Rogers Park: Area 52
Antonio Bowie-Rivera was awarded Honorable Mention in Fiction in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.
Rogers Park: Area 52
There is a strange fear that some people have when reentering society from prison. There is a sense that you won’t belong anywhere, that you won’t fit in where you used to. In some ways this is always true, being absent from the lives of the people you once interacted with on a daily basis has its natural consequences. In other ways the world just becomes a different place than it was before you went in. People and places change. It’s just the way things are and life doesn’t stop just because you fucked up. All of that is relatively understandable, but in my case, convention and understanding went completely out the window. In my case getting out wasn’t just going to be weird, it was going to be alien . . . literally.
While I was locked up, the most significant event in human history occurred. The notions of life and its origin were challenged and yet to be resolved. While I was down state Illinois, doing my bid, Earth made its first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. Or they made it with us. However you want to think of it, there was a landing of some kind of craft on a beach in the neighborhood I grew up in: Rogers Park. The landing happened about two years before my release date but Rogers Park had already become a Martian landscape for me long before little green men started splashing around on Loyola Beach.
When you’re on the inside, the outside world fades away. If you come from a large city, like I and most other inmates do, there is this feeling that you’re on another planet when you make it out to where most prisons are: the country. You aren’t accustomed to the wide open spaces and lack of noise that rural America is famous for. Sometimes I’d walk around the yard and try to peer past the fences and take in the humble serenity and natural beauty that surrounded the hell hole I was in. But that fence was always there to remind you of where you were and how very far away from home you were even if the city was only an hour or two away. Even the rolling farm land that sits right outside the barb-wired double gates seemed like it was a million miles away. Your whole life is only the few feet of space the state gives you and you become so preoccupied with making sure no one takes it away from you or maintaining what semblance of dignity you can manage after the strip searches, constant racial bashing from guards and other inmates, being forced to eat the “food” you wouldn’t feed to a rat you were trying to kill—that you forget about the world as much as it’s forgotten about you, and believe me it has. You aren’t part of the world anymore, you are “other,” and you are a hostile foreign entity that needs to be contained. You aren’t even you anymore, you are M46393 now and no matter what you do that’s all you’ll ever be again.
Every convict in the world has at some point come to the realization that he was never as important as he once thought he was. If you’re lucky you have a mom who rides through your whole bid with you, but lots of guys don’t even have that. Most guys just have the ten bucks in state-pay every month and the hope that when they get out they can stay out long enough to get high a few times before they’re hauled back in. Maybe you’ve got a buddy or a girl on the outside and maybe they visit and write and send money at first but eventually all that dries up. The letters stop coming in after the first year and the money on your books gets less and less. By the time you step out the front door you don’t want to know any of the phonies who claimed to love you. How could they love you and leave you in a cage to rot, alone? I always wondered how the rest of society slept at night knowing that millions of people were, in essence, being tortured in cages. I get that society needs to have rules and consequences for breaking those rules, but if you think about it: Prison doesn’t work and never has.
Since people became “civilized” there has been some form or another of prison, the idea being either to remove the criminal from the rest of the society or punish the criminal by subjecting them to some sort of discomfort, or a combination of the two. But crime has only gotten worse over time. In fact, until the massive spike in violent crime in the sixties, the rate of crime was a steady climb.
The only relief came in the late nineties when there was a sudden and welcome drop in crime when there was actually expected to be a large boom. Most people credit this drop to policing and harsh prison sentences but most people are really stupid. The drop in crime in the late nineties is most likely linked directly to the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in the seventies. Violent crime is concentrated, but not limited to, areas of low income. Areas of low income are marked by their high numbers of single women raising children without the financial assistance of a partner. When women were allowed to choose more freely when they could have children, they collectively decided not to have them if they couldn’t afford to raise them well. Children who are raised unwell are much more likely to grow up to be criminals. Thus Roe v. Wade created a future where those who would have been responsible for the crime wave that would have swept the nation in the late nineties were aborted in the mid-seventies before they were born. This all sounds like a science fiction novel, I know, but consider that the Eastern European country of Romania did the exact opposite of Roe v. Wade at damn near the same point in history, and a mega-wave of crime did take place in that country when all those neglected children came of an age to commit crimes: the mid to late nineties.
