This is chapter 3 of my novel, tentatively titled, Boy Privilege. The work is set in a dystopian America which falls into a second civil war brought on by ecological collapse and resulting economic depression. After his father is killed by radicals in an attempted coup, Jonas Mills goes to Mount Rainier, his father’s favorite place and spiritual center, to decide whether to attempt revenge, or return to college and his regular life.
I discovered, the next day, that if I wanted to pursue my father’s case, it wouldn’t be for a long time. I couldn’t join the FBI for two years, until I was 23 and I finished my degree. Plus there were extensive security checks. My criminal record was clean, but I worried about anti-capitalist anti-Williams statements I’d made online, and my support for the Greens, who were under even more attack now by the executive. The police were hiring, of course, but the route to being made a full detective would require attending a police academy, and then years of probationary training before being assigned to any case. I called Mander’s office again and again, but got no response.
Besides all that, I’d never wanted to be in law enforcement. The FBI worked for Williams, and the police, for all the improvements since the end of the war on drugs and mass incarceration, ultimately enforced the inequalities in our society. I’d never imagined myself as a gatekeeper for the rich and powerful. But I couldn’t go back to my old life with my father’s killers loose, or the threat of bombings and shootings on campus. I tried to find an answer to this all morning, as my sister and Ali prepared to take a car back to California. After breakfast, I had a final talk with my sister, before she left. My mother was upstairs painting, Ali was in the shower. We sat on the living room futon, listening as the rain pattered on the skylight above.
“So?” she asked me, after I explained there was no way I was joining law enforcement.
“I don’t know. I just know I have to find out who did this.”
She leaned back in her chair, sighed. “They’ll catch them eventually. They made one mistake, they’ll make another.”
I ignored the barb, but couldn’t help but take the bait again.
“You don’t care, do you?”
“I care about dad. It’s just that the revolution is more important. We’ll all be dead in a decade if we don’t change. Look at the fucking apple trees.”
Hyperbole aside, she had a certain point. A new kind of rust, named Rosacea Blight, had developed this fall, which had killed almost every apple and pear tree on the entire West Coast, including the two in our back yard. It was now spreading global.
“I just don’t think you can’t change people by robbing them,” I said. “That doesn’t solve the desire for competition.”
“That’s only part of the problem. It’s basic physics. We don’t have enough energy to support our population. But if we redistribute wealth, it gives us more time.”
“At what cost? You think tearing apart our civilization is going to save it?”
She smiled tiredly. “You never answered the question.”
“All I know is I can’t go back to school. Can’t stay here with them out there.”
“Per, forget about this revenge. We’ve got bigger problems. We need your support.”
“You know I support the Greens. But not this craziness of killing and robbing people, no matter how rich or evil they are.”
She shook her head. “I wish you’d see this clearly. Recognize the truth of our situation.”
“Funny, I was thinking the same thing.”
She smirked at this. “So?”
“So I’m going to the Mountain tomorrow. To try and find answers. To find dad, I guess.”
“Hmm.” I expected Elise to dismiss this, but she looked thoughtful, cataloging good memories around Mt. Rainier.
“God, I miss him.”
Ali came down the spiral staircase, humming Arcane Oneiro’s “Spectral Nights”
“Good luck,” Elise whispered, getting up.
After seeing Elise and Ali off, I took a car to my apartment. I made it in time to see Kim and have our regular green tea and toast at our chintzy kitchen table, before she had to leave.
After class, she had to go to Everett that night. “I gotta go see Aaron,” she said. “He refused to go to school today.”
“Damn,” I said. Most schools across the nation, and universities, had reopened.
“He’s still in shock,” she said. “I guess he knew the kid pretty well, was friendly with the security guard.”
She brushed her bangs out of her eyes, set down her tea. “You called in sick?”
“Yeah. I’m not scheduled again until Wednesdays. I’m going to decide tonight.” I was dreading going back into work at the campus writing center; I could only imagine what reviews I’d get in my current state.
