In the second month after Billy’s duel, after a fitful night’s sleep, a horizontal shaft of sunlight cut through the grimy window opposite Ethan’s bed and bathed him in blood-red light. As the fat disk of sun hauled itself above the horizon, Ethan remembered being suspended in the black velvet of the cosmos, willing himself toward a star. He remembered how the atomic furnace grew into a huge disk and how the surface roiled as great plumes of scintillant matter flared out against immense gravity and spewed into space. In the pale heat from the rising sun, Ethan felt a faint echo of that ravaging radiation he had marveled at.
He remembered all the places he had been, the vastness of space, and the growing sense he had of the forces at play beneath the surface of what had always seemed real. In contrast, he thought of the pathetic thing he had become and how far he was off the path that led to Beth.
Billy’s body was healing well. With the vigor of youth, it had closed the rips in its flesh, was mending its bones, and preparing to move about. Ethan realized how he was hindering that process and turning Billy into a husk. He felt like a ghoul. Where would this lead?
He suddenly saw the predatory creature he could become, a kind of vampire, moving from body to body, always searching for brute pleasures until he would degenerate into nothing more than a parasite, moving through time and space, insatiable and demanding.
Is this what I will do with all the lives that lie before me?
It was his first moment of true clarity since inhabiting this body.
Ethan shouted. Within seconds, Calvin staggered into the room, his eyes wild and fearful, his soiled nightshirt crumpled up short like a skirt around his knees. “Billy, you need more laudanum?”
“Yes, but don’t give it to me. Throw it away. Never give it to me again. Do you hear?” Toward the end, Ethan’s voice rose to a shout.
The old man nodded and quickly left the room to get the laudanum. But first he stopped off in the kitchen and took a long pull from his jug to start this day.