He stepped out into a new universe that looked very much like the last one. Blue sky, green grass, open fields and towering mountains. The formula didn’t vary much from one place to the next. Sure, there was the odd universe every now and then where Earth’s sky was pinkish or orange, the air was filled with noxious toxins, and the ground looked like a rusted-out frying pan, all slag and not a speck of life in sight. Those worlds forced him to stay in his enviro suit until he could step to the next universe.

And now here he was, on another green, living Earth, continuing a search he should have given up long ago.

A green light flashed on his heads-up display, confirming that the air was breathable and the land around him posed no threat, and he started stripping out of his suit. He hated the damn cumbersome thing, and most of the time it had proven unnecessary, but he kept wearing it every time he jumped for those few and unfortunate instances when he landed on an Earth eager to kill him.

He took a deep breath as he unlatched his helmet. The air was refreshing, crisp and cool. Late spring, he thought, glancing up at the peaks above him for confirmation. The snow had receded from most of the mountain but still clung stubbornly to the summits. The valley below him was a riot of green — fresh, tender grass and the new buds of trees.

Good. She loved spring.

He packed his suit away, slung the pack over his shoulder and started down the mountain. He was relieved to find a trail here. He took it as a good sign. It was right where he hoped it would be, right where he’d met her for the first time, so many universes ago. The trail was very often not there, cutting higher or lower on the mountain, instead, or further to the north or south, forcing him to walk through thick underbrush and scrub for miles. It was never a good way to start his search.

He looked down at his counter and noted the time and date. It was approximately 10 o’clock in the morning on April 28, in universe 2,798. He didn’t keep track of years anymore; the time fluctuations between universes made it nearly impossible. And, anyway, the years no longer mattered to him.

He reached into his pack and pulled out a small nutrient bar. He ate as he hiked. The bar tasted like nothing, but it gave him the calories he needed to sustain his body. When he grew tired of the non-taste, he would stay a little longer in a chosen universe to hunt or trap or barter for real food. He resented the time it took away from his search but couldn’t deny the necessity of it. Besides, she’d skin him alive if she found out he’d been neglecting himself.

He sighed. He missed her.

He glanced down at his ring and smiled at the memory of their wedding. She’d been so beautiful. Her thick hair had been pulled back, except for the stray, untamed curls that framed her face. She’d worn a stunning, creamy white dress that hugged her body and flowed gently down her legs. But what had truly taken his breath away was the look in her eyes — the bright, giddy joy, the undeniable love, the eagerness to begin their life together. She’d smiled, and he’d pledged himself to her, forever and always.

Neither one of them had known at the time exactly what that would come to mean.

# # #

He reached the edge of civilization, a small, quaint suburb at the foot of the mountains. It looked much like he remembered, though he’d never seen this place. Paved streets, concrete sidewalks, brick and wood houses. The lawns were neatly manicured; the flowerbeds were ruthlessly kept. Dogs lazed on porches or barked wildly as he passed. Children raced by him on bikes or gathered in an empty field to play ball.

He’d always loved the spring for this, the loud bustle of activity as people came out of hibernation and joyously embraced the outdoors. He’d often caught the fever himself, as had his wife, and they’d spent their free days running or biking or hiking into the mountains. Occasionally, they’d have a lazy day and would stretch out in the hammock in the backyard, enjoying the beat of the sun on their skin. Those were his favorite memories, the quiet times he’d spent just holding her. There hadn’t been enough of those days.

He walked until he came to a park in the middle of the neighborhood. Small children swarmed over playground equipment while parents kept watch from the sidelines, chatting among themselves. He recognized a few neighbors, and he took it as another good sign. He approached one of them, a lovely older woman named Janice, who was there with her rambunctious grandchildren. Janice, though she didn’t know it, had been at his wedding. She’d wept like a baby during the vows and had given them a toaster at the reception. It’d been quite a nice toaster.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. He knew calling her by her name would just startle her, as he’d never formally met this Janice. “Can you help me?”

