A young woman with long dark hair was dragged along towards the waiting pyre in the village square. It was useless to try to fight, the only thing that she could do now was pray. Pray that Libris would reach her in time. The mission had gone horribly wrong, too horribly, and she knew without a doubt that they had been sabotaged. Now she was about to be executed. She closed her eyes and tried not to think as she felt them grip her hands, pull them behind her back and bind them around the large wooden stake with rough rope. The man who was tying her smelled sour, like body odor and dung, and even now, as she was about to die, Marie couldn't help but wrinkle her nose at him in distaste. He chuckled at this, then smiled with a mouthful of crooked, rotten teeth and spit into her face.
Marie opened her eyes now and scanned the crowd, looking to the windows of the surrounding buildings, desperately seeking a familiar face. The cleric was now standing by the base of the platform, addressing the crowd that had gathered eagerly to watch her burn. It was the usual, she was a witch and a heretic and a blasphemer, and as such was condemned to die. Marie just wished that they'd hurry up and get on with it. She was still holding on to a vain hope that Libris was simply waiting for the right moment to make her move, but as she watched the torch being lit, watched the flames draw closer and closer, then catch the kindling and begin to spread, no... Nobody was coming. It was real, this time. It was over.
She struggled just a little then, allowed the terror to sweep over her, allowed herself to weep. The heat came first, then the fire began to lick at her toes, and then the screaming began, so horrible a sound that she scarcely recognized it as her own. The crowd gasped and ooohed and watched as the lovely young dark-haired woman was slowly immolated, until her screaming began to finally fade. Most had turned away by then, but the few who were watching could see something curious, a strange flashing, blinking glow inside of the woman's right eye. This was the last thing to be burned, shimmering with a bright glare before it too went dark.
It was a rotten day, Alec Clairmont thought to himself as the rain soaked through the thin canvas of his worn sneakers. He was on his way home from work after a long and miserable afternoon. He smelled like hospital, a vague antiseptic stench that clung to his clothes. Then he saw something, up ahead on the pavement, standing by one of the gnarled, leafless trees. It slipped and shimmered out of the rain like a mirage, until it took on solid shape, the shape of a person. A young woman, he saw.
''Hello,'' he said, moving closer to the dazed girl. ''Are you alright?'' She was simply standing in the rain now, blinking. Droplets fell from her eyelashes. Her stare was vacant and confused. She opened her mouth as if to say something and then closed it again. A strange sensation suddenly ghosted through every one of his limbs as he regarded her. It was a kind of maddening knowing—he was certain that he had seen this girl before, but he couldn't place her anywhere in his memory, and it frustrated him.
Alec reached out and touched her arm, because he needed to be sure that she was solid. Sure enough, he felt the edge of damp coat sleeve and then the chilly skin of her arm. ''Let me take you someplace warm. Just for a little while,'' he added, sensing her hesitation. He motioned across the street with his arm. ''Public, well lit. I'm not going to try anything funny.''
Her lips quirked upwards in a small smile. ''Ok,'' she said, following him beneath the streetlights and the rain.
The girl didn't say much as they entered the pub, just moved beside him like a shadow and then sat down. Her eyes scanned her surroundings and every so often she touched the bar, or the stool that she was sitting on, as if she wanted to assure herself that they were solid. There was a far-away look in her eyes that made Alec wonder for a moment if she might be mentally ill but something inside, some knowing, told him that she wasn't, that something else was going on. ''What would you like to drink?'' he asked her. She blinked and shrugged. He ordered her a rum and coke, because that had been his mother's standard medicine for everything from migraines to depression. He figured it couldn't hurt. The girl accepted it with the thin fingers of her small hand, blinked again while she took a sip. ''Thank you,'' she said politely. Alec nodded. ''So...what happened, if you don't mind me asking? Why were you standing out in the rain?''
She stared down into her glass, trying to see her reflection there. ''I don't know,'' she answered finally.
''You don't know?'' he repeated. She shook her head. ''One minute...I was home, in my room, and then the next....it was raining. And I saw you.'' She took another sip. ''It's been happening a lot lately. First I'm one place. Then I'm another. It makes my head all foggy, like I'm inside of a dream.''
Alec considered this. ''You're American,'' he said. ''Are you visiting here, staying somewhere nearby?''
''I don't even know where we are.''
''You're in England,'' he said slowly. ''Where were you before?''
''Oregon. Near Portland.''
