A dome of brilliant white light glowed behind a wall of tall pine as an ancient monoplane hugged the surface of a river that cut through the valley of trees. Joe’s hands were sweaty as he gripped the flying stick. His eyes, wrapped behind a pair of decaying flying goggles, focused down the nose of the plane, up the river, and onto the semicircle of light visible above the tops of the trees.
Joe thought it looked like the ghost of the Epcot Center.
The river was narrow, and the forest hugged its rocky edge. With no room for error, Joe piloted up the center of the river at eighty miles per hour and a scant fifteen feet above the water.
If that old bastard Marty can do it, so can I.
The full moon swelled above and bathed the trees and snowcapped mountains in the distance a light blue. The night was clear. The air was cold. From above the Junkers CL.I looked like the mythical Thunderbird of Indian legend, scouring the river for any sign of prey.
Joe turned his head to see how Marty fared. Marty, a fighter veteran of World War Two and Korea, sat in the back seat holding a machine gun, the barrel pointing up at the moon bleached Milky Way. The soft moonlight washed away some of the age from his face and Joe thought he look twenty years younger. Marty’s dentures flashed white, not too different from when he plunged through Pacific clouds spraying anything flying a Japanese ensign. He said the tracer rounds reminded him of flaming arrows.
“I felt like an Indian warrior,” Marty had said as he sipped his lemonade and told the story for the first of many times.
He’s having fun.
Joe turned back and prepared himself to pull up. His shoulders ached from holding the stick too hard. The tenseness in his stomach softened into a general sense of nausea. Ahead the river made an abrupt turn where it widened to the size of a small lake with the wall of pine facing them. Joe would pull up when he hit the beginning of the lake to avoid slamming into the trees. Marty worried that if the wheel mount skimmed the tops of the trees, he would lose control of the Junkers. The agility and smooth control of the almost century old bird impressed Joe and existed as a testament to the skill and love that Marty poured into its reconstruction over the past decade. When they took off from the field next to Marty’s home and arced across the piebald night of stars and moonlight, Joe felt humbled and awe. When he set their course for the night, the seriousness of the frightening task ahead dismissed any extraneous thoughts.
The plane shot out over the lake. Flying through the closed valley of trees, sounds had been louder, more intense. Out of the trees and into the open, the sounds died away and everything became more serene. The moon glowed in the river in uncountable places and the air filled with an immense emptiness.
“Pull up,” yelled Marty.
Joe jerked back on the stick. The nose lifted. The engine whined. Thirty feet. Forty feet. The plane rose over the water as the trees rushed to greet them. For a moment, Joe thought they were going to be clear, but the wheel mount crashed through the treetops. The plane shuddered as the mount ripped off. The nose dropped but Joe kept control. They cleared the trees and Joe could see his house.
Joe could see everything.
One Week Earlier
Whatever level of asshole Joe might have unlocked in his life, he knew he could not hurt his wife, even in his sleep.
So why was his wife accusing him of hurting her last night? Was she completely losing her mind?
“Look at this!”
Linda’s shrill voice hurt Joe’s ears. She looked at him with nothing but contempt as tears began to well up at their corners.
“I don’t know what that is.”
Sometime during the night, a large purple bruise appeared on her right shoulder. Joe did not think it looked like all that much.
“It’s hurts like it’s really deep,” Linda said her voice returning to normal level.
“I swear I didn’t do anything.”
Joe should have said anything other than issuing another denial. Linda’s eyes narrowed again, and she turned around and walked out of the room without another word.
Joe stood alone in the room pissed off. Their marriage was falling apart. Every year for the past three, more and more nights ended in a flurry of shouts, finger pointing and accusations. Every fight based on petty details: the cooking, the laundry, smells, and hot water. They were a couple searching for excuses to fight. They were getting tired of one another.
Joe shook his head and tried to shake off the dark clouds. He did have terrible nightmares the night before. He couldn’t remember them now, but he thought that it might not be unreasonable that he punched in his sleep. Why that didn’t wake Linda at the time, he couldn’t say.
