The Rift Cell
by Chris Batchelor
Chris Batchelor works and travels in arid West Texas by day. Nightly, he's a husband and father on a grassy nine-acre spread commanded by three dogs and five cats. In whatever time remains, writing happens.
Cavanaugh reached up the rock face and felt smooth concrete. At last. It stung his raw fingers under the afternoon sun, but he held on and savored the dry, gritty texture. He pulled himself up and sat on the lip of a broken sidewalk to gaze back into the rift.
It roared at him. Waves of heat and noise blasted up the blackened walls from a surging lava flow in the bottom of the chasm. He scowled at the thing, etched in the Earth in defiance of nature, in a perfectly straight line, exactly a hundred feet wide and a hundred feet deep. It pushed everything apart. The house on Cavanaugh's right had been split to reveal street after street of interrupted roads, sidewalks, and lawns, all the way to a gap in the distant hills.
Cavanaugh looked over his shoulder to find the speaker. A boy on a bike had stopped, his feet flat on the concrete, his cheeks puffed out with held-in laughter.
"I know," Cavanaugh muttered. "I hear it all the time." It had probably been a good show. The kid saw only the quiet neighborhood. While Cavanaugh climbed the illusion of a sheer wall, the boy had watched him scramble around on the sidewalk.
The kid guffawed, stood on his pedals, and rode over the rift. He and his bike disappeared, from the front tire to the back, and reappeared on the sidewalk across the gap a hundred feet away. For an instant, the distant half of the boy looked like a dissected body on a unicycle. Sunlight glinted off bowels. Then he appeared whole again, riding away as the noise from the chasm swallowed his laughter.
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Cavanaugh wrinkled his nose. He hated to watch normal people cross a rift.
He got to his feet, tightened his backpack straps and checked his watch. Just before five o'clock. About an hour before the traverse back across the rift. He trotted to the other side of the street and took the sidewalk toward a diner at the end of the block.
The rumble of another rift came from a side street. Cavanaugh held up on the corner to let a car turn in front of him. He started to avert his eyes but the car drove to the edge and stopped. A woman got out. Directly across from her, another car had stopped and a younger version of herself stood at the lip of the chasm. When the yelling began, Cavanaugh checked his watch again. Five, straight up. Mother and daughter, he guessed, in a daily ritual, forever separated, deafened by the roar but here to vent across the venting Earth.
Not ready for his help.
He hurried across the intersection and spotted Durand's black sedan in front of the diner. Its new government plate and fresh wax job shone between dusty pickup trucks and water-spotted minivans. Cavanaugh hoped their working relationship hadn't changed as much as her car.
He stepped inside the diner and groaned at the din. Silverware raked and clacked on plates. Conversations droned. Laughter erupted from a crowded booth in the back corner, too long and too loud for people under the influence of Pepsi. A waitress shouted an order as if the entire place needed to hear what table four had ordered for dinner. The cook waved his charred spatula over his shoulder and went back to scraping the grill.
Durand flagged him toward her booth in front of the windows, smug in a new pantsuit, her purse in her lap, a glass of iced tea with a lipstick-smudged straw in front of her. She waited alone. Someone was late, or had backed out.
He sat across from her and cradled his backpack in his lap. "So, it's Agent Durand now. That title come with a badge and a gun?"
She pulled her wallet out of her purse and flipped it open. Brass gleamed. Cavenaugh steeled himself in case she did have a gun in her purse and didn't mind brandishing it in front of the locals. Maybe not a bad thing. It'd get quiet.
The waitress appeared, took one look at the backpack across his lap and put her order pad away. "Sweet tea, sweetie?"
"No, thank you, but can you fill these?" He dug two canteens out of his pack.
"I'll have to charge you for bottled. You wouldn't like the tap."
She gathered the canteens by the straps and headed to the counter.
"The subject isn't here," Durand said.
"I see that." He frowned. Before she got tapped for agent training, she called the people they helped by name. Cavanaugh had already read her bio on the subject. He had a name. "Why isn't Rafe here?"
"He said it's too noisy. And I ticked him off when I offered him a ride."
