Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Wilderness Within

I went to the window of my half-empty apartment that morning expecting to see the usual foggy San Francisco summer street, but instead, there was a volcano: looming over the city taller than the skyscrapers in the financial district, rising from the depths of Golden Gate Park, casting a long shadow to the west. The steep slopes, visible above the rooftops of my neighbors across the street, were gray and rocky, the peak jagged as a mouthful of broken teeth, and faint wisps of smoke rose from the top.

I dropped my coffee on the carpet. I screamed, frightening my cat, who was still anxious from all the recent upheavals in the household. I turned on the TV, prepared for newscasters babbling about unprecedented overnight geological upheavals and impending cataclysms, but found nothing of the sort. I spun through screenfuls of social media on my phone, but there was no hashtag volcano, no mention of earthquakes among my local friends. (Surely such a thing could only be the result of an earthquake? I’m depressingly ignorant about the movements of the Earth for someone who lives so near the Hayward and San Andreas faults.)

My plans to spend the morning at home tidying up the digital paperwork for my last marketing job, ramping up for my next one, and trying to figure out if I could afford to pay rent on the whole apartment by myself for another month were immediately abandoned. My hands were shaking too much to deal with buttons and zippers, so I pulled a pale blue sundress over my head and slipped on open-toed sandals before grabbing my purse and pelting down the stairs and out the front door of my apartment building.

I passed a few people on the street, but none of them were even looking at the volcano, as if the sudden appearance of a mountain on fire in our midst wasn’t worthy of attention. That made no sense at all. At the very least, people should have been posting selfies with the volcano in the background.

I’d never doubted my sanity before. I didn’t do drugs, except pot, and in my experience that doesn’t make you hallucinate volcanoes.

My neighborhood coffee shop (not the one that sells very expensive cinnamon toast, that one’s a few blocks away, closer to the ocean) was in its mid-morning lull, my favorite barista Andi sitting on a stool behind the counter reading something on their tablet while a couple of lit-hipsters gazed seriously at their laptop screens and a guy with messy black hair rested his forehead on the surface of a wooden table, apparently asleep.

Andi looked up, smiling around their lip-rings, and said, “Hey, how are you doing?”

I’d come into the shop immediately pre- or post-crying a couple of times in recent weeks, as things with Juliana went from bad to cataclysmic to dissolved, and Andi had broken the aloof barista code to offer comfort. I wasn’t thinking about my disaster of a personal life and the cascading financial problems of becoming a one-income-household at the moment, though; funny how the appearance of a volcano can lend you a little perspective.

The volcano didn’t seem to make any impact on Andi, though. Was I losing it? I’d thought I was over the worst of the post-break-up crazies, listening to The Smiths and sobbing in a ball on the carpet, breaking down when I found an old toothbrush and a red bra Juliana had left behind in her haste to vacate, sacrificing my circadian rhythms to lose myself in old beloved video games, flaking on my kendo classes, and just generally never leaving the house unless a friend insisted . . . but maybe hallucinating volcanoes was just step seven in some strange complicated grieving process.

I realized I was staring off into space, so I shook myself and dredged a smile from the depths. “Oh, yeah, I’m, well, you know.”

Andi was all sympathy. “I do. Flat white?”

I’d gotten addicted to drinking those during my year abroad in Australia, and though they didn’t make them quite right here, it was nice of them to try. “Uh, sure.” I decided to risk exploring the extent of my mental disfigurement. “So. Did you see the volcano?”

“Hmm?” Andi made steamed milk. “Why, is it extra smoky this morning or something?”

I stared. They were acting like the volcano was an established fact of the landscape. I couldn’t be that oblivious. If I have a weakness (at least one I’m willing to admit), it’s sometimes pretending to understand things I don’t—a reluctance to show ignorance, or to seem uncool, or to reveal I don’t get a joke. “I . . . don’t know. Does it ever feel weird to you, working so close to a volcano?”

Andi shrugged. “I don’t really think about it. It’s not like it’s super active or anything. I mean, every place you live tries to kill you somehow. If it’s not a volcano, it’s earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes or blizzards or monsoons or whatever.”

“I guess. It’s just—wow. I’m totally blanking on the name. What’s the volcano called?”

Andi stared down into the cup of foam and caffeine, then looked up at me, their eyes slightly glassy. “It’s, what, Mount St. Helens, right? Like your name?”

“No, that’s the one near Portland . . .”

They put the cup in front of me and swiped at the tablet the café had instead of a cash register, tallying me up. “Right, no, of course. It’s called, uh, Kamehameha.”

That was the name of a long-dead king of Hawai’i—not even a Hawai’ian volcano—but I didn’t argue, just said, “Oh, right, thanks,” and paid for my coffee. I managed to keep my hands steady enough to carry the cup out to a sidewalk table, with a view of the volcano towering over the buildings, but I didn’t trust myself to take a sip without spilling all over myself.

The messy-haired guy came out of the café, blinking in the morning light. He was maybe twenty-five—just a few years younger than me—and skater-boy lean, wearing black jeans and a plain black t-shirt that clung to his torso in a way I would have found worthy of close examination on another day. His face was beautiful, especially his long lovely eyelashes. He lifted his chin at me. “Heard you asking about the volcano in there.”

I just nodded.

“It’s called Mt. Kilroy.”

“I . . . oh?”

He gazed at the peak, visible above the buildings across the street, his expression serene. “Yep.”

“Thanks.”

“Sure thing. Your name’s Helen?”

“Helena, actually. Andi just shortens it.”

“That’s the barista? I couldn’t tell, is Andi a chick or a dude?”

My tone was pretty frosty. “Neither, I don’t think. Not everyone divides up that neatly. Their preferred pronoun is ‘they.’”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. Just . . . never been to San Francisco before. Haven’t run into that kind of thing much.” He offered a lopsided smile. “Anyway, nice to meet you.”

Social niceties seemed ridiculous in my new volcano-filled world, but something between habit and autopilot led me to say, “You, too. What’s your name?”

“I’m Kilroy.”

Before I could react to that, he started sauntering away.

I leapt up, leaving my coffee behind, and chased after him. He was walking like someone with no particular place to go and all the time in the world to get there, so it wasn’t hard to catch up. “Wait, Kilroy, like, the same as the volcano?”

He didn’t stop walking, but he didn’t seem bothered by me falling into step beside him. “Exactly like. Crazy coincidence, huh?” A sidelong glance. “You don’t remember the volcano, do you?”

“I . . . what do you mean?”

“Most people remember the volcano. Or think they do. Ask them, they’ll say it’s been there forever, no big deal. That’s always how it goes. But sometimes there are one or two people, never more than that, even in a city of hundreds of thousands, who remember there wasn’t a volcano there yesterday. I wish I could say they were always mad poets or schizophrenics or really good yoga teachers, but it seems totally random. Something seems to draw those people to me, or me to them, or both. I’ve met some interesting people that way. They aren’t usually as cute as you, though.”

“Do not flirt with me. This is not the flirting time. Will you stop walking and talk to me?”

He leaned against the wall of a bright yellow apartment building, and looked at me from beneath lowered lashes. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to kiss his punchable lips or punch his kissable face. “All I can say is, don’t worry about it. I’m only in town for a few days. When I go, the volcano will go with me, and everyone who remembers it today will forget it ever existed. No harm.”

“Kilroy. There is a volcano in my city. I am not going to be satisfied with ‘don’t pick at it and it will go away.’”

He nodded. “Okay. Tell you what. Take me someplace that makes good Bloody Marys and buy me whatever I want—spoiler, I want Bloody Marys—and I’ll tell you what I know.”

“Well . . . the Cliff House is only a couple of miles away, it’s got good drinks, but it’s kind of touristy—”

“I am, in fact, a tourist. Lead on, St. Helen.”

We could have walked there in half an hour, even cut through the park and gotten closer to the volcano, but I shuddered at the idea and opened up a rideshare app on my phone instead. Yes, disruptive tech companies and their overpaid entitled employers are destroying the fabric of the city and exploiting their underpaid drivers, but I am a parasitic consultant on those companies, my moral fiber is weak, taxis in San Francisco are a notorious pain in the ass, and being able to summon a ride at the push of a button is too convenient for my lax moral fiber to resist.

Within three minutes a gleaming silver Prius driven by a bored-looking guy with tribal tattoos on the backs of his hands showed up, and a few minutes after that we were deposited in front of the Cliff House.

“This is the place that burned down a bunch of times, yeah?” Kilroy looked over the frankly boring box of a building, with its potted palms out front. The view of the Pacific Ocean, just steps away, was spectacular enough that the building didn’t need to impress.

“Yeah. This is, like, the fifth version of the Cliff House. I think it only burned down once though. Another time a boat full of dynamite crashed into it.”

“Ha! No shit?”

“If a volcano erupted like a mile away and the building got buried in lava, maybe they’d build a sixth version.”

Kilroy sighed. “I told you, don’t worry about it. My mountain’s not going to erupt. I’m on top of that shit.”

Something about the building seemed strange, and after a second, I realized what it was. “There’s a shadow on this building. A shadow cast by a volcano.”

“True. I’m darkening their door. Now booze me up.”

We went inside, and the place was jammed, because people come to San Francisco in summer on vacation for some reason, maybe foolishly expecting sunshine, and tourists flock to places on the edge of the land, even when it’s not lunchtime yet. I wondered if there were tourists hiking the lower slopes of Mt. Kilroy today.

Despite the crowd, we managed to get two seats together at the bar, which was all Kilroy wanted. I was going to stick with ice water, but his Bloody Mary looked so inviting it made my stomach rumble, and I annoyed the bartender by asking for one of my own. There was a view of the ocean if I wanted it, which I liked. There was a volcano looming out of sight, which I didn’t.

Kilroy drank his first Bloody Mary down in seconds, then ordered another and sipped it. “All right. You want to know what I know. It’s not that much. There has always been a volcano near me, since I was a little kid, probably since I was born. If I get on a plane today, I will watch the volcano recede in the distance as I fly away, but when I land, it will be there, waiting, at my destination.”

I stirred the celery stalk in my glass. “But how? Doesn’t the volcano, like, crush everything when it appears?”

He put his hands flat on the bar, palms down, side by side. “It doesn’t seem to replace anything, or burst up through anything. It’s like the landscape just . . . slides apart to make room for it.” He moved his palms an inch apart by way of demonstration. “Things on either side get a tiny bit farther away. And, no, I don’t know how that works. I don’t even understand how the internet works, really, and I’m hazy on the internal combustion engine, so how am I supposed to understand a magical volcano?” He sighed. “I used to tell people like you, people who noticed the weirdness, that it was a gypsy curse. Just a joke, but I was traveling in Europe a while back and this Sinti girl explained what a shitty racist thing that was to say, gave me the whole history of her people and how they’re oppressed and all. So now I say . . . nothing.” Another sip. “I don’t know why the volcano follows me. I don’t know what it means, if it means anything. I didn’t even realize the volcano was about me until I was eleven years old, and my parents put me on a plane to Iowa to visit my grandparents, and when we landed, there was the volcano, as close to Gran’s house as it always had been to mine. I asked about it, and Gran said the volcano had always been there. I called my parents and asked if the volcano was still there by our house and they said ‘What volcano?’ I argued with them and they told me not to make up stories.” He shrugged. “It’s just always kind of been there in the background of my life. I started traveling around, to see if I could outrun the volcano, but any place I stopped for more than a day, it was there—even if I didn’t know I was going to stop, even if I got sick or my car broke down or the trains were delayed. The volcano knows.”

I whistled. “So when did you first meet someone else like me? Someone who remembered the, uh, pre-volcano situation?”

Now he smiled. “It was way back. A girl. Sorry, a woman. Pretty, but not as pretty as you—”

“Enough with that,” I murmured, and gestured for him to go on.

“I was down in the Caribbean, and I found her sitting on the beach, staring. She was a tourist from Idaho or someplace, on her honeymoon, she’d never even seen an ocean before, and then suddenly, poof, there’s a volcano, out of nowhere, poking up out of the ocean. She thought she was going to die, that it was the end of the world. Her husband was back in their hotel room sick with food poisoning or something, and she was all alone and freaking out, and nobody else even seemed to notice something was wrong. I talked her down, told her my story, like I’m telling you, except it’s not much of a story. We ended up making out on the beach, which cheered her up some. She would’ve done more than make out, but I felt weird because she was all married and everything, so I put on this super serious face and told her that we had to stop before I got too excited, because if I ever achieved orgasm, the volcano would erupt.”

I gasped out a laugh and covered my mouth.

He grinned. “Yeah, it was hard to keep a straight face.”

“So . . . that’s it? The volcano doesn’t mean anything?”

“If it does, it hasn’t told me about it. Sometimes a magical traveling volcano is just a magical traveling volcano.”

Huh. An inexplicable miracle of no particular use to anyone. That was disappointing, but I was growing accustomed to disappointment. “And there’s no special reason that woman from Idaho could see it, or the Sinti girl, or me, or anyone else?”

“Well . . .” He took a sip, licked tomato juice off his lip, and shrugged. “I will say that people who can see it are usually . . . troubled, somehow.”

I wanted to say that everyone was troubled, that nobody has a perfect charmed life, but I was certainly a lot more troubled in recent weeks than I had been pre-breakup-abandonment. “So mental instability could be a factor.”

“I don’t know about that. But sometimes I meet somebody who’s really hurting, they’ve got grief or heartbreak, and I take them on a walk with me up to the top of the volcano, and . . . it helps. They tell me they get a sense of peace, of well-being. Their pain goes away, anyway.”

I leaned back on my stool a bit and looked at him. Young, pretty, kind of smug . . . “You’re saying you’re like a spiritual guide?”

“I’m just a boy with a volcano. Some people find going up a smoking mountain a really spiritual experience. Maybe the people who see the volcano need the volcano. How about you? Do you need the volcano?”

I took a breath. “I don’t want to get into a whole thing. But, yeah. My girlfriend left me. I thought we were heading toward marriage, but she was heading somewhere else. I don’t even know if I can afford to stay in my place without her helping out with the rent, or even afford to stay in the city at all. I’ve been kind of a mess since she left. I even . . . I spent a night looking at this bottle of sleeping pills she left behind, thinking about just ending it all, and I flushed them down the toilet because I was afraid I’d get sad enough to go through with it sometime.”

It was Kilroy’s turn to lean back and look me over. “Wow. You’re into girl-girl, huh?”

Jesus. He didn’t sound lascivious, at least, but it wasn’t the response I’d expected after a confession of suicidal thoughts. “Kilroy. I am attracted to individuals, not gender expressions, that’s all. I’ve dated people who identified as men, and women, and neither. But, yes, my most serious relationship to date was with a woman.”

He nodded, but it was like he was bobbing his head to music I couldn’t hear. “Hey, it’s cool. I’m only into chicks myself, but whatever keeps you warm at night. I just didn’t get that vibe off you.” He shifted around on the stool, and something like uncertainty crossed his face. “Sorry, I know, you said some heavy shit just then, and I made it into like a sex thing. I just didn’t know how to respond to what you said, about the pills. I make dumb jokes, I say dumb stuff, sometimes, when I feel uncomfortable. I’m working on it. But. You want me to take you up the mountain? Seems like maybe you could use it.”

“The volcano really helps people?”

“Nobody has ever complained after I took them up there.”

I thought about it, and nodded. “Yeah. Okay.” I didn’t see how climbing an impossible volcano could help, but maybe it was time to embrace the mystery.

“Cool,” he said. “All I ask in return is you buy me a pack of American Spirits. Oh, and if you have any weed, we should get it. You haven’t smoked up until you’ve smoked up on a smoking mountain.”

• • • •

We went back to my place to get my pipe and my pot. The stuff you can buy with a medical card is stupidly good, and I’d actually been using it for medicinal purposes lately; weed was the only way I could get to sleep without having my dreams gnawed by all-night anxieties. I realized I hadn’t had anyone over to my apartment since Juliana left—even my friends who’d attempted to comfort me with booze and karaoke and food trucks had met me out in the world, because the idea of letting anyone into my broken nest had made me feel too vulnerable. Kilroy ignored my bookshelves and looked at the piles of video game boxes by the TV. “Sweet, gamer chicks are the best.” His approval about it, expressed in that way, made me feel weirdly slimy.

“Let me change into something more practical for hiking.” I went into the bedroom, thumbing the lock after me. I didn’t think he’d barge in while I was changing, but I was definitely aware there was a guy I didn’t know very well in my apartment, and I hadn’t experienced that since the one-night-stand hook-up days of my early twenties, when I’d been a lot less better at risk assessments.

I dropped my dress to the floor, then stood there in just my underwear, thinking. Huh. Kilroy was tactless and ignorant, but he seemed to mean well. He was certainly pretty. He was trying to help me, and asked nothing in return but drinks and cigarettes. Sex with a near-stranger was the one form of post-breakup self-destructive self-care I hadn’t tried, pretty much.

“Hey Kilroy!” I called through the door.

“Yeah?” he called back.

I cracked open the door and peeked through the gap. “That thing about the volcano erupting if you come was bullshit, right?”

He came down the hallway, grinning at me. “Yeah. Otherwise half the world would be buried in lava.”

I opened the door all the way. “Well. I guess there’s no harm, then.”

• • • •

I can’t say the Earth moved, and he demonstrated more enthusiasm than technique, but it was very nice to feel desired again, after feeling anything but for so long.

• • • •

Afterward, once we were dressed and sitting semi-awkwardly on my back steps while he smoked a cigarette, he said, “So, are you cured, or do you still want to go up the mountain?”

“Not to disparage the healing qualities of your dick, but yeah, I could still use some spiritual solace.”

“No problem. I take care of you body and soul. The whole package.”

I was dressed for hiking, in boots and jeans and a tank top with a long-sleeved flannel shirt worn open over it. I looked at Kilroy’s battered skater shoes doubtfully. “You don’t look like you’re dressed for mountain climbing.”

“Heh. Anybody else tries to go up the volcano, they can’t get more than halfway up the slope. But for me, or people with me, it sort of . . . opens a path. You’ll see.”

We headed for the front door. I used to hike with Juliana, and the idea of going with someone else felt strange. After a moment’s hesitation, I picked up my well-worn walking stick by the front door. Sure, it held a lot of memories, but fuck it, I was climbing a volcano. “Lead on, guru.”

“I’m your sexy Sherpa.”

We walked a few blocks, crossed Lincoln Way, and then we were in Golden Gate Park, one of my favorite places in the world: half-tame, half-wild, big enough that even after all these years I wasn’t sure I’d seen every bit of it. The volcano had situated itself between the golf course and the bison paddock, and we chatted amiably as we drew nearer the slopes. Kilroy seemed genuinely relaxed. I was just trying not to hyperventilate.

We reached the base of the volcano. The thing didn’t seem quite real, somehow: almost like a child’s drawing of a volcano rendered three-dimensional, or a papier-mâché science fair project scaled up. The mountain rose nearly straight up from the ground, but Kilroy walked partway around the base and then pointed: there was a path, spiraling upward, like someone had carved it. He led the way, and I followed his rising loop around the mountain, using my stick as necessary, but really, it was no steeper than climbing up some San Francisco streets, and the path was never narrower than sidewalk-width. I tried to stay away from the edge, and to not look down. I did glance behind me, once, and there was no path back there at all anymore, just scree and slope. I walked a bit closer to Kilroy after that.

We stopped halfway up to rest. “Gotta stop smoking,” he said, and then immediately lit a cigarette. I couldn’t tell if he was being intentionally or unintentionally funny. I took a drink of water and looked down at the park, then had a brief moment of vertigo and leaned back against the mountain wall and closed my eyes until it passed.

The rest of the climb took a while, but we finally reached the jagged peak. The smoke rose up in lazy tendrils from a crack in the rock. “Here we are,” Kilroy said. “Go ahead, take a peek into the heart of the mountain.” He gestured to the source of the smoke. I walked a little closer, stepping carefully over the rough ground, and gasped. There was an open vent, a ragged oblong about ten feet across and fifteen feet long. I didn’t dare get close enough to look down, but stepped back, afraid of losing my footing and plunging in.

“It’s crazy,” Kilroy said. “If you lean over and look down, you can actually see a pool of molten lava down there. It’s some real Mount Doom type shit.”

He sat on a rock, puffing my weed from my pipe, and I sat down on another rock nearby. “I’ll take your word for it. So . . . now what?”

Kilroy shrugged. “Just sit, you know. Take it all in. Wait for the serenity to come.”

I’d been into martial arts for a lot of years, and it’s hard to do that without at least brushing up against the idea of meditating, so I decided to try that. Sit, and clear my mind. But the view was too good to close my eyes, so instead I looked at the park and the city below. Everything there seemed too small. I turned my gaze to the ocean, which at least looked like the right size.

I waited. I breathed. I did not feel spiritual solace.

Kilroy said, “I wonder what yours would be.”

“My what?”

He took a puff, held it in, then exhaled. He didn’t offer me the pipe. “Your inner landscape. Mine’s a volcano. I think because I used to have this bad temper. Really bad.”

“Mine would probably be a toxic waste dumping ground.”

“Ha.” It wasn’t a laugh, just the word “Ha,” curiously mirthless. “I met this girl once, a long time ago, and she had a landscape she carried around with her, too. Except it wasn’t a volcano for her. She had a desert. An acre of sand dunes, with this pool of deep water in the middle, and a tree, like an oasis. I noticed it when I was in Paris, after the war, all this white sand right in the center of the city. Nobody else seemed to think it was weird, a desert just blocks from the Eiffel Tower. I explored, and found her, at the oasis. I don’t think she had too many visitors. We made love under the stars, under this one lonely palm tree. The next day, when I woke up, she was gone, and she’d taken the desert with her . . . but I had my very own volcano.”

I shook my head. “Wait. You said you’ve had the volcano since you were a kid.”

“Yeah. Lied about that. Among other things.” Revealing that fact didn’t seem to perturb him. “I did see the volcano rise up over my childhood home once, though. I went back to visit my parents, not long after I caught the volcano. We had a fight, a big ugly one, and I really lost my temper, started breaking shit, throwing things, screaming, and the volcano did erupt, at least partly—it spat out these burning rocks, anyways. A couple fell through the roof of my parent’s house, and burned the whole place down. Official records said it was a grease fire that got out of control. Heh.” He shook his head. “Sexually transmitted landscapes. Ain’t that something? Not everybody catches it, though. Just the people who can see my volcano, the way I saw that woman’s desert, they’re susceptible. Something inside of them just sort of . . . wakes up.”

I stood, twisting my hands on the walking stick, squeezing it hard. “Are you saying . . . what, I’m going to have a volcano now?”

He shook his head. “Nah. Won’t happen. Don’t worry about it. That woman I met in the desert, she was three hundred years old, she said. Whenever she started to age, she’d drink from the water of the oasis, and it would make her young again. When I caught the volcano from her, I thought, shit, where’s my fountain of youth? You can’t drink lava. I tried sleeping up here, but that didn’t make any difference. I was damn near forty before I finally figured it out, and you know, the first time was an accident. I was living in Alaska and I had my own private mountain, so I brought this girl up to show her the view of all the other mountains. We were pretty drunk and she lost her footing, fell in there.” He nodded toward the smoking vent. “I was pretty freaked out. But then the next morning I woke up and I was twenty again. Young again, and everything felt good. Still does. The world changes, St. Helen. Things that used to make sense stop making sense. Things that make you sick are suddenly just okay with everybody. It’s not easy, looking young, with an old soul. Trying to pass. It’s still better than getting all decrepit, though.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying.” But I was afraid I did.

He nodded, mouth downturned, sad. “First I tried drugging somebody, but you try dragging a dead weight up this mountain, even with the path opening up before you. Then I figured out it was easier just to talk people into coming up here. Mostly it’s gone pretty smoothly, over the years. That gypsy bitch—sorry, that Sinti bitch—had a knife I didn’t know about. She fought back and gave me a bad cut on the face. Probably would have scarred, but the next day, I was all young and smooth again.” He put my pipe down carefully on the rock. “Sorry it has to be this way. You dropping your panties for me, that was nice. I didn’t expect that, and it made me feel all fond toward you. That’s why I asked if you were sure you still wanted to come up here, or if maybe you just needed a man to fuck you properly. But you wanted to come, and here we are. I figure it’s like destiny. This volcano has always been waiting for you. You were looking at that bottle of sleeping pills, and you didn’t go that way, but that was only so you could be here, now. Your pain can still end. This way your death can help somebody—”

I swung my walking stick at his head, but he got his forearm up in time to block. The smug look on his face shifted into a look of pain, though, because I’d swung hard, with enough force for the vibration of the impact to run up the stick and my arm, all the way to my shoulder. He howled and stepped back, and I feinted at his head. The walking stick wasn’t much like the shinai practice swords I used in kendo class, but it was close enough for life-or-death, and when he tried to protect his head I dipped low and jabbed him hard in the solar plexus. He doubled over, I brought the stick down across the back of his head, and he fell in a heap.

I tried to run away. I really did. But the path that had opened so easily to lead us to the top of the mountain was gone, and there was nothing but rocks and sheer drop-offs on every side.

“Damn, girl,” Kilroy said. “Why you gotta be like that? This doesn’t have to go so hard.”

I wanted to cower as he got to his feet, but instead, I rushed him. He had no weapon, and he was dazed, but he was still bigger than me, and stronger, so I used the reach the stick gave me keep him from getting too close. I drove him back, almost to the edge of the vent.

He got angry. I could tell, because the mountain rumbled, and began to belch black smoke that burned my eyes. I couldn’t help it: I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, and he took advantage to grab my stick in both hands, trying to yank it out of my grip.

I didn’t even think. I just used his own force against him, and instead of trying to resist, I thrust the stick forward, into his chest. The force of his pull and my push both going in the same direction sent him tumbling backwards, and the stick was wrenched from my hands, tugged loose by his weight.

Kilroy was still holding my stick when he fell into the crack on top of the mountain and tumbled into the depths below, where he’d thrown who knows how many others. He screamed as he fell. He called me terrible things. But not for long.

I fell to my knees, gasping and shuddering, and I threw up: the vomit sizzled on the rocks, and I began to feel the stones heating up through my jeans. I was trapped on top of an erupting volcano, with no way down, and shit, maybe I was going to die, but at least I wasn’t going to die to help some asshole get young again, and there was a comfort in that.

Then the rumbling stopped, and the whole world lurched hard sideways, and there was a great rushing of air and space. I think I fainted.

When I came to, I was on my back in the middle of the Golden Gate golf course. The volcano was gone. I got woozily to my feet, and stumbled my way home.

• • • •

That night I took five showers, the drought be damned.

• • • •

The next morning, I went to my window, took a deep breath, and pushed the curtains aside.

There were no houses across the street anymore. Instead, there were tall trees: white trunks, majestic, standing among bright green underbrush. An aspen forest, with hundreds of towering trees made ghostly by morning fog.

I’d been feeling gritty, dirty, ashamed, filthy, regretful, insane. But the sight of the trees was like cool water poured on the coals inside my chest.

Maybe there was a stream in those woods I could drink from. Or just a particular tree, at the center, I could rest beneath, and become refreshed and restored. I felt sure there was no pit of fire, no dark cave, awaiting sacrifice in those woods. It was not a dark forest, but a light one. I am not perfect, far from it, but there is no furnace of death inside me.

I dressed, and went outside, and walked on my side of the street to the coffee shop, glancing occasionally at the trees just across the way.

Andi was manning the counter. They gave me their usual smile, and it occurred to me for the first time that I never saw them smile at anyone else quite that way. They said, “You doing okay? I was thinking about you. You seemed kind of . . . out of it, yesterday.”

“I was. I’m better today. The forest is so pretty this morning.”

They nodded. “It is, with the fog and all. I keep thinking I should take a walk in there some time. You know, I never have? Can you believe that? It’s right here, and I never have.”

“I haven’t either,” I said. “Maybe we can go together.”

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Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of over twenty novels, including Heirs of Grace and the forthcoming The Wrong Stars, and many short stories. His work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy, Best New Horror, and other nice places. He’s a Hugo Award winner, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. He lives in Berkeley CA and works as a senior editor at Locus, a trade magazine devoted to science fiction and fantasy publishing.