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Sickly Lights

Louis Sisto

 

Pete Tramer and his coworker, Charles Stelling, sat stone-faced on the porch of their cabin, their bodies tight and rigid with unmatched apprehension. Up above, a brilliantly pale Wisconsin moon fixated an intense gaze upon them. The cheery chorus of crickets had returned, slowly hindering the rapid beat of the two men’s hearts.

“They’re gone again, thanks to Christ,” Pete said, almost casually, a chewed and tattered cigar clutched between his lips.

“Yeah,” Charles replied, “but they seem like they’re getting closer every time.” He reached up, nervously toying with his glasses as he tried to restore his body to a state of tranquility.

Pete, a tall, hovering, gruff man of fifty years, had never before in his life showed a splinter of fear, not even during his stint in the army. Now there were days (and nights especially) where the unknown would have him quivering like a nervous canine. He retrieved an old, scratched Zippo from the pocket of his jeans and lit the remnants of his cigar. He puffed away graciously, sending small clouds of smoke into the cool, crisp, night air.

“Another coupla weeks and we’ll be done with this job, Charlie,” Pete said, trying his best to be reassuring. “Time to get the hell outta here after that--for good.”

Charles stared blankly into the desolate, dark forest before him, longing for the optimism Pete was putting on display. Something was blatantly wrong with this area. The trees were more than alive; they almost gave off a sense that they were communicating with each other, trying valiantly to preserve an unsettling secret. They were, in a sense, protecting the lights. The lights were the stalkers, seemingly all-knowing and possessing an intent that was incomprehensible. Charles had never felt so threatened by anything else in his thirty-four years of life. He thought constantly about his wife and son, four hundred miles away and completely out of his grasp. His mind taunted him daily, like a schoolyard bully, about the prospect of never returning home to them.

He felt his stomach began to churn again, sharp pains pelting his insides like oversized needles. He stood from his chair and ran to the side of the porch, vomiting violently. Pete took a long drag on his cigar, glancing in Charles’s direction for a moment, before resuming the ominous wheel of thoughts he had been turning in his mind. Time was running out. It was the Sickly Lights…again.

***

Pete and Charles had been tired, sluggish and weak all day, to say the least. They had accomplished very little at work, instead devoting the majority of their time to remedying their sudden, unpredictable headaches. The area supervisor, Burt, had taken them aside yet again to inquire about their half-hearted construction efforts. Their eyes held the sole explanation: a desperate, passive helplessness; a black hole of emotion that nobody could understand. It was getting to the point that all they could concentrate on was praying silently to themselves that the Sickly Lights would not appear that night, that they would have a chance to embrace rational thoughts and a fulfilling night’s sleep instead of the unrelenting terror of the alternative.

“I’m warning you two guys,” Burt said, tossing his tool belt aside as he headed for his office trailer. His voice had the tone of an admonishing, frustrated parent. “Get your acts together already or I’m gonna find myself two carpenters who can do the job!” The entire trailer shook as he slammed the paper-thin door behind him.

Pete and Charles eyeballed one another, the hopelessness and dread growing even larger inside the both of them with the aggressiveness of a vengeful tumor. Amid the small words of encouragement from their coworkers, they continued hammering away on a shed, both of them taking small breaks to watch the sun’s slow descent over the placid lake. All would change very soon. The workday would be over and it would just be the two of them…and the lights.

***

The warm, glowing embrace of the fireplace steadily held the attention of Pete and Charles as they sat on a nearby birch bear rug. A bottle of half-guzzled whiskey was perched in front of them, oblivious to the fear of its two admirers. The crackling of the uninhibited flames, combined with the obsessive ticking of a large oak grandfather clock in the corner, made for a most peculiar melody. Pete ran a large hand over his four day stubble as he sighed deeply, knocking Charles out of his trance. He reached for the whiskey bottle and enthusiastically refilled both of their glasses.

“It’s almost about that time,” Pete said as his troubled brown eyes darted to his rifle leaning against the wall.

Charles yanked his cell phone out of his stained, faded work vest and confirmed the time.

