Proximate Contact by Noah Milligan
I’d lived next door to Charlie for ten years before he disappeared. There wasn’t much around us, just the vast wilderness of eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas. Closest town was Beavers Bend, and Broken Bow Lake attracted its fair share of tourists during the summer months, but, other than that, it got pretty lonely. My wife, Bella, and I had a house atop a large hill, and Charlie’s cabin was just below us to the southeast. From our backdoor, we could see his porch and deer stand, but, despite our proximity, Charlie mostly kept to himself. He was friendly when we ran into each other, would stick a raised palm out the window when our trucks crossed paths and invite us over for beers to watch OU play Texas. When we did get together, he was a gracious host, always quick to retrieve us a fresh Budweiser and serve us venison stew. But lately, those visits had been few and far between, the only evidence Charlie still being around was his work in his garage. All hours of the day he’d be toiling, the buzz of an electrical saw echoing over the oak canopy.
“You need to go talk to him,” Bella said. She had a glass of chardonnay in hand, and it was the first time she’d spoken to me all day. She’d busied herself watching television while I lounged on our back deck. It was foggy, so we couldn’t make out much in the darkness, just Charlie’s house, his property awash in fluorescent security lights.
“And say what, exactly?”
“It’s eleven, Jim. Last night he worked until three in the morning. The night before that it was four. It has to stop.”
“He’s got a right to work on his property.”
“And we have a right to a good night’s sleep.”
“I’m sure a couple more glasses of wine should help.”
“Fuck you, Jim.”
As if on cue, the buzz saw fired up again. It sounded like he was cutting through metal, the shriek grinding and high-pitched.
“Either you go down there,” she said, “or I will. I don’t care.”
She meant it, too. I’d once seen her throw a right hook at a man spanking his child in the middle of Ace Hardware. The man wasn’t even spanking hard, just a couple of solid thumps on the back of the boy’s Levi’s, but she didn’t even hesitate—smacked the man right across the jaw. He didn’t go down. His head just snapped, and he blinked at her like he couldn’t believe what had just happened.
“Go down there or I’m calling the cops.”
I took a sip of my beer.
“Now,” she said.
The walk down to Charlie’s was a precarious one, especially at night. Only a gravel path connected our properties, canopied by century-old oaks. The homes had been built by a family who had struck it rich during the 1890s oil boom. The patriarch lived in Bella’s and my home, his son and wife in Charlie’s. They both had been passed down from generation to generation until the family went broke and was forced to sale. Bella and I’d bought first about twelve years back, then Charlie followed about two years after us. The realtor who had sold us the house told us the path had been used to transport supplies during winter when the family couldn’t make it into town. Now it remained mostly unused, overgrown by dogwood.
As I got closer, the sawing got louder. Both doors to the garage were closed, but I could see sparks flying up in an arch through the windows. There was a door off to the side, but I hesitated. Not that Charlie would mind so much, but I also knew he owned several rifles. Didn’t want to sneak up on him and get myself accidentally shot, so I tried knocking first. Of course, he couldn’t hear me over all the racket, so I pulled out my phone and dialed his number. No answer. For a second, I thought I’d turn back, tell Bella I told Charlie to keep it quiet and that he said he would, but I knew she’d be down here in fifteen minutes when he didn’t, so I took a deep breath and opened the door.
Inside was a huge structure. Two stories tall. Metal, pointing up at the ceiling. It appeared to be a satellite of some sort, a large disk anchored by a pyramidal frame crowned by an orb. Around it was a circular plank with guard rails, and it was fortified by a tripod made from steel. Charlie stood off to the side, working next to an engine of some sort. He had a handheld saw in hand, and he was cutting through what looked to be aluminum. I approached him cautiously and tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped, and at first, I was afraid he may have caught his hand in the saw. Sparks flew, followed by a high-pitched squeal as the blade slipped against the metal. It sped across the surface before he killed the engine. Panic struck me. I expected to see blood, for Charlie to fall to the ground, holding up a stump as he writhed around in pain, but he didn’t. He just flipped off his welding mask and blinked at me.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked.
