Only Alana and Dillon ever saw the lights. It was after dinner. Alana had carried the bowls from that night’s pho to the water spigot by the toilets to wash up. When she came running back with her flashlight beam ricocheting off the rocks, Alec rose from his hammock to see what she was bubbling about. Shannon and Dillon were in their tent making gentle noises, tangled together in a heap of lantern-lit nylon. Alec sighed and followed Alana back down the road to the bathrooms.
The desert night was vast and blue. Big moths fluttered up from yucca flowers. Alec stood in the place where Alana said she’d seen the lights and squinted.
“Just a second ago. A minute ago. You know. They were right there.”
Alec nodded. He stared at the black swath of sky. Despite himself, disappointment rippled over his face. Alana bounced on her toes and said, “Just wait a minute.” The wind clanked open the door to the toilets. It smelled rank. Alec needed to pee. He peed, and there were sinks inside so he washed his hands and face and beard, scrubbed off grime and sunscreen with paper towels. When he stepped out, he found Dillon had come down from camp.
Alana held her phone in the air. “Ah—” she whispered. “Oh, oh my God.”
“Aaaaand, it’s gone,” Dillon said. Alec looked up into the darkness. He had missed the lights again. This might be important, he thought. The not-seeing. This might be what you’re looking for.
Alana stuck her phone in their faces. “I got it!” she said. “I got the last part in video.”
Back at camp, Shannon emerged from the tent and they all sat at the picnic table, crowding around Alana’s phone. The video was terrible and grainy, but towards the end there were pale lights in the sky.
“Woah, they’re moving,” said Alec.
“That’s my flashlight,” said Alana. “We were pointing out the lights with our flashlights.”
“Wait, these are just flashlights? Oh, you’re right. It’s totally your flashlights.”
“No, look closer. You can see the lights there. Hovering. There.”
Everyone leaned in and their heartbeats pressed together as they siphoned their gazes into the screen.
“I don’t know, man,” Alec said. “How are we supposed to tell one light from the other light that’s lighting it?”
“Think of it like a real light and a fake light,” said Dillon.
“You guys,” said Shannon, “we’ve all been smoking too much weed.”
She had a point. Alana lost her phone under the table. By the time it was recovered and dusted off, the subject had been dropped. The guitars came out and someone started playing downtempo Mumford & Sons.
“Let’s make a bet,” Dillon said.
Shannon cocked her head. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I just feel like making a bet.”
It made some sense when Shannon thought about it. She had a happy, dazed feeling throughout her whole body. A bet would give them all a reason to remember that particular night.
“Let’s make a bet about the lights,” said Alec. “A hundred dollars, they were—”
“We can’t prove or disprove that,” Shannon interrupted. “A bet needs to be on something concrete.”
“How about this,” Alana said. “Whoever gets fired from a job first, we all have to give you fifty bucks.”
Everyone shook on it.
The morning light spilled through the granite outcropping and crept across the sand into Shannon and Dillon’s tent. The light was so golden and the tent so orange, Shannon coughed awake like she had been suffocating in a tangerine prism. Holding an arm over her face, her skin was orange. Dillon’s face, pressed into his sleeping bag, was orange. She dressed with just enough rustling and nudging to wake him and suggested they go into town for breakfast.
Shannon and Dillon climbed into the Taurus and drove into Twentynine Palms. It was her car, but he always drove. In a diner on the main drag, they had pancakes and coffee.
“What did you really see last night?” asked Shannon.
“I don’t know.” Dillon spread butter over his pancakes. “Definitely something.”
“Like,” she struggled to find a word for the things she’d always believed. “Like, visitors?”
He forced a laugh.
“No, really. I want to know what you saw.”
He buffered his hands over his plate to indicate orbs. “They were round lights. Not rows. Messy pattern. Way up—three, four hundred feet over the valley—hovering. And then disappearing. Blinking off. And hovering again.”
“And Alana saw them too?”
“Why does it matter to you?” Dillon was sure she was laughing at him. He could see her already filing it away in crazy-ex stories to tell one day.
“You’re usually a skeptic. If you’re not stoned, that is.”
He perforated his pancake with row after row of fork holes.
A few miles north, in Hidden Valley, Alec stood before wall of granite. On the other side of the outcropping, the slope was gentle. He’d hiked up and set his top ropes. The steep side, which he now faced, was sheer enough to be a challenge. Sucking in his stomach, he tied the rope into his harness, checked the fit, and hooked the grigir to the upper loop. The sun crested the wall as he climbed, pausing every few feet to whip out the slack. It was slow going. The ledges were razor-thin.
