Christopher X. Ryan
The shopping cart’s wheels lock up again, mud and gravel jamming in the narrow chrome slots.
“Can you please stop this?” Su says, looking back at Oliver from a few meters up the trail. “This is insane.”
Oliver removes a screwdriver from his coat’s inner pocket and kneels down to clear the slots. He’s been pulling the cart up the mountain for over an hour, pushing no longer an option. “Just go home, Su.”
“No. I need to understand what this is all about.”
Done, Oliver stands up, stretching his back. “Seeing won’t help you understand.”
“I’ll determine that myself.”
As he catches up with and then tries to pass Su, she grabs hold.
“Get off my cart,” he says, trying to wrench it free.
“It’s not your cart.”
His eyes glaze over. “Call the police then.”
Her fingers peel away.
He pulls again.
She suspects he has been doing this for months. When the band went on indefinite hiatus the previous year, he’d started going on long walks, first through town, then along the creek, and finally up into the foothills, or so he’d told her. He’d gone out in his trademark jeans and white sneakers and white T-shirt like it was any other day. This had started in early spring and continued beyond the brink of autumn: predators ascending, deer departing, Oliver dipping his hands into frigid creeks for a sip of water. The walks evolved into something else though, and he started coming home filthy, rank-smelling, and exhausted. Eventually he bought some hiking boots, then some warmer pants and a winter coat. All he could talk about was the trail, as if a new band were at its zenith. But he’d never mentioned a shopping cart.
“I no longer love you,” Su says, the trail growing steeper, the cart constantly threatening to tip into the brink.
Oliver glances back at her. “I understand.”
Embarrassed, her gaze drops to her feet, focusing on her sneakers darting from rock to rock. This was not what she’d intended. They were both sidestepping the larger issue, the one he’d dropped into the lap of his friends and family like a dead bird of prey two days earlier at what he’d called an “outervention.” It’d lasted into the night, and when he next set out for a walk late the next day, Su trailed in his wake.
When he’d pulled the shopping cart out of some brambles back in town, she thought he was performing some act of charity—until they’d reached the trailhead.
Soon they come to a cluster of small but formidable boulders. Su supposes that this is the end, that he’ll either finally abandon the cart or cast it over the cliff’s edge and watch it vanish among the foliage, but it isn’t: he scrambles up the rock face, then returns with a coil of rope, which he unspools and loops around the cart’s lower front brace. He ascends again, then starts to reel in the cart. Although she’s impressed with his seemingly newfound strength, the racket is horrible—the world’s largest bear deterrent.
He stashes the rope again and continues on, sweating and panting, but she’s shivering, the trail beneath her rutted and frozen.
Another hour passes before the trail at last levels out, transitioning into a dirt track, but Oliver doesn’t push just yet. He sits on the ground, chest heaving and face shining.
“Don’t you have water?” she asks. “You could have, you know, put it in your cart. Along with a year’s supply of toilet paper.”
“You’re funny. As in loony.”
He wraps his arms around his knees, closes his eyes, and tilts his face toward the sky. The air is brilliant; the shadows of birds flicker past, and bulbous clouds too, so close it feels like she could step into them, the silence so profound it settles on her skin like pollen. Su can almost understand this all. Almost.
“Now what?” she asks.
“This is as far as you go. This is something I do alone.”
“Not this time. I want to see what this is all about.”
“Su—” Oliver doesn’t finish though. He rises, shakes out a sore leg, and pushes again.
A short while later he steers the cart through an almost-invisible opening in some bushes. After Su passes through, he scans the track in each direction, then finesses the shrubbery back together.
“What are you looking for?”
“Never mind. Listen, this may sound stupid, but it’ll go a lot easier if you help me here. Otherwise I’ll—”
She lifts the front of the cart.
“Straight ahead,” he says, “then the path jogs left, into the field.”
The cart is heavy; twice Su has to rest. For a moment she admires Oliver. Before the hiatus, he’d been getting thin and sallow-looking, a result of depression and imposter syndrome, or so he said. The band had been fighting all the time, and their producer was pushing for more radio-friendly hits rather than their typical thudding, anthemic showpieces. Since then he has put on fifteen pounds and his face has returned, the way he looked before their third album had blown up and agents and producers and fans came knocking.
They exit the shrubbery into a meadow hemmed in on all sides by pensive, swaying trees.
