Sarah, Returned

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Chapter Seven

The portal tosses me out with as much force as it pulled me in. I land on my side in the grass, digging my elbow hard into the soil to keep bruises on my rib cage to a minimum, and leap back to my feet in an instant. I cannot let the portal close without me.

But, as I reach for it, the wretched thing snaps closed, leaving nothing but open space, like it was never there. Instead of bright, warm light, I’m looking at….at….

“No,” I whisper. Louder. “No!”

It’s instantly clear where and when I am, and I’m trapped here. Everything looks exactly as it did when I left it 14 years ago. The apartments at the bottom of Garrison Hill, where Ebenezer Varney’s house once stood, cars filling its parking lot, electric lights shining through curtains and blinds. At my feet, the paved road that goes to the small houses higher up the hill. To my left, Central Avenue, and its unique mashup of houses and small businesses, most of which are closed for the evening.

I’m about a quarter of the way around the hill from the near vertical street going to the park at the summit. I start to walk there, thinking through a haze of emotion that I might find a way back up there. After all, it is where I left in the first place.

I take a step toward the street, only vaguely aware I’m wearing what most people would think is a costume for some colonial-era play. How strange it feels normal on me now, when it took so long to get used to dressing this way. Now, it acts like a comforting security blanket, wrapping me in the heavenly sights, smells, and touch of my husband and children. For a moment, I’m back there, nestled in our cozy farmhouse, embroidering samplers with Hannah, the other children playing beside me near the fire, Joshua sitting at the long wooden table carving a tiny horse out of birch for Thomas. All as it should be.

A red pickup truck goes by, its headlights just missing me, breaking my reverie. The bramble near the bottom of the hill providing enough cover even with a full moon shining brightly overhead.

There is no question. I’m back.

Well, maybe not exactly back to my original time. But, it’s obviously close enough. That truck couldn’t have been older than a 2008. The only question is how. How did I get back to the 21st century? There was supposed to be no way back. Grandma’s memory box would work for others, but not for me. We tried. The only way to open a portal would be for me to touch something another person brought through time. I touched nothing but Joshua’s hand before being ripped away from my family. And, even if I did touch something with temporal energy on it, there was no way to control my destination. Coming back to where I started was so unlikely, it was like finding a thimble you tossed out into the vastness of the universe.

We thought I was safe. We were so sure we would be together forever. What happened?

Think, Sarah. Think. We dug a hole. There were rocks. Were any of them brought through a portal by some unwitting time traveler? Did I step on one? I’m barefoot. The skin-on-skin contact would do it. But, for that kind of rock to be in the exact place we were digging….

Oh my God. Arrowheads. There were a few arrowheads in that hole, too, and Joshua piled them to the side along with the rest of the dirt as he dug. A Native who traveled through time might bury the thing he or she thought transported them, to keep others safe from what they might consider evil. Did I step on an arrowhead with temporal energy? That has to be it. I can literally think of no other explanation.

It doesn’t matter. However I got here, I am here, and they are there. I am separated by everyone I hold dear by more than 300 years. Here, Joshua and the children have been gone for so long, only the most dogged of genealogists would remember they ever existed. Do I have descendants here? Eight and 9-times great-grandchildren?

A great, wracking sob builds in me, threatening to explode into full-blown weeping. I don’t want to be here. Ironic. I spent so many years wanting, trying desperately to get out of the 17th century and back here, and now, I want nothing more than to stay there with them forever.

I have to get back.

The thought of being so far away from my children is too much for me, and something inside me snaps. As the full realization of being back in the 21st century dawns on me, with no obvious way back, I’m frantic. My babies need me. Joshua needs me. I can’t leave them alone. I refuse.

Not thinking, beyond reason, I dash around the corner, and up the vertical road to the park. My car isn’t there, so this can’t be the same night I left.

It’s been a long time, but I easily find my burrow in the thicket, where the portal first opened. I have to make it open again, if by nothing other than sheer force of will. Sinking to my knees, I begin pulling up clumps of dirt from the patch of grass I once took refuge in inside the bramble. My fingers deep into the soil in the vain hope the portal might be hiding down there.

