It began as a clear bright line in the sky. They could see it from the station wagon as they drove up the long, pine-bordered highway that led through the woods to Houghton Lake. But as they got closer to the trailer park, it got wider, and brighter. “What is that?” he asked his father, who was driving.
“A plane,” his father answered. “The trail of an airplane.”
He was his father’s youngest child, eleven years old. He lay across the flat back portion of the station wagon’s wide interior, drawing in a spiral notebook with a black marker. His older brother and one of his two older sisters (the Pretty One) sat on the middle seat between him and his parents. She had sulked and complained the whole ride up. She hadn’t wanted to come on their weekend visit to his parents’ friends, the Reillys. His other sister — the Smart One — had been allowed to stay at home. She wasn’t interested in socializing, and her disdain for the family trips ‘up north’ had been well vocalized on plenty of trips before.
Since his parents never had to worry about things the Smart One would do while they were away, her absence was permitted. She was old enough now to decide whether she would join them or stay home. She would probably spend the entire time reading, or studying for college, which she would be starting in just a year. It was just as well. The smart one was never happy during their trips, and she would have sulked not as much but more than his other sister — the Pretty One — was doing now.
His brother, five years his senior, was reading a book about baseball. He was a huge Detroit Tigers fan.
He looked out at the line in the sky through the station wagon’s front window, peering through the space between his sister’s and his brother’s shoulders. It didn’t look like the smoke trail of a plane to him, and his father didn’t sound like he really thought it was either.
He went back to drawing in his notebook.
“Denise will be there on Sunday,” his mother said to his sister, hoping to console her.”
His sister huffed and, even though he couldn’t see it from where he was, he was certain she rolled her eyes.
“I don’t like Denise.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Why won’t Denise be there when we get to Houghton Lake?” he asked.
His mother answered. “She’s looking at colleges. She thinks she wants to go to school in Lansing. She’s very intelligent.”
His sister went ‘pffft.’ “She’s weird.”
He, on the other hand, liked Denise. She had babysat for him when he was little. He had seen her the Christmas before last. There was a time when all the older girls in the family treated him like a little star. But that had changed in the last couple of years.
He was glad that he had gotten a little taller. But he was still noticeably shorter than most kids his age. He was a little pudgy now, too, and his cheeks showed the first red blossoms of acne. He didn’t remind older girls of a toy or a doll anymore. He no longer entertained, he annoyed; or, just as often, he was simply ignored. Denise hadn’t been like that at Christmas. She’d said hello to him and asked questions, and looked at his drawings.
Denise was not as pretty as his sister, or most of her friends. In fact, he had always though she looked like a duck. He could picture her in his mind’s eye as a cartoon duck. If he could draw how he saw this in his mind, the portrait would look like a duck, yet remain unmistakably recognizable as Denise. He felt a little guilty over thinking of his former sitter in this way. It was because of her big bottom, and the way her upper lip folded somewhat over the lower one. Yet this image of the duck/Denise, as clear as it was in his mind, was beyond his present drawing abilities to capture. This was one of frustrating things about consciously trying to improve one’s drawing abilities. You could see something so clearly in your mind that it would be impossible not to duplicate that image with lines. But, when one tried to do that, the result was wildly inaccurate and riddled with mistakes. He would draw something sometimes and be excited about how good it was. But when he saw the same drawing a few hours later he would see: it was terrible. How often he wished there was a way to rip those images off the intangible canvas of his imagination and place them on the blank, physical, real-world page. If he could do that, the results would be astounding. He would be working side by side with the adult artists he admired, the ones that drew comic books, and the covers of fantasy and science fiction paperbacks.
There were many confusing issues with learning to draw. Again with the Duck/Denise riddle: how did it happen that exaggerating the features of a person’s face – or simplifying them to a point of near abstraction – could make a picture of a real-life person look MORE like them, rather than less? This was the genius of the artists who drew the movie parodies for MAD magazine. Like Mort Drucker, and Angelo Torres. He tried to copy the drawings from MAD as best he could. What could be easier? The lines these artists had made were right in front of you, frozen and unmoving. What could be easier than to reproduce them? But his drawings were always terrible, especially the likenesses. You could barely tell which actor his picture was supposed to be.
