The chapter is another hypothesis about how Kathy disappeared, similar to the one mentioned in Chapter 14. Kathy might have left John to go boating around Magnuson and then continued to American Point and Buckete Island. As she rode through the water, she would have felt relieved not to be thinking about politics. Perhaps she slid her hands through the water, noting how her hand’s reflection closed back on itself, and how easy it was to lose oneself.
In this “Hypothesis” section, Kathy is once again the victim of John’s terrifying and intimidating behavior. Yet the image of her hand disappearing into the water parallels John’s image of the two snakes cancelling each other out, and suggests that there is some connection between the way John and Kathy think about love, even at this moment, when Kathy is fleeing from John.
It’s possible that Kathy made a small miscalculation on her way to Buckete Island, and ended up riding north into Canada without knowing how lost she was becoming. Eventually, she would have become anxious and then decided to refuel the boat using a gas can, and then head back south. Perhaps she was contemplating telling John about how easily she could have been lost, thereby reminding him to keep his priorities straight.
Kathy, at least in this hypothesis, is a manipulator and a deceiver, too—she’s clearly looking forward to scaring John and controlling his emotions with a story about how she got lost.
As Kathy drove back to John’s cottage, the narrator speculates, she might have felt curiously fearless. Perhaps she felt this way because she was always a puzzle-solver, even as a child, and liked to believe that all challenges could be solved with determination and intelligence. Although she no longer went to church, she’d always had an almost religious belief that even the simplest things had dark, sad secrets—John, for example. As she thought this and rode in the boat, Kathy must have been glad to be on the water, far away from John.
We get more information about Kathy in this section—the problem is that it’s a hypothesis. Kathy remains largely unknowable, and the guesses O’Brien puts forth about her personality are only that: guesses. Still, O’Brien’s guess about Kathy is a sensible one—clearly, Kathy enjoys thinking about secrets, whether the secrets of a crossword puzzle or the secrets of her husband.
As she went south—or what she clumsily approximated as south—Kathy may have been thinking about Harmon, a dentist she’d once loved, and his thick fingers and white chest. Shortly after this, she might have run out of gas. Then, Kathy would have added extra fuel to the boat, and restarted it. Perhaps she thought about her childhood training as a Girl Scout, which was supposed to prepare her to find her way home in these situations. Perhaps she looked around and realized how lost she was—she had no idea how far from the cottage she was.
It’s no coincidence that Kathy “runs out of gas: while she thinks about a man she had an affair with (the Harmon character who the narrator mentions in the last hypothetical chapter). Much like John, Kathy is lost in the past—on a symbolic level, then, it makes sense that Kathy can no longer move forward just as her boat runs out of gas.
Instead of crying at the fact of being lost, Kathy probably would have decided to come ashore and wait for John to find her. Perhaps she found a small island, parked her boat there, and went ashore, confident that she’d be able to find food, former Girl Scout that she was.
Kathy shows herself to be an optimist, even in a dire situation. It’s this optimism that makes her stay with John long after other women would have left him—she enjoys the challenges of a mysterious husband, just as she’s enjoying the challenge of a mysterious island in the middle of the lake.
As Kathy walked ashore, the narrator suggests, she may have been thinking of the night long ago when she and John went dancing at the Bottle Top. John had kissed her and then made a small turning motion, as if he was dropping something. Kathy never understood what he dropped, but it may have been a part of himself, or all of himself. Afterwards, she felt, John was always deceptive and manipulative. Perhaps Kathy then thought about her “thing” with Harmon. Then she may have curled up against the side of her boat and fallen asleep, confident that she’d find her way back home.
Like John, Kathy can’t stop thinking about her secrets, as well as her fond memories with John. We’ve heard about dancing at the Bottle Top before, from John’s perspective, but we weren’t told about the small “twisting” motion John made—this suggests that the distance between John and Kathy is so great that they can’t even agree on the things they did together, much less the secrets they keep from one another, such as Kathy’s affair with Harmon. Like John, Kathy has an almost impressive ability to fool herself into optimism; thus she goes to sleep, looking forward to the day ahead.