by Dan benamor

Nothing good comes from bare feet on the highway. I knew something important was in the sky, because the driver in front of me came to a full stop in the center lane and got out of his car. For whatever reason, he wasn’t wearing shoes. I didn’t have much time to ponder the reason. I put my sedan in park, followed his gaze and stared. In the daylight, what I saw threatened to collapse my psyche.

It was partially obscured by clouds. In a way, this made the sight even more distressing. Because it left ambiguous the full size of the thing in the sky. I knew, intellectually, things, objects, could be that large. And at first, I assumed it had to be an object. It wasn’t a meteor. I’m not a scientist, but what little I know of meteors led me to believe a meteor would approach much faster. What then? A craft of some kind? This gray, wide, enormous entity in the sky. Its surreal unknowable quality was both terrifying and completely unavoidable. 

It blocked out the sun. I could not see beyond it. Where it began and where it ended was not visible to me, from my vantage point on the highway. By now, I had gotten out of my car, too. So had everyone else. There we stood, hundreds of strangers, united in worldview-shattering horror, at the sight above us. The moment took on an almost religious quality. We stood in an open-air church, hushed, trembling in fear of a power we could not possibly understand. It had skyscraper-sized curved protrusions on one side. A cloud dissolved away as it descended, revealing a massive recess on it, an indentation of some kind that had to be as big as an aircraft carrier.

Eventually people started to leave. Not everyone. Some stayed, transfixed. Those that did leave negotiated around the standstill vehicles. It took hours to escape the highway. I drove home, not knowing where else to go. Fleeing would be futile. I could have driven a hundred miles per hour for three days and not escaped from the shadow of the thing.

I arrived at my neighborhood and punched in the gate code at the keypad. The gate swung open. I stifled a chuckle at the absurdity of the gate. I drove to my home and parked in my driveway. I didn’t greet my neighbor, Guillermo, who stood on his lawn. Guillermo was busy looking up at the sky. 

Inside, I struggled to turn the television over to actual news. We never used the cable. But Netflix wasn’t going to be breaking news on the thing the size of Guatemala looming over us. Eventually I did it. My wife Valentina was working at her law office. My children, Leo and Carrie, were both finishing their days at the high school. I felt warring impulses. First, to get them here. Second, that there wasn’t any rush. It was a powerlessness that was complete. 

The local newscaster, typically jovial in that plastic-y way all local newscasters are, was ashen-faced and stumbling over his words. It would not have been a surprise had he stopped speaking and simply broke into tears. At many points, I thought he would. But he held it together enough to deliver the information. Whatever information we, as a society, were capable of generating about such a thing.

It was bigger than Guatemala. It was bigger than Montana. It currently was above Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Mexico, the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Satellite imagery, helicopters, jets – all manner of observation brought about a full rendering of the thing. It was an impossible nightmare vision that was real as day. And it was moving towards us.

Just… very, very slowly. Its trajectory had been mapped. If it continued its current course, the newscaster reported shakily, it would make impact with the Earth in exactly 365 days. The significance of this, whether it could possibly be a coincidence, was speculated upon endlessly. But ultimately, for most people, it boiled down to this: we had a year. Long enough to get out of its shadow…until we found out there were more

Thirty-eight of them, to be exact. Enough to cover nearly every major land and water surface of the world. They came in waves, but all on the same day. That evening, Valentina and our children Leo and Carrie were home, and we sat huddled together on the couch. The news reported that yes, the additional thirty-eight things - they would all impact Earth in exactly 365 days. It was a slow torture. For whatever reason, these things were determined to inch towards us for a year, until they presumably landed and instantaneously crushed to death the entirety of humanity.

Within a few days, their presence became distressingly… if not acceptable… normalized. They were there. They weren’t going anywhere. Like every bad debt you could imagine in physical form, looming above us. The craziest part of it all? Life went on. After a few days of anarchy, where no one went to work, where no one did much of anything but watch the TV and contemplate our place in the universe…people kind of went back to their lives. Albeit a bizarre, two-beats-away-from-pure-lunacy version of life.

We’d hear reports of goings on with the things – attempts to communicate. These were uniformly fruitless. Russia tried to nuke one. Apparently, after the smoke cleared, so to speak, the only indication that the thing was hit by a nuclear warhead…was that it blinked. That blink changed everything.

