He craves the yearning feeling. It’s the only one he can have reliably anymore.
His sensory perceptions are concentrated almost exclusively in vision and hearing. He’s focused on them so closely over the decades of his solitary existence that he can scarcely taste food. Hi skin, too, is peculiarly insensitive. He considers it a blessing, due to his alopecia, that he doesn’t have to shave, as he fears he would accidentally cut his own throat. Only his hands retain much sensation and he loves it when they start to tingle, reminding him what it was like when he was still able to touch others.
The yearning hurts, but it reminds him that he’s still a person and not just a vassal.
He last felt the yearning when he was with Walter Bishop. He had to give Walter a coin. The coin felt lovely, cool and metallic, nestled in his palm. When he passed it to Walter he felt the warmth of Walter’s hand as it approached and retreated. The yearning made him speak more than he would otherwise have done. He had to, to control it as it tingled through his palms.
He’s been shadowing someone since he left Walter. She’s jumping around from city to city in Europe in no easily discernable pattern. They started in Rome. He followed her there, walking the streets as she did: fast, restless, looking at everything from the outside. She never goes into buildings except when bodily necessity drives her to it.
He once had to shadow a man for 17 days. The man loved to eat and spent hours every day in restaurants. He takes so little pleasure in food himself that by the end of it he was standing on the sidewalk outside, ignoring the unpleasant looks people gave him when they noticed. Not that they usually do. He doesn’t seem to project his presence like others. Rather like the woman in front of him. She reminds him of himself in both respects.
She sleeps in parks, in a hammock. She doesn’t sleep much. He is very alert when she does this. She is middle-aged with a fragile frame and, as far as he can discern, no self-defense training. Yet no one tries to do her harm.
She never strays from the cities. Her wanderlust would seemingly be better satisfied in the open, but she stays strictly in the confines of urban environments. He wonders why.
He quiets his thoughts with the remembrance that it is better not to ask the questions he would never be allowed to pose. Besides, it’s likely that the answers will come with the Event.
This Event seems to be taking longer to culminate than most of the ones he’s witnessed recently. He used to have to wait for months, fixed in one spot while his target went obliviously about his or her daily life. Most people’s routines look dull to them, he thinks, but he’s learned to discern the unconscious expectations and exquisite moments that differentiate between the contented and the miserable. He feels a twinge of something and pounces on it mentally. He turns it over until he can identify it. Impatience. How exciting. He didn’t know he still had it in him.
The woman is in Vienna now. He’s relaxed a little because this is a safe place, in modern times, and he can let his guard down. He keeps a safe distance behind her. He checks his watch: 01:57. Only three hours and ten minutes left. Her pace is beginning to flag. She’s tiring. She’s looking for somewhere to rest, but they’re right in the heart of the very orderly city.
She stops in front of the Belvedere, which is firmly closed because it’s the middle of the night. He knows that the two great houses of Habsburg, containing a multitude of priceless works of art, are separated by a wide swathe of formal gardens. Very open. Topiary trimmed to within an inch of its life. Gaining access, let alone sleeping there, would be challenging.
She enters the Belvedere as if its elaborate security system didn’t exist. No alarms are tripped. No dogs bark. No one comes running with “Halt!” on their lips and guns in their hands.
He follows her cautiously. Whatever she’s done to the security system seems to have been terminal. She pads silently through the ground floor and out the back to the gardens. She makes her way to the center of a torturously sculpted group of box hedges.
She stands still for a long time, looking skyward while he watches from the shadows, his hat pulled low to conceal his pale skull. Then she crouches, sets down her backpack and carefully extends her legs. She lies back, arranging her limbs comfortably.
He edges closer. She hasn’t taken her eyes off the night sky, though the light pollution from the city means few stars are visible to the naked eye. He can see more than the average person, but still not many. He wonders what she’s seeing that’s making her smile that way. As if she were looking into a lover’s eyes.
A thin glow appears a few feet above her prone form. It brightens, then extends into a rectangle five feet seven inches long by three feet wide. (He’s very good at estimating measurements.) Almost imperceptibly, it lowers until it passes completely through the woman.
