A Time to Reap

(Content Note for emotional abuse and mentions of sexual abuse.)

For Shirley Jackson and Charles Dickens

“This is a true-crime tale?”

Two reporters sharing the shuttle with us, and of course I got the one who hadn’t done her homework. I suppose I should have been flattered that they were there—a Broadway musical spun off the previous year’s multi-player total-immersion virtual reality hit was news, and I’d never acted in anything this big before—but the one who’d attached herself to me was a career fluff-story type who squealed at a higher pitch than my cat.

I couldn’t remember her name. I was confident it wasn’t actually Bambi, but I thought it probably should have been.

You know, Bambi was a buck deer. Nobody’s ever managed to explain to my satisfaction how it wound up being a stereotypical name for women who over-conform to ideals of fluttery femininity.

And before you take that the wrong way, be advised: my first name is Bambi.

My stage name is Kitty Whelan. My mom is still pissed off that I tried to get her to agree with “Kat” rather than “Kitty.” She thinks it’s too old for somebody who’s playing pre-teen roles, and I’m sixteen though I look twelve. The last thing I want is to have and lose that fight again, but frankly, there’s only so long you can stay a Kitty and be taken seriously, and I have a lot more marketing savvy than my mom. She’s just as ambitious as I am. But I’ve got first-gen cognitive and endocrine, and she’s a baseline.

Right where I’ll be when the second-gens are my age, ten years from now. So I have to use my advantages while I have them.

I already knew what the reporter’s angle was—I was young and pretty and this was my first big break. Overnight success at sixteen. Just barely off-Broadway for the musical stage play version of Time to Reap, riding the wave of 70’s nostalgia sweeping the entertainment world.

Sissy, my character, is sort of the protagonist of Time to Reap. At least, she’s one of the playable viewpoint characters in the game. And in the play, well. How people react to her has a lot to do with the ending, and whether the ending works.

But that was way too technical for this reporter. She wouldn’t want craft discussion, or anything with meat in it. And they never want to hear how the pointe shoes make your toenails bleed, or how you started going to classes and auditions when other kids were in preschool or how damned hungry you are all the time no matter how your mom gets your microbiome tuned.

I debated using sentences too long for her to follow, but she was from a daily with a pretty good readership, and it wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t smart enough not to be boring.

What had she asked me? Oh, right. This is a true-crime tale?

It wouldn’t kill me to be kind. And it would be good practice for the rest of my career. If I had one.

Ugh, Kitty.

I said, “Sort of. It’s a special kind of true crime story, or murder mystery. A series of murders at the Abbott family reunion. The case it’s based on is unsolved to this day.” The shuttle rattled. I glanced out the window. I wanted to watch what late October was doing to the New England hills, not answer inane questions. I sounded like the press release. I wondered if she’d notice.

“So you have to learn… sixteen different endings? For all the main cast?”

“Only eight.” I gritted my teeth into a smile. She could have gotten that from the press release. If she’d bothered to read the press release.

Well, that meant I could just go on quoting the press release. “Quite a few of us aren’t suspects because we don’t survive.”

“That must be… quite a challenge.”

I looked out the window again. I framed myself against it and tried to appear dreamy and artistic, so she’d think I was soaking in the mise-en-scène and getting into character, not ignoring her. What would this hilly patchwork countryside have looked like in 1978? How different would it have been from how it was now?

No solar panels, windmills, or cell towers. Probably nearly as many Dunkin Donuts and Friendly restaurants, which wouldn’t yet have grown the apostrophe-S. Some of these houses dated from the 18th century. They’d been here. And the pumpkin fields, the corn mazes, all the white clapboard churches with their square steeples reaching high (open the doors and see all the people) above all the bucolic town commons. Those would not have changed. The trees would have been barer in 1978; fall came later now. And the trees would have been redder and more orange, because the sugar maples would not be dying out.

It was all so picturesque as to be a little nauseating. Except there was nothing calculated about it; there were enough crumbling dollar stores and burnt out shells of farmhouses with the bittersweet growing over them to keep it real. Or at least, to keep it this side of a Thomas Kinkade painting.

There were probably fewer Asian fusion restaurants in the 70s, though, which was a pity.

Watching the scenery calmed the anxiety bears that had started wrestling inside my ribcage. When they got going, I was always surprised that nobody else seemed able to see them in there. They felt so huge I thought they must be rippling my skin, like one of those chestburster things.

We were so far out in the country that I wondered if the bus would be able to find a charging station. Well, I guess that’s what the solar panels were for.

I was excited about this trip. I would have loved to have talked to the reporter about Sissy Marland and the Abbott murders, if the reporter had done, oh, a tenth of the research I had. I knew everything about Sissy. Everything the court records knew, anyway, or the newspapers. I was the one who had to get inside her head. I was the one who had to be her.

One of the key points of the murder mystery, for example, was that after Sissy’s death her mom, Gloria Marland, nee Abbott, claimed that the child’s diary was missing. The diary that she wrote in every day, and carried in her backpack to school, and never let out of her sight, basically. So had she had it with her when she was killed? Had the killer taken it?

Had it contained a clue to what the killer’s identity might be?

I had my own backpack with me. Mine had solar fabric to keep my chiller bottle cool and my phone charged, though. It had three colored pens and a paper printout of my script. It had some snacks.

And no diary. I would never have been able to keep my mother out of a diary.

I would have loved to have talked to a reporter about the possible real identity of the killer. The fact that if they were young enough at the time, they might still be walking around free, fifty years later.

I knew Sissy well enough now that I could not help but take her death personally. She’d become a real person to me. A kind of invisible friend. We crossed a steel arch bridge whose dedication plates proclaimed it a proud product of the WPA. A little later, we turned off the state route and onto a winding rural road. The landscape was flattening out, the oak trees stunting as we approached the coast.

Across the aisle, Nancy—she plays Margaret the weird aunt (okay, one of the weird aunts) in Time to Reap—caught my eye sympathetically. She looks out for me backstage, and is the good kind of theatre people—warm and funny and a little crude.

“So this all happened at a family reunion?” my seatmate said.

“A real-life country house mystery.”

She shook her head. Her glossy curls bounced, camera-ready. “This seems like the kind of place where the only reason to lock your door is to keep neighbors from dropping zucchini off.”

It was actually funny. And halfway clever. Maybe I’d misjudged her. Maybe she was just nervous.

“Locking the doors wouldn’t have helped them in this case,” I said. “Whoever was killing them came to the family reunion.”

It shut her up for 16 miles. I know, because I counted on the road signs. Road signs, because I thought she’d probably find something to ask if I checked my phone in front of her.

She started up again just as the house hove into view on the left, but I was too interested in the scene of the crime to listen. I recognized it immediately—I’d studied photos and films and done a total sensory walkthrough. So I was staring at it before the shuttle slowed and turned into the driveway.

It was a two-story Colonial in the bighouse-backhouse arrangement typical of the Northeast. The cedar siding had weathered shaggy driftwood pewter, but the trim was a clear bright turquoise setting off a cheery cherry-red door: incongruous given the bloody history. Nine big windows formed of multiple tiny panes made two tiers across the front, the largest one centered over that door. Beach roses surrounded it in a tumult of pink and green.

The current owners were keeping the place up pretty well. I’d say it was nice of them to let us come check it out and get a feel for where the Mashpee Murders really happened, but I’d guess they were probably being paid pretty well for it.

Around us, the rest of the passengers were falling silent, craning their necks as they realized we’d arrived. In the sudden quiet, I caught enough of my seatmate’s question to pretend I had been paying her any attention at all. “…then how does the script explain your character as the murderer? Sissy was only twelve, right? How could she have killed half her family, and why would a little girl do a thing like that?”

I looked over at her. “Oh,” I told her, “there’s no ending for Sissy as the murderer.”

“Whew. That’s a relief,” she said, smiling. Trying to bond, because somebody had told her that was what good interviewers did.

I shook my head as the bus slid gracefully to a halt in the driveway. “Sissy was a victim.”

I ditched.

If Mom found out, she’d skin me—and worse, she’d give me a three-hour lecture on how irresponsible I was, and how could I claim to have my own career interests at heart when I couldn’t even be trusted not to wander off in the middle of a work event.

But sometimes, escaping the crowd is the only way to find your own path. Right? Right. And I couldn’t stand another half-second of interview, and all twenty-three of us packed into the sterile, scrubbed white kitchen was making me claustrophobic.

We were here for hours; I’d have plenty of time to explore the house before we left, and I wouldn’t have a stampede of fellow cast members to thread through while doing it. They were all bigger than me, and I couldn’t see over any of them. Being pressed in that crowd was making me anxious.

More anxious.

Besides, there was a barn, and I could practically hear it calling me. Sissy had loved horses. She’d spent a lot of time in that barn, and I thought…

Honestly, I thought there might be some kind of clue out there. People are famous for not clearing out barns. For generations, sometimes.

Who knew what I might find?

It was a small barn, as barns go, in really good shape—not like the tumbledown ones you see collapsing in thickets of saplings behind old houses all over old farm country everywhere in America. I came from Wisconsin originally, and the barns are different out there, with a roof that curves to a point like cathedral windows. New England barns are just shaped like a square with a triangle on top, like a kid’s drawing. But everywhere you go, whatever kind of barn you meet… seventy percent of the time they’re falling over.

This one was the same cedar shingle as the house, and the big doors were painted the same cherry red as the house door. Not a barn red, but a brighter color, like pie filling or hard candy. There was a little door set into the big door, person-sized, so you could go in and out without opening the whole thing up, unless you were moving around animals or equipment.

The hasp had a big padlock on it, but when I was thirteen I did six months as a magician’s assistant, and she taught me how to pick locks and tie knots, among other useful skills. (I can also fold myself into a pretzel inside one of those slice-the-lady-in-three boxes. She told me I was a prodigy, which isn’t—I bet you’re surprised—the first time I ever heard that.)

So I did a bit of magic on the lock and pulled it open—that was harder than cracking it, because it was huge and I’m little—and left it hanging in the hasp as I pulled the door ajar and slipped inside. I closed it, of course; getting locked in would be embarrassing if somebody came along and wondered why it was hanging open.

And I didn’t close the door completely, just in case. Still, the cool shadow of it fell between me and the warm October day like a curtain, and I shivered. My eyes adjusted quickly, and I saw… well, exactly the sorts of things you’d expect, in a barn that hadn’t been used much since 1978.

There had been horses here when the murders took place, and several large stalls still lined a corridor on the far end of the large open space I had entered. Gaps under the eaves let in light and birds, but the roof seemed intact, and the structure looked sound.

I picked my way over the piles of stuff on the concrete floor: moldering rags, dust, and blown-in leaves. There were boxes stacked against the far wall, some cardboard and some slat-sided apple crates. Those looked interesting. And the concrete between here and there had a funny mirage shimmer…

I had just taken a step or two toward those crates when the floor came up and hit me in the knees and palms. The barn reeled; the pack that had my script and my phone and some protein bars and water in it banged hard against my kidneys. I’d meant to study the script on the bus. Such innocence.

I didn’t know how long I hunched there on hands and knees, head reeling, my skinned palms stinging stickily. When I raised my eyes the light was different, angled more strongly through the wide-open door. I couldn’t have stayed there all afternoon and evening and night; somebody would have come looking for me. So it couldn’t be early morning, as the rays of sun suggested. Had I gotten turned around when I fell?

Had I hit my head? It didn’t hurt; but I felt so disoriented… and the floor around me was clean. Swept, and marked with fresh grease stains.

Slowly, I settled back on my toes. The knees of my jeans were scuffed, and the knees on my legs felt abraded against the inside of the denim when it pulled tight. The heels of my hands bled lightly. The light was in my eyes. I shaded them with a skinned hand.

There was someone else in the barn. Squinting through the angled light, I could see the back of a gray-haired woman. She was wearing big headphones, gray plastic, very old-fashioned, and a flannel shirt open over a T-shirt, not too different from my own. She was singing along in an off-key falsetto with whatever she as listening to: “Soon found out I was losing my mind…”

Appropriate, I thought dizzily, as the horses that hadn’t existed for nearly fifty years began to whinny.

I staggered upright. The woman turned around when I stumbled again. She lunged forward and in my dizzy disorientation I had a weird sense of time dilation, as if I were watching her cross the barn in slow-motion. I think she might even have caught me, if the cord on her seriously retro headphones hadn’t snapped taut before she got that far.

They yanked off, and I didn’t see what happened after, because I was renewing my acquaintanceship with the floor. But there was a loud crash and the sound of something breaking, and “My goodness gracious!” the woman said.

A warm hand rested lightly on my back. “Honey, are you all right?” she said.

Her voice creaked like a rocking chair, that same old-time coastal Yankee accent as Katharine Hepburn had. It was a wonderful voice, expressive and full of range, and I wanted to study it. That was how Sissy would have talked, quite possibly, unless the television had taken her edges off. I wondered if this woman was one of the new owners, and how far back her family went.

“I’m fine,” I said, because nothing seemed to be broken and I’d fallen down a fair amount in my life. “I was just dizzy. I skinned my hands.”

“I’m Margaret Abbott,” she said kindly, dusting me off gently as she helped me to my feet. She moved really well for a woman in her early sixties, and had that simultaneously muscular and well-upholstered look that you think of as typical for casting farm wives. “You must be one of the Haven girls. Which one? Did the bus go by so soon?”

I blinked at her.

She smiled at me.

I blinked at her some more.

Margaret Abbott was the first person murdered on this farm, on a September afternoon in 1978.

She doesn’t look a thing like Nancy Glass, I remember thinking. The Haven girls… I tried to remember. Three sisters, cousins of the Abbott clan, who were supposed to be coming in from out of town on Greyhound and for one reason and another wound up staying home.

For the life of me, I could not remember their first names.

I looked around, noticing again the resemblance to a stage set for 1978. The headphones. What Margaret was wearing.

The square gray metal box she’d picked up and was clucking over, which—I could see inside, as the lid was off—was full of transistors.

I peeked at my phone while her back was turned. Of course, not a drop of signal. Was wireless even invented in 1978? Cell service? People had car phones, sometimes, didn’t they?

Was there even an Internet? I knew people called each other on huge landline handsets a lot, because a big green one hung on the “kitchen” wall was a central prop of the play.

And I looked down at myself.

I was wearing green Chucks with an iridescent holosheen, jeans, the T-shirt and the flannel. The T-shirt had a Chinese cartoon duck on it—unless she was a platypus, the fandom was divided. Her name was Happy Beini and she was sitting on some ideograms that meant “I don’t care, I’m eating it anyway.” The flannel was tech fabric and not cotton, but except for the shoes and that, I figured I passed wardrobe. My pack would never have gotten past the prop mistress, but who looks really closely at backpacks?

I was in 1978.

How the hell was I in 1978?