“This is fine here until I figure out what to do with it,” he says, and she sees them now. Their chrome skin catches the high alpine light, scores of them, hundreds maybe. Some have been stacked together in long lines as if waiting for shoppers, others arranged in echelons or rows, others yet comprising a maze or some sort of free-form art. The two of them stand there a moment, taking it all in, the clearing silent but for the air sifting through the carts’ metal slats.
“What the fuck?” she says.
He laughs. “Exactly.”
“What is this?”
“I don’t really know. I stumbled upon them one day while exploring.” He adds a shrug. “I thought it was crazy and all, but I didn’t think about it much. Then one day I saw a shopping cart in the creek. I pulled it out and decided to add it to the mix. Then I started seeing abandoned shopping carts everywhere, like elements of a larger sequence, a design that has simply had to coalesce. It just seemed logical to relocate them here.”
“How many are yours?”
“Thirty-seven. At first it took me two or three hikes to get just one cart up here.”
“Jesus. What do you do when you pass someone?”
“I just nod and keep going. Think about it. A guy pushing a shopping cart up a mountain? They don’t want to know.”
“Maybe they recognized you. Did you know you were on the cover of Local Beat last week?”
“Weird.” He tugs her sleeve. “Come on. Let’s take a tour.”
Su follows Oliver into the field. They work their way from the outside in, then up and down the aisles, studying each installation.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he says.
“It’s eerie but not exactly beautiful. Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“I wanted it to be my secret place, away from—” he gestures back toward the path and, presumably, home “—all that.”
“Well, it’s interesting,” Su says, shielding her brow against the sunlight glinting off the metal.
“It’s more than ‘interesting.’”
“You should write a song about it.”
“Uh huh,” he says after a long pause.
“You always take stuff like this and, you know, turn it into something relatable and cool.”
He makes a non-committal expression.
“This could be the inspiration you need to get back into the studio. I’m serious, Oliver.”
Her voice breaks on his name.
“Here’s the thing,” he had said to those gathered in his private auditorium at his home. He was leaning against the stage, his closest friends and colleagues—no family were invited—seated on circular cushions on the floor in a vaguely fanned-out, cultlike arrangement. “I’m not Oliver.”
“What?” his guitarist, Jimmie Chavez, had said with a laugh. They’d been together since the beginning, and he had always gone along with whatever the front man had proposed, including the light show with elephants and spaceships, a massive failure that was not only critically panned but had caused a small fire backstage.
“I should say that, technically, I’m an Oliver but not the original Oliver.”
“Uh, so where is he?” his manager Iona Watts asked, her face pink with embarrassment or rage. Or both.
Oliver gestured vaguely and shrugged. “Out there.”
And who are you?”
“What are you talking about, Oliver?” his producer Charlez-y had said, so perturbed he actually removed his sunglasses.
Oliver took a deep breath and blinked long and slow. “Oliver is merely a construct fulfilled by an alternating roster of men bearing a vague resemblance to one another, both in demeanor and spirit and appearance, which is determined by an algorithm that was all laid out according to demographics and commercial inputs. Because I match that algorithm, I’ve been hired to fill the role.”
“Ok, so who’s in charge of this ‘construct’ and the swap-out?” Charlez-y asked.
“Everything was done through a lawyer.” His shoulders rose and fell as if shrugging off an uninvited massage. “Like the previous Oliver, who was not the same Oliver as when you met him after his first album, I was in a serious bind when the offer came through. That’s all I can say. I’ve just now broken the terms of my contract, which might result in a massive lawsuit, but I felt that I owe it to you. I know I’ve been running you through the wringer emotionally the past year, with the crap we’ve been going through as a band, which I take full credit for.”
Jane Black Pain, the bass player Oliver had dated in the band’s early days, said, “Drop those white jeans of yours. I know your cock. Su and I will compare notes.”
Because Oliver hadn’t laughed, no one else had either. Jane sat back, picking at the scabs on her inner elbows. She’d quit the band a week later and disappear from the public eye for good.
Su, too, felt humiliated. She remained silent throughout his performance or manifesto or whatever it was. She’d bided her time, waiting for the punchline. But it never came. And it still hasn’t.
Taking hold of a shopping cart, she shuts her eyes and says, “You’ve really tipped into the void, haven’t you.”
