She wanted to say something. She wanted to shout out to the others about how magnificent it was – how majestic. But her words caught in her throat as the astonishment knocked the wind from her chest. The jeep rolled away from the stop and the lights disappeared behind the clutter of leaves and branches as they began to make their way further up the hillside.
“Alright folks. If you look to your left you will see our final destination for the evening,” Fox called over his shoulder, trying to imitate the sound of a voice through a loud speaker. He pulled into a small, unpaved parking area and switched the engine off. “Thank you for joining us on our Tour De Hillside Full O’ Trees. Kindly tip your driver.”
The group laughed. “You’re a moron,” Bryce said in a mocking tone.
“Yeah, well at least I don’t sit up all night thinking about Melissa Davis. Just staring out my window dreaming of the day she’ll long for my loins.” Fox pulled his hands up beneath his chin as he spoke, mimicking the doe-eyed gaze of a schoolgirl in love.
“Shove it.” Bryce threw a menacing look in his direction, but didn’t move any closer.
“Okay ladies,” Eric said, sternly as he open the passenger door. “There’s no need to get our panties in a bunch here. We all just wanna’ have some fun tonight, righ—” His foot tangled around the seatbelt and stayed inside the Jeep as the rest of his body tumbled to the ground.
The others laughed – even Julie. Eric untwisted the belt from his ankle and collected himself up off the ground. Dusting the dirt off the back of his jacket he said, “Well, at least we’re all laughing now,” and let out a little chuckle of his own.
“Alright,” Bryce said, sliding the butt of a joint between his lips. “What the hell are we doing here, anyway? I coulda’ been out with a couple of different smokin’ ladies this evening, someone tell me why I gave that up to spend the evening with you jockstraps.”
“We only brought you ‘cause you got the weed, dicklips!” Derek called as he pushed open the Jeep’s back hatch from the inside and let himself out. As he tried to climb over a telescope box and the gaggle of skateboard decks Fox had piled up in the back he lost his footing and came tumbling out onto the ground much like his brother had minutes before.
“Wow, you two really are twins,” Bryce commented, sparking the joint and taking a long inhale.
“Well,” Eric offered, “there’s no denying biology.”
“No matter how hard I wish I could,” Derek chimed in.
Eric threw his brother a disheartened glance and turned to Bryce. “To answer your original question,” he said, “we are here to watch the Northern Lights.”
Bryce’s eyebrows slid up his forehead. “You do realize that this is California, right?” he asked.
“That’s why it’s so important,” Fox called toward them as he helped Derek unload Eric’s telescope from the back of the Jeep.
Bryce looked at the rest of the group in complete confusion.
“Dude,” Derek called back to Bryce as we made his way toward the edge of the forest, “look up.”
The entire group raised their heads toward the sky, and saw the shimmer of dancing lights hopping to and fro above their heads. They all fell silent for a moment, mesmerized by the delicate way they bands of green and purple intertwined through the sky.
Julie got caught up in the dance of the lights. The familiar buzzing just below the surface of her skin set itself ablaze, tingling its way down her arms and legs toward her fingers and toes. But this time, it wasn’t accompanied by anxiety. This time, it didn’t feel scary and unnerving. It felt like floating.
As the guys continued speaking next to her their voices sounded distant and quiet until she allowed herself to fall back down from her imaginary floatation.
“I don’t get it, man,” Bryce was saying. “How is it possible?”
Eric stepped in. “There has been increased solar activity over the past couple of years. It appears to be continually increasing and has gotten much more active over the past few months and has been wreaking havoc on our world. If the activity continues to increase we could have a large-scale problem on our hands, electronically-speaking. Of course, if this is actually a sign of something more ominous, perhaps the beginning of our sun’s dying cycle, more than just our electronics could be at stake.”
Bryce continued to puff on his joint, passing it off to Derek who had made a hopeful home at his side. He watched Eric as he spoke, but nothing seemed to be sinking in.
Eric regrouped. “Ok. You know how your cell phone has been acting up lately?”
“How’d you know that?” Bryce asked.
“Everyone’s cell phones have been acting up,” Eric replied. “All types of computer systems have been acting up. From the computers that run our phones and laptops to the computers that run our electrical systems and stoplights.”
“Ok,” Bryce said, nodding. He took a long haul off his joint. “But what does that have to do with the sun or the Northern lights, man?”
“The sun creates electromagnetic energy. That energy can reach Earth and interfere with the regular electromagnetic energy here,” Eric replied. He watched as Bryce’s eyes began to glaze over in a combination of confusion and inebriation. He took a deep breath, slowed his own thoughts and proceeded, cautious of his words. “The sun creates magnetic energy – sort of like a magnet. You can’t see that energy, but it’s there. Just like you can’t see the magnetic field around a magnet but you know it’s there whenever you put something metal near it.”
“Ok,” Bryce said. “I’m with you so far.”
“The difference with the sun, though, is that it is always changing. Since it’s just this big ball of moving gas, the interaction of those gases something causes explosions and stuff, which create what we call sun storms. When these storms happen sometimes energy will whip away from the sun’s surface. We call these ‘solar flares.’ Scientists with awesome telescopes can even see solar flares as gas whips away from the sun’s surface. What they can’t see, though, is the energy that is sent hurtling through space. They know it’s there because they can measure it, though.
That energy has a magnetic pull of its own and when it gets to Earth it can mess with things here that rely on magnetic energy. So, since our electronics all rely on magnetic energy, it’ll mess with them. Since our GPS systems rely on magnetic energy it’ll mess with them, too.”
“Yeah, but, like, what does that have to do with the Northern Lights?” Bryce interrupted.
