He dropped the orange peel as he walked.
“Leave no trace,” said Sharon, last in the line. She stopped to squat, trying to pick up the trash. Her knees wavered as she balanced the weight of her backpack.
“It’s organic,” said Vince. He shrugged, like what did it matter. His wife Nevada nodded agreement.
“It’s not trash,” said Nevada, “because it’s part of the earth, and by throwing it on the trail, we’re just returning it to the earth.” Sharon did not like her husband’s friends. She stuffed the peel in her pocket.
Gabe, Sharon’s husband, took the lead. “Twenty-nine million years ago, three simultaneous volcanic explosions created this mountain range,” he said, climbing the limestone ridge. He did not see the snake until it rattled. “Shit!” Water spilled down his shirt. The viper materialized from the lichened rocks and yellow dirt as if from nowhere, a white-pink mouth and undulating tongue enlivening the marbled diamonds of muscular flesh. It raised its triangular head, unleashed a hiss, then slithered down the cliff side of the trail into a bramble of catclaw and cacti.
“Somebody should shoot it,” said Nevada. “My dad always shot the snakes he found in the backyard. Too dangerous.” An edict. As though this were a matter of fact. Nevada wrapped her arms around Vince’s thick neck. She seemed to draw her confidence from the contact.
Sharon wondered: Too dangerous for what? Too dangerous to be allowed to live? She was engulfed in private rage. Nevada is stupid, she thought. So stupid she will never have any idea how stupid she is, how chained she is to her terrible humanness: the unexamined self-centeredness, the oblivious will to harm. “They are not out to get you,” said Sharon.
“A rattlesnake bite can kill you, though.” Vince grinned. He pulled away from Nevada. They began again the walking over difficult terrain. Sharon felt withered in the sun. As they climbed and sometimes stumbled, she watched her feet, feeling the heat of the radiating earth, growing ever warmer, and aware every step of scaly critters that might be sunning themselves on the trail.
“You know,” said Gabe, pointing out a cairn, explaining to Nevada that the piled rocks guide the way, “they say a rattlesnake never travels more than a mile from where it was born.”
“Wow,” Nevada chirped behind the armor of her dimples. “I swear you learn something new every day.” She flashed her square white teeth. As though she knew, because she sat on her daddy’s knee and he told her so, that she was and always would be the shining pearl of the west. The snake, thought Sharon, felt like a warning.
Sharon was a redhead. A boy she loved as a child—he had lived down the street—once told her that her hair was the color of scabs. Then he peeled one from his knee and flicked it at her. She touched her hair now, rolling split ends between her fingertips.
“Have you ever,” she began, unsure of the best way to phrase it. “Are you nervous about doing acid?” ‘Doing acid’ seemed less showy, less glamorous than the colloquialism of ‘dropping acid,’ which was loaded with imagery of waifish women in crop tops and bell bottoms stripping off their clothes to caress the chest of a made-for-TV guru as their eyes rolled back in their heads. Sharon had kept the thin strip of magic paper in her jewelry box for almost nine months.
“Should I be nervous?” Unaccustomed to the weight of the backpack, Nevada stumbled and caught herself. “The hike description didn’t say that the trail would be rock-strewn.” She steadied herself. Sharon could hear the accusatory irritation in Nevada’s voice. This was one liability of bringing people hiking: once out there, they blamed you for the arduousness you couldn’t bypass. Every challenging and dully painful step was an opportunity to indulge in a quivering rage for the person who was responsible for bringing you there.
“Well, rocks are kind of a given,” said Sharon, smiling, trying to be jokey. “We are in the wilderness. It isn’t a city park.” She stared at the fragile vertebrae of tiny hairs glued to Nevada’s eyelids. Nevada blinked and her eyelashes cast spider-leg shadows on her cheeks. Maybe they were not meant to be friends. All we do, thought Sharon, is pantomime friendship. But, she thought, I believe in the power of my thoughts to manifest my reality. If I believe that she and I will be friends, then we can be. Be positive, she told herself. Your feelings of isolation are creating your isolation.
