Gemma ignored me, busy thumbing through our English assignment. I slammed my book on the table, fuming.
She rolled her eyes. "So she'd a bad teacher. They happen. Get over it."
"But twenty pages, Gem! She's insane." I flopped into a chair, trying to look desperate and defeated. Gemma would usually give in and help if I looked pitiful enough.
It was mid-afternoon, après school, the last bit of sun coming in pink swatches onto the kitchen table. Gemma and I had been meeting at my house and organizing our homework together since we were eight, and have yet to fail any of our classes. She had four piles set up on the table, in categories of "Ongoing", "Due next week," "Due this week", and "Panic." I threw Ms. Mace's assignment into the "Panic" pile.
With a sigh, Gemma removed the paper and gave me a look. Most people don't have Gemma pegged as someone who could scare you with a look- she's even shorter than I am- but she could, and did.
"Liz," she said, "just pick a poem and read it. Then we'll do the assignment. Okay?"
I pouted, but mumbled, "Okay."
Gemma shoved the book at me, and I wandered into the living room. It's hard to look good compared to someone like Gemma, a full Swiss bombshell with a rosebud mouth. I could test the scientific method on whether or not boys are really more attracted to gorgeous blondes, using Gemma as an independent variable, and come out with a wild and raucous "yes."
Now, it's not like I have a bad body or anything, but I am about as un-blonde as it gets. My hair comes from my mom- one long, unbroken sheet of red-black, long dark eyelashes and brows that cannot be made dainty by all the tweezers in the known universe. This might not be too bad if I had dazzling blue eyes peeking seductively from beneath, but no. Mine are black, just like the hair. And even this could be dealt with if I was dark, like Catherine Zeta-Jones, only I am not. Truth is, I am whiter that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and no matter what tanning bed or lotion I use, all I end up with is varying degrees of boiled lobster and orange smoothie.
I flopped onto the couch and sifted through the pages of the book. Tennyson… boring. Poe… depressing. Blake… incomprehensible. Dickenson… meh. Give me a function to graph or a quadratic equation to solve and I am unstoppable. Not so much with literature. Ms. Mace's class is the bane of my junior year, which I had actually planned to enjoy after the agony of being a sophomore.
On page 451, I noticed my nail polish was chipping. I also noticed the title of the poem I had just lost a chip of "Just Pink About It" on.
"The Highwayman," I said to myself. "Huh."
"By Alfred Noyes," said Gemma, not looking up. "Nineteen-oh-six. Good pick."
"I didn't pick anything," I said. I almost shut the book, but the first stanza caught my eye. Something about torrents of darkness and ghostly galleons. Okay, I thought, it gets one shot. If I'm not impressed by page two, I quit.
After page two and a half, I had finished and was looking for more. Gemma saw me and laughed.
"That good, huh?"
"It was all right," I lied. So maybe I'm a sucker for all that doomed romance BS. Sue me. I didn't think they knew how to write interesting poetry back then- usually it was all about Grecian urns and winter paths and other stuff I'd never seen. Just a lot of inaccessible phrasing plus bitchy teachers who want you to memorize the correct spelling of onomatopoeia. Even though I liked the poem, I was dreading having to write twenty pages about the themes and whether or not the phrasing followed iambic pentameter.
"Hey, space cadet." Gemma threw a wad of paper at my head. "I gotta go soon."
I sat up. "Now? But I need help."
"You should have spent less time whining and more time working. I have dance class in fifteen minutes." She started packing up her things. When she reached her hand into her backpack, she paused, blinking. Then, withdrew a little rose-colored box, taped shut.
"Oh, yeah," she said, a far away look in her blue eyes. "I forgot. Dad and I went to the geological society fair in Denver and I saw this."
Gemma's dad was always doing cool stuff with her and her brothers, like fairs and concerts. She claimed it was because he had all this guilt over the divorce. I figured she was right, since my parents were blissfully married and we never went anywhere.
She handed it to me. "I don't know why, but I thought you'd want it."
I took it and slit the tape with my finger. Under the lid was a thin silver necklace, and at the end, a charm with a brilliant blue stone.
Lifting it up to the dying light, it shimmered and flashed. "What is it?" I asked.
"I don't know." She had almost finished packing. "Some kind of paste or semiprecious whatever. Who can tell?"
"It's pretty," I said, hypnotized by the impossible color. Like Venus in the early morning.
"Glad you like it," said Gemma with a smile. She put her thumb and pinkie up against her ear. "Call me?"