The night before, Shannon had called rock climbing fake danger, but she didn’t understand. It wasn’t about the fear of falling. It was about the way the strain warped his brain. Big things seemed negligible and the negligible things—the click of the grigir, the centimeter-by-centimeter precision of your hand placement on a ledge—were amplified supersonically. It was like being a toddler again with that demented sense of scale. Alec panted, surveying his route. A little more to the left and he’d veer into the overhang when he took his feet off the wall. He had to get to the right but there was nothing to hold onto. Then he saw a gentle bulge in the rockface far above. If he could reach that, he could get above the bulk of the overhang, and use it to push back onto his route. Pushing up with all the strength in his legs, he reached, latched, and pulled. There was no traction. Panicking, he grunted, slipped, and fell back into the harness. So be it. Alec rappelled down to start again. The exertion had emptied his brain. He let it settle, waiting for whatever feeling would crop up next. Nothing came. He had the sensation of crawling deeper and deeper into himself, away from the others, to a blank, open space that was his and his alone.
Alana slept in. It was a habit she hadn’t been able to shake from high school. Her friends all had the same kind of upper-middle class California childhoods; Whole Foods, REI, and complaining about the traffic on 101. For her, things had been different. She’d been raised by the kind of hippy who didn’t believe in public education or shampoo. In defiance, she’d been a mall rat, dating older boys and burning her tongue on the wrong end of cigarettes while she shoplifted from Hot Topic. Somehow, she rolled it all into an acidic personal statement essay that got her a sweet scholarship at UC Santa Cruz. Everything got better from there, but there were times when she felt like the group’s outsider. Being someone’s baby girl all throughout high school leaves you naked once you mellow out. She missed her edge.
Whatever, she thought. We’re all here together. She rolled out of her hammock and padded around camp in sock feet. Everyone was gone.
Alana hiked to the visitor center. There was a boring exhibit about a cement plant that used to employ hundreds of local men. They came to work with union badges on their jumpers and love notes in their lunchboxes. Alana found the center’s wifi and checked Facebook. Shannon had posted a picture of a sun-soaked vista earlier that morning with the caption: So blessed to be here sharing this adventure with my best friends. Love you guys all so much!
Alana texted Shannon to ask her where she was, and she texted back, Twentynine Palms.
What’d I miss? Alana asked.
Just breakfast. There was a pause. And all the fun things we did without you.
Last semester, Shannon had written a paper called The Hubris of the Western Mind. She loved talking about how little people knew. She’s just jealous, thought Alana. She wishes she got to see the lights.
Shannon and Dillon came back to camp, got stoned, and sat in the shade flicking ashes from their joints onto rocks where the lizards wedged themselves. Alana orbited the outcroppings but circled back periodically. At five, Alec was still gone. They ate their afternoon granola bars separately, then decided they should find him before nightfall.
They swept a broad circle around the camp, then drove to Hidden Valley. Shannon’s Taurus fit five, but Alana didn’t want to sit in the back seat under piles of rock climbing gear and kale chip bags so she took her Jeep.
Shannon picked grit from the soles of her Birkenstocks. “Did we leave a note for him at the campground?”
“No. I dunno. Did we?” Dillon fiddled with the aux cord and the car flooded with heavy glitch. Sub-bass rattled the windows. Piercing synth made it impossible to talk without yelling.
Shannon raised her voice. “I texted him but he doesn’t bring his phone when he goes climbing.”
“Ten out of ten, he doesn’t want to be bothered.” Dillon yelled.
“Are you worried about him?”
“No.” Dillon glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the Jeep’s headlights were on. He turned the Taurus’s headlights on too.
“Not with the lights and everything?”
“Can’t you drop it?”
They stopped at Hidden Valley and asked the climbers if they’d seen a guy with a purple backpack and a short ponytail. One climber had seen him earlier. He’d been heading east down the road.
At dusk, their headlights scattered the yucca moths and jackrabbits. Joshua trees jacked their arms like one giant rave, frozen under the stars.
Alec ran out of water an hour into his trek. He didn’t want to end up as a cautionary tale in a park brochure, so he bummed a ride from an old couple in an SUV. Their border collie had thrown up in the back and they’d tried mask it with tropical air freshener. Now it smelled like someone had yakked pineapple all over the upholstery. The couple and their nauseated dog dropped him at a gas station in Sunfair. It was bleak, but that was okay. He only needed space.
