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I awoke, groggy with a thick and milky haze over my eyes. Something’s not right, I thought… slowly. I blinked my eyes, twice, thrice — yet my pearly, fuzzy eyesight didn’t improve.

I heard more thuds downstairs. Is that what woke me up? No, not thuds. A steady, repetitive pounding. Someone knocking at the door?

Adrenaline kicked in and the wakeup haze started to subside. My wife stirred in bed during another round of loud knocks — no, what’s a harsher word? ‘Knocks’ is too soft; these weren’t friendly knocks on the door — her eyes opening wide with fright.

“What time is it?” she muttered groggily, eyes darting around the room. “Who could that be?”

She glanced nervously at me, but I was already out of bed and picking up yesterday’s jeans from the floor, slipping my first leg in. I caught a glimpse of the clock: almost four in the morning.

Nothing good happens at four in the morning.

More ‘knocks’. Bang. Bang. Bang.

I didn’t bother throwing a shirt on. I wasn’t planning on opening the door, and definitely wasn’t planning on letting anyone see me.

“Stay here,” I commanded with a tone of confidence that surprised both of us while I headed for the bedroom door. “I’ll check it out.”

She stirred to get a better look at me, then whispered nervously, “You’re not taking the gun?”

“I’m not going to open the door,” I said. I looped back to my nightstand and grabbed my phone, though. “I’ll have a look, then be right back up with you.”

My living room was lit with a myriad of reflections of red and blue lights, filtering in from every window on the east side of the house. The half-open blinds cast a surreal barcode of shadows against harsh crimson and navy glows illuminating the whole first floor.

Knock. Knock. Knock!

More adrenaline. What’s going on? I wasn’t sure if I was more afraid of what was happening outside or why the police needed me — or just in my house — so hastily.

I walked quickly to the front door and could almost feel the banging from the other side. It wasn’t until I got close that I could also hear someone shouting… something.

I peered into the peephole and saw four police officers clad head to toe in black body armor. Black masks obscured most of their faces, but their helmets and Kevlar vests clearly said POLICE in blocked white letters. The man in the front was swinging something heavy — some kind of battering ram, I realized — against the front door, while the man on the right was shouting something over the cacophony back to the half-dozen police cars in the street, lights flashing. Huge rifles were hung at the ready across each of their chests, and an officer in the back held a pistol drawn, with both hands, but pointed downward.

I stammered for a second, wracking my thoughts to make sense of what I was seeing. What do they want? Do I just open the door? Those are big guns. Should I say something first so I don’t get a battering ram into my stomach, or a bullet in my chest? What’s going on outside? Why me?

“Hello,” I shouted, twisting the deadbolt with a deep thunk. Before I could turn the knob to crack the door ajar and peer out, it abruptly swung open with a burst of frigid January air and knocked me backward, off-balance. As I stumbled and struggled to catch my balance, the four officers rushed in and grabbed my arms, spinning me around and pushing me onto the ground.

“On the ground,” one of them screamed.

“Don’t move,” another shouted.

With my arms held tightly in their clutches, I couldn’t brace myself as I hit the ground. My face hit the hardwood floor — hard. I bounced back up with a shockwave of pain jolting through my body and felt at least one hard plastic kneepad press into my back, pushing me back down and slamming my forehead into the flooring once again.

That thick and milky haze immediately rushed back to my eyesight, blurring the world into a canvas of shaky pointillism as more heavily-armed officers rushed into the house and out of my sight. I blinked more, but the fog only seemed to spread from my eyes to my brain. If the world was fuzzy before, it only got cloudier as my brain seemed to stop processing everything.

It wasn’t until I heard what must have been a gunshot somewhere that I snapped back to reality and found myself being loaded into the backseat of a black and white police van.

What, I thought, trying unsuccessfully to form a word with my mouth. The haze of the world was palpable. I felt like all of the air in the world had hardened up, leaving me in a thick mixture of mud that I couldn’t move, see, or breathe in.

I gasped, trying to catch my breath. The police officer attaching my handcuffs to a rail on the inside of the van said something, but I couldn’t understand. I heard echoes of syllables, but none of them made coherent words. He repeated himself a few times, louder each time, but nothing made sense anymore.

It wasn’t until well after we’d reached the police station and I’d been sat down in a sterile room for — what, hours? — that the haze suddenly subsided.

And at that moment, I remembered everything.

I looked around the room I’d been placed in. It was small, with a long glass panel along one wall. Two-way mirror, I thought. Obviously. Interrogation room. A dull, steel table sat in the center of the room between me and two men standing by the door. Not geared up like the others had been; these two looked more… comfortable.

Your stereotypical police interrogators, I guess.

They were whispering among themselves, muttering things I could just barely not hear. They both jumped at the sound of my voice.

“Excuse me,” I said softly — softer than expected, at least. My voice sounded different than I remembered, like my vocal cords hadn’t been used in years, or I had a cold or something. Both untrue, though.

“Oh, now he decides to talk,” the shorter of the officers grunted. The other cracked a thin, incredulous smile as they both sauntered over and took a seat at the table across from me.

Something’s not right, I thought — no, screamed, inwardly. And then I recoiled at the thought itself — because it didn’t sound mine.