“So,” Sharon said. “Do you guys hike a lot?”
“No, we’re more like, gym people,” Nevada said breathily, jumping to another thought. “Can I tell you a secret?” She grabbed Sharon’s arm, leaning into her. “I’m getting my boobs done! The surgery is in three weeks.” Nevada squealed. “I’ve wanted them my whole life, and I’ve never stopped wanting them. They’ve been my dream. I’m going for the natural look, obviously.”
“Terrific,” said Sharon, wondering if it was right to bring Nevada here. They walked in half-comfortable silence until they caught up to Vince and Gabe. They ascended a narrowing, and everything Sharon had done that morning disappeared with the exertion of the hike. She walked until she entered the rhythm of her walking. She walked until she thought of nothing but her feet and each subsequent step, of the mountainous rock, the sky against the cliffs, blue as an ice-clear lake in a dream. The hours passed.
When they reached a clearing at the base of a thousand-foot spire, they dropped their backpacks and rejoiced, suddenly made to carry nothing but their own weight. Furnished with a rock fire ring and a lone log seat blackened on one side, a few mesquite trees shaded the camp and offered the possibility of firewood.
“Apparently someone sat on one half of the log while trying to burn the other,” said Gabe, touching the charcoaled end, painting his hand with soot.
“Must have been pretty desperate to burn the only seat.” Sharon bounced on the charred log. Dripping with sweat, she removed the wet tentacles of her drenched clothing and hung them on barren tree branches to dry. Her muscles: gummy as half-cooked noodles, and allowed, at last, to rest. Briefly, though. She had been carrying the lunch, and now she squatted over the supplies with a plastic knife. “Do you want avocado on yours? How much potato salad?” Trying not to repulse them by using her hands. They ate ravenously in the silence of their hunger.
After lunch, Sharon removed the nail scissors and the square fold of aluminum foil from the zippered pocket at the top of her backpack. Inside the foil was a long strip of paper blotted with lysergic acid diethylamide. “Let’s take it now,” she said. “I still want to sleep tonight.”
The tab settled in its cradle under her tongue and soon Sharon sensed a wiggle in her field of perception. It built slowly. She took a deep breath, then another. What would her mother say? How could you do something so risky? Who do you think you are, taking powerful mind-altering drugs in the wilderness where no one could come and help you if you needed help? You can’t just call a cab. You can’t just go to a hospital. She paced in circles around the campsite until time started to bend and sway like the mesquite branches in the wind.
She was lolling on a boulder when she felt a twinge on her leg. She slapped her calf, noticed a small streak of fresh blood on her palm. The mosquito escaped fat with nutrients for her eggs, and Sharon’s bump grew immediately, then grew more, until it looked like a bone or a tumor protruding the skin.
“I think I’m allergic,” she said, reaching for Gabe. “Look.”
“Holy shit, it’s huge!”
She imagined it would grow more and more swollen until it became a permanent feature of her leg. Her body felt separate from her self. Baking on the rock like a lizard, she could not stop herself from yawning. She was falling deeper and deeper into a waking dream, as the hours slipped through her fingers like sand. The fossil record indicated that millions of years ago, this desert had once been the bottom of the ocean. Sharon imagined herself swimming in the air. She was a shark, a whale, a flounder, a fleck of plankton. She could see the earth breathing. She could see a face watching over them, carved by wind and ancient water onto the skyscraper of rock, that tower of volcanic matter pulsating with magnetic energy like an earthen antenna. It looked beautiful from afar and had a menacing charm up close, like the claw of the devil reaching up from hell. Sharon fell into the sky and found in every cloud a watchful mother. She dug her fingers into the dirt and saw each spike of cholla as a miraculous extension of a god whose name she did not know. Her brain did not invent this information. Her brain perceived what was already there.
Vince held a water bottle over his head and squirted the liquid onto his face like baptism.
“That’s not how you drink it,” laughed Gabe.
