Nonfiction Winner: The Whirlpool

High up on the fire tower in the Pigeon River Elk Refuge, I knew something was wrong. We had been driving all day, in near silence. This was supposed to be my last summer at what had been a great college job, working for the Parks Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Although I’d been working with him for almost two months, I was afraid of my co-worker, Pete Marsack.

He had insisted I work with him today, even though our boss, Terry Barr, had forbidden it. Pete had been so concerned about me that he’d taken to leaving notes on my car, hugging me after work, asking me to run away with him, so that he could protect me from the bad world of men—men like my stepfather and my boyfriend. Up on the tower, I had no idea that Pete had shot and killed our boss just hours before.

The north-central part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula has a few small towns, but most of the land is state protected. We came upon a lookout tower that rangers use to spot forest fires. There was no one else in sight. Pete seemed to expect this. The tower reached high above the treetops. A narrow metal ladder was barely visible along the tower’s side. Pete stopped the truck and suggested that we climb.

When I met Pete during the summer of 1993, I was twenty-two, and I still believed that I could have authentic connections with people only if I was completely honest. In truth, I desperately needed to connect with people, and prove my worth to them. In this case, I did not care that he was a man, and twenty years older. I assumed he would have no sexual interest in me, and therefore, I would be safe.

I never questioned our employer’s decision to pair me with Pete. Although I’d worked out of the Grayling office for three summers, temporary workers were at the bottom of the DNR ladder. I needed a supervisor, so I was assigned to him at a post where I was the only female employee. Terry had promised that I could have weekends off if I worked there. I wouldn’t have to collect fees at boat launches, deal with drunken boaters and angry out-of-staters who didn’t want to pay. I’d be doing the same tasks I’d always done: driving across northern Michigan in a green pick-up truck, picking up trash, mowing the grass at parks and boat launches, and maintaining sites.

I learned to ignore the smirks and sideways glances of male co-workers, none of whom liked Pete. Maybe Terry was amused by the idea of giving Pete, a forty-three-year-old DNR veteran, a college girl for a partner.

I had hesitated before I began climbing the tower. I knew I had a choice. My recent undergraduate education had assured me that I had nothing but choices. My stomach throbbed against my diaphragm, a warning light. A voice shouted from inside my head: What the fuck are you doing? But I kept moving. I was curious and wanted to see—and not just the view from the top of the tower. I can’t explain it any better than this. It makes no more sense to me now than it did then. But I was driven to climb and keep climbing. I believed Pete was troubled, misunderstood and a bit confused, but not dangerous. But beyond that was a part of me that I didn’t understand, a part of me that wanted to see what would happen—how this was going to end.

I reached the top platform, walked to one side and gazed out over the blanket of green. The trees were so thick that we couldn’t see the ground. It was still relatively early in the afternoon. The morning-excited songs of birds had faded into a kind of easy chatter.

Pete went to the other side of the platform, as far away from me as possible, lost in thought.

I waited for him to speak, to explain why we were there, what he wanted from me, and what was wrong.

Plenty of times I had driven to work wondering what Pete would say that day, wondering if I had the courage to tell him that I needed a work partner, not a father. I had become afraid of his intensity, his insistence on my being his “prodigal daughter,” his growing hatred toward Terry that I had dismissed as mere ranting that I could tolerate until the summer was over.

I closed my eyes. I heard the wind in my ears and the soft sounds of distant traffic: inescapable it seems no matter how isolated we think we are. The platform swayed slightly. I could hear my mother’s voice saying, “Sometimes we do things we don’t want to do. That’s life.”

My mother had wanted me to be independent and competent—but my family environment was geared toward trying to appease my stepdad. The message came across, however unintentionally, that his needs, men’s needs, were the most important in our family. I watched my mother’s resentment build, and the strange power of her self-righteous anger add to the monumental grief that she carried for my biological father—the unspoken, unshared grief that made her a martyr whose suffering was so obvious that it would be treason to express any of my own anger, my own grief, my own pain.

I really didn’t care about Pete. Not really. I even looked down on him a little with a guilty relief, because I wasn’t him, because I was young, because he was in his forties and stuck in a menial job for the rest of his career, and worse, stuck in northern Michigan, where “nothing” was happening, or would ever happen. Up on that platform, before I knew he had killed Terry Barr, I assured myself that I would never have to see Pete again, because I was moving up in the world. I was getting out. In six weeks I’d be focused on getting a master’s degree from Central Michigan University. I tried to concentrate on this hopeful fact as the trees stretched out in front of me, no road or building in sight.

