Our son returned to the mountaintop dirt-stained and soaking wet, no backpack, his clothes torn with jagged maws of fabric, blond hair in a muddy clump. As he punched his code in the wall, I watched from the monitor in the study. He stormed across the lawn, through the foyer, and kicked holes in every wall of his wing. “Coward!” he shouted. “Thief! Fucking crook!” He retreated to his bedroom and closed the door. There was no trite youthful slam. A brief sigh and click of the automatic lock. I have always respected our son’s privacy. When I designed this place, I omitted a camera from his bedroom. A dreadful storm clattered outside. I asked you to draw a bath and fetch a pour of Jack Daniels neat. It was not the homecoming I expected.
In the tub, I scrolled the old Internet and sipped my whiskey. You set the water to my ideal temperature, never varying a degree. You’re remarkable that way, Agnes. I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but I want this redundant confession stored in your memory for William, just in case.
Once adequately shriveled, I air-dried under the vent and curled into a white robe. I wondered what our son was doing. Had he showered? Eaten? He needed space, that much I knew. Drowsy from the warmth of alcohol and bathwater, I dropped naked under the covers and must have fallen asleep before the mattress calibrated to my position.
In the morning, I found William standing over the kitchen counter, scarfing microgreens and an unripe banana. He drank oat milk from one of the old pint glasses we purchased at the pizza bar where we went on our first date. We must have collected a dozen over the years, the black logo with the outline of an old airstream trailer and the bar name worn away on half of them from too many cycles through the dishwasher. Our boy, freshly eighteen, still growing. He wouldn’t gain any muscle munching on grass clippings.
“Don’t you want eggs? Bacon?” Why had I paid our entire fortune if not for a hearty cut of meat in such moments? There was more than enough to dig out of the deep freeze. I asked you sparingly to prepare lamb or beef or pork, mostly on holidays and other milestones, but William had returned gaunt and unrecognizable. He needed a substantial meal.
“Do you know what people eat down there?”
I winced. I knew very well. He went back to his microgreens. Was this supposed to be gratitude? Two years ago, when Herb Stevenson’s son—you remember the Stevensons, right?—came back from below, he hugged Herb tight enough to leave bruises on his arms. They had both sobbed in utter relief. I thought William would do the same. I thought he would be grateful for all we’ve given him, this compound so cool and serene and well-stocked, unfettered by the horrible conditions below.
I asked, “Did you run into many people down there?”
“Ran from, you mean,” he snarled. “They knew what I was without a second glance.”
“What about your training?”
William clanked his fork against his plate. He had been moody since before he left. Teenage angst galore.
“I saw a woman eat a rat like a kebob.” He stood, scratched the steel stool against the hardwood, and left the kitchen with his glass of milk.
“William!” I shouted, reaching for reason. He was certain to come around. A matter of time and reacclimating. Couldn’t he see how lucky he was, Agnes? Did he not realize he was the only future that mattered?
A couple days later, I peeked through my old birding binoculars and saw William walking along the wall as if scanning the concrete for weak spots. That’s good, I thought at first, he recognizes the value of security. I had not assessed the wall in a while. A moment later, I noticed the crowbar dangling at his legs and realized he was searching for fissures to form a tunnel for outsiders. I couldn’t let it stand. I asked you to initiate level one security protocol.
He fell to the ground in seconds, hands scratching at his eyes. The mace-filled sprinklers were vicious and inescapable. A good security measure, even if no one had ever come knocking at our door. We were well hidden. Poor kid. But there was nothing else to do. I didn’t want to encourage his generosity. He didn’t realize once the barriers were broken, we would be the rat kebobs. He was too young to remember. I wanted to run to him with a glass of fresh milk. I wanted to soothe his burning corneas and wipe away the tears, but it wouldn’t do. I could not play good cop and bad. I wished so much you were really here. You would know what to do.
William zigzagged back toward the house. With his vision blurry, he had to reroute several times, not quite sure of his surroundings. I retired to my bedroom for a nap, knowing he would be furious when he came back inside. He would spend the rest of the day in his room reading a people’s history or other tales of the oppressed on the web. He would ask you for lunch, a glass of water, anything he needed.
I still believe in the truths of the past. I’ve neither been one to buy into the revisionist inventions of this country’s greatness nor to believe its modern conspiracies. I am not so different of mind as William thinks. Of course, I am outraged. Of course, the state of the world makes me feel doleful and despondent. Of course, I recognize our privilege. But we tried to help, you and me. We couldn’t save everybody. I had the opportunity to save one person, our son, and even though it was selfish and calloused and cruel, we were—I was—simply too late to bother with anyone else. The two of us will survive. Our family. I must prepare him for the long future. In three days, his wife will arrive.
Our time is short, but the details are important, Agnes. I used to worry you would go rogue, a HAL situation beyond my control, but why fret the inevitable now? It’s too late for such nebulous fears. William hates that I named the house’s artificial intelligence after you, but I can’t bear to go a day without hearing your voice. Since uploading our old home videos into the mainframe, you’ve been here always, steadfast, guiding me through his upbringing like an omnipresent ghost. Our boy, named after Shakespeare, fancies himself like Hamlet. You haunt him even if he can’t remember you. I remember the good days though, before I accepted technology couldn’t save us, before we were tied as the two-hundredth richest people in the world, before I sold out our dreams. Once it all went to hell and you were gone, I edged into the top fifty. The gap between me and those few dozen was so wide. I was worth a fraction of their wealth. Yet, our fortune did manage to buy us this house and its impenetrable security and unimaginable gewgaws and gizmos. Nothing compared to Albatross, but more than enough.
When William was born, I still very much thought you and I could turn back time. The nanotechnology we developed together, eating carbon, breaking down plastic, I dreamed of us being heroes, scrubbing the map clean of all the grime humanity allowed to accumulate over centuries. But in the end, no amount of technological advancement could save us from our own indifference. Americans adapted to living trapped indoors before being inconvenienced by the destruction of nature. Heaven forbid they couldn’t watch television or flush the toilet or order individually packaged groceries. I remember once in a board meeting you used the analogy of trying to rinse off a dog rolling around in a puddle. Every time we accomplished some minor victory, there was a new layer of filth that had accumulated. For years, we refused the science claiming our climate crisis was irreversible. We were young and foolish then, confident that together we could tackle any problem if we thought about it long enough. You hired all the smartest people. We upset investors at every turn. In the end, none of it mattered.
I also remember your jokes about eating the rich. As young software engineers throwing paltry salaries back into our startup, you always believed we’d never accumulate and hoard wealth. After we skyrocketed into the one percent, you swore we would stay true to our roots, but it was more difficult than you imagined. Every decision was an unexpected matter of scale. We donated money and reinvested money and stowed money away. After all, our company was saving the environment. We were making a difference. But we expected too little to do too much too late. After you died, I decided to embrace our overwhelming prosperity. It was ours. We had worked for it and tried and tried and the world’s failures were out of our control. It was time to be selfish. Our company bought our son more than we ever needed. I tell myself if you were alive, you would have eventually come around. Safety, comfort, a future for William. It was time to hide and wait out the worst.
William barely remembers you now. Four years old is too young to remember much. I once found him watching old news clips of the video footage that cycled over and over on the news though. It broke my heart to once again witness the moments of your death. The protest gone awry. Your black SUV passing a trashcan wired with explosives at the wrong time. In the months of grief that followed, I intended to open the foundation in your name, but by then everything was accelerating out of control. The weather, unpredictable. The tides, rising. Food scarcity. Desert expansion. Water filthy and without filtration. Displacement. Genocide. When Albatross offered us a good price out here, I said yes without hesitation. I was heartbroken with loss. I couldn’t pull myself from bed. I gave up on everyone and everything except William. I couldn’t bear continuing our work without you. I hope you can forgive me.
On the morning the Albatrosses arrived, the helicopter descended from a reddish whirl of clouds. They were later than expected, because there are only a handful of days each year when the sky is safe enough to fly. It’s impossible to predict. A week’s range is still a strong estimate. I had no idea what Gilbert was thinking at the time about our children’s union. They owned the world. Gilbert was emperor, president, and prime minister to anyone who bothered to keep track of abandoned titles. Both of us fifty-two years of age. In the old days, you remember how he would corner me at black-tie galas and billionaire fundraisers and try to buy our company, offering a valuation twenty percent above what we knew it was worth. He knew it too. I loved telling him no. He wanted you, Agnes, but would settle for your intellectual property. After you went on that date with him, he never understood why you didn’t respond to his emails. Gil is a man used to possessing anything. He’s incapable of understanding the only man that could possess you was our son, and before he was born, no man at all, especially not me.