"You didn't." Cavanaugh drew his brows together. Planes, trains, and automobiles killed. People with rifts never wanted to be passengers, and desperate souls had shown why. Blindfolded, driven in circles, in the hope a rift which existed only in their minds could be crossed if they didn't know when it happened, they gave their lives for psychology--or for psychiatry, more likely. Hearts stopped. Brains ceased to function. That's why the registry existed. Airlines always checked the registry for travel restrictions.
Durand grinned. "They gave me a badge, not brains."
Cavanaugh had to grin back. She was pride and humility all in one stretchy pantsuit. She'd never have a rift.
The waitress returned with his canteens, wiping them with a towel. He stuffed them into his backpack and brought out a ten for her. "Thank you, and keep the change."
"Ah, well, enjoy your hike, sweetie." She waved the bill at Durand. "This'll cover yours, dear."
Durand gave her a flat smile for half a second and turned to Cavanaugh. "Guess who I ran into while I was at the academy."
He stiffened. He knew exactly who used to live near the Phoenix academy. Close to his rift. "Did you run into them, or track them down?"
"It wasn't hard--they're in the registry. Please understand my curiosity. You're the only one I know whose rift separates them from more than one person on the other side."
"So, they're still near the rift. Are they still together?"
"When I saw them."
Most people moved as far away from their rift as possible--since almost everyone with a rift could only see their own chasm circumscribing the globe. Unless they couldn't let go of what caused the rift in the first place. Or they wanted to taunt someone on the other side.
Durand touched his hand. "She's not your wife now--the Rift Law gave her the right of divorce--but he's still your brother."
Cavanaugh pulled his hand out of hers. "Not anymore."
"I told them you're a rift pilot."
He stood and wrestled into his backpack straps. "I don't have time for this."
"You think about going home. Crossing your own rift. I know it. One of my instructors at the academy had a theory about people who can see all of the rifts. People like you."
"If you want to help, tell me where I can find Rafe."
She sighed. Eased her wallet back into her purse. Motioned out the window. "One block over, house number 2035. You can't miss it."
Rafe's house was the only one on the block with peeling paint and a brown lawn--except for the weeds. The garage door stood open with everything inside shoved against one wall. A red toolbox on casters, a floor jack, a mismatched set of ramps, and an engine hoist. Greasy rags, trash, and dirt had been swept out onto the driveway. No car.
"Nikki took it when she left." Rafe stepped out of the shadow of the entryway to the front door beside the garage. He wore a dingy oil-stained tee and ripped jeans. Nice ensemble for a reunion.
"I ran after her," Rafe continued. "Was about to go through the park and cut her off. That's when the ground opened up."
"Then part of you didn't want to stop her."
"I wanted my car."
Bingo. Cavanaugh nodded and looked back into the garage. "Why are you ready to cross your rift now? Is it still about your car?"
"No. I'm surrounded by rifts. I can't go more than two blocks in any direction. There's a 7-Eleven at the end of the street and the diner's a block over. If I get real groceries, it's from charity. I'm trapped."
"We call it a rift cell."
"The agent lady told me Nikki is like most people. She only sees the rift between me and her. She's not trapped like me."
"You're actually lucky," Cavanaugh said. "This isn't the worst rift cell I've seen."
Rafe rolled his eyes. "I bet."
"I was in the desert outside Phoenix when it happened to me. My rift and two others intersected right there. I got caught on a wedge of sand just big enough to lie down on. Hot. Loud. No food or water, and no one knew I was out there."
Rafe's brow furrowed. "That's why you learned how to cross?"
"My life depended on it. Now it's my job."
"Has to be better work."
"I used to tour and make travel brochures. It was the only other thing I was good at. Can't do that now."
"Yeah. That'd be tough."
Cavanaugh gestured down the street. "We need to get going. It's almost time."
Halfway down the block, a rift angled across the road. It cut through a house and a big oak on their right. An old man sat on a lawn chair in the shade, his feet propped up on a cooler, a portable television balanced on his thighs.
Rafe elbowed Cavanaugh and pointed across the chasm. An old lady sat on the far side, in the shade of the same divided tree, on a matching lawn chair, an open book in her lap. She turned a page and glanced up. The old man looked her way, then tuned his television to a Western and cracked a beer.
"They're out here every evening if it's nice," Rafe said. "Could you help them, or are they too old to make the climb?"
