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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s
imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is
entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Blake Crouch
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin
Random House LLC, New York.
crownpublishing.com
CROWN is a registered trademark and the Crown colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Grateful acknowledgment is made for the excerpt from “Burnt Norton” from FOUR QUARTETS by T. S.
Eliot. Copyright 1936 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company; copyright © renewed 1964 by
T. S. Eliot. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All right reserved.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Crouch, Blake, author.
Title: Dark matter : a novel / by Blake Crouch.
Description: First edition. | New York : Crown Publishers, [2016]
Identifiers: LCCN 2015040107 | ISBN 9781101904220 (hardcover) |
ISBN 9781101904237 (ebook)
Subjects: | GSAFD: Science fiction. | Suspense fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3603.R68 D37 2016 | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at
http://lccn.loc.gov/2015040107
Hardcover ISBN 9781101904220
ebook ISBN 9781101904237
International Edition ISBN 9780451496416
Title page and chapter opener images: agsandrew/Shutterstock
Cover design by Christopher Brand
v4.1
ep
Contents
Cover
Title Page
Copyright
Dedication
Epigraph
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Acknowledgments
For anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the
road not taken.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened.
—T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
I love Thursday nights.
They have a feel to them that’s outside of time.
It’s our tradition, just the three of us—family night.
My son, Charlie, is sitting at the table, drawing on a sketch pad. He’s almost
fifteen. The kid grew two inches over the summer, and he’s as tall as I am now.
I turn away from the onion I’m julienning, ask, “Can I see?”
He holds up the pad, shows me a mountain range that looks like something on
another planet.
I say, “Love that. Just for fun?”
“Class project. Due tomorrow.”
“Then get back to it, Mr. Last Minute.”
Standing happy and slightly drunk in my kitchen, I’m unaware that tonight is
the end of all of this. The end of everything I know, everything I love.
No one tells you it’s all about to change, to be taken away. There’s no
proximity alert, no indication that you’re standing on the precipice. And maybe
that’s what makes tragedy so tragic. Not just what happens, but how it happens:
a sucker punch that comes at you out of nowhere, when you’re least expecting it.
No time to flinch or brace.
The track lights shine on the surface of my wine, and the onion is beginning to
sting my eyes. Thelonious Monk spins on the old turntable in the den. There’s a
richness to the analog recording I can never get enough of, especially the crackle
of static between tracks. The den is filled with stacks and stacks of rare vinyl that
I keep telling myself I’ll get around to organizing one of these days.
My wife, Daniela, sits on the kitchen island, swirling her almost-empty
wineglass in one hand and holding her phone in the other. She feels my stare and
grins without looking up from the screen.
“I know,” she says. “I’m violating the cardinal rule of family night.”
“What’s so important?” I ask.
She levels her dark, Spanish eyes on mine. “Nothing.”
I walk over to her, take the phone gently out of her hand, and set it on the
countertop.
“You could start the pasta,” I say.
“I prefer to watch you cook.”
“Yeah?” Quieter: “Turns you on, huh?”
“No, it’s just more fun to drink and do nothing.”
Her breath is wine-sweet, and she has one of those smiles that seem
architecturally impossible. It still slays me.
I polish off my glass. “We should open more wine, right?”
“It would be stupid not to.”
As I liberate the cork from a new bottle, she picks her phone back up and
shows me the screen. “I was reading Chicago Magazine’s review of Marsha
Altman’s show.”
“Were they kind?”
“Yeah, it’s basically a love letter.”
“Good for her.”
“I always thought…” She lets the sentence die, but I know where it was
headed. Fifteen years ago, before we met, Daniela was a comer to Chicago’s art
scene. She had a studio in Bucktown, showed her work in a half-dozen galleries,
and had just lined up her first solo exhibition in New York. Then came life. Me.
Charlie. A bout of crippling postpartum depression.
Derailment.
Now she teaches private art lessons to middle-grade students.
“It’s not that I’m not happy for her. I mean, she’s brilliant, she deserves it all.”
I say, “If it makes you feel any better, Ryan Holder just won the Pavia Prize.”
“What’s that?”
“A multidisciplinary award given for achievements in the life and physical
sciences. Ryan won for his work in neuroscience.”
“Is it a big deal?”
“Million dollars. Accolades. Opens the floodgates to grant money.”
“Hotter TAs?”
“Obviously that’s the real prize. He invited me to a little informal celebration
tonight, but I passed.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s our night.”
“You should go.”
“I’d really rather not.”
Daniela lifts her empty glass. “So what you’re saying is, we both have good
reason to drink a lot of wine tonight.”
I kiss her, and then pour generously from the newly opened bottle.
“You could’ve won that prize,” Daniela says.
“You could’ve owned this city’s art scene.”
“But we did this.” She gestures at the high-ceilinged expanse of our
brownstone. I bought it pre-Daniela with an inheritance. “And we did that,” she
says, pointing to Charlie as he sketches with a beautiful intensity that reminds
me of Daniela when she’s absorbed in a painting.
It’s a strange thing, being the parent of a teenager. One thing to raise a little
boy, another entirely when a person on the brink of adulthood looks to you for
wisdom. I feel like I have little to give. I know there are fathers who see the
world a certain way, with clarity and confidence, who know just what to say to
their sons and daughters. But I’m not one of them. The older I get, the less I
understand. I love my son. He means everything to me. And yet, I can’t escape
the feeling that I’m failing him. Sending him off to the wolves with nothing but
the crumbs of my uncertain perspective.
I move to the cabinet beside the sink, open it, and start hunting for a box of
fettuccine.
Daniela turns to Charlie, says, “Your father could have won the Nobel.”
I laugh. “That’s possibly an exaggeration.”
“Charlie, don’t be fooled. He’s a genius.”
“You’re sweet,” I say. “And a little drunk.”
“It’s true, and you know it. Science is less advanced because you love your
family.”
I can only smile. When Daniela drinks, three things happen: her native accent
begins to bleed through, she becomes belligerently kind, and she tends toward
hyperbole.
“Your father said to me one night—never forget it—that pure research is lifeconsuming. He said…” For a moment, and to my surprise, emotion overtakes
her. Her eyes mist, and she shakes her head like she always does when she’s
about to cry. At the last second, she rallies, pushes through. “He said, ‘Daniela,
on my deathbed I would rather have memories of you than of a cold, sterile
lab.’ ”
I look at Charlie, catch him rolling his eyes as he sketches.
Probably embarrassed by our display of parental melodrama.
I stare into the cabinet and wait for the ache in my throat to go away.
When it does, I grab the pasta and close the door.
Daniela drinks her wine.
Charlie draws.
The moment passes.
“Where’s Ryan’s party?” Daniela asks.
“Village Tap.”
“That’s your bar, Jason.”
“So?”
She comes over, takes the box of pasta out of my hand.
“Go have a drink with your old college buddy. Tell him you’re proud of him.
Head held high. Tell him I said congrats.”
“I will not tell him you said congrats.”
“Why?”
“He has a thing for you.”
“Stop it.”
“It’s true. From way back. From our roommate days. Remember the last
Christmas party? He kept trying to trick you into standing under the mistletoe
with him?”
She just laughs, says, “Dinner will be on the table by the time you get home.”
“Which means I should be back here in…”
“Forty-five minutes.”
“What would I be without you?”
She kisses me.
“Let’s not even think about it.”
I grab my keys and wallet from the ceramic dish beside the microwave and
move into the dining room, my gaze alighting on the tesseract chandelier above
the dinner table. Daniela gave it to me for our tenth wedding anniversary. Best
gift ever.
As I reach the front door, Daniela shouts, “Return bearing ice cream!”
“Mint chocolate chip!” Charlie says.
I lift my arm, raise my thumb.
I don’t look back.
I don’t say goodbye.
And this moment slips past unnoticed.
The end of everything I know, everything I love.
—
I’ve lived in Logan Square for twenty years, and it doesn’t get any better than
the first week of October. It always puts me in mind of that F. Scott Fitzgerald
line: Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.
The evening is cool, and the skies are clear enough to see a handful of stars.
The bars are more rambunctious than usual, jammed with disappointed Cubs
fans.
I stop on the sidewalk in the glow of a gaudy sign that blinks VILLAGE TAP and
stare through the open doorway of the ubiquitous corner bar you’ll find in any
self-respecting Chicago neighborhood. This one happens to be my local watering
hole. It’s the closest to home—a few blocks from my brownstone.
I pass through the glow of the blue neon sign in the front window and step
through the doorway.
Matt, the bartender and owner, nods to me as I move down the bar, threading
my way through the crowd that surrounds Ryan Holder.
I say to Ryan, “I was just telling Daniela about you.”
He smiles, looking exquisitely groomed for the lecture circuit—fit and tan in a
black turtleneck, his facial hair elaborately landscaped.
“Goddamn is it good to see you. I’m moved that you came. Darling?” He
touches the bare shoulder of the young woman occupying the stool beside his.
“Would you mind letting my dear old friend steal your chair for a minute?”
The woman dutifully abandons her seat, and I climb onto the stool beside
Ryan.
He calls the bartender over. “We want you to set us up with a pair of the most
expensive pours in the house.”
“Ryan, not necessary.”
He grabs my arm. “We’re drinking the best tonight.”
Matt says, “I have Macallan Twenty-Five.”
“Doubles. My tab.”
When the bartender goes, Ryan punches me in the arm. Hard. You wouldn’t
peg him as a scientist at first glance. He played lacrosse during his undergrad
years, and he still carries the broad-shouldered physique and ease of movement
of a natural athlete.
“How’s Charlie and the lovely Daniela?”
“They’re great.”
“You should’ve brought her down. I haven’t seen her since last Christmas.”
“She sends along her congrats.”
“You got a good woman there, but that’s not exactly news.”
“What are the chances of you settling down in the near future?”
“Slim. The single life, and its considerable perks, appears to suit me. You’re
still at Lakemont College?”
“Yeah.”
“Decent school. Undergrad physics, right?”
“Exactly.”
“So you’re teaching…”
“Quantum mechanics. Intro stuff mainly. Nothing too terribly sexy.”
Matt returns with our drinks, and Ryan takes them out of his hands and sets
mine before me.
“So this celebration…,” I say.
“Just an impromptu thing a few of my postgrads threw together. They love
nothing more than to get me drunk and holding court.”
“Big year for you, Ryan. I still remember you almost flunking differential
equations.”
“And you saved my ass. More than once.”
For a second, behind the confidence and the polish, I glimpse the goofy, funloving grad student with whom I shared a disgusting apartment for a year and a
half.
I ask, “Was the Pavia Prize for your work in—”
“Identifying the prefrontal cortex as a consciousness generator.”
“Right. Of course. I read your paper on it.”
“What’d you think?”
“Dazzling.”
He looks genuinely pleased at the compliment.
“If I’m honest, Jason, and there’s no false modesty here, I always thought it
would be you publishing the seminal papers.”
