Joe Golc, author of Across The Lake, has previously published short fiction in the Wire’s Dream Magazine. In “Across the Lake”, a former Park Ranger attempts to heal old wounds by confronting her past in the midst of a murder trial she is a suspect in.
“June 3rd, 1995
A great precipice stood before me. One that guarded the everlasting promise of salvation.”
Getting things out, no matter how therapeutic, has never come easy to me.
Hence the notebook.
It began as a trial–a sort of proverbial dipping of the toe. I write down anything that elicits anxiety. Thoughts. Feelings. Shitty weather. Anything. Doc thinks it’s a helpful prelude to our sessions as well as a healthy exercise. Gives me a chance to practice my divulgence.
I’m what you’d call a classic suffer-in-silence type. I gravitate toward emotional solitude. And I find myself instinctively swallowing stress versus the alternative. Old habits.
But that only works in the movies, if even then, my doc says. In reality, untended trauma festers in the shadows of our subconscious like an infected wound. And no amount of Gary Cooper, stiff upper lip stoicism will remedy it. If we want to heal, there’s no way around confronting our afflictions.
Which is why I’m here.
Also, I take back shitty. This weather. This heat–almost unbearable.
Without the central air, summer seeps through every crevice of the building, transforming it into one big sauna. Rumor is the compressor wore out last May. But instead of repairs, the Laurel County municipal chair used the budget surplus on a trip to Disneyland. Kind of poetic in a way. The guilty and innocent simmering under one roof–sentenced to face mother nature’s indifference to our perceived justice together.
A thin layer of condensation covers the face of my watch. I wipe it away. Half past noon.
Sweat begins to saturate my fresh-pressed uniform. Suppose I should count my blessings for its color. The dim tint of forest-green veils my perspiration.
Sweat beads above my brow. Droplets form ranks at the tip of my nose and under my chin before falling in coordinated salvos onto my notebook. I watch as my words warp on the page. Mutating into disfigured splotches of black and blue. It reminds me of my first night on the job.
It rained all day–almost three inches per hour. I remember because I heard it on the radio on my way to meet my new District Commander. And because I got an up-close look when I tripped in the parking lot on my way inside.
After grabbing me a towel to mop up my embarrassment, my new DC said something to me that’s echoed in my mind ever since. He said that only the sound mind can tolerate silence. Because out there, in this line of work, silence is all there is.
And for a while, I could.
“For too long you haunted me. For too long I was afraid to whisper your name. But no longer.”
Double wooden doors swing open.
I hear a voice say my name as a bailiff and sheriff’s deputy emerge from beyond the doors, ushering me inside. The wooden pew groans as I stand.
The congested herd of cops, reporters, and Joe-concerned-citizens go still as I enter the packed courtroom. Decibels dissolve. Each face turning to look at me spreads the ripple of silence. I can hear the buzz of the fluorescent ballasts.
I follow the bailiff down the aisle to the stand.
Faces fan themselves with newspapers, passing the stifling heat from one person to the next. Faces expressing what their words never would… I’m sorry. I bet she did it. I can’t imagine. Bitch.
I almost sit down again before the bailiff reminds me about swearing in. I place my hand on the Bible and meet the stare of a group of women in the crowd. Hard looks of disappointment erupt from their faces. As if they expected me to burst into flames when I touched the good book. For some, tragedy has become a spectator sport. When I lift my hand from the Bible, a clammy print remains.
I sit down.
The district attorney, an anemic-looking man, dabs his face and neck with a handkerchief. He asks me to state my name for the record.
He asks if that is my full name.
Katherine, I say. But everyone calls me Kat.
The DA nods and asks where I’m from and my occupation.
Kentucky, born and raised. Currently, unemployed.
What did I do before?
I was a Park Ranger for the Daniel Boone National Forest in Cumberland, Kentucky, Southern London District.
How long, he asks.
The DA looks at my file–and the nine years I spent in Colorado?