She leaned across the table, caressed my cheek. “Everyone understands. Nobody’s going to question you taking the semester off.” I hadn’t yet told her that I might be taking off much longer than that.
“I know, Baby. Thank you,” I said.
“Stay safe at the Mountain, OK?”
“I’ll be fine. There haven’t been any reports recently.”
We finished our tea, and Kim went to the bedroom for her bag, and kissed me on her way out the door. I watched her from the window, as she danced her way to an arriving car, her AR image this morning projecting a young Martha Graham.
As I packed my camping gear, and waited for an order drone to arrive with my food and bottle of whisky, I thought about why I was going. Many of my favorite childhood and teenage memories with my father were hikes and camping around Mt. Rainier. It was a like a second home to him, and going there might help me decide what to do. Like my father, I had no religious faith, but I couldn’t help but imagine that his spirit, if he had one, would go there to rest.
The weather had cleared the night before, and was going to stay warm for a few days. Bad for the snowpack and most life on earth, good for me. When my ordered car arrived, I threw my gear in the back seat, and got into the passenger. As the car efficiently guided itself out of the U District and over the Ship Canal Bridge, the sun broke out, and the sky opened up.
Usually, on trips up to the park, I drove. The feeling of control, of guiding the first part of the hike, appealed to me. My father had also insisted I learn how to drive, in an age when most people didn’t bother, and the drive to the Mountain was one I’d done many times under his supervision. But I couldn’t concentrate today. Kim understood my anxiety, my anger at his unsolved death. She understood taking time off work and school. She knew emotional devastation. Losing her maternal grandmother–who’d been a semi-famous dancer in Denmark–had made her a grief zombie for months. But if I left school, took a new path, it would tear us apart.
The car followed the I-5 and headed south, the traffic moving in automated efficiency. I watched the city roll by and ached at the thought of losing Kim, and missing my dad. The loss had taken on a dull pounding: no more hikes, no more food in his beard, he won’t be at your wedding, nada. A memory flashed of a camping trip when I was nine, when he brought one of Oracle’s first butlers–a 6000 series–and struggled to program it to chop wood. I remember laughing and laughing as it helplessly tried to dislodge a log stuck to its axe blade, while my dad shook his head and shut it down to reprogram again. I smiled at this and sighed, wondering what was the point of going hiking. When I came back, he’d still be gone.
Crossing out of Seattle into Sea-Tac, I watched the landscape change. Adverts and AR info icons floated above all the landscape, mixed with egraffiti. Sprawling homeless encampments were built under all the overpasses and among abandon buildings beyond the freeway. Arks of multicolored tarps, cardboard, tents, tides of garbage flowing from each shelter. Some people called them Carlylevilles, after the previous president or “Great Americas”, but most people didn’t call them anything. I could see Reach addicts inside some of the lean-tos, staring into space, sometimes carefully moving their hands, manipulating objects in VR. Playing Empire’s Children, or Freedom Travels. All immersive, all consuming, all free with adverts. The Mountain’s eruption, rising coastlines, water shortages, this new blight and the post-physical labor economy had displaced so many.
The suburbs worsened as I moved into Kent and then Auburn, the latter of which had been destroyed in the eruption eight years before. Interstate 167 had been rebuilt, of course, but most of the towns hadn’t. Auburn was row after row of abandoned foundations filled with weeds, some with rough shelters–wall tents or dilapidated RVs–but many were simply overgrown, the blackberries ten feet high. The high school had been torn down, and its materials used to make other buildings. On top of a hill of rubble near the center of old town, a monument was going up, marked by a large golden cross, glowing in the morning light.
Memories of sixth grade, at my desk, ironically studying volcanism–the Mountain in the news for mouths–when a deep rolling boom rattled the windows and shook the school. In an instant, we were at the windows, seeing it live, sixty miles distant. In my memory now, that moment is overlaid with the clips from a thousand phones, from a thousand angles, ad infinitum. Even one from space, and another from someone filming from an airline flying over at 35,000 feet.