“Of course,” she said, giving him a warm, welcoming smile, as he’d known she would. Janice seemed to be a constant in the universes she occupied, always kind and dependable. It wasn’t so with everyone.

“Thank you,” he said, returning her smile. He pulled a faded snapshot from his pocket and passed it to her. “Can you tell me if this woman lives around here?”

“Are you a friend of hers?” Janice asked.

“Yes,” he said. “She’s not expecting me. I was hoping to surprise her. But I got a bit turned around on my way into town. Which way do I go from here?”

She studied him, and he recognized the protective glint in her eyes. The older woman had practically been his wife’s second mother. Janice smiled again, apparently deciding he was no threat, and handed him back the photo.

“She’s just down the street, there,” Janice said, pointing. “220 West Castle. I think she went out for a bike ride, but she should be back this evening.”

He nodded, tucked the photo back in his pocket and gave her his thanks. He followed Janice’s directions, though he didn’t need them. His wife was living in their home, as he’d hoped. He’d discovered long ago that it was best to check first. Sometimes the house numbers were different, or the streets were slightly rearranged. Sometimes she was out of town, and sometimes she’d never lived here at all.

The house was exactly like theirs had been so many universes ago. It was her family home, the home she’d inherited from her parents. White siding, trimmed in a delicate blue, with wide windows to let in the light. Two stories. Four bedrooms. They’d wanted to fill it with children.

He sat down on the sidewalk — he never presumed to allow himself on his wife’s property — and waited.

# # #

She died just three years after their wedding.

She went to pick up groceries. He stayed at home, putting the finishing touches on the crib he was building for their first child. She'd laughed when he had taken on the project and told him he was getting a mite ahead of himself. She was only three months pregnant at the time, with a long way to go yet before their son or daughter would need his or her own place to sleep. Even so, she’d sat down with him to help him design it, had cut and sanded wood and pounded nails with just as much enthusiasm as he had. But the fumes of the stain and varnish weren’t good for her, so she went to the store, and he stayed to work on the crib.

He wished with all his might that he’d made a different decision that day.

There was a fight in the parking lot. A man was beating his girlfriend. His wife stepped in to stop it. She’d never been one to just stand by.

She subdued the man and called for help. The other woman shot her in the back. They ran off, leaving his wife there to die.

She was clinging to life when he reached the hospital. He’d forced his way in to see her, and she held his hand as he cried. She astounded him by asking for his forgiveness. She was sorry, so sorry, she said. She didn’t want to leave him. One thoughtless decision, and their life together was over.

He stroked her hair back, pressed his lips to her forehead and told her he didn’t blame her. He told her he loved her, always.

She died in his arms.

He lost everything that day. His wife, his child, his hope.

It didn’t fully hit him until the funeral that she was gone. He remembered the service with hellish, painful detail — every word spoken, every face present, every whispered condolence as he sat in the metal folding chair and stared at his wife’s grave. It was a beautiful autumn day: clear blue skies, multicolored leaves, a pleasant bite to the air.

He hated autumn.

He stayed for a few more weeks, holding on to his sanity with the tips of his fingernails. He went through the motions of living, though he no longer felt alive. What did eating and sleeping matter, really, when he could never hold the woman he loved again?

He was cleaning out the garage — she’d asked him to do it months ago — when he found it. A chest, sleek and black, locked with a combination he barely remembered. The suit was still inside, in pristine condition, along with the rest of his equipment and supplies. His hands were shaking as he pulled piece after piece out of the chest.

Of course, he thought. Of course. Why hadn’t he thought of it sooner? It was how he’d found her the first time, wasn’t it? Exploring a strange new universe, he’d tumbled into love, and he’d stayed. He’d stayed for her.

There were an infinite number of universes, each one of them containing the chance to find her again. It was an infinitesimal chance, but a chance nonetheless. It was hope, a hope he sorely needed.