“Come on,” I beg, digging, black dirt caking under my fingernails. “Come on, please. Open. Send me back. You’ve got to send me back. I can’t leave them. Where are you?”

I dig, crying in the deserted park, for I don’t know how long. A while. By the time I finally take my hands out of the ground and sit back on my heels, exhausted, my hands and face are both muddy from dirt mixing with my tears, and me continually wiping them away with my filthy hands. There’s nothing here. The portal isn’t opening. I’m stuck.

Even if I could open it, I couldn’t ensure I would go back to them. Travel is random, at least as far as I understand it. Granted, that understanding comes only from Grandma’s letter to Professor Johnson, and my conversations with Grizel. If I can get my hands on something that will open a portal, I’ll be taking a huge leap of faith that it will take me back to 1699. Getting back to the 21st century was a fluke, it had to be. The truth is, there is a good chance I’ll never find my way back to them.

No. Just no. I can’t let myself think that way. The fact time travel exists at all is a freaking miracle. Why not consider the possibility it might have more miracles hidden within it? What I need is to find Professor Johnson. He will be able to tell me how to return to 1699. Or, at least, he’ll help me determine if it is possible. And, it has to be possible. I got there once. I refuse to allow the possibility of not being able to get back.

First things first, though. Before talking to the professor will do me any good, I have to get my hands on a suitable object for traveling. Something that a time traveler touched as they went through a portal.

Grandma.

Her dress came through with her. Though she couldn’t use it to travel again, she believed my dad and Matt’s could, so she gave them each a scrap of it to help them escape bad situations. A child lost in time is bad, but better than a dead one. That was her opinion on the subject. She burned the rest of the dress to keep Matt and me from accidentally traveling when we were little, but did she keep anything else she brought with her from 1864 to 1938? Shoes, stockings, jewelry, undergarments? Are they hidden in her room in our house somewhere? It’s the only logical place they would be. Even if she brought them to the assisted living facility with her, the staff there would have returned them to us after she died. Matt probably received them and put them back in her room, maybe in a package he never bothered to open. We were going to clean out her room together, but never got around to it before I opened the first portal.

Of course, I have to consider I might not be back at the exact time I left. Grandma could still be home. She might even be in her pre-pretending to have dementia days. Or, she might be in the assisted living facility. I have to find out the year. Once I know, I can go to the appropriate place. There has to be something left from her trip through time I can use. There simply must be. And, I’m going to find it.

Oh, but what if I’m a little bit in the future from where I left, and Matt is married to Karen? That could prove problematic. If I’ve been gone too long, Matt and Karen probably have full ownership of our house, because Karen had me declared legally dead. If I just show up, she might not let me in, and as the “woman of the house,” she would have every right to do it. I’d have to go to court and prove I’m still alive just to begin the process of reclaiming my half-ownership of the house. That kind of thing could take months, or years. No way am I going to be away from my family that long.

The timing has to be just right to make this easy. Whatever it turns out to be, though, I’m not letting something as insignificant as time stand between me and my family. I will break down the walls between the centuries with my bare hands if I have to. Nothing is going to keep me away from my husband and children.

If I’m anywhere near my original time, I know there are a few gas stations nearby that stay open all night, an unusual feature for a retail establishment in Dover. All I need is one with a newspaper box in front of it, so I can see the date. The date will determine what I do next.

Reluctant to leave the summit of the hill, as it is the last place I was with my family, I force myself to stand up and walk back down, toward Central Avenue.

My face is a dirty, sloppy mess after all that digging and crying, and my clothes do not exactly blend in, but I’ll have to make the best of it. Worst case scenario, some passerby or gas station attendant thinks I got lost in the woods or just escaped a kidnapping, possibly while rehearsing a play. Maybe the kidnapper made me dress like this, or I’m doing an immersive history project for school. Nothing that can’t be explained. I assume I age-regressed again when I went through the portal, and since I’m clearly not a kid, I’m probably back to somewhere around college age. Passing all this off as a school project is actually not too much of a stretch.

