by Margaret Williams

Editor’s Note

The Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville is an interdisciplinary, part-time course of study. It was designed for college-educated adults who are interested in broad-based learning at the graduate level. Throughout, the MLAS program fosters critical thinking, creativity, and effective communication. It offers four areas of concentration: Climate Change & Society, Globalization Past & Present, Humanities & Creative Writing, and Science & Human Values. We are pleased to include works from the Creative Writing concentration in our publication.

Before Angela went underwater, she had been thinking again about the two young women who were murdered a few months earlier, their bodies tossed into the French Broad River when it ran high and rushed up to the banks, red with muddy runoff from the brewery construction site. At low flow, debris could be trapped for years, wedged under the rocks until covered with soft silt that, in the light of day, sparkled with flecks of mica. Even after living in the mountains for three of her five decades, Angela preferred the grit of ocean sand, bright and clean by comparison to lake and river bottoms. Sand didn’t suck things under like mud. It didn’t ooze.

The first time Angela admitted she couldn’t stop thinking of the women, lost, floating, dead in the river somewhere, her partner Lisa had said, “You’re worried about this, aren’t you?” To Angela’s half-nod she had added, “It’s kind of morbid that you’re keeping up with all the updates, especially when you don’t have to anymore. Why do that to yourself?”

“I don’t know,” Angela had said, noting that Lisa had seemed to purposely steer clear of the words “retired” and “early buyout.” She was avoiding those words, too. She told herself they were just two middle-class, middle-aged women, one still working a regular job, the other too aware of the gray hairs spreading through her auburn hair. “It’s just…” Angela had said, unable to complete the thought.

She didn’t know why the case was stuck in her head. Angela didn’t think of herself as the morbid type. But after those first few days, when the women were simply “missing” and “last seen,” reporters said, tweeting almost nonstop about the search, she had announced over morning coffee, “They’re dead.”

Lisa had paused, coffee cup to her lips. She lowered it. “Could be, I guess,” Lisa said. She looked at her coffee, gave it a swirl, and resumed raising the cup. In a light tone, she said, “Why don’t you get out of the house today?”

“Yeah, sure,” Angela had answered, leaving unsaid, Where would I go? She drank her coffee and pondered the statistics, like a good journalist, even if the data wasn’t the most up to date, in her estimation: The majority of victims who aren’t found at the main crime scene are, most likely, deceased. Don’t ever let ’em take you away somewhere, a self-defense instructor had long ago taught her. Fight like hell right where you are.

She felt a little guilty for thinking the women were dead. They were in their early or mid-twenties. “They could be our daughters, if we’d ever had any,” Angela had said that morning over coffee.

“Kids! God forbid,” Lisa said. “I was crazy-stupid at that age. It’s a wonder I didn’t die.”

Angela nodded. Her partner didn’t need to repeat oft-told stories, like the car wreck after taking a curve too fast, the jumping off a closed pier and narrowly missing the old pylons hidden beneath the surface, or any number of misadventures before joining the Air Force in her late twenties and serving as a medic in the first Gulf War. Angela had always thought that her life, by comparison, had been boring at that age. College, more college, drifting through marriage, divorce, and into the newspaper business.

The next night, when Angela took her favorite shortcut home and drove across the Lyman Street Bridge, she’d seen police cars, flashing but silent lights, uniformed people clustered near their cars or moving along the river bank. Their heads were down as they scanned the brush and rocks below. One of the SUVs was emblazoned, “Forensic Team.”

What had started as a light rain at dusk became heavy enough for Angela to flick the wipers on as she passed the scene. She considered stopping to take a photo on her iPhone and tweet about it. But her cub reporter days were well past, and she was no longer the senior editor whose job was to make sure the latest updates got covered. Still, when she arrived home, Angela scanned the news feeds. Construction workers had found the women’s car, halfway down a steep riverbank, the front end partially submerged. But the women weren’t to be found, and police soon acknowledged they had discovered a gunshot hole in the passenger headrest.

It had already been raining for days, and it kept raining. The river rose, swirling, mud-red, sloshing over the banks as it wound through town. While search teams walked the riverside, scanning, poking into brambles, divers waited for the water to subside. In good weather, anyone standing on the old, low bridges could gaze into the water, the outline of rocks clear, sometimes the shadows of trout and small-mouth bass visible just before they darted away. Angela imagined the divers swimming, hands reaching out and probing the murk. Disturbed mud would swirl away like tiny clouds in the current.

