As he undresses her in the darkness of their bedroom, she has never wanted anyone so desperately. The anger is gone. The wine-sleepiness has vanished. He has taken her back to the first time they made love, in her Bucktown loft with the downtown glowing through the giant windows that she’d cracked open so the crisp October air could trickle in, carrying with it the late-night noise of people stumbling home from bars and distant sirens and the engine of the massive city at rest—not completely shut down, never off, just a comforting, baseline idle.
As she comes, she fights not to cry out in their bedroom, but she can’t contain it, and neither can Jason.
Because something is different; something is better.
They haven’t been unhappy these last few years, quite the opposite. But it’s been a long, long time since she felt that sense of giddy love that effervesces in the pit of your stomach and spectacularly upends the world.
I jerk awake.
“Hi. Sorry to startle you.”
A doctor is staring down at me—a short, green-eyed redhead in a white lab coat holding a cup of coffee in one hand, a tablet in the other.
I sit up.
It’s day outside the window next to my bed, and for five seconds, I have absolutely no idea where I am.
Through the glass: low clouds blanket the city, cutting off the skyline above one thousand feet. From this vantage point, I can see the lake and two miles of Chicago neighborhoods filling the space in between, everything muted under a somber, midwestern gray.
“Mr. Dessen, do you know where you are?”
“That’s right. You walked into the ER last night, pretty disoriented. One of my colleagues, Dr. Randolph, admitted you, and when he left this morning, he handed your chart over to me. I’m Julianne Springer.”
I glance down at the IV in my wrist and trace the line up to the bag hanging over me on a metal stand.
“What are you giving me?” I ask.
“Just old-fashioned H2O. You were very dehydrated. How are you feeling now?”
I run a quick self-diagnostic.
Inside of my mouth like cotton.
I point through the window. “Like that,” I say. “Weirdly hungover.”
Beyond the physical discomfort, I register a crushing sense of emptiness, like it’s raining directly on my soul.
Like I’ve been hollowed out.
“I have your MRI results,” she says, waking her tablet. “Your scan came back normal. There was some shallow bruising, but nothing serious. Your tox screen results are far more illuminating. We found traces of alcohol, in line with what you reported to Dr. Randolph, but also something else.”
“Not familiar with it.”
“It’s a surgical anesthetic. One of its side effects is short-term amnesia. Could explain some of your disorientation. The tox screen also showed something I’ve never seen before. A psychoactive compound. Really weird cocktail.” She sips her coffee. “I have to ask—you didn’t take these drugs yourself?”
“Of course not.”
“Last night, you gave Dr. Randolph your wife’s name and a couple of phone numbers.”
“Her cell and our landline.”
“I’ve been trying to track her down all morning, but her mobile number belongs to a guy named Ralph, and your landline just keeps going to voicemail.”
“Can you read her number back to me?”
Springer reads off Daniela’s cell-phone number.
“That’s right,” I say.
“You’re sure about that?”
“Hundred percent.” As she looks back at the tablet, I ask, “Could these drugs you found in my system cause long-term altered states?”
“You mean delusions? Hallucinations?”
“To be honest, I don’t know what this psychochemical is, which means I can’t say with any certainty what effect it might have had on your nervous system.”
“So it could still be affecting me?”
“Again, I don’t know what its half-life is, or how long it takes your body to expel it. But you don’t strike me as being under the influence of anything at the moment.”
Memories of the night before are regenerating.
I see myself walking naked and at gunpoint into an abandoned building.
The injection in my neck.
In my leg.
Pieces of a strange conversation with a man wearing a geisha mask.
A room filled with old generators and moonlight.
And while the thought of last night carries the emotional weight of a real memory, it has the fantasy lining of a dream, or a nightmare.
What was done to me inside that old building?
Springer pulls a chair over and takes a seat beside my bed. In proximity, I can see freckles covering her face like a sprinkling of pale sand.
“Let’s talk about what you said to Dr. Randolph. He wrote down…” She sighs. “Apologies, his handwriting is atrocious. ‘Patient reports: It was my house but it wasn’t my house.’ You also said that you got the cuts and bruises on your face because people were chasing you, but when asked why they were chasing you, you couldn’t provide an answer.” She looks up from the screen. “You’re a professor?”
“Here’s the thing, Jason. While you were sleeping, and after we couldn’t find any trace of your wife—”
“What do you mean you couldn’t find any trace of her?”
“Her name is Daniela Dessen, correct?”
“Thirty-nine years old?”
“We couldn’t find anyone with that name and age in all of Chicago.”
That levels me. I look away from Springer, back out the window. It’s so gray that even the time of day is masked. Morning, noon, evening—it’s impossible to determine. Fine droplets of rain cling to the other side of the glass.
At this point, I’m not even sure what to be afraid of—this reality that might actually be true, or the possibility that everything is going to pieces inside my head. I liked it much better when I thought everything was being caused by a brain tumor. That, at least, was an explanation.