How could Denise look like a girl and a duck at the same time? It happened though, in drawings, all the time. Just not in his drawings.
They arrived at the campground. The Reynolds’ trailer was large, almost like a regular house, once you entered it. The trailers were arranged in rows like houses too, with thickly varnished yellow picnic tables between them. Blackened barbecue grills sprouted like iron mushrooms not far from the tables. It was a common sort of destination for summer trips in upper Michigan. The woods were filled with such campgrounds and cabins for rent, set close to the lakes. The men mostly went shirtless here, they wore caps with colored see-thru visors and baggy swimming trunks. The older women wore sleeveless blouses and loose-fitting shorts. The girls wore long baggy t-shirts over their bathing suits.
Mr. Reilly met them at the door of the trailer. He was a loud, friendly man with round hairy belly that bulged from his unbuttoned shirt, though he was for the most part in good shape. He was an electrician, and they had all heard about an accident he’d had on an electric pole, where his belt had slipped and he had slid painfully down the wooden pole, scraping his stomach and picking up hard wooden splinters. The youngest son stole glances at his exposed abdomen and saw pink scars there. His own father had scars on his stomach too, but they were from the war.
Things like that were not uncommon in these campgrounds. The men who brought their families here to relax and play were the men who’d fought in World War II. You saw plenty of scars and men who limped when they walked. Occasionally you would see a man with a limb missing altogether. These men fished and grilled now, and knew about boats, and would discuss the news of the other campers over beer and cigars. They sat in lawn chairs and doled out change for sodas to the kids.
Mr. Reilly helped them unpack the station wagon and carry their things inside. Sleeping arrangements were decided. His parents would sleep in the guest bedroom, his older brother would camp out in a sleeping bag in the living room. He would sleep in Denise’s room tonight, then join his brother in the living room tomorrow night.
The first part of these visits was always the same. They would all sit in the living room and eat something while the adults talked. Mrs. Reilly had bowls filled with nuts and pretzels, and there was a coffee cake for all. He and his brother drank sodas from the bottle. The Reillys and his parents exchanged news of life in River Rouge, which everyone referred to as the Rouge. The stories were boring and seemed to meander on forever. A few questions were asked of him and his brother, but he and his brother and sister were mainly expected to just be quiet and polite.
After the conversation would be the ballgame. This was for him more boredom. He had never like sports — playing sports or watching or listening to sports being played — was something he had no interest in. He liked the coolness of the basement in summer, where he drew and read comics. The dirt and sweat of a baseball game held no attraction for him.
Despite this, two years ago he had tried out for the Little League team his brother had played on.
He was young enough then to think he could be good at anything.He had the blameless big ego of the youngest child. He knew without a doubt he would be a famous artist; a prolific inventor like his hero Tom Edison; a trick horseback rider, performing at rodeos; a maker of movies, and books, and record albums. Why couldn’t he squeeze in being a baseball star too, just to show he could do it? When he was too little to be on a team, he followed his brother to his games. He proclaimed himself the batboy after his brother’s friends on the team proved marginally accepting of him.
He even made himself a uniform. He carefully wrote ‘batboy’ on the back with a big magic marker. He was young enough then that this was seen as cute. Now he hoped no one remembered it. As soon as he was old enough, he endured a season on the team as an actual player. He was only picked for the team after tryouts because the coach was a good friend of his father. He was a terrible player, and he dreaded the practices and the games. His brother, on the other hand was a good if not remarkable player, who’d had every right to be on the team.
His brother never teased him about his worthlessness at baseball. In fact, he tried to help him develop any potential he had (there was none) with games of catch that were inevitably cut short when the younger brother got bored after just a few minutes. His brother did not make fun of him when after the first and only time he’d actually made it to first base (he’d been ‘walked’ by a pitcher who was not a much better ballplayer than he was) and got picked off first base while he was daydreaming about how he’d get to second. Likewise his father accepted that he would never sit to watch the endless stream of baseball and football games that he enjoyed with his older brother. “Come watch the game,” his father would say casually, as his youngest son walked through the TV room on his way to read comic books or finish some ambitious project; but his never expected him to actually stop and take a seat by the television.
