Sundogs
Matt E. Lewis


In the cell phone video, the sky had the golden glow of a late summer afternoon. A focused beam of light, its point of origin nestled behind another formation, pointed toward the crest of the cloud cover. Then, a minute and eight seconds in, the beam shifts down, perpendicular to the rest of the sky.

“Oh, yeah. I know this.” My ex-husband Rick said, clinking his coffee cup onto the tile tabletop. He squinted at the image on the phone screen and smudged it with an expanding thumb and forefinger.

“It’s called a sundog.”

“Sun dog?” I immediately pictured a fiery dog of legend screaming across the sky, or carved along the edge of an ancient temple.

“Yeah. It’s pretty common. A lot of people see them when flying above the cloud cover in airplanes. It’s like a double image of the Sun created by falling ice crystals in the Earth’s atmosphere. You see, the water freezes in the atmosphere…” He started drawing the diagonal shape of it on a napkin. “…And small, flat, six-sided ice crystals are formed. As the crystals fall, they’re parallel to the ground. When they align, each crystal can act like a miniature lens, refracting sunlight into our view and creating parhelia, or sundogs.”

I sipped from my coffee cup. It was getting close to Noon, and the café was starting to fill up. “But what about that movement? The downward shift?”

“The jump.” He nodded. “The theory is that a lightning discharge in a thundercloud can temporarily change the electric field above the cloud where charged ice crystals were reflecting sunlight.” He points to the screen as the beam shifts again. “The light appears to jump.”

“But what about that?” I point at a frozen frame on the screen.

He looks at the screen, eyebrows furrowed. “What?”

“That.” In the video, the beam starts to move from the top, but suddenly stops. Then it rapidly points into its new position. “That pause. If it’s a random electrical phenomenon, why does it pause like that before moving?”

Rick shrugged. “It’s not always going to be smooth, perfect motion. The discharges are always different.”

“What if it was indicative of something else, though?”

He placed his elbow on the table and sunk his chin into his palm. I knew this well. It’s his I’m-bored-but-I’m-listening face. “Like what?”

“Hesitation.” I said. “You can sense the uneasiness in its movement. That’s why I think there’s something intelligent behind it. It hesitated. A natural phenomenon doesn’t hesitate. That’s an anxiety specific to beings like us.”

“That’s not true. Plenty of animals hesitate.”

“It doesn’t have to be something as smart as humans. It could be something that’s barely self-aware. Maybe a new form of life.”

“Okay, Kim. You’re right.” He lifted his hands up. “I’m not saying it’s aliens…but it’s aliens!”

I absent-mindedly started to wipe down the table with my crumpled napkin. My nervous tic. “You’re making fun of me.” I said coldly.

“Oh, come on. I’m just kidding. It’s a weird idea, that’s all.”

“So does that make it impossible?” I stuffed the napkin into the empty coffee cup.

He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “Kim. These are electrically-charged groupings of ice particles that re-direct light. That’s all they are.”

“Aren’t we just electrically-charged groupings of cells?”

He laughed condescendingly. “Alright,” he shrugged. “Alright. It’s a good point. I’ll give you that. Happy?”

“No.” I said. “I know you’re just saying that to get me to drop it.”

“What did you expect? I’m a meteorologist. You know I know about these things. Did you want me to tell you what it is or speculate on theoretical exobiology with you?”

“I wasn’t asking you to explain it to me! I just wanted to talk about it!”

The café was quiet and I realized everyone was staring at us. Slowly, conversations began to return to normal volume.

I switched to a more hushed tone. “I just thought we could talk about something interesting without going for each other’s throats. For once.”

He sighed deeply. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Jesus, what are we even fighting about? Weather phenomena. Wow.”

A barista with pink hair and tight blue jeans swooped the cups away from the table without saying a word. I watched him side-eye her ass walking away.

“It’s amazing that we were married for as long as we were without driving each other crazy.” He said softly. “Seriously, how did we even function back then?”

“As I recall, I spent most the time cleaning up the dishes you left around the house.” I said dryly.

He frowned. “And I guess I spent most of the time not living up to your perfect expectations.”

My face burned. The grating sound of an espresso machine filled the silence.

He pulled out his phone and started thumbing it. “Are we done here?” He said curtly.

“Yeah, we’re done.” I said, pulling my purse onto my shoulder. “Jesus.”

I walked out and didn’t look back.

*

The sundogs re-appeared the next afternoon, this time much closer to my house. I sat in the backyard on a fold-out chair, staring up at the sky. I didn’t have my phone this time. I had to keep a sharp eye out for the movements. Sometimes they would just barely shift into my peripheral vision. I second-guessed myself if I was even seeing them for a while, but then one appeared directly in my line of sight: a beam of light that swiveled, robotically, like a spotlight and pointed in another direction.

