I left the box on Karen's nightstand, pausing to listen a while to her soft breathing. It's not a large box, but it's large enough that she'll notice when she wakes up. An e-reader, near new. It was a good price, and I know how much she wanted one, but she'll still be pissed at me. Until she reads the note - at least that's what I'm hoping.
I walk downstairs in the darkness, carrying my bag and my shoes - I don't want to wake anyone. Mike would have his never-ending questions, and Emily would end up crying for her momma, and either way Karen would be up and I don't want to explain it to her. It's the right thing. I'm doing it for them.
Outside, there's a hint of coolness when the air moves that wasn't there yesterday, like someone flicked a switch and Fall began. A flat lid of cloud covers the sky, with the pre-dawn gloom starting to lighten off to my left. I slip on my old sneakers, and head down the drive to where I left the car.
The first generation Ford Escape is a beautiful car. Even if it's a little old now, I don't mind. I can't know for sure, of course, but I like to think I made this one - 2003 is the right year. I keep it in neutral and roll it down the drive, with the engine and the headlamps off. Not that Karen could stop me now, but she may as well get some more rest. Halfway down the street, I bring the engine to life. It's a solid, reassuring sound. I feel like you can tell when a car has been put together by hand. It just feels more reliable. For the second generation in 2008, Ford let all of us welders go - some advance in robotics, apparently. They're all made that way now.
Driving through the suburbs at this hour, all the houses are dark. At my third turning, I can see Jim's old house. It's been empty since the family moved away. I wonder if any other places are empty. At least we don't have to worry about squatters since they opened the new mission downtown - that's one thing the city's done right.
Once I'm on the highway, there are a few more cars. I wonder where they're headed so early. In my rear-view, strip malls and motels fade into the half-light. I smile when I see the steakhouse, thinking of two years ago, when Karen and the kids took me for a surprise birthday meal. That was a good day. Maybe I can take Karen back there again soon.
The flat, grey, uniform sky seems to press down over the Interstate. I put the Escape in fifth gear and turn on the radio. An angry guy, ranting - something about how Iraq wasn't about the nukes or the oil. I don't need to listen to that today, so I switch over to soft country. It's almost light enough to switch off my headlamps, but I like the glow from the dash on my hands. Nice to be doing this without traffic for once.
I pass the Costco without slowing - I'm not on shift today. Working at a big box store isn't the same as at the plant. It's a job, and Lord knows I'm not ungrateful, but it's not the same as the feeling of having made something.
An hour or so passes, and the clouds lighten to the colour of dishwater. I've come off the Interstate by now, and I'm working my way along country roads. It's lucky Jim gave me such good directions. Finally I see it: a squat low-rise office park, stretching out next to fields and woods both turning brown. It's nondescript, buff coloured - looks like it was built in the eighties. Jim said the company was the same one that raised the price of Karen's prescription, but I'm not sure. It didn't sound the same. Anyway, it's not important.
I pull into the parking lot, surprised at the number of cars here on a Sunday. Locking the car, I take my bag and walk across to the entrance, through the automatic doors. There are big letters on the front of the desk: "Here for your health".
"Welcome to Smith-Cline, how may I assist you?" chirps the receptionist. She is young and pretty, and I suddenly feel my age. I try to remember what Jim told me.
"Uh, I'm here for the, ah, clinical study?" I feel awkward. Jim said anyone could do it, but maybe I need an appointment.
The receptionist is all smiles, gesturing to a waiting area across the hall.
"Of course, sir. If you'll just take these forms and have a seat over there, we'll be with you shortly. Does your family know that you'll be here for the week?"
"Yes." She probably will soon, if she hasn't already. I hope the e-reader is worth it.
I need to ask, but I'm not sure how.
"I'm sorry, I - can you tell me -" I trail off.
"Payment, sir?" she seems to know what I mean. "If you put your bank details on the form, we can wire the money right to your account." She must get asked that question a lot, I realise, feeling embarrassment well up inside.
I head over to the plastic seats, holding the clipboard. There are a few others here, not many. A black guy, little older than me, humming softly. A bored-looking kid who could be here for tuition money. Two rows over is a woman my age, flannelette shirt covering a t-shirt with an animal on it. She nods at me as I sit down.
I start filling out the papers - health questions, my account number. Jim told me about the money, more than I make in a month at Costco. More than I made at the plant. Enough. Jim came here five or six times, he said. He didn't tell Paula, she thought he was travelling on business. He didn't even tell me much, really - he said it was mostly sleep studies, sometimes vaccines. Mostly observation. He said the time went fast too, so before he knew it he was waking up on the last day, ready to go home.
I'm skimming through the pages now. Only a few questions, some legal stuff. I wonder if Jim was driving back from here, when it happened. A drunk driver, according to the police. Paula stayed at our house a few nights - it was like a sleepover for all the kids. Please tick yes to confirm your consent. I'm thinking about the funeral, watching the casket being lowered. I check the box.
Almost on cue, there is a woman walking over to me. She's late thirties, brunette, wearing a lab coat and sensible shoes. She smiles as I finish the documents.
"Thank you, sir. Would you follow me please?"
I heft my bag and stand up, and she leads me back past reception, turning to speak over her shoulder.
"Can I have your name please, sir?"
"Welcome to Smith-Cline, Ryan. I'm Amy. Is this your first time here?"
"That's great, we really appreciate everyone who volunteers here." She sounds sincere.
As we pass the automatic doors, I look out into the carpark, back into the grey world outside. For a second I can't see my Escape, and then I spot it as another car drives past. Amy is opening a door at the end of the hallway, another hallway beyond it.
"First, could you take a quick look at the top of your form," she says. "There should be a number there - could you memorise it please."
"A number?" I look - each page is printed with "V-65112".
"I'm afraid so," says Amy, with an understanding smile. "We get so many Ryans, and Amys, and every other kind of name. A number helps us keep track. Now if you'll just come through here…"
I look back down at the form. V-65112. I think about Karen, and the steak dinner I'm going to buy her. Then I follow the woman through the door.