She placed the wine glass on the nightstand, then pushed a cluster of pill bottles away so she could see the clock. It was after two in the morning. She fell backward on the bed and threw her arm over her throbbing eyes. Shit. She had to pick up Pete at the airport in just a few hours. Not only would she be demolished from lack of sleep, she’d be lucky if she was even sobered-up by then.
Patting blindly around the bed, she found the remote control, then used it to turn off the TV. The bedroom went black except for a ghostly blue glow from the wall by the door. It took a minute for Carol’s wine-soaked brain to register what the glow might be. Then she remembered: it was the security panel.
The alarm system was new, installed only a few weeks prior. It was Pete’s idea. Carol didn’t think they needed one, but Pete insisted. He said he would be traveling more for his job, speaking at conferences and doing guest lectures, and he wanted her and the baby to be safe while he was gone. That was his excuse, anyway. Carol knew that wasn’t the whole story, though. He would have canceled the alarm installation after she lost the baby if it was. He didn’t.
Her mind still in a haze, Carol climbed out of bed and stumbled toward the security panel. She figured she might as well arm the damn thing. There was no point in having an alarm if she didn’t turn it on. Besides, she knew Pete would be checking in on her via the mobile app. He’d be annoyed if he found out she had gone to sleep without activating it.
Squinting against the glow, Carol punched her PIN into the security panel’s touchscreen, then pressed the button marked Arm. A failure-tone buzzed, followed by an automated voice emanating from the speaker.
“The back door is open.”
Carol furrowed her brow. She punched in her code again and pressed Arm.
“The back door is open,” the voice said again, with identical inflection.
“Goddamnit,” Carol slurred. “Pete!” she called out, massaging her eyes with her thumb and forefinger. “Close the door!”
Pete’s not here, the voice in her head reminded her. Remember?
Shit, that’s right, she thought. Pete was away again, at yet another academic conference in some forgettable flyover city in the Midwest. Was it Cleveland this time? Or Cincinnati? Chicago? Something with a “C”…
It didn’t matter. The point was, he wasn’t home. She was alone. Again.
You sure about that?
Carol squeezed the bridge of her nose, trying to crush her migraine—and that annoying inner voice—out of existence. She was sure the door wasn’t open; she had locked it before going upstairs. Still, it didn’t hurt to double-check.
She tied her robe closed, opened the bedroom door, and shuffled down the hall to the stairs. The house was quiet. The only sound was the soft brush of her heels on the hardwood floor. The stairs creaked as she took one step at a time, clutching the railing for balance. She paused about halfway down, listening.
There was another sound now, an unfamiliar one, a long, slow, papery scratch. She peered over the railing, searching for the source.
A dead maple leaf was scraping along the floor of the downstairs hall, propelled by an unseen current of air. It looked like a disembodied hand skating on the tips of its arched, bony fingers.
As Carol stared at the leaf, another handful of leaves tumbled down the hall on a fresh gust of wind. A light dusting of snow glanced along the floor, swirling in the moonlight that angled into the hallway from the kitchen. A cold winter breeze ruffled the bottom of Carol’s robe. She drew in a sharp breath.
The door is open, she thought. It really is.
Carol gathered the hem of her robe and quickly retreated up the steps. She padded as softly as she could on the cold oak floor, deftly avoiding the floorboards that she knew might creak, then slipped into the bedroom, silently closed the door, and locked it with a click.
Her heart raced in her chest. Had she locked the back door before coming to bed? She thought she had, but maybe she hadn’t. She was at least three glasses deep in her bottle of Merlot by the time she had decided to head upstairs. She might have forgotten. Or maybe she had locked the door but hadn’t realized it wasn’t quite latched all the way. That happened sometimes, especially when it was damp. It was an old house, after all. Things didn’t
always line up the way they were supposed to. A strong wind could have blown the door open.
The cameras, Carol thought. The security system had cameras monitoring every room, and motion detectors that would show anything moving anywhere in the house. She could log into the mobile app and check the cameras. If there was someone in the house, she would see them. Then she could call the police and just wait in her room, with the door locked until the cavalry arrived.
