A nearby shopkeeper was writing BUSINESS AS USUAL on a piece of wood in the shattered front window of his store, and looked up at the sudden movement in alarm. Etta sent the man a reassuring smile before turning back to the man next to her.
The breath tore in and out of Nicholas, his nostrils flaring as the car rolled to a rattling stop nearby.
After a moment he explained, “They’re…louder than I recall. Faster.”
She nodded. “They probably are.”
“And,” Nicholas said, his voice lowering as he looked down at her, “you have them in your time, as well?”
“Yeah, even better ones. Faster, quieter—they use less energy, some have built-in navigational systems—” Okay, too much detail. His eyes had widened at the words less energy, and she knew she’d lost him. “Everything changes, when given enough time.”
He worked his jaw back and forth. “Everything?”
It might have been the way he was studying her mouth, or how his hands seemed to be lightly tracing the folds of her dress’s skirt without even being fully aware of it, but the trickle of confusion roared into a jagged, painful understanding.
Oh, she thought, throat thick. Oh…
“Do you want me to tell you?” she asked him. “Do you really want to know what my time is like?”
If he did plan on returning home and never traveling again, he would never benefit from any progress—never see it for himself. It would drive anyone crazy, knowing what was out of reach of his natural lifetime.
Finally, Nicholas shook his head. “I’d rather discover it for myself.”
She could protect him in the meantime, at least. “You covered for me on the ship. The least I can do is return the favor now, the best I can.”
His smile turned rueful. “This ‘partners’ business is a rather novel concept for me…but I appreciate that.”
Etta wanted to ask him about Julian, but she also couldn’t let him drift away into a pool of terrible memories. She stepped back out onto what little was left of the sidewalk, cupping her hands over her eyes to shade them from the sunlight. “Well, I officially have no idea where we are.”
His jaw actually dropped. “Did I not say we needed a map…?”
She wasn’t about to let him win that argument. “Hold on—just a second.”
“Hold on to what?” he called after Etta as she walked away.
The shopkeeper she’d seen a moment before had ducked back into his store, and was now sweeping out the powdery dust and ash that had blown in from the street. She leaned in through the doorway.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m wondering if you could help me?”
The man leaned against the handle of his broom, the severe features of his face softening as he returned her smile. Behind him was a long wooden counter, with shelf upon shelf of dark bottles marked with paper labels. Some kind of pharmacy.
“An American?” he ventured. “Not the best time for a visit, I’m afraid. Unless you’re the first in a new wave of defenses? Are the Yanks finally jumping in?”
Probably he was joking, but there was a tremor in his voice as he said it, a vulnerability peering through the “business as usual” façade.
“Not yet,” she said, trying to keep her voice cheerful. “I think it’ll be a while.…”
And only after we’re directly attacked. But she couldn’t tell him that.
Etta felt it then for the first time—the fragility of the past. It was an eerie sensation to be in this shop, with its thousands of glass objects packed in so closely around her, and know that one slight misstep on her part could send them smashing to the ground. Etta doubted that telling this stranger about America’s entry into the war, if she presented it as a guess, would be enough to change anything in the timeline. But she wasn’t willing to bet that one small change wouldn’t send the future she’d known crashing down around her, shattered.
The man knelt to sweep the dust into a bin. “A waiting game, I expect. What can I help you with?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nicholas watching through the blown-out window frame. “I’m wondering if you could point me in the direction of the British Museum?”
His gray brows rose. “All you’ve got to do is continue east on this road. Make a left on Dean Street and a right onto Oxford Street, which’ll turn into Great Russell Street for you. Doing a bit of sightseeing, then?”
“Yes—I just wasn’t sure if I was headed the right way. Thank you so much, you’ve been a great help.”
She had already turned to the door when the man let out a faint laugh. “Miss—come back, miss—I should’ve told you straightaway. Can’t resist a bit of teasing now and then, especially in times like these.”
Uh-oh. That tiny bit of excitement was instantly scrubbed out.
“You can go to the museum, but I’m afraid there’ll be nothing to see,” he said. “They took out everything valuable last summer, and it’s been closed ever since.”
THE BRITISH MUSEUM WAS CLOSED.
She should have believed the shopkeeper, but it seemed impossible that they could have come all that way only to be met with locked, towering black gates. The somber stone building, with columns and reliefs inspired by ancient times, seemed to fade away the longer they stood there. It taunted them.
And just to put the last nail in the coffin of possibility, Etta took the harmonica out of the bag at Nicholas’s side—the harmonica she’d stolen out of Sophia’s trunk, seemingly identical to the one Cyrus had used to find the passage in New York—and blew a quick, hard burst of air into it. She strained her ears, trying to lean through the bars of the gate, like that could somehow help her hear a sound that wasn’t there.