As the serotonin-dopamine-Memnon cocktail flushed directly into his brain, Ethan experienced a wrenching as if his body was being turned inside out. Galaxies spun in the distance, great gem heaps dumped on the black velvet of space. An energy different from his other trips filled Ethan. This experience had a different texture from previous jumps. Now, Ethan could feel something under space, within it, like the warp and woof of a fabric beneath its pattern and color. The cloth of reality stitched forces together that he had never sensed before.
Somehow, his mind reached out to these forces, felt them, analyzed them. Just as a first-time swimmer learns to tread water in a strange new physical environment, Ethan began to feel how the surrounding forces moved and flowed under and through him and everything else in the universe. He rode the energy currents and paddled into the vastness like a child on an inner tube.
He groped out from his vantage point with one thought hard in his mind. The past. She is in the past. Like a beacon it held him to his course as he sifted through layers and currents and whorls of the stuff that made the universe.
He tried to feel that lingering resonance that Beth had left behind. A certain mote in time caught him, pulled him closer. It felt like a starting point. Ethan re-entered the world of physical law in .
He skipped across the city, seeing boxy cars and trolleys. It looked like the 1930s. Why did I come here?
Something had tugged at him, but he had no idea how to proceed. He had only a vague, nagging sense that he was getting warmer in his search. Am I closer in time or in location?
Though he could see and feel the place around him, Ethan was not satisfied with the sense that he was watching a movie. He had no physical connection to the places he visited. He became convinced that he needed the direct physical link of existence to better judge where Beth might be.
He had pondered this issue many times. Could he somehow enter or control a body? Ethan thought himself into a trolley car. Of the six occupants, Ethan approached a young woman. He reached out with his energy and tried to touch the being inside the body. He radiated feelings of peace and greeting.
No response. The woman continued to gaze out the trolley window. Try as he might, he could not get her to notice him. He moved on to the other occupants, trying to contact each of them in turn. He could not elicit a response.
But he did learn that there existed a link between body and spirit. He had felt it with his own body and here he experienced it again. He realized he would never be able to insinuate himself into a body already occupied by another being.
Ethan scanned the city and considered another option. He felt the stirring energies of recently conceived babies. These tiny agglomerations of cells had no body link. They lay like fertile fields eager to sprout new life. Ethan recognized a big problem. If he chose to occupy a fetus, he would have to wait decades before he had the mobility and resources to continue his search. And what if he’d landed in the wrong time and place? He could waste a lot of effort. No, he saw one other option he now needed to face.
I must enter an adult body. A recently dead adult body.
Ethan’s mind reeled as he admitted to himself what had been only a fleeting thought until now. I must become a ghoul.
Girding himself, Ethan swept down into the streets, searching, senses heightened. A swirl of distress drew him to someone radiating unendurable fear. At that moment, he felt the energy of a specter like himself as it pulled away from its body and flung itself in panic out among the stars. Ethan moved in toward a riverfront warehouse, one of several dilapidated buildings along . He would not know if his theory was feasible unless he tried.
“Dammit, Crenshaw, leave ’im be. He’s out. Grab his bindle and let’s get outta here. We gotta get to the freight yard and jump that train.” Gilly crouched in the tall weeds and peered out into the darkness.
Reluctantly, the larger man released his grip on the body under him. A dim bulb at the far corner of the warehouse offered enough feeble light to show that the body’s eyes were open.
“Did ya kill ’im?”
“Nah, that Hobie’s one tough nigger. He’s just out cold.” Crenshaw searched through his victim’s pockets.
Gilly scanned his gaze left and right. “C’mon. A watchman could show up any time. Let’s hop that freight and get the hell outta this town.”
“Ya sound like an old woman, Gilly. Make yourself useful and go through his bindle while I finish here.”
Gilly kneeled and pulled apart the rope knot that held the blanket roll together. He tossed through some clothes and checked their pockets.
“Nah. No money, anyway.”
“Nope. Just this.” Gilly held up something hard his hand had brushed against. “Looks like a book.”
“Lemme see that. Some stiffs keep foldin’ green in books.”
As Crenshaw grabbed the book and held it up to see, the gold letters on the cover caught the warehouse light. “Shit, it’s a bible.” He leafed through the pages. “Ain’t no money here.” He tossed the bible over his shoulder.
“Will, that guy ain’t movin’. I don’t think he’s breathin’.”
“One less nigger ain’t gonna bother me none.”
Gilly’s voice dropped. “I seen a light. Off there along the riverbank. Dammit, Will, we gotta go.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Will Crenshaw pulled off his victim’s shoes. “Let’s see if he has anything in the shoe bank.”
Like a firefly, the kerosene lamp of the night watchman flickered and arced through the blackness along the as he made his rounds.
A shuddering hiss cut through the silence as the body in the weeds sucked in a breath. Then it wailed with an agony that slashed the night like a scythe. The light along the river bobbed and weaved more frenetically.
“Crenshaw, you’re crazy.” Gilly grabbed his own bindle and stood. “I’m catchin’ that train.” He hunkered into the gloom.
As the watchman’s light grew larger, Crenshaw threw down the shoe. He fumbled in the dark for his own bindle and then turned back to the body on the ground. He reached into his trouser pocket and wrapped his fingers around the smooth ivory handle of his switchblade. He tugged it free of his pocket and pressed the release button. A satisfying snick punctuated the silence. He crouched and pressed the blade against Hobie’s throat. “Thought you was dead, Hobie. Well, I can fix that. Bye, bye, blackbird.”
