It happens every morning at 3 a.m. And I’m sure I never liked Pokémon.
3 in the Morning
I’m a bit of an end-burn student. By that I mean I only started going through the latter half of the online lectures for the class two days before the final exam.
That’s where this all starts. It was nearing 3 in the morning, and I’d been amusing myself, bleary-eyed and fog-brained after 12 straight hours of lectures, with the way my professor said the word “crepitus”. And then the way he, after every time he said it, added “the crunchy sound” to explain the word. It was like the professor thought he was trying to teach morons, and needed to explain what “crepitus” meant every one of the twenty times he said it in that lecture.
I’d almost started to predict it. I waited on tenterhooks, the lecture going on, for the next time he’d say it.
‘…with bone rubbing against bone you’ll hear the crepitus,’ the professor said in his heavy South African accent, me breaking into a grin. I was ready: ‘You know, the crunchy sound!’ I shouted to my studio apartment, my arms shooting into the air like I’d just won bingo.
I laughed to myself, barely hearing what the lecturer said next. I was pretty delirious. There’s only so much study a brain can take in one go. I’d hit that wall some hours ago, my brain now over-clogged with new information. But with the threat of finals coming up, I’d carried on.
I tuned back in to hear the professor say, ‘…now, you all need to not –‘ and then the lecture recording went funny, the last word sounding like a heavily distorted ‘looOOok’. The video was frozen on an image of my professor that was far from flattering.
I sighed, took note of how far into the lecture I was, and refreshed the page. The page went blank, and stayed blank. Loading… loading…
It had hit 3 a.m. and it felt like crapping out my internet was the universe’s way of telling me to go to bed.
I stretched, decided the universe was probably right, and yawned.
It was the yawn that had me wondering. There was something about the air that… didn’t feel right. As though it was thinner than usual. I was struck by another yawn, like I hadn’t managed to get enough air in the first time.
A loud clinking behind me had me spinning around. I live alone. It should be just me here.
And from what I could tell, it was only me here. Except… It was like a shadow on a pond, still see-through but rippling and darker than the space around it. Male, I thought, and from more clinking and clunking, it sounded like they were doing dishes. And then, all of a sudden, the shadow was gone.
Spooked, I got out of my chair, staring around at my apartment. But for the bathroom, it was really just the one room, filled with bed, table, desk, and tiny kitchen. I’d put a large mirror up on one wall to try to make the place look a bit bigger. That was where my eyes went to next.
Just me. Just me, but…
I’d shoved my hair up in a messy bun while I’d been studying. And I should look like I’d just seen a ghost.
But I didn’t. In the mirror, my hair was down, and I was wearing scrubs. I stared at my perfectly calm reflection. Behind the me in the mirror, a man walked into sight. I whirled around, staring at the empty space behind me. I heard the side of my bed sag and the sound of boots being taken off.
I turned and stared back into the mirror again. The man was gone. And it wasn’t me there anymore. It was a younger woman. Someone different entirely. She frowned, blinked, and then I was just looking at myself: messy bun, baggy sweater; my eyes huge – like I’d seen something insane.
My heart was racing. Having forgotten my exhaustion, I spent a little while going about the apartment with a small hand-held mirror, checking and checking for anything weird I might be able to see only in the mirror. It took me ages to talk myself down.
‘You’re tired,’ I told myself, speaking aloud to help calm my nerves. ‘You just went more delirious for a moment.’
That was absolutely believable and, after a while, I’d talked myself down enough to go to sleep.
I didn’t have time, when I woke up the next morning, to ponder the weird occurrence. My anatomy and physiology notes were gone. I like to write them out by hand as it helps me remember it better. And I’d left them right there on my desk beside my computer.
But they weren’t there anymore. I tore my tiny apartment to pieces looking for them, but though I found the notebooks I’d written them in, stuffed in my bag, they were barely used. Where I was sure I’d written my notes was just empty pages.
With the exam down to thirty, then twenty four hours, then less away, I survived that day on a fuel of coffee, chips, and pure adrenaline.
This time, in the early hours of the morning, I still had a little fuel in the tank. My brain felt full to burst, but the day’s panic seemed make it possible to just cram more stuff in there. I was going through my newly scribbled notes, trying to make sure I understood action potential in nerves, when I felt that weird thinning of the air again.
