On the drive up to Vermont, a possum darted in front of the CR-V. Rob had a moment to register what it was—a blur of grey, a ropy rat’s tail—before the animal was a hiccup beneath the wheels. Then it was a gruesome smear across the I-87 in his rearview mirror. Felipe, sitting in the passenger seat, gasped.
“You didn’t even try to swerve,” he said. “You just drove right into it.”
“I didn’t have time,” Rob said. “I didn’t see it.”
They pulled over at a rest stop and Felipe went to splash his face with cold water. Rob stayed in the car. He thought he could recall the possum’s white face, its evil grinning mouth, but he knew this wasn’t possible, not at the speed he’d been driving. Unless Felipe was right, and he had indeed seen it coming from some distance and plowed ahead anyway.
When Rob felt a cold nose at his elbow, he looked down. Loki gazed up at him. The dog’s deep brown eyes were rimmed with red, as if he had been weeping.
“I didn’t mean to,” Rob said.
Felipe came out of the restroom and they drove on in silence. The dog sat in Felipe’s lap, panting. It was nearing the end of summer, but the heat was still thick and dense as cake. Rob turned the radio on, scanning impatiently. Up here, every station seemed to play contemporary country. A singer described himself as a travelling man, a rolling stone, a lone wolf. Eventually Rob noticed that Felipe was singing along, under his breath.
“You know this song?” Rob asked.
Felipe shrugged. “I hear it around.”
In moments like these, Rob felt very far from Felipe, who, at twenty-six, was a dozen years younger and could still absorb popular culture by osmosis. Rob had long since lost the ability to recall lyrics, or even differentiate one song from another. Shifting in his seat, he felt the curve of his burgeoning potbelly strain against his blue oxford shirt, spilling over his seatbelt.
They took a detour around Albany, then crossed the border into Vermont. According to the GPS, they were only a few miles away now. They left the highway and turned down one back road, then another, pavement to gravel to dirt. Around them, the woods glowed green, and through the trees Rob saw water, water, water. The trip had been Felipe’s idea, but now Rob felt glad to be away from the firm and the city. In a month or two the weather would slide from swamp to temperate cool. Everyone would start talking about how much they loved fall, but it would mean that another summer was over.
“This is it,” Felipe said. “22 Trout Lake Road.”
Loki leaped out of the CR-V and barked violently at nothing. It was a real log cabin, the lake gleaming behind it, a military-green Subaru station wagon parked out in front. The cabin door clattered open and Marcus stepped out, shirtless, shining, his hair tied back in a bun. His genitals were three-dimensional through his swimsuit. He spread his arms, a gesture of welcome, and Felipe jumped into them. Marcus let out a fraudulent grunt of strain.
“Patty,” he said. “How was the drive?”
“Awful,” Felipe said. “Rob killed a raccoon.”
“It was a possum,” Rob said. “And it was an accident. Hi, Marcus.”
“Rob, hello,” Marcus said, and air-kissed him on both cheeks. “Nice to see you again.”
“You too,” Rob said. “Thanks for making this happen.”
They got their bags from the car and went inside. There were deer skulls on the walls and a faux-fur rug spread before the fireplace. Post-Its papered the refrigerator: the wifi password, instructions for turning on the septic tank, a warning that under no circumstances should anyone swing from the log beam in the living-room ceiling.
“Great place,” Rob said. “Nice find.”
“Yeah,” Marcus said. “Lucky we got something so late in the season.”
Out on the dock they found Carla, stretched out on a beach towel, reading The Stranger Beside Me. In her black bikini she looked hipless, almost masculine.
“You guys remember Carla,” Marcus said.
“Of course,” Rob said. “How’s it going?”
“Howdy, boys,” Carla said. “Marcus?” She rattled the ice cubes in her glass.
The four of them sat on the dock in the late-afternoon light, talking about work, a subject on which Rob had little to say. Marcus was working on a documentary about a homeless man in Berlin who had once been an opera star in London. Carla was developing a book proposal about an online community of people who believed that they were fantastical beings—animals, elves, dragons—trapped in human bodies.