“I’m not crazy, Su.” Oliver straightens out some carts, wipes away some bird shit with his sleeve, and admires his field. “I know it’s a lot to take in, along with everything else of late. The deception has been eating at me like a virus, which is why I come here. To make sense of things. To raze the fortress I’ve built around my notion of self.”
“To a field of shopping carts?”
“Yeah, to The Warps.”
“‘The Warps’ What corporation came up with that name?”
He smiles. “I did. Do you like it?”
She considers it a moment. “Kind of. It sounds like an album name, actually.”
“You see, everything that passes through here is refracted through the strange experience of shopping carts arranged into odd shapes juxtaposed against—”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it.”
“Good. Follow me. This is fun to do.”
“Oliver, wait. We need to—to talk about this.”
“Come on!” Oliver circles around a long row of carts, climbs up, then runs across the tops, hooting. When he reaches the end, he leaps off into a pile of pine boughs, rolling and flailing, and comes to a stop in the snowy grass.
“Try it, Su!”
“Come on. Live! We’re free here. No critics, no lackies, no corporate drones.”
She looks around. The desolation is indeed made more palpable by the presence of the carts. She sighs and climbs up. It isn’t high, but it’s unstable.
“I’ll run beside you. If you think you’re going to bail—”
“I don’t need your help.”
She runs, her feet making clack clack clack sounds. It’s fun only because of the absurdity of running across a row of shopping carts in an alpine meadow more than a mile above sea level. At the end she launches herself into the boughs, the pine scent striking her hard and sweet, like a fire at Christmastime, and rolls to a stop beside Oliver.
She pants, her mouth dry and scorched by the altitude.
“Hey,” he says, and leans over to kiss her, but she rolls away.
“No fucking way.”
A few flakes of snow drift down but from where it isn’t clear.
“I’ve never seen you so determined as when you were dragging that shopping cart,” Su says. “Even more so than when you’re on stage for the third hour running, covered in your own blood.”
“That’s all theater. When I’m doing this, I know what life is really about.”
“Which is what?”
“Push the cart. Fill the cart. Empty the cart.”
“Hm. Like some sort of ironic Zen consumerist doctrine.” She closes her eyes a moment. With the air so thin, and with the treetops swaying against the horizon, she feels drugged or in a lucid-dream state.
“I’ve actually become emotionally attached to these things. I wonder what’s going to happen to them.”
Su’s lips curl into a sneer. “What’s more important is what’s going to happen to us.”
“We’ll be fine. You, me, Oliver. The human race, however…”
“You know, you could use the carts on stage. That’d be a nice set piece.”
He shakes his head. “That’d be sacrilegious.”
“Whatever. Do you at least know how many more you’re going to bring up here?”
He shrugs. “How many does it need?”
“It’s your project, not mine. Maybe there’s a fucking algorithm to help you determine the right number.”
“Maybe you can help me.”
Su wrestles free of the boughs. “I don’t have time to climb mountains every day.”
“Of course you do. We’re have more money than we know what to do with.”
“That’s your money, not mine.”
“You’ve helped the band for years, Su. Even if this is all too much for me and you decide you want out, you can have the house. Or we can sell it and split the money. The apartment in New York too.”
“None of that is mine. I didn’t pay for it.”
He shakes his head. “Money is only one form of currency, Su.”
Su crosses her arms, fighting back a shiver. She thinks of the day they’d met, a decade earlier, at the squalid graphic design firm she and her friends had launched. Oliver was no one back then, just like her, and she’d been tasked with doing the artwork for his first album, an obscurity that only later became a cult favorite. It was the third album that exploded on the charts, and her own career flourished as a result—meaning she could pay rent without borrowing from her parents. “Are you microdosing again?” she asks.
“I’m as sober as the stars.
“You’ve lose it.”
“I didn’t lose anything. Like I said, I was switched out.”
She scoffs. “Are we really going there? Now? Here?”
“If you were switched out, where do your memories of me come from? Tell me again. I want to make sure you get the lie straight.”
“Oliver’s memories were transferred to me through systematic reprogramming—a rider to the algorithm—which is fed to you through conditioning like videos and tapes and mild brainwashing. Anyways, the concept of memory is a slippery slope, Su. You can trust it as much as you can trust your eyes. These carts aren’t even here, in a sense.”
