“What do you mean?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Your worst fear.”
“That type of scenario isn’t everyone’s?”
“Maybe. But it’s so perfectly yours I’m surprised you don’t see it.”
“How is it perfectly mine?”
“Not just losing your family, but losing them to illness. The same way you lost your mother when you were eight years old.”
I look over at Amanda.
“How’d you know that?”
“How do you think?”
Of course. She was Jason2’s therapist.
She says, “Watching his mother die was the defining event of his life. It played a critical part in why he never married, never had kids. Why he sunk himself into work.”
I believe it. There were moments, early on, when I considered running from Daniela. Not because I wasn’t crazy about her, but because on some level, I was afraid of losing her. And I felt the same fear all over again when I found out she was pregnant with Charlie.
“Why would I seek out a world like that?”
“Why do people marry versions of their controlling mothers? Or absent fathers? To have a shot at righting old wrongs. Fixing things as an adult that hurt you as a child. Maybe it doesn’t make sense at a surface level, but the subconscious marches to its own beat. I happen to think that world taught us a lot about how the box works.”
Passing the water back to her, I say, “Forty.”
“Forty ampoules left. Half are yours. That gives us each twenty chances to get this right. What do you want to do?”
“I’m not sure. All I know at this point is that I’m not going back to my world.”
“So do you want to stay together, or is this goodbye?”
“I don’t know how you feel, but I think we still need each other. I think maybe I can help you get home.”
I lean back against the trunk of a pine tree, a notebook resting on my knees, my thoughts teeming.
What a strange thing to consider imagining a world into being with nothing but words, intention, and desire.
It’s a troubling paradox—I have total control, but only to the extent I have control over myself.
My inner storm.
The secret engines that drive me.
If there are infinite worlds, how do I find the one that is uniquely, specifically mine?
I stare at the page and begin to write down every detail of my Chicago that comes to mind. I paint my life with words.
The sounds of the children in my neighborhood walking to school together, their voices like a stream flowing over rocks—high and burbling.
Graffiti on the faded white brick of a building three blocks from my house that was so artfully done it was never painted over.
I meditate on the intricacies of my home.
The fourth step on the staircase that always creaks.
The downstairs bathroom with the leaky faucet.
The way my kitchen smells as coffee brews first thing in the morning.
All the tiny, seemingly insignificant details upon which my world hangs.
AMPOULES REMAINING: 32
There’s a theory in the field of aesthetics called the uncanny valley. It holds that when something looks almost like a human being—a mannequin or humanlike robot—it creates revulsion in the observer, because the appearance is so close to human, yet just off enough to evoke a feeling of uncanniness, of something that is both familiar and alien.
It’s a similar psychological effect as I walk the streets of this Chicago that’s almost mine. I would take an apocalyptic nightmare any day. Crumbled buildings and gray wasteland don’t hold a candle to standing on a corner I’ve passed a thousand times and realizing that the street names are wrong. Or the coffee place where I always stop to grab my morning triple-shot Americano with soy is a boutique wine shop instead. Or my house at 44 Eleanor Street is a brownstone inhabited by strangers.
This is the fourth Chicago we’ve connected to since escaping that world of sickness and death. Each has been like this one—almost home.
Night is imminent, and since we’ve taken four hits of the drug in fairly rapid succession with no recovery period, we decide for the first time not to return to the box.
It’s the same hotel in Logan Square where I stayed in Amanda’s world.
The neon sign is red instead of green but the name is the same—HOTEL ROYALE—and it’s just as quirky, just as frozen in time, but in a thousand insignificantly different ways.
Our room has two double beds, and just like the last room I had here, it looks out onto the street.
I set our plastic bags containing toiletries and thrift-store clothes on the dresser beside the television.
Any other time, I might have balked at this dated room that smells like cleaning product failing to cover up mildew and worse.
Tonight it feels like luxury.
Pulling off my hoodie and undershirt, I say, “I’m too gross to even have an opinion about this place.”
I toss them into the waste bin.
Amanda laughs. “You don’t want to get into a who’s-more-disgusting competition with me.”
“I’m surprised they rented us a room at any price.”
“That might tell you something about the quality of establishment we’re dealing with.”
I go to the window, part the curtains.
It’s early evening.
The exterior hotel sign bleeds red neon light into the room.
I couldn’t begin to guess the day or date.
I say, “Bathroom’s all yours.”
Amanda grabs her things from the plastic bag.
Soon, I can hear the bright sound of running water echoing off the tile.
She calls out, “Oh my God, you have to take a bath, Jason! You have no idea!”
I’m too dirty to lie down on the bed, so I sit on the carpet next to the radiator, letting waves of heat wash over me and watching the sky darken through the window.
I take Amanda’s advice and draw a bath.
Condensation runs down the walls.
The heat works wonders on my lower back, which has been out for days from sleeping in the box.
As I shave my beard, the questions of identity keep haunting me.
There’s no Jason Dessen employed as a physics professor at Lakemont College or any of the local schools, but I can’t help wondering if I’m out there somewhere.