His father took no offense at his disdain for the games that so interested him and filled so much of his leisure time. Still, by the time he had become old enough to try out for Little League, he had only done so out of a desire to win the approval of his father. His time of believing he would be good at anything he tried to do had passed.
Now, walking together up a steep dirt trail that led away from the trailers and toward the water, the two brothers, 11 and 16, were clearly defined by their abilities and dispositions. His brother was the ideal boy of 1967. He was quiet and good-natured and did well at school. These traits, at this time, in their Catholic community, generally led to speculation that here was a future priest. But this was offset by his enthusiasm for sports and the low-key popularity he held among the other teen boys. His 11-year-old brother, on the other hand, was most certainly an artist. A dreamer, a misfit with grandiose, often bizarre, ideas. He had one ‘best’ friend at a time, and a small circle of other strange youngsters that didn’t quite fit into things. He got good grades at school and excelled at all subjects except math, which for him was torture.
The adults’ conversation dragged on. A portable electric fan swung slowly back and forth on an end table, as if it was looking from speaker to speaker. Seated on the couch, he noticed that the line in the sky was visible from the trailer window. It was very bright out and he could see the line clearly. He saw that smaller, skinny lines were erupting from the larger line. They were so fine as to barely visible. But he could see them spreading away from edges of the large line, in the way that the varicose veins in his mother’s calves sprouted tiny tributaries of purplish blood. Mercifully, he and his brother were given an errand to run. They needed some groceries from a small store that was within walking distance.
The two boys looked up at the clear summer sky above them. The split had gotten longer. It seemed wider now too. It was hard to see it too clearly as the sun, unencumbered by clouds, made it hard to look up for too long at a time. But the edges of the split clearly showed color now, colors that seemed to shift and change from moment to moment.
“Did you notice the line?”
“Everybody’s noticed it.”
“I mean the smaller lines coming out of it. Look.”
His brother looked up. I don’t see any other lines. Just the big one.”
There are lots of them. I was watching, when we were in the trailer. At first if looked like the lines on mom’s legs.” His brother snorted. He tried a comparison that sounded more serious. “It looks like the bigger line is bleeding small ones … You don’t see that?”
He looked again. “I see … some colors around the line, but that’s all.”
He looked again. There were wiggling red filaments sprouting from the original line.
“What do you think it is?”
His brother took a few steps before he answered. “It’s a cloud. Like Mr. Reilly said.”
They topped the hill and made it to the sandy area at the edge of the lake. The sand was filled with small dark rocks that got past their sandals and between their toes. They both had the coconut smell of the sunburn lotion their mother had insisted on.
A modest pier led from the beach out toward the grey water. A few small boats were tied to it. On the pier were life preservers and long, flat rafts with paddles. The younger brother was excited to ride one. The elder brother was perhaps not as keen to do this. He didn’t like the water. He had not learned to swim. His younger brother had learned to swim, at a summer camp. Though he was certainly not a strong swimmer, he had a deep affection for playing in water.
They did not board a raft. This was simply an exploratory mission.
No one else was around yet. The boats bobbed stupidly in the gray waves.
They looked out at the lake, but their eyes kept returning to the event in the sky.
“The lines I was telling you about. They’re getting longer and twisting around. That one’s forming a spiral!”
“That’s your imagination.”
Both boys saw that the line had gotten thicker, and globs of lurid color seemed to be oozing around it. But the sun was bright and it was hard to look up for very long at a time.
“Why is no one worried about it?” the younger brother asked.
“Because it’s nothing to worry about! We have to go to the store.”
They left the edge of Houghton Lake and walked a short distance. They found the grocery store just where they’d been told. It was a small place that smelled like the inside of a refrigerator. The older brother had been given some money, and after they gathered the things on their list, they carried the items to the counter. A gray haired woman rang them up. There were souvenirs items at the counter: painted tom-toms with rubber skins, and fake tomahawks. There were postcards with corny greetings.
Then they were back outside, bags in hand. The trees had woken up. They were full of the sounds and movements of birds, and the smell of pine was overwhelming.