"I let Agent Durand watch the registry for candidates. But they almost look content. Like nothing has changed except their rift manifested."
"Well, the old man took up baking--he got the kitchen in his half of the house--and he brings me casseroles a couple of times a month."
Cavanaugh smiled. He'd had his doubts about the choice of Rafe and Nikki. Maybe Rafe showing concern for others was a good sign. "I'll see if Durand can interview them."
They crossed the street and the roar of the old couple's rift faded behind them.
"What caused your rift?" Rafe asked as they walked.
"Let's concentrate on yours today."
"Just asking. From what I'm told, crossing is dangerous. I can't know a little more about the guide taking me to Hell?"
Cavanaugh dropped his shoulders. "My brother stole my wife."
Rafe looked almost smug. "That'll do it."
"Now you. What did you and Nikki fight about before she took your car?"
"She was leaving me."
"Are you over that now? Because you'll have to meet Nikki halfway. In the rift. Or you won't stop seeing the rifts and you'll still be trapped here."
Rafe waved a hand like a fly pestered him. "Yeah, the agent told me how this works. I just don't get why Nikki has to be there. You crossed alone."
"I cross other people's rifts. I've never crossed my own."
"But you could. Maybe I could, too."
Cavanaugh glanced at him. "Now we're talking more than reconciliation. It wouldn't be about you and Nikki--and it certainly wouldn't be about your car. It'd be about you."
Rafe grumbled. "Let's do the meet-in-the-middle thing."
They came to Rafe and Nikki's rift where it cut through the corner of the neighborhood park. Blackened chasm walls and the red glow of lava cut across the green grass. It rumbled like a passing train. A gray `79 Firebird sat in the grass on the other side. Silver at one time, maybe. Deep ruts in the grass marked where it had been driven off the roadway through a drainage ditch into the park. Fresh mud slithered down the visible side.
"She's gonna wash that," Rafe said. "I bet she hasn't changed the oil all year."
Nikki climbed out the driver's door. Heat waves from the rift made her ripple like a model in front of a wind machine, but her attire ruined the effect. She wore a sheer burnout tee with a black bra showing through. Cropped red hair on top, faded jeans tucked into cowboy boots on bottom.
Cavanaugh looked at Rafe's oily tee and torn jeans. Perfect after all.
A short man joined Nikki on the other side and waved.
"Who's that?" Rafe asked.
"Oscar, my partner. He'll pilot Nikki down the other side."
Oscar signaled using exaggerated sign language. We should hurry. She's afraid.
From this distance, Nikki looked more annoyed than scared. She stood with her hands on her hips and gazed into the rift. Cavanaugh stepped to the edge and signed O and K.
"That's clever," Rafe said.
"Oscar is deaf."
"Do a lot of handicapped people have rifts?"
"He's the only one I know of. He was fascinated by the rifts long before they were widespread. He sees them because he wants to, not because of his handicap."
"So I bet the noise doesn't bother him."
Cavanaugh rolled his eyes. "No. I guess not."
Rafe joined him at the edge and looked down. "I don't know what I was thinking. I can't do this." His eyes watered.
Cavanaugh hoped it was from the heat, because an emotional wreck couldn't do this. Save the tears for the happy reunion at the bottom.
He took a step to his left. "Look down at the wall, Rafe, and step to the side like I did."
Rafe scowled but mimicked him. "What am I looking for?"
"Keep your eyes on the wall, and shift your perspective."
They sidestepped together.
"What do you see?" Cavanaugh asked.
Rafe's eyes widened and he looked up. "There are handholds, like on a climbing wall!" He looked back down and frowned. "Now they're gone."
"Keep your eyes on the wall until you commit to moving." Cavanaugh sidestepped and picked his route. He turned around and climbed down to a small ledge and stood waist deep in the rift, his hands gripping clumps of grass on the lip. He leaned to one side until another foothold revealed itself below, eased down and looked back up. "You try it."
"Do I follow you?"
"No. Always find your own way."
Rafe took a couple of sidesteps and grinned. He climbed down even with Cavanaugh. "This ain't so bad."
Not yet. Cavanaugh wouldn't relax until they had gone far enough that turning back seemed harder than finishing.
