THE little fellow was tired. He pushed his way slowly through the throng of people, across the lobby of the station, to the ticket window. He waited his turn impatiently, fatigue showing in his drooping shoulders, his sagging brown coat.
"Next," Ed Jacobson, the ticket seller, rasped.
The little fellow tossed a five dollar bill on the counter. "Give me a new commute book. Used up the old one." He peered past Jacobson at the wall clock. "Lord, is it really that late?"
Jacobson accepted the five dollars. "OK, mister. One commute book. Where to?"
"Macon Heights," the little fellow stated.
"Macon Heights." Jacobson consulted his board. "Macon Heights. There isn't any such place."
The little man's face hardened in suspicion. "You trying to be funny?"
"Mister, there isnt any Macon Heights. I can't sell you a ticket unless there is such a place."
"What do you mean? I live there!"
"I don't care. I've been selling tickets for six years and there is no such place."
The little man's eyes popped with astonishment. "But I have a home there. I go there every night. I--"
"Here." Jacobson pushed him his chart board. "You find it."
The little man pulled the board over to one side. He studied it frantically, his finger trembling as he went down the list of towns.
"Find it?" Jacobson demanded, resting his arms on the counter. "It's not there, is it?"
The little man shook his head, dazed. "I don't understand. It doesn't make sense. Something must be wrong. There certainly must be some--"
Suddenly he vanished. The board fell to the cement floor. The little fellow was gone--winked out of existence.
"Holy Caesar's Ghost," Jacobson gasped. His mouth opened and closed. There was only the board lying on the cement floor.
The little man had ceased to exist.
"What then?" Bob Paine asked.
"I went around and picked up the board."
"He was really gone?"
"He was gone, all right." Jacobson mopped his forehead. "I wish you had been around. Like a light he went out. Completely. No sound. No motion."
Paine lit a cigarette, leaning back in his chair. "Had you ever seen him before?"
"What time of day was it?"
"Just about now. About five." Jacobson moved toward the ticket window. "Here comes a bunch of people."
"Macon Heights." Paine turned the pages of the State city guide. "No listing in any of the books. If he reappears I want to talk to him. Get him inside the office."
"Sure. I don't want to have nothing to do with him. It isn't natural." Jacobson turned to the window. "Yes, lady."
"Two round trip tickets to Lewisburg."
Paine stubbed his cigarette out and lit another. "I keep feeling I've heard the name before." He got up and wandered over to the wall map. "But it isn't listed."
"There is no listing because there is no such place," Jacobson said. "You think I could stand here daily, selling one ticket after another, and not know?" He turned back to his window. "Yes, sir."
"I'd like a commute book to Macon Heights," the little fellow said, glancing nervously at the clock on the wall. "And hurry it up."
Jacobson closed his eyes. He hung on tight. When he opened his eyes again the little fellow was still there. Small wrinkled face. Thinning hair. Glasses. Tired, slumped coat.
Jacobson turned and moved across the office to Paine. "He's back." Jacobson swallowed, bis face pale. "It's him again."
Paine's eyes flickered. "Bring him right in."
Jacobson nodded and returned to his window. "Mister," he said, "could you please come inside?" He indicated the door. "The Vice-President would like to see you for a moment."
The little man's face darkened. "What's up? The train's about to take off." Grumbling under his breath, he pushed the door open and entered the office. "This sort of thing has never happened before. It's certainly getting hard to purchase a commute book. If I miss the train I'm going to hold your company--"
"Sit down," Paine said, indicating the chair across from his desk. "You're the gentleman who wants a commute book to Macon Heights?"
"Is there something strange about that? What's the matter with all of you? Why can't you sell me a commute book like you always do?"
"Like--like we always do?"
The little man held himself in check with great effort. "Last December my wife and I moved out to Macon Heights. I've been riding your train ten times a week, twice a day, for six months. Every month I buy a new commute book."
Paine leaned toward him. "Exactly which one of our trains do you take, Mr.--"
"Critchet. Ernest Critchet. The B train. Don't you know your own schedules?"
"The B train?" Paine consulted a B train chart, running his pencil along it. No Macon Heights was listed. "How long is the trip? How long does it take?"