To make a long story short: Prison is hell. It’s hell on purpose and if the average person knew that he was only creating a worse human being coming out of that hell than went into it, he might reconsider his demand for a tough stance on crime. Prison doesn’t reform anyone, it just makes us bitter and closed off to humanity—our humanity and the humanity of the people we’ll eventually have to share the world with when we get out. Since I’m a stickler for numbers, when I say when we get out, I mean the 2.5 million of us that are released each year.
You fantasize about getting out, you walk through your old hood in your daydreams but when you actually get there it’s foreign. Like wearing someone else’s underwear or putting your right foot in the left boot. There’s a Starbucks where the corner store used to be and instead of little old Hispanic ladies and their 17 grandkids running around, you see these lily-white hipster kids walking three-legged shelter dogs. You see these idiot kids damn near getting run over in the street because they can’t be bothered to look up from their Tweets and Facebook posts. You go back to the corner bar down from your house for dollar beers but instead you find a gastro-pub where everything is bacon flavored for some reason and your favorite bartender, Mickey, has been replaced with some rude punk chick with half her head shaved. Not that you could afford to have a drink there anymore anyway but you just wanted one little thing to be the same. You just wanted to come home. You want to be angry with this place because it’s supposed to be your place: the corner under the streetlight where you had your first kiss, or the alley you learned to ride your bike in, but it isn’t anymore. You want to move everything back to its place like so much old furniture, but you can’t. You want the UFO off of the beach your mom took you to every weekend, but there it is, staring you in the face when you step off the El for the first time in years. It’s almost laughing at you, like you’re the dope for even imagining you might still have a place in this world. I didn’t, and the aliens making themselves at home on the beach were proof of that.
To make matters worse, the stupid UFO wasn’t even really a flying saucer or anything like that and there were no little green men. The biggest deal in Earth’s history ended up being these lame ass silver pillars that fell from space. There were 12 of them, 200 feet tall, perfectly cylindrical, 2 feet in diameter with a glimmering silver finish, all arranged in a circle nearly 100 feet across. They kind of looked like a cage from a distance. Like King Kong got out and was long gone. No lights or rocket boosters. No laser beams, no slow descending ramp or multi-tone greeting from across the stars, just 12 giant telephone poles from god-knows-where and honestly, who gives a shit? What a gyp. Mankind waited our whole history for something amazing like this to happen, then it does, and in my own back yard no less, and it may as well have been nothing at all. All that speculation about whether we were alone in the universe was finally met with an answer and it was the most boring, who cares why even bother oh well answer ever.
It’s funny; for me, coming home was odd but not because E.T. was my new neighbor. I came home to a world of self-driving cars and an idiot game show host who had somehow become president. I came home and you couldn’t say the word “fag” anymore and parents don’t let their kids play outside. I came home and augmented reality is king, whatever the fuck that is. Who’d have thought that the strangest thing about coming home from prison wouldn’t be the goddamned alien space ship parked on the beach down the block?
My sister’s kid hooked me up with an online dating app on my smart phone. I don’t know why they call them “smart” phones, I can’t figure out how to use the damn thing! Why the hell is it so hard to just make a call these days? These things don’t even have buttons and any time I try calling someone, they don’t answer and I get a text a few minutes later telling me to text them back if I want to talk. I don’t know, maybe I’m just getting old.
I left a world of concrete and violence, a place where respect was everything and weakness was death. That place became home to me, a home where nothing is soft and pain is the natural state of things. I’d come to know that world. I’d come to accept the facts of that place because if you don’t get with the program in there it will get with you. Prison is no place for a human. It is no place for anything you want preserved or repaired or made whole. It is a meat grinder whose crank is the law, and whose gnashing teeth are a product of a society that wants to hide the scars of its face from a mirror it cannot look away from. If you want to turn a man into a monster there’s a place down state for that and they’ve always got room for him.