“He’s right,” said Sharon, “water works best if you put it in your mouth and swallow.”
The canyon turned blue in the evening light. Sharon pulled on her sweatpants and fleece. She found her gloves and a headlamp. They gathered what meager wood they could scrounge around camp—a dried agave century stalk, a few fallen branches, the spindly twigs of a dead shrub. Sharon started the fire, blowing forcefully to fan the flames, but they struggled to stay lit. The few large branches they had collected were full of dirt, and as they burned, the leaden smoke smarted her eyes and made it difficult to breathe.
“I see headlights on that mountain—is that a car out there?” Nevada pointed. Sharon followed her gaze; saw nothing, then found this hilarious, coughing in the smoke of the fire.
“How could there be a car over there?” Of course there are no cars here, she thought. There are no roads. There are no people. Only a jagged obstacle in every direction: piles of immovable rock, plants that could insert themselves into your thighs, jump out of nowhere into the meat of your leg, leave you in tears. This had happened to Sharon a few weeks ago while bushwhacking off-trail. Gabe, sweet and patient, held her leg in the air and pulled the needles one by one from her flesh.
“Well, I thought I saw headlights,” said Nevada, when the laughter died.
For hours, they sat around the fire telling stories. Nevada told a story about how a butler attended to their needs on a cruise ship (“He literally was just like, I am here to serve you.”). Vince told a story about buying a car (“She said they had it in sand. I said no, I don’t want sand. I want pearl. I paid for pearl.”). Gabe told a story about someone he had once known who urinated in jars and kept them stacked around his bed like souvenirs. This person also liked to sprinkle crackers in the beds of women he slept with. Sharon wondered how her husband had known such a person. She wondered if perhaps her husband had been describing himself in some way, a self of the past, but no, she pushed that thought from her mind. It was abhorrent and unfounded. But it occurred to her. Sharon told stories about a version of herself that no longer existed: a time when she was a little girl and believed in god the way some children believed in dragons or invisible friends. Then she played a Ouija board with the boy who lived across the street. It had been his idea, and she brought her rosary, a talisman to guard against her fear. She asked the board a carefully selected question, one the boy didn’t know. What was her middle name? She gripped the planchette, watching it move. J-O-S. It began to spell Josephine; and in its accuracy she saw something intolerable. She tossed the rosary aside and fled the room, the house, went across the street until she could bury her face in the pillows of her bed. After that, she would not believe in god. Believing in god meant you had to believe in all manner of spirits.
“The boy probably knew your middle name,” said Nevada. “He probably moved it.”
“Maybe,” said Sharon, knowing the boy had been standing above her, watching. Perhaps she had moved it herself. The fear of that unbearable movement, as the device moved from S to E, seemed like a fixed point in her life. She wondered: how are we chosen for what we become? Who does the choosing? After the stories, they remained encircled around the glowing embers of the last of the fire. Burned almost out, only a red halo of warmth sizzled in the ring of stones. Sharon felt sated, happy: with dinner, with the diversion and euphoria of hallucination. It was a relief to be on the path to re-entry. Her mind felt swollen with fascination for the details of the world. She tried to stay warm by the waning heat of the embers, cuddling into Gabe. In the texture of the clear sky, she could see a milky rash of stars obscured from view in the polluted city. She watched the faraway refracted blinking of an airplane passing over them, then a satellite as it circled, bouncing messages across space. She nuzzled her husband’s neck. Kissed his ear. Allowed her fingers to linger on the inside of his thigh. Wondered when they last fucked outdoors.
“I love you,” she said, for the first time all day, perhaps many days.
“I love you, too.” Gabe rubbed his palm on her jeans, hooking his long fingers around her thigh. Sharon had no problem feeling aroused when she imagined those hands inside her. But sometimes, in her imagination, the hands were not attached to her husband but to some blurry faceless human specimen, an out-of-focus apparition.
