The following is an excerpt from Benjamin Percy's novella, “The Uncharted,” included in his newest collection, Suicide Woods. Benjamin Percy is the author of four novels, among which are The Dark Net and The Dead Lands. He's also written short story collections, a craft book on fiction, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, comics, and the audio drama, “Wolverine.” Among his honors are a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two Pushcart Prizes. Percy is also a regular lecturer at writing workshops.
In her childhood bedroom, Michelle papered one wall entirely with maps. She collected them from her grandmother’s National Geographic magazines. She tore them from her library’s world atlas and the gas station’s rack of Rand McNallys. She bought them for a quarter from garage sales and thrift shops. She loved the old tattered yellow explorers’ maps, because they made her dream of long ago and far away, and she loved the crisp, tidily folded road maps for their detail and clarity. But she especially loved a staggered collage she tacked up—of the globe, and then the United States, and then the state of Illinois, and then the city of Chicago. She made an X on each of them that indicated where she lived. She knew exactly where she belonged when she stood before it.
Now Michelle works in Silicon Valley and lives in San Francisco, a city that makes no sense. The streets—and the landscape—wander and bend in every direction, so that she sometimes feels as if she’s fallen into the upside-down topography of one of those M. C. Escher prints that some child has crayoned all over.
There’s nothing wrong with being particular. That’s what Michelle often tells herself. She wakes up at six and goes to bed at eleven every day. She irons her clothes and delights in the crispness of her jeans when she pulls them on. She buys segmented plates because she prefers her food not mix. She had all the hardware and fixtures in her apartment changed out to brushed steel so that they matched. She calls it a dream job, her position at Atlas, a mapmaking tech firm popular for its navigation app and satellite-view maps. Their vans roam city streets and country highways across the world, all with camera units stationed on top that record a 360-degree view.
She is the field director of the Titan program. Her division uses the same camera technology as the vans—except on backpacks. Their goal is to map every inch of the planet. Every reef, every alleyway, every canyon. Everything. She has teams stationed in Marrakech, Bogotá, Reykjavík, the Great Barrier Reef, and beyond.
And one of them has gone missing. A team of four assigned to a northwestern sector of Alaska. Every evening they were supposed to uplink their data to the satellite, but sometimes teams in remote areas ran into problems—inclement weather, damaged equipment—so she tried not to worry at first. But after 48 hours passed, her panic heightened and made her lungs feel like tiny paper sacks with holes in them. Not only had her team failed to uplink, but their geo-locaters gave off no signal. They had gone dark.
Even if she’d had access to the final minutes of footage, the jumble of images probably would have confused her, like a torn-up map that didn’t align with any compass.
The four team members were spread out in a line, 20 yards apart, hiking through a maze of hemlocks and cedars crowned by mossy branches and skirted by sword ferns. There were three men and one woman, all in their 20s, dirt-smeared and tromping along in boots and canvas pants and thermal long-sleeves. They paced one another, marching through the woods like patrolling soldiers.
Their backs were bent from the weight of their Titan packs, each one with a camera unit that spun on a pole like a disco globe. It was studded with lenses that reflected the dazzle of sunlight. When in motion, it made a rusty chirping sound, like many crickets sawing their legs at once.
The wind whispered and the branches swayed and the shadows shifted and a two-toned whistle sounded. Maybe a bird. Or maybe not. The team did not appear to notice. They swatted at mosquitoes. They swigged from canteens. They studied the thick undergrowth before them, trying not to stumble.
Then one of them passed behind a tree, and never showed up on the other side of it. Gone.
A few paces later, the same thing happened to another. He was there. And then he was not.
The two remaining hikers continued forward unknowingly, until a few paces later, one of them jerked out of sight. Dragged down. He gave a strangled cry, and the remaining hiker paused. And looked around. But there was nothing to see.
“Paul?” he said.
The camera on his back whirred in dizzying circles. As if to follow it, he turned quickly. Branches spiked toward him. Shadows pooled beneath trees and bushes. His heel caught on a root and he nearly fell. “Jane? Where are you?” His eyes blinked rapid-fire. His breathing sharpened. “Guys?”
He reached back and shut off the camera unit. The chirping ceased. The spinning globe went dead. “Hey!”