The warm scent of jasmine flowers hung in the air. The bush that Rick and I had planted when we moved in was now a vast wall of vegetation, encompassing the entire left half of the fence. We agreed that jasmine reminded us of our childhoods and that the sweet smell of it warmed by the summer heat would make for perfect late afternoons in the backyard. Neighborhood get-togethers. Barbeques. Parties for our children.

But none of that happened. And while our relationship withered, the bush somehow grew larger. Stronger. It had succeeded where we had failed. I couldn’t remember if I had ever even watered it.

I yawned and stretched my arms outward. The pain in the center of my back was getting worse. If I was going to take the time to do yoga today, I’d have to get inside and do it now, before I got too tired. The chair legs scraped as I pushed it back and stood up. I turned to walk inside but something caught my eye. One of the sundogs had winked on and off. Just like that. Curious, I stood in the backyard and squinted at the cloud cover. For a minute, all I saw was fluffy whiteness permeated by a soft, golden glow. A mourning dove cooed from inside the jasmine bush. Slowly, something started to happen. Something I don’t know if I could even begin to describe.

The sundogs began to dance.

From what had only been a tiny blink, hundreds started to erupt from the cloud cover. They began to shift into each other, creating huge, amorphous things that shot across the sky. At times they looked like animals – I thought I saw the odd rabbit or owl among the shapes – but mostly they took forms that looked utterly alien. Perhaps they resembled things not of this earth, or maybe beings from a different plane of reality. Silently, they leapt across the field of clouds with great energy, at times colliding and forming something new, only to split apart again. The sky pulsed with a great, rhythmic tempo, set to music unheard to all but the sundogs. Over and over they swirled into and out of each other, faster and faster, as if possessed by a heavenly ecstasy.

The light began to fade. The shapes slowed, dragged down by the force of the sunset. Eventually, when the sky became dark orange and the sun fell behind the hills, the sundogs winked out of the clouds and were gone.

I stood awestruck on the patio. The crickets had begun to chirp and their music filled the dark, humid air. My face felt cold and wet. I put my hand to it and realized I’d been crying. I wished that it would never end.

*

There was always the possibility that I had suffered a stroke or hallucination. But if other people had seen it, I had to know. I needed someone to talk to about this. Anyone.

The next day, I tried to shoehorn my questions into conversation during my Saturday lunch with Suzanne. “Did you see anything weird in the sky yesterday?”

She gave me a concerned look. I already knew what she would say, but I had to ask. “I don’t think so. What do you mean? Like, smoke?”

I picked at my tuna sandwich. “No, I just mean, like, anything out of the ordinary. Around sunset.”

She shook her head. “Even if there was, I was inside making dinner. Why? Did you see something odd?”

I paused. “No. Just something I heard about on the internet news. Some weird cloud thing.”

“Seems like there’s always one of those happening and I only find out about it later. A blood moon, or an eclipse, or something or other that won’t happen again for a hundred years,” She shook her head. “I always seem to miss them.”

In late afternoon, I went back out to the patio and popped out the folding chair. I sat and stared at the sky, waiting for the show to start again. But there was nothing. The sunset came and went without a single flicker in the sky.

When I woke up, bright light was already pouring in through the window shades. I never usually sleep in, even though retirement allows me to. It was already noon. My phone glowed with missed calls from Suzanne.

“You missed our lunch! Is everything alright?” She asked. She seemed less concerned for my well-being and more miffed that I had stood her up.

“Yes, I’m fine. Just slept in, that’s all. Getting a late start.”

“That doesn’t sound like you.” She seemed genuinely concerned now. “Are you sure you’re okay? I know things must be…different, without Rick around. Maybe you should take up a hobby.”

“What kind of a hobby?” It seemed silly, but I humored her.

“You know, something you never got around to doing while you were working. Maybe travel somewhere?”

A thought occurred. “Actually, yes, there is something I’d like to do. I’ll have to cancel our lunches for the next few days.”

“Oh, good! What is it?”

I had already opened the computer and started my search. “Flying lessons.”

*

The little airstrip was buried inland in the industrial park side of town. Other than a few private biplanes, some antique fighter planes, and the flight school’s daily trips, it didn’t get a whole lot of traffic. The first week was spent in a yellowed classroom converted from a shed. My fellow classmates, a newly-married couple, a college student, a former Marine – were all much younger than me, but if anyone had any objections, they never said it.

The flight instructor was Dave, a former commercial pilot. He was middle-aged, deeply tanned, and fit but sagging around the edges. He had an excitement for flying that showed when he talked about it. I wrote down his every word and took it as law.