Carol hurried over to her desk to retrieve her smartphone. Her fingers danced across the desk’s surface in the dark, searching for the device in its usual spot. It wasn’t there. Carol felt for the lamp. Her fingers found the base, then worked their way up to the switch. A small pool of light flooded the desk. Her heart sank.
The phone charger was empty.
Carol closed her eyes and cursed silently. She had left the phone downstairs, on the end table next to the couch. She could picture it clearly, face-down on top of Pete’s academic journals, a stack of publications with imposing titles like International Journal of Theoretical Physics and Quantum Quarterly. She had gotten off the couch to pour herself another glass of wine in the kitchen, then had absentmindedly carried the glass upstairs without returning to the den to retrieve her phone.
BANG! A loud report echoed through the house like a gunshot. Carol jumped, startled by the sound. A pleasant voice issued from the security panel.
“The back door is closed.”
Carol relaxed. The back door had slammed shut. That’s all the sound was. The wind again? It had to be.
Carol walked over to the bedroom door. She placed her ear against it and listened. There was no talking. No footsteps. No sounds of any kind. Outside, a gust of wind rattled the French doors that led from the bedroom onto the balcony. Inside, the house was as silent as a tomb.
Carol exhaled. The tension she had been holding in her shoulders began to melt away. It seemed the wind really had blown the door open, and now, closed. Chiding herself a bit for her paranoia, she unlocked the bedroom door. She paused.
Maybe it’s best to leave it locked, she thought. Better safe than sorry.
She locked the door again, stepped over to the security panel, punched in her PIN code, and pressed Arm.
A failure-tone buzzed. A familiar voice intoned.
“There’s motion in the kitchen.”
Carol frowned. She tapped the tab on the touchscreen panel labeled Motion. The display changed to show a schematic outline of her kitchen. A red triangle was pulsing by the back door. It began to move through the kitchen toward the hallway. Toward the stairs. Toward her.
Panic flooded through Carol’s body. She stepped back from the security panel as if to put more distance between herself and whoever was moving through her house.
“Oh, shit,” she whispered. “Shit, shit, shit.”
It wasn’t just the wind. Someone was in the house.
A torrent of possibilities flooded Carol’s mind. The first and most obvious was also the simplest: maybe it was Pete. He wasn’t due to return from his trip for another couple of hours, but maybe his flight had been changed. Maybe he was home early. Maybe he had taken a cab home from the airport, so he didn’t have to disturb her in the middle of the night.
Or—oh no—maybe he had been calling, trying to reach her. Her phone was downstairs, most likely with the ringer off. He could have been calling her, texting her, trying to let her know he was coming home, trying to arrange for her to pick him up from an earlier flight. When she didn’t answer, he was forced to arrange his own ride home. That had to be it.
“Pete?” she called out. Her tone was uncertain. “That you?”
Before the words had even left her lips, the voice in her head chimed in with a competing consideration. Why would Pete come in through the back?
Carol clamped her hand over her mouth. The voice was right. Pete never came in through the back door. If he had taken a cab, he would have come in through the front. Or, at worst, if he had forgotten his keys, he might have come in through the garage. But not through the back. Never through the back.
The display on the security panel changed, drawing Carol’s attention. The red triangle was moving out of the kitchen. The new readout showed a schematic of the downstairs hall, including the stairs upon which Carol had been standing just a few moments before. The triangle moved slowly down the hall to the bottom of the stairs. It stopped there as if listening.
Carol froze, unconsciously holding her breath to avoid making even the slightest sound.
After a moment, the triangle turned back down the hall and moved to the door under the stairs, the one that led into the basement. A mumbled curse echoed up through the floor. The utterance was followed by a series of thuds, as if someone was hitting or kicking the basement door. The walls in the bedroom vibrated with each impact.
