“The Lights of Wasashe Springs” by Donald Uitvlugt

 

UFO Short Story

At the end of a scenic drive through the majestic Ozark mountains stands the picturesque Wasashe Springs Motel. A thoroughly modern establishment, the motel boasts such amenities as a color TV and mini-refrigerator in every room. But more than its contemporary comforts, the main attraction of the motel is the Wasashe Springs themselves.

Brett tapped the GPS. Still no signal. He slowed the car but kept his foot on the gas so he didn’t roll back. He didn’t trust the grade of this road at all. He turned to his wife.

“Let me see that brochure again. And isn’t it almost time for your medicine?”

Lily passed over a wrinkled brochure starting to tear at the folds. It had to be older than he was. If he ever found out who gave the damned thing to her, he would— He bit back his frustration and flipped it over to study the map on the back. Turn here, he guessed.

“We’re almost there. I’ll take it once we’re checked in.”

They drove on for a little bit. His wife’s hand danced as she pointed out a faded green and white sign. She read the words aloud as they passed: “Welcome to Wasashe Springs, the UFO capital of Arkansas.”

Brett rubbed a hand against his forehead and bit back a sigh. He could only afford to take a few days off work each year, and she had to drag him up the mountains into hicksville. He shook his head and passed the brochure back to Lily. She took it and hugged it to her chest, like a Baptist might hug her Bible.

She had sold him on this trip as a way to rekindle their romance. But all she had talked about the whole time were the damned springs. She’d read him the brochure so many times she had to have memorized it. Hell, he probably had it memorized.

Tall tales from UFO weirdos. Real romantic.

The first stories about the region enter into Western history from eighteenth century European explorers. Their travel journals mention a sacred site deep in the Ozarks known to the native people for its healing waters. Even more interesting are the reports of Indian legends referring to strange lights that appear above the waters of Wasashe Springs.

Brett turned from the state highway and eased the car into a cracked grey parking lot. When Lily had first told him about this place, he had imagined a stainless steel shrine to 1950s sci-fi, maybe something like that crazy diner in Roswell. The structure in front of him looked more like a condemned Howard Johnson from the 1970s.

The perfect home for cockroaches from outer space.

“I think I’d rather sleep in the car.”

“Don’t be like that again. You promised.”

Brett sighed and pulled up next to one of the three other cars in the lot. At least it felt good to stretch his legs.

The motel office only reinforced the impression of the outside: low watt bulbs with a resentful yellow tinge, musty carpet the color of guacamole gone bad, a chipped Formica counter in bright orange.

You’re in for a fun weekend, Brett thought to himself. That’s for sure. Be lucky if we don’t leave with some disease.

One such story tells of an Indian shaman led to the springs by a vision. He brought the sick of his tribe to the spot once a year, and anyone who caught sight of the lights was cured of his sickness. Other stories tell of a war in the mountains brought to an end by the lights. Those two tribes never fought again.

“We’d like a room for two.”

Brett wasn’t sure that the desk clerk even looked up over the top of his newspaper.

“Preferably one that overlooks the springs,” his wife added.

The clerk folded up his newspaper and got to his feet. He smiled at Lily. He was younger than Brett thought he would be, more like a businessman gone to seed than an old-timey snake-oil salesman.

“Every room at the Wasashe overlooks the springs, my dear. But for you, I will make sure your balcony opens right out onto the water. You could jump right in, if you wanted.”

Brett felt for his wallet. “And how much extra will this feature cost me?”

The man looked at him like Brett was something unpleasant he had found on his shoe.

Don’t blame me, blame your carpet.

“On account of your lovely wife, there will be no extra charge. In fact, we charge no part of your stay up front. We only ask for a small deposit, and at the end of your visit, you tell us how much your stay has been worth to you.”

Brett blinked. Was this guy for real? He had never heard of anything like that in all his life. Judging from the condition of the motel, it worked out really well for them too.

Lily leaned against him. “What a wonderful idea.”

“How much is the deposit?” Brett asked.

“Two hundred dollars. Payable in cash or on a major credit card.”

“And what happens at the end of my stay, if I feel like I haven’t gotten my money’s worth?” He ignored the dirty look his wife gave him.

“Then your money will be returned to you or the pending charge against your card cancelled.” The clerk smiled. Brett had never seen teeth so white. “Cheerfully.”

