Shannon lifted her face toward the open sky, waiting impatiently for the passing of a shooting star. John spotted one after another, their tails cutting through navy blue darkness and disappearing before Shannon could readjust her focus. The house next door was silent, and the two siblings whispered to accommodate unseen neighbors behind darkened windows.
It wasn’t raining yet. It had rained every night since the first week of June. The tourists never quite learned when to pack up and get inside, but John and Shannon knew. They grew up here, they were sun-rusted townies and always would be. They could detect the slightest shift in air pressure, the smallest drop in temperature, a system of warnings baked into their skin.
“When do you leave?” Shannon asked, the wicker chair groaning beneath her shifting weight.
“I haven’t decided yet. Maybe tomorrow. More likely Monday. Sunday flights are too expensive.”
“Sure,” Shannon said. “Bad luck to fly on Sundays, anyway.”
“What about you?” John asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I should leave yet. What is Mom gonna do with all this stuff, you know?”
John said nothing. Shannon had all but moved back home after their father died and she kept starting the same argument with John even though she knew that it was unfair. “You could stay, too. She needs your help, too. And not just her, but me.” For most of their adult lives, Shannon had been in and out of their parents’ house, always claiming it was for the family and not because she got swallowed up by every city she tried to call home. John moved to Idaho, became a husband, became a father. John called Shannon a martyr. Unattached and unemployed, she had endless time to try on the weight on their mother’s shoulders, to fuss and coddle as if widowhood had made their mother needy, infantile. She had even more time to make John out to be the absent brother, the brother who never came home, the brother who didn’t care anymore. She knew that it was unfair but did it anyway, trying desperately to convince them both that they had more choices than they did.
The sky seemed clearer somehow, each star a pinhole to a universe unseen. The tree frogs grew louder, their sheep-like bleating cutting through the thick, heavy air. The two took turns waving away mosquitos, Shannon cursing under her breath as they landed on her neck and face. Shannon opened her mouth, prepared to make small talk that would keep an argument at bay, but her jaw slackened as movement on the horizon overtook her attention.
A mass—or maybe an orb, or maybe an aura—of blue mist was consuming the roof of the house next door. It moved like fog but denser, faster, propelled by some invisible force. The shape of it was hard to hold visually—Shannon noted that if it were a liquid, it would be about as viscous as oil—and the color was so vibrant, so electric blue that it hardly seemed natural.
For a moment, Shannon was certain that the roof, itself, was moving away from the house as if unbound by eaves and nails. It was a moment as short as the popping of a flashbulb and equally as disorienting. As the thing kept shifting, Shannon rubbed one eyelid, then the other, wondering if it was a sign of some new disease of the brain or eye that was causing her to see this blue something. She pawed at John’s shoulder, eliciting from him a distracted swat that reminded her of long car rides and hot mornings in church pews. This wasn’t a misfiring of the ocular nerves. They both saw it. It was real.
And then it was gone, moving noiselessly out of sight and disturbing nothing in its wake.
“What was that?” Shannon asked.
“I’m not sure,” John said. “Maybe… some kind of cloud.”
Shannon stared up into the cloudless sky. “I don’t see how that’s possible,” she said. “And it had… a presence. I felt it.”
“A presence?” John asked.
“Yes, John, a presence.”
“What kind of presence?”
“Like, human. Or, no, inhuman. Otherworldly.”
Shannon could feel John’s eyes on the side of her upturned face.
“Maybe someone just passed away in that house,” Shannon said.
“Passed away. Died. Maybe what we witnessed was, I don’t know, the departure of their spirit.”
“Or maybe,” John said, “it was the return of someone’s spirit. Maybe it was a guardian angel.”
“Maybe it was,” Shannon said.
John rolled his eyes. Shannon knew he thought she was difficult to talk to now, and not just because of the martyrdom, which John said had been part of her personality since day one. It was the spiritual stuff, which she hadn’t started gravitating toward until their father’s illness. She parroted the beliefs that he held, musing about trees having inner lives and the restlessness of an unseen dimension. When John asked her what had caused this shift, she’d said, “I have a new perspective now. Something you’d benefit from finding, yourself.”