They reached the top of the hill they’d walked up earlier. The wind, the water, the aroma of the woods had made the younger brother feel electric and alive. Surprising himself, he said a single word:
Without words, the agreement was made and the contest was on. Both boys began a dash down the steep dirt road. The bottoms of their tennis shoes slapped loudly against the hard ground. At first, they descended sided by side. But then, the younger brother actually started to pull ahead. Was he letting him win, as he had done when they were both much younger? No, he didn’t think so. He heard his brother breathing harder as they both accelerated. Was it possible? Could he at last be the victor in a contest with his brother?
Then, elation: halfway down the hill, he was ahead just enough that he could not see him out of the corner of his eye. The slope of the hill increased as they went down, and gravity lent a thrilling speed to his running that he had never equaled before. He felt as if he could fly. And he’d get to the bottom first, he was certain.
But the elation was short-lived. He suddenly realized, as his feet flew faster and faster beneath him, the reason why his brother was holding back. The hill was too steep to charge down at full speed. The momentum of the angle they were running at was too much to keep up with. He already felt his legs beginning to weaken beneath him. He was going too fast to stop. If he tried to, he would surely fall forward, out of control. The rate he was going at dictated that his feet keep pounding, relentless and accurate, beneath him. He had visions of falling, the hard dirt flying up at him, as he skidded down the rest of the way. His breath came out in little whoops.
But then, after long nightmare seconds that seemed like eternities, the hill leveled out, and his legs, now water, slowed to a blessed and wobbly stop. He was spent, as much from fear as exertion. He leaned forward, sucking air, his hands on his thankfully un-skinned and unbroken knees. He wasn’t even sure if his brother had come to the bottom of the hill before or after him. Deflated, he breathed loudly for a while. No one declared “Winner.” They walked the rest of the way to the trailer camp in silence.
Noon was still a long time off, but the women had started making the preparations for lunch. The men –Mr. Reilly, Mr. Ardouin, their father, and some of the other men from neighboring trailers – had gathered metal chairs and tray tables outside of the Reillys’ trailer to sit on while they waited for the ballgame. There was the sound of clinking bottles of Stroh’s and the clinking noises of bottles being opened. Smells from the barbeque, which Mr. Reilly was tending, mixed with the smell of cigars and the heady scent of the trees.
“What the hell is that?” was the first thing they heard anyone say.
The split had widened further, and now, unmistakably, elaborate currents of color were moving around inside it.
“That’s air pollution,” said Mr. Crosson. He was a big, round-faced man who played Santa Claus every year for the Kiwanis Club.
Mr. Reilly scoffed. ‘Air pollution’ was, for many of them, a thing made up by hippies to defame the generation that had made this country of productive factories and groundbreaking technology. And of course, the wonderful automobiles everyone cruised around the country in. The trailer camp was full of Ford employees. You didn’t complain about factories to them.
The two boys carried the groceries into the cool confines of the trailer. Their mother and several other women were busy in the kitchen, making potato salad, macaroni and a Jell-O dessert. “Carry this out to the picnic table,” their mother said to them, handing both boys fistfuls of silverware. The youngest son’s legs (and pride) were still hurting, but he did as he was told. He noticed a record player and a stack of 45’s in the corner of the trailers narrow living room as he followed his brother out.
“Sit and listen to the game,” his father said jovially as he walked by. It had become a joke between them. The boy wrinkled his face and tilted his head to the side: “no way.”
He went back into the trailer. The women didn’t give him anything more chores to do, so he knelt down at the stack of records and started looking through them.
“Those are Denise’s,” Mrs. Reilly said. “But you won’t find any Beatles in there! I got rid of those. Did you hear what they said?”
One of the women said: “What did they say? What they always say: “Yeah, yeah, yeah”?”
Mrs. Reilly shook her head. “They said they were better than Jesus.” There were some clucks of disgust and disapproval.
His mother said: “I used to like them. But they got too big for their britches. When they said that – forget it!”
After lunch, the radios came on, and the familiar voices of George Kell and Ernie Harwell echoed though the campground. The boy eased himself out of the gathering and back into the trailer. The day outside the trailer had shifted toward adult pleasures now: the following the progress of the ballgame; the easy conversation of the grown-ups; the armchair coaching and loud groans over the bad decisions of Mayo Smith. The thing in the sky was forgotten as the Detroit heroes were named and discussed as the game unfolded. Al Kaline, Willie Horton, and his brother’s favorite, Norm Cash. Disappearing was easy. In fact, his father sometimes called him ‘The Phantom’. He claimed he never saw his youngest son enter or leave a room – he was either present, or he was not.