But they didn’t find the women for weeks, while the usual array of kayakers and young adults floating in colorful tubes stayed away as the river dropped. Not long after the bodies were found, fewer than fifty yards downriver from the abandoned car, someone erected an impromptu shrine—a cross, ribbons, flowers—like people leave on the highway after a bad wreck.

Angela read the news, cleaned out the garage, and dusted off the backpacks the couple had bought when she took the newspaper’s early-retirement offer. An editor friend of hers, who had retired a year before Angela, had warned her to keep busy. So she did. But Angela missed being on the water and told her partner that she needed to be paddling and floating, watching for beavers, otters, and egrets; dipping her hand into the water.

“Sure thing,” Lisa had said. It had taken almost a month, though, to set up the trip, which might be their last before early winter settled in. Lisa wouldn’t paddle if it was cold out. The leaves were starting to change, hints of brown, red, and yellow showing at the higher elevations that ringed the town. The maple tree in their front yard was turning, too.

Their friend Don, who was teaching them to kayak and always had extra boats, paddles, and life jackets to lend, couldn’t go on Tuesdays. Lisa worked too late on Wednesdays, and rain rolled around almost every weekend. So much arranging had to be done for even a short venture—drop off the boats and gear at the put-in, leave someone to watch everything while at least two others drove to the take-out and came back in one car, then drag the boats down to the water. Not for the first time, Angela wondered why taking it easy had to be so hard.

Finally, on a Saturday with no rain forecast till late evening, Don, a near-expert paddler, rested his kayak at the top of the half-dozen, oversized wooden steps that led down to the river. A stocky man with a big chest, he was quick to laugh and prone to saying things like, “Maturity is overrated.” He was almost the same age as Lisa and Angela, but she thought of him as a half-crazy yet dependable little-brother kind of guy whose antics could often shake her out of a well-tended seriousness. Don climbed into his boat and yelled, “Tally ho!” He careened into the water. His boat plunged nose first, then bobbed back up. He shook his head like a dog and whooped.

Lisa and Angela both laughed. “I’m too old for that,” Lisa said, dragging her boat down the steps.

“I’m the only one with gray hair,” Angela muttered, and did likewise. She pushed away from the steps and rested the double-bladed paddle on her lap. For a few minutes, Angela let the boat coast. She exhaled. A sign of the afternoon rush hour, cars went kachunk, kachunk over a nearby bridge. A breeze delivered the smell of fresh water and dark mud. The current carried Angela and her boat toward mid-river, where the water parted with barely a ripple around a cluster of big rocks. A palm-size hickory leaf floated past and spun in slow motion. Water bugs skated across a glassy section of river protected by big-boned trees that leaned over and draped a leafy curtain more than a dozen feet from the bank.

Don and Lisa glided well ahead, almost a dozen boat lengths. Angela dipped her paddle, and felt the kayak tilt and wobble. With a sharp intake of breath, she thought, This is not a beginner’s boat, damn it. The kayak was fewer than six feet from bow to stern, barely room to stretch her legs out after she had eased into the cockpit. The bottom curved forward and up, ending in a point that reminded her of Aladdin’s slippers. A creek boat, Don called it. He said she was ready for it. Good for competition kayakers who wanted to surf the rapids, dip, flip, and roll. Good for learning to handle a responsive boat, he had said.

On dry land, gazing at the stubby kayak, Angela had said, “Cool!” She liked a challenge. “Hell, I’ll wear the kayaker’s skirt, too,” she added. It was more like an open rubber tube. One end flared out, making an oval that got stretched tight over the lip of the cockpit. Angela had wiggled into it, the flared end extending from her body like a lopsided hoop skirt. “I feel a little ridiculous,” she said, laughing.

“Keeps water out of the boat, makes a good spot to sit a cold brew, and it’s easy-release,” said Don. He showed her the plastic handle of a short cord she’d need to pull to release the skirt—and herself—if the boat rolled. “Which it won’t,” he said. Their plan was to paddle past downtown Asheville and take out a river-mile or so later at the Highwater Bar. By car, they could get there in ten minutes; by boat, it would take more than an hour—a good late-afternoon trip. There wasn’t a tricky rapid between their put-in at Hominy Creek and the take-out, Don assured her.