A hand like a vise wrapped around Crenshaw’s wrist and dragged him down.
Crenshaw rolled forward and stabbed into the darkness. He felt the resistance of cloth against the blade and then the grip around his wrist tightened. A small shriek of panic got past his lips as he punched with his free arm.
Then suddenly, the other flipped them over, still gripping Crenshaw’s wrist. With his left hand Crenshaw pounded at the head above him, then felt across the face and gouged his thumb into an eye. A hoarse grunt and the grip on his wrist loosened. Crenshaw shook his arm loose and pushed his knife up into the black man’s face. It hit bone and then that enormous paw wrapped around his wrist again. With the strength that panic brings, Crenshaw rammed the knife at the shadow above him, but the pressure of the other man’s grip dragged the blade away. A forearm crushed into Crenshaw’s throat, drove inexorably downward. With his left hand, he hammered at his opponent’s face, but the blows could have been slaps from a child for all the effect they had.
Crenshaw felt hot breath against his face and he saw the glint of the warehouse light in two coal black eyes that came closer and closer until nothing else existed. He heard the crackle as his windpipe collapsed, felt a shriek of fire as his own knife pressed into his chest. Then motes of light began to dance in Crenshaw’s vision, expanding and coalescing into a shimmering curtain. A great wind sounded in his ears and he suddenly felt giddy and weightless. The wind blew him like a leaf and he skittered away.
Ethan felt the man under him go limp. Over his shoulder he heard a shout. “Hey, shitbird. What’s goin’ on?” Glancing back, Ethan saw a lantern jerking through the darkness and heard the rustling of the guard’s footsteps through the tall weeds.
Disoriented, Ethan released the body under him and stumbled away, pure instinct, totally immersed in the panic of this person who was not Ethan, yet was. The damp, hot air of a summer night seemed insufficient for the laboring lungs of this big body whose legs and heart pumped like a runaway steam engine. Animal instinct took over and Ethan ran away from the lights of the city. He found the far south of the warehouses and headed downstream. A crescent moon offered barely enough illumination to pick his way through the rough terrain.
Crickets burred in the underbrush and bullfrogs honked from the riverbank. Far off, a boat horn boomed its doleful voice. Each sound formed a crisp image, a wave of energy that Ethan perceived in some way in addition to what his ears told him. Sensory impressions inundated him. As if he had never lived before, he cataloged every sensation. The pains in his bare feet from brambles and sharp rocks felt almost pleasurable in their intensity. The scent of honeysuckle, thick along the shoreline, wafted and combined with the damp algae rot of the river. No perfume Ethan had ever smelled seemed more appealing. Every nerve in his body seemed amplified, hammering his brain with an unending crescendo of input. He lived and breathed and, like some primordial beast, he cared only for living and breathing as he reveled in this organism that was a man.
He tramped through the dark until he came to the banks of the where it dumped into the . He settled on his haunches to rest and felt the black water in his mind as clearly as if he could see it.
The adrenaline wore off and Ethan’s brain began to work again. He had done it. He had crossed time and space and had come to rest in a living body. Ethan thought back to that moment when he had sensed the panic energy of the being who had previously inhabited this body. Where had that being gone?
And what of the murderer named Crenshaw? Though fighting for his life, Ethan had wondered if he was damning his own soul as he snuffed out the other’s life.
Ethan shook himself. What’s done is done. Though drained, he tried to reach out into the night, searching for Beth. He felt nothing. He didn’t seem to have the faculties he normally had. This new body felt like a suit that didn’t fit right.
His feet and hands began to tingle. Ethan snapped out of his reverie. The body felt weak.
Ethan shook himself until the tingling went away. Panic returned. He had to concentrate to keep this body animated. Too much daydreaming and he felt like he would slip away, back into the between-space he had navigated to get here.
Have I done the right thing?
Ethan gazed into the gem shop of the sky and saw it in a new way. He no longer saw the distance to the stars as vast. Any one of those glittering shards of light could be home. It took only a twist of thought, a shifting of space, and he could be there. Wonder swelled through his big frame.
Is Beth here? How many times must I do this if she’s not?
Ethan stared again at the stars. Yes, his search might take huge amounts of time. He would have to gird himself against frustration and take each step without worrying about the next million steps it might take to accomplish his goal. He had to trick his mind into believing that he had not embarked on a monumental task. He had to focus on just one step at a time.
He had so much to learn. And each thing he learned brought him one step closer to finding his love.
In his reverie he missed the sound of feet swishing through tall grass.
The sound he didn’t miss was the click of a revolver being cocked.
“Stand up, hobo.”
Ethan tried to stand, but he did not have complete control of the big body he inhabited. He stumbled and began falling toward the voice in the dark.
Two shots shredded the darkness. Ethan felt fire rip through his chest. He fell back into the underbrush. He heard a dog bark in the distance, heard men shouting.
“I got the murderin’ bastard.” Other feet crackled in the weeds. Lanterns flashed.
Ethan felt this body’s life bleeding into the ground. He closed his eyes.
Focus. Get ready.
He waited for the moment when the heart would stop. Waited for his jumping off point.