I made my way up the stairs to our sitting room on shaking legs. What I had seen required the mind of a brilliant detective to sort out, of that I had no doubt. Peripherally I heard Mrs. Hudson call my name but I had not the focus to respond.
Holmes sat coiled in his chair like some Oriental soothsayer, all but obscured by the newspaper he read. At my entrance, he glanced my way and suddenly cast aside the paper with a rustling snap. "Watson, dear fellow, what has happened?" he exclaimed in some alarm.
I felt myself attempt to speak but no words came. Then Holmes had me by the arm and gently led me to my chair. "Wait a moment," he murmured. I heard slight clinking sounds of glass against wood and the splash of liquid. Then Holmes reappeared with a glass of brandy, which I accepted. As I took my first sip, he dragged his own chair to rest in front of me, dropped into, and leaned forward so that his elbows came to rest on his knees.
"Now, Watson," he repeated gently, "what has happened? Begin at the beginning. Where were you, and how long ago was it?"
Holmes's prompts was as effective at clearing my mind of shock as the brandy was. "It was not quite an hour ago. I was walking through Finsbury Park near Crouch End, headed back here. Across the street from me, I saw a family: a middle-aged gentleman and a woman I presumed was his wife; a girl of about ten or eleven years; and two boys, one about five or six and the other perhaps a few years older. The strangest sensation passed over me when I looked at them. It was almost as if I recognized them from somewhere. I followed them a little ways, hoping that I might jolt my memory. Then the woman half-turned to one of the children and – "
"Holmes, it was Mary."
My friend's brow furrowed in concern. "You mean she resembled your late wife?"
"No, I mean it was her. It was Mary Watson, nee Morstan. There were some lines on her face and a streak of grey in her hair; she looked as I suppose she would look had she lived to this day but it was her, Holmes."
He was silent for a moment. "All right, Watson. Go on. What did you do?"
"I froze, dumb-struck. I thought for certain I was seeing things but the longer I looked the more convinced I became. And then I saw the face of the man I believe was her husband."
"Did you recognize him?"
I choked back a laugh born of hysteria. "Yes."
"Who was it?"
I found I had to take a mouthful of brandy to continue. "The man was I."
Holmes leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers and observing me with a troubled, thoughtful expression. "You are quite sure of what you saw?" he asked at last.
"Apart from the face, were there any other features of this gentleman that you . . . recognized?"
"He limped slightly," I answered flatly. "He wore a suit that I have never owned in my life but it matched my tastes in cut and color. And I believe he held his left shoulder stiffly."
"You had time to observe all this?"
"Oh, yes. I had ample time as followed them to their home in Paddington."
Holmes looked at me sharply. "Paddington? Your old practice?"
"Yes. The one I sold . . . " I forced myself to continue. "The one I sold after Mary died."
"Did they see you?"
"I don't think so. I took precautions and they showed no sign they were aware of me. I watched them enter the house and then I returned."
"You did not attempt to interact with any of them?"
"No, I did not dare."
"How did the family catch your eye? Was it something they did?"
"No. I only happened to glance across the street. Had I not done so I would have missed them entirely."
"Do you recall who bought your Paddington practice?"
"It was Anstruther. He knew many of my patients already and mine was, as you had once observed, the better practice. I do not know to whom he sold his practice."
Holmes looked down towards my boots for a moment and closed his eyes, fingers still steepled. I waited silently for his verdict. I could not blame Holmes for doubting me. Heaven knew I doubted my own story, so fantastic was it. I knew I had not mistaken what I had seen but perhaps I had experienced a realistic hallucination. Or perhaps I was going mad. These were the fears that had swirled about in my mind during my return to Baker Street, but even if madness was the answer at least it would be an answer. It was the uncertainty and fear that were intolerable.
At last Holmes opened his eyes, shoved his chair back, and shot to his feet. "Finish your brandy and come downstairs. I will hail us a cab."
I obeyed and within minutes we were rattling down the road towards my old Paddington practice. It was clear from Holmes's distant expression that great brain of his was fully focused on solving this mystery. I was grateful to have him helping me but his usual reticence was doing nothing to alleviate the strain I felt. When we arrived, to my consternation, Holmes sprang out but stayed my doing the same.
"Wait here until I return. If I am more than ten minutes, drive immediately to the nearest police station and tell them what has happened."
This was more than my taut nerves could stand. I did not have the faintest idea what had happened, and if he had a theory I had a right to know it; and I said as much.
"I do have a theory, Watson," he replied soothingly. "Rest assured, I believe there is a rational and logical explanation for your experience. However, we cannot discount the possibility that there is grave mischief afoot and that we may be walking into some sort of trap."
"What sort of trap?"
"I don't know but I mean to find out. Ten minutes, Watson!" So saying, he walked briskly to the door, rapped smartly upon it, and gained entrance. Not five minutes later Holmes was climbing back into the cab with a look I could not interpret, save that it was not a happy one.
"Watson, you said you were at Finsbury Park near Crouch End when you saw the family? Thank you. Finsbury Park, cabbie!"
"Holmes, what is it? What did you discover?"
"That Anstruther's practice is doing well and nobody in the household has any memory of seeing such a family enter at any time today, let alone in the past hour."
I felt the breath leave my body as though I had been punched solidly. "I saw them enter that building!" I cried wildly. "I would swear to it!"
Holmes leaned forward and gripped my wrist. "Calm down, Watson," ordered he sternly. "I do not doubt your word. Nor do I think you are losing your mind."
"How can I not be?"
