Read More: A Brief Interview with Alex Blum
Laura, my lover, is out on the river. She doesn’t know the world is ending. She hasn’t seen the hard white flecks crystalize, swirl, accrete into cloudbanks, sweep low across the land like a cold front. When the dense fog settles somewhere, it swallows up everything, all the way down to the grass.
I watch it on TV in the lodge near town. River guides, tourists, and a few Talkeetna residents watch with me, as do the moose and deer heads mounted on the walls. Someone’s lit the fireplace despite the August heat. Onscreen, the whiteness sweeps across an intersection. Signs, cars, pavement—gone. They show a new clip. This one shot from overhead. The fog takes ground in fits and starts, slips over the land like a shroud.
“It’s like watching a bomb go off over and over,” says Jim. Semi-retired, he leads trips with Laura when she has a large group.
“It looks like the smoke from a wildfire,” Jill says. She dishes out soup at the bakery she runs with her husband.
“It’s like clouds,” Paul says, “or what I thought clouds were like as a kid.” Paul owns the lodge.
Today is the second day, and we are reduced to comparison. We are all at least a little wrong. The fog is distinct from anything we’ve ever seen, including fog. This made it hard to believe in at first. Where could it even have come from? Industrial failure? Outgassing? Extraterrestrials? God? Now we’ve given up the question. We’ll find out or we won’t.
I can’t watch anymore, so I step out to the patio. It’s a clear and bright blue day. Spotless. I can see all the way to the mountain.
Jim joins me outside. “How are you holding up little lady?” When Laura’s away, he checks on me. In New York, that kind of thing would bother me, but here I don’t mind it so much.
I ask him, again, if there’s any way to get in touch with Laura and her trip.
He shakes his head. They carry walkie-talkies for emergencies, but everyone turns them off first thing. They want to listen to the river, not the chirps and static of their radios.
I usually love that Laura values simple pleasures.
“She’ll be back tomorrow,” Jim reminds me.
I’m waiting by the boathouse when Laura returns with her group. The tourists look tired and happy. The trip has gone well. But when Laura sees me, she starts rushing her end-of-trip patter. She knows something’s up.
While the locals have almost no problem with us—against the backdrop of Alaskan eccentricity we hardly rise to their attention—the tourists bring their prejudices with them. If they clock us, they complain to management, ask for refunds, say things to Laura that remind me of my father. We’ve learned to reunite at our cabin.
Now I’ve broken our pattern.
A couple of tourists glance my way. They can tell I’m no genial, hard-muscled guide. They’re right. I’m here on a stipend from a conservation fund. I hike plenty, but I still have what Laura calls a “figure-drawing figure,” a body made up of generous ovals and sloping lines, contours to capture in light and shadow. We met at an art class I modeled for in college; Laura came up after, to compliment the way I twisted as I posed.
As she wraps things up, the tourists chuckle, yawn, press bills into her palm. They drift toward town in twos and threes.
“Hey Amy!” Laura greets me in her guide voice, bright and cheery.
“Hiya! How was the trip?”
We pretend we’re merely pals as her group heads down the road. We put away the life vests and first aid kit. I bundle lines and tie them. Laura stows a paddle in a rack above her head. As she stretches, the hem of her shirt slips up to show a jutting hipbone, a convex bump of muscle. She slots the rubber-tipped fiberglass into the U-shaped foam built to receive it. I want to untie her ponytail, let her long, dark hair spill down across her shoulders—but I restrain myself.
Not till Laura’s group is out of sight around the bend does Laura gently touch my arm. “Hey,” she says. “What’s up?”
I mean to tell her, but the world feels suddenly stable, warm, familiar. Wetsuits soak in a big blue bucket. The wind plays the salmon-shaped porcelain chimes that hang, mouths hooked, from just inside the boathouse door. Laura’s hand is on my arm.
“I missed you,” I say, which is true.
“I missed you too.”
As we start down the road to our cabin, Laura recounts the highlights from the trip. A moose with young seen through the trees. The bright, full moon. The asshole who fell in the drink and had to be retrieved.
