What in the world am I doing here? Elizabeth Forde asked herself as she followed a silver-haired woman down the main hallway of the Fawlt Line Retirement Center.
Of all the things I could have spent the rest of my summer doing, why this? Yes, she had agreed to volunteer at the retirement center. She had even felt enthusiastic about the idea at the time. But walking down the cold, clinical, pale green hallway with the smell of pine disinfectant in the air, Elizabeth wondered if she had made a mistake.
She’d been swept along by Reverend Armstrong’s passionate call to the young people of the church. He had exuberantly insisted that they get involved in the community. They must be a generation of givers rather than takers, he’d said. His words were powerful and persuasive, and before she knew what she was doing she had joined a line of other young people to sign up for volunteer service. Just a few hours a day, three or four days a week, for a couple of weeks. It hadn’t sounded like much.
An old man, bent like a question-mark, stepped out of his room and smiled toothlessly at her.
It’s too much, she thought. Let me out of here.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said her guide, Mrs. Kottler, with a smile. “You’re thinking that a few hours a day simply won’t be enough. You’ll want more time. Everyone feels that way. But if you do the best you can with the hours you have, you’ll be just fine. I promise. Maybe later, once you’ve proven yourself, we’ll let you come in longer.”
Elizabeth smiled noncommittally.
Mrs. Kottler wore masterfully applied makeup, discreet gold jewelry, and a fashionable dark blue dress. She smelled of expensive perfume. Elizabeth thought she looked more like a real estate agent than the administrator of an old folks’ home.
“We don’t call it an ‘old folks’ home,’ by the way,” Mrs. Kottler said, as if she’d read Elizabeth’s mind, “or a ‘sanitarium’ or any of those other outdated names. It’s just what the sign says: it’s a retirement center. People have productive and active lives here. Being a senior citizen doesn’t mean you have one foot in the grave. People who retire at sixty-five often have another twenty or thirty years to enjoy their lives. We’re here to help them do it as well as it can be done.”
Elizabeth noted a couple of productive and active people staring blankly at the television sets in their rooms.
“Of course, we do have older residents who have gone beyond their mental or physical capacity to jog around the center six times a day, if you know what I mean,” Mrs. Kottler added as they rounded a corner and walked briskly down a short corridor toward two large doors. “For the rest of them, there’s a full schedule of activities throughout the day. Most take place here in the recreation room.”
She pushed on the two doors. They swung open grandly to reveal a large room filled with game tables, easels, bookcases filled with hundreds of books and magazines, and a large-screen television. Unlike the main halls and cafeteria Elizabeth had just seen, this room was decorated warmly with wooden end-tables, lace doilies, and the kinds of chairs and sofas found in showcase living rooms. Tastefully painted scenes of sunlit hills, lush green valleys, and golden rivers adorned the walls.
“Pretty, huh? I decorated this one myself,” Mrs. Kottler said. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that they should have let me decorate the entire center. Well, that wasn’t my decision to make. The residents are responsible for decorating their own rooms any way they like. Most of the other assembly areas were done before I joined the staff.”
“How long have you been working here?” Elizabeth asked politely.
“Five years,” Mrs. Kottler answered, then added wistfully, “Time. It goes by so quickly, don’t you find?”
For Elizabeth, who had been only eleven years old when Mrs. Kottler started her job, the last five years hadn’t gone by quickly at all. She had traveled from the carefree days of Barbie dolls to the insecurities of middle school to the early stages of womanhood and wide-eyed wonder over her future. And she had also traveled to a parallel time, not that she’d be inclined to mention such a thing to Mrs. Kottler. No, it hasn’t gone by very quickly, she thought. And as she considered the residents of the center and realized that one day she might have to live in a place like this, she hoped life would never go by that quickly. She shuddered at the thought.
A tall, handsome young man entered through a door at the opposite end of the recreation room. “Mrs. K., I was wondering—”
“Doug Hall, come meet Elizabeth Forde,” Mrs. Kottler said, waving her arms as if she might create enough of a breeze to sail Doug over to them.
Doug strode across the room with a smile that showed off the deep dimples in his cheeks. He’s a movie star, Elizabeth thought. His curly brown hair, perfectly formed face, large brown eyes, and painstakingly sculpted physique that was enhanced, not hidden, by the white clinical coat made her certain. He’s a movie star playing a doctor, she amended.
Doug outstretched a hand and said, “Well, my enjoyment of this place just increased by a hundred percent.”
She shook his hand and blushed. “Hi.”
“Doug is our maintenance engineer,” Mrs. Kottler explained.
Doug smiled again. “She means I’m the main janitor. But I’m more like a bouncer, in case these old madcap merrymakers get out of control with their wild partying and carousing.”
“Stop it, Doug,” Mrs. Kottler giggled. Then she turned to Elizabeth. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, what’s a good-looking and charming young man like him doing in a place like this?”
For once, Mrs. Kottler had it right. He’s a movie star playing a janitor? It didn’t seem appropriate somehow. She waited for the answer.
