Variety (Part Three)

by Leah Nicholson


    In a world where people teach useful things, the following descriptions are written in thick cursive ink, set down on a paper crumbling with age and burned around the upper left corner. 


    Detriponitipeia is the dawning realization of making a mistake. 


    Improveatoana translates to the act of making up a poorly thought out excuse that will inevitably make everything worse. 


    Enigelysphoria is the overwhelming feeling of wanting to dissolve into the earth, walls, floor, or ceiling. 


    The statement ier celtrus dotrientus roughly captures the nagging suspicion that someone else knows something you don’t want them to know. 


    These terms still exist in the real world, typed in a book kept in code, accessible with Security Four clearance and buried in section five, footnote nine of a Crescent contract worded in Old English. After entering no less than three passcodes, one of which is voice-activated, the page will display neatly from the nearest device. 


    The lines, without exception, are blacked out. 


~ part three ~ 


    Owen Brown, despite his dedication to the unquestionable rule of not thinking, is very specific as he tells Gayle and Liam Jones what their fate is to be once they step through the door with the glass handle. Between sips of overpriced black coffee (which actually has two sugars in it) and nibbling on a day-old scone (lemon blueberry, which he made at home), the CEO of Crescent details three things: 


    First. They are, he solemnly swears, supposed to step through the door’s blue steel frame into a small forest outside of London, England, in the year 1864.  


    Second. The door, he says, is to remain there until the return journey, on which they are supposed to turn the handle left, left, right, left, and left one more time. The right turn is “sandwiched”, he jokes, between two lefts. 


    Last. Upon the return journey, the forest in which they are to come through (as he swears, up and down, hand over his caffeine-quickened heart, that a forest is where they will infallibly come through) will disappear into the past. 


    Liam, personally, does not think any forest is likely to disappear, and rationalizes his theory with one particular piece of evidence: they do not step into a forest. 


    They step into someone’s house. 


    More specifically, they step into someone’s bedroom. 


    Were he to describe it in more relevant detail, Liam Jones would say that he and his sister step through a tear in the fabric of time and space into someone’s private, nineteenth century, mahogany furnished, occupied bedroom. 


    Liam looks at Gayle. Gayle looks back and, unable to do much else, gives him an understatedly apologetic shrug.  


    This is the first thing to go wrong in the year 1864. 


     There’s a woman in the bed, and a man next to her, both sleeping beneath an embroidered comforter. The nineteenth century walls are covered from corner to corner with patterned paper, blue insignias dotted across designs that match the canopy around the bedposts. On the polished wooden floor are a handful of overlapping rugs, and on top of those is a strange sort of dog who, unlike his owners, is not currently unconscious. 


    The brown-eyed hound—for the life of him, Liam cannot tell what breed it is—looks up at them, blinks, and yawns. Its tail thumps against the ground once, much too loudly, and as it succeeds in this effort, it lies back down with an equally loud sigh. 


    It is at this strangely domestic moment that it occurs to both Liam and Gayle, simultaneously, that they can’t go back the way they came unless they want to break the veil of time and send the world into a black hole of conflicting parallel universes. 


    So, to avoid this unfortunate (but admittedly entertaining) outcome, Gayle steps fully into the poor couple’s furnished bedroom, pulling Liam with her, and, gently, shuts the door behind her. 


    It clicks as it closes. The woman in the oversized Victorian bed stirs. Gayle, looking far too calm, takes a parasol leaning against the wall and holds it like a baseball bat. Liam aggressively shakes his head. 


    The woman doesn’t rise from her bed—in fact, she doesn’t even open her eyes. What she does do is start talking in an unintelligibly tired accent to her companion. The man stirs in response. 


    Gayle, looking unbearably inconvenienced, turns on her heel, points to another door on the opposite side of the room, and starts walking towards it. After a moment, Liam follows. The hound judges them the whole way. 


    The non-time-traveling door shuts without a click. Gayle’s grey eyes shift to her brother, as she asks, without preamble, “What happened to afternoon tea?” 


    Liam doesn’t know what to say to that. “We . . . got rid of it.” 


    “Well yeah, I got that part. But why?” 


    He shrugs. “Maybe people just preferred coffee.” 


    “So what? Afternoon tea is more than just tea. They have sandwiches, cakes, bread, and social interaction.” Gayle checks each thing off on her gloved steel hand. “The only tradition we have with coffee is middle-aged women yelling at teenage baristas who don’t know what ‘double-half-caf-mocha’ means.” 


    Liam raises a brow. 


    “Mocha latte,” she explains. “Half-caffeinated. Double shot of espresso.” She crosses her arms and almost, almost, smiles. “Aren’t you supposed to be a genius?” 


    Liam gives her a flat look. “Taxes, Gayle. We got rid of afternoon tea because of taxes.” 