"Exactly forty-nine minutes." Critchet looked up at the wall clock. "If I ever get on it."
Paine calculated mentally. Forty-nine minutes. About thirty miles from the city. He got up and crossed to the big wall map.
"What's wrong?" Critchet asked with marked suspicion.
Paine drew a thirty-mile circle on the map. The circle crossed a number of towns, but none of them was Macon Heights. And on the B line there was nothing at all.
"What sort of place is Macon Heights?" Paine asked. "How many people, would you say?"
"I don't know. Five thousand, maybe. I spend most of my time in the city. I'm a bookkeeper over at Bradshaw Insurance."
"Is Macon Heights a fairly new place?"
"It's modern enough. We have a little two-bedroom house, a couple years old." Critchet stirred restlessly. "How about my commute book?"
"I'm afraid," Paine said slowly, "I can't sell you a commute book."
"What? Why not?"
"We don't have any service to Macon Heights."
Critchet leaped up. "What do you mean?" "There's no such place. Look at the map yourself."
Critched gaped, his face working. Then he turned angrily to the wall map, glaring at it intently.
"This is a curious situation, Mr. Critchet," Paine murmured. "It isn't on the map, and the State city directory doesn't list it. We have no schedule that includes it. There are no commute books made up for it. We don't--"
He broke off. Critchet had vanished. One moment he was there, studying the wall map. The next moment he was gone. Vanished. Puffed out.
"Jacobson!" Paine barked. "He's gone!"
Jacobson's eyes grew large. Sweat stood out on his forehead. "So he is," he murmured.
Paine was deep in thought, gazing at the empty spot Ernest Critchet had occupied. "Something's going on," he muttered. "Something damn strange." Abruptly he grabbed his overcoat and headed for the door.
"Don't leave me alone!" Jacobson begged.
"If you need me I'll be at Laura's apartment. The number's some place in my desk."
"This is no time for games with girls."
Paine pushed open the door to the lobby. "I doubt," he said grimly, "if this is a game."
Paine climbed the stairs to Laura Nichols' apartment two at a time. He leaned on the buzzer until the door opened.
"Bob!" Laura blinked in surprise. "To what do I owe this--"
Paine pushed past her, inside the apartment. "Hope I'm not interrupting anything."
"Big doings. I'm going to need some help. Can I count on you?"
"On me?" Laura closed the door after him. Her attractively furnished apartment lay in half shadow. At the end of the deep green couch a single table lamp burned. The heavy drapes were pulled. The phonograph was on low in the corner.
"Maybe I'm going crazy." Paine threw himself down on the luxuriant green couch. "That's what I want to find out."
"How can I help?" Laura came languidly over, her arms folded, a cigarette between her lips. She shook her long hair back out of her eyes. "Just what did you have in mind?"
Paine grinned at the girl appreciatively. "You'll be surprised. I want you to go downtown tomorrow morning bright and early and--"
"Tomorrow morning! I have a job, remember? And the office starts a whole new string of reports this week."
"The hell with that. Take the morning off. Go downtown to the main library. If you can't get the information there, go over to the county courthouse and start looking through the back tax records. Keep looking until you find it."
"It? Find what?"
Paine lit a cigarette thoughtfully. "Mention of a place called Macon Heights. I know I've heard the name before. Years ago. Got the picture? Go through the old atlases. Old newspapers in the reading room. Old magazines. Reports. City proposals. Propositions before the State legislature."
Laura sat down slowly on the arm of the couch. "Are you kidding?"
"How far back?"
"Maybe ten years--if necessary."
"Good Lord! I might have to-"
"Stay there until you find it." Paine got up abruptly. "I'll see you later."
"You're leaving? You're not taking me out to dinner?"
"Sorry." Paine moved toward the door. "I'll be busy. Real busy."
"Visiting Macon Heights."
Outside the train endless fields stretched off, broken by an occasional farm building. Bleak telephone poles jutted up toward the evening sky.
Paine glanced at his wristwatch. Not far, now. The train passed through a small town. A couple of gas stations, roadside stands, television store. It stopped at the station, brakes grinding. Lewisburg. A few commuters got off, men in overcoats with evening papers. The doors slammed and the train started up.
Paine settled back against his seat, deep in thought. Critchet had vanished while looking at the wall map. He had vanished the first time when Jacobson showed him the chart board. . . . When he had been shown there was no such place as Macon Heights. Was there some sort of clue there? The whole thing was unreal, dreamlike.
Paine peered out. He was almost there--if there were such a place. Outside the train the brown fields stretched off endlessly. Hills and level fields. Telephone poles. Cars racing along the State highway, tiny black specks hurrying through the twilight.
But no sign of Macon Heights.
The train roared on its way. Paine consulted his watch. Fifty-one minutes had passed. And he had seen nothing. Nothing but fields.
He walked up the car and sat down beside the conductor, a white-haired old gentleman. "Ever heard of a place called Macon Heights?" Paine asked.
Paine showed his identification. "You're sure you never heard of any place by that name?"
"Positive, Mr. Paine."
"How long have you been on this run?"
"Eleven years, Mr. Paine."
Paine rode on until the next stop, Jacksonville. He got off and transferred to a B train heading back to the city. The sun had set. The sky was almost black. Dimly, he could make out the scenery out there beyond the window.
He tensed, holding his breath. One minute to go. Forty seconds. Was there anything? Level fields. Bleak telephone poles. A barren, wasted landscape between towns.
Between? The train rushed on, hurtling through the gloom. Paine gazed out fixedly. Was there something out there? Something beside the fields?
Above the fields a long mass of translucent smoke lay stretched out. A homogeneous mass, extended for almost a mile. What was it? Smoke from the engine? But the engine was diesel. From a truck along the highway? A brush fire? None of the fields looked burned.
Suddenly the train began to slow. Paine was instantly alert. The train was stopping, coming to a halt. The brakes screeched, the cars lurched from side to side. Then silence.
Across the aisle a tall man in a light coat got to his feet, put his hat on, and moved rapidly toward the door. He leaped down from the train, onto the ground. Paine watched him, fascinated. The man walked rapidly away from the train across the dark fields. He moved with purpose, heading toward the bank of gray haze.
The man rose. He was walking a foot off the ground. He turned to the right. He rose again, now--three feet off the ground. For a moment he walked parallel to the ground, still heading away from the train. Then he vanished into the bank of haze. He was gone.
Paine hurried up the aisle. But already the train had begun gathering speed. The ground moved past outside. Paine located the conductor, leaning against the wall of the car, a pudding-faced youth.
"Listen," Paine grated. "What was that stop!"
"Beg pardon, sir?"
"That stop! Where the hell were we?"
"We always stop there." Slowly, the conductor reached into his coat and brought out a handful of schedules. He sorted through them and passed one to Paine. "The B always stops at Macon Heights. Didn't you know that?"
"It's on the schedule." The youth raised his pulp magazine again. "Always stops there. Always has. Always will."
Paine tore the schedule open. It was true. Macon Heights was listed between Jacksonville and Lewisburg. Exactly thirty miles from the city.
The cloud of gray haze. The vast cloud, gaining form rapidly. As if something were coming into existence. As a matter of fact, something was coming into existence.
He caught Laura at her apartment the next morning. She was sitting at the coffee table in a pale pink sweater and dark slacks. Before her was a pile of notes, a pencil and eraser, and a malted milk.
"How did you make out?" Paine demanded.
"Fine. I got your information."
"What's the story?"
"There was quite a bit of material." She patted the sheaf of notes. "I summed up the major parts for you."
"Let's have the summation."
"Seven years ago this August the county board of supervisors voted on three new suburban housing tracts to be set up outside the city. Macon Heights was one of them. There was a big debate. Most of the city merchants opposed the new tracts. Said they would draw too much retail business away from the city."
"There was a long fight. Finally two of the three tracts were approved. Waterville and Cedar Groves. But not Macon Heights."
"I see," Paine murmured thoughtfully.
"Macon Heights was defeated. A compromise; two tracts instead of three. The two tracts were built up right away. You know. We passed through Waterville one afternoon. Nice little place."
"But no Macon Heights."
"No. Macon Heights was given up."
Paine rubbed his jaw. "That's the story, then."
