The air was thick with humidity, and it smelled like rain. As soon as Barry took his first lungful of it, he had a sudden urge to turn and head back into the library. He’d been there the past few hours, what with midterms the next week and all. It would be safe in there.
Safe from what, he didn’t know. But whenever the air got like this, Barry always felt like he needed to hide. It was a ridiculous thought, but it was one he had more often than he’d like to admit.
Bright blue eyes lifted cautiously upwards. Off to the west, still a little ways off, was a bank of dark clouds. Another one of those spring storms would be rolling in soon. He’d better get back to the dorms before he got soaked.
Barry kept his head down as he walked, as if anyone he made eye contact with would be able to tell what silly things he was thinking. What was it about the storm clouds? What was it about the sight of lightning jumping around inside them? He’d been like that about storms ever since he could remember.
No, it wasn’t the storms that got him this way. Once the rain and lightning started, Barry could relax. It was something about those clouds. Something about the way they moved in quick, like they were … coming for him.
There was a distant rumble, and Barry saw a flash of lightning jump inside the cloudbank. He had to get inside, now.
If anyone saw him running, he hoped they’d only think he was trying to beat the rain.
Elliott had been hearing rumbles of thunder for the past half hour, but that didn’t stop him from groaning in disappointment when the rain finally began to fall past the window of his dorm room. He hated having to go out when the weather sucked like this, but there was no way he was going to miss D&D tonight.
He’d been working on this campaign for weeks now, guiding the players through the labyrinth he’d planned out, and they were going to get to the final boss tonight. Elliott couldn’t wait to see the looks on everyone’s faces when they found out who was waiting for them. If they didn’t meet tonight, they wouldn’t meet next week because of midterms, and the momentum would be shot.
This was it, this was Elliott’s big night.
All his manuals, notes, dice, and miniatures were laid out on the bed and wrapped in a trash bag first, so they wouldn’t get wet no matter what. Even if he had to be soaked, there was no way any of his stuff would be. He stuffed the plastic-wrapped bundle into his backpack. Maybe he’d put his raincoat on over it, too … nah. Even though he was on his way to D&D, there was no need to be that much of a dork.
Speaking of dorks, the door opened and Elliott’s roommate came in. He shut the door behind him and leaned against it, like he was trying to keep something out. His eyes were shut tight, his breathing ragged. Elliott furrowed his brow.
“Um … hey. You run all the way up here or something?”
After a moment, Barry opened his eyes.
“Yeah.” He nodded, looking almost as if he had to convince himself, too. “Didn’t wanna get my books all wet.”
He kept his head down as he went over to his desk and started unloading his bag. Elliott shrugged and zipped up his backpack.
Okay, fine, Barry wasn’t a dork, he was just … weird . Smart enough to get into college, obviously, but he still had this slow, kinda naive air about him. Probably came with growing up in Nowhere, Indiana. This could have been his first time in a place with more than ten people around.
“I’m going out,” Elliott said, stepping into his shoes and grabbing his backpack. Maybe it wouldn’t rain for too long.
It had occurred to Barry, one evening over the past summer, to ask his mother and see if he could get some kind of understanding. The thought came to him when they were at the kitchen sink, tackling the dinner dishes. She was washing, he was drying.
“Mom … was there a really bad storm or something when I was little?”
“Yeah.” Barry finished wiping down the skillet and set it in the dish drainer. “One that was bad enough to make me, I dunno, scared of them?”
There was a long silence. She just watched him for a moment. The longer it went on, the more uncomfortable he became.
“I know, it’s stupid. I just wondered.” He shrugged. “I just … get real nervous when I see storm clouds. It’s weird.”
“It’s not silly, honey, but I can’t remember any storms that scared you too much. You were a pretty brave kid. Kinda drove me up the wall sometimes.” She laughed briefly … then it was quiet again.
Only now, the quiet seemed to mean something.
“You said … clouds.”
“What about clouds?”
Barry sighed. He hated to admit it, but it looked like his mother had found a thread to pull, and she wouldn’t let go.
“When they start coming in, I get all jumpy, you know? So I thought maybe we’d had a tornado or something that was really bad.” Barry hung up the dishcloth and shrugged. “I guess it’s just one of those things.”
In an attempt to end the conversation, he went back over to the fridge for another can of Coke. He was opening it when his mother spoke up again.
“So … you don’t remember.”
“Mm?”” Barry swallowed his first sip. “Remember what?”