He prepped his equipment, packed a few bags and started his search.

# # #

In 2,798 universes, he found her plenty of times — his wife, but not his wife.

In universe 75, she died as a child, in a bicycle accident. In universe 85, it was a hiking fiasco. In 92, she was struck by lightning. In 103, she was hit by a bus. It seemed like she found a dozen different ways to die as a child, each one a parent’s nightmare. Somehow, it didn’t surprise him. She had always been an adventurous sort.

In 137, she was stillborn. In 182, her parents decided not to have children. In 190, 192, 196 and 201, her parents only briefly dated before moving on. In a dozen other universes, they never met, and many times he couldn’t find her parents at all, or even her grandparents.

In 362, she was a man — handsome and charming, certainly, but his own inclinations didn’t run that way, so he continued to the next universe.

In 455, 458, 473, 487, 494 and 500, she joined the Marines and died in combat overseas. Those ones saddened him immensely, as his wife had survived her own tours and come home intact. In 504, 515 and 521, she joined the Army instead, a decision he simply couldn’t reconcile with the woman he’d known. She had been a Marine to the core. In 566, it was the Air Force. For some reason, he had yet to find a universe in which she joined the Navy.

In 623, she survived her tours but was so badly traumatized that little was left of the woman he’d known. He spent a few days there, visiting her in the home they kept her in, trying to break through to her, but she didn’t speak a word to him.

In 842, she was a schoolteacher. In 1,078, she was a cop. 1,192, she was a park ranger, and in 1,267, she was a personal trainer. In 1,392, she was a stuntwoman. Rarely, she was an engineer or scientist or scholar, but she seemed to prefer more active careers.

In 2,401, 2,503 and 2,672, she was happily married to another man. In 2,708 and 2,723, she had children, little boys and girls that scampered around the front yard, romping with each other and their parents. She was happy, and he was happy for her, even as his heart broke at the sight.

All those times he found her, but she wasn’t quite right, wasn’t quite the woman he’d known. He wondered now, as he sat on the curb and waited for another version of his wife to appear, if this was all just a fool’s hope, a fool’s errand. What were the chances that his wonderful, beautifully imperfect wife could exist twice? What were the chances of finding not just her but the right her?

Nonexistent, really. In 2,797 universes, not a single one had had his wife — his real wife.

And yet he couldn’t give up. He’d be left once again with nothing if he abandoned his search now, nothing but a memory of a woman who had loved him well. He would do everything he could to find his way back to her, to meet her and love her again. Until his equipment failed or time stopped or he keeled over and died, he would keep looking. And maybe one day he would actually find her. But for now, just the hope of finding her was enough.

A fool’s hope but hope nonetheless.

“Can I help you?”

He knew her voice instantly. He braced himself before he peered up. She looked just as he remembered — green eyes and dark hair, tanned skin, subtle curves and lean, long limbs. She’d unbuckled her helmet and hung it from the handlebars. Her hair was plastered to her skull, the wet tendrils sticking to her forehead and neck. She didn’t smell good. The woman worked up a sweat when she was exercising. At the end of their workouts, their runs or their bike rides together, she was nearly always soaked, and despite her claims to the contrary, she did not smell like roses. He’d never really minded. Working up a sweat with her usually lead to a shared shower and, afterwards, working up a sweat in an entirely different way. He was almost certain that’s how they had conceived their child.

He stood slowly, suppressing the urge to lean over and kiss her or hug her close. It’d been so long since he’d kissed her. Two thousand, seven hundred and ninety-eight universes. But kissing her now would be a sure way to get hurt.

“I was hoping for a few minutes of your time,” he said. “Just to talk.”

She eyed him critically, but her face remained curious and pleasant. “You don’t look like a Jehovah’s Witness or a missionary. Salesman?”

“No,” he said, chuckling a little. “A traveler.”

She nodded, and her head titled slightly to the side as she considered him. His chest tightened at the sight. It was a gesture he immediately recognized, a thoughtful look he’d seen countless times throughout their relationship.