It was the first time any of the things behaved in a way we could understand as simply organic, as recognizable from our own species and other animal species on Earth. Suddenly, all the parts of it, the protrusions, the recess, all made biological sense. The thing was a being. A creature. An organic life force. Did we know living things could be this large? The skyscraper-sized protrusions were essentially fins, like something you might see on a dolphin or a whale. The recess was an eye. It was reminiscent of a whale, in the sense that it had fins and seemed to narrow into a tail. It had two eyes. It had an opening that could’ve been a mouth. There were striations near the eyes, along the back. Soon we all started calling them the inelegant nickname of “space whales”.

Meanwhile, Russians dealt with an electromagnetic pulse that knocked out power for hundreds of miles, not to mention radiation. After Russia tried it, no one else bothered. All the world’s powers, all the people “in charge”, they simply had no moves left. These beings were not interested in anything humanity had to say, in any language. The Chinese apparently tried floating blimps with mathematical symbols to communicate, in hopes math would be the universal language…again, the space whales seemingly couldn’t care less.

On the ground, people worked at the grocery store. Doctors took care of patients at the hospital. Cops patrolled. It almost seemed like we had all agreed to pretend these giants in the sky weren’t there, at least at first. But you were reminded anytime something went a little wrong.

I saw it in my neighborhood. Guillermo, my neighbor? We found him in his garage two months after the beings appeared. Guillermo had used his dad’s old shotgun… to kill himself. We called the police. No one came. No one wanted to clean it up. Guillermo was unmarried. No kids. Guillermo’s parents were dead. A cousin who lived in Arizona refused to drive over. So… I did it. I didn’t know Guillermo particularly well. But someone had to do it. And he was always nice to me, friendly. Randomly, he’d given me some fish he’d caught once. I pretended I’d grilled up the fish, when in reality I’d forgotten it in a drawer in the fridge until the smell reminded me to throw them away.

I stored the shotgun (and the opened full box of shells missing just one) in a rusty shed in our backyard, hidden away amidst spider-web encrusted lawnmowers and gardening shears. I got a body bag from the hospital. I found a cremation facility and paid for Guillermo to be turned to ash. There was no funeral. Going to a funeral, at this time, seemed like the craziest thing you could possibly do. 

Guillermo wasn’t the only person in the neighborhood whose life changed drastically. Kiara, a friendly, seemingly happily-married woman who lived at the end of the street, moved two doors down. She was married to a tall handsome guy named Quincy. But one day, casually, she moved all her stuff two doors down. I admit… I parked my car and watched a little. The man whose house she moved into was named Darius. Darius was short, perpetually in need of a shave, and a frequent target of complaints by the homeowner’s association for the chipped paint of his façade. Kiara, in sweatpants, dragged bins of clothes down the block. Quincy watched from his door, and Darius kept watch from his driveway. The grounds keeping crew employed by our homeowner’s association had stopped coming, and so Kiara trudged through the ankle-high grass of Darius’ lawn. I wondered if Quincy would murder Darius. Not in that idle way you might, as a far-fetched what-if. In an active, this-could-happen-right-now way. Darius likely wondered the same, because he didn’t stop watching Quincy until Kiara was fully moved in.

As for me…at first, it was actually…nice. That sounds strange. But I had money in the bank. Of course, I took nearly all of it out in cash, as many did, in the early days after the beings appeared. Most I put in the safe. Most. I was in a good place with my wife Valentina (when you’re married for 15 years, at a certain point you either resign to resentment or commit to accept each other, and after years of couples counseling we had done the latter). And with her and my kids Leo and Carrie, we mostly just stayed together.

We barbecued in the backyard. There had been a barbecue sitting there, rusting, for the last God-knows-how-many years. I restored this nightmarish neglected grill with my son Leo. Opening it up revealed it had created its own ecosystem, one comprised of rat shit and a bird nest made up of rubbish from the backyard. Some tiny bird eggs, the birds in question long since hatched and gone, sat in the nest. Cleaning it out required a leaf blower, shop vacuum, and garden hose. The frame was solid but everything else was rusted. When the kids were younger, this would be the type of thing I’d have done alone (and pissed off, sweating and cursing). With my son, whose openness and enthusiasm had been present since toddler days, it became a fun project to do together.

