The purpose of the trip was to get as far out of town as possible, away from lights and glare. Our plan: to track the sky and identify the unidentifiable. We packed flashlights as our welcoming beacons and moon pies, Mars bars and Milky Ways, after all it was themed evening. We carried a thermos of coffee and some blankets.
My friend believed strongly, through sources unknown to me, that tonight would be a special night for extraterrestrial activity. I didn’t believe her completely. I thought maybe her information sources were not credible. I thought perhaps she misunderstood some of the information. Maybe there was a comet, or an asteroid shower or some other event scheduled for the evening. I thought perhaps that she was on the cusp of playing a fantastic joke on me. She usually had us chasing ghosts, not aliens. I went along for the candy.
After a few miles she turned off the interstate onto a state road. The sun shone overhead, it was about two hours before sunset. She was convinced (from herself or her sources, I am not certain which) that we needed to survey the area in daylight first. Our eyes, she said, needed to adjust gradually to darkness. We needed to listen so that, should any unusual sounds beat our eardrums, we could discern between the worldly and the unworldly. She explained all this and then I asked questions to fill the waiting time.
Do UFOs have to be objects? What about a phenomenon – like aurora borealis. How do we know for sure that aliens travel in objects? When Spock and Kirk beamed up was the beam an object, or a phenomenon? Or could one call it an intangible scientific device since the beam itself is impossible to hold in one’s hand.
She hadn’t really thought about that, she said.
Flying – of course visitors from outer space will enter our atmosphere from beyond, from on high, not from below or through the shadowy depths of ocean. So the sky it is and we looked up. On this matter we agreed.
Airplanes – identifiable. Clouds – identifiable. Aurora borealis – identifiable. That is, these objects and phenomenon are identifiable only if you have seen them before. Watchers of the night sky can become disoriented, confused rendering them unable to identify even the most recognizable objects, or are we recognizing them in a different way, or coming at them from a different angle? That’s why we’re heading there in daylight. My friend answered my skepticism twice now but had at least allowed me to finish.
There wasn’t a single car on the state highway. Wheat fields surrounded us. It was early summer. The wheat fields were still green. One full, leafy tree interrupted the horizon.
We pulled up to a picnic area, got out of the car, spread our blankets on top of a picnic table and set ourselves on top of the blankets. My friend held her large flashlight between her legs. I had mine next to me. I couldn’t hold the flashlight while eating a moon-pie. I couldn’t put the flashlight in my lap because then my coffee wouldn’t have a nice warm place to rest. She watched the horizon darken. I watched as bugs tried to eat my snacks.
Wind moved the wheat slightly. The air was a bit cooler than I expected and my skin turned to goose-flesh. We weren’t talking but we didn’t seem to mind. The air was clean. The sky was clear.
Some crows decided to leave the tree, the one on the horizon. They left at once, a large group, beating their wings and calling insults to one another. It was so quiet at dusk that the crowd of crows seemed to multiply in thousands of decibels.
Behind the crows the sun was starting to fall, slightly. The sky was still summer blue but a small white disk, a full moon was visible. That’s what I was looking at, then, the moon in the sky while the sun was still shining.
Then: crack, flash, a deep percussive boom.
The crows were silenced.
Lightening? No clouds. No rain.
No wait, my friend said. She saw a cloud. A tiny black speck. The darkest meanest cloud ever.
Crow? I asked. But no, the speck didn’t move, didn’t fly, didn’t dance. The mean dark speck stayed in place. The more I stared at the speck, the more the blue sky went white, the clear, hurtful kind of white that makes your eyeballs focus on translucent flecks until you pull your vision back and blink. I didn’t blink. I couldn’t blink because quivering, almost ragged, that black spot contracted like a muscle in a beating heart, it snapped and was gone.
I don’t think she noticed. She didn’t say much except that she hoped it wouldn’t rain. It didn’t. We stayed all night. She turned her flashlight on and sent a beam of light straight up. Nothing will stop the light, she told me. It will go on forever. Keep going out there for years and years, even after we’re dead.
I ate my candy. I drank my coffee. I fell asleep. My friend woke me at about three am. She held her welcome beacon skyward. There’s nothing out here, she said. She snapped off the light. We should go home.