“Sorry. I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
I looked him up and down, but he seemed unhurt. All of his limbs were still intact.
“Jesus, Jim. I’m fine. Just scared the hell out of me.”
“I’m sorry. I tried yelling.”
He waved away my apology. “No worries. I want to show you something.” He turned toward the structure like a child unveiling his Christmas haul and motioned for me to follow him onto the scaffolding.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“What—what is it?”
“Don’t be stupid. It’s a satellite.”
“You ever notice those lights over the mountains?”
“The lights, man. They come out over the east and just hover there. Bright. Huge.” He held his arms up over head, his fingertips connecting into a large O shape. “Tell me you’ve seen them.”
I had. They came over the Ouachitas, low to the summits, hovering there, sometimes changing color. An Air Force base operated near Little Rock, and though they had never before travelled this far west, it was nothing that elicited any sort of alarm.
“Don’t be naïve, Jim.”
“That’s literally what they are, Charlie. I’ve toured the base.”
“That’s what they want you to think.”
Charlie started in on a story. An elaborate story. A story too hard to believe. It had started six months prior. He’d been having a hard time sleeping. He had chest pains. Terrible heartburn. He thought maybe he was having some health issues. Called his doctor, made an appointment. But nothing. Had an EKG done. Blood work. MRI. All came back negative. “Healthy as a horse.” But the pain continued, followed by exhaustion. He lost his appetite. Every morning he suffered from debilitating nausea. Most of the time he just dry heaved, eyes popping out of his head, snot clogging his nostrils, and he’d choke and gasp for breath, bent over in the shower, his stomach wrenching from the pain, but again, his doctor said there wasn’t anything physically wrong with him. Gave him a business card for a shrink, and he was going to make an appointment when it first happened.
“What?” I asked him.
“The visitors,” he said.
“They took me, Jim.”
“You think they’re aliens?”
“I swear to God. They took me up into their space ship. Performed some sort of operation. Cut me open, but I was awake the whole time. Didn’t feel any pain. Afterward, I slept, and when I came back to, I was home.”
“I know it sounds crazy.”
“Yeah. Sounds batshit.”
“Believe me. I questioned my sanity. But it’s true. They cured me. Pain went away. The nausea. Everything. It was a miracle.”
“And this?” I asked, motioning toward his satellite.
“I want them to take me back.”
I didn’t know what to think. I was dumbfounded. Confused. Scared. But mostly worried. My neighbor had lost his motherfucking mind, but he just smiled at me, proud as could be, his eyes shimmering with the dereliction of blind faith.
“Does he have any family anywhere?” my wife asked the next day. We were at the grocery store, shopping for Christmas dinner. Ribeyes and baked potatoes. Grilled asparagus. Spinach salad. I was looking forward to it—it would be the first time in years our son would come visit. Over the past five years or so, we’d cobbled together for weddings and, more often than that, funerals. We’d share a few stories about the new couple or the recently deceased, have a drink, then return to our daily lives—us in Oklahoma, Randell in Pennsylvania—our long absences marked by unread emails, an infrequent text, and short-clipped voicemails. I knew this to be my fault. Bella had always said that I was too hard on him, pressured him too much to do what I thought was right: to go into accounting instead of communications, to stay closer to home rather than move halfway across the country, to not date the woman he was now engaged to. I saw her point. I did. I was stubborn and hardly admitted fault. I knew he had to live his own life, but I couldn’t help it if I hoped to keep my son from making mistakes. Was that such a crime?
Apparently, it was, because after a while, Randell came to resent me, stopped returning my calls or visiting for the holidays. Bella resented me for this, too, alienating her son, and over the years I’d felt like we’d grown into hermits, relegated to our little corner of the world, shadowed by mountains to the east and the unending multitude of the west, even Bella’s and our proximate lives separated by unarticulated accusations. I was all right with that most of the time. I had grown accustomed to it, even, the loneliness creeping up on me, calcifying into a ball in my throat.
