The Night of the Almost-Widow
A Wild, Wild West (1965-69) / Doctor Who crossover. This story takes place surrounding the events of The Night of the Lord of Limbo, and during The Power of Three.
Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to Wild, Wild West or Doctor Who. Alice Cranston is my own creation – please credit when using.
"Remember we're dining with the Carter's tomorrow at eight tomorrow, my dear."
It's funny the words we remember, the words we forget. I have always seemed to forget the important words: servant's names, dates and names of European monarchs, lists of articles to purchase at the store; all these things slip my memory. What I do remember are passages from books, the politician's turn of phrase, and, thankfully, the last thing my fiancé said to me before he was killed.
My name is Alice Louise Cranston. My family has lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi for three generations, and the name Cranston commands respect. All of my progenitors have married admirably, and my siblings have done no less. Marrying a Cranston is a mark of breeding, of dignity, of taste, and ultimately, of wealth. As the last of my parent's children to wed, I went about the task carefully and thoughtfully before exceeding all of my family's expectations and making an alliance with the equally prestigious family of Maitland.
The Maitlands have also been in or near Vicksburg for three generations, and early on made their fortune selling cotton in Europe. Their eldest son, Jack, spent five years in France attending school and another seven personally cementing partnerships and managing trade agreements with illustrious textile merchants in Italy. Jack Maitland was something of a legend in Vicksburg – the gallant, absent, and eligible son and heir of an important family. His family's expectations when it came to his marriage were likely higher than my family's.
Given that marriages for wealthy families in the South are frequently alliances between surnames rather than matches of affection, I was genuinely surprised to find myself quite taken with Jack. It was not just his noble bearing, his dark hair, or crisply cultured voice, either. It was his throaty chuckle when he found me reading yet another novel, his knowing wink to me when my father chose to discuss business at parties, the way he spoke to me about Europe and business openly, and talked to me about politics without condescension. I had never felt so well-treated, taken care of, or valued as a person, in my life. When Jack proposed, I had no second thoughts about accepting, and not much thought of what an advantageous alliance it was.
And yet, my name will never appear on a calling card as Mrs. John Maitland, and I will never be addressed or introduced as Alice Maitland. Five weeks ago, under the most bizarre of circumstances, Jack was murdered by bandits on the field of honor, and then carried away by his opponent, 'Reuben'. Search parties have not discovered the bandits, nor Reuben's whereabouts, or any unmarked grave for my Jack. He is not only dead, but vanished, and my heart will never be quite the same again.
Today, five weeks away from the tragedy, my heart is still broken, and will likely be forever. But this morning, something happened that has changed the way I will miss and mourn Jack. In the cool early sunlight that appeared before worshippers flocked to the Sabbath meeting, I went to the church, to stand in the cemetery over Jack's memorial marker, and cry another session of slow, angry tears of bewilderment and helplessness and frustration. It was not going to help, of course, but nevertheless was something I had to do.
As I passed through the gate of the church yard, I saw silhouetted against the bright morning light a tall, thin man, with a great mop of hair and a sloping figure. I assumed him to be an old man, as I approached, either looking for the grave of a long-departed loved one, or maybe a harmless begger waiting for the church to open, so that he could beg alms and depart. As I approached closer, he took a long, thin instrument from his coat pocket and aimed it at the marker he was standing by. I realized it was Jack's marker. The instrument hummed eerily and glowed green. Fear and anger rose up in me simultaneously, and for a moment I debated. He hadn't seen me, and it would be the easiest thing to slip away unnoticed. But it was Jack's marker, and this man was a stranger in Vicksburg. Jack's death had been fraught with mystery and strangers, and maybe, just maybe, this man knew something. I braced myself.
"Excuse me," I addressed him from several feet away, "who are you?" Up close, he was a terribly shabby-looking man, although he appeared fairly clean. Still, shabby people didn't stand around looking at neat and respectable people's gravestones. Not in Vicksburg.
The man literally spun to look at me, pocketing whatever instrument he was holding in his jacket pocket. He stumbled slightly on his own feet, staggering towards me. "Oh hello," he replied, saluting me casually. "You must be Alice."