I looked at Margaret Abbott again, fussing over her hardware as she plugged it back in. All the blinking lights on whatever she was building. At the two metal poles like tuning forks on either wall of the barn.

Margaret Abbott, the weird aunt. Always messing around in the barn.

I didn’t want to be in 1978. 1978 was fifty years away. There were wars, terrorism, three big civil rights movements, a couple of terrible disease outbreaks, more natural disasters than you could count conveniently, and a Great Recession between now and then.

Between now and when I was supposed to be, I mean.

“Pardon me, Aunt Margaret,” I said.

She turned around and gave me her polite attention. She reminded me of a squirrel, bright-eyed and fluffy and grey with alert little hands. “But I’m not one of the Haven girls. I’m Ki—I’m Kat Whelan. And… excuse me. But what you’re building there. Is it by any chance a time machine?”

That bright, polite attention turned right into focused intensity. She set her box down and walked toward me. “Not exactly.”

Mutely, I held out my phone.

She took it, weighed it in her hand. “A mirror?” she said.

“Touch the glass.”

She did, and it lit up. “What on earth?”

“It’s a phone,” I said. I tried to think of other things a phone was good for that wouldn’t be too hard to explain. “A wireless phone. It’s also a little computer. You can use it to… to download maps. Or take pictures. Or play games. But it doesn’t work now.”

“No network,” she said, tilting it. “Wow, the infrastructure… The resolution on this monitor is incredible. Not cathode. Not LCD… is this a lock screen?”

I unlocked it and opened the camera. Took a selfie with her. Showed her the result.

“Okay,” she said. “You’re from the future.” She handed me back my phone.

“So if it’s not a time machine, what is it?” I waved at her electronics pile. The hum it had had was gone, and I had that weird experience of realizing there had been an ambient sound in the air only when the sound stopped.

She said, “It’s intended to—have you heard of exotic space-time curvatures?”

I looked at her blankly.

She sighed. “Tesseracts?”

“Oh!” I said. “A Wrinkle in Time. 2018, Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey!”

“You’re from 2018?” she asked, squinting over the top of her glasses.

“There’s a Margaret in that,” I said.

“I don’t go by Meg,” she said.

I laughed. It was awkward, standing across from somebody making small talk when you were from the future and knew how they were going to die. “And no, not 2018.”

“Well,” Margaret Abbott said. “I guess it’s a relief to know the world lasts that long.”

Right, I thought. The Cold War.

And then I started to worry, because I’ve got enough story sense to know that if this were a script, that would be a setup for a paradox in which I wound up causing a nuclear war.

I decided not to tell her everything about the future. It was kinder if she didn’t know.

Especially since she wasn’t going to be around to worry about it, unless I’d already ruined the past.

She set the box down. “Would you mind having a look around for an integrated circuit board? About the size of my palm. Green with soldered bits. Seems to have popped out when I dropped this thing.”

She patted her metal case. “We can talk while we look. But if the tesseract worked, and you… how did you wind up falling through it?”

“I was in this barn,” I said, hunkering down to peer under the old metal teacher’s desk that was part of the support structure for the machine. The movement reminded me that my knees were skinned. “I will be in this barn?”

And because I realized there was no point in playing it cagy, except maybe about the murders, I added, “In October, 2028.”

“Goodness gracious,” she said again. “Oh, here’s the board.” She stood up and tucked it the bib pocket of the overalls she was wearing under the flannel. “Well, I guess what I need to do right away is get you home. Except… bother. These batteries are out of charge.”

She said, “Are those future shoes?”

I nodded.

She said, “Remind me to invest in Converse. Tell people you got them in New York.”

“Tell people?” I said.

“Well, the batteries won’t have full charge until the morning,” she said, dusting her hands off. “Can’t do much until then. And I can’t exactly make you sleep in the barn with no supper. So come on inside, I suppose. And we’ll see to it you get some hot food in you and have a place to sleep.”

“But I’ll change the past!” I said.

She looked at me. “Sweetheart. You already did. Let’s just make sure we don’t change it any more than we have to.”

That did not help my burgeoning anxiety at all. I had my pills in my pack, but I was terrified to use one, because what if I got trapped here and couldn’t get more? It would be decades before modern anxiolytics were invented. How had people in the 70s even survived?

“How old are you?” she asked me, and raised an eyebrow when I said sixteen. “Tell people you’re thirteen.”

“But I—”

“Tell them you’re my brother Bill’s grandkid. In from Ohio. He had twelve kids with two wives and nobody remembers them all because he’s a terrible correspondent. Go ahead and use your own name, it won’t make any difference.”

“But how did I get here? If the rest of the family didn’t come?”

“Greyhound.” She said it as if it were obvious.

“A thirteen-year-old?

“People don’t put their kids on buses when you come from? No, I can see they don’t.” She clucked her tongue over my pack. “Anything in there you need right away?”

I caressed it possessively. Only everything. The anxiety pills. My script.

The script that would tell me what was going to happen before it did, so I could be ready.

I had it memorized. But still. It seemed like a security blanket, and my link to the future. “No, Aunt Margaret.”

She cocked her head at me, like a curious hen.

“It’s just a pack.”

“It looks odd,” she said.

“I’ll say I got it in Chicago,” I said brightly. “That’s also what I’ll say about the shoes, because that’s more likely than New York, isn’t it?”

She looked at me, at the pack. “Are those solar cells?”

“For charging my phone,” I said. I showed her how it zipped into the small pocket, and where the contacts were.

Finally, she dug in her pocket, came up with a jangle of keys. She pried one off the ring, threaded it on a bit of ribbon, and showed me the storage locker it unlocked, one of a set against the wall. She moved a pile of copper wire out of the locker, and put the pack inside.

She locked the locker. She gave me the key. “Hang that around your neck,” she said. “And don’t lose it. I don’t have another one.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Okay. Let’s go get you fed.”

I fingered the key. “One thing,” I said.

She looked at me.

“First, can I pet the horses?”

There were four. Two bay Morgans, an Appaloosa, and a red sorrel quarterhorse cross built like a mounting block. The Appaloosa was a strawberry roan, silver above and red below, and decked out with elongated silver-dollar-sized spots as if somebody had thrown a bucket of red paint over her from behind and to the left. She had an ugly Roman nose, even by Appaloosa standards, and I fell instantly in love.

Margaret watched me lean into the stall to hug the spotted mare’s face and made an indulgent moue. “Well, I guess you two like each other fine.”

I made an incoherent noise into the mare’s forelock.

“I take it you ride in the future?”

“Not nearly as much as I would like to.” I stepped away from the mare’s stall reluctantly and closed the half-door with hands that were sticky with horse. “What’s her—oh, I see.”

The brass plaque beside her stall said Diamond. The two bay geldings, now that I knew where to look, were Buster and Show Biz, and I was predisposed to approve of the latter. The sorrel’s name was Kirk.

Perfectly nice horses, I’m sure. But none of them were a patch on the mare.

“Well, maybe we can get you in the saddle,” Margaret said. “Sissy would probably love to take you and a couple of the cousins out for a ride.”

“Sissy,” I said.

My face felt numb, as if all the nerves had been severed.

Why hadn’t it occurred to me that Sissy was here? That I would have the chance to meet her? To get to know her? To study her voice, her mannerisms, and—when I got home—perform the definitive Priscilla Marland. Whether anybody but me knew it, or not.

I was a goddamned vulture, is what I was.

All artists are.

But Sissy. Sissy was here. Sissy was alive.

For now.

“Sissy,” Margaret said. “Priscilla. I admit, it’s a silly nickname, but her full name is a mouthful.”

“You don’t say.” I cast about myself for all the dropped shards of my self-possession and started acting for all I was worth. I desperately needed a stall, and not the kind the horses were in. I needed a few minutes in order to brace myself for meeting Sissy. To marshal my resources and put on my poker face.

I hit on an excuse that was as clever as it was practical, if I do say so myself. And one that made me feel a little less adrift, a little more prepared. I wanted to go home right now.

…I wanted to meet Sissy.

I said, “Show me how the time machine works. Just in case. So I can get home.”

Yes, I was the kind of coward who didn’t tell a woman she was going to be murdered.

Margaret looked at me dubiously. “I haven’t changed the settings. And it’s still not a time machine.”

“It traveled me in time,” I argued. My palms sweated. The bears did another waltz.

I took a breath and begged, “It’s my only way home.”

She made a face. “All right. Where are you—”

“One sec.” I came back from the locker with my phone in one hand, the key still settling beneath my shirt collar. “Let me photograph what you’re doing, and what the settings are.”

“It’s easy,” she said. “The dial works like this. Then you just flip this switch.” She breathed out. “Well, I guess I curved time rather than space. But that’s proof of concept anyway.”

“Very much so,” I agreed.

She also showed me the course of actions to take once the batteries were charged and she’d made her repairs. I photographed them all and also tried to memorize them, just in case. Then I powered my phone down and locked it away again, touching the script for luck when I opened my backpack.

Then I straightened my shoulders and took a deep breath. I turned to face Margaret. Time to meet my fake family now.

“All right, Aunt Margaret,” I said. “Let’s go see what’s for dinner.”

The kitchen was large, at the back of the house, and had windows on two sides. It was mostly white with blue-painted walls and cabinets and a large, simmering, harvest-gold stove. The wall phone was there, and just as huge and clunky as it seemed on-set, but I was relieved to notice that it, too, was not avocado but harvest gold. I don’t know why that comforted me, but it did. It had a long, spiral-coiled cord that hung in fascinating ringlet tangles underneath it. It looked like it would stretch all the way across the kitchen.

There were four women, two of them in different stages of pregnancy, and an indeterminate number of teens and children in the room. A preschooler sat under the table with two big gray dogs, one shaggy and one sleek, defending the spoon she was licking from them. A brown-haired boy in a brown, olive, and yellow striped shirt that made him look even taller and more narrow than he was carried a pan heaped with pink-sticky objects (a wide-mouthed funnel, a saucepot, a ladle, some other things) toward the big stainless steel sink.

Everything smelled like sugar, and on the stove, a big white-freckled black enamel pot was simmering.

“My goodness,” Margaret said. “Did you get all that jelly into jars already, Gloria?”

A woman whose graying mouse-colored hair was twisted up in a bun stepped to one side and gestured to the table. Rows and rows of purple-pink jelly glistened like jewels inside one-cup canning jars, and as the room quieted a little I could hear the pings and pops of the jar lids sealing. “Last batch is in the canner now. Is this a new arrival?”

She meant me.

“This is my brother Bill’s grandkid from Ohio, Kat Whelan,” Margaret said. If she was my real relative I’d think she was where I got the acting ability. I couldn’t even tell she was lying, and I knew it for a fact. “Kat, this is Gloria Marland, my niece.”

Under the table, the four-year-old made a noise of protest and shoved a dog head away from her spoon again.

Gloria Abbott—who might be about to murder half her family—looked at me and clucked. “All that way on the bus!”

“Oh, don’t fuss so, Gloria,” Margaret said. “She made it here fine.”

“Well.” Gloria looked me up and down. “A slip of a thing. Those are fancy shoes!”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said.

“Here.” She held out a silver teaspoon with a little puddle of pink in it. “Try the jelly. It’s quinces and rosehips. There’s not much else you can do with those.”

I shouldn’t, but I took it. Put it in my mouth. A huge shock of sugary tartness, a burst of flavor that was at once floral and fruity. I’d never had anything like it before in my life, and the sugar… my god, the sugar hit me like a train.

Gloria laughed in delight. “Oh, look at her eyes get huge. I’ll give you a jar or two to take home to your mama. How old are you, sweetie?”

She patted my hair as she took the spoon away, and I didn’t even flinch. “Thirteen,” I said.

She crowed. “You’re nearly the same age as Sissy! Sissy, come over here. Meet your cousin Kat from Ohio.”

“Kat likes horses,” Margaret was volunteering. “She knows how to ride—”

I didn’t really hear her. I just had eyes for Sissy.

I was well-cast. I could see that in an instant. We had the same dark hair, slim frame, big eyes. She was taller than me, but the Abbotts seemed to run large, based on the ones I had met so far. I could see how I could pass for a relative, though. Especially going on face shape and eyes.

“Hi,” I said shyly.

She grinned. “Hi! You like horses?”

“I love horses,” I said.

“Have a piece of cake, Kat?” said the less pregnant woman. I wondered if she was Lizzie, who was Sissy’s mother.

It was chocolate cake, three-layered, dark as velvet, two-thirds eaten. The buttercream frosting was softening in the heat of the simmering canning kettle. I sighed and pressed a hand to my belly. Just looking at the amazing thing made my mouth fill with water and my stomach fill with anxiety.

There were three more unfrosted layers cooling on a rack beside it. The skinny teenaged boy, lanky and brown-haired, was eating a piece of the finished one with his fingers, holding it over a paper plate in a hand dabbed with calamine lotion.

That, I was pretty sure, must be Tom Marland, Lizzie’s eldest son. Sissy’s only brother. One of the survivors, along with his pregnant mom. That made the little one under the table Maisie.

I pressed a fist against my abdomen, feeling the muscles clench. How many hours at the barre was one slice of cake? Even a slice of cake fifty years in the past. If I was operating on the belief I was going home tomorrow, and if I wanted to keep my job, I needed to be able to look twelve.

Choices had consequences, as my mother likes to remind me at every opportunity. I wondered if I would ever see her again.

“I can’t,” I said. “Still a little carsick from the bus. And I don’t care for chocolate.”

“Oh, poor dear,” Gloria said. “Would you like some tea instead? Do your parents let you drink tea yet?”

“Yes,” I said. “Tea would be lovely.”

Too late, I remembered what the tea had been responsible for. Oh, well. That wasn’t until tomorrow.

The tea was Lipton, served with milk and sugar in it. I drank it and didn’t complain. I was guessing that green tea hadn’t been discovered yet either, though I did see a couple of boxes of Bigelow on the pantry shelf. Maybe I could ask for Plantation Mint the next time. No milk. No sugar.

Sugar. I was so unaccustomed to the stuff that I was buzzing from one spoon full of jelly. This is where, as the great Sir Patrick Stewart once said, I relied on my best skill: acting.

My mom raised me to the theatre, obviously, and I’ve had acting lessons all my life. But I’ve never quite known how I do it. I just act.

I’ve always been good at it. If you catch my mom in one of her bitter moods, she’ll say it’s because I don’t have an honest emotion in me. But I think usually she knows it’s not true. It’s just hard to watch somebody succeed in something you failed at, even if you raised such a person precisely in order to do that thing.

“You’re from Ohio?” the four-year-old asked. “Is that why you talk so funny?”

“Maisie!” The less pregnant woman said, scandalized.

I laughed. Well, it was an opportunity to practice my accents. Everybody did sound a little odd, come to think of it. Accents have a time-based component too, though that is easy to forget.

