Takeshi’s hand went straight to his forehead when he came to; a monster of a welt was already swelling into existence, and he felt sorry for the poor bastard destined to inherit it when he departed.
Thinking about his host begged the question, what was it like for them? Did they know what was happening to them? Did they hear the words he spoke with their mouths, feel the actions he took with their hands? Were they prisoners in their own bodies, aware of everything, but unable to do anything?
Maybe there was more distance than that. Maybe it was more like watching a movie that just happened to star your friends, your family and your exact doppelganger. If that were the case, it meant their consciousness went somewhere else. He chose not to think about where.
It was equally possible that hosting was more like blacking out, and when Takeshi left, his hosts woke up to find themselves in places they hadn’t been before his visit. Maybe the places and faces were familiar. But maybe they weren’t. When that happened, did the hosts wake up surrounded by people that somehow knew them, spoke to them as if they were someone they weren't, a stranger who wore their skin?
Or maybe Takeshi was just projecting; if hosting worked that way, it was nearly identical to what he went through with each new body he inhabited. The difference being that for the hosts, it was a one-time thing, an abnormality that they'd forget about, or at least pretend to, or rationalize as the product of inebriation or illness or some other convenient scapegoat.
Pretending the lost time was imagined was undoubtedly preferable to acknowledging an inexplicable reality. Speaking out about that kind of thing got you reduced to the nutjob people didn't want wrestling them into a conversation at a party, the ones prone to ranting about UFOs, and how the earth was really flat, and out-of-body experiences.
Takeshi wasn't nearly so quick to judge them these days. He'd left his hosts questioning their sanity, left his hosts’ loved ones questioning their sanity. His visits could have spawned an entire sub-society of conspiracy theorists. That was when the acid crawled into his neck and shoulders, guilt expressing itself as tension.
No. There was no evidence he'd ruined anyone's life. For all he knew, while he inhabited their bodies, his hosts were the honored guests of some greater celestial consciousness. Maybe they were granted an understanding of the universe's truths, climbing several rungs on the ladder of enlightenment.
All the same, even if the “greater understanding” theory was a convenient fiction, his guilt was unwarranted. It wasn't like any of this was his choice. He’d have much rather been home in Marathon with Kouki and Aimi instead of borrowing a body for the hour or day or month each particular visit required. He was every bit the victim his hosts were.
And besides, his kids were out there somewhere, entirely ignorant of Takeshi’s existence, let alone just how close their end might be. Best to get a move on it, keep the cycle spinning and hope that the next life he hopped into was his own.
At least his host was alone. Arriving in the middle of a conversation was the absolute, unmitigated worst. It required attention and engagement, two qualities incompatible with the disorientation that always rode shotgun with an arrival. Not to mention knowledge of the conversation’s topic – a complete impossibility, given the circumstances.
Takeshi rolled from his stomach into a sitting position. Cold seeped into his backside from the porcelain tiles beneath him. A disposable razor laid next to the bare foot that had to be his, even if the skin was way too peach. To his right stood a pedestal sink with drops of blood ringing its bowl. Takeshi licked his lips, the metallic tang of salty blood greeting his tongue as it passed over the nadir of his lower lip, confirming the split.
Sink plus razor blade equaled mirror; time to get brave enough to face his reflection. The face in the mirror was white, narrow and pointed, belonging to a young man, probably no more than seventeen or eighteen. He wasn't a bad looking kid, but his magnetism was the gangly sort, the kind owned by boys who hadn't grown into their features yet. His hair was blond and shaggy and his nose was hawkish, spotted by a row of tawny freckles that marched across its bridge. His eyes, however, were the same verdant shade as always, spotted with their perpetual flecks of hazel, the one part of Takeshi that came along on each voyage. It was no surprise they looked as weary as always, too.
