It was a strange idea for a vacation. The strangeness attracted Sophie and worried Ben, though he was determined not to reveal his feelings to his fiancé, a word Ben liked to say as often as possible, like when he lost his virginity at twenty, and he immediately told all his roommates at GW to prove he was like them, normal. Sophie had seemed so enthused about the vacation too, packing early, raiment nicely folded, tiny toothpaste, long-forgotten heels. These days, meaning the months since her brother’s death, she’d lost all interest in traveling anywhere.

The couple waited for their luggage at the airport in Bozeman, Montana, near a bronze statue of a bear. They stood close, but they did not touch. Sophie’s red bun had flopped on the plane, and she had the same anodyne look she’d adopted for some time, which to Ben resembled the lonely woman in that Thomas Eakins painting, gazing out the window, waiting for her lover to return. However, that picture was not by Thomas Eakins. It was by Edward Hopper, and the model was a painter, his wife.

Sophie pointed to the rental car line. A nearby tourism sign said: Get Lost (in Montana).

I didn’t think Montana would be so crowded, she said.

It’s good that it’s popular, Ben said, squeezing her hand. I’m relieved.

He said there wouldn’t be any tourists, she persisted.

That’s what you get for listening to Jesús.

* * *

The other dimension was Jesús’s idea. Jesús and Kitty were photojournalists in DC who’d been close with Sophie’s older brother, Alexei. Since Alexei’s death last fall, the couple often invited Sophie and Ben over for dinner. Ben tried to get out of these dinners. They were late and boozy, in a part of the city he did not often visit. Unlike Ben and Sophie’s new condo, tastefully decorated with prints from Ben’s college European art class, the photojournalists’ apartment felt as intimate as being inside a mouth. The musky space was packed with strangers, Dadaist books, photos of war, erotic prints with actual nipples, vinyl, an overall sense of disturbance. Ben’s accounting job with DEA inevitably came up and was not-so-gently mocked.

It had been a warm spring night in the District. Before dinner, the group went to drink on the fire escape, the platform on the third level with grated steps teetering into the alley. Sophie and Jesús sat on the platform, sharing a bottle of raicilla. Ben balanced a few steps below them with a glass of water. Kitty was in the alley, smoking and heckling gentrifiers. She wore a black leotard, steep heels, and fishnets, her tattooed thighs illuminated by the streetlights.

Kitty, what about Bali? Sophie called down.

Why does she dress like that? Ben whispered to Sophie.

Like what, Sophie said.

You can’t go to Bali. Influencers are ruining the environment, Kitty said.

The photojournalists had an opinion on every place, the present but also the lost or disappearing past. Ben was surprised Sophie brought up their upcoming vacation with Kitty, before discussing it with him. He assumed they’d go to Hilton Head, as his parents did. He imagined Sophie smiling on the white-sand beach in a wide-brimmed hat, peach freckles out.

I was also looking at Tulum, Sophie said.

Babe, I’m not so into the idea of Mexico, Ben interrupted.

Jesús snort-laughed and stretched his heavy boots down the stairs. He smoothed out his hair, long on top, shaved on the sides. Ben slid away from the boots, irritated with Jesús in the way he used to be bothered by Sophie’s brother. When Ben met Sophie two years ago, on a dating app, she was freelancing for several news publications, hoping to be a foreign correspondent like her brother. Ben encountered Alexei after a period where Sophie and Ben saw one another, but alone. She cited the demands of her job, but she always felt out-of-reach.

Alexei had shown up at the Black Cat in a red motorcycle jacket, clattering his helmet on a sticky table by the old pinball machines, having recently returned from Khartoum or Nablus; Ben couldn’t remember which. Alexei didn’t introduce himself. Ben made small talk about art prints he had recently purchased, showing Alexei the pictures on his phone, but Alexei only addressed his sister, switching frequently to Russian, the language of their childhood.

Motorcycles are so dangerous, Ben said, trying to turn the conversation back to English. I went skydiving during my semester in Australia, though. I get it. He smiled encouragingly.

