Who I was in the first place doesn't bear talking about.
What wasn't boring in that life was regrettable, was unpleasant: intervals of pain amidst ugliness. I won't say anything more about it. Not yet.
I woke suddenly but peacefully. That in itself was enough to tell me that something was wrong. I was not one to let go of sleep without a struggle. I had always wrestled wakefulness like it was a crocodile: turning, thrashing, groaning, now and then winning back into the welcome air of dreams before the final plunge into the sodden crushing depths of a new morning.
But here I was greeting a new day, sitting up, stretching my arms, an unbidden foolish smile blooming across my face as I turned it toward the warm light streaming through the window-
My dank little room had no window.
This room had a large white-framed dormer window.
It followed, suggested my rapidly wakening mind, that this was not my room.
Supporting evidence: this massive scarlet duvet cover, imprinted in a slight darker red with fractally interlaced willow trees, was not mine. The redwood nightstand was not mine. The dogeared copy of Innovation and Entrepreneurship by Peter Drucker on the nightstand was not mine. Nor the iPhone, its glass face a little cracked at one corner, which lay next to the book.
The phone rang. The ringtone was "Party Rock Anthem."
Some impulse bred into the sinews, with no aid from my increasingly terrified mind, sent my hand toward the phone, unlocked it with a few deft swipes of a thumb, and brought it to my ear.
"Karl," said a woman's voice - a little cross, a little perplexed, a little concerned. "Karl, you told me yesterday that you'd be in at 7:30."
"It's a quarter to nine, Carl."
"Who is this?" I said quietly.
"It's Helena, Carl. Are you feeling okay? You sound..."
"Well, I'm sick," I said. I spoke with my mouth at some remove from the phone. "So I sound sick."
"Not really. I was going to say that you sound like you're putting on an accent. Northern Cities Vowel Shift or whatever."
"I have family from Duluth." I tried a bit of a cough at the end. It sounded horrifically fake.
"You told me last week that the Haynes are from Raleigh."
"Mother's side. By marriage. Look, Helen..."
"Thanks. It's more of a disorientating kind of..." My voice sounded odd to me as well - a little phlegmier than usual. I tensed throughout my body, and felt a further alienation from my left hand, which squatted tense on the duvet cover. I uncurled and flexed it: the ring finger was missing two joints and ended in a white tapered hump. "Mother of...I've got to go, Helen. Can't explain at the moment."
"Karl? If - I'm coming over."
"No - you won't find anyone. I'm going to the doctor." I stumbled out of the bed like a terrified gazelle, thrashing the cover away. My legs felt thick and clumsy, but strong - stronger than ever I remembered them.
"You're staying put, you dumb bastard. Karl? Karl, don't hang-"
I shut off the phone - now that I wasn't working off unconscious instinct, it took me a moment to discover how to do it - and threw it under the bed. There was an unguessed strength in my arms - the phone slid along the hardwood floor and into a wall with a resounding crack. More broken glass for Karl, whoever and wherever the hell he was.
I looked around for any sign of myself, any clue to tell me how I ended up here, how long I'd slept. Nothing. Just a tastefully appointed bedroom - a lot of upper-end Ikea, a few choice pieces of solid wood. Recently ironed charcoal slacks hung out on a - I believed it was an honest-to-god wooden clothes horse. A wallet on a nearby dresser. A white shirt of impressive thread-count folded next to it, a ring of keys atop the breast pocket.
I opened the wallet. A driver's license in a laminate pocket made out to Karl Lionel Haines. My own face - no, not quite my own face. Rounder, more satisfied, the teeth straighter and smiling without grimace. The card was clearly a forgery. The wallet also contained a Coldstone Creamery rewards card, two hole-punches shy of a free sundae; a much folded Groupon printout that entitled the bearer to half-cost sailing lessons; and three singles, four twenties, and six hundreds.
I had to leave. I did not want to be around when Helena showed up. I wanted even less to be around when the real Karl showed up. I did not want to know whether he would show up; whether he might, in fact, already be home-
No. Someone had set me up; I had done something mortally stupid. One theme or the other had dominated my life; surely one or the other was the only possible explanation for the current situation. I wasn't going to let malice or stupidity send me to jail again.
I threw on the clothes. I had thought that they looked a little big, but they turned out to fit very well - very nearly perfect in the arms and shoulders, though I felt a bit squeezed about the waist in both shirt and pants. I looked out the window for any sign of Helena. The dormer looked out on a backyard - small, but well-ordered, much of the area taken up by frames for green bean vines. I craned my neck; there was an oblique view of a drive, of the front edge of a black car.
A hand leaped to my chest. I found my heart pounding with unaccustomed force. I was torn between the urge to run and a desire to curl up in a corner and hyperventilate. This room was strange, yes; everything outside of it was even stranger.
Under the bed, the phone rang. Synthesized bird chirps this time, running up and down a C minor chord.
I ran for the door, clutching my chest with that marred left hand and the keys with the right. Down the stairs I thundered on those elephantine legs, catching only a glimpse of a shining kitchenette, of some sort of den, of a room too small for its several couches. I found a door - it let out onto a wide clean yawn, beyond the margin of which lay black tarmac and endless suburban homes, overwriting the horizons with clean lines and brown brick and white siding. I made nearly a full circuit of the clean brown-brick-white-siding house which I'd just left before I rediscovered the black Saab.
After some difficulty finding with finding the ignition port - it was buried in the side console - the engine came politely to life. Another impulse born of unknown habit sent my arm up to adjust the rear view mirror.
In its bluish glass, I saw the fat face from the driver's license.
My ribs leapt and convulsed, my arms shuddered, and a hot band of red steel began to constrict my chest, drawing tighter with each breath. A darkness came across my eyes, and I knew no more until a new morning came.