Out here in the world they’ve got drones that deliver pizza and alien landing sites surrounded by tanks and government agents. My halfway house was a couple blocks away from Loyola Beach: ground zero or area: 52 as it came to be called unofficially. I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep the entire time I was there on account of the choppers and jets that were constantly coming and going. You’d think they would evacuate the area but I guess they determined the pillars to be no risk to the surrounding area so they just built a military complex right there on the beach. It’s bright as hell too, like a night game at Wrigley, only it’s every night. And the people! Oh my god the people. You’d think this was Mecca with all the foreigners flocking here. I couldn’t get a cup of coffee and the paper in the morning without elbowing my way through a crowd that would have filled the United Center.
You wouldn’t believe the shit these idiots would say about the pillars: “It’s a sign from God!” “They’ve come to save us!” “Take us with you!” My opinion at the time: Mork from Ork took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and got seriously lost. I couldn’t think of anything worth saving less than the human race. If they were here to do anything, I hoped it was to blow this planet to smithereens. God knows we didn’t deserve it. In any case, nothing has ever happened with the pillars. They came, they landed and they attracted a lot of unnecessary attention from the world’s dumbest people, that was the long and short of it, though I’ll admit to being curious about them at first. I’d seen all the news reports on TV while I was still on the inside and for the most part I wasn’t impressed. I was more upset about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to swim on my beach again if those things were there. I had started to hate those damn poles actually. Couldn’t get the paper without being mobbed, couldn’t just kick it on the beach like I used to, couldn’t turn on the TV or the radio without hearing what some dumbass expert or another thought about the pillars. But all that changed a short while after I came home.
I got my own place a month or two after my release and one night I couldn’t sleep with the jets and helicopters and tanks outside so I went out to the back porch to have a smoke. I could see the lit up staging area on the beach from my third-story studio apartment. From a few blocks away all the hoopla on the ground wasn’t visible, it was just the pillars. Without all the people and press around them they were kind of cool. I stared at them for a long time. I felt like I could kind of feel them, felt like there was a low hum coming from inside of me but I knew it was the pillars somehow. I wondered if everyone felt this way when they saw them. I didn’t feel this way when I’d seen them on TV or in magazines but now there was this odd pull that came along with the hum, a pull in the direction of the pillars. Not a physical pull but something else, like watching a baby take its first steps or laughing when you see a fat person fall down, it just kind of happens like it was always going to happen no matter what. I remember lighting my square but not taking a single drag. My attention to the pillars was only broken when the heat of the red-hot cherry got near my fingers. I flicked my butt over the banister and rubbed the burnt spot on my hand, confused as to how I’d let that happen. When I looked up at the pillars again the pull and the hum were gone. I didn’t get much sleep that night.
After that night the crowds didn’t bother me so much. I now understood why someone would spend thousands of dollars to get here to maybe, just maybe, get a peek at the strange posts on the beach. There was a beautiful mystique to them that wasn’t lost on a two-time loser like me. In fact after the strange sensation I felt on my back porch that night I wanted more, I needed more. I can’t say exactly when I got it in my head but when I got it, it struck like lightning. I needed something out of those silver sticks or maybe they needed something out of me, it was hard to say at the time. I wasn’t sure I could live a full and complete life, nay, a life worth living at all, without getting my hands on one of the God forsaken hunks of space metal. I thought that maybe if I could just touch one I would be relieved of this all-consuming, ravenous crave to be as near as possible to the pillars. So I started skulking around the staging area.