“He said I swerved the boat.”
“I would never.”
I give her a look, then bask in the music of her laugh as she swears, vows, and promises that no: she did not throw a tourist in the river.
We pass the bakery. Again, I almost tell her what is happening. But the sun is out. The air smells sharp and sweet. This was supposed to be our summer, our season away from the city and the ways it made us petty. We wanted space and sky and light and time. How can I take them away?
We turn off the road toward our cabin. Our wicker chairs sit on the porch like two old ladies waiting for us. Our room is quiet, dark, and cool. Laura lets down her hair, which is kinked where the ponytail pinched it. She falls onto the bed looking sleepy and pleased. I sit by her feet as they dangle, still booted, off the edge of the bed.
“Laura,” I say.
“I have to tell you something.”
She leans up on her elbows.
“The world-” I say, is ending.” For an instant, I worry that she won’t believe me, but she catches the crack in my voice and trusts me as I tell her what I know.
As a child, Laura loved her parents equally but liked her father more. He lived on her level. If she found an interesting leaf, he wanted to see it. When she asked him to tea, he dropped what he was doing to join her dolls and bears around the table. Where her mother forbade and regulated, her father opened doors and cut red tape. Ice cream, play dates, walks in the park to look at birds. To be fair, her mother mostly raised her, freeing her father to work all week and then swoop in on Saturday to entertain her. But what entertainment he was. As Laura grew up, they roamed farther and farther together: to the woods, to the river, to a concert in Portland and one time Seattle. Even through high school, when Laura and her mother battled constantly, she and her father embarked on a series of visits to national parks. And one week after Laura’s graduation, her father crossed the street to inspect a fallen bird and never saw the speeding car that ran him down and turned the corner almost without slowing.
Laura’s mother witnessed it, and then she had to tell her daughter. For the first time in nearly a year, she stepped inside her daughter’s room. There was a pile of gym shorts and sports bras on the floor, a day-old turkey sandwich on the desk, but otherwise the surfaces were clear. In an unsteady voice, she told Laura what had happened to her father.
Laura’s fight and flight responses surged in perfect unison; she couldn’t move a muscle. Not for what felt like hours. Her mother tried question after question, promise after promise, every set of words that might coax her out of her paralysis. Error after error. Failure after failure. Till finally she put her arms around her daughter.
Laura’s muscles stayed clenched, but tears began to flow like shadows passing over rock.
Laura tells me about that awful summer in the dwindling light of evening, after I have told her what is happening, after she has frozen, after I have thawed her with the same small circles rubbed into the middle of her back her mother found. I feel shaky and exhausted. Laura had told me about her father, but never the whole story. What other memories have I missed?
Laura says she wants to hear her mother’s voice, so despite the late hour we set out for the lodge. As we walk, I ask Laura questions and she answers them.
The rest of that summer, Laura’s mother tried to bond with her. She took her to the movies, to dinner, to a speech by a prominent lesbian socialist. The latter at least made them both uncomfortable, though not in a way they could talk about. Finally, in August, Laura suggested they go for a hike. She knew her mother might not want to. On so many family walks, Laura and her father got carried away, got so far ahead that by the time they had realized, stopped, and waited, they were restless and again set off too quickly.
But her mother said yes, so that Sunday they drove into the hills outside town, went up and up the winding roads to reach the trailhead. Laura led her mother down and down the winding path along the ridge, until at last they reached the brook. They crossed it, stone by stone, then followed it upstream. When Laura’s mother saw the waterfall, she understood. Laura and her father had come every year to watch the mist and sun make rainbows in the air. To hear the steady crash of water hitting rock. They liked to come in early summer, when the brook ran high and the waterfall was less a fraying rope and more a pretty torrent, thick with snowmelt.
They hadn’t been that year yet.
Laura and her mother sat on a boulder and ate their sandwiches. A breeze rippled by. The sweat cooled on their backs. A bluebird landed beside them on the boulder and Laura and her mother smiled; then they laughed. It was only a bird. It was only there in search of crumbs.