“You look familiar,” she murmured. “Do I know you?”

He found it hard to breathe. He didn’t know what to say. In 2,798 universes, she’d never once said that to him.

He cleared his throat and found his voice. “We’ve met before,” he said. On a bold impulse, he continued. “Can I take you out to dinner?”

She laughed, the sound so musical, so happy, so warmly delighted that he found himself grinning.

“You sat on my sidewalk all day just to ask me to dinner?”

“Yes.”

“Well, hell, why not. It’s certainly an unorthodox approach.” She wheeled her bicycle up the curb and onto the walk leading to her front porch. “Come with me. You can wait on the porch while I get cleaned up.”

He snatched up his bag and followed her, thinking that maybe, just maybe, he’d found his wife again.

He hoped so.

Illustration by the wonderful Blain Hefner.

It was dark. The night was cool. The air was crisp. A sliver of the moon hung in the sky above, and the stars burned brightly. The trees rustled quietly. The bugs sang their twilight songs.

He walked alone down a path at the edge of the woods. Sure, it was late, but he felt safe here, just a stone’s throw away from his apartment with the security lights burning brightly behind him. He was pleasantly buzzed from his night out, something well deserved after his long day. He enjoyed walking near these woods, especially in the quiet of the night. He had no reason to fear.

Or so he thought.

TAP. TAP. TAP.

He froze, cocking his head to listen. What the hell? He took a step closer to the trees, wondering. It’d sounded a lot like someone knocking on a door — but who else would be out at this hour? And who the hell would go knocking on a tree?

Leaves crunched under his feet as he took his first steps off the path. A branch snapped — somewhere off to his right. He stopped, his heart pounding. What was that? Who was that?

He was moving again before he knew it. His hands bunched into fists at his sides. His breath came in rapid pants. Too late, he realized he was moving deeper into the woods, and the apartment lights were getting faint behind him. He stopped, swiveled around and jumped when something — God, what? — crashed through the underbrush to his left.

What now? What now?

“Who’s there? What do you want?” His voice sounded oddly flat, muffled by the thick growth in the woods.

There was silence — even the bugs stopped singing — and then, slowly, the noise built, a creaking, groaning roar that sounded like a demon from hell.

Panicked, he twisted, turned, ran. Branches snagged his hair, scratched his face, ripped his clothes. Roots grabbed his feet, tripping him up. He lost all sense of direction. The apartments, once so close, grew only farther away as he ran. He tried to scream, but he couldn’t get his breath. His neck prickled, and he felt the danger bearing down on him, suffocating him. The darkness grew; the stars waned.

Death had him now.

The trees sighed with content. They had their sacrifice. It would keep them quiet for a few weeks, maybe even months. And then they’d hunt again, drawing the unsuspecting, the unwary into their trap.

The breeze shivered through their branches, and the night was quiet once more.

Eyes are the windows to the soul ­— or so she’d been told.

She’d seen it herself often enough to know its truth. She’d seen it in the adoring eyes of a faithful dog. She’d seen it in the first sleepy blinks of a newborn. She’d seen it in the bright happiness of new lovers.

She didn’t see it when she looked in the mirror.

She didn’t know when she’d become aware of this apparent lack in herself. Sometime around puberty, she thought, when she spent countless hours at the vanity, applying makeup and curling hair in a desperate effort to look like all the other girls. Despite the pretty clothes, the pink blush and the glittery eye shadow, she never succeeded. She wasn’t like the others, and she knew it.

Worst of all, they knew it, too. Her peers recoiled from her, shunned her. Her attempts at friendship were rebuffed, and her pursuits of romance were shrugged off.

She was alone — isolated from the world by her differences.

By 17, she could feel it — and understand it. There was a lack in her, a dark chasm that couldn’t be filled. An abyss where a soul should be.

That’s when she took her first set of eyes.

