure,” I say. “Happy to have the company.”
“I thought I could do this,” she says a little while later, after I check in a family in a giant black RV. “I don’t think I can, though.”
“Oh, it’ll be okay,” I say. “Last night was cold, but it’ll be better tonight. First night’s always the hardest.”
“It’s not that,” she says and shivers. “Well, it is partly that, but not all that.” It feels like something is coming. Like some answer is about to be offered to a question I have but haven’t asked. I get up from my desk and move closer to her, push myself up onto the next stool at the counter.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“That question,” she says, and makes a sad little laugh. “I can’t tell you how many times you get asked that after your mom dies.”
A cold electric shock goes straight threw me.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and Andrea shakes her head.
“Here’s the thing, Win,” she says. “I haven’t been completely honest with you. I’m not here just because I had a great desire to sleep on the ground. I’m here because just about a year ago, my mom died. Died here. I’m sure you know the story.”
I feel bile rise up in my throat and fight to keep it down. Since I saw her come in the door, some part of me had known, but I wouldn’t let myself admit it. But here she is, Loriann Turner’s daughter, turned up like I knew and never knew she would.
It was not me who found the body, half in the rippling creek, half on the bank. It was another camper, a woman in her 60s who’d been walking her white marshmallow dog. She came up out of the woods screaming. I could see her and hear her from where I was at my window in the lodge, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. She stumbled and fell and dropped the leash. The dog saw its chance and took off; all I could hear was the lawnmower.
Jerry and I got to the woman at the same time. She’d gotten back up by then and was screaming about her dog and about something else, something terrible down at the water. I told Jerry to catch the dog and I went off in the direction she had pointed.
I should have called the police, I suppose, or at least Bob, but I didn’t even know what I was dealing with yet.
Like I said before, we have people get hurt here all the time. Break a leg. Bust a head. Even had a guy have a heart attack and keel over while hiking one time. But never anything like this.
On tv bodies look real, but not real, because really there is still life in there because the actor is in there, holding his breath, not blinking, but still, there is some flicker. In real life, though, there is a pale naked woman with mud up her body, her body thick and sinking and not a beautiful thing to see, but a real body with a flat ass and a thick middle and her arms not laying natural, but broken doll broken. Her top half is in the water, face down into the rocks and the water pushing up and over her like it would any other thing in its path. There are leaves plastered to the body. There is an ankle twisted uphill. Both legs are straight and pointed back towards the campsite that the body came from.
When I first saw her, my eyes became like a zoom lens, seeing parts of her coming into and out of focus, bits at a time like the whole things was too much to see. Ankle, elbow, mud, distorted face in water, leaves.
When I touched her elbow, it was so cold and hard like a wax candle.
The policemen came and did what men do, they took over, took charge, talked to us all like we were dumb hillbillies, even though we all come from the same place. They wouldn’t even let Bob down to the crime scene, even though this was his forest to look after, and his water to take care of. People wanted to check out. Kids started crying even though they didn’t know what was going on because there was just that tense feeling of badness and misery in the air. The policemen made everybody stay, though, until they could question them, get down their information.
They questioned us all alone, and hard. They took Jerry and Dale into the station. They wouldn’t tell us much of anything at all. Her pocketbook was gone, but her name was in my computer. Loriann Turner, and she went by Lori, but some people called her LA she told me, laughing, when she checked in. She was a little older than me, maybe 45, maybe 50. She had a nice big friendly smile and this cloud of blonde hair. She had arrived just the day before, seemed capable and ready for whatever might come. I didn’t remember checking on her one time.
“You do know the story, don’t you?” Andrea asks me. “Loriann Turner.”
“Sure,” I say. “I know it.” I want to leave my seat, the lodge, get as far away from this woman as I can. Now that I know for sure, all I can see is Loriann in Andrea’s face. That broad forehead. Those husky marble eyes.
Andrea asks for more coffee. I get it, pour with my hands shaking.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” she says, taking the cup from me. “The police were never able to tell us very much. I guess I just wanted to see the place for myself. Maybe feel closer to her, you know?”
“Sure,” I say again.
“They ruled it an accident,” she says, and I nod. “Said that she probably slipped, fell down the bank into the creek, hit her head and then drowned. I’ve seen the report, though. How did she hit her head more than once? Is that possible?” Andrea shrugged, then took a drink of her coffee and grimaced. “Hot,” she says.
“It is slick out there,” I say. “Would be easy to fall.”
“But why was she naked? Where was her handbag? Her wallet?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I touch her hand, half expected it to feel freezing and waxen, but it is pliable, warm. “We always look for answers, I guess. When we lose someone, no matter how, it never really makes sense.” She is quiet for a minute, then gives me that tight smile.
“You’re right. I know. My ex, he told me I had to quit obsessing because I was making myself crazy.”
“Probably good advice,” I say, “Even if it did come from a man.” She laughs and squeezes my hand.
“Thanks for this coffee, Winnie. Now I feel like I can face the day.”
The rain moves in around lunch time, dark clouds rolling slow and heavy, saying that they are going to be here for a while. A few people, mostly those down in the rural campsites, decide to pack up and head out early. Camping—true camping and not “roughing it” in your rolling condo—is miserable in the rain, so I can’t much blame them for leaving.
I don’t see Andrea again today. I keep watch out the window, hoping I’ll maybe see her packing up that little box car and driving out. If I was her, I’d do it. What more is there for her here? What was there ever?
Around 4:30 Bob calls to see how we’re holding up. The rain has been steady, but not so heavy that there’s fear of the creek rising up out of its bed. It’s done it a time or two before and we’ve had to evacuate some of the campground. He tells me not to worry, he won’t sneak up on me tonight, and I don’t know if that makes me sad or glad.