I’d get off the train and take the long way home, the way that involved walking past the sand bags on Sheridan Road. The way with triple gates with barb-wire, armed National Guardsman every 10 feet, and high-tech guard towers manned by sharp shooters. I was used to the towers and men with guns willing to put a bullet in you for looking at them wrong. I thought I was getting away from all that when I left the joint, but I guess the more things change the more they stay the same. I started to feel bad for the visitors. They’d come all this way only to be locked up. I knew that feeling well: far from home in a place where everyone is suspicious of you and no way to get out. Being watched constantly and having guns trained on you everywhere you go. I started to feel connected to these things, I felt like they understood me, they knew where I’d been and the things I’d gone through like no one else ever would or could. When you’re that close to the staging area you can barely see the tops of the pillars. If you want a real good look at them you’ve got to get up high.
I wasn’t the first asshole to get obsessed with these things. People had tried to rush the barriers. One guy tried to drive a pickup truck through the gates, but they shot him dead before he made the sidewalk. A group of Loyola University kids thought it would be smart to zip line down into the complex. They had this crazy batman style gas gun that fired a grappling hook into the staging area and had it all set up to slide in from a 10-story building a block away. The only problem was the geniuses secured one end of the cable to a rusty old stand-pipe on the roof of the 10-story building and when the first dummy went to glide down, the pipe broke and he went splat on Chase Street 10 floors below. Still I couldn’t help but think that I somehow belonged near those things, whatever the hell they were.
I looked for holes in the defense of the staging area for months, the whole time getting more and more obsessed about laying just a single finger on one of the pillars. My sister said I was nuts and that I was going to get myself killed messing with those people. She wasn’t wrong. There would be entire nights when I wouldn’t sleep a wink. I’d sit on my back porch smoking cigarettes and staring at them, watching the moonlight glinting off of the smooth metal in the distance, wondering about where they’d come from and why they were here now. No doubt what all those fancy assholes in lab coats were doing, too. I knew I was crazy but why should Uncle Sam get the pillars all to himself? What gave them the right to keep ordinary people away? After all, the pillars chose all of us when they chose Earth, right? At that time there were more than a few lawsuits arguing those exact points to no good end. If I was going to get my paws on one of those things it was going to be an act of God . . . or lunacy. As it turns out, it was the latter.
When the Pillars first landed, all the world’s religious nuts went crazy. There was rioting in the Vatican; people flocked to their temples, mosques, and churches to pray; fake prophets made all manner of predictions that, of course, didn’t come true. Southern Baptist jerks came on TV and said they needed money for Jesus to fight the aliens; Middle Eastern jerks made videos declaring themselves and Allah the rightful owners of the silver pins in the sand; the Buddhists, for the most part, stayed out of it. Everyone wanted to claim this event for themselves somehow. Everyone wanted to believe it was their God who’d finally come to purge the Earth of the non-believers. Everyone was so sure that these were indeed the end of days, and hellfire this and repent that, and so on and so forth. But then days turned into weeks and nothing happened, weeks to months and still nothing happened. Eventually people calmed down. The looting and general dismay abated long before I got out and I was kind of sad to see it stop. I thought the world I hated so much was going to tear itself apart on live TV and I was going to have a front row seat to it all. But that’s not how it went down.
Maybe people finally got tired of looking stupid on TV. Maybe they decided to just wait and see what happened. Maybe they finally admitted to themselves out loud what they’d always felt in their hearts: that there was no God and anyone who ever said there was was either an idiot, an asshole, or a little bit of both. We’d done so much horrible shit to each other in the names of our faith, and then those pillars, with their mirror finish, came falling from the sky and showed us how ugly we looked. How shameful we should feel now knowing it was all in vain. That we’d been killing each other in droves for centuries over the manic scribbling of neurotic epileptics who lived thousands of years before us in much different times. In the end it wasn’t angels or demons, the good defeating evil, or the holy books we’d clung so tightly to that proved to us that we weren’t special, that we had a place in the universe but it certainly wasn’t on top. In the end it was the pillars that humbled us, that brought the humility that was so necessary for a people to be considered decent. We come into this world alone and leave it alone, and all we have in between that time is each other. Maybe it took aliens landing in Chicago to finally see how silly we’d been, praying to statues and killing each other in the name of a big father figure in the sky, shaking his finger at us from thousands of years ago. I never bought into the whole religion thing. For me it started with Santa Claus: I’d been a good boy all year but he never showed up. We lived in an apartment complex my whole life with no chimney. How could Santa be real if he couldn’t get into my house? So if he wasn’t real, there was no way God was either. But those pillars were real, they came from a real place and they were really calling me. They were calling me more than Jesus ever did, that was for sure. Maybe, I don’t know. I was just some jerk who’d been in the joint half his life—what did I know?
