This featured short story is written by the supremely talented Maria Haskins. Long As I Can See The Light is from People Are Strange, an anthology that is part of the Mind’s Eye Series. Maria’s task was to write a story based on the photo below, taken by Martin David Porter.
Long As I Can See The Light
“Do you remember that night when we saw the light?”
She asks this as they’re sitting on the balcony, and he turns to look at her. When he meets her gaze he can see the thing that lurks within her now – the presence that isn’t really her – look back at him, peering out through those familiar blue eyes. A cold trickle of fear runs down his spine, and he almost gets up, he almost runs away from her again, but he has been running for so long already. He’s too old to run, too tired.
What year is it? What month? He has to think about it for a while, and when he eventually remembers, he realizes that it’s almost exactly forty years since he ran away from her the first time.
He inhales deeply from the cigarette, knowing it’s his last smoke: a filthy, hand-rolled, slim and rather bitter stick of something that is supposed to resemble tobacco, but doesn’t really. She asked him about that: where he got the cigarettes, why he started smoking. “No one smokes anymore,” she said. “No one even manufactures cigarettes.” And of course that’s true enough. He could have told her that he picked up the habit in recent years when he lived rough in the alleys downtown. He could have told her that there are times and places and situations when sharing something, anything – even a lousy cigarette – with a stranger is a way to feel a connection, however briefly: a fragile tendril of community and communion. But in the end he said nothing at all, just shrugged.
“Do you remember?” she asks again, prodding him. As if he could forget. As if that one memory is not his everlasting, never-ending nightmare.
He remembers it very well. He remembers sitting with her, with Lisa, in the park that night, in that small suburb outside Vancouver. They sat next to each other on the blanket he had brought and spread out in the grass near the baseball field. The blanket was just for sitting on. It wasn’t like he thought they’d be making out or anything like that. It wasn’t like that between them, not then or ever. And that was fine, because Lisa was his friend. His best friend. His only friend, really, when he thinks about it now.
They were born the same year and grew up in the same cul-de-sac: they went to the same preschool, the same school, eventually the same high school. Through the years, Lisa stuck with him, even when other kids laughed at him, and called him crazy or stupid. The doctors and his parents used words like “neurological disorder” instead, of course. Whatever that meant. All he knew was that he noticed some things that no one else seemed to see, and that he couldn’t understand some things that others found self-evident. But Lisa never seemed to care about any of that. Lisa simply remained his friend.
The night when they saw the light, he had asked her to come with him to the park after dark, saying he wanted to show her something. Maybe she thought he’d bring his telescope and that they’d look at some planet, or the moon. They used to do that back then because they were both into science and science fiction and astronomy. He didn’t tell her what he had seen in the park on the two previous nights: he just wanted her to come with him, because if she could see it, too, then it had to be real, and not all in his head. She kept asking: “What is it? What is it you want me to see?” And he remembers saying: “You’ll see. It’ll be worth it.”
She was always kind to me, he thinks, and feels a piercing sense of guilt and loss and grief as he sucks in another puff of stinking fake tobacco.
The woman who looks like Lisa, but who has someone else or something else hidden behind her eyes and beneath the bone of her skull, is still regarding him: her face is patient, compassionate, even. It’s a convincing mask, but he knows better than to trust her.
They sat side by side in the grass. It was warm and summery and early July. She looked up at the sky, and he looked up at the sky, too, when he wasn’t looking at her. “Which star do you want to go to,” she asked, and he laughed. They had played that game from when they were kids, picking out stars to go to, imagining the planets around those stars and the beings and creatures inhabiting those worlds. And right when he was going to answer, when he was going to tell her which star he would pick that night… there it was. It looked exactly like when he had seen it before: surfacing in the night-sky above them without warning like a gigantic metallic whale in deep ocean water, suspended between the stars. It looked close, but somehow you knew that it was far away – a shiny, luminescent metal hull, just hanging there above the Earth: terrifying, menacing, and wondrous all at once.
