Sundown on the Hill – Timothy Mudie

Judy wakes up in the middle of the night to an empty bed, but she knows exactly where Edward is. There’s only one place he goes these days. As she lies there in the late summer heat, the sheet sticky on her legs, a fan blowing desultorily from an open window, she allows herself a moment to believe he might simply be making one of his many nightly trips to the bathroom. That he has gone to the kitchen for a glass of water. That she will pad from the bedroom down the hall and find him watching an old Western TV program with the volume turned down low and the closed captioning on. But the moment passes, and she climbs from bed, confirms that Edward is missing, slips on a pair of laceless sneakers, and retrieves her keys from the rack by the front door.

She pauses there, looking down at herself. Pajamas and sneakers. She could go back to bed. Edward is a grown man, her husband, someone who should be able to take care of himself. What is the worst that would happen if she left him to go on these jaunts alone? Some early morning jogger or birder stumbling across him and bringing him home just after sunrise. Judy opening the door to find Edward on the front step, embarrassed and shoeless. But she can’t do that, can’t turn him into some lost puppy. The thought flits from her mind quicker than a firefly’s burst of light. Edward is her husband, and he is still here. She will help him as she can.

Outside, Judy is greeted by the chorus of crickets and other night insects. A whippoorwill chortles its familiar call in the distance. She adds her Chrysler’s purring engine to the nighttime song.

The roads are clear as she drives out of the town proper and into the park, streetlights becoming sparser along the way. Though she has spent her life in this part of upstate New York, it always awes her how dark and still it is this late at night. Edward had moved here for just that reason, to be close to Sharp Hills State Park. She realizes that she has never seen this park in daylight, and doubts Edward has either. He decided to live here to be near the park, and what he wants in the park only exists in the night.

The park is closed to the public at this time, the lot empty as Judy pulls in, the moon the only light. She knows the paths well enough by now to walk them by memory. Edward expects to see more than moonlight up above, longs for it. Judy doesn’t, but looks anyway. Confirms that the only light in the sky is natural.

She comes upon Edward in his usual spot, standing on the nearest hilltop, in the center of a small clearing. Hunched, his knees bent, but always standing. Tonight he wears a pair of khakis with a striped button-down and tie. Like he’s heading to work, though they’ve both been retired for the past five years.

Looking upward, always looking upward, Edward doesn’t notice Judy until she puts her hand on his shoulder. He starts, then gives her a sad smile.

“I thought tonight would be the night,” he says. “No such luck, I guess.”

The sun will be up soon. Already the horizon has begun to shift from black to gray. Judy takes her husband’s hand and leads him down the hill, along the short path between ancient trees, back to the car. She puts him in the passenger seat, and gets behind the wheel.

“There was something about tonight,” Edward says as she begins to drive home. “A feeling. I really thought they would come.”

Judy pats his hand, takes it in her own, kisses his fingertips. “I know,” she says. “But not tonight.”

#

The first time Edward told her his story, he was hesitant, afraid she’d laugh, run off, tell him to lose her number. They had been dating about a year then, and in the years since, all forty-six and counting, she’s heard the story so many times that she sometimes feels like she was there. Recent years have loosened Edward’s tongue and now he’ll tell anyone who will listen. Though these days, that’s mostly Judy herself.

It started, of all places, at Woodstock. He and three friends drove up from Lackawanna, part of the small contingent that actually bought tickets ahead of time. Edward watched the first day, and was making his way back to the tent he was sharing with his buddy Roger after Joan Baez’s set, a little after two in the morning. Slightly stoned, but mostly just wiped from a day in the heat, all of a sudden he was overcome by a powerful urge to leave, coupled with a clear vision of a hilltop surrounded by paper-white birch trees. Seemingly of their own volition, his feet led him away from the festival, away from the field and crowd. The commotion of laughter and debate and hushed love-making faded as he made his way toward the woods, then through them, following a tug in his brain like there was a hunk of magnetized metal in there, pulling him sharply forward. No one tried to stop him or even questioned him as he left.

Later, when he looked on a map, he learned that he’d walked for nearly seven miles, passing through working farms and fallow fields, over streams and train tracks. Eventually and suddenly, the fog over his brain lifted and he found himself on the top of tree-covered hill. A small circle was clear of foliage, and he stood there, his wits returning, beginning to panic about what he’d just done and how he’d get back. It would have had to be sometime around four in the morning if he walked at a good clip, but back then he was in fine shape and easily could cover that sort of ground in two hours. The night was cloudy, and just a hint of moonlight lit the area.

Until the UFO appeared. A bright flash of light and a bone-rattling hum. Branches snapped off of nearby trees, and maple leaves and pine needles floated to the ground like snow. Edward’s body felt transmuted to something denser than flesh and yet lighter than air. Over the years, Judy has tried to imagine what this felt like, both rooted to the ground yet tugged skyward. She’s not sure she will ever really know the feeling.

For a moment, the UFO hung above Edward’s solid, static body, round and glowing, red and white lights blinking in an inscrutable rhythm. Then, like a cork from a bottle, Edward detached from the ground and shot up.

After that his memory gets hazy. Lying on a slab, bathed in light, surrounded by small gray beings with massive eyes and no mouths. But there’s nothing painful in his recollections, no tests or probes, and he doesn’t appreciate the jokes about that. What he remembers is a feeling of serenity, something approaching enlightenment. If the aliens had let him stay for just a bit longer, he thinks he might have transcended himself, become something more than merely human. Then there was an orange flash, and he was standing in the clearing, looking east at the first rays of morning. Eventually he gathered himself enough to wander to the nearest road and hitch back to Lackawanna.

