In the morning Cooper took us to the cafeteria for breakfast, then back to Dr. Alvarez’s lab for what I presumed to be round two of Forestology 101. This time, though, he got straight to the point.
“We’ve got a mission for you,” said Cooper.
“Course you do,” said Li.
“Out in the middle of the Pacific, there are a number of volcanoes, most of them inactive, that protrude above forest level,” said Cooper. “Since the sixties, we’ve maintained a base on one particular chain. The name of the chain is Hawaii.”
“Hawaii?” I said, rolling the word over my tongue.
“Proto-Polynesian for ‘Place of the Gods,’” explained Dr. Alvarez.
“Course it is,” said Li.
“The reason we set up a research station there,” said Cooper, “is that there’s a major electromagnetic distortion a few miles off shore.”
“We’ve been conducting experiments as discreetly as possible,” said Dr. Alvarez, “but there’s only so much we can learn without sending people in.”
“So you want us to go,” I said.
“Correct,” said Cooper.
Dr. Alvarez pulled up the hologram of the alternate-Earth again. Its sapphire oceans rotated before us.
“You two simplified things tremendously when you stumbled across those artifacts. Obtaining clearance for this was going to be a nightmare. You’re the obvious choice for the mission.”
“What do you mean, ‘you two?’” demanded Li. “What about Zip?”
Cooper grimaced. “That’s where the bad news comes in.”
My stomach flattened. Zip was dead, I could feel it.
“Zip’s not going on any more expeditions,” said Cooper, and I turned away, screwing my eyes closed.
“Motherfucker,” said Li. “You let him die?”
“What?” said Cooper. “No, he’s not dead. He’s in the hospital and looks to be making a full recovery. But they had to take his leg off.”
I remembered the foul odor that had spewed out of Zip’s wound, the way the punctured skin oozed with blood and yellow pus. No more rock climbing for him, then. Although, knowing Zip, he’d figure out a way to do it with three limbs. But our trio wouldn’t be setting any expedition records together, that was for sure.
“Fuck,” said Li.
“Sorry,” said Cooper. “But we only needed two of you anyway. The third slot goes to a scientist.”
My eyelids peeled wide.
“No way,” I said. “That’s a suicide mission. We’re not dragging dead weight out there.”
“They won’t be dead weight,” said Cooper.
“Like hell they won’t,” said Li.
“The person we’re sending has been training for months,” said Cooper. “They might not be on the same level, but they’ll know how to look out for themselves.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why can’t you send rangers and look at the footage afterward, like you always do?”
“We don’t know what’s out there,” said Cooper, “and we don’t know if it’ll still be there when we look a second time. We might only have one shot.”
“It’s a suicide mission,” said Li. “You want us to plunge into God knows what kind of clusterfuck, and you want us to do it with somebody we don’t trust, somebody we can’t possibly trust.”
“Look,” said Cooper, “at least give this person a chance. Let them show you what they can do. If they can’t win you over, if you still want out, we can’t force you to go.”
“We can walk away?” asked Li. “You’ll let us walk away?”
Her teeth were bared, the canines sharp.
“Of course,” said Cooper. “It’s a free country. Although if you agree to participate, you’ll be compensated more than fairly.”
Li’s eyes flicked back and forth across his face. She turned to me and twisted her mouth in a way that said fuck it.
“Alright,” she said.
“So who’s the third guy?” I said. “When do we get to meet him?”
Dr. Alvarez stirred. I’d almost forgotten about her.
“It’s me,” she said.
Li laughed. She leaned against the stairs, head tilted back as far as it could go, and shook with hooting laughter.
“Oh my God,” she said when she’d recovered somewhat. Her cheeks were pink. “Well, I can tell you one thing, and that’s that you’re going to have to cut off all that beautiful hair.”
“I know,” said Dr. Alvarez stiffly. “I have been putting it off as long as possible.”
“Oh boy,” said Li. “Oh boy.”
“You should take some time to think about it,” said Cooper.
“No shit,” said Li. “Get me out.”
She headed up the stairs. I gave Dr. Alvarez a smirk and followed. After a moment Cooper came along and held the door for us.
In the hallway Li rounded on him.
“Doc better be real fucking impressive,” she said.
“We’ll bring you back in a couple of weeks,” said Cooper, “and you can put her through whichever kinesthetic rigmarole you desire.”
“I want to see Zip,” I said.
“I’ve got a car waiting,” said Cooper.
Just like that, it was over. We were free. Li and I sat in the back seat and looked out our opposite windows.
“You folks mind if I play some music?” asked our driver after a few minutes of silence.
“Whatcha got?” asked Li.
“Taj Mahal,” said the driver. “Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band.”
So we listened to Taj Mahal and watched the highway markers whip by. It was a bright day, the sun high in the sky, no clouds in sight.
“I don’t know what to say,” sang Taj Mahal, “I must have had a real bad day.”
During the last year of Todd’s life, I’d spent countless days at the hospital, as the doctors administered chemotherapy or radiation or whatever five-percent-chance treatment they were trying that month. Nowhere was more impersonal and lifeless than a hospital. People bustled everywhere, but you were invisible to them, your misery inconsequential. Your whole life might be falling apart, but that wouldn’t stop them from telling jokes and laughing as they strolled past.
We asked the lady at the information desk for Zachary Chase and she gave us his room number. Three burly men in poorly-fitted suits lounged on spindly chairs outside. They eyed us lazily as we entered.
Zip was asleep. The muscles of his face had finally relaxed, allowing his mouth to hang open. He snored quietly. His eyes, closed, were inset and dark.
“You better let him sleep,” said the nurse. “It’s going to be a few days before he’s up to entertaining visitors.”
We sat beside his bed. The EKG machine beeped.
“I’m glad he’s okay,” I said, because it was the only thing to say.
“Me too,” said Li, looking at the place where his leg should have been propping up the blankets.
Outside in the sun, our driver leaned against the car, smoking a cigarette.
“He’s asleep,” I said.
The driver dropped the cigarette and rubbed it out with his heel. His smile revealed a wide gap between his front teeth. It didn’t look bad—just made him seem friendly.
“I can take you back to your cars, if you want,” he said.
“That’d be great,” said Li.
“Agent Cooper booked rooms downtown.”
“Nice of him,” I said.
“Mh hmm,” said the driver, and opened the door.
At the hotel I dropped my bags beside the minifridge and plopped on the bed with my laptop. After finagling the complimentary internet to life, I pulled up a high-resolution satellite image of the planet.
It was the same old picture. The forest was everywhere you looked, outlining the continents, a dark, implacable green. Over the top swirled thick white clouds. On land: lighter green, yellow, brown… jungles and deserts and plains. Then the caps of the globe: brown smeared into white. Frigid wasteland. I zoomed in on the northernmost edge of the Pacific Forest. The transition was abrupt, rough-edged. The treeline fizzled out, and northward from there it was muddy and cold.
I zoomed back out and looked at the whole globe again.
It was ugly.
This green-brown sphere with naked poles was diseased, syphilitic, balding. I closed one eye and recalled the world Dr. Alvarez had shown me, boundless clean water glittering blue. That was the planet I wanted. What had happened to get me stuck with this one instead?
That night, a rare thunderstorm rolled over San Diego. The windows shuddered, rain pelting against them in waves. I didn’t feel like sleeping, so I watched a James Bond marathon. Around midnight I got a text from Li.
You still up?
My heart rate tripled. Did that mean what I thought it meant? This late at night, was there any other reason to send that text?
“Yeah, wanna come down the hall?” I typed, then backspaced it out.
After trying it a few different ways—“Yeah, want to hang out?” “Yeah, what’s going on?”—I settled on the simplest possible reply:
As I waited for her next message, James Bond drove a sports car out the side of a supervillain’s ice fortress. Translucent shards sprayed in all directions. The car floated languorously in midair. The camera cut to a close-up of Bond’s face, his cheeks smooth, no stubble, the corners of his lips hooked upward in a mischievous smile. Then the car touched down and time returned to normal.
