Skywatcher

by

By K. Bannerman



the dust of fragments, arriving hours ahead of the main mass, had turned the sky to blood, but the color in the air was only a hint, a portent, a promise. when the asteroid arrived, the entire west coast would die.

all she could do was watch as the heavens turned vermilion and the sea began to boil. dogs cowered in the shadows of dumpsters. a thickness in the air clung to every surface like plastic wrap, slipping its tendrils down her throat and yanking the breath from the core of her lungs, and all she could do was watch, useless hands clenched into useless fists, from the corner of the building where she had sought feeble shelter from the imminent end.

all she could do was wait.

wait with the dogs in the thick air.

wait without making a sound, like an ant in the shadow of a descending boot.

it was coming, coming faster and faster, and there was nothing she could do except for wait, standing perfectly still.

#

Sadie panted and clung to the covers with the desperation of a woman in labor. Sweat ran from her brow in rivulets. She was neither 'glowing' nor 'perspiring': those words are too civilized. When the dream woke her, she was sweating like a horse at the finish line of a galloped mile.

At her side, Peter still slept in blissful peace. She rose to one elbow, a bestial panic coursing through her limbs, and watched his chest rise and fall like the calm tide. He remained unaware of her trembling. His own dreams probably revolved around yesterday's rugby match or the curvy blonde who worked in the coffee shop downstairs; she knew his eyes lingered on those perky breasts, but in truth, she didn't mind. It wasn't as if Sadie hadn't closed her eyes during their last sexual fumbling and imagined Benicio Del Toro below her. Peter rolled to his side, his freckled back towards her, and gave a rumbling snore.

She rose, had a bath, ran her fingers through her graying hair and sat down to watch an early morning infomercial. The sun had not yet risen and the street was as deserted as it had been in her dream. Sadie found the stillness of dawn disconcerting. She turned up the volume and tried to chase the last lingering visions away with assaultive consumerism.

When Peter awoke, they ate breakfast. Sadie found the dream was all she could talk about. Peter made several attempts at changing the subject, but nothing could divert Sadie's mind from it; every description she gave seemed to purge the terror from her heart a fraction at a time, and while she knew he didn't care and only listened out of desperate politeness, Sadie couldn't stop until it was done.

The way the television in her dream had broadcast progress reports of the object's approach, showing a map of the city with the suspected points of impact declared with ominous red crosses. The stoic emergency vehicles parked in the middle of the streets, lights flashing but sirens off. The way the stray dogs had slunk through the alleys, aware that something was amiss and yipping at their own shadows, then crawled under dumpsters to await the end. The huddled people in doorways and cellars, those who could not evacuate, women with haunted eyes and children nestled at their sternums, men with lipless mouths staring at the sky. The oppressive, bottomless silence.

An entire city, holding its breath.

"So?" said Peter when she paused. He held his coffee cup at the level of his shoulders, unwilling to take a sip until she started again.

"Hmm?" Sadie shook the dullness from her eyes and roused herself from remembering.

"So what happened?"

"Oh." She toyed with her triangle of toast. "I woke up."

Peter harrumphed. "Anticlimactic." He took a long swallow of coffee and said with mock disdain, "Deus ex Machina."

"The ending didn't matter." she replied, insulted. The dream had hit her in a visceral way, and she was insulted he had the gall to act so unaffected. "It was real to me. I didn't even know I was dreaming."

"Sadie, sweetheart..." His eyes darted towards the pile of books on the kitchen counter, with titles like 'Midnight at the Well of Souls' and 'Dead Zone' and 'The American Way of Death'. His smile dripped with condescension. "Maybe it's time you stopped feeding the tigers?"

Sadie ground her teeth and narrowed her eyes. They drove to work in silence, she kissed him coldly when she left the car.

She told three people about the dream, but each time she shared it, the visions became less clear, more hazy, as if seen through fogged glass. By lunch even the memory of waking in terror had faded into a dull ache; all she wanted was a nap. She fortified herself with a cup of cheap coffee and let the acidic aftertaste keep her awake. The day dragged. She was happy to see the end of her shift.

At home, Peter made dinner and she sat on the couch with the hint of a headache prowling behind her temples. He brought bowls of soup into the living room and gave one to her, and as he sat beside her, she flicked the television on. The dream was almost gone. Sadie ate and smiled and leaned her head against his shoulder, comfortable and secure. Her muscles relaxed, one by one.

