“What can I do for you, Officer?” I asked.
“Mr. Richard Hawkins?” he said, reading from his notebook, then looking up. I towered over him by twelve inches—six if you subtracted the step up to my house.
“Officer Dunbar.” He extended his hand and I shook it. “We spoke on the phone. Thanks for letting me stop by, sorry if I messed up your Friday night.”
I waved him inside. “It’s fine. Have a seat.”
The visit was probably related to one of my clients, so he’d wasted a trip, because confidentiality meant I had nothing to say. We sat in the front room, a coffee table separating us.
“You’re treating Jack Henderson?” he asked.
Jack? My look of surprise answered his question. A successful university professor, Jack loved spending time with his kids and adored his wife——barely forty and living the American dream. His mild mid—life crisis was more poignant than problematic.
The cop held up an envelope. “He left you a note.”
My stomach lurched and I lost my breath. Left me a note? No, Jack couldn’t have…
“He’s alive,” Dunbar said, saving me from a breakdown. “He tried, but his old twenty—two pistol misfired. Still almost took him out, though. Lucky bastard.”
My eyes started tearing and I blinked to clear them. I knew I wouldn’t survive another client suicide. I was still seeing my own shrink about one from years ago.
“How is he?” I asked.
“Still in surgery, but should recover. He’ll be in the hospital a while.” With a flick, he sent the envelope sliding across the table and I caught it. My name was scribbled across the front and it had been opened.
“Did you ever prescribe or give medication to Mr. Henderson?” he asked.
“I’m a psychologist, not a psychiatrist. But if I had, it’d be confidential…just like this should have been.” I held up the letter.
He shrugged. “His wife opened it. Blame her.”
I pulled out a single sheet of paper, the edge tattered from being ripped out of a spiral notebook.
Please help my family, they will never understand without you. My life insurance will leave them wanting for nothing. I am sorry for the pain this will cause, but I can’t stay here. I took Slumber last night because I thought it would help. I have to go back. I know you understand because you always do.
“What does he mean by Slumber?” Dunbar asked.
I shook my head. “No idea. Is it slang for something?”
“Not that I know of, we hoped you’d tell us. It’s not something from his work with you?”
“No. It doesn’t make sense, he’s never been suicidal. I notify someone when a client is a danger to himself…or others.”
“Alright. Well, if you think of anything, call.”
We stood, he tossed a business card on the table. “I told his wife I’d at least check with you before I clocked out for the day. I shoulda been home hours ago.”
“Have her call me if there’s anything I can do. And can you let me know if his condition changes?” I asked.
“I’ll let his wife know if I see her again. It’s up to her.”
He left and disturbing thoughts flooded my mind. Suicide—— Jack? I thought of our sessions, searching for clues to explain why he’d want to take his own life. Nothing. I reread the letter. The Jack I knew would not have written those words. I searched “slumber drug” on my phone, but the Internet returned nothing useful. What had I missed? I felt like puking.
I wanted to call Jack’s wife. We’d never met and I couldn’t break client confidentiality, but I had Jack’s note asking me to help her. Client permission? Close enough for me. I’d call. I needed to know how he was doing. I needed answers.
Finding her number was easy, as Jack had her listed for emergency contact. But the call went straight to voice mail.
“Hi, Judy, this is Richard. He…uh, Jack…left me the note. I’m so sorry and want you to know I am available, for whatever you dead…shit…need! Whatever you need.” I couldn’t believe I’d said that. “I’m sorry. I’m worried sick. I don’t know what Jack is talking about in his letter and I’m…”
I paused, dumbfounded. Why hadn’t I thought this through?
“He asked me to help you and the kids,” I continued. “Please call if there is anything I can do. I’d like to know how he’s doing.”
I left my number, hung up and cursed myself for being such an idiot. I wanted to get in my car and drive to the hospital to get the whole story. Instead, I showered, then got ready for a date I should have canceled. Jack was too much on my mind all evening and I finally had to apologize and go home early.
On Saturday, I scoured the Internet and found nothing that helped. Jack’s act kept me wondering where I’d gone wrong as a therapist and, by early evening, I couldn’t take not knowing, so I called the hospital. After several transfers, I found someone who didn’t understand privacy laws and learned the surgery had exceeded expectations. They anticipated a full recovery. He was okay and I could stop obsessing.
But I didn’t.
