And, in an instant, Nicholas felt himself vanish.
SOMEHOW ETTA KNEW EXACTLY WHERE SHE WAS, even before she had the courage to open her eyes and see for herself.
This isn’t happening…this can’t be happening….
The stone stairs were cold against her skin, smelling of nothing more than the museum’s old air-conditioning system and the lemon-scented cleaning product the custodians used to wash the stairs down.
Get up, she ordered herself. You have to get up.
Etta forced her eyes open. Forced the breath to come into her lungs, and then out again. With arms like wet clay she pushed herself up, biting her lip to keep back her grunt of pain as the aches and bruises made themselves known again. The fluorescent light was nearly blinding, after living with sunlight and candles for so long. She shielded her eyes as best she could, lifting her arms, curling her legs toward her as she slid over the last few inches to rest her back against the closest wall.
She was still wearing the white robe. If it hadn’t been stained so thoroughly with gore and dirt and soot, Etta might have believed the whole thing to be some sort of desperate dream. That she’d tumbled down the stairs on the night of her performance and knocked herself out. But she wore the evidence of her struggle on every inch of her skin; the bruising and dried blood decorated her like war paint.
Alone, she thought. Trapped.
For once in his miserable life, it seemed Cyrus Ironwood had told the truth.
But the last thought lingered as a question. Slowly, she unknotted the hooded robe and used the relatively clean inner side to try to wipe her face and arms. Her clothes were from the last century, but this was New York, where there was always something or someone more interesting to look at.
She tried to swallow the taste of smoke and blood in her mouth, and forced her eyes up to take in the familiar empty stairwell.
This was the passage that had taken everything from her. The same passage that had opened up a link to the past and carried her over land, across oceans, through time. She had arrived at the place she had departed from, back in her native time. This is home.
What was left of it.
Etta rose to her feet slowly, struggling for balance. Memories swirled there, all floating colors and sparks; not of the life she had lived, but of the destruction, the devastation of what New York had become in the altered timeline.
Anger climbed in her as her feet took to the steps, blinding her with its intensity. So much so that she had to lean heavily against the rail to keep from falling back.
Nicholas had done it. He had done this to her, to them, to everyone. Her mother was bleeding to death somewhere that wasn’t here—that, Etta was sure of. Her father was alone in his own time, wondering what had become of the two of them. Julian would be left to his own devices. Sophia and Li Min, separated. The remaining Thorns, blown apart and scattered to the winds. For a moment, just one, she thought she might actually hate him.
Why had this been worth it? Why had he done this to them?
She drew in one breath, then another, trying to control the shaking that wracked her entire body. She smoothed her hair back, wiping the drying tears from her face. As she reached the top, voices drifted to her from beyond the door. The muffled wailing of a child. The endless stream of footsteps squeaking against the floor. But there, inside the stairwell, was nothing. There was devastating quiet.
Etta’s breath hitched in her throat as she turned, looking down the stairs again. She hugged the folded robe to her chest. There was no shimmering wall of air to call her back. No thundering drums to announce her arrival. There was no passage at all.
There was only Etta, alone.
AS IT TURNED OUT, THE INSIDE OF THE MET WAS THE SAME, with enough small exceptions that Etta felt as though she were moving through a kind of shadowland version of her city. Exhibits had been moved; the style of clothing she saw around her seemed sharper, shorter, brighter; even the cell phones people carried to snap photos of the artwork were unfamiliar, razor-thin and sliding open like the old mirror compact Alice had carried to check her lipstick. Etta kept her head down and moved steadily past the school groups and couples meandering through the halls, through the blessedly familiar Egyptian wing, down the grand staircase, and out into whatever waited for her beyond the doors.
It was disorienting, the way the skin of the city had changed, even if the bones had not. Etta recognized the older buildings—the old-houses-turned-museums—lining Fifth Avenue, but when she jogged around to the part of the museum that backed up to Central Park, she faced an almost unfamiliar crowded skyline on all sides. Historic landmarks like the Dakota were gone, replaced by ever-reaching skyscrapers that literally blotted out the sunlight and cast impossibly long shadows across the park. The trees had changed color and were burnished with all of their golden autumn glory. Strollers wove through the park’s paths. Men in suits passed men out for a jog in the crisp weather. Women sharing coffee and conversation on nearby benches glanced at others making business calls as they power-walked by. It was a variation on a theme Etta had known and loved, and now she would need to study it to understand the underlying notes that had changed.
She wondered if the city had always been this loud, this clean, this frenetic.
Henry had said the timeline tried to account for inconsistencies and restore as many traveler events as it could. Maybe Etta’s life here was what it had been, at least mostly, even if the trappings had changed? She had lost everything and everyone else…maybe she could at least have the scraps of her old life?