I glanced at my phone. 3 a.m., on the dot. Just like yesterday.
My blood went cold. I’d been muttering to myself as I studied, but I went silent as my lungs pulled in and breathed out that insubstantial air. I was listening, hoping not to hear any shadow people in my apartment.
There was a shuffle behind me, like sneakers on my laminate floors. I flew out of my chair and stared. But it went silent again. Inside my apartment, at least.
Outside I heard a crazed clattering, and the clop of hooves.
I’ve grown desensitised to the sounds of cars. The low rumble and whoosh of them going by is just white noise. I am not desensitised to what sounded very much like a horse and cart.
The town I live in, Waxahachie, TX, isn’t large and is surrounded by farmland. Occasionally someone will drive a tractor into it, but I’ve never known a horse and cart to clatter into town. Especially not one that sounded like it was flying, at top speed, over dirt roads at 3 in the morning.
I didn’t make it to the window in time to see it go past. But I stared out at what I did see.
It was as if the weirdly thin air had fractured into a half dozen transparent films that rolled sporadically along the street like isolated rainclouds could roll along the prairies, showering the fields as they passed. Like a shadow on one transparent film, I could see another horse and cart trundling more slowly into town. It seemed overlaid over my neighbour’s car, parked on the other side of the road. Then it was gone, no longer visible, the film rolling away and out of my view, and a gaggle of rowdy men in flat caps stumbled past. I couldn’t hear the second horse and cart, but I did hear those men. They were closer to my window, and I stared in astonishment as they, translucent, passed right through another parked car.
Another shifting, like some warp in the continuum of time, and a 50s Buick, shining new, built like a boat with white-walled tires, was driving up the road, a spare tire mounted on the back. It passed through another warping and was suddenly driving on dirt roads, the building opposite my apartment gone – just an unused piece of land left wild where it had been.
I blinked, and the Buick was gone, the rolling films of shadowed times past gone; the building across from me back. I squinted down at the base of it from my third-floor window. I could’ve sworn the store on its first floor had been a clothing shop. Instead of that clothing shop, I was looking at a café.
I stumbled back from the window and was comforted by the sight that my apartment was just as it had always been. Even my new A&P notes, scribbled frantically that day, were still there.
Steeling myself, I looked in the large wall mirror. Just me. Just me and I looked like someone who hadn’t showered in two days. It reflected my reality.
For the second night in a row, I talked myself down, telling myself the café across the road had either been something I’d never noticed or I’d just mistaken the clothing store for a café from the window. Telling myself what I was seeing was some sort of sleepy delusion. The internet seemed to confirm the latter. “Hypnagogic hallucinations”, it called it. So tired you start dreaming while awake – as I understood it for myself. That was perfectly plausible. I just had to get some sleep.
It was when I woke up, several hours to go before my final, that I noticed something was missing: the novelty clock my mother had bought me before I left for college. It had been a Thomas the Tank Engine thing, because, my mother had told me, when I was a kid I’d loved Thomas, and she was remembering the child I’d been when she’d been facing the reality of me leaving for college.
It was an embarrassing gift, but I’d grown fond of it as a way to remember my mother every day. And though I looked for it, like I’d looked for my notes, I didn’t find it. Instead I noticed a picture on my wall of a young me dressed up as Pikachu, with a note from my mother on it about how much I’d grown since then.
I’d never been a Pokémon fan. I’d never seen that photo before. As far as I could recall, I’d never, ever dressed up as Pikachu.
But I shook it off, telling myself I’d have brain power to devote to working it all out after my exam, and jumped back into my notes, trying to cram the last of weeks of information into my head.
As prepped as I could be, I hurried out to the bus stop. Though I’d left only a minute to catch the bus, I cast a second’s glance at the store on next-door’s first floor. Definitely a café. Not a clothing shop. There were circular tables out on the sidewalk. I took one more second to stare at it, then ran to get to the stop before the bus.
I knew the room my exam was going to be in. It was where most of my other exams had been held. I reached the hallway outside about 5 minutes before the exam was to start. No one was waiting in the hallway, so I hurried to the door and into the room.