''And you don't remember how you got here at all? You were in Oregon and then you were standing in a park in England, out in the rain?'' Another nod. Alec took several long swallows from the glass in front of him. Then he asked. ''Did...did someone hurt you?''
She gave no answer, just stood up. ''I have to go to the bathroom,'' she said. He pointed. ''It's that way.'' She turned and he watched her as she departed, suddenly struck with a very acute fear that rendered him almost breathless, the fear that he was losing her. The fear held him in it's grip, kept him staring until he was roused from his thoughts by a jovial voice to his left.
''She looks like she's been through the war,'' a regular named Jonas noted to Alec, whilst cramming several chips into his mouth Where did you find her?'' He took a loud, noisy slurp of beer.
''I didn't,'' he replied. ''She just sort of...showed up. I think she might be trying to hide from someone, maybe ran away.''
A loud snort came from Jonas. ''Ex-boyfriend, most likely.'' He ate another chip, chewing thoughtfully. ''Yep, that's probably what it is. She has that look about her. Remember when Margaret was dating that cunt who worked in the record store? The one who used to rough her up sometimes? Had the same look in her eyes.''
Alec shivered a little at this implication. ''Yeah. Whatever happened to him, anyhow?'' Jonas' eyes glittered. ''Don't worry,'' he said, taking a large sip from his pint glass. ''I took care of it.'' Alec didn't doubt that one bit. Jonas was typically harmless, if not a little bit wild, but if you hurt someone that he cared about, it wouldn't bode well at all.
He cast another glance around and still saw no sign of her. Alec got up and went down the hall, scanning the faces he passed, hoping to find the pale blonde girl. An attractive, well-dressed young woman was emerging from the loos. In desperation, he asked, ''Is there someone else in there? Blonde, small? I think I've lost her.'' She regarded him with a scrunched-nose, sticky look, the kind that you would give to an insect. ''No,'' she said cooly, brushing past him. ''There's nobody in there.''
Now he quickly realized that she hadn't come back, and wasn't going to. She was gone. In one last halfhearted effort, he peered out the door with waning hopefulness that quickly melted away.''Well, fuck,'' said Alec, scrubbing a hand over his face. The rain had stopped. Lights reflected in puddles and made them shine. He sighed and went back to the bar, ordering another drink.
''Well, this is...vaguely disturbing,'' he admitted as it was set before him.
''What is?'' Maclay the bartender asked.
''I keep seeing this girl. She appears to me.''
''Like the Virgin Mary?'' Scott Faulk asked. He was hunched over, glassy-eyed, in front of his fourth glass of whisky. ''Mah cousin saw the Virgin Mary, more than once.''
''That's because he was high as shit, everyone knows your cousin.''
''No, not 'im. The other one, Rebecca. Rebecca never lied. She saw her in the hedgerows one night walking home.''
''Not sure exactly. The ones on her way home.''
''What a story. I much enjoy all the detail.'' Jonas rolled his eyes and lit a cigarette.
''Let's try again. What's got you in such a rotten mood?'' Maclay asked, ignoring Scott and Jonas and turning back to Alec.
''I saw a ghost. She must have been a ghost.'' He swayed drunkenly, clutched at the sticky edge of the bar to steady himself. ''She just...flickers in and out. So pale and pretty.''
Maclay smiled, it was a gentle look but one that didn't quite reach his eyes. ''She's not a ghost. But something tells me she will haunt you.''
Alec looked at him oddly, even through the addled drunken sheen that coated his mind he knew that there was something strange and telling about that statement. He took it all as a sign to leave and so he threw some money down on the bar then got up and staggered away and out the door. The rain was now falling again,lightly, and a mist rose up over the ground. Alec whistled to himself as he walked, and he was reminded of something that had happened years ago, on this road in the dark when he was just a child. He'd been passing by the hedgerows, and a mist had collected that night much like this one. He hadn't seen the Virgin Mary, but he could hear whispering, see little odd blips of light here and there like a Wil o' the Wisp. Those faint voices had grown louder, though he couldn't make out what they were saying. It was almost as though he was lifted up, then, taken someplace far away into the sky and then returned in an instant.The strange, out of body feeling had lingered for days afterward like a halo, though Alec wondered still if he'd dreamt it all.
Months passed and Alec didn't see the girl again. The ache in his stomach got a little better, but he was still scrawny and drank too much coffee. His teeth were still crooked and he smoked too many cigarettes. Things like that didn't tend to change. He pushed the cart down the hallway, trying his best to ignore the day. As he passed by one of the quiet rooms, the door ajar, he saw a flicker of color amid the white and grey and it caught his eye. Alec went closer, and then he froze when he pushed the door open further and saw who was standing inside. No, impossible. She was wet, half-naked, clad only in a thin shirt. Her yellow hair hung around her face, dirty. She looked like she'd been spun too fast in a circle, half-asleep. Alec's first thought was that he was going mad, finally, and he was almost happy. If she was madness then he wouldn't mind slipping into it. Let them take him and lock him away from it all, let him drift into a waking dream of slippers and Chlorpromazine and her. That sounded just fine. But no. She was real. He knew because he moved forward and touched the girl, just a soft press of fingers against her cold skin, and yes, real. Her eyes widened at the touch, blue, blue eyes, but she didn't speak. He put an arm around her and led her out of the room. Stealing a blanket from the supply closet, he wrapped it around her shoulders. ''Thank you,'' she said.
''I saw you once before, you know,'' he said, the words choked with disbelief. ''I remember your face.''
''I think I remember yours too,'' she whispered. ''But I thought that it might have been a dream.''
Alec shook his head, though he wondered. ''We can't be having the same dream.''
''What if that's what life is?''
Unable to help himself, Alec blurted, ''Don't leave me again!'' and then cringed at how stupid and desperate that sounded. But the girl's soft pink mouth only twitched into a small smile and she said, ''I'll try my best. I didn't want to leave the last time. I got...pulled away.'' Now she frowned, looked cold again, shivered.
''I'm going to get you out of here. And then we'll...go somewhere and talk, figure this all out.''
''Someplace public and well-lit, right?'' the smile returned to her face.
''Yes, or not, whatever you want,'' he said firmly. ''Just wait here.''
If she was gone by the time he got back, he was going straight down to admissions and checking himself in. She wasn't, though, she was mercifully still there when he returned, still wet and cold-looking, but less ghostly than before. There was some colour in her face now.
''Alright, let's go. We can sneak out the back staff entrance, I called in a favour.''
She took hold of his arm. ''Ok.''
Luckily, the hospital wasn't too far from his flat, and there were a few more secluded back roads that they could take so as not to draw attention to themselves. He kept an arm around her shoulder as they walked, and she didn't seem to mind. ''What is your name?'' he asked her. It occurred to him that he didn't know, and that he had never told her his, either. ''I'm Alec, by the way. Alec Clairmont.''
''That's a nice-sounding name,'' she replied. ''Very distinguished. I'm Vera Wyncote.''
''Well, that's a nice sounding name as well,'' he replied. ''We make quite a distinguished pair, Vera.'' And then he laughed at how comical they must look, he in nurses' garb and she dirty and wet, in a shirt and a blanket, clinging to each other as they shambled down a back road beneath the trees and dreary sky.
She laughed too, if just a little. It made Alec happy to see it. ''Here we are,'' he said, as they cut across onto the street where he lived. He led her along quickly up the front steps and then unlocked the door and ushered her inside. Thankfully none of his more nosy neighbors were out and about today, and so he wouldn't have to answer a barrage of questions about his mysterious female visitor. They went into the kitchen and he pulled out a chair at the table for Vera and then put on some water for tea. He cringed a little at the dirty dishes stacked in the sink, the ashtray filled with cigarette butts on the counter. He obviously hadn't been expecting company. Vera, however, didn't seem to notice or mind, she was still staring in that dreamy way, though her eyes were not quite so fogged over and vacant as before. Alec took this as a positive sign. While he waited for the water to heat, he went into his bedroom and searched his closets, trying to find something suitable that she could wear for the time being. The only things that he could find were a pair of drawstring paints and a sweatshirt, which he brought back to the kitchen and presented to her apologetically. ''At least they're dry.'' She smiled. ''Thank you, Alec,'' she said. ''Can I use your bathroom? I promise to come back,'' she added.
''Oh, yes, of course. Down the hall.'' She nodded and vanished into the corridor, the sound of her footsteps on the creaking wood comforting him, somehow. Vera returned a few minutes later. His clothes were large on her, the sleeves of the shirt draped over her hands, and the sight made him feel strangely warm inside. She rolled them up as she sat down at the table again. ''Tea?'' he said.
''That would be great,'' she replied. He poured her a cup and set it in front of her and then offered milk and sugar, which Vera declined. After getting a cup for himself, doused with a liberal amount of both, he sat down with her. ''How are you feeling?'' he asked.
''A little better,'' she answered. ''Warmer.''
''I'm glad of that. Look, I do have to ask--''
''How did I get here again?''
''I don't know. It was as strange as last time. Something is....happening...I think there might be something wrong with me.'' She frowned deeply. ''First, I'm one place, and then it's like a switch gets flipped and I'm another. I get these weird...headaches...behind my eye. That's usually when it happens. Everything gets all confused.''
''Well, let's just try and get to the bottom of it,'' he said. ''Where were you before I found you today?''
''I was....running. I'd been running for a long time...someone was chasing me. I couldn't see their face. And then...the headache came and I was in that room where you found me.''
''Do you remember anything from before you were running?''
''I think I was at home. But like I told you, it's been getting really foggy. Hard to keep everything straight.''
''Hmmm...what if we do this, I'll ask you some very basic questions and you answer. That should be a good place to start. What day is it?''
''Friday, in April. I'm sure. I just forget the exact date,'' she said apologetically.
Alec blinked. It was, in fact, a Tuesday, and it was October. ''Um...what year is it?'' he asked her.
''2002,'' Vera promptly responded.
''Oh dear,'' he said. He pulled his cigarettes out of his pocket. ''Do you mind if I--''
''No, go ahead. What's wrong?''
''Well,'' he lit his cigarette, not sure how to begin. He knew that the correct thing to do would be to take her back to the hospital and let them sort her out, but he couldn't do that. He knew what sort of a place it was, and she didn't belong there, despite her apparent detachment from reality. There was just...something about her that required a deeper look. If he didn't know better, Alec would swear that she was telling the truth. And this made him wonder, as ever, about his own mental state. Things happened, sometimes. Unusual things that another person might dismiss as madness.
''Vera, you see, it's not Friday, I'm afraid. And it isn't April. You've...got your dates a little mixed up, love.''
Her face twisted in confusion. ''What...what date is it, then?''
''Tuesday, October 5th, 1998.''
She jumped up from the table with a start. ''How? What? I...I don't believe you!'' She ran into the other room, the one with his desk and books and television. Noticing the computer, she said, ''Does this work? Do you have the Internet?''
He shook his head. ''I mean, it basically works, but I don't have the Internet yet, I'm afraid.''
Vera groaned and then shot over to the TV, turning it on. As luck, or perhaps not, would have it, a news channel was on, at that precise moment going over the events of this particular day, confirming cheerfully that it was, in fact, Tuesday and October, and 1998. She let out a choked sound of outrage and her face crumpled as she sank down onto the sofa. Her shoulders shook as she began to cry. Alec sat down beside her, feeling wretched, and put an arm around her. ''Oh, bollocks, I'm sorry I've upset you, Vera.''
''It's not your fault,'' she wailed. ''There's something wrong with me! I'm losing my mind!''
''No, no, you're not,'' he said assuredly. ''You've just...gone through something a bit traumatic and gotten a little confused. Not to worry, we'll get to the bottom of it.'' She raised her head and looked at him, her red, tear-soaked face breaking his heart just a little. ''You promise?''
''I promise,'' he replied sincerely. Vera gripped his arm. ''You're the only thing I can be sure of, right now,'' she said. ''You're all I've got, Alec, don't let me go.''
''Never,'' he promised her. ''We're in this together from now on, whatever it is.''
''Yes,'' she agreed, still clinging to him, her tears drenching his shirtsleeve. ''Together.''
Neither of them quite knew what to do after that, Vera had calmed but once again looked vacant and troubled. Alec, similarly troubled, went into the kitchen and retrieved a bottle of brandy. He poured a liberal amount into Vera's now-cool tea and kept the bottle for himself. Evening was getting on and so he turned on the lights but kept the television off, fearing that it would upset her. Instead, he went over to the large shelf of books and searched for something pleasant. The Once and Future King by T.H. White caught his eye, and so he pulled it down and set back down beside Vera on the couch. ''Would you like me to read to you?'' he asked. ''My gran used to read stories to me whenever I wasn't feeling well.''
Vera nodded and managed a soft smile, taking a sip from her cup. He opened the book and began. Soon, between the sound of his voice, her exhaustion, and the brandy, she was asleep, her blonde head lolling against his shoulder. Smiling, he took the empty mug gently from her hands and set it on the table, followed by the book. Gathering her sleeping form into his arms, he carried her into the bedroom, astonished at how light she was. He tucked her into bed, suppressing the random urge to kiss her on the forehead. Then he went back out into the other room, lit a cigarette, and tried to think.