A couple hours later
It was getting dark when the trio met up at the Boulevard Park Centre that evening. The reddish-orange luminescence of the sun was receding fast across the populated streets of Sugarplum, predominated by a smell of gas emissions and mud. Little sounds of katydids and ravens soon floated across the avenues of Violetwall and approached their ears by the time they stepped on Community Grounds.
That night they wore jackets, scarves, and gloves. The wind from the near ocean brought gales that swooped down along the thoroughfare, empty soda cans and bottles banging against the sidewalk.
Andy kept his ginger hair hidden under a blue beanie, his miniature fringe sticking out a little over his eyebrows.
Alex could sense the group’s excitement as she sauntered towards the intersection of Main Street. A line of cars sped by like sapphire blurs. By the time she got there, she had already begun imagining the UFO: a narrowing pencil beam of light shoots through the sky and a continuous whooshing sound circles in the air, the alien invasion, circular discs of metallic steel surround the perimeter in an orderly fashion, and amongst the sky: the skyline of celestial entities that—
She could see Phoenix and Andy from the other side of the intersection. They were sitting on a wall. The Retrove Centre was bright and dazzling that evening; Alex’s eyes glimmered from the buzzing sign at the top. It was red then, but she knew that it often changed colour throughout the night.
There was a group of people entering the building, cars parked neatly between white lines, and a lamppost that shook fiercely. It had been loose for quite some time.
The group promised each other years ago that they would never go to the Retrove Centre at night without one another. Why? No reason, that’s why. No more . . . and no less.
That same beat that Phoenix had heard earlier was playing in the background.
“Bruh.” Phoenix laughed. He was scrolling through Instagram on his phone. “When you single-handedly reduce the average grade by eight per cent.” He raised his arm and put on a serious face. “I HAVE NO LIMITS!”
He kept scrolling. Almost every post was about the UFO. NASA had released no updates since that image had been posted and it rose a bit of controversy. The comments section had been riddled with “LIES!“, “BULLSHIT!“, and, of course, the occasional: ”I spilt my beans."
“It’s real,” Andy said. He looked up at the sky, and then back at Phoenix. “I know it is. Why else would they post that?”
“I see you’re still having a changed attitude since last night,” Phoenix added. “That show change your mind?”
“Haven’t even watched it since the fridge almost fell on us.”
“Bruh,” Phoenix said. “You weren’t even watching it then. You were just crying because a bug got on your jacket. Yeah, I saw that—I saw that. And then you were all like ‘Phoenix, save me!’ and what do I do? Save the day. Uh-huh. That’s right.”
“My G.” Andy laughed. “You dumb as fuck.”
“′My G.’” Phoenix imitated his voice. “Nah-uh. No-no-no, you ain’t get to say that. You’re ADHD Andy.”
Andy chuckled and glanced over at Alex who had been crossing the intersection. “AH! LOOK WHO IT IS!”
Alex met them with a middle finger and a smile.
Phoenix smiled slightly, too. “Bout time, dude.”
She hopped on the sidewalk and danced to the sound of the beat. “Ay, ay, waddup!”
“Oh God,” Andy said as Phoenix chuckled. “Alex—just—no.”
“What?” Alex said. “Just because you can’t dance to save your life.”
“Nah,” Phoenix said. ”Stawp."
Alex stopped, still smiling. “Okay, let’s head inside then.”
Phoenix said, jumping off the wall and landing on his feet, putting his phone away in his pocket, “Okay, unless Andy has to go home now because of his curfew that he mamma set for him.”
“Bro.” Andy laughed. “What do YOU MEAN?!”
Inside, the Retrove Centre had been occupied by a crowd of people, each playing arcade games. Retro ray sounds played back and forth as the sound of people’s laughter swarmed the place. Phoenix, bobbing his head to the disco beat, glanced over at the VR Centre. It had its own area in the arcade with glass walls surrounding the track. Then, people zooming down the vert ramp on their hover-boards and vanishing into the game.
The room was full of dance stages, racing games, shooters and Alex’s favourite—Space Invaders.
There was a smell of lavender throughout the place.
