Bethany felt like a teenager as she crept from her bedroom and down the hall. What an idiot, she thought. I am a teenager. At moments like this when the thirty-four year old woman clamored inside her head, she wanted to scream. But she threw those frustrations aside, walled them in, and continued her careful navigation of the dark house. She focused on the singular fact that Ethan waited outside in the night.
Her heart thumped at the prospect of seeing him. But was it really him or another delusion? Was she allowing her imagination to overcompensate for her profound sense of loss? Since she had awakened in a stranger’s body with bandages wrapping her belly, everything had seemed like a dream. She didn’t care. She had to cling to this dream or go mad.
Ethan shivered in the damp cold. A pale half-moon punched halfheartedly through the high cloud cover, briefly illuminating the Hawley house in sharp lines of black and gray. Ethan turned to the east. A rounded hump of hill rose like an etched and frosted Christmas ball, the illumination of the moon catching in a billion ice crystals that seemed painted onto every surface. The hill. Ethan turned and assessed this house that stood on the eastern edge of .
He had been here as Cole. On that hill he had been shot. As he had toppled into the hay stubble, he had seen this house. Time telescoped and Ethan suddenly felt the nauseating agony that had seared through his body.
This would take some getting used to. Memories of a different life? Ethan, Cole, the ailing Charles Watson, and now Billy Anspach. The different experiences he had in each body were blending together.
A shadow of black mutated to a shadow of gray. It shifted across the bright backdrop of snow and fluttered in Ethan’s general direction. The clouds thickened and contrasts disappeared. The landscape became a soupy gloom. As she approached, Ethan heard rather than saw her. Footsteps crunched through the brittle surface of the snow.
The crunching got louder and a swirl of shadow emerged from the greater dark. Her loose cloaks like black wings around her, Bethany hurled herself against Ethan. “Tell me you’re real,” she said.
Arms held him and a warm face pressed against his. Hungry lips searched and found his mouth and suddenly ’s presence engulfed Ethan. He did not need to test her with questions for which only she would know the answers. Some ineffable energy radiated from her. He had known its flickering existence as he had searched for her, but now, like a beacon in the cold depths of space, she blazed before him with the heat of a star furnace.
They fell to the snow in a tangle, kissing by touch and by memory.
Gasping, finally pulled her head back long enough to say, “It really is you. I’m not crazy. I didn’t know what to believe. How did we get here? Ethan, what has happened?” Suddenly, her dreams seemed real and the world around her seemed imaginary as the dam of memory broke loose and flooded her with emotions.
“Later. Right now, come with me. We’ll freeze out here.” Ethan stood and pulled to her feet. They brushed the snow off each other and hiked away from the Hawley house, their crunching footsteps constant evidence of the dropping temperature. Ethan navigated to the edge of town, then down an alley to the Anspach General Store. Nobody else walked the streets, the town’s residents either asleep or huddled near stoves and fireplaces to fight off the cold. If not for the ghostly columns of smoke belching out of hundreds of chimneys, the place could have been uninhabited.
Using his key at the rear entrance of Calvin Anspach’s store, Ethan led into the storeroom where he had earlier stoked a fire in the small cast iron stove. Ethan relocked the heavy plank door and led to a corner of the storeroom where he had stacked blankets into a bed. He lit a fat candle, transforming the bare wood walls, the barrels, and the crates into a softly glowing nook. A hundred scents floated through the air: leather goods treated with neatsfoot oil, pepper, the damp odor of wool, wood smoke, tobacco.
They stood for a minute surveying each other’s faces in the shifting light. stroked her hand across the young face with its soft stubble that glowed like gold flecks. “You look like a surfer, Ethan.” She took his hand and pulled him down to the makeshift bed. “Would you consider this a barn?”
Ethan’s face twisted in bewilderment.
“We had an appointment in a barn,” she said. “Glad you finally kept it.”
A laugh snorted out of Ethan before he could even think. “I see there’s only one way to keep you quiet.” Ethan kissed her.
Ethan ran his hand over the naked roundness of Beth’s belly. “How long?”
“Doctor Robert says about six months.”
“Who’s the father?”
“I don’t know.” Beth shifted her gaze to the yellow candle flame. “But I must say I’m looking forward to having this baby. I like being fertile.”
