I WOKE WITH A START, a strange rushing sensation filling my body. I was falling, but instead of hitting the Atlantic in a fiery maelstrom of fuselage debris and battered luggage, I found myself caught in the arms of a man.
Expecting to see James, I looked up at my savior only to find a stranger before me.
“Are you all right, Miss Greer?” The man’s accent was thickly British, and sounded odd after hearing nothing but Irish brogues for the past week. Gripping me by the shoulders, he gently lowered me onto a couch, then stood straight again, gazing down at me as if unsure what to do next. White stars spotted my vision as I blinked up at him.
I rubbed my forehead where it had hit the tray table. Even in its locked and upright position, the thing was dangerous. “What happened?” My voice sounded strange, higher-pitched than usual, and I wondered if I was going into shock for a moment before dismissing the idea. I’ve been in shock once or twice in my life, and hallucinating strange British men has never been one of the symptoms.
“You fainted, miss,” the man said with increasing concern when I didn’t respond. “Shall I send for the doctor?”
Since when did airplanes have doctors? For that matter, since when did airplanes have flight attendants like this man? I gave him a once-over through the dimming stars of my vision. He looked about 30, with warm brown eyes and a pleasant, clean-shaven face, but his uniform was like nothing I’d seen before outside of old movies. It was too over-starched and proper, and his dark hair was so severely slicked-back that it reminded me of a Ken doll I’d had as a child. Maybe he was the pilot.
When I still didn’t answer him, he took a hesitant step towards me, hand outstretched as though he were afraid I might keel over at any moment. “Miss?”
I nodded, staring at his hand rather than his face. He wore the strangest ring, a big gold thing with a two-headed snake on it that was somehow both ugly and fascinating. He pulled his hand back, snapping me out of my trance, and called my name again.
I felt strangely surreal as I looked back up at him. “What?”
“Do you feel faint again? Sometimes it helps to lay down for a few minutes.”
I did feel a bit light-headed. I couldn’t breathe right, and my ears were still ringing a little. I must have hit that tray table harder than I thought. I cleared my throat, trying to get my voice back to normal. “I, um, just need to think. What happened to the plane?”
He frowned at me, looking truly concerned now. “Plane, miss?”
“Yeah, the airplane. Where is it?”
“I heard of no airplane, miss, though I have always wished to see one.” He glanced around as though expecting to find one tucked into some corner of the room, which, upon closer inspection, wasn’t much bigger than a cockpit. Aside from the small couch where I sat, there was a set of bunk beds on the opposite wall and what looked like a small wardrobe behind my companion. A half-wall to the left of my couch obscured the rest of the room’s contents. A flowered curtain hung to one side, apparently as a means to close the couch off for privacy, and similar curtains hung in front of each bunk bed as well. I definitely wasn’t in a hospital room. It looked more like a hotel room, though not like any I’d ever stayed in. A train compartment, perhaps? I’d never been on a train, either, but it would explain the man’s odd uniform. Maybe he was the conductor.
“I think it crashed,” I said, turning back to him. “Where are we?”
“Crashed? Oh!” His eyes suddenly widened in recognition. “I heard there was someone . . . oh, but you look so young! If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to call on me.” He motioned to a small button next to the door behind him. “The name’s Stone. I’ll leave you now, so you can rest.”
Before I could say anything more, he backed out of the room and quietly shut the door behind him. Startled by the suddenness of his exit, and still trying to process what the hell was going on, all I could do was stare after him. The gleaming white of the door’s new paint made my eyes water, and as the silence stretched out, my head gave a dull throb as if to remind me that Stone’s strange behavior was the least of my worries.
I looked around again for some clue as to my location, but only grew more confused. The room had white-paneled walls, an open ceiling crisscrossed with pipes and metal beams and no windows that I could see. Even without a visual reference, I had the feeling that we were moving. There was a faint vibration coming through the floor, like sitting on a giant, muffled motor. One more check in favor of the train option.
I listened for more clues, but could only hear my own unsteady breathing. How hard had I hit my head, anyway? Had I knocked myself out, and this was just some crazy dream? Or maybe the plane really had crashed, and I was dead. If so, Heaven was far different than what all the stories said. There was no bright light, aside from the white dots, and my mother wasn’t waiting for me with outstretched arms. If Stone was my only welcome to the great hereafter, I was feeling considerably shafted.