Carol mouthed a curse of her own. That wasn’t Pete down there. Pete wouldn’t try to break into the basement. He wouldn’t even think of it. The door was six inches of triple-locked steel, more suited for a bank vault than a basement. The only way to open it was to enter the combination on its electronic lock. Pete was the only person on Earth who knew the code. Even she didn’t have it.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” she remembered him telling her. “It’s just safer if you don’t know.”
She had never really thought much about the ramifications of that statement before. It was safer if she didn’t know? That implied she would be in danger if she did know. But in danger from whom?
A few months earlier, Pete had outfitted the house with the same research equipment as he had in his lab at the university, so he could continue his work from home while Carol cared for the baby. He insisted he was on the verge of a breakthrough— he couldn’t afford to lose a second of progress. It was world-changing stuff, he said, the kind of discovery that would make him a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize. It would make them millionaires. Billionaires, even.
Pete never said it, but Carol knew that’s what the security system was for. Sure, he cared about her safety, and the baby’s. But mostly, he was protecting his work. If whatever he did in his lab was valuable enough to make them billionaires, and was worth locking down behind Fort- -Knox-level security, then it wouldn’t be surprising if someone wanted to steal it. Someone who might break in while Pete was out of town, expecting the house to be empty.
But the house wasn’t empty, was it? Nope. No, it wasn’t. Not at all.
You need to get out, her inner voice said. Run.
Carol played out the option in her mind. It wasn’t a crazy idea. From the stairs, it was a straight shot out the front door. If the intruder was down by the basement, she could probably make it outside without being caught. Once in the front yard, she could scream for help. Sure, she might look crazy, running barefoot through the snow in her bathrobe, smelling like a winery, and slurring through an Ambien-induced haze. But it was better than…whatever might happen if she stayed.
Carol looked at the security panel again, hoping to see that the red triangle was still outside the basement door.
The motion detector schematic had shifted to show Pete’s library, an open room just off the foyer, between the stairs and the front door. The red triangle was moving around inside as if searching for something. There was no way Carol could get past the library undetected. It would be too close, too risky. She’d have to pass virtually within arm’s reach of the intruder. No, fleeing was not an option. She would have to try something else.
She needed to call for help. Her eyes searched around the room for a solution. They fell on her desk. On her laptop. Her eyes lit up. It was a MacBook. That meant it had the same messenger program as her iPhone. She could text Pete from there, just like she could from her phone. Then she could have him call the police.
She rushed to her desk and quickly flipped open the laptop screen. After selecting the Messages icon, she opened a chat window and banged out a message to Pete in all caps.
“SOMEONE IN HOUSE. NEED HELP.”
She hit Send. A pleasant whoop sound indicated that the message had been sent successfully. The tiny text below the message bubble showed that the message had been Delivered. She stared at the screen, practically willing Pete to answer, trying to turn that Delivered indicator to Read, desperate to see the little three-dot animation that meant he was typing back.
Come on, answer. Goddamnit, Pete, where are you?
Not here, the voice in her head responded. Where he should be.
A wave of anger coursed through Carol’s system. Why wasn’t he here? Why wasn’t he home? Why was he flying around the country as if everything was normal, as if she didn’t need him? It must be nice for him to be able to just move on, to lose himself in his work while she suffered in silence, alone, trapped in an empty house with a half-finished nursery filled with unopened toys. Ever since she lost the baby, he had become even more consumed with his work, even more obsessed with finding an answer to some esoteric physics problem that only he understood. What did it matter? Why was it so important? Was it more important than her happiness? Her safety?
Obviously, it is. Otherwise, he’d be here. With you.
The creak of a floorboard in the hall caused Carol to sit up straight. She looked over her shoulder at the security panel. The schematic now showed the upstairs hall. The red triangle was directly outside her door.
The bedroom doorknob rattled. Someone was trying to get in.
Carol turned back to the laptop. Her message to Pete was still unread. Trying to minimize the clicking of the keyboard, she quickly typed another message.
A voice called from the hall. It sounded desperate. “Hello? Is someone in there?”
Carol froze. She recognized that voice. It was more gravelly than usual, more strained. But there was no mistaking who it was.
