I turn the deadbolt.
The door swings inward.
Something is wrong.
Very, very wrong.
I step across the threshold, into the dining room.
This doesn’t smell like my house. Doesn’t smell like anything but the faintest odor of dust. Like no one has lived here in quite some time. The lights are out, and not just some of them. Every last one.
I close the door and fumble in the darkness until my hand grazes a dimmer switch. A chandelier made of antlers warms the room above a minimalist glass table that isn’t mine and chairs that aren’t mine.
I call out, “Hello?”
The house is so quiet.
In my home on the mantel behind the dining-room table there’s a large, candid photograph of Daniela, Charlie, and me standing at Inspiration Point in Yellowstone National Park.
In this house, there’s a deep-contrast black-and-white photograph of the same canyon. More artfully done, but with no one in it.
I move on to the kitchen, and at my entrance, a sensor triggers the recessed lighting.
In my house, there’s a Charlie first-grade creation (macaroni art) held by magnets to our white refrigerator. It makes me smile every time I see it. In this kitchen, there’s not even a blemish on the steel façade of the Gaggenau refrigerator.
Even the resonance of my voice is different here.
There’s less stuff, more echo.
As I walk through the living room, I spot my old turntable sitting next to a state-of-the-art sound system, my library of jazz vinyl lovingly stowed and alphabetized on custom, built-in shelves.
I head up the stairs to the second floor.
The hallway is dark and the light switch isn’t where it should be, but it doesn’t matter. Much of the lighting system runs on motion sensors, and more recessed bulbs wink on above me.
This isn’t my hardwood floor. It’s nicer, the planks wider, a little rougher.
Between the hall bath and the guest room, the triptych of my family at the Wisconsin Dells has been replaced with a sketch of Navy Pier. Charcoal on butcher paper. The artist’s signature in the bottom right-hand corner catches my eye—Daniela Vargas.
I step into the next room on the left.
My son’s room.
Except it’s not. There’s none of his surrealist artwork. No bed, no manga posters, no desk with homework strewn across it, no lava lamps, no backpack, no clothes scattered all over the floor.
Instead, just a monitor sitting on an expansive desk that’s covered in books and loose paper.
I walk in shock to the end of the hallway. Sliding a frosted pocket door into the wall, I enter a master bedroom that is luxurious, cold, and, like everything else in this brownstone, not mine.
The walls are adorned with more charcoal/butcher paper sketches in the style of the one in the hall, but the centerpiece of the room is a glass display case built into an acacia wood stand. Light from the base shines up dramatically to illuminate a certificate in a padded leather folder that leans against a plush velvet pillar. Hanging from a thin chain on the pillar is a gold coin with Julian Pavia’s likeness imprinted in the metal.
The certificate reads:
The Pavia Prize is awarded to
JASON ASHLEY DESSEN for outstanding achievement in advancing our knowledge and understanding of the origin, evolution and properties of the universe by placing a macroscopic object into a state of
I sit on the end of the bed.
I am not well.
I am so not well.
My home should be my haven, a place of safety and comfort, where I’m surrounded by family. But it’s not even mine.
My stomach lurches.
I rush into the master bath, fling open the toilet seat, and empty my guts into the pristine bowl.
I’m racked with thirst.
I turn on the faucet and dip my mouth under the stream.
Splash water in my face.
I wander back into the bedroom.
No idea where my mobile phone is, but there’s a landline on the bedside table.
I never actually dial Daniela’s cell-phone number, so it takes me a moment to recall, but I finally punch it in.
A male voice answers, deep and groggy.
“I think you misdialed.”
I recite Daniela’s cell phone number, and he says, “Yeah, that’s the number you called, but it’s my number.”
“How is that possible?”
He hangs up.
I dial her number again, and this time he answers on the first ring with, “It’s three in the morning. Don’t call me again, asshole.”
My third attempt goes straight to the man’s voicemail. I don’t leave a message.
Rising from the bed, I return to the bathroom and study myself in the mirror over the sink.
My face is bruised, scraped, bloody, and mud-streaked. I need a shave, my eyes are bloodshot, but I’m still me.
A wave of exhaustion hits me like a haymaker to the jaw.
My knees give out, but I catch myself on the countertop.
And then, down on the first floor—a noise.
A door closing softly?
Back in the bedroom, I move silently to the doorway and stare down the length of the hall.
I hear whispered voices.
The static of a handheld radio.
The hollow creak of someone’s footfall on a hardwood step.
The voices become clearer, echoing between the walls of the stairwell and spilling out the top and down the corridor.
I can see their shadows on the walls now, preceding them up the staircase like ghosts.
As I take a tentative step into the hallway, a man’s voice—calm, measured Leighton—slides out of the stairwell: “Jason?”
Five steps and I reach the hall bath.
“We’re not here to hurt you.”
Their footfalls are in the hallway now.
Stepping slowly, methodically.
“I know you’re feeling confused and disoriented. I wish you’d said something back at the lab. I didn’t realize how bad it was for you. I’m sorry I missed that.”
I carefully close the door behind me and push in the lock.
“We just want to bring you in so you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else.”
The bathroom is twice the size of mine, with a granite-walled shower and a double vanity topped with marble.