He heard her gasp and knew that it was real, that she could see it too, and he felt relieved. The first night he had seen it, he thought he must have imagined it, but then it had come back the second night. This was the third time he beheld it, and still his mind could barely contain the sheer mind-bending enormity of it. Everything about it – its glow, the smoothness of its surface, the magnitude of it – was utterly and undeniably alien.
Lisa looked at him with a strange expression, halfway between terror and elation, and she opened her mouth, as if to say something. Through the years he has often wondered what she was going to say, but he will never know, because in that moment the light hit her. A blinding, radiant, noiseless beam coming down from the metal hull above, lighting up her face and striking her down. She fell, fell flat on her back on the blanket.
And what did he do? He looked up and saw the ship disappear again, slipping back into the universe, unseen, while Lisa lay there, dead, on the ground. The light had killed her, that’s what he assumed. So he ran. What else was there to do? It was the alien invasion. The takeover, doomsday, Armageddon, whatever you’d like to call it. He ran. And as he ran he saw the light come down again and again and again: that beam multiplying, stabbing down soundlessly, into the houses all the way down his street. Into his house, too, where his parents lived. He never saw them again. There is an almost unbearable emptiness in that thought.
He ran: crying, screaming, stumbling. He ran, wondering why it had stabbed Lisa and not him, wondering why there had been no warning, wondering how it was possible – with radar and NASA and satellites and internet – that no one knew it was there. No one but him, and he hadn’t told anyone, hadn’t warned anyone, not even Lisa. Instead he had brought her right to it. He ran, and kept running while the world was struck down all around him, and he kept running for forty years. Until today.
“What happened to you after that night?”
He looks at the glowing tip of the cigarette, not sure if he can, or wants to tell her. Certainly he doesn’t remember all of it. He remembers running that whole night until he could go no farther. He remembers seeing people being hit, sprawling on the sidewalks, cars and trucks stopped dead on bridges and highways. He remembers looking up, but there was no sign of that massive hulk of metal up above. Still, the light struck from nowhere and everywhere.
Finally, he fell asleep in a ditch on the outskirts of Vancouver – just rolled into some bushes next to the road and passed out. When he woke up it was daylight, and everything looked normal: people walking around, buses and cars driving, everything as it should be. No dead bodies. No carnage. He couldn’t understand it and stumbled through the streets, feeling half-dead and probably looking more than half crazy. Someone must have seen him and set the police on him because soon, four policemen descended. He remembers that three of them had oddly smooth, placid expressions as they looked at him, while the fourth seemed concerned and worried, asking: “What are you doing here? Are you hurt?”
Nobody else asked him that. The three other officers gazed at him silently and when he looked into their faces he saw it, saw that other presence for the first time. It – whatever it was – looked out at him through three pairs of human eyes, and he felt his heart slow and almost stop.
“Leave him,” one of the three said, and the fourth policeman turned as if to question that order.
He wasn’t even surprised when the light struck that fourth policeman down and he fell. He almost expected it. This time he stayed and watched: saw the man rise again after a few minutes, brush off his uniform and straighten his jacket and then turn and walk away with the others like nothing had happened.
Once the police were gone, he started running again. For days he ran and walked, stumbled and hid. He stole cars, bicycles, even a boat to get himself as far away from the city as he possibly could, heading into the northern wilderness along the pacific coast. There were less people there, more safety, he figured, but every time he met someone, he saw that other presence, that intruder, gazing out at him: every human face had become a mask with something else peeking out through the eye-sockets.
He went up the coast, farther into the wild. Life wasn’t bad in the woods, along the ocean, but it was hard. He fished in the streams and ocean shallows, dug for clams and caught crabs, stole food sometimes, and went deep into the forest. A few times he was attacked, not by humans, but by bears, and cougars. He suffered through a few bouts of what might have been pneumonia over the years, and one time he almost died from an infection: a small cut on his shoulder that turned foul and black. In the end, he managed to steal some medical supplies from a truck and get rid of it, but his left arm hasn’t been the same since.
