Tuscumbia, AL 1889
"Explain to me again why anyone would want to live here?" the teenaged boy complained to his companion. "We've landed in more hospitable jungles. At least they had some shade."
They made an odd pair walking across the fields towards the large, white house surrounded by trees. Phineas Bogg, tall and blond with bright blue eyes, was dressed in his usual clothes – tan breeches tucked into black leather boots, a white shirt, and a brown leather vest. Jeffrey Jones, with black curls and dark eyes, stood just about level with Bogg's chin. A growth spurt right before his sixteenth birthday had necessitated a change in Jeff's wardrobe. While he still wore jeans, the blue polo had been replaced with a collarless white, button-up shirt he felt would blend in better in the many time zones the two visited, and he now wore soft, brown leather shoes instead of sneakers. At the moment, though, the sleeves of the linen shirt were rolled up past his elbows and the dark curls stuck to his forehead in the oppressive humidity.
"There's shade up by the house. Look, trees and everything," Bogg teased. "It's not that bad, kid. Would you rather be back in Siberia?"
"I mean, we've been here for what, five minutes?" Jeff continued as if Bogg hadn't spoken. "And I already need to be wrung out." He paused and looked around. "Where are we anyway? From the looks of things I'm guessing the American south, but when?"
Bogg pulled out the omni and flipped it open. "Tuscumbia, Alabama," he said, shading his eyes to see the dials on the device. "August 17, 1889. Red light." He clicked the omni shut and stowed it away. "Any ideas?"
Jeff wiped the sweat from his forehead. "The location's familiar, but not the date. I can't think why." He stopped and took in a soggy lungful of air. "I don't know, Bogg, the heat must be messing with my brain. Maybe if we actually get to the shade, I'll remember."
"Well, you know what they say," Bogg quipped, "it's not the heat; it's the humidity." He flashed an impudent grin at his partner. "Didn't you have summer in New York City?"
"Not like this," Jeff responded. "We had air conditioning, and, anyway, my dad was a teacher. We left the city every summer and traveled." Jeff's expression closed, and he turned his head away abruptly.
Bogg put a hand on Jeff's shoulder. "Sorry, kid. I didn't mean to remind you."
Jeff shook his head. "No. It's fine," he said through clenched teeth. "Sometimes I forget for a while, and then when it comes back..." His voice trailed off. "It just never really goes away, you know?" He shrugged his shoulders then started walking again. "Well, come on. We may as well figure out what needs to be fixed before I get heat stroke."
"Aye, aye, captain." Bogg grinned again, this time with affection. Jeff had always been a precocious kid. He had been an extremely intelligent and capable eleven-year-old when they had first started traveling together. Now at sixteen, Bogg could see the compassionate and understanding man Jeff would be as an adult. It saddened him to think they only had a little less than a year together before Jeff would enter the academy, but he knew Jeff would enjoy being in school and would excel at his studies. He would miss his kid tremendously but was looking forward to meeting the man he would become.
They walked another few yards when Jeff stumbled. Bogg reached out an arm to catch him so he wouldn't fall. Jeff looked pale and uncomfortable. "You're not really coming down with heat stroke, kid, are you?" He scrutinized Jeff's face. "When's the last time you had something to drink?"
Jeff thought for a moment. "I don't know," he admitted. "It's probably been a while."
As they were almost to the house, Bogg sat Jeff down in the shade of one of the trees, quickly crossed to the back door and knocked several times. A black woman in her forties wearing a red calico dress answered, looking at Bogg with a curious expression in her eyes.
"Excuse me, ma'am," Bogg started.
The woman's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Ma'am?" she interrupted. "There's no ma'am here. I'm just the cook."
Bogg nodded his head in greeting. "Then you're the person I need to talk to. My son's not feeling well," he said, pointing to Jeff. "Could I trouble you for a drink of water? He's not used to the heat, and I think he's dehydrated."
She peered out the door at Jeff, clucked her tongue, and called back over her shoulder. "Martha! Get some water and bring it outside." She turned back to Bogg. "You go back to your boy, sir. My daughter'll get you that water. If he's still poorly once he's drunk it down, you bring him here for me to look at."
Bogg thanked her and turned back towards the tree. As he started walking, a girl of about thirteen came through the door, a stoneware pitcher and two glasses in her hands. He waited for her to catch up to him then offered to carry the pitcher as her arms were full. Her face showed surprise, but she handed it to him with a grateful "Thank you."
After downing almost half the contents of the pitcher, Jeff felt and looked much better. He mumbled an apology to Bogg, who brushed it off with a relieved smile. Then Jeff turned to Martha, who was doing her best not to look him in the face, and said "I appreciate your doing this for me. Thank you. My name's Jeff. What's yours?"
A faint blush appeared through the dark skin on the girl's cheeks, and she cast her eyes at the ground. "Martha," she replied, "and I suppose I best get back before Momma has to come looking for me," she said in a soft voice. "I'm glad you're feeling all right now." She stood gracefully, gently smoothing out her dress before bending down to pick up the pitcher and glasses.
"Wait," Jeff said, reaching for the pitcher, "let me get that for you." As he curled his fingers around the handle, their hands briefly touched. Martha jumped back as if she had caught fire, and her blush intensified. Jeff smiled at her. "You shouldn't have to carry all that by yourself." Her eyes widened, and she nodded.
Bogg chuckled to himself. It was clear that Jeff had no idea the effect he was having on the poor girl. He decided it was time to intervene. "Nice place, this," he said in a loud voice. "Is it yours?"
The question produced the desired outcome. Martha turned and stared at him, incredulity showing plainly on her face. "You're not from here, are you?" she asked. "You think folks like us could own a place like this? No wonder you called Momma 'ma'am.'" She snorted delicately. "No. This place is owned by the Captain."
"Captain...?" Jeff asked, drawing her attention again.
"Um, Keller," she stammered, "Captain Keller."
Bogg cleared his throat. "And is the Captain home now?" he asked.
Martha turned her face back to him. "They went to Europe, the Captain, the Missus, and little Mildred. They've been gone about six months now." She paused, sorrow suddenly darkening her expression. "It was on account of Helen."
"Helen Keller?" Jeff asked. When Bogg threw him a quizzical look, Jeff continued. "Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing when she was really young. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, taught her to communicate, read, and talk. She was the first blind and deaf person to attend college. She was famous around the world for what she accomplished."
"That's some other Helen, then," Martha said, tears now standing in her eyes. "Our Helen never had any teacher. The Captain brought her to doctors all over, and none of them could help her. One told him to write to some school up north, but nothing ever came of it." Several of the tears slid down her cheek. She tucked both glasses under one arm and dabbed her eyes with her dress sleeve. "Our Helen died last year. A tree fell on her in a big storm. She felt the wind and wanted it on her face. She couldn't see the tree, and she couldn't hear me yell to warn her. I couldn't get there in time." She choked and the tears started falling in earnest. "She was my friend, and I couldn't save her."
Jeff put his arms around Martha and held her while she cried. Then he looked at Bogg. "Well, I guess we know what the red light is."
They got Martha back to the house. Her mother heard the name 'Helen' and needed no more explanation for her daughter's distress. She thanked Bogg and Jeff for their care of Martha and invited them to stay for dinner. When evening fell, they declined her offer a bed for the night and went back outside. While the humidity hadn't abated, the cooler evening air felt good on their faces and smelled strongly of the roses outside the house.
"Okay, kid," Bogg said. "Where do we need to go?"
Jeff thought for a moment. "I did a report on Helen Keller when I was in grammar school," he said. "Anne Sullivan was a student at the Perkins School for the Blind near Boston. Captain Keller wrote to the school in..." he frowned in concentration, "in the summer of 1886. So I guess if we aim for May or June of 1886, we can find out why she didn't go and convince her otherwise."
Bogg nodded. "That sounds about right," he agreed, then he smiled. "Too bad when we come back Martha won't remember you."
Jeff looked at him. "What do you mean too bad?" he asked, puzzled. "Once we get Anne Sullivan here, it'll be a different time zone. Of course she won't remember me."
Bogg sighed. "That's not exactly what I meant, kid. This is a part of your education I need to work on before you go to the Academy." He pulled out the omni and set it for their destination.
"You do realize I have no idea what you're talking about, right?" Jeff said, putting his hand on Bogg's arm.
"That's why I need to work on it." Bogg grinned at him. "Let's get this fixed," he said. "I can explain later." He activated the omni, and they disappeared from the landscape.