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Lost in Time
The year is 1910, and unemployed teacher Claudia Ogden is at the end of her rope. With nowhere to go and no one to rely on, she has no future at all. On the rumor of a job in a small, remote town called Conconully, she decides to bet what’s left of her life on it.
But when she arrives, and to her relief is hired, what at first seem like small eccentricities loom ever larger and more inexplicably, mysteries that make no sense. That is, until she meets Conconully’s accidental magician, who wants her to save them.
But from what?
“Please, Miss Ogden, sit down.” The principal’s voice was kindly but sad, as was her smile, If I hadn’t already known the news was going to be bad simply because I had been called into her office, it was as certain now as the pain. And that pain was a fact of life. Had been since before I’d taken this new job in Seattle, almost a year ago now. But it had worsened to the point that I’d missed days of classes, unable to rise from my bed. Too many days. Which was why I was here, now, sitting in Miss Taylor’s office, waiting to be told that they’d have to let me go.
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“Yes.” I had finally, at Jean’s insistence, used the money I owed her for rent and made an appointment, for all the good it had done me. Now I was in debt to her and no better off for it. Worse off, given what was about to happen to me.
“Was he able to discern what the problem is?” Perhaps she was hoping I’d tell her he was curing me. Maybe she wanted to keep me. If nothing else, it would save her the trouble of hiring someone else.
But no. Dr. Spencer had been useless to me, for all he’d tried to hide the fact. I’d seen it in his eyes. I swallowed. “I-it’s female troubles, ma’am.”
Her face grew grim. “You’re not with child, are you?”
My breath left me in a whoosh of a “No!” But her expression did not change, and I could feel the hopelessness settling into my soul along with the pain that even now was making it difficult to keep my back straight and not bend me over. I shook my head, to add to the emphasis. If only that was the problem. But whatever trouble was in my womb, the doctor could not determine what it was, and could not do anything.
“Will you be well soon?”
I shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. The doctor does not know, either.”
Her brow furrowed. “Will you be going to a specialist?”
Dr. Spencer had broached the subject, but I could not afford it, not on a teacher’s salary. “No, ma’am.”
Miss Taylor’s expression faded into something resembling pity. I supposed I did seem pitiful to her, but I could not muster the dignity to deny it.
“You have missed six days in the last month, and more than two weeks since term began two months ago.” She paused, as if she did not want to do what I, or my illness, had forced her to do. “I am sorry, Miss Ogden.”
I blinked my stinging eyes, determined not to shame myself in front of her. Not any more than I already had. “Yes, I know. I will gather my things.”
I had reached the door and put my hand on the knob when she said, “You are one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. I wish you well, Miss Ogden.”
At least I made it out of the building before the tears began to fall.
“That witch!” Jean exclaimed. “Why not kick you to the gutter as well as knocking you down?”
“It was not her fault.” I sank into one of the two armchairs flanking the fireplace. The parlor of the little house in west Seattle I shared with my friend and landlady was a warm and cozy space.
Three steps took Jean across the room. She turned back to face me. “They have an obligation to help you, Claudia, not to make things worse.”
I stared at her. I should have expected something like this from Jean, whose thoughts on the subject of employee/employer relations put her somewhere on the far side of the radical Wobblies. The Industrial Workers of the World had caused a general strike in Seattle a few years ago, and, from what I understood, had not accomplished a thing besides bringing the city to a standstill. But I had not expected it. I had expected her to take my side, and be sympathetic, and do all the normal things one’s friends do when one stumbles over misfortune. But no. She had to make even my illness someone else’s responsibility.
“The district cannot afford to keep a teacher who is too ill to teach.”
“Then they should pay for the care that will make you well again. Your principal said you are the best teacher she’s ever worked with.”
I should not have told Jean that, but it was the one bright spot in this awful day. “One of the best, yes.” I could not help smiling.
She did not smile back at me. “And yet she let you go because you are too ill to work. Have you made an appointment with that specialist yet?”
I did not reply, but she apparently saw my answer in my face, because her frown deepened into a scowl. “If you do not, I shall do it for you.”
But she rode right over me. “What was his name? Dr. Whittington?”
But she was already on the telephone, speaking with the operator. While I wished I had the strength, or the determination, to stop her, I sank back in the chair in defeat.
She went with me, too. “To make sure you don’t back out,” she told me. Jean was a good friend. Bossy and overbearing and thoroughly convinced that she always knew best, but a good friend. And when the appointment was over, and payment was mentioned, she glared me down and produced the cash herself.
It was not charity, I told myself. But it was. And I was so beaten down by what the specialist had told me that I let her do it. She knew my situation from that alone, even though I had been fighting to keep my despair from my face the moment I walked out of the examining room. The doctor had performed enough humiliating and, as it turned out, unnecessary scrutiny to tell me what my heart had already known before I left Montana last year. After all, wasn’t that the main reason I’d left in the first place? Perhaps not the main reason, as I had wanted the adventure, and to relieve my parents of one more burden as well. After all, my intellect, such as it was, had refused to believe what my heart knew until I could ignore it no longer.
