Essential Maps for the Lost Chapter One
Here’s the biggest truth right up front: The way Mads and Billy Youngwolf Floyd met was horrible, hideous. Anyone will agree. You will, too. You’ll think it’s awful. And then maybe beautiful, which is precisely the point. When the story gets sad and terrible, when there are too many mistakes to count, hang on for the beautiful parts. Wait for them. Have some faith they’ll arrive. This is also precisely the point: the hanging on. The waiting, the faith.
This story starts the same way every morning does, during the spring when Mads meets Billy Youngwolf Floyd. She gets into her swimsuit. She rolls her towel into her bag, sneaks downstairs, careful not to wake up Aunt Claire or Uncle Thomas or Harrison. She edges out the front door, making sure Jinx, their cat, doesn’t slip past her on the way out. She starts up Thomas’s old truck and heads to the reedy bank of the park by Lake Union.
It is early. So early, only weary insomniacs and people catching airplanes are up. Mads was on the swim team at Apple Valley High; for four years they had practice in the steamy old community pool from five thirty to six thirty a.m., and so this is the routine her body still follows. She loved that hour—it had the peace only habits and rituals can give. There was the snap of goggles and the clean burn of chlorine in the air and toes bent over the edge before the plunge. But now the steamy old community pool is gone from her life for good, and so are all the disciplines that keep you from thinking too much. Swim team, orchestra, AP calculus study group—every one of them is finished since she’s graduated, a quarter early, too. Her poor cello seems like the high school boyfriend she was supposed to outgrow but who she still kind of likes.
Look. Here she is, already at the end of the dock, trying to get her courage up. The waters of the lake are much colder than the community pool. The spring Seattle morning is all hues of gray. The sky needs to figure out whether it’s in the mood to turn blue or not, like some people Mads knows who will remain nameless. It smells good by the water, that deep kind of murky, and she inhales a few delicious hits of beneath.
A row of ducks paddle by. “Good morning, ladies,” she says to them. They appear to have serious business. She waits for them to pass because she’s a nice person. Then she kneels on the dock, tests the water with her hand. Brr. The waves are choppy and industrious, but not too crazy to swim in. In spite of the gray and the chop, the water is inviting. But it’s keeping secrets, for sure.
She dives in.
The cold takes her breath away. Now comes the payoff, though. Not the dramatic rush of water past her head and body, not the shock of immersion, but the thing she swims for, the thing that arrives after the drama and the shock—the calm. The blissful burble of being underwater, being away, the moment of otherworldly quiet just before her head rises for air, before the slash of her own strong arms and scissoring legs. Under there, the needs of other people do not press, and the sorrow that’s been her most constant companion floats away. Back home, in the water of the community pool, even on the days Coach King’s whistle shrieked and her friends shouted above the surface, her own liquid element was like a sweet dream. She could forget those college applications she’d filled out but never sent, and the face of her mother, Catherine Murray, on all those real estate signs, and, too, the way her mother always wept after Mads’s father would call from Amsterdam, or else, became furious enough to hide from, like the time she took the kitchen scissors to the family photographs. Swimming is sort of like running away, and Madison Murray has wanted to run away since the first real chance she had, when she was three and got lost on purpose in the Wenatchee Safeway.
And here, in a lake in Seattle, five hours from home, where there is only a kayaker off in the distance and a seaplane taking off against the sky, she is exquisitely elsewhere. She is a fish; she is a mermaid. She lives in a coral castle and wears a seaweed crown. The ticking clock bringing that awful deadline is gone, gone, carried off on a ripple. Somewhere up there is Harrison’s spying, and her own deep sadness, and her profound desire to kidnap baby Ivy. Down here is some centered soul-version of the real her, the one she’s not in real life.
Of course, Madison Murray won’t feel the same way about any of it, even the water—especially the water—after that day. In some ways, it’s a shame. It’s a shame, the way you always have to lose stuff to get other stuff.
She swims out until she is parallel with the tall, abandoned smokestacks of Gas Works Park at the other end of the lake. She treads water for a while, floats around on her back and watches the sky, nothing she could ever do when Coach King paced poolside in his blue tracksuit. She has plenty of time. She’s in no real hurry. She has come to Seattle to take Otto Hermann’s real estate licensing course at the community college, which doesn’t start until nine. It goes until noon, and then comes babysitting for the Bellaroses until seven. Back home, she’s missing all the end-of-high-school rituals that feel far from her life: the prom and the parties and the ordering of caps and gowns, the group of parents taking photos in her friend Sarah’s backyard. But she’s not missing other things. She’s not missing hauling those open house signs out of the back of her mother’s Subaru, setting them up on street corners. Or, even worse: I can’t believe you’re going to leave me home alone all weekend. What am I going to do by myself? Fine. Just go. Or You better not have some fabulous time in Seattle and not come back like your father. The flip side of too much guilt is murderous rage, who knew?
She’s having fun out here. Houseboats line the perimeter of this lake, and she sees them upside down. They’re cheerful and shingled and they rock and sway. There’s also a huge upside-down bridge, with tiny upside-down cars. She flips to her stomach. A woman drinks from a cup while standing at the end of a dock as a dog swims laps in front of her. For a second, Madison wishes she were that woman, or maybe even that dog. He looks like he’s having the time of his life.
Okay, that’s it. She’s had enough. She decides to head back. Pancakes sound good. Swimming makes her so hungry.
