Her nose was cold. Frowning, Emma snuggled further under her bed covers and tried to recapture the fleeting remnants of her dream. Who was the man she had been with? Why did the bed feel empty? Not like there should have been anyone in bed with her. Her worthless ex had run off with his co-worker 6 months ago. Spineless dick that he was, he had left her to cover the rent and all their bills. She hadn’t been laid since, so of course the bed would be empty. Still, the dream had seemed so real.
A sharp knock startled her and her eyes popped open. So much for recapturing the dream now. Emma silently cursed her hostess for not letting her sleep.
"I'll thank you not to lollygag any longer Miss. Jones," a sharp, oddly accented voice pierced the air between the door and the bed.
Emma bolted upright and looked around. Who the hell was that? Where the hell was she? This was not the room she had fallen asleep in the night before.
She shivered and watched her breath appear as she exhaled. What had happened to the heat? Awareness of her surroundings made her shiver again, this time with an odd suspicion. The furnishings were completely different from those she remembered. Maybe accepting hospitality from someone she barely knew had been a bad idea. She hadn't had time to consider the possibilities before the knocking began again, this time more insistent.
"Miss Jones!" The voice sounded annoyed. "Mrs. O'Reilly said you need to be downstairs in 5 minutes or she's turning you out into the streets. I for one think she should."
Emma pushed the covers off and immediately regretted the lack of warmth.
'Holy crap, it's cold!' she thought.
"Miss Jones?" the voice questioned, still sounding annoyed.
"Yes," Emma croaked, and cleared her throat. "I'm awake."
"Five minutes!" the voice sniffed and footsteps sounded, walking away from the door.
Emma looked around trying to banish the sleep cobwebs from her brain and make sense of where she was. One thing was very clear, she needed to find something to wear before she froze to death. A chair next to the bed with some clothes on it seemed to be her best option. The woven rug on the hardwood floor kept her feet warm when she ventured out of the bed.
Swearing under her breath at the cold, Emma grabbed the clothes and started to put them on before she realized they were completely different from anything she'd ever worn before. She pawed through them carefully, partially hopeful and partially feeling shell-shocked.
There was a yellowish skirt that might have been white once and a blue and white striped dress. Long cotton stockings and what looked like the garters she'd seen at weddings were hidden underneath. Thankfully she had fallen asleep in her underwear because there didn't seem to be any in the small pile of clothes, but she was both fascinated and horrified to recognize a corset.
“What the hell is going on?” Emma whispered, feeling an odd kind of terror. “Where am I?”
The choice was putting on the old fashioned clothes or walk around freezing to death in her underwear, so she picked up the dress. It quickly became obvious that the dress was meant to go over the corset. Emma sighed and held the offending garment in front of her.
“There’s a reason women stopped wearing these,” she said, frowning as she tried to figure out the best way to put it on.
After about ten minutes of twisting and turning she finally managed to get dressed. The stockings had to be held up with the garters, which pinched her thighs, or they would sag around her ankles. The corset fastened in front with hooks, and nipped her already trim waist into impossibly tiny proportions. Amazingly, the strange clothes seemed to fit her perfectly.
“Here we go,” Emma muttered as she opened the door and stared out into a plain, unfurnished hallway.
Looking both ways, she spotted a stairway and headed in that direction as quietly as she could. Unfortunately the creaking of the boards under her feet gave her away, so she gave up trying to be quiet and just walked down the narrow stairway into another long hallway, so she followed it to another set of stairs. She could hear voices drifting up as she descended and hoped they would be able to tell her where she was and why.
When she reached the bottom step, Emma found herself in a large bright room that must be a kitchen, although it looked very different from any kitchen she’d ever seen before. The warm air was welcoming and fragrant with delicious smells wafting from the odd wood stove in the middle of the room that appeared to be used for cooking.
Two women, busy with different tasks, occupied the room. One, who looked fairly young, seemed to be plucking feathers from a chicken. She was very efficient and matter of fact about the process, firmly yanking the feathers out and stuffing them into a burlesque sack. She managed to do it in a way that kept the feathers together but a few still managed to escape and float around her in the sunbeams shining through the large window she was working under. Hair neatly tucked under a frilly cap that framed her face, she wore a yellow flowered, full length dress with a crisp white apron.
The other woman was beating a large ball of dough on a sturdy wooden table and was wearing a similar costume. She paused as Emma stared at her, using one of her flying fists to swipe at a piece of flyaway hair that had escaped the frilly cap on her head. The action caused a bit of flour to dust her face and made her look a bit more friendly.
“Miss Jones I see,” she said in a thick Irish brogue. “Methinks you were content to sleep the day away.”
“Where am I?” Emma asked.
At her question the girl in the corner laughed and threw the newly plucked chicken down on the end of the table.
