Jessica doesn't stir as I crawl out of bed for my four o'clock in the morning ritual I have most Saturdays. My wife is a light sleeper and it's her habit of sleeping late after we spend the night making love. I quietly rush to the bathroom to get dressed while trying not to make a sound. Somehow, I accomplish the task and slip out of the bedroom without Jessica even turning over.
Walking down the hallway, I pass the doors to the kids' rooms and listen to their slow breathing. I have about two hours before they both rush downstairs for cereal and pop-tarts and their own Saturday morning ritual of television cartoons. Of course, on Sunday morning the will invade Jessica and my bedroom before sunrise demanding daddy start making pancakes. While I smile in anticipation of the joy associated with that task, I long for the comfort of my short taste of solitude.
Once downstairs, I go to the kitchen to make coffee and toast a bagel then smother both halves with cream cheese. With my breakfast complete, I go to the recliner in my study where I can watch ESPN uninterrupted on the big screen television mounted on the wall. It's a small indulgence, but as I look over at my desk covered in legal contracts and business reports I must read before the end of the month, these few minutes of peace are mine.
On the television, commentators babble on about which college football team will take the national championship as I eat my bagel. It's all meaningless given the state of the world, but I enjoy the lazy discussion and wish life was that simple. If I'm responsible, I'll play Mark Jenner, business attorney and spend at least six hours today reading the contracts and reports. My profession has given me a great life with a gorgeous wife and two smart kids. I'll suffer any drudgery to see that we can keep our perfect life. That's when I glance outside the window and see the falling autumn leaves.
My yard is covered in brown, red, and gold leaves. My mind wanders and I remember that I never cleaned out the gutters last year. My mind leaps at the chance to avoid spending most of the day confined in the study reading an endless supply of boring legal prose showing how people often put their best efforts in screwing someone else over to squeeze out a few more dollars in profit.
A couple of hours later, I run back upstairs to change into something appropriate for outdoor work. Jessica is stirring but is still laying in bed with the sheets wrapped seductively around her naked body. The noise I make changing clothes brings her closer to wakefulness but she is resisting. As I leave the bedroom, I hear her stretching and yawning in a way that to me is so sensual my intended purpose starts to fade from my mind.
I turn around to get one last look at her body. She is half asleep, laying on her side facing me as I stand in the doorway.“Where are you going, Mark?” She asks almost purring like a kitten.
“The gutters need cleaning and its a choice between them and proofreading contracts for most of the day. The idea of going over legalese today makes me a little nauseous.”
“Come back to bed,” she drowsily said with a smile. “Why do you have to clean the gutters today?”
“They're clogged with leaves and I don't relish the idea of doing this as the weather gets colder and wetter,” I say considering the idea of paying someone else to do the job. My main reasons being my wife's obvious amorous mood and the fact I really didn't want to drag the ladder out and climb up to the second-floor roofline.
Jessica begins to say something but at that exact moment, her cell phones starts buzzing. She jerks up, turns and grabs the device off her nightstand. “It's my mom,” she says before taking the call. With that, the mood is broken and I proceed outside to accomplish something relatively constructive.
The extension ladder is at my feet, laying on the ground as I look at my house. It's a Victorian-style dominated by the dual cutaway bay windows of the living room on the first floor and those of the master bedroom on the second. Built-in the 1950s, Jessica and I spend a bundle getting it back in shape after buying it from the estate of the old man who owned it before us.
The most expensive exterior renovation was the installation of vinyl siding. The wood siding it replaced had rotted in many areas giving the house a cold, haunted look. The old man who owned it before us never had the funds nor the family for proper upkeep. Years later, the neighbors still tell us he was a sad and bizarre little man. The front porch is what my wife and I are most proud of, it was rebuilt from deck flooring to railings. The addition of wicker furniture and ceiling fans makes it look like something from the early twentieth century.
I know every inch of the house, inside and out. It is my home and I see myself living there with my wife for the rest of my life.
I set up the ladder with the first goal of cleaning out the second-floor gutters. They are badly clogged and will be the most trouble when the winter rains start. The extension ladder feels safe and secure as I climb upward to the gutter. It's leaning against the house at a proper angle with the pads at the base resting on hard ground.
