It was the spring of my sophomore year that the craft was discovered, half buried at the bottom of an ocean trench.
Out of black waters they dragged it up, and brought it to the harbor, shining in the sun like a huge, overturned plate, strange runes etched into the sides and even stranger knobs protruding from unlikely places.
Years later, that footage would become famous.
For a time, it was as much a part of my identity as it was everyone else’s. I remember late nights crowded around the television with guys in my dorm. Every major news network ran coverage. The late night show hosts made their jokes. Celebrities offered their opinions. Interviews were conducted. Research was done. Conspiracy theorists speculated, and I read, listened, and absorbed all of it.
They were talking in the cafeteria, a group of girls from East Campus, and my ears perked up when I heard someone mention “the circle ship”.
“The ship?” I said, setting my platter down and sliding in next to a pretty girl in a long dress. “What do you girls think it is?”
“They say the circular shape could be evidence of extraterrestrial life forms—” said one.
“It’s always the same thing. Give it a month, and they’ll have found something new—” said another.
Their chatter diverted to other matters, and I looked to the girl sitting next to me.
“What about you?” I asked.
She shrugged and smiled, hiding behind a lank curtain of hair the color of wheat, the same shade of which I have never seen since.
“What about me?” she said.
Lea Riling was her name, and her sudden appearance in my life was almost as abrupt as the emergence of the vessel from the waters.
She was thin and tan, tatted and pierced, and always wore long dresses that left much to guesswork and imagination. We held hands, and spent wet April nights talking for hours in my Mustang, conducting our own interviews before driving down to a secluded spot at the harbor, away from all the bustle of overeager tourists clamoring to catch a glimpse of where they had found it. There, watching black waters slosh beneath rolling fog, I took pictures of us together.
Later, those pictures would become famous too.
“How are we different?” she asked me while we waited for the Polaroids to dry. “I don’t want to be just another couple. I want to matter.”
I held her close and whispered in her ear.
“You matter to me.”
Had I known what I know now, I might have given her a more satisfactory answer, but I guess that wouldn’t have been good enough for her anyway.
By the time May came around, the scientists had nailed it all down pretty well. There were no aliens, no ancient civilizations lost in the mystery of the past. No miracles, no magic. Full circle.
I remember standing in Lea’s apartment, watching talking heads and listening to analysts rant, not wanting to believe. It all felt wrong somehow, and when she said my name, standing behind me, a distinctly hollow feeling crept up into my stomach that’s been there ever since.
“I don’t think this is going to work,” she said, her hands on her hips.
“Why?” I asked, stunned, but she just shook her head.
“You care more about some fantasy of yours than you care about me,” she said. “I thought I mattered to you.”
I begged her not to go, told her she was wrong a hundred times. But her mind was set, and nothing could change it.
So I watched her leave, trying not to look her in the eyes, the ones I had come to know so well… At least I thought.
That should have been the end.
But two nights later, when the ship slipped mysteriously back into the black waters of the harbor to a furious torrent of renewed coverage, I finally understood.
Men in dark suits and glasses approached me, collecting evidence and ignoring my questions. Reluctantly, I handed over the pictures of us, and they nodded.
“That’s her,” one said, sliding the photos into a plastic bag marked, “evidence.”
And then it was my turn to answer their questions, respond to their interviews, listen to speculation, and weather the jokes, all of which I did with a rare patience, spurred on by a single thought, played over and over, like a spinning record in my head, stuck on repeat.
When it was done, I drove down to the harbor, rented what scuba equipment I could, and parked the car in a familiar spot, this time away from men in black suits, staring out to sea.
That was ten minutes ago. I’ve got the equipment on now, and this hollow feeling inside me is nearly gone.
JT Gill is a 22-year-old who lives in Northern Virginia and writes in worlds of his own. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nanoism, 365tomorrows, Cease, Cows, Daily Science Fiction, and The Molotov Cocktail, where he won the 2015 Flash Fool contest. You can follow him on Twitter @jt3_gill.