In the end, they decided to keep it.
Celeste sat in the passenger seat while Pete drove the Volvo the long way home, all back roads and dark streets, cutting through unlit neighborhoods, people asleep. She flipped down the visor above her head and watched Tiger through the vanity mirror, the glow of his phone the only evidence that he was awake. He hadn’t yet told them what had happened that had made him call and ask to be picked up in the middle of the sleepover, nor uttered a single word since Pete and Celeste had arrived at Lucas Conroy’s house.
She couldn’t get the image out of her mind. Tiger, flooded with light from the sconces by the door, sitting on the Conroys’ front porch steps, arms locked around his legs. How long had he been sitting there? Lucas’s father, Rick, stood there behind him, and waved when the Danners pulled up. Pete asked her to stay in the car, claiming this was quote-unquote guy stuff. She watched Pete back slap with Rick — Rick in his Rutgers shirt, Rick who was a broker in the city and wouldn’t let Belinda go back to work, Rick who’d once, in front of Celeste, made a joke about women with big asses. She watched the two dads shake their heads and look down at Tiger as if to say, What can you do, and then Pete knelt down and looked Tiger in the eyes and said something she couldn’t make out and he hugged their son for a long time and led him back to the wagon. He was a good man, Peter Danner, even if he’d snapped at her earlier that night during dinner. He was a good father, a good tipper, a good small-talker, and thankfully, a good driver in the middle of the night, on these unlit roads unfamiliar to her, being herself from the city, somewhere else, not here, a place nothing like this.
* * *
They had rules about Tiger’s device usage that even they followed to set a good example. See how your dad and I are having a good time without our phones? Eating without scrolling? Not texting while we’re watching a movie? She didn’t even know where her phone was half the time, an affected apathy that had evolved into an actual pathology, something her husband and son teased her about, Mom’s phone, lost again, surprise surprise. And in fact at that moment her phone was at home – she could picture it on the console table by their front door, right next to the plant she kept forgetting to water, thinking that by placing the dragon tree plant in such an obvious location she would never forget to care for it. But instead, the opposite had happened, it was dying from neglect and maybe it needed water, maybe it needed to be placed in partial light. She liked to tell herself that one of these days she would learn its care guidelines. When she was away from the plant she gave it intense thought, could picture it thirsty for water and sun, her heart kind of breaking at the thought of it needing her, and she wanted sometimes to rush home and tend to it immediately, but whenever she walked in the door, she forgot about all of this, her subconscious mind noting its just-fine condition and removing it from the list of things to do.
But maybe Tiger needs the phone, she thought. Maybe he’s working through something and this is making him feel better, filtering the world through the device as a way of making sense of things. Don’t interfere, she told herself. Tomorrow he’ll tell us what happened, mollified by the fact that Mom and Dad didn’t pry on the night when everything was tender, the night that lesser moms and dads would have busted down the door of his heart and demanded he talk.
How about some music? she asked, thinking that perhaps music would democratize them as a family, maybe get them humming the same tune, and a dialogue could emerge from the moment. Pete’s phone was being used for GPS, so she turned on the radio to search the spectrum of radio signals, the unknown landscape of FM transmission, like blindly reaching into a bag to feel for what’s there. It had been a long time since she’d done this, relied on the grace of radio towers and disc jockeys. In her Prius she either listened to one of three pre-set satellite radio stations, or she beamed a podcast by way of Bluetooth. The radio, like the terrain through which they were driving, was alien to her, much the way Pete felt when he was in the city.
But nothing was there, only degrees of white noise, static. Pete told her he was surprised, there were usually plenty of stations out here.
I’ll play something, Tiger said.
It was the first thing he’d said in twenty minutes, and out from his phone came the tin-can sound of electronic music, deep beats and lofty melodies, the sounds so synthetic they were no longer even mimicking acoustic counterparts. It was music that Tiger would have never actually danced to, a sound somewhere between a video game and a rave. She couldn’t wait for his taste of music to grow up. Celeste hated EDM, especially the acronym. It sounded like an illness, like something you could contract on vacation and have to be immunized against.
Whoa whoa whoa. Pete took his foot off the gas and pointed to something in the distance. Do you guys see that?
See what? she asked.
That light. Right there.
She saw the light and told him it looked like a helicopter, maybe a police helicopter.
Pete shook his head.
That’s no helicopter. You know what I think, I think it’s a UFO.
She realized that he’d said this to draw the interest of their son, and it worked. Tiger scoffed but still leaned forward to see through the windshield. Celeste was glad to see his hands on both his parents’ head rests, which meant that he’d put his phone down for a moment. She thought back on when he was a toddler and she and Pete were trying to get him off the pacifier, robbing it in his sleep, thieves in the lean of night. So much easier than this. They could limit Tiger’s time and access to the smartphone, but they couldn’t restrain the appeal of the online world and the retina dope of the blue-lit screen.