Brett ran his tongue over the front of his teeth but handed his Visa over. The clerk reached under the desk and pulled out an old-fashioned manual imprint machine. Did they still make those? The clerk filled out a triplicate form in small, precise figures and ran the roller over his card. Ka-chunk. It sounded like someone pumping a shell into a shotgun.

Oh, he did not like this clerk at all.

The man handed over the credit card and slid the form over for Brett to sign. “In this case, if your stay is not to your satisfaction, I’ll simply tear up the form instead of submitting it for payment.”

He passed over a pen. Brett signed, slid the form back, and offered back the pen.

“Keep it. No charge, I assure you.” He gave them each a key. “Room 301. All the way to the right. Enjoy your stay.”

The first well-documented sighting dates back to 1883. Captain Orpheus Randolf Hart lived with the Osage people both before and after the Civil War. On the natives’ advice, he went to the springs to treat an injury he sustained during the War Between the States. While bathing in the springs, he saw strange lights in the sky that reminded him of the campfires of an army. The next morning, his wound had completely healed.

Brett thought about the weird clerk as they drove to the far right of the motel. He couldn’t figure out what the man’s deal was. Did he think Brett was stupid? No one could run a business that way. His credit card number was probably on its way right now to some Mexican drug cartel.

“There it is. Hurry. I want to see our room.”

As ugly as the building was, the motel’s architect had been clever. The mountains rose behind the rooms in an impressive vista, and he could hear water softly gurgling not far away. Had they really built this place right over the springs?

It took a lot of jiggling to make the key work. While he went back for the luggage, Lily ran for the balcony like a girl heading for recess. Brett dropped the things on the bed—a king, he was pleasantly surprised. He was even happier when a swarm of silverfish did not scurry from under the bags.

“You have to see this!”

Brett turned toward the sliding door that led to the balcony. The setting sun silhouetted his wife’s form. Not too bad, in spite of the mileage. He stepped out onto the cement balcony. The rest of the view was nice too. An expanse of water the size of a large pond reflected the gold and maroons of the sunset. It was hard to judge exactly how deep the water was, but Brett got the sense that it was really deep, even here by the motel. Wisps of steam snaked their way from the surface, its mirror finish only disturbed where ripples indicated thermal vents.

The balcony jutted out at least three feet over the water. A lifetime ago, he would have stripped the clothes off himself and Lily, scooped her up in his arms, and jumped off the balcony into the springs. With his back and her weight, he wouldn’t be doing any scooping tonight, but the thought at least brought a smile to his face.

He came up alongside his wife at the railing and slipped an arm around her.

“So when do you think the lights come out?”

Brett let his arm fall from his wife. Here he was trying to reach out to her, and all she could talk about was the lights this and the lights that. Screw the lights. He was here, she didn’t need any damned lights. He worked hard to get her the things she wanted. Didn’t he deserve more appreciation than some tourist-trap invented UFOs?

“It was a long drive. I’m going to take a shower.”

Lily didn’t say anything as he left, just kept staring out over the water, watching the skies.

The 1920s saw an increase in tourism to Wasashe Springs, and the first resort was built at the site. Though never rivaling the popularity of places like Hot Springs, people still came from all over the country to attempt to glimpse the healing lights. Izzy “Ice pick” Spagnuolo, famous Chicagoland gangster, was one such visitor who glimpsed them during that period. Not only did his gout disappear, on returning home he turned himself in to authorities, wanting to atone for his crimes.

Brett toweled his hair dry as he stood in front of the fogged mirror. The shower had really helped cool him down in more ways than one. Maybe he had been spending too much time at work lately. Even if they were at a shitty motel run by a kook, that didn’t mean they couldn’t enjoy themselves. He slipped on a clean pair of boxers and stepped out of the bathroom.

He didn’t see Lily anywhere. Had she gone to get something to eat? No, her purse was still on the bed. Had she remembered to take her medicine? How long had it been since her last dose?

A cry came from outside. It sounded again, and this time he recognized his name.

He ran to the balcony and hurtled over the railing. The warmth of the spring surprised him, and he soaked in the sensation for a moment. Lily. He had to find Lily.

He bobbed up to the surface of the water and looked around. It seemed as if the sun had set long ago, it was so dark. The stars shone brighter than in the city, but they still didn’t give enough light to see well.

“Lily!”

A sudden thought hit him like a punch to the gut. Her blood pressure. The warm spring. He sucked in as much air as he could and dove under the water. He kicked his way down, down, down. The water grew warmer, almost too hot to stand. His ears ached and his lungs burned. He had to find her. He opened his eyes.