Then he asks why I came back.
My mother, I say.
He asks if I can be more specific.
She fell ill. I moved back to take care of her after she refused to move out west and live with me. Do you know what she said? An oak that walks out on its roots will soon wither no matter how exemplary the weather.
Wandering too far from comfortable was never in her nature. She used to tell my sister and me growing up that a woman determines her own path. She chooses. But in the end, she couldn’t even choose to remember to take her meds or feed her dog or herself. And I’d be lucky to go a full shift without a call from the Sheriff’s office.
Life’s irreverence for our intentions and expectations is almost comical.
The DA eyebrows jut upward.
She’d call 911 or go banging on doors until someone else did. My sister passed away the night after our twelfth birthday. She drowned.
The DA tells me he’s sorry.
Anyway, the first chance I got, I moved out west. My mom never left Kentucky, and she never forgave herself. Over the years, grief whittled down her mind until it became the sole tenant. No matter how bad we want it, some paths can’t be chosen.
The DA asks me about my father–about his funeral. Why I didn’t return to look after my mother then.
Maybe she forgot to tell me.
The crowd giggles. The DA hides his smirks. Then, he asks about my primary responsibilities as a Park Ranger.
I patrolled the Southern London District of the Daniel Boone National Forest in my park-issued cruiser from six at night to six in the morning. Or right as day surrenders the warmth of the world as my CO liked to say.
The DA grabs another file off his desk and opens it. He asks me why I quit the Park Rangers.
Mental and emotional instability.
The DA shakes his head. That is what’s in the file, he says. What’s the real reason?
Sweat pools beneath my stomach and the back of my legs. I can smell his pungent aftershave from across the courtroom.
I wanted to explore new opportunities.
After 14 years in a single career field? No, what was the real reason, he asks.
I feel my body starts to sink in on itself like a collapsing star. I tremble as my sweat turns cold.
Let me phrase it a different way, the DA says. Why did you quit after the night you found Ana Castor?
Suddenly, in the midst of my collapse, a subtle, singularity of calm washes over me. And I answer back–which time?
“My heart races; muscles tense; mind scrambles. But I know what must be.”
I remember I got about halfway through my patrol log when my pen shit out on me–ran out of ink of all things. And, as luck would have it, I couldn’t find a spare anywhere in my cruiser. So, I hopped on I 74-84 back to the station. The closest sanctuary for pens at 3 a.m.
Got about a mile south of the Laurel River Damn–that’s when I noticed something. On the opposite side of the road, on the outskirts of my high beams, a person walking in the dark.
I stopped my cruiser. Turned on my spotlight and shined it on the walker. They didn’t so much as flinch under the light. They just kept walking. I called out. Identified myself. Nothing. They kept walking. After a U-turn, I drove ahead to cut them off. I grabbed my handheld spotlight, got out, and stood in front of my passenger door so our paths would collide.
They were about 50 feet away.
I said hello–asked if they could hear me. Nothing.
I said it again–asked if they were okay. Again, nothing.
I aimed my spotlight down–stage-lighting their every step.
I yelled stop. Threatened to call the police. I remember my left arm raising itself in a reflexive halt moments before they reached me. Didn’t matter. They walked around me and past my cruiser–never breaking stride.
That’s when instinct overtook reason. I rushed around the car and grabbed the person by the shoulder. The person swiped my arm away fast and hard but stopped. I held my hands up and retreated backward.
The dark walker was a young girl.
She had an orange backpack draped over a black down coat. No flashlight or anything reflective. She tried to walk around me again, but I blocked her, extending my arms outward like a human barricade. She stopped again.
Did she say anything, the DA asks.
Not at first, I say. For a while, we looked at each other.
What I don’t say is what happened when she did.
The word shock makes it sound momentary. This felt different. Different than anything I’ve ever felt–a body-twisting sense of dread-laced déjà vu. My knees buckled while my lungs expunged every ounce of air like wet clothes rung out to dry.
