Ruby stared down at her phone, regretting the single word she had just texted. Was that the best she could do? "Hey"? What had she been thinking?
She sat cross-legged on her bed, her skirt tucked over her knees, the cell phone clutched in both hands before her. Her stomach knotted with dread. She'd exchanged phone numbers with Eddie only half an hour ago. She should have waited longer before texting him. Or maybe she should have let him text first. Would this come off as desperate or just plain stupid?
Ruby was new to texting. Until now, the only person she'd ever exchanged messages with was her mother. On rare occasions, her phone buzzed, informing her that her mother would be home late from work or ask what groceries she should get. Ruby always gave terse one-word replies. "Ok." "Milk."
Hey. The word lit up her phone's screen like an accusation.
Would Eddie think she was pathetic? Needy for attention? Lonely?
Would he be wrong?
She was so drowned in worry that the sound of a car crash outside her window didn't phase her.
Could she un-text him? Was there a recall button? If he hadn't read her message yet...
Screaming. Someone wailed with terror outside. This was so out of place that at first, she assumed she was hearing the television from the front room. Her brother Dennis probably had the volume too high. It couldn't be...
Other voices. Distant shouts. Something was wrong outside.
Ruby jumped from her bed and ran to the window. She drew back the curtains, and...
Her mind blanked. Her eyes darted back and forth, a dizzying attempt to make sense of the unfamiliar landscape before her.
It was a joke. It had to be. A trick with mirrors? She retreated from her window, allowing the curtains to fall back into place and hide the impossible things she'd seen. She shuffled backwards towards her door.
The apartment's living room was a mess: pizza boxes, half empty drinks from the gas station melting in pools of condensation on the coffee table, microwave sandwich wrappers and scattered laundry. This was the domain of Dennis, Ruby's brother. He lay sprawled on the couch, his eyes half lidded, their purple irises rimmed with bloodshot red. His head flopped to one side as he followed her movement from her bedroom to the front door. "Was' goin' on?"
He was stoned, of course. Normally, Ruby pretended he wasn't there. Her disdain for him was now irrelevant. She pointed at the doorway. "Can't you hear the screaming?"
She slowed as she neared the door. What was on the other side? Was it really...
She pulled it open. The muted screams reached an ear-splitting volume. Lightning flashed, blinding her. It had been a cloudless day when she'd come in only minutes ago. Now...
Ruby's apartment was on the second floor. From the walkway outside, Ruby expected to see prairie grasses on gentle sloping hills. They lived on the edge of Rapid City. Across Washington Avenue, there should be the grocery store, a short strip of shops, and then the hills beyond.
The stores had vanished. A thick forest began at the sidewalk on the far side of the street—gnarled tree roots pushed through the concrete. Instead of the gentle foothills, a sheer cliff face stood only a few hundred feet away. Above it, a mountain stood so tall and steep, she had to lean forward past the third floor walkway to see it all. It disappear into the stormy sky.
The forest cut into Washington Avenue to her left, ending the road just a few houses past where it intersected with Pine Street. There were no forests like this anywhere near Rapid City. These were thick oaks and gnarled maples. Vines twisted around trunks, hanging in a curtain, crisscrossing over the brambles of the forest floor.
Mrs. Gomez, Ruby's neighbor, was the source of the screams. As Ruby turned towards her, she got her next shock. Mrs. Gomez stood at the end of what was once a much longer walkway. Half of the apartment building had vanished, the bricks, concrete and rails stopped abruptly just a few feet past the next apartment. Mrs. Gomez stood at the edge, her pudgy hand grasping the railing, gazing down at whatever lay beyond her.
"Somebody call 9-1-1!" This shout came from down on the street. Ruby spun to face the new crisis.
Two cars sat crumpled together amidst a field of broken glass and debris. Steam rose from the smashed hood of a red sedan where it had T-boned an SUV. A man crouched beside the door of the sedan as other bystanders approached, cellphones raised to the ears.
Ruby pulled her own phone out of her pocket.
She didn't see the drivers, but the man who had come to the rescue—Ruby's stout, balding neighbor from the first floor—now called out orders to those who approached. "Get that other door open. Check for a pulse. Ma'am, can you hear me? Can anyone get through to 9-1-1..."
And Mrs. Gomez screamed and screamed. Ruby would have passed out if she'd screamed that much. She moved to comfort the old woman when Dennis stumbled out the door in front of her. "Ruby, what the hell is all that..." He trailed off as his eyes caught on the mysterious landscape beyond their street. "Holy crap," he muttered. His jaw continued to move, but no more sound came out.
Ruby inched past him and approached her neighbor. Mrs. Gomez held her hands to the sides of her head, her shrieks now ragged, as if she'd torn her voice box. Her shoulders heaved as she decayed into wet sobs. Ruby watched for a moment, then placed a hand on the old woman's shoulder. "Mrs. Gomez?"
The woman's whole body twitched with a spasm of surprise. She didn't acknowledge Ruby. Instead, she spun around her, launching into a hobbling run past the girl, swiping past Dennis and stumbled down the stairs at the end of the walkway. She appeared momentarily below, darting around the side of the building, off towards the forest beyond.
Ruby watched the place where Mrs. Gomez had disappeared. She didn't know it at the moment, but she'd never see the old woman again.
A sense of being watched crept up Ruby's back, reaching her neck with pinpricks of gooseflesh. Something was behind her, something wrong, something that caused an old woman to lose her mind with horror.
The walkway, and the apartment building itself, had been sheared in half. The other half had disappeared with the rest of the city. In its place...
Ruby's eyes couldn't focus on whatever it was. A lightning flash from above illuminated the painted yellow lines in the parking lot with an electric pulse, but the thing beyond the walkway seemed to swallow the light, a black hole, not really there at all, not part of its surroundings. And it felt...
"Ruby, what is it?"
It was Dennis, approaching from behind. His voice startled her out of her trance. How long had she stood there, staring?
She ran past her brother, back down the walkway. On the stairs, she rushed passed Mai from the third floor. Mai gave a haughty gasp as Ruby raced out past others gawkers in the parking lot, rushing out to get a better look at the... thing.
From below, Ruby saw how cleanly her apartment building had been severed. Beyond the truncated walkway, the interior wall of Mrs. Luntz's apartment, lay bare to the elements, the hanging photos of her grandchildren now exposed. But where was Mrs. Luntz? Where were all the people that once called the Lincoln Apartments their home?
There at the edge of the walkway, Dennis stared with reverent fascination at the... thing. Ruby followed his gaze, trying once again to focus her eyes on the impossible object.
It was probably spherical though its edges were difficult to discern. An amber glow radiated from its depths, pushing out through the cloudy black currents that moved around it. It flowed like liquid in its depths, but with vapors of darkness orbiting its edges.
Once again, the orb held Ruby transfixed. It radiated black light and dark emotion. She felt it penetrating her, passing through her.
Eddie had been on that side of the building, she realized. He said he was there to visit a friend. Was he dead now, vaporized by this hazy sphere? What happened to him? She fleetingly wondered if he'd gotten her text.
As Ruby gazed on the huge orb, the black vapors parted for just a moment in their opposing orbits, and she caught a glimpse of the heart of it, a hazy figure of a man sitting cross-legged at the center.
And before the vapors closed around him once again, his eyes opened, their red glow flashing. He gazed directly at Ruby. It lasted an instant. Then he was once again lost in the clouds.