11:13pm

Seventeen more minutes to go. Would the lights make their presence known tonight? Neither man had any way of knowing. Darin had told them the lights always seemed to appear more frequently when rain had been in the area. Darin was a Native American man they had met at a trading post in town a little over a month ago. It was to him that the two men confided their strange experiences with the lights. Darin’s piercing eyes remained as motionless as death itself as he listened, his back to the two men as he studiously honed his knives. Their account of what had occurred was like a passage back to his youth. He had seen those same lights, as a boy.

Floating, green candles

That was the best way to describe them: floating green candles. Four or five in the group usually; sometimes more. They floated through the timber, rotating in small circles around each other as they moved. They had a mystical, natural appeal to them and could hypnotize even the most skeptical onlooker into pursuing them. They always kept the same distance away, gliding away smoothly, easing themselves back into a travel route only they could comprehend. They brought with them a deafening silence to everything in their path. The owls, insects, everything. Life itself was silenced. Others in the tribe always called them the Sickly Lights, due to their uncanny ability to cause physical illness to any living thing in its vicinity. Conversations about them were scarce. Just thinking of those lights and their malicious ruse almost brought a wave of nausea and physical pain over Darin. He had never acknowledged their existence to the White man until that day.                                                                                             

***

The cabin was completely devoid of light as Pete and Charles took their respective seats on the creaking, wooden chairs at the foot of the porch. It was much colder than last night. A heavy, ominous breeze caused the men to pull their jackets around them just a little tighter. The aroma of fresh rainfall blanketed the air, a teasingly stark contrast to the eyes of the unknown watching from all directions. Charles spoke first.

“You feeling anything yet, Petey?” he asked, hoping that his friend wouldn’t notice the tremor in his voice. He watched the little patches of breath paint the air in front of him as he finished the last part of the question.

“Not a goddamned thing yet, Charlie,” Pete said, his eyes not having the courage to deviate from the trees off in the distance. “And I want to keep it that way.”

“What do you think those lights are, Petey?” Charles asked. He didn’t know if his own question scared him more or if his friend’s yet undelivered response did. He didn’t care, quite frankly. Scared was scared.

“I don’t know,” Pete replied bluntly. “But, what has crossed my mind more than a few times now,” he said, his voice adopting a contemplative tone, “is why it’s us.”

“What do you mean?” Charles shot a quizzical glance in his direction.

Pete’s lighter fell from his lap, resulting in a loud thump, startling their already frazzled nerves.

“Well, think about it, Charlie. There’s so many people and so many mysteries out there. What makes us special? Why are we witnessing this to begin with?” He lowered his chilled face into the solace of his jacket. “What’s the purpose, I guess is what I’m asking?”

Charles, a law-abiding and trusting man of faith, had always held the belief that things were put in one’s path for a reason. Some things were not meant to be understood. He had come across his fair share of naysayers and men of pure logic over the years, the kind who needed to know everything about life and the mystery behind it. He liked to think of himself as an educational, rational and open-minded man. His experience with the Sickly Lights thus far, however, had gravely robbed him of any recent desire to be well-spoken or refined in natural conversation.

“Personally, Petey,” Charles said, a hint of sarcasm coating his words, “I don’t think the lights give a rat’s ass about the purpose. The lights are what they are and we-,” he paused, wiping the lens of his glasses on his sleeve, “-happen to be in the way.”

***

Pete and Charles were engulfed in long-awaited sleep, their chairs swaying lightly on the porch as the brisk night air permeated their jackets. They had been waiting for the arrival of the lights for several hours, to no avail. Their weakened, frightened bodies offered no hint of movement, grateful to have finally succumbed to the desire to momentarily shut down, erasing all references to the lights. A timid, brown doe poking around by the edge of the trees briefly stopped and stared at the sleeping men, deeming the situation safe for the moment. She scampered softly back into hiding after a minute or so.

