186,282 miles per second. The enormity of it, looking out across the bright blue sky and the gateway to an infinite universe. 186,282 miles per second. An imagined trip at blinding speeds to pass planets in a blur. Or passing by the car window, too fast for the eyes to process, just an invisibility followed by a slight breeze with no origin. Maybe the brain captured the information, only to be seen, when the download was complete, within dreams. 186,282 miles per second. The speed of light travels at 186,282 miles per second.
Air rolled off her fingertips, stretched out from the car window, riding along the highway. Eyes were wide and on the bright blue sky that was as clear as could be. It felt like they were travelling at the speed of light. Clouds smiled down in enigmatic shapes, seemingly standing still while the car sped along, although the clouds were actually moving even faster. Perception guides the senses – what is standing still, what is moving at light speed, and everything in between.
The worst was the in between because it was the mundane, everyday period of regular existence. Awful for some, boring for most. To stand still meant being the audience seated and enjoying the show and never having to perform. Olivia was in next stage of life mode, completely clueless about what to do next, and lately more philosophical about it all, like imagining traveling at 186,282 miles per second. Racing ahead meant discounting the possibilities of the here with eyes on what could be somewhere down the road better than the present.
“I can smell the ocean,” she announced, that warmly familiar smell that took her attention away from big picture ideas like the speed of light and returned her to the journey happening. Olivia surveyed the cohabitants of Asad’s SUV. All friends from high school after high school was over. College was nearing transition to a memory as well. They saw each other only a few times a year, mostly on breaks when they were back staying with family in their own bedrooms from the past, in their town that sat in an old suburb just outside of Philly.
The road trip was a first for the group, and it was surprising a few signed on for a week on the road when most declined. The usual get togethers were all about old times. They talked about them, and told stories about each other, and laughed. They were about holding onto the past as long as they could, the differing interests and trajectories increasingly too obvious to ignore. Olivia wondered if the others could see that as clearly as she did. Thoughts of a natural separation and moving on saddened her. She would eventually lose all of them, and she knew that, and that she could handle, although the fact that she could so easily handle it without the expected remorse also saddened her. It was the idea of change that was the most disruptive to her wellbeing. Olivia watched the old disappear as a passive observer without much reaction. What saddened her most was that there was no turning back. Hers was only whatever path she would carve out to move ahead, and would do it without the same reliable friendships she had counted on since middle school, some earlier.
“We just got off the parkway. This is it,” the driver responded.
Asad was as methodical with driving as he was with every other task he had taken on. Hands at ten and two, eyes locked on the road ahead, always a serious and focused disposition. His seriousness was sometimes misinterpreted for callousness. He wasn’t callous. Asad was sensitive and compassionate. He was the most loyal friend Olivia had ever known, and maybe would ever know. He was smart and driven, although his interests were often not the usual.
“We should see the diner sign as soon as we get through the tolls.” He smiled over to the occupant in the passenger seat.
“Our beacon, captain. Bring us in,” the person in the passenger seat smiled back mockingly.
Bridgette had her bare feet, cherry wine pedicure up on the dashboard. She sat deep, her head rested on the passenger side door, window down; her chestnut hair with sun bright highlights blew in the frantic, highway wind. Her and Asad had been going together since sophomore year of high school and to much of the outside world they seemed the most unlikely couple. That was only because Bridgette’s ability to camouflage herself in model mascara and love me lipstick ensured only her closest friends, her teachers, and of course Asad, experienced the real Bridgette, which was a profound mind deep in numbers and engineering concepts. Her boyfriend was a classical musician and student of philosophy. They were the yin and yang connection. They were inter-locking pieces to a harmonious puzzle. One on the abstract, the other on the concrete.
“Finally,” Elena let out an aggravated breath. She was scrunched in the middle of the backseat next to Olivia, too close for comfort, because she was avoiding contact with the passenger to the left. “Can’t wait to get out of this thing. Your seats make my butt sweaty.”
