No Way Home
I’m dozing off on the couch, watching a rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when I hear the moan. Or think I do. Barb warned me—“You’ll hear all kinds of noises at night. It’s usually squirrels or raccoons or pygmy owls. Don’t pay any attention.” So I sink back, trying not to pay any attention.
I’m housesitting here in Georgia for my high-school best friend while she and her husband are off to Spain. The semi-isolation gives me a chance to think. A newly single mom with grown-up kids, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
A couple of years ago, Barb and Jim retired to an upscale enclave a few miles north of Atlanta, outside Roswell. Their house, secluded by trees and halfway down a hill off the main road, overlooks a valley peppered with tall, skinny beech, oak, hickory, native magnolia, sassafras, and sweet gum trees, all sprung up since the Civil War. Only one huge beech remains of the centuries-old stand destroyed by cannonballs here. This spindly woods is filled with sunshine, flashes of bright color, woodpeckers’ rat-a-tat-tat, and a multitude of birds warbling their boundaries all day long. But at night my ears seem to catch ghostly echoes of sporadic cannon fire and the clank of sabers and faint calls of men crying out in the dark. I know it’s all in my head; I know they’re just squirrels or raccoons or pygmy owls. On this night, moonless and foggy, the moan comes again and I brush it off as my imagination.
Then I hear something very real.
“Help! Someone, help!” A woman’s voice . . .
I hesitate. It’s none of my business. I shouldn’t get involved. Right. That’s what they said when that woman in New York City—stabbed outside her own apartment house—bled to death screaming for help while not one finger was lifted, although every single person in that building heard her.
Louder than before, a despairing “Is anybody there?”
I grab a flashlight and the house key, arm the burglar alarm, and race out, slamming the door behind me. I clamber down the hill around the side of the house, and sweep the woods with my flashlight.
“Where are you?”
“Thank God!” comes from behind the enormous beech. “Here, over here!”
Scrambling through dead leaves and underbrush, I find her; she appears to be hurt, can’t walk on her own. I’m not very strong myself, but she is slight and I manage to half-drag her up the hill and into the house and the guest room. As I help her onto the bed, I see blood seeping through ripped pants; I run to the kitchen for rags, shears, and any first aid I can find.
The snipped-up pants leg reveals a nasty gash just below her knee. Glancing up with a reassuring smile, I register the young woman clearly for the first time: heart-shaped face, clear green eyes, light brown hair cut as short as a boy’s. In her long-sleeved, gray cotton shirt and gray pants, she could pass for a boy. It was crazy, but had she? Is this some ghost from the Civil War? But the blood is real. I wash the wound, swipe with peroxide, and bandage it. Done.
I finally could slow down and catch my breath. I boiled some water and a few minutes later, she was sitting up, drinking mint tea. I perched on the edge of the bed.
“I’m Meg Nelson. What’s your name? Is there someone you’d like to call?” An ordinary opening to what may possibly be the most bizarre conversation on record.
“I’m John Chalmers.” John?
She held her right hand up, cupping it over her ear with her fingers pressing behind it, then shook her head. “I tried before, but there’s something wrong with my con. That’s why I gave up and yelled; I just had to hope those hyenas were really gone.” She shuddered.
“Hyenas? There are hyenas here?”
“We were so sure they weren’t here, but you know you just never are safe when you’re outside. Anyhow, my brother has a gun.”
“Where is your brother?”
With a little sniffle, she said, “I don’t know. I tried to bing him, and when my con didn’t work, I whistled. We’ve had a secret signal since we were kids, but he didn’t whistle back and he never came.” A tear rolled down the side of her nose.
It would take a stonier heart than mine to be unsympathetic, but at the same time, I felt uneasy. “So, what happened? How did you get hurt?”
“Oh, God! They popped up out of nowhere! One of them came at me with a big grin—all those awful yellow teeth! I tried to get away, but he grabbed my leg and slashed it! I thought he was going to cut me to pieces or . . . or worse. I was so scared! My heart was thumping so hard! I squeezed my eyes shut and just wished, wished I were anywhere but there! Then it got really quiet, and all I could hear was my heart thumping like crazy. When I opened my eyes, they were gone. Something must have scared them off.”
“Scared off the hyenas?”
“Right; those Blues! Those damn D-Os.”
“Blues . . . you mean Union troops?”
She frowned, looking puzzled. “Union troops?”
“Well, you’re wearing gray and they’re blue.”
