“When was this shot, even?” says Tommy. “Look how grainy it is.”
“I don’t know. It looks like shit.” Annie complains. “Chris, why are you making us watch this?”
“Hey, shut up. It’s from like the nineties. We’re lucky it’s even posted.” Chris fumes, silencing them.
The video loads and they were right of course, it didn’t look good. Chris’s phone took better video. Still, it added something. Some atmosphere, maybe? Like watching an old movie where everything is just slightly less clear than it should be; your mind filling it in with shapes and impressions you might not especially like.
Chris had watched the clip of Sloane Weaver’s death already. Not just once but several times. He had lost count. It was hot button shit for UFO people and conspiracy theorists. At first, Chris watched it only because it freaked him out. He was the type of guy who liked being freaked out. He’d look for the weirdest most gruesome stuff he could find and sometimes, when he knew they could handle it, he’d show it to Tommy who of course would bring his girlfriend along. Annie had no stomach for anything scarier than one of those fake videos that end with some zombie jumping out at the camera. She couldn’t even watch horror movies. Chris found her annoying but Tommy was his partner-in-crime and he wouldn’t dream of shooting anything without him.
“Is that her?” Tommy asked.
Chris shushes him. You can’t really make out whatever it was that Lucas Pratt, holding the camera, was saying to poor doomed Sloane. That doesn’t stop Chris from straining his ears to make something out every time, though. He was probably only giving her instruction, letting her know where and how to stand to make the best shot. It’s not like the muffled words were the key to anything.
A strange light bathes Sloane from above and behind, cutting out every other detail aside from herself. Lucas moves the camera, trying to find the source of the light. Finds nothing. Sloane begins to make some kind of noise. Some kind of squawking, choking sound. It makes Chris’s skin crawl and he enjoys it. They could see she was breathing faster, the cold Saskatchewan air making every exhalation visible even against all that light. Lucas is speaking to her, probably asking her what is wrong.
They kept watching.
Sloane Weaver goes into convulsions. The zippers on her heavy coat jingle and jangle as she shakes. She remains, improbably, on her feet. Lucas shouts in panic, the specific words still unclear. Probably proximity to the camera but Chris is never sure. Maybe something in the light muffled every sound but hers.
Sloane’s toque falls off her head when it dips forward suddenly and it looks like she’s about to face-plant into the ground. Lucas, and the camera, rushes forward as if too catch her but stops short as her head darts back, her long hair frozen for a moment in the whiteness.
“Here it is,” Chris whispers.
Sloane’s eyes are rolled up into her head, only the whites visible. But everything looks white now; the light has become so strong. Everything except the dark blood surging from her left nostril. More blood than you would believe possible. Like her jugular is between her eyes and not in her neck. It looks black against the light. Sloane is making a sound that is not composed of sound, something more like naked force coming from her mouth. Somehow the camera is picking it up. Lucas begins to scream. Everything goes still.
The light in the video disappears, leaving them in the pitch black of Chris’s room. No one speaks. Chris savors the silence.
“Has to be fake,” Tommy says, right on cue.
“Chris, this shit isn’t funny. Why do you have to be so fucking sick?” Annie slaps him in the arm, making Tommy laugh a bit. Chris isn’t imagining the jagged line of nervousness in that laugh. Tommy always answered fear with doubt and sarcasm.
“It was shot about thirty miles outside of Essen,” Chris tells them. He appreciates the color going out of Annie’s face. He doesn’t mind when Tommy laughs even harder.
“I don’t recognize the girl, but could be anyone’s mom twenty years ago.” he says.
“Nah, Lucas Pratt and Sloane Weaver were from Vancouver.” Chris says. He wants to tell them more, everything he’s learned about this clip and after a couple of nights doing the work in the forums, blogs, and old news links it’s quite a lot. But telling them everything would be no fun.
“She died?” Annie asks.
“Yeah and they blamed him for a while, thinking he poisoned her somehow. They couldn’t get any evidence even after the autopsy, though, so he was let go.” Chris leans back in his chair.
“You said Essen, right?” Tommy says suddenly. Chris wonders if he’s figured it out yet.
