Now Reading: In The Mountains

Wren Long, May 2024

He thought they were mountains. Their twisted bodies stretched up to the vast blue sky like a million broken fingers. He had been walking for years, along the great stone rivers and through the grassy plains. He had never seen anything like those divine structures sitting across the river. He knew–sure as he had ever known anything– that he had to get closer.

He’d seen tree branches float, their rough craggy twigs smoothed to flowing gnarls. So, he began to collect branches to build a small raft: something somebody had taught him once. His hands earned new callouses as he worked, wrangling thick thorny vines and rough bark. All the while his eyes stayed fixed on the mountains. They were calling, calling, calling him like an echo across the waves.

A week after he had first seen them, the traveler landed on the island with the mountains. The landscape only became stranger once he was closer to it. He found convenient valleys, cutting the mountain range into cross sections. They were filled with some of the softest sand he had ever felt. It was nearly as white as snow and glimmered like diamonds. The boy untied the plastic straps of his cobbled-together sandals, laughing heartily as he lost his footing and fell backwards into the white powder. The sound bounced, bounced, bounced, around the steel valleys around the steel valleys. As it did, the traveler sat up, frowning. He yelled, loud as he could, before halting his voice suddenly and listening to the reverberations. The sound of his own voice returning to him, distant and distorted, shook something loose within the traveler’s chest; something that had lodged itself there a long time ago.

He called out over and over to the echo, a mix of nonsensical yammering, and noises that had meant something once: noises that somebody had taught him once. He did this, utterly transfixed, until the sun was hanging low over the water and the sky had turned orange. The sound of the response felt warm, felt needed. He remembered a time before he had been alone. Back when there had been other creatures of his species to keep him company. The thought brought about a strange sensation, as if there were sharp rocks pressed against his ribcage from the inside. He stopped talking, the echo did the same. The traveler laid back and fell asleep, dreaming of days when different, distant voices would fill the silence.


Gianna sat with her Aunt Lynn at the bus stop, on the street corner where the town’s little mainstreet suddenly became a highway on-ramp. Cars raced by in a blur, openly ignoring the small legion of posted speed limit signs. Between the haze of gray enamel, Gianna caught glimpses of the church, a stout little building with peeling paint and copper spire that had oxidized green. On its right was the city ballroom, on the left the graveyard.

“You think she’ll be happy with him?” Aunt Lynn stared vacantly at the ballroom, where her daughter's wedding reception was being held.

“He seemed nice enough.” Gianna shrugged.

“See that’s the thing, isn’t it?” Aunt Lynn produced a joint and a lighter from her coat pocket, “men, they always seem nice. That’s all they gotta do to get married is seem nice. To keep my girl happy, he’s gotta be nice.”

As Aunt Lynn lit the joint for the two of them to share, Gianna made note of the stark white tan line around her ring finger.

“I think he will be.”

“Yeah,” Aunt Lynn waved her hand dismissively, “never any way to be sure.”

“Guess not.”

Aunt Lynn went quiet. A loud cheer from the ballroom carried across the street. They smoked.

Soon, the dim evening became dark night, and Gianna couldn’t seem to tear her eyes away from the graveyard. It was right next to the highway entrance, with just three feet of brown grass and a tiny wrought iron fence separating them. It wasn’t shaded by trees, like cemeteries ought to be, but instead the stones were pale; sunbleached.

“Do you ever think about how there’s gonna be one last human, all alone on earth?”

Lynn paused, tossing the still-glowing roach onto the wet pavement, “What makes you say that?”

“Well, It’s just gotta happen,” she sighed, shifting in her seat. Gianna could feel dread winding like a coil in her chest, “Humans can’t go on forever. We’ve gotta die out sometime.”

“Or we could evolve into something new,” Aunt Lynn said it so casually, yet Gianna’s face dropped from its wrinkled state of worry.

“Or we could evolve.” she repeated.

“Won’t stop the sun from exploding eventually,” Lynn laughed, her voice was hoarse and raspy from half a century of cigarettes.

“Grim thought,” Gianna winced.

“Eh, we’ll be gone by then.”

“That we will.” Gianna patted her knees awkwardly. There was another loud cheer for the ballroom, Lynn stood up with a groan.

“We better get back in there,” she smiled, “seeing as that’s my daughter an’ all.”

“Ah well, not like she’s getting married.” Gianna quipped in a faux dismissive tone.

“Still want to drive to the city tomorrow?” Lynn asked with a gentle nudge, “you’re not gonna be too hungover?”

“Oh–” Gianna shushed her aunt, “yes! of course we’re going.”


The morning brought with it a great disappointment As he walked, laughing at the sand and the sounds of his own voice, returning, returning, returning, something caught his eye. He froze, eyes laser focused on what he saw. It was a silhouette like his.

It had been so long since he had seen a silhouette like his. He had encountered so many creatures since he started walking, some that dove past him riding on the wind, others that wriggled through the water. Sometimes they wanted to eat him, other times he ate them. Since he had been alone, he had seen creatures big and small but never any two-legged and hairless, never any with long, dull fingers. He and his family– it seemed– had been a rare pack of their species.