Andy took off his beanie and revealed his ginger hair.
“I smell fire,” Phoenix said. “Oh wait.”
Andy laughed ruefully. ”Absolute genius."
Phoenix stopped bobbing. “What you guys tryna do?”
Alex gazed at the VR Centre. Every so often she could remember playing that game. “Do you still use that hover-board?”
Phoenix remembered what happened earlier that day. “Nah, it literally broke today.”
“Nice one.” Andy shook his head. “Moron.”
Alex looked over at the far left side of the arcade and saw the dance stages. Her hair had been kept neatly cut that evening. “Oh, you know what we doin tonight.”
Phoenix looked over at the stages and groaned. “Ah, not this shit again.”
His silver jacket reflected the great red lights of the arcade. For a moment, the music seemed louder than it should have. Alex nudged Phoenix by his shoulder and directed him towards the stages as Andy followed, looking at his phone, putting his beanie in the pocket of his coat. It made him look like he was stealing something from the building. They pushed through the crowd of people and heard the EDM get louder and louder.
Each stage was occupied by two people dancing to music that overlapped one another. Long beams of blue light darted across the room. Phoenix and Alex huddled together through a bunch of teenagers who had been inhabiting a line of shooter games leading up to the stages in front of the glass walls of the VR Centre.
“I remember you dancing here before,” Alex told Phoenix, and smiled.
“Never have,” Phoenix said, and coughed.
“A couple of years ago. You were dancing to Illenium."
Phoenix shook his head.
“No? Nothing? You’re breaking my heart here, Phoenix.” She knew he could remember, but that’s not what he wanted to forget. What he wanted to forget was how he slipped off the stage and hit his head off the small stairway leading up to it those years ago. “Oh my God, are you okay?!” Alex laughed then. “Perfectly fine,” he said. Treading her way towards the game, she saw that the two occupants were finished.
“Destroyed,” the first said.
“Game’s busted, dude,” the other responded.
“Looks like you guys are up.” Andy’s voice floated by their ears in the way that sirens fade into the distance.
The occupants hopped off and left the arcade. Phoenix looked through the glass walls of the VR Centre and saw the large windows on the other side. The sky outside was beginning to really darken now. In about thirty minutes it would return to the same colour it had been the night before: black with a sky full of stars. Of course he loved the stars. That much was true. What he wasn’t sure of was if he enjoyed dancing. He still wasn’t sure how she’d remembered that night when they were thirteen. Because—still smiling—he’d thought she would forget how they used to hang out late until they got a call from one of their parents. Oh how good things never end, he thought.
Alex rushed up on the stage and immediately put in a one-euro coin. Phoenix did the same. His face bathed in the blue laser lights, features reducing to ocean gleam: his forehead was drenched with an overbearing azure that continued down his cheekbones.
Alex swiftly arrowed her fingers through the song selection playlist, looked up I-L-L-E-N-I-U-M and hit the first song she could see—Sound of Walking Away. The two stood alongside each other on the stage, viewing separate screens that had yellow silhouettes of people preparing to dance. The objective of the game was clear: copy them.
“You finna get whooped though.” Phoenix laughed at her.
“We’ll see, Newman.” She grinned, her braces covered by the immaculate blue lights.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I see how it is.”
The voice of the game, the same as the one in the VR Centre: Get Ready! Set! Dance!
The song played, at first as slow as love music, then a cache of dubstep.
Phoenix stared at the yellow body dancing in front of him and copied it with near-perfect emulation.
In the back Andy had been still scrolling through his phone. He knew that they would probably make him dance next, if not, they would maybe head to the racing section of the arcade. Or maybe Alex would want to play Space Invaders until morning came around. But on his phone, he got a notification. A notification on Discord from Gecko (he had a profile picture of Maui from Moana) online: a link to an Instagram post. He tapped it and waited for it to load . . .
“No. Fucking. Way!” he said aloud.
NASA had posted a new image, this time with no caption other than the image credit. His mouth gaped open. He stared at the black rings of the image, the disc in the sky, stars amongst it, and at the top, the triangular prism. The UFO was now just outside of Earth’s orbit.