Charles’s eyes opened slowly, almost as if on cue. The night was dark, all except for the small, green lights far off in the timber. They were gliding along slowly, revolving carefully around each other, to a destination only they knew. The vibrant green radiance of the lights overshadowed the smothering blackness all around them. He couldn’t tell how many there were yet; they were still too far away. They always seemed to come within what he would’ve guessed was about two hundred feet, before retreating on their path back through the timber and vanishing from sight. He reached over to Pete, who was sleeping as peacefully as a drunk on a Manhattan park bench, nudging him frantically in the side.

“Petey, wake up! The lights! They’re back, over there!”

Pete grumbled to himself as he sat up in his chair and focused his eyes off in the distance. Even in the shadows of the night, Charles could see all of the color drain from his face.

“Damn, they’re late tonight, aren’t they? Check your phone, Charlie. See what time it is!” Pete knocked a small mound of cigar ashes to the ground as he reached down and clutched his rifle.

Charles hurriedly mashed the buttons on his cell phone, not the least bit surprised at its failure to power up and turn on. It never did; not when the lights were around.

“I got nothing, Petey. Power doesn’t work around these damn lights for some reason, remember?!”

“Okay, okay, let’s just try and be calm,” Pete said, not daring to remove his eyes from the lights. His mouth hung halfway open in a combination of shock and disbelief. “They always stop right about there anyway. “ He pointed to a small clearing amidst the dense brush. If he was trying to make Charles feel better, it was most definitely not working.

The two men huddled close together at the edge of the porch for the next several minutes, watching the strange, fluid motion of the lights. They almost appeared to be dancing through the trees. They could see that there were five of them as they approached the clearing, the sharp green colors captivating them like two small children. The two men began to breathe small, tentative sighs of relief, eager for the lights to retreat to their unknown origins. Pete dropped his gaze, patting the pockets of his jeans as he searched for his cigar case. He was not expecting the tap on his shoulder that came next.

“Petey, we got problems here,” Charles said, his voice low and solemn.

Pete looked up, a pang of queasiness infiltrating his stomach.

The lights were now drifting past the clearing, comer closer to the porch than ever before, forcing the two men to cower back toward the door of the cabin. The men shivered as they watched the spectacle unfolding in front of them. With the lights being this close, they could see that the five small shapes comprising the group were a sort of mist or gas, their vibrant green shine possessing a hypnotic quality.

Charles felt the pain began swimming though his cranium. It was far worse than it had ever been, being that the lights were this close. He felt like a man whose migraine was having a migraine.

Pete dry heaved a few times as he held his stomach. His legs felt rubbery and weak. Whatever these lights were, they were obviously toxic to the human body.

The five circles of light came to a halt about fifty feet in front of the porch and began swirling around each other with increasing speed. The two men’s physical symptoms heightened in severity, seemingly to match the speed of the lights. Within minutes, they had absorbed into each other, creating a large, oval-shaped ball of light, pulsating with an energy and heat that ripped right through the cold, windy night. It hovered before the men, in complete and utter silence, as if waiting for them to make the next move.

Charles felt like he was on the verge of passing out from the throbbing pain in his head. Pete began vomiting repeatedly, covering himself in a ghastly, odd-colored mixture of blood and other bodily fluids. His eyes rolled up, almost demonically, displaying two little white pebbles where they had once been. He let off a low, guttural moan before falling backward, his head smacking loudly on the unforgiving wooden porch. He lay motionless in a puddle of his own malodorous vomit, his neck twisted in a sickening fashion, as Charles continued to stand face to face with what was now the sole Sickly Light. Out of the corners of his eyes, off in the distance, near the edge of the brush, he noticed the obscure outline of a figure, standing upright, its arms dangling at its sides. It had hands (claws?) that seemed to be way too large for a person. He watched as the figure raised one of its long, grotesque arms and beckoned to the Sickly Light. The ball of light glowed to a brighter shade of green, temporarily blinding Charles, as it floated over to the figure. It surrounded its long, thin frame like an unholy halo for a few seconds before disappearing. The night was once again dark and still, almost normal except for the figure protruding from the trees. Charles felt like it was staring straight through him. He took a step back, nearly tripping over his unconscious friend, who had begun bleeding from a head wound.

