It started with the sky and the sand. Way far off beyond where people can see, in colors inconceivable, there was a flash of light which struck the sea and illuminated it with life. The air became alive with the smell of death and a heartbeat of foreboding. The world spun out of orbit right on track around the sun, spinning and still in the same instance. But all of that was true long before and after my time.
For as long as I can recall, I was waiting quietly for something to happen. Not that I believed myself to be special, or fated, or destined, or magical. Nothing of the sort. Or, at least, no more than anyone else with a lackluster life, secretly hoping for something to change, something starring them for a change. But mostly truly, I am and have always been a watcher. In the thick of it, in the heat of the moment, I am content to hide back and observe rather than act.
So it was not a particularly eventful Thursday when the particularly peculiar events started. As for my story, I was just in my home, minding my own business. What are you doing when you’re doing nothing? I was at home alone, probably snacking on bagels and tangerines, watching television in my underwear, and playing on my cell phone (so called because it’s a phone that convinces you to isolate yourself from actual human interaction, creating an artificial, boundary-less cell). I distinctly recall the neighborhood bustling with exactly the normal amount of activity – children shuttled outside to run in sprinklers over crabgrass and give their caretakers a reprieve, parents hustling off to work, the mailman making his rounds while shouting into his Bluetooth.
Generally a very lively neighborhood; one I was not a part of aside from simply living there. My curtains were always drawn, lawn rarely attended, lights off, no visitors. In truth, it’s not that I am an alien, just incredibly lazy and maybe a little introverted. So while the world was out enjoying life, soaking up the summer, I was enjoying the air conditioning and darkness without pants. On my ventures from the living room to the kitchen and back, I gazed out at the street and watched the children.
That should have been the first sign. Normally, the neighborhood children ran manically between several yards, shouting, laughing, chasing, and fighting. But this day, they were just standing still and quiet on the grass on either side of an oscillating sprinkler, expressionlessly waiting for the water to spray them each in turn. Their bodies seemed suspiciously absent of tan lines, but in the few seconds I saw them, I really didn’t think too much on it. Must have simply been a game.
The best thing about summer is how long the days last. After a full and productive day of being entirely unproductive, I reasoned that by late evening it was cool enough to take my dog on a nice, long walk. I shut off the television, threw on some clothes, and leashed the dog, all in the dark. I heard but did not register the unnatural silence outside my front door. My dog raised his hackles and dug his feet into the threshold.
“Come on, Dagda. Let’s go for a walk!” My voice pitched high and sweetly. He turned to look at me woefully, with the whites of his eyes showing, and then hunkered into a passive, submissive pose. I locked the door behind us.
We marched down the porch, across the yard, right onto the sidewalk. There were few neighbor-kids left on the street, but it was about 7 and most people were probably eating dinner. In fact, there were only a few children and adults sitting on a porch swing across the street. When they noticed me, their eyes followed me with an odd, hard expression. I waved cheerfully and dragged the growling Dagda away.
“Sorry, he’s not normally like this!”
The family said nothing, and we kept walking. I went to grab for my headphones, to plug into pop music and drown out the dim heat and distant buzzing of the fading summer day. That’s when I saw my own modest cleavage glaring back at me. Now miffed, I stuffed myself back into my shirt and wiggled my shirt up near my neck. “It’s not like half the people in this neighborhood don’t go half naked half the time anyway,” I muttered.
Dagda pulled at the leash, and I hustled into a hurried jog after him, music bouncing along to the beat. We reached the park and a sweat in record time. Dagda the dog was ready to keep going, to keep running and never stop, but I was far more out of shape. I huffed and puffed across the empty soccer field. And that’s when I first became aware of something being off-kilter. The park would normally, even at dusk, be bustling with people having family reunions, barbecues, kids’ sports events, playground, bike riding, fishing, running, laughing, jumping, alive.
But it wasn’t. It was stagnant and still, so still the air didn’t even breathe. I paused, tightened my grip on the leash, and yanked out the ear-piece. Pop music bleated plaintively and softly from the piece, filling the silence. There were no people at all in the park, no one going to or from cars, waiting for buses, no one watering their lawns. No distant sounds of traffic or illegal fireworks or sirens or televisions. Just the music from the ear-piece and my own heavy breath.
More than that, there were no geese or ducks splashing in the water, no birds singing to sleep, no flocks flying or insects humming. The earth was gently trembling, so subtly that not even the leaves were rustling. Just the music and my panting and a low whine emanating from Dagda’s throat. My own unease was voiced in that silence and sound. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and checked it once absently, then again.
There was no time on the clock, no bars on the signal, no sign that it was even searching. I tried to text one friend, then all my friends. Nothing coming through or going out. I dialed their numbers, but there was only dialtone. My shaking finger pressed 9-1-1 and hovered over the green button, but I pressed the red one and put the phone back in my pocket. Dagda crept forward and I crept along.
