The Watcher in the Woods


The process of editing a story into shape often means making difficult decisions. A scene that you think is one of the best things you ever wrote, a chapter that required diligent research, a bit of fun that you think served to make the subsequent sadness that much more poignant…sometimes, they have to go. Beta readers tell you they ruin the mood, slow down the story. That they’re nice, but not necessary.

Every so often, you push back, but usually you admit that yes, they’re right. The whole is more important than the parts. The story’s the thing. So you select the section and hit delete…

…but you save it. Because you save everything.


Here’s an outtake from GIDEON’s Seattle section.

Lauren went to bed early. Fell asleep eventually. She dreamed in bits and snatches, like scenes from a dozen different movies flashing on a screen. Her father’s face as it looked at the end, gaunt and waxen. A roaring fire, orange and gold against a clear blue sky. Then finally, falling snow, the most vivid impression of all. She felt the sting as the flakes struck her skin, the spreading chill as they melted.

She awoke before sunrise, and stepped outside to check the weather. It still rained, and felt colder than it had the previous day. She pulled her kayaking gear out of the closet, her drysuit, neoprene boots, and helmet. She dressed in layers, form-fitting long underwear, then thin fleece, and finally the drysuit over it all. Boots over thin polypropylene socks. The water was at its coldest now. She did not want to risk hypothermia in case she capsized.

Lauren checked herself in the mirror, and smiled. You look like a racecar driver, her mother had said the first time she had seen her in the bright blue jumpsuit, the personal flotation device fitted in the front, wisps of brown hair poking out from beneath her helmet. Is it that dangerous? And Lauren had lied, so her mother wouldn’t worry.

I’ll be fine, Mom. I’ll be on a slow part of the river.

You mean there are fast parts of the river?

“Not where we’re going, Mom.” Lauren opened the top drawer of her dresser and removed two small metal jars containing portions of her parents’ ashes. “Slow paddling all the way.” She tucked the jars into a knapsack, then shouldered the bag and headed out. Hesitated in the doorway, then took the wire circlet from its resting place in the jewelry dish atop her dresser, and shoved it in the sack’s side pocket.

University District traffic proved the usual rush hour crawl. Lauren avoided the crush of the Evergreen Bridge, instead driving north on I-5 until she reached Green Lakes. From there, she headed northeast on 522. Around the northern tip of Lake Washington, past Bothell. Grace. Maltby. Smaller towns separated by farmland and woodland.

Thirty minutes later, Lauren pulled into an unpaved parking area about twenty yards from the Snohomish River. A few other vehicles stood parked, older pickups and SUVs, their owners scattered along the banks, angling for steelheads. The rain had lightened to mist, which sheeted softly from low cloud, while a second, harder rain fell from the sodden branches of surrounding trees.

Lauren got out of her car, a silver Outback that glistened like a fish in the watery light. She slung the knapsack across her body so it wouldn’t slip off, unfastened her kayak from the roof rack and maneuvered it down until she balanced it against her hip like a fifty-pound schoolbook. Then she grabbed her paddle and made her way through knee-high scrub toward the sandy shore. Set the kayak half-in, half-out of the water, inserted herself into the cockpit, adjusted fittings and snapped on her spray skirt, then knuckled the craft into the water.

The only sounds were the distant voices of the fishermen, the silken whisper of the falling mist, the slip of her paddle. The Snohomish wasn’t the most scenic of rivers, and this leg flowed molasses-slow. Even so, Lauren felt the quiet joy of being on the water again. She steered the kayak to the middle of the river where the current ran a little faster, and eventually came to a bend where the trees closed in on both sides, dogwood and willow and pine. There, she stopped paddling, letting the kayak drift as other voices, now silenced forever, filled her head, repeating a story she had heard so many times before.

We’d gone for a ride. I’d just bought a new car–well, it was a used Civic, but it was new for me–and we’d stopped to stretch our legs. Walked down to the water’s edge, and well, I knew the time was right.

Lauren leashed her paddle to the kayak, then dug the two jars out of the knapsack. Removed both lids, then held the jars together mouth to mouth and shook them so that the ashes blended.

He knew the time was right because I practically said yes before he popped the question. “Is there something you want to ask me, John Reardon?”

Lauren tapped the ashes so they slid into one of the jars, which she held over the side of the kayak and shook gently. The ashes webbed out over the water, coating the ripples as they spread farther and farther before finally vanishing beneath the gently roiling surface.

