I knew the pale lady was real the first night she appeared at the foot of my bed and whispered, “You were warned in two weeks, but you will ignore me yesterday, Silas,” her raspy voice so much like crumbling parchment carried on an astral wind. It was 3:14am when her coal-black eyes pierced mine, but she was too far away for me to see the contours of her semi-translucent face. Her diaphanous form cast no reflection in my nightstand mirror, and she wore a flowing white gown, her raven hair swirling in some ethereal breeze. The moonlight reflected off her alabaster skin with an eerie eldritch glow.
I felt a crushing weight on my chest, pinning me to the bed and paralyzing me. I labored to exhale cold wisps of white breath that became shallower as she leached heat from my body.
I was cold, so very cold, feeling less substantial the longer she remained in my presence. I struggled to lift my arms, but they failed me. It felt as though I were imprisoned in a block of translucent cement. Unable to move, I closed my eyes, comforting myself with the hope that this night caller would lose interest and fade away.
I took three more breaths, and then opened my eyes to find her still there, a silent sentinel holding vigil over my paralyzed body. When my eyes locked on hers, her lips creased ever so slightly at the edge in what seemed like a knowing smirk.
A desperate and primal panic overwhelmed me. I wanted to flee with every fiber of my being, but my mind had no control over my body. Only my eyes could move, shifting in their sockets, searching for a rifle that wasn’t there. The only option left was to ignore the apparition and shut my eyes, yearning for sleep to overcome my terror.
Later that morning, I awoke with my clock radio broadcasting an NPR piece about a black hole’s accretion disk appearing on the edge of Alpha Centauri. Gwen would’ve loved it. The featured astrophysicists spoke excitedly about their finding, their voices betraying what sounded like barely suppressed panic. Before Gwen, I’d never listened to NPR, but she’d insisted. Over time it kinda grew on me, especially during the war. Listening to it reminded me of her.
I turned off the radio and lay in the old apartment exhausted and drained of energy. My memory of the pale lady was faint and receding into a willowy whisper of a dream, an electric field dissipating with distance.
I glanced at my alarm clock. It was already eight a.m. and I had to be at the warehouse in thirty minutes. There was no way I could make it in time, and frankly, I was too tired to spend the entire day on my feet, so I called in sick.
Ever since my medical discharge, it was hard to find a sense of purpose. And it was tough to earn a decent wage when your skill set included operating a fifty-caliber machine gun. When I’d returned from Afghanistan for the last time, everyone thanked me for my service, but few offered me a job.
After I hung up the phone, I saw Gwen’s missed call.
No voicemail. Figures. Before we broke up last week, Gwen had lived in this place for five years, while I was stationed at Fort Drum. Between deployments, I’d spent every spare weekend and day of leave here. After I’d supported her through four stressful years of physics at Stanford and then five years of grad school at Princeton, she’d dropped me like a hot potato. On one level, I couldn’t blame her. After I’d left the Army, I’d moved in with her, but had difficulty keeping a steady job.
It sucked. I really missed her. She’d been my rock during my frequent deployments. She’d written me a letter every week like a metronome. I never knew if I’d live or die from one day to the next, but I could always count on that letter. But ever since I’d left the service, she’d grown more distant. What really irked me was that it wasn’t like her to call me out of the blue like this—unless she needed something. I wouldn’t be surprised. She could be a cold and calculating bitch.
I committed to not returning her call, but then I wondered, maybe it was important. Maybe she really needed my help.
So I steeled myself, rehearsed my greeting, and then pushed the number “one” on speed dial.
“Hello?” Gwen answered, her voice projecting professionalism and confidence.
“Ah…Gwen…ah,” I hesitated. “I see you called me last night?”
“Who is this?” she said in a tone that sounded like a challenge.
Why didn’t she recognize my voice? Now I was worried. Had I really meant that little to her?
“Exactly how many men did you call last night?” I said before I realized how defensive I must’ve sounded.
She hung up.
I fumed and fretted for a few minutes, and then sucked up my pride and called her again.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Gwen, this is Si. I had a quick question for you.”
“Oh, hello, Silas. Did you just call?”
I wavered and then said, “Well…ah…yes, but…I…”
“That was really rude of you, you know.”
“Well…yes…but, well…did you call me last night?”
“Oh, that’s what this is about?”
“Well, yeah. I was just returning your call.”