At first there was no response except the shushing wind, and then the two-toned whistle sounded again. He jerked toward it, his focus settling on a tree. One larger than the rest. With a night-black hollow in its base.
“The only time I felt alive was when I was nearly dead,” he told them.
And—maybe?—something shifted inside. “Guys?” he said and unbelted his knife and cocked his head. “Where did you go?” He continued toward the tree, toward the hollow, until he crept inside, throated by darkness.
It’s easy to find someone who wants to work in Istanbul or Seoul or Mexico City, humping the Titan pack into mosques and along rivers and through plaza markets. But it’s nearly impossible to find someone willing and able to spend several months mountaineering in Chile or mucking through the Louisiana bayou. Michelle reached out to veterans who served in elite units, to the Sierra Club and Outward Bound programs for outdoorsy preservationists, to REI for employee sponsorship and ad revenue, and even to GoPro daredevils on YouTube.
That’s how she found Josh Wilde, a 22-year-old social media influencer with more than two million followers. Unlike so many of the morons online, he didn’t post prank videos or goofball skits. His channel was called Gone Wilde, and over the past four years, he had hang glided over active volcanoes and dived shipwrecks and free-climbed El Capitan.
They met at the X Games, where GoPro was touting his latest stunt: wing-suiting off the Empire State Building and hurtling through the windowed canyons of Manhattan before landing at a sprint in Central Park.
He looked older than he was, tanned and sinewy, his skin creased from all his time outside, exposed to extreme temperatures. No tattoos, only scars. He kept his head buzzed down to a brown bristle.
At the GoPro pavilion she asked him out for a drink, and he said, “Just to be clear, I’m not going to work for you,” and she surprised herself by saying, “Then I guess we’ll have to talk about something else.” He looked at her differently then, as if she was finally coming into focus, and she thought he was going to laugh and say he had other plans, but instead he offered her a real smile along with the time and place they should meet.
It was one of those nights that she never allowed herself. She didn’t like loud bars and she rarely drank anything but white wine, but they ended up at a crowded tiki lounge sipping ridiculous cocktails out of coconuts.
Josh looked like a raft guide who would pull you out of a hairy stretch of white water. He belonged in an REI catalog, standing on a summit he’d conquered and staring off at the horizon as if imagining what challenge he might take on next. “You’re the Captain Kirk of outdoorsmen,” she said and he said, “What?” and she said, “Nothing.”
Some people said it was a miracle he had survived. Others said he was unkillable.
She cleaned her glasses so many times that the cocktail napkin she was using disintegrated. She had been on five dates over the past five years—was that even what this was? a date?—and never really thought about sex except when watching shows on premium cable. It wasn’t long before she felt the warmth of the rum buzzing her nerves and spreading to the tips of her fingers. Josh wasn’t like so many of the other men she hired. He didn’t try to show off or brag. He barely seemed aware of himself. His T-shirt had a hole in it. One of his nails was black and looked ready to fall off. He was missing a molar. He smelled like he had swiped on some deodorant but forgotten to shower. She was looking for reasons not to like him, but none of them convinced her. She talked for over an hour, in a chirpy, harried voice, about mapmaking technology before asking him, “How did you end up doing what you’re doing? Are you crazy or something?”
He laughed and shook his head and his palm made a scraping sound when he ran it across his scalp.
“Sorry,” she said. “That was a terrible question. This rum, it’s—”
“It’s all good.”
“No, forget it. I—”
“It wasn’t my idea. It was my friends’.” He motioned to the bartender then, requesting another round. His voice softened when he said, “They thought it was the best way to keep me from killing myself.”
In high school, he’d survived a car crash. His parents and sister hadn’t. They were driving the Santiam Pass in Oregon. Six inches of snow had fallen and the plows hadn’t caught up. Their Jeep slid off the road on a curve and crashed down a 500-foot embankment and finally came to a rest half-sunken in a river. His father drowned. His mother was thrown from the passenger window. His sister’s arm was cloven off and she bled to death. And Josh was knocked unconscious, dangling upside down by his seat belt, with more than 20 broken bones. The snow covered up the skid marks. Two days passed before an elk hunter discovered him.
Some people said it was a miracle he had survived. Others said he was unkillable. “It’s almost like I wanted to prove them wrong.” He started free-climbing buildings, kayaking off waterfalls, cave diving, and then his friends Todd Dartman and Lester Grimson sat him down and asked him what the hell he was doing. “The only time I felt alive was when I was nearly dead,” he told them.