It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the nearest all-night gas station. The fact it’s here and open tells me I can’t be too far from my original time. There isn’t a newspaper box outside, but I see a few leftover papers from this morning against the glass inside. I look around. No cars, no other customers. The building is well-lit, but empty, except for a lone clerk with severe acne, reading a book. He can’t be more than 17. This is probably an after school and weekend job for him. Normally, it would be risky to work at a gas station at night, but Dover is never truly busy, even during the day. At night, it’s practically deserted. In this town, being a night clerk at a gas station is a pretty sweet job if you like things quiet and easy.

He looks up as I walk inside, and bored expression transforms to one of slight alarm when he sees my face, hands, and clothes.

“It’s okay,” I assure him. “School project. History class at UNH. I just wanted to look at your newspapers.”

He nods, saying nothing. He’s probably wondering what type of school project would have me rolling around in the dirt.

I walk over to the newspapers. There are only three left, all the rest having been purchased throughout the day, probably the bulk of them in the morning, when people were on their way to work. The date stands out to me like it is written in neon letters:

May 17, 2017.

Exactly one month after I left. Holy crap. That is almost a direct hit on my original time. How did I end up so close to where I started? The odds are astronomical. For the first time, I think God, or some other unbelievably powerful celestial being, is controlling all of this. If that’s true, he’ll surely send me back to Joshua and the kids. Won’t he?

Okay. Take stock. I haven’t been gone long enough for Matt and Karen to be married…probably. I’m almost definitely considered a missing person now, and the concern won’t be so much for my mental state at this point, but my physical safety. All my things were gone from the thicket. Assuming they weren’t stolen, they were likely found by the police, or other people helping with the search for me, along with my car. I wouldn’t just walk away and leave everything behind, like my purse with my money in it, my phone, and everything else.

They all probably think I was kidnapped. Or worse.

I’ve got to call Matt. He will be relieved to know I’m okay, and it means I get easy entry to the house to search Grandma’s room. Of all the possible scenarios I went over in my head on my walk here, this is one of the better ones. I got lucky. Or, someone up above is watching out for me.

“I need to use a phone,” I tell the confused clerk. “My car broke down and I need to call my cousin to come get me. Can I use yours?”

“Where is your phone?” he asks, suspicious. Can’t say I blame him. I look suspicious.

“Battery died. I left it in the car.” Wow. The story is coming to me without me giving it a thought, almost like someone is putting words in my mouth.

“Yeah, okay,” he agrees, making an executive decision to trust me. “You look pretty worn out. Just be quick, yeah? I’m not supposed to let anyone use it. It’s for employees only.”

“I won’t be a minute,” I assure him.

Seemingly more comfortable now that he knows I’m not some psycho who just wandered in from committing a murder, he lifts the store’s landline phone out from behind the counter and pushes it toward me.

It’s been years, but I still remember the phone number to my house. It’s never changed from the time I moved in when I was seven. It’s as ingrained in my memory as securely as my own name.

On the third ring, someone picks up. “Hello.” Matt’s deep, rich voice says with a hint of irritation, no doubt annoyed a strange number is calling so late at night. You never know who might be on the other end of those calls. I stopped picking up on any number I didn’t recognize when I was ten, but Matt always picks up, even when the caller ID says “unknown.”

God. It’s Matt. The realization washes over me, and nearly brings me to my knees. I honestly never thought I’d see him again, and hearing his familiar voice pulls up some emotions I didn’t know I’d suppressed. We parted on bad terms, but that never overshadowed all the good times we had together before Karen, and certainly not the love. I’ve missed him. Forgetting for a moment that I’m not back to stay, and he is only my key to Grandma’s bedroom, I let my emotions take over and gush at him.

“Oh my God, Matt!” I cry, ecstatic. “It’s me, Sarah! It’s so good to hear your voice. I’ve missed you so much.”