A year after my release things really began to calm down. The crowds were gone and the media attention was still there but not the way it had been for the first few years. The National Guard contingent had even lightened up a lot. There were only a few tanks now and the barbed wire even came down. Even I had come to my senses for the most part. I still wanted to touch them, but I wasn’t willing to lose my head over it anymore. Every now and then I still got caught up in staring at the pillars from my porch, but only for as long as it took to finish a Marlboro. I must not have been the only one because people stopped trying to do insane shit to get at the pillars. The kooks had given up and I was kind of ashamed to say I was one of those kooks at one point. After the initial disruption that the pillars caused there was this weird time of coming together. World-wide crime dropped by nearly half; there were concerted efforts by the wealthier nations of the world to provide much more aid and relief to the poorer countries; almost all violent conflicts came to a low boil in the world’s hot spots, and it was starting to look like the world wasn’t going to end. People in general were starting to ignore the pillars but the mindfulness they had awoken in us remained. Still though, that first night I really saw them, that definite hum in my bones: The memory of that wasn’t gone.
It had been a year and all the things that made me feel like an alien in my own hood were normal now. I had a standing order of black coffee at the Starbucks down the block, I had 50 followers on Twitter, and I even bought a drone that I took to the park on the weekends. I modernized, so sue me! Hell, I even had a hipster girlfriend. She wore a wool hat in July, only drank PBR, adopted a shelter dog, and would die before admitting she was a hipster. We spent a lot of time in the park adjacent to Loyola Beach where the pillars were.
If you didn’t know that the pillars were alien space ships you might assume they were some sort of art installation. People eventually started to ignore them completely. That’s what was crazy. How could a space ship become mundane? What was so boring about first contact? I couldn’t answer these questions because I was just as guilty as everyone else who once marveled at the 12 God-like stakes that had plummeted to Earth from the untold heavens above. Four years after they’d arrived there wasn’t even a fence around the pillars. No armed guards, no tanks on the ground, no planes overhead. It was sad in a way. The most extraordinary thing ever was just a passing curiosity in the end.
People walked up to and touched the pillars all the time now. They took selfies with them and tried to climb them. Sometimes there was a wedding ceremony inside the ring of them or just outside. Tagger kids tried to bomb graffiti on them but nothing stuck to the pillars, not the paint or the missing dog posters or the interest that you’d think a UFO would command. People had turned these miraculous objects into backdrops in the class photos of their lives. Not me though. I think I wanted to preserve whatever mystery was left in them. A part of me felt like they never stopped calling me and that if I finally touched them, the mystery would be gone. So I just didn’t touch them. There were a million times when I wanted to kick off my blankets in the middle of the night and run barefoot in my boxers down the alley to the beach and call back to whatever was calling out to me from those damned pillars! But there were also times I wanted to binge hard drugs and beat up policemen and I didn’t give into those urges, so this should be no different, right? I had become very content with the idea that I’d never touch them. I started to wear it like a badge of honor, until one night.
