You finger the wrinkled note in your hand and scowl. The sound of its crinkles as you fold it is lost to the rain pattering your car roof.
The sky is filled with white clouds, like a frothing mess of sea foam dragged into the sky. Sea foam. You let loose a bitter “ha!” You can't believe you left your home at the beach for this dump.
Your car screeches to a slow crawl, pulling itself onto the gravel path of the Bleawood Manor. Not much of a manor anymore, you can see, but a shambled ruin of rotting wood and chipped stone.
Sighing, you heave your bags out of your car. The styrofoam boxes of Thai food squeak and you hear your bottles of bug spray clink. Your feet crunch on the gravel of the road, and you look around, truly seeing the place for the first time.
An old, wood house stands two stories high, surrounded by unruly rows of bright yellow rapeseed flowers. The house looks sturdy enough to sleep in, just barely. It creaks with each summer gale, but if you sleep near the front door, where you can quickly roll to safety, you’ll be safe, right?
Still grumbling, you unpack your sleeping bag, brushing spiders and ants off the wood planks of your spot. Sitting cross-legged on stiff legs, you start to eat your lukewarm Thai food.
Damn Aunt Becca. Or Great-Great-Aunt Becca. Whatever.
She must’ve visited you when you were younger, but you don’t remember her. Which is an impressive feat, you muse, staring at a photo of her, considering her stature was over six feet. She also had a habit of wearing ski coats no matter the weather, the pockets of which she lined with cigars. She had frizzy white hair and a sharp face that hid the fact that she was in her seventies. But however petty and strange in life she must have been, she is pettier tenfold in death. She owned nearly half a dozen properties, you can see, reading over her will for what must be the… eighty-third time? Yet she sends you to the most out-of-the-way, run-down one of the lot.
“To claim your share of my inheritance, Marin Hesper, you must spend a single night in the Bleawood Manor, on a night when the stars shine upon you. If it is cloudy, you must stay until the clouds pass. Rest assured, you are not the only one who is put through tasks like these to claim your share, all the other beneficiaries must as well. I have thoroughly enjoyed putting these tasks together, it warms my dying heart knowing my final act will be to cause misery and discomfort.
Your Great Great Aunt Becca”
You glance nervously at the sky. However hard it was raining previously, all clouds have miraculously cleared. The sky is glowing with pricks of light like tiny holes in the fabric of reality. Or glowing with the light of tiny ghosts curled up in a ball, huddling against the cold void of space.
Grumbling yet again, you give up any attempts to be poetic and set aside your ginger stir fry. At least that’s one good thing about the drive. The stargazing in Middle-of-Nowhere, Montana, is amazing, and you find your hands itching for your shiny telescope, which lies abandoned in your home near the beach.
An eleven-hour road trip to get where you are. Eleven hours! And the sleep that you finally do get is filled with creaks, cold gales of wind up your neck, and a mysterious tickling in your ear, which you dimly and uncomfortably realize can only be a spider.
You wake just before dawn from a nightmare in which you’re pulled over at the side of the road by a man-sized spider and told you were never to stargaze again lest you forfeit an arm and leg.
You yawn, brushing a small spider out of your ear and packing up your bedroll and belongings. You hurry to the door, wanting nothing more than to get back to your own bed and away from this dusty, rotting place. The place that was too empty. The sounds of crashing ocean waves were gone, along with the salty smell of the sea. No lights, no smells, no sounds but the occasional lonely call of a train looking for its station.
The moment you step out of the house, however, your vision goes black.
An old lady with puffy white hair and eyes black as the night sky swims in your vision, and you blindly stumble to catch yourself on a wall.
“Well done,” she says in a high, reedy voice. “You’ve completed my task.”
“What’s happening?” you ask. This can make a fantastic study on how stress increased the risk of hallucinations. You know a few people who are neurologists.
Aunt Becca smoothes her hair and pulls a cigar out of a tacky ski jacket. She starts to puff rings of smoke. “I suppose you want your share of my inheritance?”
“I still have debts to pay off. I was fired two weeks ago.” You admit, your expression darkening until it matches the shade of Aunt Becca’s eyes.
“Well!” Becca laughs. “This isn’t going to fix it! All the money went to a company that makes pipe-cleaners for kids.”
You sway gently on the spot, a sinking feeling in your stomach.
You hardly register the fact that she made her money go to a pipe-cleaner company. Of all things!
“What?” you croak quietly.
“Yes, well.” She pauses to blow another smoke ring. “Not everything in life is perfect. But there is an inheritance, and you have collected it.”
“What is it? Property? A job?”
“No. A question.” She waves her hand airily behind her, in an almost drunken manner. The background of fuzzy black flickers, shifting into a backdrop of colorful nebulae. Is that truly where she is? Or did she just change it in your vision? Either theory hinted at things you can’t quite understand. “You see, Martin--Mariner--whatever…being dead has its benefits. You can ask me anything. Things that no one on Earth knows.”
“You expect me to believe this?”
“Nope. But what’s the harm? I’m not letting you out of here until you pose your question.”
Sighing, you fumble your way to the floor, sitting on your rolled-up sleeping bag. “I guess...I’d like to know...what’s out there.” You hastily amend your question, in case she pulls the “picky genie” card. “What life is in the universe, aside from us.”
“Very well,” Aunt Becca says, and your vision clears.
“Wait!” You yelp. “Answer me!”
