It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. I should probably start with the hike before—we’ll get to the main point. I keep thinking maybe there was an indication early on about what was going to happen; maybe you’ll notice it.

By the second rise, we were all gasping. This low and early in the season the snow was still on. Only Ivan had crampons. He also had an ice axe, which he swung lazily around. He kept turning back and up-lilting things at us, things like “You should smell it up here”—standing 14 feet ahead—“the air is sweet!” or “every day is a gift!” or sometimes, as if in pleasure at losing his footing, “Oh, huh! Almost slipped.”

I smoke, so I was struggling, and I also never exercise, but Brian had it worse. At the start of the trail, he had looked down back at the road and talked about his historically slipped disc, some botched surgery he had had on his country’s slow single-payer system, the diagnosis that he couldn’t lift more than 15 pounds or ascend more than 2,000 feet in a day. Ivan had gone quiet and then said, cheerful-angrily:

“Hm, yeah, but you’ve gotta get it in the yellow, Brian. You can’t have an avoidant complex about this. You think you’re in the red, but you’ve barely been out of the green. Look at these trees—emerald, huh?”

“You didn’t tell me the trail would be like this.” The slope rolled up at a steadily obtuse incline. A bird sang a song like glass decomposing. A caravansary of Audis pulled on to the trailhead and happy tech workers streamed out and up, listening to subcontinental music through a snub-nosed retro-small radio. Nestled up against the outhouse, a trash bag warped tight over what might have been a compacted hip of organic waste or a deer corpse or something. In the sun, it pulsed softly like a heartbeat.

“It’s an adventure. If you’re not in physical danger at least a little bit, it would be a walk. Harry”—he pointed at me in a weak flourishing gesture—“will do fine and he’s at least as anemic as you.”

“Thanks, Goose.”

“Harry is different. You’re different. You don’t understand that I can’t do the same stuff you guys can. I have a right to decide what I do with my body.” He went from whining to pouting like a child who knows how to manipulate its parents. “If this doesn’t go well, I want you to apologize.”

“Nothing’s even happened yet. We’re not even walking. What are you talking about?”

“Do you remember last time?”

Ivan’s face unknotted and he stared at the ground, clenching his fists.

“What happened last time? What happened last time Ivan?”

“I didn’t take good care of you, Brian.”

“And did you apologize for that?”

In these moments, Brian would seem stronger than Ivan. His face had that chalk-pale, marsh-wet look some Irishish people get. His eyes were far back behind his fat, but they were like cold water and intelligent. I have a theory that when they knew each other in high school, he had bullied Ivan, and that when they get like this over arguments, he has the upper hand just by force of old memories.

“I did apologize for that.”

“And tell me what you apologized for.”

“Last time, we had touched base on what you were ready for. I got carried away. I was impulsive and didn’t have self-control. I made us try to see if we could take Gothic Basin, and then when we hit that ridge…”

I looked on redly, sunburnt from last weekend’s expedition. I felt like the butler from Ishiguro. They never acknowledge me during these little faux-marital disputes. It’s like watching a couple fight from across the airport. Anyways, I knew we’d have to stop in a few hours. The sun, solstice-strong, would last for a while, but we had begun late afternoon. Ivan and Brian had taken infinite slow care over our preparations, neither achieving much of anything, and I had laid in bed past noon in protest.

After that, we had driven through towns where all the shop-owners would talk to you for 45 minutes if you asked them about fly-rods or lost dogs. There was a bookstore decaying between blown out blocks called Touch the Sky Readings. At a bench where I smoked, a massive middle-aged woman had told me brightly about her first time skydiving, the motivation of which had been to conquer her fear of heights and the conclusion of which had been a broken femur. Brian and Ivan wandered from convenience store to gas station, looking for the plasticine green mint vape they mutually called the sucky stick.

Beside me on the trail, Brian was grumbling now about mutiny. “He always does this. It’s just again and again—walk, this is a hike. This is a death march. I’m tired of slipping on snow. Are we going to sleep up there?”

I shouldered the small pouch that held my sleeping bag and a water filtration straw. Brian was unburdened. Up ahead, Ivan had taken off his shirt and was storming forward with his top-heavy bag like a Labrador saddled for labor. “I dunno, whatever the Goose wants.” I thought that using our pet term for Ivan would massage hostilities. We formed it by way of his name—Gusič, the U pronounced long like in music.

“Whatever the Goose wants. I’m tired of his honking. I’m tired of his hiking.” He looked

sideways at me. “What I want is a nice blowjob.” The snow gave in and his leg fell knee-down into a cavity.

