Ned sat like an old potato on his sofa, his wiry hair fraying like undone stitching on a leather glove. Life was tired and lonely. His thoughts drifted to his younger days, decades ago when things felt full and free, ‘before his juices dried up,’ as his friend Jack would say.
As he flipped through the channels, a glowing, opaque-yellow ball of light appeared out of nowhere and hovered over his coffee table. One…two…three…
Ned’s hands shook, and he hurled the remote control at it. His legs trembled, but he couldn’t lift himself off the couch. “Uhhhoohhhgaaawd,” he squeaked, attempting to scurry away from the glowing ball.
Seven seconds… an eternity. Then, just as it had arrived, it disappeared.
Ned sat still, refusing to move a muscle for several minutes while the late-night show continued to blare. When he finally stood up, his pants were damp from his own urine.
He looked for the remote, but never found it. He yanked the TV’s power cord from the outlet, fled into bed, and pulled the covers over his head.
Though his eyes stayed closed all night, Ned didn’t sleep one minute.
“What’s up with you?” Jack asked him the next day. “You ain’t never this quiet.”
Ned didn’t want to answer. He and Jack had worked together at the construction company for twenty-seven years, but there was no way in hell he was going to tell him about the ball of light that had appeared in his living room. Jack wouldn’t have believed him anyway. Besides, what would Ned say? A glowing ball appeared in front of me and I pissed myself?
“Just tired,” Ned lied.
“Did you see Kimmel do that Snoopy-Dog bit last night?” Jack asked. “Some rapper they got narrating animal kingdom videos. Freaking hilarious. There was this one with a walrus and a penguin…”
Ned wagged his head and drowned out Jack’s blabbering with the jackhammer.
The workday grew late. Ned’s back ached and his ears were numb. He hadn’t even taken a lunch break. Wouldn’t have mattered. He had rushed out the door this morning without packing a lunch.
“It’s almost twenty after five! Why you still workin’?” Jack shouted.
Ned paused the jackhammer. The last thing he wanted was to go home. What if that lightball showed up in his bedroom? What if it was waiting on him? It might catch the house on fire, just like it had apparently incinerated the remote.
Ned worked to convince himself it was nothing. Maybe it was just something weird with his eyeball? One time his mother had what she had called a retinal detachment. Said she saw flashes of light. Turned out to be an easy fix at the eye doc. Maybe that’s what it was. He wriggled his phone out of his too-tight jean pocket and with his sausage-like fingers pecked, ‘eye doc near me.’ At least half a dozen hits.
“Ned?” Jack prompted. “Hey buddy, you okay?” Ned nodded in reply, but Jack looked unconvinced. “You wanna go grab a beer?”
“Sure,” Ned muttered. He wasn’t sure what they would talk about at the bar, but at least it would keep him from going home for a while.
After the bar, Ned entered his house like a thief, checking around every corner before darting to the bathroom. He even threw back the shower curtain before using the toilet. What was he going to do if that ball of light appeared?
He tried to suppress the thought, but it came anyway: What if it was a ghost? Her ghost? Alberta had passed away a year ago. He would never get married again. Plenty of women on the interweb if he ever wanted companionship, but none could replace her. Maybe her twin sister would’ve been an option if she were still alive and not certifiably insane. She had come into their life from nowhere, and apparently never married. Swore she was married to him. Psycho. Strangest thing he’d ever seen. Not to mention they had both died the same day. Alberta in the accident, and her sister from a stroke right around the same time. It was a week before her neighbor had found her.
Ned showered with his eyes open, dried off, and nuked some pizza rolls. He dashed to the bedroom. No sign of the lightball. He flung himself into bed and pulled the covers tight.
Waking up at 8:37, Ned greeted the morning with a few curses. Late. He threw some leftover pizza rolls in his lunchbox along with a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos and bolted out the door. Then something stopped him dead in his tracks.
There it stood. A shimmering ball of light, hovering beside the freezer in the garage. Larger this time. “Agh!” he shouted at it. “Shoo! Go!” It didn’t move, didn’t disappear. Ned’s hands trembled, and he nearly dropped his lunchbox. His first instinct was to run inside, but he wasn’t willing to turn his back to it. Dang sure wasn’t going to be trapped in the house by it.
He shimmied around the wall of the garage, slid outside, sprinted to his truck, and slammed the door. Blood pounded thick in his ears and his heart felt like it was about to explode inside his chest. When he glanced back at the garage, it was gone. He checked his mirrors for any signs of it. Nothing.
During his twenty-eight minute drive through the mountains to work, his hands never stopped trembling.
Over lunch break, Jack was rambling on about the Sunday crossword puzzle and the girls on The Price is Right. “Barker probably slept with all of ’em. But I liked that Drew Carey guy. Seemed like a nice guy. You ever seen his comedy show? The one with that British fella?”
Ned decided it was time to be honest. “Damned if I ain’t seein’ things, Jack.”
“Who’ya seein’?” Jack asked, laughing. But his laughter stopped short when Ned didn’t snicker back. “Sorry, bud. You okay?”
“Got an appointment with the eye doc tomorrow. Seeing bright lights. Somethin’s wrong with my vision.”
“Prayin’ for you, buddy,” Jack said, patting him on the shoulder. “Lemme know if you need anything.”
Jack was a long-time friend, but talking to him wasn’t of much more use than talking to one of your turds. Willing to listen, but didn’t offer much in return except bad smells.
Ned didn’t eat dinner at home that night. He stopped at Subs & Clubs after work, stayed long enough to have two beers, a piece of pie, and a coffee to sober up a bit, then drove to Walmart.
He sat in the Walmart parking lot for forty-five minutes until finally deciding he had to go home. He didn’t like driving through the mountains at night, but he couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. Maybe he should have slept in his truck, but he was nasty, tired, and wanted a shower.
His truck climbed the winding, narrow road, until he reached the mountain tunnel. Suddenly, Ned stood on the brake pedal, bringing his truck to a screeching halt.
The glowing ball sat like a fiery net in the tunnel before him. The biggest slow-churning fireball he had ever seen. There was no way around it.
The truck idled. This thing wasn’t going away, and Ned was tired of running. Maybe this was it? Maybe it was his time. He’d always believed in God. Just too much reason not to. Humans couldn’t even set foot on the closest planet, much less know for sure what else might be out there in the universe. He could at least respect agnostics, but only arrogant people said there was no such thing as God.
His mind solidified. The fear stops now. “I’m coming home, baby,” he whispered, then stomped on the gas.
The truck lurched forward, speeding toward the tunnel entrance. 33… 42… 57… 65… 78 mph. Beads of sweat formed on Ned’s forehead as he barreled toward the lava-like ball of light.
As his truck flew into the tunnel, Ned’s body unfurled into the multiverse.
The blinding flash of light retreated, leaving only the glow of a near-setting sun. Ned’s face hit the warm summer grass. On top of a North Carolina grassy bald, a seventeen-year-old Ned locked eyes with a stunning blonde nestled in his arms.
The lovely girl pressed her soft lips to his as the sun collapsed below the mountaintops. Ned rolled onto his back, bringing her with him. Something stabbed him between the shoulder blades. He sat up and found the object.
There, wedged in the dirt, was his remote control.