Sissy took a swipe at the cake frosting. Without so much as turning around, the more heavily pregnant woman, who was nearest the under-construction cake, lashed out with her wooden spoon and rapped Sissy solidly across the knuckles.

“Mom!” Sissy complained, nursing her injured hand.

It had sounded like it smarted. And Sissy’s protest meant that the woman in question was Lizzie Marland, and not the other one. Which I would have guessed from her being pregnant, if there had not been two to choose from.

I couldn’t remember who else was supposed to be pregnant. Maybe that hadn’t made it into the play.

The kid under the table looked up with enormous, kewpie doll eyes and said. “Where did you come from?”

“Ohio,” I said, wishing I knew something about Ohio. “Who are you?”

“Maisie.” I mean, I knew that already, but it’s polite to ask.

She went to flop back on the Weimaraner. He’d gotten up, though, and was inching his way toward the stove, where a couple of unidentifiable but savory-smelling pots bubbled. Beef stew? Were these women actually cooking for the entire reunion?

Lizzie bent down with a groan and opened the oven, pulling out two fresh loaves of bread. She reached up to bent-over head height set the pans on the counter. It took a moment for her to struggle back up, hand pressed to the small of her back.

Maisie, sprawled on the floor, kicked the toe of my sneaker with her bare little foot and said, “Don’t turn around. He’s standing right behind you.”

I… had no idea what to say to that.

“Oh, Maisie,” the less pregnant woman said. She nodded to me. “I’m your cousin Karen, by the way.”

The shaggy dog seemed to sense that the Weimaraner might be about to get something good, and heaved itself to its feet. It stepped clumsily across Maisie, paying about as much attention to its feet as dogs usually do. Maisie howled.

I put my hands over my ears.

Gloria, more practical or more hardened, reached down, scooped the kid up, and started bouncing her on her hip. It didn’t stop Maisie howling, but it did introduce a hiccupping structure to the scream that was at least more interesting than the straight shriek.

“Gannsett! Dutch! Sit!” said the teenaged boy.

The dogs ignored him. So did everybody else. Gannsett, apparently the Weimaraner, flopped down beside the table with a put-upon sigh. Dutch, the shaggy one, went and put his wet black nose between Maisie and Gloria, as if he was worried that Gloria was the cause of the wailing.

“Sissy,” Gloria said. “Why don’t you bring Kat up to your room and get her settled in? She can sleep in your trundle. Then take her out for a ride.”

“Yay!” Sissy burst out, spinning lightly around the center of the room and stepping on the Weimaraner dog’s tail. It grumbled and flicked the tail closer to its body, but didn’t get up.

“Used to kids,” I said of the dog.

Gloria grinned at me. Sissy was already dancing toward the door that must lead to the hall, and the stairs.

She seemed… very young to me. But I guess maybe kids got to be kids longer before we were connected all the time.

“Can I go ride too?” the tall brown-haired boy asked.

“Sure, Tom. You’re off-duty. Put on a shirt that isn’t sticky.”

He grinned at Sissy and me. “Nice to meet you, Kat.”

Sissy was already halfway up the stairs. “Meet you in the barn!”

“And take those damned dogs with you!” Gloria yelled after, as Dutch went between her legs while trying to herd both her and the toddler away from the stove.

Lizzie wound up coming upstairs with us, though Sissy offered to get whatever she wanted. But Lizzie was particular about whatever it was. She was also too proud to groan as she stumped up the stairs of the big white farmhouse, hauling herself along the banister, so the stairs groaned for her.

Sissy and I followed a few steps behind. I was a little worried Lizzie might fall. Not that a couple of slips of girls like us would have been able to do much to prevent her if she did.

She clutched the banister and hauled herself up, and I reminded myself that if she fell down the stairs and killed herself or the baby, it would have been in the play. She let herself into the front bedroom on the second floor. Past her, I caught a glimpse of a sunny room with mint-colored walls and a chenille bedspread in stark white.

The door closed behind her. We had another flight to climb: Sissy’s room was in the attic. I knew that Maisie’s weird pronouncements were developmentally normal, but the character I was playing wouldn’t, so I turned to Sissy and said, “Is Maisie always that creepy?”

Sissy shrugged. “Doctor Breer says it’s a phase.”

We walked down the hall. The attic stairs were inside one of the back bedrooms, which was usually a guest room but right now had air mattresses all over the floor. Sissy walked me through the house along the way. It was absolutely full of people, and I think she introduced me to all of them, except for one or two where she whispered in my ear, “I have absolutely no idea who that is.”

Those, I managed to introduce myself to, and get their names, and even remembered a few. Mostly people who were in the play, because I could assign them to their alter egos to keep track. But there were so many people who weren’t in the play. I guess that was fair; there was only so much room in a script, after all.

Something about the crowd bugged me, though, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.

As we picked our way through the spare bedroom with its air mattresses and suitcases, I asked, “Why isn’t this your room?”

“I like the privacy,” Sissy said, with a sidelong glance that warned me not to press.

By the door at the base of the attic stairs, there was a metal dog about as high as my knee. He had been welded out of pieces of steel. A lot of chains made his shaggy coat. He was looking upward happily. Black button eyes peeked through the chain bangs. His expression was perfect. He looked like a metal cartoon version of Dutch.

“Wow,” I said.

“Yeah,” Sissy answered happily. “That’s Sparky. Because he’s spot welded.”

“Oh my god, that’s terrible.”

She grinned. “My Aunt Rosie made him. She’s a little eccentric. Hey, what are you going to be for Halloween—?”

Rosie was in the play, at least. She was actually Sissy’s great-aunt, Margaret’s oldest sister. There were a couple of jokes in the play about her welding torch and a few more about her junkyard art, a habit she’d picked up because her dead husband ran a scrapyard.

Sissy’s room was a cheerful yellow space with two gable windows. Her bed was narrow, and it had a white chenille spread also. There were pink roses on her cream-colored sheets and she still had a row of worn stuffed animals lined up against the wall. Under the edge of the bedspread I could glimpse the trundle peeking out.

This room would doubtless be unbearably hot in summer and freezing in winter, despite the cast-iron radiator painted pink between the windows. Sissy must like her privacy a lot if she’d asked to be up here rather than down in that guest room. I assumed she’d asked; it didn’t seem like the sort of family that would exile a daughter to the attic just because.

“Do you have a bag?” she asked.

“Oh, I left it in the barn,” I said. “I’ll get it later.”

“I’ll loan you some sweatpants to ride in so your jeans don’t get gross. Or you could have an old pair of jeans. They’ll fit you and if they’re too big that’s just more comfortable for riding, as long as you belt them high.”

Her offhand manner, the practicality of her relationship to her body and her clothes, hit me with a stab of envy as dizzying as the sugar high. She was so unselfconscious about being bigger than me.

I wished I were allowed to feel that way.

“Let me try the jeans,” I stammered, when I managed to collect myself. Then, for anything to say, “English or Western?”

She looked at me. “I’m from right here.”

I laughed. “No, I mean. The horses. Are they trained English, or Western?”

She tossed her hair and laughed in turn. “I don’t know. I just ride.”

Farm kid. Right. “Is there a saddle horn?”

“Mostly we ride bareback. Do you need a saddle?” She got down on her hands and knees and slid a flat basket out from under the trundle that was under the bed. It was heaped with what must be old clothes. “Here, try these.”

Actors don’t have a lot of body modesty. I stripped down to my undies and slithered into the jeans.

They were a size too big, though Sissy handed me a web belt that held them up just fine. The denim was weird: it didn’t have any stretch at all and was creased and worn and worn through in places, but soft on my skin. The legs flared at the bottom.

My mom would have a fit if she saw me in anything this baggy. Do you want people to think you’re getting fat?

They were perfect.

“Oh, darn.”

“What?”

“I don’t have boots,” I said forlornly.

“Oh, you can have my old ones,” she said. “You’re smaller than me anyway, so they should fit probably.”

She turned back to rummage out the boots. I started poking around the room, looking for character bits while I asked her, “How did you wind up with the name Sissy?”

Thumping from under the bed. “I always hated Priscilla. But Mom is an Elvis fan. So once I was old enough to have opinions I just started using the nickname. Turns out it wasn’t the best choice at school—don’t touch that!”

“I’m sorry,” I said, letting my hand hover over the book on her nightstand. “I didn’t know it was private.”

I had known it was private, of course. I had just gotten overexcited. The missing diary!

“It is private,” she said. “It’s also booby-trapped.”

I drew back gently. “Booby-trapped?”

She eyed me, deciding something. She was a devious little creature, I realized. Had to be, to hold her own as the smallest—well, second-smallest, if you counted Maisie but didn’t count the dogs—in this big, brawling household. Then she nodded crisply, having made up her mind, and marched past me. She picked the diary up, handling it as gently as you would any sacred object, and carefully opened it to show me a dried red-brown object flattened between the pages.

“You’re using it to press flowers?” I asked.

She laughed, seeming genuinely delighted by my naivete. “City girl. It’s poison ivy.”

“Oh,” I said. “Oh!

I scrubbed my hand on the borrowed jeans, even though I hadn’t touched it. Even though that wouldn’t have helped.

Then I said, “But how do you keep from getting a rash?”

She grinned her wicked Sissy grin under bowlcut bangs, her chin as pointed as a pixie’s.

“I’m immune,” she said. “But nobody else in the family is. So if somebody touches it, I guess I’ll know, won’t I?”

I had underestimated just how devious she was. I wanted to hug her, but now there was poison ivy all over her hands.

…what if Sissy had poisoned them all? And then killed herself, in remorse, or maybe in an accident?

I couldn’t think about that. I looked at her and faked a bright smile. “Can I ride Diamond?”

She looked at me, and I could see her assessing if she needed to make up snapping at me.

Then she smiled and just said, “Sure.”

Two pairs of borrowed socks, and the boots fit just fine. She was even nice enough to wash her hands before she got the socks for me.

We walked outside into exactly the sort of scene of chaos you would expect of a large and varied family reunion. There were three or four lawn games going on—holy hell, did that one involve throwing large metal… darts… with sharp points into the air? Around small children?—and there was a skinny old woman with her grey hair twisted up in a bun, wearing goggles and a leather apron, who had a welding torch in her right hand and was making a sculpture of an orangutang out of what looked like pieces of an old Volkswagen.

Rosie, obviously.

There were ten or fifteen men sitting around in lawn chairs drinking beer or soda, and not paying much attention to the swarm of kids, who were darting in and out of the woods along the back of the yard on little trails, zooming around on Huffy dirt bikes, and generally having a wild old skinned-knee time. Nobody seemed very concerned about kids and giant darts, or kids and blowtorches, or kids without helmets on bikes around here.

There were so many Abbotts and Abbott auxiliaries around I couldn’t begin to count them all. I got introduced to most of them, anyway. Grampa Bud and Uncle Clark were the ones that stuck with me most. Bud rifled my hair and Clark made a terrible pun about my name and handed me a plastic-wrapped butterscotch from his pocket.

Meeting one Abbott after another at them, I realized what made them such a weird-looking family. What had been bothering me on the way up the stairs.

Every last one of them was white. The whole family.

The past really is a different country.

The barn smelled of hay and horseshit and other good things. Margaret’s tools were still in their tidy arrangement, and as we walked past I sneaked a sideways glance while trying not to crane my neck too much. An array of little orange lights blinked on what I thought were the battery housings, which was progress, I guess, since they had been red or absent before.

I was with Sissy, and the tall boy Tom, and Sissy’s oldest sister Mae. I was excited about the ride and anxious about being trapped in the past, and—honestly—convinced I was being an utter coward.

Because I knew that somebody was going to murder Margaret while I was gone, or right after we got back. And I liked Margaret. But I was running away rather than warning her or doing anything to prevent it.

But I didn’t know who had killed her, though I knew that somebody stabbed her in the garden behind the house at dusk. And I couldn’t—couldn’t—change the course of history. In fact, I might not even be able to change it if I tried.

Maybe it was a good thing Margaret had been murdered. If somebody had invented time travel in 1978, imagine how much more screwed up the world could be.

That got me wondering, actually, as I tacked Diamond up. Out of pity to me, Sissy rummaged up a slightly moldy old dressage saddle that fitted the mare okay. She took the bit cheerfully when I bridled her; maybe she wanted to get out of the place as well. I gave her a bite of carrot and led her out of the barn.

What if Margaret had been killed by, I don’t know, a CIA dude or something? In order to keep the secret of her work from getting out. What if one of the other family members was a spy also, in addition to me?

But if that was the case, then why murder all those other family members? Why Sissy? A spy wouldn’t just up and kill a twelve-year-old girl for no reason, right?

It would be so… unprofessional.

I liked to imagine spies as professional. Too much Hollywood, no doubt.

Besides, Margaret hadn’t even known she was working on a time machine. She thought it was for folding space, not time. If she didn’t know, she couldn’t have told anybody.

Tom and the other girls were outside with their horses already, waiting for me. Dutch sat beside Tom’s horse’s front feet, laughing a doggy laugh. Gannsett was nose-deep in something by the fence. I hoped it wasn’t rotten, and that he wasn’t going to roll in it.

I was slow because I didn’t know Diamond and because I hadn’t tacked up a horse in two years, since we moved to the city to chase my career. I walked Diamond over to the fence rail I’d seen the others use as a mounting block and tightened her girth one last time. Then I climbed the fence and eased onto her.

She stood perfectly still, then, when my feet were securely in the stirrups, she turned at a comfortable walk to follow the others. They moved along companionably in a group while I tried to figure out what language of reins and voice and touches Diamond spoke, and how to talk to her.

It wasn’t imperative, because Diamond would follow her herd and her herd was going where I wanted to go. But it would be useful to be able to steer her.

“English,” I finally told Sissy, touching Diamond with my calves and reining up beside her. The mare had a big, springy walk, and for a large horse she was surprisingly light on her feet and comfortable to ride.

“Good to know,” Sissy said.

We clopped along the side of the road in a line, not one of us wearing a helmet or even a hat. The dogs trotted alongside, making short forays into the bushes. I looked at the kids in front of me, their hair blowing in the breeze, and felt naked and worried as the same breeze ruffled my own. What if I got thrown? What if we ran into a branch? What if—

A pack of younger kids whipped past on bicycles, screaming with laughter. The dogs barked. Diamond tensed slightly as her head came up, but she just eyed them without bolting. Thank god for horses that don’t take every little thing personally.

Then it struck me. The kids—laughing, shoving each other as they zoomed around—had no adult with them and they couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. And they weren’t wearing any helmets either.

It scared me.

Mashpee had a silly name, but boy was it a pretty town. As we rode down Great Neck Road towards the wildlife conservation area, I had plenty of time to appreciate it.

The houses tended toward that same silver-weathered cedar shingle as the farmhouse, with a good proportion of white clapboard. The trees were small and Shakespeareanly twisted, white pine needles or oak leaves fluttering like the trim on Renaissance costumes in the constant sea wind. The horses seemed to be enjoying the sunny coolness and shook their manes out into it often.

