And something’s odd – within –
That person that I was
And this one – do not feel the same –
Could it be Madness, this? – Emily Dickinson
“John? John, can you hear me?”
Yes, I can hear you, he tried to say to his mother, but his mouth wouldn’t work.
John was on a gurney, being rolled into a bustling E.R., yet his consciousness wasn’t with his body: He was hovering above the scene, looking down on himself, on the paramedics pushing the gurney along, on his mother and his uncle trotting beside them. Sarah looked stricken. John had a deep gash across the side of his head, blood matted in his hair; his eyes were closed, and he was strapped to a backboard, a collar circling his neck.
I look bad, John thought.
“MVA, severe head trauma, possible spinal chord injury,” the paramedic sang out to the nurses and doctors.
“Are you his mother?” a doctor with a thick Indian accent asked of Sarah. She nodded. “What’s his name?”
“John. John Con-“
“John Baum,” Derek hastily interrupted, arching an eyebrow at Sarah. “I’m his uncle,” he added to the doctor.
“We’re going to take John back to CT and find out how bad this head injury is,” the doctor said. “A nurse will escort you both to the waiting room.”
“I want to stay with him,” Sarah protested, gripping John’s lifeless hand.
“Right now, you need to let us work on him,” the doctor insisted. “We’ll come get you as soon as we know anything.”
John jerked awake, nearly jumping out of his skin when he blinked up into Charlie Dixon’s face. “Charlie?” he gasped. “You’re here?” Meaning, Are you real?
Hope bloomed in John’s heart. Charlie had learned the hard way about Terminators; after losing his wife, surely nothing could have convinced him that Skynet wasn’t real. If anybody can make my mother listen to reason, John thought, it’s Charlie.
John was lying on one of the plastic-covered couches in the rec room, where he must have drifted off to sleep – mental hospitals were hardly stimulating environments. He had his head in Cameron’s lap. She was staring straight ahead into nothingness, statue-like, a flawless imitation of the medicine-befuddled patients around them. John had rarely seen her appear so machine-like outside of the house; she was careful to effect human gestures in public. The weird part was, her inhuman stiffness didn’t look out-of-place here.
“I was just dropping off Michelle,” Charlie said, pointing to the pretty blonde nurse, who was depositing her purse behind the nurse’s station.
Michelle. Michelle Dixon. John had to look away as tears sprang to his eyes. Michelle Dixon was dead. John had comforted Charlie in the aftermath of her loss, had held him while he cried for hours, hating himself because Charlie had tried to comfort him, too – because Charlie was glad John was alive, even if it had cost him his wife.
Whatever was doing this to him was cruel, John decided. Bringing back the people who had been lost. Taunting him with a world where the only thing screwed up was his own mind. Seeming to say, Everything could be perfect if you’d just stop believing in the damn machines.
A flash of his dream came back to him – the E.R., Sarah, Derek. A head injury, the doctor had said. Was his body really back there, bleeding on an X-ray table? Was this crazy scenario something his comatose brain had cooked up? This can’t be a dream, John thought, running a hand through his short hair, leaving it sticking up wildly in the back. It would have to be a 3-D, surround-sound kind of dream – the most real dream ever.
“You seemed like you were having a nightmare,” Charlie commented.
“Was I?” John grinned darkly at the irony.
Charlie sat down across from him. He was wearing his EMT uniform, and his smile reached his eyes, without any of the pain John had seen there when they’d been together last. “How’ve you been?”
“I’m in a nuthouse,” John said, and Charlie laughed. John chanced a glance at Cameron; she hadn’t moved an inch, yet something told him she was listening closely. He sat up and leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Listen, Charlie, Michelle may have told you, I’m trying to remember…well, I guess I’m trying to remember my life.” My life now, in Sideways Universe. “Can you tell me how we met?”
Sympathy flooded Charlie’s face. “Oh, Johnny,” he sighed. “Michelle said they’ve really stepped up your therapy. That must be so hard.”
John shrugged that off. “I remember you, but I’d like to see if what I remember is what you remember,” he persisted.
“Let’s see. I’ve known you, oh, six years now? I was on duty the night the police found you, after you’d been abducted. I helped bring you in to the hospital. I kept checking back in on you, because you were such a great kid and I was worried about you, and we got to be friends. When your mother was having…trouble with you,” he said, putting it delicately, John was sure, “I suggested she bring you here, where Michelle works. Our families have stayed in touch ever since.”
Our families. “You have kids?” John asked, surprised. Not that Charlie wouldn’t have made an awesome dad. It was simply unexpected.
“Sure do,” Charlie answered. “And you know what they say: Speak of the devil and the devil shall appear.”
John should have been beyond being shocked at that point, yet he nearly fell off the couch when Riley Dawson bounced onto the psych ward, wearing her usual jeans-and-hoodie combo. She offered him one of her sardonic grins and said, “Hey, nut-job, what’s up?”
“Riley,” Charlie scolded.