So, when he saw it, that figure standing frozen, staring at him from across the valley, he ran towards it with utter abandon. The sand, once a blessing, fell away from the soles of his feet as he tried to run. Nonetheless, he persisted. Kicking the grains into his hair as he went. He started to cry. At first he thought this was irritation from the sand, but no. The water streamed down his face in excess. When he finally made it, face to face with the creature that was like him, he stretched out his arms, instinctually waiting for the embrace. There was none. The rocks in the boy’s chest returned, stabbing harshly into his ribs before dropping down to his belly. The traveler saw the creature-like-him, also with their arms open, also with tears down their face. The traveler took a step, and so did they. It quickly dawned on him that this was not a creature at all.

He had seen something similar, in the surface of puddles near the riverbank. He had never seen a reflection so clear, so constant. There was nothing disturbing the surface, nothing at all. Alas, he put his hand to the cool, flat pane of glass, and was sure that he was alone. This realization knocked him to his knees. His chest became heavy, and the tears started again. The mountains repeated his ragged sobs diligently. He yapped at the towers, annoyed, asking them to stop, but all they did was mimic the noise. He wept until he was done. There was no reason not to, after all. So, he cried, grieving his loneliness until the tears would no longer fall. When this happened– and it took quite a while– he stood up, wiped his eyes and carried on.


Gianna left her piece-of-shit old Ford Escape idling in her aunt’s driveway, a fact that she regretted when Angie–last night’s bride– answered the door. Her eyes were still a bit smudged with subtle brown eyeliner, and up closer her teeth seemed too white, almost as if they were glowing. Gianna shot a restless glance at her car, as Angie continued on with minute ten of a monologue.

“I honestly can’t even be mad we had to delay the honeymoon, I just feel so lucky that Daniel’s grandparents offered to pay for it!” As she spoke, she bounced a little in her stance.

“That’s awesome, Ange!” Gianna really did mean it, now matter how long winded her cousin was, it was difficult to ever really get annoyed with her.

“Oh y’know, wedding stuff,” she shrugged, “but what about you, Gin? It’s been a million years since I’ve seen you.”

“Me?” Gianna winced, she and Angie had both graduated from college three years ago. But, where Angie seemed to have her life figured out, Gianna was still living the life of temp jobs, roommates and TV dinners, “Oh y’know just, working on my portfolio.”

This sucked the air out of the conversation.

“Still trying to break into graphic design?”

“Or something like that.”

Angie pursed her lips for a second, before snapping back to a smile, “what am I doing? You’re here for my mom and I’m here talking your ear off.” She turned inside, “MOM! GIN’S HERE TO PICK YOU UP!”

They didn’t say anything more as the cousins waited for Lynn to appear.

Once they were finally on the road, Lynn pulled down the sunshade and began to fix her hair in the mirror.

“That girl sure can talk, can’t she?”

“Who, Ange?” Gianna asked as she flicked on her blinker, “she’s chatty alright.”

“I just wish she was more honest, apparently the real reason they’re delaying the honeymoon is because Daniel spent half their savings on that damned caterer without asking Angela.”

Gianna froze at this revelation, “Seems like something I’m not supposed to know.”

“Eh, not like you’re blabbering.”

“The food was like, really good though.” Gianna whispered furtively.

Aunt Lynn smacked her hand against the dashboard with a chuckle, “It was some damn good food!”


The echo wasn’t fun anymore. As he walked through the valley, he stared up at the mountains. They groaned in low, creaking rumbles as they swayed in the wind. Sooner than he thought he would, the boy came to the other end of the island, the water washed gently across the sandy shores. Though, this sand was different: rougher. It had rocks among the finer grains. One of them dug into the sole of his foot as he failed to step over it. He let out a yowl and fell to a kneel on instinct. Today was not his day. As he kneeled on the rough sand, he noticed something. It struck within him the same recognition brought on by his reflection, but this time he was sure it was real. A great, green figure with her arm up in the air. She was up to her waist in the water. 1 She looked like him, as much as a massive green structure could resemble a creature anyway. She had no wings like the birds, nor fins like the fish. Instead, she had hands like the traveler, with slender long fingers wrapped around the handle of some strange thing which the boy couldn’t understand. She had hair like his too, absent– mostly– except for the top of her head. The only flaw was her spikes, growing from her forehead like rays of the sun. The traveler didn’t have any spikes. Though deer didn’t get their antlers until they were older. Maybe he would grow spikes like her someday.

There was a part of the boy's mind which was confused by the structure. She was too smooth, too perfect to have been an accident. She had a face. He had never seen a mountain with a face. The traveler looked at his hand, holding it up to the statue and staring. He wondered if creatures like him had been here before. He wondered if they built the green lady in their own likeness. He crouched down and squished his hands into the wet, muddy sand beneath him, he traced the outline of himself into the ground. Two legs, two arms, a head and a mouth. He added eyes and hair. Somehow though it looked nothing like him, the boy’s mind recognized it as familiar; as another creature; the same kind as the traveler.