One of Brian’s few compensations in life is talking about his homosexuality. Back at the cabin, we all knew his phallic preferences. He didn’t care much about them, given their appendicular relation to the main entrance (“I’m not gay, I’m a sodomite”), but he liked if they weren’t too long or too big; consequently, he swung East, though he wasn’t picky. One morning, he had stumbled onto the porch and told us he’d pay ten thousand bucks to see porn with us in it, nine thousand of that for Ivan and one thousand for me. I sped up to go see how the Goose was doing; I didn’t really want to hear the subtler movements of masculine love.

“Goose.” Ivan was whispering something to himself. “Goose, I’m back there with Brian and things don’t seem great with him. How much snow do you think there’ll be? We can barely see the trail.”

“To become a good cook, you have to have cook the same dish many times and then repeat the process…”

“What are you talking about, man? I can’t hear you, don’t whisper.”

“…and then cook another dish and another. Oh. Huh!” He stopped walking and recognized me. He exuded friendliness like a scent. “How’s it going?”

“I don’t think Brian’s doing great. Do you know how much longer we’ve got?”

“It should be, should be…”

He drove his ice axe head-first into a sheet of snow and put his hands on his hips. I could see he was about to be distracted by some random fold of moss or angle of light.

“Let’s get a map check, big guy. Pull up your trail app or whatever it is.”

Together, we looked at his phone and Ivan traced his thumb over the downloaded hike line to see where we were. When we had figured out how to read the thing right, we saw it was about four miles to the top.

“Brian’s not gonna be able to do that. We’ve barely gone a mile and it’s been two hours.”

He was looking past me at a rock. “Do you have a philosophy of age? Like, do you think people progress as they got older?”

“It’s probably downhill every minute of the way”—“Huh!”—“but let’s talk about it later, I’m worried about Brian.”

Behind us 50 feet down, Brian had given up walking and was sitting legs sprawled against a tree. He was breathing like a horse and seemed pretty broken. Goose took a look and became resolute in a second:

“You’re going to take him back to the trailhead. Here’s the keys; take them and you can sleep in the car. We’re not far up, so if you do want to join, follow me up or something. I’m going ahead. I want to see the Milky Way tonight.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m super sure. And this is the last weekend we let him ruin.” Ivan swung and faced the snow-dirt escalator toward where the peak would be. “We’re simply not taking him out if he acts like that.”

It was a short, quiet walk down. Once I told Brian he was done, he managed to get himself together and trail behind me at basic speed. The snow ridges on the thin path would drop off here and there, and the side slope had a sudden steepness despite the trees below. Footsteps showed us the way whenever the main track seemed about to give out and disappear. We heard a low pressure call like water dropping in a cave that didn’t sound like a bird and didn’t sound like a mammal. I thought it might’ve been a bittern.

Back at the trailhead, all the cars had left except ours. The sun was slanting down by then and the trash thing was still lying there. I waited for Brian, reading the signage before the trail started. One group or person had scrawled a Hail Mary into a corkboard; the park services warned that the mountain goats were keen after salt and would harass urinating hikers. At some nearby ice caves, a little girl had been crushed by a fragment of snow the size of a station wagon, and with sad eyes, the authorities made her note that these wonders were to be appreciated from a safe distance. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. I wondered if it would feel good to master hiking jargon, the endless public-private language of knots and routes and gear. Through a slot in the trees, I could see Mt. Rainier watching, scarred and snow-pale, close and far at the same time like a planet.

When Brian was back, I told him I’d sleep in the car. He wanted the tent, but he didn’t know how to set it up. I don’t really know tents, either, and it took an hour of staring at the directional booklet with a Fenix penlight and shaking tent poles before we got it up. Afterwards, Brian lit a fire, which smoked productively and warmed us a little.

I poked the thing and said, “In 20 years, where do you want to be?”

“The answer to that is obvious.” Brian laid back and looked confident. “Humanity is about to face some juncture points—aging, climate, tech, leaving this place. I want to be a billionaire. I want to help shepherd us past some of those points.”

“So like Elon or something?”

“No, not really. We need to advance. These things are going to happen, whether or not we want them to. Politics can’t stop it, but it can help it.”

I tried telling him I supported whatever was in accordance with nature and that I probably wasn’t the person for these ideals. “If a robot ever got as smart as a human, I’d kill it.” I meant it as a joke.