Silence is a funny contradiction in the human experience. Modern technology affords us the luxury to never experience silence in different ways than our ancestors, who kept the silence at bay by crackling fires and creaking insects, a cacophony of birdsongs mixed with melody and voice. The screeching of bats and weeping of children. Language and music, experiences shared to remember memory and stave off the overpowering silence. And despite our every instinct for sound, we convince ourselves we crave silence.
At first, after the initial shock, I ignored my unease and turned off the music to hear the silence. Appreciation and awe. I walked with aimless purpose, the dog rattling at my heels. We walked across sidewalk and sand and grass and mud for hours, until well after dark. The hot summer air gave way to a warm summer night with just a nip of chill. And still there were no people around us.
Gazing into the night sky, I saw more stars than ever before in the city. That’s when I looked around and saw that there were no lights on porches or in windows, no headlights or streetlights. It was darkness, just me and Dagda and the rest of the universe above. That’s when the second chill ran through me and out into the night. I shivered once and pulled Dagda for home.
I watched the world on the walk back. Still no one, and yet I felt eyes following me. Still darkness, and yet I saw it all. I tried to check my cell phone, but it would not even turn on. I quickened my pace and Dagda trotted along. If not for the overwhelming darkness, I would not have seen it: the flash of light right above me, electric and blue, arcing out in seven directions from a white-hot center. I saw but did not see well, because the flash was instantaneous and a bit in my peripheral. If not for the silence, I would not have heard its static crack. If not for my own weariness, I would not have believed.
Dagda’s tail struck straight out, his hackles all raised, teeth bared, growling and prickling with fear. My heartrate quickened with my steps again, my eyes watching all around for strangers among us, for whatever was hot on my heels. It was nothing but my own paranoia. We cut through alleys and over hedges, across lawns and between parked cars. Still never saw another person or light save for the moon and the stars and the strange, strange blue light that had burned itself into my memory.
It may have been the absence of life, or my own adrenaline-acute senses but I noticed a cat cowering behind a dumpster in one alley. It was white and dirty with eerie green eyes that followed us warily. We were now running, my footsteps slapping the pavement arrhythmically and Dagda’s with a steadier beat. It was the only sound that followed us wherever we went.
And we made it home in record time. The lights were all off, the air conditioning was room temperature now, but my key worked. I didn’t need it, I realized as I tried to turn it to the left to unlock it. The door was already unlocked. Dagda was frothing at the mouth by now, a sprite of spirited fear and fight and flight. The door swung open when I pushed it.
Nothing in the house was disarrayed. Nothing was missing or out of place in the slightest. But animal instinct told me that it was wrong. Someone had put their fingerprints all over everything, as if they were looking for nothing in particular but still searching. The air was stale and smelled faintly of metal and meat. I called out “Hello?” in a wavering voice lost into the void. The lights wouldn’t turn on, not even the battery powered ones.
I struck a match and a candle danced shadows on the wall. Familiar things loomed unfamiliar, and lanky shapes leaped in unnatural patterns. Dagda lunged for them, his jaws clamping onto shadow. He yelped and came back bleeding from his mouth. I knelt to him, pried open his jaw. His whimpering got in the way so I pushed it aside. There was a cut on his tongue, straight across, but it wasn’t big or deep. Gulping down my own panic, I said as calmly as I could, “Wow, Dog-da. You must’ve eaten something funny on our walk. It’s so late, and looks like a power outage. Let’s clean you up and tomorrow we’ll go see the vet.”
With courage and candle in one hand, dog hauled in the other, I shuffled to the bathroom and sought gauze to dab at the cut. I hummed a tune to calm myself and heard it repeated in the far distance. The quiet din shuddered me to action. Peeking out the window, I saw across the street one small, scared face peeking out at me in the dark while behind it bodies shifted in bloody discourse. I pretended not to see. “I’ll take the trash out now, I think.”
Out in the back, the little face was not so little. My neighbor, whom I had known since childhood but never known past a face and name, was a man larger than me. Funny to see him grown-up now, and grown out of the youthful handsomeness that had once carried him. Now he was a haggard face with a red beard and circles under his eyes. His blonde hair was messy and greasy.
In my open voice, I chirped “Hello, quiet evening isn’t it? Did the power go out?” while I intended in my under-voice, “What the hell is going on?”
“That looks heavy, let me help you,” he said, heaving the trash up over his head and spilling it all over the street. “Oh no, I’ve made such a mess!”
“That’s okay,” I said, stooping to pick the items up ever so slowly.
“Were you here last week, Monday, around 2?” he whispered.
“Well that’s when they came.”
“They. Them.” His eyes darted back and forth nervously. Then they rolled straight upwards. “From there.”
My brow furrowed in disbelief. “That’s ridiculous. This is a power outage, right?” But my unease told me anything was possible. Even ghosts, or monsters, or aliens, or magic.