 

As in old fairy tales, the deep woods of northern Michigan were both an enchanted and dangerous place for a child. The snow collected and formed huge awnings on the pines. And just as I’d learned to morph in the river, shadows in the forest could become people on my whim; branches and twigs could turn into birds or snakes. The seasons, however, transformed with force of their own; each one devoured the last, bones and all. In winter it became hard to imagine summer even existed, the contrast between the two was so great. I wondered at the changes and marveled at the people who could bear them.

My own first experience of separation was exhilarating: a second, more complete baptism, as if the river wanted to claim me. I was a year old when I tumbled into an icy torrent of water like I was in a hurry to be carried to the underworld. I had fallen off my grandparents’ dock into the AuSable River and was floating due east, toward Lake Huron. As the cedar-lined river swept me away, my snowsuit kept me afloat.

The AuSable is one of the cleanest, fastest rivers in Michigan. People come from all over the world to fly-fish in it and to experience the annual canoe marathon, a fourteen-hour night journey from Grayling to Lake Huron. Where I fell in wasn’t deep, but the current was fast. A healthy adult would struggle to move against it. My biological father ran toward me through the water. He let the current push him. His big strides were clumsy with panic. I was almost around the first bend when he hauled me out.

Years later, when my mother told me this story, she said that I was gazing up at the low, gray sky with wide eyes and that I never cried. I simply floated downriver for seconds that had seemed to her an eternity, bundled in a pink fabric that was growing heavier as it took on water. When she tells this story, she emphasizes the kerplunk my body made as it hit the surface—the horrifying sight of its submersion. She and my father were surprised that I didn’t struggle—that I appeared happy to be bobbing down the river, a bloated bundle growing smaller on the river’s glassy surface.

I have a snapshot of my father holding me that day. It’s dated December 1971—exactly one year before his death. We’d been visiting my grandparents for the holidays, up from Detroit, where my parents were teachers. The sun is shining. It’s one of those winter days when the air is so crisp and clean it makes you feel high. In the background, a dark curve of rushing water looms. The pines are heavy with snow. That day I had trudged across the wooden threshold of a typical river dock, painted green to match the foliage, its long axis parallel to the current. I’d been fascinated by the water’s swift movement, and the way snow melted and disappeared in it. Kneeling on the dock, as I reached down to touch the surface, my white mittens dangled from the cuffs of my snowsuit—then, kerplunk.

 

As a child, every summer day I found a way to get into the river. The current was purifying. Bright green vegetation flowed like angel hair beneath the undulating surface. Brown stones on the bottom reminded me of my father’s copper eyes. I’d submerge into a horizontal world, where I’d hold tightly onto the grass as my body raised parallel to the river bottom—evoking an old Charlie Chaplin film I saw, in which, as he holds on to a fence post during a windstorm, his body lifts up above the ground. I felt safe in the water, but after falling in as an infant, I was also always aware of the danger, even though the path to oblivion was seductive.

In the water, I could defy gravity, morph into a fish, a frog, a gymnast, or a single blade of the thick grass waving luxuriously among the river stones. That was one of two talents that I discovered in myself. The other I learned later—something a psychologist would label dissociation as the result of childhood trauma—that I could separate from my body and hover above it like a hummingbird.

I named my grandparents’ place “The Singing River House” when I was two because of the noisy, relentless current. A half mile downstream, the AuSable narrows, speeds up, then widens into a deep, expansive bend. The current appears to slow there, but I’ve never been able to swim against it with success. And at the bend’s center, I’ve never been able to touch bottom. We—my cousins and I—used to imagine it was bottomless. North and east of Grayling, Whirlpool Road winds down to the river bend and stops at a disintegrating pine fence by the bank. With ten feet of depth, give or take a storm, the whirlpool is clear in some places, dark and foamy in others. It’s where I learned to swim, where I lost or surrendered things to the current—a hat, a duck decoy, salty sweat and tears—and where I learned to trust the nonhuman world.

Growing up in the 1970s, the whirlpool was a myth-making place for my cousins, brother, and me. While other people swam there on a hot day or portaged inverted canoes across the water, we would watch from the trees that lined the banks. We dared not swim there for fear of being sucked into what looked to us like a giant drain. At the center, the water was ten feet deep, and debris collected against its sandbar: sticks, beer cans, lost jewelry. The eddying force of the whirlpool was a paradox, holding and releasing, engulfing and surrendering, full of promise and mystery.