Her red nose. Her flush cheeks. And her eyes. Expressionless and stone-like, they stared straight through me–fixated on the path ahead. Her face was one I recognized. One I knew. A face all but identical to my late sister.
“Reprieve and resilience wrestle for control while forsaken choices weave an interstate of roads not traveled–paths to places I will never know.”
There was a time I enjoyed the night shift–a time I welcomed its silence. But when I transferred back to Kentucky, my shift was taken. That’s how I ended up working with the Kentucky Wildlife Search and Rescue.
SAR’s objective was simple, but the job never was. Most of the time, we found the person within a few hours. No worse for wear. But sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we were too late. And those are the times that find you. The times that refuse to be lost.
April 4th, 1982. The beginning of the busy season for hiking and camping and the last day I ever worked with SAR.
While on a family camping trip, a young couple lost track of their daughter. The parents told investigators they did a long hike during the day and went to bed early. After the parents had fallen asleep, it’s believed the young girl left the tent, drifted a little too far from camp, got turned around, slipped, and fell down a small ravine.
We searched for that little girl for five days. Helicopters, dogs, volunteers–everything and the kitchen sink.
Day six. Right around sunrise. One of the volunteers found her slumped over a tree about 13 miles from the original campsite. Investigators suspect she must’ve climbed over the tree, slipped, and got stuck.
She’d been dead almost a day.
She was six years old.
The girl’s parents were there when we brought her out. They hadn’t heard. But the moment the SAR Station Commander and State Investigator removed their hats and walked toward them, they knew.
The father collapsed. Smacked his head on the ground hard enough to need stitches. But the mother didn’t react at all. She stood there. Motionless. Starring straight into the wilderness–through the two people telling her daughter was gone forever.
I watched as her hope turned to ash–her gradual slip from oblivious into oblivion. I wish I hadn’t, but I did.
We searched for that little girl for five days. Helicopters, dogs, volunteers–everything and the kitchen sink.
Pain can be a plague, my doc says. Like necrosis of the soul, it’ll spread to consume every inch of light in your life, if you let it.
Like pain, looks are universal. I knew the mother’s look. Because I’d seen it before. That sullen and unmistakable gaze of metastasizing terror. It’s the same look my mother gave when she learned of my sister. And the same look Ana gave the night we first met.
“But it’s insanity… because in the dark of regret nothing ever grows.”
Part of my SAR training involved a class on field-treating acute stress reactions. Also known as shock. And in terms of field treatment, the name of the game is de-escalation–separate the victim from the stimulus. Your approach should be fluid, our instructor said. Find out what works. What the victim responds to. This isn’t a one size fits all scenario.
So, when she didn’t respond to my questions, I started talking about the first, unrelated thing I could think of.
Which was, the DA asks.
The rain. I told her the forecast projected a high chance of it, yet I hadn’t seen so much as a tear. Which made me happy because driving in the rain sucks. And for some reason, the urge to pee amplifies exponentially.
Her lip twitched as she tried to fend off a smile.
Good. So I’m not alone, I said.
The DA asks what happened next.
Her mouth opened, ready to speak. But before she did, we were engulfed in light.
Another vehicle, the DA asks.
We shielded our eyes until an old truck came to a stop beside us–a young man sat behind the wheel.
He said good morning, so I said it back.
Then he asked if everything was alright, peering around me to look at Ana.
I told him yes.
His gaze continued.
I asked where he was off to so early.
As he exited the truck, he said, fishing.
I scanned his truck as he got out–no visible fishing gear.
Then he said he knew the girl, even used her name.
I looked at her and said her name to myself. Anastasia. Then I asked how he knew her.
He said he worked with her stepfather. Told me he’d be happy to give her a lift home.
That’s about the time she stepped behind me and clutched my arm.