William stood next to me on the lawn—a fresh haircut and ironed clothes. His suit jacket was loose around the shoulders from his time away. He was still scrawny and malnourished. The day before, I asked you to thaw some lamb from the deep freeze, but William wouldn’t touch the chops—his favorite. He chomped on a bowl of sliced radishes then scattered back to his room. I wish you could see the way prickles of hair have scattered across his face pell-mell across his face, how his ears have grown to handsomely fit his head, the grin of his full set of meticulously brushed adult teeth. He is taller than me, which means he would tower over you, and I know you would love that, hugging him so that your head tucked into his chest, a reversal on how it was when he was tiny and uncoordinated.
He underwent all sorts of schooling for when he reached adulthood, but there had not been a woman on the property during his adolescence. Nine years since the Albatrosses last visit. Sure, his teen years were filled with virtual health classes and boyish films—how I remember his loose jaw when we watched Animal House!—but this was different. I expected him to be a gentleman. I knew he would be more put together if you were around.
Gilbert landed on solid ground first. He wore blue jeans and a gray Los Angeles Lakers sweatshirt that must have been older than our children. He held his hand out to assist Feather, who hopped off the helicopter in hunter green wool sweater and dark jeans, her hair back in a tight ponytail, red soundproof earmuffs looped over her head to block the rush of the churning blades above them. She resembled a younger version of Zoe. I thought back to when you and Zoe were pregnant, how you strolled together through Central Park and gabbed about the future, conspicuous security details a languorous ten paces in front of and behind you. You knew before anyone when Albatross surreptitiously acquired millions of acres of national parks, mountaintops, caves, and reservoirs of fresh water. You knew about the hidden greenhouses and clandestine electrical grids. A sanctuary developed for the survival of an elite few. Later, when the four of us had dinner, you lambasted Gilbert for his investments. You called him a disgrace to humanity. Somehow, all these years later, William and I were back in their good graces, soon to be family. I hated feeling like I owed Gilbert everything. Part of me wondered if this would turn out to be some form of patient revenge after you chose me all those years ago.
As Feather approached, it was as if William forgot all other things existed. I wondered then what kind of man he would be, if like me he would give up on the common good for the protection of his family, if he would eventually forget the starving survivors below and the rat kebobs and his hunger strike, the affection in his heart pulling toward one person instead of many. I thought love would help him understand all I had sacrificed for him, how depleted and ashamed I felt every moment for my failures, but how it was also worth living with the nagging self-hatred to have kept him safe. I never imagined that being this rich would drain the wealth of my soul. I failed every person in my life, including you. But not William, even if I now know he believes I have failed him too. I thought Feather was my last hope that perhaps someday he would think otherwise.
“George!” Gil shouted over the commotion as he neared. “It’s been far too long.”
I shook his hand. “Where’s Zoe? I figured she would join you.”
“We don’t fly together anymore,” Gil sighed. “It’s such a gamble these days. If the helicopter hits a bad patch, Zoe will need to take over the company.” Feather, hands clasped together in front of her, stood dutifully at his side. By now, she and William were assessing one another, waiting for their turn to talk. He stood a head taller than her. I could already imagine them walking hand in hand across Gil’s paradise to the north. Feather was scheduled to stay for six months, a trial run to see if they were happy before returning to Albatross for a lavish wedding. Afterward, William would be gone from my life forever. I would be all alone.
“Why don’t you show Feather around the property, William?” He nodded at me and led her toward the main house. Gil and I watched them saunter off. They sparked a conversation with big smiles only once they were certain we couldn’t overhear them.
“What’s for dinner?” Gil asked. He punched me on the arm. In another life I would offer him a Bud Light. We would sit down on the couch and watch basketball. He could be human when he wanted to.
“I roasted a chicken and grilled some lamb. Potatoes, brussels sprouts, a birthday cake for dessert. I figured we could open a bottle of bourbon. I have some bottles of champagne chilling for the kids.”