"Uh-huh," I said, not really listening. Gemma shook her head and left through the garage. When I heard her go, I slipped the chain around my neck, sliding the charm so it sat just right on my collar. The light was almost gone, and I still had homework to do. Yawning, I wandered back to the kitchen table. First thing to do was make an outline of that damn poem and pick out the main elements, whatever those were. I leaned my chin in my hand. It was going to be a long-ass night.
I woke up with my hand around Gemma's necklace, and knew immediately something was wrong.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. Like a compost heap masked with cheap potpourri. That was when I realized the stink was coming from me. I shot upright, staring around a room that was most definitely not mine.
The walls were white and powdery, not the sponged-on purple I had done them in last summer. My computer desk, lamp, dresser, bookcase, and daisy-shaped throw rug were all absent, replaced with the bed I was in, a washstand with jars of powder and perfume, and a little desk-thing with a candlestick on it, oozing melted wax. I blinked and blinked. If my brain had been a computer, it would have blue-screened. Does not process.
My legs scratched like sandpaper on the duvet. I rucked up the nightgown and looked at them. They were covered in hair, soft and downy. My legs haven't been hairy since I was eleven.
The more I explored, the more I found. Apparently, I had never shaved an inch of my body, washed my hair, cleaned my fingernails or brushed my teeth. I smelled. I itched. I was sure I had some kind of parasite. What in the name of Pythagoras was going on?
I tumbled out of bed and dashed to the window. It had shutters, no glass, and when I threw them open, I looked out onto a view I could never have imagined seeing outside of a TV screen.
The yard had actual chickens wandering around in it, pecking and strutting. To my left was something that looked suspiciously like a stable, and beyond the gate was a dirt road, a line of trees, and beyond that, rolling moors stretching into the misty horizon. No street lamps, no hint of cars, electricity, or even the most basic plumbing anywhere, unless you counted the hand pump in the corner by the chickens.
Downstairs- was there a downstairs?- I heard voices. Without stopping to think about whether the owners of those voices were friendly, I opened the door and skidded out into the hallway. It looked like some kind of old-time inn, like in the Lord of the Rings (the only book I've ever read voluntarily) but smellier. There were stairs, and I could hear the voices drifting up them. I climbed down as fast as my oversized nightgown would allow, and emerged in what any idiot could immediately recognize as a bar.
A chubby guy stood behind it, a filthy towel over his shoulder, puttering between about a dozen people dressed like they'd never gotten the "it's not 1776" memo. One or two of them appeared to be employed. Either that, or they liked cleaning out tankards. Everyone spoke with tony English accents, and having been to enough Renaissance Faires to know the difference, I knew they weren't faking.
The chubby guy noticed me standing there with my jaw on the floor, and smiled. He had a squidgy red face, like a tomato.
"Ah, there's my slugabed of a daughter," he said. Then, the smile fell. "Good heavens, Bess, how are you attired?"
And did he just call me daughter?
No way. My dad is skinny and nerdy and has every book ever written by Carl Sagan. This guy is chunky and looks like he couldn't even spell "cosmos." Where were mom and dad and Gemma? Where was I? Make that when. This is most definitely a where/when situation.
Okay, Liz, think. What did you eat last night? Whopper, fries, diet Pepsi. Nothing there. Did someone slip me something? Oh my God, am I dead? I died and went to a dumb poem.
"I am never eating another Whopper as long as I live," I said weakly. The dude who said he was my father looked at me like I was flicking boogers at the customers.
"What rubbish you talk. And wandering about in your bedclothes like a wastrel! If I didn't know better, I'd say the Devil himself has gotten ahold of you."
The barmaid gasped and crossed herself, earning a glare from Mr. Dad that could have melted glass.
Mr. Dad spun me around and booted me up the stairs. "Away, and do not return until you have made yourself decent."
At the top of the stairs, I shook myself. Ouch.
I wandered back into what I guess was my room and collapsed on the bed. Bounced a little, knocked on the wall and the baseboard. It sure felt real. So that meant I'm either dead, crazy, kidnapped by Revolutionary War reenactors, or some combination thereof. None of those options appealed to me, although under other circumstances the kidnapping might have been cool.
I heard a knock at the door, and a pudgy woman came in with a gown draped over her arm. She smiled at me, showing the nastiest teeth I had ever seen outside of a Halloween catalogue.
"Morning, miss," she said cheerfully. "Shall I help you dress?"
"Uh, actually, I've been dressing myself since I was-"
She tutted and laid the dress on the bed. "Peace, miss. Arms up."
Obviously protesting wasn't going to get me anywhere, so I just sighed and put my arms over my head. I felt the nightgown come unlaced and swoosh over my head, immediately replaced by a thin slip. I glanced at the dress on the bed. It was actually pretty in an old-fashioned way, made out of some kind of dark blue material with little flounces at the sleeves and a low-cut neckline. My interest in the dress left me in a rush when Maid Lady tried to squeeze me into an honest-to-God whalebone stay.