See it? he asked again. See?
Pete was good at this sort of thing, timely distractions, creative emergencies. Five years earlier, they had driven to the coast to see Pete’s parents, and on the way home, they had come upon two crashed cars on the side of the highway. They’d been able to hear ambulance sirens growing louder in the distance. Pete slowed down the car to see if he should get out and help, and then they all saw it: a body, thrown in front of the car, surrounded by broken glass, its head mashed and face bloodied against the pavement. Tiger pressed his hands to the glass, Is that person okay? They drove on, sped up, took the first exit, found a McDonald’s, and over cones of soft serve and a scattering of fries, Pete told Tiger that what he’d seen were actors being filmed for a movie, there was no way that blood was real, did you see the cameras? Hiding in the bushes.
Now Tiger looked straight ahead through the windshield.
Where, he said. I don’t see anything.
Pete’s finger traced a light in the sky that Celeste could see better now: a faint traveling beam, weaving an arc in the air, lazy, consistent. She knew what it was. It was an aerial advertising device, a drone, and broken too, ordinarily meant to display a digital lit-up slogan or image through its quick, successive pattern, a marquee that could be located anywhere in the sky, and the broken devices were vulnerable, and sometimes hacked to display profanity or political propaganda. Lately they’d been in the news a lot, a curiosity, leading people to think they’d all seen UFOs. It was like how a few years ago there had been a glut of scary clowns in the news, upsetting children and trending on the internet.
She wondered if Tiger knew about the drones. Or local news.
You should follow it, he told his father.
* * *
Pete abandoned the route he had been taking, and followed the device. It remained ahead of them, unfixed to a location, keeping the same arced pattern but moving ahead, as if leading the Danners somewhere. Celeste knew they were going the opposite direction from home, but this was important. Tiger was finally animated, having given his attention to this odd family trip, and Celeste was glad that his mind had been taken off whatever had driven him to call them and wake them from sleep.
We should call the government when we find it, she said.
Tiger shook his head and said no, that they should post the video online, then took out his phone and began recording the drone, which was now hovering closer to the ground.
People will come to us, he said—her ten-year-old, internet-savvy. It happens on Twitter all the time, he went on. People post videos and then reporters tweet at them and ask if they can have permission to use someone’s picture or video. It’s really cool.
You’re on Twitter? she asked him.
He shrugged and told her, Sometimes.
And then the drone disappeared, dipped into some trees a hundred or so feet away from a subdivision, away from the road they were on, thank God it curved to the right and now they could be done with this, it had been fun, their son was talking now, but honestly can we just go home. Pete pulled over to the side of the road and turned to their son and she saw in his eyes that they were on the same page, and she wanted to kiss him. The drone was someone else’s problem, poor piloting or a faulty mechanism.
Wait, why did you stop? Tiger asked.
Road goes the other way, bud.
Tiger remained fixed by the window. Pete turned around and patted his son on the leg.
Tiger? Call it a night?
He shook his head and tapped the glass and said, Please? a little boy bleat that broke his mother’s heart. Celeste changed her mind. She looked at Pete and then she nodded and then he nodded back and this is how most of parenting happens, silently across the gulf of a car or a living room, semaphore flags of agreement or tension.
He pulled the car up over the curb and drove through the grass and Celeste was aware they were committing an infraction one way or another but it didn’t matter, it was that time of the night when things didn’t happen, you blink and the Danners are back in their home, safe and snoozing. Something unnameable had happened at the sleepover and Tiger seemed to be happy now, having forgotten whatever occurred—or hadn’t occurred—at Lucas’s house, and she watched him perk up as the Volvo slowed to a stop. She imagined the look on Tiger’s face when he would discover the drone, which was possibly broken, and that even though it would turn out to be an identified flying object it would still be a story, something he would remember for the rest of his life, his parents chasing down a UFO to cheer him up after he’d had a bad time at the house of the most popular kid in his grade. Pete turned off the engine, and they all got out.
Pete looked up at the sky and said, Can see the stars from here.
The guys turned on their phones’ flashlights as they all walked into the trees, sweeping the ground like a search party in a movie, the twiggy earth splashed with erratic light. They took turns speculating about how big the UFO might be based on the size of the light they’d seen. Tiger guessed a bumper car, Pete guessed an inner tube. What’s an inner tube? Tiger asked. Pete said, You know, a blow-up donut, like you float on in a pool. This reminded Celeste of something. She asked Tiger if this summer he would be up for going to Wave World, the water park that used to be called Ocean Fun and before that, when she was a girl, it had been called Cold Water Springs New Jersey, and he told her sure. He’d heard there was a new ride called The Ripple that was supposed to be cool.
Pete reached for Celeste’s hand in the dark. Their son was going to be okay.
* * *
Tiger saw it first, and ran ahead of them. When they caught up with him, he was pointing to a glowing light half-buried in the leaves.
Pete shouted, Don’t touch it, it might be hot.
Celeste couldn’t clearly make out its shape until Pete picked up a nearby stick and began poking it, lifting one of the wings to get a better look. He knelt down and tapped it in rapid movements, and said that it was only warm, which made sense considering it had just been flying, and then he picked it up. It was in the shape of an H, about the size of a laptop, and inside its shorter, horizontal bar, a golden light grew bright and then dim to a pulmonary beat. Watching it, Celeste was lulled into a sense of calmness. It made her think of guided meditation, the focus on your breath as it enters and leaves the body. Pete turned it over in his hands and said that it wasn’t very heavy, even though it seemed to be made of some kind of hard, translucent glass. But funny, it was also soft to the touch. They came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a drone, and that unless there was a strong magnetic aspect to it there was no way it could be piloted remotely, much less fly at all, given the fact that it did not appear to have any rotors or propulsion system. Then how was it moving at all? Celeste asked. They didn’t hear her. They were busy guessing. Tiger guessed that it was probably extraterrestrial. Pete said it was most likely attached to something else that had been capable of flight, like maybe it broke off of a helicopter. Tiger liked this and said maybe they had top-secret military equipment on their hands. Then Pete’s phone died. The freaking battery, he said, which reminded Celeste of what a good man he was, avoiding profanity at a time like this. He pointed back the way they came.
I can see the car from here.
* * *
Pete asked her to drive the rest of the way, and he got in the back seat with Tiger and the object.
She didn’t know where they were. She needed GPS to get her bearings, to see herself in the context of a map, and she turned around to ask if she could borrow Tiger’s phone, but he and Pete were using it to train the flashlight onto the object, looking for clues. She was beginning to worry that they had stolen someone else’s possession or interloped on someone else’s business, either private or military, and that Pete and Celeste would regret this, get a knock on the door in the middle of the night. She pictured strangers with trackers or authorities with a warrant.
Tiger was pressed up close to Pete, who buried his face in the boy’s hair, arm around his shoulder, and she was touched, touched that Pete was still prioritizing Tiger’s feelings, caring for him in a time of personal crisis. Lesser fathers would have called it a night a while ago, exhausted and having reached the limits of their imagination. It was hard to break apart this scene. He needed this. Maybe Pete was right that this was guy stuff, that whatever was happening right now was a dynamic of the father and son, unique to this night. She looked at Tiger and tried to decode any feelings on his face. What had happened at Lucas’s house? She worried that she would never know, even if he gave her an answer.
I don’t know how to get home, she said.
Pete told her, Just get back on the road and retrace our steps.
She began to do this. Her plan was to drive until something looked familiar, a road or an on-ramp that triggered a directional memory. She turned right and left a few times, and then followed signs to a highway, but not the one she remembered them taking earlier, on their way to the Conroys’ to pick up Tiger. The roads were not lit well and she resented this as an outsider, and viewed this civic decision as an assumption that mostly locals would be driving and therefore not need much light, that the price you must pay for being from somewhere else is getting lost or having to hunch forward over the steering wheel, squinting from sign to sign.
Celeste almost missed the highway entrance and came to a quick stop and then she turned on her blinker, force of habit, and then slowly brought the car onto the on-ramp and then she was on the highway. From there it would be easy—landmark-spotting, seeing the familiar things that triggered sense memories of songs or radio stories, fights with Pete, the number one fight being: I wonder what the merits are of leaving the city if all we ever do is drive. It’s not that we even live in a suburb, she told him more than once, it’s that we’re just biding our time between drives—to Tiger’s school and the grocery store and the post office and the gym and Target and Tiger’s friends’ houses and the pharmacy and the oil change place and the tire change place, not to mention our jobs. Every morning she drove twenty minutes to a commuter train, and then it was an hour into her office in the city—a commute that used to be ten minutes by subway. Pete drove forty-five minutes to his office, an hour if there was an accident on the highway. Even when the drive was bad, he said it was good. He was just glad to be back on his turf, after years of living on hers, and on this point it was hard to fight him. Maybe it was his turn. And maybe in in a few more years they would move back to Brooklyn, where he wouldn’t recognize passing joggers or strangers in crosswalks, and wouldn’t say, That was so-and-so, we used to be on the wrestling team together, or, Actually, that was what’s-his-name, he used to date my sister. Pete hated the city, and had always felt as though it harbored some disdain for him; even the rain was personal, unforgiving and gray. He called every street Fifth Avenue as an insult.
