I stare through the window at the snow falling through headlights, taillights, streetlights, flashing lights.
My heart stomping inside my chest, my thoughts racing.
I need to calm down.
Approach this logically, rationally.
The cab pulls over in front of a seedy-looking hotel called the End o’ Days.
The cabbie glances back, asks, “This work for you?”
I pay the fare and head for the front office.
There’s a Bulls game on the radio and a heavy hotel clerk behind the desk eating Chinese food from a fleet of white cartons.
Brushing the snow off my shoulders, I check in under the name of my mother’s father—Jess McCrae.
I pay for a single night.
It leaves me with $14.76.
I head up to the fourth floor and lock myself inside the room behind the deadbolt and the chain.
It’s utterly without life.
A bed with a depressing floral-print comforter.
Dressers built of particleboard.
At least it’s warm.
I move to the curtains and peek outside.
It’s snowing hard enough that the streets are beginning to empty and the pavement is frosting over, showing the tire tracks of passing cars.
I undress and stow my last ampoule in the Gideon Bible in the bottom drawer of the bedside table.
Then I jump in the shower.
I need to think.
I ride the elevator down to the first floor and use my keycard to access the business center.
I have an idea.
Bringing up the free email service I use in this world, I type in the first idea for a username that comes to mind.
My name spelled out in Pig Latin: asonjayessenday.
Not surprisingly, it’s already taken.
The password is obvious.
The one I’ve used for almost everything the last twenty years—the make, model, and year of my first car: jeepwrangler89.
I attempt to log in.
I find myself in a newly created email account whose inbox contains several introductory emails from the provider and one recent email from “Jason” that has already been opened.
The subject heading: Welcome Home The Real Jason Dessen
I open it.
There’s no message in the email.
Just a hyperlink.
The new page loads and an alert pops up on the screen:
Welcome to UberChat!
There are currently three active participants.
Are you a new user?
I click Yes.
Your username is Jason9.
I have to create a password before logging in.
A large window displays the entire history of a conversation.
A selection of emoticons.
A small field in which to type and send public messages to the board and private messages to individual participants.
I scroll to the top of the conversation, which started approximately eighteen hours ago. The most recent message is forty minutes old.
JasonADMIN: I’ve seen some of you around the house. I know there’s more of you out there.
Jason3: Is this seriously happening?
Jason4: Is this seriously happening?
Jason3: So how many of you went to field & glove?
JasonADMIN: Three days ago.
Jason6: I bought one in South Chicago.
Jason5: You have a gun?
JasonADMIN: Who all thought about Kankakee?
Jason6: I actually drove out there and dug a hole last night. Was all ready to go. Had a car lined up. Shovel. Rope. Everything planned out perfectly. This evening, I went to the house to wait for the Jason who did this to all of us to leave. But then I saw myself behind the Suburban.
Jason8: Why’d you call it off, jason6?
Jason6: What’s the point of going forward with it? If I got rid of him, one of you would just show up and do the same thing to me.
Jason3: Did everyone run through the game-theory scenarios?
Jason3: So we all know there’s no way this ends well.
Jason4: You could all just kill yourselves and let me have her.
JasonADMIN: I opened this chat room and have administrator controls. Five more Jasons are lurking right now, just FYI.
Jason3: Why don’t we all join forces and conquer the world? Can you imagine what would happen with this many versions of us actually working together? (Only half-kidding)
Jason6: Can I imagine what would happen? Totally. They’d put us in a government lab and test us until the end of time.
Jason4: Can I just say what we’re all thinking? This is fucking weird.
Jason5: I have a gun too. None of you fought as hard as I did to get home. None of you saw what I saw.
Jason7: You have no idea what the rest of us went through.
Jason5: I saw hell. Literally. Hell. Where are you right now, Jason7? I’ve already killed two of us.
Another alert flashes across the screen:
You have a private message from Jason7.
I open the message, my head pounding, exploding.
I know this situation is totally insane, but do you want to partner with me? Two minds are stronger than one. We could work together to get rid of the others, and when all the smoke has cleared, I’m sure we can figure something out. Time is critical. What do you say?
What do I say?
I can hardly breathe.
I leave the business center.
Sweat runs down my sides, but I feel so cold.
The first-floor hallway is empty, quiet.
I hurry to the elevator and ride up to the fourth floor.
Stepping off onto the beige carpeting, I move quickly down the hall and lock myself back in my room.
How did I not anticipate this happening?
In hindsight, it was inevitable.
Though I wasn’t branching into alternate realities in the corridor, I certainly was in every world I stepped into. Which means other versions of me were split off in those worlds of ash and ice and plague.
The infinite nature of the corridor precluded me from running into more versions of myself, but I did see one—the Jason with his back flayed open.
Undoubtedly most of those Jasons were killed or lost forever in other worlds, but some, like me, made the right choices. Or got lucky. Their paths might have altered from mine, through different doors, different worlds, but they eventually found their respective ways back to this Chicago.
We all want the same thing—to get our life back.