This is an alternate ending to She Sleeps with the Lights On, which is a story written by 10 authors with one chapter each. There's a link to it in the Author Guidance over there --------------->
Read that, but skip the last chapter, and come read this instead. (No offense to the other guy, who wrote the *winning* final chapter... mine came in 3rd out of 3, so ya know, whatevs. But I think it's good, dammit!)
Elena's eyes begin to adjust to the fluorescence, and she becomes keenly aware that there are many eyes upon her. The room is full of people, all of them staring at her. From somewhere off in the distance, she can hear questions. "Are you awake?" "Elena." What happened?" "Did you see Jack?" The reality of the impossible events that just occurred flood back to her now. She had seen Jack, she had been with him.
She blinks several times, the blurriness fading into a solid picture of the room she now remembers from earlier that night. Right before... Dr. Hammond had nearly killed her. With a jolt of fear she recognizes the voice still echoing questions at her: "Elena, are you awake?" "What did you see?"
She focuses on his face. There he is, Dr. Hammond, kneeling right in front of her, with all these other people behind him, looking eagerly at her as if she were about to tell them a fascinating story. As if they hadn't just tried to kill her. She recalls how strangely Dr. Hammond had acted before. He had told her something about blowing up the building where Carter and his team were supposed to be... and something about Jack's body not really being Jack's. He'd had an evil sort of grin on his face at the time, and she'd thought she was finally seeing the real him. But at present, he seems nothing but eager to speak to her. In fact, she's never seen him like this before. This is not the quiet, aloof therapist who speaks thoughtfully and slowly... But it's just as far from the maniac she'd seen earlier that night. It's this curiosity, not the persistence of his questions, that finally moves her to sit up and start answering.
"Okay, I'm awake. And yes, I saw him. I saw Jack." The room holds its breath.
"Did you speak to him?" asks Dr. Hammond.
"Yes." An eruption of gasps and thrilled exclamations fills the room. "Yes!" someone cheers. "I knew it!"
"What the hell is going on?" Elena yells through all the cheering. The noise dies down, and Dr. Hammond puts a hand on her shoulder.
"Elena, I'm so sorry for everything we've put you through. I wish I could've explained earlier, but I just couldn't. You see, we're a sort of experimental research organization called Sabre, and Jack, well, he worked for us..."
"I know all about Sabre already," Elena interrupts him.
"You do?" says Dr. Hammond, puzzled.
"Yes, Jack told me the truth." The room bursts into applause again. This infuriates her, but Dr. Hammond continues before she can think of anything to yell at them.
"Then you know what our research is about?"
"Yeah," says Elena impatiently. "It's kind of hard to miss when you keep popping in and out of existence and talking to dead people."
"Okay, well," Dr. Hammond continues. "Jack was the one who created the drug that enables a person's consciousness to remain in the in-between state after they die. He took the drug, that's the reason he's still there, and not... you know... completely dead."
Elena's eyes narrow, but she lets him keep talking.
"...So, while the person's alive, the drug's supposed to facilitate their ability to experience that same in-between state while they're either dreaming or approaching death. So ideally they could communicate with someone who had taken the drug before they died. We knew that if it worked at all, it would only work on certain people, and we never got to test it because Jack thought it might be dangerous when it didn't work. But he was supposed to be working on a safer version that would be harmless to anyone who didn't meet the criteria, just in case we dosed someone by mistake. And, well, I don't know why, but he... tested it on himself. And I guess it didn't go as well as he hoped."
"He didn't kill himself!" Elena practically shouts.
"Not intentionally, no," says Hammond. "I'm sure he expected it to be safe. But mistakes happen."
"UGGHHH!" Elena growls, furious that Hammond still won't admit to killing Jack. All she wants is an acknowledgement. And justice would be nice too.
Hammond looks uncomfortable but continues talking. "Anyway, after Jack died, we wondered if he had drugged you too, since we know you've got the genetic marker that means it'll work on you. Then at least, if the drug kept him in the in-between state like it was supposed to, he might be able to contact you. We had to keep tabs on you, so I posed as a therapist, and-- sorry about this-- we bugged your house too. We just needed to know if he was able to reach you at all first, before we took it to the next step."
"What next step?" Elena asks, bitter and angry that Hammond is still lying, but desperate to hear everything he's saying.
"The plan was to, uhm, nearly kill you, so you could actually talk to Jack. That's what we did tonight. Again, I'm sorry about all the horror we put you through, but we had to keep you in a sort of traumatic fear state to help ease the communication. I just hope you agree it was worth it, to be able to speak to Jack in person again."
"WORTH IT?!" she screams. "If you all hadn't killed him in the first place I'd speak to him every day!"
Hammond looks shocked at this accusation. "We didn't kill him, Elena. We've been over this, he drugged himself to test his prototype."
"No, he didn't!" says Elena. "I just spoke to him, remember? He told me himself that Sabre slipped him the drug without him knowing. He wouldn't lie to me!"
Hammond looks confused. "Why would he say that?" He turns to the man beside him. "He definitely did it to himself... We know that, right? I mean, he even told Thomas he was thinking about it..."
At the same time, both Elena and Dr. Hammond realize what must have happened.
"Thomas?" says Elena.
"Thomas lied to us!" says Hammond. "He must have been planning... No... Where is Thomas?"
"He was here just a few minutes ago," says a man near the door.
"Find him!" says Hammond, and the researchers scatter.
It works! Thomas smiles, yanks an earpiece out of his ear and throws it off the edge. It falls twenty stories and disappears into the river below.
"IT WORKS! HA-HAA!" He cackles in triumph, his voice quickly swallowed up by the wind. He steps up to the ledge and looks down. A chill races down his entire body, his heart pumping faster than it had in so many years. So many years of tired, mundane, patient living. Waiting for something that would make him feel. But this... this is living. Thomas closes his eyes and allows his body to sway in the wind. How long had he been planning this, longing for this moment?
He recalls the first time he imagined what it would be like to die, but know that it wouldn't be the end, that you could come back to the world through another person and start a new life. It had been his first day at Sabre, as they were briefing him on the assignment he'd just been hired for. Some group of spies were hot on their heels and they needed their own spy to lead them astray. A double-agent gig. He used to live for that stuff, but it was as dry as anything else by that point. Still, it was work. He had sat in their office and listened to what he thought would be another boring speech about government secrets, but turned out to be a fascinating opportunity that would forever change the course of his otherwise meaningless life.
It had been easy enough to fake a few recommendations and get the job with Carter's group of dimwits. They'd been looking for a new face anyway, who they could plant in a bar to get close to one of Sabre's top researchers. By the end of the first week, he'd fed Carter's people enough bull about Sabre to keep them chasing their tails for months. And he was left with so much free time. Normally that would have driven him mad. But not when he'd had so much planning to do.
Thomas opens his eyes to take in his surroundings one last time. He realizes he's exhausted, and wonders whether death will be as restful as everyone imagines it. Or will he be leaping straight into an exhilarating struggle, a battle to cling to life by dragging another person down into their nightmares? What a thrill that would be.
And the alternative? If it fails? He can't help but find the thought peaceful. To sleep. To really sleep. How long had he been awake anyway?
~~~ Much earlier that day ~~~
"It's going to be a long day," said Thomas, yawning as he handed Carter a cup of coffee. He sat back down at the table and watched carefully as Carter took his first sip.
"Why did you have to let her take a nap?!" Carter tapped his foot under the table, not bothering to feign patience.
"She's exhausted," said Thomas. "She almost passed out in the car, I didn't really have a choice. Got any Jacks?"
"No," said Carter. "Go fish." As Thomas drew a card, Carter glanced in the direction of the room where Elena lay asleep. "What do you think happened? Do you think Hammond believed her?"
"I don't see why he wouldn't," said Thomas.
"Do you think he expects her to go to the Sabre headquarters herself?"
"Probably," said Thomas. "At this point I expect her to go there too, don't you?"
"Unless we tell her not to, I suppose." Carter looked uncertain.
"I think we should let her," said Thomas. "I mean, assuming everything with Hammond went as we expected. It's your turn, by the way."
"How can you focus on a card game at a time like this?! Sorry," said Carter quickly. "I'm just nervous. But we should have questioned her before we let her go and fall asleep. Do you have any... Eights?"
Thomas handed Carter the eight of diamonds.
"Point taken," said Thomas. He arranged his face to look like that of an embarrassed man regretting a stupid mistake. In reality he'd needed Elena to sleep awhile to give Hammond and the rest of Sabre time to prepare.
Of course Thomas already knew exactly what Elena would tell them when she finally awoke. He had told Hammond his plan as soon as he'd gotten a moment away from Carter. Well, some of his plan. Now he just needed to get Carter to agree to let Elena go to the fake headquarters alone. He needed to distract him, but Carter wasn't really taking to the card game the way he'd hoped.
"It's still your turn," Thomas reminded him.
"But do you think it's safe for her to go there?" Carter laid down his cards altogether this time. "I mean what do you think they'll do if they expect her to show up at their top-secret headquarters?"
"Maybe nothing," said Thomas patiently. "What harm could she do? They think she just dreamed about this place and wants to go check it out. They don't know she expects it to be anything important, least of all anything related to them. And maybe, since they have time"- he paused for emphasis- "they'll make sure there's nothing to see. No harm done. And in the meantime, we get to have eyes on the place for the first time, and we don't even have to reveal that we know where it is. It's a perfect plan."
Thomas smirked inside. It was a perfect plan.
"And of course," he added, "if she doesn't come right back, we'll go in after her."
"Of course," Carter agreed.
Good, Thomas thought. Now I'll just have to ditch Carter in time to make certain Elena doesn't come back. Everything's finally working in my favor. The end is getting nearer and nearer. I can almost see the edge now...
Thomas is jolted out of his memories by a very unwelcome sound. He turns around to face the rest of the roof, but remains poised at the edge and ready to fall backwards at a moment's notice.
"How did you find me, Carter?"
"You dropped something," says Carter, holding up Thomas's discarded earpiece.
"You went and got that out of the river?"
"It landed on a rock," says Carter. "Imagine how that would feel, Thomas. Landing on a rock. But then, I suppose at this height, the water would feel like a rock too..."
"What are you doing here?" says Thomas, refusing to play Carter's game.
"What do you think? I came to find the real headquarters, rescue Elena and destroy all of her husband's research to keep it from getting into the wrong hands. But it would appear I'm too late for that."
"You don't know what you're talking about," says Thomas.
"But I do," says Carter. He dangles the earpiece again. "Your friends downstairs have been talking about you. Tell me, Thomas... Why did you kill Jack Tanner?"
"I thought you knew everything, Carter!" says Thomas mockingly. "It was a test, obviously. Drug them both, it kills Jack, and Elena lives. I knew he would try to contact her. And if Jack couldn't do it, no one could. It was the perfect test... If it worked, I knew my plan would work too."
"And what plan is that?"
"What does it look like?" Thomas laughs and spreads his arms out.
"So you kill yourself, and then what, try to come back through Elena? I don't think Jack's going to allow you to do that."
"Don't be daft," says Thomas. "I've had a long time to prepare. I tested your whole team for the genetic marker and found someone perfectly suitable for my purposes."
Carter swallows hard. "Of course. So that's why I was able to cross over. You must have drugged me."
"So it would seem."
"What's the point?" says Carter, stalling for time, his mind racing for a way to convince Thomas to step down. "So you die, and even if it works, and you somehow take over my body and come back to the same old world you're so desperate to leave. What then?"
"Well that's the question, isn't it!" says Thomas. "The possibilities are endless! According to my good friend Jack, once a person's bridged the gap between life and death, a connection is made that can be traversed by anyone from either side, given the right circumstances."