Joe left the bedroom and headed downstairs. He found Linda sitting in the living room at her drafting table. She liked working from the living room, its wall of windows framing the serene unpopulated countryside. Joe approached his wife and was about to open his mouth when she turned and regarded him.
“You slept in late today.”
Joe took a step back.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Are you okay? You just got up too.”
Linda pressed her lips closed and looked at him as if he was a confused child.
“No. I’ve been up at the crack of dawn trying to get this project done.”
The paper spread out before her on the table was blank.
“There’s nothing on there.”
Linda looked back at the paper and for a moment seemed confused, but she turned to look back out the window.
“I’m waiting for inspiration. Go do something so you don’t mess it up.”
Joe was about to ask her about the bruise but decided against it. He thought that maybe she’d been sleepwalking. Maybe she was going crazy out here in the cloudy northwest, an hour from the nearest town. Joe decided to ignore everything else and just keep his eye on her, in case she started doing anything else weird.
Without a word, Joe started into the kitchen. He looked over her shoulder as he passed behind her and saw she had drawn one thing on the sheet. In the top right corner was a small doodle of what looked like the face of bird staring in through a window. At least, Joe thought it was a bird.
As Joe poured a cup of coffee from the percolator, he had a strange feeling that he had seen that bird before.
One Day Earlier
“I still think I should fly this one, Joe. I mean it is my plane.”
Joe sat on a step stool inside the barn next to the Junkers. He slapped a magazine into a machine gun and looked up at Marty.
“It might be your plane, but she’s my wife.”
Marty frowned. Joe thought that Marty might call the cops on him.
The day was warm in the summer sun, but cool in the shade of the barn. A breeze whipped through the barn doors and stirred up the din. The barn creaked. The scent of hay and shit decades old hung in the air.
Joe could not help but admire the old man. He was the epitome of the aged America warrior: grizzled, lonely, outspoken, and suspicious of almost everyone.
“I liked them all from FDR to Kennedy,” Marty remarked one night on his front porch as Joe and Linda listened with awe and suppressed smiles. “But after that…nothing. Johnson, Nixon, all crap. I supposed I should have liked old Bush since we fought in the same war, but I’m just too damned soured on the whole mess.”
Joe didn’t care for the “my times were better than yours” old man schtick, but Marty got a pass. There was too much respect. Marty flew and fought in the fighters that a younger Joe made models of and that inspired him to become a pilot. Joe recognized the hero worship, the almost antique appreciation of their friendship. Generation gap aside, he liked the old man.
Why Marty liked him, he didn’t understand. Joe demonstrated against the Vietnam War with as loud a voice of any of the protesters. He even spent a night in jail. He supposed Marty respected the rebellious spirit those days evoked. Also, the man hated Johnson and any enemy of the Vietnam War was an enemy of Johnson.
Marty’s paranoid rebelliousness led him to stockpiling weapons. Joe thought the Junkers the grandiose hobby of a man with a lot of spare time, but oh no, that was not the case.
“The last thing any fed boy coming here to take me off the land for some endangered cricket is going to see is a World War Uno German Junkers barreling down on their head with guns ablazing.”
Joe and Linda choked on their beers when Marty let loose that statement. On the drive home had a serious discussion about whether to inform the FBI. Now, Joe was grateful for Marty’s extravagant paranoia. The Junkers CL I had been the scourge of the Allied trenches during the last days of the war. Fast and maneuverable, the Junkers could be in and out before any antiaircraft gun could get a bead. A second pass could be fatal, but the plane was sturdy and could withstand a couple of hits.
A couple of bullet holes. Who knows what we’ll run into?
The Junkers, though, was the crown jewel of an accumulated arsenal. An errant match could send Marty’s barn flying into the stratosphere and take out half the county. Marty filled every nook and cranny of the barn with pistols, rifles, machine guns, grenades, and more ammunition than you could count.
“You don’t have a missile launcher, do you?”
“If you’d given me a week’s notice,” Marty winked.
Joe handed Marty the machine gun. “This is all you’re bringing?”