She threw back her head, laughing. “Right! The Civil War. And I suppose this is 1864.”
“Ah, well, no, but I don’t understand about raids and Blues and hyenas.”
“The Blues are hyenas. Look, I’d better bing my mom.” And she cupped her hand over her ear again and pressed, then shook her head.
“If you give me the number, I’ll phone for you.”
“Oh, thanks. I have to think a sec—I never use it. OK, it’s 404-782-804-52-star-3.”
I’d never heard a phone number like that, but I jotted it down and went into the front hall and dialed. I got a recording: “The number you have dialed, 404-782-804-52-star-3 is not a correct number. If you think you have reached this message in error, please hang up and dial again.” I did, omitting the star-3. Same message. I decided there were too many other permutations to try. Thinking hard, I walked back to the guest room.
“I can’t get through—uh—John. Do you live around here? I’ll drive you home.”
“Drive? Where’s your T-VAC?”
“Your T-VAC. Your tube!”
That did it. I excused myself and made the call.
Whoever was on shift at 911 took a long time to respond. When I finally got through, I couldn’t make the dispatcher understand why I’d disturbed her supper. This was obviously no emergency. With an exasperated sigh, she told me to call the local police department or an ambulance, or take the girl to the hospital in Marietta. Then 911 abruptly hung up.
It was just as well.
We were out in the county, beyond Roswell city limits. I didn’t know my way around and wasn’t about to set out in the dark of night for God-knows-where with some weirdo. And I could just envision a shrieking ambulance or a police car out here. Twenty houses lighting up, twenty nosy neighbors out their front doors, twenty long-distance calls to Barb and Jim, who had helpfully supplied everyone with their cell phone numbers.
I went back to check on John and found her fast asleep. She looked like a rumpled six-year-old and it made my heart turn over. The decision had been made for me; I’d let her stay through the night and we’d sort things out in the morning.
Right now, my head ached and my back hurt. I headed for bed and flopped down on top of the covers without even washing my face. Then it hit me. What if she were a mental patient, an escaped loony? She could burn the house down or stab me as I slept. Just because it was a cliché didn’t make it any less possible. I staggered to her room, turned the lock, and blocked the door with a desk chair tied to the knob. I couldn’t do more; I was beyond exhausted, closing fast on catatonic. Maybe I was the one gone mental, but I was just too tired to care. I fell asleep and dreamed of hyenas.
Early the next morning, I removed the chair and unlocked the door before John woke up. When she did wake up a couple of hours later, she came limping out of the room, sleepily rubbing her eyes like my kids used to do. She sat at the kitchen table drinking orange juice while I made coffee and scrambled eggs and toasted a couple of bagels.
“Are you feeling better?” I asked. “How’s the leg?”
She tentatively stretched it out. “Well, it’s sore, hurts a little, but I think it’ll be okay. Sorry I caused you so much trouble.”
“Don’t worry about it. I was happy to help. But we should go to a hospital to check it out, and then get you home. Tetanus shot, maybe?”
“It’s really not that bad, and I heal fast. And I had a tetanus shot just last year. Not that I generally go and get myself cut up by those crazies.”
“Are there a lot of them around?”
“Where have you been? There’ve been plenty around since Congress passed NOHAM.”
“Oh, you know—that cute acronym for ‘no handouts any more.’ Those poor bums can’t do anything but beg or steal, and no jobs unless they sign a bondage contract. Those are mostly for the females, anyhow, and if they get KU’d, out they go. There’s virtually no nonbondage work for the males. The meanest, nastiest ones go wild, and . . .”
“Wait, wait! Wait a minute! Are we talking about human beings here?”
“If you can call them that. Anyway, disgusting as they are, it isn’t their fault. Some of us Privs are pushing for changes, it’s gotten so ook.”
“Hold on! ‘KU’d’ . . . I’m guessing ‘knocked up.’ But I don’t understand about ‘ook’ and bondage contracts.”
My confusion finally made an impression on her. “Say, you really don’t know, do you? You don’t get news? Where’s your eye-vid? How long’ve you been stuck here?”
“Unless my mind’s slipped, I’ve been here just a week and a half. And what the heck is an ‘eye-vid’? And, just out of curiosity: since you aren’t a ghost in Confederate gray, who are the Blues?”