“Oh, my God. Pete?” She flew to the door and fumbled with the lock. “You scared the hell out of—” Her words cut off as she opened the door. She took a step backward, her mouth agape. “Pete?” she said again.
A figure rushed into the room.
It was Pete. It definitely was. But he looked…different. The clothes he wore were totally out of character. Pete dressed conservatively, usually in khakis and a collared shirt, with a sweater pulled over it in the winter. Now he was wearing dirty jeans and work boots, with an oversized Carhartt jacket that smelled like motor oil. He looked more like a truck driver than a Harvard professor.
Even more bizarrely, he had a full-grown beard. That was impossible. Pete had only been away at his conference for two days, and he had been as clean-shaven as always when he left. There was no way he could have grown a full beard in such a short amount of time. Similarly, his hair was six inches longer than when he left. It was as if months had passed instead of just days.
“I need the code,” he said as he entered. He closed and locked the door behind him. He looked panicked.
Carol caught a whiff of body odor and filth. He smelled like the homeless guy that used to harass them outside their Boston apartment before they moved to the suburbs. His fingers were crusted with dried, reddish-brown streaks.
“Is that blood?” Carol asked.
Pete ignored the question. “Do you have it?”
“The code!” he said again, louder this time. “To the basement.”
“Of course not.”
“Where is it?”
“I don’t know. You never gave it to me.”
Pete brushed by her and began rifling through the drawers of the desk. “Would I have written it somewhere?”
“Don’t you know it?”
Pete moved from the desk to the dresser and started digging through the drawers, spilling clothes onto the floor. “It’s different here. The same, but different.”
“Pete, you’re scaring me.”
He didn’t respond. Instead, he disappeared into the walk-in closet. Carol could hear drawers opening and closing.
Then she heard another sound, father away. Downstairs, her phone was ringing. It was Pete’s ringtone, the one she had created based on their wedding song. Someone was calling her from Pete’s cell phone.
Carol felt frozen in place. How could Pete be calling her? He was here. Unless someone else had his phone…
After a few seconds, the ringing stopped. Then it started again.
In the closet, Pete didn’t seem to notice the ringing. If he did, he didn’t acknowledge it. He was too focused on the notebook he had found in one of the drawers. He flipped through the pages one at a time, running his fingers down the lines of neatly written notes, scanning them.
Carol took a quiet step toward the laptop, hoping that Pete wouldn’t notice her movement. He didn’t. She peered at the computer screen. Three animated dots had appeared in the chat window next to Pete’s name.
Whoop. A message appeared in the chat: “ANSWER THE PHONE!”
Before Carol could react, the laptop screen lit up with a small window featuring Pete’s photo. Incoming FaceTime call. The accompanying jingle played cheerily through the laptop speakers.
Pete poked his head out of the closet, holding a stack of notebooks. “Who’s that?” he asked.
Carol looked at him, her eyes wild with panic and confusion. “It…” She glanced at the screen, then back at Pete. “It’s you.”
With that, Pete stepped back into the closet, out of view of the laptop camera. He closed the door quietly, leaving it slightly ajar, then turned off the closet light. She could sense him watching her through the darkened crack of the door.
Carol sat down in front of the computer. She clicked Answer.
On the screen, Pete’s photo was replaced with a video. It was Pete. Her Pete, the Pete she recognized: clean-shaven, with short, neatly cropped brown hair. His hair was disheveled, sticking up in crazy spikes on one side of his head and pressed flat on the other. The room behind him was dark, but even in the phantom glow of the laptop screen, it was obvious that he was in a hotel. His eyes were bleary behind his black-rimmed glasses.
“Carol?” he asked, squinting into the camera. His voice was heavy with sleep. “What’s wrong?”
Carol stared wordlessly into the camera as she tried to process what she saw. His glasses, she realized. Pete never goes anywhere without his glasses. But the Pete in the room with her wasn’t wearing any.
“Where are you?” she asked. Her voice was tiny, almost a whimper.
“I’m still in Chicago. My flight doesn’t leave for a couple of hours. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“There’s someone in the house?”