There was a boy she liked. He was a prince among the youth, a paragon of strength and goodness. He had a large pack of friends and an even larger pack of admirers. His teachers adored him. The lowerclassmen worshipped him. His parents loved him.

He was kind to her, one of the few who didn’t seem repulsed by her. He wasn’t her friend, but he didn’t mock her. He didn’t seem to care that she was missing a vital piece of herself.

She was drawn to him, to his brightness, to his goodness, to the soul she saw in his eyes — the soul she didn’t have.

She can’t remember exactly how she got him alone. It was late. It was fall. It was after a football game — he was the star quarterback — and he’d been out with friends. Somehow, she’d caught him alone in the parking lot. It was luck, or perhaps fate.

He was surprised — she saw that in his eyes — and he smiled. He said her name. He would, of course, be the type to remember her name. He was good like that, kind like that.

She thought his clean, bright soul would balance out the nothingness inside her. So she took it.

He didn’t see the knife. But he felt it. She slid it in under his ribs quickly and cleanly. He made a little gurgling noise and fell to his knees. He reached for her weakly — begging or fighting, she wasn’t sure. Either way, it was too late. He toppled over on his back, and his eyes — once so beautiful — bulged. A flat, glassy look came into them, and the light went out.

His soul left.

She saw it leave. But, desperately, she took the knife and carved out his eyes, hoping to save whatever was left and hoping it would save her.

She let herself believe for a while that it worked — that she saw some spark of something in her eyes when she looked in the mirror, some stolen piece of a good boy’s soul. It was hers now, giving her something, something she’d been missing, and the eyes she kept in a jar under her bed reminded her of it.

Soon enough, though, she looked in the mirror and knew it hadn’t worked. She felt the nothingness return — a gnawing, nagging ache that wouldn’t subside.

She took her second set of eyes at 21.

It was a woman this time. She was little more than a girl, really, just into adulthood, venturing out on her own for the first time, living in her own apartment for the first time. She was pre-med, smart, driven. But there was more than intelligence in her eyes. There was a quality everyone recognized, especially the soulless: compassion, generosity, goodness. There were outward signs, of course. The woman volunteered at the homeless shelter every other weekend and tutored other students every Friday. She was kind to others, willing and eager to help. She was even nice to the soulless when they bumped into each other on campus.

She reminded the soulless of the boy — a beacon, a bright spot in the world that attracted others, that chased away the darkness.

The soulless planned better for the girl. She watched and waited and hoped this time the soul would stick.

She did the deed on a Sunday. The woman stayed late at a neighborhood clinic on Sundays, cleaning up and tidying the office for the week ahead. By the time she left, the streets were deserted, and no one was around.

The soulless took the girl from behind. She used a Taser this time and pushed the girl into the trunk of her car. She took her far outside the city into the abandoned wilderness — a fitting place, the soulless thought.

And this time — this time, the soulless took the eyes first.

The girl was screaming, terrified, begging, but she couldn’t escape the ropes binding her arms, her legs, holding her head still. The soulless ignored the girl’s pleas as she prepped her tools and blocked out the shrill sounds of the girl’s pain as she made the first incision.

By the time the soulless was done, the girl was unconscious. The soulless put her out of her misery — she knew what it was like to live without a soul, after all — packed up the girl’s eyes and left the body out for the scavengers.

These eyes were in much better shape than the boy’s. And, the soulless thought, perhaps the soul would stay with her this time.

But it didn’t.

Despite her preparation, her care, the emptiness in her remained, and her despair grew.

If these two souls wouldn’t heal her, what would?

She tried again and again, varying her methods, her targets, always taking the most beautiful souls she could find. By the time she was 38, she had more than 50 sets of eyes. Blue, green, brown — all different colors. All once held bright, shiny souls.

But they didn’t any more. They were as empty as she was — still.

She sat alone, her collection surrounding her, staring down at her, accusing her, knowing her heinous crimes.