“Not Blues, the color; Blews as in ‘they blew it.’ No skills, no money, good for nothing. And an iVid is a personal vid—everybody has one. Except you, I guess. And, of course, the Blews don’t. And ‘O-O-C’ stands for ‘out of control—ook.’”
“I see.” I didn’t. “And you’re here because . . .?”
“I’m a history grad, working on my MA. We came over here to see if we could find any relics from the Civil War as a starting point for my thesis. God, I hope they didn’t get Dan!”
“Yeah; it was his week off work, and he likes to get outside. You know how it is when you’re see-you-see.”
“You know: cooped-up and concentrating—C-U-C.”
“Concentrating—on what? And where?”
“I don’t know the gory details. He has a fellowship in astrophysics at Georgia Tech.”
Then I recalled from TV shows, the one question they always ask people to test their connection to reality.
“Since it’s not 1864, why don’t you tell me what year it is?”
“What is this, a pop quiz? Twenty forty-four.”
It was a good thing I was already sitting down. Maybe my mind had slipped. Pygmy owls flying loose in my brain.
“Say, what is it with you, anyway? Why so clueless?”
I had a sudden idea—the morning news. “Come with me.”
“Where are we going?”
“Not far; just down the hall.”
I helped her hobble into the living room and onto the couch, facing the TV. Jim had bought it just last week, a brand-new thirty-two-inch HDTV.
“Whoa! Does that thing still work? I thought those antiques were long gone.”
She just shook her head.
I clicked it on just as the weather forecast was ending. She saw it, heard it . . .
“Well, folks, we all survived the solar eclipse yesterday. And that’s the weather for Thursday, August 12, 1999.”
Her jaw dropped. I switched the TV off. We sat in silence, broken only by the ticking of the grandfather clock. Finally she spoke.
“That can’t be right. This can’t be happening.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what I thought, when you told me it was 2044. Who’s the President?”
I snorted. “No way! By 2044 he’ll be dead. Good grief, I’ll be dead!”
“Why? Even in 1999, they were harvesting organs, doing replacements. It’s a wonderfully lucrative business now, lots of tax revenue for the government, and about the only way D-Ohs can make any kind of money.”
It almost made sense. Some people would do anything to become President.
“Actually, most people who can afford them, like Gingrich, have Bys.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask: what are Bys?”
“Standbys, clones. For compatible organs, when they’re needed.”
“Down and Outers; just another name for Blews.”
“What a world!”
Sighing, she said, “But it’s my world. I just wish I knew how to get back to it, or how I got here in the first place.” Then her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, my God! If it really is 1999, my mom isn’t even here!” And her voice broke.
Ludicrous, I thought—she really believes that stuff. Or else she’s a great faker. If she wanted to be taken at her word, why did she choose such a ridiculous name?
“Why do you have a boy’s name?”
She shook her head, laughing. “No, no, not “J-o-h-n; it’s J-e-a-n-n-e, my grandmother’s name; she was French. I was the only girl to come along, so I got stuck with it. My brother was named after our dad—he died before we were born.”
“So you and your brother are twins?”
“Sort of . . . not. Frozen embryos; long story.”
“So? I’m not going anywhere. What’s the long story?”
I poured us each another cup of coffee as she began.
“Our dad was a professor at Georgia Tech, an astrophysicist. He was researching wormholes and stuff, and he was afraid that the radiation . . . Well, he wanted to be sure they could have kids, so they had embryos frozen, just in case . . . you know . . . in case something went wrong.”
“And it did?”
“Yes. He went down to South America to do some research and never got back. He was declared dead seven years later.”
“I’m sorry. And you and your brother were born after that?”
“Right. A couple of years after that, Dan was born, and then, in another three years, me. So neither of us knew him. Only pictures and what Mom told us. She says Dan looks just like our dad, except Dan has hazel eyes. She said our dad had eyes as green as stoplights.”
We both fell silent, munching. But I was being asked to swallow a lot more than a bagel.
“Do you know where we are?”
“Sure. We’re outside Roswell. This is one of the best places to find stuff from the Civil War. Or used to be. Most of it’s been picked over.”
Well, she’d given the right answer to that question. Right or wrong, though, I had to get her out of the house.
“Jeanne, we have to see if we can get you home. Your mom must be somewhere around. And we should go to the hospital.”
“Oh, I don't need to go to a hospital. You fixed me up just fine.”
The second time she’d refused to go to the hospital. “Well, I’m glad you feel that way. But you know, this isn’t my house and, please don't take this the wrong way, but I’m not comfortable having a stranger here.”