I stopped, frightened. "How do you know my name?" It slipped out before I could think. Before I had even finished the question, I wished I had been more commanding. Said something along the lines of "that is no way to address a lady," or a sarcastic, "I'm sorry, we don't seem to have been introduced."
He continued toward me, a smile on his face that was slightly too manic to be mistaken for friendliness. I took a step back.
"Oh, Alice Cranston, I know lots of things about you." He bowed, then again spun and walked back to the grave marker, waving a hand in the air. "But don't let that bother you. I'm the Doctor."
"Doctor who?" I asked, frozen to the spot and a bit mesmerized.
The Doctor prowled around the gravestone, touching it, crouching to sniff at the stone. "Oh, just the Doctor, that's what they call me. Aren't you curious?"
"Curious?" I echoed. I took a deep breath. "And you could show some respect for that man's gravestone."
He ignored the remonstration. "Curious about Jack."
"That's John Maitland to you."
Again he ignored me. He indicated the gravestone. "Brave man, Jack. Good-looking. Wealthy. Good breeding and all that. Bit of a temper, though." He shrugged. His voice dropped to a more conversational tone and despite myself I stepped forward to hear. "Still. He needed to be where he was that morning. Needed to be late. He had to get back, you see."
I was puzzled, and annoyance had replaced my fear. "Late?" I demanded. "To get back to where, exactly?"
The Doctor stepped up to me. I wondered if he was mentally deranged. "Jack Maitland was never supposed to exist," the Doctor informed me quietly.
Mentally deranged or not, my annoyance mounted to anger and I slapped him across the jaw, hard. He reeled away. "How dare you say things like that about Jack!" I demanded angrily. "Who are you anyway, to know all things about complete strangers?"
He stepped back, his hand on the red spot on his cheek. "Ah. I see. I'm sorry, I tend to be a bit more…enthusiastic than I should be at times. Wrong mood and all that. Anyway!" He bowed again. "Would you like to know why they never found a body?"
I straightened my back. "They never found a body because the worthless scum Jack was fighting carried him off. God knows why." A thought occurred to me. "Unless you buried him somewhere."
The Doctor nodded.
"Then you did," I all but shouted, stepping forward to strike him again.
He held up his arms and backed away, circling around Jack's marker to evade me. "No, no, I didn't bury him or kill him or anything like that, Alice. Nobody buried him. The man Jack was fighting carried him back, back to the world Jack really belongs to."
I did not know why I still was standing there, entertaining this deranged stranger. I should find the police, find anyone, and report him. He would be turned in. He could be charged with aiding in Jack's death, and maybe…maybe that would give me some peace.
I stared hard at him, memorizing his protruding jaw, his broad forehead, and his eyes. Somehow - it struck me - there was sincerity in those eyes. Yet mentally ill people are almost always sincere, I reminded myself. But if he was sincere, and wanted to talk to me, then maybe I could get him to tell me what really happened. If I went for the police he would be gone when I got back, I was certain of that. If I could get him to believe I wanted to trust him though…I could get him to come to the police with me.
With such a vague plan formed, I stepped to a nearby stone bench and sat down. "I'm listening," I said.
The Doctor's face broke into a grin. A ridiculous, child-like, innocent grin, and I couldn't help but softening towards him a little even as I silently rejoiced that I had taken a step in accomplishing the capture of Jack's killer.
The Doctor sat down on the bench, keeping a respectable distance between us. "Miss Cranston. There are other worlds, other realities, which cross boundaries with each other all the time."
Not the story I was expecting. "What do you mean?" I prodded with calculated curiosity.
He gestured with his hands. "All the decisions you make, every day of your life, what if you made different ones? What if, instead of deciding to attend a dance you stayed home and knitted? Or you walk into a different shop than you usually do? Well, there are other worlds, sitting in the same place as this one. Other earths, other Americas, other Vicksburgs, all sitting on top of each other, like layers in an onion."