On Monday afternoon, I finally received a voice mail from Jack’s wife asking me to come to the hospital. I canceled the day’s last three sessions and sped across town.
If they blamed the therapy for his condition, they might be furious with me, so I was a bit nervous when I approached the open door to his room. I walked in warily, ready for anything, and saw a woman standing at the foot of a bed. Hair pulled back and wrinkled clothes suggested she’d been through a few rough days. Had to be Judy. In the bed, Jack’s upper body was elevated, and his head was heavily bandaged.
“I’m sorry,” I said to his wife, barely over a whisper. Sorry? I supposed I was. For interrupting, for being a lousy therapist, and for my lame message on her phone. She faced me and the speech I’d practiced on the way over was gone. The one that would fix everything.
“I’m Richard,” came out instead.
“Oh, thank goodness.” She took three steps, seized my arm and pulled me closer to the bed. “He’s been asking for you.”
Amid all the gauze, I could see Jack’s eyes, nose, and mouth. He cracked a weak smile.
“Thanks for coming,” he said, in a croaky voice.
He nodded to Judy and she left the room, shutting the door behind her and leaving us alone. I wasn’t sure what it was, but something behind Jack’s eyes felt different. He wasn’t the same.
“I took Slumber,” he said, as if I should know what it was. “And I lost everything. I had five wonderful kids. Grand…even great—grandchildren. Richard, we had a huge, beautiful family …fifty—three years of therapy—free marriage will do that.” His mouth quivered and his right hand shot up to hide his eyes. Which was strange, as he’d never seemed bothered by crying during our sessions.
“Colonel Jack McRandal, Sir!” The hand on his forehead snapped away in a mock salute. “Almost even had the same name. My life was good.”
He looked and sounded like the Jack I’d known, but it seemed like I was talking to an old man. Nervous breakdown? Psychotic episode? Whatever it was, I didn’t need a diagnosis to recognize agony——he was hurting. He must have noticed from my expression that, although sympathetic, I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“You don’t know about Slumber?” he asked.
I shook my head and his face fell, like he’d heard something terrible.
“And you don’t know Dr. Rob Jacobson from Penn State.”
It wasn’t a question, but I shook my head again.
“He knows you. Made me think you were old buddies. Said you even referred patients to him. We talked about life, football… I liked him. Anyways, one thing led to another and he said there was a drug I might be interested in. A pill that makes you have a vivid dream that’s like an intense, character—building retreat.”
He tapped his fingers gently on the bed railing and took several deep breaths. Then, barely loud enough for me to hear, he said, “But it was no dream.”
He was either suffering a serious mental breakdown, or outright lying, though he wasn’t the lying type.
“I thought you knew about and endorsed Slumber.”
“Slumber? Is that its real name, not a nickname?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’s what he called it and I didn’t think it was a big deal. So it’ll put me to sleep. Fine. I’ve taken sleeping medications before. He was a doctor and said there weren’t any physical risks, no withdrawal problems. So, I figured, I’d try it.”
“He said he’d make the arrangements, but I had to take it within two hours of receiving it, or it wouldn’t do anything. Then, a few days later, a fancy box showed up on my nightstand. I thought Judy had put it there…she hadn’t. And we haven’t been able to find it since,” he said, like he fully expected me to believe him. “It had a single gold—colored pill inside, with a black ‘S’ on it. You ever see anything like that? Maybe called something else?”
“I kissed Judy goodnight and went to bed early, ‘cause I didn’t know how long it had been sitting there. It was really cold…the pill…which seemed weird. But I swallowed it.”
He stopped talking and I waited as long as I could, before I had to prod for more. “And then you started dreaming?”
“No—o—o…” he said. “I started living. Living a different life. Didn’t remember this one at all.”
“As Colonel McRandal?”
“Well, Colonel came later. My first memory was pooping in the outhouse. I think I was four. I was born in the late eighteen hundreds and life was way different. People, jobs, cities…” He waved his hand, as if tossing them away. “…all gone now. I remember all of it, my parents, childhood. After Ma passed, Pa raised me and my sister on his own. He spent his life working the mines, so the two of us could get educated and then blamed himself when she didn’t come back from the first war.”
He twirled his wedding ring. I notice stuff like that, nervous tics. But I’d never seen him do it before.