He twisted to look across the rift. Nikki watched them. Good. Now Oscar had to get her moving. His winning smile and flowing hand gestures cast spells. As a bonus, people couldn't ask questions to seed their self-doubt because Oscar never answered. They mulled in silence and concentrated on the climb. Oscar climbed down and Nikki followed his lead.
"They're moving. Let's go." Cavanaugh looked around, and Rafe was gone. He looked up, then down. Rafe had taken off on his own and was already several yards below. As Cavanaugh watched, Rafe leaned left, didn't seem to like what he saw, leaned right, and descended to another foothold. One minute in the rift, already an expert.
Cavanaugh hurried down the wall. Maybe he should have reminded Rafe a fall, real or not, would kill him. The body reacted accordingly, usually with a burst heart.
Below, a mass of lava surged like a solar flare and slapped down with a crackle. Cavanaugh caught up to Rafe when he stopped and pressed himself against the wall, his eyes pinched shut, with sweat streaked down the sides of his face.
"It's too hot," Rafe said.
Cavanaugh balanced on a ledge and pulled his backpack around to dig out the canteens. He passed one across. "Here."
Rafe chugged half the water and poured the rest over his head. He tossed the empty canteen over his shoulder.
Cavanaugh watched it fall and vaporize on the surface of the lava. Okay. They'd better see this through so he could pick his canteen up off the ground after the rift disappeared.
"Listen to me," he said and gripped Rafe's arm. "This. Doesn't. Exist. It isn't hot. It isn't loud. It's a patch of grass in the corner of the park. Just keep climbing."
"But it can still kill us, right? What are we supposed to do? Go through the lava?"
"We won't. There are dead lava tubes in the wall that go under the flow."
Rafe looked down and pursed his lips.
"You can't see them from here. They're like the footholds." Cavanaugh looked over his shoulder and blinked tears out of his eyes. Nikki and Oscar had paused on the other side of the chasm, watching them. "You have to keep moving or Nikki will give up. Show her you're willing to go on."
Rafe glanced over his shoulder, then back at Cavanaugh. Determination would have been nice to see on his face, not just pain and sweat and dread. But he started down the wall again.
They came within a few yards of the lava flow. It seared Cavanaugh's eyes as he searched the far wall for Nikki and Oscar. He glimpsed them entering a dark hole in the rock and turned back around to pat Rafe on the arm. He pointed at the rock in front of Rafe. "Go in!"
Rafe looked around, bleary eyed. "I don't see it!"
"It's right in front of you!"
Rafe leaned back, arching as if the lava broiled his back, and his torso made a shadow on the wall even though the glow of the lava flow surrounded them.
"That's it!" Cavanaugh said.
Rafe peered at the shadow, let go of the wall with one hand, and pushed his arm into the darkness. His face went slack like he had immersed his hand in cool water. He scrambled through.
Cavanaugh followed and savored the sudden absence of scorching heat inside the narrow tube. Rafe shuffled in front of him on hands and knees. Behind, a lava surge licked the air just outside the entrance. Ahead, their shadows raced across stone, revealing how the lava tube broadened and curved downward. When they reached the drop and the tube became wide enough for them to crouch side-by-side, he showed Rafe how to spot faint shadows in the walls where hands could hook behind rocks and feet could wedge into crevices.
The last glow of the river faded and its drone became a distant echo. This was the dark side of the moon. They couldn't see the other climbers until they reached the bottom. It was up to their individual wills to keep going.
Rafe's foot slipped. "Help!" he cried and one hand fell from the wall.
"Hold on!" Cavanaugh grabbed his swinging arm and brought it back up to a handhold.
Rafe groaned and pulled his legs up to a foothold. He leaned away from the wall with both arms straight out. His voice sounded raspy. "If we're getting close to the bottom, can I just let go?"
Cavanaugh looked down. Blackness. They were over the cavern. The chill in the air almost made him miss the heat of the lava flow. A fall would still be lethal. Part of him wanted to tell Rafe to try it. Part of him wondered why such a reckless, angry thought came to him. And all he could think of was finding his brother on top of his wife in the beams of sunlight from their bedroom window, a special brochure wafting from his hand, the wisp as it settled on the hardwood floor. Rage, lit like a lava flow. The trip to the desert for target practice. Bottles bursting in the sun. And when the clip in the .45 was spent, reloading it and starting back to his car. Never to reach it.
