Another year, another cross-country trip to Georgia for a family visit.
California’s central valley is a boring drive. There’s not much to see. They couldn’t leave during the day – he had to work, and the overtime money from the shipyard is hard to turn down – so they left when he got home. By nightfall, they’re in the bowels of the long, narrow state, and Highway Five is a lonely band of barren road coming into Barstow. Forty years ago traffic was much lighter, and the nights less invaded with artificial light from sprawling truck stops and suburbs splashing out from the major metropolitan areas.
Besides, there is no major metropolitan area near Button Willow, CA. Bakersfield is the next best thing, 26 miles east. There, they’ll veer onto Interstate 40 and head east as far and as long as they can.
For now, the empty road winds near the mountains encircling the valley. Crisp, bright stars dot the night sky. The little VW’s interior is dark, but the bright, white moon casts a baleful eye over the scene, stretching shadows in menacing claws over dirt, gravel, scrub brush and highway.
The road rises for miles, then begins to drop into the basin where the “towns” are – wide spots in the road designed to refuel and feed truckers bound for points east. A few burger joints, gas stations and not much else mark the place, for those not heading to L.A. or Barstow or Bakersfield.
They begin their slow ascent and the little VW bug strains at it. The stars pierce bright in the clear, desert sky. She’s staring out the window, watching them twinkle, when something catches her eye.
“What is that?” she says, turning her face to him and pointing out of the corner of the windshield.
He leans forward, scrunching his face up to lift his glasses in front of his eyes. “Oh, that’s Venus.”
“Does Venus move in and out of the mountains like that?” She folds her arms over her chest and leans back.
He blinks at her, then looks again.
A brilliant spot of unfluctuating light moved in perfect unison with the stars as the car droned on … and then it passed in front of the silhouette of a mountain, ducked behind another and reappeared in front of yet a third. She perks a brow at him.
“Probably a helicopter or plane, then,” he states, and returns his focus to the road ahead.
She looks back at the little beacon and watches it move along beside them for a moment, then reaches into her purse. She pulls out a package of Salems, slides one into her mouth, and fishes for a lighter. She finds a battered book of them, pulls one free, and strikes it.
And the tiny beacon, so shiny in the mountains some miles away, suddenly shot toward them. It drew near enough to be the size of a dinner plate and its brilliance illuminated the entire interior of the car, chasing away all shadows and gashing their dark-adjusted eyes.
“Holy—!” he says, and the car swerves, spitting gravel from the tires as it runs onto the unpaved shoulder.
She gasps and drops the match. It dies as it falls.
And the light backs away, so they can see again, but is about the size of a softball and the glow still lights the inside of the car, the road around them and the ground beneath it. It illuminates enough to show the sandy color of the dirt, the dead, gray grasses tufted in patches amid the stones, and the green of the scrub brush leaves.
“Oh my God,” she whispers.
“Don’t … do that again,” he says, still driving.
“It’s … following us.”
He grunts, and presses the gas to the floor. The speedometer climbs – 60, 65, 70 miles an hour.
The light never moves, never changes its position relative to theirs, size or shape. It matches them move for move.
He grunts again and hits the brakes, and she has to put her hands against the dash to keep from slamming into it. 50, 40, 35 … all the way down to ten miles an hour.
And still the light kept pace, never changes position, size or shape.
Gradually, he accelerates again, and the light stays in place, moving as if part of their vehicle, just off the road a safe distance, lighting the ground beneath it.
“What … what should we do?” she says, her voice wavering.
He shakes his head, says nothing. There’s no color in his face.
The road crests and then sinks, and on the horizon, the glittering lights of Barstow appear in the sea of black, shimmering in the distance. And as suddenly as it appeared, the light receded to a tiny point among the stars in the night, and vanished.
This story is true as related to me by my parents. I rode on these trips with them as an infant or small child, but have no memory of them directly.
All original content © 2009 DarcKnyt
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