“Well, if you can find out, please let me know,” Mrs. Kottler said with another giggle. “He won’t tell anyone. I assume he has a deep, dark secret. Perhaps he was involved in some sort of intrigue in France and barely escaped from the police on his yacht. Why else would he be hiding in a retirement center in a small town?”
“If you have to know the truth, I ran off with the church funds,” Doug said. He and Mrs. Kottler chuckled as if this little exchange had been their own private joke for a long time.
Doug rested his gaze on Elizabeth, making her feel self-conscious about how she appeared to him. How did she look in her freshly-issued white-and-pink clinic jacket—frumpy or professional? Had she taken pains with her makeup? Were her large brown eyes properly accented? Did her smile look natural? Her skin was freshly tanned, no unsightly pimples, which made her glad. She had tied back her long brown hair, but now she wished she had let it fall loose. It looked better that way, Jeff always said.
Thinking of her boyfriend at that moment gave her pause—as if her self-conscious vanity was, in and of itself, an act of infidelity to him. She glanced away from Doug self-consciously.
“Well, back to business,” Doug said pleasantly, as if he’d picked up on her feelings and wanted to spare her any embarrassment. “I was wondering if now would be a good time to adjust the settings on the Jacuzzi. You don’t have any plans to let the kids in this afternoon, right?”
“No, Doug, the ‘kids’ won’t be going in today,” Mrs. Kottler replied. “Do whatever you need to do.”
He nodded. “Maybe Elizabeth will want to test it later when I’m finished.” He gave her a coy grin.
“I think Elizabeth will be too busy getting acclimated to her new duties,” Mrs. Kottler replied.
Doug tipped a finger against his brow as a farewell. “If there’s anything I can do to help …”
Mrs. Kottler watched him go. “He’s such a flirt. A charming, good-looking flirt, but a flirt nonetheless.” Elizabeth detected a hint of jealousy in her voice.
The tour of the center eventually led Elizabeth and Mrs. Kottler outside to the five acres of manicured grounds, landscaped into gentle green slopes that ultimately rolled down to a small manmade lake called Richards Pond. It was enclosed on one side by a natural forest that extended off to the horizon. Elizabeth walked alongside Mrs. Kottler, feeling oppressed by the humidity of the August afternoon. She swatted at the occasional mosquito that wanted to make a meal of her arms.
“The heat and mosquitoes tend to keep everyone inside on days like this,” Mrs. Kottler said.
“Except those two,” Elizabeth said, gesturing to two people in a white Victorian-style gazebo near the lake.
“That’s Sheriff Hounslow and his father,” Mrs. Kottler said, with just enough annoyance to betray her usual professional detachment. “I suppose we should say a quick hello.”
As they got closer, Elizabeth saw that the sheriff, a large man in a light gray uniform, was pacing in an agitated way. His father, a shadow from this distance, was sitting on one of the benches that lined the gazebo. Sheriff Hounslow saw them coming and waved.
Mrs. Kottler spoke to Elizabeth in a low voice, “Adam Hounslow joined us just a couple of days ago. Like many new residents, he’s having a hard time adjusting. Hello, Sheriff!”
Mrs. Kottler and Elizabeth mounted the steps to the shade of the round white roof covering the gazebo. The heat and humidity were not relieved there.
“Look who’s here,” Sheriff Hounslow announced. “Mrs. Kottler and—well, well—Elizabeth Forde.”
“Oh, you know my new volunteer. Elizabeth will be with us a few hours a day for the next couple of weeks.”
“How nice. You be sure to take special care of my father,” the sheriff said. “His name is Adam.”
Elizabeth could see the old man clearly now. He was bent over from some sort of arthritis and had a pale wrinkled face with hazel eyes encased in deep, worried frowns—in them, she could see the resemblance between the father and the son. Wisps of thin white hair sprayed out from a spotted crown.
“Wouldn’t you like a pretty girl like Elizabeth to help take care of you, Dad?” the sheriff asked.
“I don’t need to be taken care of,” the old man growled. He tucked his head down against his chest.
Sheriff Hounslow ignored the remark and continued, “I’m surprised to see you here, Elizabeth. Shouldn’t you be getting ready for the grand opening of that historical amusement park, or whatever Malcolm calls it?”
“It’s not an amusement park,” Elizabeth corrected him. “It’s called the Historical Village.”
“I didn’t know you were connected to Malcolm Dubbs!” Mrs. Kottler said, impressed. Malcolm Dubbs was the closest thing Fawlt Line had to royalty, a member of the English branch of the Dubbs family who’d been in the area for nearly 300 years. Malcolm came to manage the estate after the last American adult member of the Dubbs family was killed in a car accident.
“She’s also dating Jeff Dubbs,” the sheriff informed her.
“Are you? Doug will be very disappointed,” Mrs. Kottler teased, then said earnestly, “Jeff’s parents died in that terrible accident awhile back, didn’t they? That was so sad.”
Elizabeth nodded without responding. Jeff’s parents—Malcolm’s cousin and his wife—had died in a plane crash a couple of years before. That’s why Jeff lived with Malcolm.
