The Mountains Are Laughing
The wind, always on the hunt for a new location, combed the straw-yellow grass. The prairie withstood the wind as the gale blasted the grains, turning the invisible visible. Colorado Springs lay patiently close to the earth, as if prepared to love it.
Visitors gathered at the base of the mountains, taking pictures of the Beware of Rattlesnake signs caught between the bayonet shrubs gathered around the buttes. The tourists came from Denver, in search of awe. Deserted windmills from the gold rush jutted out from the small valley outside the mountain. Vincent stood at the edge of the cliff, looking outward, his phone turned off. His jacket, strained from his newly trained biceps, rippled between his body and the wind.
A stranger approached him, wearing a cloth face mask and holding a disposable camera. Vincent stood up almost preemptively, watching her walk toward the edge of the cliff, watching how her feet moved clumsily along the grooves of the hill.
“Could you take our picture?” Her sunglasses had sunflowers printed along the sides.
Vincent nodded and pointed, asking where the best angle for the snapshot would be.
He took pictures of the small ragtag team she had come with. Her boyfriend posed with his hands in his pockets, leaning only slightly toward his fellow travelers. The other guy, white like his companions, laughed as they joked about the wind.
“Where are you from?” the boyfriend said, yelling against the air.
“Out east,” Vincent shouted back.
They were friendly. They showed him the pictures he had taken alongside videos of them driving on the road south and even of the bus ride from the Denver airport terminal. Vincent’s large frame stood over them, with only the third traveler tall enough to look him in the eye. They asked about his job and how long he’d been in Colorado.
“Three years, I’d say.” They asked about his age. “I’m thirty-four, and you?”
He didn’t remember their names, nor their answers to his questions. Tourists to Colorado were always cheerful, ready to spark up a conversation. They were happy to be there, around the long Rockies, where the shadows of the range could be seen from a distance.
The woman laughed and turned to him, asking if he wanted something, a small pill that she had pulled from a backpack. “We’re here for a while, would you like to climb the hill with us?” she asked, a warm smile underneath her shades. She had partially removed the cloth face mask, the rose-pink fabric now dangling off her ear.
Vincent stared at her for a moment and then laughed, his voice coming out deeply. “Thank you, but no thank you. You should know, I am that lone tower.” He said this softly, looking over her shoulder. His hands lay relaxed by his sides.
She blinked, startled. Vincent did not know if she could hear the drift of his Chinese accent. She excused herself and walked off, looking over her shoulder as she made her path back to her flock, where they stood around in the small lot below with the boyfriend smoking a cigarette. Vincent watched the blue van move away and went back to sitting so quietly, with his back toward the grain of the stones behind him. The valley’s wind blew, catching the sides of his head, refreshing and cold.
On the drive back, Vincent could see the mountains, looming high over the small grassland of Colorado Springs. Their gray shadows stretched out like columns, like an open jaw. To his left were even wider plains, the corridors of the earth that carried travelers as far east as Kansas.
To the north, a blue glacier was assembling, the color of Mt. Everest. But having lived there for years, Vincent knew in an instant it was the great fires in the Rocky Mountains. The avalanche of smoke looked like a castle in the sky, the plumes of smog rising forward and into a long tail that carried itself east toward oblivion. Vincent drove on, almost closing his eyes to avoid looking at the mass growing in the distance.
At night, Vincent had been having dreams, ones from which he’d awake calmly, before turning his face deeper into the pillow, laying himself back into those worlds.
In one dream, he was older. His head had been shaved completely bald, and he had gained weight, more weight beyond even that of a bodybuilder, and he would look down at the body of what felt like a fully grown bear of a man. He sported a large brown beard, like the white and black wrestlers he had seen on WWE as a teen.