Jean did not say anything until we reached our house — her house, really, as I was simply her tenant as well as her friend, and would not be either, or anything, much longer — and the door closed behind us.
She waited, until I fell more than sat into that same wing chair where she’d bullied me into going to hear my sentence. Then she said, more gently than I’d ever heard her before, “That bad, is it?”
I nodded, tried to speak, couldn’t, and she sank down on the arm of the chair, putting a warm arm around me. “I am so sorry, my dear.” She leaned away from me, as if ashamed of her kindness, and added in a tone more like herself, “What will you do now?”
Because of course I could not batten on her charity forever. “I don’t know. Go home, I guess.”
“You are home,” she told me firmly.
It was kind of her, but no. “I meant Montana.” Not that I could batten on my family, either. They could not afford to take me in, not with six other mouths to feed and my father’s work tenuous at best.
“Is that what you want?”
Of course it wasn’t, and she knew it. What I wanted was my job, my home here, my friends, Jean. My normal life. But it had been snatched from me by my incurable female troubles, by this — cancer, the specialist had called it — growing in my womb. He had offered surgery, to remove it, but said it had probably already grown to other parts of my body. If I had come in when I’d first felt the pain, I might have had a chance, but now… He’d trailed off, his expression almost accusatory, as if it were my own fault that I’d gotten sick, that I had not had the money to come see him, let alone the time and money to let him cut into me–
“No, but I cannot stay here.”
“No, you can’t.”
Well, that was clear and sharp enough. And cold. I jerked myself up out of the chair. “I will gather my things.” I had no idea where I would find the money for the train ticket, but at least my parents would be more sympathetic than this. I had thought she was my friend, no, she had been my friend. I hadn’t known she was going to turn so suddenly cruel.
“No!” Jean’s hand came down on my arm. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
I could not help but stare at her. Her voice was choked, and her eyes brimming. “I do not wish you to leave. I wish more than anything that you could stay.”
“I-I know.” And oddly enough, I did believe her. Whatever her reason for wanting me gone, I knew it was not because she did not care.
Her brows came together. Her mouth set, and she straightened her shoulders. “I know where you can go. They’ll help you there.” As I continued to stare at her, speechless, she told me, in the tone I had long since learned not to even try to gainsay, “And you will go. If I have to drag you there myself.”
Well, and what else could I do? I could not fight both Jean and my pain. Nor the despair born from the hopeless diagnosis the doctor had given me. The three combined to put me to bed, where I lay curled like a homunculus, breathing through the throbbing ache in my womb, unable to think, or even wonder. I heard the front door thump closed as Jean left the house.
I must have slept completely through the night in spite of everything, because the shadows were at an early morning angle through my bedroom window when I woke. Jean was standing in the doorway, a satisfied look on her face. “They’ll take you,” she said. “I knew they would.”
“Who?” I started to ask, but she had opened the door to my wardrobe.
“Where is your valise?”
“Under the bed. Jean–”
But she was already there. “Your train leaves in two hours.”
I had stared at her before, but this was sheer disbelief. “My train to where?”
She dragged my valise out, opened it, and started packing my things with the practice of long experience. As an aspiring Nellie Bly — not that she called herself that but it was what she was — she was used to packing her bags on a moment’s notice. It was, she’d told me when she’d first invited me to live here, why she wanted a housemate: to watch over her things and have someone living in the house while she was gone.
She glanced up at me, grinning. “Conconully.”
“Conco–” I stumbled over the unfamiliar name.
“Conconully. It’s a tiny place, out in the middle of nowhere, but you grew up in Montana, so that shouldn’t be a problem for you. They need a schoolteacher, and have for a long time–” she hesitated briefly “–and it should suit you right down to the ground.”
Startled out of my, well, startlement, I asked, “How would you know that?”
“You always told me the one thing you missed about Montana was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse instead of being nothing but a cog in a machine.” She frowned. “A machine that threw you out as soon as you needed repair.” The frown disappeared as she concentrated on folding another dress into my valise. “Conconully’s an odd little place, but the people are friendly. It’s where I grew up–” another little hesitation “–and I’d have stayed if I could, but there’s no work for a journalist there.” Her expression turned peculiar, then she turned back to my now-almost full valise, muttering, “except for one story, but nobody’d believe me.”
“Jean, do they know about my, my–” now it was my turn to hesitate. I could not bring myself to say the words, do they know I am dying?
“Yes, they know you’re ill. It’s all right, Claudia.” She looked up at me again, her eyes brimming. “Please, do this for me. It’s all right.”
And so it was that a little over two hours later, I found myself on a train headed east on the bridge over Lake Washington, away from my dearest friend, who had stuffed an assortment of tickets into my pocketbook and told the conductor to watch over me. She had hugged me one last time and made me promise once again that I would use them all and follow her instructions to the letter.
I had promised I would. Heaven help me.