“I understand, honestly I do. I don’t want to be any more trouble, but this is so confusing. Maybe we could go down and look for Dan? If he was hurt, he may still be somewhere in those woods. I’m such an idiot! I should have thought of that! He’s always looked after me, not the other way around. I hope we aren’t too late!”
“Don't blame yourself. You’ve had a lot going on. Sure, let’s take a look.” It was a way to humor her and possibly help me figure out what happened.
“Watch out for snakes” had been Jim’s parting words. So I borrowed Barb’s boots, lent mine to Jeanne, and we were out the door, Jeanne limping, leaning heavily on my shoulder.
We trudged through the woods without any real idea of what we were looking for; I didn’t think she actually expected to find her brother there. I picked up a stick and poked over the ground while Jeanne scanned the trees and spaces between the trees. I was sort of hoping for a science fiction moment: an eerie blue-glowing portal would suddenly appear and she’d walk through to her own time. That would have been too easy. In actual fact, we found nothing out of the ordinary—just scrawny second growth, underbrush, spider webs, and one wary copperhead that slithered out of our way faster than we could react.
It was a relief to get back into the air-conditioned house, out of the heat and the boots. Jeanne watched TV news while I tried to figure out what to do next. I was looking at a map to work out the route to the nearest hospital, when I thought of checking with the neighbors to see if they’d misplaced a relative. With Barb’s phone list in hand, I began dialing.
“Hi, uh, is everyone at your house OK? There was some commotion outside last night, and I just wondered . . . You didn’t hear anything? Oh. Umm . . . Sounded like someone in the woods. No lost visitors or anything? Oh, ha ha. Thanks, no, I won’t get lost. Oh, they won’t be back for a while. Well, sorry to have bothered you.” I felt like an idiot and undoubtedly sounded like one. Two calls later, I gave up.
Jeanne was standing in the doorway. She’d overheard. “You don’t believe me, do you? I can’t believe me either, stuck in 1999. You aren’t part of . . . is this some kind of hoax?”
“And that weather report?”
She didn’t answer. And, all the while, I was feeling more and more uncomfortable; I wanted her out of the house. I had to get her to a hospital where they could evaluate her.
“Maybe we need a change of perspective. How about it? If you’re up to it, we could go to the mall.”
“You mean—a real place? I don’t know; aren’t there a lot of people? We usually just go to the V-mall—virtual mall. It’s safe, and you can do just about everything.”
“How about food?”
“Well no, you can’t eat, but you can connect with your friends and arrange to meet later at a safe-kafe.”
“Safe-kafe? You mean a café?”
She shrugged. “Yeah, well—real cafés are fun, but dangerous. The Blews sometimes throw a homby or more likely, surround the place with big sticks and ding-dongs and rob everyone in sight. Not too many real cafés anymore.”
“What’s a homby? What are ding-dongs?”
“Paper bags of —uh—I guess the polite word for it would be excrement; dung. Those are ding-dongs. Oh, and hombies are homemade bombs.”
“Sorry I asked.” And I said again, “What a world.”
She thought for a minute. “Well, yours wasn’t so much better. Suicide bombers were blowing themselves up and taking anyone they could with them in your time.”
“No, they aren’t! What are you talking about?”
“Maybe you haven’t been paying attention. There were suicide bombers already in the 1990s. They just got a lot more common after nine/eleven.”
“Nine eleven? What does that mean?”
“September 11, 2001? When those jihadists flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and demolished it?” She said it like a question, as if she couldn’t believe I didn’t know, as if she could see into the future. Where did she get such appalling, outlandish ideas? I’m not proud of myself for egging her on, but I was itching to see how far she’d go.
“So, the Blews are causing a lot of trouble? Aren’t you afraid someday they’ll outnumber you . . . what did you call yourself? . . . you Privs, which I’m guessing means ‘privileged’?”
“Yes, it does, and no, they won’t. Why would you think so?”
“All those people with nothing to do. Except what everybody does when there’s nothing to do. I don’t suppose there’s such a thing as birth control.”
“Not really. Priv women get vaccinated at puberty and can’t get preg for ten years. After that, we either get a five-year booster or are ready to have a child. All that birth control stuff went out when too many pharmacists refused to sell it . . . against their religion. But the Blews won’t let their women come to the hospitals for vaccinations; they’re too suspicious.”