    She doesn’t look at all satisfied with that response. This is, as it happens, a side effect of time-travel; you rarely like anyone’s answers to your questions, and, for whatever reason, you tend to have a lot of them.  


    Of course, Gayle is like this no matter what. 


    A very wise scientist (whose name no one remembers, because no one took the time to write it down) once remarked that, yes, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, but furthermore, whatever is possibly worse than the aforementioned “going wrong” will most certainly follow it in close succession. This is referred to as No One’s Law. 


    In accordance with No One’s Law, the second thing to go wrong in the year 1864 happens as Gayle and Liam Jones walk down a series of hallways, turn right, left, left, and left again, and finally step into a fully-furnished parlor. 


    A fully-furnished, occupied parlor. In which everyone in the room is entirely and undeniably awake. 


    Three people glance up at them as they enter. Liam panics quietly.  


    Gayle does not. “Are we late?” she asks with a surprise that is only partially feigned. 


    Their audience, composed of a small blonde woman, a man with a cartoonish mustache, and a beak-nosed old lady, suddenly seems abashed for staring. The elder woman politely foldher hands in her lap and acquires an atmosphere as inviting as a living cactus. It’s vaguely impressive. “Not at all,” she answers Gayle’s non-question. “We thought you might be our hostess.” 


    “You’re somewhat younger, though,” says the blonde-haired woman, smiling. “It would seem Mrs. Charlotte is still . . . sleeping.” 


    There’s a rather damning suggestion in her voice, but Liam, who has just broken into Mrs. Charlotte’s bedroom, can attest that she is, in all truth, still sleeping—and if she hadn’t been, he would be in quite a different situation. 


    “Were you here yesterday?” the older lady asks. 


    “No,” blurts Gayle. She folds her hands in front of her, right over left. “No, as it happens, my brother and I were . . .” She glances at him. 


    “. . . absent,” Liam finishes. “Apologies if we interrupted anything.” 


    This is not a lie, so it is improbable that it would cause as much trouble as one. 


    The old woman tucks strands of silver hair behind her ears, green eyes half-closed. She doesn’t stop frowning. Apologies ought not be given away like candies, dear. 


    Liam refrains from biting his lip. “RightAnd you are Madame . . . ? 


    “Mrs. Todgers,” she informs him, straightening. “Madame makes me feel far older than I am.” 


    “And we can’t have that,” declares the small blonde woman. She studies them, blue eyes sparkling. “But for goodness’ sake, don’t the two of you have names?” 


    “I must have left them in my closet,” says Gayle. 


    “Jones,” says Liam, a little too quickly. “My name is Liam Jones. This is my sister, Abigail.” He remembers that courtesy hasn’t had the decency to die out yet and adds, “Pleasure to meet you.” 


    “Mrs. Dellwood,” the blonde lady informs them. “Annabelle if you know me, Anna if you know me well. You do not.” 


    Liam glances at Gayle, who looks like she would rather keep it that way. 


    Annabelle Dellwood only looks amused.  


     (It is worth noting that Mrs. Annabelle Jane Dellwood now exists in three spaces. One, in the past; two, in the future of this past; and three, in Lydia’s present. There are precisely forty-six other people with this same affliction, and of them, only three are blue-eyed.) 


    Of all the guests in the room, the cartoonish-mustache man is the only one who has yet to say anything. He watches the previous exchange in total silence, holding a pocket watch in one hand and keeping the other perfectly still at his side. It makes Liam massively uncomfortable. 


    Gayle nudges her brother with her arm. Unsurprisingly, it’s her steel one. He nods. 


    Liam is about to make a graceful exit (meaning he intends to tip his hat, say “good day,” and walk swiftly out the nearest door) when Anna—no, Mrs. Dellwood—stands up. “Well, do sit down!” she invites them, gesturing around the room. Gayle clenches her jaw. “I always look forward to meeting acquaintances of Julia’s. She has a great many, with her husband being out of town so often.” 


    This rather loaded statement is colored with the pastel shades of friendly conversation. Liam, who has trouble telling people “no” in any century, is compelled to take a place in an armchair across from Mrs. Dellwood and remove his hat. Gayle, smiling like she’s just eaten an entire lemon, takes a seat next to him, crossing her legs instead of her ankles. Liam is positive this is intentional. The cartoon mustache man is frowning. 


    Conversation in 1864 is of incredibly little interest to people from 2091, especially when they’ve sat through at least six different history classes that focus on the subject. It is consistently predictable once you decipher the accent and traditional British vernacular, and goes roughly something like this: 


    “It really is a lovely day, isn’t it? I do hope Mrs. Charlotte is well. She tires herself out so easily, you know.” 