“Really?”
He studies me over the top of his black plastic glass frames.
“Of course. You’re smarter than I am. Everyone knew it.”
I drink my whisky. I try not to acknowledge how delicious it is.
He says, “Just a question, but do you see yourself more as a research scientist
or a teacher these days?”
“I—”
“Because I see myself, first and foremost, as a man pursuing answers to
fundamental questions. Now, if the people around me”—he gestures at his
students who have begun to crowd in—“are sharp enough to absorb knowledge
by sheer proximity to me…great. But the passing on of knowledge, as it were,
doesn’t interest me. All that matters is the science. The research.”
I note a flicker of annoyance, or anger, in his voice, and it’s building, like he’s
getting himself worked up toward something.
I try to laugh it off. “Are you upset with me, Ryan? It almost sounds like you
think I let you down.”
“Look, I’ve taught at MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the best schools on the
planet. I’ve met the smartest motherfuckers in the room, and Jason, you
would’ve changed the world if you’d decided to go that path. If you’d stuck with
it. Instead, you’re teaching undergrad physics to future doctors and patent
lawyers.”
“We can’t all be superstars like you, Ryan.”
“Not if you give up.”
I finish my whisky.
“Well, I’m so glad I popped in for this.” I step down off the barstool.
“Don’t be that way, Jason. I was paying you a compliment.”
“I’m proud of you, man. I mean that.”
“Jason.”
“Thanks for the drink.”
Back outside, I stalk down the sidewalk. The more distance I put between
myself and Ryan, the angrier I become.
And I’m not even sure at whom.
My face is hot.
Lines of sweat trail down my sides.
Without thinking, I step into the street against a crosswalk signal and instantly
register the sound of tires locking up, of rubber squealing across pavement.
I turn and stare in disbelief as a yellow cab barrels toward me.
Through the approaching windshield, I see the cabbie so clearly—a
mustached man, wide-eyed with naked panic, bracing for impact.
And then my hands are flat against the warm, yellow metal of the hood and
the cabbie is leaning out his window, screaming at me, “You dipshit, you almost
died! Pull your head out of your ass!”
Horns begin to blare behind the cab.
I retreat to the sidewalk and watch the flow of traffic resume.
The occupants of three separate cars are kind enough to slow down so they
can flip me off.
—
Whole Foods smells like the hippie I dated before Daniela—a tincture of fresh
produce, ground coffee, and essential oils.
The scare with the cab has flattened my buzz, and I browse the freezer cases
in something of a fog, lethargic and sleepy.
It feels colder when I’m back outside, a brisk wind blowing in off the lake,
portending the shitty winter that looms right around the corner.
With my canvas bag filled with ice cream, I take a different route toward
home. It adds six blocks, but what I lose in brevity, I gain in solitude, and
between the cab and Ryan, I need some extra time to reset.
I pass a construction site, abandoned for the night, and a few blocks later, the
playground of the elementary school my son attended, the metal sliding board
gleaming under a streetlamp and the swings stirring in the breeze.
There’s an energy to these autumn nights that touches something primal inside
of me. Something from long ago. From my childhood in western Iowa. I think of
high school football games and the stadium lights blazing down on the players. I
smell ripening apples, and the sour reek of beer from keg parties in the
cornfields. I feel the wind in my face as I ride in the bed of an old pickup truck
down a country road at night, dust swirling red in the taillights and the entire
span of my life yawning out ahead of me.
It’s the beautiful thing about youth.
There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning
choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead
is pure, unlimited potential.
I love my life, but I haven’t felt that lightness of being in ages. Autumn nights
like this are as close as I get.
The cold is beginning to clear my head.
It will be good to be home again. I’m thinking of starting up the gas logs.
We’ve never had a fire before Halloween, but tonight is so unseasonably cold
that after walking a mile in this wind, all I want is to sit by the hearth with
Daniela and Charlie and a glass of wine.
The street undercuts the El.
I pass beneath the rusting ironwork of the railway.
For me, even more than the skyline, the El personifies the city.
This is my favorite section of the walk home, because it’s the darkest and
quietest.
At the moment…
No trains inbound.
No headlights in either direction.
No audible pub noise.
Nothing but the distant roar of a jet overhead, on final approach into O’Hare.
Wait…
There’s something coming—footfalls on the sidewalk.
I glance back.
A shadow rushes toward me, the distance between us closing faster than I can
process what’s happening.
The first thing I see is a face.
Ghost white.
High, arching eyebrows that look drawn.
Red, pursed lips—too thin, too perfect.
And horrifying eyes—big and pitch-black, without pupils or irises.
The second thing I see is the barrel of a gun, four inches from the end of my
nose.
The low, raspy voice behind the geisha mask says, “Turn around.”
I hesitate, too stunned to move.
He pushes the gun into my face.
I turn around.
Before I can tell him that my wallet is in my front left pocket, he says, “I’m
not here for your money. Start walking.”
I start walking.
“Faster.”
I walk faster.
“What do you want?” I ask.
“Keep your mouth shut.”
A train roars past overhead, and we emerge from the darkness under the El,
my heart rocketing inside my chest. I absorb my surroundings with a sudden and
profound curiosity. Across the street is a gated townhome complex, and this side
of the block comprises a collection of businesses that shutter at five.
A nail salon.
A law office.
An appliance repair shop.
A tire store.
This neighborhood is a ghost town, nobody out.
“See that SUV?” he asks. There’s a black Lincoln Navigator parked on the
curb just ahead. The alarm chirps. “Get in the driver’s seat.”
“Whatever you’re thinking about doing—”
“Or you can bleed to death right here on the sidewalk.”
I open the driver’s-side door and slide in behind the wheel.
“My grocery bag,” I say.
“Bring it.” He climbs in behind me. “Start the car.”
I pull the door closed and stow the canvas Whole Foods bag in the front
passenger floorboard. It’s so quiet in the car I can actually hear my pulse—a fast
thrumming against my eardrum.
“What are you waiting for?” he asks.
I press the engine-start button.
“Turn on the navigation.”
I turn it on.
“Click on ‘previous destinations.’ ”
I’ve never owned a car with built-in GPS, and it takes me a moment to find
the right tab on the touchscreen.
Three locations appear.
One is my home address. One is the university where I work.
“You’ve been following me?” I ask.
“Choose Pulaski Drive.”
I select 1400 Pulaski Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60616, with no idea where that
even is. The female voice on the GPS instructs me: Make a legal U-turn when
possible and proceed for point-eight miles.
Shifting into gear, I turn out into the dark street.
The man behind me says, “Buckle your seat belt.”
I strap myself in as he does the same.
“Jason, just so we’re clear, if you do anything other than follow these
directions to the letter, I’m going to shoot you through the seat. Do you
understand what I’m telling you?”
“Yes.”
I drive us through my neighborhood, wondering if I’m seeing it all for the last
time.
At a red light, I pull to a stop in front of my corner bar. Through the deeply
tinted front passenger window, I see the door is still propped open. I glimpse
Matt, and through the crowd, Ryan, turned around in his stool now, his back to
the bar, his elbows on the scuffed wood, holding court for his postgrads.
Probably enthralling them with a horrifying cautionary tale of failure starring his
old roommate.
I want to call out to him. To make him understand that I’m in trouble. That I
need—
“Green light, Jason.”
I accelerate through the intersection.
The GPS navigation guides us east through Logan Square to the Kennedy
Expressway, where the indifferent female voice instructs me, Turn right in one
hundred feet and proceed for nineteen-point-eight miles.
Southbound traffic is light enough for me to peg the speedometer at seventy
and keep it there. My hands sweat on the leather steering wheel, and I can’t stop
wondering, Am I going to die tonight?
It occurs to me that if I do survive, I’ll carry a new revelation with me for the
rest of my days: we leave this life the same way we enter it—totally alone,
bereft. I’m afraid, and there is nothing Daniela or Charlie or anyone can do to
help me in this moment when I need them more than ever. They don’t even
know what I’m experiencing.
The interstate skirts the western edge of downtown. The Willis Tower and its
brood of lesser skyscrapers glow with a serene warmth against the night.
Through the writhing panic and fear, my mind races, fighting to puzzle out
what’s happening.
My address is in the GPS. So this wasn’t a random encounter. This man has
been following me. Knows me. Ergo, some action of mine has resulted in this
outcome.
But which?
I’m not rich.
My life isn’t worth anything beyond its value to me and to my loved ones.
I’ve never been arrested, never committed a crime.
Never slept with another man’s wife.
Sure, I flip people off in traffic on occasion, but that’s just Chicago.
My last and only physical altercation was in the sixth grade when I punched a
classmate in the nose for pouring milk down the back of my shirt.
I haven’t wronged anyone in the meaningful sense of the word. In a manner
that might have culminated with me driving a Lincoln Navigator with a gun
pointed at the back of my head.
I’m an atomic physicist and professor at a small college.
I don’t treat my students, even the worst of the bunch, with anything but
respect. Those who have failed out of my classes failed because they didn’t care
in the first place, and certainly none of them could accuse me of ruining their
lives. I go out of my way to help my students pass.
The skyline dwindles in the side mirror, falling farther and farther away like a
familiar and comforting piece of coastline.
I venture, “Did I do something to you in the past? Or someone you work for? I
just don’t understand what you could possibly want from—”
“The more you talk, the worse it will be for you.”
For the first time, I realize there’s something familiar in his voice. I can’t for
the life of me pinpoint when or where, but we’ve met. I’m sure of it.
I feel the vibration of my phone receiving a text message.
Then another.
And another.
He forgot to take my phone.
I look at the time: 9:05 p.m.
I left my house a little over an hour ago. It’s Daniela no doubt, wondering
where I am. I’m fifteen minutes late, and I’m never late.
I glance in the rearview mirror, but it’s too dark to see anything except a sliver
of the ghost-white mask. I risk an experiment. Taking my left hand off the
steering wheel, I place it in my lap and count to ten.
He says nothing.
I put my hand back on the wheel.
That computerized voice breaks the silence: Merge right onto the EightySeventh Street exit in four-point-three miles.
Again, I take my left hand slowly off the wheel.
This time, I slide it into the pocket of my khaki slacks. My phone is buried
deep, and I just barely touch it with my index and pointer fingers, somehow
managing to pinch it between them.
Millimeter by millimeter, I tug it out, the rubber case catching on every fold of
fabric, and now a sustained vibration rattling between my fingertips—a call
coming in.
When I finally work it free, I place my phone faceup in my lap and return my
hand to the steering wheel.
As the navigation voice updates the distance from our upcoming turn, I shoot
a glance down at the phone.
There’s a missed call from “Dani” and three texts:
DANI 2m ago
Dinner’s on the table
DANI 2m ago
Hurry home we are STARVING!
DANI 1m ago
You get lost? 🙂
I refocus my attention on the road, wondering if the glow from my phone is
visible from the backseat.
The touchscreen goes dark.
Reaching down, I click the ON/OFF button and swipe the screen. I punch in my
four-digit passcode, click the green “Messages” icon. Daniela’s thread is at the
top, and as I open our conversation, my abductor shifts behind me.
I clutch the wheel with both hands again.
Merge right onto the Eighty-Seventh Street exit in one-point-nine miles.
The screensaver times out, auto-lock kicks in, my phone goes black.
Shit.
Sliding my hand back down, I retype the passcode and begin tapping out the
most important text of my life, my index finger clumsy on the touchscreen, each
word taking two or three attempts to complete as auto-correct wreaks havoc.
The barrel of the gun digs into the back of my head.
I react, swerving into the fast lane.
“What are you doing, Jason?”
I straighten the wheel with one hand, swinging us back into the slow lane as
my other hand lowers toward the phone, closing in on Send.
He lunges between the front seats, his gloved hand reaching around my waist,
snatching the phone away.
Merge right onto the Eighty-Seventh Street exit in five hundred feet.
“What’s your passcode, Jason?” When I don’t respond, he says, “Wait. I bet I
know this. Month and year of your birthday backwards? Let’s see…three-seventwo-one. There we go.”
In the rearview mirror, I see the phone illuminate his mask.
He reads the text he stopped me from sending: “ ‘1400 Pulaski call 91…’ Bad
boy.”
I veer onto the interstate off-ramp.
The GPS says, Turn left onto Eighty-Seventh Street and proceed east for
three-point-eight miles.
We drive into South Chicago, through a neighborhood we have no business
setting foot in.
Past rows of factory housing.
Apartment projects.
Empty parks with rusted swing sets and netless basketball hoops.
Storefronts locked up for the night behind security gates.
Gang tagging everywhere.
He asks, “So do you call her Dani or Daniela?”
My throat constricts.
Rage and fear and helplessness burgeoning inside of me.
“Jason, I asked you a question.”
“Go to hell.”
He leans close, his words hot in my ear. “You do not want to go down this
path with me. I will hurt you worse than you’ve ever been hurt in your life. Pain
you didn’t even know was possible. What do you call her?”
I grit my teeth. “Daniela.”
“Never Dani? Even though that’s what’s on your phone?”
I’m tempted to flip the car at high speed and just kill us both.
I say, “Rarely. She doesn’t like it.”
“What’s in the grocery bag?”
“Why do you want to know what I call her?”
“What’s in the bag?”
“Ice cream.”
“It’s family night, right?”
“Yeah.”
In the rearview mirror, I see him typing on my phone.
“What are you writing?” I ask.
He doesn’t respond.
We’re out of the ghetto now, riding through a no-man’s-land that doesn’t even
feel like Chicago anymore, with the skyline nothing but a smear of light on the
far horizon. The houses are crumbling, lightless, and lifeless. Everything long
abandoned.
We cross a river and straight ahead lies Lake Michigan, its black expanse a
fitting denouement of this urban wilderness.
As if the world ends right here.
And perhaps mine does.
Turn right and proceed south on Pulaski Drive for point-five miles to
destination.
He chuckles to himself. “Wow, are you in trouble with the missus.” I strangle
the steering wheel. “Who was that man you had whisky with tonight, Jason? I
couldn’t tell from outside.”
It’s so dark out here in this borderland between Chicago and Indiana.
We’re passing the ruins of railroad yards and factories.
“Jason.”
“His name is Ryan Holder. He used to be—”
“Your old roommate.”
“How’d you know that?”
“Are you two close? I don’t see him in your contacts.”
“Not really. How do you—?”
“I know almost everything about you, Jason. You could say I’ve made your
life my specialty.”
“Who are you?”
You will arrive at your destination in five hundred feet.
“Who are you?”
He doesn’t answer, but my attention is beginning to pull away from him as I
focus on our increasingly remote surroundings.
The pavement flows under the SUV’s headlights.
Empty behind us.
Empty ahead.
There’s the lake off to my left, deserted warehouses on my right.
You have arrived at your destination.
I stop the Navigator in the middle of the road.
He says, “The entrance is up ahead on the left.”
The headlights graze a teetering stretch of twelve-foot fencing, topped with a
tiara of rusted barbed wire. The gate is ajar, and a chain that once locked it shut
has been snipped and coiled in the weeds by the roadside.
“Just nudge the gate with the front bumper.”
Even from inside the near-soundproof interior of the SUV, the shriek of the
gate grinding open is loud. The cones of light illuminate the remnants of a road,
the pavement cracked and buckled from years of harsh Chicago winters.
I engage the high beams.
Light washes over a parking lot, where streetlamps have toppled everywhere
like spilled matchsticks.
Beyond, a sprawling structure looms.
The brick façade of the time-ravaged building is flanked by huge cylindrical
tanks and a pair of hundred-foot smokestacks spearing the sky.
“What is this place?” I ask.
“Put it in PARK and turn it off.”
I bring the car to a stop, shift out of gear, and punch off the engine.
It becomes deathly silent.
“What is this place?” I ask again.
“What are your Friday plans?”
“Excuse me?”
A sharp blow to the side of my head sends me slumping into the steering
wheel, stunned and wondering for a half second if this is what it feels like to be
shot in the head.
But no, he only hit me with his gun.
I touch my hand to the point of impact.
My fingers come away sticky with blood.
“Tomorrow,” he says. “What do you have scheduled for tomorrow?”
Tomorrow. It feels like a foreign concept.
“I’m…giving a test to my PHYS 3316 class.”
“What else?”
“That’s it.”
“Take off all your clothes.”
I look in the rearview mirror.
Why the hell does he want me naked?
He says, “If you wanted to try something, you should’ve done it while you
had control of the car. From this moment forward, you’re mine. Now, take off
your clothes, and if I have to tell you again, I’m going to make you bleed. A lot.”
I unbuckle my seat belt.
As I unzip my gray hoodie and shrug my arms out of the sleeves, I cling to a
single shred of hope—he’s still wearing a mask, which means he doesn’t want
me to see his face. If he were planning to kill me, he wouldn’t care if I could
identify him.
Right?
I unbutton my shirt.
“Shoes too?” I ask.
“Everything.”
I slip off my running shoes, my socks.
I slide my slacks and boxer shorts down my legs.
Then my clothes—every last thread—sit in a pile in the front passenger seat.
I feel vulnerable.
Exposed.
Weirdly ashamed.
What if he tries to rape me? Is that what this is all about?
He sets a flashlight on the console between the seats.
“Out of the car, Jason.”
I realize that I see the interior of the Navigator as a kind of lifeboat. As long as
I stay inside, he can’t really hurt me.
He won’t make a mess in here.
“Jason.”
My chest is heaving, I’m starting to hyperventilate, black spots detonating
across my field of vision.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he says, “and I can hurt you just as easily
inside this car.”
I’m not getting enough oxygen. I’m starting to freak out.
But I manage to say, breathlessly, “Bullshit. You don’t want my blood in
here.”
—
When I come to, he’s dragging me out of the front seat by my arms. He drops
me in the gravel, where I sit dazed, waiting for my head to clear.
It’s always colder near the lake, and tonight is no exception. The wind inflicts
a raw, serrated bite on my exposed skin, which is covered in gooseflesh.
It’s so dark out here I can see five times the number of stars as in the city.
My head is throbbing, and a fresh line of blood runs down the side of my face.
But with a full load of adrenaline shotgunning through my system, the pain is
muted.
He drops a flashlight in the dirt beside me and shines his at the disintegrating
edifice I saw as we drove in. “After you.”
I clutch the light in my hand and struggle to my feet. Stumbling toward the
building, my bare feet trample sodden newspaper. I dodge crumpled beer cans
and chevrons of glass that glitter under the beam.
Approaching the main entrance, I imagine this abandoned parking lot on
another night. A night to come. It’s early winter, and through a curtain of falling
snow, the darkness is ribboned with flashing blues and reds. Detectives and
cadaver dogs swarm the ruins, and as they examine my body somewhere inside,
naked and decomposed and butchered, a patrol car parks in front of my
brownstone in Logan Square. It’s two in the morning, and Daniela comes to the
door in a nightgown. I’ve been missing for weeks and she knows in her heart I’m
not coming back, thinks she’s already made her peace with that brutal fact, but
seeing these young police officers with their hard, sober eyes and a dusting of
snow on their shoulders and visored caps, which they shelve respectfully under
their arms…it all finally breaks something inside of her she didn’t know was still
intact. She feels her knees liquefy, her strength giving way, and as she sinks onto
the doormat, Charlie comes down the creaky staircase behind her, bleary-eyed
and wild-haired, asking, “Is it about Dad?”
As we close in on the structure, two words reveal themselves on the faded
brick above the entrance. The only letters I can make out spell CAGO POWER.
He forces me through an opening in the brick.
Our light beams sweep across a front office.
Furniture rotted down to the metal frames.
An old water cooler.
The remnants of someone’s campfire.
A shredded sleeping bag.
Used condoms on moldy carpet.
We enter a long corridor.
Without the flashlights, this would be can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-yourface dark.
I stop to shine my light ahead, but it’s swallowed by the blackness. There’s
less debris on the warped linoleum floor beneath my feet, and no sound
whatsoever, save for the low, distant moan of wind outside these walls.
I’m growing colder by the second.
He jams the barrel of the gun into my kidney, forcing me on.
At some point, did I fall onto the radar of a psychopath who decided to learn
everything about me before he murdered me? I often engage with strangers.
Maybe we spoke briefly in that coffee shop near campus. Or on the El. Or over
beers at my corner bar.
Does he have plans for Charlie and Daniela?
“Do you want to hear me beg?” I ask, my voice beginning to break. “Because
I will. I’ll do anything you want.”
And the horrible thing is that it’s true. I would defile myself. Hurt someone
else, do almost anything if he would only take me back to my neighborhood and
let this night continue like it was supposed to—with me walking home to my
family, bringing them the ice cream I’d promised.
“If what?” he asks. “If I let you go?”
“Yes.”
The sound of his laughter ricochets down the corridor. “I’d be afraid to see
what-all you’d be willing to do to get yourself out of this.”
“Out of what, exactly?”
But he doesn’t answer.
I fall to my knees.
My light goes sliding across the floor.
“Please,” I beg. “You don’t have to do this.” I barely recognize my own voice.
“You can just walk away. I don’t know why you want to hurt me, but just think
about it for a minute. I—”
“Jason.”
“—love my family. I love my wife. I love—”
“Jason.”
“—my son.”
“Jason!”
“I will do anything.”
I’m shivering uncontrollably now—from cold, from fear.
He kicks me in the stomach, and as the breath explodes out of my lungs, I roll
over onto my back. Crushing down on top of me, he shoves the barrel of the gun
between my lips, into my mouth, all the way to the back of my throat until the
taste of old oil and carbon residue is more than I can stomach.
