Emily stepped outside and the rush of smells and sounds, of the life of a city, slammed into her with the force of a hurricane. Wind snapped at her face and hands. Cars honked horns, their engines growling menacingly. She smelled the decay of fall leaves, the detritus and death that signals the coming end of a year. Every sense was heightened, and the frayed ends of the circuitry in her head could not handle it. She staggered at the onslaught, the pace of her breath racing far ahead of her lungs’ ability to keep up. Everything moved so fast. She had to find some way to slow it down. She scrambled to a nearby bus bench and sat. She could look down, tune out the world, retreat to the safety of her apartment even if only in her mind.
You can do this. You HAVE to do this.
Her heart rate retreated, and Emily checked the time on her phone. She had at least forty-five minutes, well more than she should need but she was not sure how difficult the journey would be for her. Her plan was to be hidden in the room before the time of the events she had witnessed the previous two nights played out. If it happened again, well, she was not sure what to make of that. She had never had the opportunity to see any of her other visions more than once, had never been able to be in the same place at the same time after having one.
Hah. My visions. We’ll see about that.
With renewed focus Emily willed the world to slow down around her. It was not quite comfortable, but enough so she could continue. She stood up from the bus shelter and began to make her way toward the first intersection. She moved with painstaking tentativeness, as though the ground beneath her feet was thinning ice at the end of winter.
She made it to the stoplight and pressed the pedestrian beg button, clinging to the pole of the traffic light like a life raft. Any port in a storm, they say. Emily kept her eyes forward, always focused on the next step of her mission even as she was certain she felt the eyes of the world on her.
They see me, she thought. They know. They know I don’t belong. They know something is wrong with me.
The lights changed, and the red hand on the crossing signal became the walk symbol. Emily knew she should still watch for turning cars, but she could not allow herself to take in any more information from her surroundings. Her brain could not handle it. She plodded across the intersection, eyes on the ground in front of her, trusting that drivers would uphold their part of the social contract.
Making it across felt like completing the first in a series of great trials meant to test her mettle. This was a video game to her, in a way. A video game in real life. She would traverse the dungeons like the heroine of her maze game, and could even use the magic of her smartphone if necessary. It was, in her mind, a perfect metaphor. And just like a video game, she was more certain than ever that a great prize and glory awaited her completion of it — proof that she was not crazy and freedom from the prison she had lived in for the last six years.
She tackled the remaining distance in similar fashion, never looking anywhere but straight ahead for fear of what the enormity of the world would do to her. Once, a car cut her off as she traversed an intersection, honking at her on its way. She began hyperventilating, but regained composure with some water and a granola bar. After twelve minutes of tunnel-visioned walking, she approached the building and passed through its main doors. Her heart fluttered with a cocktail of excitement and nerves.
The advertising firm in the offices to her right appeared closed, but the fluorescent lights of the salon to her left buzzed and the place hummed with the chatter of a dozen customers and staff. Emily paid them no mind and strode decisively past. Eyes always forward, head always down. The hallway continued straight to the back of the building where she found a set of elevators. Emily pressed the call button and got no response, and then noticed where a security badge was required for entrance. A little further along was an unlocked doorway. As she suspected, it led to a stairwell, but this was little relief. It meant she would have to climb the rest of the way.
Emily dared to look up to see where she was heading. Perhaps the way was blocked? Perhaps there was some indication she could not make it to the top this way? She immediately regretted it. Once more her world became warped, distending at the edges and disorienting her. The ascending stairway spun into a vortex in her vision, spiraling into infinity. Emily whipped her head back down to the ground, determined to look around no more than necessary for the rest of the way.
She scolded herself. Focus. You’re so close. Get to the top, and then you’ll be free. You can beat this thing.
The climb was slow and grueling, the stairwell dimly lit and dilapidated. The meager exercise Emily got in her studio apartment proved of little use, and Emily realized just how weak her time in isolation had made her. She paused several times to catch her breath, but at long last reached a doorway at the top floor. Her legs were jelly and her knees wobbled as she proceeded to the door.