Alec was slumping in the shade when a woman approached him, a blue and black wig bouncing over her shoulders. Holographic vinyl skater dress. Blue fishnets. Thick makeup.
“Can I borrow your phone?” she asked in a candy falsetto.
“Sorry. Don’t have it on me. There’s a pay phone across the street. I’ve got some quarters in my pocket if you need them.”
She made the call and came back. “I have an hour to kill now,” she said. “My friend can’t pick me up til he’s off work.” Her voice dropped to a tenor and her posture turned to sludge. “Damn. Should have brought some comfy shoes. Anyway, thanks for the quarters. My name’s Miss Maverick.” She jerked a thumb over towards the Marine base. “I was just at an audition over there.”
“The Marine base?”
“They’ve got quite a lively bar.”
“Yes, they have drag shows. If you’re surprised by that, you haven’t been in the Marines.” She flashed a smile. “Call it nostalgia.”
Alec and Miss Maverick climbed the ridge above the gas station. Volcanic soil crunched under their footsteps. Miss Maverick’s feet hurt. They found a water tank to sit on as darkness fell. The Marine base lights flickered like a great bioluminescing sea creature.
“God, it’s massive.” said Alec. “What do they do there?”
“Training facility,” said Miss Maverick. “Not mine, though.”
“Where was yours?”
“Oceanside. 2000, 2001. I didn’t serve that long, though. Dishonorable discharge.” He didn’t ask, she didn’t tell. “If I hadn’t been twenty-one and a total idiot, I could be a war hero now. Or I could be a raving PTSD-addled lunatic crawling around skid row with a titanium plate in my skull.” Miss Maverick laughed. “You’ve never been in the military,” she said, “Not with your little hipster ponytail. You’re a backpacker.”
“Out here alone?”
“I came—I came with friends.”
“So where are they?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sounds like some fake friends.” Miss Maverick did a Joan Jett imitation, strumming an air guitar. “You don’t lose—You don’t lose when you lose fake friends.”
“They’re chill.” said Alec. “But—”
“I didn’t really—it’s hard to explain. I didn’t come out here to be with them. I came out here for the emptiness. Sometimes—” He stared at his hiking boots draped over the edge of the water tank. “I’m hollow inside, but there’s so much distraction, like, I can just check Twitter or grab a beer and watch the game or go surfing instead of facing it. I thought out here it’d be different. Nothing for miles. I’d actually have to face it, you know? Face the emptiness. Make some sense of it.” The wind was picking up. “I just want it to be like an old movie. It’s dumb, but I want it to be like a John Wayne movie, where when the sun goes down and you just sit. You have a fire and you just sit and stare.”
He shrugged. He felt like he should be embarrassed, but he wasn’t.
“Can I tell you a story?” Miss Maverick asked.
“Fine by me,” said Alec.
She cleared her throat. “So there I was,” she said. “Twenty-one and disgraced. Have you ever been disgraced? I don’t mean embarrassed, but disgraced? You haven’t? Anyway, it was right after 9/11 and it felt like capital-E, capital-T End Times. For a while everything was really hard and dark. It was like I was drowning. And when I resurfaced, I found myself growing hydroponic strawberries in an alternative living collective in the Lucerne Valley. The guy who owned the land we lived on, our leader, you could call him, was a bit of a messiah. He kept saying these visitors would come to us one day. He said we’d have to work with them. Like, in the future, when everything went to absolute shit, we’d have kids together who would ride out the wave. I don’t know. When he talked, I’d nod and smile. Most of us were totally on board, but some of us weren’t. Some of us just wanted to eat strawberries and not be bothered. We —I, I did that for four years. Then there was this night when the lights came. It was December, I think. December 2005. They came down over the playa and everyone was like, this is it. And we all started out, but me and these five other guys just couldn’t bring ourselves to go. We were fakers, fakers to the bone. So we split. As everyone else was rushing to meet the lights, we left. Walked away from it all. Now I’m and aerobics instructor at the Y by day and a Queen at night.”
She finished the story and lowered her eyes. Her lashes were thick as bird wings.
“So,” said Alec, “What happened to the rest?”
“The people who left?”
“The people who stayed.”
She didn’t answer. Knowing he had to change the subject, Alec asked how many people she’d told the story to.
“Two,” she said.
“Any common thread between those two people?”
“Well,” she thought a moment, “they’re both people I’ve kissed.”
He was inches away from her face and he thought, maybe her blue lipstick would taste like cotton candy. He leaned and she was already there and they kissed firmly.
He licked his lips.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “A Queen is a fake person. You don’t have to count that.”