“Yes.” Tears began to spill down her cheeks.
“Are they still there?”
She reached out and quietly typed into the messenger window. “He can hear.” She clicked Send.
Pete’s eyes scanned the incoming message. He typed a reply while maintaining an innocuous verbal patter to the camera. “Okay, well, I called the police,” he said. “Just stay put. They’re on their way.”
Whoop. His text message appeared on Carol’s screen. It read simply, “AirPods.”
Carol realized what he meant. If she put in her AirPod earbuds, the Pete in the closet wouldn’t be able to hear what the Pete on the laptop was saying. Luckily, Carol’s AirPods were on the desk next to the laptop, right where they should be. Moving as slowly and imperceptibly as possible, she cupped the charging case in her hand, then removed one of the AirPods. With a motion like she was brushing her hair from her face, she slipped the AirPod into her ear.
“Can you hear me? Blink for yes.” Pete asked. Carol blinked. “You’re at the desk, right?” She blinked again. “Okay. Open the bottom-right drawer. Pull it all the way out. You’ll see a black metal box way in the back.”
Carol leaned down and did as Pete instructed. Sure enough, a heavy-looking metal box was wedged behind a row of hanging file folders.
“See it?” Pete asked, leaning close to the camera to observe what Carol was doing. She sat up and placed the box on the desk in front of the laptop. “Good. Okay. The combination is our anniversary: 11-19.”
Carol spun the small, numbered dials on the front of the box to the correct combination, then opened the box. Her eyes went wide. “When did you get this?” she whispered.
“It doesn’t matter. Just take it out. And be careful.”
Carol lifted a handgun from the box, cradling it like it was made from delicate porcelain. “I don’t know how to use this,” she hissed.
“Don’t worry,” Pete said calmly. “I’ll explain.”
Behind Carol, the closet door opened. The other Pete stepped into the room. Carol spun in her chair and pointed the gun at him. He held up his hands. “Whoa, whoa. Relax!”
“Get out!” she yelled. She stood up, her back to the computer. She held the gun aloft, handling the weight awkwardly. It was heavier than she expected.
On screen, Pete’s brow furrowed with concern. “Carol!” he yelled. He moved side to side, trying futilely to see past Carol’s body. “What’s happening?”
“I’ll shoot you, I swear to God,” she said. The gun trembled in her hands.
“I just need to talk,” the other Pete said. He motioned past Carol to the laptop on the desk. “To him.”
“Who is that?” Pete’s voice asked in Carol’s AirPod.
“I don’t know!” Carol yelled.
“Pete, listen to me,” the Pete in the room said, ignoring Carol. “You were right. We were right.”
“Who’s we?” Carol cried. “Who are you?”
“Carol, move!” Pete shouted in her AirPod. “Move away from the camera.”
Carol stepped to the side, keeping her gun trained on the Pete in the room.
From the laptop, Pete saw who was in the room with Carol. His face went slack. He sat back in his chair, grabbed his hair in his fists, then leaned close to the camera again. “What the fuck?” He exhaled a shuddering breath, then exclaimed to himself, “Holy shit.”
The Pete in the bedroom took a step closer to the laptop. “Pete, listen—”
Carol tightened her grip on the gun and pointed it at his chest. “Get back,” she said. He froze, his hands still raised.
“Carol, no!” Pete’s voice in the AirPod warned. “Whatever you do, do not shoot him.”
“Who is he?” Carol asked.
A semi-deranged laugh burst from Pete’s lips on screen. “He’s me.”
“I’m him,” the Pete in the room said simultaneously. He called past Carol to the face on the laptop. “We don’t have much time. The door is opening.”
“What door?” Carol asked. She looked at her reflection on the darkened TV screen. A wave of realization crossed her face. This is a dream, she thought to herself. It must be.
It’s the Ambien, the voice in her head agreed. You’re tripping.
Pete waved at her from the laptop to get her attention. “Carol, take out the AirPods. Let me talk to him.”