“So they have babies. And, I suspect, more babies. Aren’t there food shortages and trouble with Blews overpopulation?”
“Nope. Well, a bit of a food problem. But, see, Blews women are encouraged to go to the hospital, free, to have their babies; they’re glad for a few days of clean sheets and full meals, so they come. And every Blews baby is automatically sterilized at birth. Of course, the Blews don’t know that.”
I looked at her in astonishment. “You mean genocide? I can’t think of anything else to call it.”
“Oh, come on. We’re not killing people; we’re not killing babies; abortion’s illegal. It’s a humane solution.”
She spoke rationally enough, but what she described was insane. I knew what I should be doing. I should be calling a hospital; I wasn’t sure why I hesitated. Maybe it was that, for all her crazy ideas, she seemed so vulnerable. In any case, I couldn't get her out the door. She was exhausted and had to lie down. I spent the next couple of hours trying to decide how to get this kook out of my hair without taking drastic measures, whatever those might be. I swung from being half-scared of her to feeling totally empathetic.
By late afternoon, I was hungry, and I thought the poor kid would appreciate some decent food, too (I was in my empathetic mode). They’d handed out chits at the mall a few days back for free desserts at a place called Lickskillet Farm Restaurant. I called for reservations and outfitted Jeanne in clean clothes—mine, although they were somewhat looser on her. Okay, a lot looser.
On the remains of an actual farm, Lickskillet’s whitewashed main building was charmingly old-fashioned, surrounded by graceful shade trees and rose bushes, and beds of jonquils, pansies, begonias, and masses of daisies. Jeanne got almost giddy from sensory overload.
We’d arrived early when the place was nearly empty. As the dining room filled up, Jeanne had started hyperventilating, overwhelmed by the crowd and the sounds and the air heavy with cigarette smoke and food. I’d managed to calm her, and now she was clearly enjoying herself.
“Um, yum—this cobbler’s incredible! I’ve never eaten anything like it!” She glanced around as she savored the free dessert and the fresh restaurant-brewed coffee—she knew only Starbucks, a worldwide home-delivery service in 2044, she informed me.
Giggling and joking a minute earlier, she suddenly became quiet.
She leaned across to whisper, “Meg, look at that man at the table to the right of the glass doors. Do you see him? With his back to us, in the brown sport coat?”
I looked over and spotted the man who, even seated, was obviously tall and well built, with short black hair curling a little at the neck. Sitting across from him was an attractive young woman who seemed to be treating him with a good deal of deference.
“Yes, I see him. So?”
“He . . . he looks—well, at least from the back—just like my brother.”
A waiter stopped by the man’s table, and we heard, “Will there be anything else, Dr. Chalmers?” The man said something and, as he waved the waiter away, a ring flashed momentarily in the candlelight.
The girl jumped out of her chair, wounded leg forgotten.
“What are you doing, Jeanne?”
She paid absolutely no attention to me, but hobbled over and tapped the man on the shoulder. “Dan?” He turned around.
“Yes?” he said. “Do I know you?”
“Not funny, Dan! I’ve been trying to raise you since last night!”
The man frowned and his dinner guest intervened. “This is Professor Daniel Chalmers from the astrophysics department of the Georgia Institute of Technology.”
That’s when I thought Jeanne was going to faint. So did the man, who pushed back his chair and half-rose, ready to prop her up. “Are you OK?”
She examined his face, her own as white as the tablecloth. “Your eyes, they’re . . . green.”
“True. So, what’s going on here?”
“I’m not sure. This is so confusing . . . but I have to talk to you.”
“Perhaps when I return; I’m leaving tomorrow for a conference; however, I’ll be back on . . .”
“No!” Jeanne shouted, and some diners turned to stare disapprovingly. “No,” she whispered, “I need to talk to you right now.”
“I see. And would you care to introduce yourself?”
“I’m Jeanne Chalmers. And my brother . . .”
Professor Chalmers interrupted. “How can you be Jeanne Chalmers? That was my mother. Who are you?”
Then the enormity of it hit me—who this man could be. But that was impossible.
A few minutes later, in a private side room, the four of us were seated around a low table with untouched cups of coffee providing our excuse to linger.
“All right, what’s going on here and who are you?” the professor asked.
Jeanne, momentarily tongue-tied, shot me a desperate glance.