The glow in her eyes could have melted the coldest heart. Disappointment had crushed them when they had found that Beth was not able to conceive. Ethan gently touched the puckered scar below the mound that held the baby. “What’s this?”
“During the battle. It’s the shot that killed her. Then I woke up inside her. Since then, very little has made sense. I mean, how could I wake up in the body of someone who has died?”
“How’d she get shot?”
“The maid says she found me, her, in a pool of blood in front of an upstairs window.”
“It’s worse than that. The father’s a monster. George Hawley. And he blames Billy for this,” Beth pointed to her stomach. She outlined all that had transpired during her recuperation.
“That explains why he glares at me on the street.” Ethan wondered again how Billy had gotten shot. All clues led to Hawley.
“It gets worse. Daddy Dearest is sending me away. He can’t bear the blow to his reputation to have his daughter living here with a bastard child.”
“I would have been gone already if not for the mother. She wants better weather for the journey.”
“You won’t believe this. He’s sending me by canal up into far enough north to get around any Confederate actions. Then by train I’ll go to , then on to by stagecoach.”
“He really wants you out of the neighborhood.”
She punched his shoulder. When Ethan winced, her playfulness turned to concern. She touched him gently. “What is it, honey?”
Ethan rolled into the candlelight. When Beth saw the ragged crater in the upper left quadrant of Ethan’s chest, she gasped. Her fingers flew to the wound and gently traced its outline. “Oh, my poor darling. You had to come back from this?”
Ethan nodded. He told her about the previous bodies he had also inhabited.
“Ethan, how do you do it?”
He stared into the candle flame. “I can’t explain it. Do you remember the moment of the lightning bolt?”
Fear twisted her face. She nodded, but said nothing.
“Remember me there in it with you?”
“Yes. I thought I felt you and then nothing.”
“We made contact and I think that’s why you didn’t lose your memory. You’re still Beth.”
“I don’t know. It has to do with me. I’ve been through it four times now and I’m still me. I have a talent.”
“But why the dying bodies?”
“The only way to find you. I could enter a fetus; I can feel them out there before I choose a body. But I needed to be grown up to have mobility. I didn’t want to wait twenty years to chase after you.”
“How could I end up in this girl’s body?”
Ethan shook his head. “I’m not sure what I believe.”
“But, Ethan, how were you in the lightning bolt with me without being killed?”
“This is difficult to explain. Once I started timejumping, I went back along my own timeline to that moment. I reached out to you and connected with you. Since I wasn’t in a physical form, I was able to withstand the energy.”
“But that was later, right?”
“But, it seemed like the same moment. It all happened at once. Then I woke up here.”
“That’s the most perplexing part of this. I know that I visited that moment many times, but for you it happened just once. Another paradox.”
“It’s more than that. If you somehow changed what happened after the fact to send me here, think of what that means. You rearranged events. How can that be possible?”
Ethan stared into Beth’s eyes. “We have this notion that the universe is governed by physical laws. That’s a very human assumption. But you remember I read those articles on quantum physics last summer?”
“Scientists find paradoxes all over the place. The physical world seems to be anything but lawful. I’m finding the same thing. When I’ve gone back to our original time, I keep expecting things I’ve done in the past to have some effect. But nothing has changed. I keep trying to shake off my assumptions about how things are supposed to work.”
When he said nothing more, Beth responded, “So, these bodies are ours now? We can stay like this?”
“Yes. Billy is nineteen. How old are you?”
“So, we have a long life ahead.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
“What about now? Do you want me married off to some miner? Because that’s where I’m headed.”
Ethan pulled her close to him. “That is not going to happen. We have to get away from here.”
“Look around you. Billy’s father owns the general store. We can take the supplies we need and disappear.”
“Hawley sells horses and mules to the army. He won’t miss two horses right away.”
“Okay, Ma Barker.” They laughed and then looked deeply into each other’s eyes.
Ethan said, “When is Hawley shipping you off?”
“He won’t say when, but he’s making preparations.”
“Then let’s not mess around. Tomorrow’s Tuesday. I’ll use tomorrow and Wednesday to pull together money and supplies. Wednesday night we’ll go. After midnight when everybody’s settled down. We’ll have all night and the next day to get a head start. They’ll never find us.”