“I don’t think those stars were there before,” announced Vince, in a suddenly hardened voice. Sharon sat cross-legged in the dirt, facing Vince, and had to twist her spine and uncramp her knees to look north, where he pointed. She saw it immediately: two bright lights, like stars, hanging above the mountain horizon. Except—they were not stars. Stars don’t just appear suddenly in the blackness.
“What is that?” The words sounded like an anvil in Gabe’s mouth.
“No—it’s those lights I told you about.” Nevada was right: they did look like car headlights, positioned just above the horizon on the top of the mountain to the north. Surely, mysteries were hidden on the mountain in front of her, but there were no roads. Sharon knew that much: not even an abandoned jeep road.
She saw it clearly: two crystalline orbs of light hovering over the mountain. The waves of light visible to the human eye constructed an image of these lights, and this image, perceived by the rather limited meat-like instrument that is a human eye, traveled through the optic nerve and reached the occipital lobe of Sharon’s brain. In the brain-time of nanoseconds, her brain formally checked this information against a catalog of images and pieces of knowledge stored in the cheese-like fiber of her memory. Her brain did not immediately find a match for this image. Her brain continued to try. She had been taught systems of order her entire life: we call this soft, purring, triangle-eared feline a cat; we call this feathered flyer a bird; this is a STOP sign; this is a priest; this is how you tie a shoe; this is how you buckle your seatbelt; this is how to shoot a basketball, and keep practicing, or you’ll never be any good, and you probably won’t be any good even if you do practice—but this—Sharon felt exhilarated—what was this?
“It’s moving,” said Nevada.
“No,” said Sharon, incredulous. “They aren’t moving. Are they?”
“I can’t tell.”
“The way to tell if they’re moving is to look away and then look back. If they get bigger or change position, you know they’re moving. So look away,” commanded Nevada. Sharon closed her eyes. She opened them and looked at the remains of the fire. “Look back,” said Nevada.
“It’s moving,” said Sharon, sure of it.
“It’s moving toward us,” said Vince. She could hear the pounding of his heart in his voice. The two balls of light spiraled tightly in their direction, like two whirling points aiming for hypnosis. Feeling paralyzed, she held her breath. The light bloomed like a flower. The light caused no air disturbance. The light made no sound.
“What is it?” said Nevada. “What is it?”
‘Lights’ wasn’t even really the right word—they were more like spherical masses of brightness and color and warmth. Two identical objects encased in a large bubble.
“It’s a weather balloon!” Gabe declared, triumphant.
“Yes, a weather balloon.” Sharon felt momentary relief in her husband’s certainty. She watched it getting closer, considered its weather balloon-ness. “It isn’t a weather balloon. It’s moving so fast.”
“A drone?” said Vince.
“A drone,” Gabe agreed. “It’s a drone.”
“It’s really big,” said Nevada. “There isn’t any noise. It’s just floating.”
The bubble vanished, but the lights remained. Who do you think you are? Sharon’s mother would have said. Taking powerful, hallucinogenic drugs in the middle of the desert, where no one could help you if you needed help? The circles of light grew larger. Lights that didn’t blink; lights without glare. Lights like she had never seen in her life: self-contained orbs of warmth. They moved straight toward her as though fixed on her, as though she were a point on the radar, an objective.
“It’s coming right for us.”
The lights grew larger still: perfect circles, ever-expanding. It seemed she had no choice but to fall straight into them as though the light had come for her. Because, and maybe this was the acid, Sharon reasoned, but the light itself seemed to be causing her to feel something. As though the light were actually a mechanism of communication and she was being read, assessed, measured. As though she were becoming known. The apparatus maneuvered over their campsite. It wasn’t just lights, Sharon realized, the lights were attached to a thing, some kind of aircraft. It still had not made audible sound. It still had not disturbed the air surrounding it. It flew with the natural grace of a predator bird. The craft glided toward them, adroit and silent, navigating the rock walls.