“They landed down the street near the Connors’ place. The kids found it, brought it to me. I thought at first that it was a little drone or weather balloon or something, but it wasn’t. I gave it back to the kids. That night, they came to the children who had it, and then those children were not the same. Before long, it was their parents, their friends, the rest of the kids, the rest of the families. Taking over each household. People stopped going to work, the children stopped playing.”
I stood to toss my handful of trash into the receptacle. “How do you know all this? What do they want?” I demanded in a motionless whisper.
He looked at me mournfully. “They tried to take me, too. I was sleeping in my bed, and I heard a strange noise in the night. I thought it was my cat, wanting to be let out. I looked up, and there were these tall shadows standing over me. They breathed through respirators and had glowing red eyes. When they touched me, their digits were as cold as ice. One of them had a scalpel-thing, and the other had a mask, and another had a shiny metal foil. I was too afraid at first to move, but when I saw that scalpel coming for me and the mask too, I dove under the sheets. They tried to tear the sheets off, but I threw my force with theirs. They fell back and got tangled in the sheets. In the confusion, I couldn’t get away but I did manage to damage the foil.”
“So now what?”
“They aren’t here to teach us, I think. They want us for manual labor, and they want our resources.”
“How do you know?” I insisted.
“I get some thoughts that aren’t mine. I think I damaged the part of the foil that connects me to them – so they know I’m hooked up, but they don’t realize I’m not reading properly. They put the foil at the base of my neck under the skin. I tried to tear it out of my father’s neck, but even with the foil removed he was still acting strange.”
“At home, behind closed doors, everyone was like furniture. Eating enough to survive, breathing, but not really sleeping, not interacting, doing literally nothing. I think they had them pretend when out and about so that they could assimilate the rest of the neighborhood. But now almost everyone is assimilated and they’re just waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“To be uploaded, I think.”
“They haven’t got me yet.”
“You live alone.”
“They’re in my house.”
“Face them. They aren’t that strong, I’ll help you.”
“Wow, sorry I spilled your trash everywhere,” he said in a normal tone.
“No problem, thanks for helping me clean it all up,” I returned. There was still trash in the street and that white cat was still watching us. “I have that thing of yours that I borrowed a couple weeks ago. I’ve been meaning to return it; do you have time now?”
“Just a little,” he answered and followed me to my backdoor.
In the house, Dagda was whimpering and smacking his lips in an uncomfortable way but I checked and the bleeding had stopped. “Good boy,” I cooed. He thumped his tail and growled at the corner.
“There,” I said. “Come at us!”
The candlelight flickered and swayed, and the shadows moved away. They came closer, loomed over, menacing. I turned to my neighbor, who was white as a sheet and seemed to glow. “What do we do?” I cried.
He looked at me and spoke in a tinny voice that echoed and fell flat against the silence. “We stand still and let it happen. You are the last one. Assimilate.”
“No!” I screamed, I turned to run, I tried my best. But a shadow blew out the candle and I was cloaked in darkness. I felt things from faraway as they grabbed me and held me firmly, my neighbor’s face faltering in and out of focus and facial expression. Then I gave myself to the darkness and fell silent myself. I had wanted to run, to fight, to be free, and all of that fell away.
Many hours later, just before dawn, I woke in darkness. I went to the window and watched out of it. There was no impatience, no expectancy, no hope, no fear. Simply knowing, with absolute certainty, that time was coming. Dagda came and sat next to me, and my neighbor stood beside me, watching the same quadrant of sky as me, touching fingertips with me. Closeness and distance all at once.
The sun broiled into the eastern horizon, dragging out hues of magnificent pink, orange, and yellow against the dimmed starlight and deep brilliant blue of the night. Warmth returned. And just as the last inch of sun spilled over the street, there was another flash of brilliant blue light, white hot and lasting. It seemed to call my name and without thought or question, I turned towards it. It was still summer, a summer morning, early and beautiful, but the air seemed cold compared to the warmth of the light.
Everyone on the street was drawn in. Truthfully, it should have surprised me how many people really lived on that street, but they were irrelevant. Irreverent, we pressed past each other, each wanting to be first in line. It wasn’t me, but it did not really matter. Each person that passed into the light passed through onto the other side. When it was me, I felt elation, like I was flying.
Then I was a drop of water in a cloud, sitting high above the land with my nameless, faceless brothers and sisters, commune and commute, mute and malignant. Watching the Earth drifting below, unchanging and evolving. And I felt it in the back of my neck, a sense of connection unlike anything I had ever known before. I had shed my cell, my cage, my mortal coil, to create togetherness and observe it all for the rest of eternity.
Things on Earth seemed too fair, to wane and wax so remorselessly. Summer drifted into autumn, into cold, wet winters, blooming into blinding spring, and wilting into summer again. Life flourished and faded and changed completely. The soil inhaled the air and the sea inherited the earth, and it all spun into perpetuity. It ended with the sand and the sky.