By W. K. Tucker
Jane Hitchcock twitched the feather duster over the shelf of old books, stirring up years of dust that had settled upon their frayed tops. Wonder why they’re hidden away in here where no one can see them, she thought. A treasure they are, so old. And worth a lot of money, I’ll bet.
Her nose tickled. She sneezed, the sound as loud as a thunderclap inside the small closet. The flailing duster snagged one of the books, knocking it to the floor where it lay open, its fragile insides exposed.
Jane bent over—no easy task for her two-hundred-pound-plus frame—and reached for the book. But then she noticed something. Strange. The lines upon the yellowed pages squiggled, wiggled, jiggled.
What in the world . . .
Laboriously, she lowered herself to her arthritic knees. She pushed back wisps of graying brown hair that had escaped its tight bun and peered at the dancing letters. Something was there, on the page beneath the words. She leaned forward for a closer look.
Her compressed belly shoved up against her ribs, demanding room for itself, almost cutting off her supply of air and causing her to breathe in fast little pants. “What . . . is . . . that?” Her chubby fingers splayed over the brittle paper.
And she felt herself falling.
Arms waving, searching for anything to hold on to, Jane Hitchcock pitched headfirst into a pale-yellow nothingness.
She tumbled head over heels, a muffed scream spiraling out behind her. The long skirt of her full, flowery dress puffed out and wrapped about her shoulders and head. Cold caressed her dimpled thighs.
Her scream turned into a wail of panic. I can’t see! Expecting any second to feel her body slam onto the bottom of whatever she’d fallen into and splat red like an overripe tomato, she clawed at the twisted cloth, I have to see!
Jane yanked at the dress tail, heard the growl of its rip and didn’t care. She jerked it away from her face.
And she was still falling. Yellow all around, yellow above, and below . . .
A circle of brown rushed up towards her. She was fixing to hit bottom. Oh, my . . . She closed her eyes, gritted her teeth, and braced herself for the coming pain.
Then, with a big ker-plop she landed on her butt. And it hadn’t hurt; not one bit. Every bone in her body should have been broken, but . . .
Jane opened her eyes. Wood-paneled walls, not the library’s cool white walls. And she was—her fingers closed around softness and she looked down at chocolate-brown fabric—on a bed.
She surveyed her surroundings. She was in a smallish room with a low ceiling covered in the same dark oak as the walls. Against the far wall set a sturdy wooden table holding a white, porcelain basin and pitcher. A mirror hung above them. To one side of the mirror, a curtained rippled, exposing a round window. Below squatted a sturdy desk and chair. Papers and books and maps littered the desktop.
She felt a gentle ripple of movement. Up and down. Up and down.
Good-god-gussy, guess I’m hallucinating being sick too. But then she realized it wasn’t her stomach flopping around; the entire room undulated like the roll of a—
Ship . . . I’m on a ship . . .
Jane vaulted out of the bed, lunged the short distance to the window, and snatched back the rainbow-striped curtain. Blue for as far as she could see. Blue water, blue sky. Looked like she was smack-dab in the middle of the ocean. But how? She’d reached down to pick up the book, and then . . .
Her eyes slid over to the mirror. She glanced in the cloudy glass, then looked away from her reflection, back out to the placid sea. That wasn’t me! Her eyes snapped back for a second look.
In the mirror, a wide-eyed young woman stared back at her. Shiny, blonde curls framed her exquisite face. Big green eyes, slim little nose, and pouty red lips graced her peach-kissed skin. It was the kind of face one would find between the covers of magazines with headlines that shouted: Inside—The World’s Most Beautiful Women!
“Oh, my . . .” Jane saw the woman in the mirror mouth the two words. She reached up with trembling hand and touched the glass, and saw her action duplicated there. “It can’t be . . .
She looked at her hand, turned it this way and that. No age spots, no swollen knuckles. Then up her toned arm to small, firm breasts. Lower, to her belly, that now appeared to be as flat as a pancake beneath a diaphanous, pale-green gown. She hiked up the tail, exposing trim ankles and tiny feet. “Oh, my . . .”