I regarded him skeptically. He was talking about fairy tales. Fiction. I faltered for a moment, because this was not helping me at all.
"Yes, I know it's difficult to believe," he continued. "But for every choice you make, and every choice everyone around you makes, another you, maybe with the same name and dress on, makes a slightly different choice, and a slightly different one the day after that. Usually the worlds are very similar, and sometimes if something creeps through from one world into another, nothing terribly interesting happens. But your fiancé….now that was something interesting."
Nonsense. This was something out of a novel. But despite everything, I have always loved a good story, and this story proved radically different, and therefore interesting, if nothing else. I reflected with some self-reproach that perhaps I read too many novels – Jack always said I read more than any other woman he knew.
"And how is Jack interesting?" I tried.
The Doctor smiled again. "You see, in another one of these worlds, about fifteen years in the future, a man called Vautraine will accidentally create a door between his world and this one. It's not really very important why he did it, but he succeeded in making a door. He sent a man from his world, a man called Artemus Gordon, through that door."
"I've never met a man called Gordon," I informed him. "Is that the man Jack fought?" I asked, trying to keep the story going. I wondered how long I would have to wait before I could get him to follow me. Maybe I could pretend to invite him to breakfast.
He shook his head. "You have met. You see, the timeframe between the worlds can be different. And what was a few hours in his world nearly forty here. And this man who created the door, he thought he could control it. He couldn't. When he sent Gordon through the door, Gordon was someone who didn't exist in this world, and so he became a whole new person. He became Jack Maitland."
I struggled to maintain whatever composure I had left as I corrected him involuntarily. "That can't be. The Maitland family has been in this city for three generations. Jack was born here and grew up here – he didn't just appear."
"You're right," the Doctor said, nodding towards the birth and death dates on Jack's marker. "Like I said, the man who created the door couldn't control it as he thought he could. Instead of sending Gordon somewhere else as himself, he became Jack here. And because Gordon didn't know what was happening, he became Jack, with no memory of being someone else, of living another life."
The Doctor became quiet, watching my face as I thought about this. That Jack was really someone else was absurd. He had grown up here. He had attended school with my eldest brother. My first clear memory of him was when I was nine and had sneaked down from my bedroom to the party my parents were hosting. My brother Jacob and he had been playing cards in the kitchen and drinking. Jacob and Jack were both eleven years my senior. Jacob had let me sit on his lap and have a pastry while Jack had reshuffled the cards and asked me how I had evaded my nurse.
I shook my head, my temper and emotions overcoming my plan to bring this Doctor to justice. "You're wrong, Doctor Whoever-you-are. Jack was Jack." My voice was harsh and quiet.
"Then how did he disappear?"
"I told you how."
"The man he met, had Jack ever seen him before?"
"No," I sighed, wanting to get away but realizing I was too far in to back out. "Jack called him 'Rueben' but it wasn't his name. Apparently Reuben cheated quite badly in a card game, and Jack lost heavily. And so they dueled. The footman said Jack was winning that duel before the bandits came," I added, feeling proud of Jack's skill with an epee.
The Doctor spoke a little more cautiously. "Reuben's name is James West. He's Artemus Gordon's partner in the Secret Service, in 1868. He came through the doorway to find him."
Another flaw in the plotline, and I couldn't help but point it out. "How come West didn't become someone else then?"
The Doctor grinned and jumped to his feet, alarming me with such a sudden display of energy. He extracted the humming instrument from his pocket and aimed it again at marker. He flicked it towards his face as if he was reading an instruction manual. "Why? Because he went through the doorway with the intent to find his friend Artemus Gordon and bring him home, so naturally he found him."
"And that's what happened? West and Gordon – I mean, Jack – dueled, the bandit shot Jack, and West carried him back to this other world?" Absurd.
"Back to the future."
"Back to the future?"
"Yes. Back to the future. Great movie. Would you like to see him?" The Doctor grinned and held his hand out to me, nearly buzzing from all the revolving he had been doing around the marker.