When his friends got back themselves and asked where he’d gotten off to, Edward told them. He didn’t think twice about it. Those days, there were a lot of out-there stories and beliefs circulating, and an alien abduction was hardly the craziest. Still, they laughed. He clammed up about it for a long time, but never stopped thinking about it.

The first time he shared all this with Judy was when she realized that he really and truly loved her. He proposed two weeks later, and of course she said yes.

#

Coffee tickles Judy’s senses and draws her up from sleep later than usual the next morning. She hasn’t used or needed an alarm in years. Most days, the days when Edward doesn’t wake her with his nocturnal excursions, she wakes shortly after sun-up. Today, the sun is high and bright and hot, and Judy still feels she could sleep another two hours. But she gets up, steps into her slippers, and heads down the hall to the kitchen.

Edward sits at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee and the morning’s paper in front of him, pen in hand and brow furrowed as he works his way through the crossword. He looks up as Judy enters. “Good morning.” He stands to get her coffee, splashes in cream. Sheepish, not meeting her eye. Not an explicit apology, but after being together for this many years, Judy catches every nuance in his morning greeting, the gentleness with which he hands her the steaming mug.

“There were pine needles on the soles of my feet this morning,” he says. “Thank you.”

Judy sips her coffee, pats Edward on the elbow as she crosses around him, pulling a chair next to his own. He sits down next to her.

“Jaws,” Judy says, pointing at the paper. “Nineteen down.”

“Of course,” Edward says as he pens it in. “Remember we saw that two days before going to the Cape for vacation? Not our best idea.”

She laughs. “Definitely not.”

Minutes pass, they drink coffee, fill in crossword boxes. A pleasant morning. More and more since they’ve retired, days seem to follow this pattern. That Judy wakes in the night, that Edward waits for aliens that may never come, that Judy tries to will herself to believe.

Judy won’t bring it up. She doesn’t anymore. There’s no point.

“It seems crazy now,” Edward finally says, his eyes on the puzzle. “When I’m out there, it makes so much sense, but in the light of day…”

She tries to put herself in his shoes, she really does. To want something so much, to feel that sort of compulsion. But she can’t. She has what she wants.

“I just want you to be happy,” she says softly. “I just want to make you happy.”

“You do make me happy.”

“I know.” She looks into the dregs of her coffee. “Do you want a warm up?” She starts to stand, but stops when she feels Edward’s hand on her hip.

“You make me happier than I’ve ever been. The… what happened to me is something I can’t explain, the need to go to them. It’s powerful. But I hope you know how important you are to me. More important than they could ever be.”

“I know,” Judy says. She smiles at him, gets them both more coffee. She’s just a woman, one of billions. He’s woken up with her countless times, slept next to her countless times, whispered and kissed and nuzzled. The aliens came only once and they changed his life. Why wouldn’t he want to see them again?

#

Two nights in a row. Rare that Edward leaves two nights in the same week, let alone one right after the other. Judy cries when she reaches over and feels the empty space where her husband should be.

Slowly, she performs her routine check. Bathroom, living room, kitchen. All empty. She wipes her eyes, takes a deep breath, removes her keys from the ring, slips on her shoes.

When she opens the car door, the dome light pops on, and Judy jumps, practically has a heart attack. Sitting in the passenger seat, seatbelt already buckled, is Edward.

“Maybe you can come with me?” he says. “Maybe they’ll take us both.”

She doesn’t laugh, doesn’t shake her head disdainfully and try to coax him back to bed. She looks him up and down, his pleated navy blue pants, the business casual maroon polo shirt, the buffed brown shoes. She feels under-dressed.

Smiling for worrying about what she’s wearing, Judy gets into the car. “Why not?” she says as she starts the engine. “Tonight could be the night.”

#

Insects whirr and a breeze whistles through the fir trees. Moonlight dapples Judy and Edward as they stroll hand in hand down a dirt path to the hilltop. She’s never really noticed how pretty it is here, how serene.

When they first stepped onto the path, Edward sped up, trying to tug her ahead, but Judy kept her pace steady, and Edward matched her. Now they walk like they did when they were first dating, like there’s no destination. She wishes they could turn down one of the side paths, hike down some barely-marked trail, meander through the woods forever. But she lets Edward steer her until they reach the clearing. His clearing.

That looks different too, walking into it when it’s empty. The stars twinkle above, the trees form a canopy that’s almost a dome. Put together, it reminds her of when she visited the planetarium with her third grade class, how she looked up at the constellations dotting the ceiling as the guide pointed them out, outlines illuminating one by one.

“Which direction will they come from, do you think?” she asks, unaware that she planned to speak until after the words leave her lips. “Are they coming from a particular star?”

Edward beams. She’s never asked him this question. “That one,” he says, pointing to a constellation she doesn’t recognize, an off-kilter box and swoop. “I think. I remember seeing it when they had me, and I got a warm feeling, a home feeling.”

“That’s a good way to feel,” Judy says. Their hands detached at some point, but she takes his again. Together, they look up at the stars scattered like a child’s toys.

Edward squeezes her hand. “I’m glad you’re here.”

She squeezes back. “Me too.”

Under the wide and crowded sky, Judy and Edward stare upward and wait for the aliens to come back and take them away, to usher them into the future, to tell them the secrets of the universe.

###


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