“It’s so low to the ground,” whispered Vince, amazed. Sharon trembled. She wanted to cry but found herself praying instead. To whom? She was Catholic as a child, but she was praying now to herself. Please don’t come here. Then, when there was no doubt it already was, she altered her plea: please don’t hurt us. In the stillness, she felt heard. And then she wondered at what frequency did brain wave travel and who or what might have the perceptive capacity to listen? In a flash, she saw herself and her husband and their friends in the view of those who approached: human animals, two male, two female. Of reproductive age. Specimens that were an extension of and dependent on the planetary movements of earth.
The hulking aircraft paused over them. She could see the object more clearly now: slate-black, dull like gun-metal, sleek. Wings the shape of an enormous wishbone, and a heavy, phallus-shaped chamber hanging from the crest, bigger and heavier than the wings by two. The white lights that guided it here were no longer visible. Instead she saw three red orbs, flush with the bottom of craft. It was not a plane, but an airship, some kind of advanced space insect.
Then the object banked a hard-right turn, and sped out of the canyon, out of sight.
“Did you see that move?” Vince faltered. “The physics of that make no sense. How did it stay in the air? How did it turn right so easily while accelerating? What happened to gravity? It made no sound.”
Sharon stood up, still vibrating with adrenaline. Released from a trance, she wanted to cry. She wanted to forget it completely. It was her own stupid fault, taking acid. What did she think was going to happen: consuming hallucinogenic drugs in the middle of the wilderness?
“The military,” she offered. “It must have been the military.”
“It might have been,” said Gabe.
“What else could it have been? Do you think it was…I don’t know… what?” Unable to say it.
“I do not know,” said Gabe, enunciating calmly and with deliberation. “I have never seen anything like that before.”
“Me neither,” muttered Vince, who sat down by the still-glowing fire, clamping and unclamping heated rocks in his gloved hands.
“Did you see how close it was?” Nevada pulled at her hair.
“I saw how close it was,” said Sharon. “We all saw it. I’m going to bed.” Her body felt electric. She pulled the hood of her jacket over her face. She tried to manage herself: “I think our imaginations are just over-stimulated right now.”
“We all saw the same thing,” said Gabe. “We all just had the same experience.”
“I’m going to bed,” Sharon repeated. Her heartbeat jumped. Even if she couldn’t sleep, she longed for the cocoon of the sleeping bag, where it seemed she might be safer. “We are out of firewood. It’s cold.” Her teeth clattered in her mouth like a ring of keys. She leaned into her husband. “I wish I could see it again,” she whispered, overwhelmed by her ambivalence: the desire to rush toward, straining against the desire to flee. Now that the craft was gone, she felt lonely for it to return.
“What if they lure you out,” said Gabe, “What if they can download your mind and know exactly the right thing to say to get you to go with them?”
She shrugged. “We don’t even know what it is.”
“You think you know what’s going to happen to you,” continued Gabe, holding her against him. She could feel his breath on her neck. “You think you go to work and you come home, and then on the weekends you go to the movies or you go out to dinner. You pay your taxes. You read a book. You call a roofer after a storm. But you don’t know. You just never know what’s going to happen to you.”
“I feel,” started Sharon, leaning into his warmth, swallowing the knot in her throat. “I feel seen.”
For a few hours, they slept, or else they tossed in their sleeping bags, imitating rest. When Sharon opened her eyes, she understood it was still night and yet the brightness blinded her. Outside the tent, a white shining circle of light bobbed a few feet above ground. Advancing from the north, it illuminated the interior of their flimsy shelter. Her first thought was that someone must be lost—a wandering night hiker with a large flashlight must be approaching the camp. Then the wind rustled, and the shadows of undulating mesquite branches flashed on the nylon walls. As the light approached, she saw everything in the tent perfectly clearly: her chipped apricot nail polish, the chartreuse interior of her sleeping bag, the shape of Gabe’s thick eyebrow. As though someone had turned on a ceiling light.
The light vanished, then reappeared, beaming through the other side.
