He wakes with a violent jolt.
At first he’s not sure he heard anything at all. He sits up in bed, straining to hear, shivering with cold. And then comes the sound of glass shattering and furniture splintering. A crash which shakes the very walls.
He throws the blanket aside, not bothering to dress.
On his way downstairs, he grabs his old baseball bat from the closet in the hallway. The living room below is dark. No sign of a torch, no flicker of a phone screen. No sound. Nothing.
He waits, listening.
As his pulse gradually slows, can begins to hear breathing. It’s fast, panicked, interrupted by a sudden sob. He takes the stairs slowly, one by one, careful to tread only on the edges of each step so they don’t creak and alert the intruder.
When he reaches the last step, he stretches a shaking hand to the light switch. It flicks on with a click.
The light is blinding, falling into her eyes like a rising sun.
She lies on the floor, tangled in her skirt and covered in shards of glass. The room is unfamiliar. Foreign. Objects she doesn’t recognize made from materials she’s never seen fill the space, and straight ahead, at the bottom of the stairs is a strange man holding a smooth baton of wood.
He stares at her, frozen with shock.
Neither say a word.
They both remain perfectly still, as though each has come across a snake in the garden. The man seems to come to himself with a brief shake of his head. He drops his baton and steps forward uncertainly.
‘Hey, lady, you alright?’
She tries to speak, but nothing comes out. She starts shaking uncontrollably, terrified of this stranger, of this place.
‘Listen Miss, d’you want me to call you an ambulance or something?’ he takes another step towards her. ‘I ain’t pissed off – just wanna make sure you’re okay.’
She feels something hot trickle down her temple. ‘W-what’s an ambulance?’ she finally asks.
He keeps his hands in front of him so that she can see he means no harm. ‘I’ll be right back,’ he says gently.
He hurries to the bathroom, digs through the medicine cabinet, and comes back with the first aid kit. She’s standing when he returns and staring at the plasma TV mounted on the wall. Her hand is raised and quickly, as though she expects it to be scalding hot, she taps at the screen with a fingertip.
‘Just got it last week,’ he says casually, trying to be as non-threatening as he can. ‘Even got a satellite dish.’
‘What does it do?’ she asks.
He approaches her as though approaching a startled deer. ‘You know, it’s for watching movies and stuff.’
Her brown eyes look huge and uncomprehending. He closes the distance between them as slowly as he can, and lifts a tissue to her forehead. She winces under his touch, but otherwise she doesn’t move.
‘So, what happened?’ he asks, looking at her strange costume. She looked like she was from some period drama on SBS. ‘Were you at a costume party or something?’
‘I,’ she begins with a stutter. ‘I was in the woods near the manor, following the pigs. They have a talent for locating the rare mushrooms which our family trades at the market.’
‘You mean truffles?’ he asks as he finishes wiping the blood away from her face.
‘Yes. But then the pigs started squealing. It was horrid. They were screaming as though someone was slaughtering them. Then they began to run into the woods. I tried to follow, but they were fleeing so quickly. I knew that something terrible was stalking us.’
‘Wait. There’re no woods here,’ he looks her in the eyes. ‘Not for miles.’
‘I don’t know how I arrived in this place. The last thing I remember was running. I lost sight of the pigs, but I knew it didn’t matter any longer. Someone or something was in pursuit of me. I could hear its paws beating at the earth close behind, getting louder and louder. My path was suddenly cut off by a river too wide and violent to cross. I turned to face my stalker.’
Her face looked as pale as a sheet of paper. ‘The beast was huge. It was snarling and growling low in its throat, as a dog does when madness takes it. The wolf came towards me. Others appeared from the shadows. And then,’ she paused.
‘And then,’ he prompted gently.
‘I jumped into the river. But I never reached the water below. Instead the world fell into darkness, but I had the sensation that I was being sucked into a tremendous whirlpool that went on and on much longer than anything really could. And when I landed, I was here.’
He led her over to the couch so she could sit down. Her story wasn’t making much sense, and he tried to decide whether she was drunk or on drugs. But her eyes were intelligent and she smelled as clear as mountain air.
Something about her story sounded familiar.
‘Is there someone I can call to come and get you?’ he finally asks.
‘Perhaps you could send for my husband. His name is Fitzwilliam Miller. We live north of the woods, only a short walk from the church.’
‘My name’s Miller,’ he says suddenly. ‘My last name, I mean.’
She waits patiently, but his thoughts are racing out of control as he connects the pieces in his mind.
He was a boy when his mother first told him the story.
Generations ago, before his bloodline had ever set foot in America, there was a terrible curse placed upon his family. No-one knew how it came to be. And no one knew why. But every third generation, a woman in his family would vanish shortly after her twentieth birthday.
The first was Margery. She lived near the harbour and vanished off the docks during a storm. No-one had seen any sign of a struggle, and her remains were never found.
The second was Abigail. Rumour had it that she had fled her abusive husband to seek her fortune in the new world. But that was only speculation. No-one had actually seen her board a ship or even purchase a ticket.
The third was Charlotte. She had gone to the woods with her beloved old pigs, and simply disappeared. The pigs were found slaughtered by wolves. But no trace of Charlotte was ever found. Not a lock of hair. Not a scrap of clothing. Nothing.
Now, he looks at the young woman on his couch, staring about her as though she’s never seen such a strange room filled with such strange things.
‘Charlotte?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ she replies cautiously.
‘Impossible,’ he mutters as the situation dawns. ‘We’re…I mean, our family is…’ he gets up, paces across the room before returning to stand in front of her. ‘Have you ever heard of time travel?’
The shock falls away from her face as she smiles. ‘Oh, that is but a fairy tale,’ she answers, ‘told by tricksters to the fools who would believe it.’
‘Then you better brace yourself, sweetheart, because you’re not in Kansas anymore.’
‘Nothing,’ he replies. ‘People like us should really come with a handbook or something,’ he mutters to himself as he searches through his bookcase for his copy of H.G. Wells.