“I thought you might like to see the place again.” Lauren scanned the shoreline as the kayak continued to drift, trying to guess the spot where her parents stood on that summer’s day thirty-five years before. Imagined sun and blue sky and heat, as they held hands and picked their way through the undergrowth. “I’m sorry the weather isn’t better.” As if on cue, the mist changed back to rain, which fell harder and harder until the sound roared in her ears and the impact rendered the river surface a hazy churn.

Lauren unleashed her paddle, then turned the kayak and started back upriver. The rain gave weight to the cold, which seeped through her layers of clothing, raised goosebumps, worked into her bones. She tried to paddle faster, but a cramp knifed through her left shoulder, forcing her to stop. She tried to massage it away, but her clothing proved too thick and her glove too bulky for her to feel the knot, much less work it away. As she struggled, the wind picked up, chopping the river surface, pushing her toward the shore.

Lauren stuck her paddle in the water and leaned, tried to turn the kayak back upriver. But the wind blew harder, sending the craft into a corkscrew. Rain lashed her face, ran into her eyes, blinded her, and she ordered herself to settle down. If the wind drove her to the shore, she would simply park for a while and wait for the rain to let up and her shoulder to release. It wasn’t the first time she had been caught in a storm while on the water. It wouldn’t be the last.

She relaxed, eased her grip on the paddle, used it to guide the kayak toward land. She squinted through the deluge, spotted a quiet eddy beneath the shelter of a willow, and headed for it. As she drew near, the rain eased just enough for her vision to clear, and she spotted a shift in the darkness beside the tree. The outline of a figure. A man, leaning out over the water, his face in shadow, reaching for her.

Lauren plunged her paddle into the water, pushed away from the bank, turned the kayak upriver. Her shoulder screamed as strained muscle burned and tore. Still she drove herself, faster than she ever had, toward the center of the river. Out of the corner of her eye, she sensed motion, knew the man followed her, kept pace with her. But as she approached an open stretch of beach, he lagged behind, hidden amid the trees.

Lauren kept paddling. Her shoulder had numbed, pins and needles sensations radiating down her arm. She ran the kayak up on the strip of sand, waving an apology to a man who yelled at her for scaring the fish. She tore at the fasteners and freed herself from the cockpit, then grabbed hold of the kayak’s front handle with her good right hand and dragged it over sand and scrub and the hardscrabble parking lot to her car. At the same time, she used her left hand to dig out her car key, which she inserted between her ring and middle fingers, ready to stab at an eye, the base of a throat.

As soon as she reached her car, she tried to boost the kayak onto the roof rack one-handed, but it was too heavy, too bulky and unbalanced. She looked toward the woods, thirty or so yards distant, felt the tell-tale tingle along her spine, and knew he watched her, whoever he was.

He won’t come out. Too many witnesses. Lauren forced herself to slow down. She managed to work the kayak halfway across the roof of the car, braced herself to give it one last push–

“Is everything all right?”

Lauren’s breath caught. She turned, and found an older woman standing a few feet away.

“I saw you having some trouble.” The woman wore waders and a black plastic poncho, her face almost hidden under the floppy brim of a rain hat. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, her eyeglasses smeared with rain and held together at the nosepiece with duct tape. “Just wanted to make sure everything was all right.”

Lauren tried to force the words, but they wouldn’t come. There was a man–he tried to grab me out of the water. Instead, she patted the side of the kayak. “Thanks. I hurt my shoulder and I can’t quite get this up on the rack.” The woman helped her move the kayak into place and secure the straps, rattling all the while about hot and cold compresses and medicinal creams. Then she waited as Lauren got into her car and drove away, waving farewell as the rain ran off her hat brim like an overflowing gutter.

Lauren sat with her left arm cradled against her chest, and drove one-handed until the pain finally eased enough that she could place her left hand upon the wheel. Every so often, she checked her rearview, on the lookout for any vehicle that changed lanes as she did, that seemed to keep pace. But she saw no one, and felt the doubt creep in as the miles fell behind. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe she overreacted. One of the anglers had probably seen she was in trouble and tried to help her, and she had thanked him by bolting like a scared rabbit.

“Just one of the anglers.” If she repeated it often enough, maybe she could make herself believe it.