Her father believed that barcodes were the sign of the devil as foretold by Revelation, but this was the sort of thing you accepted in a place like Kissimmee, if you wanted to survive.
Lauren worked at the university and often came home late. Most nights I was lucky to share dinner with her. Once, there was a fire in the Arts and Sciences storeroom and she stayed there until well after midnight. I decided to camp out by the lake and stargaze to the sound of podcasts and the taste of beer, and I had one of those box wines set aside for her in case she showed up. My parents said I had no ambition. They were wrong, but it was impossible to explain how. I had followed Lauren into the swamp and, it seemed to them, given up on my own goals of studying the universe. “I’m looking,” was my answer whenever they questioned the progress of my dreams, and though this was true, I did not really mean it.
At the lake, I laid my head back and picked out the voids I had once studied. That spot, between those two stars, contained a pulsar. The light from Disney World corrupted the night sky here, but you could still get a good view. In fact, I could almost see it glittering, that freakish star I had spent months watching. I blinked. I should not be able to see it, not with the naked eye, and now it was as bright as any star, maybe brighter. It flashed like a pulsar, I judged a period of about four seconds, but this was impossible, this was pure fantasy. Perhaps the heat had melted my brain, or in laying my head back I had drifted to sleep without knowing it and this was a dream. The light intensified, as if my doubts had offended it, and it soon became larger than the moon.
Right then, I remembered the first thing Lauren’s father told me. We met on his porch, me with my nerves and him leaning against the doorframe puffing a black and mild, and he looked me right in my eyes and said: You’re one of those worldly men. I also thought of something he said months later, under his breath, a private epiphany not meant for me: All aliens are socialists.
I was blind now. It was so bright, the pulsar, or whatever it was. All my hairs stood at attention and my skin buzzed. My phone’s speaker cut out. All I could hear was a hum, a bone-shattering hum.
Lauren had inherited only his mildest suspicions. She did not believe in bluetooth and felt uncomfortable near cell towers and microwaves, but these were simple quirks, they did not rise to paranoia. These were the sorts of things you accepted in a place like college, if you wanted to survive. Time smooths us like rocks in a stream, it tempers us. College smoothed me out, too—it flattened my passions, or maybe it helped me discover that they were not passions at all, but it also led me to her, and then to Revelation, and then to this lake, this visitation. Was that it?
Another of his epiphanies: Eight zero zero two five, seven five five four zero… these are the numbers of the Beast…
My vision returned swiftly. The light had disappeared. The space between the stars became black again, empty.
On cue, her pick-up arrived, its headlights dousing me from behind. A crunch of dead leaves beneath her boots and a door shutting and the uneven approach of a very tired university employee. She put her hand on my shoulder and took the box wine without a word. Laying beside me, she closed her eyes and started talking. “There was so much we couldn’t save,” she said, “but we did our best. I’m fucking exhausted. The fire department took their sweet time. I lost a bunch of students’ papers and now what do I do.”
I debated telling her about the flash. It was obvious she hadn’t seen it. I wasn’t sure if it was real anyway. I imagined her father on the phone with his weird friends, telling them about how he’d seen them over the lake, a bright beam that turned night into day, probably the light-bringer himself. It made me laugh. This surprised Lauren. She turned her head to me. “Do you tolerate me,” she said, I think playfully. I laughed even more, because wouldn’t it go the other way? My own parents tolerated me. In low moments, when I felt most pathetic, I worried that she tolerated me too.
Maybe she sensed my doubts right then, because she took my hand and laughed with me. I felt better. I had followed her into this swamp for a reason. The universe had lifted its veil to me that night and allowed me a glimpse of its sacred face. I kissed her and drank with her as I watched the distant blink of a cell tower and thought, This will work.
This will work. It was impossible to explain how.