You know that dread when you realise you’ve stuffed up the times? It hit me like a lead weight as I stared at the full room, students with their heads down, powering through their exams. Only a couple glanced up at me as I stopped dead in my tracks.
One of the exam supervisors, an older woman I assumed was a teaching assistant with a bob cut, cast me a look over her reading glasses. She stood up from her chair and shooed me out of the room. Closing the door behind her, she turned on me.
‘We cannot allow students to start their exams an hour late,’ she said. ‘If you have a reason for special consideration, you need to talk to the professor.’
I gaped like a fish out of water. I had been so sure the exam would start at 3!
The TA took pity on me. She made a small tutting noise.
‘Speak to Professor Jones,’ she said. ‘She may be able to sort something out.’
I frowned, then shook myself. My professor was Dr Etienne Voigt.
‘Professor Jones?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t this… Anatomy and Physiology Two?’
Turns out, according to the TA, it wasn’t. It was A&P One. Which meant, rather than the time, what I’d gotten wrong was the room. Seeing the minute tick over to 2:58, I explained my mistake in panicking snapshots to the woman as I tapped through on my phone to the details for my exam.
Under the frowning stare of the TA, I scrolled down to the listed room for the exam. It was this one. And the time, in the info I had, was 3 p.m..
It didn’t make sense. Not a lick of sense – until I scrolled a bit further and saw the date.
‘Oh,’ I uttered in the hallway before the TA, ‘it’s tomorrow.’
Any embarrassment was completely drowned out by a wash of beautiful relief. I’d wasted a bit of time coming here, but I had missed a glorious load of nothing – and I had more time to boot.
‘Hey!’ a voice shouted at me as, on the brink of laughing like a madwoman, I wandered out of the college. ‘Clara!’
I looked around. Hurrying out of the doors behind me was Tim. I smiled and waited up for him.
Tim and I had shared student housing in first semester, before I decided I needed a place that offered more alone time. We still took the same bus, though, so we’d kept in touch.
We took seats next to each other on the bus. He laughed when I told him about my exam mix-up.
‘Are you still studying everything at the last minute?’ he asked as the bus wound us through the town away from college.
He laughed again at my shrug. Not everything, no. I always got start-of-semester panic, when everyone else had wonderful notes, and I felt I had to follow in their footsteps or I’d fall behind. But shrugging was the more amusing answer.
‘My grades are good,’ I said. ‘I’m pretty sure I’ve done alright in all the other exams this semester.’
‘Yeah,’ Tim said, ‘if you’re not so stressed you mess up when the test is.’
That was absolutely fair enough. Tim, who I’d imagine was still top of his class, didn’t rib me any further about my study habits. Instead he gave me a grin and a waggle of his eyebrows.
‘Guess what?’ he said.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘I got an internship!’ Tim beamed at me. ‘Pretty good one too!’
I’d been expecting some gossip about our former roommates, but I smiled and congratulated him.
‘By “good” I’m guessing that means they don’t just have you sweeping up for free?’ I said.
Tim’s grin grew wider, like he’d been hoping I’d ask that.
‘Can’t tell you what it is,’ he said excitedly. ‘Top secret! But I’m right in on the inside – and it’s so cool!’
Tim was studying either physics or engineering – to be honest, I don’t remember which. Maybe this internship really was a big deal (and I’m sure it would be to him regardless), but I struggled to believe he was really on the inside of something massive and top-secret. Tim’s crazy smart, but he’s still only a couple years out of high school.
When I got back to my apartment, I plopped my notes on my desk and sat to them. Another day to study was a stroke of luck. Truth be told, though, I was sick of studying.
The picture of me as Pikachu stared back at me from the wall. My brain was still pretty fried, and, the longer I stared back at that photo, the more I wasn’t wholly sure it hadn’t happened. I was starting to suspect my memory, previously so trustworthy, wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was just the hard studying and fried brain, but some of my memories were starting to feel foggy.
I shook it off, suspecting it was just the studying. But I opened my computer and started searching all the same.
What, exactly, I was looking for, I wasn’t sure. Just stories of weird things happening, primarily in Waxahachie. I scrolled through local online pages and forums, scanning them for anything that caught my interest. In part, I was just procrastinating.
But I found one thing. Alone of everything I skimmed through, a single post on a forum hit home:
Ya’ll got things goin missing??? Lost half the pots in my kitchen and this vase my grandma gave me… Like they weren’t even there in the first place nd no one else remembers them.
It had been posted this morning and there were only a couple responses to the post. The two responses weren’t helpful, just people asking who the original poster lived with and whether someone might have done something with them. The original poster hadn’t responded to either question.
I took a moment to decide on it, then added a comment myself, saying I’d had similar things happen and asking whether OP had figured anything out yet.
Then I tucked back into my studying. I hadn’t the same level of focus anymore though, my mind drifting and my eyes landing on the Pikachu picture time and again. I checked back multiple times on the post about things disappearing, but no one else was commenting and the OP hadn’t responded to me.
Around dinner, while I was munching cereal and browsing the internet, I got a text from my mom. It was a simple one, just wishing me luck with my last exam of the semester. I considered replying with a question about the Pokémon picture and the missing Thomas clock, then decided against it. My mom wasn’t a fast texter, so it would be easier to have that conversation over a call. And if I called my mom now she’d want to know what I was eating for dinner, whether I was sleeping enough, and if I’d left studying to the last minute again. If I mentioned anything about the weird stuff I was noticing, she’d probably worry like a maniac that I wasn’t taking care of myself.
So I just thanked her, told her I loved her, and, even more sick of studying, started a movie on my computer.
I wonder now whether things would have been different if I’d gone to bed. But then, the curiosity was growing as I watched movie after movie, my eyes flicking to the time in the bottom of my screen, waiting for 3 a.m. Though my brain was tired, I felt more mentally alert and logical than I had the past two nights. It if happened again tonight then… well, it’d be harder to put it down to hallucinations.
Though as the night got later, then earlier, my curiosity morphed into apprehension. It was easier to be just curious during the day while people bustled about outside my tiny apartment, many different lives carrying on as normal. As the world outside fell asleep and went quiet… It was as though the night entered into a witching hour, where anything could happen and no one would see.
If the curiosity had initially made me want to stay awake to 3, the mounting anxiety made sure I did. I eyed the clock more than my movie, my heart pounding hard in my chest, as the minute flicked over to 2:58… then 2:59…
The movie’s soundtrack distorted, then stopped, the screen freezing. I took a deep breath, feeling that weird thinning of the air. I could even feel it with my hand: fanning it back and forth in front of me, I swear it produced less wind than usual.
My eyes grew wide as I heard whispering behind me. Then another whisper, from another person – male, I thought – responded. Slowly, my heart in my throat, I turned around.
Two murky shadows. Like that first dishwashing man. A taller one and a shorter one. I watched as they walked past, barely feet from me before disappearing straight into my wall.
I launched out of my chair and went to the window. Just fuzzy, at first, like a thin layer of fog had descended on the town. There were darting shadows out here too, faint and hard to follow. Then it fractured into a growing number of those transparent films. I watched a firetruck roar along the street, its beacons flashing. It drove onto dirt roads, and behind it were cars from about the 70s, parked and looking brand new.
The squeaking of shoes on my floors made me jump and whirl back to stare around my apartment. Squeaking, then the sound of a glass being picked up and filled at a sink – though I could see no water running and the sink sounded further away. And no one was there. Not even a shadow.
I tip-toed towards the mirror, fairly sure I didn’t want to see but needing to anyway, and looked.
There was a person, dressed in a long nightgown, but she wasn’t at my sink. She was in a whole other room – as in, it wasn’t just my studio apartment anymore. Attached to my apartment, separated by a wood-framed archway, was another room – it filled with a large dining table and a kitchen that looked straight out of WW2. My apartment room wasn’t my apartment either: it was a lounge, with a big old radio up against a green papered wall.
Slowly, I turned around. Just my tiny studio apartment, not that larger 40s one.
It was like Alice Through The Looking Glass – like there was a whole different world in my mirror. And it was still there when I looked back, the woman in her nightgown putting down her glass and switching off the kitchen lights. She came into the lounge behind me, and, never once seeming to notice me in the mirror or elsewhere, switched the lounge lights off as well.