Alana was sure they’d driven too far. She was relieved when the Taurus flashed its turn signal and slowed into a pull out by an abandoned industrial building. Headlights revealed a bullet-peppered, rusting sign: JP Eckelman Cement. The plant loomed in the gloom. Panels of roofing had been torn off by the wind. Alana got the feeling they weren’t looking for Alec anymore as she pulled up behind the Taurus.
Shannon got out of the Taurus. She was crying and Dillon was yelling, “I saw them I saw them I saw them I saw them!”
“Why couldn’t you tell me how scared you were? Why couldn’t you just say, ‘I’m afraid?’” Shannon asked, half-reasonably, half-furious. There was a silence as Shannon turned around and saw Alana and smiled in weak apology.
Dillon got out of the driver’s seat. “You think I’m insane.”
“Guys,” said Alana. “Guys, please.”
“You think I’m some fucking schizo. You think —”
“Please, guys. Please.”
Shannon yanked the keys out of the Taurus’s ignition and sprinted into the building.
Dillon stood seething. Alana exhaled. “I’ll go after her.” She tossed Dillon the Jeep’s keys. “You can take my car back to camp.”
He nodded once, tightly.
The stars were just peeking out overhead. Wind rattled the chain link fence. For a few minutes, Alana leaned against Shannon’s car, listening to the engine cool. If only she could go back to sophomore year, when she was the one who cried and it was someone else’s job to run after her.
Somewhere over the ridge, a train whistled. Hold on, Shannon. She stepped gingerly over the sheet metal roofing and into the building. It was a multistory rebar-and-concrete deal. Soviet brutalist architecture at its bluntest and most decrepit. Her boots crunched on shattered glass. She thought she heard chimes.
“Shannon?” she called. The space echoed.
She skirting past rusted machinery and conveyor belts. Their shapes were hard to make out with no flashlight. The moon through the gaping holes in the roof was weak, leaving masses of twisted metal as unidentifiable mats of blackness. Afraid of tripping, she walked with one hand skimming the wall.
“Over here.” Shannon’s voice came from the floor above. Alana traced the wall to a corner of the work floor then another before she found the staircase. It was banisterless and steep. On her hands and knees, she crawled, breathing slowly.
Shannon screamed. Alana froze as Shannon ran down the steps towards her. They collided softly and Alana spun her into the wall.
Shannon vibrated in her arms but said nothing.
“Shannon, the keys.”
Shannon shook her head. “I lost them up there.”
“I dropped them when I ran.”
Chimes, faint as sifting sand, sounded on the floor above.
“I’ll go find the keys, okay? You just wait by the car and I’ll get the keys.”
She tried to ask more questions but Shannon was unreachable. Alana pushed her away and continued up the flight.
At the top of the stairs, there was an hall leading to two doorless frames. A soft layer of dust with Shannon’s footprints entering and leaving the leftmost door. She prickled with a lingering suspicion that something was watching her. There was a pressure from all sides, daring her to look. Alana pressed onward, through a small room and onto the threshold of a larger one. The large room was better lit than the previous. Was moonlight coming through the window? No. Yet something gently illuminated the room. In the center, lay Shannon’s keys.
One night, when Alana was fifteen, a boyfriend texted while neck-deep in a drunken rage, saying he hated everyone and wanted to die. Once, she’d admired a red bicycle at the mall and he’d stolen it for her. He was determined like that. She ran outside and jumped on the red bicycle and peddled to his house. Standing on his porch, she knew that whatever was inside would be horrible. His fury or his sloppiness or his coagulating blood, whatever it was, it would be awful. Here she was, on the porch, smelling the neighbor’s honeysuckle and relatively okay, and in there, it was hell. But what was going on in there was real, as real as anything, and she had no right to treat reality like a book she could close and leave on a park bench for someone else to finish up. So she stepped inside and found him alive, but unhappy with it. She poured his vodka out the window and slapped him around until he was there with her again.
It’s exactly the same. Just get the keys and leave. But she knew it wasn’t the same.
She stepped over the threshold and the room seared with light. Chimes descended around her, flickering like aspen leaves in a storm. She fumbled for the keys then lurched towards the door, but, blinded by the light, she ran into the wall. Everything was white and liquid. Her fingers spidered down to the caulking by the floor. It bubbled under her touch, oozing into a rubbery web that circled her, drawing in. She slashed at the substance with her hands and keys. This was unlike anything she’d felt before. The terror of those nights behind the JC Penny when she’d pierced her boyfriend’s ear with a needle held under a lighter had been anticipatory, holding her breath and squeezing her eyes for the fall. Now she was on the other side of that, off the precipice and reeling through a void. The substance was under her feet, lifting her off the ground, closing in above. Thick, raw noise gargled in her throat. She couldn’t inhale enough air to scream. Then the substance pulled back and smoothed. She was inside an egg-shaped space large enough to stretch but impossible to break. Smooth white light bathed her. There was a terrible calmness like a womb.