I stood up and faced him, staring right into his eyes. This was not only absurd, and a waste of any sane person's time, but was demeaning of Jack's memory. "Jack is dead," I said icily. "Your antics are disrespectful to both Jack's memory and my feelings. Your story is false. Your motives are selfish. You will leave this cemetery this moment, and you will leave Vicksburg. You will never speak to me again. Do you understand me?" I pointed steadily towards the gate of the churchyard and felt a hot tear escape the crease of my eye.
The Doctor physically shrank away from me, his jaw working and hands rubbing together. "I see," he said quietly and sincerely. "I see I have overstepped my bounds. I was only trying to help."
"You will leave," I repeated.
He nodded and took another step back. "Of course. Only – only I think Jack would want you to listen. You like to read novels, don't you?" he asked cautiously. "Eighteen-fifties, deep South, aristocratic, political families…didn't you ever think it odd that Jack never criticized you for reading so much? All those other people, you parents, your siblings, your governess, all of them told you that you should read history, or languages, or philosophy if you wanted to read. Too much fiction gives women bad ideas. But Jack never told you that. He encouraged you to read, Alice. He brought you books from his library. Books from England and Italy and Germany with stories in them. Why did he do that, Alice? Because maybe, maybe he knew that one day you would need to pretend that life was a story, that you would need to suspend your disbelief for just a few minutes."
The tears were coming from both eyes now. "How could you have known that?" I asked in a whisper. "How could you know about the books?" It was true, every word.
"I know, Alice, because I saw him give you those books. I watched him pick them out and I wondered, just as he did, why he was giving them to you. But you see, Alice," - he stepped back towards me, and I felt no inclination to move - "he was giving you keys to unlock this mystery. Tools to think about life and the world in different ways. Options for living. He was giving you hope, Alice. Jack knew better than anyone about what the South was going to go though in a few years, and if there was a war, he was going to fight in it. He was leaving you with pieces of him, tangible and yet intangible remembrances of his love for you. Whole worlds to wander in when you are lonely. Don't underestimate the comfort that books and stories can bring to someone who has lost their spouse. Don't walk away from those, Alice."
Jack did think a war was coming. A terrible war between the states that would decimate lives and change America. His opinions about politics were different than anyone else's, despite his passionate love for the South, for our way of life, and his determination to protect it. An odd question came to my lips.
"If Jack is…Artemus Gordon…fifteen years in the future, and not from Vicksburg, and there was a war…which side did he fight on?"
The Doctor gave me half a smile. "I can't tell you."
"I'm not asking about an outcome," I persisted, "I'm asking about political affiliations."
"The North," he answered finally. "Artemus Gordon was captain of a regiment of soldiers in the North. And he was a good soldier, too."
"Of course he was," I said. "He's Jack."
"Would you like to see him? Artemus Gordon?" he asked again, much calmer this time.
"But he's in another world, you said. And I'm still not sure I trust you."
But the Doctor didn't seem to care. "Of course you don't trust me. What kind of fiancé for Jack Maitland would you be if you did? Now, I can take you to see Artemus Gordon, wouldn't you like that? He won't remember you, of course. Well, he might recognize you, but he won't be able remember why he recognizes you. Blimey, this would be a lot easier to explain if it were a hundred years from now and you'd read The Narnia Chronicles. Now they do a good job of explaining different worlds."
His words had come faster and faster as he went on, and I quite literally did not understand a word of what he was saying, but he was holding his hand out to me and I took it. "Where are we going?" I demanded.
He grasped my hand and pulled me from the spot I had become rooted to, and then began pulling me towards the trees on the far side of the graveyard, where I could see a blue shack in the distance.
"We're going to use the door, before it gets totally destroyed, to show you that Jack is really Gordon, and he is alive and well," he told me gaily as we rushed along.
We reached the trees and the Doctor snapped his fingers and the blue shack's door opened. Before I could scream, he dragged me through the doorway and closed the doors behind me…and commenced to run across an enormous room to a strange console in the middle, where he began pushing levers and pressing buttons.
To be sure, the shack was very small…on the outside. But inside it was enormous. I took a timid step forward. "Are you a scientist?" I asked. It was the only conclusion I could come to. "Is this your laboratory?"
