By James A. Beaumont
Darkness. Mario and the bleeping notes of the Nintendo’s 8-bit synthesizer fizzle out of existence. It is May 1988 and eleven year old Luke Collins stares at the white dot at the centre of the TV screen. Its phosphorous remains slowly fade and he becomes aware of the rain lapping against the living room window. The armchairs have become outlines, like hunched men lingering in the corner, speaking in the hushed voices of the whistling wind.
The room and his mother do not answer.
Luke flinches and the controller hits his knee. He begins to count. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five . . . he’s on his feet as the deep bass of thunder rumbles through the house. The windows shake and china sets rattle on glass shelving.
Outside, the oak tree heaves in its war against the wind. Luke remembers what Mikey said the last time they were up there searching the sky for Hercules: how a thunderstorm was the best time to see a UFO.
‘Mom?’ he calls out, creeping into the hallway.
The first thing he sees is his father waiting for him at the base of the stairway. His insides jolt. A flash of lightning and Staff Sergeant Michael Collins has vanished. It’s just Luke’s mack hanging from the banister. He walks to the stairs, takes an extra breath and begins to climb. One Mississippi, he counts with the first step. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four – and then the rumble. Is the stairway shaking now too?
‘Frick!’ One leg buckles as he looks back to the front door – partially windowed but too dark to make out anything but raindrops behind. He glances upstairs to see if his mother has heard but there’s no movement.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.
‘Let me in, dickweed!’ a voice calls from the other side.
Luke relaxes. It can only be Mikey. He springs forward to open the door.
The rain is lashing down and Mikey has his coat hunched above him. ‘Whoa, dude!’ he says, gesturing out at dark clouds striving to form a vortex. ‘You should’ve seen that last one – it was sick!’
He barges his way in and Luke shuts the door behind him.
‘Your power out too?’
‘Yeah. I was about to get my mom.’
‘Your mom?’ he says, laughing. ‘What the hell for?’
Luke considers this a moment. ‘Well, to put the power back on, I guess.’
‘Lame. Don’t be such a wuss.’
‘Well, I . . .’
But before he can say any more Mikey pulls him back to the stairs. ‘Come on, let’s get mommy.’
Luke offers little resistance as he’s jostled to the top. He can hear the sound of heavy breathing coming from his mother’s bedroom; there is rumbling here as well but different from that of the thunder. He edges forward and the sound is getting louder, a steady creaking, a man’s voice and then –
Silence. Just the wind battling with the fence outside.
The door to his mother’s room is ajar and he hears a voice and then bare footsteps. A man in a bathrobe comes out; his nose crooked, his skin almost luminescent in its paleness. Stubble covers his face and a cigarette, catching a strand of his overgrown hair, hangs from the corner of his mouth.
Luke hasn’t seen this man before but he’s aware of him. A flashlight clicks on and the man becomes a gangly silhouette.
‘Hey . . .’ The silhouette doesn’t seem to have expected this. ‘Michael, right?’
Luke has his arms raised against the light. He hears his mother’s voice from behind the door but he can’t pick out the words.
‘Yes,’ the man calls back, ‘I’m getting them. What were you doing putting them up there in the first place?’ He takes a step forward. ‘Here,’ he says, handing the light to Luke, ‘point it up to the ceiling there, would yah?’
Luke obeys. The beam illuminates a wisp of dangling cobwebs and a long arm sweeps through them to pull at the latch. Two tugs and a ladder creaks down to the floor.
The man climbs, pausing at the top. Luke expects him to call down for the flashlight but he doesn’t. Instead, he takes the time to light his cigarette and then steps up into the darkness, leaving Luke on guard duty.
Luke begins to make lightsaber noises, swinging the flashlight through the air.
‘I saw his cock,’ Mikey says.
‘His cock. It was poking out his bathrobe.’
Luke feels embarrassed without knowing why. ‘Shut up,’ he manages, the
second syllable breaking.
They can hear the man shifting things overhead.
‘So is he like your mom’s boyfriend or something?’
A bare foot makes contact with the ladder and the man steps down; a small box cradled under one arm.
‘Here, give me that,’ he says, pointing at the flashlight.
Luke hands it over.
The man holds it in his mouth as he rummages through the box. He takes out some candles and lights one. ‘Here,’ he says, handing back the flashlight.
For a moment, Luke’s hand comes into contact with the man’s spit and he almost drops the light. As the man walks past, candle in hand, he ruffles the boy’s hair then steps back into the bedroom. His mother mumbles a question and the man’s reply is cut short as the door is pushed to.
Mikey sparks back to life. ‘Let’s go up there,’ he says, staring up into the open hatchway.
Luke’s not so sure but Mikey’s allusion to a farm animal convinces him otherwise. He begins to climb, hoisting himself up onto the rafters at the top.
The first thing he notices is the man’s cigarette smoke which lingers in the air, permeating the musty smell of old boxes. Luke sweeps the flashlight across the room and shadows shift to hide themselves.
The rumbling shakes the house once more but this time a steady rhythm.
‘Wait a sec,’ Mikey says, and he pulls a candle and lighter from his jacket.
‘Where’d you get that?’
‘Mom, of course.’ He flicks it once. A flame sputters into existence and then dies.
‘Yeah, yeah.’ Another flick and Mikey lights the candle.
‘Don’t drop that thing,’ Luke says, glancing round at all the wood.
‘Hey, I know what I’m doing.’ And he moves off to explore, his eyes dancing between the draped sheets.
