AFTER THEY made love, they were polar opposites in how they reacted.
Cole, barely minutes after coming, would be asleep, mouth open and snoring, body lax. A baby who’d just been fed. Rory looked down on him as he sat perched with his back against the headboard. Despite—or maybe because of—the spittle that ran out of one side of Cole’s mouth, he felt a shock of warmth go through him as he gazed at Cole, wondering how he’d gotten so lucky. Although Rory was a few years younger, he was a nerd with glasses. He wasn’t bad-looking; he just wasn’t all that noticeable in a crowd. How had he snared a guy like Cole, with his perfect runner’s build, his dark brown wavy hair, and the perpetual five-o’clock shadow that accentuated, rather than hid, the angular planes of his face and his sharp jawline. Rory snickered in the darkness at Cole as a snore erupted from him, almost loud enough to shake the glass in their bedroom window.
It was always like this—maniac in the sack until he came, and then it was lights out for Cole, as though he’d been drugged.
Rory, on the other hand, always felt energized, pumped up, alive, as if he should hop from the bed, go outside, and run a mile or three. Or make a meal. Or write the great American novel. Or catalog his collection of books alphabetically, and then by genre.
Tonight was no different. They’d just moved into the one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. The neighborhood, the Windy City’s farthest east and north before heading into suburbia, afforded them a chance to live by Lake Michigan without the higher rents they’d encounter closer to downtown.
They were young and in love, and cohabitating was a first for both of them. Rory felt they were already having their happy-ever-after moment.
The apartment was a find—a vintage courtyard building east of Sheridan Road on Fargo Avenue. Their unit’s bedroom faced Lake Michigan, which was only a few steps away from their front door. A lake view, high ceilings, crown molding, formal dining room with a built-in hutch, huge living room with working fireplace, and an original bathroom with an enormous claw-foot tub were just a few of the amenities they were delighted to find—all for the “steal” monthly rent of only five hundred dollars.
The apartment, which would eventually be filled to bursting with a hodgepodge of furniture and belongings, ranging from family antiques supplied by Cole to Lost in Space action figures from Rory, was now a scene of chaos with moving boxes everywhere, almost none of them unpacked.
They’d spent the whole day moving and were exhausted when they were finished. Even though it was August, by the time they were done dragging the boxes out of their U-Haul truck, through their building’s courtyard, and then up to the tenth floor via the rickety but thank-heaven-reliable elevator, the skies above the lake had gone dark. They ordered stuffed spinach pizza from Giordano’s, just south of them on Sheridan, and feasted on it, melted mozzarella on their chins, on a couple of beach towels they found at the top of one of the boxes.
And of course, Rory being twenty-three and Cole twenty-six, with their blossoming love all of six months old, they did find the time and the energy to make love, once on the beach towels and once in their bed. Rory knew there’d be more of the same come morning’s first light.
Ah, sweet youth.
But getting back to postcoital bliss, Rory now found himself feeling restless as he lay beside the snoring Cole. The moon was nearly full and they’d yet to put up blinds, so it shone in the bedroom window, casting the room in a kind of silvery opalescence. Rory thought the boxes and the furniture—Cole’s oak sleigh bed and Rory’s pair of maple tallboy dressers, plus an overstuffed chair they’d found in an alley just before moving—all had a kind of grayish aspect to them, almost unreal, as if he were observing his own bedroom as a scene from a black-and-white movie. Maybe something noir… with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Rory smiled and turned away from Cole. Just a half hour or so earlier, with the overhead light fixture shining down on them, Rory thought the movie would have been a porno, with himself cast as the insatiable bottom.
He chuckled to himself.
He tried to relax, doing an old exercise he’d learned from his mom. Starting with his feet, he’d wiggle, tense, and then allow that body part to go slack to relax. He worked his way up his whole body, wiggling, tensing, and relaxing as he went, until he reached his head.
And—sigh—he was still wide-awake.
Behind him, though, as if he had eyes in the back of his head, he noticed something odd.
It was like there was suddenly a waxing and waning of light.
Rory turned and looked toward the uncovered window. He couldn’t quite see the moon, but it seemed like it was brightening and darkening, brightening, then darkening….