I was enjoying the sunny day too. And the sparkling glimmers of water I was starting to see off to the left-hand side. On the right-hand side, a series of sandy paths led into the woods, some marked with scuffed hoof or sandal prints, some with bike tracks.

“Where do those go?”

“Porn Shack,” Tim said. “Well, there’s some dirt bike tracks too, ramps and things kids have dug.”

“Porn…Shack?”

He laughed. “There’s a little hunting blind back there. People leave Hustlers and shit in cardboard boxes so their moms don’t find them. Smell pretty moldy after a while.”

Sissy saw me glancing over at the water. “Have you ever seen the ocean before?”

I almost answered honestly before I remembered that I wasn’t quite myself. I needed to wear my role. It wasn’t too hard, right? Just like improv: be the part.

Diamond rocked along easily beneath me as I put a little defensiveness in my voice. “Well, I’ve seen Lake Michigan and Lake Erie, though.”

Sissy snorted. “That’s not the same thing at all.”

“You can’t see the other side.”

“Sure, but… Mae. Mae!”

Mae, in the lead on one of the Morgans, turned in her saddle. “Yo.”

“Is Lake Michigan anything like an ocean?”

Mae rolled her eyes, the picture of an older sibling called on to mediate childish disputes. “Go find out.”

“Mae.” Sissy sounded so scandalized that I almost laughed.

Mae rolled her eyes again, but I see she was hiding a smile. Funny to think that she was closer to my real age than Sissy was. But here I was playing one of the kids. Mae was only a year older than me, in fact, if I was remembering correctly. She and Tom were fraternal twins.

She lived through the play.

“It’s really big,” she said. “But no, it’s not like the ocean.”

Mae was home on mid-semester break, I remembered. She’d started at the University of Chicago that year, having graduated high school a year early. She was the smart one in the family, but there wasn’t much of the stereotype Celia North played her as on display now. Her curly hair blew in the wind, and she was freckled from the sun, relaxed and amused-annoyed.

People didn’t really wear sunblock much yet either, I recalled.

Sissy smirked at me, self-consciously bratty. Playful. “See?”

“I see a brat.”

“There’s the trail.” Sissy eased her reins and the quarter horse took off sideways like he meant it, both dogs running joyously in pursuit.

“Shit, Sissy!” Tom yelled after her, but Sissy was already gone.

“God damn, one day that kid is gonna ride in front of a car,” Mae said.

I didn’t hear any more, because Diamond knew this game. I managed to rein her around long enough to check for traffic, and after one tight spiral, she too had her head and was gone up the trail after Sissy and Kirk, the two Morgans in hot pursuit.

I tried to rein her in, but in two strides the clatter of hooves on asphalt gave way to a hollow thump. Sand. She wanted to go, and she seemed to know what she was doing, so I just gave her the rein she wanted and kept enough contact to help her balance as she lunged up and down the dunes.

I’d chosen well when I gave her my heart. The quarter house was a jack rabbit, but my temporary Appaloosa cornered as well as any horse I’ve known, and she made ground on the gelding on the downhills, when all that engine behind him hindered rather than helped.

Cantering on downhills: add that to the list of stupid things I was doing today.

Sand flew everywhere. We startled up a redwing blackbird and a couple of gulls, but I didn’t see anything bigger, not even the usual herons or an osprey. Then I remembered it was 1978, and all the apex birdlife was still recovering from DDT.

We flew down the last slope and burst through a screen of salt grass. Suddenly there was the water spread out in front of us, and I could hear the tumult of the surf even above Diamond’s hooves.

Sissy and the chestnut still had a lead on us, and the dogs had a lead on them. Gannsett could move. They were in the clear and sailing down the beach. But Diamond’s ears were up and she wasn’t going to let that stand.

She hit the hard sand at the water’s edge accelerating, and when the waves licked her hooves she only dug in. Her canter broke to a gallop, and through I saw Kirk stretch out ahead of us, there was nothing he could do about Diamond’s longer legs and can-do attitude.

She swept past him and I heard Sissy whoop. If I’d been on a bareback pad I would have done a handstand, but it would be mean to Diamond to pull my feet out of the stirrups and let them bang all around her, and being mean to my new ‘cousin’s’ horse was a doubly bad way to make friends—with her, or with the horse.

But I wanted to show off. Show off more than just beating Sissy and Kirk, I mean. Because Diamond had done almost all the work there. All I’d done was be really light and not flop around too much. And that wasn’t complicated.

I was still trying to figure out what would be impressive without putting Diamond at risk when she took the matter out of my hands. I didn’t see what spooked her, but something did, because she went from full-on flight to planting her forelegs, dropping her butt, skidding to a stop.

And then she tossed me.

Her rear end went up, and I went over her head like a tapped balloon. I was so surprised I didn’t even think to let go of the reins. But I’ll say this for endless hours of dance and acrobatics—it gives you the reflexes.

I wound up standing on the beach, up to my ankles in hissing seawater, holding the reins in my left hand and staring up at that mare. She gave me the most croggled look I’ve ever seen on a horse’s face, so stunned she just stood there. Which pretty much described me too.

The reins were twisted around each other, and as I stood there I thought back, and managed to reconstruct what had happened. In midair, without thinking about it, my hips had snapped around. My legs had fallen into position, knees flexed, and I had ended my rotation with a thump and a splash. I fluffed the dismount, staggering a step when I landed and skipping on the sand to regain balance. But I had stayed up. And I didn’t lose the reins, or fall over.

My borrowed boots were full of ocean. I squelched a few steps up the beach to get out of the waves.

“Goodness gracious,” Sissy said, reining Kirk up beside Diamond. Diamond was too nonplussed by my… we’ll be kind and call it a dismount… to do anything more that side-eye her stablemate.

Sissy sounded exactly like her mother.

“Gymnastics,” I said. “Short girl sport. I used to be pretty good at it.”

“Did you do that on purpose?” She sounded accusing.

“No,” I said. “She tossed me. I just got lucky and landed on my feet.”

Mae and Tom arrived about then, reining their horses from a more sedate canter. Sissy looked at me dubiously. Dutch was chasing waves behind her, muddy and delighted. “Why should I believe you?”

“Because I’m telling the truth.”

“Did you do that on purpose?” Mae said, even more sharply than Sissy.

“No,” I said. “She startled at something and threw me.”

Mae didn’t seem to hear. “Stunts like that are a good way to hurt the horse. Or teach her that she doesn’t like to be ridden! Or bust your fucking head open.”

“Mae,” Sissy said. “She said it was an accident.”

Suddenly my defender, when her big sister piled on. Hmm. Mae had more of a temper than we’d played her as.

Mae lived, I remembered.

Tom winked at me. “Well, that’s a real vaulting horse.”

“We should check her hooves,” I said. “She might be in pain to do a thing like that. Unless somebody else saw what spooked her?”

I turned my back on Mae, and started running my hands down Diamond’s forelegs. I didn’t think I would find anything: she was standing with her weight square on all four hooves. I picked up each foot anyway. She cooperated bemusedly as I checked for rocks, cracks, and bruised places. No sign of anything. I didn’t have a hoof pick, but she was barefoot so there couldn’t be a pebble wedged between shoe and hoof wall, and the clean sand fell right out of her feet so I would have seen if she had any little pockets a stone might have gotten into.

They were just four nice clean stripy Appy hooves, all wet and sandy from the beach.

It wasn’t until I put the last hoof down and thumped her on the shoulder in thanks that she shied and ducked away from me.

Mae had swung down from the Morgan and was watching with a pissy expression, Suddenly, she was right there, grabbing my shoulder. “What did you do to her?”

“Hang on.” I touched the spot again. Mae’s fingers tightened on my shoulder and I thought she would shove me away, but I was more gentle this time and Diamond stood still for it. She skin-flinched as if a fly were on her. There was a spot on her shoulder that looked swollen, the flesh showing dark pink through the pale hairs. It was soft and hot to the touch.

“Mae, does this look like a bruise to you?”

Sissy pushed past her and also touched it, very gently. She had just left Kirk standing around with his reins loose, but he didn’t go anywhere. “A bad one.”

Mae’s hand fell off my shoulder as she leaned in. “You didn’t notice it when you tacked her?”

She was still trying to sound accusatory, but her tone was swerving toward concern.

“Lay off, Mae,” Tom said. He’d slid off the other Morgan and was also leaning over my shoulder. I caught my breath. He smelled clean and salty and the tan fringe of his hair was stuck to his sweating forehead. “Look, you can tell it just happened. It’s still swelling.”

“There’s nothing here for her to run into!” Mae stepped back. She was still holding her horse’s reins.

Tom brushed the bruise with the pad of one finger. Diamond didn’t even flinch. Fine hairs lifted by the goose egg dented under his touch. “I think it’s from a pellet gun.”

“A BB?” Mae exploded. “Some jerk shot my horse?”

Tom nodded. “She’s not hurt badly. It’s a good thing Kat’s a decent rider, though, or she could have broken her neck.”

“We should go home,” I said. Dutch had thrown himself down on the sand and was panting, watching the waves come and go. Now Gannsett was the one chasing them back and forth, barking.

“We ride here all the time!” Sissy glanced nervously at the dunes and the thickets of beach grass and wild roses heavy with garnet-red rosehips. “Who would shoot at the horses?”

Tom sighed. “Somebody who hates horse poop on the beach, I’m guessing. But he could have got her in the eye. Or got one of us.” He shook his head. “Or if Kat hadn’t landed on her feet… come on. Maybe Mom will be ready to part with that cake now.”

I spotted a really pretty pink conch shell at the edge of the surf and scooped it up before we turned around. I’m not sure why; I just wanted some kind of a souvenir. Would it even go home with me?

Margaret had said morning, but who knew? The time machine batteries might be charged by the time we got back to the Abbott house. It might be my only chance to grab a memento.

Mae held Diamond for me while I mounted, which was enough of an apology. I would have skipped riding and walked back, but we’d come pretty far, and the too-big boots would have murdered my feet. Antibiotics still worked pretty well in the 70s, but I was leaving, and who knew what I’d brought back here on my skin? I’d hate to die of cellulitis from a blister. Anyway, Diamond wasn’t badly hurt, and the sore spot wasn’t anywhere I would touch her while riding.

She didn’t even limp on the way home.

We were still a mile away from the house when we realized something was badly wrong. There was a smell on the air, and it wasn’t an old-fashioned charcoal grill, or the crispness of autumn leaves, or even the particular smoke of their burning. People still burned leaf-piles here in history.

It was the smell of things burning that weren’t meant to be burned. The acrid, nauseating smell of scorching rubber, plastic, hair.

The horses, ears flat and tails flicking, did not approve.

“The house!” Tom gasped.

Mae and Sissy looked sick. So did I, though maybe for a different reason.

This wasn’t in the script. I had probably already changed the past so much that the future I came from was now impossible. Maybe I didn’t even exist in it.

Diamond shook her head, which made me realize how tight I was on the reins and in the saddle. I made myself breathe.

We all wanted to gallop back, especially once we reached the main road and could see a rising column of evil black smoke through the gap in the trees. But the horses were barefoot, and this part of the road was asphalt.

One firetruck passed us. Then another. Paramedics and an ambulance.

We looked at each other. The Abbotts’ faces were white; I imagined mine must be also. The horses surged and fussed, taking turns behaving badly. We had our hands full, but kept them all moving forward.

It was not the house that was on fire. It was the barn.

Margaret’s barn.

With the time machine in it.

We sat there on the horses halfway up the drive, stunned, watching the flames climb over each other and the Abbotts stand around in a straggling semicircular line as firefighters ran hoses from the wellhead to the pumper truck and began turning their streams on the fire.

“They’ll dry out the well,” Mae said.

“It’ll refill,” said Tom.

“Not in time,” said Mae.

Other firefighters, wielding things that looked like medieval weapons, were tearing down the breezeway between the barn and the house. The second firetruck must be a tanker, because it didn’t look like it was hooked up to anything, but men—they were all men, and also all as white as the Abbotts—were using its hoses to wet down the roof of the house.

“They’ll run a line to the horse pond,” Tim said confidently. “It will be fine.”

Indeed, it was already happening. I looked at Tom, who was swinging down off Show Biz. He handed the reins to Mae, who was sitting on Buster as shell-shocked and unmoving as I was. She took the reins automatically.

“Volunteer firefighter. I’m going to go help.” Tom turned away.

“Thank God we had the horses out,” said Mae.

My phone. My backpack. My protein bars in flavors that had not been invented yet. My script.

All my proof of the future, rising on the smoke that coiled and writhed above the rippling flames.

The time machine that could get me home. In there, burning.

Tom trotted toward the firefighters. Mae looked down at the two sets of reins in her hands. Diamond, noticing my inattention, twisted herself in a spiral of distress.

“Where can we put the horses to keep them safe?” I asked, when I had her straightened out again.

“There’s the pasture across the road. It belongs to Mr. Barnes. He won’t mind.”

Sissy, who had been sitting beside me in silence as stunned as my own, suddenly yelled “Aunt Margaret!” and threw herself out of Kirk’s saddle.

She was off the horse and flying toward the barn. Somebody yelled her name. A second later, I realized it was me.

I pulled Diamond around to face the wall of heat rolling off the burning structure, some half-assed plan of riding Sissy down and scooping her up over Diamond’s shoulder forming.

The horse wasn’t having any of it. She backed up, head-shaking, ears flat. Sissy plunged toward the collapsed main doors and the inferno inside, running into the orange maw of a beast. I was trapped in nightmare time. Nothing I could do made my motions any faster.

Sissy’s screams and my shouts were muffled. Tom and Mae seemed frozen in place.

A firefighter in an old-fashioned long black overcoat pivoted in his rubber boots and clotheslined Sissy around the waist. He lifted her up. She was kicking and shouting. Her fist rang off his helmet.

The flow of time resumed, as if it had never been altered at all.

“But the barn doesn’t bur—” My voice stopped.

This was not in the play. This milling, burning, weeping scene… I could not have failed to remember it. No playwright could have passed up the opportunity to stage it. How could you resist? The fluttering streamers of shredded silk rippling in the draft of the big fans, the smoke and fire effects. The stunning juxtaposition of dancing red, orange, amber-gelled fresnels. The drama of actors plunging in and out of the burning stable, trying to rescue the animals within.

Suddenly, I could see it, as if we’d staged it. I could feel the blast of hot air blown across the audience, tightening the skin on their faces.

Too good a scene to pass up, a burning barn. The terror of the horses.

The feigned terror of the actors and puppeteers portraying the fictional horses.

It was in the script, of course. How could it not be in the script? I was remembering it, remembering the dress and tech rehearsals. We had staged it.

The horses had not been safely out of the barn in the version I knew so thoroughly by heart.