But on the water, if she drew a simple breath or flexed either leg, the damn thing wobbled. Angela drew hard on the paddle when it did, willing herself to relax and the boat to obey.

“Easy there, cowgirl,” Don called out. “Smooth strokes!” He paddled nearby, making his creek boat slide across the ripples, coast, turn toward her, and pirouette downstream.

“Show-off,” she said, but he didn’t hear.

Some yards ahead of Don, her partner coasted, paddled, and paused to take photos. Angela watched her and smiled, thinking about Asheville native Thomas Wolfe’s lines a hundred years ago: “A stone, a leaf, an unfound door.” It was Lisa’s second time in a kayak, too, but she kept pulling ahead. Don stayed close to Angela, while Lisa glanced back every now and then. More than once, he asked if she was doing OK.

“Yeah,” Angela said. “Yeah. No problem.” She nodded in a big motion, too, just in case her voice didn’t carry across the water. The river seemed to swallow some sounds but amplify others—the rhythmic whoosh of 18-wheelers on the interstate, water dripping off her paddle as she raised it, a rush of minor, Class I rapids too far ahead to see.

When they had first climbed into the boats, Lisa clipped her life jacket to a loop of rope on the boat, while Angela tightened the straps on hers and zipped it up. She pulled it down, but it kept riding high on her shoulders. Except during flood-level flows, nothing on this city-side stretch of the French Broad exceeded mild Class II rapids. “You never know,” Angela had said, despite Lisa’s teasing gaze.

Perhaps noticing something in her eyes, Lisa had then asked, “You’re still thinking about it, aren’t you?”

“Nah, ’course not,” Angela had replied. “That’s morbid.”

On the river, she tried to think of other things, like looking at the back of what seemed to be a derelict warehouse and wondering which Meadow Road building it was. Seeing the cityscape from the river disrupted Angela’s usual reference points, because places she drove by every day seemed foreign. Only the mulch yard, which reeked of decaying wood, was unmistakable. Bridges denoted place and time—the towering concrete pillars of Interstate 26 and Patton Avenue converging on downtown, the low-slung train trestle marked by colorful graffiti, the bridge at Pearson Road, which meant that the first take-out was near. She liked trying to puzzle it out, pinpointing their location, and connecting one world with the other.

Angela’s boat wobbled, and her stomach clinched. She froze, the double-bladed oar poised a few inches above the water. The boat shimmied and turned till Angela was almost facing upstream. Cautious, like she did when trying not to startle an egret, she turned the paddle, one end high, one low, dipping down into the water. She drew down and back. A cool rivulet dripped across her arms as she lifted and twisted the paddle for the next stroke. After Angela managed to turn the boat downstream, she saw that Lisa was getting further and further ahead. “This is great!” Lisa called out. Her voice carried across the water in an echo.

I can do this, Angela told herself. She made a figure eight with the paddle, left, right, easy, steady, yeah, that’s it. She took a breath and rested the paddle across her lap as momentum and river flow carried her forward. In an hour or so, it would be dark. Clouds from the west were encroaching on late-afternoon blue sky. The trees along the bank held the day’s last shadows, limbs leaning toward the water, a leaf letting go and zigzagging through the air, into the waves. Angela dipped a hand into the water. It wasn’t warm like the coastal waters where she grew up.

Angela had always loved the water, salt or fresh, the way it brushed cool across her skin when she swam. She liked to keep her eyes open, even against the salty sting of the Gulf of Mexico. In the calmer waters of Perdido Bay, far from rip currents that could pin down the best swimmers, she loved diving to the bottom, her chest grazing the sandy bottom. Angela would swim out to deeper water, where it turned dark blue-green. She’d tread water, gaze at the sky, a tugboat lumbering past on the far side of the bay, the pine trees waving above the beach cabin.

But one night at home in the mountains, an acid-reflux episode made her sit bolt upright in bed. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. She choked and gasped. Later, Lisa explained that it was just a reflex, her own body protecting her from inhaling the bile. When Angela could breathe again, she watched the Alka-Seltzer tablets fizz in the glass she had started keeping by the bathroom sink. She stirred and slugged it down. “Sucks getting old,” she said, as Lisa pulled the covers up and rolled over.