Mrs. Kottler fluttered her eyes as if she might cry. “I think Malcolm Dubbs is a remarkable man. Imagine taking in that boy.”
“That boy is the true heir to the estate,” Sheriff interjected sarcastically. “If I were him, I’d have a lot of trouble with Malcolm using the family money to build that park.”
“It’s not Jeff’s money unless Malcolm dies,” Elizabeth corrected him. “He’s entitled to do whatever he wants with it. And Jeff is very proud of Malcolm.”
Mrs. Kottler nodded. “After all, Malcolm is using it to create something everyone will learn from. It’s not as if he’s wasting it.” She turned to Elizabeth. “Is it true that he’s brought in authentic buildings, displays, and artifacts from all over the world?”
“Whatever he can find. From picture frames and hairbrushes to school houses and church ruins, as much as he could find from the past few hundred years is represented.” She covered a smile, realizing she was reciting one of Malcolm’s brochures. “Phase One opens on Saturday.”
“Malcolm says the village is a work in progress. He’ll open various sections of it as they’re ready.”
“As I said, it’s a Disneyland of history,” the sheriff said derisively.
Elizabeth frowned at Sheriff Hounslow, knowing better than most the adversarial relationship the two men had. Elizabeth suspected that the sheriff was jealous of Malcolm’s wealth and the respect he commanded from the townspeople. But whatever the reason, Hounslow never missed an opportunity to poke fun at Malcolm’s projects or eccentricities.
“I can’t wait to go on the rides!” he added.
“Are there rides?” Mrs. Kottler asked, amazed.
Elizabeth shook her head. “No. Just buildings and displays.”
Sheriff Hounslow grinned. “There’s going to be a big celebration. The mayor will be there and a special assistant to the governor, and there’ll be a telegram from the president and maybe even world peace—all thanks to Malcolm Dubbs.”
“Don’t be such a pompous fool, Richard,” Adam Hounslow barked at his son. “I’m looking forward to seeing the village.”
“I’m glad you’re looking forward to something,” the sheriff remarked.
“Living in a place like this, I’m lucky to look forward to anything,” Adam snapped.
“Oh, I’m sure you don’t mean that,” Mrs. Kottler said. “The Fawlt Line Retirement Center will be like home to you in no time at all, I promise.”
Adam scowled at her. “This will never be my home. My home has been sold right out from under me by my thoughtful and compassionate son.”
“I’m not getting into this argument with you again, Dad,” Hounslow said irritably.
“Yes you will,” Adam replied. “As long as you force me to live in places where I don’t want to live, we’ll have this argument.”
The sheriff turned on his father. “Where else are you going to live? You couldn’t stay in that big old place alone. You can barely take care of yourself, let alone keep up with a big house.”
The old man snorted and turned away.
Sheriff Hounslow wouldn’t let it go. “Do I have to remind you of what led up to this? Do I have to announce to the whole world how you nearly burnt the house down—twice—by forgetting to turn the stove burners off? Or the time you flooded the house by wandering off to the store while the bath water was running?”
Mrs. Kottler caught Elizabeth’s eyes and jerked her head towards the center, signaling that they should leave. Heading across the grounds, Elizabeth could still hear the voices of the two men arguing behind her.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Mrs. Kottler said. “You’re thinking that Adam must be crazy not to like our center. Well, I agree. But he’ll get used to it. They always do.”
They approached the building from the back, where a stone patio had been added to the recreation room. It was congested with plants and flowers of all kinds. A man in a wheelchair was pruning the plants, meticulously spraying the leaves and wiping them with a water bottle. He had long gray hair that poured out from under a large baseball cap. Beneath the brim of the cap he wore sunglasses so dark that she couldn’t see his eyes at all. A bushy mustache and beard flowed downward. It struck Elizabeth that, apart from his cheeks, his face couldn’t be seen at all. He wore a baggy jogging suit that, to Elizabeth’s thinking, must have been unbearably hot in the heat and humidity.
“That’s Mr. Betterman, another new resident,” Mrs. Kottler said. “Come meet him.”
They crossed the patio where Mrs. Kottler introduced them.
Mr. Betterman didn’t speak, but grunted and held a carnation out to her.
“Very nice,” Elizabeth said.
“Take it,” Mrs. Kottler whispered.
Elizabeth reached out to take the flower. For a second he didn’t let go, but used the moment to lean closer to her and whisper, “I know who you are.” He gave her a slight smile then turned away to fiddle with the planter.
Disconcerted, Elizabeth looked to Mrs. Kottler again, who gently shrugged. They walked inside.
“What did he mean by that?” Mrs. Kottler asked once they were inside and clear of Betterman’s hearing.
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth replied. She didn’t say so, but something about the man’s half-smile and voice seemed familiar to her.
“Still, That’s quite an honor,” Mrs. Kottler said. “He doesn’t usually talk to anyone. He’s a little eccentric.”
No kidding, Elizabeth thought.
As they drifted through the recreation room, Elizabeth found herself looking for Doug. She wasn’t a flirtatious person—nor was she interested in anyone but Jeff—and yet she was drawn to him. Maybe because he was someone else in the building who was young and sympathetic, like her.
Mrs. Kottler smiled contentedly. “Well, that’s most of it. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this is more like a beautiful hotel than a retirement center. We do our best. Now, let me show you where the storage closets are and introduce you to your new responsibilities.”
Malcolm Dubbs lived in a cottage on the edge of the Dubbs family’s vast estate bordering the north edge of Fawlt Line. It had a manor house, built in the 17th century, which was now part of the Historical Village. The cottage, which he said suited him perfectly and reminded him of England, seemed to fit him perfectly. It seemed to suit Jeff, who lived there with him. Elizabeth thought that the two were remarkably happy, considering the tragedy that had brought them together.
Tall and slender, Malcolm sat at the large desk in his den when Elizabeth and Jeff arrived. The sun was soon to set, and a dim yellow light washed the cluttered room. Thanks to the oak tree just beyond the French doors leading out to the patio, drops of cooler, green light filtered into the room. They highlighted the old-fashioned furniture and skimmed along the dark wood paneling, the classic paintings, the shelves sagging under too many books. Jeff smiled and turned on the banker’s lamp at the head of the desk.
Malcolm looked up and blinked at Jeff. “Oh, hi,” then, “And good evening, Elizabeth,” he said wearily, his British accent making him sound intelligent and genteel.
“Good evening,” Elizabeth said, remembering why so many young girls in Fawlt Line had a crush on the man.
“Are you all right?” Jeff asked.
Malcolm sighed. “All the preparations for the grand opening have left me with too much to do and too little time.”
Jeff gestured to the papers on the desk. “What are you working on now?”
He pushed the papers away disdainfully. “These are daily reports of completed projects within the village, and this is another report discussing the security system and inherent weaknesses that might leave some areas vulnerable to theft.”
“Vulnerable?” Elizabeth asked.
“The security cameras still aren’t working.” Malcolm leaned back in his chair and shoved his hands into the pockets of his tweed sports coat. He stretched his long legs as far as they would go.
“It’s not all doom and gloom, I hope,” Elizabeth said.
“No. The eighteenth-century windmill from Holland is working perfectly. And we wrapped up the construction on the miners’ row houses from southwest Pennsylvania. I’m particularly proud of that exhibit.”
“Why that one?”
Malcolm smiled. “Because it shows the chronology of change better than most of the displays. You start at one end of the row houses, and as you walk through each one you’ll see exactly how the miners lived during the last 180 years. Go in the first door, and you’ll see how it was in 1820. Move on to the next door and you’re looking at 1840, then 1860 and 1880 and so on until you come to the present day. We spent a lot of time getting every detail just right.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I don’t know how you pulled it all together.”
“Sometimes I wonder myself,” Malcolm admitted. “It’s been a long time in the making.”
“Hundreds of years, I figure,” Jeff said.
Malcolm waved his hand as if brushing away the subject. “Forget about the village for now. How was your first day as a volunteer, Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth was pleased that he even remembered, considering all the other demands on his mind. She said, “It was mostly just a chance to look around. I only met a couple of people. The center is nice, I guess, if you have to live in a place like that.”
Malcolm chuckled. “Your faint praise is overwhelming.”
Jeff dropped himself onto the sofa opposite the desk and ran his hands through his wavy dark hair. “She’s sorry she ever volunteered.”
Elizabeth rebuked him with a sharp look. “Jeff.”
“What?” Jeff asked innocently. “Did I say something wrong?”
Malcolm stood up and smiled sympathetically. “If it’s any consolation, Elizabeth, I think volunteering to help out at a retirement center is a noble and difficult thing to do. Many retirement homes are downright depressing, and elderly people can be very unpredictable, depending on their states of minds. But if you remember that they’re people, and not just old people, you have the opportunity to do them a world of good.”
Elizabeth thought of how Doug Hall called them ‘kids’ and probably charmed the socks off them, if only because he didn’t treat them differently from anyone else.
“As quirky as your parents are, you should feel right at home,” Jeff said with a laugh. Elizabeth kicked at his ankle before sitting next to him on the sofa.
Malcolm tugged at his ear thoughtfully. “I haven’t been out to the center since they renovated it. When I was a kid, it wasn’t a retirement home. It was just a house on a farm owned by someone the two of you know.”
Elizabeth and Jeff looked at each other blankly.
“That’s where the Richards property is,” Malcolm said. “It’s where Charles Richards disappeared.”
Elizabeth’s and Jeff’s faces lit up with the realization.
“You mean the Charles Richards?” Jeff asked.
“My Charles Richards?” Elizabeth added in disbelief.
Malcolm nodded. The three of them looked at each other silently as the story and the memories came back.
For years the remarkable case of Charles Richards was whispered about around Fawlt Line, but treated as an unsolved mystery by those who investigate such things. Most people considered it one of those small-town myths that make their way into the consciousness of the locals—like haunted houses and boogy-men—particularly by parents who want to scare their kids into behaving. But Malcolm, Elizabeth, and Jeff knew this particular story was more than a myth. They believed every word of it, and for very good reason.
The story went that over thirty years ago; Charles Richards, the son of a wealthy merchant, settled with his wife and two children on a modest farm outside of Fawlt Line. One morning, the two children were playing next to the sidewalk leading from the house to the front gate. Charles and his wife, Julia, stepped out of the front door, where Charles kissed his wife good-bye. He was leaving to run a few errands in Fawlt Line. Charles walked down the steps toward his children and patted them on their heads as he passed. As he reached the front gate, a car came up the road toward the house. In it was Dr. Hezekiah Beckett, the local veterinarian, and a young boy who was helping the doctor that summer. Charles waved at the doctor, paused to check the time on his wristwatch, then turned as if he might head along the fence to greet the approaching car. He took three steps and, in full view of his wife, his children, Dr. Beckett, and the boy, he disappeared.
Horrified, the five of them raced to the spot and looked around. They saw only the fence and the grass. There were no bushes or trees for him to hide behind, no holes to fall into, nothing to explain how he could simply vanish into thin air.
Dr. Beckett and Julia Richards searched everywhere. Then the townspeople helped. They even dug up the ground where Charles had disappeared, in the belief that he’d fallen into a sinkhole or underground cavern and was trapped below. The ground was solid. Charles was gone. An investigation over the next few weeks failed to establish any clues. There was no explanation for it. Julia was bedridden for months, lost in the hope that her husband would return. No funeral or memorial service was ever held. Later, the family sold the farm and moved away.
The story would have been easy for Elizabeth to dismiss, had it not been told to her by Malcolm, who was the young boy in the car, working with Dr. Beckett during one of his summer vacations to America. And that was only the beginning. Malcolm spent years studying theories of time travel, parallel universes, and alternative dimensions in the belief that he’d find an explanation. All he wound up with were theories and a deep suspicion about the town of Fawlt Line itself. There had been enough weird occurrences in the area—Malcolm had chronicled and investigated them all—for him to determine that Fawlt Line wasn’t so named because it was on a geographical fault, but a time fault.
Then, a few months ago, Elizabeth herself became a victim of the time fault.
While taking a bath one night, she had slipped through a fracture in time and wound up in a parallel Fawlt Line where everyone knew her as a girl named Sarah. As she insisted that she was really Elizabeth and didn’t know anyone there, she was taken to the hospital and treated as an amnesiac. The understandable pressure on her to become Sarah—and to accept this new and different Fawlt Line—was intense. There was no point in arguing against the reality directly in front of her, even though her memories told her otherwise. Alienated and confused, she very nearly gave in to the pressure to be Sarah.
But the circumstances of her disappearance caused Malcolm to think that they weren’t dealing with a normal disappearance. Too much didn’t add up. And the arrival of someone in this Fawlt Line who looked exactly like Elizabeth but wasn’t Elizabeth led Malcolm to work out a theory that she was some sort of “time twin” who had switched places with Elizabeth.
In that other time Elizabeth met a man who gave her hope that she wasn’t an amnesiac after all: Charles Richards. He claimed he knew how she felt because he had made the same switch from one time to the other. He helped her and, ultimately, saved her life from a couple of people who wanted her dead. It was a nightmarish experience.
Elizabeth eventually made it back thanks to Jeff and Malcolm. But Charles remained trapped in the parallel time.
Elizabeth still got upset when she thought of Charles stuck in a time that wasn’t his own. She hardly talked about her time-travel experience because of the sadness it brought to her. Even now, as she sat in the security of Malcolm’s study, it made her uneasy to discuss it again. In the deepest part of her heart, she feared that the nightmare might return just by invoking its name.
“They tore down Charles’s house and built a gaudy mansion on the site,” Malcolm went on to say. “It was the kind of place kids liked to throw rocks at. Then they tore that down and put up the new building a couple of years ago. How does it look inside?”
Elizabeth didn’t answer, her mind still on Charles Richards and her own nightmarish adventure.
“Bits?” Jeff asked, concerned.
Elizabeth lifted her head, catching up with Malcolm’s question. “Huh? It’s … modern. Just one story with a lot of hallways. More like a hospital than a home.”
Jeff and Malcolm glanced warily at each other.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Maybe you should take her home,” Malcolm suggested. “She’s probably tired from her first day there.”
“No, really—I’m all right,” she said.
Jeff stood up and held out his hand. “Come on.”
She took his hand and he helped pull her to her feet.
Jeff brought his Volkswagen to a squeaky stop in front of Elizabeth’s house and turned off the headlights. They both looked up and saw through the front window Alan Forde pacing in the living room. He was waving his hands and talking animatedly.
“Is he lecturing someone?” Jeff asked.
Elizabeth shook her head. “Sort of. He’s been recording a series of talks about the legends of King Arthur.”