Alexei looked at Ben, his gaze discomfiting. His thick hair was black, not red, but his green eyes were identical to Sophie’s. The print of the woman you purchased is not by Diego Velázquez, Alexei said. The painting is by Francisco Goya. You’ve gotten the women confused, because you think they have something to do with you. You only see what you want from them.

As Alexei spoke, he punctuated his sentences with two shots of bourbon.

What must it be like, Ben thought. To have that face, job. Even the acne scars that shadowed Alexei’s cheeks made Ben’s clear and florid skin appear childish. He couldn’t compete, yet Alexei also didn’t know the Sophie he did, who during her nighttime visits, became a raw wound of doubt and insecurities. She worried about layoffs, the decline of local news, and the eroding public trust in journalism, but mostly that she would never live up to her brother.

Ben wanted to hurt him.

Sophie wishes you were around more, Ben said.

Eto pravda? Alexei asked Sophie, his voice low.

Konechno pravda, she said.

Pochemu ty s nim?

On nikogda menya ne ostavit.

Nu ty vrednaya.

Ya shuchu. Eto vremenno.

It’s OK, Sophie told Ben.

Alexei smiled his handsome full-face smile.

So skydiving huh, he said.

The motorcycle killed him shortly after, not abroad, but outside New Orleans, where he’d gone to see a girl. In a photo shared by the police, the motorcycle was deconstructed along the highway, cigarettes from Khartoum or Nablus flung across the grass. A king cake, balanced on the back for the girl, was smashed, purple icing bleeding, a plastic baby trapped inside.

Sophie handled the accident admirably. She threw away the recorder Alexei gave her, because it held his old interviews, his voice. She stopped covering protests. She took a 9-5, PR for a tech company. She quit political obsessions and Twitter and started running on the Mall, her body soon sinewy, small. She stayed over at Ben’s every night, vining across his chest. He’d gape at her sleeping face, as if she was an endangered animal stunned in his bed. They binged the Great British Bake Off on weekends, composed inside jokes. They got engaged. She was his.

Recently however, her distance, the doubt, had returned. Right before the dinner with Kitty and Jesús, Ben had caught Sophie in bed, staring at the photo of the accident. Ben had that old feeling, like he was sharing her, or she didn’t need him. He felt like she was having an affair.

You shouldn’t look at that, he said, taking the picture from her hand.

It looks like beach debris after a storm, she said.

* * *

Was I supposed to make dinner? Kitty asked, twisting out a cigarette with her heel.

Dinner was promised, Ben said.

You could go to Montana, Jesús told Sophie. There’s this door.

A door to where? Sophie asked.

Another dimension, Kitty said.

You’re not making sense, Ben said.

Only some things turned out differently, Kitty said.

Jesús tapped the powdered contents of a jar onto a plate with orange slices. He offered the plate to his guests, along with a round of mezcal, Bozal, poured in palm-sized ceramic cups.

What is this? Ben asked.

Sal de gusano, Jesús said.

Ben ate the orange.

It’s worm salt, Jesús said.

Like the butterfly effect, Kitty continued.

Most people don’t use that term correctly, Ben said, swallowing hard. Do you mean when a small change in a system potentially leads to an unpredictable outcome in the future?

You have to ring the bell too, Kitty said. So something will change when you return.

Change how? Sophie asked.

I realized I wasn’t going to have children, Kitty said. Before, I wasn’t sure.

Kitty climbed the stairs, looping her leg around Ben’s body in a way he found faintly sexual. He leaned back, and Jesús helped her onto the platform. She squeezed next to Sophie.

Once you cross over, you can’t go far, Kitty said. But you can make phone calls.

Sophie stared into the alley, dark rainbow pools of oil.

Can you make phone calls to the dead? she asked.

We’re not going, Ben said.

Sophie laughed like she was joking. It could be fun, she said.

Kitty rested her head on Sophie’s shoulder, her cheekbones glittering.