He sought out the record player and the stack of 45s. He sought out one whose title in particular intrigued him: The House of the Rising Sun. He had heard the song on the radio one or two summers before. But now the title, and then, the record, once he placed it on to the turntable and dropped the needle, seemed vastly more exotic and even dangerous than before. The records label had the letters MGM in big letters above the hole at the 45’s center. Beneath that the name of the group that had recorded it. The Animals. He played it once, not loud enough that it could be heard outside. Then he played it again, and then a third time. He wasn’t sure what it was about, or what he House of the Rising Sun was, exactly. But it was fascinated by the singer’s voice, like the wailing of a damned soul. He was captivated by the murky, darkness riddled world of gamblers, and thrilled by the warning to mothers to tell their children not to do what the singer had done.
The next day the Reillys had noticed his fascination with their daughter’s record collection and commented on it. Not in a critical way, exactly, but there was that almost imperceptible tone of reproach that several of his interests were met with when he tried to discuss them with adults. He had learned to guard his enthusiasms from the casual dismissals of others, both adults and children his own age. But he did enjoy the vague notoriety he felt listening to the records seemed to give him, and he secretly reveled in the perception that his interest was somehow, subtly, forbidden.
The Pretty One passed through on the way to the bathroom. She was in a bad mood, bored by the ballgame and lack of other campers her own age. Denise would be there in two days, but he knew his sister really didn’t like Denise. His sister had been a Beatles fan when they had first taken America by storm. But she had lost interest in them and stopped buying their records a long time ago. He doubted she had heard anything about the ‘Jesus’ remark, though. “She’ll be mad if you scratch her records.”
He and his brother returned to the water. They walked on the pier and took the orange rafts out on the water. There were other people there too, busy with the rowboats. Later, two girls around his brother’s age introduced themselves, wading, like they were, at the shallow water toward the beginning of the pier. His brother was shy around girls, but they always talked to him. He must be good looking, the younger brother thought enviously.
One girl, a little younger than the other he thought, suggested a game. To play you had to swim under the water and imitate some kind of animal. The other would watch would watch and try to guess animal what you were.
They played the game. His brother held his hands like claws as he dogpaddled beneath the surface, but ‘claws’ could mean a lot of things. They guessed ‘lion,’ ‘bear,’ and ‘wolf’ when they came up for air. He should have known: his brother was doing a tiger, in honor of his favorite team. Then it was his turn. He ducked under the water and clasped his hands in front of him, swinging his interlocked arms from side to side. It was guessed quickly: an elephant.
The younger girl made a series of sinuous gyrations in the shallow water, her skinny hips moving from side to side. She was of course a snake. But he didn’t say so, it was her sister that yelped the answer, and ended the younger girl’s turn. He had been silenced by the sun reflecting on her oily back.
Denise arrived. She drove up while they were all at the picnic table. She said hello to everyone. When she said hello to him, she asked him if he was still drawing pictures. That pleased him, and he wondered if he would show her some of the things in his notebook later.
He could still see her as a duck. But not in a bad way, not in the way he saw boys at school as animals like pigs or monkeys. Denise was a soft warm duck with white feathers and a bright yellow bill. Her hair was blond and she still smiled the same enigmatic half-smile he remembered. She still had the big rear end. But her chest was big now too. He tried not to stare as she prepared a plate and sat down. Everyone asked Denise questions about the colleges in Lansing.
In the last year he’d become keenly interested in girls and sex. He thought about sex as much as drawing. He had an erection most of the time. It was like having a canoe paddle for a best friend.
They all stayed up late that night. There were games of shuffleboard and ping pong. They all went to their assigned sleeping places at the same time. He’d had a quick view of Denise’s room when he put his things away earlier, and he’d seen a small bookshelf next to her bed. He usually needed to read something in bed. Otherwise, he could lie with eyes open for hours, his head full of random, buzzing thoughts.