I close up around 7 and head out to my cabin. The rain is coming harder all the time, and is dripping off my slicker’s hood, down in my face, fast like rushing water. Just as I step up on the porch of my cabin, feeling grateful to be about to be in out of the weather, I look down towards the rustic campground.
“Fuck,” I grumble. If I’d seen Andrea just one more time that day, if she hadn’t looked so cold and strung out this morning, if I’d checked on Loriann, then I could go inside and microwave some popcorn and be done with it. As it is, though, I’m tromping through the mud, getting wetter by the minute.
Andrea’s grey tent is the only one left in the campground, and when I get up on it, I notice one side has started to fold in and is collecting a puddle of water. I half hope that she’s gone up the hill to sleep in the back of the box car.
It’s so muddy that my boots sink. I slip once and imagine myself sliding into the little tent, wiping it out, and both of us ending up in the water, which I now see is running fast and higher than it should be.
“Hello?” I call, hoping my voice will carry over the rain and the creek’s rushing water. I get ready to call again, but then see the tent zipper starting to move, and then a pale hand coming through the flap. Andrea’s eyes look huge under the magenta hood of the sweatshirt I gave her earlier. “Are you okay?” I ask.
“I guess,” she says, but I look down and see there are muddy puddles all around the bottom of the tent, and she’s wet clean through.
“Come on,” I say. It looks like she might argue for a minute, but then she grabs her pocketbook and comes out of the tent. I think about maybe giving her my slicker, but in the time it’d take us to make the exchange, we’d be halfway to the cabin, so I just grab her hand and pull her, half walking and half running, back up the hill.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, standing just inside my door, dripping all over the floor. I take the slicker off and see I’m drenched too. Fat lot of good that thing did.
“Sorry for what?” I ask. I open the door behind her and toss the wet slicker back onto the porch.
“For making you come rescue me. I was being stubborn. I should have just come up to the main building and—” I see she is on the verge of crying, and that’s the last thing I want.
“My job,” I say. “I’ll go get you something dry to put on.”
Twenty minutes later, we are both dry and in my sweats. The legs and arms are short on Andrea, so her pale wrists and ankles stick out of all the ends, but she is looking better and curled up on the corner of my old couch, holding a cup of hot tea.
“You really are my angel of mercy,” she says. “Do you have to bring in nearly drowned campers often?”
I just shrug and say, “Not too much,” though this is the first time I’ve ever let a camper into my cabin. Once or twice, people’ve needed to stay in the lodge, and I’ll take them up some blankets and pillows, but never here, in my own place.
“Thank you, Winnie. I really mean it. I thought about going up to my car, but even that seemed impossible the way it was raining. I was afraid of falling.” Andrea doesn’t say “falling like she did,” but we both know she’s thinking it.
“I didn’t know your mom,” I say finally. “I checked her in, but I don’t remember talking to her or anything after that. She seemed nice.”
“She was nice,” Andrea says, and takes a long drink. “But she was also a mess. She was selfish, and a scatterbrain, and I hadn’t really talked to her for years. She couldn’t stay in one place. Always needed to be moving. When I was a kid, I attended seven different elementary schools.”
“Wow,” I say. I’d lived within ten miles my whole life long.
“But she was fun, and unpredictable. I loved her a lot.”
“I lost my mom, too,” I say, “but it was a long time ago. She wasn’t so much fun, or very nice, but I loved her a lot.”
“Mothers and daughters,” Andrea says, and yawns.
“Let me get you a blanket,” I say. When I come back from the bedroom, she’s already stretched out on the couch, her legs pulled up close to her body, wrists and ankles looking white and vulnerable. I lay the quilt down over her and she smiles up at me.
“I think I’ll leave tomorrow,” she says. “The tent’s probably had it, and I guess I have too.”
The woods are black and white, the branches tight into my face and the fog thick like cream all around me. I hear the screams, but can’t get to them, or can’t get away from them. I don’t know which way I’m going. I don’t know how to get anywhere through the brush. The water is close by. I can hear it gurgling, and then that sound of a wet pounding. In the black and white there are slashes of blood. Slices. Red and thick on the sticks, on the branches, across my vision. The screaming again, and I realize, it is me. I am the scream.
I wake up from the dream drenched in sweat and trying to breathe. No knocking on the window this time, just my own panicked heart scaring me awake.
Andrea is laying on the sofa, stretched out and fast asleep. The moonlight is coming in through the front window, making her face look like silver water. Standing over her, looking down at that face, that soft head, I can imagine how easy it would be to slam against a rock while falling, or to crack with a branch.
I am afraid every day that I will find Loriann’s pocketbook tossed off into the thick woods, or her wallet in Dale’s lawnmower, or the floorboard of Jerry’s truck, or in Bob’s bottom dresser drawer. Or in my own bottom dresser drawer.
Every day I am afraid that I really did see a bloody club next to the body, and that I pushed it into the creek with the thick toe of my boot. Did I see it or didn’t I? Is it a dream?
I look down at the smooth surface of Andrea’s forehead, that hair pushed back from her face, the silver blue light making it all glow. I could touch that place, could see if it was warm like flesh, or cold like a frozen pond.
Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in West Virginia. She is the author of The Sound of Holding Your Breath (2018, West Virginia University Press) and her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Appalachian Review, Still: The Journal, Willow Springs Review, and The Kenyon Review Online, among other fine journals. Natalie is the winner of the Glimmer Train New Writers Contest, the Betty Gabehart Prize, the West Virginia Fiction Award, and the Still fiction contest. She was first runner up for the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. Natalie works as an Associate Professor of English at Pierpont Community & Technical College.