Where’s your faith now, Charlie Boy? God must’ve called in sick today, huh?

The trees all came to life in rapid succession, as exact replicas of the figure standing before Charles suddenly emerged. One after another long, thick limbs, devoid of color and detail, entered Charles’s field of vision, rapidly forming a foreign army of the night. They all held the same, indistinct, posture. A feeling of menace captured the night air, sitting like a weight on Charles’s already defeated, sunken shoulders. The green, glowing embers of the Sickly Light nested in their eye sockets, peering at Charles, making him feel like a piece of fresh, raw meat that’s been tossed into the lion exhibit at the zoo. The pain in his head was tortuously stifling, but his primitive impulse to survive greatly overshadowed it as his body kicked into gear.

“Petey, I gotta get you outta here,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm and soothing, even though he didn’t think his friend could hear him anyway. He reached down and picked Pete up under the shoulders, feeling his glasses slip from his face in the process. Amidst his panic and disorientation, his boot came crashing down, reducing them to a pile of glass and bent, misshapen plastic. Cussing himself for his clumsiness, he dragged Pete’s limp body over to the cabin door. His eyes strained to make sense of the blurred mess that was now his vision. He glanced back out toward the timber and could just make out long, strides of movement from all directions. It didn’t take him but a moment to realize that the figures were now moving toward him, in active pursuit of whatever mysterious agenda they had.

Where’s God, Charlie Boy? Is he going to sit on the couch with your wife and son and console them when they find out you’re dead?

Charles darted into the cabin, straining to keep his balance as he fussed with Pete’s large, unmoving frame. He bolted the door behind him as he wiped his brow. He was hot, cold, upset and terrified, all at once. He couldn’t let his own thoughts defeat him now. He had to think quickly. He toyed with the idea of going back out to the porch to retrieve Pete’s rifle, quickly convincing himself that its efforts would be futile against those figures out there. He clenched his fists tightly out of desperation, so tightly that it almost seemed like his fingers could dig holes into his palms. He had no idea what in the hell he was going to do next. Those creatures, whatever they were, were coming for him and Pete.

Heavy, labored breathing from below caught Charles’s attention. He was certainly no doctor, but was quite sure that Pete’s fall had sent him straight into a coma. Who knew how bad he really was? For the first time, the sinister thought of having to bury his friend crossed his mind.

Charles, poor eyesight and all, peered through the small window of the door, hoping against all hope that he would wake from his nightmare soon and find himself in the sweet, tender arms of his wife, with his young son cradled between the two of them in their bed. If only—

Keep hoping, Charlie Boy. While you’re at it, why don’t you piss in one hand and hope in the other and see which one fills up first?

The creatures, as Charles was now so formally referring to them, were walking in unison, their eyes continuing to burn with the fiery green light, the same light that had haunted him night after night for what seemed like eternity. He couldn’t make out any other facial features at all.

Just the lights.

His heart sunk as he retreated toward the center of the cabin, his face a hot, flushed mess, dripping with perspiration. He tried to ignore the pain in his head, which by now felt like someone was sawing it in half. He made a feeble attempt to drag Pete’s body toward the staircase leading up to the bedrooms, but discovered that his strength was greatly diminished. He could smell a rancid combination of vomit and blood in the air, the morbid aroma holding his nostrils hostage as he lowered himself onto the bottom step. He leaned back, his eyes filling with tears. Seventeen years of religious studies in school were flocking back to him like lost sheep. He had spent his whole life putting his trust and faith in God…for this? This was the payoff? This is how it would all end? He would die like a dog, in a cabin, with the abhorrent green eyes of those creatures being the last thing to consume his field of vision?