He saw nothing at all. Nothing but inky blackness.

The 1950s gave a new name to the Wasashe Lights: UFOs. While the apparitions above the springs do not take the form of the classic “flying saucer,” modern investigators agree that something peculiar is going on here. No other place in Arkansas, perhaps in the whole world, sees such a regular unexplained phenomenon. Visitors from another world bringing healing to Earth? A physical manifestation of some strange higher power? No one knows for sure.

Wait. He did see something. There.

He swam to a shadowy form and pulled it toward him. He rose as fast as his legs would take him. He held on to Lily, keeping her head above water, trying to thump her back.

“I’m sorry. I’ve been a regular asshole. I’ve been away at work so much, trying to get you things, when I know it’s really me you want. It’s us. Together. I need you. Don’t leave me.”

His wife coughed. A stream of water trickled against his neck.

“Brett…”

He let out a relieved laugh. Lily pulled herself close to him. He kissed the top of her head.

“Did you see them?”

Anger flared within him. Those damned UFOs! If not for them, she never would have been up here in the middle of nowhere in the first place. If not for them, she never would have been so stupid as to jump into the water in the middle of the night. She could have died! She was so lucky he had seen—

He stopped. Except for the stars and the meager motel lights, it was pitch black. As deep as she had been, none of that light should have reached under water. So how had he seen her?

Brett looked up.

Balls of lights danced in the sky. Reds and greens, blues and yellows. Colors he didn’t have names for. They flew in intricate formations, a formal dance in three dimensions. There seemed to be meaning behind their movements, some significance or message just beyond his ability to understand. But it was there. The lights were there.

And then they were gone. Gone so suddenly he might think them caused by oxygen deprivation or shock. A hallucination. The product of any number of rational explanations.

“Did you see them?” Lily’s words were a cool caress against his skin.

Brett pulled his wife closer. “Yeah, baby. I saw them. So beautiful…”

Believer or skeptic. We welcome everyone. Come to Wasashe Springs and decide for yourself.

 

 

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Donald Jacob Uitvlugt hardly needs an introduction. He has long been a part of the arena as one of its weekly judges. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).

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4 Comments

  1. This is simply excellent. Donald, for starters, has a fantastic command of language and it’s on display here. Every tiny little detail adds together and swapping from the story to the passages from a history book (pamphlet?) is seamless, with no blurring between the voices. Not to mention it slowly builds the tension as the examples become a bit more concrete and reliable with every iteration. One little detail I liked as well was the wife’s hand trembling as she points a the motel sign. In fact, the whole notion of her illness was handled perfectly as far as I’m concerned, we didn’t need tons of focus on it, instead we get her devotion to the idea that the springs will heal her and her husband’s churning concern.
    I may be gushing here but I do have to add that the ending was just perfect for me. Who is getting healed here, after all? The wife of her illness? Or are the waters washing away the husband’s lack of perspective? Or both maybe I guess.

    Another strong entry from Donald.

  2. I enjoyed the slight sense of unreality that the story created from the moment the couple arrived at the hotel. That was skillfully done.

    I’m going to skip to the ending, because it’s my favourite bit: I didn’t see that coming, and I’d been wondering what role the lights would play. Having them remain enigmatic and focussing the story on the couple was perhaps the only way to end this story and avoid it being disappointing. It’s not the phenomena that’s important, it’s how we respond to it. The human story here is told beautifully.

    So good. So, so good.

  3. Donald has always been a fine storyteller, but if you look at his entries over the past two years you see a writer who is ever improving. The odds were stacked against him here too, since he became a Dad in the middle of this story. How do you write something so fine and clean when you are facing down the chaos of being a new dad? Simple fantastic.

    Most of what has been said here stands. It really is simple and beautiful. Great work Donald.

  4. I really liked this story. Donald is a heck of a writer, and this outing proves it once again. There was an amazing haunting quality to the description of the inn, this place out of time, weirdly preserved, that I half expected it to disappear or fall into ruin the next morning. The device of inter-cutting the narrative with snippets from the pamphlet worked really well, and both the characters were beautifully drawn.

    The only thing I didn’t love here was the ending. It left me wanting something more, just another sentence or two to tie the whole thing together, but I find myself dissatisfied with endings fairly often in the arena, so maybe I’m just too picky.

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