“Yeah, you know, little town up North. Have some cousins from there, but they all moved away in the nineties?”
“I remember this!” Tommy exclaims. “There was a whole year or something where they had UFO’s or whatever and people got nosebleeds. I didn’t know anyone ever died from it, though.”
“Yeah, you got it. The Essen Aurora they called it. Bunch of different theories about it. Aliens, rogue scientific experimentation, shit in the water supply. The bad water theory is why my cousins moved to Regina.” Chris says.
“So this actually happened? It’s not fake?” Annie says.
“Totally happened. I read about it for a history class for fuck’s sake. Can’t believe I didn’t get this sooner.” Tommy keeps on. Chris wonders, not for the first time, why he bothered burying that life-affirming spike of fear under skepticism or, now apparently, self-satisfaction at having solved the mystery. He doesn’t say anything, though. Old argument, never went anywhere, no point now. He has other things on his mind.
“So it gets better,” Chris says. Good time to get to the point.
“I don’t think I even want to hear this,” Annie says. But she stays put in Chris’s room. Normally by now she’d be off to make a snack or something, taking any excuse to get away from the boys and their creepy hobby. Well, Chris’s creepy hobby. She probably knew Tommy just shared in now and then to prove he was as brave as Chris. Chris didn’t know why this time was different. Maybe that it’s real? Tommy isn’t the type to pull a prank on her, either. He likes sex too much. Either way, Chris was glad because he needed her for the next part.
“I definitely want to hear this,” Tommy says.
“Well, it turns out that Lucas Pratt lives in Prince Albert. I think we should drive up there and ask him about the video.” Chris says. He watches their faces to see how they’re going to react. Tommy’s face goes from unease to determination in a second, telling Chris that to him it’s another challenge that he has to accept or sacrifice his self-image. Annie is slower to realize that this means she has to come to. She is the only one of the three of them that drives, after all.
“No way,” she says.
Chris let’s Tommy do the work for him.
“Come on, babe.” he says. “It’s like an hour drive; we can go there and back tomorrow after class.”
Chris turns back to his computer as they begin to argue. They leave his room and he watches the clip again. He is pretty sure that Annie is going to give in. This is confirmed later on when, over a beer in the kitchen, Tommy tells him how excited he is to go. Annie is done at noon; they can be in P.A. by one or one-thirty. Home by supper easily, all their curiosity satisfied.
Chris goes to his room, telling Tommy he’s turning in. He watches the video again. Rubs blood from his left nostril. It’s dry in the apartment. Chris knows he should take a walk or open a window but he keeps watching.
Every time he sees that flash of bright white light he feels something he can’t put his finger on. Something very much like understanding. The sky outside his closed window is getting lighter and he just keeps watching.
Annie looks around the small room. It’s so utilitarian that it makes her head hurt. Like an old dorm room or what she imagined they gave a priest in a rectory. There are no decorations, no plants or pets or pictures. The three P’s, her mom would have said, needed to make a house into a home.
She’s still mad at Chris for not telling them what this place was. Or more about the man they’d come to see.
On the drive to P.A. all he and her idiot boyfriend could talk about was how cool it was going to be to get some footage of this. They didn’t know what they were going to do with it, of course, but they knew they wanted it.
Lucas Pratt is almost fifty years old. He’s whip-thin but balding, what’s left of his hair gathered in gray clumps above his ears like the wings of some insane bird. It fits, Annie thinks, since the guy is clearly nuts.
“So you haven’t watched the footage in all this time?” Chris is asking him. Pratt looks back at him confused before answering. Tommy is holding the handheld a few feet away; making sure everybody’s nice and in-frame. Annie stays out of the way. She isn’t quite bored but that’s got nothing to do with them and everything to do with that slice of footage Chris had shown them to get them here. It was interesting and even though it was nonsense, Lucas Pratt’s thoughts on the subject were sucking her in as much as any of them.
“No not for nineteen years. After it happened and they determined that I was innocent of Sloane’s death, I watched it all the time.” Pratt said. He wasn’t making eye contact with Chris. His eyes kept drifting around the room as if he didn’t know where he was. Every now and then they’d settle on Annie and she would force herself not to look away.