“Not that I know of,” I said. “Don’t remember him speaking about any.”
“To be fair, neither do you.”
“I don’t want to fight.”
“I’m not fighting. I’m pointing out a fact.”
“He’s coming for Christmas, isn’t he?”
“Because I invited him, Jim. I did.”
“What do you want from me, Bella?”
“For you to try, okay? Just try to get through this weekend without killing your relationship with your son.”
My wife stopped at the butcher’s station. It was filled with beef and fish and poultry and pork, lined up in singular cuts. When younger, I’d hunted with my father. Deer. Quail. Wild boar. The occasional mountain lion. If it flew, crawled, pranced, or preyed, we hunted it. We ate its meat. We mounted the carcass. But as I grew older, I formed a distaste for hunting. It wasn’t so much the killing. I didn’t think anyway. It was the butchering that got to me. The way the knife tugged as it tore through flesh and sinew. I could feel it deep down inside of myself, and I couldn’t shake the thought that one day I too could be at the other end of a sharp knife.
“You don’t think he might hurt himself, do you?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t see him.”
“Or maybe us?”
She pointed at some steaks and the butcher pulled out the tray. “No. No. Of course not. He wouldn’t hurt a soul.”
“That’s what people said about Bundy. Dahmer.”
“You really should stop reading those books.”
“I’m just saying. Kaczynski went to Harvard. Gacy was a clown for children. Charlie always has been, well, a little weird.”
Bella pointed at the ribeyes, told the butcher we needed four. Good cuts, too. Lined with marbling. An inch thick. Bone in, if he had it.
“Remember that time we invited him over for dinner? He got so drunk he ended up passing out on the couch?”
“I woke up in the middle of the night and went to get some water, and I caught him in the kitchen. I didn’t think anything of it at first, but when I got closer, he was eating coffee grounds.”
“With his bare hands. Just scooping it up, pouring it into his mouth, and chewing.”
“Why would I lie about something like that?”
The butcher returned with our steaks, and Bella placed them in the shopping cart.
“You always lie, Jim” she said as she pushed the cart down the aisle. “The question is: why should I ever believe you?”
That night I couldn’t sleep. Laid there for what seemed like hours. I tried watching Seinfeld reruns, but every time Kramer spoke, Bella flopped and grunted and so I turned the TV off. It was unseasonably warm outside, so I ventured out to the back porch. It was quiet out. Charlie had stopped working on his satellite hours before. A soft breeze ruffled branches that had weeks before shed their leaves. No clouds, just a star-filled sky unpolluted from a city’s glow. I had come to love this place. When Bella had first wanted to move here, I fought it. Having grown up in Oklahoma City, I cherished its vibrancy: Thunder games, museums, the philharmonic, steakhouses, and shopping. All of it within a twenty-minute drive at most. Now, though, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was an odd thing to say, but I loved the loneliness of it all.
The first year or so after coming here I walked a lot. I explored the woods around our home and drew maps in a notebook I’d bought at the dollar store. I sketched creeks and surveyed the surrounding hills. Occasionally, I’d find initials etched into the bark of an oak tree and scribble them down, thinking that one day maybe these people would return and I’d learn who EJK and FPR were. We’d have coffee, and they’d tell me about who they were, and who they had been. Eventually, this went to the wayside, and I took more to sitting, my joints having turned brittle, my muscles sore from aching.
I was thinking maybe the following day, if the weather remained warm, I would take another hike, the first in many months, when I saw them: the lights. They came out of the east over the mountains, rising above the crests. There were three of them, equidistant from each other and in a straight line. They didn’t emit any noise or grow larger. They simply glimmered. They’d been visible more often recently, flying overhead during the day, perhaps an hour or two after sunset. But it was 3:00 a.m. This seemed odd.