A hideous sucking noise and a loud thump came from the center console.
"Yes, you could say that," he allowed, running around the large table in the middle of the room.
The Doctor flashed a grin at me as he continued his odd dance around the table, continuing to work the contraption that was upon it. "You see, Miss Cranston, the door that was opened will be destroyed, because the man used an actual, physical door in a house. Imagine: your entire planet in the upstairs guest room of somebody's house! The house was destroyed in a fire, but the residual time energy from the door will remain for a little while. Of course, it's in the air now, floating and growing dimmer every day, but it's just enough to let us through. And there we go!"
He came tearing away from the table back to where I stood, just inside the door, rooted to the spot. He grabbed my hands and pulled me towards the door, but I resisted.
His face fell. "No? Again?"
I shook my head. "Doctor, I have lost Jack forever, and you think that by showing me this other man, Artemus Gordon, who Jack is supposed to actually be, that I will feel better? How is that supposed to make me feel better, Doctor? It doesn't change anything for me."
The Doctor was silent as I stood there defiantly, with tears on my cheeks, wondering why on earth I had taken his hand and run away with him. He looked at the ground for a moment, then took a step backwards and pulled the door open slightly. Through it poured sunlight, and dust motes filtered in, bringing the sounds of a creaking wooden boardwalk, jangling wagons, and a myriad of voices.
"I know it doesn't change that Jack is gone," the Doctor said softly, stooping somewhat as he addressed me, as if beseeching me to hear him out. "But he isn't dead. I don't know a man in the universe who wouldn't want his fiancé to know that he was all right, that he was safe, even – especially – if he would never see her again."
I softened again towards him. He gestured towards the door, but I couldn't make myself move. I looked down at my black gown. The Doctor thought he was doing Jack a favor. For some unaccountable reason, I believed that Jack had encouraged my peculiar reading habits not just to endear himself to me, but to give me something to hold onto. And even more unaccountable, and judging from the noises outside the door, I was not where I had been a few moments earlier. It was just possible that Artemus Gordon was outside this blue shed, and that I could see him – and weigh for myself whether or not he was Jack.
"Artemus is quite a name," I stalled, wiping tears off my cheeks.
The Doctor smiled and glanced sidelong out the door. "His friends call him Artie."
"Artie. That seems a bit juvenile."
"Are you going to stand here and argue over his name, or are you going out there?" the Doctor asked me.
I did want to look, yet still, I could not move towards the door. "Where are we?" I asked.
"Eighteen sixty-eight," the Doctor told me. "A small town in Arkansas called Silver Creek. Gordon and West are here on assignment, approximately two weeks after Jack left your world."
We had come to the future, then. And I was supposed to step out of this time-traveling box and wait on the sidewalk until Jack wandered past with his friend. And do what, exactly? Wave? Tell him good morning? Ask him for the time of day? I concentrated on the sounds outside the door, trying to decide if I wanted to venture out or not. The Doctor stepped back from the door and leaned against the wall with his arms crossed.
"You know, Jim, we could get into a lot of trouble letting her walk away like that. Say, what do we do if she goes to Armstrong and tells him we're Federal Agents, hmm? What do we do then?"
I couldn't help myself. It was his voice, not nearly as cultivated and poised as I was used to hearing it, but it was his. I marched through the door and out into the nearly blinding sunlight of a boardwalk, accidentally bumping straight into several people as I did.
The small bag I had clutched in my hands –completely forgotten – slipped from my fingers and fell into the street.
A man caught me by the arm and steadied me. I turned to look at him, and found a slim man in a blue suit and smart hat looking concernedly at me. "Are you all right, ma'am?" He asked.
"Oh, yes, I'm dreadfully sorry, I didn't see you or your friend," I muttered automatically. I turned the other way to see Jack standing just off the boardwalk, holding my bag.
With an adorable crooked smile that went straight to my heart, he held it out to me and touched his hat. "Our fault," he said. "You're not hurt, I hope, Mrs…?"