“Well, basically, when the sun sends extra energy our way, it interacts with our own magnetic field. Different particles of energy from the sun and from our own magnetic field create color when they collide. Since our magnetic field is strongest around our poles we usually only see lights there. But when the sun sends more than a regular amount of energy our way it can be more than our poles can handle and can spread further down, showing Northern Lights in more southerly places, like here, and the Southern Lights in more northerly places, like South America.”
“You mean there’s such a thing as the Southern Lights, too?” Bryce asked, looking completely in awe.
Eric rubbed his temples in frustration and motioned for Bryce to sit down with him so he could continue the conversation without collapsing.
Julie laughed as she watched the interaction between them. The group of friends her brother had managed to collect astounded her. They were all so different.
“Hey Jules,” Fox called from behind the Jeep. “Can you give me a hand with this telescope?”
“Sure thing,” she called, strolling to his side.
“Those two are hilarious,” he said to her as they removed parts of the telescope from its box.
“Yeah,” she said. “Hard to believe they hang out outside of school.”
Fox shrugged, connecting the pieces of the telescope’s stand together. “They don’t really,” he said. “I just thought it might be good to bring them together.” He motioned toward the instruction booklet, “Can you hand me that?”
She passed over the booklet and looked at her brother curiously. “What do mean?” she asked.
“About what?” he asked. “Bringing those two together?”
“I dunno,” Fox said. “When I first heard some of Eric’s theories when he was tutoring me for science class I thought they were a little far-fetched. But the more the guy talked the more he seemed to make sense. I did some digging around and it really seems like he’s on to something. If that’s the case, we’re gonna’ need all the help we can get. And even though Bryce can be a little dimwitted he’s a good guy. He’s one of the few guys from grade school who went jock and still speaks to me. Plus, he’s damn strong and we’re gonna’ need him.”
Just as Julie was about to ask him what the hell he was talking about a wave of anxiety trembled through her body. He vision tunneled and sweat beaded across her forehead.
“Hey, you don’t look so good,” Fox commented, sitting the telescope down. “You alright?”
She struggled to talk but felt her mouth clam up as the muscles in her body tightened. She suddenly felt trapped. Fox reached out, placing his hands on her shoulders.
“Uh… guys…” Derek’s voice squeaked in the background, trembling with a fear of its own. “Guys… Can someone help me?”
Julie stood still, unable to move. Fox turned his attention toward Derek’s voice but kept his hands squarely on her shoulders.
“What is it?” he called to Derek.
“A snake,” Derek squeaked back. “It’s staring me right in the eyes, man. I can’t move.”
Julie felt her own anxiety ease a little as she focused on the soft warmth of her brother’s hands on her arms. Fox looked her in the eyes, inquisitively, and she managed to nod.
Fox took off in Derek’s direction and slowed as he neared.
“Are you kidding me?” Bryce mocked. “You’re scared on a little snake? I thought you were Mr. Tough Guy Skateboarder?
Julie felt her heart rate rise a little as she stood, frozen, facing in the opposite direction, about twenty feet away.
Fox snatched a stick up off the ground and pressed it gently against the base of the snake’s head as Derek backed away.
“You alright, man?” Fox inquired as his friend took a seat on a nearby boulder, his chest still heaving with panic.
“Yeah,” Derek replied taking in a few bated breaths. “Yeah I’m good, man. Thanks.”
“No big deal.” Fox plunked himself on the ground beside Derek’s boulder. “I think the little guy was more scared than you were, anyways man. He took off like a shot as soon as I let him go.”
Derek was stunned, “Where’d you learn to do that?”
“My Dad took me on a lot of camping trips as a kid,” he laughed.
Only Eric noticed when Julie slipped out of consciousness and fell into a heap beside the Jeep. He rushed to her side, lifted her head from the ground and tried to talk to her, “Julie. Julie? Hey, come on, now.”
She opened her eyes a little, allowing a little peak of the world through the tiny slits of her eyelids. Around his head, the aurora blazed in greens and purples like a halo. She tried to speak but he put a finger to her lips and quietly shushed her.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Just relax for a minute.” He helped her sit upright and called over to Bryce to grab her a bottle of water from the Jeep.
“Holy shit!” Fox caught the sight from his spot on the boulder and dashed over to his sister’s side, fear contracting his brow and streaking his face with sweat.
“I’m okay,” she said. “I just need some water.” She was lying. The panic she’d felt jolting through her body had subsided, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong – very wrong.
“No way,” Fox protested. “I’m taking you home.”
“No! I’m fine!” she tried not to let too much of her frustration spill out onto him as she asserted herself. “Look, I know you’re just trying to help, but I swear I’m fine,” she said, standing and dusting off the bottom of her pants. “Let’s just finish setting up the telescope to get a good look at the lights.”
“Well, they shouldn’t be too hard to see now,” Derek called over from his boulder.
“What’s that?” Fox hollered back.
“I said they’re pretty easy to see now with or without the telescope,” he answered.
“Why’s that?” Eric jumped in.
“Cause all the lights just went out,” he replied.
Julie, Fox, Eric, and Bryce all rushed over to the edge of cliff and looked down over the town. The twinkling lights of lampposts, porch lights, and street lights had all disappeared into a still blackness below them.
Fox and Julie both immediately looked at Eric, his face obviously pale, even under the dim light of the aurora.
“I dunno” he said, his voice a little shaky. “The geostorms could have knocked the power out. I mean, they could be strong enough.”
Julie felt the buzzing grow even move electric under her skin. Her head began to swim inside a puddle of confusion and dizziness overtook her balance, nearly knocking her off her feet again.
She looked at her brother with pleading eyes. “Can we go home now?” she asked.
He nodded, also looking a little off balance. “Sure thing, kid.”