He stood up, nearly losing his balance, and hastily removed his work vest. He tore savagely at the buttons on the collar of his shirt until his fingers finally found themselves resting on his crucifix. He yanked it from his neck in one swift motion, nearly snapping the chain in the process. He walked over to where Pete lay. His head was beginning to swell. Little clumps of foamy saliva decorated the corners of his mouth. His breathing was long and uneven. Charles kneeled calmly beside him, gently lifted his head and slipped the crucifix around his neck. He lightly patted his friend’s hand as he turned toward the cabin door. The glare of the Sickly Light could be seen just underneath it. He could hear the forceful, eager footsteps of the creatures as they encroached upon the porch of the cabin. He was surrounded, nowhere to run to. He felt his body tense up, adrenaline surging through him like electricity. He was the proverbial cornered animal now, helpless, yet determined to do battle to the very end. He couldn’t see worth a damn, but was running on the fumes produced by the hazy mental images of his wife and son. He had to try, damn it. He had to—

Charles felt something—cold, sharp—puncture the back of his neck, causing an immensely painful burning sensation. He flung himself around in a circle, as his eyes rested on the perpetrator.

The last image his vacant eyes captured was that of the Sickly Light, deeply embedded into the almond-shaped eyes of one of the creatures. The plethora of green before him rapidly faded to black as he lost consciousness.

***

Charles Stelling kept his pudgy, acne-ridden face planted on the hallway floor of Westmore high school as he trudged his way past massive groups of laughing, demeaning faces. It was 1996 and he was once again a freshman, walking his pathetic, unpopular ass past his peers, who took every opportunity imaginable to tease him. The random, piercing insults came swirling from all directions.

Fat Ass!

Fruitcake!

Dickhead!

He could feel the pure misery of his anxiety—nearly palpable—as if it was actually happening all over again. The raw emotion hit him like a boulder, bringing back fleeting thoughts of wanting to hurt himself, his religious upbringing being the only deterrent at the time to actually following through with it. He felt like reaching out to the 14-year-old version of himself and crying. Time apparently didn’t heal everything. The trauma of his social ineptitude during his high school years was still very tangible.

Charles felt himself whimpering softly as his mind skipped unapologetically to another memory. It all came quickly into focus: his old dorm at Grand Springs University, the pungent smell of pot lingering in the hallway, muffled laughter emanating from the various rooms and, of course, the phone call. The call that tested his faith for the first time in his life. His father’s voice quivered with emotion on the other end of the line, as his mother sobbed loudly in the background. In just a few short sentences, Charles learned of his older brother’s untimely death at the age of twenty. A car accident involving multiple vehicles in Southern California, where he was just about ready to graduate college. He tried thousands, if not millions, of times since that day to erase the revolting feeling of the lump that grew in his throat as his father struggled his way through his fragmented sentences. He distinctly remembered the feeling of time having stopped, as if everything around him was paused like it was a movie. He, his thoughts and his emotions had been the only relevant things in the world. The human mind sure had some strange qualities about it, such as the little understood tendency to formulate pictures and ideas. Charles remembered envisioning his brother’s crushed, twisted corpse, trapped between all of the—

***

He reached for his shirt and wiped the moisture from his eyes, noticing that he was actually not wearing his own shirt and was instead clothed in a long blue gown. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to his surroundings. His vision was still severely impaired without his glasses. He could see that he was in a small room, with walls that appeared to be comprised of foreign, reflective material. There was a row of neatly arranged machinery in front of him. Some if it looked like computers, but other pieces looked way too advanced for him to even be able to guess what they were. He reached behind him and gently rubbed his lower back to alleviate the mild pain. Wondering where that was coming from, he glanced down and noticed that he had been lying on a metal examination table.

Am I in a hospital? Where are the nurses? Or the doctor?

Had he been injured? He tried to remember. Rapid flashes of being in the cabin came back to him. He had been fighting off…something.

He turned to the right and noticed another examination table, with a thin sheet draped over the sole occupant. There was no movement or sound coming from underneath it. He leaned his head in toward it just a little more, his nostrils picking up the slightest notion of decomposition in the air. It sure as hell didn’t take a college graduate (like what my dead brother would’ve been) to figure out that whoever, or whatever, was under there was dead. In an instant an image of his old friend, Petey, appeared in his consciousness: sitting in his chair, puffing away on his cheap cigars, as he clawed at his stubble and talked about “the old days.”

Is that Petey under there?