I miss him too, Kitty said.

* * *

From the airport lot, Ben could see the Bridger Mountains vaulting into blue sky, peaks painted with firn, despite the warmer weather in the valley. His mood lightened as the farmland turned into apartments, and they approached Bozeman. It did not appear as the dusty cowboy town of his imagination but a place he could see himself living. Nice hotels and coffee shops, but old school. Rent still cheap. Whiskey and campfires. Girls without tattoos. Hardworking people who kept their opinions to themselves. A place to start over. Maybe in Montana, Sophie would say goodbye to her past and return to him for good. A cleanse before the wedding. Like those Jewish baths. He skirted downtown and turned onto a two-lane highway that ran over railroad tracks, past a brewery and fish hatchery, swirling through a rocky canyon into the mountains. Cars cinched together, itching to pass. They tailed a Subaru Outback with a California plate.

Jesús and Kitty didn’t even have to get tickets, Sophie said, looking at the traffic.

I got tickets to the door, Ben said. What’s the problem?

I thought if it were real, people would be frightened away.

People like to be frightened, he said. It’s like the Stanley Hotel.

After a few miles of horse pasture, they turned left at a rural fire station onto a gravel road that led directly toward the range. A wildfire ran through some summers back, Ben had read online. They drove past white aspen trees marked by an ombré of char, a hill of pines still black and spindly. After about ten minutes on this cloistered road, the dense trees opened into an expanse of gray parking spaces. The lot stretched to the congested base of a tall peak, a clearing with a horseshoe-shaped village; new hotels, spas, and restaurants. As Ben drove loops looking for space, Sophie craned her neck, trying to see the door hidden behind the mess of bodies.

Look at those loonies, Ben said. They really think it’s another dimension.

It’s exciting, Sophie said, pressing her face against the window.

They got out of the car. A dark stitch of people, like ants following a scent, ran to the bell at the top of the ridge. A clarion ring traveled down. Sophie’s eyes were lucent as she gazed upon the pristine mountain. It feels different, she said. Like we changed, but this place never did.

* * *

Sophie and Ben joined the line of people waiting to pass through the door. In front of them stood a young woman sifting her bony hips inside a hula hoop, smelling of myrrh and marijuana.

I drove up from Boulder, she said. Have you been to the portal before?

Ben pretended not to hear her. Sophie shook her head.

Try the beer, the woman said. It’s thaumaturgic.

They drew closer. The door came into view. It was not exactly a door, but a boho wedding altar, constructed of aspen trees and hung with purple monkshood and pink bitterroot flowers. People waited for their tickets to be scanned by employees in gray button-downs and campaign hats. Past the door in the village, saws razored over the toll of the bell as construction workers cleared trees to make way for more condos. A lodgepole pine splintered like a bone.

An employee in aviators appeared.

Do they make you dress in costumes, Ben joked. Like a Star Trek convention.

Ben, Sophie said.

The employee handed back their tickets, his jaw tight.

When it was Ben and Sophie’s turn, he took her hand as they passed under the altar, happily imagining they were getting married like a stream of courthouse couples. I do, I do, I do. The static from her fingers shocked him. Did you feel that? he asked, looking back at the door.

Feel what, Sophie said.

Ben shrugged and carried their roller bags through the village teeming with tourists, up the steep pathway to the four-story Hotel Baldy, built in the early 1900s by a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad and recently restored. They paused in the lobby, breathing hard from the altitude. The hotel was not as ritzy as the Omni in Hilton Head. Ben would have made a real entrance there, Sophie on his arm. Instead, they passed corny sci-fi movie posters that said:

Your new dimension starts here!

A middle-aged woman at the front desk yelled: Welcome to the new dimension! Her uniform was tight but also disheveled. Her eyelids were lacquered in turquoise shadow.

My fiancé and I have a reservation, Ben said. Ben Jones.

The woman typed on an ancient computer.

Here we are, she said, her voice husky.

How long have you been open? Sophie asked.