It was like St. Helens, but instead of exploding out one side of the mountain, the magma plug blasted almost squarely out of the center of the mountain. The ejection ripped out the Liberty Cap and from this pinpoint the sides peeled back in an expanding plume of superheated gas that billowed into an ever-rising mushroom cloud. In a second, the glaciers layered across the mountain’s side vaporized into massive lahars.
The moment soon became a binary, before the mountain, and after; for me, childhood and adulthood. Later, my thirteen-year-old mind wondered, how could something so epic cause so much death? Why did Mother Nature and the universe not care about us?
A week after the eruption, it was estimated that 5,000 people had been killed. Puyallup, Sumner and Tacoma hadn’t been evacuated in time. Almost a quarter million people were made homeless, and nearly 60,000 properties had been destroyed, causing 220 billion dollars in damages.
The car exited onto the 167 highway. On the right, the old Outlet Mall was a ruin, too big to tear down, but stripped of anything useful. Around it, cabins had been built, cut from the logs brought down by the Mountain’s floods. Rough paths ran between them, like an 1890’s logging town, except for the massive trash dump behind the former parking lot.
I sighed again, recalled watching it all be destroyed from the safety of my living room. After our car was packed full with supplies and valuables, and we awaited an evacuation order that never came, we gaped at our projector, wearing our jackets. My dad was pacing next to the rest of us, cursing the officials who hadn’t ordered evacuations.
“252 shocks last night, two at 5.0 and you don’t do anything? Incompetent bastards.”
On the screen, we watched aerials of lahars, over 200 feet high and a thousand yards wide, swept down the White and Puyallup Rivers, destroying all in their paths. They crushed bridges and flooded the towns of Greenwater, Orting, Buckley, and Enumclaw. There was a horrific drone video of a man and wife and child and dog racing up the narrow valley slopes of Greenwater, along the White River. They dashed up a forested mountain hillside before the floodwaters, only to be caught–first the wife and child, then the father, and finally the dog–to be crushed under the leaden waves, rolling with sheared evergreens.
Next, the floodwaters formed standing waves heading towards Puyallup and Tacoma, which became zones of total panic. We sat, riveted, stomachs turning, sometimes crying out, as the lahars reached the 410 freeways in Sumner, which was piled with traffic. At this point, my dad was only half watching as he made calls to family and friends, between cursing those in charge.
Even though the bridge arched hundreds of feet over the river, the lahars reached its top, and pounded it with 100-foot tree trunks, boulders, cars, even the floating shells of houses ripped from their foundations. This debris piled against the freeway pillars until the waters started to rise around it and cut off both ends of the bridge. In a matter of minutes, the pressure was too much, and the cement supports gave way, pulling the bridge from the freeway in a crumbling of concrete and snapping reinforced rebar. People dived from their cars, fell into the water, tried to swim amid the roaring current. This scene was repeated only minutes later when the floodwaters reached the Puyallup River where it crossed the 512 highway. Equally loaded with cars and passengers, it too was hit and collapsed, dumping hundreds of cars and families into the waves. A few minutes later, when the wall of water reached the I-5 where it crossed through Tacoma, most of the passengers had fled, leaving only vehicles to be destroyed when the waters pulled down the concrete supports. I found myself crunched between my mother and sister, the whole family hugging each other, and crying, letting out moans of despair.
The lahar reached Commencement Bay and formed a tsunami, which flooded the shoreline around Tacoma and inundated the community of Gig Harbor across from it. We were soon greeted with images of hundreds of boats piled along the houses and business that dotted the small town. Point Defiance Zoo was flooded, with most of the animals killed. The majority of the destruction occurred within the first hour after the eruption. Once the lahars reached the sea, the floodwaters started to recede. Seattle was barely impacted, at first.
