The clock flashed 4:00 AM. After two hours, the sound still hadn’t stopped. “What the hell is he building in there? Why now?” Dustin Cole shoved his head under his pillow, but he could still hear the grinding, crashing noise coming from the house next door. “Damn that man. I think my baseball bat and I need to have a talk with Mr… what the hell is his name?”
The man next door had moved in two months earlier. If you could call it that. No one had actually seen him with any boxes or furniture; he had just appeared. Soon after that, cellphone reception in the area dropped off to virtually nothing. People had to walk the six blocks to the woods to make a call. A few weeks later, radios started picking up strange interference, voices in a foreign language, Arabic or something like that. The same sentence repeated over and over, endlessly. Finally, and worst of all, there were the birds. One day, something frightened them all away. And now, they just simply refused to leave the safety of the woods.
The man just wasn’t right. He was always home, alone, and his curtains were always closed. Didn’t he have a job? Friends? A dog that needed walking? How could anyone stand to live in the dark? The few people who had seen him step outdoors said he was a tall, lanky man who moved like a shadow. He never spoke to anyone, never returned his neighbors attempts at greetings. He ignored his surroundings the way a parent ignored a child who asked too many questions. Not that anyone was exactly desperate to talk to him. There was something unsettling about his face. And why didn’t he own a car? He just. Wasn’t. Right.
At last, silence. Dustin pulled his head out from under his pillow. He reached for the glass on the stack of milk crates he used as a night stand, but he had already finished the water.
Blue light burned through the window. He pulled himself out of bed and, shielding his eyes, pulled back the curtain. A solid column of energy extended up from the neighbor’s skylight like god’s own pillar. He felt his heart pound once, twice, and the light was gone.
The next day, Dustin came home from work to see a silver Cadillac lurking in his neighbor’s driveway. The license plate had a picture of the Wright brothers’ airplane and the letters “F.A.A.” Whatever the light had been, it must have caught the attention of the local airport and, soon after, the federal government.
Sure enough, two government thugs in gray suits stepped outside, with the neighbor in handcuffs between them. The agents pushed the neighbor into the back of the car, his head bouncing off the door frame. Glancing in Dustin’s direction, one of the agents reached for the radio on his belt. Dustin decided to continue watching from the safety of his bedroom window.
The Cadillac sailed up the street, fading into the distance. It was replaced by a black van with N.S.A. plates. National Security. This was serious. The van’s rear doors sprang open, unleashing four men in canvas overalls. They vanished into the house, reappearing moments later with something large under a tarp. They loaded the object into the van and made a second trip inside, returning with stacks of tattered cardboard file boxes. One of the men tripped on a paving stone, boxes and papers scattering like starlings. His partners dropped their loads in the van and returned to help clean up the mess. As the men finished their job and drove off, Dustin saw that they had left a piece of paper behind.
He retrieved the paper from the yard. The scrap of notebook paper had landed in a puddle, and the ink was smeared. What remained was a simple drawing of what looked like an art deco ray gun. There was nothing to indicate scale but, if this was the object under the tarp, it was huge, as high as a refrigerator and twice as wide. The sketch showed a solid beam of energy connecting the object to the sky. “It’s not a spotlight… It’s not a cannon… What is this thing?”
That evening, Dustin’s neighbor returned. Maybe he had bailed himself out of jail, or perhaps the agents decided that, whatever the machine was, it wasn’t actually illegal. Or maybe the agents just didn’t know what it was supposed to do. As the sun set, the strange sound resumed.
Endlessly through the night. Noise complaints to the police were laughed off. Why should they care that he couldn’t sleep? They had to be up all night working! Finally, around one in the morning, Dustin had three fingers of vodka and shoved his head under his pillow.
Dustin bolted upright. His room was vibrating. Outside the window, lightning burned the sky. He pulled on a pair of jeans and rushed outside.
Lightning struck the house, and the house struck back. A beam of energy sprang from the neighbor’s skylight, penetrating the clouds. An immense object descended slowly from the sky. Dustin held out a hand to shield his eyes from the light. The object was an enormous disk, shiny green, covered in hundreds of dark circles. Windows? Portholes? Its surface was highly reflective, shimmering in the light. It glided silently down, and the earth under Dustin’s feet shook.
Something in the neighbor’s house cracked like gunfire. The column of light vanished, plunging the sky into oily darkness. The streetlights buzzed back into life. The thing in the sky was gone.
Thoughts about what might happen next kept Dustin awake for the next few days. However, the nights passed uneventfully. He came home from work exhausted. His neighbor never left the house, only making a brief appearance each day to collect the stacks of packages the mailman kept leaving on his porch.