"Listen to me, Doctor," he commanded. "You said you followed the family from Finsbury Park to your old Paddington practice. I do not doubt you believe that you did but the mud on your boots does not match the mud you would have encountered on such a path. Wherever you ended up, it was not at Paddington, though perhaps it was an identical replica."
"Whatever are you implying, Holmes? It sounds as though there is some conspiracy at work, but to what end?"
"I have not the data to answer that. Once we arrive at Finsbury Park, we will retrace the route you took, as best you can remember. From there we shall see what we shall see."
I nodded and relaxed somewhat. That there was some weird and elaborate ruse at work was unsettling but it was a familiar danger. Holmes and I were no strangers to nefarious plots or the strange twists and turns a criminal mind might take. The Baskerville case possessed similar features and there was a very mortal culprit behind it all. Whatever foul plot was afoot, we would uncover and expose it for the charade it was.
From Finsbury Park I led us the best I could recall. My attention had been on following the family, not on my surroundings. Nevertheless, the way seemed familiar. Once or twice Holmes made a sound as though he were beginning to speak. When I turned to look at him he motioned for me to continue but the expression he wore was the same as when he entered the cab after speaking to Anstruther. After a few more blocks I had an inkling as to what was bothering him.
Holmes's knowledge of London's geography far surpasses mine but I flatter myself I know the streets of London as well if not better than the average resident, by virtue of years of making house calls. Now, as we made our way to Paddington, I realized that though I recognized the street names, the layout had changed. The closer we came to our destination, the more uneasy I became. A few houses away, I stopped.
"Holmes, this neighborhood," I began helplessly.
"I know. It has been this way since Finsbury Park. You'll note the hydrangeas in front of your old practice are white now. They were pink when we came by cab. That, and the name on the shingle is now yours instead of Anstruther's."
"What does it mean?" I whispered.
"It means I must ask you to wait here for a ten minutes or so. Do not wander. If I do not come back, return to Finsbury Park the same way we came and then head to Baker Street. Only then can you seek out the police. Give me your word you will follow these instructions to the letter, Watson."
"You have it, Holmes, but – "
"Ten minutes," he interrupted, and was knocking on the door before I could respond.
Those were the longest ten minutes of my recollection made all the worse because I had to maintain an appearance of nonchalance. I lit a cigarette and attempted to smoke it carelessly, nodding amiably at passer-bys. I had just crushed the butt of it under my heel when Holmes reappeared looking no worse for wear.
"Ah, there you are," he said cordially. "It's a nice enough day; do you have any objection to walking?" In an undertone, he added, "We must leave; we cannot speak here."
Mystified, I agreed aloud that walking a fine idea and we started to return the way we came. We had a few blocks before Holmes spoke again.
"Watson, I must ask you some questions I fear will cause you some pain but they have a strong bearing on this mystery."
"So long as they are pertinent I shall not take offense."
"What was your daughter's full name?"
I confess I winced at the abruptness of his query about my late daughter but answered readily. "Elizabeth Ellen."
"If you and Mrs. Watson had had a son, what name would you have given him?"
"Arthur, after her father. We had not decided on a middle name and it turned out there was no need to."
"What was your wife's opinion of the color pink?"
"She disliked it intensely."
Holmes gave a heavy sigh. "I thought you might say that. How broad one's ideas must be to interpret Nature!" was all he said until we were once again at Finsbury Park.
"Step quickly and carefully here, Watson."
"Why? What danger is there?"
"Do you notice how the air has become heavier, almost muggy?"
"Yes, now that you mention it."
"Precisely. Hurry." So saying, Holmes set a pace that had me half-running across the grass and then clear to the edge of street.
"Holmes," I panted, "what is going on? What have you discovered?"
"Observe," he whispered and tossed a large pebble back across the way we came. The air rippled like water where the pebble passed and then, to my horror, the pebble disappeared. Holmes flicked a second pebble after it. This one merely sailed through the air and landed on the grass.
"You recall my maxim about eliminating the impossible? I believe I have found the solution. Every choice we make leaves a path untaken. Now suppose, Watson, that a world exists for each alternate outcome of every choice and that, on rare occasions in certain locations, it is possible to pass into one of these other worlds."
I felt my face turn pale. "Are you saying that today we witnessed a world in which Mary lived and we have a daughter and two sons?"
"Three sons, actually. The youngest is but an infant. Watson, bear up, man!"
I found I had to grip the nearest tree in order to keep my feet. A world in which my family had lived. One in which I had a thriving practice, a wife, children. "We have to go back!"
"Watson, the doorway or whatever it was has closed. You saw it yourself," Holmes reminded me gently. "Come now, let us go home."
He hailed us a cab and did not press me to talk along the way. I do not know how he alerted Mrs. Hudson to my mood but she too maintained a tactful silence as she served dinner. I knew Holmes was trying his utmost to cheer me up when he dedicated a large portion to the evening in playing Lieder. I appreciated the effort but I still found the need to retire early.
After hours of tossing and turning, I wondered if I was not being ridiculous. I could not regret assisting Holmes on his cases. It was a pursuit just as noble and helpful as medicine. Surely it was enough that somewhere in the vastness of existence, I had a family and practice.
Yet every few months or so I found myself wandering through Finsbury Park near Crouch End, watching for air rippling like water or white hydrangeas in Paddington where there used to be pink.
The specific locations of Finsbury Park and Crouch End come from Stephen King's short story "Crouch End." Luckily for Watson, he slipped through the Finsbury Park gateway rather than Crouch End's.