Not long, she said. Last year, I was working a casino in Black Hawk. Glad to be out of there. There was a robbery before I left. My friend was shot in the parking lot. Boyfriend did it.

The woman slapped a map on the counter.

We are here, she said. The new dimension ends here, she said, drawing a line on the far west side of the mountain. The phone booth, which is here, calls anywhere in the new dimension. The bell, where you can make a change to your life, is over here. Two-hour hike. If you would like to join the nature tour, it meets in the lobby at ten. The paranormal tour is at midnight.

Ben handed her his credit card.

Did you make reservations for the phone? The woman asked.

You have to make reservations? Sophie asked, frowning.

Months out, she said.

We forgot, Ben said. He’d avoided it on purpose. He agreed to this trip to cheer Sophie. He did not, however, want to encourage her newfound magical thinking.

Oh poop, the woman said. There’s still the bell. And the beer.

I’m just happy to be with my fiancé, Ben said, hugging Sophie off-balance.

Have you called anyone? Sophie asked, her eyes intense.

The woman’s bright hotel smile wavered. She gestured over a bellman in a neon-green suit. I called the casino, she said. I asked for my friend. But no one recognized her name.

* * *

Their room was on the second floor. It resembled an atelier, designed by someone aware of the value of kitsch but also the interests of millennial guests. A record player was on the dresser. In the mini bar, locally brewed kombucha, Kin Spritz, a pack of animal Tarot cards, and Montana fossils for sale. Ben picked up the welcome book, informing him they were in one of the exclusive good vibe only rooms, where guests often reported feeling as if they had become the happier people they used to be. Ben walked out to the balcony with a sweeping view of the mountain. Sophie sprawled facedown in bed, red hair fanned, still defeated about the phone.

Should we freshen up? Ben asked.

I’m so tired, she said, her voice muffled.

He pet her hair. He wanted to take care of her forever.

Sleep as long as you like, Ben said.

He took a shower, and after, got into bed with Sophie. To his surprise, he also felt exhausted. He woke sometime later to a knock on the door, and sat, groggy. The plangent bell rang outside. It was dusk. Laughter sieved through the walls as people headed to dinner.

Ben staggered over to answer the door.

I’m here with welcome beer, said a server. It tastes like forgotten things.

He had a silver tray. Ben took it.

Sophie opened her eyes.

Did we sleep all day? she asked. I feel jet-lagged. Like I’m in Japan.

It’s probably the altitude, Ben said.

Sophie put on a record, abrasive ’80s punk.

We could stay in, she said, removing her shirt and backing suggestively into the bathroom. Ben watched her, heart cowering. She had the look she had when they first started dating, which never failed to remind him of his comparative inexperience. It had been a turn-on for him in the beginning, but later, he worried. She returned in a hotel robe, flashing him, pink razor burn on the inside of her thighs. She sat at the table by the glass doors, pouring them beer. The beer was remarkably strong, cloying, like the first drink a pretty girl gave Ben in high school in Virginia. Sophie downed her glass and turned up the music. She started dancing, her loose sleeves swinging, hair flying around her face. Dance with me, mishka, she said.

Ben soon became tipsy enough to dance.

Do you know what I love about you? Over the music, Sophie was shouting.

Ben jumped up-and-down, pumping his arms, yes. They tumbled against the glass doors, kissing clumsily. Sophie unpeeled, reached for her beer. It reminds me of something, she said.

Like freedom and cowboys. America! Ben said.

The record ended.

When Alexei went away to college, Sophie said.

We don’t have to talk about it, Ben said.

It was supposed to be a party, Sophie said. I blew up balloons. He told his friends to get lost. He wanted it to be just us. We were drinking beer, batting balloons, cracking jokes. He said: I’ll miss you, sestrenka. Did you know he called me the night he died? I didn’t pick up because it was late. He never adjusted to American time zones. I thought, I’ll just call him tomorrow.

You’ve told me this before, Ben said.