“Pa said she’d still be alive, if he’d never paid for her nursing school, ‘cause then she wouldn’t have volunteered. The flu got her. Can you believe that? So many horrible ways to die over there and she died of the flu.” He continued in a murmur, “She was stubborn as a mule and wouldn’t let me go over there alone. It crushed Pops. He never recovered from losing her. Passed on a few years later.”
“That’s terrible. I’m sorry, Jack. They were your only family?” I said.
He gave me the strangest look——forehead furrowed in distrust, yet eyes wide in wonder. As if surprised he’d convinced me it was real.
“So you believe me?” he said.
I started to answer——to say I didn’t know what I thought——then his face lit up. He pushed back the blankets, opened his gown, and exposed his chest. Then his enthusiasm fizzled.
“I had a monster scar from the second war. All the way across.” He traced an invisible line over his chest. “My most respected medal…which says a lot, since I spent most of my life in the military.” he covered back up, scowling. “I was sure it would still be there. Everyone knew about that goddamn scar.”
Interestingly, I’d never heard him swear.
“I had Jenny. We met in second grade and I proposed the next day. And she accepted on the swings during recess. Course we didn’t get married until we were seventeen. Young, even for 1912, but we’d been engaged for ten years.” He grinned. “And when they tore down Lincoln Elementary, I loaded those swings in my truck and gave them to her for an anniversary present. They’re still in my backyard…”
His head dropped, and his expression turned somber.
“The cutest thing you ever saw, my sweet Jenny. God, we loved each other!” His voice cracked, eyes misted, and we sat in silence.
A lifetime of memories in a single night? Whatever had happened to Jack, it was astonishing. Incredible.
“I remember our first TV. Do you know how amazing those things were? Those tiny black—and—white screens didn’t even work half the time, but they blew my mind.” He pointed his finger at me. “We were at Dayton’s department store when the president was shot. JFK. I’ll never forget that day.”
His eyes pooled, but not a drop spilled. Then he glared at me.
“And you’re gonna tell me I wasn’t even alive when it happened? I remember it like it was yesterday, but I wasn’t even born? How is that possible? You tell me, Richard, how is that possible? Seventy goddamn years wasted? No, there’s no way it was just a dream.” He shook his head.
It had to be a dream, an imagined reality. His mind had crafted stories, that’s all. With a few key questions, I knew I could prove it. But that wasn’t the time to grill him. He needed support.
“I can still smell her perfume. I had the perfect life! Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and everything was gone. Your degree, your career, your childhood, your family, your friends …all of it. But then you’re told it was never real. That it didn’t mean anything. A fake, a sham, a complete load of shit.”
“No, Jack, it means something to you, no matter what——”
“Please Richard, don’t patronize me.”
He had me there. “So you took the pill, fell asleep and dreamed a perfect life? Then in the morning…”
“Well, I suppose it wasn’t totally perfect. It was hard and we worked our asses off. But damn, it was beautiful. I’m telling you Richard, I couldn’t have asked for a better life. And I had plenty of good years ahead of me too. I was driving to the store and like that…” He snapped his fingers. “…it was over. My life, done. I opened my eyes in my bedroom, in this world. One minute I’m driving, I kinda see a truck to my right…” He held out his right arm, then clapped his hands together. “And bam, I’m alone in a strange bedroom. I knew I had died.” his voice wavered. “That truck hit me and I…”
He choked on his words. “All I could think about was the call Jenny would get from the police department.”
Now the tears streamed, while he sobbed. I put my arm around his shoulder and swallowed the knot in my throat. After several minutes, he wiped his face and blew his nose.
“I knew I was dead. The pictures on the wall seemed familiar, but heaven sure wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. Then it started coming back——this life and that goddam pill. You have no idea what that was like. Not only was my family gone, they never existed. I couldn’t accept that. Could you? How do you even comprehend something like that?”
His eyes narrowed and he almost yelled. “You don’t! You can’t. And I decided wherever I was, I didn’t want to be there.” He sighed. “I thought I could still get back to my Jenny.”
“I can’t even imagine,” I said.
“I knew it would hurt Judy and the kids, but you have to understand, at that moment, they weren’t my family. I just wanted to go back home.”
I nodded. A nod that said I might have done the same.
“What about now? How do you feel?”