With my hands trembling somewhat, I reached out and took the bag from him. "Cranston. Miss Alice Cranston. No, I'm not hurt, thank you."
I must have continued to look stunned, because the gentleman holding my arm tightened his grip and guided me several steps to a chair outside a shop window. "Are you sure? You look shaken," he nodded pointedly at my mourning dress.
I took a shaky breath and summoned a smile. "I was…on my way to the cemetery," I said. "My fiancé died." I looked at Jack as I said it, willing some recognition to come into his face.
Jack – or Gordon, I couldn't tell which anymore – immediately doffed his hat and stepped back onto the boardwalk. "I am sorry, Miss Cranston," he said, and I felt like he meant it.
He gestured to his companion. "This is James West, and I'm Artemus Gordon. Is there anything we can do for you?"
It was jolting, if not soul-crushing, to hear him utter another name as his own. To be sure, he was not dressed for dinner nor for hunting, as he generally was when I saw him, but his dusty-grey suit and Oriental vest looked just as flattering. And as for being able to do anything for me…what could he do?
"Oh please, call me Alice," I muttered automatically.
"Alice," he echoed obediently. I glanced up to see the hint of a smile on his face. "Is there anything we can do?"
My name rallied me. His smile rallied me. I took a deep breath and held my hand out to him. "I wish there were. But I suppose if you would help me up, I'll go back inside now. I'll go to the cemetery later."
He held out his hand and I took it and let him help me up. His hand was warm and strong over mine, and his nearness soothing as he pulled me onto his arm to walk me back to the blue door.
"What's inside?" he asked, nodding at the blue door, which oddly blended and yet did not with the other dirty windows and doors around it.
"A bookstore," I heard myself say. "I live above it."
"A bookstore, now that sounds like a fine thing to live above."
"I do love to read," I said, glancing at him and seeing his dark eyes locked on my face. I gave him a small smile while clenching my jaw to keep from saying anything further.
"What do you like to read?" he inquired pleasantly as we reached the door and he released my arm.
"Novels," I told him. "I love a good story. Particularly female English authors," I added.
He smiled brightly at me. "Why not read a book and have some hot tea?" he asked. "It will take your mind off things for a while."
His suggestion – Artemus Gordon's – harmonized with Jack's suggestion for cold and rainy afternoons when riding or walking was out of the question. The familiarity glowed inside me and I impulsively took his hand and squeezed it. "I will, thank you, Mr. Gordon."
He chuckled and I had to clench my jaw again. "Artemus, please."
A full smile crept across my face, and muscles stretched that hadn't for five weeks. "All right, thank you, Artemus. I think I will."
He nodded squeezed my hand back. "Have a pleasant afternoon, Alice."
I nodded, my eyes holding his as I pushed back through the blue door and closed it behind me. I stood on there, heart pounding, holding my breath, eyes closed, and listening.
"Poor girl," I heard West say.
"I'll say," Artemus agreed. "She looked shaken at the sight of people. I wonder when her fiancé died."
"I don't know, Artie, but I'll tell you he was one lucky man while he was alive."
"James my boy, that's exactly what I was just thinking. A very lucky man indeed." His voice brokered the same triumph Jack's had when I had overheard him telling Jacob that I had accepted his proposal. The grin on my face grew wider and I shut my eyes and pressed my forehead against the door, holding onto the moment as Artemus' voice and footfalls slipped away and down the street.
I listened until I couldn't hear them at all, then let out my breath and opened my eyes. The Doctor was standing in the same place as when I had left, now with a sad smile on his face.
"Is he Jack?" he asked softly.
I looked at the Doctor, his ridiculous coat and sloppy haircut, and felt an unexpected rush of gratitude. I did not know what had happened, or how it had, but I was grateful to him. "No. And yes. Thank you."
"It's a pleasure," he said, and ambled back up the steps to the table and began working knobs. The same sucking and thudding noises came again, and in a moment he stepped off the dias and opened the door again. "Back where I found you, not five minutes later."