I slumped down in the seat as the car passed wrecked Auburn, the wretched memories compounded by my father being there through it all. The afternoon of the eruption, after the flooding had ended, he and I set a ladder up to the roof. We climbed up, looked towards the eastern horizon. The Mountain was still convulsing, its column of smoke now so high it blended into the upper stratosphere. Something hit my cheek. I brushed it away, felt it smudge into soft dust. A thin ash was falling, dotting my father’s hair and beard. By the next day, an inch of it covered the entire city. Yakima, on the opposite side of the Cascades, and directly beneath the jet stream, was soon covered in almost a foot.
Our power and water went off, then came back intermittently over the week. The ash killed plants, choked the air, and caused havoc on air and water filters. We ordered pizza via drone that night, and it took three hours to arrive, after the first one crashed into a building. We ended up hardly eating any of it.
The car reached the outskirts of Enumclaw, where the 164 met the 410 and wound up into the foothills. Dropping down into the town center, every other house was either abandoned and stripped to the foundations, or were in the process of being rebuilt. Many of them were rough cabins, some roofed with thick cedar boards. Much of the downtown was rebuilt in brick, but where the 164 met the 410 and neared the entrance to the Cascades, on the right side, which had been a Safeway and collection of other stores, was now a park, built on a low hill.
Leaving town the highway rapidly moved uphill into the forest. The White River flowed on the right side, down below, but occasionally the highway would bridge over it where it turned or ox bowed. The eruption had knocked out every bridge along it and washed out huge chunks of it in other places, but it all had been repaired with Depression-recovery federal works funding. On both sides of the valley, a two-hundred yards up from the road, the hills were swept of trees: nothing now but low shrubs and new seedlings. The river banks were still piled with old logs and huge boulders from the lahars.
There was little traffic along the 410. I passed a car every five minutes or so. That was always the way it was leaving the City: empty of vehicles. Most people in the burbs couldn’t afford autos, and certainly not to go up to the Mountain for a lark. More than that, radical Greens–known as Elves–sometimes murdered or kidnapped hikers who they believed were harming nature. Sometimes they’d murder them, then commit suicide after, doing their part to reduce the human virus. There were Outsiders in the Cascades too. They were hardcore libertarians, who rejected the authority of the U.S. government, and attempted to live off the land, totally separate from society. They would usually kill anyone who discovered them by accident, and sometimes intense gun battles would occur when they’d bump into a group of Elves. Across the country, national park visitors were at all-time lows.
I passed the old road to the abandoned ski resort of Crystal Mountain, which had been damaged by the eruption, and then shut down because of the road being out for three years. Even before that, it had been running at a loss from the declining snowpack.
A mile later, the car pulled to the left side of the road, along the gravel shoulder. It stopped at the trailhead to the Crystal Lakes, barely visible from the roadside. I got out with my pack, and looked across the road. A circle of devastation for eight miles surrounded the Mountain, the trees and plants scoured away, replaced by gray ash and exposed rocks. Here and there within this perimeter–which stretched all the way up to the hillside behind me–patches of conifers and shrubs regrew. Below me, the White River flowed along a nearly bare valley, its edges lined with the fallen skeletons of trees.
I looked out at the symmetrical crater, bathed in new snow. Its rim now stood at 10,111 feet, almost exactly 4000 less than before the eruption. It was still beautiful, even though it had caused so much death. It gleamed, blue and purest white, like some crystal ring pushed up out of the earth’s crust.
I turned to the trail as the car departed down the road. The narrow path led horizontally up the hillside, and was dotted with huge rotting conifers and boulders placed during the eruption, all diligently cut or moved aside along the path by the Parks Service. All the way to the top of the ridge had been sheared of trees, but I knew from pervious hikes that the vegetation on the opposite side remained, protected by the topography. When I’d been a boy, and my father had first taken me here, the trail had been like a tunnel beneath the thick branches of Douglas firs.