“They call themselves ‘otherkin,’” she said. “Most of them think they’re creatures out of fantasy novels, but some of them think they’re transracial. Anime characters, ancient samurais, figures from Japanese mythology. They spend so much time online that stuff like manga and gaming culture has, for them, become real. They think they were born in the wrong bodies—not the wrong gender, but the wrong race, the wrong species, even the wrong dimension. It’s sort of incredible. Raises all kinds of questions about the limits of self-identification, about our capacity to know what we are. How do we—”
“You guys hear that?” Rob said. Three heads turned toward him.
“What?” Marcus said.
“A beep,” Rob said. “Every twenty seconds. I’ve been counting. Hold on.”
The four of them sat, quiet. The ambient sounds of the lake buzzed around them—the water against the dock, the sighing of the trees, a jet-ski ripping by in the distance.
Felipe said, “I don’t hear—”
“Wait,” Rob said. “Wait.” Then: a short, piercing beep, faint but indisputable.
Carla said, “Is it a bird?”
“No,” Rob said. “It’s not a bird. It’s too mechanical. And it happens every twenty seconds, on the dot. It’s an alarm or something.”
“Huh,” Marcus said. “Never noticed it until you pointed it out.”
“Shhhh,” Rob said. “There—there it is again.”
“Weird,” Carla said.
“Ah well,” Marcus said. “You can barely hear it.”
“I can hear it,” Rob said.
“You’ll get used to it, baby,” Felipe said. “Just try to ignore it.”
“Okay,” Rob said. “I’ll try to ignore it.”
Later they headed back up to the cabin to eat. In the kitchen, Rob butterflied a chicken, cutting through the breastbone and tearing out its spine with a snap of his elbow, the carcass now laid out flat. As the chicken sizzled and spat over the barbecue coals, he made a warm potato salad, then sautéed the last of the season’s asparagus. He was a good cook. The others, sitting in the living room, switched from beer to white wine, their voices growing louder. Whenever Felipe laughed especially hard, Loki began to bark along, which only made Felipe laugh even harder, until their voices joined together in a chorus.
That night, Rob and Felipe lay in bed after not having sex, groggy with food. Rob stared into the darkness above him. He devotedly tried to worry about other things: a rival at work, the president of the United States, assorted hurricanes and terrorist organizations. But every twenty seconds, regardless of where his attention had fallen, he heard it, somewhere in the black woods: beep.
“Holy fuck,” he said at last.
“It’s not that bad,” Felipe whispered.
“It would just be nice,” Rob said, “considering the money we’re spending on this place, to not feel like we’re living inside a submarine.”
Felipe rolled over. “Don’t be so dramatic.”
“I’m sorry,” Rob said. “Is that unreasonable? I don’t think that’s so unreasonable. Didn’t the Airbnb lady warn Marcus about this—this beep? Isn’t this the kind of thing you should tell people about? What the hell is it?”
“It’s a beep, Rob,” Felipe said. “A beep.”
“You’re right about that,” Rob said. “It’s definitely a beep.”
In the lulls between beeps, Rob’s hearing took on a supersensory quality. He felt attuned to every sound in the cabin, every noise outside: the shudder of the refrigerator, the call of a nightbird, Loki wheezing on the floor, Marcus or Carla shifting in the bed upstairs.
“Don’t you think it’s a little bit weird?” Rob said.
“What?” Felipe said.
“Marcus and Carla,” Rob said. “I mean, I’m sure they love each other and all that, but isn’t it weird that he just kind of—went back?”
“I don’t think it’s weird,” Felipe said.
“Well, obviously you don’t,” Rob said. “I’m just saying. Some of us had to fight for this. Some of us had to lie our whole lives before we finally got to tell the truth.”
“Baby,” Felipe said. “Don’t take this the wrong way. But it’s different for people—people my age. Things aren’t as rigid.”
“Oh. Oh-ho. I see how it is.”
“I’m sorry. But that’s just the reality.”
“Doesn’t it bother you, though?”
“Not really. I’m happy he’s happy. Anyway, I have you, don’t I?”
“You do,” Rob said. “You do have me.”
The next morning, Rob rose before anyone else. He made a pot of coffee and took a mug down to the dock, Loki trailing behind. The beep had not stopped. In the stillness of the morning, the dog seemed newly bothered by the sound, releasing a string of yelps every time it echoed over the lake.
