JULIA OPENED HER EYES to a room she didn’t recognize. Certainly it didn’t belong to the simple, rented cottage she shared with Victor, which had two snug bedrooms, a living room, and an eat-in kitchen, all decorated in Shaker furniture and tasteful Pottery Barn neutrals.
This room was vast. On one wall, curtains draped over two tall windows; on the opposite wall, a fire simmered inside a large marble fireplace. Julia herself lay in a canopied bed. For a moment, she thought she was in a hotel. She’d gone away with Victor for the weekend, and he’d found some boutique hotel in a historic property, the kind with no front desk and a bar that served French 75s.
She flung out an arm. “Victor?”
A throat cleared on the other side of the bed.
Julia sat up. The room was lit by a single dim lamp on a nearby table, and next to this table a small, pixie-haired woman sat in a chair, reading a book. Or had been; the book lay closed in her lap, marked by a thumb. She smiled at Julia. “Awake, I see? Or only dreaming?”
“Awake,” Julia said.
“Feeling better, I hope?”
Julia squinted through the shadows. She’d seen those delicate, large-eyed features recently. But whose? She couldn’t summon a name, just—
She snapped her fingers.
“You gave me wine,” she said. “Red wine. It was very good.”
“I should hope it was. A ’46 Petrus. I thought the occasion called for something memorable.” She laid the book on the table and uncrossed her legs. She wore a jade silk dressing gown over turquoise silk pajamas and looked fetching—there was no other word— especially paired with that mischievous smile, as if she knew exactly what Julia was thinking. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You haven’t lost your mind. We haven’t been properly introduced yet, that’s all. I’m Ivy.”
“Of course you are,” said Julia.
“Yes, quite! I think my parents just knew I was an Ivy, don’t you? Ivy Throckmorton, but you don’t need to remember the Throckmorton. People generally can’t.”
“It sounds kind of English? And so do you.”
Ivy shrugged her shoulders. “I haven’t lived there for ages now, but the vowels do tend to stick a bit. How are you? You were shockingly done in. Helen said we should just put you to bed and see what happens in the morning.”
“Dr. Freeman, I mean. The one who led you here.”
Julia drew up her knees to her chest and glanced at the windows. The curtains were drawn so tight, she couldn’t tell what hour it was. “Is it morning yet?”
“I suppose that depends on your definition of morning. Let’s say it’s past midnight and before sunrise, shall we? So you’ve had a nice long sleep, but you needn’t rise for a while yet.”
“What about you?”
“Me? Oh, I don’t keep your kind of hours. I’m what you call a night owl. Whoo, whoo. That’s why they asked me to keep an eye on you.” She busied herself smoothing a crease in her dressing gown. “Victor. Is he your chap?”
A bolt of shock struck Julia’s chest. She jumped to the edge of the bed. “Victor! Oh my God! I’ve got to get home! What the—how did I—”
“Now, do calm down—”
“But I literally forgot—and I don’t even know where I am—”
Julia sprang from the bed and grabbed hold of the two sides of the curtain, ready to fling them open, but Ivy had flown miraculously across the room and got there first. She locked one hand gently but firmly around Julia’s left wrist.
“Stop! Do stop. You mustn’t worry.”
“Me worry? It’s Victor! He’ll be frantic!”
“No, no. You’ve got it all wrong. It doesn’t work like that. For God’s sake, let go of the bloody curtains!”
Julia’s fingers relaxed on the folds of heavy damask. Ivy’s hand dropped away.
“That’s better,” she said.
Julia turned to face her. “I can’t stay here. I have to get back.”
“And so you shall. And it will be as if you never left, I promise. Where we are—it’s apart, do you see? Our world, and your world—where you came from, I mean—it’s not the same. The clock isn’t ticking.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If you return—”
“When you return, you’ll find your world is exactly the same instant you left.” Ivy lifted one hand and snapped her fingers. “If that’s what you want, I mean. Of course, you’ll be a little different. But as far as this Victor fellow’s concerned, why, you were never even gone. If that’s what you want.”
“Of course that’s what I want. I want to go back now, if you don’t mind! I don’t even understand why I’m here!”
