We climb the mountain, as we do every summer. You carry the pack because you are older and stronger. I scout ahead, floating along the trail, and scanning for snakes or fallen trees or signs of life.
It has been three years since the world changed.
Because you are still here, and so am I.
Three years ago, you had an office job that kept you busy on nights and weekends. Three years ago, I spent most of my time worrying about a future that would never come. It seems silly now, but it was so important then.
You say something, and your voice is hoarse. You are out of breath and want to stop for a while. I am still energized, but I come and sit by your side as you slide the heavy pack from your shoulders.
“Do you think this year will be different?” I ask. I’ve asked the question before, a thousand times, but I never get tired of the answer.
“I’m sure of it,” you say. You always say this, and I’m not sure if it’s because you believe it, or if you still think I need to be comforted by fairy tales. “Have some food.” You hold out the dingy plastic bag that holds our jerky.
I take a bite and chew slowly. I hate the taste, but there isn’t much to eat these days and it is important to keep my energy up for the climb.
I think about the time Before. This trip always makes me think of the time before everything changed. I was in school, learning about a subject I loved but hadn’t figured out how to turn into a career. My parents lived a few hours away and we would talk on the phone on the weekends. I had someone I loved, but it was new… I hadn’t even told my parents yet. I played sports. I felt like I was becoming someone that I could like. Like I said, it’s silly now, even the idea of disliking yourself.
I remember the first time I heard of the threat on the news. Astronomers had discovered strange objects moving toward Earth. They were thousands of lightyears away, but when astronomers checked again, they were much closer.
Who knows if the public would have even heard about them if it wasn’t for Alvin Becker. He went to the news stations and convinced them that whatever those things were, it was important that people knew about them. He was a round, sweaty man with nervous eyes. I wonder what happened to him.
Lot’s of people laughed, then. They ridiculed him and anyone who believed him, savagely tearing down his character on the internet. But then, the internet had always provoked savagery from those logged in.
There had been time to prepare. Time for action. We had caught sight of them early enough, but the time was eaten away by blustering and indecision. How would it affect the economy? What about the election? People couldn’t just drop everything to deal with the imaginings of a few “scientists.”
Then, they arrived. First, over China, India, and Kazakhstan; then over Russia, Lithuania, and Finland. France, Italy, Egypt, Iran, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. That was the first change—the realization that we were not alone in the endlessness. They had come.
The frenzy was almost instantaneous. Panic, hoarding, and violence. The news and the internet could barely keep up with the grim stories of this new age. An elderly couple was shot in their home for their kitchen stocked with canned foods in Ohio. A riot erupted from two women fighting over the last loaf of bread at a supermarket in London. An entire town fell to violence after a young man was shot by an officer who thought the man was stealing food.
Government leaders responded with diplomacy and threats to both their people and the objects that hung suspended in the sky like black, rotting fruit. Police and military mobilized on the streets to try to restore order, only adding to the chaos like gasoline on a bonfire.
It took me three days to find a gas station with enough fuel to make the drive back home. When I arrived, I hugged my parents. My mother was crying. My father’s face was gray with worry, muscles weak with relief.
Amid it all, the objects remained silent. It was a silence as frigid and impenetrable as a vacuum, or the crushing cold of the deep sea. Through all the chaos, the objects had done nothing more than arrive, and watch.
We had done the rest.
You stand and heave the pack back into place. “Ready?” you asked.
I brush the forest debris from my pants. “Ready.”
We resume our hike up the mountain. The breeze shuffles the leaves above us. It will be cold tonight. I’m glad you decided to pack the wool blanket. You have always had more common sense than I have.
Though the breeze is cold, the sun is warm, and there are many sunny patches in this stretch of the climb. I let my mind wander.
People didn’t begin to notice the disappearances until two months after the objects arrived. By then, the objects had become a normal part of our day. Life began to return to normal, and people tried to forget the viciousness that had risen in them during those first few weeks. They tried to act as if everything was normal, but the weight of constant stress began to fray the smooth edges of their exteriors.
