She leans her head against my shoulder.
“Thank you, Jason.”
“Not letting me freeze to death out there.”
“Does this mean we’re even?”
She laughs. “Not even close. I mean, let’s not forget, this is still all your fault.”
It’s a strange exercise in sensory deprivation to sit in the total darkness and silence of the box. The only physical sensations are the chill of the metal bleeding through my clothes and the pressure of Amanda’s head against my shoulder.
“You’re different than him,” she says.
“Softer. He had a real hard edge when you got down to it. The most driven human being I’ve ever met.”
“Were you his therapist?”
“Was he happy?”
I sense her pondering my question in the dark.
“What?” I ask. “Am I putting you in a doctor-patient confidentiality quandary?”
“Technically, you two are the same person. It’s new territory for sure. But no. I wouldn’t say he was happy. He lived an intellectually stimulating but ultimately one-dimensional life. All he did was work. In the last five years, he didn’t have a life outside the lab. He practically lived there.”
“You know your Jason is the one who did this to me. I’m here right now because several nights ago, someone abducted me at gunpoint while I was walking home. He took me to an abandoned power plant, drugged me, asked me a bunch of questions about my life and the choices I’d made. If I was happy. If I would’ve done things differently. The memories are back now. Then I woke up in your lab. In your world. I think your Jason did this to me.”
“You’re suggesting that he went into the box, somehow found your world, your life, and switched places with you?”
“Do you think he was capable?”
“I don’t know. That’s crazy.”
“Who else would’ve done this to me?”
Amanda is quiet for a moment.
She says finally, “Jason was obsessed with the path not taken. He talked about it all the time.”
Now I feel the anger coming back.
I say, “There’s still a part of me that doesn’t want to believe it. I mean, if he wanted my life, he could’ve just killed me. But he went to the trouble of injecting me, not only with an ampoule, but ketamine, which rendered me unconscious and blurred my memories of the box and what he’d done. Then he actually brought me back to his world. Why?”
“It actually makes a lot of sense.”
“He wasn’t a monster. If he did this to you, he would have rationalized it somehow. That’s how decent people justify bad behavior. In your world, are you a renowned physicist?”
“No, I teach at a second-rate college.”
“Are you wealthy?”
“Professionally and financially speaking, I can’t hold a candle to your Jason.”
“There you go. He tells himself he’s giving you the chance of a lifetime. He wants a shot at the path not taken. Why wouldn’t you? I’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying that’s how a good man works himself up to do a terrible thing. It’s Human Behavior 101.”
She must sense my rage building, because she says, “Jason, you don’t have the luxury of freaking out right now. In a minute, we’re going back into that corridor. We’re the controls. Your words. Right?”
“If that’s the truth, if it’s our emotional state that’s somehow selecting these worlds, to what kind of a place is your rage and jealousy going to take us? You can’t hold on to this energy as you open a new door. You have to find a way to let it go.”
I can feel the drug coming.
My muscles relax.
For a moment, the anger vanishes into a river of peace and calm I would give anything to make last, to have carry me through.
When Amanda turns on the lantern, the walls perpendicular to the door are gone.
I look down at the leather bag that holds the remaining ampoules, thinking, If the asshole who did this to me figured out how to navigate the box, then I will too.
In the blue light, Amanda watches me.
I say, “We have forty-four ampoules left. Twenty-two chances to get this right. How many did the other Jason take with him into the box?”
I feel a glimmer of panic course through me, but I smile in spite of it.
“I guess it’s lucky for us I’m way smarter than him, right?”
Amanda laughs, rises to her feet, and offers me her hand.
“We have one hour,” she says. “You up for this?”
He gets up earlier.
He drinks less.
Has started exercising.
Holds his fork differently.
Laughs more easily.
He takes longer showers, and instead of just running a bar of soap over his entire body, he lathers up a washcloth now.
He shaves once every two days instead of four, and at the bathroom sink instead of in the shower.
Puts his shoes on immediately after dressing, not at the front door before leaving the house.
He flosses regularly, and she actually saw him plucking his eyebrows three days ago.
He hasn’t worn his favorite sleeping shirt—a faded U2 T-shirt from a concert they saw a decade ago at the United Center—in almost two weeks.
He does the dishes differently—instead of building an unwieldy tower in the drying rack, he sets the wet plates and glassware on towels that he’s spread across the countertop.
He drinks one cup of coffee with breakfast instead of two, and he makes it weaker than he used to, so weak in fact that she’s been making an effort to beat him down to the kitchen each morning to brew the coffee herself.
Lately, their family dinner conversations have centered around ideas, books, and articles Jason is reading, and Charlie’s studies, instead of a mundane recounting of the day’s events.
Speaking of Charlie, Jason is also different with their son.
More lenient, less paternal.
As if he’s forgotten how to be a father to a teenager.