Scout awoke in her own bed, a queen-sized mattress that lay on the floor with no frame or box spring. Her curtains, hand-me-downs from the previous tenant, glowed with light. Her laptop was sitting on the card table that served as her desk, and her phone lay on the milk crate nightstand beside her, face-down, charging.
She was wearing jeans. She never slept in jeans. Or in sneakers—she was wearing those, too, sprawled atop her comforter. It seemed to have been washed recently, which was odd. She never washed her comforter.
Her door opened, and a man she’d never seen before let himself in. “Don’t get up,” he said gently. “Let me get a look at you first.”
Somehow, Scout was not afraid, even though there was a stranger in her bedroom.
“I’m Dr. Parikh,” he said, sitting at the edge of her mattress. “You had a syncoptic episode—you fainted.”
He shined a light in her eyes.
“I don’t have health insurance right now,” Scout said. “I can’t afford this.”
“It’s all taken care of,” he said. “Now, how many fingers am I holding up?”
“Good. Can you tell me your name?”
“How old are you?”
“How do you feel?”
“A little light-headed.”
The doctor held something against her head and checked the feedback on a handheld device. “What did you do today?” he asked.
“I woke up early. Before sunrise. I got dressed and packed my bag. I was in a hotel. And then I went to the Palace…” Scout slowly worked through the steps she’d taken since she last got out of bed. She ended with, “…and after the tacos, we went to the Big Box. And there was an elevator.”
And now she was here. Back at home. Something had gone wrong. They had sent her home. And now, while she lay on her pitiful bed, seven other LPers were off playing the new Hive.
“How…?” she groaned. She meant to ask, How did I screw this up? How did you get me all the way home without waking me up? How do I get back to the Palace? But she didn’t know where to begin.
“Can you sit up?” the doctor asked.
Scout pushed herself into a sitting position and grabbed her glasses from the nightstand. She looked at her phone, too. The date and time made no sense: January 1, 9999, 00:00 p.m. But there was an unfamiliar wall clock above her desk. Analog. It was half past five.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“I feel a little like I’m swimming,” Scout said.
“Can you stand up?”
She pushed herself up onto her feet, teetering just a little. She felt off-balance, unmoored, as though she could float away.
But still, she stumbled to the window and drew back the curtains.
The outside world was pale and bright. Nothing more. No neighbor’s lawn with the kiddy pool and the tangled garden hose. No pothole-dotted street. No cottage-shaped mailbox.
“What happened?” Scout managed to ask.
Dr. Parikh rose to his feet. “You fainted,” he said. “It looks like a little bit of Vertigo from that elevator ride.”
Scout needed to use the bathroom. She took slow, careful steps across the carpet to the door of her room and opened it.
Outside she found an unfamiliar corridor. It was long and pale industrial-green with colored lines running up along the floor. The wall between her room and the hall was very thick.
“This isn’t my home,” she said, clutching her doorknob to steady herself.
“Easy now.” Dr. Parikh took her by the arm and began leading her back to bed. “You’re in the Big Box. This is your set.”
“Like a movie set. They built it to look just like your room.”
“Where’s the bathroom?” she asked.
“A very important question,” he said. He tugged on the frame of her closet, and the entire thing slid out like a bookcase in a Gothic movie. There was a little white bathroom behind it.
The doctor let her manage her bodily functions on her own. This bathroom was small and sterile and windowless, but it was private. Scout’s roommate back home had never once cleaned the toilet.
Scout emerged from the secret lavatory feeling a little better, but still slightly off.
“I’m going to have you lie down for a while,” the doctor said, easing her back onto her mattress.
She clumsily pulled off her sneakers. “Shouldn’t I get to work?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“They won’t be mad?”
“No. I promise.” He pressed a tablet into her hand and presented her with a glass of water. “Swallow this. It will help with the dizziness. And get some rest. You’re going to need it. You’ve got a big day ahead of you.”