“This is a joke—”
“No, it’s not.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is all I can give you.”
“Well, it doesn’t mean anything to me. And you expect me to—what?—drink that down, just see what happens?”
“You’re welcome to refuse, Theresa.”
“What’s in the vials?”
“A short-acting, powerful sedative.”
“And when I wake up, I’m magically back with Ethan?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that, but generally speaking, yes.”
Pilcher turned his head, glanced toward the front windows, and then refocused his gaze on Theresa.
“It will be light soon,” he said. “I need your answer.”
She took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes.
“I’m in no condition to be making a decision like this.”
“But you must.”
Theresa pushed against her legs and came slowly to her feet.
“That could be poison,” she said, pointing at the table.
“Why do you think I’d want to hurt you?”
“I have no idea. Maybe Ethan got mixed up in something.”
“If I wanted to kill you, Theresa...” He stopped himself. “You strike me as a person adept at reading others. What does your gut tell you? That I’m lying?”
She walked over to the mantel, stood there studying the family portrait they had made last year—Ethan and Ben in white Polo shirts, Theresa in a white summer dress, everyone’s skin Photoshopped to perfection and features sharp under the studio lighting. At the time, they’d laughed at how cheesy and staged it had all turned out, but now, standing here in the predawn stillness of her living room, being offered a chance to see him again, the photo of the three of them brought out a lump in the back of her throat.
“What you’re doing,” she said, her eyes still fixed on her husband, “if it’s fake...is as cruel as it gets. Offering a grieving widow a chance to see her husband again.”
She looked at Pilcher.
“Is this real?” she asked.
“I want to believe you,” she said.
“I want to so badly.”
“I understand it’s a leap of faith,” he said.
“You come tonight,” she said, “of all nights. When I’m tired and drunk and filled to bursting with thoughts of him. I would guess that’s not by accident.”
Pilcher reached out and lifted one of the vials.
Held it up.
She watched him.
She took a breath in and let it out.
Then she started walking across the living room toward the staircase.
“Where are you going?” Pilcher asked.
“To get my son.”
“You’ll do it then? You’ll come with me?”
She stopped at the base of the stairs and looked back at Pilcher across the living room. “If I do this,” she said, “will we have our old life back?”
Pilcher said, “What do you mean by ‘old life’? This house? This city? Your friends?”
“If you and Ben choose to come with me, nothing will ever be the same. You will not see this house again. So in that sense, no.”
“But I’ll be with Ethan. Our family will be together.”
She started up the stairs to wake her son. Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe the emotion, but it felt so surreal. The air electric. There was a part of her screaming in the back of her mind what a fool she was. That no sane person would even consider such a proposition. But as she reached the second floor and moved down the hall toward Ben’s room, she acknowledged that she wasn’t sane, wasn’t operating on the basis of logic or reason. She was broken and lonely, and beyond everything else, she missed her husband so much that even the uncertain possibility of a life with him—with their family reunited—might be worth signing everything else away.
Theresa sat down on Ben’s bed and shook his shoulder.
The boy stirred.
“Ben,” she said. “Wake up.”
He yawned and rubbed his eyes. She helped him to sit up.
“It’s still dark,” he said.
“I know. I have a surprise for you.”
“There’s a man downstairs. His name is Mr. Pilcher. He’s going to take us to Daddy.”
She could see Ben’s face glowing in the soft illumination of the nightlight beside his bed.
Her words had hit him like a blast of sunlight, the fog of sleep fast dissolving away, an alertness crystallizing in his eyes.
“Daddy’s alive?” he asked.
She didn’t even know if she fully believed.
What had Pilcher called it?
A leap of faith.
“Yes. Daddy’s alive. Come on. We need to get you dressed.”
* * *
Theresa and Ben sat down across from Pilcher.
The man smiled at the young boy, extended his hand, and said, “My name is David. And you are?”
They shook hands.
“How old are you, Ben?”
“Oh, very good. Your mother explained to you why I’m here?”
“She said you were going to take us to my daddy.”
“That’s right.” Pilcher picked up the tiny glass vials and handed them to Theresa. “It’s time,” he said. “Go ahead and pull out the stoppers. You have nothing to fear, either of you. It will take forty-five seconds once you’ve swallowed it. The effect will be sudden but not unpleasant. Give Ben the vial containing the smaller dose and then take yours.”
She pinched the cork between her fingernails and uncapped the vials.
A potent waft of some foreign chemical escaped into the air.
Smelling it somehow made it real, jarred her out of the fugue state that had controlled her for the last several hours.
“Wait,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” Pilcher asked.
What the hell was she thinking? Ethan would kill her. If it was only her, maybe, but how could she risk her son?
“What’s wrong, Mama?”
“We’re not doing this,” she said, putting the caps back in the vials and setting them on the coffee table.
Pilcher stared at her across the table. “You’re absolutely sure about this?”
“Yes. I...I just can’t.”
“I understand.” Pilcher gathered up the vials.