3 A. M. (Hidden)

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One

“I’ve got the original Offsteder papers right in front of me,” Ben said over the phone. “He consistently pinpointed 3am as the time when key electrical and magnetic fields evidenced the greatest level of distortion. I’m sending you the link right now.”

“This phone tethering is costing me a fortune,” Rose muttered, sitting at the table in her aunt’s flat. A thumb-drive was plugged into the side of her laptop, flashing as it received data via her phone. Nearby, a wall-clock showed the time:

2:32am.

Outside the building, another train rumbled past. The sound was so common at Marshall Heights, Rose had begun to notice more when there wasn’t any traffic on the tracks. The window panes shuddered slightly, as if vibrations from the train were traveling all the way up the building. On the table, a cup of coffee trembled slightly, its surface rippling.

“What am I looking at?” she asked as she opened the files Ben had emailed.

“If you’re really going to enter that flat at 3am, you need to be prepared and you need to have some idea what you might end up facing. The file I’ve sent is Offsteder’s most accessible paper on the subject. I should warn you, he was never really taken seriously by his peers. Some of them flat-out accused him of smoking crack when they read his theories. The whole idea of the conventional infrasonic theory was to explain away ghost stories as a natural phenomenon, but Offsteder thought there was more to it than that. He tried to marry the paranormal and scientific sides together.”

“How far did he get?”

“As you can see if you scroll through to the second page, his central thesis is that there’s a barrier between two worlds. One of those words is ours, and the other… Well, he was never quite sure what was on the other side. I think he had his suspicions, but he didn’t want to voice them in case he invited more ridicule.”

“Life and death?” Rose asked as she looked through the document.

“He was convinced that there was something there, on the other side of the barrier. Something intelligent, something…” He paused for a moment. “Check the recording on the third page.”

Finding the box, she hit the play button and waited for the file to buffer.

“He captured some enhanced audio one night,” Ben continued, “at exactly 3am. Whatever it was, it was coming from the other side of the barrier. It’s pretty freaky.”

As the file started to play, Rose listened to a kind of cyclical distortion, with the analogue fury sounding more like a kind of roar. It was the sort of thing she remembered hearing when she used to try to tune her aunt’s old radio, but as she listened for a few more seconds, nothing seemed to be standing out.

“This is fascinating,” she said after a moment, “but -”

“Wait for it.”

“Ben -”

Before she could finish, she heard another noise coming through on the recording: it was as if, from deep within the maelstrom, some other sound was trying to burst through. Something was howling, as if filled with desperate rage. Whatever it was, it almost seemed to be screaming, slowly getting stronger as if it was using brute force to break its way through. A moment later, the sound began to fade back into the mix, and a few seconds after that the recording ended.

“That sounded human,” Rose said cautiously.

“No kidding,” Ben replied.

“It’s a hoax.”

“It’s no hoax. He tried to record it again on other nights, but for some reason the conditions weren’t right. He was at an abandoned industrial building in Berlin, and he believed that the design of the building and its placement in the environment above a subway tunnel made for an infrasonic hotspot, weakening the barrier. The crazy thing is, I checked out the readings he got while he was there, and I compared them to the readings you’ve been getting at Marshall Heights.” He paused for a moment. “Rose, if Offsteder was right, the barrier is much weaker where you are, compared to where he recorded that noise. Completely by accident, Marshall Heights is like a perfect infrasonic storm.”

Feeling a shiver run down her spine, Rose couldn’t help but glance around the room.

“Offsteder was ridiculed for his beliefs,” Ben continued, “but he was a stubborn bastard and he held firm. He was convinced that whatever this barrier was, it was at its weakest at three in the morning. He collected anecdotal evidence from all over the world that 3am was the magic moment. People as far afield as India, China, America, Africa reported the same thing. It’s almost as if some kind of barrier exists just beyond the limits of human perception, and something about 3am makes that barrier a little weaker.”

“And then what?”

“For a few hours either side of 3am, it becomes easier to see things that we can’t see during the rest of the day. Figures that leak through from the other side. Ghosts, for want of a better word.”

“All because of the way a building is designed?”