I started to stand, to further investigate my surroundings, but something was digging into my ribs so tightly that I couldn’t bend forward. Frowning down at myself, I was surprised to see that my clothes had been changed. Instead of my sweatshirt and jeans, I wore a long, heavy silk dress over something hard and very constricting. If I’d been wearing a hospital gown, I would have assumed the crash had broken my ribs, and I was trussed up in an effort to mend them. But no hospital I knew of dressed their patients in silk formalwear, so the only other conclusion I could make was that I was strapped into some kind of girdle or corset. The dress flowed all the way to the ground, the skirt covering my legs to the ankle. Even my hands were sheathed in ivory-colored satin gloves. How strange that I hadn’t noticed them sooner. I needed to find a mirror.
I craned my neck to peer over the wall next to me and spotted a dark wood cabinet at the end of the room beside the beds. There was a sink of sorts set in the middle and a mirror fastened above. It wasn’t floor-length, but if I positioned myself just right, I could probably get most of myself in the glass.
Getting to my feet was a struggle, but I eventually managed it, then nearly fell on my face. The narrow skirt of my dress was tighter than it looked, and stopped most of my forward motion, so all I could do was shuffle forward. I felt ridiculous. I took a smaller step, looked up, then froze as the mirror came into view.
An ethereal goddess stared back at me, then screamed, a high, strangled sound. I jumped to the side, bumping against the couch and grabbing blindly for something to break my fall. My hand closed around the curtain hanging in front of it, but the fabric slid through my gloved fingers as I fought to regain my balance. I sat down heavily on the edge of the seat with a grunt of pain as the corset dug into my ribs, paused long enough to catch my breath, then pushed myself to my feet again. Once righted, I squinted at the mirror from the corner of my eye, not entirely sure the woman wasn’t going to jump out of it and attack me.
When nothing happened, I took as deep a breath as my clothing would allow, then moved back for another look. She was back, but this time I was braced for it. Her dress matched the one I wore, the same beaded burgundy silk, the same high lace-trimmed collar, the same ivory gloves. The rest, though, couldn’t be me. I had straight, dark blond hair, green eyes and skin that broke out if I put anything other than lip gloss on my face. This mirror-goddess had wavy platinum hair styled in a complicated upsweep, striking sapphire eyes and a perfect, porcelain complexion enhanced by expertly-applied makeup: foundation, blush, mascara, lipstick, the works. I reached up to touch my face and her hand raised to her powdered cheek, mimicking me. This dream kept getting stranger.
“What is it they say to do?” I asked the strange beauty. “Pinch myself? If it hurts, and I’m dreaming, I’ll wake up. Right?” I nodded, and so did she. It was unanimous. I tried to pinch my arm, but between the heavy dress and the thick gloves, it didn’t work too well. I tugged off both gloves, pushed up my sleeve, and tried again.
“Ow!” Well, so much for that theory. I raised my eyes to the mirror again and glared at the other woman. She glared back, yet her face continued to remain smooth. She was like some perfect doll, even when she frowned. I could really learn to hate this woman. “All right. Got any more bright ideas?”
No answer. It was clear she wasn’t going to help me. It was also clear that I was starting to lose my mind. I was talking to myself, only I wasn’t myself any longer. Another sure sign of insanity, right?
“Maybe this is some kind of fancy loony bin,” I mused. “With a really whacked-out dress code.”
I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore, so I turned my back on it to look at the door. Halfway through my turn, however, my eyes caught something else: a narrow hall to the left of the washstand that led to a window. A small, round one, very much like a porthole.
I rushed to it—okay, shuffled—but it was dark outside, and all I could see was the mirror-goddess faintly reflected in the glass. Frustrated and a little afraid, I returned to the washstand, averting my eyes from the mirror to stare at the door.
Fear shot through me, churning in my stomach as I thought of leaving the security of my strange little room. I had to leave, though, to see for myself where I was. Maybe I could find Stone and make him tell me what was going on. He had called me Miss Greer before, after all, so I was still me. I just didn’t look like me. Maybe I’d been abducted by aliens and had my appearance altered. I’d heard of alien probing, but never alien plastic surgery. I supposed there was a first time for everything. My eyes fell on the button Stone had pointed out. I could always call him back.
“And say what?” I asked the empty room. “Ask him what planet he’s from and why I’m dressed like some reject from Gone With the Wind? If I haven’t already been carted off to the bin, that ought to do it.” No, I decided, I had to do this on my own. Whatever was going on, it wasn’t aliens, and it didn’t feel like a dream. I was starting to doubt that I was in an asylum or a hospital, and even worse, it was looking more and more like the beautiful woman in the mirror was me. Or at least the body I was inhabiting.