“I was calling to let you know that NPR was going to air my interview this morning. But it’s too late now. You already missed it.”
I had mixed feelings about her response. On one hand, I was disappointed she wasn’t in some sort of trouble. After all, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to save her. On the other hand, I was relieved she wasn’t in danger. But ultimately, her calling me just to brag pissed me off.
I tried to stay calm. “Actually, I caught the tail end of it. Something about a black hole near Alpha Centauri.”
She huffed. “Oh, you heard the quack portion of the segment, and it wasn’t a black hole. It was a black hole’s accretion disk.” She never passed up on an opportunity to lord her mental superiority over me, but her voice still held a hint of what I sensed was her passion for astrophysics, a passion that made me fall in love with her so many years ago.
“Damned radio astronomers think they can see things others can’t,” she said, nearly betraying a subtle trace of her carefully suppressed Appalachian twang. “You do realize that if a black hole were that close to Earth, it wouldn’t be long before it swallowed us up.”
“So that’s why those guys were so excited,” I said.
“Is there anything else you wanted to tell me, Gwen?”
“No. Were you expecting something else?”
Dejected, I said, “Ah…no. I hope all’s well.”
“Things are going great!” she said. “But I really need to get going, Silas. Cheers!” She hung up the phone, and now I felt worse than I had before I’d spoken with her.
“The reckoning came one week from now and last week you will do nothing to stop it,” the apparition said.
I woke up at 3:14am, paralyzed. I felt her presence before she emerged from the edge of my peripheral vision. She didn’t so much move as drift, a dim pulsing glimmer in the night, and she moved faster than my eyes could track.
In seconds, she was kneeling on my chest restricting my airflow. Because her face was closer to mine than it had been in my last encounter, I could see her features more clearly.
No. It wasn’t possible. How could Gwen be haunting me when she wasn’t dead?
“Mr. Webb, I’d be happy to exorcise your apartment as a precaution, but your problem doesn’t seem like a supernatural one. It’s more likely a medical issue,” Father Barlow said over the phone. “It sounds more like sleep paralysis, which is fairly common.”
As a Baptist, I was frustrated by his response. I’d gotten to the point where I was crazy enough to invite a Catholic priest to my home to exorcize it, and he’d dismissed my concerns. “But, Father, these events feel very real for me.”
“Son, I don’t deny you really believe you saw a spirit. All I’m saying is that you should seek medical help, especially given your time in the service, before you try more radical solutions. That’s all.”
I struggled to keep my composure. I knew Father Barlow was just trying to help, but not everyone who’s served has PTSD. “Thanks for your help, Father.”
The instant I hung up the phone, it rang again, and I instinctively reached for a phantom rifle.
With some reservations, I’d agreed to accompany Gwen to her departmental cocktail party. She’d even apologized for the flippant way she’d handled my phone call. We’d decided to meet at Professor Wong’s crowded home so we wouldn’t have to be alone together and face the associated discomfort and awkwardness. I knew I reminded her too much of the life she’d wanted to forget back in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and I probably worried more than she did that I’d embarrass her if I said too much.
I was almost certain Gwen was using me, but I also hoped there was a chance we might get back together. Hell, we grew up together. I would spend my weekday evenings at football practice, while she’d pass every spare hour she wasn’t in school or with me pestering astronomers at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, studying remnant signals from the Big Bang. But really, I just needed someone to talk to. My parents were both dead and I didn’t have any siblings or close friends. I’d devoted nine long years of my life to this woman, and I had nothing to show for it.
When I arrived at the professor’s home, a massive Georgian house situated on a cul-de-sac in an exclusive part of Princeton Township, I viewed the colossal structure as the ultimate testament to ivory-tower arrogance. It didn’t surprise me one bit that Gwen would keep company with these people. It was also obvious to me I didn’t belong here among them.
The instant I walked into the foyer, I realized I was woefully underdressed in my blazer and khakis. Everyone else wore a tux or cocktail dress. While one gentleman was kind enough to introduce himself, he seemed to lose interest the moment he learned I didn’t have a doctorate.
Gwen was late to the party, so I became a wallflower to avoid any further humiliation. That’s when I saw an eclectic-looking bald man, whose patchy beard looked like a bacteria culture had exploded on his face. His plaid suit was loud and wrinkled.
I immediately introduced myself. “The name’s Si Webb.”