“Oh stop. I’m not getting sucked into your semantics and circular logic.” Su gets up, crosses the field, pushes her way through the bushes, and steps back onto the dirt track. Unsure which way to go, she follows the path farther into the wilderness rather than heading back.
Oliver chases after her, sucking at the thin air, his jacket flapping open. “Wait, Su. Listen. Remember how bad Oliver’s songs—my songs—got all of a sudden? It’s because I stepped in to play the role and I am not a writer, Su. My voice is close enough to his, but I can’t write for shit. Words, buttons, fucking dots and dashes—that’s not me. I need an axe in my hands—”
“An axe, like a guitar?”
“No, a real fucking axe! I’ve been miscast, Su.”
“So what’s your real name?”
He grabs his hair, running his hands through the greasy, shoulder-length locks. “My past is totally irrelevant.”
She quickens her pace, though she can hardly breathe. “At least tell me the name of the lawyer who oversaw this ‘transition.’”
“Jim, I think. Joe? Tall skinny fuck. The corporate type you immediately want to choke.”
Su snorts and shakes her head, hopping from rock to rock on the crumbling, snow-strewn track. As she hikes though, her mind drifts, and she recalls something: a couple weeks back, she caught a glance at Oliver’s notebook lying open in the studio, spattered and wrinkled. Written in a backwards-slanting script, the lyrics were riddled with typos and were about a cow taking refuge among a herd of sheep, crouching down whenever the shepherd approached. The sheep tried to protect him but there was little they could do, given the cow’s enormity. At first she’d thought it was about her, a Korean woman in a mountain town populated by a mix of loggers and billionaires, but the metaphors were clumsy, clunky even. Then, a week or so later, she heard him singing it while picking at his acoustic guitar in the spare bedroom, but the piece wasn’t his typical fist-in-the-air, rock-oriented output. The beat was low, the tempo sludgy—in all, a draggy, almost folksy departure from his typical work. She’d felt sorry for Oliver, and that night they’d had passionate, clumsy sex for the first time in months. If that was not Oliver—
She laughs away her gullibility.
“What’s so funny?” he asks.
“There’s something I don’t understand. Corporations are interested only in making money, and you’re one of their best, most singular assets. You’re an intellectual property bar none. Why would they risk getting caught? People surely would notice if you were switched out.”
“The original Oliver lost his verve and edge, so they needed someone to reinject the mojo back into the persona. He’s just a totem anyway, something for consumers to latch onto. When famous characters like him can’t maintain the cycle of commerce, they’re switched out. What matters is that they meet the parameters of—”
“The algorithm, right.”
They slowly navigate a series of slick log bridges.
“I mean, we all have secret histories,” he continues. “Just because a lawyer didn’t knock on your door with a contract in hand doesn’t mean you’re the Su who broke her elbow on a jetty in 1989.”
“I told you that the first week we met.”
“No, I read it in your file. We actually just met just a few months ago.”
“Shut up!” She looks around for a large stick but finds only a gnarled stub of branch. “Tell me this—are the other Olivers dead? Did their girlfriends kill them?”
He gives her a wide berth and moves to the front. “There’s something else ahead. Come on.”
She waits, panting from the altitude and out of exasperation. An unseen crow calls out. Eventually she throws the stick aside and follows him.
They enter another clearing, this one narrower than the previous one, the grass shorter, the snow blown into oblivion. At the far end sits a picnic site overlooking a hill that drops sharply toward a dry creek bed. As Su moves nearer, however, she notices a half-dozen familiar contraptions and rusting metal benches topped with torn black vinyl: gym equipment.
Oliver tosses his gloves aside, picks up a loaded barbell, peers out over the creek bed, and starts pumping weights. “Cool, huh?”
“Is this part of The Warps?”
“I don’t know, to be honest.”
Su crouches beside a fire pit lined with blackened rocks stones and pokes at the ashes with a rusty skewer. “Bones. Like some sort of return-to-nature thing.”
“A place,” Oliver says while pumping the bar, “to tap into your primal being. When you’re surrounded by mountains, the clouds inches away, you feel the gravity of the earth more, like an element in your blood.”
She traces the cracked surface of an incline bench, nudges a stack of rusting steel weights. “So what’s this place’s name?”
“I call it ‘The Savage Gym.’”
“Hm. How about ‘Grunts?’”
