I respond with:
All good. Explain when we see you.
Putting my arm around Daniela, I pull her in close.
She says, “I feel like I’m caught in a nightmare and I can’t wake myself up. What’s happening?”
“We’ll go someplace safe,” I whisper. “Where we can talk in private. Then I’ll tell you and Charlie everything.”
Charlie’s school is a sprawling brick complex that looks like a mental institution crossed with a steampunk castle.
He’s sitting out on the front steps when we pull into the pickup lane, looking at his phone.
I tell Daniela to wait, and then I step out of the car and walk toward my son.
He stands, bewildered at my approach.
At my appearance.
I crash into him and squeeze him tight and say, “God, I’ve missed you,” before I even think to stop myself.
“What are you doing here?” he asks. “What’s with the car?”
“Come on, we have to go.”
But I just grab hold of his arm and pull him toward the open passenger door of the Escalade.
He climbs in first and I follow, shutting the door after us.
The driver glances back and asks with a heavy Russian accent, “Where to now?”
I thought about it on the drive over from the police station—someplace big and bustling, where even if one of the other Jasons followed us, we could easily blend into a crowd. Now I second-guess that choice. I think of three alternates—Lincoln Park Conservatory, the observation deck of the Willis Tower, and the Rosehill Cemetery. Rosehill feels like the safest option, the most unexpected. And I’m similarly drawn to Willis and Lincoln Park. So I go against my instinct and swing back to my first choice.
I tell him, “Water Tower Place.”
We ride in silence into the city.
As the buildings of downtown edge closer, Daniela’s cell phone vibrates.
She looks at the screen and then hands it over so I can see the text she just received.
It’s a 773 number I don’t recognize.
Daniela, it’s Jason. I’m texting you from a strange number, but I’ll explain everything when I see you. You’re in danger. You and Charlie both. Where are you? Please call me back ASAP. I love you so much.
Daniela looks scared out of her mind.
The air inside the car is prickling with electricity.
Our driver turns onto Michigan Avenue, which is clogged with lunch-hour traffic.
The yellowed limestone of the Chicago Water Tower looms in the distance, dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers that line the expansive avenue of the Magnificent Mile.
The Escalade pulls to a stop at the main entrance, but I ask the driver to drop us underground instead.
From Chestnut Street, we descend into the darkness of a parking garage.
Four levels down, I tell him to stop at the next bank of elevators.
As far as I can see, no other cars have followed us in.
Our door slams echo off the concrete walls and columns as the SUV pulls away.
Water Tower Place is a vertical mall, with eight floors of boutique and luxury stores built around a chrome-and-glass atrium.
We ride up to the mezzanine level, which houses all the restaurants, and step off the glass elevator.
The snowy weather has brought the crowds indoors.
For the moment at least, I feel perfectly anonymous.
We find a bench off in a quiet corner, out of the flow of foot traffic.
Sitting between Daniela and Charlie, I think of all the other Jasons in Chicago at this moment willing to do anything, willing to kill, just to be where I’m sitting.
I take a breath.
Where to even begin?
I look Daniela in the eye and brush a wisp of hair behind her ear.
I look into Charlie’s eyes.
I tell them how much I love them.
That I’ve come through hell to be sitting here between them.
I start with my abduction on a crisp October night when I was forced to drive at gunpoint to an abandoned power plant in South Chicago.
I tell them about my fear, how I thought I was going to be murdered, about waking up instead in the hangar of a mysterious science lab, where people I’d never seen appeared not only to know me, but to have been anticipating my return.
They listen intently to the details of my escape from Velocity Laboratories on that first night, and my return to our house on Eleanor Street, to a home that wasn’t my home, where I lived alone as a man who had chosen to dedicate his life to his research.
A world where Daniela and I had never been married and Charlie had never been born.
I tell Daniela about meeting her doppelgänger at the art installation in Bucktown.
My capture and imprisonment in the lab.
My escape with Amanda into the box.
I describe the multiverse.
Every door I walked through.
Every ruined world.
Every Chicago that wasn’t quite right, but which brought me one step closer to home.
There are things I leave out.
Things I can’t yet bring myself to say.
The two nights I spent with Daniela after the installation opening.
The two times I watched her die.
I’ll share these moments eventually, when the time is right.
I try to imagine what it must feel like for Daniela and Charlie to hear this story.
When the tears begin to slide down Daniela’s face, I ask, “Do you believe me?”
“Of course I believe you.”
My son nods, but the look in his eyes is miles away. He’s staring vacantly at the shoppers strolling past, and I wonder how much of what I’ve said has actually landed.
How does someone even begin to process such a thing?
Daniela wipes her eyes and says, “I just want to be sure I understand exactly what you’re telling me. So on the night you went out to Ryan Holder’s celebration, this other Jason stole your life? He took you into the box and stranded you in his world so he could live in this one? With me?”
“That’s what I’m telling you.”
“That means the man I’ve been living with is a stranger.”
“Not completely. I think he and I were the same person up until fifteen years ago.”
“What happened fifteen years ago?”
“You told me you were pregnant with Charlie. The multiverse exists because every choice we make creates a fork in the road, which leads into a parallel world. That night you told me you were pregnant didn’t just happen the way you and I remember it. It unfolded in a multitude of permutations. In one world, the one we live in now, you and I decided to make a life together. We got married. Had Charlie. Made a home. In another, I decided that becoming a father in my late twenties wasn’t the path for me. I worried my work would be lost, that my ambition would die.