There is a dive bar on Sheridan Road called the Oasis. It is the only place north of Belmont that is open till 4am and since I work the second shift it’s the only time I can go to a bar. The best thing about the Oasis, besides the hot wings, was the fact that it was one of the only things that hadn’t changed since I’d gone to prison. I’d gone to the Oasis since I was 16 years old and I knew all the regulars and I guess you could say I was a regular. In any case I was at the Oasis on Friday night and I’d had a few and I was waiting for my girlfriend when, out of the blue, I felt that hum again. At first I thought it was the vibration of the music from the jukebox. It was soon clear that this wasn’t the case. I went outside and the hum intensified and honestly, it began to scare me a little. At this point my girlfriend made her way to the entrance of the bar where I was standing and asked if I was okay. I shook my head and slowly began to walk east toward the water that was just a block and a half away. I can’t say for sure but it was almost as if I were physically being pulled in the direction of the pillars.
My girlfriend followed me with a concerned look on her face. She kept asking where I was going and what the hell was wrong with me but I didn’t answer, I didn’t want her to think I had lost it. The fact was I had clearly lost it, but she didn’t need to know that and I sure didn’t want to confirm as much to myself. I was following some alien wiggle in my soul. I should have stopped and ran the other way, called the FBI or something, but I didn’t or couldn’t. I made it to the edge of the beach a few minutes later and there were the pillars. Two hundred feet tall and still surrounded by gigantic military flood lights, still lit up like twelve prison bars from Venus. The humming in my bones was almost more than I could bear at this point; I wasn’t sure how I was still standing, let alone walking. The sound of my girlfriend’s voice had disappeared completely behind the hum. The hum that started out calm and low, almost relaxing, was now a deafening roar inside my brain.
I shuffled like a zombie through the sand right up to the closest pillar and looked up, straining to see the top of it. I got lost in the glint coming off of it and I could feel a trickle of warm liquid come from my nostrils and drip off my top lip. It was at this point when I first felt any control come back over me. I decided to use this moment to fulfill what felt like my destiny. I raised my hand and held it between my body and the pillar. I took as deep a breath as I could manage in that state, then leaned forward. It felt as though there was a barrier between my hand and the pillar, like opposing poles of a magnet but I kept pushing, knowing in my heart of hearts that this was right.
Now, I can’t tell you what happened to me on that beach. In the ways that count most I was not there. I can tell you what my girlfriend says she saw and I can show you the cell phone footage that some passerby took when he saw what he saw. I can tell you what happened to me as I understand it, which I’m not 100 percent I understand.
The moment my skin made contact with the pillar I remember a feeling of becoming stuck or frozen in place and I watched a shot of blood leave my nose and slip down the pillar in front of me. After that there was nothingness. There was no me, there was no ground beneath my feet or sky above my head. No 12 silvery pillars, no beach, no Earth, sun, or moon. There was only a sense of the infinite. A peaceful destruction of every atom in the universe was recognized in me as I recognized their immediate re-creation outside of me. I witnessed the birth and death of all possible universes, one hundred billion galaxies, and all the life that ever was or ever will be. I saw the whole of human existence in barely the blink of an eye and I was okay with that. I understood, finally I understood, that I understood nothing at all. I wasn’t given the language to accurately describe what I experienced but I’ll say this: If there is a God I’ve stood at its doorstep and peered into its home.
After being given what felt like a tour of the history of the universe—beginning, middle, and end—I was sort of brought back to myself. Again there was no pain and no anything, but I was back in my body and back on the beach, but I was alone and the pillars were gone. As I attempted to regain myself I noticed that I was naked and the lake was still. The sand beneath my feet felt funny and I wasn’t breathing. I didn’t require air and the sand felt funny because I wasn’t really standing anywhere. Then the voice came, a voice like a sensation. Imagine if that pins-and-needles feeling you get when your foot falls asleep could speak. It was like that in my head. Still no fear and no pain, just a calm realization that while I was a nigh insignificant part of the makeup all that is, I was still a part of it and therefore vital to the very existence of any and all things; a tiny but wholly necessary piece of the cosmic tapestry.
