The constant glare of the florescent lights revealed a department that never slept. At nearly eight thirty, the morning shift was slowly arriving; only a few people remained from the previous evening.
Special Agent Sarah Diekman sat at her desk and rubbed her eyes. After a fourteen-hour night shift consisting of paperwork, a pointless stakeout, several useless interrogations, followed by more paperwork, she wanted nothing more than to go home and climb in to bed and sleep. She pushed back her chair and stood as though energy and momentum were required to perform the act. Holding her purse and jacket in one hand, she gulped the last half of her cold coffee and turned to leave when her phone rang. Sarah paused for a moment, thought about walking away, then cursed to herself and answered.
“Homicide,” she said.
There was a crackling, static noise on the phone. She almost thought she heard heavy breathing. Through the static, she heard a familiar voice, and echo from the past. And a second voice. Did the voice say “knife?” Sarah was about to hang up when she heard a faint, but distinct sound of gunshots. A moment later the line was dead. Slowly she returned the phone to the receiver, unsure if she actually heard gunshots. It’s probably my mind playing tricks, she thought.
Patrick McCallister, holding several manilla folders, walked past Sarah’s desk.
“Hey Pat,” Sarah said. “Can you pull some phone records for me?”
“Morning, Dee,” he said. “What phone and what time?”
Sarah nodded at the phone on her desk. “Mine,” she said. “I need the most recent.”
“Whenever you get a chance just text me the number.”
It was probably nothing, but it wouldn’t hurt to trace the call back and make sure. More than once a crime was solved by simple double checking and courtesy calls, though most of the time things like this ended up as dead ends or non leads. And Special Agent Sarah was tired. She half thought of calling a cab to drive her home but decided against it and drove home with the window slightly cracked, the cold January air numbing her face but keeping her awake.
Three quarters of a mile from her home, where a large sycamore tree grew, its branches reaching halfway across the street, Sarah rolled past a stop sign she thought was pointless and heard a thud on the side of her car. She hit the brakes and car stopped abruptly. A young man—his face white, hair disheveled, and blood streaking down the side of his head—stood in front her car and stared at her. He blinked rapidly a few times, glanced quickly to his left then back at Sarah, and mouthed the words “help me.” She nodded her head toward the side door then reached across the seat and unlocked it. The man limped around the car, holding his right side with his left hand, and slid in.
“Drive,” he said as he shut the door.
“Who are you and what’s going on?” Sarah asked.
“My name’s Tommy,” the young man said, slouching low in the seat. “I’ll tell you about it later. Just get us out of here quick.”
She drove one block then turned right, snaking her way through the neighborhood and on to a busy road lined with small shops and fast food restaurants.
“We need to get you to a hospital—”
“No hospital,” Tommy said. “It’s not near as bad as it looks.”
“Okay. Want to tell me what’s going on . . . Tommy?”
“Are you a fed?”
“No. State investigator. Homicide.”
“Where’s your badge?”
Sarah reached across the dashboard for her badge and handed it to him. “Now tell me who you are and what happened. I don’t like getting myself mixed up in other people’s problems. I get enough of that at work.”
“We’re being followed,” Tommy said.
“I’m aware of that.”
“I’m a cop. I know how to lose a tail.”
Sarah flipped a switch and the siren began to whine. When they reached an intersection, she made a U-turn and drove fast for two miles before turning left. Once off the main road, she killed the siren’s noise and pulled into a small parking lot at a community park and turned off the motor. Sudden silence enveloped the vehicle. As Sarah listened to the faint ringing in her ear, she watched a mother wearing a down coat with fur lining the collar standing just inside the border of the playground. Her two kids, both wearing thick coats, gloves, and knitted beanie hats chased each other across the jungle gym and down the sides in a game of tag. A gust of wind blew and the mother brushed the hair from her face and pulled her arms in tight and said something to her kids.
Several moments passed before Sarah spoke. “Talk,” she said, leaving no room for argument.
“My cousin’s an intern at NASA,” he said, “and he was watching footage from the Mars Rover when he saw something strange. When he started asking people about it they started acting weird and told him to forget what he saw; that it was nothing.”