“Here’s why I disagree with you. If you look at people who make this choice to be left behind, you see a few things happen…”

While he droned, I thought about the return of old types, spirits. I wanted to tell him about how as we get weaker and weaker, we were opening space up for the strong. I thought that now, this far out, we’d already be seeing at the edges of our societies men who seemed out of time somehow, strange shadows or lights in the contemporary scene overwhelming everything around them, including all his thin ghostly dreams. Anyways, it didn’t matter much. I enjoyed hearing him fantasize. He had these camp hand gestures when he got excited, which is the same as when he got selfish. They were better, more innocent than complaining or gay stuff.

“…we’ll have drones fighting their own battles, without our oversight. It will be beautiful, I think.”

“Yes, beautiful.”

“What about you? What do you want in 15 years?”

“Oh. I dunno, I want to observe a lot of things. I want to observe.”


“Well, Brian. Fire’s out. I think it’s time for me to go to bed.”

“Goodnight. Make sure you roll up the windows.”

I was sleeping dog-dead in shotgun when I heard a noise outside that woke me up. A bug flew in at the same moment and hit my face and I thought that the noise—a high, slender whine—was that. But it was way too loud, and it kept going. It sounded like the gut-bag from a pair of pipes or a person trying to imitate a small mammal’s mating cry. I tried to ignore it and couldn’t, so I swung open the door and grabbed my lantern.

Brian and I had pitched the tent on a swatch of flat ground far left over some bushes from the outhouse. The first thing I did was check to see if anything had happened to it, and it looked all good, but then I saw that a front window flap was hanging open oddly. Something had bit into the polyester with delicate jaws; the dissected flaccid fabric drifted up and down. I walked over to the tent and shined my light in—had a brief clean vision of an empty sleeping bag, an iPad lying still-on in a corner—when I realized the noise was coming from the outhouse.

There was a moment where it seemed like it was coming from inside the outhouse. Later, I thought about creeping nervously over to the door and lifting up to knock and the campfire classic image of my zinc hand-lantern trembling and a lightning bolt (it hadn’t rained in weeks) suddenly sympathizing with the tension. Getting closer, it was obvious the noise was in the bushes. I still crept, crouching slightly so I could peer under the foliage.

It’s best to be as direct as I can. Inside, for what was perhaps 30 seconds, I saw Brian heaped whitely nude on his back. Straddling him was a small, indistinguishable object or thing emitting the noise. Its outlines were morphed somewhere between cervine and dolphinesque—the second might just be because its skin had a tough rubbery sheen—and it was about the size of a medium dog or a small child. Its head (if I identified it right since it didn’t seem to have eyes) folded and jutted at an angle like a paper airplane. That part of its body would nod arrhythmically like an old man dozing off and waking up. Two limbs bisected its body into roughly identifiable sides, though one limb was where an arm, the other where a leg would be; both didn’t have joints or muscle. The color kept shifting, with main notes on mold and striations of egg yolk.

What was clearest were its pelvis and genitalia. In a way, it was all pelvis. It held itself almost gymnastically over Brian’s head. Brian was forcing his mouth up and into a corona of pubic hair that seemed somehow artificial, like hair from a wig. As I watched, he pulled away and I could see an underdeveloped prehensile penis, apparently lacking testicles; it folded and waved like a finger calling over a misbehaving student.

Obviously, I didn’t spend much time looking at all this. After Brian paused to take a break, I think he saw me crouching and we locked eye contact across the thicket’s undergrowth. He smiled. He looked the happiest I’ve ever seen him.

The next morning—I spent the rest of the night tracking up the trail and then down and then up until the noise stopped—I caught Ivan on his way down. He told me he had turned off the app and hiked all night, growing blisters on his feet that he was afraid were already infected. He had seen the Milky Way and heard what sounded like music from below. A video he posted on Instagram shows him crying and praying (“thank you, thank you, oh my God, thank you”) as he approaches an alpine lake chandeliered under stars. I didn’t talk much on the way back. Of course, I didn’t tell him what I had seen. Brian seemed normal, cooking an omelet on a new pan he had bought. Of course, I didn’t talk with him about it, either. He didn’t let on that he might have recalled me that night; the closest thing we got to an acknowledgement was when he came home lugging a Nerf bolt-action rifle, which he presented to me with a smile.

At our cabin, a family of kingfishers has taken to hunting the water in view of the main porch. Brian left early for some conference in Terre Haute, Indiana; Ivan gave him use of his Chicago Loop apartment. When they drove to drop him off at the airport, I passed the evening staring out at the kingfishers. I like that they have so much grace in their patrol. On clear, rare days, you can see across the lake the mountain announcing itself. Sometimes I take the canoe out and let the weak drift take me. I only go out during the day, and always with my lantern.