It made me blink, that sudden sense of darkness, the mirror going black, while, the whole time, I was standing there with all my lights on breathing in that weird thin air. And then it was gone. The mirror just showed my own reflection, and I looked back at myself.
There was definitely something going on here. Every morning at 3am? When did hallucinations work that way?
And it was still 3. I blinked my eyes hard a few times, staring at my watch, to make sure. I saw it tick over to 3:01 after my third blink – and a good few minutes after it should have.
I didn’t try to go straight to bed this time. I did the rounds in my apartment, looking for things that had changed. There were a few. My phone cover was now green, where it had been sparkly purple before; my dishes were old stoneware, rather than thin porcelain, and my favourite sweater – the one I’d been studying in yesterday and the day before – was gone.
It was only when I woke up to the light of late morning that I noticed the biggest thing that had changed. Having messed up the day before, I’d wanted to make doubly sure I had the right exam room and time.
I’d never really been passionate about becoming a nurse. It had just seemed a good idea, so I’d done it. I had never, ever considered studying to be a teacher.
Yet when I logged on to my college account, I didn’t see A&P, or any other of my classes. I was looking at ENGL 1312 and EDUC 1324, there under my name; the degree program I was enrolled in proudly declaring itself as education.
I’d woken up expecting to do some last cramming for my A&P exam. In a panicked frenzy, I instead spent that time emailing and calling anyone who could help sort the mess out. Student admin got back to me, telling me, confused, that I’d always been enrolled in education, and had never taken a nursing class at this college. Dr Voigt, my A&P professor, didn’t answer my calls or respond to my email, but one of my TAs did, and she’d never heard of me. She suggested I get in touch with student services for, I’m guessing, counselling.
I felt like the butt of some sick practical joke. It’s insane to talk to my TA, who’d seen me week after week in classes I did attend – spoken directly to me multiple times, and given me feedback on assignments – tell me straight up she had no idea who I was.
I still planned on going to my A&P exam. Maybe it sounds ridiculous that I would. But the mix-up about my degree just didn’t fit reality. It occupied a part of my brain that couldn’t quite process the craziness of it. So I didn’t believe it, frankly.
Leaving my emails, calls, and freaking out behind, I took the bus to campus. I was in good time, got to the right exam room, and waited the fifteen minutes to 3 p.m..
They passed, and no one came. None of the students in my class. None of the TAs to proctor the exam. The room was empty. The hallway was empty.
I stood there, time passing 3 p.m. by, in a maelstrom of lost confusion. Nothing added up, my brain trying to join dots but just getting a jumbled mess. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to scream or sob – I did know, though, that I was both anxious and devastated as it dawned on me that, somehow, I had missed my exam. Whatever was going on, the A&P final wasn’t being held here at 3 p.m., and I couldn’t check where and when it actually was because my college account no longer had me enrolled in the class.
It was like those nightmares where you haven’t studied for your exam, or end up oversleeping it. Only this nightmare was more detailed, move vivid, and I wasn’t waking up.
I stumbled out of the college building to the sunshine outside, my feet on course for my bus, but my brain not having made any decision yet. At a picnic table I spotted Tim, sitting and studying with a bunch of other students. My feet changing course, I hurried over to him.
‘Tim!’ I called, making him look up. ‘Tim,’ I repeated when I was closer, him frowning at me, ‘can I talk to you a sec?’
He obliged, getting up and following me a short way over.
‘Tim,’ I said urgently, ‘I swear – everything’s gone crazy! I’m sorry, you were busy – I just – I went to my exam and no one is there, and this is going to sound insane but it’s like the world is changing around me!’
His eyebrows heavily furrowed, Tim nodded slowly at me.
‘Okay…’ he said. ‘Um… What class are you in? We can try to find where your exam is.’
I gaped at him. There was something… Just something felt off. In how he was talking to me, in how he looked at me –
‘Tim,’ I breathed, ‘do you know who I am?’
Tim pulled a grimace.
