I glanced out the window and then, still seeing nothing on the desert, walked into the kitchen. There was a large silver basin on the counter, its interior frosted with the remnants of unbleached flour. I took it out onto the front porch and filled it with snow. The top of the kerosene heater was a level metal plate, exposed directly to the glowing orange coils underneath. I set the bowl of snow on the plate and lay back on the couch to watch it melt.
As the pile of snow disappeared into the basin, I couldn’t shake the pavid feeling that being in this cabin fomented inside of me. I felt as if I’d come to my own wake and was standing before the casket, looking down into my lifeless face, unnatural beneath the false warm color of my skin. No sound, no wind, no movement in the back bedrooms—my hands trembled.
I should not be here. This is very wrong.
The snow had been melted for some time when steam began to roll off the surface of the water. Reaching forward, I dipped my finger into the bowl. The water was warm, so I used my socks to lift the hot bowl and set it on the floor. Then I slid my blue feet into the basin, unable to feel the temperature or even the wetness of the water. Lying back on the couch, I closed my eyes as my legs came back to life, their resurrection announced by the tingling between my ankles and knees.
After five minutes, I still couldn’t feel my toes. Reaching down, I plunged my hand into the water and found that my feet had cooled it more effectively than two blocks of ice. I set the bowl back on top of the kerosene heater, let the water reheat, and once again submersed my feet.
It took two more rounds of cooling and reheating the snowmelt before I felt something awaken in the bones of my toes—the beginning of a deep, freezing burn. I tried to relax, visualizing my lake house in spring and imagining myself sitting out on my back porch beneath the pines, in the presence of the virid forest and the lake-chilled wind.
The lukewarm water bit like acid, and I grunted, sweat running into my tender eyes, my feet burning, as though I held them over an open flame. The pain reduced me to whimpering, and though the impulse to withdraw them from the water was enticing, I knew it wouldn’t obviate the burn. I was paying for the cold now, for walking four hours through the snow in leaky boots. I could do nothing but sit on the couch and endure what was perhaps the most virulent pain I’d ever known.
By 6:00 p.m. the pain was sufferable, though I still saw the world in red. It was futile staring out the window for Orson. The sun had set, and the desert was blacker than the space between stars.
Retracting my feet from the cold water, I stood up, wobbly, but relieved to have the feeling returned to my ankles. The ends of my toes were blackening, but there was nothing more I could do. At the very least, I might have saved my feet. Who the hell needs pinkie toes?
Rummaging through the kitchen drawers, I located a candle and a book of matches. With the flame throwing soft yellow light against the log walls, I checked the dead bolt for the third time and secured the four living room windows. Then, clutching the tarnished brass candlestick, I walked through the narrow hallway into the back of the cabin.
The key to the dead bolt also unlocked the room that had been my prison. It appeared just as I had left it, meager and confining. Though the window in the back wall was still barred, I reached through and tested the latch. Then I opened the dresser drawers, which were empty, and peeked under the bed. There was nothing significant in this room, a holding cell, nothing more.
I walked back into the hallway and stopped at Orson’s door. Touching the doorknob, I hesitated. You’re alone. Fuck the fear. I stepped inside.
The freezer chest stood unlocked beneath the window. I opened it. Empty. I locked the window. Now he’d have to break glass to get inside.
Setting the candle atop Orson’s pine dresser, I started opening drawers. The top three were empty, but when I tried the last, it was stuck. Yanking on it again, it still wouldn’t open, so I kicked it. The wood squeaked, and jerking back once more on the handles, I pulled the drawer entirely out of the dresser and onto the floor.
Thank you, God.
I inventoried five videotapes, a stack of manila folders, a box of microcassettes, and three Mead notebooks. Bringing the candle down onto the floor, I held it over the drawer and removed a videotape. I read the label on the tape, written in his straight, microscopic penmanship: “Jessica Horowitz: 5-29-92; Jim Yountz: 6-20-92; Trevor Kistling: 6-25-92; Mandy Sommers: 7-06-92”—all on one label, and there were five tapes here, not counting the three I’d destroyed in Woodside. I noticed that each tape, without exception, had been recorded during the months of May, June, July, and August: his hunting season.
The microcassettes were labeled only by date, and I assumed they contained the same self-absorbed drivel I’d heard Orson dictating in his bed in Vermont. Lifting a green wire-bound notebook from the drawer, I lay on my stomach and thumbed through the pages by candlelight. This one was full of poetry, every page, front and back. I read a short untitled poem aloud to explore the rhythm of his verse, his direct, protean voice flowing through mine:
You are always with me
When I lie in bed in the dark
When I walk a crowded street
When I watch the night sky
When I shit
When I laugh
When I possess them, as you possess me
You are omnipotent, but you aren’t my god
You raised me but did not make me
You are gas but not the fire
I am deeper
I am incalculable
The two other notebooks contained short stories, brainstorms, and the fragmented thoughts of someone aspiring to write. Orson wouldn’t make it as a writer. He could turn a nifty phrase, but there was a general ungainliness and ambiguity in his verse and prose, which would’ve doomed him to fail had he ever tried to publish. I wanted to tell him this, and that his poetry was prosaic. I wanted him to watch me burn the notebooks and the tapes.
There were three manila folders. The first, titled “In the News,” was filled with newspaper clippings regarding the discovery or lack thereof of Orson’s victims. The second folder, “Memory Lane,” bulged with photographs, and I studied all of them. I saw myself in half a dozen pictures, but they didn’t unglue me like I’d feared, even the one of me staring down at Jeff seconds after his execution.
A handful of photographs featured Luther doing grisly things to people. In one photo, he stared truculently into the camera with dead, soulless eyes, fingernail marks running down each cheek.
In the third folder, “The Minutes,” Orson had chronicled six summers of killing on unlined loose-leaf paper. Flipping to the end, I skimmed the synopsis of our time together, until I reached the final paragraph: