Out of sand came fingers; the tiny white particles gave birth to a limb, then a torso, then a man. He stood towering over the crater where he had been lying, the shape of his body preserved on the beach. He was wearing a suit. It was now wrinkled and covered in sand.
The night sky was purple along the horizon with stars growing brighter as they rose further from the earth and an abnormally bright moon breaking through the shadows below. Behind the man waves slowly stretched onto the shore, in front of him a line of palm trees marked the beginning of land, and in the distance the dim shape of civilization could be seen. Something about the s-shaped curve of the shore and the sag of the trees drew his gaze.
I recognize this. I’ve been here.
A single light peered over the horizon.
He began to move through the vegetation, pushing his way into a clearing. The light was a house with a large deck overlooking the ocean. A glow came from within, but no movement could be seen.
Without a sound he glided across the sand and approached the rear of the house. His hands grabbed the deck and he pulled himself up. The creak of the wood and its coarseness were a familiar feel. He knew exactly where to place his feet as he slipped over the top of the railing and stopped out- side a glass door.
How do I know this place?
It didn’t matter; he was here to find her and leave. If he’d been here before, it was a mistake, they shouldn’t have sent him; but he couldn’t do anything about that now. He gently moved the glass door, creating just enough space for himself, and then entered.
The room was so new to his eyes, yet every detail was as if it had been traced over an image he remembered. He knew exactly how far it was from the door to the kitchen and from the kitchen to the TV. But that TV was wrong. So were the microwave and two coffee tables. They should be there, he somehow knew, but they should be different. And the whole room seemed...smaller? Smaller than what?
He spun around. Standing in the hall was a woman in her late thirties. Slender, smooth skin, and soft eyes. Her smile contagious.
“I thought you wouldn’t be here for another hour.”
It’s her. She looks just like her picture.
“What have you been doing?” Her eyes scanned him and her smile faded, “You’re covered in sand; and why are you in a suit?”
I’ve never had one try this before. She’s smart. She knew this was coming somehow.
Damian straightened his shoulders and hardened his face. “I am a federal agent, here under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice.” He drew his gun. “By trial, you have been found guilty on one count of espionage and two...”
Her eyes grew wide and she was running. He fired, the bullet landing in the wall. Damian was after her, watching her disappear down the stairs. He stopped – those stairs lead outside under the deck – walked to the glass door, opened it, and peered down onto the sand below.
She ran for the trees. He lifted his weapon and fired. Her body dropped to the sand.
By instinct, his hand dipped into his pocket and pulled out a phone. He pointed it down towards the beach and snapped a photo of the body.
A beep. Ten seconds. Damian turned just in time to notice a portrait on the wall: A picture of his parents and his sisters. This was my house.
Damian was fading. The ocean breeze coming through the door gave way to a warm December morning with a palm tree covered in lights. His sisters laughed in the kitchen as he smelled pancakes and his father stood on the deck talking on his cell phone. Morning turned to evening as Damian walked towards the linen closet to find a towel after a long day of swimming in the ocean. His muscles were sore, but he had enough energy to do it again tomorrow. The towel disappeared and midnight crept up as he watched the late show in the family room. His father and younger sister were already in bed.
The room grew colder and Damian remembered what it was like to be in his thirties; his body’s strength, how it felt to live in Virginia, even the pages of the last book he read spilled through his memory. His mind stopped. The peaceful tone of the lab was now everywhere. Back at Base.
He was sitting in the chair, a red recliner situated under a few lights with a twisting machine elegantly forming a half circle around the headrest. The lights were dim, but he could make out the wood floors, paintings on the wall – everything that made Base feel more like a loft in an upscale apartment rather than a laboratory.
Damian closed his eyes, his head still slightly foggy. It reminded him of being in the dentist’s chair as a young boy and the doctor giving him another dose of what he called “laughing gas” before drilling for that second cavity. The dentist’s face was fresh in his mind. He had learned to trust him.
“Take it easy; you’re back.” A balding man in a white coat rolled closer on a chair. “Give it a minute; we had to give you a heavier dose. That’s what Dr. Lang said anyway. I understand he was the only one here when you started?”
Damian nodded. Dr. Lang was good, he had learned that. With him there was no need for the rest of the team. Damian struggled to keep his eyes open and to lift his heavy arms. Perhaps he had come back too early; he hadn’t felt ready to leave the location. The house ran through his mind again.
It was the vacation house. No question about it.
The room he used to sleep in, the deck where he fell off and broke his arm – it was all very vivid now that he could place it. Childhood memories. A scowl grew over his face.
Twenty years since I saw it.
Damian felt the cool rush of the door opening and caught a glimpse of someone coming in the door. It wasn’t the balding man, and it wasn’t the girl who operated the machine, or Dr. Lang. It was two men.
He was in the hallway, moving past light fixtures that were too bright for him. The two guards walked on either side, one now holding Damian’s gun and the other his phone. He knew exactly where they were walking; the path was familiar. Yet somehow this journey was different, like he was walking in new territory.
Eleven...twelve...they’re the same. Still the same.
He counted the steps between doorways they were passing. Every time he came back he counted; it was part of a mental checklist Damian ran through to test if something had changed. The fear of the Department’s actions having unforeseen consequences had been significantly allayed by a series of exhaustive tests administered before the first official mission ever occurred. Damian himself was simply assured that his actions would not create a domino effect with unintended results. He never asked for an explanation of how that was true; he preferred to simply know he could trust their decisions. For the same reason he had never asked to know details about his targets; it was not his job to be judge or jury. The one thing that unnerved Damian was the psychological evaluation he received before and after every trip as if they were watching for unintended consequences, not in the world around them, but in his mind. He tried to dismiss this as being over-cautious on the Department’s part, but it still gave him peace to count the steps.
They came to a stop outside the Deputy Director’s office. The first man held open the door and Damian entered, the haze quickly disappeared from his mind and his normal focus returned.
“There are two foundational rules that must always be followed when approving cases. Do you know what they are?” The Deputy Director stood by the window in one of her grey suits. She wore it regularly.
“Yes, Ms. Brandt. I do.”
She glared at him, letting the silence hang in the air for a moment. “We’re talking your future here, Damian. Something like this has never happened. I’ve been getting calls from the Director every five minutes.” Her face grew more sympathetic. “Why didn’t you tell me right away? I don’t like getting surprises when I see the photos from the field.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Let’s be clear.” She moved to her desk and picked up a photo that had been lying in front of her. “This was not the target you executed?” The photo was of another woman. In her fifties with graying hair, nothing like the woman who had known Damian’s name.
“No.” He looked at the Deputy Director. “I was never shown this photo.”
She stared in disbelief. “Be careful, Damian. The Department talked about this for six months. We debated day in and day out and I saw this woman’s case go through every office in this building. It took a year after that to finally have clearance for this mission. You have no idea how many hoops you have to jump through around here to get the smallest thing approved, let alone this...”
“I was told nothing. I was given a photo and charges to recite, but nothing else. There was obviously some miscommunication here, but it seems that we could fix that. We are specialists at dealing with past mistakes...”
Brandt squinted at Damian, surely thinking he was an idiot. “The past doesn’t disappear, Damian.” She picked up the file that was sitting on her desk. “If you make a mistake it goes in one of these. If you try and fix it, this just gets bigger. And you know that these follow you around for a long time. So the issue at hand isn’t what you just did, it’s what you will be doing. You just made a decision about that.” She ran her hands through her hair and shook her head. “Enough philosophizing. Back to rule number one: did you recognize the woman you killed?”
Damian thought about it, honestly asking himself that question again. “No.” “Are you sure?” “Positive. Should I have recognized her?”
A phone on the Deputy Director’s desk rang. She looked at it, then lifted her eyes to Damian.
Guards on either side again; Damian was escorted down another hallway. They were silent except for the unified sound of their feet on the carpet. He had been down this hall before too, but this time it really was different. This moment was different. It was changing him. It was similar to the beach house – he knew it, but it felt so different. When his father had mentioned the beach house a few weeks before the wedding, Damian was shocked that the family still owned it.
“Your mother and I used to go...” his father trailed off. “I can’t imagine having a use for it in the future, so I want you to have it. This isn’t just a honeymoon gift; it’s yours to keep. Make good memories there, just like we used to.”
Damian hadn’t looked at any of his old photo albums; he hadn’t wanted to. He had wanted to step inside the beach house with Carla as if for the first time, but that had not been the case.
A woman I don’t know was in the beach house. They forced me to go there.
They were at the door of the Director’s Office. Inside was a place he had never been. Every time he had seen the Director, even for private meetings, it had been in another location. A buzz sounded and the three entered; Damian walked in for the first time.
He waited in a chair placed squarely in front of the Director’s desk. The guards hovered in the background. New territory, but he knew how to act; it was not all that unlike his first meeting with the Director. It had been in a smaller room with red chairs and the morning sun shining through a window that stretched across the entire wall. The two sat and discussed Damian’s past work at the FBI, his childhood, and every event in between.
“Funny how we’ve been so interested in your past, when your job here will be all about the future,” the Director had remarked.
“My future is the past,” smiled Damian.
The Director laughed. “Very true! But perhaps the most important question has to do with looking ahead. Why did you pursue this job?”
“It’s a chance to serve my country in an unprecedented way, sir. I know the demands are high, but the potential rewards for future generations, even our generation now, are unbelievable.”
