It was in an empty yard where a house once stood. There were still blackened remains, an exposed foundation. No one had built anything else on that lot, not ever. Evan had lived there once, but that wasn’t why they were there.
He paced round the square of flattened grass, one hand raised, running fingers over invisible walls.
“You can’t see it, can you?” Evan said, smiling a little sadly.
Rebecca reached out a hand, felt nothing.
“Come here.” He stepped forward and reached for her hand. His touch felt electric as he pulled her near.
“Close your eyes,” he said. “Can you hear it?”
She wondered if his eyes were closed as well. “No.”
“Kind of a rising and falling sound. Like thunder, over and over, very quiet and very far away.” His voice was fast and breathless, like a small child. “You can’t hear it?”
She let out the breath she hadn’t known she had been holding in. “No,” she said again, eyes open.
That smile again, the one he didn’t mean. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who can.” He squeezed her hand tight, then let go.
“Suppose you could travel at the speed of light,” her new teacher said. “According to special relativity, time would slow down for you. To put it another way, suppose you had a twin–”
The boy slouching in front of her hadn’t been paying attention. Now his head snapped up, and he slowly sat up straight.
“–and your twin stayed here on Earth while you went on your trip. Einstein tells us that while you’re gone, many years might pass for your twin, and the two of you would no longer be the same age. Your twin might die of old age–”
The boy slammed his textbook shut, causing heads to turn, even the teacher’s. Someone laughed. Most people didn’t.
“Ah,” the teacher said. “I’m sorry, Evan. I didn’t think–”
“Just don’t,” the boy said, and he gathered his belongings, got up and walked out. The teacher didn’t stop him, and the other students acted like they hadn”t seen. Like this happened every other day.
“As I was saying,” said the teacher when Evan had gone.
Rebecca turned to the girl next to her and whispered, “What was that all about?”
“Oh, he had a twin,” the girl whispered back. “But he died a long time ago.” She shrugged.
Someone should go after him, Rebecca thought, looking around at all the bored students. The guy with the peroxide hair and the ear-rings, the girl with the golden curls and condescending smile, the quiet girl in the back dressed in all her black and grey–no-one would look her in the eye. They all sat listening to the teacher, pretending they understood.
Rebecca grabbed her books and ran.
“It must be hard,” she said. “Losing someone like that.”
It seemed like a strange start to a first conversation. Like there was a scene missing. Conversations with Evan would often feel like that.
“He’s not lost,” Evan said distantly. “I know exactly where he is.” He looked back toward the classroom. “I bet they told you he’s dead.”
Evan shrugged. “They’re wrong. I’d feel it if he was. I know everyone thinks I’m–” He stopped. Looked at her closely.
She hadn’t even noticed him before today. He wasn’t tall, didn’t play sport, wasn’t even that good looking. So she didn’t know why her cheeks were burning when he looked at her like that.
“I know you from somewhere,” he said. He took a step closer. “Don’t I?”
Years later, safe and warm in her attic bedroom during a snowstorm, curled together under a quilt her grandmother had made for them, Evan said, “I did know you. That first time we met, I recognised you. Just… not from the past, that’s all. Do you believe me?”
She answered him with a kiss. She’d believed everything else.
They walked together after school almost every day. People were starting to talk. Crazy Evan’s got himself a girlfriend. He didn’t seem to notice. Not them, not even her. Let them talk.
Often, they’d walk past the patch of nothing on the ground, and he’d stare at it for a while. Sometimes they’d talk about it. Sometimes not.
She did start to notice strange things. The square of slightly flattened grass, like something had sat there recently. More than once, leaves and newspapers blew around it at right angles. And the light inside that square always fell from the sky at a winter slant, no matter what time of year it really was.
“It’s getting fainter,” he said. “I can just barely see it now. I thought–” He shook his head, looking back at the burned-out house.
“You can tell me,” she told him, taking his hands in hers. “What happened that night. I want to know.”
“Someday, yeah.” He smiled. “You’re the only one who doesn’t think I’m crazy. Want to hold on to that a while longer.”
He kissed her cheek, so lightly she almost wasn’t sure it had happened. He’d never done it before. She put a hand up to her face, trying to feel some trace of it, but it had happened and was gone, like whatever had stood here.
There were sounds in the house. Footsteps: slow, fast, slow. Scratches like rats in the walls. And now the sound that made him want to bury his head in the pillow – a sound like someone eating an apple.
“James, are you asleep?” he whispered.
James was seven years old, just an hour younger than Evan. Their mum said they weren’t identical, because James liked different things. They had different clothes and different toys and different wallpaper in their rooms. Mum also said that there was no way James could hear his whispers, from over in his own room. But sometimes he did. Sometimes Evan could hear him answer.
Not this time. Nothing but the apple sound.
The sound made him want to pull the blankets tight up over his head, but it kept on and he had to know what it was. He got up and hesitated just a moment, hand stretched out to the doorknob, and then opened it and stepped out into the hall.
The light switch didn’t work.
Dim light, cool and green, came from further up the hall.
The hall always looked wrong anyway. The angles never met right, the walls seemed to lean in or away from you, and now it was so much worse. He felt sick, and the sounds were getting louder the closer he got to his parents’ room. His insides screamed at him to turn back.
There was a man. Standing over his parents’ bed, reaching down to their sleeping faces. Doing something to them, something he couldn’t quite see.
It looked up. It wasn’t a man. Too many eyes glittered under its cowl, it grinned with too many teeth. The hand it lifted away from Mum’s face had too many fingers. One finger raised to all those lips.
Sssshhh, the gesture said.
// Please stand by, a voice like static whispered inside Evan’s head. // Out-of-sequence biodata sample offspring next in sequence subsequent to progenitor sample. Stand by.
Evan backed out the door, reaching blindly for the doorframe to keep from falling. Bad dream, he told himself. Bad dream, wake up, wake up–
It reached out for him. The distance looked all wrong, the room suddenly doll-house small–that thing didn’t seem to move, but was suddenly right next to him, all those fingers curling around his throat. Evan froze, screwed his eyes shut.
Evan’s eyes snapped open, just in time to see the woman in the hall swing the fireplace poker.
The thing fell hard, releasing him. The woman reached past its falling body for Evan. “Come on!” she said, and grabbed his hand.
On the back of her jacket, bright colours; the word “Ace” like a sign leading to safety. That was her name. He knew that, the way you just know things when you’re dreaming. She had run away from home. She’d never stopped running.
“Which way?” she called back to him, but he couldn”t answer. His throat was sore where the thing had held him.
They ran down hallways stretching out forever in every direction. The house felt like it was coming apart.
There. Ahead of them, dusting down his coat with his hands, calm in the centre of it all.
“Ah, Ace, there you are. You’ve found a friend, I see.”
Evan looked up at him. He was a small man, dark hair curling out from under a tan hat, and he had a smile that should have been reassuring and wasn’t. His eyes were–
Evan suddenly thought of his grandfather. He’d only met the man once, in hospital, just before he died. He’d been everywhere, fought in wars, had five kids, built this house with his own hands, seen so much, and Evan had thought if he looked in those eyes too long it would all come spilling out.
This man had eyes like that. The Doctor.
He’d just stepped out of Mum and Dad’s bedroom. The room they”d just run from, ahead of them up the corridor. Evan found his voice. “My mum and dad–”
“Yes,” the Doctor said, closing the door behind him. “You don’t want to go in there, I shouldn’t think.”
“Yes. I”m afraid they are.” The Doctor crouched down and looked Evan in the eye. “What’s important right now is that we get you out of here. Both of you. You do have a twin brother, yes?”
Evan nodded. “James.”
The walls were shifting now, pulsing, breathing. He heard timbers creaking, plaster cracking and falling.
The Doctor looked up and scowled. “No time,” he muttered. He put his hands on Evan’s shoulders. “Listen to me. This house was built on a crack in time, about thirty years across.” Seeing Evan’s expression, he said, “It doesn’t matter. The point is, you and your brother grew up here, you have a connection, I need you to use it. I need you to find him.”
“Trust me,” the Doctor said quietly, and put a finger to Evan’s forehead.
“I don’t… How do I… Oh, is that… That’s the house. It’s so small…” Evan stopped, staring into the distance. “There. He’s downstairs. I see him, but, the walls are gone, he’s… No. That’s me, having a picnic in the night, I’m talking to someone, a girl. And I’ve got so old–”
“So then what happened?” asked Rebecca.
Evan looked almost annoyed. “Nothing happens after anything. Everything’s always happening now.” He sighed. “I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.”
She squeezed his shoulder, passed him the bottle of fizz. He took another swallow.
It wasn’t like she believed him or anything. She was just going along with it for the sake of hearing the story, of maybe figuring out what was really bothering him. The things he was talking about–they just couldn’t happen.
“Sorry,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Not much of a birthday. You should have had a party.”
Rebecca shrugged. “That”s what everyone else does.” She pulled him close. “I want to spend it with you. And I want to hear this. However you want to tell it.”
He nodded, looking up to where the second floor would have been, to where his younger self had looked back at him. “I found James’ room,” he said. “There was one of those things in there, holding him. The Doctor pulled me out of the room, slammed the door shut, and made–”
He stopped and frowned. “Made the whole house shift, so it was outside the room and we were inside. Something like that. I don”t know. We barricaded the door, and Ace had some kind of chain ladder in her bag, and we got out through the window. It was easy. Like they planned this. Like they did this all the time.”
He sounded so sure, so convincing. It was a good thing she was the one with the level head, the one who could help him sort out what was real and what wasn’t.
At least, she was fairly sure she was. She reached for the bottle again. “So if you both got out of the house,” she asked, taking a drink, “what happened to James?”
“They need both of you,” the Doctor said. “Genetically identical, raised on the time fissure–they can use the link between you, study your differences, figure out how to exist here. They’re not just going to just go home quietly.”
He strode out into the yard. Ace and the two boys struggled to keep up.
“They’re gonna come back, you mean?” said Ace.