How many years did he live in the wild? Almost thirty-five years it seems, though he is astounded it was that long. Some of those years, maybe most of them, he cannot remember. Amnesia or psychosis, the medical professionals might say. Post-traumatic stress. A mental breakdown. Paranoia. Whatever. His brain is like that, he knows now. Sometimes it clocks out when things get to be too much. But through it all, a part of his mind was always working away: remembering Lisa, remembering the light, remembering that night in the park, fitting the memories together with what he saw afterwards, trying to piece it all together, trying to understand what had happened to him, and to everyone else.
Even in the woods he occasionally ran into other people. Mining and logging operations seemed to be expanding every year, creeping ever farther into the wilderness. One time, he walked right into a group of workers near a hydroelectric dam. First, he thought they would kill or try to capture him, but they all just looked at him where he stood at the edge of the forest, saying nothing. Eventually they went back to their work. They were indifferent to his presence, almost as if they could not even see him, as if they knew he was not like them, as if they knew he had seen the light, but had not been touched by it.
The woods were not a bad place to be, but the years wore him down, and eventually he got sick. Sick and old. It was then that he started walking back to where he’d come from: back to the city. He was scared, but he figured he was sick and old enough that maybe no one would care.
When he came back to Vancouver five years ago, wandering across the old abandoned bridge that led into what used to be the park but was now the ever-expanding Space Hub, he could hardly believe his eyes. It was another world: brilliant lights illuminating the vessels being assembled; people crawling all over a vast expanse of metal and concrete; and all of those people working and working and working, ceaselessly, day and night. And the cars were all gone, that’s something else he noticed right away: no combustion engines anymore. Just clean vehicles, quiet and efficient, running along the spotless streets. It was like arriving on another planet.
He ended up in the alleys of the Downtown Eastside. In the old days, it was a place for poor people, drug users, and misfits living precariously on the margins of society. It still is. Except now the misfits are those who have not been touched by the light. He has realized that most of them are like he is, that their minds are different somehow, deviating in minor or major ways from the norm. And he has realized that the Downtown Eastside is a pen, a ghetto, maintained to contain the dwindling number of untouched who have stubbornly refused to die.
In some ways the area has improved in the past forty years, he supposes. The alleys are cleaner, there are no drug dealers and no stores selling liquor or tobacco, and there is food and shelter for those who want it. Not that he has ever taken any charity. He knows what they are, these people who say they want to help. He has allowed them to treat his infections and illnesses, but afterwards he always goes back to the alleys. Before the light came, it was the do-gooders and religious nutters helping out the needy. Now it is the people who were stabbed by the light doing it: all of them kindly indifferent as they hand out blankets and food and medication. He knows they are not what they seem, that they want brains, souls, life force, whatever. Through the years he has told everyone he meets what he knows, yet nothing happens to him, and no one believes him. No one else can see it, no one else understands.
Suddenly he realizes that he’s been talking out loud, that he has been telling her everything passing through his mind. He hears himself say:
“I slept in doorways, mostly. Scrounged food from garbage cans, ate rats.”
“And then I found you.”
He nods. Then she found him. Today. He figures she must have been looking for him, but he doesn’t understand why. She found him sitting outside an old crumbling brick building, putting on a new pair of socks. There she was. Lisa. Not dead. Older, but much the same, even though he knows it isn’t really Lisa anymore behind those eyes.
She stopped and looked at him in his filth and poverty. Looked at him like Lisa might have looked, her face soft and kind and gentle, but it was still just another mask, albeit a familiar one.
“Thomas,” she said and it wasn’t a question. She knew. She even touched his hand the way the real Lisa used to. She’s doing it now, here on the balcony, too, squeezing his fingers lightly, smiling at him. And even though he knows it is not really Lisa, he begins to cry.
“Are you all right?”
She asks him this. As if he could be all right. She has brought him to this place, this apartment on the waterfront, with mountains on the horizon, a bird’s eye view of the Space Hub, and the underwater industrial domes glinting far away in the dark ocean beyond. He has had a shower for the first time in months. She has fed him, and he is wearing the clean clothes she got for him: some kind of workman’s overalls, but clean and comfortable.
His cigarette has burned out. There will be no more cigarettes for him, he is very sure of that. He looks up at the stars, though they are hard to see here because of all the lights. It is a summer night, just like the last time he sat next to her.
“Which star do you want to go to?” he asks and she sort of smiles, but he knows that the question means something else to her now than it used to do.
She starts talking. She tells him that his parents died some years before. They were good people and always missed him, she says, but they kept busy working in the space program after he disappeared. He thinks about his mother, who was an elementary school teacher, and his father, who worked his whole life at the port. He tries to imagine them working for a space program, but that is obviously impossible. Still, he cries for them, too.
“Thomas. Why do you think I brought you here?”
“To kill me. Or to take let them take me. One way or another you will destroy me.”
“What is it you think happened when the light came? Can you tell me that?”
“I don’t need to tell you. You know. Your kind knows.”
“My kind? I see. But I would still like to hear you say it. Explain it to me. Explain why you ran away and kept running for forty years.”
So he tells her. He tells her what he has spent so many sleepless nights and haunted days figuring out, piecing together. That something travelled across space and time in that enormous spacecraft. That it, they, came to earth and entered orbit and stabbed people’s souls and hearts and minds with that light, taking them over, taking them away.
She says nothing, so he keeps talking.
“I think they wander the stars. Whether they are lost or exiled, I don’t know. I think they have been traveling the galaxies for millennia. Maybe they have a goal in mind, maybe not. But they want to keep traveling, and they need resources to do so. I wonder how many worlds they’ve taken before this, how many worlds have been stripped of everything, just like our world is being stripped. The population taken and re-focused on one thing: producing the means for them, whoever they are, to keep going through the universe. I don’t know what they are building exactly, or what they are extracting from the bottom of the ocean and the depths of earth, but I see the signs of their plan everywhere: new technology, mining, construction, space projects, everything consuming the earth. I figure after forty years they are probably almost ready to leave.”
She is quiet for a moment, and then she laughs, a soft and not unpleasant sound.
“Oh, Thomas. Is that really what you think?”
He expected her to be colder and harder than this. He did not expect soft laughter, or the hand that still holds his.
“Let me tell you another story, a different story. You will probably not believe it, but I will tell it anyway. What if there were others out there, among the stars, just like you and I always hoped. What if they can indeed travel space and time, and what if they came here and saw us, watched us, watched our world, and saw us suffer through misery and war and poverty and disease and pain? And what if they realized that the reason for all that misery was locked deep inside our minds, and that we, the human beings, would never ever be free or happy or able to join this great universe as citizens until we cast off all the fears and doubts and weaknesses of our minds. What if they could cure us? Yes. Cure. Not “take”. Not “kill”. Not “use”. Just free us, cure us, and then we would still be human, but stronger, and better.”
She is right: he does not believe it.
“Just like that? One bright light, and then we’re cured of every ill that’s plagued humanity for over ten thousand years?”
She nods. He closes his eyes for a moment. It is a good story. It is a story that maybe, somewhere, he has thought of before, long before the lights came, during the nights when he and Lisa talked and watched the stars. It is not a true story, though. It can’t be true. He has seen enough to know it isn’t true, and he tells her that when he is able to speak again.
“What do you really know, Thomas? And what have you imagined, twisting reality to fit your own fears? Can you honestly tell me that your perception of other people, of this world, of the things around you has always been reliable?”
He knows the answer is “no”, but he doesn’t want to tell her that. Instead he says:
“Why didn’t the light take me that night? Why did it take you but not me?”
“It couldn’t touch you, because your mind would have been… damaged. That is why some people were left out.”
“But now it wants me? Are you that desperate? I guess you’re running out of human bodies to do the work. I’ve noticed that there are fewer children. Are you really not able to breed enough new humans to meet the demand?”
She turns away. Maybe she sighs. Maybe she pretends to wipe away a tear.
“You are older. Things have changed in you. And if you can let it take you, willingly, and not be afraid, then you will be all right . I know it.”
“So why not just take me? Like you were taken? Like everyone else was taken.”
“Because it’s better this way. No one wants to hurt you.”
“Did it hurt you? When they took you?”
She still doesn’t look at him, just shakes her head, gently.
“You’re the one who is in pain, Thomas.”
It is the truth, but he doesn’t want to hear it. He looks at Lisa. She is looking at the stars now. He wonders what the thing inside her sees when it watches the night sky. Forty years is a long time. He can feel the years in his bones, feel the distances he’s traveled in his sinews and joints, feel the cold nights and the biting winters in his flesh. He is scarred and weathered, aged, and diminished.
“I know what I have seen” he says, stubbornly.
“You know what I have seen?” Her eyes are suddenly strangely large and luminous in the dark. “I have seen a world without war for almost half a century. I have seen a world where human beings work together to develop the means for space travel and exploration. I have seen a world where every human being is better off than they were back then. How is that a horror story, Thomas? It is a story of salvation.”
He thinks about that. He feels very old and tired and alone.
“I wish I’d gone back to see my parents, just one time.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because I knew they’d do to me what you are doing now. They would let me be taken.”
“No.” He tries to fight it, fight her, fight his own weakness. “Tell me what you’ve done to the humans. Tell me where they are. Are they still inside you? Are their minds trapped inside you? And when you’re finished with this planet, will they all die then? Or will you let them go back to what they were before?”
She doesn’t get angry, doesn’t even raise her voice.
“Don’t you want to believe it?” she asks. “That there is a better way to be human, that we are the real humans, and that you are the twisted remnant of what we no longer have to be: crippled by anxieties and fears and aggression that you don’t even understand yourself. We are free. We are making this world better.”
“By using up the Earth? By using up every human being in this world to leave this planet?” He is speaking louder, more desperately now, as if trying to get the words out before it’s too late. “To build those damn spaceships , to take flight, to go into space again, to go out there among the stars and take another world, devour other planets and other souls and other knowledge, just to propel yourselves a little farther into eternity?”
“You know that space is where humanity is meant to go. You used to believe that, too.”
“Humanity, yes. But you are not human.”
She is very quiet for a very long time.
“Thomas,” she says finally. “Which star do you want to go to?”
And then he cracks. It is not a violent, painful thing. Rather, it is a relief: to give up, to surrender, to no longer have to fight. The light takes him almost right away: hits him, envelops him in its blinding power. This time it shines inside him, and he feels it burn away and sizzle and destroy. And for a moment he is nothing, he is annihilated, he is dead, but there is no darkness because he is starlight, pure and everlasting, and in that radiant purity he senses something else stir inside him, someone else, an awakening presence that either comes from outside or has always been there, he isn’t exactly sure.
The last thing he feels before his body is taken away from him, before the presence fully takes hold, is Lisa – or rather: the thing that is not Lisa – letting go of his hand.
The last thing he sees – as the new presence in his mind overpowers and submerges his consciousness – is a brief glimpse of the night sky: the distant stars suddenly more familiar and alluring than they have ever been before.
The last thing he thinks is: “I was right! I was right all along!” He even tries to speak, scream, shout the words, but it is not his mouth anymore.
After that, the light goes out.
About the Author
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and poetry, and debuted as a writer in Sweden in the 1980s. Since 1992 she lives in Canada, and is currently located just outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog.
Her most recently published book is ‘Dark Flash’, a collection of flash fiction stories. Her work has also appeared in several anthologies, Flash Fiction Online, Shimmer, Gamut, Capricious, and elsewhere.
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