The man beamed and shook my hand. “Dr. Eli Rosen, Assistant Professor of Quantum Parapsychology.”
“Quantum Parapsychology. Until 2007, it was part of an interdisciplinary effort between the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory and the Department of Astrophysical Sciences. My research focuses on understanding parapsychological phenomena at the quantum level. More specifically, I’m trying to reconcile the principles of quantum mechanics with the theory of gravitation at the quantum scale in order to learn more about the behavior of dark matter and dark energy,” an animated Dr. Rosen explained.
“What the heck does that have to do with the paranormal?” I said.
Dr. Rosen’s eyes widened and he smiled. He then wagged his index finger at me. “You’re the only person who’s ever asked me about that part of my research. Most academic types are too embarrassed to talk about it because they’ve concluded I’m a nutjob.”
“Well, I have a bit of a vested interest in your response,” I said.
Dr. Rosen grabbed my shoulder and ushered me outside, past throngs of arriving guests. Once we were alone, he said, “You’re having night terrors, aren’t you?”
I was shocked. “How on earth…?”
He cut me off. “You started seeing the phantoms about a week ago. Right?”
“These encounters, they happen at precisely 3:14 in the morning?”
“Yes. How’d you know that?”
Dr. Rosen looked around him and then, in a hushed voice, said, “I see them too.”
“Do you have a theory?” I asked.
“Perhaps. The work I do on the paranormal centers on my theory that most supernatural activity can be explained by the interaction between matter and dark matter. Most reported extrasensory phenomena operate on higher dimensions than we’re capable of observing. You see, humans are evolved to perceive the world in only four dimensions—height, width, depth, and time. Paranormal entities are nothing more than hyper-dimensional beings composed of dark matter.”
“That’s a fascinating theory, but why are we seeing these things at a precise moment in time?”
“Well, that topic’s a little sensitive. I think it’s related to…”
“There you are, Silas!” Gwen shouted from across Professor Wong’s front lawn. “I’ve been trying to find you all night.”
I waved at Gwen. “Gwen, come on over here. I’d like you to meet my friend, Dr. Rosen.”
Gwen hesitated for a moment and then trudged across the lawn. She extended her hand to Dr. Rosen. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, doctor.”
Dr. Rosen shook Gwen’s hand and said, “Likewise, Gwen.”
Gwen raised her chin ever so slightly and said, “Actually, it’s Gwendolyn. Or Dr. Cochran, if you prefer.”
Dr. Rosen just smiled and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. In that case, just call me, Eli.”
To avoid any further awkwardness, I shook Dr. Rosen’s hand and said, “It was truly a pleasure to meet you, doc. Do you have a card or something?”
He smiled and handed me his card. “I’m looking forward to continuing our discussion.”
For the rest of the evening, I was never far from Gwen. While she seemed to impress most of the other guests, I’d like to say that I masterfully played my part as her accessory and didn’t embarrass her…much.
It felt like Gwen was starting to warm back up to me, almost as if we were a couple again.
At the end of the evening, I hugged Gwen and she thanked me for being a good sport. While we didn’t set up plans for a future date, I felt hopeful for the first time in a long while, even if I was terrified to fall asleep.
Two weeks after my initial encounter with Gwen’s shade, a second specter emerged from the shadows. As he hovered toward my bed, his features materialized from the cold darkness—square jaw, dimpled chin, blue eyes, and dark hair. It wasn’t until I saw the thin scar on his forehead that my mind processed and confirmed what my instincts sensed the instant I saw him: he was a twisted simulacrum of me.
“If you miss the call two weeks ago, you died two days from now,” he whispered in a voice like grinding gravel.
Weakness overcame me while he and Gwen’s specter watched and smiled.
I called Dr. Rosen the instant I woke. “Dr. Rosen, it happened again, only this time, I saw myself.”
“When we last spoke, we never had a chance to discuss any details. Do you have any mirrors in your bedroom close to where these spirits appear? More specifically, do they tend to appear between a set of mirrors?”
“Well, I do have one mirror at the foot of my bed, but that’s all,” I said.
“Interesting. When I searched the Internet for similar incidents within the last two weeks, every single night phantom account has a specter appearing between two mirrors.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean, doc?”
“I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s got something to do with photons and dark matter.”
“Well, we can’t actually see dark matter. The only reason we know it exists is because of its impact on gravity. I believe these hyper-dimensional apparitions marshal enough gravitational energy that they can manifest images of themselves by bending the light around them.
