There were drugs in my blood from last night and bruises on my body. My key opened the door to that house that wasn’t mine. I don’t have a brain tumor. There’s a mark from a wedding band on my ring finger. I am in this hospital room right now, and all of this is actually happening.
I am not allowed to think I’m crazy.
I am only allowed to solve this problem.
When the elevator doors open to the hospital lobby, I shoulder past two men in cheap suits and wet overcoats. They look like cops, and as they step into the elevator car and our eyes meet, I wonder if they’re heading up to see me.
I move past a waiting area, toward the automatic doors. Since I wasn’t on a secured ward, slipping out was much easier than I expected. I simply got dressed, waited for the hallway to clear, and cruised past the nurses’ station without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow.
As I approach the exit, I keep waiting for alarms to sound, for someone to shout my name, for guards to chase me through the lobby.
Soon I’m outside in the rain, and it feels like early evening, the bustle of traffic supporting something in the neighborhood of six p.m.
I hurry down the steps, hit the sidewalk, and don’t slow my pace until I’ve reached the next block.
I glance over my shoulder.
There’s no one following me, at least as far as I can tell.
Just a sea of umbrellas.
I’m getting wet.
I have no idea where I’m going.
At a bank, I step off the sidewalk and take shelter under the entrance overhang. Leaning against a limestone column, I watch people move past as rain drills down on the pavement.
I dig my money clip out of my slacks. Last night’s cab fare made a sizeable dent in my measly treasury. I’m down to $182, and my credit cards are worthless.
Home is out of the question, but there’s a cheap hotel in my neighborhood a few blocks from my brownstone, and it’s just gross enough to make me think I could possibly afford a room there.
I step back out into the rain.
It’s getting darker by the minute.
Without a coat or jacket, I’m soaked to my skin within two blocks.
The Days Inn occupies the building across the street from Village Tap. Only it doesn’t. The canopy is the wrong color, and the entire façade looks bizarrely upmarket. These are luxury apartments. I even see a doorman standing on the curb under an umbrella, trying to hail a cab for a woman in a black trench coat.
Am I on the right street?
I cast a glance back to my corner bar.
VILLAGE TAP should be blinking neon in the front window, but instead there’s a heavy wooden panel with brass lettering attached to a pole that’s swinging over the entrance, creaking in the wind.
I continue walking, faster now, the rain driving into my eyes.
Restaurants poised to receive the dinner rush—sparkling wineglasses and silverware quickly arranged on white linen tablecloths as servers memorize the specials.
A coffee shop I don’t recognize bursting with the jangle of an espresso machine grinding fresh beans.
Daniela’s and my favorite Italian place looking exactly as it should, and reminding me that I haven’t eaten in almost twenty-four hours.
But I keep walking.
Until I’m wet through to my socks.
Until I’m shivering uncontrollably.
Until night has dropped and I’m standing outside a three-story hotel with bars on the windows and an obnoxiously large sign above the entrance:
I step inside, dripping a puddle on the cracked checkerboard floor.
It isn’t what I expected. Not seedy or dirty in the lurid sense of the word. Just forgotten. Past prime. The way I remember my great-grandparents’ living room in their teetering Iowa farmhouse. As if the worn furniture has been here for a thousand years, frozen in time while the rest of the world marched on. The air carries the scent of must, and big-band music plays quietly through a hidden sound system. Something from the 1940s.
At the front desk, the old, tuxedoed clerk doesn’t bat an eye at my sodden state. Just takes $95 in damp cash and hands me a key to a room on the third floor.
The elevator car is cramped, and I stare at my distorted features in the bronze doors as the car labors, noisily and with all the grace of a fat man climbing stairs, to the third floor.
Halfway down a dim corridor, scarcely wide enough for two people to walk abreast, I locate my room number and wrestle the old-school lock open with the key.
It isn’t much.
A single bed with a flimsy metal frame and a lumpy mattress.
A bathroom the size of a closet.
A cathode-ray television.
And a chair next to a window, where something glows on the other side of the glass.
Stepping around the foot of the bed, I sweep the curtain back and peer outside, finding myself at eye level with the top of the hotel sign and close enough to see the rain falling through the green neon light.
Down on the sidewalk below, I glimpse a man leaning against a streetlamp post, smoke curling up into the rain, the ash of his cigarette glowing and fading in the darkness under his hat.
Is he waiting there for me?
Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I go to the door and check the deadbolt and hook the chain.
Then I kick off my shoes, strip down, and dry myself off with the bathroom’s only towel.
The best thing about the room is the ancient cast-iron radiator that stands under the window. I crank it up to high and hold my hands in the jetties of heat.
I drape my wet clothes across the back of the chair and push it close to the radiator.
In the bedside table drawer, I find a Gideon Bible and a sprawling Chicago Metro phone book.
Stretching out across the creaky bed, I thumb to the D’s and begin searching for my last name.
I quickly locate my listing.
Jason A. Dessen.
I lift the phone receiver off the bedside table and call my landline.
It rings four times, and then I hear my voice: “Hi, you’ve reached Jason, well, except not really, because I’m not actually here to take your call. This is a recording. You know what to do.”
I hang up before the beep.
That isn’t our home voicemail message.
I feel insanity stalking me again, threatening to curl me up fetal and shatter me into a million pieces.
But I shut it down, returning to my new mantra.