He was living in the future, in a two-floor log cabin out even further into the country, in Ozark-land possibly. The pines would surround the house, and a small stone road would take this house back toward smaller roads, situated far from any highway or gas station. Here, young families would come, often just a woman and a man, sometimes just one woman. They would give him a baby wrapped in a small blanket. He would carry the infant down to the fireplace room, as they drove away. He would hold the newly given infant, gently speaking to it, walking to a room farther back. A nursery was there, where small cradles were neatly organized into rows. He would bring this child to their new place. In this world, he would hold them each gently, attending to small medical charts written on cheap paper and a small wooden pencil. He listened attentively to each of the tiny voices, and when he held one with the bottle, his chest would be so close to their mouths and it was as if the milk was his. The dream was suspended in just one hour of a day. Vincent never truly achieved the sight of this home after or during sundown. Always in the deep afternoon, the moment would stop promptly when his eye fell on where the one lone window for the fireplace room would shelter sunlight, the dust moving slowly along the rocking chair.
Xiao Hu lai le. Xiao Hu was taking the airplane for the first time in seven years, due to his nerves, and despite his nerves. The chemistry courses in New Jersey were proving to be remarkably challenging, and while he worked hard enough to squeeze top marks for the semester, Xiao Hu needed time away from college life. Over fall break it was decided that he would fly over, by himself, as Vincent waited to catch him.
Vincent’s mother had called last week, around 7:00 p.m., as they had a system set to adjust to the two-hour time difference. She often called from the kitchen, and he could hear the buzzing of the washing machine in the back.
“Ke neng Xiao Hu jiu xu yao yi dian ren bang lai kan ta.” Her voice was steady, indifferent, as if her arms were casually crossed. Just a small errand, really, to chaperone the student around. “Ni zhi dao ta de baba xiang se me yang.”
Xiao Hu’s father, the prominent pharmaceutical director. He was generous, outgoing. He was known to bring German beer kegs to the Thanksgiving potlucks, where five or six Chinese families would gather each year. His mirth, matched only by his wife’s generous helpings of her own saran-wrapped meals, would bring a splash of color to the existing variety at the table. The families would never elect to meet at the Hu household, though, as the Chen’s were allergic to cats, which the Hu’s had three of.
While Vincent’s family didn’t need any help, they admired Mr Hu’s personality. It’d be good luck to exchange kindness, in this way.
He’d be arriving in Denver in about a week. Characteristic of Xiao Hu, it had been a plan made only in the blink of a month. Apparently Mrs. Hu almost booked a ticket for herself to come along.
Like observing a comet cast from the sky, Vincent counted the days as he waited for an imminent arrival.
Vincent had heard about the first breakdown over the phone, years back when he was in college and Xiao Hu had been in secondary school. One night, after a long week of basketball tryouts, Xiao Hu had cracked under the pressure and needed to be admitted into the hospital in Piscataway. Vincent’s mother described the apparent agony the parents had to go through, wrestling with the questions that the doctors were posing for them: How much was he eating? How often did he stay awake at night, rocking back and forth?
Xiao Hu stayed at home often after that, but the house was sizable enough for a teenager to live comfortably by himself. Once, when the Hu’s invited Vincent’s family over, the high schooler showed off his National Geographic magazines, which took up an entire bookshelf, spanning over a decade.
As they flipped through the images of red-tailed hawks and the wide, double-page spreads of the Michigan landscape, Xiao Hu spoke energetically about how he had discovered a mistake on the Lake Erie Wikipedia. He had proudly retraced the actual timeline of the watershed and found that there was enough evidence in two geological surveys to prove that Lake Erie was much older than the webpage claimed.
Xiao Hu sat very comfortably, it seemed, near the older Vincent. Vincent would move slowly away, as his junior spoke sometimes so quickly that their bodies would get close, much closer than Vincent felt comfortable.
That Thanksgiving, Xiao Hu also described the panic he felt during the basketball tryouts. “I had set up shop in the garage, making marks using charcoal to see how high I can jump,” he explained. “I was so prepared.”
“Was it the coach?” Vincent asked. They did not grow up in the same school districts, but he was aware that Xiao Hu’s high school was particularly competitive, known for cut-throat academics. The Hu family had invested heavily in college essay preparations, soon after Xiao Hu turned thirteen.
