Loretta retraced her steps of the night. She had supped alone – after Miss Reynolds had deftly turned away dreadful Mrs. Johnson, who seemed to call not to check on Loretta’s welfare but discover if she was ready to admit her husband was dead and have her meet her youngest son, Carroll, and Loretta would reward Miss Reynolds in her weekly pay – and then she had sent Miss Reynolds home for the night. She had tried to sleep, spent some hours tossing and turning, and then had given up entirely. If sleep were to abandon her again, she would rather spend her night staring at the ocean than staring at the top of her bed frame. There, in the dark of the night, where the world around her consisted only of charcoal smudges, and she could hear the whispers of ocean even so far away, and above her the same moon and stars that her poor Roger might be looking at, it was somehow easier to be at peace, even if the people in town didn’t believe her, even if they whispered when they thought she couldn’t hear.
And then this strange person was quite suddenly behind her and speaking insanities, all the while dressed…well, even the destitute she had met in Boston dressed with more decorum than this person did.
“I will warn you, I do not make it a habit to give handouts. Especially to those who sneak into my home and nearly kill me.”
“Uh huh,” she grunted. Perhaps she was clearing her throat. “What year do you think it is?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Year. What year is it?”
Loretta shook her head. This person was in need of far more help than she initially thought.
“If you will remember, it’s 1868. August.”
She nodded as she pursed her lips. “Okay, so you’ve got the ‘August’ part right. But what if I told you you were off by about a hundred and fifty years?”
Loretta smiled patiently. “I would say that is quite the lovely, if certainly confusing, fantasy you have, and-”
She was distracted by a sound, coming far too close. A sort of…well, she was finding she didn’t quite have the words to describe it. A sort of whispered humming, coming closer and closer. Loretta stood and went to the balcony, wondering what new madness this was. Since being nearly scared to death by the stranger on her balcony, she had not looked back out to the rest of the world. The ocean and the stars and the hangnail moon were all the same. But when she looked to the half mile between her home and the beach, the half mile that should have been only trees and a single horse-path, her heart skipped exactly three beats.
The soft darkness was gone. Most of the trees were gone. The entire hill down to the beach had been populated with small homes and evenly paved roads in a matter of minutes. More than that, some of the roads were lined with lights, lights that burned more evenly than any lantern she had ever seen. There were buildings next to the beach, lit with the same even lights, that were far bigger than her house, and her house had been the biggest for miles not a quarter of an hour ago. Below, there was now a road directly in front of the house. And a house immediately to the left, and to the right, and on the other side of the road. They looked odd. And the sound she had been hearing was…well, she didn’t know what it was. A sort of, well, Loretta supposed it could be a carriage. But there were no horses, and on the front were even more of those peculiar lights. And the carriage thing was going far, far too fast.
The strange woman had gotten up and was standing next to her, a fact she only discovered when the woman made a derisive sound.
“That’s Danny, Jeanie and Davis’ idiot son. They buy him these expensive cars and then he drives like a bat out of hell. He’s wrecked three of them already, but they just keep buying him more. Shitheads raising shitheads.”
Loretta released the clutched grip she had on the railing and clasped her hands together, turning to look at the woman. Her head was swimming and, rather alarmingly, there were now two of the other woman.
“Okay, come on, let’s sit back down,” the woman said, taking her by the elbows and leading her back to the strangely shaped chair. “I know that look, I don’t need anyone passing out tonight.”
Loretta took slow breaths as she tried to keep the world before her. The woman began fanning her face with something, and the little puffs of cool air did help. Then the woman had thrust something into her hands, and Loretta drank deeply before realizing something and grimacing.
“Is this wine?”
“Yeah. Chardonnay. I think.”
“It’s awful,” Loretta said, and finished the glass.
“You get used to it. So, yeah, hi. My name’s Ramona Smi…Ramona Lark. I bought this house six months ago, and I live in it with my kids. They’re asleep downstairs. It’s not 1868, and it hasn’t been for a long time. I don’t know, there’s kind of a lot to fill you in on.”
“And what, I might ask, would be the point?” Loretta asked. “It’s like you said, isn’t it? I’m dead.”
“Right, I did say that. But now I’m not so sure. Because ghosts don’t faint. And ghosts don’t drink wine. Do you…do you remember dying?”
Loretta sniffed. “I remember no such thing. I was standing there, looking up at the moon. And then you were behind me.”
Ramona nodded, like somehow the situation was beginning to be clear, even though Loretta only felt like things were getting far more muddled.
“So, remember when I said the realtor told me your story? They eventually found your husband’s ship, but they never found you. You just, I don’t know, up and vanished. And I think this is where you vanished to.”
Loretta carefully set down the glass on the little table and sat as straight-backed as she could.
“If I am understanding you correctly, you no longer believe I have died and am a spirit, but now believe that I have somehow travelled through time, and, according to the histories, have no way of returning.”
Ramona nodded her head back and forth. “Yeah, that sums it up.”
She had her mouth open to say something, but she didn’t know what. Instead, she fainted.