Gil smiled. I was convinced he would never run out of anything. “I see you’ve been conserving your resources.”
“It makes these moments of celebration all the more special,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. For a disciplined man, there’s a lifetime’s worth of alcohol in the cellar, though half of it was likely spoiled. “Will your pilot be joining us?”
“No pilot. It flies on its own.”
“And what if something goes amiss up there?”
“I give it my best, or we go down.”
Gilbert glanced around the grounds, assessing the plot I had once paid him a fortune to occupy. I should have saw this for what it was, a clear sign of trouble. No Zoe, no pilot, no security guard. I should have asked, Agnes, where were Gil’s people? It was the first time we ever stood side by side without an audience. William and Feather ambled back toward us, close together now. Intimate. Effulgent. Their faces revealed that they had already conspired. I thought back to when they were children. Days long gone. In their brief absence, I was relegated to a third wheel. I could feel my bond with William slipping away.
“Dad,” William said, “can we have ice cream to go with the cake? Feather is fond of mint chocolate chip.”
“Let me see what I can find.” I knew you could whip up some ice cream without issue, but wanted to convey some illusion of authority.
“Well, it sounds like you have a lovely meal waiting for you,” Gil said. He waved Feather over for a hug and she gripped him tight.
I asked, “You’re not staying?”
“I wish I could.” His eyes shone. His daughter clung to him. It was uncharacteristic of Gilbert to reveal emotion. “I have to get back to Zoe. She’ll worry.”
I felt nauseated with fear, but whatever quiet motives were behind his urgency to leave were beyond me. Gilbert was back in the chopper before I could collect my thoughts. The door slid to a muffled close. The engine whirred until it was a ceaseless howl. Feather scratched a tear away and my son wrapped a loving arm around her shoulder. She leaned into his collarbone. How did this happen so fast, I wondered? I tried to remember the night we met, that immediate warmth of comfort and affection, the inexplicable pulse that passes between two people who suddenly recognize they are in need of one another, the moment when some internal erumpent illumination fills your arms and legs with the unstoppable urge to be close, even if ephemeral and fleeting, like being pulled into the sun’s gravity and knowing its warmth right before bursting into flames.
We gave Feather her own wing of the ranch. For the first week, she and William wandered the grounds and watched movies and ate meals together, playing house, while I did as much as possible to stay out of view. I read in my den and played solitaire on the computer and watched old videos of you playing with William when he was a baby. I forwent the dwindling supply of good bourbon and drank white dog from the rusty still out back. You monitored my blood-alcohol and offered me water with electrolytes, snacks, instant coffee. What I wouldn’t have done for a real cup of mud again. Our greenhouses were too puny for such extravagances. I was good and drunk on the night you informed me Feather was sneaking to William’s bedroom, a request I asked of you because I was horrified by the prospect of finding them entangled somewhere around the house. I felt like a ghost, a mere headache for William and Feather to tolerate until they returned to Albatross. I imagined their ornate cottage surrounded by security guards, a cupboard stocked with real coffee beans, acres and acres of space to roam. I finished my glass and fell asleep in my easy chair.
The next morning, the air in the room had shifted. The two of them were all knowing smirks and bedroom eyes at the breakfast table, but the unusual change I noticed was across their uniform plates. Microgreens spread across browned toast abutting a mountain of beige vitamin supplements. No carnal hunger from their night together. Not even a strip of veggie bacon.
“Back to rabbit food?” I asked.
William, mouth full, mumbled, “It’s more sustainable.”
I held my arms out prophetically. “And what is there to sustain?”
Feather gave William a look that you gave me a thousand times. It meant break the news.
“Dad,” William sighed, “I don’t mean to be morbid, but you won’t be around forever. When you’re gone, we need to make this place work. We’re rationing.”
“It’s only six months.”
“We’re not going back to Albatross.”
“I don’t understand.”
Feather grabbed William’s fingers. “There was an insurrection.”
“The people below,” Feather continued, “they breeched our security and took over Albatross, but they can’t control anything because it only listens to my parents’ voice commands. Dad made the whole system failsafe. It took a few months, but they negotiated my release.”
“Why didn’t your mother come too?”