“No, no, it was the people.” There hadn’t been many East Asians trying out alongside him. “Some of them were really muscular, but also really nice.” Xiao Hu smiled as he remembered. “Those guys were funny, and told these jokes to each other. I remember I kept laughing at this one joke, and for some reason when it was my turn in the final round, I thought about it and started getting nervous. I was worried I’d laugh, or yell, or something.”
Xiao Hu ended up leaving early, and when the roster was announced the next day, Xiao Hu was not at school. His parents found him in his room, unable to speak, lying down in his bed with his eyes wide open.
When he didn’t respond, an ambulance had to be called. Only on the ER gurney did Xiao Hu start to talk, quietly, about his failure at the basketball tryout.
Vincent was engaged to a woman named Esther four years before. The way the engagement ended between Vincent and Esther was a gradual process, which surprised him. They had met and shared their first date in the course of weeks, but the finale of their relationship spanned much longer than its beginning. There was something structural about the breakup, as if the decline had been built, deliberately by hand.
Esther had met him through a mutual friend. She knew Trina, who knew Rishi, who knew James, who in turn knew Vincent. The string of connections allowed a sense of trust, and by the time they had gone on their first date they had already known so much about the other. Esther knew of Vincent’s background studying computers, and he knew of her love for origami and the graphic design degree she never talked about.
She enjoyed discussing movies, particularly classics, like Breakfast At Tiffany’s. She looked like Audrey Hepburn and complained about how she wished she could wear the twin tails as well as the actress did in the film. She was shy about how she looked when she wore her hair anything other than straight down.
But ultimately they were both attractive in the way one would expect. Both of them were very tall, he was bulky and she was slim. The couple looked good together, and when they waited in line at the Korean bakery sometimes teenagers would point at them and giggle.
“They’re jealous,” Esther would say, “but they’re more jealous of you. I’m the pretty one.” She would giggle, which had a mischievous shishishi sound. He liked this about her, how she was more playful than him from the start, but he was used to this kind of dating, where the girl took the lead.
They were both East Asian. Esther was Taiwanese and would joke about the food in Taipei, teasing him for having never seen it. His parents were raised in mainland China, and with only one or two international outings that he could not remember, he had stayed largely content in his birthplace in Northern New Jersey. They met often in New York, where he worked for a while and she would commute from Union City.
It worked well, especially given that she was Vincent’s type. One of the best things, during their short time living together in Union City, was the routine. He would sometimes touch her thighs as she was getting dressed, as he lay on his stomach at the corner of the queen-sized bed, and she would smile without looking at him. In the mornings she would play music as she brushed her hair.
Vincent had an odd habit of getting annoyed in the shower. He would, since high school, lash out if the shampoo bottle would fall too quickly off the shower shelf, hitting the floor loudly. Something about the sound startled him, and he would yell, sometimes scream at the bottle, the shower. Even the hot water that touched his back, which had previously been comfortable, suddenly became unbearable. Sometimes he would pick the bottle up just to throw it as hard as he could into the ground. He would occasionally buy one, maybe two bottles in a week.
But while he was living with Esther, he had to share this life. He was terrified of being seen like this, naked, with his body so big that his head reached over the shower separation. He admired how his feelings for her changed his behavior; he suddenly knew more about the nature of even the most private spaces in life. He learned in this way how odd he had always been, so quiet. She would sometimes see it, as they got ready in the morning.
“You’re so emotionally constipated,” she said as they walked to the elevator apartment. Esther eyed him from the side. “But you know I get annoyed too.”
Sometimes she would interrogate him. One time they had a fight, walking back from a sushi restaurant. She pushed him on the topic as he sat, his sweatshirt pulled up to cover his mouth.
“Where’s all this coming from? You get so quiet? Like, what do I even make of it?” They were both drunk.