Marty motioned his head toward the back seat of the plane with the mounted machine gun.
“Not really a whole lot of room back there.”
Joe breathed a sigh of relief. He thought there would be a fight with Marty over who was going to be the pilot. It was Marty’s plane and he had every right too, but Joe would have knocked him out and flown off on his own.
Maybe I’m the idiot. He’s flown the damn river before.
A few months before, Joe and his wife had been reading out on the back porch facing the forest that hid the river. The day was quiet; the only sound the rustling of the trees and the gentle flow of the river. Every now and then Joe thought he heard a low buzzing noise and several times swiped at his ear looking for an imaginary bug.
Joe looked up to see his wife staring at him.
“I think there’s a bug in my ear.”
She did not hear him.
“Do you hear something? A buzzing?”
Joe and Linda stood up and looked towards the trees. The buzzing grew louder and louder and louder before abruptly vanishing. Joe was about to say something when the Junkers swung up over the trees and passed within scant inches of the roof. Recovering from his initial shock, Joe let out a yell and ran off into the yard waving at the plane. Marty swung the plane around and passed so low over Joe he thought he could reach out and grab a hold of the wheel mount. Marty waggled his wings as he skirted the tops of the trees and disappeared behind them back up the river.
Joe kept yelling and waving with a huge smile on his face not noticing the large oval of brown grass in which he stood.
Over the course of the week, the bruise on Linda’s arm became worse, its purple hue darkening into a perfect black circle. Joe never thought to ask Linda if it was cancer and if she should see a doctor. His mind felt hazy and jumbled and sleep didn’t refresh him. Every night he had nightmares. In the morning, he could only remember a sound like rats rustling in sheets. Every morning Linda accused him of hurting her. Later in the morning, she did not remember anything about it.
Over and over, she sketched the same doodle of that bird looking through the window. Then one day she sketched a picture of that skinny beakless bird standing over a bed.
The bird had arms.
Joe remember everything.
“What’s on your mind,” asked Marty.
Joe finished his fifth beer of the night and did not realize he was smoking again after three years.
When Joe saw the sketch Linda had drawn, he mumbled something about going to the store and drove to Marty’s house. Joe did not know what to expect from Marty and the idea that he would tell him what he thought, what he knew, what was happening at night, never crossed his mind.
Ten minutes later, Joe finished his story and felt like he had come out from under water. He looked up at Marty who regarded him from his rocking chair, a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth.
“You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?”
Marty did not reply but kept eyeing Joe. The silence between them did not last more than five seconds, but to Joe it felt like a year. Finally, Marty pulled the cigarette from his mouth and leaned forward.
Joe almost wanted to laugh at the phrase, but the stony half-drunk seriousness on his face never wavered.
Marty leaned back in his rocker and took another drag on his cigarette.
“These things have happened from time to time.”
Joe almost laughed. He must be crazy if this old timer thought he was telling the truth. Joe did not move though. He did not move a muscle.
Joe told Marty that aliens, the long spindly one that Hollywood likes to use so much, entered their room every night and took Linda away. Even though unable to move, Joe could see their spaceship, hovering on the front lawn, where the large patch of brown had been forming the last week. He told the story mater-of-fact and with few words.
“They’re called grays,” started Marty. “I’ve always thought they were the bastards in the Foo Fighters that were tailgating us all the time at the end of WW2. Though they were Germans at first, but with all the things I’ve read and all the people I’ve talked to, I’m pretty sure they’re the fellas.”
“Have you seen them before?”
“The aliens themselves? No. Never. Seen their ships and I’ve known good people, honest people, who say they’ve seen them. They never gave me a reason to disbelieve anything else they’ve ever said so why should I think they’re a liar on that one. I believe you.”
“So, what do you want to do?”
Joe sat back at that. The idea of doing something about it had not crossed his mind either.
“I don’t know.”
Marty stood up.
“Well, let’s go inside and make a few phone calls and do a little research. I’ve got some ideas.”
Marty could see everything and everything he ever thought was true about the world and about the universe was irrefutable fact.
