from Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century
As April came in the door, she could immediately tell that the two magnetic poles of Travis’s memorial were his older sister, Miki, and his climbing partner, Zach. Everyone gathered around one or the other. April recognized them both from Travis’s Instagram. Miki sat with her feet up on the sofa in the living room that backed into the foyer, where she could both talk to the people sprawled at her feet on the rug and greet newcomers as they came through the front door, without getting up. She nodded at April as though they knew each other. Miki wore a black bodysuit and a patterned scarf the size of a beach blanket. The scarf was a riot of colors, and she held an end in each hand, so the fabric moved and fluttered around her as she gestured. Miki had a straight up-and-down body and long, elegant hands, amber eyes, and a triangular heap of curls that fell halfway down her back. She was appealing to look at, like a glazed cake.
Zach presided over the small kitchen, on the opposite end of the open-plan main floor. Casserole dishes and bottles of wine gathered on the counters. Zach wore gray technical shorts with oversized pockets and a plaid button-down, the sleeves rolled up and only the center two buttons done, so the tails flared out at the bottom and golden chest hair glinted over the top. He wasn’t dressed appropriately, but who could blame him? Leaning back against the sink, he was appealing to look at in precisely the same way.
April beelined for the end of what amounted to a receiving line to talk to Zach. She found herself smiling, or grimacing, her mouth upturned involuntarily. “How awful,” everyone said. “What a thing to witness. You must be a wreck. I’m so sorry. If you want to talk, I’m here.” Their faces locked in those same smile-grimaces, as they patted him on the shoulder, the forearm. Lingering.
She looked out the window. The quiet street wound in wide curves, lined with trees, as in only the oldest, most expensive neighborhoods: cathedral-high elms touching canopy from opposite sides of the median, weeping beech sweeping their hair along the sidewalk, magnolias in full, pink bloom. Two teenage girls, standing at the end of the driveway, whispered in close conference, heads together, as though debating whether to go inside. They turned and stared back at April. She wondered if they’d also gotten the address from the obituary. Did teenagers even know about newspaper obituaries?
It was startling that the large room was filled with people her own age or younger, like a house party. She’d only been to funerals and memorials and wakes for elderly relatives—she had been lucky in that way. A bewildered widow or widower at the center, equally aged friends and siblings ringed tightly around them, oblivious small children running around the outside perimeter, April somewhere in between. Where, she wondered, were his parents, his aunts and uncles? When she pulled up outside, she’d assumed this house belonged to his parents; the two-story craftsman had an older, lived-in sensibility.
“I’m glad you weren’t injured,” the woman in front of April said, to Zach. “I mean, obviously I wish Travis had survived. I wish it hadn’t happened at all! And of course it’s the worst thing that could happen to a person, to you. I mean, not as bad as what happened to Travis. I mean, I’m just glad that you’re physically—”
“I know what you meant,” Zach said. “Thank you.” He clasped her hand between both of his. As soon as he released his grip, she turned and fled from the room.
April knew it was an unfair thought, but up close, Zach did not look grief-stricken, like a haunted survivor. He had a healthy, well-rested glow. “I’m April,” she said, stepping forward. “Travis and I were friends in college. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Zach studied her, and she felt caught in the lie. She and Travis had gone to the same college and lived in the same dorm building. In theory, they’d gone to the same parties, stood in the same rooms, but she couldn’t remember if they’d ever actually met.