“Does it matter?” he replied. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
Xiao Hu arrived at Terminal B, and Vincent waited outside for him. It was raining, the sun barely visible through the clouds setting quickly. In Denver, the Mile-High City, the weather was unpredictable. During the summer, Vincent had observed entire blazing afternoons followed by nights where it felt freezing, blistering cold.
“I just can’t handle it.” Xiao Hu laughed, putting on his seatbelt. “I just can’t handle it anymore.” He collapsed into the seat, chatting away about the airplane as Vincent drove onto Interstate 70, the windshield groaning against the strain of the wind.
Xiao Hu’s slim build had grown even skinnier, and during the pandemic he had grown his hair out into a spiky length. Vincent had been accustomed to his bowl-cut, but the younger man had now a more wild, feral appearance.
“Was the airplane bumpy?” Vincent asked.
“It was alright.” Xiao Hu’s hand covered his forehead, and he looked out into the Colorado landscape. They were passing by the massive plains over by Arsenal, as the car headed west. The straw-yellow land stretched out for miles. “It’s so wide, I didn’t expect that. Everything feels like it’s on a bigger screen here. I’ve never been to Colorado, you know.”
Vincent focused on the road, the sounds of trucks passing along, of the rainwater that surrounded them.
Vincent lived in the basement of a two-floor house owned by a Chinese couple in their late fifties whose children had moved away. The house was complete with an upper middle-class set of hedges, which grew athletically. The area, close to Aurora, had seen a boom in the East Asian population. Especially in the shopping plazas, where nearby restaurants were now becoming more Korean in what they sold and who shopped there.
Xiao Hu would be sleeping on a small two-person couch across the room. Despite the support pillars in the basement, it was spacious. Vincent even had a bathroom to himself, newly remodeled. He thought suddenly how he’d have to behave himself in the shower once again, as he didn’t want to upset a nineteen-year-old.
“Do you mind if I study here at night?” Xiao Hu had set up his toiletries and taken a shower before Vincent. His wet hair was pressed straight down, and he had on a Ramapo College sweatshirt.
“You’re only staying here for four days, and then you’re flying back, right? Why do you need to work at all?” Vincent lay on his mattress, his arms crossed behind his head.
“I became a research assistant over the summer, after freshman year. I’m studying ecology.” He paused. “But I might switch to something more cool, like botany. There’s even a toxicology major at my college, but that might prove to be too difficult.”
Xiao Hu started muttering to himself, typing entries into his silver laptop. The screen lit a red and yellow glare onto his glasses, and from the distance of the room, Vincent could see water from the shower still dripping from the ends of his hair.
There was a stray pipe from the roof’s gutter that always held a surplus of water when it rained. The tip tap of drops hitting the backyard’s bricks below would sometimes wake Vincent early. He would always check if it was an insect or a cat. Instead, he would always find the tip tap of the droplets falling eight feet onto the ground. It was in these instances he thought about Esther.
Xiao Hu asked him the next morning what that sound had been. But then Xiao Hu himself forgot, busying himself with his laptop.
Vincent took Xiao Hu out west of Denver, closer to the long line of the Rocky Mountains.
“God, look at that,” Xiao Hu said. “The shrubbery here is purple, isn’t that something? In Jersey, it’s mainly marshes, swamps. But here, everything is so dry.” Xiao Hu said this while slowly breathing in and out. He had read about altitude sickness, tourists flying in from out-of-state and being unable to adjust to the oxygen levels in the mountains.
They stopped for lunch near the Red Rocks Amphitheater. At the turn of the twentieth century the rocks were known for their massive, cascading formation. The pillars of stone came jutting out like an upside-down cliff, far into the sky. The series of bedrock was known as the Garden of Angels, the Garden of the Gods. Xiao Hu walked with Vincent to the sitting areas, large steps made adjacent to the butte. Their bodies were dwarfed by the sheer height of the butte, a golden-red wall so huge it felt to the student the size of a skyscraper.