Olivia called Elena the stylish eccentric, which meant to the naked eye she was a beautifully strange creature, artsy, oddly interesting – and a closer look revealed a person always on the forefront of trends, fashion, even spirituality. She moved with the times, and when too many got on board that shuttle, she moved to the next thing. That wasn’t to say there wasn’t anything of substance to the things she would give her attention to, Olivia just knew to take it with a grain of salt and look for transition.
Of everyone, Olivia was the most apprehensive about the road trip. The awareness of where they all were on the friendship lifecycle certainly fed into the apprehension. The main conduit was the meaning she held for the road trip. Her mother and father both used the term, separately, for the same reason. After the divorce, Olivia and her sister were trucked back and forth on a two-hour highway drive, between what was once the parents and what was now the custodians. Whenever it was time to go, either one way or the other, either mother or father, would say road trip.
Asad was the organizer and downright fanatical about the journey, not like they all cared. Most were there to re-connect with old friends. Still, the road trip had a theme, a purpose. They would go to the location of what Asad believed to be the most credible paranormal events in history that happened on the east coast. They would start just one state over, at the Jersey Shore.
On a summer night in 1978, at a popular beach town in New Jersey, hundreds witnessed a glowing ball, maybe the size of an SUV or maybe larger depending on who was asked. The object appeared over the ocean and travelled to the beach, boardwalk, and to a now famous diner where it hovered for a long time and finally shot up into the stars and disappeared. Locals saw it. Tourists saw it. Even police officers were witness to the strange event. A summer night in 1978, it was July 9th. To the day, they were driving there on the 40th anniversary.
“The plan is, we do the whole dance. We walk that night in the witnesses’ footsteps to commemorate the anniversary. Then we have some beers on the beach, camp out if we don’t get kicked out by the police, and head to Virginia in the morning,” Bridgette reminded everyone.
“Walk in the footsteps, got it,” Olivia responded.
“And your grand debut. Do you realize you are the only one of us who hasn’t been on the show?” Bridgette looked to the backseat at Olivia.
Asad had started a podcast about the unexplained about two years ago, joining a cornucopia of similar new media radio hopefuls all covering the same things. Asad differentiated himself by being the hopeful, very hopeful, skeptic. It was one of the many things Olivia loved about her friend. They did not see eye to eye on those subjects, still, she respected his willingness to look at all of the facts and not so easily give in to the implausible at best.
“Only because I hate my voice.”
“Not to mention the subject matter,” Elena countered.
“C’mon, that’s not fair. I don’t hate it.”
“There it is. The diner sign.” Asad leaned into the windshield.
Sy, who was next to Elena, leaned in as well and grabbed the back of the driver’s seat.
“That night must have been, like, fucking transformative, for the people there. Right? Fucking transformative.”
Bridgette let out a harsh breath for her brother’s comment. She had tried to ignore that he was along for the ride, and it had been fairly easy because he was uncharacteristically quiet, which she presumed was a side effect of whatever drug he was on. They didn’t get along, never really did, since they were little kids. As they got older, their paths could not be more different. Three years her elder, a high school dropout, he was blowing in the wind and she rarely saw him. For some reason, Asad and Ty got along, and when the road trip was solidified, Ty invited himself and Asad welcomed the intrusion.
“Seems that way,” Asad said, never taking his eyes off of the diner sign that was getting closer. “And they all stick to their story, even after all these years.”
Olivia chewed on her lower lip to delay a response that part of her was dying to say. Never afraid of confrontation, lately a debate felt draining, especially with a subject she didn’t have much interest in.
“C’mon A, you of all people know, our memories are far from perfect. Everyone thinks it’s a goddam movie stored in our brain. We fill in gaps from our own preconceived notions, prejudices, everything seriously shaped by influence. That’s why eyewitness testimony is crap. How many people have been wrongfully convicted of horrible things on eyewitness testimony? I am sure it was transformative, but more because they all became part of folklore, not because of whatever happened.”