While some hoarded gas cans and other survival items from the hardware megastore, Leo and I bought new grill grates, heat shields, and got excited about a heavy-duty metallic spatula (it had a sharp side that could also be used for chopping, Leo noted with glee).

Once the barbecue was restored, Leo immediately burnt about a dozen hot dogs on it. But the first one he didn’t burn was an exciting moment. We proceeded to barbecue everything from steak to burgers to romaine lettuce (try it, seriously), until Valentina and Carrie protested.

We played board games. Valentina was a cutthroat Monopoly player and had zero qualms about crushing the kids. We went for walks together. This was something we hadn’t done since Leo and Carrie were in strollers. Carrie casually mentioned that she had broken up with a boyfriend who Valentina and I didn’t know existed. When we inquired, she admitted just as casually she’d been dating this boy for several years but had preferred not to tell us because we “got weird” anytime she was seeing someone. Flustered, Valentina and I exchanged glances and unconvincingly insisted we did not. Since the first time she stopped saying goodbye at drop-off in kindergarten, Carrie had always had a self-possessed quality. We’d often joked she was too cool for us.

Valentina’s cases were all put on hold. The courts essentially ceased functioning. My understanding was that violent criminals, when caught, were simply thrown in jail pending trial, a trial that might never come. The lack of stress was visibly noticeable on Valentina, in her posture, in her smile (previously a rare sight, now a frequent visitor), and in her warmth towards me and the kids. Work had taken so much of her, and now it was like we got all of her to ourselves.

Valentina and I had not had much of an intimate life in many years. Between work and the kids’ various extracurricular activities, by night we were typically zonked. Now, in the mornings, when we were confident the kids were totally asleep, we’d fuck like teenagers, whispering and laughing in fear of being caught if the bed creaked too much.

We just spent most of our time together. I didn’t work in an essential industry. I was a petroleum engineer. I quit six days after the beings appeared. I wasn’t going to spend my last year of life helping get oil out of the ground.

I looked with pity at some of our neighbors, people who were childless, broke, divorced, and lost in the face of looming death. Would Guillermo have killed himself, I wondered, if he had kids, a wife, or really anyone? I considered myself immensely blessed, and found myself thanking God frequently for what he’d given me in my life. Until that night.

We had an alarm system. It went off. With my wife and children upstairs, I went down to “check it out”. A scenario which I realized, halfway down the steps, I’d never fully thought-out. I was not a gun person. It simply hadn't occurred to me to even keep Guillermo’s shotgun inside the house. It sat uselessly in the shed, which might as well have been Mars at this point. Because there was a man at the foot of the steps, with a gun. No ski mask, or any other face covering. Calmly, the man pointed the gun at me.

“Cash. I know you’ve got it. Tell me you don’t, I shoot you and find it myself.”

The man was doughy but strong-looking, some might describe him as corn-fed. A strength not born out of mornings in the gym, but physical labor of some kind. In his eyes, I saw nothing, no trace of human kindness, only the cold indifference of pragmatism. There was no doubt of his seriousness. 

I showed him to my safe. The alarm, irritating as it was meant to be, blared. I realized that no one was coming, though. I had forgotten to replace the batteries a few months prior and the alarm went off and I couldn’t disarm it. The company had called immediately. Police arrived within three minutes. Tonight, no one called.

The safe was in the garage, under a blanket. I opened it. No point in trying to be clever. Once it clicked open, I felt a sharp pain in my back, and my legs gave out. It took a moment for my mind to connect the sharp pain to the loud, not-quite-a-firecracker-like noise of the pistol going off in the enclosed garage. It’s difficult to approximate just how loud a pistol can be until you’re right next to one. 

The man realized he didn’t bring a bag and scoured the garage, ultimately stealing a farmer’s market cloth bag and using it to take the cash from the safe. There was sixty thousand dollars in there, most of my savings. The man stepped over my body to walk out of the garage and back out through the front door. I heard footsteps on the stairs and used every bit of energy in my body to will myself up. But by the time I managed to get through the doorway, I heard a second shot and the most horrifying thud I’d ever heard in my entire life. I lunged around the corner to the stairwell.