He hopped off of the examination table, his left foot landing on something small and sharp in the process. He let out a small yelp, banging the table with his fist out of anger and overall confusion.

Let’s face it, Charlie Boy. You’re not just angry and confused. You’re scared shitless; and rightfully so!

Curiosity was getting the better of him as he lightly shuffled his way over to the inanimate object lying on the adjoining table. He was about to pull the sheet back when he had the overwhelming feeling of being watched. Actually, it felt like he was being more than watched.

‘Scrutinized?’ Does that suffice?

In a way, it felt like something was monitoring his fear and anxiety, studying those qualities closely, almost relishing in them.

He managed to suppress his thoughts for a moment before resuming his quest to discover the contents underneath the sheet. He wrapped his fingers tightly around it, the odd texture registering in his brain, and proceeded to pull it back—

Something cold, sharp and unforgiving nestled its way into his neck, seeming to bring all of his painful memories back to him, as they transformed into one jumbled mess. As the burning sensation deepened, images of his pudgy, 14-year-old face flooded his mind, as he saw himself sitting back in his dorm room at Grand Springs University. The phone was pressed to his ear, as he listened, not to the grieving voice of his father, but to the vast array of insults and derogatory names his peers hurled at him. Adding to the mental chaos were other memories now coming into focus. He felt a pressure in his head that seemed to increase by the second. Something had thrown him back onto the examination table. He struggled futilely as he punched and kicked in the air, hitting nothing of substance for his efforts. As his body lost its remaining power, his mind reverted to images of the floating green candles out in the timber.

***

The determined crying of the newborn baby filled the air as Charles smiled lovingly at his wife, who was lying nearby in a hospital bed. The crying was sobering him up mentally, dragging his mind away from the incident…the abduction. It had been a mere three years since it had happened. It was hard for him to believe it had only been three years. To be honest, it felt like years and years had passed since he and Petey had embarked on that fateful work trip to Wisconsin. At first, it all seemed like one big nightmare. Charles could remember a time when he desperately wanted to believe it was. The authorities had found him lying naked in the timber, his body cold, feeble, devoid of energy. There was no sign of Petey; Charles knew there wouldn’t be. Only he knew what became of good old Petey. It was a secret he would take to his grave. He had to. They were watching him. Monitoring him.

The questions about what exactly had happened came like rapid fire. Who destroyed the cabin? Were they attacked? What happened to Petey? And, for the grand finale, just how did his naked ass wind up in the middle of nowhere in the unforgiving Wisconsin timber?

The strange part was that Charles already had the entire explanation ready for them. It was almost as if his consciousness was split into two parts. There was the portion that furnished an entirely fictitious account of what transpired. In it there was no mention of any lights or any mysterious creatures with almond-shaped eyes. Instead it was a carefully concocted tale of lies, ending with a heartwarming testament of how his faith gave him “the will to survive.”

Then there was the other portion of his consciousness. It held the truth. The truth that he still carried with him to this day. The truth about his new purpose, his new-

“Here is your beautiful little daughter, Mr. Stelling,” the attending nurse said as she carefully placed the newborn infant into his arms.

He could hear his wife crying softly nearby as he stared into the two tiny diamonds of light that comprised his daughter’s eyes. As his gaze drifted deeper into them he could see that they too held the truth. He could see the floating green candles hibernating deep within her pupils. It was the ultimate secret between father and daughter. Nobody else could see the lights; the Sickly Lights. They were the same lights that burned within his soul every single day for the last three years.

As he held his daughter and continued gazing into the vibrant green lights that floated in the vast chambers of her eyes, he prayed. Not to God; not to anything in particular. They could hear him and that’s all that mattered. They heard everything now. He was a part of them, and so was his newborn daughter. She would come to understand the truth in time…and would pass it on…and on…and on.

“Have you figured out what you’re going to name her, Mr. Stelling?” inquired the nurse excitedly.

Actually, he and the wife had been mulling over quite a few possibilities in the last several weeks. He decided not to divulge any of them in particular to the nurse. It was a secret after all.

He was full of secrets these days.