In this hypothesis about how Kathy disappeared, John wakes up late at night, sweating. He remembers how the news of his involvement in Thuan Yen broke: there were headlines, terrifying pictures, eyewitness accounts. After the news broke, Kathy looked at John with an empty expression—twenty years of love disappeared instantly. In the cottage, John whispers, “Kill Jesus” and goes to boil water in a teakettle.
By this point, we’ve seen this scene, in which John boils water and kills flowers, several times. In this version, however, John is—at least initially—a kind of victim. The novel has done enough to show that he wasn’t a simple “war criminal” while also showing how he has hidden and repressed those worries about himself. So to have all that revealed, and to have both the public and his wife see him as such a war criminal, is devastating. Kathy’s empty look is important—she sees through him.
After the water boils, John takes the teakettle and killed a young spider plant. He isn’t angry—he’s acting out of necessity. He then returns to the kitchen and fills the kettle with more water to boil. After the second kettle of water is boiling, he takes it to the bedroom, where Kathy is sleeping.
The difference between anger and necessity is crucial to the novel. Anger implies that John is acting of his own free will; necessity suggests that John isn’t free at all—he’s obeying “the sunlight,” as the narrator puts it.
As John stands over Kathy, he tips the teakettle forward. Kathy eyes open slightly as he does so, and she looks at him, a little confused. John pours boiling water all over Kathy’s face, and steam rises from her eye sockets. She screams, but John continues to pour, until there’s boiling water in her throat. As John pours, he imagines the cries of women and children, and sees Kathy’s skin blister and peel off.
In this version of events, John is at his most brutal, but also in a way his most innocent in the sense that he’s acting not because he wants to kill but because he feels he needs to kill in order to survive. He needs Kathy not to see him as a war criminal—and so he literally destroys her eyes. There is a mirroring here to what the soldiers did in May Lai—they felt like they were compelled to do it, by orders, by their own fear and suffering. And yet: those soldiers committed war crimes, and John here is murdering his wife! They are both not responsible and totally responsible.
The narrator suggests that John wraps Kathy in a sheet and carries her to the dock. He is very gentle, even loving, and whispers, “my Kath” as he places her in the boat. John starts the engine and drives the boat no more than 200 yards out. Here, he weighs Kathy’s body, still wrapped in the sheet, with heavy stones. After this, John tips the boat on its side so that it fills with water, and then lets it sink to the bottom of the lake.
Even as he’s wrapping and hiding the body in the lake, John still acts with a kind of love toward Kathy. The implication is that he kills her not out of hate or anger but because he couldn’t stand for someone he loved—someone who for him existed to provide love—to see him as the war criminal he feared he might be. Calling her “My Kath” is both a signal of his love for Kathy and a signal of the way she serves as a kind of possession for him, an object that gives love. None of this is meant to excuse the murder, just as nothing can excuse a war crime. It is to offer a humanizing explanation for it. And, of course, it’s important to remember that this is just another “hypothetical”—this is just the narrator speculating about one more possible thing that could have happened.
Perhaps, the narrator suggests, John sank along with Kathy for a while before he let the body go and returned to the surface of the lake. Later on, John would have woken up in bed and reflexively reached for Kathy. Then he would have hugged his pillow.
“Hugging the pillow” is a recurring image in the novel—here, it suggests that John is both remorseful for his actions and emotionally incapable of wrapping his mind around what he’s done. That he’s hiding his face from his actions.