He recognized some of the books from his sister’s (the smart one’s) collection. Animal Farm. Narcissus and Goldmund. The Hobbit. Some old Nancy Drew mysteries. The rest were textbooks from her classes at school. He chose a science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury to look at: Fahrenheit 451. He had resisted science fiction initially, preferring fantasy and supernatural stories of magic and the supernatural. This was mainly due to the treatment of science fiction in movies and television – the cheesy special effects and stiff, silly writing. But he was seeing that the books themselves were different and better. The vampires and werewolves of his comic books had become less satisfying as he got older, and the themes of science fiction were heavy with new ideas and exciting concepts. He’d read another book by Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and liked it very much. So it was Fahrenheit 451 that he slid quietly from the shelf and got in bed with.
The next morning he made a point to sit next to Denise at breakfast. He wanted to talk to her about Fahrenheit 451. He had stayed up a full two hours reading it. Had she read it? They were all eating eggs and bacon at the picnic tables outside the trailer.
I started reading your Fahrenheit 451 book last night,” he said to her. “I think it’s great!” He had waited till Denise exited the trailer with her plate to start talking to her. That way it would seem more natural when he followed her to the table and sat down next to her.
Denise smiled, walking next to him. She was a full head taller than him. “Oh, I love that book! It gets better as it goes on, too. Wait till you finish!”
They sat down at the table. From there he was disappointed, as the adults dominated the conversation and he could no longer have the attention of Denise. She had to answer questions again about college in Lansing, after the Parrinders arrived. They hadn’t had a chance to talk to her the day before.
Robbed of the chance to talk to her, he stole a series of furtive glances at Denise’s pendulous breasts, as he answered the questions of the adults. She was dressed differently than the day before. She wore a baggy cotton top with a floral pattern of bright colors around the collar. It was the sort of top that hippie girls wear. Was Denise a hippy? The cotton material of the top was thin, and in the sun it was almost see-though, or he imagined it was.
In the afternoon there was another baseball game. They were going to watch this one on TV, indoors, as the weather had gotten cloudy. Tray tables were gathered around the set, everyone settled in and the National Anthem played. It had started to rain, so he was trapped indoors with the Tigers.
Denise tapped him on the shoulder. “Do you want to play something? We have lots of board games.”
They settled on Parcheesi, and the board was opened up and spread out on the carpet between them. He noticed that when Denise leaned forward to shake the dice out of their cylindrical tumblers, her top hung down and he could see into it. He tried not to look as the game went on — or, rather, he tried to look without Denise seeing him look.
Inevitably, she did catch him, and he was terrified she might be mad. Instead, she smiled her half-smile and continued to play Parcheesi. They moved their brightly-colored pawns around the game board. He did his best not to look down her top again. On the other hand though, she didn’t change her posture or pull her top closer around her — so perhaps she hadn’t seen him looking after all. They talked a little more about Fahrenheit 451 as they played, but he was distracted. He felt his comments weren’t as good as they’d have been that morning.
Denise won the game, and said she had to go and study. He proposed a second game. She said she’d like to, but she had to study. Now he was certain that she had seen him, and been disappointed in him.
Then Denise leaned forward to gather the dice and their cylindrical tumblers lying on the board between them. She leaned further forward than she had leaned before, and her top opened downward as she leaned. Her entire breasts were visible to him through the parted fabric. Denise seemed to pause for just a second longer than necessary, before she straightened back up. She folded the gameboard and put it back in its box.
She didn’t wink. But later, in his memories, he would imagine that she did.
“Maybe it’s a comet.” It was Mr. Crosson, who, earlier, had said it was air pollution.
In the sky was a vibrant shifting smear of fluorescent colors, mingled in fluid, pulsating ribbons.
Others looked up at the strange phenomenon in the sky, or out at the undulating reflection it cast on Houghton Lake. There were about thirty people on the beach. They’d come out to the beach to barbecue and drink and talk. The rain had passed and the sky was dark and clear.
People were taking pictures. Most of them had little instamatic cameras but Mr. Reilly told them not to expect much when they got the pictures back from the developers. He was an amateur photographer with a really good camera. Mr. Ardouin tried to photograph it with a Polaroid camera, but the picture didn’t capture anything. Mrs. Crosson held a quietly whirring eight-millimeter movie camera up to the sky.