Ivy knit her brows in a delicate frown, but then everything about Ivy was delicate. She was hardly more than five feet tall. She had light brown hair and light brown eyes and pale skin, almost translucent. You almost expected a pair of gossamer wings to sprout from her back. Looking at that frown, Julia felt a surge of déjà vu, so acute that her mind grasped in desperation, almost (but not quite) capturing the moment, the place and time and circumstances where she and Ivy had once faced each other like this.
“Don’t you?” Ivy said. “Think very hard.”
“Believe me, I have,” said Julia, “I don’t even understand where here is. I mean, seriously. Where am I? What happened to me?”
“You drank a glass of wine and fell asleep—”
“You know what I mean. You’re keeping me here like some kind of prisoner—I’ll bet there was something in that wine, wasn’t there, because for a while I didn’t even remember—and all I know is that…”
Ivy leaned forward. “Yes? What?”
“That I’m either dreaming, or I’ve been here before.”
There. She’d said it. She’d said out loud what she’d been feeling, in discrete, tiny raindrops of awareness, ever since that first notice had appeared from the Darlington Town Library. What she felt now was a hundred times bigger, like a giant reservoir of knowledge lying somewhere beneath this surface sensation of déjà vu, or whatever you wanted to call it. She wanted desperately to look inside, and she wanted just as desperately to flee and forget all about it. To go back to her nice safe house and her nice safe life with Victor.
“Well, you’re certainly not dreaming,” said Ivy. “As for being here before—well, I don’t know if I’m really the person to explain.”
“Then who? And don’t say Dr. Freeman, because she just tells me the same cryptic stuff you do.”
Ivy smiled. “Max, of course.”
The word Max hit Julia like a blow. “Max! Where is he?”
“I expect he’s still in his study. I’m supposed to let him know when you’ve woken up.”
Julia stared at her. “Well?”
“Oh! Right! Will you excuse me just a moment?” Ivy scampered around the bed to the door on the opposite wall. She paused with her hand on the knob and glanced back to Julia. “If you—erm—that is to say, the call of nature? And all that? There’s a bathroom behind that door. All mod cons.”
Julia followed the direction of Ivy’s finger, between the monumental marble mantelpiece and the corner near the far window, but she saw only wallpaper.
“What door?” she asked.
“You’ll find it, don’t worry.” Ivy turned the knob and slipped out of view, into a hallway Julia glimpsed in a flash before the door closed again.
She thought about following Ivy. But now that she thought about it, she did need to use a bathroom, which was further proof this wasn’t a dream. Also, she was still wearing her yoga pants and an old T-shirt, which felt wrong for the occasion, and also conspicuous. She went instead to the corner Ivy had recommended, and sure enough, she discovered one of those discreet boudoir doors that cut almost seamlessly into the wall. She gave it a little push and it sprang open.
For such an old and otherworldly building, it did seem solidly wired for electricity. Julia saw a switch on the wall, and when she flipped it, a pair of sconces lit up on either side of a gilt-framed mirror. The room contained a toilet and sink and roll-top bathtub, all made of warm white porcelain, and the floor was tiled in black and white checkerboard. Everything was flawlessly clean, as if no one had used it before. Julia experienced an instant of panic when she looked around for a nonexistent toilet paper roll, but then she noticed an open box stacked with square tissue on the vanity table. Definitely not Charmin, but it would have to do.
A bar of crisp new soap sat in the dish next to the tap. Julia lathered up her hands and sniffed. The smell of violets wafted free, and her body reacted so swiftly, so viscerally, that she had to close her eyes and lean against the edge of the sink while her heart pounded in her ears. A memory raced across her mind. Not when she opened the Darlington library notice and caught a faint whiff of this exact scent, or when she visited the library and found it again in the tower alcove, where she’d glimpsed the golden light and the strange room inside the gap between two books. This time she pictured a garden, newly green, and a blue sky shredded with clouds, and a nearby cliff from which she could just hear the beat of an ocean.
Within seconds, the image faded, leaving behind a sense of immense grief. Julia gasped for breath. She opened her eyes and saw her own face staring at her from the mirror, hollow and shocked, pale and red-lipped. Her soapy hands slipped on the white porcelain. She found the taps and turned them and washed off the lather. She dried her hands on the white linen towel and turned to the door, where a bathroom of fine, silky lavender damask hung from a silver hook. On the chest pocket, three letters combined in an intricate monogram. As Julia stared curiously at the curves and squiggles, they began to take on a familiar shape.