 

On December 9, 1972, my mother was hosting a Tupperware party while nine months pregnant with my brother, Tim. Neighbors, friends, and my aunts were in attendance: the lure of plastic odds and ends. My father had been anxious about a coming snowstorm, and was running late to teach a catechism class.

My mother took me upstairs and left to rejoin the party. I didn’t want to sleep, but women’s voices floating up through heating ducts calmed me and I drifted off. Then, I was awakened by crying, the sirens, and flashing lights on my walls.

My father had come home from teaching his class and shoveled the driveway. The snowstorm hadn’t ceased and the party was still going. When he came inside, he said he didn’t feel well, and went into the bedroom to lie down. My Aunt Pat told me that he had cried out, and that she and my Aunt Margaret found him.

Among his possessions were a prayer book, a crucifix and a St. Christopher medal. A tiny figure on the medal has a backpack and a walking stick—it reads, “Protect Us.” I still have this medal, worn as smooth as a worry stone.

Three weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, my brother Tim was born.

Everything and everyone around me had changed. I remember wanting to look under things, to hear every adult comment, to understand what had happened that night. For a time, I believed his death had been caused by my M&M binge, my first real struggle with guilt. But I also developed a crushing sense of responsibility for the people around me. I had to keep my eye on everyone, especially my mother. The man who had formerly kept us safe, who had literally pulled me out of the river, was gone. I was never going to hear his voice again, the voice that had protected me, the voice I wish I’d had in my head twenty years later, before I climbed into that truck with Pete Marsack.

 

There is a thread from my father’s death to Pete Marsack. It stretches like a kite string from the earth to the sky. At times I’ve tried to deny it. It’s more defined at some points than others. But the connection is clear to me now.

My father’s death brought us, my mother, baby brother Tim, and me, to Grayling, to the AuSable River. We were many hours north of Detroit, the suburbs, the landscape of sprawling schools and malls, in a place where I would learn to love nature and the DNR’s role in protecting it.

At the same time that my mother, brother and I moved up north, Pete Marsack was serving five years for murder.

In the summer of 1967, Pete walked out of a bar in Roscommon, a town ten minutes south of Grayling. He was seventeen, and had just left a bar after an argument with an older man over a girl. By itself, this was nothing strange for a guy his age. Pete’s mind flipped through the many solutions open to him. After he considered each one, he made a choice.

He considered the timing and materials necessary to make it happen.

The time was now and he had what he needed.

Pete knew this man. He knew the route he would take after he left the bar. He scouted it out and found what he thought to be the perfect spot, secluded and wooded. Pete stashed his vehicle out of sight from the road, found a tree that looked good for the job and cut it down. It was small enough to go down quickly and be moved by one man, but big enough to be an obstacle for cars and trucks.

Pete dragged it across the road to set the scene. Perfect. He made sure his shotgun was loaded and ready, then he took cover and waited. He was not ambivalent. He wasn’t ruminating over the choices he was making. He was focused on his plan.

In time, the older man showed just as he expected. When the man stopped his vehicle and got out to move the tree, Pete murdered him where he stood.

 

In January of 1974 my mother married the man who would become dad. He’d been a dentist in Grayling since 1967 after moving there from Flint. My grandma, one of his patients, introduced them the summer we moved up north. Their wedding was six months later. The following year, when I was in kindergarten, my mother told Tim and me that she was pregnant. As we ate our poached eggs and toast, she smoked cigarettes over the sink, sharing her news. That morning the AM radio played Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” as it did at the same time every morning that year.

“…Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams…”

The following spring, the doctor induced my mother’s labor early so he could go on vacation, using forceps to get my little brother, Ron, into the cold April air. In one photograph, Dad holds Ron and looks down at him while Tim and I stand alongside, wearing surgical masks that obscure all but our wide, forlorn eyes looking up at the camera. My mother looks pale, dazed, hardly there. She stayed in bed for several days after Ron’s birth, and I waited on her, afraid that she, too, was going to die. I had just seen a PBS program that showed a woman giving birth. The blood, the muck, sweat and tears—the red contorted face of the mother, and finally, amid screams, a black puff of baby hair—had terrified me.

I’d say, “I’m sorry you’re sick, Mom.”

Sighing, she’d roll away from me. “I am not sick. Go on out and play.”