“This is infuriating,” Rob said. He looked at the dog. “You are infuriating.”
He thought about fishing, something he had not done for many years. In the boathouse near the dock, he found a couple of poles, but no hooks or lures. Maybe that was for the best. After Rob’s father died, his uncle had briefly taken an interest in his masculine education. Fishing was one lesson. So was his first taste of beer. Rob had sputtered with disgust. “You’ll get a taste for it soon enough,” Uncle Mick said. “Sooner than’s good for you.” He’d been right about that.
Rob walked down to the edge of the dock and sat, his toes dangling in the lake. He listened for the telltale splash of fish jumping, but all he heard was the beep. Loki let out a spasm of barks.
“Shut up,” Rob said. “Shut the hell up.”
His phone vibrated in his pocket.
“Hi sweetie,” he said. “How are you?”
“Hey Dad,” Lucy said. “So I’m doing a project at school. About the rainforest.”
“There’s this thing called coltan.”
“Never heard of it.”
Lucy began to speak at length about coltan, which was, apparently, a mineral used in computers and cellphones. Demand for coltan was causing the destruction of the rainforest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lucy said. It was fueling a war that had killed millions of people. It was pushing some kind of rare ape toward extinction. There were tens of thousands of children working in the coltan mines.
“Kids my age, dad,” Lucy said. “Kids like me.”
“That’s depressing,” Rob said. “This is what they’re teaching you in school?”
“Dad,” Lucy said. “That’s not the point. This is not okay! This should not be happening just so we can all have our stupid iPhones.”
“People need phones, sweetie.”
“No, we don’t,” Lucy said. “I’m going to get rid of my phone.”
“No, you’re not. Don’t be silly.”
“Yes, I am. I don’t want to be a bad person.”
“You’re not a bad person,” Rob said. “You’re a good girl, Lucy. It’s just—well, the world is a complicated place.”
“It’s not that complicated,” Lucy said. “Why is it complicated?”
“Sometimes,” Rob said, “you have to do things that are bad, just to be alive in the world.”
“You’re always telling me not to do something just because other people are doing it.”
“Anyway,” Lucy said. “I’m going to get rid of my phone. Bye, Dad. Oh, Mom wants to talk to you.”
“I love you, sweetie,” Rob said. “Don’t throw out your phone.”
“Love you too,” Lucy said.
There were muffled noises as the phone changed hands.
“Rob. Where are you?”
“Hey, Rebecca. I’m in Vermont.”
“Vermont?” Rebecca said. “What’s in Vermont?”
“I told you. I’m here with Felipe. And some of his friends. Remember?”
“Oh, right,” Rebecca said. “That’s nice. Did your daughter tell you she’s going to get rid of her phone?”
“She did. Something about—what was it called? Coal-something?”
“God knows I’m all for her getting rid of it. She’s glued to it twenty-four-seven. But I know she’s going to get over this rainforest thing in a week, and then she’ll just want a new one. A more expensive one, obviously. Were you as righteous as her when you were twelve?”
“Not at all,” Rob said. “Not even a little bit.”
“Anyway,” Rebecca said. “How’s Vermont?”
“It’s all right,” Rob said. “There’s a beep.”
“Try to enjoy yourself, Bobby. Relax a little. You’ll pick Lucy up from school on Tuesday?”
“I will,” Rob said. “Hey, remember when we all went camping that time? And I caught us a big trout for breakfast?”
“Of course,” Rebecca said. “I gotta go. Enjoy Vermont.”
He put his phone back in his pocket. How had his daughter grown so sophisticated—his own daughter, worried about the state of the planet at an age when he’d barely been aware of a world beyond himself? It made no sense. He should have taken a vacation with her instead, up here, in the woods and lakes of Vermont, to observe her final days as a child before she transformed, soon enough, into a sullen, difficult teenager. It could have been her next to him, now, on the dock, instead of Felipe’s happy, idiotic dog. Even though she didn’t eat meat anymore, he could have taught her to fish, could have taught her—
“Okay,” Rob said. “Screw this.”
He wandered the road with Loki a while, passing cabin after cabin, until the beep felt close, and he stopped. The building in front of him was more of a house than a cabin, two stories, green trim, French casement windows, a classic cream-white Cadillac in the driveway. The car had a pair of bumper stickers: I’m a Vermonta, I do what I wanna and If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot ‘em?