Somehow—she had no idea how—she had fallen into someone else’s body. This wasn’t even a younger Jane Hitchcock; she’d never looked this good, not even on her finest days in her early twenties. The best that had ever been said about her was that she was plain.
Something behind her rattled. Heart in her throat, Jane whirled around just as a door—she hadn’t noticed a door before, maybe because it was the same color as the walls—creaked open. In walked the most handsome man she’d ever seen in her life. Tall, broad shouldered, chiseled features. Straight, jet-black hair pulled back in a queue. And tight white pants. Every woman’s dream. At least the ones who read all those Harlequin romances, which Jane did. At least two a week.
“Finally decide to get up?” He smiled, flashing perfect white teeth.
“I . . . uh . . . suppose . . .” Flustered; Jane didn’t know what to say. Good-god-gussy, he’s so pretty.
He moved toward her, and the closer he got, the hotter she got. Her face, her entire body, felt on fire.
He caught her hands and brought them to his lips. He kissed her knuckles. “We’ll be in port in the morning, my love.” His husky voice was a caress in itself. “As soon as I can locate a priest, we’ll be married. Then there is nothing your father can do for you will be mine before man and God . . .” His sapphire eyes snared hers. “Though you are already mine in other . . . ah . . . more intimate ways.”
Jane opened her mouth, but no words came out. This man knew her, evidently quite well, and she didn’t even know his name. And she’d always been uncomfortable around attractive people, so aware of her own dowdy looks that she couldn’t even carry on a decent conversation.
A look of consternation settled upon the pretty man’s features. “Angelique, are you regretting coming with me?”
“Oh no, not at all . . .” What was his name? ” . . .darling. I’m just . . .” Just what? Shocked? Scared? Wondering how on earth she’d gotten here? Wondering who he was? Wondering who she was? She settled with: “Tired.”
His grin widened, cutting a pearly swath through the forest of black stubble covering his lower face. “I kept you up too late, didn’t I?”
Jane didn’t think it was possible to get any warmer than she already was, but she did. Heat mushroomed in her chest and crawled upward, spreading across her face and scalp in a fiery wave. Why, even her ears burned.
Embarrassed and a bit ashamed—What had Angelique, what had she, Jane Elizabeth Hitchcock, done with this man?—she looked down at her bare toes.
The pretty man circled her with his arms and pulled her against his body. He kissed the top of her head. “My little innocent,” he said. “So easily shocked.” His fingers tangled in her hair and gently pressed her cheek to his chest over his heart. “But I would not have you any other way.”
Jane gave herself to the embrace. It felt good, so darn good to be held, to be cherished. In her fifty-nine years of life, other than Papa, no man had ever hugged her, no man had ever loved her. Not that she’d expected it. She was fat and homely and bookish. What man would want a woman like her?
This may be the last time, the only time. Jane closed her eyes. She breathed in the pretty man’s scent, sweat and tobacco and sea brine. She absorbed his feel, the hardness of his muscles. She listened to the steady beat of his heart, the whoosh of blood pumping through his veins.
A series of quick raps upon the door jerked them apart. “Captain, you’re needed on deck! A ship’s off our starboard bow, coming on quick!”
The pretty man grasped Jane’s shoulders and planted a quick but fervid kiss upon her lips. “Stay here. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
And he yanked open the door and was gone.
“Oh, my . . .” Jane laid her fingers upon her throbbing lips. Her first kiss.
From above, she heard men shouting, the pounding of feet, and wondered what was happening. A ship. The person at the door said a ship was coming. Maybe she could see it if she looked out the window.
Jane started toward the window, but on her second step, her toes bumped against something. She looked down.
And there was a book. The Book.
She squatted down beside it. The book lay closed in upon itself. Why it looked like just an ordinary book, old yes, but not a time machine by any stretch of the imagination. Her eyes lit on the title: Eighteenth-Century Pirates of the Caribbean. Hmm . . . interesting.
Jane reached out her hand, touched the tip of one finger to the ragged spine. Nothing happened. She drew her finger in a line from the top of the front cover, right down over “Pirates” and to the bottom edge. Again, nothing.