Takeshi drew more blood as he hurried to finish shaving, then tiptoed to the bathroom door; no one had reacted to the thud he must have made when he hit the floor, but why take chances? He listened for a minute that felt like five before easing the door open. A bedroom waited on the other side, and sunlight streamed through the window directly opposite the bathroom door.
“Doing alright?” asked Tara’s silhouette from the bed as his eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness.
“Of course not,” Takeshi replied. “From now on, just know that every single conversation we ever have, I’m not fine. I’m in hell. If you’re here, I must still be in hell.”
“That’s one way of seeing things,” Tara said.
“That’s the only way of seeing things. My life, my – my existence, or whatever this is – is an unmitigated nightmare. That’s pure, objective reality.”
Tara shrugged. “If you say so. But you could choose to look at it as a learning experience you know.” She smiled at him, obnoxious in her sincerity. “Ready to go?”
Takeshi shook his head. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? I’d just hop into some other life eventually. There aren’t any real consequences, are there? There’s no end goal, either. Just this never-ending circle of misery. If I go, if I sit on the bed and refuse to move, nothing changes. So what happens if I say ‘no’?”
Framed by the sunlight behind her, Tara remained a silhouette. Her eyes, however, shone green, somehow finding luminescence in the shadows. “Kouki or Aimi dies.”
Takeshi closed his eyes and pressed his fingers against them, hard. It didn’t take away the sting of her statement, four words with all the power of a gut punch from a world class heavyweight. “I hate you.” It was more of a mantra than a declaration.
Tara lowered her eyes toward the bed. “You’re allowed to.”
“Let’s get this over with.” Takeshi set to work finding pictures of his host. He'd learned the hard way that appearances mattered. Discrepancies in hairstyles or fashion choices were easy ways to tip off family members and friends that something wasn't right. It invariably slowed down his missions and he hated the guilty stone it left in his stomach. Bad enough he was leaving them with an inexplicable hole in their consciousness, he didn't want to add "alienated loved ones" to his karmic score sheet.
Tara watched from the bed. She didn’t help, but he didn’t expect her to. Considering she wasn’t actually physically present, it wasn’t like she could have done much anyway. The room was every bit as messy as a teenage boy’s could be expected to be, with a pile of clothes in the corner and a stack of receipts on the nightstand, next to an antiquated device they’d called a "smart phone" around the turn of the century.
Fortunately, it was only locked with a fingerprint instead of a password he wouldn’t know, and proved to be like a digital biographer: it held the host's name (Jason Callum); his address (817 W. 57th Street, Apartment 6H); and boasted enough pictures of Jason, his friends and his family to give a clear image of not just the people who were important to him, but also a sense of what his relationship with each of them was like.
The phone had also given Takeshi the date: Saturday, March 21st, 2015, meaning he'd traveled back more than eighty years this time. He wouldn't even be born for another fifty. With any luck, Jason didn't have work or any other commitments looming today that he'd be forced to miss, because until Takeshi finished his mission, nothing else mattered.
He dressed and groomed quickly, matching the pictures as closely as possible. “More gel,” Tara instructed. “His hair is spikier in front.”
Takeshi complied and pocketed the phone, adding it to his arsenal. Unfortunately, Jason was no warrior; kitchen knives and scissors were the closest approximations of weapons in his apartment. Still, a pair of scissors was better than nothing, and wouldn't raise as much suspicion as a knife if he were stopped.
Takeshi took the stairs down to street level; defending himself in an elevator wasn't an experience he was anxious to repeat. Tara floated down behind him. From the building’s stoop, he paused to watch the crowds of people pressing down the sidewalk, managing to navigate across and around one another, forming streams of traffic that were only occasionally interrupted when someone dared to disrupt the flow. As if the renegades were so much flotsam, it was only a moment before the current ejected them and corrected itself. They passed by restaurants and shops, each adorned with signs and colored awnings that barked at the passersby, the physical vestiges of an economy that was still viable and flourishing in this era, unlike his own.
He turned to Tara. “I should get going, shouldn’t I?”