"Peace, I say," Maid Lady said when I jumped about ten feet, "else you send your old Hannah to the surgeon."
"Right," I squeaked, "can't you just loosen it up a little?"
Old Hannah ignored me, and in the space of fifteen minutes I was dressed, pinned, pinched and laced like a baby doll into itchy stockings, hoops, petticoats, shoes, gown, stomacher and a froofroo cap that made me look like I was about to take a shower, which was the one thing I desperately wanted. By the time Hannah sat back, I couldn't breathe lower than my sternum, my feet hurt, I was soaked in sweat and one look at the dress told me I would be walking sideways through a lot of doors.
Hannah rose and brushed herself off, smiling at her handiwork. "Shall I empty your chamber pot?"
I blinked. "My wha-huh?"
Hannah leaned over and pulled what looked like a porcelain soup tureen out from under the bed. It took me a second to figure out what it was, which was right about when the "ick" factor set in.
"Oh, nasty!" I clapped my hand over my mouth. "Oh my God, I am so sorry, you don't have to do that."
Hannah gave me the same look I'd been getting all morning. "Mercy, your father spoke the truth when he said you'd gone mad. Pray, tell your Hannah what ails you?"
I sighed. Why did they insist on talking in vintage Shakespearian speech impediment? "Can you keep a secret?"
Immediately, Hannah's small eyes lit up. "I, share a confidence?" She winked at me. "Why, I'll not breathe a word. Tell me."
I took a deep breath. Here goes. "Okay. First of all, this isn't just some figment of my imagination, right? I mean, you're not just a dream or something."
Hannah considered this, then broke into laughter. Man, she has some nasty-ass breath.
"Oh, Lord, I ain't been in the dreams of any living soul since I was a maid like you," she cackled, "and what dreams the lads had of me then, t'be sure!"
I thought hard. If I just came right out and asked what year it was, she would definitely think I was batshit. So, I opted for a more subtle route.
"So," I said. "How's that revolution in France going? I hear it's getting pretty bloody."
As I'd feared, Hannah gave me that you're-crazy look again. "Revolution? In France? Perish the thought. Why, King George- God save him- can't barely keep the colonists from making a ruckus, much less any powdered Frenchmen."
"Excuse me," I said, and dodged past Hannah out the door.
Resolving not to let anyone stop me, I ran down the stairs and outside, knocking over several astonished patrons on the way, not stopping until I reached the stable. The door was open, and in the musty insides I could see a boy maybe ten years my senior, shoveling out the stalls.
"Hey," I said. He jumped and stared at me. The look seemed to fit- hollow eyes, pasty white face, scruffy blonde hair. Bad teeth, too, but the poem hadn't mentioned that.
I pointed at him. "Are you Tim?"
He blinked, suspicious. "Yes, Miss."
"Tim the ostler?"
"Indeed, miss." He leaned on his shovel. "May I help you?"
I couldn't help it. I started to laugh.
"No way," I gasped, half-hysterical, "no way. This is, like, the best practical joke ever. I get it, Gemma!" I yelled out the door. "Haha, very funny. I don't know how you did it, but it better not be on YouTube tomorrow!"
Tim was staring open-mouthed while I talked to nobody. By the time I remembered he was there, I felt much better.
"Okay, you can cut the act now. Do you have any idea if she's still here or not? 'Cause if she isn't, I need my cell phone- my parents are gonna freak."
"I know not of whom you speak, miss," Tim said, sounding frightened, "there be no other maidens here save yourself."
I was approaching the end of my rope. I wanted to go home and take a damn bath, not screw around with ye olde reenactors. "I told you to cut it out."
"But miss, I haven't cut anything."
"Stop it!" I clapped my hands on my ears. "Just stop it. This can't be happening. I have to think."
Tim didn't reply, just crossed himself and mumbled something unintelligible. I could feel my face heating up.
"Don't do that," I snapped. "This is not what a possessed person looks like. This is what a really, really irritated person looks like. Memorize that, will you?"
He wasn't acting, that much was certain. But if he wasn't an actor, then that meant no one was acting, and that meant….
"Who did you say was king again?"
Tim stammered, "I didn't, Miss, but it be King George the Third who rests on the throne of England this day."
Well, that did it.
I had somehow changed centuries and geographical locations in the space of one night. The American Revolution was news, Marie Antoinette probably hadn't even been born, the ink had barely dried on the Declaration of Independence, and cell phones were a good three hundred years away from existence.
Yessir, I was in it deep.