Two weeks before the crash, Jake was sitting at night in his lawn chair along Ludwig Road, swigging his vodka and orange juice in the summer heat, when he saw lights flickering over Smith Field.
They were dim and bluish. They hovered and darted, lifted and fell, skipping from the east side of the airport to the west side. Then, they disappeared.
They looked nothing like the movement of the small airplanes and helicopters Jake had been watching for years. Perhaps the lights along airport runways were reflecting off something – maybe the thick, dark clouds that were blanketing the city tonight. Jake decided to take a closer look.
He walked west along Ludwig, scanning the airport for signs of a landing or takeoff. And there it was again, a ring of blue lights climbing and sinking and spinning in the dark, perhaps 300 feet off the ground at the southwest end of the airfield. Then the lights vanished.
Jake jogged down the road in the direction of the lights. He nearly trotted into the path of a car; the driver honked his horn, and Jake scooted away, believing it was his concentration on the sky and not the liquor that had caused his carelessness.
He arrived at the area where he believed the lights had come from and stood by a fence, catching his breath. He watched the sky for a while, then the field, then returned his view to the sky. Nothing stirred in the field and the air but insects.
Jake walked back to his house, frequently glancing over his left shoulder, the whisper of traffic on Lima Road behind him. If he’d seen anybody outdoors on his way, he would have stopped and asked about the lights. But the mosquitoes had been bad tonight, and Jake knew few of his neighbors by name or by sight, so he didn’t bother hunting for a witness behind the wall of oak trees guarding Ludwig’s front yards.
When he got home, Jake’s teenage daughter was standing in the driveway. He had half-expected her. Jake told her about what he had just seen, jabbing a finger at the clouds over Smith Field.
Chelsea was hardly surprised. She always figured that sooner or later, her father – alone and lonely, drinking or drunk, lost in his memories – was bound to see something weird in the sky as much as he looked there.
Her parents had divorced several years earlier in a slow-motion breakup. Chelsea’s mother had been married to her career as much as she was to Jake. Chelsea’s father was the opposite, drifting from one job to another.
He was an architect who had little trouble finding work, but keeping it was a different matter. He felt confined working for small firms, and he was lost when he joined the staff of a bigger company. He was always ready to leave town for another job. His wife had lived in Fort Wayne all her life and had no intention of moving.
There were other problems along the way, of course – she wanted more children, he didn’t – and while they insisted they still loved each other, they’d “fallen out of happiness together,” Jake would say. So they split up, and Jake moved to the Ludwig Park neighborhood south of Smith Field.
Chelsea lived with her mother but visited her father often. He made sure of that, buying Chelsea a car when she turned 16 and got her driver’s license (it wasn’t a popular purchase with her mother). As long as the girl stopped by to have a snack, help her father pick up around the house or talk about what her mother was up to these days – “baby-sitting duty,” father and daughter called Chelsea’s role – she could keep the car. Her father would even pay for gas, insurance and repairs.
Chelsea attended nearby Northrop High School, so it was convenient for her to see her father in the evenings after marching band practice. She sometimes coaxed him to the backyard for a cookout; she figured his neighbors thought it strange that a man would sit in a lawn chair by the road at night, and she was correct.
“So you believe that I saw what I said I saw,” her father stammered.
“I believe you believe it,” Chelsea said.
“I’m not saying I saw a UFO or a flying saucer or an angel or anything like that,” Jake said.
“I’m not saying you did,” Chelsea replied.
“But I had been looking for them,” her father said. “Looking for the lights, that is.”
He grabbed binoculars from under his lawn chair, where he also stored his vodka, orange juice, a thermos of ice and a can of mosquito spray.
“How long have you been peeping around with those?” his daughter wanted to know.
“Since I heard about this stuff on the radio,” Jake said.