A few months earlier, he’d seemingly popped up on all her social media feeds at once: a tiny figure in an endless series of high-altitude landscapes, snowy fields above smokelike clouds, jagged cliffs piercing the sun. She’d been surprised to see that someone she’d plausibly known had five hundred thousand followers on Instagram, the population of a midsize city. She had no interest in mountaineering, yet she’d spent hours looking at close-ups of his knots, his blistered hands and shredded knuckles, his gear knolled on flat rocks. She’d watched hundreds of short videos of him leaping for a hold or pulling himself up a chimney, clicked “like” on hundreds of pictures of him posed hanging from a wall, or standing backlit and triumphant at the peak. One point four million thumbs up for his hypnotic charisma in a YouTube video. She gathered that he had only recently become popular, that everyone had found him at almost the same moment she did. The algorithm, mysterious as fate. He was less a person than a quilt of these beautifully colored squares. His view of the world from above, geographic and breathtaking, was so different from wherever she was: squatting over the toilet in her dark bathroom, lying in bed with a bag of unsalted tortilla chips balanced on her chest. He’d had the aura of a celebrity, and his sudden, violent death, his appearance in the mainstream news, felt perversely fitting. The famous should die famously.
“Thank you,” Zach said.
“Can I ask . . .” April paused. “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but I only know what I read in the news.” She tried to soften her tone. “How did it happen?”
The news stories had been brief but vivid. Zach and Travis had been on a day climb in the North Cascades. A storm came in, and they wanted to get down quickly to avoid it. Something went wrong. Travis fell three hundred feet. The longest article that April had seen was padded out by embedded social media posts. Travis’s last post, a selfie in the car with Zach, mugging with their tongues out, #climbingnation, flooded with comments and crying emojis. April added one that felt true enough—“I still can’t believe it. You were an inspiration.”—and felt a little thrill to see it pop up in the article, gathering hearts.
The room went silent. Miki craned her long neck in their direction.
Zach shook his head, his bangs falling into his eyes. He combed them back with his fingers. “It wasn’t even forecasted to rain,” he said. “It happened really fast. The wind picked up, the sky went dark. We knew we had to bail. We decided to do a simul-rappel. It’s an emergency maneuver to get down fast, where you rappel down at the same time, using each other as a counterbalance.”
Zach lifted his gaze. A rapt audience surrounded him. April noticed the teenage girls had come inside, hovering just past the threshold in the foyer. “One mistake, man. Travis made one mistake. The rope slipped through, and there was nothing I could do. He was just gone.”
April could see it from Zach’s perspective: the rocks darkened and slick in the rain. His muscles trembling with exhaustion as he held his body tight to the wall. A sudden, sickening loss of tension. Watching Travis fall, the loose coil of rope falling after him. Zach reaching out a futile hand, his scream drowned out in a roll of thunder. A lightning flash illuminating nothing, Travis too far below to see.
“And then what?”
April turned to the voice. Sitting in an armchair at Miki’s side, the man who’d spoken looked like he’d come from the same mold as Zach and Travis: about the same age, with the same wiry build, deep tan, and shaggy hair. He wore a black suit over a T-shirt with no tie. “How did you get down and back to the car?” he said.
“I didn’t,” Zach said. “I waited on a ledge for help.”
“You both fell, but there was a ledge on your side?”
“I didn’t fall. I climbed down to the ledge.”
“You were on the ledge when Travis fell? Like you’d gotten to the ledge first?”
“No, I climbed down to the ledge after Travis fell.”
“Did the anchor fail?”
“Obviously not,” Zach snapped. “I already said that he . . .”
He wiped at his eyes. “You know what, Nick? I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
April stepped closer to Zach. She rubbed him gently on the back. “At least Travis was doing something he loved,” she said.
“He was,” Zach said, sounding grateful. “He really was.”
Nick exchanged a look with Miki, who shook her head with a slight smile, as though they were agreeing to indulge Zach on this. Nick’s dark suit was a little too large for him. He sat slouched on the chair with his knees wide apart, the fabric pooling around him like a shadow.
Someone opened the unscreened windows, and the suburban noises, alien to April, joined the low din of the room: a screeching child’s laugh, a bird singing incongruously into the evening. The hush of plants nestling against each other in the wind. The absence of cars. Miki turned on a floor lamp, still without getting up, and the circle of light around her seemed to grow brighter and more defined as it won its war of attrition against the sun.
