Chapter 29: August 24th

Barnard Hall’s staff had returned to their respective homes hours ago so there was no one left to help me.  Even if they had been around, I did not know who I could trust.  After all, one of them had most likely tried to kill me.  If I was going to save Nick and his parents, I would need to be alive to do so.  Rosa was still in 1902, so she was not available to assist me in my mission to protect the people I loved.

Changing from my gown would have stolen precious seconds so I didn’t bother.  Seconds were something I could not afford to waste.  The possibility of someone in 2012 seeing me in my dress was a risk I was more than willing to take. 

I raced across the lawn; the wind whipped my hair, twisting it into my eyes.  The damp air stung my face, much too cool for an August breeze.  Fall would come early this year.  I only hoped that Nick would be alive to see it.

When I burst through the door of the carriage house, the acrid smoke instantly burned my nose.  I navigated the rickety steps to the mirror and my heart stopped.  Through the haze I saw Nick and his parents, bound and unconscious, leaning awkwardly against some old trunks.  At least I told myself they were unconscious—the alternative was unfathomable.  I backed up and took a running start at the mirror.  The smoke had spilled through so, in theory, the doorway was working.  I prayed that I would not meet a glass wall of resistance and shatter my only hope of success.

My body passed easily through the portal, and I collapsed onto my knees back in 1902.  The carriage house was already engulfed in flames, but the blaze had blessedly started downstairs.  The lower walls glowed with fire; flames licked at the beams holding the stairs in place.  The crackling of the hungry inferno was deafening.

I tried to pick up Nick, but he was heavily muscled for such a thin man.  His head dropped to the right as I let his arms fall.

“Nick!” I shouted, trying to wake him over the roar, unworried that someone would hear me.  Both of his eyes were swelling and his nose looked broken.  There was blood seeping through a deep cut on his lip.  I checked his pulse; he was still alive, but not for long if I could not get him out of the twentieth century.

“Nick?” I tried again.

“Callista?”  I twisted to see Maria coming to.  She had a gash on her temple but looked the best out of the three.

“Maria, thank God! I need you to help me get them through the mirror.”

Nick’s mother nodded and struggled to stand.  She limped, and I noticed her ankle was twisted at a sickening angle.  She saw where my eyes fell and pulled the hem of her skirt to cover the obvious break.       

“Let’s save our family.”

Our family.

I held back my tears and nodded.  We picked up Nicholas Sr. by his arms and dragged him toward the mirror.

“How are we going to get him through?” She asked.

I had not thought that far ahead.  According to my carefully laid out plan, all of the Daltons were supposed to be conscious and able to jump through to safety themselves. 

A discarded chair in the corner caught my eye.  We heaved Maria’s husband onto the chair and then, together, dumped him unceremoniously into 2012.  He landed in an uncomfortable heap but at least he was safe.  What was another bruise as long as he was alive?

Maria and I returned to retrieve her son’s unconscious body.  A thunderous crack drew our screams.  A flaming beam fell inches from Nick’s foot, nearly pinning him to the ground.  The sparks quickly swallowed the area around the burning wood.  We pulled even harder and got him through the mirror with no time to spare.

“Will you be able to jump with your foot?” I asked Maria.  She smiled and hopped silently through the mirror, landing with her weight on her right foot.  I followed just as another beam fell where I had been standing only seconds earlier.  We had front row seats as we watched the carriage house inferno of 1902 from the safety of my own carriage house 110 years later.

“Might I point out that it is rather smoky in here?”

I whipped around to see Nick lying on the ground, peeking through his busted right eye.

“Oh Nick!”  I rushed to his side and traced his swollen face lightly with my fingertips.  He had been brutally beaten but he was alive—blessedly, miraculously alive.

He doesn’t want you I reminded myself and reluctantly pulled my hand away.  He noticed my hesitation.  Was that pain in his eyes?  Of course Nick would be in pain; his face was bloody and broken. 