They formed the initials of her own name—Julia Monalisa Dalrymple.
(For the record, nobody but Gran—not even Victor—knew her middle name.)
LOOK, IT WAS YOUR father’s idea,” Gran said once, when Julia was maybe twelve, begging to know why she’d ended up with this embarrassing middle name. “He was an Italian. What was I going to say? I told your mother, I told her, don’t marry any goddamn Italian. Sure, he can make a nice spaghetti dinner, like Nonna taught him back in the old country. And I don’t know, maybe he’s dynamite in the sack or something—”
“Eeewww, Gran!” Julia said.
“—but I said to her, I said, look, you marry some Italian Stallion, I don’t care if he’s Chef Boyardee with the magic spaghetti, it’s not worth the pain in the neck. He’ll want you barefoot and pregnant in front of the ironing board, you can bet your sweet life. But would she listen? No, she wouldn’t. She went right ahead and married him anyway, and what happened? Julia Monalisa, that’s what happened.”
“Gran, you’re so prejudiced.”
“Prejudiced.” Gran snorted. “I’ll tell you what’s prejudiced. Human nature, that’s what’s prejudiced. You want to find a nice German boy who names his daughter Julia Monalisa? Go ahead. You let me know when you find him.”
“Jeez, Gran. You’re like a Nazi.”
“You see?” Gran threw her feet up on the ottoman and reached for the remote. “That’s prejudiced. Now go pour me a rum and Coke and do your homework, so you get out of this dump and make something of yourself.”
Julia had done as she was told, because Julia usually did what she was told. But that was all she ever really learned about her father, other than the fact that he’d driven the family car into a tree when she was six weeks old, killing himself and her mother. She didn’t even know his name, because Gran had said she was a Dalrymple, by God, and Gran wasn’t going to let any grandchild of hers bear the last name of the bastard who’d killed her only daughter.
Still, Gran had let the Monalisa stand. Which was an irritating oversight, Julia always thought.
JULIA BELTED THE ROBE around her waist and pushed the door open. The room seemed brighter now, illuminated by a gentle golden light, or maybe that was her imagination. She now saw clearly the blue toile pattern on the wallpaper and the rich blue damask hangings on the canopied bed, matching the curtains on the enormous windows to the left.
To her right, prodding the fire with a heavy iron poker, stood the dark-haired man.
He wore a plaid dressing gown over dark green pajamas, although he looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. When he saw Julia, he put the poker back in the stand and crossed his hands behind his back.
“That was quick,” said Julia.
“Of course. Are you rested?”
“Kind of. Not really. Actually, I think—what I really want—”
He was staring at her so intently, so eagerly, Julia lost her train of thought. Her cheeks grew hot. She shoved her hands in the pockets of her dressing gown—pockets, thank God!—and walked to the other side of the room.
“I think I’d like to go home now, please,” she said.
“I see. Are you certain?”
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t even know why I’m here. I have a life, you know, back in Darlington—”
“We are in Darlington, actually. To be pedantic. But I see your point.”
“Whatever. I just don’t know why I’m here, or how I got here, or what here even is. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I thought you were in danger, that’s why I came—”
“What? How did you know that?”
Julia turned to look at him. “Because Dr. Freeman told me.”
“Is that all? Because she told you?”
Julia pressed her lips together. Max took a step toward her, stopped, crossed his hands behind his back again and looked at the ceiling, a dozen feet above, patterned in plasterwork to resemble a beehive.
“I understand you’re bewildered,” he said. “You should be. This is all very strange to you right now. But I can assure you that you’ll rise to the occasion. You’re an extraordinary woman, Julia, and together we’ll—”
“Together? You and me?”
“I beg your pardon.” He looked back at her again and smiled. “It’s a funny thing, you see. As often as I’ve rehearsed this scene in my head, I can’t seem to find the right words, now that the moment is here at last. But I must, obviously. You must know why you’re here, and quickly.”
“No kidding. The sooner the better, please. Because I really, really need to go home.”
