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Sarah and I met in the usual way at the Silver Saddle Club. She was dancing with her knees, and I was moving change around on the counter. Her bony shoulders suggested the pleasure of high speeds on dirt roads. I asked her the farthest she’d ever been from Montana. She said Calgary. I told her I once drove through the night to Utah after seeing one of their rock arches on the news.

Later I found out she was lying. She’d been to the ocean. It made me wonder who was really feeling sorry for whom. For our wedding, I gave her a blind kitten. We’d watch him chase mosquitoes through the house, leaping from the couch onto the table without ever crashing into anything. But all of that is in the past. Sarah was taken in a starship last year, and I haven’t had a moment’s peace. Suspicions ride me at Basin’s general store, and at the pumps. It’s as if I threw her in the old reservoir or — more likely, since my neighbors look down on me — that she climbed into the back of the first truck that stopped.

* * *

I’ll ask you the same question I ask myself: Why did they choose Sarah? Why did they come to my dry hundred and take, of all the people on this planet, my strange, bony wife, who walked with her chin out like a hound and made little whistling sounds when she slept?

What use is there for such a woman in the vast cosmos of space? Does someone need to be told for the thousandth time to knock the mud from their boots? Are there chickens to feed? Is it cold and lonely during those interstellar nights? It roils my thoughts like the running of a thousand horses. The wind rattles the shutters, and dust balls follow me from room to room in the empty house. I stare at the rocking chair by the woodstove where she used to knit, her neon balls of yarn. I remember the way she sighed as she plunged the needle through, making beer koozies and placemats, things we never used. Love is so unsacred. That’s the great tragedy. You fall in love. It ends. You fall in love again. And on and on, with whoever happens to be at the Silver Saddle. But when your wife is taken up into space by who knows what, who knows where, it’s hard to cut loose. It’s hard to move on.

* * *

My old friend Lance McNiven is waiting for me at the Acoma Lounge in Butte. Lance owns nine Domino’s and should be rich, except he has seven daughters and three ex-wives. You’d think all those women would give him some insight, but they just make him melancholic.

“You ever hear a hum?” I ask him.

“A hum?”

I nod. “Sarah started hearing it last year. A low throbbing noise. It kept her up nights.”

There are only two other people in the bar: a drunk with his head down on his table and the bartender looking at her phone. Lance and I constitute the lunchtime rush. “Kathleen used to hear one of the radio preachers talking to her in her head,” he says. “Telling her things like ‘Give Lance’s snowmobile to the church auction.’”

Kathleen — his first wife — was a baton twirler at our high school. I remember windy nights in Two Dot when her baton broke orbit and whirled over the pep band like a tomahawk. Lance and I grew up together: two kids throwing rocks at ducks in the Boulder River. His parents owned the big McNiven Ranch in the north of the valley, while mine toiled on the same hundred I work today. Lance was mean as a kid, maiming pack rats with a slingshot, but now he wears khaki shorts and his calves are hairless. Some men get softer as they go along.

“‘Set loose Lance’s favorite horse.’ That was another thing the preacher told Kathleen. I was out in the Bulls three days searching for Shadow. Maybe your aliens took him, too.”

I picture a black horse on a starship. It’s a hard thing to imagine — the big animal standing there as the Andromedan night glides by.

“What if it was what she wanted?” I ask.


“To get away as far as she could.”

“You can’t blame yourself,” Lance answers. “Women are just born cruel.”

* * *

Our Lady of the Rockies watches over Butte from atop the Continental Divide. At ninety feet tall, she’s so benevolent and pure that I remember my dad weeping over his beans after church. The man who built the Lady had a sick wife. He made a deal with God: cure her and I’ll build you a statue. The wife was cured, the statue built. Otherwise, the town is just bars and headframes and falling-down buildings with National Historic Register plaques out front. And of course the Berkeley Pit, a mile-long strip mine gouged out of uptown and filled with copper-red water so toxic it kills any bird that lands.

I’ve considered making my own deal with God: get people to believe me about Sarah and I’ll turn my old chicken coop into a roadside chapel. Altar, crucifix, candles, the whole thing. It’s a tough deal, even for God.

Lance and I walk aimlessly beneath the headframes. I find myself envying the most pitiful things.

We pass a homeless couple sitting beside a paper cup of flowers. The sun is hot, and the beers are making me itch, like I might need to break something.