Dramatic license? Surely the past could not be about to change again?

Tom and I took the horses to turn them loose in a neighbor’s empty cow pasture, which I gathered had been arranged by calling him on the phone. I patted Diamond’s neck as I led her across the road. She was shivering. Please no. Not the horses.

Bad enough that I’d lost my script and everything.

There was no gate on this side of the pasture. Tom took a board down and we led the horses over the lower rail. Then he drove the nails back in with a half-brick that shed powder with every blow.

Wait a minute. If I knew the barn was going to burn down, why would I have let Margaret hide my things there?

I wouldn’t, obviously. Another paradox, I guess: I hadn’t known then. And now, I had.

Why wouldn’t I have warned Margaret about the fire?

For the same reason I had not warned her about the murderer. Not wanting to change the past, and possibly erase myself from the future.

I hadn’t warned her about the fire because I was as awful and selfish as my mother said I was.

Tom was done nailing the board back up. We crossed the road toward the milling crowd of Abbotts once again.

He looked at the collapsed walls of the old barn and swore. “Why burn that down?”

“You think somebody burned it down on purpose?” I asked.

He shrugged, looking at me speculatively. “What if.”

“Hide something,” I answered.

He eyed me a little longer. It gave me a warm shiver. “What do you think?”

“Maybe to hide what Margaret was working on,” I said. And abruptly wished I hadn’t.

What did I know about boys?

Tom, though, smiled at me warmly. “Come on.” He scratched the back of his right hand. “You look cold.”

By the time we got back, Detective Franklin from the state police had arrived. And there were a bunch of other police too, but they were just extras. Locals in towns like this didn’t investigate crimes like homicides.

Detective Franklin was a lot taller in real life than Braden Camus, who played him. He was a calm-looking hound-dog man with light brown eyes and hair that wasn’t any color in particular.

He was nice to me. We talked for a whole five minutes.

Eventually the house was declared safe from burning.

The Abbott family and I went inside, in slow trickles, though floodlights from the fire trucks were still painting the exterior of the barn as evening gathered. We sat around the tables in the kitchen and dining rooms and in the chairs and couch in the living room, stunned and mostly silent. Lights from the efforts outside painted the windows in flashes of white, red, blue. The lawn would never be the same.

Sissy cuddled against me. I don’t know why she’d picked me, but there she was in the crook of my arm with her thumb stuck into her mouth like a much, much younger child.

I was trying not to think about anything.

It was not working. I was thinking about the burning barn, and my memories of the staged version of the burning barn, and the taped screams of horses that I could now remember and still knew that I had not been able to remember before. There was a strange sort of double vision laid over my memories, as if I had watched two different edits of the same movie and could remember them simultaneously.

My backpack was burnt up with the barn. The time machine was gone also. I was trapped in 1978 with no money, no identification, no actual family, and a limited time window to solve the murders before I became a casualty too or got put on a bus back to Ohio. Where I had no place to go. And no one to go home too.

And my pills had been in the backpack.

I couldn’t help myself. Every nerve screamed not to draw attention. To huddle in the corner and be quiet and still. But every nerve also screamed at me to take action, to do something. I jumped up and began to pace.

Lizzie sighed, pushing a fist into her back. Without looking at me, she said, “I think we should all have tea. And not that awful Lipton this time, Gloria!”

I was glad it wasn’t just me.

The tea arrived a little bit later, after the kettle whistled. Lizzie made a pot of coffee, too, and I helped her carry mugs out to the men, who were mostly in the living room. The older people and Maisie had clustered at the dining table. They’d already done away with the first pot. I could hear Aunt Dorothy, Margaret’s sister, Bud’s wife, and Maisie’s grandmother, talking her into bed with promises of reading stories. The Pokey Little Puppy.

I hadn’t known it was that old.

Maisie smacked the book with her open hand and said, “Puppy got burned up. Puppy got burned up!”

“Christ,” Clark yelled from the living room, where a surprising number of people were smoking. Everything in the house reeked of cigarettes, and people smoked around Lizzie and Karen and the littles like it was nothing. Mom was going to kill me if I came home smelling like that.

Clark jumped up. “What’s wrong with that fucking kid?” He lurched out of the room, through the door to the porch, and I realized he had been drinking. Beside me, I felt Lizzie deflate a little, as if some tension had gone out of her.

“It’s developmentally normal at that age,” I said without thinking. Every last Abbott stared at me. “Sorry.” I groped for an excuse. “I want to be a social worker.”

That was a job women had in the 70s, wasn’t it?

Lizzie put her hand on my shoulder and steered me back into the kitchen, double time. I went back to my tea, shaking a little. I shouldn’t have said that. I was apparently pretty lucky I hadn’t said it in front of Clark.

Clark was Lizzie and Karen’s brother, if I remembered correctly. He’d never married and I was starting to see why. He was one of the survivors, and Graydon Ainsley played him but didn’t have a lot to work with.

“This tea is good.” I’d managed to get it handed to me plain this time, though Gloria had looked dubious. I read at the tag on the teabag. Constant Comment. I didn’t remember Constant Comment tasting this much like tangerines. Then I laughed. “I guess I just commented, didn’t I?”

Sissy kicked me gently under the table. I didn’t kick her back. She was holding her tea, which was full of milk and sugar, cuddled against her chest like a rag doll.

Lizzie looked sadly at Dutch, who lay under the table sulking. His silky face was matted tight with hooked, crumbly burdock pods. The fur on his feet kept getting stuck into it. She crouched down awkwardly. I was impressed that she kept her balance. “What you kids did to this poor dog. Couldn’t you keep him out of the burrs?”

As if any kid ever could keep any dog out of the burrs. As if any kid would even notice burrs existed, unless they stumbled into them themselves, and even then not always.

Karen made a grumpy noise. “Mae, you should have known to keep Dutch out of the prickles!”

“Tom was there too!” Mae said sulkily. I felt her outrage at the gendered division of responsibility. She wasn’t wrong. She took a deep breath, and I saw it pass over her face: Margaret is dead and the barn is still burning and I’m being blamed for this? But what she said was, “I didn’t even want to take the stupid dogs.”

Aunt Karen looked at her and sighed. “I’ll get the horse clippers.”

“Weren’t they in the barn?” Lizzie said.

“Shed.” Karen moved toward the door.

“I’ll do it,” Tom said, with a nervous glance at Mae. “I know how to use them.”

Karen regarded him, arms crossed. Finally, she nodded. “Well, be sure you use the lube,” she said testily. “I don’t want you ruining another pair of clippers. Mae, you’re shivering. Go and put a sweater on.”

Bud walked in from outside. He went to the cooler by the stove, bent down, and pulled out a can of Budweiser. It cracked like a gavel when he opened it.

The kitchen fell silent.

“They’re done in the barn,” he said, in heavy tones.

Lizzie leaned against the counter. “Margaret?”

Bud shook his head. “The fire chief said it looked like she was charging some big batteries and one of them exploded. The barn caught fire.” 

He glanced at us, and I got a sense of what he wouldn’t say in front of us, and especially not in front of Maisie and the other littles. Margaret, blinded by acid, unable to escape from the burning barn.

Karen must have got the same image, because she put her hand to her mouth. “Thank god the horses were out,” she said, thickly. “You kids should go up to the front of the house now. Go out on the porch, maybe.”

Away from the barn.

It had become full evening. Nobody told the grownups about the BB incident. We were all part of the conspiracy of the disempowered now.

Gloria roused herself from her brown study on the porch swing and looked us over. “When was the last time anybody ate anything?”

I didn’t answer. Except for the jelly, the last time I ate anything was in two thousand and twenty eight.

“Did they eat all that cake already?” Sissy asked.

Gloria stroked her hair. “There will be another one for tomorrow when everybody has got here. But Doug and Clark have got the grill going. Do you want to help me cut up some watermelon?”

I couldn’t imagine eating. I couldn’t imagine wanting to eat. I couldn’t imagine standing over a grill, smelling charcoal smoke and searing meat.

I went inside.

It wasn’t any easier to imagine some time later, when Karen walked in and put platters of cheeseburger patties and split, charred hot dogs on the counter. Lizzie, groaning, had sorted out some packages of fluffy, crumbly white buns. Other dishes lined the counter, produced as if from a space warp. Maybe that was where Margaret had gotten the idea.

Strange exotic foods, things I had never seen before, appeared from coolers in rectangles of Tupperware. Jello salads—one with canned fruit, and one with pretzel crumbs and I wasn’t sure what all else was in there except it looked like chopped celery, tuna fish and possibly swirls of mayonnaise. More of the plasticky orange cheese already setting to a shiny, wrinkled surface atop the cooling cheeseburgers. Bottles of mayo, ketchup, mustard. Sliced sweet pickles. Wedges of iceberg lettuce and sliced tomatoes. A jar of sugary peanut butter and a tub of something labelled “fluff.”

Potato chips, cheese puffs, an oily three-bean salad, a potato salad with more mayonnaise than seemed strictly necessary. Another bowl full of mayonnaise, tossed with macaroni, chopped celery and onions, and what seemed to be canned chicken. Large plastic bottles of Coke, orange soda, ginger ale, and Tab. I’d never heard of Tab.

I sat at the table and watched the food come out, boggled and a little nauseated.

“All right, kids,” Gloria said, when it was all done. “Starving yourself won’t make anything better. And all this food won’t fit in the fridge, so we’ve got to eat most of it. I’m not throwing it away.”

Doug, who was Gloria’s husband, heard her from the dining room. “Glory,” he said.

She crossed her arms. “No buts,” she said. She raised her voice. “Bud, you send Maisie in here to eat if you haven’t gotten her to sleep yet. And Tom and the other kids. Once they’re settled I’ll bully the adults.”

“A family reunion is a hell of a time for a wake,” he said. But he did as she instructed.

Mae had put on a white cardigan that she’d previously taken off to go riding. She took it off again and hung it on a hook by the door before tackling the food.

Mae was careful.

I lined up with Sissy. We each took a paper plate in a red or yellow wicker holder. We took plastic forks and red plastic cups and I made sure I got three paper napkins.

My supposed family members filled up their plates around us. Sissy went right over to the peanut butter. I took a burger with no bun, a wedge of lettuce, and the driest scoop of three-bean salad I could manage with the slotted spoon.

I caught up with Sissy as she was slathering peanut butter on two hamburger buns. She topped each with a dollop of the “fluff,” which smelled like pure sugar and had the general appearance of some kind of industrial insulator.

I poured myself a Tab, because it said “sugar-free” on the label. I balanced my plate on top of the cup and waved at Sissy’s sandwiches. “What’s that?”

“Fluffernutters,” she said, as if that explained everything. She put a handful of potato chips on her plate, then added one of Cheetos. After a pause for thoughtful consideration, she added another handful of Cheetos. “Don’t you have fluff in Ohio?”

“Never seen one before,” I answered truthfully.

She picked up an overflowing sandwich and took a drippy, squelching bite. She licked at a sticky streak on her forefinger and nodded to my plate. “Is that all you’re going to eat?”

“I don’t like mayo.”

“Or chocolate,” she said sadly. “Rough life.”

She got herself an orange soda and led me out onto the back porch, where it was less crowded. We sat in a swing just like the one on the front porch and creaked the chains. I scraped the cheese off my burger with the side of my plastic fork. I dried the oily salad on my first napkin. The food wasn’t delicious, exactly, but under other circumstances it would have been bearable. But now I looked out at the silhouette of the barn’s charred timbers against the deep blue gloaming, and it was all I could do to keep on chewing.

The yard reeked of wet char and burned plastic. The paramedics had taken Margaret away in the white ambulance, zipped inside a black body bag. Gloria and Karen had chased all us kids out of the back of the house before it happened, so we wouldn’t see them bringing her out, but I had gone upstairs to use the bathroom and watched out of the window there.

There were still two firefighters in the yard, and the pumper truck also. Tom had said they were waiting in case the fire rekindled. I couldn’t see what it had left to burn.

The firefighters seemed pleased when Gloria came out past us and brought each of them a heaping plate of supper.

What a world this was, where people would just eat plates of food handed to them by strangers. Well, I guess Mashpee was a small town, and maybe everyone pretty well knew each other.

The Tab tasted metallic. The mosquitoes found our bare hands.

Tom came out of the kitchen with a plate with three hamburgers and two hot dogs on it. He was carrying a long-necked bottle of Ballantine Ale. He sat down beside Sissy, on the other end of the swing, and filched one of her Cheetos.

“Hey,” she said.

I filched another one.

“Hey,” she said again, with equally little inflection.

Tom made a hamburger disappear. He took a long swallow of beer.

“Should you be drinking that?” I asked.

He looked at the bottle, then at me, then at the bottle. “I’ll be eighteen in two weeks,” he said. “And my parents are right here.”

I kept looking at him.

“Next year I’ll be living on campus.” He waved the bottle at Sissy, and I wondered if it was his first. “Sissy’s not going to have anybody to look out for her.”

Sissy shrank against me, but I don’t think she was scared of Tom. “Mae will look out for me.”

There was real anger in her voice. More than seemed warranted by the teasing.

Tom made a noise that might have been pain and might have been dismissal. “Mae’s gone too. She’s old enough… old enough to look out for herself, I mean. And you’re going to be old enough soon also.” He shook his head as if a fly were bothering him. “And you’ll look out for Maisie.”

Sissy didn’t say anything. Her distress was as palpable as the grip leaving marks in my forearm.

Tom, staring at his Nikes, seemed to soften. “We’ll think of something.”

He drank the beer quickly, tossed the empty bottle into the bushes, and stood up without taking his plate. “Anybody want anything from the kitchen?” he asked. “I’m getting another.”

He stuffed his hands into his pockets and took off, scuffing as he walked. When he was out of earshot I lowered my voice and said, “What was that all about?”

Sissy twisted her face in that way that I couldn’t stop practicing, even though every time I did it, it reminded me that I was probably never going home. “Did you hear Tom say he’s going to college?”

“Yeah. You mad at him for it?”

Her shoulders turtled. “Things are going to be a lot worse around here without him.”

I did wonder. This seemed like such a perfect childhood. The horses. The freedom. No stage mom ordering you around. Cake when you wanted it. No worrying about looking too old, too fat, too whatever.

Maybe there were things I wasn’t seeing.

I thought of the way everyone had reacted to Clark, the person it seemed like everybody was avoiding. I shuddered, and went to the door to call in to Tom to bring me a lemonade. The Tab was not going to happen, and screw it, if I was stuck in the past I might as well have sugar.

The whole house was a mob scene, and before long all the rest of the kids had wandered out to the porch where we were less likely to attract attention. Except for from the damned mosquitoes.

Was West Nile virus a thing yet in the 70s? I couldn’t remember. I was pretty sure I had to worry about Lyme disease, however.