I look at people laughing, and I don’t understand how we’re in the same universe, she said. They’re laughing, and I’m laughing, but I want to cry until I drown everyone around me.

Ben shifted in his chair.

Alexei was always reckless, he said.

Her smile flattened. I don’t want to talk about him anymore.

She flipped the record and walked out to the balcony, leaving the glass open. An alpine chill seeped into the room. Sophie eased over the balustrade, sitting on the thick wood perch on the other side. She faced the mountain, her feet dangling above the artificially green grass.

Sophie be careful, Ben said.

Maybe you can’t die here, she said into the dark. What if Alexei is alive?

She pulled up her legs and carefully stood, balancing on the far ledge, arches high. She held on, leaned out, breasts loose, ribs stark. She closed her eyes like she was in a dream.

You’re drunk, Ben said, striding outside.

I was hit with rubber bullets, she said. I wasn’t afraid.

Come down, he said, holding out his hand.

Didn’t you go skydiving? she asked, turning her head.

There was a parachute, he said.

Alexei wasn’t afraid of anything.

She let go, crumpling into the grass. Ben yelled, looked down, thank God, no one else in the lawn. Running the fluorescent fire stairs was a blur. By the time he reached Sophie, she’d wobbled to her feet. She examined her swelling left ankle, the skin around the bone empurpled.

Do you have a death wish? Ben hissed. Do you want to be dead like him? Because he’s not coming back. He’s dead and I’m here, and lately, it seems like you can’t tell the difference.

They have cornhole, she said, pointing at the lawn.

* * *

In the morning, Ben woke to the bell. It hadn’t stopped ringing all night. The pattern was never the same. Long ring, silence. Short ring, silence. Long ring, short, long again. The lack of order made the bell impossible to ignore. Ben’s head was heavy. He reached for Sophie, but she was not there. He looked around. The map was gone, and so were her running shoes. This wasn’t unusual, though he didn’t understand how she could run with her ankle. He thought it was sprained.

Ben got dressed and went downstairs to wait for her at the bar. The window framed the door in the clearing below, the buses of new tourists passing through. He ordered a black coffee and avocado toast. Outside, a group of serious-faced employees in high-waisted shorts marched past the window. Sometime later, as Ben was still stirring his coffee, they returned, staggering under the weight of what seemed to be a large black couch, heavy and too soft, the arms slack and unwieldy. The couch had a head with button ears. It was a bear, Ben realized, held aloft by many gloved hands. The pale hair on the bear’s snout was matted with blood.

The bartender, who had shaggy hair and a snowboarder’s build, shook his head.

They’re running out of room, he said. They don’t know where to go.

Ben watched the dead bear. He imagined its life, born twenty years ago, tumbling through the woods; purple wildflowers and rain. He wanted to pet its soft fur and scrub under its ears. He wanted the bear to be his and also be free. He thought: Sophie had left him.

The employees marched to the lot, where an animal control truck had arrived. As they carried the bear past the gaping door, an employee yelled, dropping his part of the bear. With a heavy paw, the bear appeared to swat. The other employees jumped back. Tourists screamed. The bear lurched stiffly to its feet, as if emerging from slumber. Oh my God, Ben said. The bear looked around, sniffing the wind, eyes small and bright. It lumbered into the woods bordering the village, its black coat shimmering in the sun. Ben stood at the bar, raising his arms, electrified.

Did you see that? Ben asked.

Whoa, the bartender said. Maybe it was only dead in one dimension.

Ben hurriedly paid for his breakfast and went to the front desk.

I think my fiancé went up the mountain, he said. Do you have another map?

They always go up the mountain, the casino woman sighed.

She slid him a map without looking up from her tabloid, a JFK conspiracy.

He walked to the trailhead at the base of the mountain, scattered with toilet paper and Gatorade bottles. The trail wove through the pines before making a steep ascent up the face, through snowfields to the bare ridge, where dots clustered like people cramming on the moon. When Ben started hiking, his calves swiftly aching, he believed he was looking for Sophie. But as he went on, scrambling over boulders, drenching his shoes in half-frozen rills, bracing himself against a wind that carried with it fat horseflies, he thought of the bear, its slow-blinking eyes. There was still magic in Montana. He would win Sophie back. He was going to the bell.