“It’s even larger than I had thought,” Xiao Hu said, making his way down to the amphitheater’s bottom row. “I know, mentally, that this probably isn’t bigger than the Empire State Building, but it feels just as huge. I think it’s the fact that the whole rock is one uniform color.”
He looked up again and realized even if he rolled his whole head back he would only be able to visually capture just a section of it with his eyes.
Vincent and Xiao Hu had gone to the local H-mart in Aurora for lunch, bringing with them an assortment of sandwiches and bread. They ate fluffy red-bean buns with ham and cheese inside the toasted loaves. They chewed quietly and chatted about Xiao Hu’s classes at Ramapo. A small black beetle crawled toward the crumbs of the bread left on the grass.
“I have this professor who always yells at me,” Xiao Hu said, picking sesame bits off his pants, his hand clutching a half-eaten bun. “She studies these bugs, tapeworms, actually. I hope you don’t mind me talking about something so gross.”
Vincent smiled. “Push my limits.”
“I say too much sometimes. You know, I was so worried about climate change for the longest time. I was going to ask you about the fires here. I’d been reading about them on the news.”
Vincent looked out into the open plains and said nothing. The sky was peacefully blue, with a matrix of clouds streaming out into the world above them.
“My professor told me that I worry too much,” Xiao Hu continued. “She said, ‘You know, if there really was a natural disaster, if you worried like that, you’d be the first to go.’ In her office there were all these jars filled with taxidermied parasites and preserving liquid.”
Vincent squinted from the sunlight at Xiao Hu, listening. The wind was picking up, and Xiao Hu’s bangs started to float as he spoke.
“She said, ‘Look at these parasites. Some of these could kill you in seconds. Life thrives anyway.’” Xiao Hu stared down at the concrete platform they were sitting on. “I think she was saying we have this symbiotic relationship with nature, but also we don’t.” Xiao Hu started to stand up and stretch, and took a few steps out into the open plains before them. “I had this one professor who took us out over the summer to sit by a basketball court. One of those crappy ones. He said, ‘Look at the grass, growing from the separations and cracks of the court.’” There was even this flower that grew from a crack. It was so dramatic.” Xiao Hu started to walk along the stone platform, poking at the small plants growing against the height of the steps, out of patches of sand. “He was one of those white, cool professors, who talks while sitting on the desk instead of a chair. The professor with the parasites was Asian. Thai, maybe?”
Vincent pulled his sweatshirt closer to his body. He watched as Xiao Hu’s sneakers made imprints on the grass.
Xiao Hu looked up at the massive butte above them. “We need nature to survive. But nature itself? It doesn’t care what it becomes.” The clouds above them moved quickly, their form changing to a shape more perpendicular to the angle of the rocks.
It wasn’t Vincent’s anger, ultimately, that ended the relationship with Esther. She had started to grow restless at her job in New York. She would go out for long walks during the mornings, wearing jogging clothes. More and more, she left her professional blazers at home. She quit her job suddenly, after she stopped wearing blouses to the office, just polo shirts.
She was moving to Rhode Island, she announced one day. She had quietly been applying to MFA programs in sculpture, and even interviewed that fall during a weekend at her parents’ house in Basking Ridge. It felt, to Vincent, like this would be a transition to a long-distance relationship. He helped her pack, which was slow process, not noticing how many of her belongings she was taking. That day, she still kissed him, holding him closely, and then she took her family minivan to RISD.
Once she was gone, the text messages quickly dried up. He would ask to call, but she didn’t want to, said she was tired or busy. Weeks dragged on until the fall semester. By the time they broke up, she had stopped using his name. He panicked, for a while.
Vincent looked back on moments of the relationship and realized there were points he could’ve seen this coming. Once, over wine, her friend Jiyoung described to the couple her new job as an art gallery co-owner. When Jiyoung asked if Vincent liked art, Esther suddenly became quiet, looking down at her hands. Vincent stared blankly at his guest, surprised for a long moment, and then laughed nervously, saying, No, no, I don’t know too much about that stuff.