Right when I thought I’d waited too long to reply, my phone buzzed again.
I can’t sleep.
A few seconds later:
Can I come over?
I stared at the text bubble with those words in it.
Sure, room 205.
I dropped my phone and surveyed the room. Earlier, when I’d rooted through my duffel, I’d strewn clothes all over the place. Now I stuffed them back inside. My sneakers were scattered beside the door; I straightened them out.
I looked at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and couldn’t help but laugh. What was I worried about? I flexed, practiced a broad grin. What did I think was going to happen? Something in my head had come unplugged. I was a teenager on his first date, trying to decide whether to put an arm around the girl during the opening credits of the movie.
When she knocked I counted to five before opening the door.
Her eyes were bright and sharp, not the least bit drowsy.
“Hey,” she said, and I stood aside so she could come in.
“Raining pretty hard out there,” I said, hands in my pockets.
“Sure is,” she said.
For a while we watched drops come splattering out of the darkness against the wide window.
“What are you up to?” she asked, as if she couldn’t tell.
“I’m watching a James Bond marathon,” I said.
“Neat,” she said, and sat down on the bed. After a moment I joined her.
On the screen, James Bond leaned against the bar at a classy party, exchanging sultry glances with a woman in a low-cut red dress.
“They’re gonna bang,” said Li.
“A bold prediction,” I said.
Sure enough, James Bond followed the woman to her personal rooms. She draped herself against the doorframe and craned her neck back.
“Do you think you’re enough of a man for me, Mr. Bond?” asked the woman in her huskiest voice.
“Oh, I always rise to the occasion,” said James Bond.
“Thousands of years from now, archaeologists are going to discover movies like this and make all sorts of conclusions about our society,” said Li.
“And they’ll mostly be right,” I said.
“Not everybody’s a violent, sex-crazed solipsist.”
“What’s wrong with sex?”
She looked at me. “Nothing. I’m just saying, it’s all some people think about.”
“That’s evolution’s fault, though.”
She shook her head. We watched the rest of the movie in silence. When the credits rolled, she yawned and stretched, reaching above her head.
“I actually get so bored watching TV,” she said.
“Me too,” I said. “I get bored most of the time, actually. Not sure what I find fun these days.”
“Everything outside the forest is so beige.”
I grinned. “Actually, I can think of one thing that’s fun.”
“I hear enough of that from Zip.”
“I mean, I don’t kiss and tell the way he does, but my appreciation for the fairer sex is probably comparable.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
I couldn’t tell if she was giving off positive signals or not. My hands were sweaty, and my mouth was dry, but I decided to press on anyway.
“C’mon,” I said, “you can’t tell me you don’t get the same urges.”
“No comment,” said Li.
“We rangers,” I said, “we’re good-looking guys, right? In great shape. Strong chins.”
“Not my type,” she said.
I stuck an arm out, tugged back my shirt sleeve, and flexed.
“What’s not to like?”
Li looked at my bicep, then back at my face, and doubled over laughing. She shook, practically crying, and after a while she put a hand on my knee. The laughing made my heart plummet, but the hand on my knee took the sting away.
“Tetris,” she said, “you’re like a brother to me. I could never, ever think about you that way. I’m just not attracted to you. Sorry.”
I kept my stupid grin up, although I could feel the edges drooping.
“What?” I said. “No, I mean—that’s not what I was saying—I would never suggest that—”
“I’m not an idiot,” she said, leaning into my shoulder. “It’s sweet, actually. I’m very flattered.”
I picked up the remote and flicked through the channels.
“Sorry,” she said, “I just want to be up front, you know? Avoid any confusion.”
“Sure,” I said, punching the channel-change button. “It’s fine.”
“I care about you, man,” she said. “We’ve got a good, solid friendship. Isn’t that enough?”