She must be dreaming. After all, one couldn’t fall into a book and be spit out into the past a completely different person. She’d wake up any minute and be in her own bed with Fluffy and Charmin and Dolly curled up around her. And she’d get up and waddle to the kitchen, the kitties weaving in and out between her legs and meowing to be fed, and pour that first cup of coffee. And while the kitties ate, she’d pull the box of chocolate-covered donuts she’d bought last night at Walmart out of the cabinet, and eat the remaining half-dozen.
Jane sat down cross-legged on the floor. She picked up the book and hugged it to her breast.
Only a dream.
Above her head, the racket intensified. Then a thunderous boom shook the entire ship. A cannon? Was that a cannon firing? What in the world was happening?
Jane scrambled to her feet, the forgotten book slipping from her fingers.
Another deafening explosion, this one causing the ship to pitch violently, sending Jane stumbling across the floor of the small cabin. The ship reversed its roll, and she lost her balance. I’m ready to wake up now, she thought as she toppled over backward.
She came down hard on her butt.
The ship listed to one side. A dream, Jane thought as she slid along the wood floor. This is just a dream. But that knowledge didn’t stop her from being terrified, and it sure didn’t stop the sharp sting of splinters gouging into her palms as she clawed for a handhold. Then beneath her hand she felt—what?—and she turned her head and there was The Book and her fingers were gone, swallowed between its open cover. Then her arm was gone, and oh sweet Jesus, it was sucking her up, pulling her inside itself, pulling her into its yellow mouth.
Again, falling, tumbling. And again being deposited. Somewhere.
Jane opened her scrunched-tight eyes. And she was sitting on the floor of the closet inside the Liberty Public Library where she worked, the feather duster on the floor beside her. And The Book.
She giggled. Silly of her; she’d sat down in the closet and had fallen asleep. Good thing it was Saturday and she had the place all to herself. It wouldn’t have done for sour-faced Miss Maples to have caught her napping on the job.
Yes, that’s what had happened: she’d fallen asleep and dreamed. And oh what a lovely dream it’d been. Till its end.
Oh well, best get back to work, get the place in order and head home, feed the kitties and see what was in the fridge to munch on while she watched The Bridges of Madison County. Again.
Preparing for the arduous task of getting to her feet, Jane placed one plump hand on the floor. Needles of pain stabbed her palm, and she jerked her hand away from the bare boards. “Ouch!” And turned it over and looked. Wood splinters peppered her palm. She brought up her other hand. More splinters there. “Oh, my . . .”
Dreams didn’t give you splinters.
Good-god-gussy, she had been on a ship. She had been held by a pretty man who’d called her Angelique. And she had been young, and oh dear Lord, beautiful.
In another time and place.
Maybe The Book was a time machine of sorts. And maybe the others . . .
Grunting, Jane rolled around until she was on her hands and knees, then using the wall for support, she slowly rose to her feet. Her heart pounded from the effort, and each beat pulsed through her pincushion palms. But she was only vaguely aware of the pain; her attention was riveted on the shelf of old books.
She selected a volume out of the dozen or so, and blew away the dust. Ancient Egypt: Life Along the Nile. Carefully, she cracked open the stiff binding, just enough to peer inside. And sure enough, the lines of words jiggled over the page.
She clapped the book closed. Dust puffed into her face, and she caught a whiff of a strange odor, something sweet and heavy and perfumy, a smell entirely foreign to her.
She slipped the book back into its spot and selected another. The Middle Ages. Again, she peeked between the covers. More wiggly words. And again, she replaced it.
One by one she read the titles, took a quick look inside—each dealt a particular time and place in history—and one by one, returned them to the shelf.
And then she remembered Maggie Thornbloom.
Up until a few years ago, Maggie Thornbloom had been the head librarian for as far back as Jane could remember. Then she’d disappeared. It had been a local mystery, still was, the old woman vanishing into the proverbial Thin Air. The last time anyone had seen her was here at the library. Gladys Jones had picked up her twins at 7:00 PM on a Friday night, had seen Miss Thornbloom step back inside after she’d waved at her and the girls, and had seen her flip the closed sign and pull the shades. When Miss Maples had shown up for work the following morning, the library was locked and the closed sign still hung in the window. But Maggie Thornbloom was nowhere to be found.