I climb up and reach the spot where I want to start cleaning and insert the spray wand into the gutter. After pressing the wand's lever that would let the water from the attached garden hose begin blasting out the leaves I get nothing. I look down and see the damn water hose has kinked up against ladder blocking the flow. A smarter man would just climb down and straighten it out, instead, I jerk the hose a couple of times and that's when shit goes sideways.
I lose my balance and begin falling from the second story. As typical with such events everything seems to go into slow motion as I return to earth. Which was relatively okay and acceptable until my head slams hard up against the first-floor roof segment. After that, I don't remember hitting the ground.
My next memory is waking up in a hospital room. I'm dazed and weak but the wires and tubes attached to me are few. The room is of course quite spartan, but something is bothering me. I don't see any flowers or cards that you would expect to receive from friends, coworkers, and especially family. There even isn't drawings from my kids hanging on the walls. I try to move but realize that I'm a glorified mound of jello. Speaking is equally problematic with my voice nothing but a weak whisper. Panic grows with me wondering just how long I was unconscious.
Some indeterminate time later a nurse walks in my room and sees that I have returned to the land of the living. “Well, hello Mr. Cross,” she says with a well-practiced bedside manner. “Dr. Mathews is here right now and I'll alert him come see you. You were in a coma for over five months but regained some brain function two weeks ago. I'll admit we were starting to worry about you.”
I heard everything she said but what stuck in my mind was her calling me by the wrong name. “My name is Mark Tanner,” I croak out puzzled about why she was calling me by the wrong name.
The nurse looks puzzled and slightly concerned. Those emotions are soon replaced with a look of condescension. “Yes, disorientation is common in cases like yours. I'll get Dr. Matthews and let him explain the details to you.” She says before quickly retreating out of the room.
All the psychiatrists I've seen since returning to consciousness are freaking out over my case. Not only did I return to the living believing I was another another person, I had crafted a detailed life complete with wife, kids, and a career. It took days for me to regain some sense of my true identity, to realize that Mark Jenner was something akin to a dream construct during my semi-comatose phase. That my real name is David Cross, and that I am a contract computer programmer and web developer who is divorced and has no real family. The one solid commonality I have with my fantasy man, Mark Tanner is the head injury. Apparently, I fell down a flight of stairs where I live and banged up my head enough to almost die.
In fact the headshrinkers are pushing the idea that my fall off the ladder in my dream state caused me to regain consciousness. When the docs first suggested the idea it prompted my first fit of laughter and for me to curse my man Mark for his carelessness. There's no use to lie, I'm in mourning, while my dream wife and kids never existed, their absence hurts like real deaths.
It gets worse, huge chunks of my memories as David Cross are missing. I have some idea of where I was born, a small town in Ohio back in 1980 but nothing of my elementary days up until high school. I know my parents were killed in a car crash sometime in 1991 and I was raised by my material grandmother after that. She in turn passed away during my time at Ohio State. I have no memory of their faces and it took a social worker digging through old DMV records to retrieve pictures of them.
I was married for a short time but my ex-wife now lives in Portland, Oregon. While the social worker said my ex-wife didn't say anything bad about me, she refused to take anytime out of her busy schedule to call me. That she had kids now and a demanding job and that digging up her past wasn't worth the effort.
I spend two months in a psych ward being watched before they turn me loose. Luckily, I at least have a home and a job to return even though I've been out of action for six months now. Apparently my contract is rock solid with me bringing in a nice cash flow and great health insurance. Near the end of my stay in the psych ward, my boss visits me and we discuss my programming skills, which I still possess, and when I return to work.
“David, I'm going to guess you still want to work from your apartment?” Ms. Davenport asks me as we sit in what passes as the day room of the ward.
The question is a surprise to me, in fact I had somehow pictured David Cross being an office cubicle rat living and dying by computer code. “Yes,” I say wondering if I ever ventured into the office at all.
“Well David,” Ms. Davenport says standing up to leave, “we know how you cherish your privacy and how well working at home does for your coding output.”
The Uber driver that picked me up from the funny farm drops me off at a mid-level apartment complex on the other side of town. I've regained a few memories of Greenville, South Carolina where I live, but they're nothing special with them centered on a nearby Applebees.