At the lodge, I stand with Laura as she dials, as she holds her breath, as she waits to hear her mother’s voice.
While they talk, I check the papers Paul’s laying out for the guests, but he’s just rearranging old news. The TV shows the same few eerie clips.
Laura says, “I love you” and hangs up the phone.
I go to her.
Her mother wants her there. Her eyes search mine, asking not to have to ask.
When I nod, she turns to Paul.
When she turns, I swallow hard, blink back the liquid pricking at my eyes.
There is, perhaps, some world in which I’d want to die beside my mother. But as this, the only world I’ve ever known, is wiped away, I only want to be with Laura.
“No flights,” Paul says. “Nobody wants to work but me.”
Laura stays calm. “Same problem with the train?”
“Any other way to get to Boise?”
“Long drive.” Paul frowns, aligns the final paper with the table’s edge.
“Doesn’t Jim-” they both begin.
Paul smiles. “I know he used to. Stay right here.”
As we wait, Laura stares at the TV, transfixed. “It’s so thick,” she murmurs. “Like a flood, only harder, somehow.”
Paul comes back with confirmation: Jim has a plane. We can go in the morning. Laura crumples, shaky with relief. She buries her nose in my neck.
We spend the night at the cabin, wake up feeling small and cold.
Laura rolls over to hold me. “When was the first time we flew together?” she asks.
“New Year’s Day, our senior year of college.”
“You were pretty hungover, but I’d never flown before, so you gave me the window seat.” Clouds, light, the simple grids of distant farms. “It was beautiful.”
“Huh.” Laura marvels. “You can be in charge of our memories, okay?” She says it with a squeeze, then relaxes back into the milk-white sheets and sleep. I lie awake, turning over what she’s said, holding it up to the early morning light.
Paul drives us to the airfield in his truck.
Jim is there already. “Welcome to Talkeetna International Airport,” he calls. “Departing flights to Canada and points south.” He says it like a joke, which reassures me. Then I see his plane out on the runway. It looks like a toy. But I can do this.
Laura nods at Jim. “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you so much.”
He throws Laura the keys. “She’s all yours,” he says, like his plane is a girl and a gift.
Laura pauses, caught off guard. Finally, she asks the question. “Aren’t you flying?”
Jim cocks his head. “She’s a two-seater. That’s a pilot plus one plus nothing.”
“Wait,” Paul says. “We flew to Winnipeg with Jean, what, four years ago?”
“I sold that plane after she passed. Got this one with the money.” He turns back to Laura. “But didn’t you tell me you knew how to fly?”
She swallows. “I said I wanted to learn one day.”
I wonder about death, if it’s like sleep or darkness or the bottom of a lake or a bed of lilies, if it whines like a turbine or crushes like a migraine, if it tastes like ash or something sweet. I take a deep breath. “Jim?” I say, “will you fly Laura to Boise?”
Wind tousles the trees that ring the airfield. The sun glares off the yellow letters painted on the runway—talkeetna. Jim’s is the only plane here. I notice the gravel helipad and try to picture it in use. Do the rocks fly up, in a dangerous swirl, whenever someone lands or leaves?
Jim says he’ll do it.
I look at my feet, at the dirt, at Laura out the corner of my eye.
She shakes her head, hands back the keys.
Back at the cabin, Laura wants me. After, we fall stickily asleep. I wake to find her tucked beneath my arm. A lonely mournful grateful feeling circles in my head. When Laura stirs, I whisper, “You stayed.”
“I’m not going anywhere without you, Amy.”
I hold her tight. “We’ll find a way to get there.”
Her chin dips by my shoulder, an incremental nod.
We lie there for a while, drifting in and out of sleep. Eventually, Laura shakes herself awake. She flips onto her stomach.
“What now?” I ask.
She leans over to kiss me long and soft and deep. Nothing hard or urgent like before. Certainly no teeth. “Well,” she says, “I think we should take a shower.”
My hair is still wet when there’s a knock at the door.