The adults didn’t notice us, and Sissy and I didn’t get sent to bed, until sometime around 10:30. They probably would have done it earlier, but we were doing the sort of stuff kids do when adults aren’t looking—playing Truth or Dare until it got too dark for dares, and then Never Have I Ever, so we were pretty quiet.

I tried to hide it through the games, but my whole body was one big ache of terror and decision paralysis. I thought I was doing a decent job of concealment, but as soon as the lights were out in Sissy’s room, Sissy rolled over on her side in the big bed and said, “All right, are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

I was huddled under the trundle bed covers in the dim glow of her Minnie Mouse night light. I squeezed the pillow in my arms and opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I had no believable excuse for how I was acting. How I was feeling. And I didn’t want to lie to her. But I had no way to prove the truth.

“Fine,” Sissy said. “You don’t have to tell me. I have problems too.”

“No.” The word came out gutpunched, and it wasn’t acting. It must have sounded like real panic, though, because I heard Sissy swallow whatever she had been about to say and take a big gulping breath to wash it down with.

“Kat, are you in trouble?”

“So much trouble.”

There was a pause. “Can you go home?”

I shook my head.

She must have had enough light to see it. “Is it bad at home? Are you running away?”

“Not that,” I said.

“Are you… you know?”

“No,” I said, and managed to laugh. “I’m not in that kind of trouble.”

The laugh turned into a slightly hysterical giggle. It was all so ridiculous. “No, my problem is that I’m from the future, and I was here at the farm fifty years from now and I fell through a hole in time that Margaret made with her weird invention, and now she’s dead and the time machine is burned up and I have no way to get home and no money and no family and nowhere to go. Also my stuff was hidden in the barn so it’s all gone, and I’m pretty sure somebody killed her and set the fire on purpose. I think it was whoever shot Diamond and tried to hurt me too.”

I got it all out really fast, expecting Sissy to laugh or interrupt me. She didn’t, though. She did sit up, halfway through my rant, and wrap the covers tight around herself.

After I stopped she was quiet for a long, long time. So long that I whispered, “Sissy?”

She shook her head this time. There was enough light to see it by. “Wow.”

“Yeah.”

“Is that why your shoes are so cool? Because they come from the future?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you have other future stuff?”

“It all burned up in the barn.”

“So you can’t prove it.”

I thought about it. All my research for playing her should help me a little, shouldn’t it?

“I could tell you tomorrow’s headlines. Does your family get the Globe?”

She nodded.

“I read a bunch of them for research.”

Shit, I probably shouldn’t have said that. I wondered how much truth I could tell her without scaring her, or getting myself into trouble I couldn’t explain away.

“Were you writing a paper?”

“I’m in a play,” I said. “Actually, I’m playing you.”

“Whoa.” She made a weird little noise, and I memorized it. “I’m important enough in the future that somebody wrote a play about me?”

“Your family reunion is.” Kids all think the world revolves around their experience, right?

She slid out of her bed and came over to the trundle. Curled in beside me so I had to put an arm around her. She seemed strangely taut, armored. Not soft the way little kids are when they want to cuddle. “If you’re in a play, and you’re from the future, how come you hid your stuff in the barn when you knew it was going to burn down? That seems dumb.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You see, the past is changing.”

“It’s the past!”

“My past. Your future. I probably changed it by coming back here. In my future, the barn didn’t burn down. Somebody stabbed Margaret instead.”

“It wasn’t an accident, then?”

“No,” I said.

Sissy was quiet for a long time. I could feel her thinking through her skin. Finally, she wiped her eyes on my T-shirt and asked, “So, who did it?”

“Who did what?”

“You’re from the future.” Her voice had an edge. “You’re in a play about this. You have a script. So who killed Margaret? Let’s turn them in!”

“I can’t tell you.”

She pulled away. I felt the stiff anger in her shoulders. “Because it might change your future.”

“Sure,” I said. “But the past is already changed. How changed does it get before my future stops existing? My memories are changing. I might just… vanish. And also because I don’t know.”

“How can you not know the answer to your own play?” She settled back against me, though.

It wasn’t my play. But I figured that was too much explaining. I sighed. “Nobody knows. That’s why there’s a play about it. It’s a true crime mystery. It was never solved.”

I was pleased I’d remembered to say “it” and not “the murders.”

“That sucks. It’s a stupid story,” Sissy said with the absolute certainty of preteens. She was starting to doze against my shoulder. I should have moved out of the trundle bed but hadn’t.

This was what having a sister was like.

This is what it was like to not be alone.

We’d turned off the bedroom lights and just Minnie Mouse burned in a wall socket under the window.

“More stuff happens.” I heard the hard stop in my voice before I said, Other people die. You die.

“Aunt Margaret… this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

“I know.” I petted her hair. “I only met Aunt Margaret for half an hour, and I miss her. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for you.”

I was trying, though. I was studying her body language and her expression and her vocal inflections. Actors are horrible vultures. We will steal everything honest from you and turn it into art.

And people will tell us how authentic we sound, and be moved.

She said, “I mean, other bad stuff has happened. Really… but never mind. She’s not coming back. And somebody in the future wrote a stupid story about her and nobody is ever going to be punished and that is not fair.”

You should tell her, the voice of my conscience said.

So she can spend her last night on earth terrified?

I punched my own arm in outrage. How could I have been stupid enough to let Margaret talk me into stashing my pack in a barn that was going to burn?

Then it struck me.

“Sissy,” I said. “If I asked you to help me hide something where nobody in the family would find it, where would you take it?”

“How big?”

“Backpack.”

“Porn Shack,” she said promptly. “It’s got a dead air space under the roof. You could jam a pack up there and it would stay dry and hidden. There’s squirrel nests though.”

As soon as she told me, I felt the memory clearing, resolving. Of course we’d done that. We had to trust each other. We were the same.

“I’ve got to sneak out,” I said.

“You were going to swipe the paper anyway. It’s too early, though. We should sneak out around three.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

She shook her head. “Nobody’s going to… I mean, they won’t check on me tonight. With all these people around.”

Sissy set her little boxy beige alarm clock and tucked it under her pillow so the noise wouldn’t wake anybody else up. Still, she nearly slept through it. It woke me, though.

Once she was awake, she bounced up and grabbed her jeans, from where they turtled like a shed skin on the floor. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

I grabbed my own, and the flannel. My clothes were damp from the open window when I wriggled back into them.

That window was the way we went out, sliding the screen up carefully and stepping out onto the porch roof. It had a little railed balcony, and there was a trellis down the side that was just like a ladder. I don’t think it would have held a grownup, but we took turns and it was fine for either one of us.

Then we were down, and in the wet grass.

The night was cooler than I would have expected. I pulled my flannel shirt tighter as we tiptoed across the lawn. Sissy’s shoes squelched. Mine dried themselves through the magic of one-way wicking.

The firefighters must have decided the barn was really out. They were gone, and so was the fire truck.

I expected Sissy to lead me down to the road, but instead she led me across the lawn, past the back of where the barn had been, and to the edge of the woods. There was a trail there, I realized. Wide enough for the horses. Maybe wide enough for a dirt bike, too.

We went into the dark woods together, and I have no idea why I didn’t scream and run in the other direction. It felt like the stupidest thing I had ever done. But maybe my stuff was at the other end. Maybe it would help me somehow.

It wasn’t nearly as far to the Porn Shack as I expected. Maybe ten minutes of blundering through the dark under the trees, stubbing my toes every third step.

The woods were lovely, dark, and deep—and terrifying. Full of night sounds: insects, I told myself. Owls. It was so much colder than I expected. I was shivering much more that Sissy by the time we got there.

The shack itself was just as advertised: a hunter’s blind. It had a sort of door: planks on hinges. There were spaces for windows, but no glass. Once we were inside, Sissy groped around for a minute, then said, “Oh darn it.”

“What’s wrong?”

“The flashlight isn’t where it’s supposed to be.”

“I don’t need to see twentieth-century porn that badly.”

“Hang on. I bet we would have hidden it—”

“Under the roof,” I said. “Give me a boost.”

She wasn’t good at it. Didn’t know how to support my ankle. But I got up on her shoulder eventually and groped around in the dark, cringing from imagined spiders, until I felt the familiar slick fabric of my pack.

It startled me so much I jerked my hand back from it and Sissy nearly dropped me. But I caught myself on the wall and she steadied me and by some miracle the whole place didn’t come down. I reached back up, snagged a loop, and dragged it free.

I hopped off of Sissy’s shoulders and stood there in the dark, hugging my precious pack. I wasn’t going crazy.

But I was definitely causing a paradox.

As we tripped and staggered our way through the woods in reverse, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being followed.

I thought of something as we were walking. “Oh, hey,” I said. “Do yourself a favor and invest in Apple stock when it comes on the market. It’s a computer company.”

“I don’t know how to invest.”

“Get Grampa Bud to show you. Ask for some stock as a birthday present. They’ll think it’s cute. Just trust me. And don’t sell it in the 90s. Buy more instead.”

We made it back to the house just in time for something to thump on the front porch, and to hear the whirr of tires along the road. It was dark, without streetlights, but there was a flash of a bicycle headlamp and reflectors. Dutch barked once from inside the house, sleepily phoning it in. Gannsett didn’t even bother.

The silhouette of the paperboy whisked down the road, into the starlit predawn.

He didn’t look any bigger than Sissy or me. I wondered what it would take in my world for a ten-year-old kid to be allowed out routinely on his own in the dark, dispensing a product and handling money.

What a strange place this was.

It was too dark outside to read the headlines, so we went in the front door and left our sneakers under the bench with all the other shoes there. They were damp but nobody was going to check, I hoped. Once we were plausibly deniable, we slipped back into the kitchen. I leaned my backpack against the leg of my chair, unwilling to get too far away from it. Sissy turned on the dimmer light over the table, not very brightly, and put the kettle on the burner, pausing to pull the whistle cap off it first.

She came back to the table and plunked herself down on the long bench opposite.

Dutch and Gannsett moseyed down the hall, their nails clicking. Dutch had been half-clipped, and his shaggy patches and his shaven patches made him look like a coat the moths had half-eaten. The two dogs looked us over, then plunked themselves on a mat and watched us companionably, tails thumping softly in anticipation of a snack.

Sissy flipped the paper open and laid it flat on the table. It was so…unwieldy. How did anybody manage these things on the train? Our prop newspaper was a lot smaller.

The front page informed me:

BROOKE ABSOLVED ON RECORDS

DUKAKIS FARE PLAN ANGERS ‘T’ RIDERS

CARTER UNVEILS ANTI-INFLATION PROGRAM

UNDERCOVER OFFICER STABBED

TV TIPS FOR TONIGHT: CAROL BURNETT, CHARLES GRODIN IN ERMA BOMBECK’S BESTSELLER, “THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER OVER THE SEPTIC TANK.”

They matched what I had predicted, more or less. That last one wasn’t in the stage paper. It was in small print at the bottom of the page, down where, in props, the Lorem Ipsums live. I kind of wanted to see it: Carol Burnett was a legend, though I’d never heard of Erma Bombeck or Charles Grodin. I wondered if the Abbotts were much of a television family.

I also gathered that Boston had been a rough town in the 70s. There seemed to be a lot of news coverage of various corruption cases that we hadn’t bothered with, and that I hadn’t registered before because reading the paper online, you just called up the articles you wanted.

“Well. I didn’t think you were lying.” Sissy didn’t flip to the local news, and I was grateful.

I reached down and patted my backpack. Then I folded the paper and put it in the center of the long scrubbed table. I appreciated that the Abbotts didn’t go in for flowered vinyl or anything.

The kettle was boiling, and Sissy got up to make the tea. She was still pouring when the creak of stairs heralded the approach of one of the adults. We both did a pretty good job of not looking guilty when Karen walked in, if I do say so myself.

“Tea, Aunt Karen?” Sissy asked, holding up the kettle. I went and got another mug from the sideboard and brought it to Sissy.

“Sure. You girls are up early.” Karen sounded sympathetic.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Sissy said.

“Me either.” Karen glanced at the sideboard. She looked tired right through her freckles. “There are always more dishes in this place. Or I missed a spoon earlier.”

She picked it up and tched. “You haven’t been in the frosting?”

“No, ma’am.” Sissy blew her earlier nonchalance and overacted so much that I didn’t believe her, and I’d been with her all night and knew she hadn’t had the opportunity.

“Well, somebody has. And done a damned poor job concealing the evidence.” Grumpily, she re-washed the spoon, and set it in the drainer. “I bet it was Grampa Bud.”

She got her own teabag down from the cabinet, plunked it in the mug, and poured still-steaming water in. My mother would have had a proper spotted cow about that, making tea with water that wasn’t at the rolling boil.

While her tea was steeping, she fetched the cake layers out of the fridge, and the big yellow bowl of frosting. She set them on the counter to come up to room temperature.

Dutch came over and sat at her feet, wagging his skanky half-tail hopefully. “Poor Dutch,” Karen said. “I should have known that Tom would go for the least possible effort.”

She sipped her tea and sighed, not bothering to pull the teabag out of it. Her eye fell on the paper. Reluctantly, she pulled it over and slid the town news section out.

I saw her steeling her breath.

There, below the fold, in the center column, with a black and white, murky photograph, was a headline I did not know by heart.

BARN FIRE CLAIMS MASHPEE WOMAN’S LIFE

Karen closed her eyes for an instant. “Well, that’s that.”

I closed my eyes too, hugging the teacup against me. Things were still changing.

“How about you girls? How are you bearing up?”

Sissy shrugged.

I looked at her and looked at Karen. I had to say something. “I barely knew her,” I said. “But she was very nice.”

Sissy nodded.

“You can talk to me,” Karen offered. She was still looking at Sissy with an intensity that freaked me out. “Sissy.”

Sissy jumped up. Her untouched tea teetered. “What’s the point?”

“Sissy!”

“What the point in talking? What’s the point in talking about anything? Nothing changes, ever. Nothing is going to get fixed!”

Karen put her hand out, then drew it back.

Someone’s footsteps creaked on the front stairs. I saw Karen’s nervous glance and felt Sissy freeze like a mouse. It wasn’t even four in the morning—no, it was a little after—and Karen was already expected to be on duty, it seemed.

She looked from me to Sissy. Sissy ignored the look, focusing on the mug of tea she had reclaimed, and was turning and turning with her fingertips.

“Why don’t you girls take your tea upstairs?” Karen jerked her head at the back stairs. “That’s probably best for everyone.”

We did as we were told. I just about remembered to scoop up my backpack with my other hand before we went down the hall towards the back stairs.

I heard Clark’s voice greeting Karen in the kitchen as he came down the front.

“What was she scared of?” I asked, back in the attic bedroom.

Sissy didn’t answer. She went and sat on her bed under the gable window, knees drawn up, hugging her tea in a way that looked familiar. I really was well-cast.

“Tell me you didn’t have anything to do with… with what happened to Aunt Margaret.” Sissy said it all on a rush, still staring down into her tea as if she’d dropped an earring into it.