“Recording them for whom?”
“Whoever wants them,” she answered. “He’s been obsessed with Arthur ever since … well, you know.”
The ‘you know’ was a reference to yet another adventure—this one shared by Jeff, Malcolm, and Alan Forde—with a man who showed up in Fawlt Line one night claiming to be King Arthur himself. The adventure resolved itself in England where, according to Malcolm and Jeff who witnessed it all, the man really was King Arthur.
“I’d like to hear what he has to say,” Jeff said.
Elizabeth glanced at Jeff gratefully. “He’d be happy if you asked.”
“I’ll wait for some other time. Meanwhile, I want you to tell me what’s going on with you.”
Elizabeth hadn’t expected such a direct question, though she should have. Jeff could always tell when something was wrong. Sometimes it was a comfort to her. At other times it made her feel uneasy, particularly when she didn’t have an answer—like tonight. “I don’t know,” she said after a long pause.
“You must have a clue,” he probed.
She turned in the seat to face him. “I really don’t know, Jeff. Maybe it’s just volunteering at the center. It was so … strange. At first I thought it was because I don’t know anything about helping old people. But …”
She struggled over what to say next. “Sheriff Hounslow’s father is a resident there, and the two of them were arguing and it was embarrassing … and then I met a guy in a wheelchair who gave me a carnation, and he said he knew me.”
Jeff grimaced. “He knows you? How?”
“He didn’t say, and I was too surprised to ask. It was really weird. I had this feeling that I’d seen him before, but I don’t know where.”
Jeff took her hand in his and spoke softly. “Look, Malcolm’s probably right. Old folks can be unpredictable, and that makes you nervous. Do you remember how Grandpa Dubbs was before he died?”
Elizabeth nodded. “He kept accusing the servants of stealing things.”
“Because he kept forgetting where he put them,” Jeff finished. “It used to scare the wits out of me when he launched into one of his tirades. Maybe the guy in the wheelchair really thought he knew you, but he was thinking of someone else. Probably someone from his past.”
Elizabeth agreed silently.
“And I’m just guessing, but it gave you the creeps to find out that the retirement center was built on Charles Richards’ place, right?”
“It brought back a lot more than I wanted to remember.”
“That’s what I figured.” Jeff was quiet for a moment. His expression told Elizabeth that he was forming his words carefully before speaking. “Maybe … you should get some counseling about what happened to you. Maybe we all should.”
“Oh, right,” Elizabeth said with an unamused laugh. “I can see me now in the first session with the counselor: ‘I’m here because I traveled to a parallel time …’ Yeah, that’ll work. He’ll have me committed just like the doctor in that time wanted to do.”
“I’m just saying that getting bounced around in time and going through what you went through can’t be healthy.”
“You’re right about that.”
“I mean, especially since you don’t like to talk about it.”
“I’m okay,” Elizabeth insisted. “I think it’s just today, volunteering at the center, bumping into some weird people, and then thinking about Charles Richards. I’ll be all right. Really.”
Elizabeth had a hard time falling to sleep that night. Images of Charles Richards spun through her mind and mixed with scenes from the Fawlt Line Retirement Center. Mrs. Kottler kept saying, “I know what you’re thinking,” and then Doug Hall offered her flowers carefully pruned by George Betterman in a wheelchair. The floor opened up to expose a dark cavernous time fault that threatened to pull her in. She fell—and never stopped falling.
Elizabeth suddenly sat up in her bed and knew that one way or another she had to take back her offer to volunteer at the center.
Elizabeth spent most of the next day trying to figure out how to gracefully get out of helping at the retirement center. She knew her parents expected her to be more responsible than to quit without a good reason. The challenge was to find a good and plausible reason. School hadn’t started yet, so she couldn’t blame homework. She had no other jobs or commitments, so she couldn’t say her schedule was too busy. One by one she raised up excuses. One by one her better judgment knocked them down.
Even up to the point when her mother dropped her off at the center, she was thinking of stories she could tell Mrs. Kottler to justify handing in her immediate notice. Despondently, she kissed her mother on the cheek and climbed out of the car. Her only hope was that something might happen during her shift that would provide a solid way out.
Mrs. Kottler gave her a simple assignment to start with: take the cart around and fill the water jugs in all the rooms.
Elizabeth guessed that this was a standard job for new volunteers and a shrewd way to help them get to know the residents. Many were up and about when Elizabeth walked into the various rooms and assembly areas. It was her first full view of the people she would be mingling with. While some were kind and welcoming, others regarded her with wariness or skepticism. Just like kids on the first day of school, she thought. You can’t tell about people until you get to know them better. That was a good way to think about them, she decided. They were just older kids watching a new student.
But these “students” sure looked different from the ones at school. Elizabeth was instantly struck by the crowns of white hair and varying styles of hairpieces worn by both the men and women. Her next impression was that many were quite agile, moving quickly and freely up and down the hallway, in and out of chairs, without the stiff or stooped gait she expected from older people. Some used canes and walkers, others simply steadied themselves against whatever sturdy objects happened to be nearby. They’re people, Elizabeth was reminded as they chatted amiably among themselves or played games in the recreation room or strolled thoughtfully alone. There were others, of course, who were less capable and needed more attention and care. Sharp minds were encased in fragile bodies. Sharp bodies sometimes encased fragile minds. It varied from room to room, person to person.