"And that's what you want?" says Carter.
"I want anything!" Thomas shouts. "Whatever can happen, I want to see it happen. Aren't you curious, Carter? Aren't you just dying to see what's possible in this universe?!"
"Not if it kills everyone I know!" says Carter.
"That's just as well, I suppose," says Thomas, turning back around to face the edge. "You're not going to be around to see it anyway."
As Thomas prepares to jump, Carter racks his brain. The only way to stop Thomas at this point is to run to the edge and grab him, but what if he loses his balance? He could fall too. And then it hits him. Thomas's plan only works if he has a link back to the living. Elena would make sure the rest of the prototype and the research are all destroyed. He would be the only remaining sample of the drug; the only link back to the living that Thomas could ever have. If that link were to die along with him...
Carter takes a deep breath and runs toward the edge just in time to grab Thomas before his weight shifts.
"No!" yells Thomas, struggling to regain his balance. "No you don't!" he growls, grasping at Carter's hands and trying to pry them off. Carter grips as hard as he can and tries to pull them both away from the edge, but Thomas knees him in the chin, stunning him for just a moment. And a moment is all it takes.
Carter stumbles, and watches Thomas fall backwards off the ledge. Down twenty stories. His face is in sight just long enough for Carter to catch a glimpse of a smile on his face.
Thomas's mind is blank for one blissful moment. He can feel his weightlessness, drifting, all noise and light blocked out by the water. For once, he is at peace.
Then a fist comes crashing down into the water, grabs him by the leg and yanks him up to the surface. Jack drags him out onto a sandy beach and punches him in the face.
"Jack!" says Thomas. "Long time no see!"
"What have you done?!" Jack shouts at him.
"The same thing you would have done, Jack," says Thomas. "I pushed the boundaries. I'm treading new ground."
"You murdered me."
"Oh, you figured that out, did you? Or did you hear them?!" says Thomas gleefully. "Is that how you knew? Can you hear everything they're saying? You have to show me!"
"Come on, Jack, you wanted to do it to. You said so yourself. They all believed me when I told them. Said it sounded like something you'd do."
"I said I thought about it," says Jack. "And I also said I would never do it in a million years."
"So someone had to do it for you. And believe me, it was nothing personal... I would rather have killed anyone else, but Elena was the only person you'd tested! I kept telling you, test for the marker, test for the marker, but you weren't ready! And then you weren't ready again, and then you still weren't ready! And it was perfect, my plan. Wasn't it perfect? I knew you would try to reach Elena. You were always just as curious as I am."
"For science, yes! You're doing things for the wrong reasons, Thomas," says Jack angrily.
"Call it whatever you want," says Thomas. "What's done is done. Are you going to help me or not?"
"It's not going to work for you," says Jack.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, all your efforts, all your planning... it was all in vain. It'll never work between you and Carter. I was only able to contact Elena in the first place because she was dreaming about me. Her subconscious mind was looking for me. I'm talking about love, Thomas. It was her love for me that made it work."
Elena lies in bed in the darkness, exhausted from the action of the day, of the whole week... of the months since Jack died, really. She smiles with relief, knowing that the nightmares will stop. Sabre will stop harassing her, Jack's murderer is gone, all of his research is destroyed, and, best of all, Jack will definitely be there waiting for her when it's all over. Even if it takes ages.
I wonder if I'll be old and wrinkly in the afterlife, she wonders. Or maybe I can take on whatever form I want... like the jackal...
She drifts off to sleep and dreams about her grandmother turning into a basset hound.
Carter lays in his bed in a cold sweat, with the lights still on and a lukewarm cup of coffee on the side table. He finds himself struggling to resist an unusual force that seems to be dragging him into sleep. He shudders whenever he closes his eyes. He can't stop hearing Thomas's laugh. He replays their last conversation in his head over and over again, unable to get the image of Thomas's final, haunting grin out of his mind.