 

My first clear memory of my stepdad: I was five, standing at the edge of the yard, absentmindedly pulling leaves off a maple tree and talking with a new friend, Steve, who lived across the street. Dad came to the front door, and told me to stop pulling the leaves. I happily shouted back, “I’m sorry! It was a mistake!” emphasizing the last syllable. I was fascinated with this new word, mistake. It felt very adult and polite. I wondered how it could also evoke the image of a piece of meat, and continued to pull leaves without thinking.

The metal screen door slammed. My stepfather’s six-foot frame crossed the yard in big steps. Steve took off running, as would many kids who saw my dad stalk out of the house in the years to come. He yanked my arm, hoisted me off the ground and dragged me toward the house. My feet barely touched the grass. When I lost contact with the earth his other hand began belting me.

This terrified me. No adult had ever hit me before. Inside the house I ran into the bedroom Tim and I shared and packed a suitcase. Anger and fear threatened to surface in tears, but I held them back, thinking: Don’t you dare cry.

My mother watched me walk out the back door and down the driveway, muttering to myself. The military had cut a tank trail behind our house, and it was going to be my road to freedom. I followed the tall, muddy grooves the tanks left on their way to the bombing fields, and hid in the marshy grass, hugging my legs to my chest until nightfall.

Eventually anger gave way to shame, and awareness that no one was coming to find me. Worse: I had no place to go.

I went home and was surprised to be treated like I’d only been outside playing. It was as if the anger, frustration, and emotional storm I’d felt in my body never existed. This was the first time I recall sensing that my inner violence—pounding heart, spinning stomach, raging mind—did not correspond to the outer reality that others accepted without question. My whirlpool was mine alone.

 

Dwarfed by red and white pines, our house was a mile north of town in a small subdivision called East Branch Estates. My mother bought it with help from my grandparents. The AuSable’s east branch is a mile east.

In the 1970s you could only get to the branch by bicycle, weaving through the dark woods on a narrow path that could have been created by motorcycles or deer. The unknown origin imbued this route with an ancient, mysterious feeling. Sometimes we could hear the distant sounds of what we thought were Indian drums, but were actually noises from a nearby excavation site. Alongside our house, the paved stretch of Robert’s Road ends, giving way to a two-track dirt road that heads north and ends at the tank trail. One side of the trail was drivable. The other was a series of weaving trenches, imprinted by the tanks that rolled over it all summer long. Military training fields lay just beyond the cedar forest to the north and east of our house.

When we played outside we often heard the deafening chop of helicopters and the grumble of practice bombs to the northeast and west. Sometimes I mistook the more distant sounds for approaching storms. Inside, dishes would rattle in the cupboards at rhythmic intervals, emphasizing the ridiculous fragility of everything around us. Outside, Steve, my brother Tim and other neighbor boys played “war” under the high sun while brown helicopters flew in formation near the tops of the pines. The chopping blades beat a rhythm inside our chests and throats as we hunkered down in green foliage deep in the woods behind our houses, and crawled through pine needles and fiddleheads, giddy with feigned fear. At night, as I fell asleep to the strains of the “M.A.S.H.” theme coming from a distant television, I associated helicopters with the landscape of Grayling.

One summer day, Steve and I were riding the trails looking for arrowheads in the weeds of a not-to-be development called Kingswood North, when we spotted a black van crawling slowly down the road. It was one of those ’70s vans that had no windows, except for a tiny round one near the back. There had been rumors that a similar van was being used by kidnappers in the area. In a panic, we crashed our bikes into the woods and laid low. The fan-like canopy of fiddleheads and low-lying pines hid us and our bikes as we watched the street.

The van slowed even more as it came even with our hiding place. A long-haired man with a big mustache, who looked more like a member of Blue Oyster Cult than a kidnapper, leaned out the window and yelled, “Hey! Where are ya?”

My knees shook. I felt like I was going to shit. Without thinking, I stood up slowly.

Steve yanked my pant leg and whispered, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?”

I waved to the van and stammered, “H-here we are.”

Blue Oyster guy, clearly amused, waved and the van drove away. I could barely hear Steve yelling over the crashing of my heart. I’d figured if we “made friends” with them, they wouldn’t hurt us.

A few days later, a neighborhood kid who had been deemed too old to play with us pulled me by the wrist into the trees behind our house. Deeper and deeper, he yanked me past the creek, past the low cedars, just out of the sight of the tank trail.