Her name is Suzanne Durand. She is a citizen of France, age 53, two daughters. She spent 20 years as a civil servant until two months ago when she retired, sold her house and began traveling without telling her children she was leaving.
The light vanishes. The woman doesn’t move. She is still smiling.
The sky begins to brighten. He moves back toward the protective shadows. The woman sighs, a faint but distinctly happy sound, right before she vanishes. Her thin body leaves only a light impression on the perfectly manicured lawn. It will be gone before long.
He steps gingerly across to it, bends and puts his palm for an instant to the place where her head had lain. It tingles pleasantly. He rises swiftly and leaves the way they’d come in.
He dials the only number in his phone and puts it to his ear. He waits.
“She’s on her way,” he says.
“Good,” says the voice on the other end. He has never been able to identify its gender or its age. It pauses. “There was a small delay between the Event and your confirmation. Is there a problem?”
“No,” he says. “I wanted to get back to the street first.”
“Ah,” the voice replies. “The Belvedere. Of course. Sensible.”
“What shall I do next?” he asks.
“Return to Boston. The next Event will occur there. You’ll be given the information on your flight.”
“I’ll go to the airport now,” he says.
He closes his phone. Before he places it in his pocket, he sees it move slightly in the wrong direction. Then it moves back. He puts the hand holding the phone in front of him and watches intently. There. It’s trembled. He waits. And again.
He hears the sound of a moped from a nearby street. Vienna is waking up. He completes the replacement of his phone in the front of his immaculate grey suit. He allows himself the briefest smile at his folly before he moves purposefully toward the train station.
He’s on the plane from Heathrow. A plastic cup of tepid water sits in front of him. The woman in the seat next to him attempts to converse with him. He pulls his hat down over his eyes. She subsides. He presumes she has given him a dirty look.
Normally he sleeps without dreaming. Today is different. He becomes aware of stirrings in the back of his memory. A face swims into view, a woman’s face. It appears to be in its late thirties. She’s in profile and she’s laughing.
His perspective changes abruptly and he’s watching the woman from several yards away. The woman is holding another woman in her arms. Two children, girls, circle them, pulling at their clothes and giggling.
The second woman pulls away. She’s speaking to the first woman. She responds, but the sound comes out as if it’s underwater. They draw closer together.
The scene flips. He’s standing in a lab, watching the first woman address a group clustered around a whiteboard. He perceives streaks of grey in her hair. She seems to be well into her forties. He wonders briefly how this can be, as he doesn’t see usually see people until Events are about to happen to them.
The woman finishes speaking and crosses her arms over her chest. The group disperses. She watches them go with pain in her eyes, then drops her face into the hand holding a whiteboard marker. She stands like that until one of the group members turns away from her experiment and hurries toward her.
The scene flips again. He’s looking at the second woman through a window. She’s sitting in a kitchen, slumped at the table with a piece of paper in her hand. She looks up as the children come in. Now that her face is careworn and her form is thinner, he recognizes her.
Suzanne Durand crumples the paper and drops it in a wastebasket. She opens her arms to her children. They hug her and then dash away. She follows them slowly into the dining room. He enters the house and fetches the paper from the basket. He can’t read French, but he doesn’t need to. He can feel the imprint on the paper. He knows it says, “I have to go. I’m sorry, my darling. Wait for me. I’ll come for you when I can. You’ll know when. I love you.”
The seat belt sign pings. He stirs under his hat, disoriented. Can it be time to land already? Yes. He straightens his hat, his tie, his lapels. He drinks the untouched cup of water and checks his watch. The hand at the end of the wrist trembles. He stares at it for a few moments, perturbed. The woman next to him eyes him nervously. He puts his hands in his lap and stares straight ahead.
He has to focus. He has the information about the next Event. It was handed to him on the flight from Vienna to London by a disinterested flight attendant. He must be there when it starts in three hours and forty-seven minutes. He stands and removes his briefcase. While he waits to disembark, he brushes down his suit again mechanically. As he walks down the ramp to the boarding area, he notes that his hands are no longer shaking.
He exits the boarding area and walks out a side door past immigration control.
No one stops him.