“Of course,” I said. Everything she’d said was reasonable. Why did I feel so bitter?
I put the remote down and we watched a few minutes of some Spanish-language soap opera, her cheek still leaned against my shoulder. My mind did barrel rolls five miles above. After a while, she clicked her tongue and patted my chest, then slid off the bed.
“Alright,” she said. “I’m going to sleep.”
“Goodnight,” I said, getting up to walk her out.
“Sleep well,” she said.
“You too,” I said, and closed the door behind her.
Alone in the room, I paced to the window, hands behind my head. Stupid. She was bored, couldn’t sleep, had wanted to come hang out. That was it. That was all it was. Why’d I have to make it into a disaster?
I tried to sleep, but between my fear of another Junior dream and my mind’s determination to replay fourfold every millisecond of the evening with Li, I rolled from side to side for hours. Even the dull patter of rain couldn’t lull me into unconsciousness.
Cooper met us in the hotel lobby for breakfast.
“Take a week or two off,” he said, sliding an envelope across the table. “Tickets for your flight back to Seattle.”
“Thanks,” I said, battling a yawn.
“When Zip’s doing better, we’ll send him home. Maybe you can meet him at the airport.”
I rubbed my exhausted eyes and made an affirmative noise.
Cooper stirred his coffee. “About the way we picked you up—”
“Don’t sweat it,” I said, although I could tell it was Li that Cooper was worried about. She hadn’t said much, and it wasn’t because she was busy eating. She’d barely touched her stack of pancakes. She had a cold glare fixed on Cooper.
“Sorry about any confusion,” he said. “We really are on the same team. Just had to exercise caution, you know?”
“Understandable,” I said, wanting to get out of there as soon as possible.
Cooper must have felt it too, because he took one last gulp of coffee and pushed his chair back.
“We’ll be in touch,” he said, and mimed a quick salute before shrugging into his suit jacket and striding away.
“I can’t stand that guy,” said Li.
“I noticed,” I said, “and I think he did too.”
I munched on a strawberry. My appetite was still in overdrive, and it felt amazing to sink my teeth into something firm and juicy. As I ate, I eyed Li, trying to be discreet. She hadn’t said a word about the previous night, and if she didn’t bring it up I had no intention of ever touching on it again.
I needed a girlfriend. That’s what I needed.
We went to visit Zip before our flight, but he was asleep again, snores whistling through his nose.
“You just missed him,” said the nurse. “He woke up this morning and had a snack. Poor thing’s been through a lot. Going to sleep like a koala for a while.”
At the airport I defeated Li in a best-of-five rock-paper-scissors match to secure myself the window seat on the plane. My strategy was to pick “rock” every time and let her overthink her own move.
“I can’t believe I let you win three times with rock,” she said, glowering.
I shrugged. “Some people just aren’t cut out for the high-octane world of competitive rock-paper-scissors.”
When I got on the plane and worked my way back to row twenty-three, there was already somebody in my seat. I scrounged in my pocket for my boarding pass. 23D. That was mine, alright. I gave its occupant another look.
It was Junior. His black eyes pulsed. The hole in his chest dribbled pus and maggots as he leaned toward me, extending a hand. When he opened his mouth, his teeth were sharpened to fine points.
My head ballooned. Dizzy, I stumbled back. Nausea came at me in wriggling waves, and I closed my eyes, focusing on keeping my breakfast down. For a moment all I could hear was a tinny ringing.
When my hearing returned, I looked again.
Junior was gone. The other passengers were staring at me. I had practically fallen into the lap of a suited man across the aisle. Muttering an apology, I hoisted myself off of him.
“What’s going on?” asked Li.
Despite my wobbly legs, I managed to cram my duffel into the overhead bin.
“Nothing,” I said, lowering myself into the seat. “I’m fine.”
I closed my eyes, trying to slow my heart with deep, calm breaths.
You’re losing your mind, said the voice in the back of my head.
I stomped it down and reached for the magazine in the seat-back pocket.