“It wasn’t me,” I answered with total confidence. “I wouldn’t, and anyway we’ve been together the whole time.”

She glanced nervously at the door, as if she had heard the floorboards creaking.

I sat down on the trundle to make myself smaller, and softened my voice. “Why is everybody so scared of Uncle Clark anyway?”

She shook her head, one abrupt unfocused jerk that gave me a terrible sinking feeling.

I thought about her outburst. I thought about Karen’s scared sideways glance. I thought about everything Tom had said, drunk, on the porch. About how Mae was too old for something. And Sissy was going to be. And how she had said, of Tom: Things are going to be a lot worse around here without him.

I thought about this attic bedroom and how good Sissy was at vanishing from it, when there was a perfectly good bedroom downstairs. I had a lot of questions and I didn’t like the answers I was matching them against, about why all the kids might have a conspiracy to protect each other from their bachelor uncle.

But I didn’t ask any more questions. I might have, except Sissy slammed her mug down on the window shelf and catapulted off the bed. “Where is my diary?”

I glanced around. It wasn’t on the nightstand, where she had left it. It wasn’t anywhere else in the room.

“What did you do with my diary?” she demanded, rounding on me.

Mutely, I held out my unblemished hands.

She stared at them, and seemed to deflate.

“Besides,” I said, feeling like somebody had just told me to run the same line over again. “I was with you the whole time.” I set my empty mug down beside the trundle.

“You’re the one who said you were a time traveler,” she retorted.

“Touché. But the time machine burned up with the barn.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” she protested.

I flopped on my back and put my head down on the pillow. “You know what? When you’re ready to sleep, turn the light off, would you?” The sun wouldn’t be up for a few more hours. There was still a chance to get some rest.

She glared at me for a minute, then humphed and threw herself down on her own bed. She clicked the light off.

I lay there in the dark and worried.

Was Clark going to kill everybody to cover up his crimes? He survived. He was one of the suspects. In the play, his motive was PTSD, from Vietnam.

I didn’t think his problem was post-traumatic stress disorder.

I seemed to recall that there weren’t many resources in place in the 1970s for kids experiencing sexual abuse. Were there even such things as mandated reporting laws yet? I was pretty sure there weren’t.

God, Maisie. Tom had hinted that Sissy was getting too old for Clark. And that Maisie was getting to be old enough.

I had to do something.

I didn’t have the slightest idea what I could do.

What if the time machine didn’t burn up in the barn?

I’d fallen asleep, I guess, despite the tea and worry. When I opened my eyes again, dawn light was filtering into the room, a surprising number of birds for so late in the year were singing cheerfully. And Sissy must have found her diary, because she was bent over something on the window ledge, and I could hear the rustle of turning paper.

Not the diary, I realized, as my eyes focused and I realized that the lump on the bed beside her was my backpack, sitting open.

The script.

“Sissy,” I said carefully. “That’s mine, and you shouldn’t read it.”

She turned back to me, and I knew immediately that I was too late. “I was checking for my diary.”

Her voice wavered and broke. I couldn’t even be angry with her for not trusting me, because she’d met me—literally—yesterday.

I would have done the same thing.

She put her face in her hands. Another thing the attic bedroom would be good for was muffling the sound of sobbing. How many times had she cried up here, alone?

I was anything but a typical sixteen-year-old. Sissy, on the other hand, was exactly like her age. She was always and would be forever twelve years old.

I went to her and put my arms around her. She snuggled into me, dampening my borrowed T-shirt with snot. Again.

“I die. I die? Kat, I’m just a kid.”

I held her close. I stroked her hair, ready to stop if she pulled away. She pressed her face against me harder, so I figured I was okay.

I said, “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

I wondered if I was lying.

“How can you stop it? I mean, nobody can—” she hiccupped “—can stop, stop Uncle Clark, and—”

“I’ll solve the murders. Murder. There. Also, we know not to drink the tea. And not to let anybody else drink the tea.”

Her sobs tapered off. I cuddled her, and let it happen. Finally, sniffling, she wiped her eyes and nose on the hem of her own shirt, and straightened up, eyeing me. “But if you solve the mystery and the murderer gets caught, then there’s no play, is there?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “The time machine burned up, anyway. I can’t go home. So who cares if there’s a play?”

“But if there’s no play, you never came here, and—”

Her brow creased. She was thinking so hard she had forgotten to be upset.

This kid was amazing.

Something in my face must have given the truth away.

“Kat. You knew that and you weren’t telling me.”

“Sissy.” My voice cracked.

“I die!”

I looked away from her.

“I die, Kat. That’s not a change in the script you didn’t know about.”

Miserable, I nodded. “I’ll try to save you.”

A little while later, Sissy asked, “When?” It took me a moment to figure out what she meant. She was a kid without much experience reading playscripts. The timeline wasn’t clear to her. “When do I die?”

I shook my head.

She said, “Does something happen today?”

“I told you. I won’t let it happen.”

“Does something happen tomorrow?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted, “I thought I knew. But everything is changing. And if I change it too much I won’t even exist, never mind not going home. Never mind not having a play.”

“What if we found the time machine?”

“It burned up.”

She looked at me with dinnerplate eyes full of doubt. “Do you really think so?”

“I don’t know that either, I guess. I thought I knew. But then the barn burned down, and once it did the script changed, and my memories changed. And in the script the horses were in the barn—”

“Not the horses!” All her fear for herself was washed away in fury that somebody would threaten her friends.

Wait a minute. If I’d known the time machine was going to burn, too, I never would have left. I would not have gone riding.

Would I have saved the horses?

God, I hoped so. I really didn’t want to be my mother’s daughter, and that would be a terrible way to find out I was.

“Promise me you’ll come and find me when you get home.” Sissy’s voice was a whisper.

“Even if I get there somehow, I’ll be sixteen. You’ll be sixty. What will you want with a kid?”

“As old as Aunt Margaret,” she said, wonderingly. “She liked kids.”

She had.

This whole thing was making my head throb. Or maybe lack of sleep was what was doing it. Unfamiliar air? Whatever, it hurt terribly.

And apparently I had to solve a murder.

When we came back down, Detective Franklin was in the kitchen, stirring a cup of coffee with the sugar spoon. We stopped before we walked into the kitchen and slid silently back up the hall to eavesdrop, holding each other by the arms. Tom almost walked into our backs, and Sissy almost screamed when he did, but somehow we all held it together.

I cupped a hand to my ear to hear better.

“I’m afraid,” the detective was saying to Lizzie and Gloria and Karen, “that the fire investigator found traces of accelerant splashed around the barn. At least it looks like Miss Abbott didn’t suffer much.”

There were gasps. And Karen’s voice, uninflected. “How do you know that?”

“No smoke in her lungs, according to that Quincy type down at the ME’s office. She had already stopped breathing when the fire started. There is going to have to be a full investigation.”

We slunk into the kitchen after Detective Franklin left, trying not to look like three kids who had been eavesdropping. Tom mostly just looked hung over.

Served him right.

The aunts waved cheerfully to us as we came in. Platters of bacon and pancakes were on the sideboard, and more paper plates. The cake was finished and on the sideboard, too. As we filled up our plates, Sissy stretched out a finger toward the gorgeous frosting. Karen definitely knew what she was doing. It wasn’t even frosting from a tub, and the surface was glossy and mirror smooth.

Karen did not turn around from the stove. “Sissy. What if Uncle Clark saw?”

Sissy took a step back.

“You know he gets the first piece.”

“It’s not fair,” Sissy protested.

Karen sniffed in frustration. “Life isn’t fair. Tom, you should have just butched the whole dog.”

She pointed to poor shamed Dutch, who was lying against the base of the door. His half-clipped tail fanned when she noticed him.

I nearly turned over my chair. That line gave me a chill. Whatever else had changed, that line was in the play, verbatim. On stage, when Carmyne said it as Karen, it came across as bitchy and sharp. But the real Karen gave it a warm read that made even Tom laugh.

“I didn’t want him to be cold,” Tom said, around the slice of bacon he was folding into his mouth.

“Well,” Karen said. “I guess that was thoughtful of you.”

I sat down at the table and refused tea. Sissy, looking at me sideways, asked for orange juice. It was still supposed to be six hours to the poisonings, but who knew what else was changing.

Karen handed it over—watery, strange-looking stuff out of a pitcher—and said, “When you’ve finished your breakfast, go bring some grain to the horses.”

I stole a taste of Sissy’s juice. It tasted like it looked: sharp and pale.

We finished our breakfasts. I didn’t bother worrying about whether I would still look twelve. I ate my pancakes and bacon. They were pretty good pancakes, and it was fake butter but real maple syrup. I guess New England has always had standards.

Sissy trudged over to the door and started putting her sneakers on.

“Aunt Karen,” I said. “Can I have an aspirin?”

“We’ve got Tylenol.” She rattled in the cupboard and came up with two weird-looking red and yellow gelcaps.

They didn’t make over the counter medication in this kind of capsule anymore. There’d been murders. Somebody had poisoned a family member, and then tampered with some random packages to make it look like the murder they intended to do was just part of a random string. I knew about it because I had researched a bunch of old poisonings when I got the role.

People are awful. I know: my job is pretending to be one.

I took the Tylenol with some water, then went out with Sissy and we fed the horses. They seemed very happy in the neighbor’s pasture. They probably would be fine there. At least until winter came.

By the time we got back to the house my head hurt a little less. This time, I couldn’t avoid a mug of Lipton. Breakfast had been huge, and I wasn’t hungry yet. Mae was also sitting at the table, drinking tea in her white cardigan.

When Clark walked through, Sissy’s hand closed so hard against the side of the table I was surprised nothing fell over.

My tea did slop, but I wasn’t drinking it anyway. It had gotten too close to lunchtime. The hour of the murders. And I had no idea what to do.

Clark pretended not to notice us and Mae. Three kids at the table and him a manly middle-aged man. We were not his business. We were women’s work.

“Cake looks grand, Gloria.” He walked over to the Mr. Coffee and poured a mug.

“Would you like a slice?”

“Still a little early for me yet. Good morning, girls,” he said to us, as if finally deigning to notice.

I remembered the butterscotch he’d had in his pocket and shuddered. Would you like a piece of candy, little girl?

“Good morning, Uncle Clark,” Mae and Sissy said, in dutiful tones.

“Who’s your little friend?” He looked me up and down, edging toward the table as if to sit. As if he’d forgotten having met me.

“Cousin Kat,” Mae said quickly, tugging her cardigan closed.

“We met yesterday,” I said.

Mae turned to me. “You lazy girls had better go feed those horses. It’s after ten!”

Her flat stare would have silenced my protest, if I had been about to make one. I jumped up and brought the tea mug to Lizzie, who was standing by the sink, moving her weight from foot to foot. Why didn’t somebody in this family get that poor woman a chair?

“You feeling okay, sweetie?” she asked, dumping it down the drain.

“Still full from that amazing breakfast,” I said, and then Sissy was pulling me out the door.

We ran across to the horses and climbed up on the bottom rail to watch them graze.

“I hope it’s Clark,” she said.

I hoped so too. “I don’t know how to stop him,” I admitted. “Mae just did us a favor, didn’t she?”

She nodded, mouth tight.

“Clark’s going to take it out on her.”

She nodded again. “She leaves tomorrow.”

“We can’t rule out anybody.” That included Sissy, I realized. Personal loyalty kept me from believing it. But she could be the one who poisoned everybody, and also herself. On purpose or accidentally.

Just to get away from Clark.

God, that would be horrible. Pathetic in the lit-crit sense. Tragic beyond believing.

Because the script didn’t consider the possibility didn’t mean it couldn’t be true.

“The killer can’t be somebody who came with us! How could they kill Margaret if they were at the beach?” Sissy protested. “And who shot at Diamond to get you thrown?”

“Time machine,” I pointed out. “What better alibi? Besides, they had to know where we were going to be in order to shoot Diamond.”

“We always ride the same way.” Sissy’s mouth did a funny twisted thing, and despite myself I practiced it. “Well. Nearly always.” She shook her head. “I bet it was Mae. She’s a wicked jerk.”

I didn’t think Mae was a jerk. I thought she was somebody who saw a way out for herself and didn’t know how to help her siblings. Yet. But she seemed to be trying.

I also understood that Sissy needed somebody to blame.

“My mom is nice to people,” I said. “She’d burn down a barn in a heartbeat if it suited her. Horses and all.”

Maybe I was the same, though. Hadn’t I let Margaret get killed, just to protect my own future?

And look where it had got me.

“Mae wouldn’t hurt the horses,” Sissy admitted. “I’m just mad.”

“Mae’s too careful. She wouldn’t cause that much collateral damage.” I shook my head. “Look. Sissy. Where would you hide a time machine?”

“Porn Shack,” she said promptly.

“The missing flashlight,” I said. “Who took it, do you think?”

She looked at me. “Let’s go see.”

The woods were full of crunchy leaves, fragrant and colorful. We scuffed through them, and I kept looking up at the sky overhead, an impossible cerulean like a glazed tile. The smell… I don’t know how to describe the smell of autumn leaves, if you haven’t smelled it. Like your favorite old book and baking bread, but different.

I loved that smell, and I couldn’t concentrate enough to enjoy it. Because the penny had dropped, and I knew who was going to be doing the murders.

But I couldn’t prove it. And if I turned them in…well, who knew how the future would change?

Very few people, I thought, would write a VR experience or stage a play about a tawdry little murder in a Massachusetts town sixty years ago. About somebody who burned down their family barn and killed an old lady and then got caught.

That just wasn’t awful enough to be interesting.

Then, there we were, at the Porn Shack.

And as I had half suspected he would be, the killer was waiting for us, scratching at the back of his hand.

“Hi, Tom,” I said. Sissy went still as a startled doe beside me.

Tom scratched at the itchy red patch again.

“That’s poison ivy,” I said. “You ought to put some calamine on that.”

“Yeah,” he said blandly. “I got it fighting the fire.”

I smiled when I met his eyes. “Hero.” I couldn’t tell if he was buying what I was selling. I am pretty good at my job.

Serial killers are scary, though.

Was that Tom?

“I know where you’re from,” he said. “If I help you get home, will you keep your mouth shut?”

I looked at Sissy. “I ought to go home,” I told her. “I should.”

She scoffed. In her voice was the echo of a young girl’s. “There’s only two reasons to do anything. Because you need to or because you want to. So is this one of those?”

“No,” I said. “No, it’s not.”

“So what are you doing it for?”

Because my mother expects me to.

I thought about the Tylenol murders, which hadn’t happened yet. I looked back at Tom. “This is about Clark, isn’t it?”

He shrugged. “I can’t go off and leave him with Maisie. And Sissy. I have to do something.”

“You stole my fucking diary.”