And then, when the murders and politics were finished and the interest stories began, the newscaster reported the near miss of an extremely large asteroid, late last night, that sent astronomers scurrying to their phones. "As big as Texas," said the man in the cheap suit, "And at its closest point, it slipped past us at twice the distance between the Earth and the Moon." Stock footage of meteors filled the screen, great pockmarked hunks highlighted from the right, frozen in space by a satellite camera. "Astronomers say it crept up on us due to cuts in public funding in the university's Skywatcher Program." He gave a little laugh to reveal his square teeth. "If it had hit, it was large enough to inflict global change; a land strike would have thrown dust clouds into the atmosphere and altered weather patterns for years. A water impact would have caused vast tsunamis and changed the coast line of both North America and Asia, swamping inhabited areas and killing hundreds of millions." Here he gave another chuckle. "Now, on to sports--"

Sadie felt Peter's heavy gaze on the side of her face.

"I've got goose bumps." he said, very quietly, and held up his arm to show it was true.

She swallowed. "Coincidence."

"Mm."

They spoke no more about it.

#

For three days, Sadie did nothing, said nothing, and laughed off the jokes of her coworkers when she saw them again. Much levity was made of her powers of precognition but she was thrilled when the jokes began to wane.

Deep in her mind a seed had germinated that she was having difficulty uprooting. She had told Peter it was a coincidence, but she didn't really believe it, and she found herself thinking back to single unconnected moments of the dream like someone remembers a childhood tragedy. The dogs. The fire trucks and mute ambulances. The thickness of the air.

In stark contrast to the day after her dream, she now didn't want to share this with anyone. She savored the horrific nostalgia and lay for hours in the bath, the room lit with candles, and felt herself becoming more and more mired in her mind, her thoughts bending into wheels that raced around the cyclodrome of her skull. This was not a coincidence because coincidences don't leave one covered with sweat, clutching the sheets, huffing and puffing in fear. If she chose, Sadie could resurrect the adrenaline in her blood, and she did this again and again to relive the moment of waiting in terror and uncertainty. She had tapped into something greater than herself, not God but pretty damn close, and that scared her more than the thought of the end of the world.

If asked to put it into words, Sadie would have said she had warded the asteroid away, reordered the pattern of the universe, and changed the fate of mankind. But no one asked, because Sadie didn't want the world to know she had gone mad, and if her theory was true, she didn't want to know the price of her meddling.

So she kept to herself, grew quiet and sheltered. She did one thing as a result of the dream: she wrote a letter to the government insisting that they reinstate funding to the university's Skywatcher program. It was a simple note, addressed to Whom It May Concern. She refrained from explaining her interest. She sent it away with the Tuesday mail.

#

Sadie stopped going out.

And not just 'Going Out' in the social sense of the word. With the rising suspicion that she'd irreparably altered the course of the universe, Sadie kept indoors to haunt the dark hallways of her home. She feared the wide vault of blue above her, because something up there had listened to her dream, and she was terrified to expose the fragile curve of her scalp to that eternal vista, reaching up up up beyond her. She called in sick for two full weeks.

Peter worried. "You don't look well," he said one morning, maybe Wednesday or Thursday, as he lingered in the doorway of their bedroom, preparing to leave. He only saw that she was in bed, unwilling to rise, and he preferred to believe she was sick rather than suffering from self-imposed seclusion.

"I'm fine," she said. Her reedy voice clearly illustrated she was not.

"I'll bring home dinner," he said soothingly, his brow furrowed. "Spaghetti, okay? You like spaghetti."

She didn't reply, but remained under the quilt.

Hours passed. Maybe she slept, maybe she didn't. She'd stopped dreaming, and without dreams to mark her periods of slumber, it was difficult to tell.

A knock on the door disturbed her. The bedside clock read noon, and she wondered who it could be; she wanted to stay under the dark sheltering blankets, but a second knock, then a third, then a fourth, persuaded her to answer the door. Sadie wrapped a ragged housecoat around her waist and shuffled to the entrance.

A small, willowy man stood on the sunlit doorstep. He wore a tweed coat with leather patches on the elbows, and Birkenstock sandals on his stocking feet. Sadie thought he looked cheesy, then realized she was no picture of beauty herself.

"Yeah?"

Her voice was gravelly with disuse. This was the first person, other than Peter, that she'd seen in days.

"Sadie Thorpe?" he asked, peering intently through little round spectacles. When she didn't immediately answer, he brandished a slip of paper. "You are Sadie Thorpe, yes? You sent me this?"

She saw that the paper was her own letter, regarding the Skywatcher program.