Theories spread like disease. The objects were a hoax. They were weapons created by terrorist groups or by enemy countries. They weren’t actually there, just an illusion created by an abnormality in the sun’s activity, a cosmic trick of the light.
But two months in, Lucia Feliz, international pop star, disappeared. There was no evidence of any crime. She had been home with her husband. He had gone to the kitchen for another drink, and when he returned, she was gone.
Of course, at the beginning most people assumed that he had killed her, but after countless hours of investigation resulting in no evidence, he was taken off the suspect list. Detectives were baffled. She was simply gone.
I remember following the case with verve. Her first album had been a childhood favorite of mine.
The disappearance of Lucia Feliz was the first in a long line of publicized disappearances. The prime minister’s daughter vanished at a party while surrounded by her friends and bodyguards. Two football players disappeared in the middle of a televised game.
The celebrity disappearances gave a platform to all the non-famous, non-rich families who had been desperately looking for their loved ones. Slowly, we understood that the disappearances were not just of a few public figures. There were thousands of people who had vanished without a hint of where they had gone, or who had taken them, and it had started the day the first object appeared over China.
Finally, we began to come to the only possible conclusion: the objects had taken them.
This is my favorite part of the climb. On our right, a beautiful sunny meadow. On our left, a thunderous waterfall. The wildflowers are in bloom this time of year, and fat happy bees whir from one blossom to the next. Light catches the spray from the waterfall, and a rainbow shimmers merrily.
I would love nothing more than to flop down in the sweet grass, listen to the rushing water, and fall asleep in the sun, but we must keep moving.
You glance over at me and a smile plays on your lips. I know you are remembering our first climb, when I did try to nap in the meadow. I smile too. I remember the look of total perplexity as you stared at me lying in the grass. We were still getting to know each other then.
I met you near the end. By then, my parents had been taken, most of my friends too. Even my new love had disappeared, and I was lonely, even though I had tried, then, to pretend that I wasn’t. I didn’t know why everyone I loved had been taken, but I was still here. Had something terrible befallen the taken? Or were they the saved? It was impossible to know.
You had a look about you like a lost puppy, though I figured you to be about ten years older than I am. I remember your eyes, and the kindness I saw in them. I felt something unwind itself in my chest when I looked at you, and I knew that I wouldn’t be lonely anymore.
That is the gift that you gave me, and that I have tried to give to you.
Night is falling fast, and we must set up camp before dark. I gather firewood, you unpack the tarp. We are lucky this year. You found a tarp that isn’t torn, and if it rains tonight, we will stay dry.
It takes us no time to coax a fire from the branches I’ve gathered. We sit close together in the firelight in silence. There are some things that we don’t talk about. You don’t like talking about the time Before. It makes you too sad, and I hate to see such sadness in your eyes. It’s like watching your heart crumble in front of me, and I couldn’t bear to do that to you.
“This year it will be different,” I say with so much certainty that I surprise myself.
You nod. “I’m sure of it.”
You sound tired.
I hug your arm and rest my head against your shoulder. I feel your weight as you lean against me too.
Tomorrow we will reach the summit and stay there until the cold drives us back down the mountain.
Summer has the clearest nights, after all. If we hope to see any other signs of life, it will be in the next few weeks. From the peak, we can see the entire valley. We will watch for a flickering star of firelight. We will compare the landscape of the valley to our notes from the year before. Any span of fallen trees may have been cut down. Any dark splotches in the fields could be tilled earth.
I had to believe that we weren’t alone. I know that you do too.
I pull the pack toward me and fish out the wool blanket. It is barely big enough for two, but we will huddle close throughout the night.
“We should get some sleep,” I say.
You nod. Your eyelids are already drooping.
You doze off quickly, but I stay awake, I watch the fire and listen to the night.
Tomorrow we will make it to the top. Maybe we will finally find signs that we are not the only ones left. Maybe an inky black object will be there, hovering over the peak, ready to take us to the stars. Maybe, after tomorrow, we will no longer be alone.