Carol plucked the AirPod from her ear, then leaned against the bed’s footboard, the gun dangling loosely in her hand. She watched as the two versions of her husband began to talk animatedly. The expression on her face was blank. She felt like she was losing her mind. Had lost her mind. Past tense. It was long gone.
“Can you hear me?” Pete asked. With the AirPod out, his voice came through the laptop speaker.
“Yes!” the Pete in the room said. “Thank God. I need the code.”
“To the basement. I need to get into your lab.”
“To destroy it.”
On the laptop, Pete’s expression darkened. “Destroy it? Are you crazy? The fact that we’re talking to each other means that it works. It means I was right!” He shook his head, then laughed a little. “Ha! I was right.”
Pete wilted a little. “Almost?”
“I’ll explain later.”
“No. Explain now.”
“Goddamnit, I can’t—”
“Do you want the code or not?”
Pete looked at his watch, then growled in frustration. He spoke quickly, running his words together. “Okay, yes, there are alternate timelines. But they’re not parallel. Not always.” He held one hand flat over the desk, then held the other above it, turned at a different angle. “They’re at different planes. They don’t intersect. They overlap.”
“But they can be connected.”
In his hotel room, Pete slapped the desk. The laptop camera blurred and vibrated with the impact. “I fucking knew it!” Pete reached out and steadied the laptop screen. “So, the doorway works.”
“Then why destroy it?”
“The Reachers—” He cut himself off, backtracking. “There are other worlds. Other beings. In some timelines, they’ve made contact with us. In some, they’ve taken over. If the door connects to one of those timelines, we’re fucked. They’ll wipe us out.”
“But there must be infinite possible timelines. How many of them involve us being wiped out?”
“All of them.”
Suddenly, a voice echoed from the security panel. “There’s motion in the basement.”
The Pete in the bedroom looked at Carol. “What was that?”
“Security system,” Carol said. “Motion detectors.” She pointed at the touchscreen on the wall.
Pete rushed over to the screen. It had switched to display a schematic of the basement. A blinking red arrow was positioned in the center of the room. It began to move toward the basement stairs.
At the same time, another red arrow appeared. Then another. And another. Within seconds, the room was filled with arrows that overlapped each other like a swarm. The group began moving up the basement stairs as even more continued spawning from nowhere.
Pete’s face went pale. “We’re too late.”
“What’s happening?” the Pete on the laptop asked. His voice sounded tinny and far away.
“We’re too late!” the other Pete shouted. He stormed over to the laptop and leaned down to the camera, sneering. “Because you needed your fucking explanation and wouldn’t just take my fucking word for it.” Spittle flew from his lips and dotted the screen. “God damn it.” He turned back to Carol and held out his hand. “Give me the gun.”
Carol clutched the gun to her chest, then looked at the laptop. The Pete on screen jumped from his chair and rushed off camera, disappearing out of view. “Pete!” Carol called.
“Just hang on!” Pete’s voice answered from off-screen. He appeared back in frame, standing with his phone in his hand. He tapped frantically on the screen. His hand was visibly shaking. “I’m checking the cameras.” Pete stopped tapping. He stared at the phone screen. A single word tumbled from his lips. “Fuck.”
“What? What do you see?”
“The Reachers,” the Pete in the bedroom whispered to himself. His eyes looked haunted.
On the laptop, Pete leaned close to the camera. His voice was steady and direct. “You have to get out of there. Now. Run.”
Suddenly, a series of thunderous impacts shook the floor, as if explosive charges had been set off downstairs. The double doors of the bedroom slammed in their frame as the shock wave reverberated through the house. Plaster dust drifted down from the ceiling like snowfall. Carol cried out in surprise.
The pleasant voice from the security system spoke again. “The basement door is open.”
In the bedroom, Pete rushed back to the security panel and looked at the touchscreen. The red arrows spilled out of the basement staircase and into the downstairs hall. They began flooding into every room of the first floor. The kitchen. The living room. The study. Still more continued to materialize in the center of the basement. They appeared faster now, as if being poured from a faucet on full blast. “They’re coming,” Pete said.