“So you shall. May I ask you to accompany me to my study? I think you’ll find—”
Later, Julia would swear that he actually moved before the air shattered around them. That he dove toward her and pulled her to the rug and covered her with his body before the glass rained down in splinters, and the icy wind gusted through the broken windows to send the curtains billowing and fill the room with swirling snow.
IVY ARRIVED ON THE scene first. She tore off her dressing gown to staunch the blood running down the back of Max’s head. He pushed her away and told Julia not to move until he’d cleared away the shards of glass. The wind kept gusting across the room. The lamp tipped over, leaving the room almost in darkness.
“The windows!” Max shouted to Ivy.
Ivy scurried to the window on the left, grabbed hold of the whipping curtains, and closed them. Julia wasn’t exactly sure what she did next. She didn’t seem to do anything at all, just stand before the window and shut her eyes. For an instant, the air might have shimmered. On the other hand, maybe Julia just blinked a certain way, or had something in her eye. The room was quite dark, after all. The lamp was out, and the peculiar illumination in the air had vanished. Anyway, shimmering or not, the wind died, and the glass disappeared, although the blood continued to drip down Max’s neck and onto the shoulders of his dressing gown. He lifted himself away from Julia and looked over her anxiously.
“Are you all right? Does it hurt anywhere?”
“Not a scratch,” she whispered, but it turned out that wasn’t true. She did have a long, razor-straight scratch on her right foot, not quite a laceration but still a little bloody. Max brought a washcloth from the bathroom.
“What the hell was that?” she said in a scratchy voice, as Max earnestly wiped away the blood and examined the wound, such as it was.
“A rupture,” said Ivy, from across the room.
“A rupture of what? The windows?”
“No. Of time.”
“I’m sorry. Did you say time? As in tick tock?”
Ivy leaned against the bedpost and squinted at the back of Max’s head. “That’s about it. Max, sweetheart. You should be worried about that gash in your skull, not the little scratch on Julia’s foot. You’re dripping blood all over that lovely Oriental rug.”
“It’s not a gash.”
“Not quite. Julia, could you make him see reason? He never does listen to me. I think it’s because I’m so short.”
Julia took the washcloth from Max’s hand and made him turn around. He was right, it wasn’t a gash, but it was a pretty nasty cut. She pressed the white cloth against the worst of it and said he should probably get stitches, and that was when she realized her hands were shaking so hard, she couldn’t hold the washcloth steady.
Ivy saw it, too. She started forward and knelt on the bloodstained rug next to Julia. “Here, let me,” she said kindly.
Julia sank back down and sat on her hands to stop them from trembling. “What the hell is a rupture in time?” she asked, still hoarse.
A sharp female voice snapped from the doorway. “An excellent question.”
Julia twisted toward the door, where Dr. Freeman stood in her own pajamas and dressing gown, the colors of which were not quite distinguishable in the dim light of the hallway. Her hands were planted on her hips, and an expression of deep disapproval hung on her face. She stepped forward and frowned her way around the room, from rumpled bedclothes to curtains to bloodstained rug and the people on it. At last she found the fallen lamp. She picked her way to the corner, placed the fixture back on the table, and fiddled with the bulb until the light sprang back on. Nobody said anything. To Julia, it seemed like they were a trio of guilty children.
“Back to Miss Dalrymple’s question,” said Dr. Freeman. “What is a time rupture? I must say, nobody has ever really explained the phenomenon to my satisfaction, not even the expert himself. Have you, Max? I might even ask why the devil it happened, when everyone in this room ought to have known better than to allow it.”
“It’s my fault, I’m afraid,” said Max. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Evidently not. No doubt we will all take the most thorough precautions, in future? Especially now that Miss Dalrymple has arrived at last?”
“Yes, Helen,” Ivy said meekly.
“Good. I’m off to summon Dr. Peebles. I believe he’s in residence tonight. I’d stitch it up myself, but I’m afraid the sight of blood makes me rather faint. If you’ll excuse me.”
Dr. Freeman swept from the room, and Ivy sagged with relief.
“Sorry about that,” she said to Julia. “She can be a bit much.”
“A bit much? A bit much? This—whole—thing—isabitmuch! Wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, dear. She’s going to crack,” said Ivy.
“She’s not going to crack,” said Max. “Julia does not crack.”