Please be unlocked. Please let this not be in vain.
It was something like a prayer, one she wanted to be answered more than any she had made before. Despite her plea, Emily was still surprised when the latch gave way and the door opened. It was a relief. She had not been sure her computer tools would help much. It was also convenient, maybe too much so. An itch of paranoia crept into her belly, a byproduct of how her mind worked. Could this be some sort of setup? But who would want to set her up? And why?
Nonsense, she decided. The place was so far out of the way from where anyone would be likely to go it must not have seemed worth the trouble to lock it. Cleaning staff probably left it so they would not have to worry about a key. Whatever the reason, it did not matter. What mattered was that she was there. There was still more to do. Like the princess in her game, she had reached the final test.
Outside, nightfall was completed, and the cold wind the weather man promised brought thick clouds that blotted out the moon. Being several stories higher than any nearby room meant there was no real ambient light either, leaving the room in front of Emily pitch black save a narrow sliver from the doorway. A bitter draft whistled through the room, telling Emily there must be some open windows somewhere. The thought of an open window she could not see terrified her. Though she knew there was a light somewhere and wanted desperately to turn it on, she knew she could not. If there were real people coming here and not just some hallucination, turning the light on could give her away.
She decided she could risk the flashlight; however, as long as she held it low and kept it pointed at the ground. It would be nearly impossible to see from outside the building. She rummaged in her pack and dug it out as she took slow, deliberate steps into the room. She turned on the light and swung it light low around the room trying to find a place to hide. Shapes and shadows leapt at her, and the light weakened as it hit them. The flashlight flickered and its batteries died. She had forgotten something critical after all.
A wave of panic crashed over her as full dark returned to the room. She was trapped in a maze of discarded office furniture and could not see the way out. She knew it was just furniture, but her mind was practiced at tricking her. A conference table became a huge spider. A matching set of ten foot shelves became twin giants. Emily Cadwell lived six years alone in a small apartment because she could not trust her eyes out in the world, but that isolation bred a fear of the unknown that was much worse. She recoiled in terror at each new imagined monster her mind conjured until she was sitting on the floor, sobbing and curled in a ball.
You can’t do this. You never could. What were you thinking?
She was scared and ashamed. Defeated. But then she saw a faint glow on the opposite side of the room. Her eyes had not adjusted much to the dark, but she pursued that light all the same. It was probably the door, she thought.
Just get out of here. Go home. Forget this ever happened.
Emily wound her way through bookcases and cabinets, through desks and chairs toward that light. It felt farther than she thought she had come, but she knew better than to trust her own instincts at that point. She drew a little closer, and realized the faint glow was shaped like a person and not the doorway at all.
Is that a…ghost? Impossible…right?
She crept closer still. It was the shape of a woman, looking down out the open window. Emily blinked hard. She shook her head as if trying to dislodge something in her brain that prevented her from seeing clearly.
Emily stood taller. She moved with greater purpose toward the spectral image of what she was beginning to believe was herself, even if she did not understand what she saw. As she approached, the glowing echo of herself spun toward her, and Emily ducked and covered her eyes for fear of being seen. Her pulse thumped in her throat and her breathing quickened. Emily kept her eyes shut tight, but she heard a crash and awful scream let loose from the direction of the the ghost-like version of herself. It wailed in terror and then trailed off as if in the distance.
It sprung her to action. Emily stood up and went toward the window. She stood looking out, studying the distance and trying to see what happened.
This makes no sense! What is happening here?
Emily stood in the deep dark of the warehouse and looked out into the night. She racked her brain for some explanation, but was left wanting. She saw no sign of herself or whoever — whatever — had stood there seconds earlier. It was all in her head, she was certain of it. Her broken, wretched, useless brain conjured yet another hallucination. The hyperventilating returned, the monsters in the bookshelves crawled out again. She had come for proof of her insanity, and she found it. That was what happened, nothing more. She would have to go home and accept it, probably crawling along the street in terror as she went.