When my grandparents were kids, they rode the roller coaster at Columbia Gardens, where the Berkeley Pit is now. Swimming in the Olympic-size pool. Walking the promenade. I nod up at the Virgin. “Do you think it’s worse to get crucified or watch your son get crucified?”

“My son?” Lance says. “My kingdom for a son.”

He’s useless on philosophy, so I change the subject. “Sarah would get this look in her eyes sometimes, faraway, like she knew something was coming.”

I don’t know why I keep talking to him about Sarah. Lance is the only friend I have left. I don’t want to push him away; everyone else thinks I’m crazy. But I’ve long suspected there was something more between them, so maybe he understands. Lance used to take Sarah up in his powered parachute. They’d fly all the way to Pony for lunch. I was happy for her — she needed an activity to take her mind off the drudgery of ranch work. She was light on her feet when she came home. Now, when Lance turns, there are tears in his eyes, and his face is furious. “A look in her eyes? Starships and hums? I don’t want to hear it. All your bullshit — it pains me.”

“It pains you?” As if one of his wives were careening through the Milky Way instead of collecting alimony in Bozeman.

“She left. She just left. That’s all. You weren’t enough for her.” He quickens his pace, his bare calves propelling him away from me on the sidewalk. “No one was.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

Lance is almost running now. The back of his head is oblong, egg-shaped. A pink line of sunburn above his navy golf shirt. Flakes of dandruff on the collar. Pathetic. I can’t believe I ever looked up to him. He hops a short fence and disappears behind one of the old Copper King mansions.

“Lance! You son of a bitch!”

I stand dazed in the sunlight. Was he in love with her? Is that why he still hangs around with me? Searching for clues? Mourning? The sound in my ears is like the starship all over again, a rattling roar that makes me fear I’m coming loose at the joints. I pick up an empty beer bottle and hurl it after him.

* * *

Without Sarah, when I look in the mirror, it’s just my face staring back. I don’t know how to explain it, but that’s not enough. No way. Not even close.

* * *

Of course the police have talked to me. They sent a team and tore apart the house. They don’t believe a word I say, but there’s no evidence, no history of abuse. They dug holes in the yard, set big German shepherds sniffing everything, scared the chickens half to death, then drove away in a screeching cloud of dust. Sarah’s father hired a private investigator, too. A hairless, lumpy man who looked like he’d been put through an industrial washing machine. First he tried to threaten me, and then he tried to cajole me, and then he called me a dingbat, a loon. When I described the glowing blue net, he threatened me with the psych ward. Said they’d zap me until I remembered straight, and if I’d left her in a ditch somewhere, they’d zap me until my toes fell off.

I call the investigator and tell him to talk to Lance McNiven.

“I already talked to Lance,” he says.

“What did he say?”

“That’s private.”

“Private?” I ask. “Private to who? Whoever’s paying you?”

“Exactly,” he says, and hangs up. I consider calling Sarah’s father, too, but I’m afraid he’ll pull up in his old Chinook and camp in my yard like he did the first time, eating all my eggs and rifling through the dresser drawers when I went into town.

I’m at the center of a great comedy. The neighbors laugh as I shamble through the yard feeding the chickens their crumbles. A hum in Basin’s general store that everyone else can hear. I imagine Sarah and Lance naked together in his powered parachute, sharing the single seat, her chin out, her bony shoulders pressed back against his hairless chest. Flying higher and higher. Cloud wisps, mountain peaks, migrating geese. Her real love only at elevation. I walk out onto the porch; I shake my fist at the sky.

Lance started with hang gliding. Every day when the weather was nice, he drove all the way to Missoula, got a running start, and jumped off the side of Mount Sentinel. I was stealing prescription pills at the time and figured it was the same thing: wanting to fly, wanting to die.

We saw starships all the time as kids. Colored disks spinning over Boulder Valley. They’re common in central Montana once you get out of town. Our parents told us to do our chores or one would take us away. Uncle Walt disappeared from his tractor when I was seven. People said he split — they claimed the bank was after him and that he followed a chippie down to Reno — but I knew better. All we ever found was a single gold filling in the grass.