Angela hadn’t yet confessed that she’d been imagining her death as a gasping for breath. Drowning. But I love water. It doesn’t make sense. As she tried to go back to sleep, doubling up the pillows so her head rested higher than her chest, she had wondered, Was this the arrival of old age, when you start to think about dying?

What were those girls thinking, just before the killer shot one of them through the car’s headrest? When did they know? Angela laid the paddle across the cockpit. She let the unwelcome thoughts disperse, but remembered telling Lisa a few days ago that she was still thinking about the case too much. “We’ll never know,” Angela had said. She didn’t like not knowing.

Local police had said the girls were going to buy drugs. The killer was a friend to one of their neighbors. They had all been in high school together, about the time Angela’s niece was.

“I didn’t know-know him,” her niece had remarked when Angela asked. “But he was a nice guy,” she’d said. “Back then, I guess. A couple years ahead of me. It’s just so weird, you know?”

Angela sighed. The late-afternoon sun flashed across the ripples that signaled a ragged line of rocks hiding inches beneath the river’s surface. To avoid them, Lisa and Don had headed river right, where a deeper, less impeded flow of water made an upside-down V. He glided into a quiet patch of water and looked back.

Checking on me again, Angela thought. Lisa was at least twenty yards ahead. Soon, they’d be going under the Pearson Bridge. Got to catch up. Angela picked up her pace, concentrating on the rhythm of making figure eights with the paddles, her shoulders flexing and body twisting for power. The effort made her feel strong and young. She paused, though, to watch chimney swifts darting in the air above the river. Angela started to call out to Don and Lisa, ask if they saw the birds, too. The kayak started to drift sideways and tilt.

Angela jerked her paddle left and down. The kayak answered by dipping right and rolling. She gasped, but before she could think, I’m going under, she saw air bubbles and rocks, and the light seemed far away. She wrenched her body skyward, wondering for the briefest moment if she’d get to breathe again. One part of her brain ticked off what she’d seen a moment ago: Don was twenty feet away; Lisa was another two or three boat-lengths past him. I won’t drown. She couldn’t—not before either of them reached her.

But while the logic played out on one side of her brain, what seemed to Angela entirely another person wrenched torso and hips, as hard as she could, and reached again for the sky. She yanked free of the boat, breached the surface, and gasped. Angela surged upward as she inhaled, and when she slid back down in the chest-high water, she found the rocky bottom. As Don pulled up beside her, Angela stumbled and splashed her arms in an attempt to swim. He grabbed her boat and paddle as they bobbed downstream. Then he joked, “Your first roll!”

Angela didn’t laugh as they headed for a spot where they could drain the boat and she could climb back in. Lisa pulled alongside, leaned over as Angela half-swam, half-stumbled through waist-high water toward the bank. “You OK?” she asked, quiet so he wouldn’t hear.

“Yep,” Angela said, straightening her glasses, except they wouldn’t straighten. How on earth did those stay on my head? she wondered. “No way I was drowning, not with y’all so close by.”

“The look on your face could’ve fooled me,” Lisa said.

Angela grunted and mumbled about sprouting some new gray hairs. It started to drizzle, just enough to obscure her cockeyed glasses. Her feet sank into the muddy bank. Looking up, past the trees at the top of the bank, she couldn’t tell where they were. The Pearson Bridge was around the bend, maybe. It would be dark before they hauled out at the Highwater. Angela blinked in the rain.

The kayak skirt dangled around her waist when she stood up on the bank. “You forgot about the easy-release, didn’t you?” Don asked. “But you got out anyway.”

Angela laughed as she settled back into the boat. She refastened the skirt to the boat, and with the paddle, she pushed away from the bank. She took a deep breath, wondered if she could see the memorial flowers from her vantage point, and watched night come to the river.

Margaret Williams is a Gulf Coast native who has lived in the mountains of North Carolina since the late 1980s. A recovering journalist and recent graduate of UNC Asheville’s Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences program, she plans to keep writing.

About Rising—The 2015 murders of two local women inspired this story, but I wanted to transform the tragedy, or at least transform the way I was feeling about it.