‘No, sorry,’ he said. ‘Were we… in a class toge–‘
I didn’t stick around to hear the end of his sentence. I was running, blinded by tears, for the bus stop. I cried quietly all the way back to my apartment, then broke down into a full sob fest the moment I’d shut my door. I was friendly with a lot of other students and a couple of my neighbors, but hadn’t really made close friends. Tim was probably the closest I had.
The cry left me drained. I eventually got up off the floor and sat at my computer. The notes dumped on the ground next to my desk were all English, history, and education, written in my own hand. All my college emails before today, me scrolling listlessly through them, were to or from professors in classes I’d never attended. And, feeling it now with more conviction, I’d never dressed up as Pikachu.
The person who’d posted about things disappearing still hadn’t responded to anything, and no one else had commented.
I could call my mother. Miserable, I considered it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. What if, all of a sudden, she didn’t know who I was? What if it turned out my dad was dead in this weird new reality, or my brother had never been born – or whatever?
Maybe… maybe it’d all be better if I just had a long sleep. I’d thought before my weird perceptions were all down to being tired, and that was a thought I latched on to with hope. Drained and sad, I also just wanted the out sleeping provided. You can’t perceive or worry about things when you’re sleeping.
I watched a movie in bed until I dozed off. I made it into a good, deep sleep, despite everything. And, when I first woke up to my dark apartment, I was glad for it. There’s that feeling you get when you first wake up from a good sleep that nothing can be that bad. It gave me a can-do attitude that I revelled in, not wanting to do anything but lie in my bed feeling that unconcerned confidence.
It was not knowing what time it was that first started to crack that good feeling. The idea that it was nearing 3 a.m. was a source of growing fear. But I didn’t want to check. I didn’t want to acknowledge the worry.
I lay there for minute after minute, denying any thought of checking the time, until the air started to thin.
Big tears welled up in my eyes, slipping out past the corner of my eyelids and dripping down onto my pillow. I squeezed my eyes shut, not wanting to know. But I wasn’t allowed to lie there in denial.
There was a thump, like that 40s fridge being shut, and the squeaking of shoes on my floor. It was so much scarier in the dark, and it got me moving – launching out of bed and grabbing my phone. 3:00 I saw on the front of it as I hurried to flick on all the lights. Nothing there, not even a shadow. Probably in that mysterious extra room my apartment had in the mirror. Out the window, a second later, I saw the old cars parked, the fractured shifting of time rolling along the street.
I don’t know why I pounded on the window, but I did. I pounded on it, wanting to scream, then pulled myself away and stared into the mirror. An old woman frowned back at me through it, standing just where I was. When I raised a hand, the old woman who was my reflection didn’t.
I looked away. I ran away from it. It was all too much. I yanked my door open and raced out into the hallway.
‘Can anyone else see this?’ I cried. ‘Anyone?’
There was no answer. My feet carried me down the hallway, down the stairs; me shouting out for anyone who would respond – anyone who’d make me feel less alone in all this. No one called back.
I’d reached the glass doors of the entry to the apartment. Outside was that shifting time-warp: dirt roads and an empty space where the building opposite should be, layered on a world where that building did exist but old cars were parked before it, layered yet again on the world I knew.
I don’t know when in there my terror and desperation turned to fury, but it did. I banged through the glass doors and out into the thin, fractured air of the street.
‘CAN’T YOU SEE THIS?’ I shouted to the world outside. ‘IT CAN’T JUST BE ME! WHAT IS GOING ON?’
No response. I yelped as the ground before me turned to dirt, stumbling back away from it even if, all the while it looked like dirt I could tell, somehow, there was still a concrete sidewalk I was standing on there.
‘ANYONE?’ I screamed. ‘CAN’T ANYONE ELSE SEE THIS?’
The building opposite had half disappeared again. I could see part of it, but the other part looked like a ghostly impression of a building on a field. An upstairs window in the part I could see rattled open.
‘Shut up!’ someone shouted down to me. ‘Take it to a therapist!’
A cop car that looked like something out of a 60s movie appeared suddenly right before me. I gasped and stared, but the trooper inside didn’t seem to notice me. And then the car was gone, the world suddenly back to normal, the shifting of time finished for the night.