A red-headed kid of fourteen or fifteen, Denny McAuliff had small eyes. He always seemed to be by himself, clicking by my house on his ten-speed. He had been hanging around the edges of our play that summer, and had watched me at the bus stop. He didn’t seem to have any friends, except for his younger brother, Derek, whose wide face bore a strong resemblance to Alfred E. Newman from Mad Magazine. During the previous winter, at the bus stop, Derek shoved my face in the snow and whacked the back of my snowsuit-protected head until I cried on more than one occasion. The brothers had once chased my friend Rachel and her sister through the woods, brandishing knives.

The creek eventually ran into the river, and was the same color—that clear, clean brown. It ran behind our house into the birch-filled marsh, where frogs flourished. I hated the boys who peed in the creek, burned ants with magnifying glasses, shot at frogs, or trapped them inside jars with a few strands of grass. Why couldn’t it be enough to just watch and behold? My grandparents had taught me this, though I didn’t call it “beholding” when I was a kid. That was their word. But I knew to be still in the presence of animals—to concentrate on their movements, the miracle and gift of their all-too brief presence: bluebird, snake, lynx, and owl.

The high drone of cicadas punctuated the air as I walked or rode my bike down to watch tadpoles swim. It seems miraculous now; there were thousands of them. The clear water was black with soft, slimy bodies that lightly grazed my wrists when I reached into the water. I could watch them for hours.

A seven-year-old mesmerized by tadpoles, I was crouching over the water on the day Denny pulled me into the thick, marshy woods. As he yanked me along, a whirlpool came alive in my stomach. It spun wildly but I couldn’t run. If I had, it probably would have been in circles. Amy had learned that the only way to defend herself was to back down, to apologize and retreat. She would say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” for things she didn’t do, say it over and over to anyone who was angry at her until things seemed okay.

Denny led my wrist toward his open zipper until my fingers touched his penis. I thought he was angry at me, because older boys were almost always angry, it seemed, or smiling a weird secret smile like they were in on some private joke. But Denny wasn’t angry; in fact, he was acting oddly nice, which made it harder to move away, to say anything, to ask anything. As he pulled my face to his open zipper, I caught a glimpse of the sky through the birch branches. I watched it explode into bottomless blue. The marshy grass smelled strong of wet and rotting leaves. I heard the slow, distant, grinding pace of the tanks on their daily pilgrimage to the bombing practice fields, and suddenly felt far from home.

I told no one. Denny told me not to. The skills of silence and invisibility that I’d been developing seemed to sharpen and glow in their usefulness.

Long after this incident, I had invasive, racing thoughts. When I sat in the back seat of a car and looked at the landscape racing by, I imagined a naked man chasing a girl through the woods. When he caught her, he would force himself onto her face.

I started wearing socks and underwear to bed, until my grandmother told me that a girl needs to “breathe down there,” even if she was only seven. I started moving my bedroom furniture around every week in a ritual, cleaning under the heat registers, under every dark, hidden space I could find—and I escaped in books.

At the tiny Crawford County library, after my mother dropped me off on a hot summer day, I’d go right to the horror section. Amid the bold and lurid jackets of novels by Clive Barker and V.C. Andrews, I’d sit down on the shag green carpet and lean against the cool, cinder block wall. The covers of these books were as fascinating as the stories within them, and reminded me of the grotesque album covers of Ozzy Osborne. I loved the musty smell of older books with written and photographic images of death on the pages.

I discovered the novels of Stephen King—a discovery that blossomed into a powerful love for horror stories, and later, films. I couldn’t get enough descriptions of rotting corpses, half-alive monsters trailing the stench of the grave behind them, haunted hotels, ax-wielding fathers, cars that came to life, dead and buried pets that return as zombies. In my readings I slowed down to savor the gory parts—places where King seemed to turn death inside out, make it come alive, to almost write from death’s perspective.

Most of all, I was drawn to King’s small-town landscapes, places that were as alive as the characters themselves. I related to the small-town isolation of his protagonists. I traveled with them as they succeeded or failed to survive the horrors thrust upon them.

In King’s books I saw a world that I could recognize: a specific, contemporary American world that was neither rural nor suburban. It was a world full of lakes, trees, small towns, and quiet, repressed white people. It felt local in time and place: a 1970s Midwest with ideas and objects thought to be solid but collapsing in on themselves. The architecture was cheap and ugly. The furniture was garish with colors and patterns that seemed faded even when it was new. His settings were dominated by the wonder of the natural world and the casual violence of humanity, but beneath it all, an indescribable fatigue could settle thickly over his characters. His was a tired world, embodied by the lonely buzz of a television set blaring in an empty room at night. For me, King’s books brilliantly expressed both hope and futility. His earlier stories would haunt me into adulthood, but I would always associate them with classic rock.