Now, Jane thought she had a pretty good idea what had happened to the old woman: she’d picked out a book and had gone to live another life.
Like Jane, Maggie Thornbloom had been a spinster, with no family or friends to speak of. And maybe, like Jane, she’d accidentally fallen into one of the old books and had found something better.
Something better . . .
Jane stared at the row of books, then looked down at The Book. She had a choice here: place Eighteenth Century Pirates of the Caribbean back on the shelf with the others, shut the closet door and forget about them; or open one’s frayed and faded cover and escape from her dull-as-dishwater life. No one would miss her if she vanished into Thin Air. Not even her kitties. They were fickle girls and would take up with anyone who fed them—she’d found that out last summer when her one sister had flown in from California for the reading of Papa’s will. The three kitties had ignored Jane, crawling all over Trish. Why, they’d even slept with her.
No, no one would miss her, and in a matter of weeks, it’d be like she’d never existed.
Again, her eyes strayed to the shelf of books. Egypt might be nice, she thought, or Nero’s Rome. Of course, it had burned. Hadn’t it?
Her gaze returned to The Book, and she remembered the pretty man. And she remembered the kiss. She laid her fingertips over her lips, over the smile that curved them.
She could go back there and be with him. She could be young again with her whole life stretched out in front of her to be lived, not just endured.
Then Jane remembered the booming shots, the cantering ship, her slide across the rough floor. Would she be going back to a sinking ship? Or maybe—and this was even worse—she’d end up somewhere else in the Caribbean of the eighteenth century, some place where there was no pretty man to watch out for her. What would happen to her then?
Inside The Book was the unknown. Here she was safe.
Jane saw the remaining years of her life stretch out before her, saw the monotonous days spent at the library, the empty nights alone with the kitties. And eventually her uneventful death, mourned by no one.
As if it had a mind of its own, her foot kicked off its sensible black flat and moved toward The Book. Her sausage-like toes teased open the pages.
Jane took a deep breath—Here goes nothing—and plunged her foot inside.
And she fell, tumbled, rolled through yellow space, and like before, her dress flapped and wrapped and covered her eyes. Then a big ker-splash.
Her dress was wet. She was wet. Oh Lord, it dropped me into the ocean! She squeezed her lips together, fought with her skirt tail, and finally pulled it away from her face. Around her, bits and pieces and chunks of wood drifted lazily in a watery world. And there was a cup and plate. A boot. A hand!
Jane couldn’t help it; she opened her mouth to scream, and water poured in. She tried to cough and pulled in more of the salty brew. She thought, I’m going to die here, then thought no more as instinct took over and she thrashed her arms and legs as if she were trying to crawl out of the ocean.
Then something clamped around her waist and pulled.
Shark! Terror mated with panic, causing her to fight even harder. But whatever had a hold of her wouldn’t let go; it continued to drag her, Jane realized, upward.
And then her head broke the surface. She sucked in a greedy breath of air. And coughed. Sucked again and coughed again, and gagged as sea water belched out of her lungs. More coughing. Then finally, she was able to take a breath. Then another.
And she realized that something still held her, keeping her head out of the water. And she hadn’t been eaten.
Jane pushed a tangle of wet hair out of her eyes and looked back over her shoulder into the pretty man’s face. Relief suffused her body. She was safe.
“Are you all right, my love?” he asked.
All she could do was nod her head.
“Here, hold on to this.” He took her hands and guided them to a big hunk of wreckage that bobbed in the water next to them, then moved along beside her. “They can’t see us here.”
Jane’s relief was short-lived. “They? Who’re they?”
“We were attacked by pirates. They destroyed my ship.”
“Oh, my . . .”
He smiled. “But they did not get my treasure.”
Jane didn’t know why he was smiling. “Where is it? On the bottom of the ocean?”
“No, my love. It is here beside me.”
His treasure. She was his treasure. Joy filled Jane’s heart. If she died right here, right now, she would die a happy woman.
But she didn’t die.
When the pirate ship sailed away, she and her pretty man paddled their feet and steered their piece of flotsam to the east toward a distant shore.
Toward a new life.
Selected from The Welcome: and other Sci-Fi stories