“Dr. Chalmers,” I said, “my name is Margaret Nelson, and I’m a visitor here, housesitting for friends. Now, this is going to sound peculiar, but this young woman . . . it’s complicated . . . Look, here’s the thing . . . ” And, as succinctly as I could, I explained the situation—at least the part that made some sense—while Jeanne struggled to regain her composure.
Then she broke in. “I never knew my father. He was a scientist, an astrophysicist, working on some secret government research project. My mom worked for my dad—she was his secretary—and then they got married—on New Year’s Day, 2000—and they bought a house two weeks later; Mom still lives there.” She faltered; tears filled her eyes, and she swiped at them with the back of her hand. “About four years later, he went to Peru for that same hush-hush project—something to do with wormholes—and he disappeared. According to my mom, government investigators did a thorough search, but they couldn’t find any trace of him or his equipment. Mom went down herself, but all she found was . . .” and here she halted.
Three voices in unison asked, “What?”
The girl swallowed hard. “She didn’t tell anyone, but—it was a miracle—she found his ring; it had been his father’s; that was all she found. Just that, and nothing else: a gold ring set with a tourmaline, bright green—like my dad’s eyes, she said; stoplight green, she called it. Like your eyes, Dr. Chalmers. She saved it, and my brother, Dan, has it now. Except . . . it’s the ring you’re wearing, Dr. Chalmers.”
The strange thing was, he didn’t tell her she was crazy or ask why she was spinning such a yarn. He just sat very still. Then he leaned forward and looked the girl straight in the eye. “What is your mother’s name?”
“LaVeda—Mom told us our dad always called her Lovey.”
The professor exhaled a soft “whew” and shook his head. “Well, I don’t know any ‘LaVeda.’ And I sure as hell am not your father. So you have the wrong man and the wrong ring and you’re barking up the wrong tree. I’ll say this for you, though: you have a wonderful imagination, and you and your handler certainly have gone on a rip-roaring fishing expedition. I don’t know how you could have heard about the Peru project.”
He stood up. “Even so, it doesn’t matter; it’s not happening; funding’s evaporated. I’m sure that’ll be a big disappointment to you and whoever you work for, after all the trouble you’ve gone to. Now I think we must be leaving. Linda?”
“Wait! What about my grandmother’s—your mother’s—name and everything? Please don’t brush me off!”
Chalmers finally lost his temper. “Look, whatever you call yourself and whoever you are, you’re either some kind of spy or a hell of a nut case, and whichever it is, I’m not falling for your cock-and-bull story. And if you don’t drop this little game right now and stop harassing me, you’ll find yourself explaining to the FBI. So buzz off.” He turned to me. “And that goes for you, too, lady.” And he walked out with his dinner companion.
“Let’s go, Jeanne,” I said.
She started to wail. “How can he not believe me? I know you don’t believe me. What’s going to happen to me? What if I never get home? What am I going to do?” And she heaved a big sob.
I put my arm around her shoulders. “Listen, we’ll work it out. Come on, let’s go now and get some sleep, and in the morning, things will look better. Okay?”
When we got back to Barb’s, I gave her a cup of chamomile tea spiked with powder from an eight-hour sleep capsule. I got her into bed; two minutes later she was out cold, snoring a little. And after working out the details, I went to bed, too.
The next morning, not speaking, we ate a skimpy breakfast of juice and toast and coffee. Even that was hard to get down. Once or twice she cupped her hand to her ear and pressed behind it, then shook her head despondently.
“Come on,” I said. “Get dressed. We’re going for a drive.”
She didn’t ask where. She didn’t seem to care. She dozed off in the car, not waking up until I was parking in the hospital lot.
“Where are we?”
I sighed. “I’m getting you some help, Jeanne.”
Then she saw the sign: Marietta Psychiatric Treatment Facility.
“Help? You want to lock me up!” She jumped out of the car and ran—straight into the arms of the two male attendants who had been waiting for us. I followed along and signed her in. And said goodbye. She was screaming, pleading with me not to leave her there. It was wrenching and I felt terrible. I promised to come back to see her. And walked away.
Well, what would you have done?
Two days later, I phoned. The head nurse told me that they’d found an electronic device, something like a pet ID, implanted behind Jeanne’s right ear. A surgeon had managed to remove it, but the operation had caused some residual brain trauma. Jeanne didn’t remember any of the brave-new-world tales she had concocted, but was otherwise recovering nicely.