I asked him where she lived, but he didn’t answer. Then, I reminded him that Federal Forest Service law prohibits me from turning over a presumed-missing person, and a minor no less, to anyone other than the law enforcement or legal guardians. And that I was happy to call the Laurel County Sheriffs to sort it out.
The man shifted his gaze from Ana to me and said, who said she’s missing?
Do her parents know she’s gone?
He didn’t answer.
Then she’s missing, I said.
He stared back at her for a moment before getting back into his truck. As soon as the door shut, his entire demeanor changed.
She lives down the road, he said. 10 minutes south of where you are now. Have a good day.
Before I got a name or even a license plate, he drove off.
I turned back to Ana. Her stony stare had all but vanished.
I asked her if she knew him.
She didn’t answer.
I said Anastasia was a pretty name.
Then I said, as useful as telepathy would be, sadly I don’t possess that power–so if she wants my help, she’s got to talk to me.
Her lip twitched like before. Then she said, it’s Ana–and not to take her home.
So I asked, where I should take her.
She pointed in her original direction and said, across the lake.
“The way back must be lost… the ties to lingering anchors cut… the pain someone else’s past.”
Ana’s difference added an unpleasant thickness to the air inside my cruiser–she didn’t look at me or make so much as a sound on the ride back to her parents. And aside from writing something down in a red notebook she pulled from her bag, she didn’t move. Not even when I almost missed the driveway to her house and had to slam on the brakes.
The winding, wooded drive takes a sudden dip downward before you see the house for the first time. Modern and decadent. To this day, I’ve never seen a house with more windows.
I guess some people prefer to hide in plain sight.
The defense lawyer shouts objection.
Anyway, I forgot to switch off my brights, so when my cruiser breached the hill, my high beams shined and refracted through every crevice of the house.
Lights inside began to turn on. One after another–a snaking path of illumination from the second floor down to the first.
I parked near the stone staircase that up to the front porch and the infinity fountain centering the courtyard.
When my cruiser’s overhead lights came on and the doors unlocked, Ana didn’t budge. And before I could say anything, a woman opened the passenger door and started unbuckling her.
The woman sobbed and trembled. I remember almost asking who she was until I saw how she hugged Ana. Deep. Full of comfort and security–the embrace only a worried mother can give. She kept saying sorry, over and over. Ana sat there with reciprocation–her stone look regenerating.
I got out of my cruiser. Figured they could use some privacy. That’s when a low, gritty voice rang out from behind me. It asked where I found her.
I wheeled around toward the stone staircase. I saw no one, but I saw something. A shadow of a shape that appeared one with the dark. Then the shape appeared to move. That’s when the porch lights flicked on. And beneath them, stood a man.
The woman sobbed and trembled. I remember almost asking who she was until I saw how she hugged Ana. Deep. Full of comfort and security…
I asked if he was Ana’s stepfather?
Then I asked him about the man driving an old truck, offered to bring her home. Said he was a hunter.
Fisherman, he said. A friend of his.
I asked why she ran off.
He paused for a moment, then said, kids will be kids.
I remember saying kids don’t run off without reason.
The DA asks me what happened next.
He asked if I was a Park Ranger.
For the London District, yes, I said.
Then Ana’s stepfather said he wondered how the Kentucky Department of Agriculture Commissioner would feel about one of its employees questioning local citizens about matters outside their jurisdiction–maybe he should give them a call.
It started to rain as I drove away. I watched small droplets wash over Ana through my rear-view mirror–her mother ushering her inside. Her stepfather didn’t move. Stock-still, he stood on the porch, staring at my departing cruiser until the quickening pulse of the rain forced him back inside.
And the other time you found her, the DA asks.
A few weeks later, on a night like the first, I found Ana Castor for the second and last time.
“I’m ready, counting each grain of falling sand–waiting for home’s embrace and dreaming of the day to come.”
Around 7 p.m., the London District Commander radioed me about a nasty storm front rolling in from the West. Strong winds. Gushing rain. Nothing unusual other than making the park more dangerous. That’s about the time it started sprinkling too.