After she left he decided, abruptly, to move to Colorado. He looked around his empty apartment and realized he needed so little, he could have been alone this whole time. Vincent saw that he could be anywhere, be by himself in any way he wanted.
The next day, Vincent cooked a home-made meal for Xiao Hu and himself. He was proud of his dishes, which were mainly built on greens. Chinese celery, eggplant with oyster sauce, and tofu.
He was surprised by his own thoughts as he placed the dinner plate down. He wanted to say, My wife cooks much better than me. But of course he didn’t have a wife.
They retired early at night, turning off the lights except for the bathroom, which was kept open by a slight crack. Xiao Hu lay on the couch, checking his phone while Vincent rested on the mattress.
Into the darkness, Vincent said, “You know, I thought about what you said, about nature.”
“Oh yeah?” Xiao Hu put his phone away, letting it lay underneath him, his head now supported by his elbow. He was facing the wall, his back to Vincent.
“Last year they introduced gray wolves back into the Rockies. There’s this whole conservation attempt going on, over near Boulder. They’re even taking them off the endangered species list soon.”
Xiao Hu was silent.
“I don’t know. People are worried here, about Denver and Aurora getting too crowded. This year, those fires out west? They’re apparently the worst that this state has ever seen.”
A few seconds passed. Despite the fact that it was a basement, moonlight crept into the space through small windows seated at the top of the walls.
“You know,” Xiao Hu said, “it’s a headache anyways, what the professors say.” Vincent was surprised at the serious tone in which he said this, as if he wasn’t smiling as usual.”I just don’t care sometimes. I really don’t.”
Vincent turned to look over, straining in the dark to see that Xiao Hu’s arm was tracing long circles on the wall next to him.
The day before Xiao Hu had to fly back to New Jersey, Vincent planned a small tour up north, near Boulder. But the fires had started to grow worse overnight, the wind must’ve brought the flames even farther through the Rockies. Throughout the state, emergency vehicles and C-130 forces cast their wave of personnel. Reporters from local news stations went on duty, too, relaying information to national media outlets.
The sky was faintly yellow, and it appeared as if it was sundown, although it was only 3:00 p.m. Xiao Hu watched from the convenience store, where they were both wearing face masks and drinking carefully from cans of iced tea.
“I want to see the fires,” Xiao Hu said.
Vincent looked over, surprised. “Why? It’s pretty dangerous, I hear. The dust, the particulates.”
“I don’t know. I’m only out here for a few days, and I don’t know the next time I’ll come back.” He looked over quickly at Vincent. “The next time I’ll be able to come back, I mean. I like it here, it’s been fun.”
Vincent flicked the rim of the iced tea can with his right hand. On the other hand, his fingers traced the car keys in his jacket.
The plan was to take State Highway 93 up north, far past Eldorado Springs and even Buckingham Park, before continuing onward. As Vincent drove, they played music as the clouds got darker. They passed by Boulder, where the city shined and flickered.
They were passing by the small stores, still displaying shoes and coffee signs outside the brick-and-stone apartments. Pearl Street Mall popped by, as Vincent’s SUV slowed down then sped up to catch the ramp onto Route 119.
Vincent recognized the route, at first. He knew the direction toward Platt Rogers Memorial Park, after he had gone camping with coworkers for a winter afternoon two years ago. But suddenly, the climb up with the car became tedious. Throughout the drive, he had seen smoke, rising out of the sky, and there were more firetrucks stationed around Boulder than usual.
The car made sounds as he shifted the gears, the vehicle twisting around small bends of the road. He had started to sweat. He rolled up the windows to prevent the smell of fire from entering the car, and turned off the music that had been playing aimlessly as noise.
Xiao Hu was quiet for most of this trip, although he sat relaxed now, feeling the bumps and turns of the highway move his body along the track. He simply looked out from his passenger window, watching the smoke and the trees that blossomed from the side of the road blink and then pass by him.