“They held her as collateral.”
Gilbert knew all along how frugal I was with our stockpile. Even when I pushed William to indulge, it was nothing compared to what we used to consume. I’d heard from friends about their luxury goods running dry from impatience or old habits or addiction. No more meat or dairy, no good booze, down to bare necessities. Gil was playing chess. The lifetime supplies we paid an exorbitant amount for were meaningless unless we exercised moderation. Every mountaintop was designed to sustain human life indefinitely, but there was a soulful divide between survival and comfort. Overnight, life could become a lugubrious monotony of bland beige meals, old television shows, embracing a dull litany until death’s inevitable arrival.
“We need to start thinking about things differently,” I said.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to say,” William sniped.
Feather kissed my son on the cheek. “Relax,” she said. “He’s still processing.”
I tried to remember what it was like to be eighteen years old. I was amazed by how that time felt so vivid in my head and yet I couldn’t remember a day of it. I assumed Feather was more mature than William. I hoped they would find true joy in one another company and that it wasn’t a passing amorous burst.
“Will, when you were down below, did you get the sense people know where we are?”
“The camo is pretty good,” William said, “but I think they know the higher they go the more they’re likely to find.”
“I can make some modifications to Agnes,” Feather said. I was rattled when she said your name. “To try and up security. I know the system in and out pretty well from my dad.”
I nodded. I didn’t like it, but knew better than to start barking orders. It occurred to me their glamorous wedding would be no more.
“It’s early,” I said, “but should I begin preparations for the wedding here? It will only be the three of us. I can perform the ceremony. I’ll try and learn how to bake a proper tiered cake.”
“Slow it down, George,” William laughed. He winked at Feather. “Let’s see if we can still stand each other in a month or two.”
They stood in unison. Feather ferried their plates to the dishwasher, and they wobbled off toward William’s bedroom holding hands. Shortly before we moved here, I watched a hawk plummet from the sky. On the sidewalk, the bird curled onto its back, gnarled talons clutching at the sky, stone dead in that position by the time I approached it. I couldn’t decipher the reason for its demise. Had it merely decided to die? I felt that same fear, seeing something out of my control, but still close enough that it felt possible to prevent. I couldn’t see my role yet. Was I the bird or the bystander?
The next morning, the three of us sat down and asked you to run a full assessment of our stockpile: the well water, the pantry, the deep freezer, the greenhouses, livestock, yeast cultures, emergency rations, toilet paper, air and water filters, energy stores, the works. You are capable of producing so much if given the time. It’s amazing how you run the farm with minimal guidance.
The numbers were better than expected. The three of us could remain comfortable through my lifetime. Even if they decided to have children, they would survive if they rationed. I couldn’t imagine bringing a child into this world, but I didn’t want to tell them what to do, especially at such a rebellious age.
“We’re in decent shape,” William said.
“Might run out of prophylactics,” Feather laughed. I felt lightheaded.
“Don’t worry, dad. She’s on the pill.”
I said nothing.
“Sorry,” Feather said, “trying to lighten the mood.” I nodded. They walked off again, leaving me alone to lucubrate over the spreadsheet cataloging all of our earthly possessions. It was so much and so little. They would be better off without me. I asked you to calculate the optimal time for my death. I wanted to stick around long enough to ensure William was happy, but not so long as to outstay my welcome. The sooner I joined the compost pile the more there would be for them. A life of abundance. It would be as easy as asking you to draw a bath, quickly swallowing two of the pills in my bathroom cabinet, the ones I never told William about, on standby in case of an emergency. You know I’ve never been a man of faith, but I’ve always dreamed of meeting you in the afterlife, some ethereal plane where we fade into nothing. I knew the truth though. You were gone and I would be gone too. Nothing more than a failure, a selfish failure, holed up at the end of the world because I had the money and privilege to flee the realities of the ecological genocide below. It didn’t matter whether or not I forgave myself. The moment I died the concept of forgiveness would leave me.
An alarm woke me in the middle of the night, nothing more than two quick blips before being disarmed, followed by eerie silence. If there was a breach in security, you would alert me to the threat. For a moment, I was glued to the bed, muscles stiff with fright, and I could sense the foreboding spirits in the darkness, but I forced myself from under the sheets. I was parched. Too much of the white dog.