I stepped out into the sun of the graveyard, which suddenly seemed unreal to me. I turned back to the Doctor. "Doctor, I…I don't understand you, but… How did you know about Jack?"
He smiled, leaning in the doorframe. "It's a bit of a hobby, I guess," he said. "I like finding things that don't make sense and poking them with a stick."
It was not a sufficient answer, but I was suffused with such a peace that I didn't feel I wanted one. The Doctor and his magic time-travelling, world-shifting blue shed seemed far too complicated for me. But I still had questions to ask. "Are you real? Or is this just a dream?"
He laughed. "It's real, you can pinch yourself just to check, in fact. I recommend checking every once in a while," he said, staring aimlessly at the sky. "You never know when you might not be real. Does happen, you know."
He was truly mad. I laughed, surprising myself with the sound. "And will I see you again, Doctor?"
He shrugged. "I can never tell, Miss Cranston. And I like it best that way. Sometimes it's nicer beforehand not to know if you're not going to see someone again." His voice slowed as he spoke.
"I'm not sure I agree," I told him. "But like you said, it is nice to know your loved ones are safe and happy. That's something, isn't it?"
The Doctor scuffed his foot along the threshold. Impulsively, I moved to a nearby rosebush and picked a flower, then returned to the doorframe and held it out to him. "Don't you think, Doctor? Maybe our loved ones are all we've really got in the end. Thank you for taking me to see Artemus."
I might have imagined it, but he hesitated somewhat in taking the rose. He looked at it, twirling in slowly in his hand. "You're welcome, Miss Cranston," he said distantly.
"Alice," I told him. "Please call me Alice."
He smiled and refocused on me with a fierce intensity. "Alice. Yes. Good luck, Alice, and if you ever need me, feel free to call for the Doctor." He winked, all his momentary lethargy gone.
He was about to close the door when I interrupted him again. "Doctor, will he ever remember his other life? Artemus, I mean. Will he ever think about Jack?"
The Doctor shook his head. "If Artemus Gordon remembers anything at all it will simply be like a dream. You know, the sort of dream you wake up from and you have a feeling you've had it before, seen those people before, and there was a definite feeling about it."
"But Doctor, everyone has dreams like that. That doesn't mean we're all from other worlds."
He smiled wisely. "Ah, everyone has dreams like that. Why couldn't it be impressions from other, parallel worlds that we accidentally walk through every Thursday? Who's to say that Mrs. Goddard's house at the end of Vineyard Lane isn't actually the Mrs. Goddard's house from another world, only the two Mrs. Goddards switched one day and never realized it? Oh, Alice, there's things going on all around us if we'd only just pay attention. You'll start seeing them now: little things that don't make complete sense. A sentence started here, a look there… You will see things bleeding through from all over the place now, Alice. Don't disregard them, pay attention. Maybe you'll see bits of Jack or Artemus somewhere. You can never tell."
I was breathless with possibility. "No," I answered, "You can never tell. I'll watch for them Doctor, both of them. I can do it now, because I know other worlds exist, and I know Jack is safe somewhere else as Artemus." My entire world, my whole conception of it, was morphing and shifting in blossoming, undulating swells. My heart was still broken, of that I was sure, but I had not lost Jack in the way that I believed I had, and I had more peace about his loss than I ever would have otherwise
I laughed as another thought entered my head. "Maybe I'll see a young man one day, a captain, and it will be Artemus."
"Maybe. If you do, you mustn't ever tell him. Because when Artemus Gordon is born here, he can never interact with Jack – they are sort of the same person, and he can't cross his own timeline; it would be dangerous."
"Yes, yes of course," I agreed, although I didn't understand. "But I could talk to him, couldn't I? As a complete stranger; never mentioning Jack?"
He nodded benevolently. "Of course you could, Alice. Of course." He bowed again and closed the door.
I backed away, and to my astonishment, the noise I had heard inside seemed ten times nicer when heard from the outside. The box began to vanish, and soon I was alone on the edge of the woods, listening to the birds twittering.