Normal… except that the cafe in the building opposite was now a bridal store.
My eyes welled up again. I sniffled, put the back of my phone, where inside my phone case I kept my swipe cards, to the scanner by the apartment doors, and went back inside. I just wanted it all to end, and my apartment was the safest place I had to go.
I hadn’t locked my apartment door behind me when I’d run out. When I reached it, desolate, I pushed down the doorhandle, very much expecting it to just open.
It was the last thing I needed. Being locked out of my apartment was the last fucking thing I needed!
Furious and crying, I yanked and jiggled at the doorhandle, hating it. It didn’t budge and I slammed my fists to the door, pounding it again and again, wanting to just smash the damn thing down. Just wanting my bed, and my computer, and a movie to watch while I tried not to think about what else might have suddenly changed or disappeared.
I wasn’t breaking down the door. It was too strong. But I was breaking down against it. Frantic, crying and, though I’d only realised it then, screaming, I stumbled as the door was yanked abruptly open.
It was my apartment. My number on the door, my spot in the hallway, on my floor. But it wasn’t my apartment.
I stared, flabbergasted, into it. It was built identical to mine. The kitchen fixtures the same, the window and bathroom door in exactly the right spots. But the furniture was all wrong. And there was no mirror on the wall.
And the guy standing in the doorway was staring at me like I’d lost my mind.
‘You alright ma’am?’ he asked. He was in pyjamas, and had a hand held up like he thought I might launch at him.
I wiped blinding tears out of my eyes.
‘This is my apartment,’ I told him. ‘My apartment!’
Another door along the hallway opened. It was Ms Hodgins from next door. Her eyes flicked from me to the guy.
‘You okay Bill?’ she asked the guy.
‘Ms Hodgins,’ I said, pleading, though I thought I already knew the answer, ‘don’t you know me? This is my apartment.’
Ms Hodgins only glanced briefly at me before returning her eyes to Bill.
‘Want me to call the cops?’ she asked.
Bill took a second before giving her a quick nod. To me, he said, ‘What’s going on, ma’am? Why – why don’t you have a seat?’ he said, as though deciding on it as he spoke. ‘And we’ll talk?’
But I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to hear that this was his apartment, not mine. I didn’t want Ms Hodgins to call the police and end up having to deal with them. Didn’t want to hear that while I remembered her, she had no memory of any of the times I’d greeted her or helped her take her garbage down.
So I ran. Until I couldn’t keep running.
The only place I could think of to go was my college. I could walk there, though it’d take longer than the bus. I could sleep in the student lounge or library. Get through the night that way, and then… try to sort things out in the morning.
When I stopped running, I walked. I pulled out my phone. I searched for the post about things disappearing, but either it was taken down or had never been there in the first place. Not in this weird new reality.
So I searched for other things. For anything to do with Waxahachie, or multiple times converging, or parallel universes. Only glancing up when I needed to check where I was going, I searched frantically as I walked.
Until I heard the crunchy sound. At first I didn’t really notice it. But it seemed I was walking towards it as it was getting louder.
I was trudging along a road by a field. Up ahead was a forgotten old building: small, stone, flat-rooved, from maybe a century ago, with the word “Office” crafted in concrete relief above the door. It was a building I’d seen hundreds of times on my way to and from college, and it looked like an Old West relic, popping up with no obvious reason for its existence in the corner of the field.
Every time I’d noticed it previously, the small and boxy old building had been boarded up, windows and doors covered with plywood; graffiti making it look derelict. The graffiti was still there, but as I drew slowly closer, I could see the door was no longer boarded up. The plywood had been replaced with a new door, made of metal with a keypad set into it.
And I was pretty sure the weird crunchy noise was coming from that building. It distracted me out of my breakdown funk.
It wasn’t quite the crepitus Dr Voigt had described. It was like a distorted version of bone crunching against bone – and so much louder. I slowed to a stop, and felt it in the ground below my feet. The tarmac rumbled with it, as though the thing causing the sound was some kind of massive grinding going on underground.
The door of the old office building opened, the grinding and crunching sound instantly louder. Instinctively, I dodged aside, ducking behind a tree, hoping that, with only the moonlight to see by, I would go unnoticed. As to why I hid, I’m not sure. I just had the sense that something wasn’t right, and I shouldn’t be found to be watching it.