“What did he see?”
“I don’t know. He called me last week. Sounded scared. Asked me if I’d check it out for him. I said sure. Haven’t heard from him since. Then this morning I received a FedEx package—an envelope. All that was in it was a flash drive and a note that said, ‘Be careful. Don’t let it get into the wrong hands.’”
“Do you have the flash drive?”
“Right here.” Tommy patted his coat pocket.
Sarah looked at him, at his wound, and back to the playground. Tommy’s face looked pale. She picked up her cell phone and dialed.
“No hospital,” Tommy said.
“I’ve got a friend who’s a doctor. With any luck, he’ll have the day off.”
The phone rang twice before it was answered. “Cam? It’s Sarah. Are you at home?” she said. “Great. I’m coming over. See you in ten.” She hung up. They bypassed most of the major roads to avoid traffic, and though she drove with her foot heavy on the gas pedal, it still took them twenty minutes.
Doctor Cameron Johnson lived in a colonial style two story brick house with a porch just big enough for two people to comfortably stand on. The door was a darkly stained wood with an opaque window that distorted and blurred anyone on the other side.
“Holy mother of pearl,” Cameron said when he opened the door.
Sarah didn’t wait for an invite but quickly entered, pushing Tommy ahead of her. “He says it’s not that bad, I don’t know how much to believe him.”
“Why don’t you take him to the hospital?”
“Can’t. Not yet anyway. Where should I take him?”
“Umm…the kitchen. I’ll get chair.”
When Tommy was bandaged and the mess mostly cleaned up, Sarah looked at the young man, studying him. Perhaps if she was ten years younger… “The flash drive,” she said. “Are we going to find out what’s on it?”
Tommy looked at Sarah then at Cameron. “Got a computer?”
Cameron left the room for a moment and returned with his laptop and set it on the kitchen table. Sarah handed the coat to Tommy as he scooted closer to the table and plugged the flash drive in. Cameron and Sarah stood on either side as they all watched the video.
The Mars rover rumbled and bumped over the uneven terrain of the red planet, stopping every thirty seconds to take panoramic video of the terrain. During one of its routine pauses, as the camera paned the geography, there was an unusual shimmer on the rocks. Sarah, trained to observe the small details, said, “Stop. Did you see that?”
Tommy stopped the video and backed up and played it again.
“There,” she pointed. “On the rock.”
All three stared at it as Tommy played it over in slow motion. A narrow silver light like a tear in a piece of fabric shimmered against a Martian rock. A flash of some hazy memory passed through Sarah and she shivered.
‘Wait,” Tommy said, and zoomed in on the apparition. He pointed towards the bottom of the screen. “What’s that?”
All three of them became as still as statutes. On the ground, at the base of the rock near the strange fabric of light, was a small blue stone that appeared to be glowing. Sarah’s eyes grew large and her face paled. “There’s… more than one?” she whispered to herself.
“What do you mean?” Tommy asked.
Her cell phone buzzed, yanking all of them out of their trance and she stepped away as she answered. “Hello?”
“Hey Sarah, so I got those phone records you wanted. Seems they were having a slow morning. Anyway, what was the time frame you asked for?”
“Oh. Yeah. Um… Eight twenty, eight thirty. Somewhere around there.” She ran her free hand through her hair.
“How about eight twenty-three?”
“Yeah. Perfect… Hold on. Let me get something to write on… Okay, shoot.”
Patrick recited the number and Sarah started writing, then stopped. Her face drained and became paler as her skin seemed to turn to ice. She didn’t need to finish writing. She already knew the number—her home number.
Sarah hung up and continued staring past the wall in front of her. She fought hard to keep her voice steady but faltered just a little. “I… I got to go,” she said. “Stay here. Both of you. I’ll be back.”
Special Agent Sarah Diekman stood on her porch with her gun drawn for a long minute. Carefully, she swung the door open and pointed her side arm in front of her. Cold chills permeated her body. Slow step by slow step, she entered the house and cleared each room. The house was quiet. Nothing in any room was out of place; everything was exactly as she’d left it before her shift. And yet there was something different, a feeling in the air. She’d felt it before. An eerie feeling was all she could describe. The atmosphere felt tangible in a way she could not explain.