This was the message. They were finally speaking to us. They had called out to me before but I was not yet ready. They had called out to thousands of others, but no one was open to receive them. They wanted to share a message of peace. A message that had been shared with them long ago by beings that had long since stopped existing and only asked that they seek out the next world capable of receiving the message. They lived in what we would call the fourth dimension, and they viewed time and space the way we might view a television show: something with a beginning, middle, and end. They had no specific knowledge to pass on but to say that we as a species were headed in the right direction and would remain on this course so long as we kept each other. One day soon we would be challenged as a species, but as long as we kept our faith in one another we would survive and send our legacy to the stars as they once did. They relayed an admiration for our capacity for hope as well as our complex ability to hate. They wanted us to know that even the worst of us were still among the most wonderful of creatures in the entirety of the universe. They wanted us to go boldly into the future with the knowledge that we are indeed worthy. It was clear to them, and now it was clear to me, that the things that separate us as people are the beautiful things, these things need to be celebrated, accentuated, and glorified. The uniqueness of each individual could be called “God” and just might be if we ever evolve just a little bit. They wanted us to survive. Their hope was that knowing that we weren’t alone in the universe would give us the extra push we needed to keep moving forward. They had evolved past love and hate but still held these notions in high regard because they too were once primitive beings: afraid of the unknown and unwilling to trust even each other until they were shown something akin to the 12 pillars. They hoped that someday we would create our own version of pillars and fill them with the knowledge we’ve collected, the love we’d generated, and the hope we’d inspired in each other; then seek out another world on the brink of both destruction and salvation and share with that world the secrets of a universe that seemed so large that nothing in it mattered but in fact was composed of every important miniscule matter, matter that included but was not limited to: us, you, them.
I knew all this in my head and heart instantly and then I began to descend. I fell fast back to my plane of being and I was once again on the beach, the real beach with Lake Michigan lapping at the shore not 20 feet away, the real sand under my shoeless feet. I was back to normal, but this time I was actually naked. The humming had stopped and I let go of the pillar. My girlfriend was screaming and crying, mascara running down her face. I reached out to her and tried to take a step but my legs felt like Jello and I collapsed in her arms. She lowered me onto the sand and I passed out. The last thing I remember was a guy standing over me with his phone recording me with my girlfriend shouting at him to stop fucking recording me and call a goddamn ambulance.
I woke up in a hospital bed with a uniformed guardsman standing watch. There were two doctors, a nurse, and a man in a suit sitting in a chair in the corner with his fingers interlaced. The man in the suit saw me blink my eyes awake and cleared his throat as a signal for everyone to leave the room. They did and he asked if I could speak. I said I thought so and apparently I could. He reached into a bag at the foot of the bed and pulled out a laptop. He used the buttons on the guard rail of my bed to raise my back and head rest and sat the laptop down in my lap. He clicked the space bar twice and a video began to play.
In the video a shaky image of me and my girlfriend came into focus. The angle was from behind and whoever was holding the video was chuckling and saying “look at this dickhead” under his breath. The camera view got closer to us and I could see myself reaching for the pillar. There was a flash of white light and the camera jockeyed a bit as the cameraman was clearly freaked out. After the flash of light it seemed like the wind started blowing hard and I was stuck to the pillar. My girlfriend could be heard shrieking in the video but the camera stayed trained on me. Without warning another flash of light erupted from the pillars and my clothes appeared to explode away from my body. The video went on like this for exactly three minutes, with me reaching out to the pillar, being frozen there and something else. From the moment I touched the pillar to the moment I let go of it my hair metamorphosed from the dark brown it had been my whole life to a bleached white, devoid of any color whatsoever! Not just the hair on my head but my eyebrows, eyelashes, arm hair, and yes even my pubes: all white. The video ends with me cradled in my girlfriend’s arms and a hovering shot of my shivering, stark-white, naked body.
The man in the suit took the laptop from my lap and lit a cigarette before offering me one. I accepted and we sat in silence for a long while, just smoking our squares. Halfway through his cigarette he leans over my bed, gets right in my face and asks where they went. “Where did who go?” I ask.
“Don’t play dumb with me, prick,” he barks. “The pillars, where the fuck did the pillars go, you motherfucker!”