Luke heads carefully over the floorboards to peer out the window. For some reason, he takes notice of the raindrops that stream along the glass. Moving with the wind, they sprout watery tails as they go. It reminds him of the tadpoles he used to collect at school.
He frowns then turns off the flashlight so he can peer out into the darkness. Great stretches of cloud cling tightly to the skyline and he wonders whether he will spot the flashing lights that mark a flying saucer.
A fork of lightning arcs its way down in the distance.
‘Wow,’ Luke says in a breath. ‘Look at it out there.’
‘Already seen it,’ Mikey says, rattling a paint canister full of screws. He exchanges it for an old toy, a small mechanical robot. It seems familiar somehow but is quickly discarded.
‘Oh.’ Luke’s gaze goes out of focus and he finds himself staring at the windowpane once more, his eyes following the trailing droplets of rain that run across the glass. He starts speaking, as if to himself, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen how they move like that. Almost with a life of their own.’ He watches one droplet run down the glass, like a worm, another following it and more after that, streams of them.
Mikey’s walking over to another box and without even looking, he says, ‘Ha, yeah, it’s like lots of sperms racing to the egg.’ He moves on, bending over a large box marked “Rob’s Stuff”.
Luke is trying to remember the pictures from the biology textbook in Mrs Thornton’s class, figuring this is the key to deciphering his friend’s cryptic comment but he soon gives up. ‘You think they’re out there now? ’ he asks, peering once again into the darkness.
Mikey doesn’t answer; he’s pulling various odds and ends out of the box: a small sack of marbles, a rubix cube, some books. He finds something else. A magazine of some kind. His ‘Aha!’ quickly gets Luke’s attention.
‘What is it?’
Mikey turns over his prize, a wide grin set on his face. There is a naked woman on the front cover.
‘Where did –’ Luke starts, but his friend is already pouring through it.
Luke doesn’t move.
‘Ahh, you’ve got to see this!’ Mikey says, his face and the candle near-smothering the image that seems to be spread over a double page.
Luke takes a look. The picture is of a woman braced over a table, her arms reaching out, breasts flat against the wood with a leg bent out behind her, foot reaching into the air with a stiletto-heeled shoe clasped around it.
‘Bodacious babe,’ Mikey says.
Luke doesn’t have anything to add to this assessment. He watches as Mikey flicks through. He sees things he knows he’s not supposed to. Not just breasts, which he’s seen before; through the gaps between his fingers. Here he sees other things. Like the photo of a woman on her back, legs bent, feet resting on the floor. The camera has been placed so that it’s looking right at it. He was expecting some kind of hole to be there but the pictures show something else entirely. It looks scary, like something from a sci-fi.
‘Eww.’ It is all he can think of to say.
‘Eww?’ Mikey mirrors. ‘Haha, that’s funny. Haha.’ He turns more pages, ‘Hey, shine that light here, will ya? In fact, let’s swap.’ He puts the flashlight on the floor so that it’s sticking up between his legs.
The loud clap of thunder and the flash of light that follows are completely lost on Mikey as he turns to page twelve. The girl here has a thick mottle of dark hair around her thing and Mikey's enthralled. He can’t stop staring.
Luke turns away and moves to the skylight once more. ‘Mikey,’ he says. ‘I thought we could UFO watch.’
‘What?’ his friend asks, still captivated by the picture.
‘I –’ but he stops as he notices the head poking in through the hatchway.
‘What are you doing?’
The man again.
Mikey cries out. The magazine falls back into the box and he hits his head standing up.
‘You’d better come down.’
They head to the ladder. Once at the bottom, the man lifts it back up and turns the latch. ‘It’s getting late,’ he says, ‘shouldn’t you be in bed by now?’
‘I’m nearly twelve.’ It’s Mikey that says this, ‘I can go to bed whenever I want.’
The man nods absently, adjusting his robe. The silence becomes awkward. ‘Some storm, eh?’ he says after a moment.
‘Yeah. Not that he cares.’
The man glances awkwardly at his watch. ‘I’m gonna check the generator.’ He moves off downstairs.
Luke and Mikey go down as well but pause in the hallway.
‘I’m gonna head back,’ Mikey says. ‘This blows, man.’
‘But what about the flying saucers?’
Mikey gives him a smile he hasn’t seen before and he’s reminded of his elder brother.
‘There’s no such thing.’ With these words, Mikey opens the front door, walks out, and the rain swallows him.
The lights come back on. The boy closes the door and the man returns. He nods to him and then heads back upstairs.
The boy wonders if the rumbling sound will be coming back. He makes his way into the living room and the television is a wash of static. He adjusts the channels until he gets to the right one. The title screen of Mario fills the set and for a moment he just stares as the demo begins: Mario jumping up and down from pipe to pipe. The excitement he felt when last playing has left him. Outside, the lightning seems to be dying but overhead the rumbling sound from his mother’s bedroom rings out clearly once again. The boy turns to the cabinet, half-obstructed by an armchair. He pushes the chair out of the way and opens a small door that was hidden from view. Inside there’s a collection of videotapes with strange titles pasted over them. He chooses one at random and heads to the VCR. A quick change of the cable and he inserts the videotape. Presses play.
Old music starts playing. The sound quality is bad. He sits there before the TV, legs crossed.
It's exciting. More exciting than Mario. More exciting than storms or UFOs. His heart is thumping. He keeps looking back behind him. Listening for the stairs. As the lady comes onto the screen, he finds himself thinking once again of Mrs Thornton and last term’s biology lesson.