The war that Jack had watched for, that Artemus had fought in, and that the Doctor had spoken of sides in, came. It marched directly through the heart of the South, destroying all that my family, and all those around us, held dear. My brothers fought and were killed. The entire empire that supported the Cranstons, the Maitlands, the Goddards, the Vautrains, and the Carters crumbled beneath us. I mourned, I felt anger and resentment, and did what I could for the war effort. And yet the entire time, I felt it was not going to be the South who won. I knew my way of life was ending yet again, and I understood that somewhere, out on those horrific battlefields, even as my brothers were dying to protect me, somewhere Artemus Gordon and his soldiers were fighting to protect another way of life.
It was an awkward position, and yet an empowering one, because even in the darkest days, I knew that life would go on after the war, and that America would still exist in some form.
When the war finally ended, and we slowly cleared away the debris and rubble, buried the dead, and began scraping ourselves back together, I decided to stay in Vicksburg. I married another wonderful man, Robert Carter, nephew to the elderly and genteel William and Mariah Carter, and we had two children. Many families left, including the Maitlands. But I stayed, partly because Robert was eager to help rebuild Vicksburg and raise our children here, and partly because I needed to wait fifteen years to see if the Vautraine manor was going to burn down.
One night, I was awakened to the sound of fire engines rushing past the house I lived in. I rose and went outside, watching the fire glow in the distance, understanding that I had come full circle. Time had run together. Jack had died only moments ago in a duel held in the upstairs room of the Vautraine manor, fifteen years ago. And I was here still, aware of both of the world's – Jack's and Artemus's, and not certain what to do.
The next morning, after Robert left to go the Gentleman's Club, I asked Miss Candice to dress the children for the park, and accompany us on a picnic. The air held the faintest hint of smoke from the night's fire, and I installed myself comfortably on a bench with Lily in her pram and watched Miss Candice and little Christopher fly the kite he and Robert had been making. The wind was brisk, and every once and a while the scent of smoke was accentuated as Christopher darted about gaily, his blond hair flashing in the sunlight.
A particularly strong gust came, and Lily squealed with displeasure as stray leaves blew into her pram. I busied myself extracting the greenery from her cap and hair, and picked her up to soothe her, and nearly missed the hat blow past me on the grass.
The gentleman's hat blew across the park, and in the distance, Christopher saw it and handed his kite off to Miss Candice and chased after it as fast as his six-year-old legs would carry him. When he captured it, he let out a triumphant whoop, and held it up high in the air and shouted to someone behind me, "Is this your hat, sir?"
I turned on the bench, Lily still in my arms, and was immediately grateful that I was sitting down. Artemus Gordon and his partner were walking across the park from the road, and Artemus waved at Christopher.
I was still transfixed when Christopher raced past me and up to the two men, handing Artemus back his hat. Artemus patted my son on the head, and I saw Christopher turn and point to me. I arranged my face into an appropriate expression and smiled and nodded to them. West touched his hand to his hat, and Artemus gave a small bow, smiled and patted Christopher's head again, and then the two of them turned and walked back to the street.
Moments later Christopher was at my knee. "Momma, what nice men. The one gave me a candy, see?" He produced a brightly colored hard candy in his palm.
I smiled at him. "It was very nice of you to fetch his hat," I told him, petting his hair with my free hand.
"His name was Artie. He asked if I liked candy."
"You do like candy. Will you wait until you've had your lunch before you eat it?"
Christopher gave the disappointed smile he always did when forced to obey, and pocketed the candy. "I suppose. May we eat now then, momma?"
"Of course. Go and tell Miss Candice that it is time to put away the kite and eat."
Christopher rushed off again, and I turned to catch a last glimpse of Artemus and West vanish around a corner and out of sight. Lily reached up and tugged at my chin, and I returned my attention to my baby, letting her pull at me as she would, and cuddling her close. A weight I did not realize I had been carrying for fifteen years had dropped away. I was certain it was the last time I would see Artemus, and therefore Jack. And yet I was happy. I adored Robert, and I was besotted with my children. Now I could stop wondering if Jack was also happy – he very clearly was. We were, bizarrely, both right where we belonged.