Stranger in the Bright Light by Jennifer Lai

I heard about the abductions from Lisa. First, it was a Doberman. Next, a Ball Python. Then, just yesterday, someone’s Maine Coon. Why they were out in Gladstone Field in the first place is anyone’s guess.

“We need to find out what happened,” Lisa said in her best Kojak voice, rubbing in the fact that, come fall, she would start college in New York to become some fancy-schmancy detective while I continued pulling ten-hour shifts at the Quik-Mart, attending the library’s book club on the weekends to discuss ad nauseam cheesy romance novels over stale coffee and bran muffins. Just like Ma. Aunt Merle. Grandma Judith.

I wasn’t an animal lover but needed something to do in the mid-July humidity besides cram into Ma’s rusty-ass trailer to watch Dallas on her impossibly tiny 9-inch screen, thighs dripping sweat onto the cracked vinyl sofa.

The drive to Gladstone field took twenty minutes, but the constant backfire of Ma’s Buick Century made it feel like a hundred, crackle-crackle-booming along the potholed gravel road, plumes of smoke billowing into the starless evening sky.

Flashlights in hand, we navigated through towering corn stalks, breast-stroked walls of dried leaves and tassels. Chirping crickets and grasshoppers kept us company as we swished for ten, twenty, fifty paces until we came upon a clearing.

Lisa spun in circles with her arms outstretched in the vast openness. “What is this?”

No sooner had she spoken than an object appeared above us. Round and silverish, it reminded me of a disco ball with purple lights that pulsed in patterns like Morse code, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was trying to tell me something.

Lisa tried to pull me away. “We should head back, Tess,” she said, her voice soft but insistent.

I wanted to agree with her because I always did. Always liked the same boys. Bought the same books. Even watched all her favorite crime dramas, convinced they were my favorite, too. Instead, I shook her off, seized by an irrepressible sense that an alternate universe was out there.

“Let’s go,” she urged again.

But then a sheen of bright light bathed over us, and I froze. The air shimmied. A cool breeze blew. And, despite the evening heat, I could see my breath, a maze of clouds that morphed into perfectly shaped Os before floating into the sky like smoke rings. I glanced toward Lisa to see if she could see them too. But she was running toward the corn stalks, her flashlight beams bouncing up and down like a spring.

In that moment, I thought about Ma, drunk off gas station Chardonnay, a Marlboro between her fingers, ashing into a bottle of Coke brimming with acrid cigarette butts bloated in stagnant brown liquid. I thought about the Quik-Mart, the A/C hiccupping off and on as errant flies hovered near the grimy glass window—the closest they’ll ever be to freedom. I thought about the missing animals. Were they happier where they were now?

Jennifer Lai lives in Washington state. Her recent work can be found in Gordon Square Review, Hex, The Sunlight Press, and elsewhere.

silver disco ball
Photo by NEOSiAM 2021 on
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