* * *

The cat treats me like an unwelcome guest in my own home. Sarah named him Hawk as a joke. His blind eyes are two cloudy marbles that hold the entire universe. Regarding him from across the dinner table, I feel I could get sucked inside one of his eyeballs and have to play out all of this drama again in miniature: go to the Silver Saddle, meet Sarah, get married, the aliens, the whole stupid thing. “I pulled you out of a ditch,” I tell him. “Doesn’t that count for something?” He flicks his tail at me, blaming me for Sarah’s absence. She was the only one who knew how to properly scratch underneath his chin.

The one time I left, when I went down to see that rock arch in Utah, I was back home before dawn the next day. It was the arch itself that scared me. They call it Delicate, but there was nothing delicate about the way it stood there, so huge and red and impossible. I knew it for what it was: an unholy portal. Vector for some alternate dimension. Anything was liable to come streaming through and suck me up.

* * *

The closest missing-persons support group meets in Billings. I drive out there. Two and a half hours east, with every Bozeman asshole cutting me off and crowding my lane. You think rich people are smart until you meet one, and then you discover that they can’t change a tire. The meeting is in the community room of the Billings Public Library. I don’t have a library card, but something about my appearance must suggest a missing person, because the librarian waves me through the book detectors and points to the community room.

There are a dozen others in the circle of folding chairs. The first thing I notice is that I’m the only white man. The Crow Agency is twenty miles away — another world entirely. My phone goes off as I’m walking in, and I feel like General Custer leading the 7th Cavalry band. I slouch into one of the chairs, avoiding eye contact. I feel the weight — the grief, the anger, all the missing-persons signs stapled to telephone poles. I wish I hadn’t come. I wish I’d chased Lance around the Copper King mansion, dragged him up a headframe, and dangled him off by his toes.

The facilitator is a young man in a beaded leather vest. He invites us to share. The stories begin. A daughter taken from a rest stop. A niece last seen in a field. A pregnant wife from a diner. They’re all missing girls, and as the stories accumulate, my mouth goes dry. When my turn comes, I can hardly speak, but I remember from AA to tell the truth. I introduce myself, say my name, say I’m nine years sober. I tell them about Sarah. The games we used to play. The way she walked with her chin out. How gentle she was with the animals. How my life finally felt like it was worth something. I have to wipe my eyes when I get to the starship, and my face turns red, but what choice do I have? I describe the iridescent wings.

The mothers and fathers stare at me. The aunts and uncles and cousins. “I swear to God, it’s true,” I say, in closure.

Then I pick at a scab on my knuckle, waiting to sneak out. I can feel how they’re looking at me. Crazy white man. Junkie. The facilitator crosses the carpet and stands beside me. He’s bigger than I realized, looming over my shoulder, stinking of chewing tobacco. He tugs on his leather vest. A thunderbird is beaded on the breast above a date — when someone was born, when someone died, when someone went missing . . . who knows? I leave off picking at the scab and look up at him. “What?” I ask.

“Get out of here,” he says.

“But they took her.” I pause. “They could have taken the others, too.”

He shakes his head. His eyes are flat and menacing. Familiar. I wonder if we were ever in lockup together, in Helena or Miles City.

I stand up. I back away. “Isn’t there some rule?” I ask, my voice rising. “You can’t just throw me out.”

“Don’t come back.”

* * *

It was just me and Sarah when the starship came swinging over the Bull Mountains and into Boulder Valley. Skimming the hilltops, singeing the junipers with blue flame as it flew toward our meager homestead. We live in dry country. It’s a miracle no fires started. Cattle scattered into the willow bushes by the river.

The ship was iridescent; its wings flashed violet and green.

I ran for the porch, but Sarah stood her ground. She set her shoulders like a linebacker and looked up to the sky. I don’t know what got into her. She’d been feeding the chickens. She dropped the pail of crumbles and her whole face changed, filling with light, as if she’d been waiting her whole life.

In the movies, when someone is taken, it’s a tractor-beam of light and — zing! — they disappear, but these devils used a net. A glowing blue web that flopped down from the craft and meshed itself around my wife. She clung to it for all she was worth. Her feet rose from the ground, and there was a mad, sad sort of triumph in her eyes as she looked down at me on the porch and was borne away. Higher and higher, in a wide, swinging arc. Over the river, over the old McNiven place, rising until her toes brushed the peaks of the Bull Mountains.