Now. Think of this—what if she’d stayed out there just a few minutes more? Or what if she’d gone in just a bit sooner? It can make you believe in the Big Guy Upstairs, even if he seems coldhearted a good lot of the time.
She kicks hard, strokes with a power that would’ve made Coach King cross his arms and smile. She slows when she nears the bank. It’s still deep there, but she begins to feel the slip of reeds by her legs. Mads is used to that feeling, the surprising slide of a slick cordy something past her calves, the quick what-was-that of plant or fish. It isn’t anything that makes her uneasy. But after this day, even a long time later, years, whenever she thinks of this moment, she will shiver.
She ducks her head again. Her eyes are closed. It’s best that way near the shore. Sometimes it’s safer not to see.
She feels—well, it isn’t a thud exactly, more of a bump, a wrong bump. She knows that—the wrongness—straight off. Her head has knocked against something, something that gives and then knocks again, and what comes to mind, oddly enough, is a life raft. A tight, inflated life raft. Is she at the dock already? Is this a float, or a buoy? She has an irrational image—that dog from the dock. She and he are colliding. This is his thick, giving side.
But she knows it isn’t a float or a buoy. Certainly, it isn’t that dog. Nothing she says to herself is true, of course. You always know when you’re lying to yourself. Already she can feel the hair twined around her fingers.
Madison rises to the surface, opens her eyes, and sees her. She is so white she almost glows, and her face is vacant and still as the moon in a night sky, and when Mads shouts and flails, she drags the woman’s head under. It feels awful to do that, and so sorry, the details are terrible, but it’s the truth of this story. Mads’s fingers are caught in the woman’s hair, and her face dunks and dunks again until Mads untangles them.
A different person, not Madison but Madison, is making sense of this. She is crying out and flailing, but her brave and functioning self (who is she? Mads wonders) is putting the pieces together: the lake, the bridge, despair. Mads’s terrified self tries to get away from this horrible, sickening body, while her strong self, hidden before now, has seen a woman. An actual human being. This is the self that understands things about the water—the way it can swallow you, keep you concealed, maybe forever.
This rational one, she is the person who reaches under the woman’s arms and grasps her shoulders, while the other Madison grimaces and pretends not to feel the cold flesh. Mads is now the lifeguard she was from age fourteen on, at the Apple Valley Estates neighborhood pool. She strokes and tows, strokes and tows that body, the way she never had to in the sparkling cement crater filled with shrieking toddlers in water wings and teenagers showing off.
The woman needs help, the terrified Madison thinks, while the other Madison knows this: She is beyond help. Mads hears a strong, clear voice. She realizes it’s coming from inside her: Bring this woman to shore. Bring her and bring yourself to shore.
She will. She has to, because the woman, the body, will disappear if they don’t make this horrifying swim together.
Madison kicks past the waves with her strong legs. The woman’s own legs float and bob against her. Soon the two of them are near the bank, where Mads can stand. There are rocks underfoot; slimy, slippery rocks, and Mads is out of breath. The reeds are waist high, and the body skirts along their surface like a sled on ice. The woman has gotten so, so much heavier now. Mads sees that her body is bruised, splotchy, banged-up purple. She faces the woman’s eyes, which she’s been avoiding. They stare up toward the clouds as if they can look past them. Whatever has brought the woman to this morning’s fate—it disgusts Mads. The woman herself does. Mads is angry with her, for causing this. But Mads’s heart is sick and heavy with grief, too.
She hauls the top half of the body onto the bank, as far as she can.
And then she screams.
She screams and screams, the way you do in bad dreams, the way she always feared she might have to someday for a different reason, a desperate-mother reason.
Things happen fast after that. Suddenly, there is a man wearing a tie, and a young woman in jogging shorts, and then the spinning lights of a police car, and then an ambulance. A heavy blanket gets tossed onto her shoulders, and in spite of the sun now showing through the clouds, she needs that blanket, because she is freezing. Her own body is doing tricks—shaking out of control, her knee a strange entity that’s clacking up and down like drumsticks on a cymbal.
“Maddie! Mads!” It’s Aunt Claire, running to where Mads sits on the ground. Somewhere in there Mads called Claire, but she barely remembers that. It feels like she has been there for a week and for a second. There’s the thwack thwack thwack of a helicopter overhead, announcing tragedy.
Two men carry a stretcher. The body is on it, covered in a deep-green plastic. There’s the slam-slam of doors.
That’s it, Madison thinks. This nightmare, my relationship with that woman, is over.
Of course, she is wrong. She is so wrong. Because traumatic events like this, acts like that, spread far and go deep. The water soaks delicate layers; the waves crash and crash again. So many people will break and change and stay changed.
But don’t misunderstand. While, true, this is a story about the horrible things people do (the way hurt people hurt people, if you want to get self-helpy about it), it is more importantly about what happens next.
This is what happens next as she rises from that grass with Claire’s arm around her: Madison sees that dog. He is back up on the dock now. He shakes himself off on the woman with the coffee cup, who is watching all the commotion. He sits right down, as if hoping for a treat.
See? Life goes forward. More, much more, will happen after this. Things involving maps and books and true love and tragedy, tragedy like you wouldn’t believe. But fine things, too. The best ones.
Even if it might not seem so at the time, even if there is something as horrible as a body and police and cold, life has some beautiful surprises up its sleeve, and don’t you forget it.