If he couldn’t sleep, he might as well take the opportunity to go outside, enjoy the warm breezes and what appeared to be a deserted beachfront.
He dressed quickly and silently—even though he knew he needn’t have bothered since Cole was beyond waking—in a pair of cut-offs and a Dr. Who T-shirt. He slid his feet into flip-flops, grabbed his keys off the dresser, and headed for the front door.
Other than the steady whoosh of traffic on Sheridan Road to the west, the night was quiet. Rory wished he’d checked the time before heading out, but judging from the silence all around him, he’d guess it was the wee small hours of the morning, maybe two or three a.m. This was Chicago, after all, there was usually someone stumbling around, even in blackest night.
But his street was empty. The tree branches and their leaves cast shadows on the silvery pavement beneath his feet because of the moon’s brightness. His footsteps, even in flip-flops, sounded extra-loud as he headed east, toward the beach.
At the end of the street, there was a cul-de-sac where cars could turn around, and beyond this, a set of stone steps that led down to the sand. Rory stood at the top of the steps looking out at the sand and water, the pile of boulders just off-shore, that Cole promised he’d swim out to the next day with Rory. A white lifeguard chair, empty, sat crookedly in the sand, leaning as it sunk to the left. The moon shone brilliantly on the water, laying a swath of golden light upon its gently undulating surface. If Rory looked at this light just right, perhaps squinting a bit behind his glasses, he could almost imagine the light rising up, like an illuminated fountain, from the water’s surface.
He took the steps quickly and was on the sand in seconds. He kicked off his flip-flops and sighed when he felt the cool sand squishing up between his toes. He looked around himself once more, paying particular attention to the concrete that bordered the beach, to assure himself he had the gift of a city beach all to himself.
And he did! He did.
He tore off his shirt, set it down, and then removed his glasses, placing them on top of the T-shirt. With a little cry, he dashed toward the water, a small laugh escaping his lips. He stopped briefly at its edge, gasping at the icy cold of the waves, even this late in the summer, as they ran up to meet him, lapping and biting at his toes. And then he took a deep breath, waded in up to his knees, and paused to consider if he really wanted to go whole hog.
What the hell?
He waded in a little farther, until the bottom dropped out from under him suddenly and instead of the water reaching just to the top of his thighs, hit him just above his belly button. It was freezing! And Rory knew there was only one solution: get full immersion over as quickly as possible.
He raised his hands over his head and dove as a wave rolled in toward him. The world went silent as he went under, the murky depths of the water almost black. He held his breath as long as he could, swimming outward. His mother’s voice erupted in his head, scolding, telling him to go back to shore, because it was late and there was no one around. What if he, God forbid, got a cramp?
Rory shushed his mother and continued to swim toward Michigan or whatever was directly opposite, hundreds of miles away. He swam until he felt his lungs would burst.
And then he surfaced, shaking the water from his hair. The first thing he noticed was how full immersion had done the trick—he wasn’t exactly warm, but the water temperature was at least bearable.
The second was the light on the water. It had changed to a strange pale radiance, a shifting, silvery opalescence that, in addition to his recent underwater swimming, left him nearly breathless.
He trod water and hazarded a glimpse up at the sky, expecting to see the moon and perhaps that bank of clouds that had managed to elude him earlier.
But the moon was gone. Or at least hidden.
Is this real?
Rory couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He actually slipped under for a helpless moment because both his arms and feet stopped moving. He came back up quickly, sputtering and spitting out lake water, gaze fixed on the sky. “What the fuck?” he whispered.
Was what he saw natural? Like, as in a natural phenomenon? What was above him appeared almost like some membrane, formed from gray smoky clouds, but alive. It rose up, mountainous, into the night sky. As he peered closer at the form, it seemed to almost breathe, to expand in and out. And within the gray smoke or fog, figures seemed to be spinning. They were black and amorphous, almost like shadows brought to life. The fact that the cloud—or whatever it was—had an otherworldly silvery light from below didn’t make the figures any more distinctive.
This can’t be real, Rory thought. I’m back at the apartment right now, sound asleep next to Cole. That pizza really did a number on me. Rory knew his notions were simply wishful thinking.
The membrane or cloud or whatever one wanted to call it was as real as the moon had been above him.
The black figures, spinning, began, one-by-one, to drop. They were too far distant for Rory to hear any splashes, but he could plainly see that some of them were disconnecting from the membrane-or-cloud-or-whatever-one-wanted-to-call-it and plopping down onto the placid surface of Lake Michigan.
Because of its immensity, Rory was unable to determine if the thing above him was close by or distant. It could have been hovering directly overhead. Or it may have been as far away as downtown or even the western edge of Indiana. Perhaps it was some industrial disaster thrown up by the city of Gary? Perhaps it was a military experiment, a new kind of aircraft?
And, of course, Rory, ever the science fiction geek, came to the last supposition almost reluctantly, because it terrified him—perhaps it was some sort of alien vessel, a UFO in everyday parlance. The kind of thing Rory had both dreaded and hoped to bear witness to almost all of his young life.
He stared at it in wonder, lost for a moment in time. He hoped that he would gain more clarity on what the thing was, but the longer he stared, the more confusing it became. Was it some freak of nature? Some hitherto unseen cloud formation? Was it really a spaceship beyond his or anyone’s really wildest imagination?
Whatever it was, he was certain it was heating up the water around him, which led him to the conclusion that it must have some powerful energy to heat up a body of water as large as Lake Michigan. What had been cold now felt almost as warm as bathwater.
And that scared Rory just as much as this monstrously huge thing in the sky above him. What if the water continued to heat up? What if it reached some boiling point and he would be poached alive in it?
What if the black, shadowy beings he witnessed spinning within the mist meant him harm as they dropped from the cloud? What if they were, right now, swimming toward him, all bulbous heads and soulless gray eyes?
He shuddered, in spite of the warmth of the water around him. He leveled himself out, lowered his face to the water, and began the fastest crawl he could manage to shore, which suddenly seemed almost impossibly far way.
And a new fear seized him as he paddled, panting, through the dark water—what if something as prosaic as drowning claimed him? Would they ever find him?
What would Cole do when he woke at last, to find himself in bed and alone? What would he do as the sun rose, lighting up their little love nest, and there was no Rory?
Rory didn’t want to see the thing anymore. Just looking at it induced in him a feeling of dread so powerful, it nauseated him. So he kept his face in the water, only turning his head to the side every few strokes, to grab a breath of air, until he neared the shore. He squatted low, panting hard, in the shallows and at last hazarded a glance up at the sky.
It was empty.
Save for a muted orange glow from light pollution and the moon, now distant, there was nothing in the sky. Rory crawled from the water and plopped down on the damp sand at the lake’s edge.