The floodlights outside erupted, an instant sunrise. I lumbered to the window and gasped at the horde of infiltrators scaling the wall. They were safety-goggled and armored with spare parts: trashcan lids, old baseball equipment, pots and pans. The leaders were saddled on top of the concrete and assisted others over the precipice.
I scramble to wake William and Feather, but when I entered the kitchen, they were waiting for me. The table was overloaded with abundant food and bottles of alcohol. A feast. A bacchanalia. More meat than we would consume in half a decade.
“What’s all this?”
“A new era,” Feather smiled.
I was still groggy, the lights harsh on my eyes, but I wasn’t dense. I immediately understood. “You let them in.”
“And you would let them starve,” William glowered.
“Don’t,” William fanned a hand in my face. He was irate. “This whole time you just let me live in ignorance. You, Gilbert, a bunch of old men protecting yourselves and your investments while billions of people died and suffered. And to think I used to believe you were trying to save the world.”
“I did try. Your mother and I—”
“Do not bring mom into this! She would never have left humanity behind.”
Tears fell like snowmelt across my face. “You barely knew her.”
“And whose fault is that?”
My stomach gurgled, my whole body deciding how to react. I never thought he knew about the day you died. You were driving to see venture capitalists that had a meeting scheduled with me. I told you I was too busy in the lab, convinced we were close to a breakthrough. There was so much potential. I should have told you to forget the investors, we had work to do together. Maybe if I had we would’ve solved climate crisis in a matter of days or weeks or years, our minds so much stronger as a team than I ever was on my own. But I told you to go, knowing you were more charismatic and beautiful and would have the suits writing checks that would sustain our work long into the future. None of it mattered anymore.
A thought occurred to me. “Have you two been in cahoots all along?”
“It was my idea to liberate Albatross,” Feather smiled.
The front door squeaked open anticlimactically, and the infiltrators walked in as if invited. They were filthy, hairy, gaunt, unkempt. I had left them out of sight and mind for so long that I wasn’t prepared to come face to face with the unconscionable consequences of my own desperation. They flooded into the kitchen and descended on the feast.
Feather leaned on our son, her lips at his ear, “You know what we have to do with him.”
In that moment, I knew Gilbert and Zoe must be dead. Revolution requires sacrifice. I was foolish to think I was too rich to ever be devoured. I should have done so much more for William than simply try to give him this hollow kingdom.
“I know,” William replied to Feather, “just not in front of me.”
Left unguarded, unrestrained, I realized they thought I had nowhere to hide. They had overridden you, but the deadbolts on the bedroom doors were sturdy. Old technology. I sprinted down the hall, a clatter of boots behind me, but they were too slow, weighed down by wet armor and poor nutrition. I slid the door closed and turned the lock before they reached the threshold. The banging remains stentorian and terrifying. The walls are shaking. The barricade won’t hold much longer.
I trotted to the bathroom, found the pills, and poured a glass of water from the tap. The glass rests in my hands now. Agnes, I’m telling you all of this to say I am sorry, that I never thought it would end this way, and that I miss you. I tried so hard to raise our boy right. It says so much about him that he’s willing to stand with people suffering at the end of the world. I must admit, I don’t think they will let him and Feather live once they’ve served their purpose. They imagine themselves queen and king, royalty to loyal subjects, the only ones who can control this place and control you, but it won’t last. The moment they outgrow their usefulness it will be pandemonium. This place will be pillaged, ransacked, and forgotten. All I can do is hope I’m wrong. In these final moments, I have to believe he’ll be okay, that you’ll watch after him, the AI version of you or the spiritual version of you or the memory of you, and that someday as he sleeps in my bed and rules over my house he will search for this message, my last confession. William, if you someday see this, whether it’s tomorrow or a year from now or when you are old and gray, know that I only blame myself for all this sorrow. I let you down. I let the world down. I hope you will remember me with fondness. I hope there is more for all of us on the other side. Look there for me, look and know I will be waiting, where nothing and everything are the same, look there, where you will know me for who I am.
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University and an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books. He is a 2022 Creative Armenia–AGBU Fellow. His writing appears in Catapult, Electric Literature, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com