It’s Jill, a ring of keys in her hand. Does somebody else have a plane? Do Jill and Tom? Standing with Laura, I can feel her hope as though it were my own.
It’s the fog, Jill tells us. It’s been spotted north of Fairbanks, heading our way. She’s gathering passengers for a caravan to Anchorage.
“We’re ready when you are,” Laura says.
Jill smiles. “Good. It’ll take me an hour to round up the rest. And we need you to drive the lodge’s van.”
“Of course,” she says, like she expected her to ask.
Laura leaves a message for her mom about the change of plans—we’ll find a pilot in Anchorage, or at least a car with a full tank of gas—and then we join Jill, her husband, and the rest of the group in the parking lot. There are folks from town, a handful of tourists from Laura’s trip, and Paul, who has piled the luggage in his truck and is loading the rest in the back of the van.
“Where’s Jim?” I ask. “Is he flying?”
“He’s staying,” Paul says. “A lot of locals are.”
I flush, embarrassed. I wonder what Jim was like when Jean was still alive.
I help Paul with the last of the bags and then we’re off. Laura drives, and I ride shotgun. Paul follows in his truck.
As we reach the open road, the chatter in the van coalesces. We wonder about the fog, its progress, what we’ll see in Anchorage. Maybe they have news that hasn’t reached us. Maybe they’ve given in to fear and desperation. I imagine we’ll see others on the road, but for now we’re alone together on the same adventure. I roll down the window. We lapse into silence.
Laura drives with easy focus. Jill and Tom gaze out the window. A few of the tourists have fallen asleep. Their heads loll on their neighbors’ shoulders, bounce with the dips in the road. I feel protective, like I can tell their secret hopes from how their faces twist in dreams. Laura must see this every trip. It must be hard to say goodbye. I’ve never asked.
I feel it on my fingertips as they dangle out the window, a change in the air pressure. A drag from the south like the sea rushing out to become a great wave. The others stir as they feel it too.
Laura sees it first, squinting into the distance. She slams on the brakes as an avalanche leaps toward us.
The fog shudders to a halt within a quarter mile of the van.
It is the still version of a dust cloud, a snow bank gripping the air. I’m shocked by how precise it is, slicing across the road, splitting a spruce. I think, looking at the visible half, of the way moss only grows on the north sides of trees. We look at the uneven white wall and try to understand it. As we watch, it slides forward, then stops again. A glacier.
“What do I do,” Laura says. She stares at the wheel like she’s not sure what it’s for.
I try to keep my voice even. “We go back.”
Laura turns the van around.
I’m going to die. This thought has been knocking since the fog first appeared, but now I let it in. I grip the seat beneath me, squeeze its cracked leather reality. I think the names of everyone I’ve ever kissed. I remember ancient history: my mother on the sofa with her glasses sliding down her nose, the roughness of my father’s cheek against my own.
Up till now, I realize, I’ve thought I would survive. I’m not heroic; I’ve never imagined I would save the world. But I did believe that I’d outlive it.
When we arrive back in Talkeetna, we disperse with composure, like surgeons who have lost a patient.
“What was that?” Laura asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “We’ll probably never know.”
“What if we…” Laura begins. I watch her search for the rest of her sentence. The fight slips out of her like a sigh.
“It’ll be okay,” I tell her. And then, as gently as I can, “You should call your mom.”
Inside, Paul is back behind his desk, but he doesn’t look up when we come in.
Laura pauses, staring out the window, stuck. I touch her arm. We go to the phone.
She dials again.
After her third attempt, she drops the phone.
“Phones are dead,” says Paul.
“It just means the fog has cut some wires,” I tell her. “I’m sure it’s fine.” I say it with all the sureness I can muster, but the missing wires define a space I can no longer really imagine. Laura follows me outside. […]
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Alex Blum is a fundraiser living in Berkeley, CA. His writing appears or is forthcoming in the Texas Review, Santa Clara Review, Hobart, Litro, and Necessary Fiction. You can find him on Twitter at @a_blum.
Read More: A Brief Interview with Alex Blum