He laughs, then grunts.
“It at least explains where all the muscle has come from of late. Your shirts barely fit you anymore.”
“Nah. I’m just a much more filled-out version. I practically have to cram myself into the old Oliver’s outfits.”
Su shakes her head, then watches him shift to the bench press. Halfway through, he sits up and scratches the back of his neck. “Fuck.”
“What’s wrong?” she asks, then immediately regrets it.
“They stuck me with something a couple weeks ago when I canceled the fall tour.” He twists around and slides up his hat to reveal a weeping scab.
“You scratch yourself there when you’re composing or reading or even deep in conversation.”
“It went right into the base of my cranium.”
“Just shut up!”
Su lunges forward and swings her gloved fist at his face, but he deftly leans back and she sprawls to the ground. “I’m done with you. It’s over.”
“Stop being so passive, you robot.”
“This version of me abides, Su.”
Su grabs a rock from the fire pit and flings it at Oliver. It glances off his shin. He grabs his leg and crumples to the ground.
The outervention had gone on all night as Oliver’s friends and bandmates and a few industry colleagues he trusted barraged him with questions, all of which he answered with the same terse, evasive non-answers.
“You do realize,” Jimmie had said, “that you look exactly like old Oliver. Your voices are exactly the same, especially when you’re hitting the high notes.”
“Even the stink of your hair is the same,” Jane Black Pain said. “Did you have cosmetic surgery? The tattoos and moles and all that?”
“With a population nearing seven billion,” he’d said, “there will be people incontestably similar to us. They probably dug around for just a few months to nail down an Oliver that suits the algorithm. If you look close enough, you’ll see that I’m quite different. The problem in relationships and friendships is that we stop seeing one another after a while. We’re so desensitized that we don’t even know when our partners are swapped out.”
“So you met the ‘old’ Oliver?” Iona asked.
“Just at the moment of transition. He seemed like an ok dude. But like I said, I’m finding this role frustrating. Writing music is tedious and difficult. I’d rather be out here, not inside some conventional, systematic brain-world. Which is why the music started to—”
Jimmie scoffed. “‘Brain World.’ You idiot.”
“It’s the name of a song we wrote.”
“It was our first top-ten single.”
He shrugs. “I’d rather operate on someone’s brain. Now that’s an accomplishment. Music is created to drown out the noise in our scummy souls.”
Toward the early morning, people started to peel off in singles, then in two and threes. They’d waited it out to see what the big reveal was, what was going to come of this schtick, this bit of performance art, but Oliver never folded.
Then it was just him and Su in the empty auditorium where they’d once gathered to preview new videos and the few feature films he’d produced. She slow-clapped, hard and melodramatically, then rose from her pillow and walked up to him, clapping the air between them.
“Great fucking job.”
“Su,” Oliver says, stopping to lean against a tree so he can examine his bruised shin, “you don’t have to apologize or anything.”
“Fine. I won’t.”
He resets his sock and pants, then reaches into his jacket and pulls out a small map. He looks to the sky, then to the horizon, then spins in a slow circle. “Based on the time it took us to walk here, and the altitude, I think—look, the path branches off.”
The trail sloughs off onto a slope, and for an hour they walk with slow, measured steps, touching trees for balance in the oncoming dark.
“I’m starving,” Su says, and Oliver produces two small, tart apples from within his coat, which they eat right down to the stem, spitting out the seeds behind them. “What else have you got in there? Another Oliver? I hope she knows the way home. Look, are we going up or down right now?”
“I don’t know. Sideways maybe.”
“We need to head back now or we’ll freeze to death.”
“I’m not going back, Su.”
“Come on. You have obligations.”
“After all you’ve seen out here, the designs nature has for us, do you really think you can return to that false front of normalcy? Do you want to continue to subjugate yourself to corporations that exploit our energy for their own financial benefit?”
“I don’t let them exploit me.”
“Look, if we talk, we’re going to argue. Let’s just keep hiking.”
He marches on.
With time the path becomes a narrow track almost wide enough for a vehicle. The dark thickens and moonlight cascades down into the gap, forcing out any remaining warmth. They walk in near silence until Oliver suddenly stops short and Su stumbles into him.
“Damn it, what the hell—”
“Look, look. Holy shit.”