The middle light moved higher than the other two, hovered there a moment as if surveying the wilderness around it, and then flashed. The light burned brighter for two seconds, three, four, then blinked out. When it returned, it was an orange color, twice the size it had been before. The other two remained below it, forming a triangle, still glowing white. But then they split into two. Five lights now hovered there, the four below in a straight line, the larger, orange one hovering above, and I started to feel nauseated. My heart rate quickened. Saliva dried up. Were these the lights Charlie had spoken about?
I stood. Didn’t remember even consciously thinking about it. My legs just started moving, and I found myself leaning over the railing. The four lower lights began to tremble, their shaking becoming more violent until they were a blur, their light growing in luminescence, and I could feel something. I didn’t quite know what it was, or how to describe it. It was like an energy, or maybe a magnetic field, pressing against my flesh. The pressure increased until I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Panicked gripped me. I thought I was going to die, but then it lifted, and a great wind howled until all I could hear was its roar. The lights shot up at a dizzying speed until they disappeared into the black of night.
Afterward, there was silence. Nothing stirred. Not a breeze. No limbs scraped against each other. All was still, indifferent, as if the world had paused and only I could make sense of it all.
“Did you see them?” a voice yelled, breaking me out of my trance. It was Charlie. He stood atop his barn and waved in my direction. “Did you see them?”
News reports the next morning dedicated an entire segment to the phenomenon. Dozens of people had called 911, reporting UFOs over the mountains. The noise had caused car alarms to go off for miles. Dogs barked. Awoke children and their parents. The sound could be heard as far away as Fort Smith, and it caused a panic. But it was just a test that had gone awry. A military helicopter had blown up. A terrible accident. Two pilots killed instantaneously. Wreckage strewn across the Ouachitas. Made the national news even. Used to, back when he’d been college, this would’ve been something Randell would have called me about.
“Just wanted to make sure you didn’t burn up in a fire ball,” he would’ve said, laughing.
“All is clear on the western front,” I would’ve replied.
I had to admit the official story didn’t make much sense. I’d served in the first Gulf War, and I knew what an aircraft exploding looked like. Knew what it smelled like. Saw the aftermath. What happened the night before was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed in my entire life. It had been surreal. Unexplainable.
I found Charlie in his barn working on his satellite. He seemed more intent than before, buzzing with energy. When he spotted me, he stopped.
“You believe me now?” he asked.
I had to see the wreckage for myself. If it was as bad as the news said, there would be a debris field a mile long. If nothing else, it would quiet this creeping suspicion in my mind that Charlie was onto something, that perhaps he wasn’t going crazy, and so we packed into Charlie’s truck and headed up the Ouachitas. Despite being winter, the underbrush was still dense. The road curved and was steep, dotted by lonesome cabins every mile or so. We didn’t speak as Charlie drove. He just headed east to where we’d seen the lights the night before, leaning over the steering wheel as if he couldn’t wait to get where we were headed.
For hours we just kept driving, turning down gravel roads until we hit a dead end, then turning back again, going in a different direction. No matter how deep we got into the mountains, though, there wasn’t a debris field. Trees still stood. Nothing scorched with a raging fire, fueled by hundreds of gallons of gasoline. It was just so bizarre, and I kept wracking my brain for some sort of logical explanation, thinking perhaps we were just heading in the wrong direction, maybe all the damage was just a mile to the south, or maybe the north, just a little farther east, but there still would’ve been sirens. Lights from first responders. The deafening noise of heavy machinery. With each passing second, a churning intensified in my chest, this deep, guttural feeling that everything could be different now. More than anything I wanted to tell somebody. Share with them this secret. I wanted to tell Randell, to show him the lights and the lack of an explosion and see his reaction, have him tell me I wasn’t crazy to think that maybe something really was out there, spying on us, waiting until just the right moment to make contact, but that’s when we came across the military vehicles: dozens of Humvees, dark Suburbans, and unmarked government sedans. Soldiers with rifles stood at guard, the road blocked by barricades. The soldier nearest us, a young guy perhaps Randell’s age, raised a hand for us to stop.
