A cortado and a chocolate eclair from the Last Drop. Small, these birthday surprises, but they’ll come with a story. The story, as always, is Emily’s favorite part. And I mean to give her a good one.
In vague winter light, she sleeps. I quietly dress, this wiry man with a shag cut who went to bed beside her. A week ago, I slipped into this body. Though I’d found him under a bridge, a needle in his arm, he looked like a college boy. Too long, and he’ll be missed.
Lately, too, I’ve felt it begin to wake: his spirit, his soul, his what-have-you. And I need to exchange bodies before it’s too late.
By the time I reach the bus stop, I’m lurching. A body double-occupied is a treacherous affair. Heavy, overripe, a fruit fit to burst. A hand keeps creeping up, batting fretfully at the face I’ve borrowed.
Only one potential waits at the bench. Elderly, clutching library books. Going my way, then. I half-sit, half-hurl myself beside her. Then fall slantwise, my shoulder — College Boy’s shoulder — striking hers. The old woman’s eyes widen at the unwelcome contact. The Silent Generation tends to be more guarded, but I begin the transfer, worming in.
Terrifying first moments. Blind, deaf. Darkness, suffocation. The core of me remains real — all else, illusion. Getting stuck halfway: that’s the risk. Wedged at the gateway, helpless. But I line up the connections. A few blinks, a barking cough, and I’m fully in and oriented. I peer out through new eyes to a blurred world. Her glasses are smudged — now, my glasses.
“Where am I?” College Boy says, his spirit awake from its forced hibernation.
The bus idles. I dig in her pocketbook for a pass.
His frantic questions, directed at nobody, at everybody: “What day is this? Where have I been?”
I’ve left him freed from drugs, fading scars tucked into the tender bends of his flesh. Silently, I wish him — and his one precious body — well.
Her name is Marjorie. There’s a weakness in one ventricle, a flutter. Suitable only for a short trot, then. I leave Marjorie sitting in the Central Library near a display of books about songbirds. The new body I’ve traded for seems vigorous enough, yet is unlikely to fight my presence. For this one’s blotto, blitzed — flat drunk. His reticular activating system’s on the verge of shutdown, brain edging towards blackout. I must work fast, assume conscious control, like painstakingly hiding a nautilus within a bigger nautilus.
I take myself to the men’s room to steady and steal a closer look. I need to know where I’m welcome. What social strata I can traverse. Where I fit. The stranger’s face stares back: leathered skin, shaggy eyebrows, bloodshot eyes sunk deep, a beard in disarray. His jeans more holes than denim.
Those who live on the street are easy targets. I’ve used them thousands of times. Nobody looks at them closely, nobody searches when they’re missing. Some bodies can be cleaned up, pressed into service for weeks, if not months. Eventually the slow revolt of the spirit begins, and I need to move.
Emily’s asked me many times to explain the trick. I’ve tried.
It centers on knowing that you really are a “ghost in a meat-covered skeleton.” The famous quote everyone repeats without knowing its true origin? It came from us, from my people, my tiny family. A hint, a jibe, a challenge. I suppose we’d become bored, after centuries roaming and serially possessing. So one of us left this breadcrumb clue.
It wasn’t boredom that led me to Emily, though. Guarded curiosity, initially. Rumor was my kind couldn’t love. Holding an emotion across so many forms and figures? Unsustainable — a chain of paper dolls creating a delicate bridge over infinity.
The rumor, it turns out, isn’t true. I didn’t say we’re an infallible people, just persistent. We can go on endlessly, so long as we don’t get stuck. Shelling and unshelling and repeat.
Hermit crabs, Em calls us. I like that.
This vagabond doesn’t have a car, not even a bike. So I’ll hoof it downtown. I make an inventory of his backpack. Torn mittens, paperback On the Road, and a photograph rubbed to velvet at its edges. At first, I figure the little boy is him. Second glance, I see his boy’s eyes are not dark, but blue.
No money, but that’s to be expected.
Patrons perch at small tables outside the Last Drop. I keep my distance, try not to be a conspicuous lurker. The smell of coffee is strong; I check, and this body does crave caffeine. Some do, some don’t. I never fight their harmless vices, just try to leave them safe and a little better off than before.
When my next mark comes, I know it. Elegant suit, custom-sewn. Fingernails buffed to a high shine. Veneers gleam as he barks into his brand-new phone. Somebody who’s fussed over, who takes up space — I won’t be able to use him for long. Hopefully long enough.
I stealthily move into position, then begin a zigzag beeline. Meet him between the marble tables. It’s deeply satisfying, seeing his sneer erase as I collapse into him.
Coffee all over his silk-and-wool. A shame, but not the greatest of losses.
The vagabond wakes, eyes widening as this gentleman helps him to his feet. I slip cash to him in my handshake goodbye.
“Be well, brother.” My kindness seems to shock him more than the surreal displacement.
I buy Em’s coffee and pastry. I tip well.
I think of waking my love with the rev of the Jaguar outside her window. Instead, I slip in, touch her shoulder. She wakes to my new face.
Alarm quickly fades into recognition.
Asked how she always knows me? Em says she spots it without fail. My spirit, my soul, my what-have-you.
Jennifer Lesh Fleck lives in the Pacific Northwest in an old cottage that's the spitting image of the Amityville Horror House, only painted a cheery jade green (and she can often be found on its front porch, frowning at a laptop). A past Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, Fatal Flaw, The Arcanist, The Main Street Rag, VoiceCatcher, and various fiction anthologies.