Sy fidgeted in the seat next to her. The air conditioning was pumping in the SUV and he was sweating, rubbing his arms as if he was cold at the same time. His skin was clammy. He looked irritated.
“You don’t think you would remember something like that? Seeing this object in the sky? That would be burned in my brain.”
Olivia couldn’t resist a challenge, no matter what the subject was. She was confident with the facts since she was old enough to compile them. Her father would tell her, ‘get your facts together, and always seek the truth.’ The rebuttal was not for Sy particularly, who she kept a cautious eye on. She spoke to all of the passengers.
“And plenty of research says otherwise. I did a paper on false memories for one of my psychology classes last semester. There were these researchers; I think their names are Bernstein and Launder or Loftus. They showed how easily it is to manipulate memory. Imagine hearing your story told back to you thousands of times, like you have here. Who could tell what was true and not?”
Asad pulled into the parking lot of the diner; all were gazing up at the towering sign that had been there since before they were born. Like no other sign along the shore town’s drag, a left over from the past that was a place of warmth and recollection for the returning tourists, the parents who spent summer vacations there as kids and were now bringing their kids.
“But there were hundreds of witnesses. How can you explain that?” Elena asked Olivia.
“And there have been thousands all witnessing something religious. What was that one called in Portugal?”
Olivia kicked the back of her friend’s seat for support, who got the message loud and clear.
“Not a believer, gang,” grabbing Asad’s bare thigh. “Love ya hon, but most things on the podcast are hard to believe. And after all these years of sightings, not a single piece of gotcha evidence. I am sure most of it is misidentification, imagination, or experimental aircraft.”
“And what about your latest reading?” Asad asked his girlfriend.
“Saying all of that, the equations are pretty damn compelling for multiverse theory, so who knows?”
“I just lost my only ally in this car,” Olivia admitted.
They piled out of the SUV and headed through the crowded parking lot, Asad looking at the sky over the diner, imagining what it would be like to see an unidentifiable object right there where it was seen forty years ago.
“Miracle of the Sun. The Portugal incident that Olivia mentioned. Could have been mass hysteria.”
Elena shot Asad a dirty look. “You are helping to make her point.”
“What? She does her homework. Olivia is just trying to say there is a difference between belief and proof. All of us want proof, right?”
Asad carried a bag with mobile podcast equipment over his shoulder while taking photos of the diner sign and the sky with his phone. His expression was as serious as a detective at a crime scene.
“O.K. Let’s take a break from the debate, people,” Bridgette said. “Let’s talk itinerary. We go eat, do a recording for the show and maybe interview someone, take a lot of selfies, then stop at the liquor store for a case of beer, and head to the beach.”
They entered the diner and Asad insisted on waiting until a booth opened up that overlooked the parking lot and the path the object supposedly took from the ocean to where they stood. Sy headed for the men’s room and disappeared for nearly a half hour.
When they were finally seated, they squeezed into the booth and looked out at the parking lot and the touristy summer street that offered everything from salt water taffy to novelty skim boards and sand shovels. The night had begun to creep into the atmosphere, and with the drab overcast filling the sky with a dull and dark gray, the view was slowly fading. Asad set up a mini recording studio at the table and told everyone to act naturally. He would record everything, keep whatever worked.
When Sy returned to the table, he was beaming. Eyes were big as flashlights, like they were taking in the entire diner, like a current flowing straight through the sockets. He looked as though he could drown in the information overload at any minute. The sight was alarming to Olivia. She had known Sy during his pothead days. She had never seen him, or anyone for that matter, in such an extreme altered state.
Bridgette didn’t realize the change in her brother, or ignored the change. Asad and Elena were too entrenched in the reliving of history to notice, peering into the increasingly darker sky as he explained the night, forty years ago, with microphone on and app recording.
“They could see it from here. It flew up from the ocean. People on the beach, and on the boardwalk, and on the main drag here, even police officers, they followed the thing in the sky to this parking lot. It hovered over the diner while hundreds witnessed. Then the thing shot up, into the sky at an impossible speed, and was gone.”