“Who’s coming?” Carol asked. Her expression crumpled. She looked at the laptop again. “What’s out there?”
On the laptop screen, Pete sat with his head in his hands, his glasses dangling from his fingers. He looked up at the laptop camera. His eyes were red-rimmed and watering. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice trembling. “I’m so s—” The laptop
screen flickered. Bands of electrical interference raced across the display, distorting the image. Pete’s face dissolved into a fractured mosaic of pixels, then froze. The laptop screen flickered again, then went dark.
“Pete!” Carol shouted, her voice cracking. She dropped the gun on the bed and rushed over to the laptop. Her hands shaking, she pressed the power button once, then twice. Nothing happened. “Come on…” she pleaded. She pressed again, holding the button down this time. “Come on, turn on!” She pounded her fist on the keyboard. “Turn on, damn it!”
BANG! A gunshot rang out behind her. The sound was impossibly loud in the confines of the bedroom. Carol reflexively threw her hands over her ears, then spun around just in time to see the other Pete falling to the floor behind her. His limp body sprawled on the carpet, the gun in his hand, his mouth agape, his eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling. The left side of his head was blown wide open. Blood gushed from the wound in a torrent of dark red that soaked the snow-white rug. A spray of blood and brain matter was splattered on the wall behind him. It dripped from the security panel in long, elastic drops.
The same electronic distortion that had killed the laptop was corrupting the display on the gore-streaked touchscreen. Still, the image was intact enough for Carol to recognize the motion detector view shifting to display a schematic of the stairs and the upstairs hall. Red arrows filled the stairwell. As they began to amass outside the master bedroom, the security panel went black. A series of wet-sounding thuds started hitting the doors.
As Carol watched in horror, a narrow black tentacle squirmed under the door. It found the pool of blood spreading from Pete’s head. The end of the tentacle split in half vertically, like a sideways eyelid, to reveal a fleshy white tubule that looked like some sort of extended maggot or roundworm. The tubule glistened with clear ooze as it extruded from the end of the tentacle and into the blood. A series of contractions rippled along its length. Its flesh began to turn from white to red.
Carol’s stomach reeled with revulsion. The tentacle… It was… It was drinking. She stomped at the squirming appendage with her slippered foot. “No! Get! Out!” she screamed, punctuating each word with a stomp.
The tentacle withdrew with blinding quickness, dragging a narrow trail of blood and slime along the carpet and under the door.
Carol felt a brief surge of relief. Then, the tentacle returned. A dozen more quickly followed. They seemed to be impossibly elastic—boneless and formless, almost gelatinous. Carol realized that they weren’t tentacles at all. Not exactly. They were more like the pseudopods that an amoeba would extend to consume its microscopic prey.
Some of the pseudopods dipped back into the still-spreading pool of Pete’s blood. Others found the open wound on the side of his head. They squirmed their way inside his broken skull with a squishing sound that reminded Carol of fingers squeezing fistfuls of spaghetti.
Somewhere in the next room, glass shattered. Carol could hear the shards crashing onto the balcony outside.
“The nursery window is open,” the security system warned.
Carol’s stomach sank like a boat anchor. The nursery, with its walls still half-painted pink, and a partially assembled crib coated in dust, was the room immediately adjoining the bedroom. Some of those…things…must have found their way into that room and out through the window onto the balcony. The same balcony that extended outside her bedroom.
Carol turned and looked at the sprawling French doors behind her. The curtains were drawn, obscuring any clear view of the outside. But the light of the moon had turned the opaque white drapes into a sort of grotesque shadow play. Silhouetted just outside the glass was an undulating mass that rippled and deformed like a cluster of earthworms. The mass spread sideways across the length of the doors while rising upward as it ascended the glass. Within seconds, it had covered the windows, darkening them completely.
A cracking sound split the air. Shards of glass fell to the carpet from behind the drapes. A freezing wind blasted into the room, lifting the curtains toward where Carol stood. Behind the flapping fabric, she glimpsed a writhing tentacle reaching through an empty windowpane. It unlocked the door from the inside.