He shuddered. Here in the dark, it was easiest to remember the long cold nights in his rift cell. "Just keep moving," he said.
They left the lava tube to climb down another vertical wall in near darkness. Rafe paused to whisper. "That's something."
"Yeah, I like this part." No need to mention it was the calm before the storm.
They climbed down a little farther and Rafe froze when something crunched under his boot. "What's this?" He searched below like he couldn't find the next foothold.
"We're at the bottom."
Rafe pulled his legs back up. "What's down here?"
Disturbed by Rafe's boot, the objects filled the air with the smell of a stagnant shoreline. Bones formed an embankment against the wall, endless in either direction, a steep pale incline full of shadows. Cavanaugh had seen all kinds. Cracked skulls. Heavy pelvises. Ribs, arms, and legs. Spindly hands or feet seemed the most unsettling.
In this rift, it was spines.
Rafe had fractured one to reveal a wet, blackened cord inside the vertebrae. Apparently his eyes had adjusted enough to see because he cringed on the ledge. "No way--no way no way no way!"
And Cavanaugh had worried about Nikki freaking out. He stepped off into the spines, sank to his knees, and shuffled down the incline in a clatter of bones.
A narrow strip of flat rock lined the bottom of the embankment. A maze of rock shards twice his height covered the rest of the cavern floor, row after row, like teeth in a shark's jaw. Slick, black, and cold. The low ceiling revealed the curve of the Earth in both directions. Things moved behind the shards, radiating green light, hidden for now except for the glow of their lights dashing across the low ceiling.
He watched the movement as he always did, unblinking, with a burning sensation in his stomach. Even after hundreds of crossings, he still had to force his feet to take him closer to the cavern maze.
A loud rustle of bones from behind told him Rafe had decided to follow. He glanced back to see Rafe dancing to shake off a spine which had coiled around one of his ankles.
Cavanaugh dug a night vision monocular out of his backpack. The cavern was twice as wide as the rift above it, and the only light came from the fleeting green glows. He climbed one of the rock shards and spied two wakes in the embankment of spines on the other side of the cavern. Oscar and Nikki had made it down. Oscar appeared at the peak of a shard. He signed in slow, enlarged motions. There's a problem with the girl... Cavanaugh's heart sank as he watched Oscar finish the message. He waved in response and inched down the rock shard like dismounting a knife's blade.
Rafe stared at the ceiling, at the darting green glows. He rose up on his toes and searched the maze for the sources of the lights. "What's out there?"
"Demons," Cavanaugh said. It never paid to sugarcoat this part.
Rafe looked left and right.
Cavanaugh knew what he was thinking. "This is important, Rafe." He touched Rafe's arm and waited for eye contact. "You can't bypass the demons. You have to face them."
"I get it. Stare 'em down. Show no fear."
"They aren't wild animals. Remember, this is in your head. If you're afraid, they already know it. Scream like a girl if it helps, but push through them. You'll feel emptiness. As close to a lack of will to live as you've ever felt."
"You know how hard it is to apologize?"
Rafe bit his lip and searched the ceiling.
Cavanaugh sighed. Maybe he'd never tried it, and that's why he had a rift. But that meant he knew exactly how hard it was. "They strip you of your emotions, but it doesn't leave you numb, it leaves you vulnerable. Like you'd rather die."
"Or fight," Rafe said. He picked up a spinal column by the lumbar and tested its weight. "You take the ones on the left, and I'll take the ones on the right."
"Oh, no. I'm the rift pilot. I'll talk you though it, but these are your demons."
The spine in Rafe's hand flexed and the vertebrae snapped apart. Half of them slid down the cord with a sizzle and clacked onto the stone floor. He grimaced and dropped it.
Cavanaugh lowered his voice. "A weapon won't help. I believe there's a reason the climb down is so hard. It takes the fight out of you."
Rafe ignored him and found a wedge of black stone chipped from one of the shards. He hefted it in his right hand and pursed his lips, satisfied.
"There's one more thing," Cavanaugh said. "You have to face Nikki's demons, too. They'll seem twice as fierce, like they're bursting with all the emotions you just shed."