“It’s all coming back and do I love Judy. And now I don’t want to leave her any more than I wanted to leave Jenny. But I’m confused. It’s like I’m two different people. I still feel my other life, so it’s gotta be out there somewhere. I swallowed a pill and slept for one night, I get that. But it was too real. I couldn’t have just imagined it.”
“What have you told Judy?”
“She thinks a nightmare messed me up and I had a nervous breakdown. What do I tell her? ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve been married to another woman for over fifty years, since I kissed you goodnight?’”
I didn’t know how to proceed. Should I convince him to think rationally? No, I figured that might not be good for him. But it wasn’t just that——I didn’t want to go that route. Why? The realization made me wince. Because I wanted to believe him. I’m usually skeptical, but this pill thing had intrigued me and I wanted it, too. Like I’d wanted to live in Narnia, as a boy.
There was no such medication. He was either lying to hide something, or was delusional, and my money was on delusion. I didn’t know the best way to help, so for the time being I decided to play along and let him finish telling his story.
But just then the door opened and a doctor and nurse walked in.
Jack grabbed my arm. “Richard, can you make sure Judy is okay?”
“I will,” I told him.
“I’m worried about her.”
“You’ll have to leave now, sir,” the nurse said.
That seemed rather curt, so I sneered at her as I left the room. Judy was standing in the hallway, her face begging for answers.
“What have the doctors told you?” I asked.
“The MRI and CAT scan showed only minor damage, no long—term issues. But I’m not worried about his physical health. He doesn’t seem himself mentally.”
I knew what she needed, but I couldn’t honestly give it to her. I opened my mouth and heard myself saying what she wanted to hear, anyway. I don’t know why. My profession is based on honesty, and I lied.
“I don’t know what happened to him, but I think he’ll be fine. He just needs some time, that’s all.” Not all lies, at least.
Her pleading eyes told me it wasn’t enough. Fine. What could a few more white lies hurt, I told myself. “He loves you more than anything. And he wants to be here, with you.”
I touched her shoulder and she leaned her head on my chest, sobbing. I put my arm around her until the sobs subsided and she stood back.
“I need an appointment. I’ve never been one for therapy, but I don’t know what else to do.”
“Anytime. Call my secretary. I’ll tell her to give you top priority.”
“Thanks. I need help understanding this.”
You and me both, I silently agreed.
I argued with myself all the way home. He’s delusional… but what if…no, impossible. I rolled into my driveway and searched the Internet on my phone for, “Lincoln Elementary swing set removed backyard anniversary.” I scrolled through pages of results and was feeling vindicated, till one hit made my scalp tingle.
“Second grade back in 1902, my grandpa proposed to my grandma on a swing set he later put in his backyard…a colonel in the army, he served in WWI and WWII…”
I touched the link and read a blog by the granddaughter of Jack and Jennifer McRandal. The stories matched perfectly. Jack had either read it, or…
I sprinted to the house, cutting through the flowers and trampling a petunia or two. I didn’t completely believe him, but knew I had some research to do. I unlocked the front door, took one step into the living room, and froze. A small box, the kind that would hold an expensive necklace, sat on my coffee table. A large “S” was embossed in gold, on the top.
I scanned the room, looking for an intruder, but knew I was alone. I went to the table and saw my name on the box below the “S” in small print. With trembling hands, I picked it up and opened it. A golden, oblong capsule marked with the same large, black “S” rested on velvet inside. My fingers tingled, my body felt light enough to start floating into the air.
My first thought was to drop the box and run out the back door and call the police. But I knew I wouldn’t. I picked up the “Slumber” with my thumb and forefinger and realized Jack was right——it was like touching a piece of ice. I tossed the box onto the couch and rolled the pill between my fingers. Was it made of metal? I held it close to one eye and rotated it, searching for answers that might be carved in tiny words on its golden surface. But saw only that single letter——and my eye reflected back at me. I smelled it. Nothing. Touched my tongue to it. Cold, but tasteless.
Who had left it? And why? What if it messed me up in the head, too? Or gave me cancer? But, what if it did what I thought it would? Then I’d be a new person in the morning——a better one. Eighty years of wisdom and knowledge, overnight. I remembered Jack had said it had to be taken within two hours, so I nearly swallowed it right there without water. But I didn’t.
The thought that the other life could be terrible, turn me into a bitter, angry person stopped me. Thoughts racing, I just stood there staring at the box and the pill. Trying to decide.