She slowly lifts her head. This time it doesn’t take time to register what she is seeing: an airliner nestled among the gnarled evergreens.
“What the—is this reality?” she asks.
“I’ve never made it this far. I mean, shit. Wow.”
“How—how did it get up here?”
“No idea. Come on. Let’s take a look.”
They circle the plane. Though it hasn’t been crashed, the wings are missing. The weight of it, the density of its shadow in the trees, turns Su’s stomach to ice. “I don’t like this. It’s creepy.”
“Don’t think of it as a plane, because it isn’t. Look.” He points toward an open hatch toward the rear. Tacked to an adjacent tree is a ladder of sorts, and at the top is a small platform and a rope. “You swing from there.”
“There could be someone inside.”
“There are no prints in the snow, and the rope is on the tree side. Let’s at least check it out. We can get out of the elements and rest for a bit. Do you want to go first?”
“Fine, I’ll—” Oliver starts to say, but Su pushes past.
The rickety ladder is little more than planks tacked to the trunk, which twist and flex beneath her weight. She clambers up and onto the little platform, swaying along with the tree. Another minute or two pass before she unhooks the rope, wraps her gloved fingers around it, and tests it.
“It’s just a couple meters,” he tells her from below. “How about I—”
Su hops back, swings. The forest rushes past. She falls in through the hatch and slides across the snow-dusted floor. She lies there panting, exhilarated, until Oliver calls out to her. She swings the rope back, and a moment later he flies into the plane, hollering and kicking, and falls to the floor beside her.
Their laughter circles through the plane.
“This is incredible,” he says, breathless but glowing.
The plane’s seats have been removed, some of them stacked to form a wall. Su follows Oliver through a narrow opening and they move toward the front where cushions have been piled together to form couches of a sort. There’s even a small stove with a chimney running to the roof, and beside it a pile of kindling and logs, cups, tea, and airline matchbooks. The cockpit has been gutted, and someone has constructed a set of narrow berths, going so far as to stitch airline blankets together to form quilts.
“Imagine if we had, like, fifty or a hundred planes,” Oliver says. “We could arrange them in a spiral or a star shape or—or—” He kneels to poke at the stove’s ashy innards. “Think I’ll make a fire.”
“We’ll recuperate here, ok? Maybe even spent the night.”
Once the fire has caught, Oliver locates a small pot. He vanishes for a couple minutes, then returns with enough snow to brew tea. He rubs his arms and stamps his feet and waits for the water to boil.
“I’m exhausted,” Su say, “and my leg is cramping.”
Su piles three quilts on a bunk, kicks off her boots, and lays her head on a tiny airline pillow. Out beyond the shallow windows, the alpine horizon is a strange mix of green and blue, more like the ocean than the sky.
The fireplace heat drifts into the cockpit. They drink, eat stale old crackers, and warm themselves.
“Now my head’s killing me,” Su says as she sets her cup aside. “Unlike you, I’m in terrible shape.”
“Want me to paint your face?”
She thinks about that. “Ok.”
“Move over.” He takes off his boots, slides beneath the quilt, and gently runs his fingers across her brow, her eyes, her face, her neck. “Any better?”
She smiles weakly. “Despite the setting and your ongoing craziness, this is almost nice.”
“It takes struggle and challenge to make you feel human again. Everyone should experience that, you know? It’s through the pain of a car crash or a fistfight or even a wild orgasm or that we feel something again.”
She smiles. “Sounds like you’re writing songs again.”
“Ha ha. Maybe.”
She twists around and they hold tight to keep from toppling off the bunk. She can feel his heart throbbing in her fingers, like that of a horse after a rigorous furlong. “You really are more philosophical now,” she says. “I’d almost say you are different.”
“Up here I’m building a monument. Down there I’m being crushed by them.”
“I honestly like my life down there. My friends. My family. And yes, my stuff.”
“It would be a sacrifice, but all you have to gain is everything.”
“God. When will this whole charade end?”
“It’s no charade.” He tilts her face toward his. “Listen, have you ever heard of ampulex compresa? It’s a type of wasp that disables a roach’s brain with its stinger.” He stabs the air with his middle finger. “It takes controls of the roach’s body and antennae and steers it to its own burrow. It lays eggs inside the roach, and eventually another wasp bursts out of the skeleton.”
“I’ve never heard that story.”
His nostrils flare. “It’s not a story, it’s science.”