Rob hesitated for a moment, then knocked on the front door, which swung open immediately. The man was older, wearing a terry cloth bathrobe, with grey hair and great bushy eyebrows. Strains of something with cellos came from inside the house.
“Yes?” the man said.
“Oh,” Rob said. “Hello. I’m Rob. We’re renting a place down the road—number 22?”
“Yes?” the man said.
“Beautiful out here, isn’t it,” Rob said.
“Yes,” the man said.
“Anyway,” Rob said. “I was just wondering—I’ve been hearing this beeping sound, and I was curious if you, uh, know what it is.”
“Sure,” the man said. “It’s my Goose Buster.”
“My Goose Buster. Keeps the geese away. Otherwise they land on the shore and never leave. Their crap poisons the water. Feathers everywhere. They’re awful birds.”
“I see,” Rob said. “Okay. And you have to—you have to leave it on all the time?”
“Yes,” the man said. “Otherwise they come back.”
“I see,” Rob said.
The beep came again, and Rob thought he saw the man’s mouth twitch in a brief smile. Then the man nodded at Loki.
“You ever take him hunting?” he said.
“The beagle. I used to have six of them. It was hell, having that many. But I would take them rabbit hunting. It’s what they were made for. He any good?”
Rob looked down, and tried to imagine the dog doing anything other than eating Birkenstocks or pissing on the kitchen floor.
“Somehow I doubt it,” Rob said. “Anyway, I get that you’ve got to keep the geese away. Totally. But is there any way we could—I don’t know—get a break from the beep every now and then? Just a few hours, here and there? Maybe?”
The man breathed in heavily and looked somewhere past Rob’s right shoulder, as if he were deep in thought. Then he met Rob’s gaze again.
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “But I hope you enjoy your stay down at number 22.”
They spent the day on the dock. First Bloody Marys, then gin-and-tonics and beer. Later they retrieved an inflatable pool float, in the shape of a pizza slice, from the boathouse. Felipe and Marcus took it out on the lake, holding their beers aloft, and played a game that Felipe called Baby Bird. The game involved taking a big swig and then spitting beer into the other person’s mouth. That was it. Rob and Carla watched from the dock.
“Christ, I feel old,” Rob said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Carla said. “You’re not missing much. Where’s the dog?”
“Probably wandering around somewhere,” Rob said. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
A plume of beer arced from Felipe’s lips to Marcus’s, and they both collapsed in laughter. As Marcus struggled to stay afloat on the pizza, Rob noted the jagged muscles of his back, the edges of a bicep as he crushed a beer can in his hand.
“People have histories,” Carla said. “It happens. You can’t really blame them.”
“Doesn’t make it any easier,” Rob said.
“No,” Carla said. “It doesn’t. He cares about you, though. You don’t have to worry.”
“I hope you’re right,” Rob said. “But sometimes I feel like his father.”
“Feeling like someone’s father is fine,” Carla said. “Everyone secretly wants to fuck their father. But sometimes I feel like Marcus’s sister.”
Rob took a sip of his gin.
“Sorry,” Carla said. “TMI.”
“That’s okay,” Rob said.
“I know you think it’s strange,” Carla said. “Marcus and me. It’s fine. I do too. He’s changed his mind before. What’s to stop him from doing it again?”
“I guess I’m just a little old-fashioned,” Rob said.
The beep reverberated over the lake. Rob did his best to ignore it.
“The book I’m working on,” Carla said. “The otherkin. There’s this one story that always sticks with me. A guy out in Michigan—he called himself Draco—was convinced that he was a dragon. He had fourteen surgeries to turn himself into one. Fourteen! Fangs for teeth, tattoos to make scales. He split his tongue so it forked like a lizard’s. Eventually he met an otherkin couple online, and they all fell in love. All three of them: an elf, a dwarf, and a dragon. Perfect, right? They moved in together and swore they would live happily ever after. The other two supported him, financially—they paid for his surgeries, so he could get closer to his true form.”
Carla went on, “Things hit the skids, obviously. Draco’s next surgery was going to be wings. He wanted honest-to-God wings. There was no way to do it. It’s scientifically, medically impossible. The other two tried to tell him that, but he wouldn’t listen, and they kicked him out. He jumped off the roof of the apartment building. The note he left said, ‘If you’d given me my wings, I could’ve flown away.’ Isn’t that beautiful? Anyway, the elf and the dwarf divorced a few months later.”
Carla drained her drink. “One of history’s great love stories,” she said.
That night, after Rob made beef-and-pork burgers—no egg, no breadcrumbs, no onions, nothing but meat, assembled into huge, thick patties—and cooked them medium over the grill, with gruyere and avocado on top, plus a vinegary fennel salad on the side and a few bottles of inexpensive red, and after they moved to the cabin’s living room to sprawl out in their fullness, Marcus decided that they ought to do a small amount of acid. He produced a little amber tincture bottle from the fridge. “Open wide for the acid fairy,” he said. Felipe stuck out his tongue, and Marcus leaned over him with the dropper, releasing one, two, three pearls into his waiting mouth. He did the same for Carla. Rob noted the way they both looked up at Marcus, eyes expectant, lips parted.
When Marcus came to him, Rob tried to wave the dropper off—“No, no,” he said—but this set off a round of noisy objections, and finally Rob assented. The droplets were bitter on his tongue. Felipe padded over beside him, and they waited.
It took about forty-five minutes. The first thing Rob felt was a wave of nausea. He would never eat meat again, he decided. The thought of it disgusted him. From now on he would only eat things that were clean and green and pure: spirulina smoothies, brown rice with seaweed, hummus. He would only eat things that put him in touch with the earth. It was important to be in touch with the earth, he decided. That was, after all, why they were here, in the woods, all together.
“Don’t you love being in touch with the earth?” he said to the ceiling.
Felipe, lying next to him on the couch, began to laugh like a hyena. “Yes,” he said.
Marcus and Carla were, very slowly, making a fire. They seemed to treat each log, each shred of newspaper, with reverence. When they finally lit it, using a long barbecue lighter, and the flames leaped up, they sat back in awe of what they had done. It was the dawn of civilization and they had invented fire. The room glowed orange and grew hot. Rob’s skin was oscillating. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, but it was intense. He had no hallucinations, heard no voices, although he was aware of rainbow-hued oil slicks that seemed to swirl on the peripheries of his vision. He realized he had been staring at the wall, saying nothing, for quite some time. He smiled involuntarily, genuinely.
The cabin was now very warm. Sweat dotted Rob’s forehead. His groin felt humid in his shorts. He lifted his head from the back of the couch and saw that Marcus and Carla were kissing each other, with great tenderness, on the faux-fur rug in front of the fire. It was a tableau loaded with romance. Rob looked down at Felipe, who was holding Loki like a teddy bear. This was also a tableau loaded with romance. Rob felt very close with everyone in this living room, in this cabin in Vermont. He felt full of love. He also felt like he was about to spontaneously combust. He leaned over Felipe’s face.
“I’m hot,” he said.
Felipe kissed him lingeringly on the lips. “I know you are, baby,” he said.
Rob got up and walked out onto the back deck. After the heat of the fire, the night air was a shock. It was cloudy and there were no stars overhead, but the moon was huge. He could feel the rumblings of nature around him. He thought about his daughter, about rainforests and smartphones. Slide-projector images flashed through his mind: a grassland aflame, the time-lapsed whorl of a hurricane, an animal’s clean-picked skeleton in the desert. An idea came to him, unbidden. He walked down the steps and stopped at the first tree he saw. He put his hand on the bark, a dinosaur’s pebbly skin.
Rob wrapped his arms around the tree.
“I love you,” he whispered.
When he aimed his phone’s flashlight at the driveway, he saw the looming bulk of the cream-white Cadillac. There were no lights on in the casement windows. The house was dark and quiet. He stood there, waiting.
He followed the sound, around the side of the house and down a path toward the lake, keeping the light on his feet as he walked. When he got to the shore, he stopped and waited again. There was a stretch of white sand along the water, presumably trucked in at some expense, and a long wooden dock with a powerboat moored at the end. He directed the light at the hull and read the boat’s name: Second Wind.