Thirty minutes up this road, the highway’s exits toward the surrounding forest area were blocked off with black-and-red fences. Road maintenance vehicles guarded the new gate, and men in helmets motioned to the car to turn over. Vincent saw a man, white and over forty years old, shaking his head. They made a K-turn, back onto the road.
When the car was almost immediately upon the pass, Xiao Hu tapped Vincent on the shoulder. “Pull over. I was wondering if I could walk around a little.”
“You’re crazy.” Vincent was too surprised to even be angry. “I’m not letting you out of this car.”
“I need to go to the bathroom. We drank too much water on the way over here.” Xiao Hu laughed as he said this, but there was an impatience to his voice. “I’m being serious, I’ve really got to go.”
“Just make it quick.” Vincent turned on his hazard sign as he parked along the side of the road, near the small stretches of land marked by the white stones of the cliffs and forests on the other side.
“Thanks, but also, I really just want a close look around,” and by the time Xiao Hu had finished this sentence, he had already left his seat. For a moment, Vincent was terrified he’d fling himself over the side of the cliff, but instead Xiao Hu made a turn and ran, laughing, into the woods. All around them, the smog was starting to get thick, and the sky was turning quickly from yellow to soft blue. Evening was approaching.
Vincent unbuckled his seatbelt in a hurry, noticing how much his hands were shaking as he did this. He got out, standing by his vehicle, before pocketing his keys and running toward the other side of the road, where over the steel bars, small forest plateaus were formed and unformed by ditches.
Xiao Hu was still laughing. Vincent could see his small figure disappear over the mounds. All around him, he realized how difficult it was to make out the sight of the forest. The shadows of conifer trees dominated his vision, and Xiao Hu had now made it past two large slopes in the hill, and he could no longer see him.
“Xiao Hu! I swear to God!” Fear started to truly hit him, and he felt an itch rush his back. He thought about Mr. Hu, and screamed, hoping an echo could be made this high up in the mountain. “Xiao Hu ni hui lai! Ni zhe me ban ne? Ni hui lai xian zai—“
Vincent started to lose his balance as his feet caught between the ditch made from the main road to the natural forest ground below him. He felt himself almost fall, and he had to catch the metal rail. He looked out, panting. He considered calling 911 or rushing back to his car.
Two minutes later, he saw Xiao Hu coming out from the woods, on a higher angle of the small forest hill. Xiao Hu was panting, and his sweatshirt was wrapped around his waist.
“I’m coming, don’t worry, I’m coming.” Xiao Hu descended the mound and hurried toward the car.
They both sat in the car, breathing heavily. Vincent didn’t say anything, just started the car and drove away with his hands trembling.
“Dude, what the hell. Dude, what was that?” Vincent finally said as the car made a steady climb back down the mountain.
“I’m sorry, I really thought it would be okay.” Xiao Hu wiped his nose with his sleeve. His eyes were dry, but his breathing was scared. “I was there for just a moment, and then I realized I didn’t know where I was. I just thought…if I could see the fires a bit, or smell them better. I don’t know.”
The two started down a series of bends in the path.
“Did you really shout Chinese at me?” Xiao Hu asked.
Vincent didn’t reply.
Xiao Hu locked the door to his right. He later would say he worried he’d fall right out of the car, or even get pushed out.
“You’re not laughing at me, are you?” Xiao Hu finally asked.
“No,” Vincent said. “No, that’s very far from how I’m feeling right now.”
This time, he’d plan on taking the highway directly back to Aurora, without making a stop to see Main Street at night. He was breathing deeply, not heavily now, and focused on getting the car back before the smog got any stronger.
Vincent turned the windshield wipers on, despite the fact that it wasn’t raining. Around them, dust started to descend upon the car. The windshield wipers hit the dry glass, rocking the front slightly. What what what, the sound seemed to say. What what what, the machine said. The car made another turn toward the main roads, toward the apartment, or someone’s home, or somewhere, anywhere away from the forest above.