As a kid I only heard country music and rock on the radio. Besides the natural world, music compelled me to meditate on the possibility of something bigger than myself: Death and God as One. Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” overcame me with an inner heaviness that I could never explain. I let the music sweep over me—its lyrics at once profoundly bleak and beautiful, full of mystery and longing like the landscapes of King’s books—a country in ruin, of weeds and vines taking over old houses, lonely highways, and ghostly woods in the washed-out light of a winter afternoon. I thought about death—the unbearable, urgent shortness of life, the loneliness of being in the cold ground, ensconced in a vault, unrecognizable, the horror of “forever,” of my father. Death was as real as the lonely flicker of that unwatched television, or a little girl, who would never be the same, walking out of the marshy woods.

 

An “ambush killing” was what they called it—the police, news, guys at work. The killer had scouted out Terry Barr’s daily work route, and been waiting at dawn on July 13, 1993. He’d chopped down a poplar tree so that it would fall across the road, hid in the swampy cedar grove, and waited. On his way to work, Terry had to get out of his truck to move the fallen tree. When he did, the killer shot him twice in the chest with a twelve gauge shotgun.

Terry had been killed a mile from my parents’ house. The road where it happened is called Lewiston Grade Road, which crosses the tank trail. It’s a familiar shortcut to the Grayling field office of the DNR. Even today, it is an isolated location with plenty of deer, so gunshots from hunters are commonplace and attract no attention. Lewiston winds through marshy woodland, thick with pines, poplars, deep grasses, underbrush, and cattails. On many occasions, before and after the murder, my boyfriend and other friends would ride back there in a truck cab full of pot smoke and the rhythms of classic rock. I had to numb myself to the reality that Terry was murdered in the same woods Denny McAuliff had taken me into so many years before—the two sites were not a mile apart.

Terry hadn’t died instantly. As the killer sped off, Terry had lain bleeding and awake until another truck came along. When that person found him, Terry was slumped over the downed tree. His head and shoulders were in a drainage ditch. The police found a hatchet by the tree, and traced it to Pete with the help of Pete’s son. Off road, in the cedars, the detectives saw disturbed brush, and that someone had taken a shit. According to the police, Pete had been planning the murder for weeks, and his long-standing hatred for Terry had been the motive. Pete’s obsession with me had only sped up his resolve, they said.

Terry’s son rallied a group of people together to search for the gun. I went with them. We searched the east branch of the AuSable, and the creek near the murder site. The site had so much history for me—it made me sick and dizzy. They, mostly young guys—guys who didn’t know Pete, guys who I’d been high and drunk with, said things like, “What a fucking waste,” “And Terry only had a year before retirement,” “You’re lucky Pete didn’t rape and kill you,” and “Did it ever occur to you that Pete was going to kidnap you?”

I wondered about our meandering trips in the truck, when we were supposed to be working, and how I never protested, because he was older and sure of himself. I recalled the hugs, the flowers, the way he held my hand in the truck and told me I was beautiful. The way my whole arm went numb at his touch. It is hard to remember, because of the guilt, and the sense of disconnectedness I felt then, to myself, to the world. How I comforted myself with the thought of getting stoned at the end of the day.

I knew my loss could never equal that of the families directly involved, and that fueled a firestorm of guilt that burned in my thoughts for most of the next fifteen years. Its force spun me around and had me inching through life backwards, paradoxically hoping to distance myself from the past, but also holding it close, analyzing, asking what if I’d said this or done that, in a fruitless attempt to understand—and maybe even change reality with that understanding.

Years after the murder, its trial, and Pete’s conviction (life without parole), I visited the whirlpool. I tried to recall the odd sensation I must have felt that December day when the cold water seeped into my snowsuit, just moments before my father pulled me out. I tried to recall my faith in a man—the one man who held me close to his heart for two and a half years. I walked to the edge, where the river appears to flow toward me as the physics of the whirlpool create a lazy spiral of bubbles, water bugs, and loose leaves. I recalled that Terry Barr was a painter. I imagined him beholding this place that keeps drawing me back to it. Kneeling over the surface of the river, I saw my reflection, its features in shadow. My tears fell into the receptive current, and created an exchange of surfaces, body and river. Holding my breath, I dipped my head into the up-current. The cold gripped my face and neck, shrinking the skin on my scalp and lips: an awakening.

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