“Sarah?” Matt exclaims, incredulous. “Oh, thank God. Where are you? What happened to you? Are you okay? I’ve missed you, too.”

“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” I insist, reassuring him. “I’m at the Sunoco on Central. Can you come get me? I’ll explain everything, I promise.”

“I’ll be right there,” he says, frantic to get to me before I disappear again. “Don’t move. Don’t go anywhere. My God, Sarah. We found your car with the keys still in the ignition, and all those things you left in the thicket at the park, but there was no trace of you. At first, we thought someone kidnapped you to try to ransom you for your inheritance, but no one ever contacted us. When we didn’t hear from anyone after a few days, we thought maybe something worse happened. But, you’re alive and okay. This is wonderful.”

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” I say, and mean it. I wouldn’t put Matt through that kind of hell if I could avoid it. “There was no way to call you where I was, or I would have, believe me. I’m back now. Just come get me and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“I’m on my way. Sarah?”

“Yes?”

“You’ve been gone a month. There’s an open and ongoing missing persons case on you. The police are still questioning people and looking for evidence of your whereabouts. I’ll have to call them. They’ll want to question you.”

“Of course. I understand. Look, I can’t stay on this phone long. Just come, Matt. Take me home. I’ll tell you the whole story and answer anything the police want to know.”

“Leaving the house now. I love you, Sarah.”

“I love you, too, Matt.”

I hang up the phone and push it back to the clerk. “Thank you.”

He gives me a sympathetic nod, then turns back to the book he was reading when I walked in.

I step outside and wait for Matt, leaning against the wall under the glaring fluorescent lights. To say my feelings are mixed is quite the understatement. Karen is still around and the police are involved. It’s not surprising. With my status as a well-known heiress, the state police are probably involved, too, and maybe the FBI.

Still, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. I hoped Matt would have seen through Karen’s spell and broken up with her by now. Or, maybe the stress of my disappearance, coupled with her likely indifference, would have driven them apart. Instead, he probably turned to her for comfort, and she played the part to perfection. With the new exception of Great-Uncle Jacob, Karen is all he has left, besides me.

Talking to the police will make this take longer than I hoped. I wanted to get in, search Grandma’s room, find what I need, and get out to start looking for Professor Johnson. Hopefully, it won’t delay me too long in finding a way back home. If I have a believable story, it should wrap up their investigation nicely, leaving me free to pursue my goals.

The question is, what will I tell them?

I can’t give anyone the real story, or that looming psychiatric hold Karen held over my head before I left will become a reality, maybe keeping me from exploring Grandma’s room at all. I can’t feign amnesia, because I already told Matt I’d give him the full story. I’ll just have to play it by ear and make something up that sounds believable, without implicating a real person in my disappearance. I don’t want anything keeping me in the 21st century a moment longer than necessary.

Matt will be here soon. The gas station is only minutes away from our house if you’re driving. After 14 years away, I’m beyond thrilled to get this reunion. Though I grew to love and cherish my life in the 17th century, there were so many times I wished Matt was there, too. Matt is not just my cousin. After I accepted and embraced my life with Joshua and the children, Matt was always the one thing missing to complete my happiness. Now, he’s on his way to pick me up, and I can finally fill that Matt-shaped hole in my heart. I can’t wait to throw my arms around that broad neck and feel his silky black hair brush against my face. I will savor every moment of it. This time, I will get the proper closure with him I should have had from the beginning of this adventure.

Yes, seeing Matt will be glorious. But, I can’t let it distract me from my mission. There may be something in Grandma’s bedroom that will open up another portal for me, and, with any luck, I will find it, and return to my husband and kids. Once I’m in the house, I must take the first opportunity to locate it.

My life in this time is a good one, Karen notwithstanding, and I appreciate the chance I’ve been given to get back to it. The 21st century is far better than the 17th. I don’t think anyone would argue that point. It doesn’t matter, though. This isn’t home for me anymore. My home is with Joshua and the children. I have to get back to them. They’re waiting for me.

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