“I called the weather station about it this afternoon,” Mr. Crosson said. “They’d gotten other calls about it. They didn’t sound concerned. But they said they’d send someone out to take a look.”
Mr. Parrinder said: “You can bet NASA knows all about it. If it was anything important they’d tell us.”
“It’s just an atmospheric thing,” another man asserted. “Like the Northern Lights.” Most of the men there had served as soldiers in WWII. They weren’t going to be impressed by colored lights.
Mrs. Ardouin said the way the colors moved made her queasy.
And this went on, and the thing was discussed and looked at.
But after a while, the lights in the sky took a back seat to talk of the game, which the Tigers had won, and there were the smells of beer and barbecue, as the high points of the game were relived and dissected and laughed about. He was puzzled by how unconcerned they seemed to be. What was happening in the sky seemed monumental to him, world shattering. Was it the arrival of beings from another planet? A doorway to another dimension? Was it the end of the world? How could they forget about that to talk about a game?
Some teenagers arrived from another campground. They built a bonfire, and all the teenagers were gathered around it. His sister was part of the crowd, and while his older brother was accepted there, too. He wasn’t. So he hovered around in the area between the teenagers and the adults. Denise was in the group of older kids, and though she had waved to him earlier, she showed no interest in spending time with now. One of the teenagers said he was worried about being drafted.
He looked up at the phenomenon in the sky. It was fantastic. But his thoughts were of his glimpse of Denise’s breasts as much as they were of the sky.
He sat on the sand and studied the restless swirl of colors above him. It looked elemental, almost biological, but it was very stylized in its appearance as well. The secondary lines that had grown up along the sides of the original line had grown and formed spirals and other complex shapes that changed as you looked at them. Line was no longer the right word for the formation in the sky either. It was not a line, but rather a bulge, as if the sky of their world was straining to hold back the lucent fluids of another, just behind it.
It got late. They returned to the Reillys’ trailer to sleep. They would be leaving for River Rouge in the morning. He wouldn’t be able to sleep in Denise’s room now that she had arrived. He joined his brother on the living room floor in a sleeping bag Mr. Reilly pulled from the closet.
As usual, he couldn’t sleep. He thought of the Parcheesi game and his best friend returned. Then he remembered that the thing in the sky was visible from the window. He got out of the sleeping bag and went to the window.
The line was wider now, and its innards not so turbulent. It was plain now: the line was not really a line, but a bulge, a swelling, an expanding of some swirling psychedelic substance that was rending the night sky. It was a luminous, undulating Day-Glo blood-blister above Houghton Lake. It was ready to burst.
Then burst it did.
A spill of mad, molten color fell from the sky and down toward the lake. It was glorious, and frightening. Watching it fall, he lit up inside. He was electrified.
The spectacle of the kaleidoscopic cascade was intense but brief. The rip the torrential release had made in the sky sealed up immediately. Through the trees for the colors of the downpour glowed for just a moment.
He woke up to the sound of his parents packing and bringing their things out to the car. Mrs. Reilly was frying pancakes in the trailer’s cramped kitchen. The air was green with the smell of pine. His sister told him he was next in the bathroom. She was in a good mood. She must have had a good time at the fire.
Denise was gone. She had left early in the morning to out fishing with friends. They wouldn’t be seeing her before they left. His father was anxious to get the long drive home over with.
Mr. Reilly speared a pancake with his fork. He said “Whatever that was in the sky last night isn’t there anymore. The sky looks the way it always does. Bobby Prather said he saw some lights over the lake this morning. But everything looks okay now.”
Their youngest houseguest ate in silence. He said nothing of what he’d seen the night before.
Mrs. Reynolds suddenly pressed something against his hand. “I almost forgot. Denise wanted me to give this to you.” It was Denise’s paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451.
He couldn’t tell anyone at the table what he’d seen in the sky last night. But someday, he was certain, he would. He would make a drawing of it, or a painting, perhaps. As soon as he had practiced enough, and was good enough to do it right.
In the meantime, he was lit up.
He was electric.