The most uncomfortable moment came when she reached Adam Hounslow’s room. The door was slightly ajar, and she could see through the crack that the room was dark. The blinds had been drawn, and Adam was talking to someone in a wheelchair. Though his back was to her, Elizabeth recognized the telltale baseball cap and knew it was George Betterman. The men spoke in low voices. Elizabeth was unsure whether to knock, clear her throat, or simply walk in. She paused in her indecision.
Adam handed something to George, who quickly shoved it under his loose-fitting jogging jacket. The hushed voices and quick action told Elizabeth that she wasn’t supposed to be seeing what she was seeing. She turned to sneak away, but banged the four-wheel cart against the wall. The jugs and glasses rattled, and the two men to spun around to face her.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she stammered nervously, “but Mrs. Kottler asked me to bring some fresh water.”
Adam looked particularly guilty. “I don’t need fresh water,” he said with a sneer.
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said again and retreated back into the hallway. With shaking hands, she grabbed the handle on the cart. Why was she so nervous? What was it about the men that scared her so?
She heard a soft whirring sound behind her. Seconds later, George Betterman navigated his electric wheelchair past her, pausing to look up at her through the black circles of his sunglasses. I know who you are, she expected him to say again. But he didn’t say a word. He rode away, down the hallway.
Elizabeth closed her eyes, trying to calm the irrational fear that gripped her. A heavy hand fell on her shoulder, and she cried out, nearly jumping out of her skin.
“Whoa, now, calm down,” Sheriff Hounslow said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I’m a little jumpy,” Elizabeth admitted quickly.
“I guess you are. Is everything all right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “First-day jitters.”
“I thought yesterday was your first day.”
“It was. But that was a tour. Today is my first day of work. Excuse me,” she said and raced away with the cart. Before she rounded the next corner, she heard the sheriff greet his father. Adam Hounslow launched the first assault by complaining about his room.
Safe down the next hallway, she stopped again to take a deep breath. This is stupid, she told herself. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It was just two old men talking. She rebuked herself for being so weird and, after a moment, continued her rounds.
The rooms—or apartments, as Mrs. Kottler called them—varied in their looks. A few looked sterile and hospital-like. Others reflected attempts by the residents or their families to liven them up with a few sticks of furniture, knickknacks, mementos, souvenirs, and treasures. If awards were given for the homiest room, Frieda Schultz would have won hands down.
From the moment Elizabeth stepped into Frieda’s room, she felt transported out of the retirement center into a cozy bungalow. The room was colorful, with bright floral-patterned curtains, and lampshades, and the smell of a light perfume that made her think of purple flowers. A chaise-lounge had been placed in the corner, smothered with pillows that Frieda had probably made herself, Elizabeth guessed, and a quilt that looked older than anything or anybody in the center. The windowsill was covered with cards, fashion magazines, catalogues, and books by authors with names like Baroness Orczy and Georgette Heyer and Elswyth Thane—people Elizabeth had never heard of. Victorian tapestries did their best to hide the institutional-white walls. An oak wardrobe with elaborately-carved edging along the top and bottom replaced the plain pressed-wood box the center issued. The matching bureau and vanity table, squeezed in along the opposite wall, were overrun with costume jewelry, evening purses, scarves, gloves, perfume bottles, jars, cold cream, tubes, magnifying mirror, boxes, silver combs, and brushes. It gave Elizabeth the impression that Frieda might suddenly decide to call her chauffeur and go out to the theater for the evening.
“I know, I know, it’s a cluttered mess,” Frieda said from the bathroom door in the corner.
Elizabeth realized she’d been standing in the middle of the room, staring. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said.
“Well, aren’t you the kind one to say so.” Frieda, a heavyset woman in a silk housecoat, sashayed into the room as if she were making an entrance at a formal ball dressed in chiffon and lace. Her beauty had faded, but she exuded a poise and charm that hadn’t. “Tell me your name, child.”
“I’m Elizabeth. I’m here to give you some fresh water.”
“A new volunteer?”
Elizabeth nodded as she flipped open the top on the copper-colored jug. Empty. She retrieved the large jar from the cart and poured water from one to the other.
“You must be traumatized,” Frieda said. “A pretty young girl like you thrown in with all these fossils. What in the world are you doing here?”
“I volunteered through my church.”
“And regretted it every minute since, I’ll bet,” Frieda laughed.
Elizabeth answered with a guilty smile.
“If it’s any consolation, I’m very happy to meet you,” said Frieda. “I get so tired of old people. And you’re a churchgoer too. All the better. I’d go to church if it weren’t such a major production to do so.”
Elizabeth was surprised. “Production? Why is it a production?”