And then she started talking about some really weird things.
She talked about a mountain. About lights in the sky, about how he ran off after them one night. About how “they” came and took him away, and how she went on a long trip to find him.
She tried to show him some pictures. They were all light and shadow, no real forms he could recall. When Barry shook his head and said he didn’t know what she was talking about, she just put the pictures back in their envelope and sighed.
“Never mind,” she said, sad and defeated.
The conversation had only left him with more questions than answers. He loved his mother, but she had some strange ideas sometimes. Maybe she was just freaking out and imagining things because he was going away to college.
Elliott knew quite well that what had happened to him, once upon a time, was far from normal. He knew that his mom knew about it, Michael and Gertie knew about it, Michael’s friends knew about it. It was real. It had happened.
Even so, there would be days, weeks, or even months that would pass without him giving a thought to the whole thing. He didn’t like to dwell on it, anyway, even when someone in his family wanted to bring it up. A stretch of time would go by, and Elliott would feel like maybe, just maybe , he’d dreamed it all. Maybe he just had an imaginary friend, and his family had been strangely encouraging of it. Kids were funny like that, it made sense for him to have imagined it all, right?
It was usually around that moment of complacency when there would be something that would come along and knock the wind out of him. Something that would once again make what had happened to him undeniably real. And it was always something completely ordinary.
A frog. A pot of flowers. Voices roughened with age and cigarettes. Kids riding their bikes. The smell of pine trees. Halloween -
“Hey, you gonna take some or just stare at ‘em?”
This time, it was the Reese’s Pieces that someone brought out during a break in the game. Elliott took a handful and passed the bag to the guy beside him.
“Here ya go. Spaced out for a sec.”
He stuffed a few of the candy-covered bits into his mouth and scolded himself for wandering down memory lane.
What was he supposed so say?
Sorry, I was thinking of my little spaceman friend?
Elliott shook his head and tried to re-focus on the present. He still had half a game to run once the break was over.
Barry’s mother had never missed Unsolved Mysteries. She was into all those kinds of shows, but that one was her favorite. He’d usually be trying to get to sleep in his own room when he would hear the haunting synthesizer theme song from down the hall. She’d tried to get him to watch it with her a time or two, stealing pointed looks at him whenever they talked about UFOs or aliens. She was always … pushing that topic.
Even though Barry hadn’t been too interested in the show when he’d been back at home, he never missed it these days. Maybe he and his mom were time zones apart now, but there was some comfort there, knowing they could be watching at the same time.
It was in the middle of a commercial break when Elliott came back in. It must have still been pouring out there, as his hair was soaked and his backpack spotted with raindrops.
“Hey,” he said, heading over to his side of the room. He grabbed a towel from the second drawer and started to dry off.
“Hey,” Barry replied. “Have a good time?”
“Yeah, it was fun. You oughta try it sometime. Ever play before?”
Barry shook his head. Elliott let the subject drop, and sat down on his bed facing the TV.
“Oh, uh.” Barry cleared his throat. “Just … background noise. I was studying.”
Elliott put his bag down on his bed and started unloading everything as the theme music came back. Over reenacted footage, Robert Stack began narrating the tale of a family, driving down a dark road at night, coming across a strange light in the sky …
Oh, great. It was one of those stories. Barry tried to look back down at the forgotten notes spread across the bed in front of him, but he kept stealing glances back up at the screen.
He wondered why they always had to make it seem like those lights were always so sinister. What if they weren’t bad?
Barry looked up to find Elliott staring at him now, brows furrowed.
“You just said something.”
Barry grimaced inwardly. He’d said his thought out loud. With a sigh, he shifted his position on the bed and shrugged, as casually as he could.
“I just … I dunno. What if they’re not ... bad? You know?”
“You believe in that stuff?”
The way Elliott asked the question wasn’t the disparaging way Barry was used to hearing it. It was genuinely curious.
Almost … hopeful.
“I … I really don’t know. I’ve never seen one myself,” Barry said. He tried to sound nonchalant as he continued, tried to make it sound like something silly. “My mom says I saw one when I was a kid, but I don’t remember anything about it.” He thought it best to leave out the whole they took you thing. For now, anyway. “She might have just … seen something else, that’s all.”
“Yeah …” Barry could see Elliott swallowing a lump in his throat. His voice had gone quiet. “Maybe it was something else.”
Elliott kept watching the screen.
Barry stayed quiet, too, just watching him.