It didn’t make any sense. Not to Michelle. Not even in the slightest. Roller coasters made her weep. And driving the freeway, with cars ripping in and out of the lanes, put her in a vomity panic. She hated speed, risk, chaos. But as he continued to speak, she felt herself nodding her head. And she watched—somewhat terrified—as her hand rose to his shoulder. She began to stroke, then knead the muscle there.
Josh’s friends knew they couldn’t keep him from doing what he was doing, so they were going to accompany him. Plan and manage his itinerary. Spot him. Bail him out if he got into trouble. The monetization of the whole thing came by accident, after Todd posted a video that went viral of Josh mountain biking off a ski jump.
“Anyway,” he said, “I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this. Sorry.”
“No,” she said. “Don’t apologize. Thank you so much.”
“Why are you thanking me?”
“Because—I don’t know—I’m just from the stupid suburbs.”
“I’m like everybody else. You’re not. That’s why people like watching you. Because it’s good to be reminded that there are other ways to live. That you don’t have to sit at a desk all day and worry about your retirement savings or whatever.”
She always kept her hair in a severe ponytail and she noticed then a few stray hairs clinging to the sweat on her cheek and slipped the band off to tighten it again and he said, “Don’t,” and she said, “Don’t what?” and he said, “You look good with your hair down,” and then he reached out and combed his fingers through it and his scarred-up knuckles brushed her cheek and she whispered, “Why not?” and it wasn’t long before they were hurrying to pay the check. It’s been over a year since that night. Maybe he doesn’t even remember her. She doesn’t have his email or phone number, and she snuck out of his hotel room before he woke up. Not because she was embarrassed or regretful. But because she wanted to preserve that happy, heated feeling and not let it be ruined by the awkwardness of saying, “So long” and acknowledging nothing could ever work out between them. Her heart was a territory that would remain unexplored.
But now her team has gone missing and not even Alaska’s 212th Rescue Squadron has been able to locate them. She needs Josh Wilde.
The sky’s reflection glimmers on the water. White collars of foam curl around boulders. Roots tangle the banks. The river’s murmur gives way to a roar where it spills over into a curiously forked waterfall.
To one side, the river drops 30 feet into a shushing boom of mist and roiling water. And to the other side, the river plummets into a gaping chasm, the entrance to an underground tunnel. This is the Devil’s Kettle, in northern Minnesota.
Todd Dartman balances on the rocks here. He is the kind of guy who incorrectly quotes passages from On the Road. Bleach-haired, soul-patched, potbellied. He wears a hemp necklace and a Phish T-shirt, and has hazy memories of every youth hostel in Europe.
He’s geared out with electronics. A Bluetooth headset. And a shoulder-mounted GoPro camera that’s currently live-streaming. A climbing rope and harness anchor him to the shore. He is the voice of Gone Wilde, and he says, “All right, friends and brethren. We’re about five minutes out from our latest stunt. Hope you’re hungry for a triple cheeseburger of terror, adrenaline, and life-threatening awesomeness.” He stutters his feet to the edge and peers down into the kettle. “You see that? Looks like certain death to me. A river to nowhere.”
His friends call him a warrior poet. They have misinterpreted his emptiness for depth.
Then another voice crackles over the Bluetooth. Lester. “You ready to do something stupid?” he says.
“Always!” Todd says. “We’re good to go on this end. You in position?”
Lester is. About a mile from shore, on the blue calm of Lake Superior, a boat drops anchor, the metal weight cutting through the water. He waits for the line to go slack as the anchor clanks the rocky bottom. He wears cargo shorts and a collared shirt with many pockets. He styles his hair in a black puff, a kind of helmet that he can stick a pen or pencil into. He, too, is live-streaming from a camera unit vised to the dashboard of the bowrider.
The deck is cluttered with recording equipment, a first aid kit, a heart defibrillator, a cooler, snorkel gear. Right now Lester is consulting his GPS feed, a green-screened tablet that lists his coordinates. “I’m anchored over the tunnel system’s spout. All goes well, he should spring up nearby. If all goes well.”
Todd says, “Four miles of underground tunnels blasting ice-cold water along at forty miles an hour. What could go wrong?”
