I didn't snap. It was much more gradual than that. It was like slipping off the edge of a cliff, fingers scraping the top, until in one moment that seemed like an echo of something that never existed I was falling. When I went to bed last night, I was still hanging on; when I woke up, I was crashing. I don't know what came undone while I slept. It had been three weeks, two days, and thirteen hours, I'd guess, since I went over the edge—nothing special. But that was the day I knew I'd never see the top of the cliff again.
That morning I didn't know it had happened. I felt the same, that sort of feeling that I was a rusty machine and when I walked I could feel every screw and bolt and joint twisting slowly, grating in place because the whole thing was wound up too tight. I was so used to it by then. I wasn't even surprised when I could walk through the ghost.
Her name was Dr. Aimee Joyce, and I have seen her every day for three months.
Three weeks and two days ago, my alarm clock went off at 5:30 a.m. and I woke up to a glimmer of light slowly burning along the edges of the room like a fuse. I blinked, trying to bring it into focus, and I felt the bed shift.
"Good morning." A hand rolled me onto my back, and Aimee kissed me on the cheek.
I moaned something unintelligible. She chuckled, patted my shoulder and stood up, the springs squeaking. I heard the patter of her footsteps and squeezed my eyes shut, but the burning yellow light still seeped in.
"Is there any chance we could come up with a gentler wakeup call?" I rolled out of bed, rubbing my eyes.
"The alarm clock and a kiss have yet to be effective, so this is the only option left."
Lights turned on in the bathroom, and I fumbled through my drawers, squinting. A whisper of water signaled the shower starting.
"And you'd be late if I didn't get you up."
"That's true." I buttoned my shirt. "But it's kinda . . . disorienting."
"That's alright," she called. "You're sort of cute when you're blinking and confused."
I rolled my eyes. Pulling my pants on, I shuffled into the kitchen, started the coffee, and opened the fridge. While I waited for the coffee, I took out some yogurt and poured a little granola in it and grabbed a plastic spoon to mix it up. Then I looked at my reflection in the fridge and fixed my hair a bit—close enough.
I've never been much for putting an effort into anything I don't care about, like neat hair. Aimee tells me I'm a bit of a cowboy: I only follow my own rules. Aimee, on the other hand, sticks to the rules. Everything is as orderly at home as it is at the hospital. She has the light touch of a surgeon and a voice full of light to match. She makes mornings bearable.
I heard the whoosh of the blow-dryer. When the coffee was ready, I poured it into two to-go cups with two creams in hers and one sugar in mine. Just as I finished, Aimee walked out with her strawberry blonde hair twisted into a damp bun. I handed her the coffee and the parfait.
"Thanks," she murmured, taking a swig. "What are you going to eat?"
I shrugged. "I'll get a breakfast burrito on the way into work."
"You know that, as a doctor, I'm obliged to tell you that isn't healthy, right?"
I grinned, taking a sip. "I know."
She shook her head, a small smile creeping across her face. "I can't always take care of you. You need to learn to live on your own."
While she was eating, I brushed my teeth and took my gun from the lockbox and holstered it.
"You ready to go?" I walked in and grabbed the keys off the counter. She nodded and took her own. I was turning the front door knob when she her fingers curled over my shoulder.
"Be careful, Dave."
"I love you."
"Love you too." And I kissed her, and we went out the door. That was the last time we spoke.
Every morning after I saw her the way I used to: smiling and talking and kissing me good morning and goodbye, and when I walked out the door I realized I saw her in the dark because there was no one to open the blinds and I realized there was nothing except cold and hollow space. I was alone.
I never hear her because the last time I saw her—really saw her, not just something my mind conjured up—there was a glass wall between us, and I guess my mind has always kept that there.
Three weeks and two days ago, my partner, Ramsey, and I were filling out paperwork for a case we'd just wrapped up with the news running in the background when something caught my ear: Crown Hill Hospital, where Aimee worked. I dropped my pen.
"Ramsey, turn up the volume."
He raised an eyebrow and obliged.
"…on the fourth floor. Police estimate there are almost sixty hostages."
Aimee's floor. I jumped up, and Ramsey jumped after me.