“The answer to everything,” he thought, “is in one of those packages.” He stood at the edge of the grass and took a deep breath, waiting for his heart to slow. Eventually, he felt brave enough to creep across the yard and take a look at the shipping labels. The boxes were addressed to an “M. Fulton”. The “from” address on each one was the same: something in Korean and a logo like a circuit diagram made of neon. Apparently, Fulton was ordering spare parts.
Dustin contemplated taking a box home and examining its contents, or just ripping one open right there on the porch, but a noise from inside made escape his first priority. He hurried back to his own yard and pretended to water the grass.
Finally, hours later, the light returned. Dustin grabbed his video camera and rushed into the night. He fumbled with the device’s settings, attempting to find one that could record in the overwhelming brightness. The clouds parted, and a strange shape appeared. The disk.
He aimed the camera at the sky and checked to make sure it was recording. The disk drifted closer, silent and looming. It slid into the beam of light, bathing the house in shadow. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he thought. “The light isn’t coming from the house. It’s coming from empty sky!”
A shadow floated gently down from the disk to the roof. A figure, a thing with arms. It scuttled across the roof to the skylight, and a head appeared to look down inside the house. The disk drifted to the side, releasing an avalanche of energy. The window exploded, sending jagged shrapnel into the air. A new light appeared at the windows: fire.
The disk dropped down, knocking the chimney from the roof. Dustin leaped to the side, narrowly avoiding falling bricks. Landing on his back, he stared up at the thing floating above him. The dark circles covering the disk opened wide.
Hundreds of them. As Dustin stared up at the thing, it stared back. He scrambled to his feet and ran, ran until he found the safety of the woods. He collapsed against a tree and cried.
The morning came and the house was still standing. As the sun crested distant hills, Fulton made a rare appearance to drop some trash bags and a charred armchair at the curb. Dustin crept outside, making sure Fulton’s curtains were in their usual closed position. He grabbed the trash and hurried back inside, closing his blinds. He pulled a tarp from a shelf in the garage and spread it on his living room floor. He tore open a bag and reached inside.
“Feathers?” Glistening white, enormous things, like someone had murdered an eight-foot swan. A little deeper in the bag were some old towels. They were covered in blood and wrapped around some some pieces of bones and viscera. It was hard to tell what the mess used to be. It was pulverized, like it had been run through a blender.
Mixed in with the mess were a few strands of black thread – no, hair. “That’s enough. I have to see what the hell has been going on over there. I have to talk to him. Even if that… that… thing… comes back.” Dustin headed for the bedroom, where he got down on his hands and knees and dragged a shoe box out from under the bed. Inside was his revolver, an old blue Beretta Stampede. Lifting up his shirt, he tucked the gun into his jeans. The cold metal sent a slow shiver through him. He stepped outside and took a deep breath.
He positioned himself on Fulton’s porch in what he hoped was an intimidating posture and banged on the door. Fulton answered, his hair matted down with sweat. He had deep scratches across his face, and one of his eyes was swollen shut. “Yes? Who are you?”
“I live next door,” Dustin began, “and I… and I…” Where to begin? How to even describe the previous night’s events? Did it even happen?
“What? What is it now?” Fulton demanded, his cheek muscles twitching.
Dustin sighed. If he had to look insane, so be it. “Tell me about the lights! The things that have been floating over your house, the thing with eyes! What did the government steal from you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. And now, if you don’t mind, I’m very busy.” He started closing the door, but Dustin lurched forward, throwing his shoulder into it. Fulton stumbled backward, grabbing the edge of a bookcase to stop from falling.
With Fulton out of the way, Dustin could see down the hall, all the way to the open bedroom door. Inside the bedroom was a four poster bed. On the bed was a woman, nude, mouth sealed with duct tape, wrists bound with ropes. Her hair was long and black.
Fulton hurled himself across the room. He slammed Dustin into the wall, cracking the drywall. Dustin fell to the floor, Fulton landing on top of him. The two struggled and rolled, crashing into the bookcase. It tumbled over, sending paperbacks flying. At last, Dustin was on top. He yanked the gun from his pants and pressed it against Fulton’s forehead.
“Do it,” Fulton said. “Why not? I’m going to hell anyway. Might as well be today.”
Dustin took a deep breath and slowly squeezed the trigger. Nothing. “I forgot to load it!” he thought. “I guess I have to let him go… ” Or not. He rammed the butt of the gun into Fulton’s temple.
Dustin wiped the blood from his face and struggled to his feet. He had to hold the walls to support himself as he walked down the hall. The woman tied to the bed was struggling in wide-eyed panic. She obviously thought this new man in her life might be willing to take advantage of her awkward position. “Don’t worry. I’m here to help.” Dustin untied her wrists and, carefully, slowly, peeled the tape from her mouth. He lifted her out of bed and helped her to her feet. Embarrassed at being so exposed, she turned away. Her back was bleeding. Dustin reached out to touch the stubs of what used to be her wings.