Lester’s face pinches with worry. “Everything.”
He hears a noise then. The whump-whump-whump of an approaching helicopter. He makes his hand into a visor. “Chopper’s rolling in. Might be we’re about to get busted.”
“More drama means more coverage,” Todd says. “More coverage means more subscribers means more ad dollars.”
“Yeah, well,” Lester says. “Let’s just hope we’re not making a snuff video. Our boy Josh has used up his nine lives at this point.”
Upriver from the Devil’s Kettle, Josh roams the banks, collecting rocks to puzzle together into a cairn. It’s already waist-high. Lichen-crusted and mud-slimed. Gapped with shadows. This is his ritual before every stunt. He is about to dive into the void and dare the underwater tunnel system that veins its way into Lake Superior.
His helmet camera is powered off and waiting on the bank. This moment belongs to him alone. He is bare-chested, the dry suit peeled to his waist. He adds another rock, then another. It’s a little like digging his own grave. Makes him realize what’s at risk. Reminds him there’s still time to back out, and more and more, he’s eager to back out. At first what he was doing felt like some sort of atonement. Now it just feels stupid. But he and his friends have built this . . . thing together. Whatever it is. A business? A micro media empire? Somehow a bunch of dumbass high school graduates are pulling in mid–six figures a year off ad revenue from GoPro, Clif Bar, and Patagonia, among other brands. Initially this was supposed to be for Josh, but it increasingly it feels like it’s for them.
His friends call him a warrior poet. They have misinterpreted his emptiness for depth. Vacant is how he feels most of the time. Hollow. Carved out. Sure, he’ll throw up his pinky and index fingers in the shape of the devil’s horns and say something for the camera, like: “Let’s own this mountain,” or “Ride the razor’s edge,” or whatever bullshit. But it’s all an act. He doesn’t give two damns.
His body is crosshatched with scars, but there’s one that stands out from the rest. A thick, gummy line that runs from his collarbone to his hip. It came from the car wreck and the surgery that followed. A daily reminder that he lived and his family didn’t. If he dug into it with a knife, nothing would dribble out of him but stale air and shadows. He would simply deflate.
So many people told Josh he must have lived for a reason. He must have some purpose to fulfill before death could finally claim him. They were wrong. He performs stunts that people watch on their phones while waiting for the bus or taking a shit. His life is meaningless, and yet everyone treats him like he’s something special.
Todd hollers his way, indicating it’s go time, and Josh lifts a hand to acknowledge him before adding one last agate—a milky yellow nugget—to the top of the cairn. Then he sockets his arms into the sleeves of his dry suit and slowly zips the chest shut. For the kettle run, Lester built him custom-made aquatic shoes that give him the appearance of having long, webbed toes. And a custom oxygen tank—heavily padded and smaller than a standard scuba— that Josh shoulders now before splashing his way downstream.
Todd trains the camera on Josh and throws up a celebratory fist and speaks in a fight announcer’s voice. “Here comes the man of the hour! He wing-suited off the Empire State Building, he free-climbed El Capitan, he hang glided over the lava-spewing belly of Mount Kilauea. Josh motherfucking Wilde!”
This is Josh’s cue. He’s supposed to say something badass, something they can print on coffee mugs and T-shirts and sell off the website. But all he can manage is a smile.
So Todd talks for him. “Never feel so jacked up as when you tease death, am I right? Wag your tongue in the reaper’s face? Josh?”
In response Josh pulls on his mask. Then fits on the helmet with the camera and high-powered LED lamp attached to it.
“Josh?” Todd slaps him on the shoulder. “You ready to dare the nightmare, bro?”
Josh hops up and down, shakes out his arms, cracks his neck.
Then he looks long and hard at Todd. “I think this is it,” he says. “Dude, you’ll be fine. You’re always fine.”
“No,” Josh says. “I mean . . . I think I’m done? I think I’m ready to not do this anymore.”
Todd’s voice reveals that he might be not only confused, but also hurt. “But . . . what? Why?”
Josh tucks in his mouthpiece. Heaves a fat dose of oxygen. And jumps into nothingness. The whitewater seizes him and drags him down into the underworld.
Excerpted from “The Uncharted” from Suicide Woods by Benjamin Percy. Copyright © 2019 by Benjamin Percy. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.