Off to the right of the trailhead, the tiny streamlet of Crystal Creek gurgled, jumping between rocks shaded by new alder bushes, then down into a culvert under the road and into the White River. That, at least, hadn’t changed. I remembered my father filling his canteen here, a decade ago, and bathing his face in the icy water. I could see the droplets of water coiling in his beard, his satisfied “Ahhh” against that hot summer afternoon. I sighed, shouldered my pack and started the hike upwards.
The trail was switchbacks, three miles and 2300 feet of elevation climb. My back was soon soaked with sweat despite the cool air. Snow lay under the bushes, but the forecast was clear for the next two days. I turned a switchback, and another, grunting as I heaved myself upwards. Soon I’d nearly drained my water bottle.
After a mile of hiking, the trail turned to the right, cutting into a valley in the hills. Here the Douglas and alpine firs were undisturbed, and towered above. It was quiet except for the sounds of the forest. Squirrels and birds chirped in the upper stories, and the evergreens rustled on a soft wind. I stopped for a last look at the Mountain, before the trail led below Crystal peak which obscured it from view.
As I looked, the crack of a rifle shot echoed in the distance to the southwest. I stiffened in surprise and fear, wondered for a moment if I’d be struck by a sniper bullet, killed for daring to disturb this wilderness. Or maybe I was being stalked by Central Processing agents, who guessed I was on my father’s case? The echoes faded, and I could see nothing but the gray plains and the Mountain. I swallowed. How far away was the shot? Had it been a mistake coming here?
I decided to keep going. My father wouldn’t have wanted me to turn back, to be afraid. And flush of anger ran along my neck. Could his killers be out here? Hiding in the Cascades until the case went cold? I huffed in frustration, knowing that even if they were, or even if I ran into them, I had no way to arrest them, let alone killed them. For the first time, it occurred to me that I needed skills in killing. In combat. I wondered, suddenly, if the military might be a route to settling the score. Finding a sense a satisfaction in this thought, I pondered what service I might join as started on again, head-down, legs burning, eating up the miles.
Soon the trail leveled out, and I neared the first lake. Breathing hard, taking in the thin air, I felt better about my choice. I hadn’t heard any more rifle shoots, seen a single person, or any signs of recent hikers.
Lower Crystal Lake was a 100-foot wide pond, with shrubs grown in close on every side. In the summer, when I’d visited before, it was a mosquito den, only a place to rest before moving onto the final lake.
I kept up the trail, feeling my exhaustion and hunger now. Thin alpine firs lined the gray sandy path, undulating in height along the rolling valley floor.
A quarter mile later I reached it. A small alpine tarn a 1000-feet across, shallow, and absolutely transparent. Filled with rotting logs, and its bottom placid and brown. Above it stood a gray igneous ridgeline which curved around out of sight south. Just off the right of the trail, on the near side of the lake, were campsites with firepits and vault toilets. More alpine firs, perfect dark green upright triangles, lined the shore. I walked around the lake, following the trail on the left, to the far rocky side. Tiny fish lolled along the water’s edge, sluggish in the cold. The ridgeline was white-capped with new snow from the storm. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees from highway 410, and now hovered around freezing.
On the far side, almost exactly opposite of where the trail met the lake, the shore was a solid rock escarpment, rising up above the water’s edge. I made my camp there, setting up my tent and building a fire from the dead branches of nearby trees. There were old rings of ashes and charred wood in spots on the rock, signs that others had chosen this site as a better–if illegal–alternative to the regular campsites on the other side. I wondered if caught by Elves if I’d be executed over this scaring of the landscape.
After setting tent and making a fire, I poured a drink from the bottle of whiskey I’d brought, and cooked vat-sausages and bread in my camping pan. Watching the lake, the sadness was more tangible now, a catalogue of all the things missing. My father’s love for my mother, his presence at holidays, during my weekend visits, just his plain existence. And there were the events he’d never see: my graduation, my wedding, children if I had any. All the minor changes that life brings to us. And the intimate: no more calls for advice, heart-to-hearts in his study, guidance on papers. I’d never catch him walking across campus to give some lecture for the AI Studies department. I thought of the times I’d seen him on campus and he hadn’t seen me, and I’d not said hello, out of embarrassment, and I felt a stone of regret in my throat.
I poured another drink, moving through all my memories of him, until the whiskey haze grew so strong I could no longer make my mind function. As the sun set, I tidied up the fire, took a last glance at the empty horizon of the lake, and got into bed to look through all my photos of him on my contacts.
Late into the night, I woke. I heard footsteps, rustling along the slope above my campsite. Probably just deer or elk, I thought, trying to calm myself. I put on my jacket and stepped into my boots outside. The moon was up, high and gibbous against the Milky Way. It was quiet, the lake a giant mirror of the sky. I looked up the hillside, and standing twenty feet away, just visible in the moonlight, was a figure. Immediately, I knew it was my father. He walked slowly towards me, stepping carefully down the talus. He wore two huge blue wool sweaters to keep out the cold. He smiled and I ran up to hug him.
“Dad,” I shouted.
“Hi, Boyo,” he said. “I missed you.”
I broke down. He was so real, his face, his bulbous nose, his voice . . .
“Jonas,” he said, pulling back and patting my shoulders with both hands. “It’s all right. Come sit down with me.”
He made a fire out of coals buried in the ashes, and we sat close, the rocks hard and cold. He put an arm around me, our clothes lit orange by the sudden flames.
“How did you come back?”
He shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter. You need to focus on telling what you see. You’re a witness now.”
“Dad,” I said, in a panic over how long he’d visit for. “Who did it? What did they look like?”
His face grew stern “No,” he said. “Not that. It’s not what’s important. If you find those people, you’ll let them live. You want to fight them, well . . . You have to worry about survival now. A shadow on your mind will be a greater danger than bullets. Protect your mind, your soul, your you, Jonas. Write what you’ve seen when you come through to the other side. You’re going to be one of the pieces in history. You have to accept that.”
“But why, Dad?”
“Don’t ask for reasons. You’re thrown into the world, you have to face it and make it back.”
“Why did you have to die?”
“So you can live.”
I shook the tears from my eyes. “It doesn’t work like that and you know it.”
“Do I?” he said, face serious.
I was sobbing, crazy. I stood up. “Tell me,” I screamed.
“Live, Boyo,” he said. “Live for me.”
I woke up, his words echoing in my head. I was in the tent, but on top of my blankets, my boots still on. I leapt up, unzipped. It was still dark, the gray before sunrise. A wind was blowing across the lake, buffeting the tent. I looked around desperately for my father, for some sign that he had been here. There were no boot prints but my own, and the ashes were long cold. Something tickled my face and I scanned the sky. Snow, but the sky was still clear. Gazing upwards, I realized it was snow blowing off the ridgeline in the breeze. The stars and the moon seemed less bright than in the dream, the moon lower in the sky. I shivered, felt the cold wind on my face, and the icy tears there. I zipped back up in the tent and lay unsleeping. When I hiked back down at sunrise, I saw no one, and on the drive back the roads were even more empty than before.
Watching the curdled suburbs pass, I knew there was no going back to my old life. My father hadn’t ordered me to find his killers, but he’d said I would. And that I had to focus on survival. Hadn’t Ochs said the military would be a safe place in time of civil conflict? I knew it was just a dream, but the vividness of it convinced me it was what my father would have wanted. And even if I wasn’t allowed to kill them, it was the mystery I wanted solved, and punishment of some kind would come with their apprehension. As I hiked down from Crystal Lake–without telling anyone–I made an appointment with an Army recruiter for the same day.