The waitress brought menus and reviewed the specials with youthful disinterest. Dirty blonde hair, sun kissed complexion, bright blue eyes and freckles on the sides of her nose. Her face reminded Olivia of a model for a surfer magazine.
In between orders for food, Asad asked the teenage waitress about an event that happened long before she was born, and she acknowledged a recollection of the story with no reverence or even interest. She confirmed the owners of the diner from that time had retired and gave the diner to their son, who sold it. Asad already knew about the original owners, husband and wife. The wife had once told her story of being in the parking lot when the sighting took place to a news crew who showed up right after. The husband said he was in the diner the entire time and didn’t see anything.
After they ate, Asad recruited patrons to come and sit with them for the time it took to tell what they knew. Some heard the story, others claimed to know a witness who had died or moved away. Not a one in the crowded diner was there forty years ago.
The sky was getting darker, and underneath, the boardwalk lights stretched to butt up to the clouds, and closer to the salt stained glass of the diner windows, lights in the parking lot were as bright as an afternoon. Asad pressed his nose against the glass and peered out at the sunburned faces strolling in the cool, salt air, and thought of what it would have been like to be standing on the sidewalk in front of the diner when something unexplainable flew overhead, stood still, and stared back at them.
Outside the diner, the air was cool for a summer night and the sidewalks were packed with tourists. The boardwalk ran parallel to the street and sent out greetings in carnival tunes, roller coaster wheels against tracks and arcade effects. Smells of taffy, salt air, and sunscreen blended into a comforting contrivance for Olivia, whose family spent a week at the shore every summer before the divorce. The smells made her feel like she had walked off the beach in her frilly bathing suit and holding her father’s hand as they walked together, exploring the amusements and commerce unique to the shore. That town wasn’t her shore town of childhood. There were enough similarities to bring her into a nostalgic digression, when the idea of family wasn’t as complicated.
They all walked together. Asad led the way. Olivia, Elena and Bridgette were in step behind with Bridgette giving the rundown about various people from high school. Sy was much further behind and lost in the overstimulation of the boardwalk that pulled from the other side of the street.
Olivia felt herself blending into the crowd of tourists, and also felt apart from them. She was walking in the memory of childhood vacations with the smells of the shore transporting her, and she knew that time was bleeding out.
When they got to the liquor store, Asad and Bridgette went inside to buy a case of beer. The gaudy neon lights from the branded signs in the window gave the outside a bizarre, yellow haze. Olivia looked through the window and could see their heads bobbing over the rows of bottles. Watching them squeeze each other and laugh, she felt alone, like she often did, and quickly searched for something that would fill the void.
Sy sat on the curb with hands between his knees. He looked to the multicolored lights of the Ferris wheel, spinning slow so he could count the bulbs that made up the show. His feet tapped fast like a beat to a song playing. There was no music in the air, aside from the corny carnival sounds fighting the ocean.
Olivia sat down next to him on the curb. Her hands were between her knees in the same way Sy sat. He acknowledged her presence with an awkward smile and returned to the Ferris wheel, feet tapping fast and rhythmic.
Olivia placed her hand on Sy’s knee and squeezed tight, enough pressure to shake him from the Ferris wheel hypnosis. He looked small in the yellow light, fragile enough to break with a word.
“Are you O.K.?” she asked.
Sy pulled his hands from between his knees, held them up, then rubbed the thumb and middle finger of each hand together with furious speed, like he was trying to create enough fiction to rub away the skin, while feet tapped away, and he got lost in the lights of the Ferris wheel again. Sy could have been six years old sitting on the curb, fidgeting, too anxious to stay in one place, the energy coming out of the fingertips and toes, excited to go on the rides. He was high.
The door to the liquor store opened to the ring of the bells that were positioned at the top of the doorway, and closed to the same ringing. Olivia turned just in time to see Bridgette grab Asad by the hand and pull him into her arms. They kissed under the bizarre, yellow liquor store lights, and it looked like black and white film that had been colorized. Thoughts about the speed of light from earlier that day entered her mind again and made her feel as if that kiss was really important, as if it stopped time. In that second stopped, she wished for them that love was real.