“I’m sorry to interrupt your reunion, Callista, but we should probably move the mirror if we want to avoid death from smoke inhalation.”  Together, Maria and I shifted the mirror so that the piece was no longer in line with its match from 1902.  The metal frame was hot from the fire and the ornate design branded its likeness into my hand. The heat from the blaze immediately cooled when our reflections appeared.

I walked over to stand awkwardly next to Nick.  Even if he didn’t want me, I needed to be near him for as long as I could.

“You came back.”  Nick coughed deeply and tried to smile.  The movement reopened his cracked lip and blood oozed from the wound, collecting into a macabre pool on the floor.

“I did,” I confirmed.  “You sound surprised.”  And that surprise hurt my pride.  Even though he didn’t want me anymore he should have known I wouldn’t let him suffer the fate that we had both read about.

He chuckled then coughed again.  “I’m glad you over-think everything.”

“Just remember, you said that.”  He seemed happy to see me, but I wondered how long that would last.  He was probably just grateful that he had not died in the fire after all.  I knew I should wait for a more appropriate time, but I was burning with questions.  Time was a luxury we’d never had.  “Why did you send me away like that?  We could have avoided the entire situation if you would have let me stay for one more night.”

“I could not have allowed you to stay.”  He sounded so matter-of-fact, like he hadn’t regretted his decision.

“Okay.”  So nothing had changed.

“So that’s it?  There are no more questions?  I must admit that I am disappointed in you.”

“What would you have me ask?” My voice hitched unevenly.  Why was he torturing me?

“Ask me why I couldn’t let you stay.”

“Why couldn’t you let me stay?”  The question came out more shrilly than I had intended.  If he hadn’t wanted me to stay then he didn’t want to be with me now. 

“Because Lady Smyth had a derringer trained on your heart from the moment you stepped into the library.  She told me that…”  His voice broke and he winced in pain.  From the memory or his injuries, I wasn’t sure.

“She told you what?”

“She said if I valued the life of my betrothed, that I would send you back from whence you came.  I tried to reason with her, but she had gone mad.  I knew it would crush you but I had to do it to save you.  And then you weren’t going to leave…”  His good eye widened and searched the blank room as his mind relived the past. 

“I was going to convince you that you had not made a mistake.”  I had been prepared to grovel, to offer anything in exchange for more time with him.

“I never thought I had.  I felt myself ripping in two when I sent you away.  Even more terrifying than staring death in the eye was knowing I would never get the opportunity to apologize for the contemptible things I had been forced to say to you.  For the pain I have caused you, I apologize to the depths of my soul.”

“You didn’t mean it?”

“None of it.”

I smiled and tears of joy welled in my eyes.   Then I coughed.  Gray smoke overwhelmed the tiny space.

“This can’t be right.”  I glanced toward the mirror to see if there was any smoke coming through; there wasn’t.  My own reflection stared back at me with a look of blank confusion.  I looked around and saw flames licking up the steps.  The scene in front of me had become a fiery replica of the fire in 1902.  I jumped up and leaned over the loft railing, hoping to uncover the source of the fire.

There, at the bottom of the steps, stood Beth Smith.  My former maid was wielding a flaming torch and a can of what smelled like gasoline.

“Beth?”  My voice shook as realization settled in.

“Did you honestly think you could kill my brother and get away with it?”  Her eyes were wild, but her voice remained a sickening, almost pleasant timbre.

“Your brother?”  I had not killed anyone.  Nick, however…  “Here, in the carriage house?  Beth, he tried to kill me.”  Before the statement was out I knew she was not going to be reasonable.  Blazing torches and accelerant were way beyond reasonable.

She let out a cackling sound that sent shivers down my spine.  “He acted prematurely.  Given your history of mental instability, we could have gotten you out without murder.  If you haven’t noticed already, Barnard Hall makes people crazy.  Although I realize now how inconvenient it is that he did not succeed.  It would have saved me all this trouble.”  She gestured to the glowing walls.  “My hair is going to smell like smoke for a week thanks to you.”

My stomach dropped.  “And my mother?”  Before the question left my lisp I knew she had orchestrated their deaths.  Her cold smile confirmed my accusations.  Beth Smith had killed my mother Jim and now she would kill me.

