Retrospect would have had me listen a whole lot closer when Dale Parish first told me about the lights. You know what they say about hindsight.
Dale lived his whole life on his family’s farm. Ever since grade school, he’d start first period having already been up at least four hours. The rest of us could barely make it through the doors before the second bell rang. He came from a bloodline whose salt was still savory. Parishes had been working that land since Europeans first grabbed it up way back. Dale’s hands, like the hands of his father and grandfather and so on, were thick and rough from chucking hay bales and working the machines that in turn work the dirt. He was an honest guy, too, a real Boy Scout, even though it never won him much favor with the popular crowd at school. He was big on family. The three Parishes spent most nights around the kitchen table in the farmhouse listening as Mrs. Parish read aloud from the family bible. Dale only had one real friend. I’m proud to say that I was it.
It clashed with the lessons he learned from the preacher’s pulpit and all the nightly scripture he’d listened to at the kitchen table, but Dale was fascinated with science. Mr. Parish respected science in that biology and chemistry were applicable to keeping a productive farm, but he didn’t care for it much beyond that. Physics and cosmology intrigued Dale from the first time he was introduced to their founders and theories back in junior high. It didn’t matter if it didn’t carry over to yielding a higher crop or finding more efficient ways to breed livestock. These sciences allowed Dale’s curiosity to operate within recordable, explainable parameters. Cosmology offered a view of the universe and mankind’s place within it that greatly differed from the stories he had been told growing up. Embracing the sciences didn’t mean he rejected his upbringing in religion, it meant rounding out of the two explanations of life and how it should be lived. New characters were introduced, characters of a cosmic and atomic level. He found a comfort in bringing the two realms of thought in conversation. He felt, in his studies, like he was the moderator of a great cosmic debate between two powerhouses. Religion scratched the itch for a lesson on morality through a grand narrative. Science allowed humanity to prove the mysteries of the universe, instead of merely acknowledging their existence and living in silent awe of their wonder. Dale Parish dove headlong into his passion for science. He was quick to learn how to keep his interests hidden from his mother and father, as their devotion to the Church disavowed an acknowledgement of the explanatory models of the universe he found most fascinating.
Dale’s smooth rationality gave his parents pride, despite the obvious fact that it stemmed from his respect for the scientific method. As time passed, their son was the voice of reason in the household. When his father lost his temper or his mother became hysteric, Dale maintained a calm that could diffuse the most heated confrontation. His degree of rationality was likely the reason they started to question what was going on with him after he told them what he had seen going on in the woods behind the pond.
I drove over to see Dale the first night after I got home from college for the summer. Mrs. Parish made meatloaf for dinner. She left the onions out like she did with any dish she prepared when I’d be join for dinner. She let me know she’d it done, too, just as she was always sure to do. Dale had stayed at home so he could keep working on the farm. He had just finished his first year of night classes at the community college where he focused on applied physics. Midway through the meal, I started to ask him about how his classes had been, but he shook his head at me when he realized the topic I was bringing up. Things hadn’t changed around the Parish kitchen table. His choice in academics still wasn’t kosher, at least not enough to discuss in the open. Mr. Parish didn’t say much the whole meal. I got up to take a leak after dinner and on my way back to the kitchen Mr. Parish turned the corner and stopped me. He told me to keep an eye on Dale. He said something was going on with him the past few nights and him and Mrs. Parish were worried. Then he told me to make sure not to go down to the pond.
After his parents retired to bed, Dale and I set up to play cards at the kitchen table. A couple hands in he got suddenly quiet. I asked him what was up with him and he looked at me with this thin grin. His mouth opened like he was trying to decide whether to say what he was about to say. I kicked a leg of the table in an attempt to get him to talk. He looked at me and started to tell me about how he’d been getting into the habit of studying down by the pond this past semester. He’d sit at this old picnic table he’d drug down there and read until sunset, at which point he’d get back up to the house for supper. He’d been doing it since late March, when the ground was dry enough you didn’t sink in the real wet patches. Just last week, he said, while he was studying for finals, he accidently fell asleep at the table just around when the sun was setting. He said he’d been up all night the night before.