“Road’s closed,” he said. “You’ll have to turn around.”
Relief rushed over me. There were no aliens. Just a terrible accident, and everything was as it should’ve been—we were once again all alone in the universe.
“I don’t know about you,” Charlie said as he performed a three-point turn, “but I don’t see any wreckage.”
Randell showed up late and alone. His fiancée, Heidi, couldn’t make it, had to stay back for work, but I had a feeling he was lying. It was no state secret she couldn’t stand me, and for good reason. They’d been engaged going on three years, with no firm date set. She was flippant and finicky, someone who couldn’t keep her word, and I’d tried to warn Randell of this. It wouldn’t work, I told him. Three years, maybe five tops. Maybe have a kid or two, then she’d change her mind. Get bored. Look for a way out. Then what would he do? Half his money gone. Bi-weekend father living in some two-bedroom apartment. What kind of life would that be? He, of course, told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, and then he’d stopped calling.
Once he was settled, I poured each of us a glass of wine and went out to the back porch. It was nice out for this time of year. Light jacket was all we needed. We talked about old times and new, how Randell was doing as a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates and how they were coming along on the wedding plans.
“Slowly,” Randell said.
“Have a date yet?” Bella asked.
Randell glanced at me, expecting some clipped comment. I provided none. “Not yet. We’re thinking spring, though.”
“Well, just let us know,” I said, finishing my wine. “We can’t wait for the big day.”
To stall the inevitable awkward silence, I started to cook. The steaks I massaged in a dry rub of red pepper, garlic, and rosemary. It helped tenderize the meat, bring out a nice, biting flavor. Once on the grill, I’d lather them in butter to make them moist. I washed the asparagus and peeled the potatoes. Once everything was ready, I brought the meat and asparagus outside to the grill. Randell and Bella were tipsy by then, laughing about some story Randell was telling Bella about his fiancée, but as soon as I got within earshot Randell stopped talking.
“A little early to eat, isn’t it?” Bella asked. Her words were a bit slurred. She wasn’t drunk, but she was getting there.
“Wanted to get it out of the way.” I laid the tray down next to the grill, thought about lighting it, but decided against. I sat next to Bella and grabbed my glass of wine. A fly had flown in and drowned. “What were you guys talking about?”
Randell didn’t say anything. He averted his eyes to his feet and took a sip of wine, his lips stained purple.
“Oh, nothing,” Bella finally offered.
I emptied my glass of wine and poured another, not bothering to get a new glass. “The craziest thing happened the other day,” I said, trying to change the subject.
“The crash,” Randell said. “I heard. Was anybody hurt?”
“It was the strangest thing. I saw it happen.”
“You did?” Bella asked. “I didn’t know that.”
I told them what I’d seen. “It was crazy. Haunting. Surreal. Definitely not an explosion.”
Randell looked incredulous. So did Bella. They didn’t respond, only sipped their wine, casting sideways glances in each other’s direction.
“I’m telling you. Something’s up. Charlie and I even went looking for the wreckage.”
“The neighbor?” Randell asked.
“We drove for hours. Couldn’t find any. We found troops. But no debris. No trees cut down. No burnt landscape.”
“Wait a second. This isn’t about what Charlie told you, is it?” Bella asked.
“I know it sounds crazy.”
“What are you talking about?” Randell asked.
“Charlie thinks he was abducted by aliens. He’s building a satellite to make contact, and apparently your father believes this too.”
“You don’t really think it was aliens, do you?” Randell asked.
“The universe is infinite,” I said. “Is it so hard to believe that we aren’t all alone?”
Bella downed the rest of her wine. “The man needs help, Jim. Not an accomplice.”
“I’m just saying, statistically speaking, it’s a lot more probable than not.”