The casseroles cooled and hardened. The wine bottles were emptied. When only a handful of people remained, April took it upon herself to start refilling everyone’s glasses, opening a new bottle each time one was drained. The bottle opener was in the first drawer she tried, and she moved around the kitchen confidently, as though she knew it well.
She bent at the waist and reached diagonally across Zach’s chest to pour red into his glass, her chest close to his chin where he sat. “April, you said, right? I don’t think Travis ever mentioned you. You guys were close, back in the day?”
“You know how it is,” she said. “We saw each other every day when we were in school, and then we fell out of touch. I always meant to reconnect. And then I missed my chance.” She held the bottle against her body. Her eyes stung. How sad that would be, if it were true.
“Wow,” he said. “To be honest, I was surprised there were so many people here. Travis was kind of a secretive guy, hard to get close to. I always thought he didn’t have that many friends.”
“Secretive?” April said. “He had half a million Instagram followers.”
“Well, he was a climber and a photographer. That’s not, like, actually knowing someone.”
“He was secretive,” Miki chimed in. Her voice was musical, regionless, and her mouth opened wide when she talked. April had once clicked through a tagged photo—@mikimikimiki, #siblinggoals—and seen, under her name and profile picture, the words Theater Artist. She waved at a group of people who were murmuring parting condolences as they left. One patted Miki on the shoulder awkwardly as he passed. Now April was alone with Miki, Zach, and Nick.
“He had a lot of strange ideas,” Miki said, “but he knew he had to keep them to himself for the sake of his internet presence, business, whatever it was.” She gestured with her empty wineglass. April sidled over with the bottle, pleased to be useful in this way, to blend in like the help. “Thank you, April.”
“I did feel like he kept me at a distance,” Zach said. “We’d drive and camp for days and days, but we mostly talked logistics and online shit.”
“You put your lives in each other’s hands,” Miki said. “I can’t imagine anything more intimate.”
“That’s just climbing. Sometimes you do that with people you just met.” Zach shifted in his seat.
“You fuck people you just met, but if you keep fucking them, it becomes intimate all the same.”
April put the bottle on the coffee table and slid in beside Miki on the couch, Nick on Miki’s other side. “What kind of strange ideas?”
Miki twirled her scarf. “What was that?”
“You said Travis had a lot of strange ideas that he kept from his internet fans.”
“Oh, you know, he was one of those people who thought the world was ending. Not in the biblical, street-preacher way. Climate change, peak oil. Global pandemic. That sort of thing.”
“That’s not so strange,” Nick said. “Doesn’t everyone feel that way by now?”
“But I could see how that wouldn’t go with his internet persona,” April said. Travis’s blandly inspirational captions, the royalty-free rock music to which he set his videos, the continuous summits, peaks without valleys, had lately been the best diversion from the apocalyptic news.
“For Travis it went beyond that. He was prepared. Preparing.” She looked around, meeting each of their eyes in turn.
Miki’s thick, black eyebrows and eyelashes made her eyes burn a lighter brown, almost gold. She shrugged exaggeratedly and the wine sloshed in her glass. “I guess I can tell you all. It doesn’t matter now.”
She settled into the couch in a way that made her seem larger than before, her arms open, her chest expanded, the scarf pulled outward to either side. In the silence, April became aware that sometime in the last few minutes, the sun had dropped below the hard line of the horizon. All at once, it was night, the open windows portals to a depthless blue, the closed windows watery mirrors.
“He had a cabin,” Miki said. “Not that far east along Highway Two, but deep in the bush, in the mountains. It was impossible to get to, on purpose. No roads. Days of bushwhacking, scrambling, free-climbing, river crossings. Completely inaccessible in the winter. High altitude. Functionally a fortress, surrounded by danger. I knew about it, but only he knew where it was. That is, until he died, and I got the deed to the land.”
“Have you been?” April asked.
