That night Lori awoke from a dream about bees, and opened her eyes to a cloud of light over her bed.
At first it seemed like a mist in her darkened room, like headlights in fog, but the longer she looked, the clearer it became. A mass of tiny, glowing spheres whizzed around one another above her, each pinpoint of yellowish light describing an unknowable orbit.
She waited for the lights to make some kind of sense to her, but they simply emitted a faint, tinkling buzz and continued tumbling around in the dark, imparting nothing. She reached up with one hand, pushing her fingers into the scramble of illumination. So many sparks; too many to count.
The humming intensified, turning tinny, and she smelled a whiff of ozone. Her skin tingled where the lights collided with her fingers. She was truly awake.
She raised her other hand into the cloud, corralling a mass of orbs between her palms. She wanted to hold them, to force them into some kind of meaning, but they only slipped up and away like grains of sand reversing time in an hourglass.
She’d activated something, though: the buzzing turned to static, then squealed with feedback.
The orbs organized themselves into patterns, settling into symbols above her.
The patterns glowed, jagged and irregular, like striations in cut stone. Some shapes were craggy blots, angular amoebas nested inside larger sharp-cornered hosts. Pulses of light zagged through the blots like lightning forking across the sky.
The feedback quavered up and down, interspersed with static, until the sound settled into a channel.
A voice, soft and metallic, emanated from the cloud: “Is that you? We’ve been trying to reach you. Can you help us?”
Lori wanted to get out of bed, but when she stirred underneath the cloud, the smell of ozone intensified and tiny sparks floated down, like embers from spent fireworks.
“What do you want?” she asked, wiping the sparks away.
“Are you there?” the voice asked. It sounded anxious. “Can you hear us? We need your help.”
“Who are you?” she asked, louder. “What do you want?”
“Hello? Hello?” The voice lifted into a squeal, then more static.
She jumped at a knock at her door. “Lori?” It was her roommate Diana. “Are you all right?”
The static cut off, as though someone had pulled a plug.
“Lori? You okay?”
The cloud dimmed.
“I heard you yelling. Are you all right?”
“Who are you?” Lori asked the cloud. “What do you want?”
“Okay,” said Diana. “I’m coming in.”
“No, wait!” Lori shouted, but the door opened and the lights above her head went completely out.
The silhouette of Diana’s head poked around the edge of the door, lit from behind. “Why aren’t you ready yet?”
Diana flipped on the light, stepped inside, and put a hand on her hip. “Seriously? You forgot?”
Lori squinted against the sudden brightness. As she rubbed her eyes, the scent of pine wafted into the room. She blinked at her roommate.
Was that birdsong coming from the hallway?
Diana let out an exasperated breath and crossed the room to Lori’s dresser. “Okay, come on,” she said, rifling through T-shirts and shutting the drawer again. “It’ll be a little chilly at first, but it’s supposed to warm up. Where do you put your pants? You’ve got convertables, right?”
She gestured at her own khaki hiking pants, the kind that zip off into shorts, which she’d paired with a red fleece jacket. When Lori didn’t answer, Diana opened another drawer.
“Jesus, hold on.” Lori sprang out of bed and shouldered past her roommate to shut her dresser drawers. She could have sworn she heard a stream gurgling beyond the door. “What’s going on? Where are we going?”
Diana shook her head incredulously. “Really? Today’s Hike.”
“Today’s hike is…?” Lori waited for her roommate to fill in the blank.
“Stop kidding around, it’s Hike.” She yanked on her ponytail to tighten the band. “Seriously, we’re leaving in, like, ten minutes. And wear your hiking boots; there’s a lot of climbing.”
Diana turned and opened the door. Sunlight filtered into the room through a haze beyond, and the scent of flowers floated toward her. A bee darted into the room and back out again, just before Diana shut the door behind her.
A tinny voice buzzed in her ear: “Save us.”
Lori rooted through her drawers and pulled on a T-shirt, leggings, a sweater. She dove to the back of her closet for her boots, then took deep breaths to slow her thumping heart as she laced the boots up.
Hand on the doorknob, ear to the wood, she heard voices, rushing water, the twittering of birds.
She opened the door.
She stepped out into a field of bright green grass dotted with wildflowers. Mountains in the distance. And beyond the peak of the tallest mountain, a giant round clock. It was simple, stark, with a white face, gold rim, and black hands. No numbers, not even lines to mark where they would sit on the dial.
The clock sat like a rising sun behind the craggy mountaintop, much larger than the real sun, which was where? Lori turned to look. The door she’d just walked through was no longer there. Only the field, flowers, an oak tree, seacoast in one direction, mountain with clock in the other.
And then she heard it: A faint ticking sound from the direction of the clock, luring her to investigate. But as she stepped toward it, a flicker of light sparked at the bottom of her vision. She looked down, and found dozens of fireflies flitting and sparking in the thick grass around her boots. She squinted and shielded her eyes with her hand, until she saw the flow of fireflies swarming toward the tree, then beyond it down the slope of the field toward the beach below.
The ticking—did it get louder just then?—drew Lori’s attention back to the clock. What time was it? 1:20 or 4:05? From the shadow of the tree, maybe the former—but what did that mean?
The mystery of the clock pulled at her. But the fireflies flowed the opposite way. She listened for a small, tinny voice to tell her which way to go.
Lori looked toward the mountain, the surface of which seemed to be rippling like grass in the wind. She shielded her eyes and focused, and her vision zoomed in close. The movement she’d seen was actually a mass of people, men and women climbing in business suits and hiking boots, skirts and smart blouses, ties flapping, wisps of hair falling out of chignons. They clambered upward while holding briefcases and babies and frying pans and diplomas and binders labeled Third Quarter and Marketing Study and Shareholder Report. Some grasped hands with partners and children; others let their partners slip away and get lost in the mass of professionals struggling toward the top.
Lori scanned upward to see more closely what they were striving toward. The summit gleamed, cold, with a powdering of gold watches.
Lori panned down again to the hikers. One of them turned her head to the side for a moment, and Lori gasped—the woman looked just like her. She held her breath and surveyed the crowd, catching glimpses of more faces as the crowd trudged uphill. All of the women were future versions of her, moving up with the business degree she’d just finished, some climbing with the man she’d just started dating, others with a client she recently met through work, one with an old high school boyfriend, and more iterations of herself with men she didn’t even recognize. Some versions of her carried children, others had no kids at all. One had a cat draped over each shoulder. They were all her.
This was Hike.
She kept searching for her alter egos’ faces on their upward trajectory, taking in brief flashes as they turned to the side with a stumble or while hoisting a toddler on a hip. But she couldn’t read any of their expressions.
She was meant to be up there with them, she thought, shifting her hiking-booted feet. Surely some of them looked happy—right?
She thought again about the small, buzzy voice pleading, “Save us.” She’d assumed those voices were the orbs, or the bees, something tiny, vulnerable and multitudinous.
What if that voice really came from all the future versions of herself?
Lori turned away from the mountains and looked down for the fireflies at her feet. They were gone. She spun in agitated circles, searching for them, remembering that old trick with the coin: if you can’t make a decision, tossing a coin will help, but not in the way you think. It’s what you hope for while the coin flips through the air, the disappointment that hits you when the wrong side reveals itself, that tells you what you really want.
Lori ran across the field, down the grassy slope toward the ocean. Her chest expanded with relief when she saw the sparks tumbling across the beach and tossing in the froth of the surf. Her hiking boots hit the sand with a satisfying shhht shhht shhht shhht as she ran toward the water, and it didn’t even occur to her to take them off when she waded in up to her knees. Mesmerized by the lights swirling around her, she bent to scoop them up. Maybe they would spell out the patterns again; maybe she’d know how to read them this time.
She cupped her hands and stared into the pool of water in her palms. The shining little orbs formed a series of arches, pulsing bright doorways through which she might march. But where were these doorways? What was she actually supposed to do?
Lori looked up and down the beach for another clue, then waded in further. She felt the need to immerse herself completely, a baptism of sorts. Maybe her new self would know what all of this meant.
She walked in to her thighs, then her waist, then her chest, shivering with the shock of cold water at each new depth. The current pressed against her legs, and her waterlogged sweater began to feel heavy. What was she thinking, coming out here with all of her clothes? She turned to head back to the beach, but the current was too strong. She lost her footing in a riptide, flailing in the water. Briny water stung her eyes and flooded her mouth and ears. Her saturated sweater was a lead weight. Lori gasped for breath in the moments her head broke the surface.
Despite brine-stinging eyes, she looked up through a churn of bubbles toward the sky. She thought about her mother, father, and younger sister, imagined their faces hovering just over the waves. Her sister was wearing the frilly, high-necked dress from the play she was so excited about, “The Doll’s House,” in which she’d gotten the lead role—and the opening night of which Lori would miss because of some stupid networking event her boss wanted her to attend.
Well, now she wouldn’t make it anywhere.
She wouldn’t make it, period.
Glowing orbs flickered up toward Lori from the deep, swirling around her feet, her legs, her whole body, faster and faster, propelling her upward through the undulating currents, up to the churning surf, into the crashing waves, which pummeled and battered her toward the shore until she tumbled back onto the beach.
She heaved an ocean’s worth of water out onto the sand and sobbed, then slept, then pushed herself up to her knees in the evening twilight. A bright arc appeared down the beach. Flicking wet hair out of her face, she wobbled to her feet and made her way toward it, dusting sand off of her clothes. As she got closer, she realized that it was the orbs, packed into a quivering, luminous arched doorway. She pushed open the door and stepped through.
Lori entered her living room, where her roommate stood by the front door in her coat, checking her hair in the mirror.
Diana turned and glared at her. “You aren’t ready yet?”
Lori looked down at herself. She was wrapped in a towel, still wet from a shower.
“I might still be able to drop you off, if you hurry.” Diana grabbed her phone from her purse and held the time up to Lori. “How much longer do you need?”
“Wait, what day is it?”
Her roommate narrowed her eyes. “Are you okay?”
Lori took the few steps across the living room for a closer look at the phone. It was the right date, and there was still time.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m sorry, you go ahead.”
Diana’s expression softened, and she cocked her head. “You sure?”
“Yes,” she said, waving off the concern. “I mean it. Don’t wait for me; I’ll Uber.” She turned the phone back toward Diana, who sucked in a breath at the time and left.
Lori turned and went back to her bedroom. She felt a lightness to her movements as she picked out an outfit for her sister’s opening night. She smiled to herself, savoring the warm, enveloping glow.
Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. Prior publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Monkeybicycle, Jellyfish Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, and Escape Pod/Artemis Rising. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution, a hybrid fiction/poetry collection, Circe’s Bicycle, and a short story collection, Midnight at the Organporium. She received her MFA from American University in 2019.
Alan Chin lives and maintains a studio in Hawthorne, California. He attended Academie Minerva in the Netherlands and earned a BFA in ceramics and painting from California College of the Arts in 2011. His work has been shown in cities around the world and at institutions such as Berkeley Art Museum, California College of the Arts, Richmond Art Center, Sam and Alfreda Maloof Museum, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. In 2017, he was selected to represent the USA at the first International Ecological Sculpture Biennale in Wuhan, China.