Two seconds before I hurl the night’s wine and Scotch across the floor, he
withdraws the gun.
Screams, “Get up!”
He grabs my arm, jerks me back onto my feet.
Pointing the gun in my face, he puts my flashlight back into my hands.
I stare into the mask, my light shining on the weapon.
It’s my first good look at the gun. I know next to nothing about firearms, only
that it’s a handgun, has a hammer, a cylinder, and a giant hole at the end of the
barrel that looks fully capable of delivering my death. The illumination of my
flashlight lends a touch of copper to the point of the bullet aimed at my face. For
some reason, I picture this man in a single-room apartment, loading rounds into
the cylinder, preparing to do what he’s done.
I’m going to die here, maybe right now.
Every moment feels like it could be the end.
“Move,” he growls.
I start walking.
We arrive at a junction and turn down a different corridor, this one wider,
taller, arched. The air is oppressive with moisture. I hear the distant drip…drip…
drip of falling water. The walls are made of concrete, and instead of linoleum,
the floor is blanketed with damp moss that grows thicker and wetter with each
step.
The taste of the gun lingers in my mouth, laced with the acidic tang of bile.
Patches of my face are growing numb from the cold.
A small voice in my head is screaming at me to do something, try something,
anything. Don’t just be led like a lamb to slaughter, one foot obediently
following the other. Why make it so simple for him?
Easy.
Because I’m afraid.
So afraid I can barely walk upright.
And my thoughts are fractured and teeming.
I understand now why victims don’t fight back. I cannot imagine trying to
overcome this man. Trying to run.
And here’s the most shameful truth: there’s a part of me that would rather just
have it all be over, because the dead don’t feel fear or pain. Does this mean I’m a
coward? Is that the final truth I have to face before I die?
No.
I have to do something.
We step out of the tunnel onto a metal surface that’s freezing against the soles
of my feet. I grasp a rusted iron railing that encircles a platform. It’s colder here,
and the sense of open space is unmistakable.
As if on a timer, a yellow moon creeps up on Lake Michigan, slowly rising.
Its light streams through the upper windows of an expansive room, and it’s
bright enough in here for me to take in everything independently of the
flashlight.
My stomach churns.
We’re standing on the high point of an open staircase that drops fifty feet.
It looks like an oil painting in here, the way the antique light falls on a row of
dormant generators below and the latticework of I-beams overhead.
It’s as quiet as a cathedral.
“We’re going down,” he says. “Watch your step.”
We descend.
Two steps up from the second-to-highest landing, I spin with the flashlight
death-gripped in my right hand, aiming for his head…
…and hitting nothing, the momentum carrying me right back to where I
started and then some.
I’m off balance, falling.
I hit the landing hard, and the flashlight jars out of my hand and disappears
over the edge.
A second later, I hear it explode on the floor forty feet below.
My captor stares down at me behind that expressionless mask, head cocked,
gun pointed at my face.
Thumbing back the hammer, he steps toward me.
I groan as his knee drives into my sternum, pinning me to the landing.
The gun touches my head.
He says, “I have to admit, I’m proud you tried. It was pathetic. I saw it coming
a mile away, but at least you went down swinging.”
I recoil against a sharp sting in the side of my neck.
“Don’t fight it,” he says.
“What did you give me?”
Before he can answer, something plows through my blood-brain barrier like
an eighteen-wheeler. I feel impossibly heavy and weightless all at once, the
world spinning and turning itself inside out.
And then, as fast as it hit me, it passes.
Another needle stabs into my leg.
As I cry out, he tosses both syringes over the edge. “Let’s go.”
“What did you give me?”
“Get up!”
I use the railing to pull myself up. My knee is bleeding from the fall. My head
is still bleeding. I’m cold, dirty, and wet, my teeth chattering so hard it feels like
they might break.
We go down, the flimsy steelwork trembling with our weight. At the bottom,
we move off the last step and walk down a row of old generators.
From the floor, this room seems even more immense.
At the midpoint, he stops and shines his flashlight on a duffel bag nestled
against one of the generators.
“New clothes. Hurry up.”
“New clothes? I don’t—”
“You don’t have to understand. You just have to get dressed.”
Through all the fear, I register a tremor of hope. Is he going to spare me? Why
else would he be making me get dressed? Do I have a shot at surviving this?
“Who are you?” I ask.
“Hurry up. You don’t have much time left.”
I squat by the duffel bag.
“Clean yourself up first.”
There’s a towel on top, which I use to wipe the mud off my feet, the blood off
my knee and face. I pull on a pair of boxer shorts and jeans that fit perfectly.
Whatever he injected me with, I think I can feel it in my fingers now—a loss of
dexterity as I fumble with the buttons on a plaid shirt. My feet slide effortlessly
into a pair of expensive leather slip-ons. They fit as comfortably as the jeans.
I’m not cold anymore. It’s like there’s a core of heat in the center of my chest,
radiating out through my arms and legs.
“The jacket too.”
I lift a black leather jacket from the bottom of the bag, push my arms through
the sleeves.
“Perfect,” he says. “Now, have a seat.”
I ease down against the iron base of the generator. It’s a massive piece of
machinery the size of a locomotive engine.
He sits across from me, the gun trained casually in my direction.
Moonlight is filling this place, refracting off the broken windows high above
and sending a scatter of light that strikes—
Tangles of cable.
Gears.
Pipes.
Levers and pulleys.
Instrumentation panels covered with cracked gauges and controls.
Technology from another age.
I ask, “What happens now?”
“We wait.”
“For what?”
He waves my question away.
A weird calm settles over me. A misplaced sense of peace.
“Did you bring me here to kill me?” I ask.
“I did not.”
I feel so comfortable leaning against the old machine, like I’m sinking into it.
“But you let me believe it.”
“There was no other way.”
“No other way to what?”
“To get you here.”
“And why are we here?”
But he just shakes his head as he snakes his left hand up under the geisha
mask and scratches.
I feel strange.
Like I’m simultaneously watching a movie and acting in it.
An irresistible drowsiness lowers onto my shoulders.
My head dips.
“Just let it take you,” he says.
But I don’t. I fight it, thinking how unsettlingly fast his tenor has changed.
He’s like a different man, and the disconnect between who he is in this moment
and the violence he showed just minutes ago should terrify me. I shouldn’t be
this calm, but my body is humming too peacefully.
I feel intensely serene and deep and distant.
He says to me, almost like a confession, “It’s been a long road. I can’t quite
believe I’m sitting here actually looking at you. Talking to you. I know you
don’t understand, but there’s so much I want to ask.”
“About what?”
“What it’s like to be you.”
“What do you mean?”
He hesitates, then: “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason?”
I say slowly, deliberately, “That’s an interesting question considering the
night you’ve put me through.”
“Are you happy in your life?”
In the shadow of this moment, my life is achingly beautiful.
“I have an amazing family. A fulfilling job. We’re comfortable. Nobody’s
sick.”
My tongue feels thick. My words are beginning to sound slurred.
“But?”
I say, “My life is great. It’s just not exceptional. And there was a time when it
could have been.”
“You killed your ambition, didn’t you?”
“It died of natural causes. Of neglect.”
“And do you know exactly how that happened? Was there a moment when
—?”
“My son. I was twenty-seven years old, and Daniela and I had been together a
few months. She told me she was pregnant. We were having fun, but it wasn’t
love. Or maybe it was. I don’t know. We definitely weren’t looking to start a
family.”
“But you did.”
“When you’re a scientist, your late twenties are so critical. If you don’t
publish something big by thirty, they put you out to pasture.”
Maybe it’s just the drug, but it feels so good to be talking. An oasis of normal
after two of the craziest hours I’ve ever lived. I know it isn’t true, but it feels like
as long as we keep conversing, nothing bad can happen. As if the words protect
me.
“Did you have something big in the works?” he asks.
Now I’m having to focus on making my eyes stay open.
“Yes.”
“And what was it?”
His voice sounds distant.
“I was trying to create the quantum superposition of an object that was visible
to the human eye.”
“Why did you abandon your research?”
“When Charlie was born, he had major medical issues for the first year of his
life. I needed a thousand hours in a cleanroom, but I couldn’t get there fast
enough. Daniela needed me. My son needed me. I lost my funding. Lost my
momentum. I was the young, new genius for a minute, but when I faltered,
someone else took my place.”
“Do you regret your decision to stay with Daniela and make a life with her?”
“No.”
“Never?”
I think of Daniela, and the emotion breaks back through, accompanied by the
actual horror of the moment. Fear returns, and with it a homesickness that cuts to
the bone. I need her in this moment more than I’ve ever needed anything in my
life.
“Never.”
And then I’m lying on the floor, my face against the cold concrete, and the
drug is whisking me away.
He’s kneeling beside me now, rolling me onto my back, and I’m looking up at
all that moonlight pouring in through the high windows of this forgotten place,
the darkness wrinkled with twitches of light and color as swirling, empty voids
open and close beside the generators.
“Will I see her again?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
I want to ask him for the millionth time what he wants with me, but I can’t
find the words.
My eyes keep closing, and I try to hold them open, but it’s a losing battle.
He pulls off a glove and touches my face with his bare hand.
Strangely.
Delicately.
He says, “Listen to me. You’re going to be scared, but you can make it yours.
You can have everything you never had. I’m sorry I had to scare you earlier, but
I had to get you here. I’m so sorry, Jason. I’m doing this for both of us.”
I mouth the words, Who are you?
Instead of responding, he reaches into his pocket and takes out a new syringe
and a tiny glass ampoule filled with a clear liquid that in the moonlight shines
like mercury.
He uncaps the needle and draws the contents of the vial up into the syringe.
As my eyelids slowly lower, I watch him slide the sleeve up his left arm and
inject himself.
Then he drops the ampoule and the syringe on the concrete between us, and
the last thing I see before my eyes lock shut is that glass ampoule rolling toward
my face.
I whisper, “Now what?”
And he says, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
I’m aware of someone gripping my ankles.
As hands slide under my shoulders, a woman says, “How’d he get out of the
box?”
A man responds: “No idea. Look, he’s coming to.”
I open my eyes, but all I see is blurred movement and light.
The man barks, “Let’s get him the hell out of here.”
I try to speak, but the words fall out of my mouth, garbled and formless.
The woman says, “Dr. Dessen? Can you hear me? We’re going to lift you
onto a gurney now.”
I look toward my feet, and the man’s face racks into focus. He’s staring at me
through the face shield of an aluminized hazmat suit with a self-contained
breathing apparatus.
Glancing at the woman behind my head, he says, “One, two, three.”
They hoist me onto a gurney and lock padded restraints around my ankles and
wrists.
“Only for your protection, Dr. Dessen.”
I watch the ceiling scroll past, forty or fifty feet above.
Where the hell am I? A hangar?
I catch a glint of memory—a needle puncturing my neck. I was injected with
something. This is some crazy hallucination.
A radio squawks, “Extraction team, report. Over.”
The woman says with excitement bleeding through her voice, “We have
Dessen. We’re en route. Over.”
I hear the squeak of wheels rolling.
“Copy that. Initial condition assessment? Over.”
She reaches down with a gloved hand and wakes some kind of monitoring
device that’s been Velcroed to my left arm.
“Pulse rate: one-fifteen. BP: one-forty over ninety-two. Temp: ninety-eightpoint-nine. Oh-two sat: ninety-five percent. Gamma: point-eight seven. ETA
thirty seconds. Out.”
A buzzing sound startles me.
We move through a pair of vaultlike doors that are slowly opening.
Jesus Christ.
Stay calm. This isn’t real.
The wheels squeak faster, more urgently.
We’re in a corridor lined with plastic, my eyes squinting against the onslaught
of light from fluorescent bulbs shining overhead.
The doors behind us slam shut with an ominous clang, like the gates to a keep.
They wheel me into an operating room toward an imposing figure in a
positive pressure suit, standing under an array of surgical lights.
He smiles down at me through his face shield and says, as if he knows me,
“Welcome back, Jason. Congratulations. You did it.”
Back?
I can only see his eyes, but they don’t remind me of anyone I’ve ever met.
“Are you experiencing any pain?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“Do you know how you got the cuts and bruises on your face?”
Shake.
“Do you know who you are?”
I nod.
“Do you know where you are?”
Shake.
“Do you recognize me?”
Shake.
“I’m Leighton Vance, chief executive and medical officer. We’re colleagues
and friends.” He holds up a pair of surgical shears. “I need to get you out of
these clothes.”
He removes the monitoring device and goes to work on my jeans and boxer
shorts, tossing them into a metal tray. As he cuts off my shirt, I gaze up at the
lights burning down on me, trying not to panic.
But I’m naked and strapped to a gurney.
No, I remind myself, I’m hallucinating that I’m naked and strapped to a
gurney. Because none of this is real.
Leighton lifts the tray holding my shoes and clothes and hands it to someone
behind my head, outside my line of sight. “Test everything.”
Footsteps rush out of the room.
I note the sharp bite of isopropyl alcohol a second before Leighton cleans a
swatch of skin on the underside of my arm.
He ties a tourniquet above my elbow.
“Just drawing some blood,” he says, taking a large-gauge hypodermic needle
from the instrument tray.
He’s good. I don’t even feel the sting.
When he’s finished, Leighton rolls the gurney toward the far side of the OR to
a glass door with a touchscreen mounted on the wall beside it.
“Wish I could tell you this is the fun part,” he says. “If you’re too disoriented
to remember what’s about to happen, that’s probably for the best.”
I try to ask what’s happening, but words still elude me. Leighton’s fingers
dance across the touchscreen. The glass door opens, and he pushes me into a
chamber that’s just large enough to hold the gurney.
“Ninety seconds,” he says. “You’ll be fine. It never killed any of the test
subjects.”
There’s a pneumatic hiss, and then the glass door glides shut.
Recessed lights in the ceiling glow a chilled blue.
I crane my neck.
The walls on either side of me are covered with elaborate apertures.
A fine, supercooled mist sprays out of the ceiling, coating me head to toe.
My body tenses, the frigid droplets beading on my skin and freezing solid.
As I shiver, the walls of the chamber begin to hum.
A white vapor trickles out of the apertures with a sustained hiss that grows
louder and louder.
It gushes.
Then jets.
Opposing streams crash into each other over the gurney, filling the chamber
with a dense fog that blots out the overhead light. Where it touches my skin, the
frozen droplets explode in bursts of agony.
The fans reverse.
Within five seconds, the gas is sucked out of the chamber, which now holds a
peculiar smell, like the air on a summer afternoon moments before a
thunderstorm—dry lightning and ozone.
The reaction of the gas and the supercooled liquid on my skin has created a
sizzling foam that burns like an acid bath.
I’m grunting, thrashing against the restraints and wondering how much longer
this could possibly be allowed to go on. My threshold for pain is high, and this is
straddling the line of make-it-stop or kill me.
My thoughts fire at the speed of light.
Is there even a drug capable of this? Creating hallucinations and pain at this
level of horrifying clarity?
This is too intense, too real.
What if this is actually happening?
Is this some CIA shit? Am I in a black clinic in the throes of human
experimentation? Have I been kidnapped by these people?
Glorious, warm water shoots out of the ceiling with the force of a fire hose,
pummeling the excruciating foam away.
When the water shuts off, heated air roars out of the apertures, blasting my
skin like a hot desert wind.
The pain vanishes.
I’m wide-awake.
The door behind me opens and the gurney rolls back out.
Leighton looks down at me. “Wasn’t so bad, right?” He pushes me through
the OR into an adjoining patient room and unlocks the restraints around my
ankles and wrists.
With a gloved hand, he pulls me up on the gurney, my head swimming, the
room spinning for a moment before the world finally rights itself.
He observes me.
“Better?”
I nod.
There’s a bed and a dresser with a change of clothes folded neatly on top. The
walls are padded. There are no sharp edges. As I slide to the edge of the
stretcher, Leighton takes hold of my arm above the elbow and helps me to stand.
My legs are rubber, worthless.
He leads me over to the bed.
“I’ll leave you to get dressed and come back when your lab work is in. It
won’t take long. Are you all right for me to step out for a minute?”
I finally find my voice: “I don’t understand what’s happening. I don’t know
where I—”
“The disorientation will pass. I’ll be closely monitoring. We’ll get you
through this.”
He wheels the gurney to the door but stops in the threshold, glancing back at
me through his face shield. “It’s really good to see you again, brother. Feels like
Mission Control when Apollo Thirteen returned. We’re all real proud of you.”
The door closes after him.
Three deadbolts fire into their housings like a trio of gunshots.
I rise from the bed and walk over to the dresser, unstable on my feet.
I’m so weak it takes me several minutes to get the clothes on—good slacks, a
linen shirt, no belt.
From just above the door, a surveillance camera watches me.
I return to the bed, sit alone in this sterile, silent room, trying to conjure my
last concrete memory. The mere attempt feels like drowning ten feet from shore.
There are pieces of memory lying on the beach, and I can see them, I can almost
touch them, but my lungs are filling up with water. I can’t keep my head above
the surface. The more I strain to assemble the pieces, the more energy I expend,
the more I flail, the more I panic.
All I have as I sit in this white, padded room is—
Thelonious Monk.
The smell of red wine.
Standing in a kitchen chopping an onion.
A teenager drawing.
Wait.
Not a teenager.
My teenager.
My son.
Not a kitchen.
My kitchen.
My home.
It was family night. We were cooking together. I can see Daniela’s smile. I
can hear her voice and the jazz. Smell the onion, the sour sweetness of wine on
Daniela’s breath. See the glassiness in her eyes. What a safe and perfect place,
our kitchen on family night.
But I didn’t stay. For some reason, I left. Why?
I’m right there, on the brink of recollection….
The deadbolts retract, rapid-fire, and the door to the patient room opens.
Leighton has traded the positive pressure suit for a classic lab coat, and he’s
standing in the door frame grinning, as if he’s barely keeping a lid on a
wellspring of anticipation. I can now see that he’s roughly my age and boardingschool handsome, his face peppered conservatively with five-o’clock shadow.
“Good news,” he says. “All clear.”
“Clear of what?”
“Radiation exposure, biohazards, infectious disease. We’ll have complete
results from your blood scan in the morning, but you’re cleared from quarantine.
Oh. I have this for you.”
He hands me a Ziploc bag containing a set of keys and a money clip.
“Jason Dessen” has been scrawled in black Sharpie on a piece of masking tape
affixed to the plastic.
“Shall we? They’re all waiting for you.”
I pocket what are apparently my personal effects and follow Leighton through
the OR.
Back in the corridor, a half-dozen workers are busy pulling the plastic down
from the walls.
When they see me, they all begin to applaud.
A woman shouts, “You rock, Dessen!”
Glass doors whisk apart as we approach.
My strength and balance are returning.
He leads me into a stairwell, and we ascend, the metal steps clanging under
our footfalls.
“You all right on these?” Leighton asks.
“Yeah. Where are we going?”
“Debrief.”
“But I don’t even—”
“It’s better if you just hold your thoughts for the interview. You know—
protocol and shit.”
Two flights up, he opens a glass door that’s an inch thick. We enter another
corridor with floor-to-ceiling windows on one side. They look out over a hangar,
which the corridors appear to encircle—four levels in all—like an atrium.
I drift toward the windows to get a better look, but Leighton guides me instead
through the second door on the left, ushering me into a dimly lit room, where a
woman in a black pantsuit is standing behind a table as if awaiting my arrival.
“Hi, Jason,” she says.
“Hi.”
Her eyes capture my stare for a moment as Leighton straps the monitoring
device around my left arm.
“You don’t mind, do you?” he asks. “I’d feel better keeping tabs on your
vitals a little while longer. We’ll be out of the woods soon.”
Leighton gently presses his hand into the small of my back and urges me the
rest of the way inside.
I hear the door close behind me.
The woman is fortyish. Short, black hair with bangs just skirting striking eyes
that somehow manage to be concurrently kind and penetrating.
The lighting is soft and unthreatening, like a movie theater moments before
the film begins.
There are two straight-backed wooden chairs, and on the small table a laptop,
a pitcher of water, two drinking glasses, a steel carafe, and a steaming mug that
fills the room with the aroma of good coffee.
The walls and ceiling are made of smoked glass.
“Jason, if you have a seat, we can get started.”
I hesitate for five long seconds, debating just walking out, but something tells
me that would be a bad, possibly catastrophic, idea.
So I sit in the chair, reach for the pitcher, and pour myself a glass of water.
The woman says, “If you’re hungry, we can have food brought in.”
“No thanks.”
Finally taking her seat across from me, she pushes her glasses up the bridge of
her nose and types something on the laptop.
“It is—” She checks her wristwatch. “—12:07 a.m., October the second. I’m
Amanda Lucas, employee ID number nine-five-six-seven, and I’m joined tonight
by…” She gestures to me.
“Um, Jason Dessen.”
“Thank you, Jason. By way of background, and for the record, at
approximately 10:59 p.m. on October first, Technician Chad Hodge, during a
routine interior locality audit, discovered Dr. Dessen lying unconscious on the
floor of the hangar. The extraction team was activated, and Dr. Dessen was
removed to quarantine at 11:24 p.m. Following decontamination and primary lab
work clearance by Dr. Leighton Vance, Dr. Dessen was escorted to the
conference theater on sublevel two, where our first debriefing interview begins.”
She looks up at me, smiling now.
“Jason, we are thrilled to have you back. The hour is late, but most of the team
rushed in from the city for this. As you might have guessed, they’re all looking
on behind the glass.”
Applause breaks out all around us, accompanied by cheers and several people
shouting my name.
The lights come up just enough for me to see through the walls. Theater
seating surrounds the glassed-in interview cubicle. Fifteen or twenty people are
on their feet, most smiling, a few even wiping their eyes as if I’ve returned from
some heroic mission.
I notice that two of them are armed, the butts of their pistols gleaming under
the lights.
These men aren’t smiling or clapping.
Amanda scoots her chair back and, rising, begins to clap along with the others.
She seems to be deeply moved as well.
And all I can think is, What the hell has happened to me?
When the applause subsides, Amanda settles back into her seat.
She says, “Pardon our enthusiasm, but so far, you’re the only one to return.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. Part of me wants to say just that, but
part of me suspects that maybe I shouldn’t.
The lights dim back down.
I clutch my glass of water in my hands like a lifeline.
“Do you know how long you’ve been gone?” she asks.
Gone where?
“No.”
“Fourteen months.”
Jesus.
“Is that a shock to you, Jason?”
“You could say that.”
“Well, pins and needles and bated breath and asses on the edges of our seats.
We’ve been waiting for over a year to ask these questions: What did you see?
Where did you go? How did you get back? Tell us everything, and please start
from the beginning.”
I take a sip of water, clinging to my last solid memory like a crumbling
handhold on a cliff face—leaving my house on family night.
And then…
I walked down the sidewalk through a cool, autumn night. I could hear the
noise of the Cubs game in all the bars.
To where?
Where was I going?
“Just take your time, Jason. We’re in no rush.”
Ryan Holder.
That’s who I was going to see.
I walked to Village Tap and had a drink—two drinks, world-class Scotch, to
be exact—with my old college roommate, Ryan Holder.
Is he somehow responsible for this?
I wonder again: Is this actually happening?
I raise the glass of water. It looks perfectly real, right down to the way it
sweats and the cold wetness of it on my fingertips.
I look into Amanda’s eyes.
I examine the walls.
They’re not melting.
If this is some drug-induced trip, it’s like none I’ve ever heard of. No visual or
auditory distortions. No euphoria. It’s not that this place doesn’t feel real. I just
shouldn’t be here. It’s somehow my presence that’s the lie. I’m not even exactly
sure what that means, only that I feel it in my core.
No, this is not a hallucination. This is something else entirely.
“Let’s try a different approach,” Amanda says. “What’s the last thing you
remember before waking up in the hangar?”
“I was at a bar.”
“What were you doing there?”
“Seeing an old friend.”
“And where was this bar?” she asks.
“Logan Square.”
“So you were still in Chicago.”
“Yeah.”
“Okay, can you describe…?”
Her voice drops off into silence.
I see the El.
It’s dark.
It’s quiet.
Too quiet for Chicago.
Someone is coming.
Someone who wants to hurt me.
My heart begins to race.
My hands sweat.
I set the glass down on the table.
“Jason, Leighton is telling me your vitals are becoming elevated.”
Her voice is back but still an ocean away.
Is this a trick?
Am I being messed with?
No, do not ask her that. Do not say those words. Be the man they think you
are. These people are cool, calm, and two of them are armed. Whatever they
need to hear you say, say it. Because if they realize you aren’t the person they
think you are, then what?
Then maybe you never leave this place.
My head is beginning to throb. Reaching up, I touch the back of my skull and
graze a knot that’s so tender it causes me to wince.
“Jason?”
Was I hurt?
Did someone attack me? What if I was brought here? What if these people,
despite how nice they seem, are in league with the person who did this to me?
I touch the side of my head, feel the damage from a second blow.
“Jason.”
I see a geisha mask.
I’m naked and helpless.
“Jason.”
Just a few hours ago I was home, cooking dinner.
I am not the man they think I am. What happens when they figure that out?
“Leighton, could you come down, please?”
Nothing good.
I need to not be in this room anymore.
I need to get away from these people.
I need to think.
“Amanda.” I drag myself back into the moment, try to drive the questions and
the fear out of my mind, but it’s like shoring up a failing levee. It won’t last. It
won’t hold. “This is embarrassing,” I say. “I’m just so exhausted, and to be
honest, decontamination was no fun.”
“Do you want to break for a minute?”
“Would that be okay? I just need a moment to clear my head.” I point at the
laptop. “I also want to sound mildly intelligent for this thing.”
“Of course.” She types something. “We’re off the record now.”
I get up.
She says, “I can show you to a private room—”
“Not necessary.”
I open the door and step out into the corridor.
Leighton Vance is waiting.
“Jason, I’d like you to lie down. Your vitals are headed in the wrong
direction.”
I rip the device off my arm and hand it to the doctor.
“Appreciate the concern, but what I really need is a bathroom stall.”
“Oh. Of course. I’ll take you.”
We head down the corridor.
Digging his shoulder into the heavy glass door, he leads me back into the
stairwell, which at the moment is empty. No sound but the ventilation system
pumping heated air through a nearby vent. I grasp the railing and lean out over
the core of open space.
Two flights to the bottom, two to the top.
What did Amanda say at the start of the interview? That we’re on sublevel
two? Does that mean this is all underground?
“Jason? You coming?”
I follow Leighton, climbing, fighting through the weakness in my legs, the
pain in my head.
At the top of the stairwell, a sign beside a reinforced-steel door reads GROUND.
Leighton swipes a keycard, punches in a code, and holds the door open.
The words VELOCITY LABORATORIES are affixed in block letters across the wall
straight ahead.
Left: a bank of elevators.
Right: a security checkpoint, with a hard-looking guard standing between the
metal detector and the turnstile, the exit just beyond.
It seems like the security here is outward facing, focused more on preventing
people from getting in than getting out.
Leighton directs me past the elevators and down a hallway to a pair of double
doors at the far end, which he opens with his keycard.
As we enter, he hits the lights, revealing a well-appointed office, the walls
adorned in aviation photographs of commercial airliners and military supersonic
jets and the engines that power them.
A framed photo on the desk draws my focus—an older man holding a boy in
his arms that looks very much like Leighton. They’re standing in a hangar in
front of a massive turbofan in the midst of assembly.
“I thought you’d be more comfortable in my private bathroom.” Leighton
points toward a door in the far corner. “I’ll be right here,” he says, sitting down
on the edge of his desk and pulling a phone out of his pocket. “Shout if you need
anything.”
The bathroom is cold and immaculate.
There’s a toilet, a urinal, a walk-in shower, and a small window halfway up
the back wall.
I take a seat on the toilet.
My chest feels so tight I can barely breathe.
They’ve been waiting for me to return for fourteen months. There’s no way
they’re letting me walk out of this building. Not tonight. Maybe not for a long
time considering I’m not the man they think they’re talking to.
Unless this is all some elaborate test or game.
Leighton’s voice pushes through the door: “Everything all right in there?”
“Yeah.”
“I don’t know what you saw inside that thing, but I want you to know I’m
here for you, brother. If you’re freaking out, you got to tell me, so I can help
you.”
I rise.
He continues, “I was watching you from the theater, and I have to say, you
looked out of it.”
If I were to walk back into the lobby with him, could I break away, make a
dash through security? I picture that massive guard standing by the metal
detector. Probably not.
“Physically, I think you’re going to be fine, but I worry about your
psychological state.”
I have to step onto the lip of the porcelain urinal to reach the window. The
glass appears to be locked shut by means of a lever on each side.
It’s only two feet by two feet, and I’m not sure if I can fit through.
Leighton’s voice echoes through the bathroom, and as I creep back toward the
sink, his words become clear again.
“…worst thing you can do is try to manage this on your own. Let’s be honest.
You’re the kind of guy who thinks he’s strong enough to push through
anything.”
I approach the door.
There’s a deadbolt.
With trembling fingers, I slowly turn the lock cylinder.
“But no matter what you’re feeling,” his voice close now, inches away, “I
want you to share it with me, and if we need to push this debriefing until
tomorrow or the next—”
He goes silent as the bolt shoots home with a soft click.
For a moment, nothing happens.
I take a careful step back.
The door moves imperceptibly, and then rattles ferociously inside its frame.
Leighton says, “Jason. Jason!” And then: “I need a security team to my office
right now. Dessen has locked himself inside the bathroom.”
The door shudders as Leighton crashes into it, but the lock holds.
I rush for the window, climb up onto the urinal, and flip the levers on either
side of the glass.
Leighton is shouting at someone, and although I can’t make out the words, I
think I hear approaching footsteps.
The window opens.
Night air funnels in.
Even standing on the urinal, I’m not sure if I can make it up there.
Leaping off the edge, I hurl myself toward the open frame, but only manage to
get one arm through.
As something bangs into the bathroom door, my shoes scrape across the
smooth, vertical surface of the wall. There’s no traction or purchase to be had.
I drop to the floor, climb back up onto the urinal.
Leighton screams at someone, “Come on!”
I jump again, and this time, I manage to land both arms across the windowsill.
It isn’t much of a hold, but it’s just enough to keep me from falling.
I wriggle through as the bathroom door breaks down behind me.
Leighton yells my name.
I tumble for a half second through darkness.
Crash face-first into pavement.
Up on my feet, stunned, dazed, ears ringing, blood running down the side of
my face.
I’m outside, in a dark alley between two buildings.
Leighton appears in the open window frame above me.
“Jason, don’t do this. Let me help you.”
I turn and run, no idea where I’m going, just blazing toward the opening at the
end of the alley.
I reach it.
Launch down a set of brick steps.
I’m in an office park.
Bland, low-rise buildings cluster around a sad little pond with a lighted
fountain in the middle.
Considering the hour, it’s no surprise there’s no one out.
I fly past benches, trimmed shrubbery, a gazebo, a sign with an arrow under
the words TO WALKING PATH.
A quick glance over my shoulder: the building I just escaped is a five-story,
nondescript, utterly forgettable piece of architectural mediocrity, and people are
streaming out of the entrance like a kicked hornet’s nest.
At the end of the pond, I leave the sidewalk and follow a gravel footpath.
Sweat stings my eyes, my lungs are on fire, but I keep pumping my arms and
throwing one foot in front of the other.
With each stride, the lights from the office park fall farther and farther away.
Straight ahead, there’s nothing but welcoming darkness, and I’m moving
toward it, into it, like my life depends upon it.
A strong, reviving wind slams into my face, and I’m starting to wonder where
I’m going because shouldn’t there be some light in the distance? Like even a
speck of it? But I’m running into an immense chasm of black.
I hear waves.
I arrive on a beach.
There’s no moon, but the stars are vivid enough to suggest the roiling surface
of Lake Michigan.
I look inland toward the office park, catch incoming, wind-cut voices, and
glimpse several flashlight beams slashing through the dark.
Turning north, I begin to run, my shoes crunching wave-polished rocks. Miles
up the shoreline, I can see the indistinct, nighttime glow of downtown, where the
skyscrapers edge up against the water.
I look back, see some lights heading south, away from me, others heading
north.
Gaining on me.