    (“In case I haven’t made it clear, Mrs. Charlotte is cheating on her husband. I disapprove of this.) 


    “Yes, but she is still an excellent hostess. Always so welcoming and cheerful, I don’t know how she does it. Her Tuesday gatherings are a joy.” 


    (You’re an awful person, and I don’t care for your gatherings, whatever day of the week they are.”) 


    “I couldn’t ask for a more thrilling distraction from everyday life.” 


    (These things are useless. I wish I was somewhere else.) 


    “Indeed, indeed.” 


    (want this conversation to end.) 


    “Miss Jones, where did you and your brother say you were from?” 


    Gayle has been consistently staring at the ceiling during these exchanges, of which there were several. She doesn’t break this connection as she replies, “We didn’t.” 


    “America,” says Liam. He pulls his briefcase closer to him. “North America. New York.” 


    “Ah, yes, New York!” Annabelle clasps her hands together. “I knew you would say New York; you have the look of the city all about you. What is it like this time of year?” 


    Neither Liam nor Gayle know, exactly, what time of year it currently is. “Decent,” Liam replies, at the same moment Gayle responds, “Suffocating.” 


    Mrs. Todgers blinks at this, looking scandalized. Annabelle Dellwood laughs. 


    Liam turns swiftly to the quiet man, who still has yet to do anything other than stand menacingly over the conversation. “Could you give me the time, sir?” 


    The man smiles (Liam suddenly wishes he’d go back to frowning) and glances slowly at his pocket watch. His eyes are a pale blue, glinting like ice as he checks. “Nine-thirty,” he says at length, and his smile grows. “Sir.” 


    “Oh goodness,” announces Gayle, absurdly loud as she hops from her seat. “We’re late, brother dearest! Alas, we must make haste, lest we miss our appointment.” 


    Liam relinquishes whatever control he had over the situation (which, as a note, was approximately seventeen percent) and stands, taking his hat and his briefcase. “Again,” he says by way of apology, “nice to meet you all.” 


    “Before you go,” Annabelle calls, “you ought to know I host a rather thrilling Wednesday evening. You should come this afternoon and meet my dear friends. The both of you will like them immensely, I’m sure. My husband’s house is down the street, around Belenue.” 


    Liam pauses. He looks from his briefcase to Gayle, arching a brow as he considers. “That would actually work . . . well, Mrs. Dellwood.” 


    Mrs. Todgers holds her chin up at a ridiculous angle. “You don’t mean to leave before Mrs. Charlotte has come to greet you, I presume? It would be incredibly rude.” 


    Given the situation, it must be said that Gayle has done remarkably well. No nineteenth century walls nor people have been destroyed, and she’s only said two or three things that might be used against her in a modern-day court. 


    Now, however, she leans past Liam and smiles sweetly at her audience. “Not to worry, Mrs. T.,” she assures. “I think we’ve established that our dear Mrs. Charlotte is . . . sleeping.” 


    They leave before anything more can be said. 


April 13th, 1864 – 11:53AM 


    “That was horrifying,” says Gayle. 


    “That was afternoon tea,” says Liam. 


    “It was nine in the morning.” 


    “Well, technically speaking—” Liam opens his briefcase and presses his electronic thumbprint to the R.E. pad hidden inside. “—time is fake.” 


    “Bullets are real,” Gayle informs him, “and I’m going to shoot you.” 


    “Scan your thumbprint first.” 


    Gayle does as he asks, swiping her metal hand over the screen. 


    The PACTIN is small device, considering it can open up communications for over a hundred-thousand mile radius in over twenty centuries. It looks a little like a prop one might use in an advanced play, only the green glow coming from the central cylinder is a potentially deadly chemical reaction rather than glowsticks that get replaced before every show. 


    “At least the containment area is where Brown said it was,” Gayle mumbles. 


    That much is true; they’d found the trick door Owen Brown had mentioned (or, technically, would mention) in the back wall of a workhouse cellar, and when Liam scanned his thumbprint (again, the electronic one), the entrance slid open in a cloud of dust. 


    Now Liam lifts the cylinder carefully from its case, placing it in a shallow metal box in the floor. The old PACTIN sits to the side, its glow pulsing dimly next to them. “Ready?” he asks Gayle. 


    “Yeah, tleave. Hurry up.” 


    Liam presses an eight-digit code into the R. E. pad. The screen flashes a burnt orange, displaying in white block letters, Voice Recognition Required. 


    “Liam Jones,” he says. The screen blinks blue, then goes back to orange. 


    “Abigail Jones,” says Gayle. The screen blinks blue, then orange. 


    “Access Crescent mainframe,” Liam commands. The screen shifts to a grid-like structure, stretching up into the air as a blue hologramLiam leans forward. 


    “Activate program VARIETY.”