“Are you afraid to see it again?”
“No not afraid. I don’t need to see it again, you understand?” Pratt says. “I remember every moment and thus every frame of what you’ve seen. I have tried to forget but it won’t let me go.”
“But how did the clip get onto the internet in the first place?” Chris says. “Do you know, Mr. Pratt?”
“Oh there are many copies. They got made before I could have a say in it and now it’s too late to destroy them.” Pratt waves a hand through his answer, impatient with what even Annie agrees is a silly question. Unless Chris suspects that Pratt planted it himself to get some notice. Even Annie could tell within five minutes of meeting the man that it wasn’t the case.
“Why would you want to destroy it? It might count as pretty strong evidence that something extraordinary really did happen in Essen in 1991.” Chris says in his best documentarian voice.
Annie rolls her eyes. Now she’s bored. She wanders away from the modest living room, where Pratt barely has a table to serve them tea. Pratt’s house is a suite in a housing project for low-risk psychotics. There are nurses and doctors everywhere and getting in here in the first place hadn’t been easy. Of course, Chris had it all arranged before they’d ever arrived. He had planned this out for who knows how long, the asshole, and roped them into it only when it was set up. Why Pratt agreed to speak to him was beyond her.
“The bathroom is on the left there,” Pratt calls after her as she moves into the shallow hallway. The walls are a sickly beige that makes her feel physically uncomfortable. She can’t help but reach out to touch them. They are coarse, the paint old and needing replacing. That they have a texture is creepy and she represses a shiver. Behind her, she can hear Pratt muttering about the footage and Sloane Weaver’s privacy.
She finds the bathroom but there’s nothing in it but the toilet. No bath, those are public. At the end of the hall is a closed door. It looks old and is made of real wood, embossed with a masculine pattern of rectangles and hard lines. She touches it.
It opens; must not have been fully closed. She thinks, what’s the harm? Walks inside to take a peek at whatever a man like Pratt might call a bedroom. Bed, dresser, but something else too. There are pictures here, on the walls. Little scraps of paper tacked up in no discernible order over a small writing desk she had missed behind the dresser. Annie steps around to get a better look.
They are pictures of symbols that she doesn’t recognize. Ideograms, she knows, and not really letters like in the English alphabet. They are drawn in colored pencil, as bright as possible, in greens and reds and blues. Maybe they’re meant to be from some ancient Mesopotamian culture. They weren’t Chinese, she knew that much. Hadn’t Chris said something on the way about the lights sometimes appearing as weird shapes in the skies above Essen? Had Lucas Pratt and Sloane Weaver seen things like this the night she died?
Now Annie noticed that not all of the pictures were drawings. Some were black and white photographs that someone had colored onto, but only where the wisps of similar symbols stood out in night skies. One was particularly clear, part of a newspaper clipping. It was poised over a row of pines bordering a snowy field in a totally cloudless gray sky. This one was colored in blue. Something about it made sense to her, but she couldn’t understand why. She stared at it for what seemed like a very long time, feeling like if she only kept looking that it would begin to make sense to her.
A scrawled note was written in on the border of the page. Annie leaned in to read the tiny words.
“It’s rude to go snooping around,” says a voice suddenly.
Annie is halfway out of her skin when she realizes it’s only Tommy.
“You scared me. You asshole!” she shrieks in a hushed voice. She slaps at him but he grabs her and pulls her close.
“Relax, relax. We’re done. You’ve been in here for like an hour, you know?” he says. She doesn’t believe him except that it does feel like a long time… “You’re lucky Pratt isn’t in any state to notice you were ever here, let alone sneaking around his room.”
“Where is he?” she asks.
“Passed out on the couch. Chris got as much out of him as he was going to give anyway. Guess they meds they give out here are serious business.” Tommy talked but Annie was barely listening. Her eyes kept wandering back to the newspaper clipping, the blue symbol in the prairie sky.
He was gently shaking her by the shoulders now. She looks at him dimly and she tries to remember what he’s been saying to her. “Sorry, what?” she says.
“Babe, your nose is bleeding.”