I had to get out, to see for myself where I was, to disprove that obnoxious voice. Until I saw the truth with my own eyes, I wasn’t going to believe it. Even then there were no guarantees. After all, these things only happened in science fiction.
Right. Just like vampires.
I picked up a beaded handbag from the couch and hung it over my shoulder. Since it matched the dress, I figured it was safe to assume it was hers . . . mine . . . whatever. There was a key labeled “E-103” on the cushion next to it. I opened the door and stuck my head out to look at the other side. Sure enough, a small plaque set above the door read “103.” Tucking the key into my purse, I stepped out into the hall and shut the door behind me. The smell of fresh paint was stronger out there, the light a little brighter. The short hall ended just to my right and emptied out into what looked like a small sitting area and staircase to my left. The dead end had another porthole; more evidence that I was on a ship. Just like my recurring dream. I clung to that thought, comforted by it. A dream I could handle; anything else . . . The mirror-goddess stared blearily back at me from the dark glass as though taunting me to come closer.
“You stay out of this,” I muttered to her under my breath. “I’m going left.”
Once I’d exited my little hallway, the area opened up to a beautiful oak staircase leading both up and down. I felt a jolt of excitement move through me at the sight. I still knew nothing more about where I was, but the simple act of finding the stairs filled me with a sense of accomplishment.
I made my way over to a small wicker loveseat across from the stairs and paused to consider my next move. Up or down? Neither sounded particularly appealing. I had a hard enough time walking on flat ground in that torture device masquerading as a dress. The stairs looming before me were suddenly very daunting.
I was halfway across the floor before a new realization halted me. The answer to all of my questions was probably right there the entire time: in the purse. I jerked it off my shoulder and popped it open, holding my breath in fearful anticipation. There wasn’t much inside, just a small container of face powder, mirror, comb, and a few papers. I pulled the latter out and dropped the purse on the floor. The larger piece was an envelope, not yet addressed or sealed. I passed it up for the moment, figuring I’d have more luck with the others.
Under the envelope was what I had been searching for: an identification card. There was no photo, but it did bear a name and address. In French. The name on the card was Noelle Celeste Greer. Noelle lived in Paris, France, on a street I couldn’t even attempt to pronounce.
The name was familiar, though. Noelle was my middle name, after my great-grandmother, who had pretty much raised my mom after her own mother died young. Had Noelle been a family name even farther back? If so, it appeared that I had just body-snatched my own ancestor: more evidence that this was some kind of crazy dream. My subconscious really had an imagination, didn’t it?
I moved on to the next piece of paper, eager to see what more there was to find. It certainly didn’t disappoint. I staggered back and sat heavily on the wicker chair again, dumbfounded.
The page was headed “Second Class White Star Line Royal and United States Mail Steamer.” Underneath was an illustration of a very familiar four-funneled ship, some smaller print about the meaning of the “passenger contract ticket,” then the words that shouldn’t have been possible:
SHIP Titanic of 45,000 tons Register, to sail from Cherbourg for New York on the 10th day of April, 1912.
“A ha!” I whispered triumphantly. “I knew it was the Titanic!”
That voice was back, though, nagging at me that this wasn’t a dream. If it was, it said, I wouldn’t be aware that I was dreaming.
“Sure I could,” I said out loud, not at all concerned that talking to myself was another sign of an impending psychotic break. “It’s called lucid dreaming. This is my recurring dream, only from the beginning.”
But the recurring dream never had sound, the voice countered. Or smells, for that matter.
True, but if it wasn’t a dream, then that meant it was real, and I couldn’t believe that. “I’m not really on the Titanic,” I argued with myself, and could hear the panic rising in my voice. Correction: Noelle’s voice. “This isn’t possible.”
I read the ticket again, looking for some sign that it was all a joke. It looked authentic enough, from the formal language to the coarse light brown paper. Even if It was fake, it was a pretty elaborate prank. I knew no one who would go to such trouble, so the most logical conclusion was that this was real.
“I think I’m going to pass out again,” I muttered as the card and ticket slid out of my fingers. I tried to lean over and put my head between my knees, but the constricting corset and narrow skirt made it impossible. Instead, I could only manage to hunch forward a bit and stare down at my lap. I propped my elbows on my thighs and rested my forehead in my hands, then closed my eyes with a soft sob.
“I’m not really here. It’s a dream, a nightmare. I’m going to close my eyes, and when I open them again, I’ll be back on the plane.” My heart was hammering, the blood roaring in my ears. I missed James suddenly, missed his thick Irish brogue and his loud snoring. James was normal, he was real. More importantly, he was in the 21st century.