“You’re in Mrs. O’Reilly’s kitchen, where else would you be?”
Her voice sounded familiar and Emma realized she was the person who had knocked on her door.
“It’s just that I don’t remember coming here,” Emma tried to explain.
“Be you daft?” Mrs O'Reilly asked. “You walked into this room not two minutes past!”
Her nimble fingers were busy shaping the dough into loaf pans she had sitting nearby. Emma wasn’t sure she’d ever seen such expert bread making skills. It was obvious she did this chore often, maybe even daily.
“No, I meant here, in this house.”
“Are you alright Miss Jones?” Corner girl asked as she picked up the sack of feathers and tied the end to keep them from escaping. “You’ve been here for 6 months. That’s when you were hired on.”
“Hired? To do what?” Emma was still trying to process this reality. “I don’t remember any of that.”
“Why as a scullery maid, of course.” Mrs. O’Reilly paused to stare at her, a curious expression on her cherry red face. “Child, what’s come over you?”
Emma struggled to keep her composure. She truly did not remember any of what they were telling her and this place was completely unfamiliar to her. When she had fallen into bed the night before she had been exhausted from the New Year’s Eve party she had attended for the year 2020. She’d had a bit more than she usually did to drink and hadn’t wanted to go home alone, so her hostess had said she could crash in one of the guest rooms. Had she been drugged?
“I don’t know what kind of sick joke you all are playing on me, but can you quit pretending we’re not in the year 2020?” Emma demanded, clenching her fists with frustration.
“Land sakes, what devilish nonsense are you spouting?” Mrs. O’Reilly stepped away from the table, her right hand pressed to her chest. Shaking her head, she crossed herself. “Tis the year of our lord 1920, that’s what.”
“1920?” Emma’s mouth dropped open in shock. “What are you saying? That couldn’t possibly be true. I wasn’t even born until 1999!”
“Saints preserve us Nancy, the girl’s gone daft!” Mrs. O’Reilly said, backing up another step.
“I have not, it’s you who are crazy!” Emma’s voice was starting to take on a shrill quality as she struggled to remain calm. “Where is Aggie?”
“Mary and Joseph, who is this Aggie?” Mrs. O’Reilly asked. “There be no person answering to that name in this house.”
“She’s the person who lives here! She owns this house. At least she did last night.” Emma hugged herself, feeling more uncertain. She was beginning to question her own sanity.
“Mistress Duke will be wanting to speak to you, sure as my name’s Agnes,” Mrs. O’Reilly said with emphatic nod of her head. Wiping her hands on the large light blue apron she wore over her yellow dress, she headed to the kitchen door.
“If she can give me answers, then let’s go find her,” Emma said, following behind Mrs. O’Reilly.
“Mistress Duke doesn’t rise before eleven o’clock in the morning!” Nancy’s voice stopped them before they had fully exited the kitchen.
“Why on earth would she get up so late?” Emma asked.
“Mistress Duke is often out past 2 am. I had forgotten. You know how the gentry can be. Always out to a ball or musical or theater performance.” Mrs. O’Reilly answered and heaving a sigh, returned back to her baking.
“Well I need answers!” Emma said, and could feel her eyes beginning to tear up.
‘Just breathe’ she told herself, trying to hold back the flood of emotion that was starting to overwhelm her.
“Unless you want to be dismissed without wages, you won’t disturb Mistress Duke,” Nancy warned as she flitted around the kitchen.
“Okay. Fine. So what should I do then?” Emma blinked hard. Maybe if she focused on something else for a while she could stop thinking about how impossible this whole thing was. Maybe she might even wake up and find the whole thing had been an extraordinary dream.
“To start, you can empty the slosh bucket that’s sitting over there by the door,” Mrs. O’Reilly said, while motioning her to a side door that led outside. “Down the garden path to the composting bin. You’d best be quick about it. The last thing I need in my kitchen is a storm of flies. Nasty buggers.”
Emma walked over and lifted the handle of the porcelain bucket. It had a cover that matched and looked like no bucket she’d ever seen before. Just as she reached for the door handle, there was a knock on the door, startling her so badly she almost dropped the bucket.
“Watch yourself girl!” Mrs. O’Reilly said. “Who might that be at the door?”
Emma opened the door. An older woman dressed as a gypsy was standing there. She was all in black with golden bangles on her arms and large hoop earrings. A black fringed shawl covered her head and framed her face with tassels and she gripped a gnarled cane made out of a tree limb in her left hand.
“Emma Jones, I see you have found the way after all,” She said, her lips twisting into a semblance of a smile. If it hadn’t been for the twinkling in her coal black eyes, Emma would have slammed the door in her face.
“I woke up here,” Emma said with a frown. “I didn’t find my way anywhere.”