“He never really found a pattern, but it was his belief that certain places, certain architectural designs, just happened to create an infrasonic environment that weakened the barrier. By the end of his life, he was convinced that he was on the path to a great discovery. He thought he could ultimately prove the existence of ghosts and explain the mechanism by which they appeared. The ghosts that people see are just the few individuals who are able to briefly break through the barrier. That’s why some locations are haunted and some aren’t, because of the infrasonic qualities that they possess. It might also explain why more emotionally-charged individuals tend to break through. Maybe they’re more determined, or their desire to get back through is stronger.”

“So 3am’s the magic time?”

“It’s the time when ghosts are most likely to be seen.”

Rose replayed the recording, and once again she heard the howling scream. She wanted to dismiss the whole thing, to tell Ben that the sound on the file was just audio distortion, but deep down she knew she was wrong: the howling sound had a vocal quality, almost as if it was trying to speak. After a moment, she realized that the howl might even be made up of several different sounds, as if a number of different voices were crying out.

“It sounds angry,” she said eventually, as the recording ended. “Really angry, and kinda desperate.”

“Or in pain,” Ben pointed out, “or just hopeless. The effort of trying to break through must be immense, even at 3am.” He paused. “I think Marshall Heights, purely by accident, just happens to have the infrasonic qualities that weaken the barrier to a particularly low level. You don’t have to be in a place like Marshall Heights to hear this stuff, but it sure helps. Multiple manifestations are able to get through on a nightly basis.”

“You mean ghosts?”

“I mean ghosts.”

“This Jennifer girl,” Rose replied. “She seems to be the strongest.”

“That would be Jennifer Elizabeth Hathaway,” Ben continued. “I looked it all up online. Shortly after her twenty-second birthday, Jennifer murdered her abusive father Ellis and then threw herself in front of a train. There are some pretty spooky stories about old Ellis Hathaway, some people even think he might have been involved in various murders, but the police never had him on a list of suspects. I found some photos, though, and the guy looked like a goddamn ghoul even when he was alive.”

Clicking open another of the files, Rose saw an image of a tall, thin man with shadow-ringed eyes. He was staring at the camera as if he resented having his photo taken, and she couldn’t help notice that his nose was slightly crooked. In the background of the shot, a girl was walking past, and Rose immediately recognized her as the person who’d slammed the door to flat 313.

“Is that the girl who died?” she asked.

“In the first photo? Yeah, that’s Jennifer.”

“I saw her.”

“She’s been dead for several years.”

“I saw her,” Rose whispered again, feeling a shiver pass through her body as she stared at the image of Jennifer.

“It seems Ellis used to beat his daughter senseless in these fits of alcoholic rage,” Ben continued. “If you ask me, that’s a prime candidate for someone whose intense psychic energy might help her to break through the barrier ahead of other ghosts. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the ghost of Jennifer Hathaway can be seen at Marshall Heights around 3am.” He paused for a moment. “Rose, do you remember the train crash that happened right outside Marshall Heights a few years ago?”

“How could anyone forget?” she replied. “It was all over the news.”

“There were two crewmen on the empty commuter train, Robert Ballard and Stephen Wallace. Ballard was killed instantly but Stephen Wallace actually survived the initial impact. When an emergency team got to him, he was all twisted up and mangled in the wreckage, but he was just about alive and conscious. Apparently he kept talking about some girl he’d seen, but he wasn’t making much sense. The medics knew he was dying, so they gave him something to take the pain away. Then they started to pull the mangled metal apart and he died, but with his last breath he was still saying something about a girl with dark hair.”

“Sounds like a hell of a way to go,” Rose muttered.

“Get this. The reason one of the trains was going slow was that a girl had been reported on the lines. The accident happened at 3am at the exact spot where Jennifer Hathaway killed herself. What if the crew on that train saw or even interacted with Jennifer? It might be the same ghost that the creepy little kid told you about earlier.”

Closing her eyes for a moment, Rose tried to stay calm. When she opened her eyes again, she felt that the air all around her was different, as if she could feel it buzzing.

“There are things in the world that humans don’t normally notice,” Ben added. “I think a place like Marshall Heights brings them to our attention.”