Sullen and exhausted, Emily stood at the window wondering through her tears how she would make it back across the room. The sound of a breaker box smacking into service and of lights powering up echoed in the room behind her, and Emily’s world exploded into light. She whirled in hysteria, stumbling and disoriented. Emily let out a shrill, anguished scream as she fell, crashing through the window and plummeting toward the sidewalk below. It was a scream she recognized, having heard it just seconds earlier. Emily Cadwell crashed into the ground knowing she had not been crazy, not completely at least, after all.
The wail of a squad car careened off the warehouses and reverberated through the neighborhood Emily Cadwell lived in for nearly six years. Lived there in only the most technical sense, that is, for she had only ventured out into it for the first time that evening. It would be truer to say she merely existed within it. The siren of an ambulance called out from a few blocks in the opposite direction, like a bird responding to its friend across the trees. The police arrived first, pulling up to the building and jerking to a halt. A small gathering of rubberneckers stood nearby, some out of concern and others for morbid curiosity. Officers Green and Dunwoody leapt from their vehicle and recognized two things at once: They had investigated this building two nights earlier, and they had done so in response to an emergency call from the woman whose twisted body lay splayed on the sidewalk in front of them.
Officer Dunwoody was aghast and turned away. He was no rookie, but thus far in his seven years of service he had been fortunate enough to avoid such things. He thought of how they had tried to prepare him for this moment, but it was not the same as the real thing. He summoned the strength of his training and turned to crowd control while his partner ran to the body to check for any sign of life. Officer Green did so knowing it was futile. There was no sign of movement, no evidence of breath. The ambulance arrived a moment later and the silencing of its siren cast a somber quietness over the proceedings. The sounds of the city continued in the distance, but there at the scene of Emily Cadwell’s death there was nothing but a few stray whispers amongst the gawkers. The EMTs sprung into action, ready and eager to help, but a downcast look and a slight shake of Officer Green’s head told them there was no rush.
A week later, Emily’s death was officially ruled a suicide. There was no evidence to support any other conclusion and plenty of evidence to suggest she lived a cloistered and unhappy life. Officer Green regarded the episode as sad and tragic, but found little difficulty moving on. These things happen. She had seen them before. Officer Dunwoody, on the other hand, found it much more difficult. He found himself with a powerful desire to understand how he could better anticipate something like this in the future.
Several months after that, the two officers sat in their squad car just a few blocks away from the McGregor Roasting Company building where Emily Cadwell had gone in vain pursuit of evidence for a murder that did not exist. This was their turf, their beat, after all, and a tragic suicide did not change that. Winter had broken early, and the day was sunny and warm. Officer Green was in the driver’s seat eating a bland Italian sub. It was her first week on the job in some time, and it was a relief to be back. She had taken a brief leave of absence after her mother passed away. Dropped dead in the supermarket, just like that.
Officer Dunwoody sat in the passenger seat flipping through files on a police issued tablet. He thought the technology was amazing. It made his job easier. Green and Dunwoody shared the kind of silence only possible between two people who are completely comfortable around each other. They were content to leave the windows rolled down and allow the sounds of the day to drift in rather than fill the air with conversation. The buzz of people eager to be free of winter created a sense of life on the streets, loud enough to nearly overpower the sounds of the news coming in on the radio.
A report briefly cut through the noise. “…University Research Hospital reporting an accident in the disease center. A highly virulent strain of…”
“Ugh, I don’t wanna hear about this,” Office Green said. “Can you change it?”
“Don’t you think we should listen?” Dunwoody responded.
“Look, I don’t need any bad news unless I have to do something about it as part of the job, got it?”
Dunwoody nodded and changed to a music station. His partner had been through a lot recently, and he wanted to make her return as easy as possible. He returned to fiddling with the tablet when the familiar chirp of a message notification on the drew both of their attention. Officer Green looked over to see if it was anything interesting as Dunwoody opened it. Nothing urgent. Just a missing person report for a 48 year old man. He was described as having green eyes and a brown goatee with a recognizable scar on his forehead. He closed the message. He hoped for a happy ending, but he had his doubts.