Blinking Lights in the Night Sky
by Charles C. Cole
Harmon Shayne, a widower, grabbed a pillow and slid down, bending his knees to fit inside the bathtub. After his wife’s death, he rarely slept in their bed; too many memories, too much room, lingering fragrances.
He adjusted a foam mattress and blankets, staring at the peeling paint above him. His wife, Lola, had hated the grinding sound of the ceiling fan, so the steam from her showers had done some minor damage.
He was not the first to sleep in the bathroom. They had picked up a kitten, a polydactyl orange tabby “just four claws short of the world record.” Lola had been so proud. She had cuddled alongside their furry pet on the bathroom floor for five nights, with the door shut, bonding with the little critter. He’d never seen a more devoted domestic animal, the sweetest shadow. Soon after Lola ceased coming home, the cat had curled up in her favorite chair and simply stopped eating.
Lola’s commercial plane had exploded over the Atlantic. Cause to be determined. No bodies recovered. Investigation ongoing.
Many months later, an unfamiliar man in a gray suit knocked on the front door. He was collecting returnable bottles for the Scouts, but there were no Scouts accompanying him. Harmon donated a bagful anyway.
Harmon could see a silver-haired woman in the passenger seat. He waved politely. She smiled in return, then lowered her visor.
“My wife. She’s shy,” the stranger explained, noticing. “Been married almost thirty years. I’m a handful, but we make it work. I couldn’t live without her.”
“Good for you.”
“Mr. Shayne, I need to tell you there’s a good chance Mrs. Shayne’s alive,” said the stranger suddenly.
“Excuse me? Do I know you?”
The gray man gestured to the car. “This is my cover. My brother-in-law works for NASA. He says they’ve been recruiting planeloads of people for a huge interstellar rocket to populate another planet, then blowing up the planes to cover their tracks.”
“The Indian Ocean tsunami was a godsend, he said. You ever wonder why more tourists weren’t warned? The Agency swooped in and transported hundreds of people. They almost have enough for the mission. It’s gonna take years to get there and even more to build the first city.”
Harmon suspected why the man’s wife sank ever lower in her seat.
“Do I at least get a receipt for my donation?” asked Harmon, not knowing what else to say.
“I’m deadly serious,” said the stranger.
“Why not just ask for volunteers?” asked Harmon.
“Then everyone would know about the mission. The earth ain’t doing so good, you’ve probably heard. There’d be a worldwide panic.” The stranger looked at his watch and then up at the sky. “Gotta go. The satellite’s approaching. I’ll stop by another time. We’ll talk.”
But he never returned.
One day, Harmon’s manager, Stew Michaelson, ushered Harmon to a chair and closed his office door.
“Am I in trouble?” asked Harmon.
“Just giving you privacy.”
“Sorry to pull you away from your desk. Something’s come up. How do you feel about flying?” asked Michaelson.
“It depends,” said Harmon.
“On whether the plane is going to blow up or not.”
Michaelson snorted: “Gallows humor. You guys in Security kill me. I never know when you’re putting me on. I told ’em you’d be fine.”
“Work is the best distraction for me right now. I’d sleep here if you’d let me.”
Michaelson knitted his bountiful brows but declined to engage. “Really? Out you go, smart aleck! The travel agency will email you the details.”
Harmon huddled in a window seat on a plane to Denver. The cabin lights were dimmed. His seatmate, a part-time daycare worker and full-time grandmother, slept along the aisle, leaning indelicately against his shoulder. The pilot apologized for the turbulence. Harmon looked out the window into the murky night. In the distance, he saw a single blinking light. Another plane. Could they see him, blinking back?
What were the chances Lola was alive, being used as an official seat-warmer for intergalactic space travel? None. The chances his plane would self-destruct? None. The chances he’d sleep in a bed at a motel, emotionally neutral, with no other connection to his life? Pretty high.
Still, he needed to get an improbable possibility out of his head, to volunteer for a transatlantic conference, travel through the same sky as Lola, leaving the same airport, on a bigger jet. Not this puddle-jumper. They — whoever “they” were and however they interceded — wouldn’t dare approach a domestic flight where you were never completely alone.
A few trips later, the pieces aligned, to the extent that they could, without his calling NASA directly and pleading with them to come and get him so he could join his wife.
He’d even asked for Lola’s fateful seat: 12A. Everything seemed frustratingly normal, right down to the toddler one row back, kicking his seat like it was a sackful of spiders. He leaned forward and grimaced.
The woman beside him noticed: “I’ll say something if you don’t.”
“No need. He’ll sleep soon. He must. He’s wearing himself out. He’s wearing me out.”
“At least let me order you a drink when he does. You deserve it. I’m Lolita.”
What were the chances? She wasn’t Lola, a near-miss, a little younger, a little heavier, pretty like a model. She kneeled in her seat and spoke to the child. “You obviously don’t know who I am.” The child gasped. “I’m a first-grade teacher and, where I come from, there are rules.”
Newly divorced, she lived just over an hour away, with her parents. After a long and candid conversation, one based on humble earthly careers and pursuits, Lolita shared her work email address. It was a lovely gesture; too soon, but a lovely gesture nonetheless.
Later, after Lolita had fallen asleep, Harmon looked out the window into the now-familiar dark. Though there were no blinking lights to be seen on the far horizon, he felt a little less alone.
Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole