Below the footbridge, traffic was an endless wave. Sarge fragged a bottle over the chainlink. It landed in the crusher of a passing garbage truck, shattered.
“Your ride is here, don’t miss it,” he said, cocking a thumb at the receding machine.
I ignored him. I was searching for the first stars behind the mesh of powerlines, water towers, aerials. That’s when the flash of silver streaked across the sky. There was no contrail in the falling light, no trace. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Did you see that?” I said.
“See what,” Sarge said, and asked for another cigarette.
I gave him my last one but made sure he knew it.
“Oh that, ‘course I saw that. See it all the time. Lotsa people would say it’s government, but I still know some folks from way back when,” Sarge said. “It’s definitely — whatcha call it. Extra pedestrian. Out of this world.”
He pushed his cart toward where the bridge curved to earth. Sarge wasn’t really a sergeant, I don’t think. But the bartender at Superstructure said he took nerve gas in Kuwait. Now he lived in his rusted Cutlass under overpasses around town. I didn’t think it’d start, but he was never under the same one. We were heading in the same direction and he was telling me his whole life story. I’d heard it all before, but it was always a little different.
“Damn,” Sarge said, snapping gnarled fingers. “You know. That’s it. That’s where your friends went. Little gray men must’ve abducted them.”
He wiggled fingers at me like nine and a half antennae.
I was supposed to meet friends at their triple-decker, but there was nobody home and my phone was toast. I ran into Sarge on the way to the bar, hoping to catch up with them.
“You know, I been abducted. Wasn’t half bad, you know what I’m saying? Most action I saw for a while,” Sarge said. He cackled and winked.
But at the end of the bridge, he seemed to forget about me. He mumbled to himself and knocked on a service door that said No Trespassing.
I finished the beer I was holding and opened another. There was a fifth in my boot and pockets were filled with airplane bottles. Maybe I was trying to distract myself from what I saw arcing through the sky. So what? But it kept pulling my attention. Abduction. It’d be something different. I pictured myself in a glass cage on an alien world. Alien children rapping on the glass and throwing alien peanuts at where I sat in a perfect simulation of my basement apartment. There better be drinks if they wanted an authentic experience at the human zoo. Told myself to relax, you’ve had a few, so find your friends, have a few more.
The whole way to the bar I watched the sky. The stars moved like water bugs.
The wind sharpened its claws against the long night. One of those rare moments when nobody was around and I felt myself expanding. I was blanketing the city like a smog. The city smelled like the low tide blowing off the cold Atlantic. Everything seemed in its place.
But where the bar was supposed to be, it wasn’t. I walked around the block to be sure. The squat building was gone. So was the muffler repair shop next to it, the Polish deli that operated out of the back bay. In its place was a condo building under construction, a dark fortress hulking out of some evil future or forgotten past.
“Where’s the local,” I yelled at the condo building, cupping my voice. I noticed my hands were etched with lines. My palms looked like a map of the city, all the streets curling against each other.
No response — the condo building was playing hardball. A man walking a dog hurried to the other side of the street. I thought I could smell conspiracy. But maybe it was just the river.
Trying to scrape some brain cells together, wishing I hadn’t opened another beer, or gotten into the fifth. I got it all wrong, I was thinking. Maybe my friends were supposed to visit my apartment! Instead we passed like spaceships in the dark. I shivered against the cold. It was supposed to be summer. Summer is bullshit, I thought, and turned up my collar.
The paper skin of birches peeled from their bones, shining in the dark. My glasses fogged up and the world was bleaching, turning white.
The little airplane bottles made me feel like a giant. My head felt swollen, tongue thick, blood like concrete. Whenever I tried to pin it down, it wriggled out from under me. Whatever it was kept falling away. Voicemails unanswered, calls dropped, birthdays forgotten, friends moving to different cities. The days themselves, held so close, but emptied out before long.
I thought about when I was a kid and fell off a rusty roundabout in a playground. How a huge dog appeared as if by magic, licking my face, the tears there. How it stayed with me all day, until my father got home. How my father said look at the tag on the collar, it belongs to someone else, someone missing it right now. How every winter my father grew colder, the spring thaw never finding him. Call the number on the collar, he said. And get me another beer.
I looked for Sarge by the bridge, angling for home. Even cracked another airplane bottle, as if it’d summon him. But he wasn’t around. Abducted, I knew, eyes swinging all around. Why him? Why not me? I pictured myself in the depths of space, frozen solid and preserved forever.
And you know — I hadn’t noticed it before. But they’d fixed up the footbridge. My friends used to practice tagging here. There were no more rust stains or graffiti on the tired concrete. It was all polished and chrome. Even the old high-pressure sodium streetlights were now clustered white LEDs. The shadows here were darker somehow, and cast shadows themselves. About time, I thought. You used to feel like you were about to fall into the turnpike.
A lightest snow detached itself from the night.
When I arrived at my apartment, there was nobody waiting to get buzzed in.
My heart dropped fathoms. Too deep to make a sound, no light down there, the only life luminescent and spiny. I could see the secrets of the universe now, and they were terrible. Everyone abducted, everyone except for me.
The faceless houses watching as I gouged lines in the paint around the lock. But the key wouldn’t turn. I torqued it, leaning into the brass. Crooked teeth like mine.
Maybe my roommates changed the locks, I was thinking. I was coming home late and drunk a lot.
I formed goggles around my eyes. Inside, all the walls were in the right place, but there were no stacks of pizza boxes, no underwater city of dishes rising from the bacterial sink. I hurried past strange cars in the driveway.
The neighbor’s dog howled at me. For a puppy, he sounded big and mean. The crystalline sound of snow on snow, the crunch of my boots.
The world was spinning. I was receding toward some hole in its center, like a penny in the spiral wishing well of the museum where I used to wait for my father to get out of work. The penny’s orbit shrinking, tighter and tighter, as it fell into gravity. Until it reached the black hole at the center. Until there was no more sound.
The museum showed how scientists thought black holes lay at the center of the galaxy, the universe. How we were made mostly of empty space, the gaps between atoms and molecules, galaxies ourselves.
And I knew even then that there was a black hole at the center of everything, at the center of you and me.
I could feel my heart bump in my throat like my shoes in the washing machine after I ran through the gray slush of the playground.
The keys didn’t matter, I knew, missing my friends didn’t matter. I was just mixed up again. I knew in the black hole inside me that they’d be here soon to take me away.
Then heard the shudder and crash of the shopping cart.
Hunched against the snow and wind. He asked me for a smoke. He smelled chlorinated.
“Sarge, buddy, it’s me,” I said.
He squinted at me.
“Oh shit,” he said. “You been gone a minute.”
“You remembered,” I said. I wanted to throw my arms around him.
“Of course I remember you,” Sarge said. He laughed. “Alien man. I thought you split town.”
“Nah, I just been around,” I said, shaking my head slowly, watching him the whole time. “Hey, the friends I was telling you about — did you see anybody around? Anybody looking for me?”
“You still banging on about that? You’re crazier than me,” Sarge said, laughing. “Think they’re up there, still looking for you?”
I shivered, not looking where he was pointing.
Then he said, “Hey, do you have anything to drink? You were always good for it.”
I found an airplane bottle and gave it to him. My last one, but I made sure he knew it.
Thomas Barnes lives and works in Chicago. His work has appeared in the Southwest Review, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, X‑R-A‑Y Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @thmsbrns and on Instagram @thms.brns.