He turned toward her. “Look, Sis,” he said. “I just needed to see what you’d figured out. And if there was anything about Clark. I just hid it. I’ll gi—”

She didn’t say anything else. She just turned her chin to the side a tiny bit.

Then she launched.

She was gone so fast that my grab after her only touched air. Then she hit Tom, and I don’t know what happened exactly. Except that she was sitting on the ground and he was staring down at her. “I don’t want to hurt you, Sissy.”

“Too late,” she gulped, red seeping between her fingers as she cupped them over her nose. “You bwoke my node.”

“Aw, Sis.” He went to her and crouched. “Tilt your head back. Let me see. I was just trying to push you, small fry… no, it’s just a bloody nose.”

He petted her hair the same way I had. Not at all like Clark.

“Look,” I said. “This doesn’t work.” I gestured to Sissy, snuffling, throat working as she swallowed blood. “You wind up killing half your family. You wind up killing Sissy.”

“That’s not true!”

“Tom,” I said. “You figured out where I come from. I’ve got no reason to lie to you.”

That was when the second Tom walked out from behind the Porn Shack with a menacing swagger and a shotgun in his hands.

Sissy looked from one Tom to the other. “You’re twins?!”

“Jesus.” The new Tom rolled his eyes. “I’m using the time machine.”

His speech was slurred. He had been drinking. There were twigs in his hair as if he had been sleeping in the woods. Or in the Porn Shack.

A yellow plastic flashlight stuck out of his back pocket, and I felt confident in my guess.

“Is the time machine in the Porn Shack?”

The shape of his mouth told me it was. He said, “I don’t want to hurt either one of you.”

“You’ve already hurt Sissy,” I said. She scooted toward me on her butt, away from either Tom.

“That wasn’t me,” drunk Tom said. He pointed at himself with the gun. “It was him.”

“You probably shouldn’t point that at your past self.”

He blinked at me for a second, then jerked the gun away. I half-expected it to go off, but then I realized he was so drunk he hadn’t taken the safety off.

“Who hurt Margaret?” I asked.

Drunk Tom pointed the gun at me. “It was him.

“I’d rather,” I said carefully, “you also didn’t point it at me.”

If he pulled the trigger, he’d figure out fast enough what was going wrong. So I had an advantage of seconds, if that happened. And there were two of him.

“Aunt Margaret,” sober Tom said. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

“Oh, no,” said Sissy. “Tell me you—oh.” 

“I was just going to steal the time machine. To come back and make Un… make Clark stop. She wasn’t supposed to be in the barn! You have to believe me!” He pointed at drunk Tom, though sober Tom only used his finger. “He told me Margaret wouldn’t be there, and that he’d make sure there was nobody around!”

I wondered if it was future Tom who had gone riding with us that day. Who had been drinking beer on the porch. It would have to be, wouldn’t it?

Come back in time and tell your past self to commit the crime that made it possible for you to be there in the first place. Then establish an alibi for him—for yourself—by being somewhere else at the time.

“You shot Diamond, too, didn’t you?”

Sober Tom nodded.

Drunk Tom said, “That was a… stupid idea.”

“Yeah,” sober Tom agreed. “It really was. I thought it would make it look like somebody had it in for the family, but… stealing the time machine wasn’t my best idea either, honestly.”

Drunk Tom—future Tom—looked at the three of us. He sat down in the leaves, set the shotgun down, and put his forehead on his arms. “I don’t feel so good.”

Original Tom sat down beside him in the same pose, but with his chin lifted. “Margaret was an accident,” he said, hollowly. “She surprised me.”

I thought about him pushing Sissy.

“You asshole!” Sissy exploded. Blood flying, she hurled herself at the Toms. This time I was ready for her. I grabbed her arm and hugged her close. He’d already killed one person accidentally. And Future Tom was still drunk, and still had the gun beside him.

Since she couldn’t get to Tom, she kicked me instead. I was smaller, but I was a lot stronger. Gymnastics and ballet will do that to a person.

Sober Tom put his hand on Future Tom’s shoulder. “Hey.”

“She never saved us from Clark,” future Tom said, into his own forearms. “I had to win. I had to do this. I couldn’t leave unless I did this.”

It had… a terrible ring of self-justification to it. Why did future Tom drink so much, anyway?

“Besides,” he said. Lost his train of thought. Started again. “Besides. You can’t change the past. Can you? Even if you really, really want to. It’s all decided. No free will. Past. Future. Everything.”

Oh.

He knew.

He knew about the terrible thing he had done.

He knew, and he had convinced himself that it had to be this way.

Oh, God.

Maybe there was still time to save Tom.

Maybe there was still time to save nearly everyone.

“Oh, you don’t win this,” I said. “You don’t win, and a lot of people pay the price for what you think you have to do. Because you still have the time machine. If you won this, and you still believed in what you did, another of your future selves would be about to clock me on the back of the head. “

I braced, because that would be just my luck.

No blow fell.

Future Tom frowned at me blearily, trying to parse. He bobbled to his feet, fumbling up the gun and using it to lever himself upright.

Original Tom stood up more easily, and stepped a little closer to him.

“What’s she talking about?” he asked himself.

“Look,” I said. “If you won, and if you still thought what you did was the right decision, wouldn’t future future you be right here?”

“Shut up,” drunk Tom said.

“Sissy,” sober Tom said. “What is she talking about?”

Sissy snuffled blood and glared at him. “You kill Uncle Clark,” she said thickly. “And you kill a lot of other people too. Including Aunt Lizzie. Including me.”

“We can stop this now,” I said. “We can figure out something else to do about Clark.”

“It’s too late,” Future Tom said. “I put it in the frosting last night. But Clark always gets the first piece…”

The spoon Karen had complained about. Of course. And my stomach clenched as I remembered Sissy trying to steal a finger-swipe of frosting. Of all the irresponsible, thoughtless—

Tom was a traumatized kid, just a year older than I was. He was broken, and he had made stupid mistakes. We might still have time to fix part of this, however.

If I wanted it fixed. Sissy was with me. She was wise. She would be safe.

I could just… let the rest of it happen.

But what came out of my mouth, inanely, while Sissy thumped me by lunging at him again, was, “It was—oof!—supposed to be in the tea!”

“We have to stop it!” said sober Tom. He moved toward his future self, a restraining hand reaching for the gun.

Drunk Tom swung it up and tried to fire. Lucky for him the safety was on, because the barrel was jammed full of dirt of leaves and it might have blown up in his hand.

Present Tom—our Tom—grabbed for him. Future Tom threw the gun at him, whirled, and fled.

Into the Porn Shack.

Before anybody could follow him, there was a sound like a popped balloon and a smell of ozone, and I knew that he was gone.

Tom ran the two steps to the Porn Shack door and peered inside. “Nothing in here but a pile of car batteries. He took the time machine with him. He’s gone… back where he came from, I guess.”

He looked at me, and I studied the creases around his eyes. If I could learn to look like that, haunted like that…

“Kat,” Sissy said, suddenly docile. She put her hand on my arm. “Kat, I am so sorry—”

“Never mind that!” That wasn’t the future I cared about, anyway. “Let’s go spoil a cake before they finish lunch.”

It was Tom who saved the day. He barreled into the kitchen full of Abbotts with Sissy bleeding and squalling in his arms, and ran right into the counter where Mae was lifting the first slice of cake onto a plate.

The cake went everywhere, along with a massive shattering of antique glass cake plate. I caught the dogs before they could get involved. Mae stood stunned for a moment, streaks of chocolate all down her white cardigan. “For the love of Mike, Tom!”

“Sissy broke her nose!” he said, carrying Sissy toward the sink.

“Id’s not bwoke,” Sissy insisted, as Tom set her like a parcel on the counter.

Mae put the knife down as I shut the door to keep the dogs in the hall. She moved to lick frosting off her fingers, and I caught her wrist and her gaze. “Let me turn on the sink for you, Mae.”

“It’s on,” Tom said, over the sudden rush of water. Gloria was already beside him, wetting a rag.

Mae, without looking away from me, nodded as if she suddenly understood something. She let me lead her to the sink. Karen was cleaning up the cake. With a dustpan, I was glad to see, which wasn’t anything anybody would be tempted to lick.

Clark, with menacing deliberation, stood out of his chair. He was the only adult male in the room, I realized suddenly. We’d run past Bud and the others on the lawn on the way in.

Mae had been cutting his slice of cake.

Clark advanced on Tom with deceptive mildness. “Those were my mother’s plates,” he said.

Tom didn’t turn around. He was dabbing at Sissy’s nose while she batted at his hands.

Clark took another step, fisted his right hand, and raised it. With his left, he reached toward Tom. “You little shit, you look at me when I’m talking to—”

The back door opened again, with a slam.

Everybody froze.

Everybody turned.

Detective Franklin stood framed in the doorway, frowning at Clark’s upraised fist. Slowly, Clark put it down, and slid the hand into his pocket. He forced a false, bright smile. “My goodness, you kids startled me!”

“Uncle Clark,” I said.

Lizzie put a hand on my shoulder.

He checked me out in a way I was all too familiar with. “Kat, isn’t it?”

“Kat,” I confirmed.

I thought, everything was chaos, and nobody is going to remember exactly when we got back with the horses. Eyewitnesses are always unreliable.

The past can change.

I said, “Uncle Clark, Tom and I saw you setting the barn on fire.”

Clark’s face hovered between rage and incredulity. I wondered if I could reproduce that expression. It was kind of amazing.

Mae, who was drying off her hands, looked at me. Then she looked at Tom.

Tom nodded.

Mae said, “I saw it too. We were coming back from riding and we saw him with the gasoline can.”

Detective Franklin turned his head to her. “Why didn’t you say anything yesterday?”

Mae peeled her white cardigan down her shoulders and threw it in the trash. Those stains would never come out. She side-stepped toward Lizzie and me.

Lizzie put her arm around Mae.

“We’re all scared of him,” Mae said in a small voice.

“This is a story they’re making up,” Clark said. “It’s just some damned kid nonsense. We don’t even know this girl.” He pointed at me. “She came in on a bus. And Sissy went riding with them. You didn’t see anything of the sort, did you, my girl?”

He reached out toward the counter to stroke Sissy’s hair.

She didn’t cringe. I could see that she knew better than to cringe. But her whole body contracted with the effort of staying still.

Lizzie looked from Sissy to Mae and back again, and I watched her face got still. She put her hand on her belly. She flinched, and I saw the ripple across her abdomen as the bulge of it hardened.

“You wouldn’t make up stories about me,” Clark purred.

“Oh,” Sissy said quietly. “I wouldn’t make up stories about you, Uncle Clark. I saw you walking away from the barn with the gasoline can.”

“You little shit!”

“Well,” Detective Franklin said. Somehow, he’d gotten a gun into his hand. He wasn’t pointing it at anyone in the kitchen, however. Which was good, because the room was pretty crowded. “I think you’d better come with me, Mr. Abbott.”

“Oh, hell,” Lizzy said, and squeezed both me and Mae hard—hard—as her water broke. Everybody who wasn’t under arrest, arresting somebody, or helping with Sissy’s nosebleed went to help her.

I picked up the phone and called 911, fumbling with the rotary dial. Luckily, it seemed like Mashpee had installed the emergency response system as of 1978, because the call went through.

There were sirens in the yard mere minutes later. Squad cars and an ambulance.

I don’t think anybody noticed when I just up and vanished away from a past that there was no reason for me to have come back to anymore, leaving the harvest gold handset lying in the coils of its own tangled cord.

Or maybe I had just never been there at all, since I had no reason now to have ever come to Mashpee.

We fantasize that relationships are going to be easy. But what we end up with is complicated and often conflicted. Full of problems and things that aren’t what we thought we would get.

But I know there’s a timeline where I was a second slower, or a second more cruel. I used to live there. I was very successful.

That place is gone now and I can never go home. But in this new place I’ve come back to, I remember. I remember both sets of truths: the one I learned in my script, and the one I lived through.

Eyewitness reports are notoriously unreliable.

The good news is, I didn’t destroy the world in a nuclear holocaust by changing history. I didn’t even manage to destroy my own existence.

I just destroyed my career.

I went looking for the secret history. The thing that would make it all make sense. Help me to understand.

I went looking for the answers. That’s what brought me into that barn. And that’s what brought everybody into the rage of nostalgia that made Time to Reap the success that it was. When conditions existed that made Time to Reap possible.

A chance to go back over it again. Do it right this time.

Figure some stuff out.

I wanted the secret history. But the secret is there is no secret. History is a construct. Our lives are all constructs, patterns we build out of events to give them meaning.

Narrative arc.

There’s no more Truth in the past than there is right now.

Do you do the right thing, when you have a chance to? Do you do the right thing even if it’s wrong?

I think I made the wrong choice.

I think I would make it again.

I guess I became an actor because… well, I became an actor because my mother pushed me into it. But I became good at it because it was a way to be close to somebody.

Even somebody fictional. Even somebody fifty years dead. Intimacy. I crave it the way some people crave chocolate. Or cocaine.

And for a little while I thought I had found a kind of intimacy. A kind of perfect knowledge, better than being in love because it was truth and not hormones.

But I guess I don’t get to have that.

Maybe nobody does.

I seem to have been a pretty normal stage kid, in this reality, until all the memories hit me. I was in an audition and I kind of lost it. Started doing the wrong piece. A piece from a play that was never written. Spent a little time in the hospital and a lot more in therapy. They blamed it on a flaw in the cognitive enhancements and declared me stable, eventually. By then, I was old enough to seek emancipation.

After the court case was over I went to the theatre. At least the theatre was still there. Shuttered, a little the worse for wear. But it hadn’t caved in or vanished or been replaced with a chain steakhouse.

I picked the lock on the stage door and let myself in. Past all the empty rooms. The abandoned boxes. The dust. A wig tossed in a corner like a giant roadkill spider.

There was a note waiting for me. I hadn’t expected that. A handwritten address inside. Email and phone number. Priscilla Abbott.

She lived out in Amherst now. I wondered what had happened to the family farm. Maybe Tom or Mae inherited it. I hoped Tom had gotten help. He’d done something terrible, but he was just a kid. A broken kid. The same age I was now.

Sissy would be old. As old as Aunt Margaret. And here I was, seventeen and still filling out from all the years of being hungry all the time. Almost starting to look my age.

I wondered if Sissy had a spare bedroom. I wondered if Amherst was a nice place to live. My phone said there were busses. Sure, why not?

But I was going to do this, first.

I paused in the wings stage left, in air thick with the smell of dust. I gathered myself and walked out on stage. Alone, because I would have been alone—and second-to-last—when I took my bows.

The house was empty.

I stood there for a moment, looking out at all those dusty red velour seats, imagining the applause.

(Editors’ Note: Elizabeth Bear is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She has been the recipient of Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Awards, among others. Her most recent novels are Ancestral Night and The Red-Stained Wings. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, writer Scott Lynch.

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