I veer away from the water’s edge, cross a bike path, and aim for a row of
bushes.
The voices are closer.
I wonder if it’s dark enough for me to stay unseen.
A three-foot seawall stands in my path, and I scale the concrete, barking my
shins on the way over and staying on all fours as I crawl through the hedgerow,
branches grabbing my shirt and face, clawing at my eyes.
Out of the bushes, I stumble into the middle of a road that parallels the
lakeshore.
From the direction of the office park, I hear an engine revving.
High beams blind me.
I cross the road, hop a chain-link fence, and suddenly I’m running through
someone’s yard, dodging overturned bicycles and skateboards, then darting
alongside the house while a dog goes apoplectic inside, lights popping on as I hit
the backyard, jump the fence again, and find myself sprinting across an empty
baseball outfield, wondering how much longer I can keep this up.
The answer comes with remarkable speed.
On the edge of the infield, I collapse, sweat pouring off my body, every
muscle in agony.
That dog is still barking in the distance, but looking back toward the lake, I
see no flashlights, hear no voices.
I lie there I don’t know how long, and it seems as if hours pass before I can
take a breath without gasping.
I finally manage to sit up.
The night is cool, and the breeze coming off the lake pushes through the
surrounding trees, sending a storm of autumn leaves down on the diamond.
I struggle to my feet, thirsty and tired and trying to process the last four hours
of my life, but I don’t have the mental bandwidth at the moment.
I trek out of the baseball field, into a working-class South Side neighborhood.
The streets are empty.
It’s block after block of peaceful, quiet homes.
I walk a mile, maybe more, and then I’m standing at the empty intersection of
a business district, watching the traffic lights above me cycle at an accelerated,
late-night pace.
The main drag runs two blocks, and there’s no sign of life except the shithole
bar across the street with three mass-produced beer signs glowing in the
windows. As patrons stagger out in a cloud of smoke and overloud
conversations, headlights from the first car I’ve seen in twenty minutes appear in
the distance.
A cab with the Off-Duty light illuminated.
I step out into the intersection and stand under the traffic light, waving my
arms. The taxi slows down on approach and tries to swerve around me, but I
sidestep, keeping its bumper on a collision course, forcing it to stop.
The driver lowers his window, angry.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I need a ride.”
The cabbie is Somali, his razor-thin face splotched with patches of a beard,
and he’s staring at me through a pair of giant, thick-lensed glasses.
He says, “It’s two in the morning. I’m done tonight. No more work.”
“Please.”
“Can you read? Look at the sign.” He slaps the top of his car.
“I need to get home.”
The window begins to rise.
I reach into my pocket and pull out the plastic bag containing my personal
effects, rip it open, show him the money clip.
“I can pay you more than—”
“Get out of the road.”
“I’ll double your rate.”
The window stops six inches from the top of the door.
“Cash.”
“Cash.”
I thumb quickly through the wad of bills. It’s probably a $75 fare to the North
Side neighborhoods, and I’ve got to cover double that.
“Get in if we go!” he yells.
Some of the bar patrons have noticed the cab stopped in the intersection, and
presumably needing rides, they are drifting over, shouting for me to hold the car.
I finish counting my funds—$332 and three expired credit cards.
I climb into the backseat and tell him I’m going to Logan Square.
“That’s twenty-five miles!”
“And I’m paying you double.”
He glares at me in the rearview mirror.
“Where’s the money?”
I peel off $100 and hand it into the front seat. “The rest when we get there.”
He snatches the money and accelerates through the intersection, past the
drunks.
I examine the money clip. Under the cash and the credit cards, there’s an
Illinois driver’s license with a headshot that’s me but that I’ve never seen, an ID
for a gym I’ve never been to, and a health insurance card from a carrier I’ve
never used.
The cabbie sneaks glances at me in the rearview mirror.
“You have bad night,” he says.
“Looks that way, huh?”
“I thought you are drunk, but no. Your clothes are torn. Face bloody.”
I probably wouldn’t have wanted to pick me up either, standing in the middle
of an intersection at two in the morning, looking homeless and deranged.
“You’re in trouble,” he says.
“Yeah.”
“What happened?”
“I’m not exactly sure.”
“I take you to hospital.”
“No. I want to go home.”
We cruise north toward the city on the vacant interstate, the skyline creeping
closer and closer. With each passing mile, I feel some semblance of my sanity
returning, if for no other reason than I’ll be home soon.
Daniela will help me make sense of whatever’s happening.
The cabbie parks across from my brownstone and I pay him the rest of his
fare.
I hurry across the street and up the steps, pulling keys out of my pocket that
aren’t my keys. As I try to find the one that fits the lock, I realize this isn’t my
door. Well, it is my door. It’s my street. My number on the mailbox. But the
handle isn’t right, the wood is too elegant, and the hinges are these iron, gothiclooking things more suited to a medieval tavern.
I turn the deadbolt.
The door swings inward.
Something is wrong.
Very, very wrong.
I step across the threshold, into the dining room.
This doesn’t smell like my house. Doesn’t smell like anything but the faintest
odor of dust. Like no one has lived here in quite some time. The lights are out,
and not just some of them. Every last one.
I close the door and fumble in the darkness until my hand grazes a dimmer
switch. A chandelier made of antlers warms the room above a minimalist glass
table that isn’t mine and chairs that aren’t mine.
I call out, “Hello?”
The house is so quiet.
Revoltingly quiet.
In my home on the mantel behind the dining-room table there’s a large, candid
photograph of Daniela, Charlie, and me standing at Inspiration Point in
Yellowstone National Park.
In this house, there’s a deep-contrast black-and-white photograph of the same
canyon. More artfully done, but with no one in it.
I move on to the kitchen, and at my entrance, a sensor triggers the recessed
lighting.
It’s gorgeous.
Expensive.
And lifeless.
In my house, there’s a Charlie first-grade creation (macaroni art) held by
magnets to our white refrigerator. It makes me smile every time I see it. In this
kitchen, there’s not even a blemish on the steel façade of the Gaggenau
refrigerator.
“Daniela!”
Even the resonance of my voice is different here.
“Charlie!”
There’s less stuff, more echo.
As I walk through the living room, I spot my old turntable sitting next to a
state-of-the-art sound system, my library of jazz vinyl lovingly stowed and
alphabetized on custom, built-in shelves.
I head up the stairs to the second floor.
The hallway is dark and the light switch isn’t where it should be, but it doesn’t
matter. Much of the lighting system runs on motion sensors, and more recessed
bulbs wink on above me.
This isn’t my hardwood floor. It’s nicer, the planks wider, a little rougher.
Between the hall bath and the guest room, the triptych of my family at the
Wisconsin Dells has been replaced with a sketch of Navy Pier. Charcoal on
butcher paper. The artist’s signature in the bottom right-hand corner catches my
eye—Daniela Vargas.
I step into the next room on the left.
My son’s room.
Except it’s not. There’s none of his surrealist artwork. No bed, no manga
posters, no desk with homework strewn across it, no lava lamps, no backpack,
no clothes scattered all over the floor.
Instead, just a monitor sitting on an expansive desk that’s covered in books
and loose paper.
I walk in shock to the end of the hallway. Sliding a frosted pocket door into
the wall, I enter a master bedroom that is luxurious, cold, and, like everything
else in this brownstone, not mine.
The walls are adorned with more charcoal/butcher paper sketches in the style
of the one in the hall, but the centerpiece of the room is a glass display case built
into an acacia wood stand. Light from the base shines up dramatically to
illuminate a certificate in a padded leather folder that leans against a plush velvet
pillar. Hanging from a thin chain on the pillar is a gold coin with Julian Pavia’s
likeness imprinted in the metal.
The certificate reads:
The Pavia Prize is awarded to
JASON ASHLEY DESSEN for outstanding achievement in advancing our
knowledge and understanding of the origin, evolution and properties of the
universe by placing a macroscopic object into a state of
quantum superposition.
I sit on the end of the bed.
I am not well.
I am so not well.
My home should be my haven, a place of safety and comfort, where I’m
surrounded by family. But it’s not even mine.
My stomach lurches.
I rush into the master bath, fling open the toilet seat, and empty my guts into
the pristine bowl.
I’m racked with thirst.
I turn on the faucet and dip my mouth under the stream.
Splash water in my face.
I wander back into the bedroom.
No idea where my mobile phone is, but there’s a landline on the bedside table.
I never actually dial Daniela’s cell-phone number, so it takes me a moment to
recall, but I finally punch it in.
Four rings.
A male voice answers, deep and groggy.
“Hello?”
“Where’s Daniela?”
“I think you misdialed.”
I recite Daniela’s cell phone number, and he says, “Yeah, that’s the number
you called, but it’s my number.”
“How is that possible?”
He hangs up.
I dial her number again, and this time he answers on the first ring with, “It’s
three in the morning. Don’t call me again, asshole.”
My third attempt goes straight to the man’s voicemail. I don’t leave a
message.
Rising from the bed, I return to the bathroom and study myself in the mirror
over the sink.
My face is bruised, scraped, bloody, and mud-streaked. I need a shave, my
eyes are bloodshot, but I’m still me.
A wave of exhaustion hits me like a haymaker to the jaw.
My knees give out, but I catch myself on the countertop.
And then, down on the first floor—a noise.
A door closing softly?
I straighten.
Alert again.
Back in the bedroom, I move silently to the doorway and stare down the
length of the hall.
I hear whispered voices.
The static of a handheld radio.
The hollow creak of someone’s footfall on a hardwood step.
The voices become clearer, echoing between the walls of the stairwell and
spilling out the top and down the corridor.
I can see their shadows on the walls now, preceding them up the staircase like
ghosts.
As I take a tentative step into the hallway, a man’s voice—calm, measured
Leighton—slides out of the stairwell: “Jason?”
Five steps and I reach the hall bath.
“We’re not here to hurt you.”
Their footfalls are in the hallway now.
Stepping slowly, methodically.
“I know you’re feeling confused and disoriented. I wish you’d said something
back at the lab. I didn’t realize how bad it was for you. I’m sorry I missed that.”
I carefully close the door behind me and push in the lock.
“We just want to bring you in so you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else.”
The bathroom is twice the size of mine, with a granite-walled shower and a
double vanity topped with marble.
Across from the toilet, I see what I’m looking for: a large shelf built into the
wall with a hatch that opens the laundry chute.
“Jason.”
Through the bathroom door, I hear the radio crackling.
“Jason, please. Talk to me.” Out of nowhere, his voice hemorrhages
frustration. “We have all given up our lives working toward tonight. Come out
here! This is fucking insane!”
One rainy Sunday when Charlie was nine or ten, we spent an afternoon
pretending we were spelunkers. I would lower him down the laundry chute again
and again, as if it were the entrance to a cave. He even wore a little backpack
and a makeshift headlamp—a flashlight tied to the top of his head.
I open the hatch, scramble up onto the shelf.