Unlocking the door to my third-floor apartment, I am underwhelmed by my decorating style. In the living room are a generic couch, recliner, and large-screen television sitting on a cheap entertainment stand. Inside the stand, I find both a Playstation Four and X-Box gaming systems along with the assorted accessories. The room has nothing in the way of pictures, posters, or any other type of decoration. It's abundantly clear the pre-accident David Cross never really did anything outside the computer.
The bedroom is equally bleak consisting of just the bed and a cheap dresser likely made by the same manufacturer of the television stand. In the closet is one suit, which I imagine was for the exceedingly rare occasions when I have to report to the office. Before walking out of the room, I see some humor in the fact that at least pre-accident David made his bed before he went outside to fall down the stairs.
It's in the second bedroom that I make a disturbing discovery. pre-accident David was using it for an office and it contained two computer servers on opposite ends of the room. One was clearly for my job with assorted papers and books related to work laying on the desk next to it. Across the room, the other server was a homemade job with nothing on the desk next it to suggest its purpose. While I had no memory of what I was using for, something about it creeped me out.
Later that evening after resting and getting settled in, I attempt to log onto the mystery server. I immediately find out I have no memory of my passwords so easy access was impossible. As I played around with the system trying to get in and inspected the hardware, I noticed the server was set up to surf the Dark Web. A segment of the internet where things can get dangerous and extremely illegal.
Later that night, I laid in bed racking my damaged brain for the smallest shred of a memory of what I would be doing on the dark web. Despite my fears, I didn't trash the server or try to access it again. In fact, you could say I came to ignore its very existence in my apartment.
Weeks go by and I slowly fall back into my job and living, although calling my shallow existence a life was a gross overstatement. Wanting more, I start seeing a psychiatrist and attempting to connect with people outside work. Slowly at first, I begin to venture out to movies, coffee shops and even attend the local theater to watch a play.
The really big step was creating an account on a dating site. I had been alone far too long and wanted a relationship again, although I still had no idea why my marriage fell apart. No memory of my ex-wife had resurfaced and she still refused to contact me or my psychiatrist. Making contact with her would have filled in the gaping holes of my past. But it was clear that at the minimum, whatever brought an end to our relationship was bad enough that she wouldn't give me the consideration you would an injured animal. It didn't say much of the person I was before the accident.
Months pass by with me continuing to grow and adapt, so much that my coworkers began asking me to parties. I became quite the party favorite telling my story. Just when I was beginning to think my coma fantasy life as Mark Tanner was behind me, it intersected my real life again in the most unexpected way.
My boss, Ms. Davenport had invited me to her house for Thanksgiving, it was in a section of Greenville famous for its old houses, a section I have no memory of ever visiting. Wanting to enjoy the cooler weather and admire the houses, I park my car several blocks away at a local park and begin walking. I was almost at the Davenport house when I frozen in my tracks. I suddenly knew exactly where I was at without looking up. My mind screamed to keep walking but it was no use. I turned to my right and saw a house that I had come to believe only existed in my damaged brain.
It was the Victorian-style house of Mark and Jessica Tanner, two people I was convinced only existed in my mind. This house was no close approximation nor lookalike, I knew every inch, inside and out and could walk in that very second and make myself a cup of coffee.
Long dead emotions about my fantasy Jessica and kids roared to life. I wanted to go home so badly it hurt my soul. But I knew it wasn't my home, that whoever lived there didn't have any idea about me. That's when the front door opened. At first, all I saw was one of the kitchen windows way in the back but a second or two later, I began to make out the silhouettes of a man in a woman standing just on the other side of the doorway. I knew immediately who they were, it was Mark and Jessica with one or both of them about to come onto the porch.
I began walking away as fast as possible without drawing attention to myself. It was just a quickly forming theory but pre-accident David could have used that second server in the apartment to hack into their home security system. It wasn't a leap in logic to believe that such a well-off family would have all the internet-connected cameras associated with modern systems. How pre-accident David discovered the Tanner family, I literally have no idea but I sure as Hell didn't want them to see me.
They had their life and I was starting to have my own. Walking away was still the worst pain in my life.