* * *

On the way home from Billings, I stop at a big bend in the Yellowstone River. I take off my clothes and jump in. I float face down, spread-eagle, like I’m flying. Truckers honk at my pale ass going by. Drop me in the sea, I think. Drag me to the deep. Sarah used to say stuff like that when we were making love. I never understood her. A trout swims underneath me. My head bumps a rock. I never understood much of anything.

Maybe it was because she’d been to the Atlantic, down on the Florida coast, but Sarah had a better sense of the scale of things. The distance between the earth and the stars, how far you’d sink if you fell off a boat in the middle of the Pacific. Light-years, leagues. I flip over on my back and stare up at the clouds. I wonder if she can still see me somehow.

“Come back,” I ask her. I promise I’ll forget the whole thing with Lance. I won’t even mention it.

* * *

Two hundred years ago, Blackfeet Indians tracked buffalo through the valley. My little sister found one of their arrowheads in the foothills. A beautiful thing of white quartz. I stole it from her and buried it by the toolshed. Now I can’t find it. I never said I deserve a happy ending.

I think of liquidating. Selling the ranch. Moving to Spokane. A one-bedroom rental. The kind of place where if something goes wrong, you call the landlord, and if an alien wants your wife, they have to knock on every other door and talk to all the old ladies.

* * *

In the morning, I walk out to the spot where Sarah was taken. At least they could have left a crop circle, some pattern in the grass. Not even a gold filling. I could probably get people on the internet to believe me anyway. Publish my story and charge admission to the paranormal investigators and their TV crews. But I don’t want those freaks on my land.

I’ll tell you something I’ve never told anyone. Sarah used to have fits. When we were making love or if she’d been dreaming, her whole body would vibrate. Her skin would get hot, and she’d babble, like she was speaking in tongues. I was proud at first, thinking I’d transported her to mindless ecstasy. Now I remember an order to the syllables, patterns, as if she were speaking the language of another world.

I set my feet like hers in the grass. I look up. Shredded clouds cross the sky. A hawk circles. Was she waiting for them all along? Was our life together only a diversion, a way for her to kill time? I listen for a low, throbbing hum.

* * *

There’s a row of fancy cypress trees that Kathleen planted in front of Lance’s house at the top of Continental Drive, the only rich neighborhood left in Butte. I’ve been fantasizing about peppering him with bird shot, filling those hairless calves with lead, but I leave my shotgun in the truck. Lance’s is gone from the driveway. A single light shines inside the house.

“Lance?” I call, walking up the steps. I nudge the antler handle on the door, and it swings open. The foyer smells like spiced cologne. Golf clubs are scattered across the floor, and golf-ball-sized dents pock the far wall. The light fixture over the entryway is made from more antlers — a whole tangled herd. Eight letters from Lance are arranged in a rectangle on the front table. Seven for his daughters and one for me.

I read mine, then toss it on the floor and walk out.

He says he loved Sarah. He loved her, and she left him, like all the others. Three ex-wives, one mistress. Nine Domino’s, seven daughters, not one son.

I was always jealous of Lance. The flying, the money, the women. He had all the things I thought I wanted. But in the end, it didn’t add up. He had zero, squat, just like me.

The first night I brought Sarah home, after the Silver Saddle, she stood on my porch and looked from the chicken coop to the muddy riverbank and then up at the moon. She sniffed the night air, her chin out, as if wondering, Is this it? I should have known right then that it would never be enough. The winters here are endless, the mosquitoes vindictive. It’s impossible not to look up at the stars.

* * *

There wasn’t much left of Lance when they found him. He got all smashed up in his powered parachute. He ran out of gas above the Continental Divide, and strong winds blew him into the Berkeley Pit. The rescue crew couldn’t fish him out, so they let him sink to the bottom. He’s down there now, dissolving with the microbes and the metal-eating yeasts. Maybe something will grow out of his torso: a cure for Alzheimer’s or bacteria that eats plastic water bottles. Each of his daughters got a Domino’s. His ex-wives split the rest.

I wonder how many lifetimes Lance lived in those minutes, floating on the breeze, looking down at Our Lady of the Rockies. If he felt close to Sarah then.

Only their faces remain in my memory: Lance crying in Butte sunlight, Sarah as she rose over the mountains. Two ghosts, haunting me from above.

Maxim Loskutoff

Maxim Loskutoff is the award-winning author of Ruthie Fear and Come West and See. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Ploughshares, and GQ. He lives in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana.