I stumble down some steps into several inches of fresh powder, my shoes slipping on the frosted pavement.
Just as I right myself, a figure emerges out of the shadows of the alley between two Dumpsters.
Wearing a coat like mine.
His hair dusted with snow.
The blade in his hand throws a glint of light from the nearby streetlamp, and he advances on me, a knife spearing toward my abdomen—the knife that came standard-issue with the Velocity Laboratories backpack.
I sidestep at the last conceivable moment, grabbing his arm and slinging him with all my power into the steps that lead up to the hotel.
He crashes into the stairs as the door busts open above us, and two seconds before I run for my life, I commit the most impossible image to memory: one version of myself stepping out of the stairwell with a gun, the other version picking himself up off the stairs, his hands frantically searching for his knife, which has disappeared in the snow.
Are they a pair?
Working together to murder every Jason they can find?
I race between the buildings, snow plastering my face, my lungs burning.
Turning out onto the sidewalk of the next street, I look back down the alley, see two shadows moving toward me.
I head through the blowing snow.
No one out.
The streets empty.
Several doors down, I hear an explosion of noise—people cheering.
I rush toward it, pushing through a scuffed, wooden door into a dive bar with standing room only, everyone turned facing the row of flatscreens above the bar, where the Bulls are locked in a fourth-quarter death match with the visiting team.
I force my way into the crowd, letting it swallow me.
There’s nowhere to sit, barely anyplace to stand, but I finally carve out a cramped square foot of legroom underneath a dartboard.
Everyone is glued to the game, but I’m watching the door.
The Bulls’ point guard drains a three-point shot, and the room erupts in a roar of pure joy, strangers high-fiving and embracing.
The door to the bar swings open.
I see myself standing in the threshold, covered in snow.
He takes a step inside.
I lose him for a moment, then see him again as the crowd undulates.
What has this version of Jason Dessen experienced? What worlds did he see? What hell did he fight through to arrive back in this Chicago?
He scans the crowd.
Behind him, I can see the snow falling outside.
His eyes look hard and cold, but I wonder if he would say the same about me.
As his gaze tracks toward where I’m standing in the back of the room, I squat beneath the dartboard, hidden in a forest of legs.
I let a full minute pass.
When the crowd roars again, I slowly stand.
The door to the bar is closed now.
My doppelgänger gone.
The Bulls win.
People linger, happy and drunk.
It takes an hour for a spot to open up at the bar, and since I have no place to go, I climb onto a stool and order a light beer that brings my balance down to less than $10.
I’m starving, but this place doesn’t serve food, so I devour several bowls of Chex mix as I nurse my beer.
An inebriated man attempts to engage me in a conversation about the Bulls’ postseason chances, but I just stare down into my beer until he insults me and starts bothering two women standing behind us.
He’s loud, belligerent.
A bouncer appears and hauls him outside.
The crowd thins.
As I sit at the bar, trying to tune out the noise, I keep landing on a single concept: I need to get Daniela and Charlie away from our brownstone on 44 Eleanor Street. As long as they’re home, the threat of these Jasons doing something crazy persists.
Jason2 is presumably with them right now.
It’s the middle of the night.
Going anywhere near our house entails way too much risk.
I need Daniela to leave, to come to me.
But for every idea I have, another Jason is having the same, or already has, or soon will.
There’s no way for me to win.
As the door to the bar swings open, I look over.
A version of me—backpack, peacoat, boots—steps through the doorway, and when our eyes meet, he betrays surprise and raises both arms in a show of deference.
Good. Maybe he’s not here for me.
If there are as many Jasons running around Logan Square as I suspect, chances are he just stumbled in out of the cold, seeking shelter and safety. Like I did.
He crosses to the bar and climbs onto the empty stool beside mine, his bare hands trembling with cold.
The bartender drifts over and looks at both of us with curiosity—as if she wants to ask—but all she says to the new arrival is, “What can I get you?”
“Whatever he’s drinking.”
We watch her pull a pint from the tap and bring over the glass, foam spilling down the sides.
Jason lifts his beer.
I lift mine.
We stare at each other.
He has a fading wound across the right side of his face, like someone slashed him with a knife.
The thread tied around his ring finger is identical to mine.
“When did you get—?”
“When did you get—?”
We can’t help but smile.
I say, “This afternoon. You?”
“I have a feeling it’s going to be kind of hard—”
“—not finishing each other’s sentences?”
“You know what I’m thinking right now?”
“I can’t read your mind.”
It’s strange—I’m talking to myself, but his voice doesn’t sound like what I think I sound like.
I say, “I’m wondering how far back you and I branched. Did you see the world of falling ash?”
“Yes. And then the ice. I barely escaped that one.”
“What about Amanda?” I ask.
“We were separated in the storm.”
I feel a pang of loss like a small detonation in my gut.
I say, “We stayed together in mine. Took shelter in a house.”
“The one that was buried to the dormer windows?”
“I found that house too. With the dead family inside.”
“So then where—?”
“So then where—?”
“You go,” he says.
As he sips his beer, I ask, “Where did you go after the ice world?”