“Of course, but what’s in it for you? Besides sleepless nights, high stress, risking your life...does the idea of changing the past interest you?”
Damian hesitated, debating whether he should be honest, but then added: “No, sir, it’s really about becoming part of a legacy.”
He was living in that legacy. He sat in the office of one of the most powerful men in the world and despite whatever was about to happen, he already enjoyed the status of being a key figure in the Department’s early days. He already knew how history would remember him.
Something that can’t be taken away.
Unless this moment somehow changed that.
A door behind him opened and then shut. Footsteps approached. Damian corrected his posture. The footsteps grew closer, but they sounded lighter than the Director’s...
The woman from the beach house stepped directly in front of Damian. His mouth slowly dropped open. “Mr. Hayward will be here in just a moment,” she said. “You’re...”
“Katrina Martin. I’m the new head of Operations.” Damian stared blankly at her. “Dr. Lang will be leaving.”
Damian was suddenly aware that others were still in the room. All eyes were on him, watching his reaction. “Have we met before?” he quietly asked.
“No.” She sat down. “I was just briefed on your situation and I want to ask you a few questions about what you might have observed during the trip. I know it’s not your job to pay attention to some of the more technical details...Are you alright?”
He was still staring at her. “You’re sure we’ve never met?”
Suddenly a voice came from behind. “Can you give us a moment, Ms. Martin?” The Director had entered through another door, his large frame filling it. He paused and waited for a response.
“Of course.” Katrina turned to Damian, “We’ll finish this soon.” With that she was leaving. A look from the Director sent the two guards following her out the door. They were alone. The Director looked at Damian, the dark circles under his eyes suddenly very prominent.
“She doesn’t know you, Damian.” He sat down in the chair behind his desk and calmly opened a drawer. Inside was a handgun. He carefully placed it in between the two of them. “She doesn’t know you yet, I should say.”
Damian looked from the gun to the Director’s probing eyes. “What’s going on here?”
The Director’s gaze would not break. He studied Damian’s face intently, searching for something. “I’ve decided to tell you.” He leaned over, his arms resting on his legs. “I have a lot of memories that you don’t. Memories that have burned a hole in me.” The Director’s eyes narrowed. “Part of me would rather just kill you right now.”
Damian shifted in his chair, his mind jumping to the guards outside.
“There are two rules. You already know you broke number one. That doesn’t look good; an agent in his summer getaway, traveling back to where his family used to go, and he kills someone he wasn’t supposed to. Obviously he’s acting on his own initiative. What possible reason could the Department have to kill Ms. Martin? She just started here and has a spotless past.”
The Director picked up the gun.
“Never mix a mission with your private life, that’s the essence of rule number one.” A sadness filled his eyes. He was lost in his mind, but then quickly turned towards Damian, pointing the gun directly at him. “I’m going to tell you, Damian, because at a certain point your brain can’t handle the complexities. You can’t anticipate where everything will end up, but you know what you did and you can’t undo that.” His face grew red.
“What did you think of Katrina?”
Damian stuttered, he couldn’t make sense of anything coming out of the Director’s mouth. “Who is she?”
“She’s mine. That’s who she is. Yesterday was the day we met each other. Today was the day where she met you, and after that...” He sat up straight in his chair. “Who knows.” The Director was silent, his eyes glazed over as he seemed to focus on the door on the other side of the room. The gun was still clenched tightly in his hand, pointed at Damian.
The Director swallowed, then spoke again. “She’s your wife, Damian.”
“What?” “Katrina. The woman you murdered. She’s your wife.” “That’s not possible.”
The Director stood, towering above his desk. “And then I changed that. She was mine. But she still...somehow the two of you...” The words stuttered out, “You took her again.”
The gun was thrust forward, inches away from Damian’s face. “You don’t know what it feels like to be robbed! How could you? When she so easily comes to you again and again...and then I knew I would never win. I could never have her without you being a thief...again.” Tears filled the Director’s eyes. “But I could make you feel what it’s like to be stolen from.”
The gun clicked. Ready to fire. “I could make you steal from yourself.” “Mr. Hayward...”
Damian’s voice was barely audible. “We can’t erase what we’ve done. Remember that.”
The noise from the gun exploded in Damian’s ears as it fired. The Director’s head twisted to the side and his body quickly crumpled to the floor. The self-inflicted wound disfigured his face. Damian was frozen in the chair.
The next twenty-four hours were like a memory. As he experienced them Damian couldn’t retain everything that was happening. Conversations floated by, the chaos of the entire office was a blur around him as the murder sank in; all he could do was feel the shock. He couldn’t think. The endless questions they asked him about what the Director had said didn’t clarify anything. They told him Dr. Lang was dead. They told him he had helped the Director do something with the lab equipment.
She was my wife.
