How broken must this version of me be to risk hitting Daniela and Charlie?
Jason tries to step out of the way a half second too late.
The right edge of the bumper clips his waist, the contact devastating.
It slings him around hard and fast, his head slamming into the front passenger window with enough force to break the glass.
In the rearview mirror, I watch him tumble across the road as we keep accelerating.
“Anyone hurt?” I ask.
“I’m fine,” Charlie says.
Daniela sits back up.
“I’m okay,” she says, beginning to brush the pebbles of safety glass out of her hair.
We speed down the dark highway.
No one says a word.
It’s three in the morning, and we’re the only car on the road.
The night air streams through the bullet holes in the windshield, the road noise deafening through the broken window beside Daniela’s head.
I ask, “Do you still have your phone with you?”
“Give it to me. Yours too, Charlie.”
They hand them over, and I lower my window several inches and chuck the phones out of the car.
“They’re going to keep coming, aren’t they?” she asks. “They’re never going to stop.”
She’s right. The other Jasons can’t be trusted. I was wrong about the lottery.
I say, “I thought there was a way to fix this.”
“So what do we do?”
Exhaustion crushes down on me.
My face hurting more every second.
I look over at Daniela. “Open the glove box.”
“What am I looking for?” she asks.
“I’m not sure.”
She pulls out the Suburban’s owner’s manual.
Our insurance and registration paperwork.
A tire-pressure gauge.
And a small leather bag I know all too well.
We’re sitting in our shot-up Suburban in the deserted parking lot.
I drove all night.
I study my face in the mirror. My left eye is purple, badly swollen, and the skin over my left cheekbone has turned black from the blood pooling underneath.
It’s all agonizing to the touch.
I look back at Charlie, and then over at Daniela.
Reaching across the center console, she runs her fingernails down the back of my neck.
She says, “What other choice do we have?”
“Charlie? This is your decision too.”
“I don’t want to leave.”
“But I guess we have to.”
The strangest thought passes through my consciousness like a fleeting summer cloud.
We’re so clearly at the end. Everything we’ve built—our house, our jobs, our friends, our collective life—it’s all gone. We have nothing left but one another, and yet, in this moment, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
Morning sun streams through fissures in the roof, lighting patches along the dark, desolate hallway.
“This place is cool,” Charlie says.
“You know where you’re going?” Daniela asks.
“Unfortunately, I could take us where we need to go blindfolded.”
As I guide us through the abandoned passages, I’m beyond tired. Running on caffeine and fear. The gun I took from the cabin is jammed down into the back of my waistband, and Jason2’s leather bag is tucked under my arm. It occurs to me that as we drove down to the South Side at dawn, I never even glanced at the skyline as we passed just west of downtown.
One last glimpse would’ve been nice.
I register a twinge of regret, but immediately push it back.
I think of all the nights I lay in bed, wondering what it might be like if things were different, if I hadn’t taken the branch in the road that made me a father and mediocre physics professor instead of a luminary in my field. I suppose it all comes down to wanting what I didn’t have. What I perceived might have been mine through a different set of choices.
But the truth is, I did make those different choices.
Because I am not just me.
My understanding of identity has been shattered—I am one facet of an infinitely faceted being called Jason Dessen who has made every possible choice and lived every life imaginable.
I can’t help thinking that we’re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.
But none of the other Jasons matter.
I don’t want their lives.
I want mine.
Because as fucked as everything is, there is no place I’d rather be than with this Daniela, this Charlie. If one tiny thing were different, they wouldn’t be the people I love.
We move slowly down the stairs toward the generator room, our footfalls echoing through the vast, open space.
One flight up from the bottom, Daniela says, “There’s someone down there.”
My mouth runs dry as I gaze into the gloom below.
I see a man get up from where he’s been sitting on the floor.
Then another beside him.
All throughout the darkness between the last generator and the box, versions of me are coming to their feet.
They came early for the lottery.
Dozens of them.
All watching us.
I look back up the stairs, the blood rushing in my ears so loud it temporarily blocks out everything in a waterfall of panic-driven white noise.
Daniela says, “We’re not running.” She pulls the gun out of my waistband and links her arm through mine. “Charlie, grab your father’s arm and don’t let go no matter what happens.”
“You sure about this?” I ask.
“One million percent.”
With Charlie and Daniela clinging to me, I slowly descend the last few steps and start across the broken concrete.
My doppelgängers stand between us and the box.
There’s no oxygen in the room.
Nothing but the sound of our footsteps and the wind blowing through the glassless window frames high above.
I hear Daniela let out a trembling breath.
Charlie’s hand is sweating in mine.
“Just keep walking,” I say.
One of them steps forward.
He says to me, “This isn’t what you proposed.”
I say, “Things have changed. A bunch of us tried to kill me last night, and—”