“I’m not about to bore you with my health problems. We have a chapel here that I can pray in. That’ll do for now.” Frieda pushed aside some of the pillows on the chaise-lounge. “Put down those water jugs and come sit.”
“But Mrs. Kottler wants me to—”
“Forget Mrs. Kottler,” Frieda said. “I want you to sit down right here and tell me all about yourself. I don’t get to meet new people very often and, when I do, I want to know their stories.”
Elizabeth shyly sat down on the lounge.
Frieda placed herself on the opposite end, leaned back and tucked one leg under her large frame. “Comfy? Now … what’s your story?”
Elizabeth began slowly, with a few basic facts about growing up in Fawlt Like, her parents, her school. Soon, she was chatting away as if she couldn’t help it. Any lull, any missing pieces, any evasion, and Frieda asked just the right question to set it straight and keep the conversation going. Elizabeth surprised herself by talking about more personal experiences: how her friendship with Jeff had eventually led to their dating.
“Do you love him?” Frieda asked.
“Yes, I do,” Elizabeth admitted, blushing.
“Childhood sweethearts,” Frieda mused. “My Alexander and I were childhood sweethearts. We were married for forty-seven years. It wasn’t always bliss, but I wouldn’t have wanted to spend that time with anyone else.”
They continued to talk for another half-hour. At various points, Frieda would drop in her own memory of a similar experience she’d had when she was Elizabeth’s age. Elizabeth didn’t mind. She found comfort in knowing that her experiences weren’t unique only to her, but that a woman four times her age felt the same.
Elizabeth glanced at her watch and stood up quickly. “Oh! I’ve been here too long. Mrs. Kottler’ll be looking for me.”
“Wait,” Frieda said and placed a soft hand on Elizabeth’s arm. “There’s something you haven’t told me.” Her gaze was penetrating.
“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked feebly.
“I have a sense about these things—a gift, in a way. There’s something you haven’t told me. You’re holding something back.”
Elizabeth glanced away nervously. Frieda was right: Elizabeth hadn’t mentioned her time-travel nightmare. Having made a friend in the center, she wasn’t eager to lose her by talking like a lunatic. “Yeah, but it’s too crazy. I can’t talk about it now. Maybe some other time.”
Frieda watched her for a moment, then decided to let the subject drop. “All right. We have time. Other days, other talks, and maybe you’ll tell me about it. I feel that somehow you should tell me. Maybe there are secrets I can tell you too.”
Elizabeth felt such an instant rapport with the older woman that she was tempted to take her invitation and pour out the whole tale on the spot. But just then Mrs. Kottler appeared in the doorway.
“There you are!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been wondering what became of you. I need your help in the recreation room. There aren’t enough judges for the Twister contest!”
Frieda insisted that Elizabeth could go only if she escorted her into the recreation room. “My ankles are hurting today,” she complained and sat down in a wheelchair that was folded up behind the door.
Elizabeth happily grabbed the wheelchair, clicked it into place, and whisked Frieda away, the smell of pretty perfume trailing back to her.
“What’s wrong with your ankles?” she asked as she pushed Frieda down the hall.
“I have occasional bouts with arthritis. Not today, actually, but I didn’t want to let you go yet,” Frieda replied.
The recreation room was filled with residents, many of whom Elizabeth had seen on her rounds. They sat at the card tables, on the sofas and chairs, engaged in different games and hobbies. At the opposite end of the room, Elizabeth saw Doug Hall in earnest conversation with George Betterman.
“Oh,” she said, without meaning to.
Frieda turned around to look at Elizabeth’s expression, then followed her gaze over to the two men. “I see,” she said with a smile. “Handsome, isn’t he? But watch out for him.”
“Don’t worry. I’m with Jeff, remember?” she reminded her newfound friend.
“Of course you are. But one can’t help but notice Doug,” Frieda said. “I’m sure he’s already flirted with you. No pretty girl goes through here without him pouring on the charm.”
“I talked to him for a minute yesterday.”
Frieda smiled. “Uh huh. It’s nice, isn’t it—having a handsome young man pay attention to you? Even if you know nothing will come of it.”
“Just be certain that nothing does come of it, my dear,” Frieda warned.
“What do you mean?”
“I know his type. He’s a charmer, and the charmers are the ones who can hurt you the worst.”
Doug and George Betterman parted, and George wheeled himself out to the patio.
Elizabeth knelt closer to Frieda. The purple perfume lightly tickled her nose. “Do you know Mr. Betterman?” she asked.
Frieda folded her arms across her chest as if she were trying to contain a shiver. “As much as I care to,” she said.
“You don’t like him?”
“I don’t know him well enough to like or dislike him.”
“You’re evading my question,” Elizabeth teased her.
“I don’t know him,” she said carefully, “but I know my impressions.”
“What’re your impressions?”
She thought for a moment. “How can I put it in terms you’ll understand? He gives me the creeps. There’s something about him that seems …” Her voice trailed off.
Elizabeth waited. When Frieda didn’t continue, Elizabeth pressed her. “Seems what?”