When I visited Jeanne later that week, she was sitting in a small, upholstered chair gazing blankly out the window. She didn’t know me, could barely speak. She seemed neither happy nor unhappy, which, except for the funny twist in the pit of my stomach, was exactly how I felt. At least she was safe.
The following Tuesday, Barb and Jim came home. I gave them a bare bones rundown on the girl in the woods; I thought they should know she had been in the house, but I left out all the weird stuff. The next day, I was packed and walking out the door on my way to Hartsfield and back to Seattle, when the phone rang.
“Hey, Meg! It’s for you.”
It was Linda, Professor Chalmers’ secretary. She’d traced me through the restaurant reservation I’d made with Barb’s phone number.
“Something’s happened since that night at the Lickskillet that’s a bit unsettling,” she began. “Um . . . well, what Dr. Chalmers didn’t say—it didn’t seem relevant—was that I’m leaving the university. I’ve been looking for someone to take over my job here, and I think I’ve finally found the perfect replacement. She’s coming in for an interview on Monday, and her name is . . . LaVeda Cook.”
On the flight home, I mulled over the whole thing. What could I have done differently? The new secretary’s name—just a coincidence? But how had Jeanne come up with it? And how had she appeared out of nowhere?
Then I got cold chills—a sudden flash of recall—something that had happened years earlier, when my children were school age.
We had been eating Saturday lunch in the family room, where the deck was visible through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. We heard a thump and looked out to see our dog, a deceptively fearsome-looking boxer, drop his black muzzle flat to the deck, his nose less than an inch from a tiny wren. The bird had obviously been knocked silly by flying into the tree-reflecting windows. It had happened before, but the birds always recovered. This poor thing was frozen to the spot.
I jumped up to rescue it, but before I got to the door, I was shocked to spot it sitting, just as numb, inside on the tile floor exactly opposite where it had been outside on the deck a moment before. The bird began trembling, and then it was frantically flying from one end of the ceiling to the other and swooping all around the room. The children were shouting and I probably was, too. I slid the deck door open and ran for a broom, but the wren made its escape without my help.
How could that bird have been outside one minute and inside the next? It was inexplicable. It couldn’t have happened. Yet we had all seen it. We decided that pure terror, combined with the strongest, most concerted desire to escape, had transported the little creature inside to safety. Which was no explanation at all.
Yet, could that account for Jeanne’s sudden appearance from years in the future? So terrified by her attackers, so strong her desire to be anywhere else, had time been no more an impediment to her than the glass window to that bird?
For a month, the thought haunted me. I knew it was crazy, but I couldn’t stand it any longer. I called the Marietta hospital and spoke again to the head nurse.
“How is Jeanne Chalmers doing? Has she regained any of her memory?’
“A little, it seems. When her brother came to fetch her, she seemed to know who he was.”
“Her brother came?”
“Yes. Somehow, he’d tracked her here. And he asked for the chip that had been removed. Fortunately, our resident physician had kept it in his desk drawer as a curiosity.”
“Do you know where he took her?”
“Why, yes, I do. It seems they both live with their mother near Georgia Tech.”
I cajoled her into giving me the phone number and address, but I didn’t call right away; I procrastinated. After all, what business was it of mine now? She was with her family, where she ought to be. Her arrival in the woods had, after all, nothing to do with breaking the time barrier. Stupid me. Still, I wanted some kind of closure.
Finally, disregarding the churning in my stomach, I phoned.
There was no such number. Had Jeanne’s brother purposely given the nurse a false number? Or had they changed their number? The information operator couldn’t give me any information. Then I thought of the Atlanta Public Library and called. No problem; the library’s reverse directory turned up a phone number for that address.
A man answered. He sounded old; his voice creaked.
“May I speak to Dan Chalmers or Mrs. Chalmers, please? I’m the person who found Jeanne a couple of months ago.”
“What? Who? Chalmers? Ain’t nobody here by that name.”
“Are you at 512 Mariella Avenue?”
“Yes, that there is my address, and I’ve lived here since 1975, and there ain’t nobody here called Chalmers. It’s just me, since my wife passed on last month. And I won’t be here much longer neither. Gonna sell and go live with my daughter in Arizona. Now goodbye, ma’am.”
That was that. I had come to a dead end. Then it dawned on me that it might be a dead end only until this coming January, when the professor and his bride would buy the old man’s house. That’s when I’d finally be able to satisfy my curiosity. The truth was, in my bones, I already knew. I just hoped I’d still be around to apologize in 2044.
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