Carol bent down, wrestled the gun from Pete’s limp hand, and then pressed it to her temple. Tears streamed down her face.
As the balcony doors crashed open, a friendly voice intoned:
“The bedroom door is open.”
A frigid wind whipped Pete’s filthy hair across his eyes. He shivered, then zipped his ill-fitting Carhartt jacket fully closed. He had scavenged the coat from the cab of an overturned oil tanker after his own parka had become too shredded to keep him warm. The Carhartt was two sizes too big, but it was better than nothing. Boston was freezing.
As Pete stepped over the desiccated corpse sprawled face-down on the university building’s steps, he glanced at the bullet-riddled sign hanging askew next to the entrance. Even without his long-lost glasses, he could still read it: HARVARD UNIVERSITY. Then, in peeling black letters below: Department of Physics. He took a deep breath, brushed the snow from his beard, and entered the building.
It had been three months since his discovery had unleashed hell from the basement of his quaint Cambridge home. Three months since the rift between dimensions had torn open. Three months from Chicago to Boston, on foot—walking, running, hiding—only to find his worst fears confirmed: Carol was dead. His only consolation was that she had taken her own life, avoiding a death of unimaginable horror.
Once in our world, the Reachers had swept across the country like a swarm of ravenous insects, radiating outwards from the interdimensional doorway in all directions, consuming every living thing in their path. There was no way to stop them, no way to close the door once it was opened. The only way to end the destruction was to prevent the door from existing in the first place.
That’s exactly what Pete intended to do.
Water dripped from the ceiling as he made his way down the darkened hall toward his old laboratory. The building was in ruins. Furniture was piled ceiling-high in doorways and at the ends of hallways, signs of a futile last stand against the insatiable hunger of the Reachers. Boston had been the first city to fall, within hours of the door opening. Nobody even knew what had hit them. Pete felt nauseous thinking about his colleagues, about the terror they must have felt as the Reachers’ amorphous pseudopods slipped through the gaps in the makeshift barricades, seeking the delicious warmth of blood and flesh.
He found it hard to believe that his old laboratory—his original laboratory, in the university building—would still be intact and functional, but it had to be. That was the only way to explain how a different version of himself could have shown up at his own house, in an alternate timeline, attempting to destroy his invention. His double must have opened a doorway into Pete’s timeline from another, and there was only one place on Earth where that could have happened: his own lab.
Pete arrived at the door of his laboratory. It was undamaged. As he turned his key in the lock, he paused. What if, by opening a portal into another dimension, he provided a way for the Reachers to follow him through? What if he was dooming another timeline to the same fate as his own?
His mind flashed back for a moment to the conversation he’d had with his double right before this nightmare started. “But there must be infinite possible timelines,” he had said. “How many of them actually involve us being wiped out?”
A shudder rocked his body as he remembered his double’s answer:
“All of them.”
It couldn’t be true. There had to be at least one where everything worked out okay. Not just this one thing. Everything. A timeline where Carol survives. Where she picks him up from the airport after his trip, exactly as planned. Where they finish the nursery just in time to welcome their healthy new baby girl. Where they are happy.
That’s all he ever wanted. That’s all his research had ever been about. He knew that alternate reality had to exist somewhere. He just had to find it.
Pete entered his lab and closed the door behind him. The room was dark and dusty, but it was otherwise unscathed. As he had hoped, his invention was intact. He powered it on, then stepped back and watched in awe as a rift between dimensions began to appear.
Through the portal, he could see a double of his lab on the other side. It was identical to the one he was in, except it was bright and airy. Sunlight streamed through the windows, reflecting off a smooth blanket of new-fallen snow outside. The world looked fresh. Unspoiled. Alive.
Pete felt a swell of hope. There was still time.
As he stepped toward the portal, he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. A thin black pseudopod was slipping soundlessly under the laboratory door. It slithered up and curled around the knob.
Pete lunged for the switch to cut the power to his invention, but it was too late.
The door was open.
Copyright © 2021 Warren Benedetto