“I – you’re – ” John fumbled for words, finally settling on the least crazy-sounding of the million questions swirling in his astonished brain: “What are you doing here?”
“I would’ve been here sooner, but Mom thought your condition was too ‘delicate’.” Riley put quote-fingers around the last word; in spite of himself, John laughed. Leave it to Riley to make a joke out of the whole situation. He admired that about her, even as he realized the razor-sharp humor was her defense mechanism, like hiding behind his new-weird-kid persona to avoid forging real relationships was his.
“I told them you’re always glad to see me.” Riley plunked herself down between John and Cameron, paying absolutely no attention to the Terminator, as if she didn’t know her at all – which, in Sideways Universe, she had no reason to. In this reality, Cameron was another mental patient, not his “sister.”
“So are you?” Riley pressed, staring hard into John’s eyes. “Glad to see me, I mean.”
He was abruptly reminded of their make-out session in the truck, and he couldn’t help wondering if, he and Riley had ever kissed in Sideways Universe. He was also acutely aware of Charlie – her dad, weird as that was to imagine – watching them closely. Quickly, he said, “Sure I’m glad to see you.”
“Riley, don’t pick on John.” Michelle walked over to them, resting her hands lightly on Charlie’s shoulders. “It’s such a beautiful day out. John has grounds privileges. Why don’t you two go for a walk?”
Riley looked questioningly at John. “Want to?”
“Uh…Yeah, sure.” John stood and glanced at Cameron. “Do you mind if Cameron comes?”
Michelle bit her lip. “Sorry, John, Cameron lost her grounds privileges when she ran away.”
“Oh. Right.” John tried to catch Cameron’s eye, but she went right on staring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to his existence. “See you in a while,” he said to her profile. She didn’t even blink.
Riley led John past the nurse’s station to a guard desk. The uniformed officer checked her visitor’s badge and marked John’s name off on a sheet before buzzing them through the locked door into the main lobby, which opened out onto a grassy lawn bathed in California sunshine. Out of habit, John made a mental note of how difficult it would be to escape: The door to the lobby opened by pressing a button on the guard’s desk; the uniformed officer carried a Taser, not a gun; the main lobby was unguarded, a second hallway leading back to an unlocked ward, probably for the less-crazy people, John guessed. Escape was definitely possible.
Hand-in-hand, Riley and John strolled along the wide sidewalk. The hospital grounds were carefully manicured, as though being surrounded by beauty somehow made up for being nuts. “You seem out of it,” Riley commented. “Have they got you burned out on meds?”
They would have, if John hadn’t routinely spit out the pills the nurses were forever pouring into his hands. But he wasn’t going to tell Riley that; for all he knew, she’d turn right around and tell Michelle, and then he’d be screwed. “I guess,” he answered, hoping she wouldn’t press for a less evasive response. “So we hang out a lot, you and me?”
“Well, I don’t know about ‘a lot,’ since you spend all your time with your stuck-up little Beverly Hills friends and I’m just your regular old sociopath-in-training from the suburbs,” Riley retorted. “You suck at returning your phone calls, by the way.”
“I don’t think I’m allowed phone calls in here,” John countered, trying to picture himself – or Sarah – living in Beverly Hills.
“I meant before that.” Riley was leading him down an alley between two buildings – the hospital and an older, decaying structure that looked a little like a Gothic mansion, the kind of place where horror movies were filmed. John doubted his grounds privileges extended this far, but no one appeared to be watching them.
“After that night…You just stopped talking to me. Like a jerk.”
She was playing it cool, but John could tell he’d really hurt her. The infuriating part was, he didn’t even know what she was talking about. “Look, Riley,” he said, frustration thick in his voice, “there’s a lot of stuff I can’t remember right now. I don’t know what ‘night’ you’re talking about.”
Instead of answering, Riley pushed open a green metal door off the alley. Its rusted hinges squealed in the stillness; John jumped, expecting an orderly to rush out of the shadows and usher him back to the ward. Nothing happened. Warily, he followed her into the cool, musty darkness.
They were standing in a narrow hallway lined with closed doors. The plaster on the walls was cracked and dripping with condensation; mold grew on the linoleum floor; the only light came from a grime-encrusted window halfway down the corridor.
“What is this place?” John asked.
“The old hospital,” Riley replied. “The new one was only built a couple of years ago.”
All at once, John flashed back to ten years old, his mother lying on this very floor, screaming as the Terminator held out his hand to her and said, “Come with me if you want to live.” He shivered. Had that really happened? He couldn’t be sure of anything anymore, not with Riley Dawson/Dixon standing in front of him, so warm and real he couldn’t possibly dismiss her as a phantom his mind had created.
He didn’t know why seeing Riley had made Sideways Universe feel so real, but it had.
Riley hugged her arms across her chest, considering him. “You really don’t remember, do you?”
John shook his head. “I really don’t.”
“And I think I’ve got issues. Sorry,” Riley said, reaching for his hand when John started to pull away, irritated. “I’m being a bitch. I don’t mean to be. It’s just…You sleep with me and then you don’t call me for three weeks, and I have to hear from my mom that you’ve tried to off yourself, and now you say you don’t even remember what happened between us.”
