She looks up at me, smiling now.
“Jason, we are thrilled to have you back. The hour is late, but most of the team rushed in from the city for this. As you might have guessed, they’re all looking on behind the glass.”
Applause breaks out all around us, accompanied by cheers and several people shouting my name.
The lights come up just enough for me to see through the walls. Theater seating surrounds the glassed-in interview cubicle. Fifteen or twenty people are on their feet, most smiling, a few even wiping their eyes as if I’ve returned from some heroic mission.
I notice that two of them are armed, the butts of their pistols gleaming under the lights.
These men aren’t smiling or clapping.
Amanda scoots her chair back and, rising, begins to clap along with the others.
She seems to be deeply moved as well.
And all I can think is, What the hell has happened to me?
When the applause subsides, Amanda settles back into her seat.
She says, “Pardon our enthusiasm, but so far, you’re the only one to return.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. Part of me wants to say just that, but part of me suspects that maybe I shouldn’t.
The lights dim back down.
I clutch my glass of water in my hands like a lifeline.
“Do you know how long you’ve been gone?” she asks.
“Is that a shock to you, Jason?”
“You could say that.”
“Well, pins and needles and bated breath and asses on the edges of our seats. We’ve been waiting for over a year to ask these questions: What did you see? Where did you go? How did you get back? Tell us everything, and please start from the beginning.”
I take a sip of water, clinging to my last solid memory like a crumbling handhold on a cliff face—leaving my house on family night.
I walked down the sidewalk through a cool, autumn night. I could hear the noise of the Cubs game in all the bars.
Where was I going?
“Just take your time, Jason. We’re in no rush.”
That’s who I was going to see.
I walked to Village Tap and had a drink—two drinks, world-class Scotch, to be exact—with my old college roommate, Ryan Holder.
Is he somehow responsible for this?
I wonder again: Is this actually happening?
I raise the glass of water. It looks perfectly real, right down to the way it sweats and the cold wetness of it on my fingertips.
I look into Amanda’s eyes.
I examine the walls.
They’re not melting.
If this is some drug-induced trip, it’s like none I’ve ever heard of. No visual or auditory distortions. No euphoria. It’s not that this place doesn’t feel real. I just shouldn’t be here. It’s somehow my presence that’s the lie. I’m not even exactly sure what that means, only that I feel it in my core.
No, this is not a hallucination. This is something else entirely.
“Let’s try a different approach,” Amanda says. “What’s the last thing you remember before waking up in the hangar?”
“I was at a bar.”
“What were you doing there?”
“Seeing an old friend.”
“And where was this bar?” she asks.
“So you were still in Chicago.”
“Okay, can you describe…?”
Her voice drops off into silence.
I see the El.
Too quiet for Chicago.
Someone is coming.
Someone who wants to hurt me.
My heart begins to race.
My hands sweat.
I set the glass down on the table.
“Jason, Leighton is telling me your vitals are becoming elevated.”
Her voice is back but still an ocean away.
Is this a trick?
Am I being messed with?
No, do not ask her that. Do not say those words. Be the man they think you are. These people are cool, calm, and two of them are armed. Whatever they need to hear you say, say it. Because if they realize you aren’t the person they think you are, then what?
Then maybe you never leave this place.
My head is beginning to throb. Reaching up, I touch the back of my skull and graze a knot that’s so tender it causes me to wince.
Was I hurt?
Did someone attack me? What if I was brought here? What if these people, despite how nice they seem, are in league with the person who did this to me?
I touch the side of my head, feel the damage from a second blow.
I see a geisha mask.
I’m naked and helpless.
Just a few hours ago I was home, cooking dinner.
I am not the man they think I am. What happens when they figure that out?
“Leighton, could you come down, please?”
I need to not be in this room anymore.
I need to get away from these people.
I need to think.
“Amanda.” I drag myself back into the moment, try to drive the questions and the fear out of my mind, but it’s like shoring up a failing levee. It won’t last. It won’t hold. “This is embarrassing,” I say. “I’m just so exhausted, and to be honest, decontamination was no fun.”
“Do you want to break for a minute?”
“Would that be okay? I just need a moment to clear my head.” I point at the laptop. “I also want to sound mildly intelligent for this thing.”
“Of course.” She types something. “We’re off the record now.”
I get up.
She says, “I can show you to a private room—”
I open the door and step out into the corridor.
Leighton Vance is waiting.
“Jason, I’d like you to lie down. Your vitals are headed in the wrong direction.”
I rip the device off my arm and hand it to the doctor.
“Appreciate the concern, but what I really need is a bathroom stall.”
“Oh. Of course. I’ll take you.”
We head down the corridor.
Digging his shoulder into the heavy glass door, he leads me back into the stairwell, which at the moment is empty. No sound but the ventilation system pumping heated air through a nearby vent. I grasp the railing and lean out over the core of open space.