I wasn’t sure if she would answer, but I had to understand if I could.  “Why would you do this?”  Beth had been the one Nick had heard speaking with the man who had tried to kill me.  Now she was going to finish the job her brother had started.

“Barnard Hall is mine.”

“Yours?  My mother bought this house.”

“It shouldn’t have been for sale.  This is my family’s ancestral home.”

“This home belonged to the Daltons.”

She screeched when I said their name.  “We owned this house before the thieving Daltons stole it from us.”

“Your family?”

“The Smyths.  My ancestors had to move away after the carriage house burned down the last time.  Fitting, isn’t it?  To have the anniversary of that event marked by another fire set by their descendent?”

“But don’t you see?  Your ancestors deserved their fate.  They tried to kill the entire Dalton family.”

“What do you mean tried?”  Beth smiled prettily at me and continued pouring the gasoline around the first floor.  When she was satisfied with the coating she threw down the torch before I could plead with her to stop.

Instead of leaving, she became entranced as the orange flames writhed and licked at the heavily lacquered furniture.  This could not be happening.  I had saved the Daltons from one fire only to have them killed in the same event one hundred and ten years later.  Perhaps fate truly had decided that the people I loved were to die in an inferno on the twenty fourth of August—no matter the year.

“Beth, don’t!”  She looked at me with an evil smirk then her smile faltered and the color drained from her face.

“No,” she whispered.  “No, you’re dead!”  My maid screamed and tried to get out the door.  But she had lingered for too long and was now surrounded by the fire she had set.  She did not notice the window to her right, offering her the only means of escape available.  Instead, she flailed and tripped over the empty gas can.  Her body pitched backward in slow motion.

I heard her scream and turned away from the grisly scene.  Nick’s hard chest was there to comfort me; he cradled me from the gruesome images below.

“I had no idea I looked that horrifying.”

Beth must have seen him and thought Nick had been a ghost.  Despite the morbidity of the situation, I smiled at the man I loved.

“On the contrary,” I said into his soot stained shirt.  “You look remarkably well for having been dead for over one hundred years.”

“Nick, Callista, we need to get out of here,” Maria said earnestly.

We searched for a way out.  The entire first floor was engulfed in the furnace.  In the midst of our panic, I remembered the last time I had almost died in the carriage house.

“The back window!  The other day I thought maybe…”

Nick rolled his eyes.

“Well, never mind.”  This was not the time for an in-depth explanation.  “The point is that a ladder should be just below the back window.” 

Nick’s father groaned as he woke up, and his wife helped him through the small opening at the rear of the building.

“Ladies, first.”  Nick handed me into the fresh air.

The Daltons and I heard the sirens blaring from the fire trucks that had arrived on the scene at Barnard Hall.  We raced inside just as Rosa met us at the doorway.

“The police are here,” she said in a harsh whisper.  Her hand flew to her chest when she realized our state.  In the light, the bruises on Nick’s face were turning as black as the soot marring our clothes.

I nodded.  “Have the paramedics look at the Daltons, Rosa.”

“What about you, Miss Callista?”

The four of them turned to face me as I started up the back steps to my room.  I stopped for a moment to survey the damage.  Besides a few minor cuts and bruises, my wounds were mostly superficial, nothing a bottle of Neosporin and a Band Aid wouldn’t fix.  The burns on my hands needed ointment, and that was in the first aid kit upstairs.  What I really wanted was a hot shower to peel the layer of grime from my skin and to loosen the tension in my back from the worst day of my life. 

We had survived; that was all that mattered.

I chuckled to myself.  Survival was a funny thing.  Even if I was alive, I could not survive without Nick.  Like Maria’s choice so many years before, the same decision now faced me. 

“As far as everyone is concerned, I didn’t survive.”

Nick was ready to argue but the look on my face silenced him.

From the upstairs hallway I heard Rosa welcome the local law enforcement.  A familiar voice asked where I was.  In response Rosa began telling James the story I had come up with.  “I’m afraid that Miss Callista was inside the carriage house.”

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