Fantastic, John thought sourly. Not only am I a lunatic in this reality, I’m also an asshole. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t…”
What was he supposed to say? John wondered. I wouldn’t do that; it was somebody else pretending to be? Or, better yet, I didn’t do that, because I would never treat you – or any other girl – that way? It was all so unbelievably screwed up, all of it, his whole world, his whole life – not just here in Sideways Universe, but back in reality, too. Because back in reality, every time he was with Riley, he was thinking about Cameron, and every time he was with Cameron, he was telling himself to think about Riley. The real girl. The one it was safe to fall in love with. The one he wanted to fall in love with, because she was pretty and funny and smart and she really, really liked him.
But did “reality” even exist anywhere other than in his mind?
John pressed his fingers to his temples, warding off the killer headache forming behind his eyes. Maybe Skynet had rigged the car accident and then drummed up this little mind-fuck to drive him insane. Maybe he would wake up in that E.R., discover Sideways Universe had been an illusion, but he wouldn’t believe Skynet was real anymore – he’d think reality was a delusion, just another dream. If Skynet was behind this, it was a brilliant plan, he had to give them that. Hard to be the future leader of mankind if he was stuck in a padded room somewhere, drooling on himself. John was fairly certain that’s exactly where he was headed, because he was so confused at that moment he couldn’t even speak.
“God, Johnny, what happened to you?” Riley was gazing up at him, worry creasing her pretty face. “You really can’t remember, can you?”
A tear rolled down John’s cheek; he wiped it away angrily, feeling small and stupid and weak. “I’m sorry,” he said. “For all of it. I shouldn’t have gotten you involved.” At least that much was true, in both universes.
Riley slid her palms up his chest, catching the front of his T-shirt and pulling his mouth down to hers. Her lips were warm. The heat of her ignited something in John; he kissed back fiercely, remembering a not-very-long-ago night in the real world when she’d crawled onto his lap and brought him as close to making love as he’d been in his sixteen years.
She was kissing him the same way now, like she wanted every inch of him against every inch of her. John let himself melt into her. She tugged his shirt off over his head, pushed him roughly against the damp wall, tilted his head back to chart a blazing path of kisses from his jaw to his collarbone. John’s breath came in rough gasps. Her hands were everywhere, sliding over his chest, his back, his arms. He tangled his fingers in her mass of silky curls and drug her mouth up to his, drinking her in, his body aching for more, warring with his mind, which screamed that this was wrong, wrong, wrong.
You were with Riley, Cameron said in his head.
The memory of those words, of the hurt in Cameron’s eyes, acted like a bucket of cold water over his head. John’s mouth slackened against Riley’s. She pulled back, frowning in puzzlement. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I can’t do this,” John muttered, miserably. “I’m just too screwed up right now, Riley. I can’t be with you. I need to figure out what’s happening with me.”
A bitter laugh escaped her. “Right. What’s happening with you. That’s always what it’s about, isn’t it? You.” Riley picked his shirt up off the floor and shoved it at him. “It’s always, Oh, poor John Connor, he got kidnapped and totally messed up by some sick-o when he was little, so he can’t be held responsible for anything he says or does. Or, I’m John Connor, savior of the human race, everybody is supposed to love me and protect me and die for me, if necessary.”
“Stop it. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
John tried to push past her, but Riley caught his wrist in a surprisingly strong grip and shoved him backward, cracking his head against the doorframe. John winced; she didn’t appear to care.
“You want to know the best part?” she bit out. “I believed you. All this b.s. about the end of the world and Judgment Day and machines from the future. My parents told me you were insane, but you were so convincing. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been in love with you since we were ten years old.”
“You…believe me?” John sagged with relief. If Riley, believed him, maybe he could hold onto this slender thread of sanity after all.
“Yeah, stupid me. You didn’t need to go to so much trouble just to get me in bed, you know. I would’ve fucked you without all the lies.”
John jerked his hand out of her grasp, shame scalding him – shame for something he hadn’t even done. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t have fucked you,” he snapped, letting the fury take over. “You want to know what I remember, Riley? I remember a pretty girl throwing herself at the new weird kid at school. I remember you playing a bunch of head-games with me. I remember telling you no when you wanted to go all the way a few nights ago, because I didn’t want to be the creep who let our first time happen in a parking lot.”
Riley tried to interrupt, but John was on a roll now: He cut across her. “I have no idea what’s real and what’s all in my head. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I made up a bunch of stuff because something awful happened to me and I couldn’t deal with it. Or maybe I’m right, and this – you and me here, right now – is just a crazy dream I’m going to wake up from, into my even crazier real life where there are actually machines sent back from the future to kill me. But either way, one thing’s crystal clear to me now: You and me would never have worked. So just stay the hell away from me before you really get hurt.”
With that, John ran back into the sunlight. For once, Riley didn’t try to follow him.