“Up to you,” she said. “I’m just here for support. It’s not my place to make decisions.”
“I hate you,” Takeshi replied.
“You’re allowed to.”
Takeshi didn't know what city he was in, but he knew it didn't matter. He’d landed here based on proximity to the target. Maybe they were a mile away, maybe they were ten; however far, he wasn't going to complete his mission if he didn't get moving. And so Takeshi plunged in to the tide, letting the current of humanity propel him forward.
It was time to surrender to the most maddening part of the process: the fumbling. Completing missions would be vastly simplified if he had the slightest bit of information to act on: what his targets looked like; their names; their locations (current or habitual). Tara never helped, only offering cryptic comments and empty words of encouragement. He relied on instinct and walked, knowing that - no matter what they might look like or sound like or how old they were here - he'd find and recognize them. Because a father always recognizes his children.
And so he fumbled onward, knowing that he had no say in the process and that he didn't matter to the universe.
Or maybe he did. A theory began to crystallize. Maybe he was an agent of its will. His instincts were always right. He always found the target. Maybe the theory was a stretch. Maybe it was the product of an overactive imagination. Maybe he was just trying to rationalize events that weren’t the slightest bit rational. But ultimately, the theory wasn’t any more far-fetched than his reality. Or realities. Whatever.
Focus, Takeshi, he chided himself. Theories weren't going to help him find the target. Theories weren't going to get him home. Theories weren't going to bring his kids back.
He directed his attention to the street and the crowds. His eyes couldn't help much, of course, but that wasn't the point. The point was that if his eyes were focusing on the objective, his mind would fall in line, allowing action to direct thought.
If he were truly a vessel of the universe, if his purpose was to be an agent of its will and a conduit for its energies, then it would guide his actions. Just like it always did on missions. And he knew then that his theory was right.
He let himself indulge in the theory, knowing that it didn't matter if his mind wandered; he had no agency, no semblance of control. Although he was made of sinew and skin and bones, he was just a puppet. And that was the sacrifice he was willing to make: if giving up his self – all the things that made him Takeshi – was what it would take to get his kids back, there was no choice.
A block stretched into two, and two blocks stretched to ten. The crowds thinned. He was still in a city, but he was definitely leaving its central area. It was two blocks to the lefts and one to the right before he became wreathed in warmth, gradually, like stepping from the shade into springtime sunshine. It let him know Aimi was definitely the target this time.
He saw her pulsing aura – soft pink – nearly a block away, and quickened his pace until he caught up to her. This version of her was maybe six years old. Only a couple years younger than his own had been when he'd lost her. With blonde locks stretched into a bouncy ponytail, the girl looked nothing like his Aimi. She held the hand of a woman who looked nothing like his Aimi's mother.
Aimi sang and danced to the music on her headphones, her feet splaying into the air, oblivious to the eyes watching her. Oblivious to the traffic zooming past, just a handful of feet away. She spun into a tip-toed twirl, tight as a drill, the momentum only children can achieve wrenching her hand from her mother’s, bringing her to rest on the wrong side of the curb.
Her eyes were closed.
She didn't realize she was in the street.
The music mingled with her voice.
She didn't hear the horn.
She didn’t see the truck that couldn’t stop in time.
He leaped. If his theory were right…. If the universe would guide his actions.
Her mother moved. Takeshi was faster.
His hands found hers. He swung her back toward the sidewalk. The truck's draft tousled his hair. It lifted her mother’s skirt. Aimi smiled as she opened her eyes, finding herself in her mother's arms, thinking it was all a game, never realizing Takeshi had been there or how close she'd come to dying.
The breach opened. The alien familiarity washed over him: the sensation of gravity forgetting him; a recognition of Jason's consciousness – and himself within – as they passed one another in transit; the impression that he was expansive, as formless as air. The breach’s pull increased. He slipped through, into nothingness. Tara smiled at him. Aimi’s laughter was the last thing he heard.
And the cycle kept spinning.