But the whole of this August day, it had been clear, with nary a cloud in the sky. Rory wondered if a cloud bank had moved in, obscuring the moon and then revealing it as the wind pushed it away. He could see this in his mind’s eye but couldn’t quite believe it.
The light was simply too brilliant. At its brightest, the whole room lit up, as though he’d switched on the overhead fixture. Rory was surprised Cole didn’t awaken. Or maybe he wasn’t so surprised after all. Rory had spent enough nights with his “great dark man” to know his slumber habits. When Cole drifted off, which he did effortlessly and with amazing speed, there was little that would wake him. Rory thought they could have a New Orleans jazz band march through their bedroom and all Cole would do, at most, was maybe turn over… or snort a little.
He lightly kissed Cole’s cheek, undeterred by the scratch of Cole’s scruff, and slid from the bed to peer out the window.
The lake was a great black expanse. The sky was only a few shades lighter than the water below it, with a slight yellowish tinge due to all the city lights. And the moon, just shy of full, shimmered, a lovely yellow-gold, completely unobscured by clouds. If Rory squinted just right, he thought he could just about make out a face in the surface of that moon….
The sky simply had no clouds to offer that night.
Rory stepped back from the window and glanced back at his slumbering man. So why was the light getting brighter and then darker? He turned to the window and peered outside again. If not for the city’s light pollution, he was certain he’d see entire constellations of stars. He allowed his eyes to adjust a bit and saw more detail below, along Fargo beach. The water was not exactly black, after all. The waves, small and unimpressive due to the lack of wind, still managed to toss up a few whitecaps, especially near the shore, which looked grayer in the darkness. The beach, and the island of boulders just a few laps beyond it, took on more definition, enough that it made Rory come to a decision.
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 cutoffs and a Doctor 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 2:00 or 3:00 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 that, 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 offshore 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 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 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 like some membrane, formed from smoky gray 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, like shadows brought to life. The fact that the cloud—or whatever it was—cast an otherworldly silvery light from below didn’t make the figures any more distinctive.
This can’t be real. 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 into 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 might 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 he’d 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 wildest imagination?
Whatever it was, he was certain it was warming 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 the boiling point and he was 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 toward shore, which suddenly seemed impossibly far away.
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.
Had it simply been a hallucination? Or maybe there had been a cloud bank, a thunderhead maybe, and his sci-fi geek’s mind had transformed it into something much more wondrous? And much more threatening?
He shivered and rubbed his hands up and down his bare arms to warm himself. After a while, when he felt he was ready, he stood on shaky legs, the comparison to a newly born colt not lost on him, and staggered over to where he’d left his T-shirt and glasses. He yanked the tee over his head and put the glasses—chunky horn-rims—onto his face. He’d been wearing glasses since he was five years old. It felt more natural with them on than without.
It crossed his mind for half a second that his blurry vision had been a contributor to what he’d seen—or not seen; he was already doubting himself—but even with the glasses restoring his vision to twenty-twenty, the view of the sky above remained placid, dark, unremarkable.
He scanned the horizon for a while, still looking for something he’d lost, but saw nothing new other than an industrial ship way out there, at the very edge of what Rory imagined was the world.
Perhaps the ship would topple off the edge and into the mouth of a waiting giant membrane that looked something like a cloud with lights and spinning figures inside?
Rory thought he should laugh at the notion but couldn’t quite bring himself to. He walked slowly across the sand. It wasn’t until he got halfway up the steps to the street that he realized he’d left his flip-flops on the beach.
He hurried back to claim them. As he was stooping over to grab them, he noticed a dog running toward him. It was a black Labrador, or something like it, because it appeared as if it was some kind of charging shadow.
It rushed by him without slowing to sniff or in any way regard him. “Hey!” Rory called after the animal, which ignored him. Rory looked around to see if there was a frazzled owner, leash in hand, running after the dog, but the beach was empty.
When he looked back, the dog was gone.
Could it have been one of the dark figures that dropped from the cloud?
Rory froze at the middle of the stairs. The thought chilled him. The whole idea of his sanity suddenly came into question.
He hurried up the rest of the stairs and headed back toward his apartment. He hoped Cole hadn’t awakened and gone looking for him.
As he neared the courtyard of the building, he decided, unless he couldn’t avoid it, he would keep this whole weird episode to himself.
As he headed for his front door, he thought things would look better, more rational, in the light of day.