“Maybe you need to cut down on the drinking.”
“I swear to God, I saw what I saw. They couldn’t have been helicopters.”
“Couldn’t they have just been right behind each other?” Randell asked. “Doesn’t that make more sense than the lights splitting in two? The two behind moved to where you could see them?”
“But how could the one change color? How could it grow to twice its size?”
“It could’ve been the fire. The explosion. That makes more sense than aliens for Christ’s sake.”
“Have you ever seen anything explode, Randell? Because I have, and that wasn’t it.”
“And so the only logical explanation is aliens?”
“Do you have a better one?”
“You sound insane, Dad. Don’t you see that?”
“Don’t do that.”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a child. I am still your father.”
“Okay.” Bella stood, hands outstretched. “That’s enough of that.”
I fired up the grill and threw on the steaks, trying to calm down. They smelled good, garlicky, the butter melting over the browning meat. I took mine off first, liking it rare followed by Randell’s at medium rare and Bella’s well done. I’d used to joke that she ruined it cooked that way, but she always took it as a personal attack, growing defensive and downright angry about it. Eventually, I just stopped joking around with her altogether, content instead to mark our endless days with polite, clipped conversation.
That’s how dinner went. Bella mentioned that the food was good, and Randell agreed with a nod of his head, but, other than that, no one uttered a word. Afterward, Bella and I cleared the table, cleaned the dishes, and placed them in the dishwasher. Randell yawned and stretched, said that he was going to hit the hay, and excused himself to go to bed. I followed him to the guest room with a couple of pillows. Before he shut the door, he poked his head outside.
“Are you sure you’re doing all right, Dad?” he asked. “I’m worried about you.”
I told him I was fine, thanked him for his concern.
He just nodded his head but wouldn’t look at me, his mouth puckered as if he wanted to say something else, to feign some kind of pity, or perhaps make a snide remark about how it was me, and not him, who ended up crazy. But, to his credit, he didn’t do either of those things. He just nodded one more time, a quick jerk of his head, and then shut the door.
The next morning, Randell left, two days earlier than planned. He apologized, citing work, and promised he would be in touch. Days passed, then weeks, then months, but he didn’t call, and neither did I. After a while, we yielded to our secluded lives, separated by a distance too great to be measured in miles.
Two nights after I spoke to Randell for the last time, Charlie’s garage exploded. There was a bright, white flash, followed by a sonic burst of energy. Everything shook and rattled and jostled, and my ears rang with such an intensity I feared I would go deaf. I shut my eyes, and my skin burned from an excruciating heat. Bella rushed downstairs, hair a mess, throwing a robe around her. She was screaming, but it was incoherent, just a jumbled mess of syllables and consonants squishing around the inside of her mouth.
Outside, there was a fire. Bella called 911, and I sprinted down the path. Charlie’s garage was engulfed in flames. I tried to get inside, shielding my face with my arms, my shirt wrapped around my face in order to breathe, but there was nothing I could do. I watched the place burn to the ground, knowing full well that Charlie was trapped inside, unable to escape.
After the fire was extinguished, first responders searched for Charlie’s body, but they couldn’t find him. No bone fragments. No teeth. Not even a piece of clothing, charred down to its buttons. The authorities couldn’t explain it. The fire hadn’t burned long or hot enough to turn him into dust. There should’ve been something left behind, they said, the burnt cremains that had once been Charlie’s body, a forearm or femur, his skull blackened by soot, but there was nothing. He’d simply vanished, a blazing fire that had scorched the earth.
Noah Milligan's debut novel, An Elegant Theory, was shortlisted for the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize and a finalist for Foreword Review's 2016 Book of the Year. He is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Central Oklahoma, and his short fiction has appeared in Windmill: The Hofstra University Journal of Literature and Art, Rathalla Review, MAKE Literary Magazine, Storyscape Literary Journal, and elsewhere.
Be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Noah on the Orson’s Publishing blog.