John snapped his fingers. “You know what? I just saw a video about ball lightning. It’s rare but it does happen. I bet that’s what that was.”
“I know what ball lightning is,” Shannon said. “That’s not what that was. It didn’t flash. Besides, it wasn’t fast enough. It didn’t move like ball lightning. It moved sideways. I think that it might have been extraterrestrial.”
“Oh, come on,” John said.
“What? You can’t possibly tell me that you’re so narrow-minded that you really believe nothing else is out there.”
“I didn’t say that,” John said. “I just don’t think they’re floating around the beaches of North Carolina. I mean, seriously. A UFO. Do you know who claims to have seen UFOs? Scammers. People with too much time on their hands. People who want to get on the local news. Are we those people?”
“So, because other people have faked UFO sightings, you don’t think anyone will ever actually see one?” Shannon asked.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that whatever we just saw has a rational explanation and you’re going out of your way to ignore it.”
“What makes my explanation less rational than yours, John?” Shannon asked, her voice glinting like shards of glass. “Who are you to say that clouds are more rational than ghosts and lightning is more rational than aliens? Do you know everything? Are you the smartest person on the planet, John?”
“If you’re going to act this way,” John said, digging his fingers into his temple, “I’m going inside.”
“Is that so you don’t have to admit that you’re not the smartest person on the planet?”
“Jesus, Shannon,” John said, throwing his hands up in the air as if to catch something. It was a gesture that they’d both inherited from their mother. “I don’t think I’m the smartest person on the planet. You want it to be a ghost? Fine, it’s a ghost.”
“I don’t think it’s for sure a ghost. I just don’t think we have any business ruling out that possibility when we don’t know what it is. I mean, what’s the point of that?”
Shannon stopped speaking. She wondered what John was thinking about, sitting there with his hands balled, his lower lip tucked between his teeth. Memories of their only real fight, their one true screaming match flashed through her mind. John shouting, “If there was something wrong, the doctors would know.” Shannon shouting, “It doesn’t matter what the doctors know or don’t know. He’s dying, John.” Their mother pushing them both out into the driveway and slamming the door behind them.
“Do you think it will rain tonight?” Shannon asked.
“Doesn’t feel like it,” John said.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“I think I’ll head inside, anyway.”
Shannon nodded and the two rose from their chairs and dragged them back beneath the porch awning. They slipped past the sliding glass door and up the stairs, turning in opposite directions when they reached the landing.
Shannon shut the door to her childhood bedroom, wishing she’d said goodnight to John, sweet dreams, anything to show that she cared for him. She heard the sink in the bathroom open, a rush of water flowing over John’s hands and then his toothbrush. She kicked her shoes off and changed into a pair of running shorts and an old t-shirt with the words I Got Crabs at Stan’s Seafood Shack peeling off the back. Climbing into bed, she turned off the lamp beside her, not bothering to pull up the heap of twisted sheets at her feet. Thick, wet air hovered over her body.
She was just beginning to drift into twilight sleep when the thin sound of her ceiling fan was overpowered by the noise of pouring rain. It beat against the windows and bounced off the leaves in the trees.
When she awoke the next morning, the weatherman crackled over the radio that it was the most rain they’d gotten all week, marveling at how it managed to sneak in undetected. “I guess we never do know for sure, Doug,” the news anchor said. He never mentioned the unidentifiable blue something. Shannon wondered if John would continue to think about it, would embrace a question with no answer. She hoped that there was still value in sharing something, even if you could never agree on what it was.
John found Shannon on the deck, her bare feet propped on the damp railing. She smiled at him and patted the chair next to her.
“It’s wet,” she said. “Everything is.”
John tipped the chair to the side, letting the puddles of water fall away before sitting down. “Some rain,” he said.
“Sure was. You leaving today?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Even though I’ve heard that flying on a Sunday is bad luck.”
Shannon elbowed him and he elbowed her back. She chose to surprise him, to say nothing when he expected a diatribe. She could sense his tension leftover from last night, or perhaps it was a permanent wall he’d built between them. She tried to will it away as the tree frogs below bleated in praise of impossible puddles.