Ryan struggles onto his feet.
“You’re going?” Daniela asks.
“It’s late. I’ve had enough.”
I say, “Ryan, it’s not that I won’t tell you. I can’t tell you. I have no memory of it. I’m a physics professor. I woke up in this lab and everyone thought I belonged there, but I don’t.”
Ryan takes his hat and heads for the door.
Halfway across the threshold, he turns and faces me, says, “You’re not well. Let me take you to the hospital.”
“I’ve already been. I’m not going back.”
He looks at Daniela. “Do you want him to leave?”
She turns to me, considering—I’m guessing—whether she wants to be left alone with a madman. What if she decides not to trust me?
She finally shakes her head, says, “It’s fine.”
“Ryan,” I say. “What compound did you make for me?”
He just glares at me, and for a moment I think he’s going to answer, the tension draining out of his face, as if he’s trying to decide whether I’m crazy or just being a stoned asshole.
And all at once, he arrives at his conclusion.
He says with zero warmth in his voice, “Good night, Daniela.”
Slams the door behind him.
Daniela walks into the guest room wearing yoga pants and a tank top and carrying a cup of tea.
I’ve had a shower.
I don’t feel any better, but at least I’m clean, the hospital stench of sickness and Clorox gone.
Sitting on the edge of the mattress, she hands me the mug.
I cup my hands around the hot ceramic, say, “You didn’t have to do this. I have a place I can go.”
“You’re staying here with me. End of story.”
She crawls across my legs and sits beside me, her back against the headboard.
I sip the tea.
It’s warm, soothing, faintly sweet.
Daniela looks over.
“When you went to the hospital, what did they think was wrong with you?”
“They didn’t know. They wanted to commit me.”
“To a psych ward?”
“And you wouldn’t consent?”
“No, I left.”
“So it would have been an involuntary thing.”
“Are you sure that’s not what’s best at this point, Jason? I mean, what would you think if someone were saying to you the things you’re saying to me?”
“I’d think he was out of his mind. But I’d be wrong.”
“Then tell me,” she says. “What do you think is happening to you?”
“I’m not entirely sure.”
“But you’re a scientist. You have a theory.”
“I don’t have enough data.”
“What does your gut tell you?”
I sip the chamomile tea, savoring the hit of warmth as it slides down my throat.
“We all live day to day completely oblivious to the fact that we’re a part of a much larger and stranger reality than we can possibly imagine.”
She takes my hand in hers, and even though she isn’t Daniela as I know her, I cannot hide from how madly I love this woman, even here and now, sitting in this bed, in this wrong world.
I look over at her, those Spanish eyes glassy and intense. It takes all my willpower to keep my hands off her.
“Are you afraid?” she asks.
I think back to the man who took me at gunpoint. To that lab. To the team that followed me back to my brownstone and tried to apprehend me. I think of the man smoking a cigarette under my hotel room window. On top of all the elements of my identity and this reality that don’t align, there are very real people out there, beyond these walls, who want to find me.
Who have hurt me before and possibly want to hurt me again.
A sobering thought crashes over me—could they track me here? Have I put Daniela in danger?
If she isn’t my wife, if she’s only a girlfriend from fifteen years ago, why would she be on anyone’s radar?
“Jason?” And she asks again, “Are you afraid?”
She reaches up, gently touches my face, says, “Bruises.”
“I don’t know how I got them.”
“Tell me about him.”
“This must be so weird for you.”
“I can’t pretend it’s not.”
“Well, I told you, he’s fourteen. Almost fifteen. His birthday is October twenty-first, and he was born premature at Chicago Mercy. A whopping one pound, fifteen ounces. He needed a lot of help his first year, but he was a fighter. Now he’s healthy and as tall as I am.”
Tears well up in her eyes.
“He has dark hair like you and a wonderful sense of humor. Solid B student. Very right-brained, like his mama. He’s into Japanese comics and skateboards. Loves to draw these crazy landscapes. I don’t think it’s too early to say that he has your eye for it.”
She closes her eyes, and the tears squeeze out of the corners and spill down her cheeks.
“We don’t have a son.”
“You swear to me you have no memory of him?” I ask. “This isn’t some game? If you tell me now, I won’t—”
“Jason, we broke up fifteen years ago. Well, to be specific, you ended it with me.”
“That is not true.”
“I had told you the day before that I was pregnant. You needed time to think about it. You came to my loft and said it was the hardest decision you’d ever made, but you were busy with your research, the research that would ultimately win that big award. You said the next year of your life would be in a cleanroom and that I deserved better. That our child deserved better.”
I say, “That is not how it happened. I told you it wasn’t going to be easy, but that we’d make it work. We got married. You had Charlie. I lost my funding. You quit painting. I became a professor. You became a full-time mother.”
“And yet here we are tonight. Not married. No children. You just came from the opening of the installation that’s going to make me famous, and you did win that prize. I don’t know what’s going on in your head. Maybe you do have competing memories, but I know what’s real.”