Two things became obvious. First, the man was already out the door, as it slammed shut behind him. Second, Valentina, correctly assuming I had been shot, had made the fatal mistake of trying to come down and help me. She lay in a heap at the foot of the steps. A lamp, presumably held by her as an intended weapon, had shattered on the landing beside her.

The man’s shot had hit her directly in the face, between the bridge of her nose and her right eye. She was dead. There was no ambiguity to it. A bullet to the brain. I heard staggered breathing and for a second thought maybe it was Valentina. Maybe I was wrong. But glancing up the stairs, I saw the noise came from my children. They were teenagers, nearly adults. But tonight they looked like frightened children.

I faintly registered the sound of a pickup truck ignition and the truck driving away outside. The shooter had easily escaped, of course. I felt hands on me. The kids helped me outside and into our sedan. I laid across the backseat. I felt wetness, and guessed it was my blood. I got pissed for a second about the ruined seats. Leo kept glancing back at me from the front passenger seat. Carrie drove. She zipped across town to the hospital emergency room.

You could see people a hundred yards from the doors. It was less of a line and more of a mob, simmering, liable to explode into anarchy at any moment. The fact that so many of the people in the line were visibly bloodied reinforced the severity of the situation. There was a man who'd clearly been recently stabbed, clutching his gut and screaming in agony. A woman, both eyes swollen shut, viciously beaten, and she was near the back of the line. If we entered this line, there was no doubt, I’d die in it.

“Glove compartment…” I muttered.

Leo opened the glove compartment and leafed through it, until he found a thick envelope. Opening it, he exclaimed, “Oh, shit!”

There was five grand in cash in that envelope. I’d left it in the car, just in case. 

“Use it…”

Leo looked from the envelope to Carrie. She understood, intuitively.

“Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t look at anyone. As soon as you get me to the entrance, leave.” Valentina worked in criminal law. I’d heard enough stories of what desperate people could do. I knew what we were getting into. The thought of Valentina flooded me with fresh pain, as a kaleidoscope of images of her smiling, beautiful face attacked my brain. 

The kids half-carried me as I trudged. The people in the line watched me go, at first ignoring me. But about halfway through the line, the taunts and threats began.

“Asshole, back there!”

“Good luck, pal.”

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“Back of the line!”

We hurried forward as best we could in my condition. When we finally reached the front, there was a harried, edgy security guard, a young, tall Latino kid, maybe twenty-two. No gun, I noticed. Just a Taser. And two hundred angry people in front of him. I summoned whatever fading strength I had left, and whispered to him, as forcefully as I could.

“Five grand in the envelope in my son’s hand. You tell the line I’m dying. It has the advantage of being true.”

Turning halfway, I showed him my back. Judging by the mess I’d left in the car, I guessed my entire shirt was soaked through with blood. The guard’s expression affirmed my belief. But he still had to know what reaction he’d get from the crowd.

“Let me see it.”

Leo opened the envelope slightly, enough for the bills to peek out.

“Give it to the nurse at the check-in desk. Go fast.”

I turned to the kids and hugged them tightly.

“Leave now. Don’t look back, don’t slow down. Just go.”

The guard waved me forward, and a chorus of angry shouts went up from the crowd. I quickly made my way inside, looking back for a moment to make sure the kids were indeed leaving. Leo and Carrie did head back for the car, albeit reluctantly. I saw the furious reactions of the crowd, but thankfully they were focused on me and the guard. I got inside as quickly as I could. Once I did, I heard the crackle of the Taser.

Inside, I was rushed to surgery to remove the bullet. I don't remember much until after. I shared a single hospital room with four other patients, our beds so close together they were touching. I could hear screams outside. The Taser again. And soon after, gunshots. I didn’t dare ask about them.

I got out of bed a few days after the surgery. The bullet was removed, but it had damaged my spine. I knew my pain was spinal, because it hurt not just in my back, but my legs, my ass, and my groin. The latter, my very knowledgeable doctor was happy to inform me, was due to nerve compression. I didn’t bring my phone. A kind nurse let me use the hospital phone to call my kids once a day. 

