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—
The smell of red wine.
Standing in a kitchen chopping an onion.
A teenager drawing.
Not a teenager.
Not a kitchen.
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 boarding-school 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?”
“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.
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.”
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.”