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Annie says again. Tommy looks at her and checks her nose. It had been bleeding intermittently since they left Pratt’s. He’s a little less worried about her now that it seems to have stopped for good.
“Aren’t you curious?” he asks her. Of course she is. She hadn’t even put up a fight. Even though they all knew how creepy it was that her nose was bleeding. From the left nostril too. Pratt had given her a look that Tommy knew was thick with some meaning but he couldn’t penetrate what it was. He hadn’t thought of much else besides that and Annie’s nose on the drive to Essen.
“We’re here.” Chris interrupts before Annie can answer. There’s so much excitement in his voice that Tommy becomes annoyed. He got that this was a big deal and he wanted to see the spot too, but couldn’t the guy settle down for a minute?
They get out of the car. It’s spring and the grass of the field is still wet. Chris immediately goes off with the camera to see if he can find exactly where Lucas Pratt and Sloane Weaver had stood in the snow nineteen years before. Fat chance, Tommy thinks.
Annie loses her footing when she gets out of the car.
“Loose rocks,” Tommy mutters, helping her keep her feet.
“I feel a bit dizzy. Getting a headache maybe.” She says.
He hands her a scarf. It’s a bit chilly and getting dark. Essen was already pretty well shut down for the night when they’d passed through. The gas station attendant had reluctantly told them how to get to the field. Pratt had passed out before Chris could ask him about it, which probably would have given his intentions away. Chris was keeping too much back and it was starting to piss Tommy off more than a little.
“You’re not going to find the spot, man.” He tells Chris, trying to give his simmering irritation an outlet. “Just get some footage of the area so we can get out of here. Annie’s cold.”
But Chris just ignores him. Of course. Annie starts walking out into the field so Tommy follows. He notices the sun beginning to dip behind the trees that ringed the field. It’s going to get dark pretty fast. Tommy wants to slap his face for not bringing a flashlight along but Annie moves quicker to catch up to Chris so he doesn’t go back to the car to see if she has one in there.
Up ahead, Chris stops. “Right here!” he shouts.
“You’re crazy, how the fuck can you tell?” Tommy says, letting out more irritation.
“No, he’s right.” Annie says. “It happened right here.”
She stops too. Tommy let’s her lean into him, suddenly glad for the reassuring feel of her.
“I have an idea,” Chris says. He comes and stands beside them, pointing the camera out into the field. “Annie, go stand there.”
“Oh come the fuck on.” Tommy says.
But Annie doesn’t say a word. She just goes. She’s fascinated, Tommy knows. This is how Annie gets when something sucks her in. It’s the only time she ever shuts up. Usually he’d be a little grateful after spending a whole day between her and Chris. Now, though, he is feeling angry and uncomfortable.
“All right, now all that’s missing is some cosmic light and a bad nosebleed.” Chris jokes.
“This is too morbid,” Tommy pleads. “Give it a rest.”
“Okay, okay.” Chris says. “Just having a little fun with it, you can calm down.”
He hands Tommy the camera, still on. Tommy looks at the battery. Only a few minutes left on it.
“I feel weird,” Annie says. Tommy looks up at her, the camera coming automatically. Her nose is bleeding again. Chris sees it to, cracks a weird grin, and raises his hand to point at her.
Tommy never hears what he was going to say. The sun is finally gone and the field is just black with dark as his eyes adjust. He’s looking through the camera at Annie and Chris, still beside her, when the flash descends from the sky in a spiral that quickly becomes a second field, enveloping and consuming the wet grass Tommy had known.
Annie’s nose is shooting blood and Tommy isn’t even surprised. He can’t hear anything except her choking on her own blood. Then he hears a flapping sound and knows it’s her scarf. But there’s no wind.
He watches with grim detachment as she begins to convulse, as her eyes roll up into her head like Sloane Weaver’s. The detachment strains but doesn’t break as Chris begins to dance the same dance. Before he goes completely, Chris’s eyes betray his own shock.
Then the light is gone and his friends are dead on the grass. Long after the camera’s battery dies, Tommy stares through it and sees the fading image of a symbol in the sky. It’s a blue more blue than water or sky and it would make sense if he could only see it clearer, stare harder, stop it from fading away.
Oct 5, 2011