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Aurora

The man in the blue jacket walked, in the dark and alone, with only his flashlight to guide him. There were, he knew, bears and worse things in these woods. The man knew of the badgers, the moose, and the wolves. He knew of these things and cared very little, having no control of nature's creatures. What the man in the blue jacket cared about, what concerned him, were the loose rocks, the wet stairs, the low-hanging branches—the sprained ankles, broken legs, and slow deaths caused by nothing more than his own ineptitude and stupidity.

Five or six hundred feet above him was the top of Indian Hill, the highest spot for nearly fifty miles. From its glacier-scraped top the man in the blue jacket would be able to see the entirety of the small city he lived in. There, already below him, lay twenty thousand sleeping people, each dreaming their own dreams. Above, at the top of what some locals misnamed "the Mountain," he hoped to take pictures of the Northern Lights. He could not see them now, hidden as he was beneath the thick branches of the white pine, maple, and birch trees, but he knew they were there, flickering above his sleepy little town. It would be, he thought, quite picturesque.

And so the man in the blue jacket climbed, shining his flashlight ahead of him. He climbed, thinking of the pictures, of the weight of the tripod he carried, and of what he would do if he got lost, broke an ankle, or if the flashlight went out. He knew that if he got lost in the woods the best thing to do would be to stay where he was. He knew this and was not worried; he had climbed Indian Hill before, in day and at night. Up the two or three hundred wooden stairs he climbed, keeping an eye on the planks, the rocks, and sometimes the woods around him. He climbed and he thought. In the distance somewhere a train blew its horn, the sound carried to him by the wind.

At the summit he climbed out onto one of the three wooden decks and set up his tripod and twisted his camera, which had been his father's, into the top. Out over his town the Northern Lights shimmered, green fire in the sky. He had never photographed them before.

When the roll was filled, he climbed back down the steps of Indian Hill. He paused only to drink from the bottle of tap water he had brought with him. Tired from the climb and the late hour, he did not think much as he tried not to drop the tripod from his slightly sweating hands.

The man in the blue jacket did not drop the tripod. Instead, near the end of his descent, he dropped his flashlight. He froze as it rolled, its beam of light waving crazily as it thunked down the stairs and turned on its fat end. It rolled down four steps, each a foot high, before hitting something at the bottom. There was a crack of breaking plastic, and a tinkle of shattering glass as the light went out. Suddenly, the darkness seemed very full and very close.

He stood where he had dropped the flashlight for a few minutes, letting his eyes adjust and thinking of how close he was to the parking lot that held his twelve-year-old Chevy. Four hundred, perhaps five hundred feet. The man in the blue jacket sat down on the step above him and took a drink of water. There, bathed in the light of stars and the aurora, lay his broken flashlight. Light flickered off the glass of the broken lens and bulb, making it a simple thing to see. Slowly, he picked his way through the near-dark toward the bottom of the stairs, one hand gripping the rail beside him.

A humming grew in the distance, accompanied by a set of headlights. As the car whooshed past him, not more than a hundred yards away, he could see the trail of packed dirt and loose stones ahead of him. Through the trees, the rear of his car shone red with reflected light. He stopped to retrieve his flashlight and began to pick his way down the trail, feeling his way more than seeing after being blinded by the unexpected brightness of the car's revealing headlights. At one moment he was in the forest, surrounded by ferns and trees and sleeping predators, and the next he was in the parking lot, no more than twenty feet from his car and its bucket seats.

As the man in the blue jacket started the car and began to drive home, he thought of his friend Rachel, and how he wished she had been with him. He thought of having to avoid deer as he drove. He thought of having ice cream when he got there. He thought about the new flashlight he'd have to buy and the pieces of glass and plastic he had left behind. He thought of the pictures he would send away to be developed. He thought of many things; however, he did not, not even once, think of the thing that had glimpsed him in the darkness and watched him unseen, the thing that had considered for a moment and let him pass by unaware and unharmed.

Copyright © 2003 Patrick Hall.

Patrick Hall lives in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan. His writing has previously appeared in Rumor of a Thaw and The North Wind. This is his first paying gig.