He had never seen a fish trace its likeness into the sand. Nor a bird, nor any other creature. If he could do this, when no other animals could, then perhaps others of his kind might have built the green lady who stood over the ocean. He turned around and looked at the mountain range he had been exploring. They were nothing like mountains he had ever seen before. Maybe the others had built them too. Newly curious, he walked back the way he came, this time noticing the perfect right angles at which new valleys formed, and how the mountains seemed to change color at perfectly square intervals. There was never a vein of iron running through sandy-brown stone, they only ever sat perfectly next to each other: as if they were placed. He knew they must have been placed. Suddenly, the valley gave way to a clearing, a wide open space, a single great stone building sat heavily in the center. By virtue of its shorter stature, it hadn’t warped like the others surrounding it. Nor did it have any windows which would have been shattered and turned to fine sand. It had four tall columns and a massive arching entryway. Just like the green lady over the water there were four inanimate figures. The traveler recognized them as part of his kind.


Gianna liked to think she was smart. If that were true, why did she attempt to find parking anywhere in Manhattan? After a long hunt and an even longer walk, the two finally made it: The Natural History Museum. Gianna followed closely behind her Aunt Lynn, they walked up and down the halls of fossils and stones. Aunt Lynn read off the plaques while Gianna gazed into display cases with wide eyes. It was all so old, but most of it– at one point or another– had been alive. It was difficult for Gianna to wrap her head around. Finally, they made it to the ancient Egypt exhibit, where a huge stone arch sat in the center of an atrium. Gianna stared at it, looking for chisel marks or some other sign left by the builders. She found none. They moved onto the room with the mummies, and Gianna became uneasy. She felt the black eyes of the sarcophagi following her across the room. Lynn seemed much less affected; she grabbed Gianna’s hand and pulled her to a mummy with no wrappings. Its bones were easily visible through crinkled paper skin.

“Look!” Aunt Lynn laughed, “he looks a bit like me, don’t he? With the wrinkles and the weird teeth?”

“I dunno,” Gianna played along, “he at least doesn't have eye bags like yours.”

Aunt Lynn swatted her niece gently on the shoulder, “I’ll allow it but only because I started it.”

“Wonder what his name was,” Gianna stared down at the mummy, he lay with his arms crossed over his chest, “wonder what he was like.”

“Wonder if he woulda been ok with being dead, naked, and on display.”

“Doubt it.”

“Yeah, so do I.”

“Do you think people in the future will do that to us?” Gianna asked quietly, “If you think about it, we have pretty elaborate death rituals, with embalming and all that.”

“I don’t see anybody building my pyramid, and I’m getting up there!”

“Oh hush!” Gianna scolded, “We’ve got time.”

Lynn looked at her niece and smiled, “You bet we do.”


There were no doors, just a square hole under the arched entryway, the traveler walked in with ease. The echos were louder inside, with great marble floors and walls reflecting every footstep. There was a chill in the air from being out of the sun. He walked past the shattered parts of some…thing. It half looked like a skeleton, but he couldn’t discern what animal it may have come from, nor could he conceive of an animal with vertebrae so large. On the walls were detailed etchings, there were leaves and strange symbols. Most promising, more of His Kind were part of the motifs.

He walked through dark corridors of bones, startling at the alive-looking but not-moving models of vicious wolves and tigers. Eventually though, he came to something different, a room full of glass cases. Inside the glass cases were bundles of cloth, adorned with face masks resembling His Kind. There was some deep dread about these figures. The traveler wanted to turn away, but a more compelling part of him insisted that he look. Standing up against the walls, also behind glass were boxes in the same shape as the bundles laid down before him. In the far corner of the room, the traveler saw something that startled him. It was a body like his, but the skin had been pulled taught by time over the bones. Hands withered on the ends of two crossed arms. The eyes looked half-closed, and the teeth pushed outward strangely. At this moment he knew where he was, what he was surrounded by. He put together that each masked cloth bundle contained a dead member of His Kind, not allowed to rot but instead preserved; he didn't understand why. He stared at the frail form of the mummy. His heart was beating quickly. He stepped away slowly, gaze still fixed. The traveler felt something crunch underfoot. More bones, this time a skull that looked remarkably like him. Overwhelmed, the boy flead, shrieking. He ran until he was once again safe outside in the sand-filled valleys. He fell face first into the sand, relishing its warmth and its texture. His breathing was ragged and shuddery, but it was beginning to steady. He rolled over and stared up at the sky, it was beginning to go dark. He closed his eyes and thought of the dead ones in the strange building. They must not have been alone, someone else had to have done all that wrapping and painting, and the boy was sure it hadn’t been the fish or the birds. He saw the tops of the building, and his heart ached with the idea that there had once been enough of his kind to create everything around him. There had once been enough of them to fill such tall structures.

The boy called out to the echo, but the reply came exactly as it had left his mouth. He imagined what it must have felt like, to be up in the towers, with another one of His Kind. He called out to the echo, but again it only repeated. Still, he kept doing this, hoping with every inch of him that someone, somewhere, would say something to him.