“I guess I’ll find out soon enough,” she said finally, checking her watch for the hundredth time that evening and seeing that she still had a few minutes to go before 3am. Looking around the room, she paused for a moment, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching her. “So 3am is the high-point,” she continued finally, “but the time leading up to that -”

“Is also pretty strong,” Ben said, interrupting her. “Exactly, the barrier is weakening moment by moment, and it’ll continue to do so until 3am, which is when it’ll be at its absolute weakest. Then it’ll start to strengthen again. I’d imagine that three in the afternoon is the other apex, when it’s at its strongest. That, in theory, should be when there’s the least chance of seeing any kind of ghost. I guess that makes sense, really. I mean, when was the last time someone reported seeing a ghost in the middle of the afternoon?”

Sensing something, she turned to look at the window.

“Rose?” Ben said after a moment. “Are you still there?”

“Help the woman on the tracks,” Rose whispered as she got to her feet and made her way over to the window. Looking out, she saw the train tracks glinting in the moonlight, but there was no sign of anyone down there. A moment later, a train trundled past at low speed, but she kept watching until it had passed, just in case there was anyone down there. As she was about to turn away, however, she spotted something on the other end of the window-ledge: a small yellow notebook had been tucked into the corner.

“Rose?” Ben called out from the phone. “Are you okay?”

“Hang on,” she replied, picking up the notebook. She was sure it hadn’t been there before, and as soon as she opened it and looked inside, she realized she recognized the handwriting.

“Rose?”

“I found something,” she said, heading back to the table and picking up the phone. “It seems like something my aunt wrote.” Flicking through the pages, she saw a vast number of notes about the train-lines, along with diagrams. It was as if her aunt had been frantically monitoring all the traffic going past the building, along with all sorts of other numbers and notes in the margins. “She was obsessed,” she whispered, reaching the end of the notebook and seeing that the very last entry seemed to reference someone down on the tracks:

She’s there. I’m going to help her.

“She went to help,” she whispered.

“Your sister?”

“My aunt. It looks like she saw someone on the tracks and went down to help.”

“She wouldn’t actually go onto the tracks, would she?”

“No, she was far too -”

Before she could finish, she heard a faint rolling sound over by the window. She glanced over just in time to spot a pencil rolling off the edge and dropping down onto the carpet. Stepping over, she picked up the pencil and gave it a quick examination, but nothing about it seemed particularly unusual.

“Could a person communicate through that barrier you were talking about?” she asked, looking back across the room. “Like, maybe, moving something in the real world?”

“I guess. The effort would be massive, but I suppose it might just about be possible if someone was really desperate to get a message through. Why?”

“It’s not 3am yet, but it’s getting close. The barrier might be weak enough now, right?”

“It might be. What’s going on, Rose?”

“I’ll call you back.”

“But -”

Cutting the call, she set her phone on the window-ledge before making her way to the middle of the room. Taking a seat, she opened the notebook and set the pencil in the spine. She sat and waited, half-expecting a ghostly hand to pick up the pencil and write some kind of note, but finally she realized that she was probably on a hiding to nothing. Sighing, she got to her feet and headed through to the kitchen, where she took a drink of water and then checked her watch again:

2:51am.

“Not long now,” she muttered.

She finished the water and set the glass down.

And that’s when she heard it:

A rolling sound coming from the front room, ending with a brief pause and then the sound of something small dropping onto the carpet.

The pencil.

After listening to the silence for a moment, Rose headed back out of the kitchen and peered through at the front room. Sure enough, the pencil – which moments ago had been nestled securely in the spine of the notebook – was now down on the floor. Glancing around the room, Rose looked for any hint of movement, any sign that she wasn’t alone.

On the wall, the clock ticked over to 2:53am.

“Hello?” she called out.

Silence.

Heading over to the table, she looked down at the notebook but saw – with a curious mixture of relief and disappointment – that the words scribbled on the final page were the same as before:

She’s there. I’m going to help her.

She picked up the notebook and flicked through it, but nothing seemed different. When she closed it, however, she saw that four words had been written on the back, words that she was certain hadn’t been there the last time she looked:

Don’t come to 313.

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