He turned to his left and saw, finally, the Goose Buster, mounted on the wall of the cabin’s boathouse. It was a round speaker, attached to a box, with a volume knob and several switches, all protected by a plastic case. He put his phone on the ground, the light shining up at him, and reached to pry the machine from the wall, but found that he couldn’t. It was tightly bolted. He tried again, leaning back with all his weight. Nothing.
He wandered back down to the shore and found, at the edges of the artificial beach, a rock the size of a softball. He carried it over to the boathouse. Then he lifted it to his shoulder and brought it down on the Goose Buster, hard as he could. A great, cataclysmic cracking sound filled the night. He paused, breathing heavily, and looked to see if any lights came on in the house. Nothing.
The Goose Buster let out another beep, but it was pathetic, mournful. “I’m sorry,” Rob said to the machine. Then he lifted the rock and hit the Goose Buster again. By now, the ground was littered with plastic and aluminum, sparkling star-like in the glow of his phone. The Goose Buster was busted, its mechanical guts exposed. Rob stood there, panting, and listened. No beep came. He stayed a long while, just to be sure, and still no beep came.
When Rob got back to the cabin, the fire was starting to die down, but the living room was still lit like the underworld. After the darkness of the outdoors, it took his eyes a moment to understand what they were seeing. Marcus was asleep on the couch, a line of drool escaping the corner of his mouth. On the faux-fur rug, Felipe and Carla were rutting, Carla on all fours, almost prostrating herself, Felipe behind her, his ass shuddering with movement. Loki stood before them, barking occasionally as they grunted and sighed. In the fading light of the fire, Rob saw that their backs were slick with sweat.
He awoke in bed alone. It was bright out, already late in the day. He didn’t feel hung over or like he was coming down, only a sense of exhaustion and an obscurely pleasant emptiness. The world through the bedroom window was silent.
He pulled on a pair of shorts and picked his way through the heap of bodies in the living room. When he got to the dock, he looked out across the lake and tried to find the house with the green trim, the artificial beach, the boat. He found it, not so far away. He waded into the water and felt it swirl around his calves. The silence remained.
He became aware that he hadn’t seen Loki anywhere—not in the house, not on the dock. Where was the dog? For a moment—for perhaps the first time ever—he began to worry about Loki. He thought of the bumper sticker on the Cadillac: If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot ‘em? Then his phone rang.
“Hey Dad,” Lucy said. “When are you coming back again?”
“I’ll be back in the city tonight. And then I’ll pick you up from school on Tuesday. Remember?”
“That’s what I’m calling about,” Lucy said. “There’s a documentary playing in the city that I want to see. About bonobos.”
“Bonobos. They’re the apes that are going extinct in the Congo. They’re like chimpanzees, but smaller. And they all have sex with each other. The boys have sex with the boys, the girls have sex with the girls.”
“When I was your age,” Rob said, “these were not the kinds of things I was learning about.”
“When a new bonobo joins the group,” Lucy said, “it has to have sex with every other member of the group. That’s how they get to know each other.”
“And they kiss on the lips!” Lucy said. “Isn’t that cool?”
“Lucy,” Rob said. “You’re very mature for your age. Do you know that?”
“Yeah. Mom tells me too.”
“Good,” Rob said. “I want you to know that. I want you to know that you can do anything you want. You can save the world, if you want.”
“I know,” Lucy said. “I’m going to.”
Rob scanned the water, searching for fish. “I’m glad you called. Does this mean you’re not getting rid of your phone?”
“Nothing. Forget it. How’s your mother?”
“She’s okay. She’s busy. But I think she’s lonely. Are you guys still friends?”
“I hope so,” Rob said. “This hasn’t been easy on her. She’s trying her best.”
Rob raised his eyes from the water to the sky. On the horizon, he saw a shape approaching: a V. A ragged, lazy V. There was a drumroll of wings beating, a dirge of mournful honks. The geese flew toward him, white chinstraps on black faces, fat grey bodies and great grey wings, and landed clumsily in the water, splashing everywhere, as if they were still learning how to do this. A smattering of down floated in the air. The geese floated there on the waves of the lake, calling out to each other, and headed straight in the direction of the boat named Second Wind. They really were awful birds.
“Dad?” Lucy said. “You there?”
“Sorry, sweetie,” Rob said. “The geese have arrived.”