"I didn't send that to you," she said, then caught herself. "I mean, I sent it, but I didn't send it to anyone in particular."

"Well, it found it's way to me," he said decisively. "May I come in?" Without waiting for an invitation, he brushed past her.

"No, actually, you can't," she said, "I'm not feeling good --"

"You feel fine," he replied as he glanced around the modest home, openly appraising it. "You're just a little befuddled, that's all." He turned back to her. "It will pass."

Sadie, after a moment of speechless indignation, said, "Who the hell are you?"

"Was it big?" he asked. "I mean, we saw the pictures from the satellite, but in your mind, was it gigantic? I bet it was. It must've been, for you to write this letter." He began to stride with purpose into the kitchen.

"It was horrible!" she replied without thought, "It was terrible! We were all going to die!" Sadie realized the nature of their conversation as he filled the kettle and placed it on the stove. "And how do you know about my dream?"

"Not a creative person, are you?" he remarked as he rooted through a cupboard. He pulled out a box of tea bags. "Your type never are. Where do you keep your mugs?"

"By the sink. Wait, what are you doing --"

"Making us tea," he said. "We have things to discuss." The little wisp of a man paused and his face, determined and stoic, took a slightly sympathetic cast. "I was completely surprised by your unforeseen involvement, but it's been such a surprising experiment --"

"Experiment?" she said, then with more anger, "What experiment? "

He scoffed. "Skywatchers."

She bristled at his patronizing tone. He was so small and frail, she wanted to snap him in half. She watched him bustle this way and that, fussing with tea bags and spoons rooted from the drawer; he had to stretch to reach up into the cupboard to fetch the mugs, he was so small, and Sadie thought he looked like a little boy wearing his father's clothes.

He only paused in his hummingbird flittering when she gave a sharp, derisive laugh.

"Jesus," she exclaimed, "I don't know who you are, or how you found out about the dream, but if you don't get out of my house right now --"

"My name is David Rhine," he said, slapping the flat of his palm on the counter to emphasize his words. "I lead the Skywatcher Program."

"The astronomy program."

"No." The kettle whistled. "Ah, here we go." He poured a generous dollop of steaming water into each cup, dropped in a tea bag, and handed her one. "Milk? Sugar?"

"No thanks." she answered, before realizing he was not offering, but asking where each condiment was kept. "Fridge and the cupboard by the stove. What do you mean 'no'?"

"Remote viewing." he said as he opened the fridge and drizzled milk into his tea. "Do you know what that means?"

"Not a clue."

He took a seat at the kitchen table and set the mug down. "Clairvoyance. ESP. Out-of-body experience. Do any of these words ring a bell for you?"

Sadie sat and smoothed her housecoat over her knees. "ESP. Mind-reading, right?"

"Good. So we can start there." Rhine folded his hands and rested his elbows on the table. "In the 1950's, a fellow by the name of Robert Monroe began to research the levels of human consciousness. He was intrigued by the idea of out-of-body experiences, having gone through a number of them himself, and by 1974, he established the Monroe Institute in Virginia, where he could test his subjects under strict controls. Do you know what a 'control' is?"

"Yes," she said, squinting slightly. "A scientific norm. I'm not an idiot."

Rhine nodded. "They attempted to establish scientific proof of remote viewing... In other words, leaving the body and gathering information about distant people or places. Psychic reconnaissance, as it were. The government was absolutely fascinated with the concept; they used remote viewers to gather intelligence during the Vietnam and Korean wars." He turned the cup in his hands. "They've continued to fund research into remote viewing, although you must understand, they don't advertise their interest in it. I suppose they don't want to upset the taxpayers."

"Really," said Sadie.

"You think I'm a nut," he said. "Perhaps this will change your mind." He rooted in the pocket of his tweed jacket and handed a business card to her. Under the logo of the university she read, 'Dr. D. Rhine, Dean of Psychology.'

"Anyone can get these printed." she said.

"But not anyone can tell you about your dream." he replied. "The silence. The oppression. The sense of suffocation." He didn't grin, but he came close. "Am I correct?"

She nodded.

"The electrical activity of the brain works in five frequencies," he continued; his voice became higher and faster as his excitement grew, but his expression remained formal. "Gamma, which is greater than 30 Hertz; beta, at 13 to 30 Hertz; alpha, at 8 to 12 Hertz; theta, at 4 to 8 Hertz; and lastly, delta, which registers at less than 4 Hertz."

"What's a 'hurts'?"