“I only just got the papers. And how would I get there? I could look into chartering a helicopter, I suppose, assuming there’s somewhere to land.”
“I find it hard to believe there’s anywhere like that in the state that isn’t either parkland or part of a reserve,” Nick said.
“Believe what you like,” Miki said. “That’s how Travis described it, and I believe him. That’s why he chose to build the cabin there.”
“How did he even find the plot to buy in the first place?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know,” Miki said. She smoothed out a spot on her thigh where her bodysuit had ridden up and wrinkled. “I don’t know, because when he told me about it, I was furious.”
“Why?” April asked.
“Well, what does it say about who he planned to spend the end of the world with? Certainly not me. I’d never make it. Either he meant to go it alone, or . . .” Miki gestured at Nick and then Zach. “Or with his adventuring buddies.”
“He never mentioned it to us,” Zach said, quietly.
Nick continued to press. “If it’s so hard to access, how did he construct the cabin? How did he get the materials and tradespeople there?”
“According to the documents, it’s more like a shack,” Miki said. “And he built it himself. As for how he got the materials there, I would guess—piece by piece.”
April pictured Travis free-climbing with a bundle of two-by-fours strapped to his back. That part, if nothing else, fit into his internet aesthetic.
“I suppose I will have to go eventually,” Miki went on. “It’d be a shame to let all the supplies go to waste.”
“He was already keeping it stocked?” April asked.
Miki nodded. “He could only schlep so much in at one time, but I think at this point there’s quite a lot of shelf-stable food, fuel, and water. And he was installing a gravity pump, I remember.”
“There was a water source even higher up than the cabin?” Nick said.
Miki waved one end of the scarf. “Nick, I only know what Travis told me. I only learned where this place even is in the last couple days.”
“I’m amazed you got the deed already,” April said. “When my great-aunt died, the bureaucracy of it all took forever.”
“Travis had a will,” Miki said. “He’d update it before he went on any big adventure trip, particularly overseas. Ironic that he died on a day climb practically in his backyard.” Throughout the conversation, Miki’s tone had been droll, almost amused, dry of grief. She stared into the middle distance. “Maybe I’ll let the place rot up there. In a thousand years, an archaeologist can puzzle over it, all the gold.”
“Gold?” they chorused.
Miki laughed. “I told you, he was one of those people. He thought only gold would be worth anything in the new world order. I know he was regularly buying one-ounce bars from a place on the Eastside and stashing them in the cabin.”
Nick was already looking it up on his phone. “Right now, an ounce of gold is worth about twelve hundred dollars.”
Miki’s features were large, cartoonishly expressive. She could lift her eyebrows almost to her hairline. “Good Lord. Well, no wonder he had almost nothing in the bank.” She stretched in her seat. “I guess I will have to go to the cabin after all. That’s too much money to leave for future archaeologists.”
Nick shook his head. “This just doesn’t sound like Travis to me. He was the most optimistic person I knew.”
“There’s optimism in being prepared,” Miki said.
“And I thought he was a big believer in never even hiking alone. Safety in numbers and all that. I can’t imagine him bushwhacking, solo, to his fortress of gold.”
“Death,” Miki began, seemingly pausing for effect, “has a way of unveiling the truth. But as you said, Travis was many things. Let’s talk about some of the others. April, I would love to hear what he was like in college.”
“Oh.” April put her glass on the table and topped it up. “Nick, Zach, did you guys know him then?”
Zach shook his head. He hadn’t spoken in a while, and his expression was distant, faintly disturbed. “We met after, when we were all working at the same ski resort.”
“How about you, Miki? Were you in close contact?”
“No, not really. Travis and I were close growing up, and later when I moved back, right up until he died.” Miki’s voice continued to strike April as strange, overenunciated, with a perpetual note of irony. “But we lost touch a bit when he was in college. I was living in LA, and my life was busy, and not terribly pleasant.” April sipped her wine and considered. “Everybody loved him,” she said, finally. “He was funny, and he had a way of addressing a room full of people and making it feel like he was only talking to you. Girls would leave little Post-it Notes on his dorm room door.” She was thinking of his vlogs and their comment sections.