* * *

Ben summited at noon, his nose sunburned, lungs fiery. Tourists milled about the ridge. The bell was large and slate-colored, hung from a filigreed wall constructed for this purpose. The wall rose from a large concrete platform extending out from the ridge. A short line of people waited to ring the bell. Each bell ringer had a companion in the wings with a cellphone, taking a picture or video. The bell clanged. Ben clapped his hands over his ears, startled. He saw Sophie.

She was sitting alone, near a dozen short cairns built by other hikers, each starting anew rather than adding to what came before. Her eyes were red, and the skin on her ankle was bruised and tight. Ben went over to her, struggling to breathe. I just want to be with you, he said.

She stared at him, her hair jerking in the wind.

I know that this isn’t the way you expected things to turn out, he added. But it can be different. I’ll do anything for you. The bear isn’t dead everywhere, Sophie. I can be a better man.

He strode toward the bell, though he had to wait in line behind an older woman in a neon visor. When it was his turn, he yanked the frayed rope hard, looking at Sophie with a determined expression. The pits of his polo shirt were gray with sweat. He offered her the rope.

Do you want to ring it, too? he asked.

She stood, moving slowly over the lichen-coated rocks. She tilted into his arms.

I don’t need to ring it, she said into his chest. Let’s go home.

Ben held her up, feeling relieved. Around them on the ridge, cameras flashed. In pictures brought back to Australia and Arkansas, Ben imagined that Sophie looked renewed, happy.

* * *

In the old charcoal trees, still hollow from the fire, Sophie had waited, the way she once prowled near the subway in the US Capitol to ask politicians questions they didn’t want to answer. The phone booth stood in a clearing on the mountainside. The queue for the phone started twenty feet back, ending at a small hut, like a ski lift cabin. Sophie watched each person walk from the cabin to the phone booth at their scheduled appointment. Sophie noted on her watch that each reservation lasted five minutes. That’s how she knew someone had missed their time. At 10:05, no one walked from the cabin, and the employee standing outside was distracted by his radio.

The bear was not relocated, the radio voice said. It was not properly immobilized.

Sophie limped from the dead trees, partially dragging her foot down a game trail. She went inside the booth and shut the door against the wind. The booth had a sweat smell; names etched in glass. She picked up the phone, knowing Alexei’s cell number by heart. As it rang, she closed her eyes, imagining here, Alexei was never on the motorcycle at all. Rather, when the police came to photograph the wreckage, he was just off-frame, observing the scene as a journalist looking in, with Jesús and Kitty, battered cameras around their necks.

She tried to recall her brother’s voice.

Sestrenka, he’d say. Why are you marrying that guy.

In the beginning it was like reporting, she’d say. Trying on someone else’s life.

He’d pause, light a cigarette. Sometimes we take these things too far. What I mean is that we forget we are outsiders or tourists in a way. We do not belong, though it can feel like we do.

I didn’t have anyone else.

But I’m here now, he’d laugh. Poshli domoy.

The number was disconnected.

Sophie dialed again, crying. If she stayed in here, her brother could still be alive. In here, she could cry until she drowned everyone. Out there, the person she used to be was lost or disappearing. Out there, they were shooting anesthetics into free-range bears.

Hello? A tinny voice jolted her.

It was coming from outside the glass.

The employee knocked louder. Ma’am?

Russian translation by Hannah Levintova

Dana Liebelson

Dana Liebelson is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She recently completed her MFA in creative writing at the University of Wyoming and grew up in Bozeman, Montana. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic and Elle (online), HuffPost, Insider, Mother Jones, CutBank Literary Magazine, and Hobart. She attended the 2021 summer Tin House and Bread Loaf writers' workshops. She is working on a novel and is on Twitter @dliebelson.