Across from the toilet, I see what I’m looking for: a large shelf built into the wall with a hatch that opens the laundry chute.
Through the bathroom door, I hear the radio crackling.
“Jason, please. Talk to me.” Out of nowhere, his voice hemorrhages frustration. “We have all given up our lives working toward tonight. Come out here! This is fucking insane!”
One rainy Sunday when Charlie was nine or ten, we spent an afternoon pretending we were spelunkers. I would lower him down the laundry chute again and again, as if it were the entrance to a cave. He even wore a little backpack and a makeshift headlamp—a flashlight tied to the top of his head.
I open the hatch, scramble up onto the shelf.
Leighton says, “Take the bedroom.”
Footsteps patter down the hall.
The fit down the laundry chute looks tight. Maybe too tight.
I hear the bathroom door begin to shake, the doorknob jiggling, and then a woman’s voice: “Hey, this one’s locked.”
I peer down the chute.
The bathroom door is thick enough that their first attempt to break through only results in a splintering crack.
I might not even fit down this thing, but as they crash into the door a second time and it explodes off the hinges and thunders down against the tile, I realize I have no other options.
They rush into the bathroom, and in the mirror I catch the fleeting reflection of Leighton Vance and one of those security consultants from the lab, holding what appears to be a Taser.
Leighton and I lock eyes in the glass for a half second, and then the man with the Taser spins, raising his weapon.
I fold my arms into my chest and commit myself to the chute.
As the shouting in the bathroom fades away above me, I slam into an empty laundry hamper, the plastic splitting, sending me tumbling out from between the washer and the dryer.
Their footsteps are already coming, pounding down the staircase.
A needle of pain threads up my right leg from the fall. I scramble to my feet and bolt for the French doors that lead out the back of the brownstone.
The brass door handles are locked.
Footsteps are closing in, the voices louder, radios squeaking as instructions scream over static.
I turn the lock, pull open the doors, and tear across a redwood deck, which boasts a grill that’s nicer than mine and a hot tub I have never owned.
Down the steps into the backyard, past a rose garden.
I try the garage door, but it’s locked.
With all the movement inside, every light in the house has been triggered. There must be four or five people running around on the first floor trying to find me, shouting at one another.
An eight-foot privacy fence encloses the backyard, and as I flip the hasp on its door, someone barrels onto the deck, shouting my name.
The alley is empty, and I don’t stop to think which direction to go.
I just run.
At the next street, I glance back, see two figures chasing me.
In the distance, a car engine roars to life, followed by the screech of tires spinning on pavement.
I hang a left and sprint until I reach the next alley.
Almost every backyard is protected by tall privacy fencing, but the fifth one down is waist-high, wrought-iron construction.
An SUV whips its back end around and accelerates into the alley.
I break for the low fence.
Lacking the strength to hurdle it, I clumsily haul myself over the pointed metal tines and collapse in the backyard. I crawl through the grass to a tiny shed beside the garage, with no padlock on the door.
It creaks open, and I slip inside as someone runs across the backyard.
I shut the door so no one will hear my panting.
I cannot catch my breath.
It’s pitch-black inside the shed and redolent of gasoline and old grass clippings. My chest heaves against the back of the door.
Sweat drips off my chin.
I claw a cobweb off my face.
In darkness, my hands palm the plywood walls, fingers grazing various tools—pruning shears, a saw, a rake, the blade of an ax.
I take the ax from the wall and grip the wooden handle, scraping my finger across the head. Can’t see a thing, but it feels like it hasn’t been sharpened in years—deep chinks in the blade, which no longer holds an edge.
Blinking through the stinging sweat, I carefully open the door.
Not a sound creeps in.
I nudge it open a few more inches, until I can see into the backyard again.
In this sliver of quiet and calm, the principle of Occam’s razor whispers to me—all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the right one. Does the idea that I was drugged and kidnapped by a secret, experimental group for the purposes of mind control or God-knows-what fit that bill? Hardly. They would’ve needed to either brainwash me to convince me that my house was not my house, or in the space of several hours, get rid of my family and gut the interior so I didn’t recognize anything.
Or—is it more plausible that a tumor in my brain has turned my world upside down?
That it’s been growing silently inside my skull for months or years and is finally wreaking havoc on my cognitive processes, skewing my perception of everything.
The idea hits me with the force of conviction.
What else could have crashed through me with such debilitating speed?
What else could make me lose touch with my identity and reality in a matter of hours, calling into question everything I thought I knew?
Finally, I step outside into the grass.
No more voices.
No more footsteps.
No car engines.
The night feels sturdy and real again.
I already know where I’m headed next.
Chicago Mercy is a ten-block trek from my house, and I limp into the harsh light of the ER at 4:05 a.m.
I hate hospitals.
I watched my mother die in one.
Charlie spent the first weeks of his life in a NICU.
The waiting room is practically empty. Aside from me, there’s a night construction worker clutching his arm in a bloody bandage, and a distressed-looking family of three, the father holding a red-faced, wailing baby.
The woman at the front desk looks up from her paperwork, surprisingly bright-eyed considering the hour.
Asks through the Plexiglas, “How can I help you?”
I haven’t thought of what to say, how to even begin to explain my needs.