"Dave, wait." He grabbed my arm. I wrenched away. My vision tunneled as I stormed across the room. "We have to let local LEOs handle this." I pounded down the stairs. "You know they get pissed when feds—."
"I DON'T GIVE A SHIT." I whipped around, vision blurry, knuckles white, air buzzing.
Ramsey looked at me calmly and held out his hand. "Give me your keys."
It took ten minutes. The whole ride, it felt like my bones were slowly turning to lead. We stopped in a parking lot full of cop cars and sirens. Red and blue lights flashed on dull concrete and a dripping gray sky. The glass walls of the hospital rose tall and turquoise from the ground. When I looked at the building, every room behind the glass was empty except one on the fourth floor packed with cowering people and three masked men with automatic weapons.
"We should—," Ramsey began. I turned my head sharply and turned off his voice.
I ran toward the chief of police. He turned around as I came sprinting up, bushy eyebrows furrowed.
"Is there a Dr. Aimee Joyce in there?" I panted.
"Who are you?" His voice was rough like sandpaper.
"FBI Agent David Bretton. Is there a Dr. Aimee Joyce in there?"
Ramsey came up and put his hand on my shoulder.
"And who are you?"
"His partner. Can you tell us anything about the people up there?"
"This isn't your case." The chief began to turn back around.
I lunged. Ramsey caught me. "Tell me if she's there!"
He looked at me, scrutinized, narrowed eyes. Ramsey loosened his grip when I stopped struggling. He sighed. "She's there."
Static. There was that weird buzzing all over like we were on TV and the satellite signal had been lost. I looked up at the glass and tried to make words but they wouldn't come.
"Dave?" Ramsey said. The corners of my eyes pixelated into black and white: static.
I looked back at the chief. "Are you getting them out?" sounded like muffled thunder.
"We're trying to negotiate."
"Chief, they're saying they're going to prove they're serious." A person appeared next to us. "We need you over here now."
He walked away. I looked up. People were crouched down, barely distinguishable as they melded into a mass of fear and flesh. The men, all in black, stalked through them. I couldn't find her.
"Dave, can you hear me?"
I couldn't find her. I had to find her. Everyone had their faces buried behind their knees. I couldn't find her. Where was she? The green-blue tinted glass distorted everything. I couldn't
"We need to go."
find her. I just had to
"You shouldn't be"
find her and
"here. You can't help. We need"
get her out. If I could see her maybe I could help her, tell her
"to go. Let's get in the car. Come on, let's"
how to escape. She wasn't there, she wasn't there, I couldn't
"get in the car. Dave, can you"
find her, I needed to find her, I needed her
"hear me? are you listening? Dave, look"
with me. I needed to hold her
"at me. Look away from"
hand and tell her everything was going to be okay because
"the building. Look at me. You've got to look away."
right now it was going to hell and I just needed to find her. But I couldn't.
One of the men bent over, and every sound died. He slung the automatic behind him, grabbed someone and yanked them up by the hair: strawberry blonde. Aimee. Her hands were clawing at his on her neck as he pushed her toward the glass. She was fighting, but he was winning. Slowly, steadily, he pushed her closer to the glass walls that twisted the light around them. She kicked at the ground, scratched at his arms, but he never flinched. He threw her at the glass, and she bounced into it, elbows smashing against it, where I could see her face.
She was crying. Her face was distorted, and the fight was shaking through her body. She turned and ran and he pulled a handgun and shot her straight through the head. Scarlet slung across the glass shattered like a spider web and I saw her body slam into the ground between the cracks.
I don't remember anything after that.
Later, they told me there was nothing I could have done or could do. That it was random. That the men wanted to prove they would kill. That Aimee was the only one they killed. That I couldn't have her body because it was part of an ongoing investigation. That they couldn't tell me what the men wanted because it was part of an ongoing investigation. Because after they killed Aimee they got away.
I didn't snap. I walked through the ghost and realized that I would never be able to find her behind that glass, that it was always going to be cold and hollow. So I grabbed my bag, grabbed my gun, grabbed my keys, and I got on the highway, driving west until the dawn seemed to retreat before lost nights rumbling toward me. I drove to find the men who killed Aimee.