“What the devil are you talking about?” Mrs. O’Reilly asked. “And who the devil are you? I’ll thank you to introduce yourself but if you’re here for a handout, the Misses won’t allow it.”
“Not at all,” the old lady said as she hobbled into the room. “I’ll dispense with the formalities. My name is Agatha. I’m here to introduce Emma to her soulmate.”
“What rubbish is this?” Mrs. O’Reilly asked, placing her hands on her hips. “I’ll not hear the like in my kitchen.”
“Soulmate?” Nancy gasped with a breathy laugh. “Girls as poor as us don’t have the luxury of having Soulmates.”
Emma stood there, frozen in place as she stared at Agatha. Her fingers were starting to hurt from gripping the slosh bucket so hard. This old woman looked oddly familiar but Emma was certain they'd never met. There was something about her eyes that made her question where she'd seen them before.
“Emma, child, do you remember what I told you?” Agatha asked.
“Told me?” Emma said, feeling confused.
“Last night. Just before you went up to bed.”
“But that was Aggie . . .” Emma’s eyes widened as she stared harder at Agatha. “You couldn’t be her, she is my age!”
Agatha laughed and in the stillness of the kitchen it sounded more like a cackle. All three women were staring at her as they tried to make sense of who she was and why she was there.
“You said you were tired of living alone. I offered to look for your soulmate and you said yes,” Agatha made her way over to a chair in the corner and plopped down the way an old woman will do when her old bones no longer support her the way they used to.
“I’d been drinking!” Emma protested. “I don’t remember any of this! And Aggie wasn’t old.”
“I'm Aggie! Do you want me to tell you the rest or don’t you?” Agatha said, sounding slightly impatient.
“I want to hear it,” Nancy said, coming closer.
“We’ve got work to do here,” Mrs. O’Reilly said with a sniff. “But I suppose we can take a few minutes to sort this out.”
“Tell me,” Emma said, and setting down the slosh bucket, she sat in the chair across from Agatha.
“You are right to question where you are my dear.” Agatha said. “Time is not as stationary as men are led to believe. Souls live many times, in many lifetimes. You said you had nothing to live for without your soulmate and as he had died in that future life, I had to bring you to the lifetime where he lives but you did not. It was the only way for you both to be together and end the misery you both feel because you are apart.”
“You’re quacked.” Emma said standing up and bending down to pick up the slosh bucket again.
“You’ll see my dear.”
Emma shook her head and marched out the kitchen door and down the path, following the directions Mrs. O’Reilly had given her. She might be in a strange place, but there must be a rational explanation. She’d figure out what that was soon enough. She vaguely remembered drinking a lot and Aggie joking with her about going back to the past. She’d thought it was all just fun they were having and never once considered that Aggie could have the power to somehow send her backwards 100 years to the past! All this because she was feeling pathetic about being single for New Years Eve.
In her haste and anger as she walked down the unfamiliar pathway, Emma missed a step and slipped and her foot came down on some ice. As she fell forward, she dropped the slosh bucket and it bounced after it hit the ground. The lid flew off and the contents flew out and landed all over her.
“Damn!” She muttered as she knelt on the ground, dripping with god only knew what food particles. Could this day get any worse? This time she couldn’t stop the tears from leaking out of her eyes.
“Allow me to help you, miss.” A decidedly masculine hand appeared in front of her watery vision.
“Thank you,” Emma said, sniffing back her tears. For a brief moment she considered telling him to leave her alone, she could manage, but common sense won and she placed her hand in his and allowed him to pull her upright. There was sure to be more ice on the path and she was in no condition to walk unassisted.
“If you would permit me…” she felt him tugging at her hair and was mortified to see him pull out a potato peeling.
“Oh my god, I must look awful!” She couldn’t help the laughter that suddenly escaped her lips.
“I would never disparage a lady’s appearance,” her rescuer said with a gallant tone.
Looking up, Emma felt her breath catch in her chest. Staring down at her was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen in her life. His eyes met hers and immediately they both stilled. He stopped pulling vegetables from her hair, and she stopped fiddling with her dress. They just stared.
“I know you,” he whispered. “I saw you last night in a dream.”
“You couldn’t have,” she shook her head. But something about him just felt so right and brought back the memory of her dreams from last night. How could they have the same dream?
“Someone told me once, you should never doubt fate.” he said.
“We don’t even know each other,” Emma protested. “So why do I feel like I’ve known you my entire life?”
“I feel it too.”
“What happens now, Adam?”
“Only time will tell. For now, let me escort you inside so you can get cleaned up.”
Adam tucked her hand in the crock of his elbow and insisted on carrying the now empty bucket as they made their way back inside.
“Ah, you see?” Agatha’s beaming face met them as they walked through the door. “I told you he would be here.”