By 2 a.m., a drip became a downpour. Thick and rapid rain enveloped my cruiser like a liquid blindfold. But, like usual, I patrolled the Southern London District of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Just slower.
Around 2:30 a.m., as soon as I hit I 74-84 south, I saw her.
Orange backpack draped over a black down coat. No flashlight. Nothing reflective. Walking the same way, in the same direction.
I spun around and pulled my cruiser up beside her. Before I could even honk my horn, she stopped. So, I stopped. Then she walked straight to my cruiser, opened the passenger door, and got in.
Soaked and shaking, she did her best to sustain her stony stare. I flicked on the overhead lights inside my cruiser and told her to take off her coat. I remember telling her that wet down won’t do her any favors staying warm.
She stared at me for a moment before pulling at the zipper.
Her movements seemed odd. Slow and almost too gentle and careful. As if she feared ruining her coat or soaking my upholstery. But I’ve learned that odd is just the heir to ignorance.
I pushed the button to unlock the trunk and told Ana to sit tight–that I’d be right back. Then I flung open my cruiser door and hopped out into the rain.
The trunk contained my old SAR bag and with it, dry clothes and wool blanket. I grabbed the bag and stuffed it under my raincoat despite it not living up to its name.
When I opened the door, Ana leaned forward, hunching over the passenger-side heat vent–her wet coat draped over her shoulders. I dug into the bag and removed the wool blanket.
You can throw your coat in the back, I told her.
Her black tank top did little to hide the clusters of black and blue bruises and swollen welts that covered her shoulders and arms. Even under the faint light inside my cruiser, they refused to hide. Ana grabbed the blanket out of my hands, cocooning herself before I could survey the true extent of her injuries.
Gasps abound in the courtroom.
What happened next, the DA asks.
She asked me what I planned to do.
Call the police as start, I told her.
She said it wouldn’t matter.
I wanted to ask. Every instinct, every impulse, every human cell in me wanted to ask. But I remember thinking, as bad as it sounds, what’s the point–doesn’t take Columbo to figure out where they came from.
The DA tells me to continue.
So again, I de-escalated. Changed the subject. I asked her about the night we met–why she wanted to go across the lake.
That’s when she asked me if I’d heard of the falls near Long Bend. She said that she has a window in her room with the perfect view of the falls across the lake. And every night she looks out the window and watches the water flow and crash. Flow and crash. Over and over and over. And after a while, she said, she’s able to fall asleep–that it’s the only way she can.
I told her it sounded nice–peaceful even.
Then she said today was her birthday.
…she asked me if I’d heard of the falls near Long Bend. She said that she has a window in her room with the perfect view of the falls across the lake.
Fighting the terrible, canned reflex of wishing her happy birthday, I settled on asking what she wanted instead.
And what did she say, the DA asks.
To see the falls, she said. That she’d never seen them in person.
I feel… I felt bad for her. It’s why I agreed to take her there.
The DA asks about the ride there.
The rain didn’t let up at all in our trek. In fact, the closer we got to the falls, the more the storm seemed to get worse. What should’ve been an easy hour drive took almost two.
We didn’t talk much in that time. She wrote in a notebook most of the ride.
Writing what, he asks.
It depends, she told me. Sometimes it’s about what she reads. Other times it’s her own thoughts. But regardless, it helped to get it out. She said she’s always loved writing.
But what I don’t mention is what Ana asked me moments before we arrived. She asked me about what had startled me the night I met her–that when I saw her face, it was if I’d seen a ghost.
I tried to play it off–told her she reminded me of someone is all.
She asked who.
My first impulse was to lie. End this road of inquiry–a road leading to heavy water she didn’t need to carry. But then I thought about her. About what she’s endured. And I wondered how many chapters of her life were consumed by lies and pain. How few truths she must encounter outside of what she reads. Then I thought about my mother… she liked to tell my sister and me that the truth is a tome that’s always overdue.