"Why do I have to deal with what's on her side?"
"Oscar said she refuses to cross."
Rafe gazed at the dim wall across the cavern and gave a thin smile. "She's close enough."
He charged into the rock shards.
Cavanaugh stood dazed for a moment. What was Rafe thinking? If they separated, Cavanaugh couldn't coach him through his demon encounters. "Rafe! Wait for me!"
He followed but quickly lost Rafe in the shard maze. Pausing to get his bearings, he watched the ceiling. A pair of green glows raced parallel, like wolves flanking their prey. He saw where the hunt would end, where the demons would converge on Rafe, and ran in that direction.
The glows crossed on the ceiling. One turned back on its course and the other zigzagged away. That wasn't right. Cavanaugh ran harder, glancing at the ceiling for another sign the demons were tracking Rafe. One appeared to give chase and gave up a second later. Cavanaugh slowed down. Some people only had to face a couple of demons. Others got swarmed. He figured Rafe would pull them in to a feeding frenzy. He sprinted again. If Rafe evaded the demons like a rift pilot, this would all be for nothing.
As Cavanaugh neared the midpoint of the cavern, a green glow on the ceiling stopped directly ahead. He tried to tack left and slammed into a shard with his right leg. It felt like the razor edge cut him to the bone. He sank down and wedged himself between two of the shards. Gripping his thigh, he reminded himself it wasn't real. At worst he had banged his leg against the ground in the park. He'd be bruised, not bleeding. The sting of exposed flesh, real enough, wasn't as bad as realizing he had let Rafe lead him on a chase and into a confrontation with a demon.
Glowing tendrils snaked around the edge of a rock shard a few feet away from Cavanaugh. Hooks and claws sprouted from the searching limbs, grating on the black stone. The demon hissed and pulled itself into view. Tongues lashed out from multiple orifices, tasted the air a hundred ways, and slurped back into mouths of radiant green teeth. Green orbs on green flesh, clustered like spider eyes, scanned in all directions before landing on Cavanaugh. The demon reared up and one mouth yawned wider than the rest, stretching tall until it gaped like an open casket. It was the only darkness on the glowing form. Light, sound, and what little heat was in the air--all were devoured.
Cavanaugh struggled for air. His blood thickened and each beat of his heart jolted his limbs. His eyes dimmed. The cold left the rock around him. The heat fled his body. Until nothing. Heat death of the universe.
Denied his senses, he felt exposed, like his thoughts and essence had been spilled on the stone after his body disappeared, visible to anyone who found his remains.
That's what it was like in his rift cell in the desert. If he had died there, the gun beside his corpse would have told the story. He had thought he only needed two of the bullets. One for his brother, one for his wife. Eventually, time in the cell showed him he only needed one. For himself. But he threw the gun into his rift. It was probably still there, rusting in the desert.
Then the emptiness passed. The rock became ice and his skin became fire. Overhead, the green glow raced away.
He launched to his feet and ran. Over the shards, he glimpsed Oscar up on the embankment, reaching down to pull Nikki up through the spines. Good. Oscar always spotted trouble fast. He saw with his eyes what others refused to hear.
"Don't go, Nikki!"
It was Rafe, somewhere ahead near the edge of the maze. Cavanaugh tried to turn toward the sound of his voice, but Rafe's words bounced off the rock shards like reflections in a House of Mirrors. Up ahead, Oscar had reached the wall and held Nikki's hand, helping her find handholds in the rock shadows.
"I love you!"
Nikki stopped. Her hand left Oscar's. She slid back down through the spines and disappeared behind the rock shards ahead of Cavanaugh.
He hadn't sensed real love in Rafe's hoarse cry, but maybe Nikki had. If Rafe's desire to reach her had made him faster than the demons, maybe that was as good as facing them. Slim chance. Odds were they'd all have to climb back out, and Rafe would be a better candidate for a rift pilot than for a normal life.
Cavanaugh cleared the maze and saw Rafe and Nikki at the base of the embankment. Only feet apart. If he touched her, this would all go away. If she touched him....