Leighton says, “Take the bedroom.”
Footsteps patter down the hall.
The fit down the laundry chute looks tight. Maybe too tight.
I hear the bathroom door begin to shake, the doorknob jiggling, and then a
woman’s voice: “Hey, this one’s locked.”
I peer down the chute.
Total darkness.
The bathroom door is thick enough that their first attempt to break through
only results in a splintering crack.
I might not even fit down this thing, but as they crash into the door a second
time and it explodes off the hinges and thunders down against the tile, I realize I
have no other options.
They rush into the bathroom, and in the mirror I catch the fleeting reflection
of Leighton Vance and one of those security consultants from the lab, holding
what appears to be a Taser.
Leighton and I lock eyes in the glass for a half second, and then the man with
the Taser spins, raising his weapon.
I fold my arms into my chest and commit myself to the chute.
As the shouting in the bathroom fades away above me, I slam into an empty
laundry hamper, the plastic splitting, sending me tumbling out from between the
washer and the dryer.
Their footsteps are already coming, pounding down the staircase.
A needle of pain threads up my right leg from the fall. I scramble to my feet
and bolt for the French doors that lead out the back of the brownstone.
The brass door handles are locked.
Footsteps are closing in, the voices louder, radios squeaking as instructions
scream over static.
I turn the lock, pull open the doors, and tear across a redwood deck, which
boasts a grill that’s nicer than mine and a hot tub I have never owned.
Down the steps into the backyard, past a rose garden.
I try the garage door, but it’s locked.
With all the movement inside, every light in the house has been triggered.
There must be four or five people running around on the first floor trying to find
me, shouting at one another.
An eight-foot privacy fence encloses the backyard, and as I flip the hasp on its
door, someone barrels onto the deck, shouting my name.
The alley is empty, and I don’t stop to think which direction to go.
I just run.
At the next street, I glance back, see two figures chasing me.
In the distance, a car engine roars to life, followed by the screech of tires
spinning on pavement.
I hang a left and sprint until I reach the next alley.
Almost every backyard is protected by tall privacy fencing, but the fifth one
down is waist-high, wrought-iron construction.
An SUV whips its back end around and accelerates into the alley.
I break for the low fence.
Lacking the strength to hurdle it, I clumsily haul myself over the pointed
metal tines and collapse in the backyard. I crawl through the grass to a tiny shed
beside the garage, with no padlock on the door.
It creaks open, and I slip inside as someone runs across the backyard.
I shut the door so no one will hear my panting.
I cannot catch my breath.
It’s pitch-black inside the shed and redolent of gasoline and old grass
clippings. My chest heaves against the back of the door.
Sweat drips off my chin.
I claw a cobweb off my face.
In darkness, my hands palm the plywood walls, fingers grazing various tools
—pruning shears, a saw, a rake, the blade of an ax.
I take the ax from the wall and grip the wooden handle, scraping my finger
across the head. Can’t see a thing, but it feels like it hasn’t been sharpened in
years—deep chinks in the blade, which no longer holds an edge.
Blinking through the stinging sweat, I carefully open the door.
Not a sound creeps in.
I nudge it open a few more inches, until I can see into the backyard again.
It’s empty.
In this sliver of quiet and calm, the principle of Occam’s razor whispers to me
—all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the right one. Does the
idea that I was drugged and kidnapped by a secret, experimental group for the
purposes of mind control or God-knows-what fit that bill? Hardly. They
would’ve needed to either brainwash me to convince me that my house was not
my house, or in the space of several hours, get rid of my family and gut the
interior so I didn’t recognize anything.
Or—is it more plausible that a tumor in my brain has turned my world upside
down?
That it’s been growing silently inside my skull for months or years and is
finally wreaking havoc on my cognitive processes, skewing my perception of
everything.
The idea hits me with the force of conviction.
What else could have crashed through me with such debilitating speed?
What else could make me lose touch with my identity and reality in a matter
of hours, calling into question everything I thought I knew?
I wait.
And wait.
And wait.
Finally, I step outside into the grass.
No more voices.
No more footsteps.
No shadows.
No car engines.
The night feels sturdy and real again.
I already know where I’m headed next.
—
Chicago Mercy is a ten-block trek from my house, and I limp into the harsh light
of the ER at 4:05 a.m.
I hate hospitals.
I watched my mother die in one.
Charlie spent the first weeks of his life in a NICU.
The waiting room is practically empty. Aside from me, there’s a night
construction worker clutching his arm in a bloody bandage, and a distressedlooking family of three, the father holding a red-faced, wailing baby.
The woman at the front desk looks up from her paperwork, surprisingly
bright-eyed considering the hour.
Asks through the Plexiglas, “How can I help you?”
I haven’t thought of what to say, how to even begin to explain my needs.
When I don’t answer right away, she says, “Have you been in an accident?”
“No.”
“You have cuts all over your face.”
“I’m not well,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
“I think I need to talk to someone.”
“Are you homeless?”
“No.”
“Where’s your family?”
“I don’t know.”
She looks me up and down—a fast, professional appraisal.
“Your name, sir?”
“Jason.”
“One moment.”
Rising from her chair, she disappears around the corner.
Thirty seconds later, there’s a buzzing sound as the door beside her station
unlocks and opens.
The nurse smiles. “Come on back.”
She leads me to a patient room.
“Someone will be right with you.”
As the door closes after her, I take a seat on the examination table and shut my
eyes against the glare of the lights. I have never been so tired in my life.
My chin dips.
I straighten.
I almost fell asleep sitting up.
The door opens.
A portly young doctor walks in carrying a clipboard. He’s trailed by a
different nurse—a bottle blonde in blue scrubs who wears four-in-the-morning
exhaustion like a millstone around her neck.
“It’s Jason?” the doctor asks without offering his hand or attempting to fake
his way through the graveyard-shift indifference.
I nod.
“Last name?”
I’m hesitant to give him my full name, but then again, maybe that’s just the
brain tumor talking, or whatever has gone wrong inside my head.
“Dessen.”
I spell it for him as he scribbles on what I presume to be an intake form.
“I’m Dr. Randolph, attending physician. What brings you into the ER
tonight?”
“I think something is wrong with my mind. Like a tumor or something.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Things aren’t like they should be.”
“Okay. Could you elaborate?”
“I…all right, this is going to sound crazy. Just know that I realize that.”
He glances up from the clipboard.
“My house isn’t my house.”
“I’m not following.”
“It’s just what I said. My house isn’t my house. My family isn’t there.
Everything’s much…nicer. It’s all been renovated and—”
“But it’s still your address?”
“Right.”
“So you’re saying the inside is different, but the outside is the same?” He says
it like he’s speaking to a child.
“Yeah.”
“Jason, how did you get the cuts on your face? The mud on your clothes?”
“People were chasing me.”
I shouldn’t have told him that, but I’m too tired to filter. I must sound
absolutely insane.
“Chasing you.”
“Yes.”
“Who was chasing you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know why they were chasing you?”
“Because…it’s complicated.”
His appraising, skeptical look is far more subtle and trained than the frontdesk nurse’s. I almost miss it.
“Have you taken any drugs or alcohol tonight?” he asks.
“Some wine earlier, then whisky, but that was hours ago.”
“Again, I’m sorry—it’s been a very long shift—but what makes you think
something is wrong with your mind?”
“Because the last eight hours of my life don’t make sense. It all feels real, but
it can’t possibly be.”
“Have you suffered a recent head injury?”
“No. Well. I mean, I think someone hit me in the back of the head. It’s painful
to the touch.”
“Who hit you?”
“I’m not sure. I’m not really sure of anything right now.”
“Okay. Do you use drugs? Now or in the past?”
“I smoke weed a couple times a year. But not lately.”
The doctor turns to the nurse. “I’m going to have Barbara draw some blood.”
He drops the clipboard on a table and plucks a penlight from the front pocket
of his lab coat.
“Mind if I examine you?”
“No.”
Randolph moves in until our faces are inches apart, close enough for me to
smell the stale coffee on his breath, to see the recent razor nick across his chin.
He shines the light straight into my right eye. For a moment, there’s nothing but
a point of brilliance in the center of my field of vision, which momentarily burns
away the rest of the world.
“Jason, are you having any thoughts of hurting yourself?”
“I’m not suicidal.”
The light hits my left eye.
“Have you had any prior psychiatric hospitalizations?”
“No.”
He gently takes my wrist in his soft, cool hands, measures my pulse rate.
“What do you do for a living?” he asks.
“I teach at Lakemont College.”
“Married?”
“Yes.” I instinctively reach down to touch my wedding band.
Gone.
Jesus.
The nurse begins to roll up the left sleeve of my shirt.
“What’s your wife’s name?” the doctor asks.
“Daniela.”
“You two on good terms?”
“Yes.”
“Don’t you think she’s wondering where you are? I feel like we should call
her.”
“I tried.”
“When?”
“An hour ago, at my house. Someone else answered. It was a wrong number.”
“Maybe you misdialed.”
“I know my wife’s phone number.”
The nurse asks, “We okay with needles, Mr. Dessen?”
“Yes.”
As she sterilizes the underside of my arm, she says, “Dr. Randolph, look.” She
touches the needle mark from several hours ago when Leighton drew my blood.
“When did this happen?” he asks.
“I don’t know.” Probably best not to mention the lab I think I just escaped
from.
“You don’t remember someone sticking a needle in your arm?”
“No.”
Randolph nods to the nurse, and she warns me, “Little pinch coming.”
He asks, “Do you have your cell phone with you?”
“I don’t know where it is.”
He grabs the clipboard. “Give me your wife’s name again. And phone
number. We’ll try to reach her for you.”
I spell Daniela’s name and rattle off her cell number and our home number as
my blood rushes into a plastic vial.
“You’re going to scan my head?” I ask. “See what’s going on?”
“Absolutely.”
—
They give me a private room on the eighth floor.
I tidy up my face in the bathroom, kick off my shoes, and climb into bed.
Sleep tugs, but the scientist in my brain won’t power down.
I can’t stop thinking.
Formulating hypotheses and dismantling them.
Struggling to wrap logic around everything that’s happened.
In this moment, I have no way of knowing what’s real and what isn’t. I can’t
even be sure that I was ever married.
No. Wait.
I raise my left hand and study my ring finger.
The ring is gone, but the proof of its existence lingers as a faint indentation
around the base of my finger. It was there. It left a mark. That means someone
took it.
I touch the indentation, acknowledging both the horror and the comfort of
what it represents—the last vestige of my reality.
I wonder—
What will happen when this last physical trace of my marriage is gone?
When there’s no anchor?
As the skies above Chicago inch toward dawn—a hopeless, cloud-ridden
purple—I lose myself to sleep.
Daniela’s hands are deep in the warm, soapy water when she hears the front door
slam shut. She stops scrubbing the saucepan she’s been attacking for the last half
minute and looks up from the sink, glancing back over her shoulder as footste…
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