She was about to take another one, add one more set to her collection. She still hoped one day she would find a soul that worked.

Her target was waiting for her. He was in a parking lot again, like the first one. He was sitting on his tailgate, and when he saw her approaching, he didn’t look surprised. He just cocked his head, and a slight smile quirked his lips.

“I’ve been waiting for you.”

She jumped at that and hesitated, unsure. He just kept smiling and raised his hand to beckon her closer.

“Come, sit with me.”

She went closer, stopping just out of his reach. Her hand closed over the hilt of her knife.

“I know what you’ve come for. I know what you are,” he said.

Her hand trembled. “How?”

“‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Shakespeare. Do you know him?”

She stared at him, and he shrugged. “The Bard’s not for everyone, I suppose. Did you ever wonder how you could exist? A creature with so much emptiness and darkness inside?”

She nodded — a quick, jerky movement.

“And did you ever wonder if something else could exist — something opposite, something so full of light and life that it couldn’t be contained?”

“Yes.”

“That’s me. Your opposite.”

“My enemy?”

He shrugged again. “Not really.”

She kept staring at him. He sighed. “You can use that knife, if you like — plunge it into my heart like you did that poor young fellow the first time — and take my eyes and add them to that gruesome collection of yours. But it won’t work.”

“How do you know?”

He snorted. “You can’t steal a soul. It’s not something you can take. It’s not a radio or a car or even a life. It’s a force that only belongs to itself.”

She felt the sting of tears. “So I can’t be fixed?”

His eyes softened. “I didn’t say that. Even a creature as lost and broken as you can be redeemed. With time and work.” He paused and held out a hand. “It won’t be easy. You’ve got a good 50 lives of penance to pay. But it can be done. Is that what you want?”

She watched him warily, wondering if she dared to believe him. “Why would you help me? After all I’ve done?”

“Because you helped me,” he said. “We’ve done this dance before, you and I — since the beginning of time, I suspect. You were the light once, and I was the dark. And you redeemed me. Despite the dark and horrible things I’d done, you took my hand and pulled me up.”

Looking at him, she had trouble believing that. She could see the goodness and decency in him and couldn’t imagine seeing anything else.

“You do have one, you know,” he said suddenly. “A soul. I can see it in your eyes.”

The knife slipped from her grasp and clattered to the ground. He smiled gently.

“You can feel, yes? Hope, despair, pain — I can see it. You can’t feel without a soul.”

He hopped off his tailgate and closed the distance between them, holding out his hand still. “Let’s see if we can fix it up.”

Slowly, she reached out, her fingers closing around his. His hand was warm and hard, strong. She felt — something. Something new and strange.

“That’s a girl. You’re considerably less stubborn than I was. It took you a good five lifetimes to convince me to trust you last time.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You will,” he assured. “It’s the darkness — it hides things from you. But you’ll see it again in time.”

“So what now?”

“Now, we start making up for what you’ve done.”

“You can’t make up for what I’ve done,” she whispered, understanding with perfect clarity exactly how far she’d fallen.

“Not easily, and not without a lot of sweat and tears and possibly blood,” he said. He led her to the cab and opened the door for her. “Let’s go, dear heart. We’ve got to get started tracking down all those souls you tried to steal and put them back in their proper places.”

“We can do that?”

“Of course. I’ll explain it all on the way.”

He tucked her into the truck, taking as much care with her as a boy would with a first date, or a man would with a precious wife. He circled around the front of the truck. He was whistling when he got back in. She watched him as he started up the truck and put it in gear. She missed the feel of his hand and wondered if she had any right to ask anything of him — or anyone, really — yet.

“Can I — do you think, maybe ... ” she trailed off when he looked over at her and simply held out her hand.

He smiled again. “Of course.” He took her hand and held it firmly. “It’s easier, isn’t it, taking that first step when you’ve a hand to hold?”

For the first time in her memory, she smiled — a small, unsure smile, to be sure, but still a smile. “Yes, it is.”

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