The ball of light hovered above the ground about fifty yards away from the house with several of the aliens standing about loitering in the yard. Marty turned to face the back of the plane gripping the machine gun as Joe began their first run.
Joe pushed the stick forward and the star filled sky rose away, replaced by the bright ball of light which fell on the tip of the Junker’s nose. Joe pressed the firing button. The guns began to roar, and the soft glow of tracers reached out and touched the light. Joe shuddered with the quake of the guns. Instead of letting out a roaring scream straight out of the movies, he felt calm, cool, and collected.
The first shots were low from the middle, but Joe pulled the plane up and the tracers found the center of the light. A pitched squeal like a wrecked steam engine filled the air followed by a metallic crunching. The light flickered and dimmed. As Joe and Marty skimmed over the top of the light, Joe looked down and could see a silhouette inside it. It appeared oval shape. He pulled back on the stick to gain altitude for another run. He expected the engine to stall, or to get shot out of the sky, but nothing happened. The engine kept running. The plane was fine.
It was Marty’s turn now. As the nose rose the back dipped down. Marty let loose with the rear machine gun keeping his aim on the center of the light. Marty scored more hits followed by the same metallic crunching sounds and flickering.
Joe kept straight for as long as he thought he could before banking and sliding the light back into his sites. The distance closed fast, and Joe unleashed a longer torrent of tracers and rounds. The light dimmed a significant amount as each round made its way home. Marty let out the victorious yell of a twenty-year-old, then Joe saw his wife out near the ship surrounded by the aliens.
Joe jerked back on the stick and the engine sputtered and died. The nose dipped and the plane plunged towards the ground. He kept pulling up on the stick trying to make as safe a landing as possible but could do little to prevent their crash. The plane leveled out some, but it was too late.
The Junkers hit at too steep an angle and tumbled into an unrecognizable wreck. Joe snapped from the seat and soared through the air, landing on his side. The crack from his shoulder released his bowels. He rolled with each somersault and came to rest on his back. He gritted through the pain and managed to stand, his left arm broken and hanging useless against him. Joe stumbled back to the plane.
Joe found Marty’s body crushed beneath the wreckage, his neck broken. Joe turned to run towards Linda and saw that several of the aliens were approaching him across the yard. Joe turned back to Marty’s body and saw his hand still held the machine gun. He fell to his knees and picked up the weapon using it to push himself back to his feet. Tears welled up in his eyes and he screamed in agony. Something inside pressed him on and with his good arm pulled up the gun.
The two aliens were only feet from him, and Joe pulled the trigger without a moment’s hesitation. Most of his rounds missed, but enough hit and the two creatures fell to the ground, their long tall bodies falling like a loosened bundle of sticks.
Linda screamed out. Joe looked up to see her with her hands pressed to her face as the aliens about her prodded and pushed her towards the light. Joe started to run. He tried to aim, but they were too close to her. He dropped the gun and ran faster. Blood from a gash on his side began to fill his shoes and his vision began to soften and blur.
Linda was almost inside what remained of the light now. He saw Linda look over at him and scream out his name.
An alien pushed her and now they were all within the light. Joe could still see her form amongst the aliens. He shouted after her.
Then, without warning, the light disappeared leaving only the moonlight.
Joe stumbled about in a circle as his vision blurred and blood drained from his body. He collapsed on his back and closed his eyes.
He was alone.
The original version of The Light started out as a comedic story: a jealous WWI fighter pilot intercepts the spaceship of his wife’s alien lover. I hadn’t heard of anyone putting a spaceship up against a biplane, and I’m still not aware of anything like that and I thought that sounded very silly. As with many things I write, the darkness overwhelmed and devoured the light and funny. I’d hate to see what I could do to something by P.G. Wodehouse!
While I kept the initial conceit of a WWI aircraft (not a biplane anymore though) versus aliens, I updated the setting (this takes place in the 1990’s) but lost a long section about Marty’s encounter with a spaceship during WWII. Loved the whole bit, but it was redundant when placed up against the attack at the end of The Light, so I Oscar Wilde’d it.