Miki seemed to waver for the first time. She laughed again, softer, more bitterly. “That sounds right.”
April wasn’t sure when she’d fallen asleep, but she woke up and Nick and Miki were also out, the three of them huddled together on the couch. Zach wasn’t in the room. April padded down the hall, her dry lips crusted violet from the wine, looking for a bathroom.
Coming around the corner, she could see into a study through the glass panels of its French doors. The lamp on the desk was on, its head downcast, blasting the tabletop with a startlingly bright, yellow light in the otherwise dark room. She heard the artificial shutter sound of a phone camera. It took her a moment to see Zach bent over the desk, taking photos of the papers arranged there.
The bathroom was before the study, along the same wall. She ducked in to use it, and then rejoined the others in the living room. Zach had not returned. She curled back up against Miki, who stirred but didn’t wake.
Zach came back in a few minutes later. He gently shook Miki by the arm. “Miki? I’m going to go.”
She grabbed on to his wrist without opening her eyes. “Let’s stay in touch, okay?”
Nick wasn’t fully awake until the front door had opened and closed. “Did Zach leave?”
Miki made a noise of assent.
Nick exhaled a long breath. “I feel bad for him. I really do. It’s the kind of mistake anyone could make, and to be responsible for your best friend’s death . . . That’s devastating. Unbelievably devastating. But his denial is fucked up.”
Miki removed her scarf, which she had been using as a blanket, and draped it over the top of the couch. It had become a part of her body in April’s mind. It was like watching Miki pop her arm from its socket, or strip off her skin. Though the bodysuit went almost to her ankles, the material was thin and stretched to translucence. “It doesn’t matter. Travis is gone either way.”
“It doesn’t bother you? Having him blame Travis?”
Miki started gathering up the glasses. April rose to help her. “Whatever he has to tell himself to get through, I understand.”
“How do you know he’s lying?” April said.
Nick looked at Miki, who nodded. “There aren’t that many ways that only one person falls from a simul-rap,” he said. “Zach must have lost control of the brake and not tied an end-stop knot. It sounds to me like he got to a ledge and just unweighted without thinking—took his weight off the rope—as you usually do when you touch ground rappelling. So the rope slid through his device, there was no time to grab it, no knot at the end . . .” Nick rubbed his face. His cheeks were flushed from the alcohol and creased from sleep. “I’m just speculating, but I can’t think of a way Travis could have made a mistake that led to his own fall in that setup. If Travis had fucked up, either they both would have fallen, or just Zach.”
Miki and April put the glasses by the sink. Without asking, April put the stopper in the drain and started to fill one basin with hot water and soap.
“I wish I could be as understanding as you, Miki,” Nick said. “I can barely look at him.” He ran a hand through his floppy bangs, the same gesture Zach had made earlier, through the same haircut. April had seen Travis do the same thing while speaking directly to the camera held in his other hand. “I know it was an accident, but I blame him. It’s his fault that Travis is gone. I want to grab him and shake him and ask how he could forget to tie a fucking knot. It’d be easier if he just admitted it. I think I could forgive him then. But now, now it feels . . .” Nick’s voice cracked.
Miki left April to wash the glasses. She came and folded Nick into her arms. She was only a hair taller than him, but her long limbs and the way he shrank and crumbled in the embrace made them resemble a mother and child. “Nick,” she said, speaking into his hair, “why don’t you go home and go to sleep? We’re all going to be dealing with this for a long time. One day at a time, okay?”
Nick nodded. He swiped at his eyes as he and Miki pulled apart. He paused at the front door in his rumpled suit and said, “It was nice to meet you, April. I wish it could have been under better circumstances.”
April nodded, unable to speak. The door clicked shut.