You think about your wife dying – the idea of it. What you would do, how you would handle it. But there’s this psychological protection barrier over those thoughts. We lie to ourselves, like those thoughts are science fiction. Then it happens, and it’s so much worse than you could have ever prepared for. Every warm memory, of a joke she told, her happy face one night, every good time spent somewhere, all those remembrances were now a thousand daggers piercing my heart. My kids were a mess, barely able to speak on our calls, trying to put on a good front for me

I was finally released after four days with some opioids. I was sternly instructed to exit out the back. I called my kids and told them to meet me a few blocks away, just to be safe. Carrie answered. She sounded shaky on the phone, even more so than in the last few days. This wasn’t grief – something had destabilized her. That wasn’t like her. She’d inherited her mother’s iron will. Carrie was the captain of her high school soccer team. She didn’t cry at funerals. Shaky was not her personality. I asked if everything was okay. She just said they’d be there to pick me up.

Limping from the pain that radiated throughout my body, even neutered somewhat by the opioids, I very slowly made my way from the hospital to the arranged pickup site, in a parking lot of a pharmacy. Our friends in the sky cast an omnipresent pall as usual. In the hospital, I’d seen on the news the current estimated date of impact. There were about four months left in the final year of mankind.

My kids were waiting in the sedan. They had left me the front passenger seat. Leo sat in the back. Leo had always been the sweet one, since he was little and he’d spontaneously run over and hug his sister.

Carrie looked over at me as I gingerly opened the door and got in. 

“Dad, the house is gone.”

“What?”

Leo chimed in from the backseat.

“We said we were going to tell him at Grandma’s.”

“No, you said that.”

“Gone? Gone, how?”

“Burned to the ground. Some homeless people were squatting in Guillermo’s house. Fire guys said they think they got spooked when his cousin came to take his stuff. They left a toaster oven on with food in it. Started a fire. We were visiting Grandma. By the time we got home, the fire trucks had already blocked off the street.”

The fucking cousin. From Arizona. Who didn’t care enough to collect Guillermo’s body. But cared enough to come take all his stuff after the fact. I didn’t know what to say. After a long moment, I finally said…

“Take me to it.”

Carrie did. Sure enough, there was nothing left of the house but some brick foundation, the twisted metal of a bed frame, and bizarrely, a section of wall and a bookshelf that had somehow survived. The bookshelf included a series of self-help and fad diet books belonging to my wife, the kids’ school books, and a Bible that had never been opened, gifted by a well-meaning aunt. The rusty shed in the backyard made it out unscathed as well.

When so much awful shit happens in a brief period of time, it’s bizarrely galvanizing. Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. And I wasn’t running anywhere. If I had been home, this would never have happened. If that man hadn’t shot me, hadn’t killed my wife, none of this would have happened. The world as we knew it was going to end in four months. The only thing I knew for sure was that for the man who killed my wife…his world was going to end a lot sooner. 

“I’ll be back in three days.”

The kids asked where I was going. I said I needed to travel to a bank in Nevada where we had more money, which was only processing withdrawals in-person due to the anarchy of the times. Leo believed me. Carrie did not. At least they would be safe with my parents.

Before leaving, I spoke to my father in the backyard. My father was on the younger side. We never lied to each other. A level of honesty that, combined with him being a younger dad all my life, made us more like best friends than father-and-son. Where I was technological he was practical. He could build a deck but never figured out how to use a banking app. I could barely hang a picture on a wall but could explain Venmo to him. 

“Where are you going?”

I told him the same story I told the kids, earlier, in front of my mother. Like Carrie, he didn’t believe me. Now, alone, he was really asking.

“Marcus, my neighbor across the street two doors down,” I said, “has a security camera that faces the street. I’m going to see if he caught him leaving that night.”

“And if he did?”

“What would you do?”

My father glanced back at the rear sliding door to make sure no one was coming.

“First, I’d want to kill him,” my father said. “Then I’d realize that was stupid and would change nothing, and I’d just be with my family.”

“I’ll only be gone a couple days.”

“You can barely walk.”

“I’ll be careful.”

“You could go to the cops. Might get lucky and find someone still trying.”

“Even if they cared enough to do something, the most they could give him is four months in jail. For killing Valentina.”

My father did this clenched lip, set jaw motion he always did when trying to tackle a problem pragmatically.