The officers stared coldly.

“Why am I here?”

Why am I here? I raised my hands slightly — still in chains, and furthermore chained to the table — and stared at them, wide-eyed. Slowly, I clenched my fingers into a small fist, one hand at a time, then stretched out each individual finger.

I looked back up at the officers who were watching apprehensively.

The short officer spoke again: “Have you had anything to drink tonight? Or perhaps partook in any recreational substances?”

I’ve had quite the trip, I thought, chuckling softly at the absurdity of it all.

“We’re dreaming,” I said matter-of-factly. I looked at the clock at the far wall. Aren’t you supposed to be able to tell if you’re dreaming with a clock? The hands seemed to be moving just fine, and six in the morning was plausible if whatever happened at the house — oh god, what happened at the house?

The gunshot. Right. Was that real? Is any of this real?

I spiraled further when I realized I couldn’t remember my wife’s name. This wife’s name, that is. At the same time, the last of a veil of haze I didn’t even realize had still been obscuring the world subsided, leaving behind a deep understanding of the world I’d never experienced before.

“I can assure you you’re not dreaming,” Shorty responded flatly.

“It’s a nightmare night for us all,” Tallguy added with his treacherous smile. “Because of you. Where are your kids?”

My kids? Do I have kids this time? I don’t remember that — I don’t think so. Are they relevant?

I don’t have kids anymore,” I finally replied, looking back at my hands and flexing them again. Years as a — what was I? A plumber? Right, I think a plumber this time — years as a plumber had given me callouses and wrinkles all over my tiny hands. Tiny hands, I remembered, tiny hands made the job easier. How convenient.

Tallguy slammed his huge fist on the table, rattling the chains around my wrists. He half-stood and leaned over the table, exuding pure rage as he howled, “What did you do?”

“What does it matter?” I pondered aloud, gesturing as much as I could against my chains. “None of this is real anyway. Not you, not me, certainly not any kids. None of us are going to exist much longer anyway; I’ll be surprised if this room isn’t the last one we ever see.”

Shorty and Tallguy exchanged glances, speaking in an unspeakable language that comes only from being steadfast partners on the force for so many years.

Tallguy paced over to the door and stood — glaring — while Shorty swiped a folder from the far end of the table and opened it, rereading through the report inside.

He took a softer tone and eventually broke the silence to ask for my recollection of what had transpired last night into this morning.

“Nothing,” I said emphatically. “Nothing happened last night, absolutely nothing. That is… until your officers woke me up in the middle of the night and barged into my house and abducted me into this bizarre plot.”

With a solemn face, Shorty prodded further. “Okay, but even if nothing happened, could you still walk me through what you were doing from, say, nine o’clock last night? Until you went to bed?”

I accidentally broke a small smile, which visibly enraged Tallguy further. I just shrugged and shook my head.

“Sorry, I can’t.”

“Why not?” Tallguy piped up from the back. “You don’t remember? Blocked that part out of your memory, have you?” He added with a vengeful smirk, “Sounds like a guilty conscience, to me. For good reason, too.”

“If that’s the way it’s supposed to go,” I stated, defeated. How dramatic.

“None of this is the way anything is supposed to go,” Tallguy screeched. “You’re supposed to take care of your kids. You’re supposed to love them, to protect them, and to show even a modicum of basic human decency.” He was seething. “You don’t even care just a little about what you did?”

“Don’t talk to me about kids,” I spat back, incensed. “You’re nothing. Literally nothing. I’ve lived more lifetimes than you ever will. I’ve had kids, I’ve watched them grow up, move out, get a job, and get married. I’ve watched them divorce, grow old, and die. I’ve been those kids. I’ve loved them, and myself, and my kids’ kids — more times than you can count. I’ve felt the pain of loss and been crippled by that deep depression so many times, and I’ve caused that loss so many times — ”

“That’s a confession if I’ve ever heard one,” Tallguy interrupted. He looked at Shorty, who was wide-eyed with confusion. “Yeah?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I repeated. “None of this is real.”

Shorty gathered his notes and closed the folder.

He looked me dead in the eye and asked, “Your children are dead, Blake. Did you cause that loss?”

I thought about it. I really did. I’m no stranger to existential dread, after all.

“What loss is there to mourn for what never existed?”

“I’ve had enough of this bull,” Tallboy grunted. “This psycho belongs in psyche either way. That’s as good a confession as we’re gonna get.”

“Your children aren’t the only loss you’ve caused tonight,” Shorty said slowly, keeping his unwavering eye contact. “I regret to inform you that your wife suffered an unfortunate accident when we breached the house.”

When I said nothing, he clarified: “She’s dead, Blake.”

How tragic. My fault — probably — but I do wonder what her story was like to deserve such a sudden, impromptu death. Was it really necessary for my arc?

“That’s tragic,” I stated. “Did she have a name?”

“That’s enough,” Shorty spit. He nodded towards Tallguy, who helped him restrain me while they detached my shackles from the table and took me to a holding cell, where I patiently waited for that thick and milky haze to return and take me to the next story.

And I continued to patiently wait while I spent yet another lifetime in solitude, hoping against logic that I was in fact the main character for this story and not actually just a psycho that murdered his children.

The wait is always the worst.