Through the open doorway that leads from the dining room into the kitchen, I glimpse Jason standing at the island, holding a bottle of wine. Reaching across, he pours into someone’s wineglass.
Elation hits, but it doesn’t last.
From my vantage point, all I can see is a beautiful hand holding the stem of the glass, and it crashes down on me again what this man did to me.
All that he took.
Everything he stole.
I can’t hear anything out here in the snow, but I see him laugh and take a sip of wine.
What are they talking about?
When was the last time they fucked?
Is Daniela happier now than she was a month ago, with me?
Can I stand to know the answer to that question?
The sane, even voice in my head is wisely suggesting that I move away from the house right now.
I’m not ready to do this. I have no plan.
Only rage and jealousy.
And I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. I still need more confirmation that this is my world.
A little ways down the block, I see the familiar back end of our Suburban. Walking over, I brush off the snow that’s clinging to the Illinois tag.
The license plate number is mine.
The paint is the right color.
I clear the back windshield.
The purple Lakemont Lions decal looks perfect, inasmuch as it’s half ripped off. I instantly regretted putting the sticker on the glass the moment I did it. Tried to tear it off, but only managed to remove the top half of the lion’s face, so all that’s left is a growling mouth.
But that was three years ago.
I need something more recent, more definitive.
Several weeks before I was abducted, I accidentally backed the Suburban into a parking meter near campus. It didn’t do much damage beyond cracking the right rear taillight and denting in the bumper.
I wipe the snow off the red plastic of the taillight and then the bumper.
I touch the crack.
I touch the dent.
No other Suburban in the countless Chicagos I’ve visited has borne these markings.
Rising, I glance across the street toward that bench where I once spent an entire day watching another version of my life unfold. It’s empty at the moment, the snow piling up silently on the seat.
A few feet behind the bench, a figure watches me through the snowy darkness.
I begin walking quickly down the sidewalk, thinking it probably looked as if I were stealing the license plate off the Suburban.
I have to be more careful.
The blue neon sign in the front window of Village Tap blinks through the storm, like a signal from a lighthouse, telling me I’m close to home.
There is no Hotel Royale in this world, so I check into the sad Days Inn across from my local bar.
Two nights is all I can afford, and it brings my cash reserves down to $120 and change.
The business center is a tiny room down the hallway on the first floor, with a borderline-obsolete desktop, fax machine, and printer.
Online, I confirm three pieces of information.
Jason Dessen is a professor in the Lakemont physics department.
Ryan Holder just won the Pavia award for his research contributions in the field of neuroscience.
Daniela Vargas-Dessen isn’t a renowned Chicago artist, and she doesn’t run a graphic-design business. Her charmingly amateurish website displays several pieces of her best work and advertises her services as an art instructor.
As I trudge up the stairwell to my third-floor room, I finally begin to let myself believe.
This is my world.
I sit by the window of my hotel room, staring down at the blinking neon sign of Village Tap.
I am not a violent person.
I’ve never hit a man.
Never even tried to.
But if I want my family back, there’s simply no way around it.
I have to do a terrible thing.
Have to do what Jason2 did to me, only without the conscience-protecting option of simply putting him back into the box. Even though I have one ampoule left, I wouldn’t repeat his mistake.
He should’ve killed me when he had the chance.
I feel the physicist side of my brain creeping in, trying to take over the controls.
I’m a scientist, after all. A process-minded thinker.
So I think of this like a lab experiment.
There’s a result I want to achieve.
What are the steps it will take for me to arrive at that result?
First, define the desired result.
Kill the Jason Dessen who’s living in my home and put him in a place where no one will ever find him again.
What tools do I need to accomplish that?
Some method of restraining him.
A safe place to dispose of his body.
I hate these thoughts.
Yes, he took my wife, my son, my life, but the idea of the preparation and the violence is so ugly.
There’s a forest preserve an hour south of Chicago. Kankakee River State Park. I’ve been there several times with Charlie and Daniela, usually in the fall when the leaves are turning and we’re antsy for wilderness and solitude and a day out of the city.
I could drive Jason2 there at night, or make him drive, just like he did to me.
Lead him down one of the trails I know on the north side of the river.
I will have been there a day or two prior, so his grave will already be dug in some quiet, secluded place. I’ll have researched how deep to make it so animals can’t smell the rot. Make him think he’s going to dig his own grave, so he thinks he has more time to figure out an escape or to convince me not to do this. Then, when we’re within twenty feet of the hole, I’ll drop the shovel and say that it’s time to start digging.
As he bends down to pick it up, I’ll do the thing I can’t imagine.
I will fire a bullet into the back of his head.
Then I’ll drag him over to the hole and roll him into it and cover him up with dirt.
The good news is that no one will be looking for him.
I’ll slide back into his life the same way he slid into mine.
Maybe years down the road, I’ll tell Daniela the truth.
Maybe I’ll never tell her.
The sporting-goods store is three blocks away and still an hour shy of closing. I used to come in here once a year to buy cleats and balls when Charlie was into soccer during middle school.
Even then, the gun counter always held a fascination for me.