“What are you going to use?”

“Guillermo’s shotgun. It’s still in my shed back home.”

“You ever fired a shotgun before?”

“I shot rifles at cousin Nate’s place back in the day.”

“Not the same thing. You know if it’s break-action, pump-action, or semi-automatic?”

“Pump, I think.”

“You got shells?”

“Yeah. Plenty.”

“If you do it – and I don’t want you to – but if you do…you do it fast, and you leave quickly. You don’t want to be chasing anyone around in your shape. This will be about the element of surprise. Get him walking from his car to his front door, at night, and then get out of there.”

“I’m not going to do it if… if I’m putting myself at risk. I’m not leaving my kids without—”

“—just doing it is putting yourself at risk.”

But he wasn’t angry at me. Just worried. I hugged him before I left. Leaving the kids was tough. I went home, made sure the shotgun and shells were still in the shed on the dirt lot where my house used to be (they were), and spoke to my neighbor across the street, Marcus. Marcus showed me his security footage, and we went back in time on his laptop to the night of the shooting. Marcus apologized for not thinking to look on his own, but his brother had disappeared a few days prior after going to the grocery store to get some beer. Marcus had his own problems.

The footage clearly showed a pickup truck, the doughy man, and most importantly his license plate number. When he pulled up, he had parked askew, presumably for quickest entry and exit. But that angle also meant the ass of his truck faced directly to Marcus’ camera. I thanked Marcus and left.

In California, license plates are searchable online through state records. It’s a matter of public record with the DMV. I easily found the shooter’s address once I had the plate number.

Driving too fast, I made my way to the address. The highway was functional. Speed limits no longer mattered. The shooter lived in a modest suburban area, midway between the city proper and my more isolated enclave. It was a neighborhood of former ranch land. One of his neighbors even had a horse. The horse was alone in a dirt area surrounded by brick walls, next to a house. No cars in the driveway, even now, at night. Seemed like the homeowner had left the horse behind. The horse’s giant face looked alien in the night.

I parked far enough away from the address to easily monitor it, but not close enough to be too noticeable. And I waited. There were multiple cars in the driveway. To simply approach and kick in the door would be foolish. Like my father said, I could barely walk from the pain. The pain this man had given me. 

I heard a door open. An elderly woman hobbled out. Someone raced after her and guided her back inside. I realized with a start that it was him. The doughy man. I felt myself grab the shotgun from my passenger seat and open my car door. The man was preoccupied. This might be the best opportunity I would get.

Stalking forward, shotgun in hand, I considered all eventualities. This late my hope was that everyone in the neighborhood would be asleep. I could be back in my car and driving away once they heard the noise and got up to see what it was.

Now onto the man’s driveway, I tried to step quietly. There was a side walkway. I flattened myself against the wall of his single-story home, and moved ahead until I reached a window. There was a light on. I dared to peek inside, into what appeared to be the home’s kitchen.

What I saw was a weeping elderly woman. The doughy man, presumably her son, was trying to delicately place plastic tubing into his crying mother’s nose, a wheeled oxygen tank resting nearby. She kept ripping it out, like a frustrated toddler. After multiple attempts, the doughy man lost it and slammed his hand down on the kitchen table. It scared his mother, and she shook her head and cried even harder. I guessed she had dementia, by her seeming disorientation and confusion. The doughy man’s posture softened, and he simply gave his mother a hug, his eyes growing glassy with tears.

I felt the weight of the shotgun I held. I turned around. I walked back out onto the street. Down past the abandoned horse. I saw, walking from the opposite side now, there was a gate to the horse’s enclosure. I opened it. The horse approached…and cautiously ambled out onto the street. I followed the horse.

Nearly back to my car, I stared up at the sky. The beings were still there, of course. I dropped the shotgun and sank to my knees.

And then the strangest thing happened. A noise – impossibly loud – rang out. So loud I heard the now-free horse whinny from down the street. So loud every light in the neighborhood turned on. So loud it shook the ground. Not words, at least not any words we could understand. Like the ringing of a cosmic bell.

And I saw the moon, for the first time in nearly a year. Because the beings, stagnant in the sky for so long, now suddenly, swiftly…left. They rose up into the sky, out of our atmosphere, and within a few moments…were gone.