Miki walked the perimeter of the room, turning on all the lights,
closing the windows, lowering the blinds. April set the wineglasses in the rack to dry and started rooting around in the drawers for plastic wrap to cover the mummified casseroles. “It’s so kind of you to stay and clean up when no one else did,” Miki said. “Leaving me to grieve in a messy house. Some friends.”
“I have to tell you something.”
“I saw Zach, earlier. While you were asleep. In the study. Taking pictures of some papers with his phone. I’m going to guess they were related to the cabin.”
Miki turned and tugged on the cord to lower the last set of blinds. She was silent for a long moment. Finally, she said, “Did you notice those two teenage girls today?”
“What? Did you hear what I said about Zach?”
“The girls arrived at about the same time you did. When I asked them who they were, they admitted they were just fans of Travis online. They’d never met him. At first, I was going to ask them to leave, but then I thought, who was I to say they didn’t know him just as well as any of us? Zach didn’t know Travis enough to say whether or not he was a doomsday prepper. And Zach was the one who got him killed.”
April put down the box of plastic wrap. Her gaze darted to the front door.
“Strangers loved my brother, and I have hundreds—thousands—of pictures and videos to remember him by. That’s kind of beautiful, in its way.” Miki was still staring at the covered window, the dusty vinyl an inch from her face. “It’s a crazy story, isn’t it?”
“How Travis died?”
“No. Well, that too. But I meant the cabin. A hidden trove of gold, where only the most skilled mountaineer can reach it! A treasure map left in plain sight, when you can just download templates for wills and deeds off the internet. It’s like something out of a children’s book. Knowing Zach, he probably started packing a gear bag the second he got home, not wanting me and my helicopter to beat him.” Miki laughed. “Nick was driving me nuts with all those questions. ‘How did Travis find it? How did he build? How could a place like that exist in this state?’”
The wine felt like a dying animal in April’s gut, and the embedded ceiling lights Miki had turned on were queasily bright. April edged out of the kitchen, toward Miki and the door beyond. She was only just beginning to understand. “Does it?”
“Of course. There’s plenty of high, remote places, that would take days or weeks of backpacking to get to, surrounded by terrain that could easily maim or kill you in the approach. Especially if you were expecting a big cache of supplies and water when you got there.” Miki finally turned. Pinprick reflections in her eyes glittered like stars. “Are you leaving?” she asked abruptly, seeing April standing in the middle of the room.
“I . . . Yes. I’m sorry again for your loss.”
Miki showed her teeth, her mouth twisted to the side, somewhere between a grin and a sneer. “Didn’t you lose him too?”
Miki stayed where she was, leaving April to see herself out. She didn’t have a coat. April closed the door behind her. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath until she let it out on their front stoop, suddenly gulping air. This neighborhood had fewer streetlights than hers, and besides the one she’d just left, all of the houses were dark. Zach and Nick were long gone, no sign of anyone on the sidewalk.
In her car, she took out her phone. Her battery was almost dead. All of Travis’s accounts had been deleted or changed to private, sometime that day, a large error block in the news articles where the embedded posts had been. As had Miki’s. Without them, she couldn’t think of a way to connect to Zach. His last name, in the articles, was uselessly common, and she couldn’t remember his handles. She did not, in fact, know these people at all. She imagined trying to explain this to the police, that Zach might die trying to steal something that didn’t exist. She didn’t know where Miki had sent him, where they should look. She imagined a skeptical officer sitting across from her, in the middle of the night, in the station for this sleepy, wealthy suburb. Middle-aged but still getting the graveyard shift, the skin of his face puffy and cracked like overrisen cake, someone peripherally aware of Instagram and YouTube as something his children did. And who are you, he’d ask. Who are you to them?
Kim Fu is the author of the story collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century. Fu’s first novel, For Today I Am a Boy, won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards. Fu’s writing has appeared in Granta, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and BOMB. She lives in Seattle.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.