“The next day?”
“Yeah. Billy or his father always takes the wagon to on Thursday to pick up freight. If Billy’s not around, people will think he left early.”
“Where will we go?”
“I think north. Out of the war zone.”
“Can we go back to the future, to our old home?”
“I can go back, but I don’t know how to get you back. I have my body back there, but yours was vaporized.” Ethan sketched out the details of his travails with Neural Research.
“Just when I’m beginning to have some context of where I am, you’re blowing it all to shreds. Ethan, are we trapped here? Forever?”
Ethan gazed into the candle flame, admiring the sharp singularity of its form against the darkness. “Honey, this is nothing like forever. The time we spend in these bodies will seem like the blink of an eye. Forever is out there.” He looked into the darker reaches of the storeroom. “Even the stars are like toys. Beth, it’s far different than we ever imagined. Time and space are like the surface of a lake. We float on it and think we understand. But down in the depths of the lake, all sorts of things are going on.”
“What do you mean?”
He shifted his eyes back to her. The faraway look vanished, replaced by vivid intensity. “Beth, a minute ago you said that I must have rearranged events. I changed what happened to you. That sounds insane, but assume that it’s true or we wouldn’t be here. If it’s true, then the universe is not an inert thing in which we happen to live. Instead, what if it’s all a manifestation driven by thought? That would explain the paradoxes. Thought doesn’t have to be logical to exist. You can think anything. Thought has no rules. So if thought makes the universe create and destroy, to mutate and to expand, then there are no real rules in the universe. Anything that we think, actually happens somewhere in it. The trick is in navigating through its vastness to the place you want to be, to the place where your thoughts are real. In saving you from the lightning, I or we have somehow done that.”
Beth reached out with her right hand to stroke Ethan’s cheek. “Then have we lived before?”
“Probably. We live and die and move through it all, experiencing different realities. But we forget. Each life is new, different. The shock of death and birth wipes the slate clean, except for little snatches of memory just out of reach. Dreams, deja-vu. They’re echoes of where we’ve been.”
“Then why didn’t you forget?”
“I always had psychic ability. The experiments at Neural Research enhanced those powers. Somehow I transcended the usual cycle.”
Beth’s green eyes locked to Ethan’s. “In other words, you were always a little weird?”
Ethan scowled. “I can never be serious with you.”
“Darling, you’re usually too serious. If I didn’t tease you, you wouldn’t love me so much.”
“If you don’t stop, I won’t love you at all.”
“Fat chance.” She wrapped her arms around Ethan’s neck and pulled him close. “Okay, I’ll be serious. If you’re the one with the power and you made all this happen, then why are we here? If we could be anywhere at all, why did your thoughts bring us to this time and place?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because this time always fascinated me. Something in my subconscious served up the information, maybe. Although, I didn’t get here my first try.”
Beth stared into the shadows, her face becoming wistful. “Oh, darling, I don’t want to explore the universe. Can we go back to our home, to Mister Buzz? Can we have things as they were?”
“Maybe, if you really want to. But remember, to do that, both of these bodies have to die. I’d like to put off that little experiment for a while.”
“We might be separated. I’m a novice at this. That’s why I’d like to live this life with you now. There’s no urgency to move on.”
Silent for a few moments, she said, “Why didn’t you see the lightning bolt before it happened? We could have avoided this.”
“I saw the storm inside my head, but I didn’t see how close it was. Until I started using Memnon, I didn’t have much control. Sometimes I saw visions clearly, sometimes fuzzy. Funny, but when I was a kid, I found it easier to see things.”
Ethan’s head snapped toward a gloomy corner of the storeroom.
“What?” Beth said, instinctively pulling a blanket over her breasts.
“Nothing. Just a mouse. But we need to get you back soon so this doesn’t blow up in our faces. I think we’d have some problem convincing them we’re married.”
“How long until dawn?”
“Maybe four hours, but you need to be back before that. People are up and about by dawn.”
“So, we have at least an hour, right?”
Beth kicked off the blanket. “With all the young men off to war and eligible young females crawling all over this town, I want to make sure my husband is too pooped to do anything but look. Come here, you, whatever your name is.” Her arms wrapped around his neck and pulled him down.
“Okay, Little Miss Jailbait.”