On the beach, they all put on sweaters, laid out two large blankets, opened the cooler of ice and beer, and watched the sky to the soundtrack of a roaring ocean in front and a much smaller world unfolding on wooden planks behind them.
There were others on the beach. In fact, it was crowded for nighttime, a mixture of tourists taking in the night air and visitors there for the sole fact that it was the anniversary of the sighting. Some were easier to spot than others. A family set up a few feet away, laying out a beach blanket with a giant flying saucer on it and the father was wearing a tee shirt that said Roswell was Real.
Bridgette pointed at the family and whispered to Asad, “They must be fans of your podcast.”
“Very funny. I should hire you for the show.”
“Except you don’t actually make any money doing it, so…”
Beers cracked open. There was laughter. Asad was recording with a directional condenser mic he bought especially for the beach, and he invited other sky watchers to grab a drink and lend their voices. The podcast had become the equivalent of the acoustic guitar, with bare feet and windblown hair gathered around to listen to Asad strum.
Sy slipped away and walked knee deep into the waves. The sky had cleared and was filled with stars, and the moon slinged light like paintbrush strokes across the otherwise dark waves. Olivia, afraid of Sy’s wasted state, that he could just walk further into the water, hurried into the tide and stood next to him. She waited for him to speak as she looked out where he looked to try to see what he could see.
“You never saw anything you couldn’t explain?” Sy asked Olivia.
“Sure, everyone sees something, maybe out of the corner of my eye.”
He looked at her for the first time since her feet touched the water, trying to gauge the sincerity of the response. “This can’t be all there is.”
Olivia took Sy’s hand. The waves died at their knees and got sucked back into the deep ocean.
“Maybe it is, maybe not. I can’t speak for the unknown, that’s kind of why they call it unknown. All I can do is deal with the here and now. Do the best I can and not ask for any promises for anything else. If this is it, then I lived the way I wanted to.”
Olivia surprised herself. The here and now. It was how she used to look at things, to just be present wherever she was, whatever she was doing. Somehow, the pressures of leaving college and plotting a course, whatever that meant, had changed her thinking. She smiled at Sy and squeezed his hand tight.
Sy pointed to a light that was much lower than the others that twinkled, and far larger. “What do you think that is?”
By the time Olivia could focus her eyes on that point in the dark sky, the light was even larger, and clearly moving toward them.
“There it is,” someone yelled from behind them.
The beach had erupted in mass jubilation that increased exponentially as the light came closer to the shoreline. Olivia closed her eyes and tried to block out the sounds – the roaring ocean, the boardwalk, the screams of excitement and shout outs along the beach. Sy kept saying, over and over, “Do you see that?” Unconfident of his high state to be able to differentiate real from not. To either side, bare feet, large and small, plunged into the water, splashing against the ocean’s roar.
At first, Olivia couldn’t help her brain and ears from working together to cut through the chaos to bring clarity to what was being said by the dozens of people around her, the way audio software can filter out background noise to give clarity to a recording. Then all at once, she shut the sounds down around her as much as possible, as if she was able to literally turn the volume down, and the sound emanating from the light coming closer could be more clearly heard. A rapid and rhythmic thumping. The sound made her smile, the revelation, and the sheer wonder of being caught up in it all, as brief as it was, she was present.
The news helicopter, with a magnificent light from a distance, flew over the beach and to the lights and festivities of the boardwalk, hovered to take footage of the tourists, and flew away.
Olivia looked over to see Bridgette and Asad laugh, then grab each other tight and kiss. Elena pointed up to the helicopter and screamed, and jumped up and down in the water, like she was screaming up to a rock star on stage. Sy squeezed Olivia’s hand tighter than she was squeezing, with a face that let out happy tears that dripped with the laughing.
‘186,282 miles per second,’ she thought. ‘Coming to a screeching halt.’