And then they were free, a four-bedroom house on a hilly parcel with trees and his childhood best friend Reese a quarter-mile down the road.
It’s kind of gross, Tiger said.
With the flashlight, he’d spotted an intricate network of little cables inside the wings, which was how Pete was referring to the long bars of the H—its wings—and Tiger said the cables looked like axons. This impressed her. The previous week, Celeste had helped him with his biology homework, examining layers of the human body, bone, muscle and nerves. She’d helped him at the long kitchen table under the light from the wide pendant lamp hanging from the ceiling. She drank a Sancerre, and Sade sang from a stage in San Diego. She quizzed him, tibia or fibula, and remembered that when she was his age homework help had come from her two older sisters working elbow-to-elbow on their own studies while their mother boiled potatoes or roasted a chicken in that kitchen too small for living. How did they ever get out of that apartment every day without trampling over one another? She wondered how much Tiger knew about her childhood, if he was able yet to picture his parents being little, or if he would ever care to. Because this is the way we are. It is impossible to really comprehend the life that a person led before they came into your orbit. Outside, the highway flashed by, it had been raining. Hey babe, she asked, am I going the right way? No response. The guys were still doting over the object, the device, the drone, it wasn’t a drone, it wasn’t theirs, that was the thing, and she spoke up and said she wasn’t sure this was such a good idea, she wasn’t really comfortable with it being in the car with them anymore. It was as if they’d picked up a hitchhiker who seemed innocent at first but they were no longer sure anymore. Neither Pete nor Tiger said anything back. Maybe it was that the rain was too loud. The windshield wipers were going as fast as they could. Through the rain, she didn’t recognize the names of streets on exit signs, nor the number of the highway from which theirs would soon split off. Still, she took the other highway. Maybe the rain and the late hour and the mystery at Lucas’s house, all combined, were the source of her disorientation. She thought there was a chance that her subconscious mind would soon take over, and that her navigation would lead to their street and a sigh of relief. She saw their house in her mind, split-level, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, an office and a half-bath, so much more space than they’d had in the city, almost too much space, as though the kitchen were daring her to make the most of it. She fantasized about pulling into the driveway, couldn’t wait to walk through the front door, into the too-big entryway, and kick off her shoes and wash her face and fall on the bed and in the hazy state of near-sleep recount the night’s events with Pete, wasn’t that wild, I can’t believe we did all that. She remembered the dragon tree plant; she wanted to pour herself and the plant a glass of water each. It needed her more than anyone else did. Pete and Tiger were whispering now, as though something holy were happening in their hands. She felt the urge to pee, and pulled off the highway at the first sign of a gas station. The bell above the door rang. Inside, she walked past shelves of savory snacks and candy bars and headed straight to the bathroom. When she came out, she wandered the station, empty, not knowing what she was looking for but whatever it was, she didn’t see it. A young man at the register looked up from his phone and asked if she needed help and she said, Where am I? He said, Here, and then returned to his phone. She watched him for a moment, not sure what that was about, was it some kind of a joke. Celeste walked back to the car. Neither of them said anything, didn’t ask why she had stopped or where they were, didn’t even seem to register that they’d stopped at all. She backed out of the gas station and caught the eye of a woman doing the same thing in reverse, easing her sleepy family into the diagonal slot next to theirs. They locked eyes and then the other woman was parked and Celeste was backing away, leaving, and she felt a loss, a loss that she was not the other woman, a loss that she had not stopped the car and asked the woman for help, had not asked to use her phone to call whomever you call in whatever this kind of circumstance was. Pete said something about how if their last name began with an H they could use it as decoration. She imagined an org chart, gorgeous, of whom to call, your finger following a flow of yes and no until she got to the right person in the right office who anticipated occurrences like this one, it had happened before, okay ma’am here’s what you need to do, and the farther Celeste got from the other woman in the other car, she felt a severe and nameless pang not unlike the way she felt when she’d broken up with Lee to get serious about Pete, a stone sinking to the pit of her person, and then Tiger said, It’s changing its shape, and Pete said, Oh my god, it’s beautiful, and in the rearview mirror Celeste tried to make out what was happening, what shape the object was now, but the light doubled in brilliance as though a semi truck had overtaken them, pressing down on their bumper, a light so bright she could no longer see Pete and Tiger, and couldn’t hear anything either, and she asked if they could please throw it out the window, the thing, it, what they’d found, please, can we just get rid of it and go home, and they didn’t hear her, neither Pete nor Tiger nor anyone, no one in the known universe.
Trent England’s short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals, including Conjunctions, Hobart, and Bull. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and was recently named a Best Microfiction 2020 winner. He lives in Boston where he is working to complete a novel before his second child is born. Online, he can be found at tengland.com, and on Twitter at @papermotel.