Rafe lunged at Nikki. Oscar was in motion almost just as fast, but had to fight his way down the embankment. Rafe knocked Nikki on her back and straddled her, one hand around her throat, the other raised high with the rock shard in it. "You can't leave me! You'll never leave me!" He brought the rock down on her face twice before Oscar grabbed his arm.
Cavanaugh came in low and hooked Rafe's other arm. They pulled Rafe up and staggered backward, the three of them arm-in-arm, swaying as Rafe fought to break their hold. Rafe dropped the rock and it skidded over the cavern floor.
Nikki moaned and struggled to her feet. Rafe had pounded the left side of her head into a deep depression. Cavanaugh knew, like his leg, it wasn't real. The rock was part of the rift. But Rafe's fist wasn't, and another hit could have convinced Nikki's mind she had died, and stopped her heart.
Rafe twisted out of Oscar's grip and shoved him away. Cavanaugh clung to his other arm but couldn't halt Rafe's march back toward Nikki. Rafe's free hand dug in his jeans pocket and returned holding something which reflected the green glows on the ceiling. Something not of the rift. Something lighter, faster, deadlier. Rafe slashed at Nikki and she barely dodged the blade.
Then Rafe wrenched out of Cavanaugh's grasp--not toward Nikki, but backward a step. Rafe's eyes widened and he looked down at his shoulder. One of the oil stains on his shirt was spreading.
Durand. She was a bad shot.
She made up for it, though. Three times. The bullets sent Rafe bounding backward as if he was losing a bout with an invisible boxer. His knife hit the ground just before he did. The sun, like a blast from a flashbulb, glinted off the blade in the grass. In the park.
Cavanaugh squinted at the sky, at the sun touching the treetops across the way.
Nikki got in Durand's face. "You lied to me! You told me Rafe had changed. And you almost got me killed! I bet he loved his car more than he ever loved me!" She whirled and gave Rafe's Firebird a kick in the door. She leaned down to inspect her bruised face in the side mirror and scowled at her reflection. "I'm gonna drive it to the Grand Canyon and watch it go over the side. That will be real!"
She looked at Rafe's body, jutted her chin out, and climbed into his car to speed away. Dirt and grass flung from the tires. Black smoke sputtered from the tailpipes.
Rafe had been right. She never changed the oil.
Durand's gun dangled at her side, one shaking finger hooked through the trigger guard. She acted like she had picked it up as evidence at a grisly crime scene and didn't want to leave prints on it.
"You knew," Cavanaugh said.
"Because clearly he was a murderous lunatic?"
"Because he was like you."
"What do you mean, like me?"
"The rift cell."
Cavanaugh narrowed his eyes. "Was that the talk at the academy? That anyone in a rift cell might be a murderer? Did you choose Rafe and Nikki to test a theory?"
She fumbled her gun into its holster beneath her polyester jacket. "Rifts are a shield. Usually against hurt or anger or whatever. What if some rifts protect people from worse? And should never be mended? Do you know what your brother and ex-wife did when I told them you're a rift pilot? They started packing. Tell me that was a crazy reaction. Tell me they shouldn't be afraid of you because one day you might cross your own rift."
Cavanaugh gazed at Rafe's body. Nothing would have kept him away from Nikki better than the rift. Not a restraining order, not running. Like nothing would have stopped Cavanaugh if he had made it out of the desert that day.
"They shouldn't be afraid," he said. "Not now."
He turned to Oscar and signed slowly. Oscar held his eyes for a long time, then nodded. They shook hands, but Cavanaugh pulled him into a hug.
He faced Durand again. "I quit. Oscar wants to keep working if you can help him find a new partner. But if your job is going after would-be killers in rift cells, tell me, so I can tell him."
She shook her head. "I just had to know. In a controlled situation, before the wrong person is allowed to cross their rift."
"You can't get inside people's heads."
"It's a start."
He held her eyes. She hadn't as much as looked at Rafe's body since she put him down, and her shoulders still quaked. He wanted to comfort her, but the brass in her purse and the steel under her jacket kept him from reaching out. If she was capable of a rift, he believed a fresh one would have ruptured the Earth between them. He turned away and started across the park.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"I have to follow you. I have to warn them you're coming."
"I know, but I'll face the demons. You won't have to shoot me."
This story was first published on Friday, July 18th, 2014
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