“Since mirrors reflect light in our realm of matter and energy, they serve as conduits of dark matter and dark energy in the phantom realm, portals to higher dimensional realities.”
My head was spinning, but Dr. Rosen still hadn’t answered the most burning question. “But why now?”
The line went silent for several seconds. “Well, I can’t talk about it, but let’s say there’s a major cosmic event that may be coming to a head in two days which could warp space-time. It’s my belief that these shadow entities are somehow trapped in our dimension as a consequence.”
“But it hasn’t happened yet,” I said.
“For them, it already has.”
“Who do you see in your night terrors, Dr. Rosen?”
The doctor hesitated again, but I could hear his tremulous breaths. Then he answered, “I see myself, and he speaks to me about future events as if he’s already experienced them.”
Gwen called me in tears. She wouldn’t tell me why she was crying, but she begged me to meet her in person. So I went to a local bar and found her huddled at a corner table, sipping a strawberry margarita. Her cheeks were glistening with tears.
I would’ve ordered a drink first, but something seemed very wrong, so I went directly to her table. I’d never seen Gwen so upset before. She was normally as tough as a linebacker, but the woman I saw today was a physical and emotional wreck.
“What’s wrong, Gwen?”
“I’m so sorry, Si. For everything. We never should’ve broken up. I was selfish. I focused too much on my career when I should’ve spent more time with the only person in the world who truly loved me.”
I smiled in an involuntary bout of schadenfreude. For an instant, I felt vindicated and self-righteous, but what Gwen said next changed everything.
“Tomorrow, the world will end.”
Gwen had explained that only a handful of scientists knew the truth, but they’d decided to keep it secret. Yet Gwen’s apocalyptic pronouncement had the odd effect of reigniting our passion, if only for a day. Nothing mattered anymore. The day-to-day dictates of life no longer commanded us. So on the evening of the apocalypse we made love at the old apartment for one last time.
As I embraced Gwen after our lovemaking, I stared at the mirror on my nightstand, waiting for the black hole to swallow our reality. Then I wondered: what if I could make my time with her last forever?
I checked my alarm clock. It was 3:10am. I shook Gwen awake.
She groaned. Her bloodshot eyes cracked open. “What is it, Si?”
“What time is it supposed to happen?”
“3:14am.” she said.
“How will it feel?”
“I doubt it’ll feel like anything. One instant we’ll be here, and in another, gone. Wiped from existence.”
“Do you have a small mirror or compact in your purse?”
She raised her right eyebrow. “Why? And what’s that got to do with anything?”
I looked in her eyes and said, “At this point does it really matter? C’mon. Indulge me.”
She grabbed her purse from the floor, rifling through it until she handed me a small pink compact.
I glanced at the alarm clock: 3:12am. I turned my head back toward Gwen, embraced her, and kissed her for what I thought would be the last time.
At 3:13am, I opened Gwen’s compact and placed it behind us, facing the mirror on my nightstand. Both mirrors shone with an infinity of shadowy images.
A minute later, the world ended at light-speed as space and time merged into infinity. But we had not, did not, and will not end. We reversed course against the grains of time. We will warn ourselves until two weeks ago when humanity will discover the singularity, and we will thrive until the Big Bang gave birth to the stars.
Sean Patrick Hazlett is an Army veteran living with his wife and three children in the San Francisco Bay area, where he works at a cybersecurity company. His short stories have appeared or will soon appear in publications such as Writers of the Future, Galaxy’s Edge, Abyss & Apex, Grimdark Magazine, and Sci Phi Journal, among others. He holds a Master of
Business Administration from Harvard Business School, a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and bachelor’s
degrees in History and Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. Before graduate school, he served as an Armored Cavalry officer at the Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, where he trained U.S. forces for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He considers writing as therapy that pays for itself.
Powerful story; powerful imagery; tying ghosts to quantum physics was perfect.
I’ll be searching out your writing and catching up on it!
PS: My son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids are serving in South Korea. He actually IS a rocket “scientist”! (He’s a 94Sierra.) I’m just a school guidance counselor, former science teacher, and a writer. Thanks for the read!
I meant, “Thanks”, but, apparently, I can’t spell tonight. 😉
Great story, Sean. I liked the juxtaposition of time–it kept me wondering if the story was written before, after, or during the end of time.
Great read – Thanks Sean!
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