Two small slits appeared at the bottom of the egg and two very small figures climbed in. The material sealed behind them. Each was the height of her forearm, hominoid in shape, but when they moved, they could stretch to impossible thinness or bulge all the mass of one limb into a single point. Skin like cephalopods and metallic saucer eyes, bulbous heads. They spoke to her silently with nailless hands. She did not know how or why she understood them, but she felt their words buffering through multiple permutations like computer code before they reached her.
<egg.> they said. <egg, egg>
<we give egg, egg.>
With quick slicing motions they tore at their own solar plexi. Though their fingers looked soft and small, they clawed viciously at their skin until ripped in dark, bleeding lacerations. They flicked aside corn-yellow fat layers to tight flesh beneath. Each being reached inside itself and with great strain tugged out a stone-like object. Each handed her an egg. Alana wiped off the viscera on her sweatpants. Once clean, the eggs were milky white, shaped like mushroom caps the size of walnuts. Were they for her? She pointed at herself.
Alana slipped each in a pocket and knelt, facing them.
<egg. You give egg, egg>
No, she thought. They couldn’t possibly want that. But they did want it. There must be some way, she thought. There needed to be. “How thin can you make your arm?” she asked the figures. They stared. Very slowly, she extended her hand on a being’s cool, wet forearm. She stretched, pulling the arm like taffy. “It’ll have to be thinner than that,” she said, pulling some more. It seemed to understand, or working from instinct, continued without her, stretching the arm to the gauge of jewelry wire, then hair.
She found a receipt and a golf pencil in her pocket and drew a diagram: the channel between her legs that lead through a bottleneck into a kind of cavern, the twin tunnels that arched down like plant stems leading to pillowy, gushy masses of eggs.
“Be gentle,” she said. “Take one from each side. Take a bigger one, it’s riper. And please.” Whatever you’re making and whyever you’re making it. “Be good to it. Whatever it is, it’s going to be half mine.” She doubted they understood her words but they did seem to understand the diagram. The one with the stretched arm knelt between her legs and she sat and bared herself, parting her labia to show the way. It slid inside and hesitated, trying to orient itself in the cave system. Alana didn’t breathe. There was a presence, curious and cold, inside her. It was inside the uterus, tracing the walls, as she had traced the factory walls in the dark. Then it was in the tubes and it was liquidy, liquid to the ends where it found her eggs, latched on, and withdrew in a rush.
Its gleaming proportions retracted with its palms outstretched. There, at the very limit of the human eye, so much smaller than a poppy seed, lay an egg in each hand.
“Yes,” said Alana, and the material around them retracted, dissipating back into the walls.
Alana knelt in the center of the room. It was pitch black now. The keys lay on the floor in front of her. She adjusted her waistband, picked up the keys, and left.
None them were friends after the trip. Shannon and Dillon drove back to Santa Cruz in the Taurus, Alana a few hours behind in her Jeep. They briefly came together to harass Alec about how he’d gotten back to campus without a car. When it became clear he wasn’t telling, Shannon and Dillon broke up and everyone drifted apart. A Facebook birthday message here, an Instagram like there.
Two years later, Dillon was out of school, working for a company that did something involving cryptocurrencies. He had been there eight months and still didn’t know exactly what. One Friday, coming out of the office, he found Alana leaning against his car. He hadn’t seen her since graduation. She looked the same, with the addition of a nose ring.
“I’m here for my fifty dollars,” she said.
“Remember our bet? Fifty dollars. I got fired.”
“I see.” He unlocked the car, felt around for his wallet, gave her forty-
seven in bills and three singles in parking-meter quarters from the glove box.
“Okay?” He handed her the cash.
“You remember,” she said.
“Of course.” He gestured to the money in her hand. Shaking her head, she took a wad of tissues out of her pocket. Unwrapped, it revealed tiny white things shaped like mushroom caps.
“Look.” She turned them in her hands.
He touched them; her palms tensed in a protective reflex.
Waves of questions flickered across his face. “I remember,” he said.
She flipped one over to show him the place where it was just beginning to crack.