“So your antennae have been appropriated?”
“Yes, I was the cockroach. But I woke up and shucked that wasp off my back. Now I want to go around telling people, ‘There’s a spiritual war being fought on these paths. If you want to fight, simply take hold of the cart and let it guide you up the mountain.’”
She shoves him away. “You sound like a cult leader. Go to your own bunk.”
“Listen. The Warps is much more than a field of shopping carts. It’s a way to subvert the fucking algorithm once and for all.”
“Let me sleep.”
“Want me to paint your face some more?”
“I don’t want you to ever touch me again.”
With a heaving sigh, he moves to the other bunk. Su turns and leans against the cold, narrow window, and looks out across the dark forest. She sees trees bending gently. The shape of a passing bird maybe. The air inside the cockpit is crystalline and heavy. Soon the window fogs over, and her mind follows.
“God it’s cold, isn’t it?” Su says sometime in the early morning. “Oliver?” Su rolls over to find the other bunk empty. “Hello?”
She makes her way through the plane toward the rear hatch. The rope is on the far side, forcing her to climb down. She hits the forest floor with a dull thud, her body sore and empty. After squatting to urinate, she scoops up a handful of snow and rubs it on her face.
“Fuck,” she says, looking around.
She hikes, and eventually the trail begins its descent. She continues for an hour, then two, until she spots a long and low building set back from the road. She hesitates a long moment before venturing closer. The building’s glass doors bear a decal depicting an airplane arcing over a mountaintop. She tugs on the handle and finds the door unlocked.
Su steps into a lobby lined with brittle yellow posters and schedules for regional flight services, though the last plane departed four years prior. She wonders if it’s still up there, circling, waiting for someone to clear the runway.
She makes her way down the hall toward a soda and snack machine. A nearby office is open. Other than a dented filing cabinet, the office contains only a desk, manual typewriter, and a rotary phone. She sits and picks up the receiver.
She hears only the pulse of her blood in her ears. She feels as dead as the line, and with that feeling comes a washing-over of peace. What a suicide feels mid-leap, perhaps. What the Olivers must feel when a replacement taps them on the shoulder and says, Hey mate, good work so far, I’m here now.
Once home, she decides, she will pack up her things. There will be no more Olivers in her life. She will find a job again, even if it takes years to pick up where she left off in her career. The firm she helped build is now a global powerhouse, and surely there’s room for her there. She can live in a city where people look like her, where she is not singular—a point whose irony is not lost on her, given Oliver’s declaration.
She finishes off the soda, zips her coat to the neck, and is about to push open the lobby doors when she sees a figure outside, standing a short distance from the doors, his face lit up by a cigarette dangling precariously from his lower lip. He’s dressed all in black except for his clerical collar—a priest or some sort of man of the cloth. As she stands there watching, she notices that his shirt is half-untucked, his coat smudged, his face unshaved and hair unkempt. He’s wearing black leather gloves and heavy boots, and nearby sits a duffel bag. She wonders what algorithm he claims to be escaping. But then again, she thinks, isn’t the bible basically a series of codes?
Su steps back, but that only tips him off to her presence. He glances at her, then drops the cigarette, picks up his bag, and heads for the doors. Su is there before him. She flips the lock.
He rattles the door, his eyes never breaking from hers, but says nothing, only gestures toward the sky as if to indicate a higher power, the weather, or incoming planes, none of which compels her to unlock it. Now the priest puts his hands together not as if to pray but to beg her to let him in, as if this were a gate and she the keeper. His eyes plead a long moment, though his mouth is taut with a detectable rage, and Su backs away until the gloom of the lobby swallows her.
The priest rattles the door a few more times and adds a few hard bangs on the glass for good measure, but he eventually gets the point. He slings the duffel bag over his shoulder, flicks the cigarette at the glass, then heads up the trail, toward The Warps.
Su watches his back until he has faded into the woods. This is her chance to leave. She can slip past and sprint down the mountain and get a cab home. But it’s so quiet here. And still. In this place she can be anyone.
Born on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Christopher X. Ryan now lives in Helsinki, Finland, where he works as a writer and editor. His debut novel Bogore is forthcoming from J.New Books. His work has been published widely, and he recently was awarded a fiction-writing grant by Kone Foundation. He can be found at www.christopherXryan.com.