People were coming out of the small building. Nearly a dozen of them, all about college age. I peered around the tree trunk, seeing mostly their legs and arms through the leaves. They were saying goodbyes to each other. Before the metal door swung shut again, I thought I heard, beyond the chatter of see-yas, someone yell, ‘Bring it down! Slower –‘ and then the door slammed, cutting off the voice.
It was quieter with the door shut, and I thought the grinding noise was slowing down, the dirt below my feet rumbling less.
Footsteps were heading up the road toward me. I edged further away, moving around the tree. I peered out as two people headed in the direction I’d come from. A girl and, beside her… I squinted to make sure, but I’d recognised him instantly. It was Tim, him walking beside the girl, neither of them speaking a word.
It was eerie. They were straight-backed, staring forwards, and that silence… Were I walking with someone at 3-something in the morning, I’d at least be trying to make some conversation.
They passed away and out of sight, headed into town. I emerged from behind the tree only slowly, looking around to make sure no one was nearby, then crept quietly towards the small old office building.
It wasn’t big enough to easily hold those near-dozen students, and especially not them plus whoever else had shouted about bringing something down – not to mention whatever they were bringing down. It certainly wasn’t big enough to hold any kind of machine-thing that could make a grinding noise that loud – that rumbled the ground around it.
The grinding sound was disappearing into nothing as I walked nearer and nearer. I stared at the small building. Maybe it was me putting two and two together and coming up with twelve, but I wondered if the small office building held little more than passage into some underground space.
I tried the handle of the metal door. It made me feel like I was playing with something I shouldn’t, but why not? I had little left to lose. The handle didn’t move though. Like my apartment all over again, it was locked against me, what was behind it unknown.
I tried jiggling it; I walked around the building, looking for anything. But it was just the small building, windows covered with plywood and the only suspicious element that metal door, locked with a keypad. No one else came out while I was standing there, hoping to find some answer in an old stone building by the edge of a field.
Maybe I should have asked the students that had come out. Accosted them in the street and demanded answers. But even now I wasn’t sure I wanted to be found by anyone who was in that building. “Top-secret”, Tim had said. If this was his internship…
I hesitated another moment, but thoughts of being taken out by top-secret security guards had me turning and hurrying away, headed for my college.
I’m there now, sitting on a couch in the library. And I’ve been searching the internet on my phone. I haven’t found anything by way of other people experiencing what I am, though I looked hard, once again, for that.
I’m not too sure about what I have found, but I’ll write it here. Waxahachie is a pretty simple place, mostly. Thirty years ago, though… I wish now I was a physics major, but I… was studying nursing, so hopefully someone else can work it out.
You know CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Europe? In the early 90s, they were trying to make a particle accelerator here in Waxahachie, named the Superconducting Super Collider, or SSC. It was going to be more than three times as big as the Large Hadron Collider, and much more powerful as well. It was planned to be the biggest and most powerful in the world.
But the SSC lost funding and, in 1993, after a chunk of it had been built – a portion of the tunnel already bored under the town – the project was cancelled.
There’s nothing since then about the SSC’s underground tunnel. According to the internet, it was abandoned completely – abandoned well before I moved here. Before I was even born.
I found one other thing, though. I was looking through documents about the SSC. In one of them, I found a listing of the people involved in the project. And in that list was Dr Etienne Voigt. My A&P professor.
I’ve checked on my college website. He’s still listed as a biology professor. I looked into him online. He’s always been only a human biology academic.
So why, in the world, was he part of a decommissioned particle physics project?
“Top secret”. Tim was involved. Tim had said that, and I’d dismissed it as implausible. Was the fact that there was no info online about what had happened to that underground tunnel because it was “top secret”?
I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. Maybe I’m just grasping at straws. But I’m sitting in an empty college library at 5 in the morning with nowhere else to go and no idea why my life has turned completely upside-down. So, yes, I’m grasping at straws.
And I could have sworn that the college library was in the west wing of the main college building. I’m sitting in the library in the east wing.
And my dad is no longer listed as a contact in my phone.