I was dumbfounded. I had no clue what he was talking about, but I could guess that the pillars were no longer on the beach for whatever reason. I could also guess that if I even thought about telling this guy what I’d experienced after I touched the pillars, I could kiss seeing the light of day ever again goodbye. So I clammed up. He ranted and raved in that hospital room for hours. He threatened to lock me up forever and to take it out on my family and blah blah blah. I would be sorry if I thought I was going to keep anything from him. He was the United States government and they had ways of making me talk. This was nothing I hadn’t been subjected to a million times before in police district interrogation rooms. No way was I letting this government ass hat know anything about the complex yet simple wonders that were revealed to me in that dream-like state I was pulled into. It was clear to me that my new mission in life was to share what I knew with everyone. This gift of a message was for all of us, not just the rich not just strong. Not just for me either.
I eventually reminded him that he showed me that video on YouTube which meant that the whole fucking world knew I was here, alive, and that I hadn’t done anything wrong so there was no way he was going to be able to disappear me to some underground lab without having to explain himself. He didn’t like that but eventually I was told I was free to go. So I stood up but quickly met the floor: My legs were limp noodles. I looked up at the suit, puzzled, and he just chuckled and left the room. A few moments later a nurse came rushing in and called for help. After getting me situated back in bed the nurse explained to me that I had been in that bed for almost a year. I wasn’t in a coma but I wasn’t able to wake either. The doctors at Evanston Hospital had been completely baffled and it was a shock to everyone when I opened my eyes for the first time just a few hours ago. They’d removed the feeding tube and waited, hoped, and prayed.
My girlfriend had been taking care of me and had even set up a GoFundMe for my hospital bills. I sat in bed and watched TV for a few hours, waiting for my girlfriend to show up. Apparently the whole world had been waiting for me to wake up and news had gotten around that I finally had. All the old news about the pillars landing was hot again, only this time it was followed by shaky footage of me touching the pillars. The flashes of light, the wind blowing, my clothes exploding, and my hair turning white were all now dramatic moments in human history. I watched all this unfold on TV in a daze. It felt like it was happening to someone else, it was surreal. The most amazing parts were the parts I wasn’t awake for. After I’d collapsed, the pillars started to give off that familiar hum, familiar to me anyway. The hum went on for a few minutes before the pillars began to rise out of the sand on the beach. They hovered just off of the ground as they continued to hum. The bright, reflective silver finish of the pillars started to dull slowly. After a minute or so the shine was completely gone and the pillars appeared to be black. Not just black, but void of anything that could come close to visible color. Looking at the shaky cell phone video reminded me of the nothing I felt after I touched the pillar, that totally empty but totally okay feeling that I can only describe as peace. After the pillars shed their shimmery coat the humming stopped and without any kind of warning the pillars zipped straight up into the sky at a phenomenal speed. In about as fast as a blink of an eye they were gone without leaving any trace that they’d ever even existed, there weren’t even holes in the sand where they had been posted for nearly five years.
In the time I’d been asleep, Loyola Beach had once again become a militarized test zone, but I guess they found even less than they did when the pillars were there because they were only set up again for a few weeks before they cleared out. All that was left of the visitors was me. They had mastered interstellar travel, sought us out amidst the infinite stars, all to leave a simple message of hope. They left this message with me, for what reason, I cannot say.
Feeling overwhelmed by all this I turned the TV off and closed my eyes. I awoke a while later to my girlfriend sitting at my side. I looked over and smiled at her as a tear formed in the corner of my eye. Before she could say anything the door to the hospital room burst open and in flooded a torrent of reporters and camera people. They all shouted questions over each other and the bulb flashes in the small room were about to give me seizures.
I looked around the room not knowing that this scene was going to become a constant in the rest of my life to come. I waited in that hospital bed until they all seemed to tire themselves out with their frantic questions. I waited a moment more before I took a deep breath and introduced the world to the rest of the universe.