“What do you think it is?” The fact of the acid no longer concerned her. She believed herself to be seeing clearly. In the wilderness, she had grown accustomed to bears, foxes, coyotes, Gila monsters, suspicious old timers brandishing guns, hawks carrying snakes to the nest, hikers that seemed woefully underprepared—but harassment by otherworldly lights? She made a decision: perhaps it was not harassment, but a greeting. The start of a conversation. Perhaps the only relevant detail is the fact that nothing like this has ever happened to me before, and therefore it is an opportunity to learn. The kind of opportunity I cannot afford to miss. She crawled out of her sleeping bag, over Gabe’s legs. He grabbed her ankle.
“Acid reduces your capacity to feel fear,” he said, as she shook off his hand. She unzipped the tent, poking her head into the night. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to see this thing.”
“Why?” His voice wavered. Sharon was already outside in the dirt. A triangle of orbs, glowing like the holy trinity, hovered over Vince and Nevada’s tent. Sharon knocked her boots together for spiders and scorpions, trying to slip them on fast, stuffing the laces in with her feet.
“What’s going on?” Nevada’s thin voice permeated the air. The orbs of light illuminated trees and splashed the shadow of Nevada’s bouncy hair onto the rock walls.
“Get up!” called Sharon, compelled by wonder to demand another witness. Her blood felt carbonated. “You won’t believe it.”
But then, first went the point of the triangle, slowly, as though it were on a dimmer switch. Then the two base points of the triangle vanished. It was gone. “You missed it.” Gabe emerged from the tent.
“What is that?” he said flatly, looking past her.
She followed his gaze. She could not believe it although it was right in front of her. The ship—were there multiple ships or one shape-shifting chameleon?—now appeared to be an enormous black metallic cone, poised on its side: a tipped-over iron dunce cap, silent and hovering thirty feet off the ground.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” said Nevada, crawling out of her tent. Vince followed her, mouth agape.
As though it had been waiting for the full attention of the group, the cone abruptly illuminated, and the obsidian slate of its skin revealed itself to be perfect multi-colored triangles, like tiles of glowing light, like scales.
Vince rushed toward it first—transfixed, overcome, unable to resist its magnetic draw. He said nothing as his feet pulled his entranced body forward. He climbed over a boulder. His boots crushed the arms of a bush. The tiles fluttered: each piece of armor in possession of its own energy. A snakeskin peeled off as one membrane, but these were separate geometric masterpieces, like enlarged and glowing flakes of snow, woven together in a perfect tapestry of indestructible material.
“Wait,” said Sharon, moving with him, feeling her sleeve caught on catclaw and yanking it loose. Oblivious to obstacle, she allowed herself to be pulled toward the object, drawn toward this flickering mass in a sensation of cosmic sisterhood. The tiles spun and flashed, as though in greeting. They folded open, sending small prismatic rays of light oscillating around her like butterflies.
She heard Gabe calling to her, but she was inside the light now, caressed in a womb of enormous flower petals. Gabe wrapped his hand around her wrist. Now he too was swathed in the ululating rays.
“Don’t let go,” he said, his voice distant and warped. Then Sharon was pulled from his grasp. She could not reach for him again; she could not move her limbs. She became featherweight and heavy all at once: like the core of herself had seized with paralysis while the arms of a stranger propped her up. She could not feel the earth beneath her feet and her surroundings seemed to fold into a single crevasse of light, growing thinner, until the world was not more than a string of illumination, until she could see nothing but the nebulous ink of the atmosphere. It seemed as though a thousand or a million years might pass in either direction, and she would still be there, held up as though crucified, full of the irrepressible light, and her mind turned to the girl she had been twenty years ago, attending mass with her parents and her sister at Our Lady of the Assumption parish. Her stomach growled because her dad would not permit them to eat on Sunday mornings before the Eucharist. She sat listening to white-haired Father Isaiah speak in his purple robe with his velvet voice about the Gospel according to Luke. When an angel of the Lord appeared, he said, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, the people were terrified. But the angel said, do not be afraid.