"That's the story. Do you realize I lose a whole half-day's pay because of this? You have to take me out, tonight. Maybe I should get another fellow. I'm beginning to think you're not such a good bet."
Paine nodded absently. "Seven years ago." All at once a thought came to him. "The vote! How close was the vote on Macon Heights?"
Laura consulted her notes. "The project was defeated by a single vote."
"A single vote. Seven years ago." Paine moved out into the hall. "Thanks, honey. Things are beginning to make sense. Lots of sense!"
He caught a cab out front. The cab raced him across the city, toward the train station. Outside, signs and streets flashed by. People and stores and cars.
His hunch had been correct. He had heard the name before. Seven years ago. A bitter county debate on a proposed suburban tract. Two towns approved; one defeated and forgotten.
But now the forgotten town was coming into existence--seven years later. The town and an undetermined slice of reality along with it. Why? Had something changed in the past? Had an alteration occurred in some past continuum?
That seemed like the explanation. The vote had been close. Macon Heights had almost been approved. Maybe certain parts of the past were unstable. Maybe that particular period, seven years ago, had been critical. Maybe it had never completely "jelled." An odd thought: the past changing, after it had already happened.
Suddenly Paine's eyes focused. He sat up quickly. Across the street was a store sign, halfway along the block. Over a small, inconspicuous establishment. As the cab moved forward Paine peered to see.
He pondered. Critchet's place of business. Did it also come and go? Had it always been there? Something about it made him uneasy.
"Hurry it up," Paine ordered the driver. "Let's get going."
When the train slowed down at Macon Heights, Paine got quickly to his feet and made his way up the aisle to the door. The grinding wheels jerked to a halt and Paine leaped down onto the hot gravel siding. He looked around him.
In the afternoon sunlight, Macon Heights glittered and sparkled, its even rows of houses stretching out in all directions. In the center of the town the marquee of a theater rose up.
A theater, even. Paine headed across the track toward the town. Beyond the train station was a parking lot. He stepped up onto the lot and crossed it, following a path past a filling station and onto a sidewalk.
He came out on the mam street of the town. A double row of stores stretched out ahead of him. A hardware store. Two drugstores. A dime store. A modern department store.
Paine walked along, hands in his pockets, gazing around him at Macon Heights. An apartment building stuck up, tall and fat. A janitor was washing down the front steps. Everything looked new and modern. The houses, the stores, the pavement and sidewalks. The parking meters. A brown-uniformed cop was giving a car a ticket. Trees, growing at intervals. Neatly clipped and pruned.
He passed a big supermarket. Out in front was a bin of fruit, oranges and grapes. He picked a grape and bit into it.
The grape was real, all right. A big black concord grape, sweet and ripe. Yet twenty-four hours ago there had been nothing here but a barren field.
Paine entered one of the drugstores. He leafed through some magazines and then sat down at the counter. He ordered a cup of coffee from the red-cheeked little waitress.
"This is a nice town," Paine said, as she brought the coffee.
"Yes, isn't it?"
Paine hesitated. "How--how long have you been working here?"
"Three months?" Paine studied the buxom little blonde. "You live here in Macon Heights?"
"A couple years, I guess." She moved away to wait on a young soldier who had taken a stool down the counter.
Paine sat drinking his coffee and smoking, idly watching the people passing by outside. Ordinary people. Men and women, mostly women. Some had grocery bags and little wire carts. Automobiles drove slowly back and forth. A sleepy little suburban town. Modern, upper middle-class. A quality town. No slums here. Small, attractive houses. Stores with sloping glass fronts and neon signs.
Some high school kids burst into the drugstore, laughing and bumping into each other. Two girls in bright sweaters sat down next to Paine and ordered lime drinks. They chatted gaily, bits of their conversation drifting to him.
He gazed at them, pondering moodily. They were real, all right. Lipstick and red fingernails. Sweaters and armloads of school books. Hundreds of high school kids, crowding eagerly into the drugstore.
Paine rubbed his forehead wearily. It didn't seem possible. Maybe he was out of his mind. The town was real. Completely real. It must have always existed. A whole town couldn't rise up out of nothing; out of a cloud of gray haze. Five thousand people, houses and streets and stores.