He said he woke up feeling uneasy, like something had been telling him to open his eyes right at that moment. His parents were out for the night and he hadn’t left any lights on up at the house, so he could only see by moonlight. It was cloudy, but there was a steady wind making the treetops sway and the clouds move fast. The clouds were thin, like wooden planks gliding in front of the moon, allowing its light to glimpse the pond for a few seconds before hiding it away again. He said the feeling he had when he woke up hadn’t yet gone away. It wasn’t long before he figured out why. Dale looked across the pond from where he was sitting and noticed the presence of two lights floating just a few feet from the ground. He blinked, testing to make sure delirium wasn’t responsible for this vision. It wasn’t. The lights were a good thirty yards apart from each other, he estimated, but he wasn’t sure exactly how deep into the woods they were. He said at that moment it was obvious he was being watched. He figured it was a couple of kids from town who were exploring the woods. As soon as he went to stand up and call to them across the lake, both lights bolted toward each other, symmetrically matching the other in velocity, and when they were about five yards apart, shot up at an angle and joined as a single light. This light, shining directly at Dale, was suspended 15 yards off the ground and remained there for several minutes. Dale said his body was petrified, but he was not afraid. He was more curious than he’d ever been about anything in his entire life. For a solid five minutes he was completely mesmerized, unable to look away. Another light sparked in his periphery and took his attention from whatever it was he had been having a staring contest with in the woods across the pond. It was the headlights of his dad’s truck pulling in to the house, and when he looked back from them, the light was gone. The woods were dark.
He kept telling me that all he wanted was an explanation. He said he was a rational person and rational people look for explanations for this kind of thing. He asked if I believed him and I told him I did. He said he was so glad I was back in town. He figured I was the only one who would come down there with him to see the lights with him. He had told his parents just as soon as it had happened and they told him it was probably some kind of animal’s eyes lit up by the moon and to forget about it. Mrs. Parish was convinced he’d dreamed the whole thing up, given how little he had been sleeping during finals week.
He was awake, wide-awake, he says. The whole time he spoke there was a look on Dale Parish’s face I hadn’t seen since we were kids and we used to tell each other scary stories from under a sleeping bag in my bedroom, casting shadows on our faces by shining a flashlight from underneath our chins. Fear. Awe. Whatever he saw in the woods behind the pond had tipped his ever-even keel of reason.
He said that I should go down there with him as soon as I could. I said I had a family camping trip planned for the next week and a half, but I told him I’d come check it out with him after I got back.
After that night, I thought about how my best friend was seeing strange things in the woods and trying myself to explain what it might be. I never saw Dale impatient about anything his whole life. That look he gave me really got under my skin. After two days, my camping trip distracted me enough to push it all to the back of my mind. Once or twice, I looked out in the woods from our campfire and wondered if Dale had gone back down to search for the lights. That was about as far as my thoughts went. I wasn’t losing any sleep over it or anything. If I knew what it was he’d been seeing, I wouldn’t have slept a wink. Hindsight, right?
I’ve been back in town for three days, but I just decided to get in touch with Dale this afternoon. The Parish Farm doesn’t have cell reception and his mother picked up when I called the house. She said Dale would be home in a few hours and she’d leave him the message that I’d called. She told me I would have to come over for another home cooked meal one of these nights and when I suggested that it be tonight she said she wished it could be, but Mr. Parish and she were on their way out for the evening.
Dale called my cell around 6:45. He was a lot more collected than he had been that night at the kitchen table. He said he learned a lot about what was happening in the woods across the pond. Each time he’d been down there more lights appeared. He said he had a pretty good idea about what they were. He said he couldn’t wait for me to see them. Then he told me he thought they were ready for someone else to see them. I asked him who he mean—the lights?—but he said the sun was setting and he had to get down there. He told me to come over as soon as I could and that he’d tell them I was coming. I swallowed hard and told him I’d be there in 20 minutes, but the line was dead before I could finish.
I almost didn’t come here tonight. I swear. When I pulled in, everything was dark. I flicked my phone’s flashlight on and made my way down to the pond. I called out to Dale, but I all that came back to me was the echo of my voice from across the pond. The treetops swayed in the wind. I moved my light and caught the edge of the picnic table. I walked up to it and saw a small square of paper pinned to the surface with a pocketknife. Upon it was scrawled, “They see you. Go to the house and cover the windows. Now.”
I have been sitting here at the Parishes’ kitchen table for the past hour. Every inch of my body is petrified, with the exception of my writing hand. It moves over these pages, dedicated to complete the account of what had led to this night. When I first got to the house, I was afraid. I was scared of what happened to Dale and what was going to happen to me. After I shut all the fabric over the windows, I found the bible on the shelf by the stove and looked for meaning in the words. Now I am unafraid. The entire time I have been working to write out these words, my eyes have been glued to the curtained window. Piercing through the pulled drapes, a growing number of bright lights fix their beams on me. I am overwhelmed with a curiosity more powerful than I have ever felt. I am convinced Dale Parish is somewhere in the lights. If the lights ask me to go with them, I will. Washed in their light, I understand they are as curious about me as I am about them. In a moment, I will stand up, tuck these pages in Mrs. Parish’s bible, and step through the front door to greet the lights from the woods beyond the pond.