“What?” Julia screeched. “Of course I crack! I’m cracking now! Look at me cracking right in front of your eyes! Why in the living hell would you tell me I don’t crack? You don’t even know me!”
Ivy coughed and looked away. Max lifted his arm and pushed her hand gently away from the linen cloth at the back of his head. “Ivy, I believe I can manage it from here, thank you.”
Ivy shrugged and lurched to her feet. “All right, then. You’re the boss, as they say.”
She said the last words in an accent that was almost American, and when she left, not quite closing the door behind her, Julia said, “The boss?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Because Dr. Freeman sounds like the boss to me.”
“We are not what I believe you call a hierarchical organization, by and large.”
“Oh? Then what kind of organization are you?”
Max squinted a little, and for the first time Julia noticed a few tiny stands of gray among the dark hairs at his temple, and the fan of delicate fine lines at the corner of his eye. His fingers, holding the linen cloth to his head, were streaked with blood. “Fraternal, I suppose?” he said.
A strange sound escaped Julia. It wasn’t a gasp, or a sob, or a laugh. It was a strangled conglomeration of all three, a sound she would have called hysterical if it had come from someone else, or if she hadn’t learned in college that hysterical was a word you should never, ever apply to a female person. Here she sat on the floor of this magnificent bedroom, like a chamber in a castle. She’d been chased by horsemen through a snowy town she didn’t recognize. The windows had just shattered for no apparent reason, then repaired themselves by some power even more mysterious. She was streaked and spattered with blood that wasn’t her own. And only hours ago she’d been lounging on her sofa with her iPad, watching some horror flick while a regular New England blizzard blew outside. Talking to Gran on the phone about bingo and colostomy bags.
Max looked at her quizzically. “Julia? Are you all right?”
“No. I’m really not. I’m cracking up, as you can see. I’m—I’m—I don’t know what I am. A rupture in time. You’re so calm, Max. Why are you so calm? Does this kind of thing happen to you frequently? Does your time rupture on a regular basis?”
“Don’t Now, Julia me. I want you to tell me, right now, this very second, what the hell—oops, you’re dripping. Here, let me.”
She took the linen square and applied it more firmly to the back of his head. Her hand still smelled of violets, but also the coppery scent of blood. Max heaved a deep sigh.
“What exactly do you want to know?” he said. “Where should I start?”
“You can start by introducing yourself, I guess. That would be a really nice place to begin.”
“Haven’t I done that already?”
“Well, then.” He stuck out his bloody hand. “Good evening, Miss Dalrymple. Or rather, good morning, more or less. My name is Max Haywood, founder of the Haywood Institute for the Study of Time.”
He made a grand gesture with the hand she hadn’t shaken. “Which is this.”
“This? The Darlington Library?”
“We had, I’m afraid, a regrettable incident with our first building—”
“A rupture in time, maybe?”
“No, no. Merely intruders. All the same, and on the whole, we decided it might be best to disguise ourselves in future.”
Julia stared at her fingers, holding the cloth firmly in place against Max’s scalp. Apply pressure to the wound, that’s what the first aid booklets always said. Her knuckles were smeared with blood, which should have repulsed her. He was a stranger, for God’s sake! But she wasn’t repulsed at all, no more than she would have been repulsed by her own blood.
Another wave of déjà vu shuddered through her.
She’d done this before. She’d held a bandage to some wound of Max’s, trying to stop the flow of his blood.
“Julia?” Max said softly.
“We’ve met before, haven’t we? That’s what this is all about.”
“Yes,” he said. “We have.”
“It was some years ago, actually. Back in the old Institute. I was sitting at my desk one morning, buried in papers, and a woman walked in. She told me my life was in danger, and from which quarter. She saved my life.”
“And who was this woman, Max?” Julia said. “Was it Dr. Freeman? Ivy?”
But Julia knew the woman wasn’t Dr. Freeman. She knew it wasn’t Ivy. She stared at the brown-red stains streaking across her knuckles and the back of her hand and waited for Max to reply. Through the deep quiet, the distant tread of footsteps hurried down the hallway toward them.
Just before the footsteps reached the door, Max spoke.
“It was you, Julia. You were the one who saved my life that day.”
To be continued…