He rolled his eyes. "Let me explain it like this; the different levels of electrical activity register as different levels of consciousness. At beta, you're awake and alert. At alpha, you're still awake, but relaxed." He wriggled his fingers in the air. "You're watching television in this state, understand? Awake, but not thinking."

"Okay."

"Theta would be a light sleep, and delta would be a deep sleep."

"And gamma?"

He took a long leisurely sip of tea. "Ah, yes. Gamma." He set down his cup. "Monroe discovered that each of these four levels of electrical activity occurred normally. Not so with gamma. The body appeared to be sleeping at a delta level, with slow breathing and a decreased pulse, but the electrical activity skyrocketed. And when people awoke, they told of vivid dreams, and described events with remarkable clarity."

"Events which actually happened?"

"Not all the time." he said. "Most creative people dream at the gamma level, not always but frequently. But for those who restrain their creative energy, it builds and builds, and when they do dream at a gamma level?" His eyes grew wide behind his moon glasses. "Watch out!"

"So that's what happened to me."

"Yes." he said. "Most remarkable."

"So I didn't will the asteroid away."

He laughed harshly. "No."

Sadie released her breath. "You'll think I'm crazy, but I thought I'd done it. I thought I'd changed the course of the universe." She took deep breath and the words tumbled out; the whole dream floated in the air between them, and Sadie's words were matched by Dr. Rhine's patient nods, encouraging her to continue whenever she paused for breath. Here was someone who would listen, and understand, and not joke about her spooky new powers to discern lottery numbers. It felt delicious to talk, like tearing off a scab to release the new flesh underneath, and at last, with her conversation spent, she collapsed into the back of her chair. "It was more than a dream," she decreed, "I was there."

"No. You just witnessed it," he replied. "We have a small army of remote viewers in the Skywatcher program who saw the same as you." He tipped his head in acquiescence. "I must admit, however, that most were vague on the details. You seem to have experienced it more completely, more vividly, than the rest. You appear to be a great wellspring of untapped potential."

"Untapped potential!" she gushed.

"Precognition," he said. "You saw not only what was happening, but what had the potential to happen. This is marvelous!"

"It was terrifying!"

He nodded. "Of course it would be! My goodness, you had no idea!" He folded his hands, and a stiff smile appeared on his lips. "Would you be interested in coming out to the university?"

She took a sip of tea. "Why?"

"I have some tests I'd like to perform. Perhaps, if you were interested, we could include you in Skywatchers and record your level of ability. I wish to record exactly what you can see, how far we can push your talent for viewing at the gamma stage, and I'm certain --"

"No, thanks," Sadie said with palpable relief. Her world wasn't collapsing around her; no distant God would strike her down for realigning the fate of the cosmos. She could go outside and enjoy the sunshine. "I appreciate the offer, Dr. Rhine, but I'm not interested in helping your program."

"My orders were very clear, Ms. Thorpe -- I'm to bring you back to the university. There are people interested in meeting you," he said. "Very important people." He rotated his cup in his hands again, and she realized this was a nervous gesture; she made this little slip of a man uncomfortable. He cleared his throat and added, very quietly, "People who want to make sure you don't fall into the wrong hands."

"Wrong hands?" She laughed again. "You sound like a spy!"

His mouth stiffened into that reptilian smile, and he peered at her over the rim of his glasses.

"No, Dr. Rhine," she continued firmly, "To be honest, I still think you're crazy, and maybe this was just a coincidence." She grinned. "A weird quirk of fate."

He nodded as he reached into an inside pocket. "Perhaps."

"I could probably write a story about it," she said absently. "You're right, I'm not a creative person, not normally, but... it would make an interesting story, don't you think?"

"Oh, certainly," he replied as he stood.

"Y'know," said Sadie with a laugh, folding her hands and resting her palms on the nape of her neck, "I doubt it'll ever happen again."

Rhine withdrew his hand from his pocket, and clenched in his grasp was a small pistol, silver-shiny and heavy. "It certainly won't," he said, pulling the trigger.

THE END


K. Bannermanís writing and illustrations have appeared across Europe and North America, including Parabola, Lichen Literary Journal, Premonitions, Roots Literary Magazine and Regina Weese Magazine. She divides her time between writing, tutoring English and playing the accordion, which she openly admits she does not do well. Kim lives in Vancouver, BC with her husband Shawn, her dog Loki, and Renny the bunny.

E-mail: Kim Bannerman

Website: The Wolves of Gilsbury Cross

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