After two weeks of lectures and written tests, we finally got a chance to fly a plane. A small Cessna emblazoned with the flight school’s logo. After an extensive review of the controls, we started the plane and drove down the runway. It was a lot like driving a car at first, but feeling the initial uplift of the wings as we took off was surprising. Exhilarating, even. Once we were in the air, things went quite well until it came time to land. Dave could sense my anxiety.

“We’ll go as slow as you need to.” He said. “Just remember, I’m here for you.”

It was nice to hear someone say that, even if it wasn’t for what I wanted it to be.

*

A week before graduation, I decided to go through with my plan. It was the Sunday before Memorial Day. I had watched the guards at the airstrip and knew that they wouldn’t be there for the holiday. I had memorized the drawers where Dave kept the keys. For everything else, I brought a pair of bolt cutters, rummaged from the garage. Another remnant of Rick’s lost plans for yard work.

I’d been monitoring the weather conditions on the internet. As it happened, the conditions on that day – humidity, barometric pressure, etc. – would be exactly what they were on the day of the dance. Even though it was stupid, dangerous, illogical, I didn’t feel any fear about what I was about to do. When I saw those sundogs dancing, or flowing, whatever they were doing – I felt something. Feelings coursed through me that I had thought were long gone.

I couldn’t go back. Not anymore.

The sun was already low in the sky when I got to the airstrip. I scanned the clouds for signs of the sundogs on the drive there. There was nothing, but the sky looked the same way it had that day. I felt intuitively that they would be there.

The airstrip was deserted. After disposing of the gate lock with the bolt cutters, the other doors were easy enough to force open. The master key from the storage shed let me into the old iron panel where the plane ignition keys were kept. I moved to stash them in my purse, but realized how ridiculous that was. Walking back to the car, I threw the purse inside and closed the door. The door dutifully locked behind it.

*

Once I was rolling down the airstrip, I began to feel calm. A kind of peace that had eluded me after many years of work commitments, friendly obligations, and a failed marriage that went on far too long. For once, I was doing something for me and me alone, without asking or worrying about it. Even if I found nothing when I got up there, what I was doing felt right.

Shortly after lift-off, a voice crackled onto the radio. “Attention, unidentified aircraft. You have failed to file a flight plan with the FAA. Please return to your airstrip and land immediately. I repeat -”

I shut it off. I almost laughed at the idea of a complement of police cruisers & officers with guns drawn waiting for me as I touched down, an old woman in a tiny biplane.

I began to lift higher into the cloud cover. The altitude alarms started to go off. I ignored them. The first bits of golden light were beginning to streak through the skyline. If they were real, this is where I would find them. Or I’d plow into an oncoming 747. Either way.

There were beams of light like the one from the cell phone video at my two o’clock. I veered the plane in that direction. Then they would vanish and re-appear at my eleven o’clock. Patiently, I changed direction to try to catch up with them. Each time, I found only mist, the vaporous innards of the clouds softly breaking against the plane. I glanced down at my watch to check the time. The sun would set in less than ten minutes. I wouldn’t have much time before it was too dark, or ran out of fuel, or both.

When I looked up, they were there.

The brilliant light that emanated from them made me gasp and squint my eyes. When they adjusted, I saw that they were just as I had seen them before. Strange, amorphous masses that flowed, pulsed, changed. There were no faces, no eyes, and things that could only be called limbs by the broadest definition. But when I looked at them, I sensed that they were aware of me. They made no judgments, no actions to defend themselves or repel my presence. I felt accepted. I felt like they had been waiting for me.

The planes controls went dead and there was absolute stillness. It hung in midair, a lifeless hunk of machinery, and the only sound remaining was the soft humming of the sundogs. As they drew closer to me, their thoughts permeated my being and I learned more about them. They were ancient. They were aware of people but chose not to interact with them. They had no society, no government, they simply existed, as they do, in their eternal dance. They existed anywhere & everywhere on Earth where there was sunlight and clouds. They even existed on other planets. They didn’t say how they knew. They just did.

Pieces of the plane slowly began to fall away, but my body remained where it was. They offered me a choice. I would be returned safely if I declined. But they emphasized that I would never be offered it again.

Of course I want to stay, I told them. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. Please. I’m ready.

With that, the process began. I began to feel what they feel, becoming interconnected with their consciousness. I was becoming one with their energy. It was an effortless coalescence, like water meeting water. My body dissipated. I can’t say I miss it.

Now I am a sundog. I dance across the celestial stage, forever meeting, learning, combining, separating with the rest of them.

Keep an eye on us. Watch us dance, perhaps en masse, if you’re lucky enough. As you watch, take note if one of us hesitates. That is our call to you, our invitation to join us, if you think you’re ready. All you have to do is make the choice.



Matt E. Lewis is the editor of The Radvocate Magazine and co-editor of the horror anthology series,”States of Terror.”