You’re all alone, left in the reality of rapeseed flowers, crumbling manors, cheap cars, and spiders. The dawn rises as you drive out of the gravel path of the Bleawood Manor. “Damn her,” you growl, as if you could pull her out of her perch in the stars and drag her to hell if you concentrate hard enough.
An hour on the road in unbearable silence (as there aren’t any radio signals nearby) and you start to wonder if it had all been a dream. By the time you stop for gas three hours later, you’re convinced of the theory. You rush into the convenience store for a restroom break and junk food, and by the time you return to your car, you’ve decided.
“I’m searching for the old bat’s money anyway.”
You return home in Washington late the next night, your car screeching to a halt in front of your tiny cabin. The sea is rough and the night is cloudy, but at least it doesn’t feel empty like Bleawood Manor had. The beach is cold, isolated, filled with treacherous rocks lurking under the surface, so it isn’t exactly a high-demand property. But it’s home.
Confused, disheartened, and above all, weary, you skip unpacking and collapse into your creaky Murphy bed, letting the sounds of a violent sea lull you to sleep.
You sit bolt upright, jumping at the sound. It isn’t the normal creaks of your cabin, nor is it the crashing of a wave. It’s much too loud for it to be caused by an inhabitant of the household; you live alone.
So what, you wonder, could have made that noise?
You sigh, making to return to your pillows and blissful dreams, but your eyes never close. You can’t rest, you realize, until your curiosity is satiated.
Bump. Screech, caw, screech! Bump.
This time it’s accompanied by screeches, and you grow nervous, wary.
A seagull landed on your roof and is injured? Can’t be, seagulls aren’t active at night. But you might as well check.
Shoving off your heavy, hand-knit quilts and rubbing sleep from your eyes, you unlatch the door, grabbing a baseball bat out of habit--it frays your nerves, living alone!
Crazy Aunt Becca pulled through. The skies are filled with luminescent creatures, their soft glow a color you’ve never seen before--that you suspect no one has seen before. Furred creatures are shrieking in impossibly low tones, trying to burrow under the sand.
BUMP. You look left, and see a hippo-sized...thing, headbutting the side of your house.
It’s a lizard-like beast, with a round snout and face. Its six eyes blink menacingly at you when you squeak with fear, and it lumbers around to face you.
It rumbles throatily, its eyes narrowed and head cocked, as if it were asking you a question.
“Don’t eat me,” you stammer, backing away slowly, hands out in a placating gesture. The alien huffs in a disappointed fashion, turning away to the long grasses protruding from the sand like waving green fingers. You breathe a sigh of short-lived relief, turning your back on the creature to stare at the beach. And...pause.
For a second you wonder if you’re dreaming. But you can feel the sand in your feet, and the cold wind whipping your hair and robe into a frenzy. The scene feels like something from a book or movie.
The beach is crowded with it. A cloud of dust specks swarm in the air next to you, a bright, glaring red in the moonlight, and you stray away from them. The luminescent flying creatures, which upon closer inspection are small reptilian things with disproportionately big heads and pods of light tucked into their tails.
You walk out onto the beach in a trance. Each sand dune you crest brings forth new sights and creatures and wonders.
A spineless mammal sifted through the sand with her nose, yellow and pink patterns etched into her fur.
A camel-like creature bows to you, speaking in a wispy language too fast to comprehend.
A screeching animal with what resembles three hot air balloons glued together, ending in a sharp, beak-like point.
In the ocean, clouds of colorless moss battle another floating mass of plant-like structures in a slow battle for dominance.
Tall, more humanoid beings (though the tentacles throw you slightly) nod to you. They’re dressed in tightly knit, jerkin-type articles of clothing, and with the assistance of a chip strapped to their blue cheeks, they’re able to speak English.
“Wow,” is all you can muster. Wild joy leaps inside you. This is what’s in the universe! The beach is crowded with all forms of life.
Aunt Becca’s voice fills your head. “Now, it isn’t all of life in the universe, like you asked, but I don’t need to waste my energy on someone I don’t know.”
Your eyes cast about the beach, the starlight shining down upon the life that had set your eyes ablaze with wonder.
“This is perfectly fine,” you murmur. “Just fine.”
The next years of your life are tough. When you half-heartedly attempt to share your discoveries with scientists and the press, they ridicule and shame you. No proof exists of the magical night that you spent wandering around in a daze of pure, childish awe.
It takes you a lot longer than you’d planned to get a job, as you’ve decided to quit the field of marine biology entirely and move to Bleawood Manor in Montana. There you’ll study to get a degree in astrobiology, in the hopes of being the one to find the life you’ve encountered.
On the outside, you’re a young man attending college for the second time. You drink coffee and go on dates and you seem perfectly normal.
When darkness falls, however, your house lights up with activity. There are precisely 113 sketchbooks, each page filled with drawings of the creatures and plants and animals you’ve seen, scattered across the manor. A visitor might think a madman lived in Bleawood Manor. And maybe he does.
But when things get tough, you return to your telescope and gaze at the stars that have become your unholy obsession, your relentless passion, your ultimate fixation. As if staring at the stars the same way you did that fateful night in the doorway of your very house could bring back that pure wonder and ecstasy of the night at the beach.
Your sketches of creatures speak to you, calming you when you become unhinged. And they sing you to sleep with their wispy calls and bumps in the night.
And you fall asleep knowing you’ll never see them again.