Somehow he was guided along, he agreed to the ideas the Deputy Director introduced. She was rushed and in a panic; Damian saw in her eyes desperation as she tried to save the department, so he didn’t argue when they placed a piece of paper in front of him and asked him to sign. He didn’t think twice about accepting another mission, not when it was this one. Not when he was told he was going back to the beach.
How was she at the beach house?
Damian was in the chair again. He heard the machines warming up. There was more activity around him than usual. The Deputy Director leaned over him repeating things she had already said and placing a small object in his pocket. The men behind her whispered about whether the Department could keep this a secret or if other agents and officials would have to be involved. Damian began to fade.
“Damian,” the Deputy Director called.
The room reminded Damian of something else. The Hospital. Where he had sat to hear the news.
“Damian, I don’t know what this will change, but you may need to know.”
“The beach house, where Hayward had Lang send you, it’s not your past...”
They told me there had been an accident.
We could’ve been at the beach house.
He was in the sand. His head rose to skim the same shoreline, the same night, the same everything. A feeling in his chest like there had been in the Hospital, the sinking feeling of a lost opportunity. But on the beach there was something else...
A man walking. Now quickly running.
It was Damian.
Damian jumped to his feet and ran, his feet pounding in the sand, kicking up clumps behind him. He was landing in his own footprints, crushing them into the ground and distorting them, leaving an even larger trail behind.
“Damian!” The other Damian turned back at the sound of his own voice and stopped a few feet away from the house. His eyes grew wide as he saw himself, and he reached for his gun. He wasn’t quick enough - both were suddenly on the ground, struggling in the sand. “You have to listen to me!” They crashed against the side of the house, the first Damian punching the second, refusing to respond. “I was sent...” Another punch. “I know it violates protocol; you were told not to listen...” He threw Damian into the sand, his face slamming against the ground.
The first Damian watched his doppelganger who was now motionless. He began to climb up the balcony. He was moving inside the glass door, stepping into the living room, looking down the hall...
There she was. The girl from the picture. “Damian...”
It didn’t matter how she knew his name or why there was another version of himself. He had the picture, he would do this.
Damian raised his gun. “I am a federal agent, here under the jurisdiction...” A hand was suddenly around his neck. Another hand held a small object resembling an inhaler to his face. They struggled. There was a hissing noise. Damian’s eyes rolled back and he fell to the ground. Damian stood above him.
There was silence for a moment and then he looked up to meet the eyes of Katrina.
“You’re okay.” He was breathing heavily. “I stopped him.” Damian’s body lay crumpled on the floor.
The two sat where the grass met the sand of the beach, the purple night sky stretching above them. Damian rested his arms on his knees and looked out over the ocean. “Who are you?”
“I’m your wife.” Katrina watched Damian’s face; he wouldn’t look at her. She touched his arm. “You at least remember me, don’t you?”
He nodded. “We’ve met.” The couple was quiet; Katrina removed her hand. “Why did Director Hayward want me to kill you?”
“Because I married you and not him. No matter what he did.” “He tried to change that?”
“Yes.” Damian was silent again. “What else did he change?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know how many times he tried. He would go back before we met and move me to a different department, make sure he met me first, make rules against my working with agents – anything to separate us. Anything but not have me around.”
“And then he put you in my past.” Katrina looked directly at him. “This is your future, Damian.”
“My future...” Damian leaned down and ran his fingers over his head, then glared at Katrina. “Why are you at this house?”
“You wanted to bring me here, to get away.”
Anger tainted his voice. “I don’t bring people here. I haven’t been here in twenty years. I should’ve sold it after my dad gave it to me.”
“You never got to come with your first wife.” Damian didn’t answer. “You didn’t even tell me about it until after we were married.”
“He sent me to my future to kill my wife. That’s both rules violated at once for Hayward.” Damian ripped a piece of grass out of the dirt and began to tear it into smaller pieces. Katrina said nothing as she watched him drop the pieces to the ground. He was still as he began to speak again.
“The first time an agent died in the field, the Department took care of it. They went back and saved his life, fixing the mission that went wrong. When the formerly murdered agent returned home and was going through analysis he said something that shocked them.” Damian looked directly at Katrina. “He said ‘I can still remember dying.’”
Damian turned his eyes towards the water. Waves spilled into the footprints he had left earlier. “I can still remember shooting you even though I came back here and stopped myself. And I can’t fix that.”
He stood and wiped the sand off of his pants. Damian reached in his pocket, pulled out his phone and pressed a button. “Now I know what I have to look forward to.”
Katrina stood up and the two stared at each other. Damian waited for her to speak, then after a moment turned and walked towards the water.
“Damian!” she called. “No matter what Hayward tried to do, he couldn’t fix the past. And he couldn’t fix the future.”
Damian paused briefly, then began walking again. As he approached the water, Damian began to fade.