I remember driving past the ‘Falls Viewing Platform Ahead’ sign as I told Ana she reminded me of my sister.
In what way, she asked.
I could see the visitor viewing platform in the distance.
In more ways than mere coincidence, I said. We’re here.
Tell me about your arrival the, DA asks.
I take a deep breath.
You couldn’t see much outside the cruiser, but you could you hear it. The pounding of heavy rain and the cannon blasts of thunder couldn’t match the violent thrash of the falls.
Ana took off the blanket and handed it to me. I turned on the overhead lights again as she leaned forward in her seat to put her coat back on. I remember one of the wounds on her upper back began to bleed as she did.
Once her coat was on, she tucked her orange backpack under the dash in the front seat. Then she unlocked the door, flung it open, and ran outside. I tried to grab her. But my locked-up seat-belt prevented such success. So I smashed the release button to free myself, grabbed my spotlight, and ran after her into the storm.
“When I can close my eyes at the edge of my last horizon, unafraid to face the new world, and bask in the sweet solace of your shadow and vanquished pain of knowing you.”
I called out to Ana.
The storm slammed thick rain into my face, rendering me all but blind. With my spotlight moonlighting my feet, I inched forward–each step more unsure than the last. It wasn’t until I got to the viewing platform when I caught a glimpse of her.
I tilted my spotlight up, putting her at the epicenter of its illumination. She was on the other side of the platform, standing at the edge of the falls, two feet from the drop-off.
I yelled out to her but she didn’t answer.
Even amongst the rain and the wind and the gushing water of the falls, Ana stood still and calm. A shimmering white haze appeared to form all around her under the gleam of my light as if she was somehow a part of the storm. And before I knew it, I was standing right next to her.
The storm slammed thick rain into my face, rendering me all but blind. With my spotlight moonlighting my feet, I inched forward–each step more unsure than the last.
The DA asks what happened next.
As gentle as I could, I put my hand on her shoulder.
Mesmerized by the falls, her head turned toward me first, followed by her eyes.
I told her she’s seen the falls now, at unsafe distance no less–time to go.
She nodded. Then she turned back toward the rushing water. Shouting, she asked me if I knew that over 1,000 tons of water flow over the fall’s 85-foot vertical drop every second.
Then, beneath the constant torrent of rain and wild winds of the western storm, Ana said that she never got my name.
The wells in my eyes begin to fill.
Kathrine Charon, I told her. My name is Kathrine Charon. But everyone… but my friends call me Kat.
She turned to look at me, allowing her lips to form the first smile I’d seen from her.
Thank you, Kat, she said.
Then she jumped.
Successive groans erupt until the judge’s gavel devours all noise. Warm tears crawl down my cheeks, but I don’t wipe them away.
The DA motions to his colleague who leans down and retrieves a small evidence bag from beneath the table.
Exhibit 2A, the DA says.
He shows the bag to the defense and judge before walking over to me.
Open it, he says.
I reach inside and pull out a worn, red notebook with waterlogged pages. The cover has a branded letter ‘A’ on it.
Kat, please flip to and read the passage dated June 3rd, 1995, the DA says.
I wipe the tears from my face and begin to read.
“June 3rd, 1995
A great precipice stood before me. One that guarded the everlasting promise of salvation. For too long you haunted me. For too long I was afraid to whisper your name. But no longer. My heart races; muscles tense; mind scrambles. But I know what must be. Reprieve and resilience wrestle for control while forsaken choices weave an interstate of roads not traveled–paths to places I will never know. But it’s insanity… because in the dark of regret nothing ever grows.
The way back must be lost… the ties to lingering anchors cut… the pain someone else’s past. I’m ready, counting each grain of falling sand–waiting for home’s embrace and dreaming of the day to come. When I can close my eyes at the edge of my last horizon, unafraid to face the new world, and bask in the sweet solace of your shadow and vanquished pain of knowing you.”
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