“Correct,” the Doctor said, with a drawn-out burr. “That house lets them come and go as they please between dimensions.”
“So how do we stop it?’”
The Doctor stopped, smiled darkly at her. “Burn it,” he said.
She grinned. Then she saw how Evan was looking at her and the grin faded. “Yeah, all right,” she said. “Meet you back at the TARDIS.”
“Hurry.” He started off again.
Evan took James’ hand. “You okay?” he asked. James hadn’t said a word. Evan joked sometimes about being his big brother. Moments like this, he took it seriously. James nodded, eyes wide.
The Doctor led them to a tall blue box, stood on the grass outside the house. He unlocked the door and ushered them inside.
A huge expanse of white on white, a great control bank at its centre. A spaceship! Like in all James’ comic books and TV shows. James ran forward, the Doctor joining him at the controls. Evan stayed at the doorway, watching them. After a moment the Doctor noticed him.
“I have to take you somewhere safe,” the Doctor said.
“Another planet?” James asked, voice high and excited. He was practically bouncing. Mum was right, they were different.
“No. James, don’t be stupid.” Evan was freezing near the door, but he couldn’t make himself take another step inside. “Where are you taking us?”
The Doctor didn’t look up from his controls. “Well, not so much a question of where as when,” he muttered.
Evan shook his head. “No,” he said, backing out of the door. This was too much.
“But this is so cool,” said James, reaching for the controls.
The Doctor idly batted his hand away with the tip of his umbrella. “No?” he asked Evan.
He heard the dull thump of an explosion as Ace ran out of the house. The green windows turned red and orange. He felt nothing, just watched the flames curling around what used to be his home. Things like this didn’t happen. He tried to tell himself it had to be a dream. His breath was like steam in the night air and he was barefoot in the wet grass. No dream was ever this sharp and cold.
“Come on,” Ace said, catching up to him.
“Those things could come back. You heard the Professor.”
“They need both of us,” Evan said. “Right? So I’m safe on my own. And–and he’s safer without me.”
“I can’t go in there. I’m… not like you, all right? I’m scared.”
Ace looked from him to the TARDIS, where the Doctor stood framed in the doorway. Around them, on the street, lights were coming on. The explosion had woken the neighbours.
The Doctor stepped out of the TARDIS. “We have to leave,” he said. “Now.”
Ace nodded slowly, looking at Evan.
“Run,” she told him.
“It doesn’t matter,” Evan said that night, finishing the last of the champagne. “I can’t see the TARDIS any more anyway. He’s gone.”
She married Evan, not too many birthdays after that.
They did all right for themselves. She sold books and sometimes paintings, and Evan sold insurance. He had a knack for knowing what people would need, for seeing problems before they arose. They had a pretty little garden and a pretty little house and never children.
Rebecca had almost forgotten the strange box that wasn’t there, except on nights when she’d wake to find Evan alone on their porch with a flask of tea. He’d grin guiltily at her, they’d watch the stars for a while and then he’d follow her back up to bed. She knew other wives who had much worse to put up with.
Then came the day she came home to find him frantically clearing out their small guest room, emptying all the boxes and clutter.
“I saw it,” he told her, and his smile was wide and almost fever-bright. “I saw it today, down the end of the street. Just barely, like a ghost, so I wasn”t sure at first, but it’s getting brighter.”
Saw what? she almost asked. But then she knew.
“You’re not helping him,” Evan’s aunt scolded her. They’d come to her house to collect the few toys and things that still remained from James’ childhood. “He should have got this out of his system, moved on with his life. We thought he’d done that when he met you.”
Rebecca just smiled and couldn’t explain.
She hadn’t been able to explain to her friends either. Evan had been spotted at the DIY place, buying paint and paper for a child’s bedroom. Was she expecting? Not exactly, she’d say.
She tried to keep on with her life, tending to the bookstore, keeping one foot in the real world. But every night she’d come home and there’d be something new. He bought tin spaceships and robots and books online and at jumble sales, things that he remembered James used to own. And he would spend his evenings not with her but alone in that room, arranging things, moving them round, never quite getting them right. He never noticed her the times she watched from the doorway and felt like she shouldn’t come in.
He’d been a good brother, she’d think as she watched him sleep at night, even if he was the one who couldn’t face the monsters, the magic. Would he make a good dad? She’d watch his chest rise and fall, wonder if she was just encouraging him. If he’d been pretending for her all this time, pretending to be normal, and finally it had all come crashing down.
Other nights he couldn’t sleep at all, listening to the sound of distant engines only he could hear.
Then, eventually, there was the night he shook her awake, his face alive with excitement like a child at Christmas morning. “Now?” she asked. “Seriously?”
This is crazy, she thought as felt about for her dressing gown. You know it is.
But she put the questions out of her head, took his hand. They ran outside, down the street, laughing.
She felt the night air alive with static, her whole body tingling with it. She heard what he had always heard, the rising and falling like thunder, over and over, very loud and very close.
They kept running, hands clasped tight together, to the end of the street, to the blue box. To an opening door.