Stores. Bradshaw Insurance.
Stabbing realization chilled him. Suddenly he understood. It was spreading. Beyond Macon Heights. Into the city. The city was changing, too. Bradshaw Insurance. Critchet's place of business.
Macon Heights couldn't exist without warping the city. They interlocked. The five thousand people came from the city. Their jobs. Their lives. The city was involved.
But how much? How much was the city changing?
Paine threw a quarter on the counter and hurried out of the drugstore, toward the train station. He had to get back to the city. Laura, the change. Was she still there? Was his own life safe?
Fear gripped him. Laura, all his possessions, his plans, hopes and dreams. Suddenly Macon Heights was unimportant. His own world was in jeopardy. Only one thing
mattered now. He had to make sure of it; make sure his own life was still there. Untouched by the spreading circle of change that was lapping out from Macon Heights.
"Where to, buddy?" the cabdriver asked, as Paine came rushing out of the train station.
Paine gave him the address of the apartment. The cab roared out into traffic. Paine settled back nervously. Outside the window the streets and office buildings flashed past. White collar workers were already beginning to get off work, swelling out onto the sidewalks to stand in clumps at each corner.
How much had changed? He concentrated on a row of buildings. The big department store. Had that always been there? The little boot-black shop next to it. He had never noticed that before.
NORRIS HOME FURNISHINGS.
He didn't remember that. But how could he be sure? He felt confused. How could he tell?
The cab let him off in front of the apartment house. Paine stood for a moment, looking around him. Down at the end of the block the owner of the Italian delicatessen was out putting up the awning. Had he ever noticed a delicatessen there before? He could not remember.
What had happened to the big meat market across the street? There was nothing but neat little houses; older houses that looked like they'd been there plenty long. Had a meat market ever been there? The houses looked solid.
In the next block the striped pole of a barbershop glittered. Had there always been a barbershop there?
Maybe it had always been there. Maybe, and maybe not. Everything was shifting. New things were coming into existence, others going away. The past was altering, and memory was tied to the past. How could he trust his memory? How could he be sure?
Terror gripped him. Laura. His world. . . .
Paine raced up the front steps and pushed open the door of the apartment house. He hurried up the carpeted stairs to the second floor. The door of the apartment was unloc
The living room was dark and silent. The shades were half pulled. He glanced around wildly. The light blue couch, magazines on its arms. The low blond-oak table. The television set. But the room was empty.
"Laura!" he gasped.
Laura hurried from the kitchen, eyes wide with alarm. "Bob! What are you doing home? Is anything the matter?"
Paine relaxed, sagging with relief. "Hello, honey." He kissed her, holding her tight against him. She was warm and substantial; completely real. "No, nothing's wrong. Everything's fine."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." Paine took his coat off shakily and dropped it over the back of the couch. He wandered around the room, examining things, his confidence returning. His familiar blue couch, cigarette burns on its arms. His old ragged footstool. His desk where he did his work at night. His fishing rods leaning up against the wall behind the bookcase.
The big television set he had purchased only last month; that was safe, too.
Everything, all he owned, was untouched. Safe. Unharmed.
"Dinner won't be ready for half an hour," Laura murmured anxiously, unfastening her apron. "I didn't expect you home so early. I've just been sitting around all day. I did clean the stove. Some salesman left a sample of a new cleanser."
"That's OK." He examined a favorite Renoir print on the wall. "Take your time. It's good to see all these things again. I--"
From the bedroom a crying sound came. Laura turned quickly. "I guess we woke up Jimmy."
Laura laughed. "Darling, don't you remember your own son?"
"Of course," Paine murmured, annoyed. He followed Laura slowly into the bedroom. "Just for a minute everything seemed strange." He rubbed his forehead, frowning. "Strange and unfamiliar. Sort of out of focus."
They stood by the crib, gazing down at the baby. Jimmy glared back up at his mother and dad.
"It must have been the sun," Laura said. "It's so terribly hot outside."
"That must be it. I'm OK now." Paine reached down and poked at the baby. He put his arm around his wife, hugging her to him. "It must have been the sun," he said. He looked down into her eyes and smiled.