Standing at the end of the hallway, she stared at the small closet at the other end. Her heart beat like a sledgehammer hitting concrete. The closet door was shut and padlocked, had been that way for years. Sarah Diekman had done that.
When she was much younger, another lifetime ago it seemed to her now, she had made a bad decision at a New Year’s Eve party and woke the next day pregnant. She never saw the child’s father again. When her daughter, Lilly, was four, the two vacationed one summer near the beach. It was there they found the glowing blue stone.
“Look, mommy,” Lilly had said, and she ran towards the stone to pick it up. Sarah glanced at some gulls flying across the beach. It had only been a second, but when she looked back, Lilly was going. Nowhere to be seen.
The missing persons unit searched for months, posted bulletins, exhausted every lead twice and then once more, but nothing. Sarah, at first because she was grief stricken and scared, and then later because she was angry, hid the glowing blue stone in her closet and locked the door. That was seven years ago.
With her gun still pointed forward, she stepped as cautiously and as slowly as possible toward the closet. Light filtered through one of the bedrooms and trickled into the hallway, casting strands of warmth across the tan carpet. A floorboard squeaked. The refrigerator hummed. With one hand trembling, Sarah stuck a key in the padlock, turned, and heard the click.
Slowly she opened the door.
The stone remained right where she’d left it but this time she saw the silver light (like a gash in a blanket of ivory silk). And beyond it, Sarah saw a blackness darker than black itself. She wondered now, for the first time, if Lilly had disappeared through the rift. Sarah had to find out. Taking another step closer, she reached her left hand forward towards the tear and watched as her hand seemed to disappear. She moved her fingers, flexed her hand, turned her wrist. She felt it all, nothing abnormal, except she couldn’t see it.
Just as she was about to pull her hand back, a strong, icy grip seized her hand and started to pull her in. Her feet stumbled forward and she dropped the gun and grabbed hold of the door frame and fought in a kind of tug of war. She was strong though—stronger than she looked. Bracing her feet on the floor, holding the door frame, she gave a quick, sudden jerk, yanking her hand, and the hand that held it, out of the closet. She fell on her back, saw the hand and the arm of the being from the other side. Its skin looked smooth and ageless, but beyond, Sarah was sure the story was different. How she knew, she didn’t know.
The hand still held onto her and she beat it with the other hand until it let go. Sarah slammed the closet door shut but the creature pushed against it. Sarah yelled and cussed and threw all her weight and her shoulders against the door and held it there and grabbed for the padlock. At the same moment, the closet door burst open with the force of a grenade blast and slammed her back against the wall. The creature shot out of the closet so fast, all Sarah saw was a blur. When she caught her breath, she picked up her gun and ran down the hall after the ghost.
The sound of breaking glass came from the kitchen and when Sarah rounded the corner she froze. Dishes lay shattered across the countertop and linoleum floor; saucepans and baking sheets were plastered against the wall; the refrigerator door hung open, but the light was out; and the phone dangled from the receiver. And in the center of the kitchen stood a young child. The ghost looked like Lilly, but not quite. It couldn’t be. Lilly was gone. And yet, the creature looked so real, very much like her daughter—curly blonde hair, freckles, even the cute tiny dimples. But the eyes were black and sinister. The ghost held a steak knife and stared at Sarah. Outside the sink window, two cardinals landed softly in a naked maple tree, the branch bending ever so slightly under their weight.
“I know who you are,” Lilly said. “I know what you did.”
“Put the knife down,” Sarah said, her voice stern and commanding. She kept the gun pointed at the Lilly. She’s not real, Sarah told herself over and over.
“It’s too late,” Lilly said. “He already knows.”
Sarah could hear the ringing at the other end of the line. Lilly raised the knife hand higher. The ringing stopped.
“Put it down” Sarah said, then yelled. “Put. The knife. Down.”
Lilly giggled and leaned forward as if readying herself for a race. “You can’t win,” she said.
Sarah saw the ghost’s face twitch and she squeezed. The startled birds flew, guided purely by their instincts, and disappeared into the winter.
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