There was a subtle, slight hitch in her breathing.
“Your breath just caught.” I said it without thinking.
“Maybe it did. So what?” She angled her chin up at me.
“Nothing. It’s just … it’s only fair. You make mine catch all the time.”
I’d never swooned in my life.
But if Dune kept talking sweet to me, I was going to need a fainting couch and smelling salts pronto.
His touch was gentle, and he smelled like the ocean. Not fishy ocean, but expensive, man-made, bottled interpretation of the ocean. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was in his arms, or how overwhelmed I was by my emotions when he pulled me closer.
Then the world melted around us.
Rivulets of the past flooded over the present, and the song playing in my mind bloomed from a few simple notes to a full orchestra. What I thought would be a waltz became a quadrille. Dune’s face faded. A masquerade mask replaced it, and the rip world replaced my own.
The eyes behind the satin assess me from head to toe. A cool
expression turns warm as what he sees passes muster. When the time comes to switch partners, he pulls me from formation.
“You look beautiful. The dress pleases you?”
I nod again and offer a tentative smile.
“I’m going to arrange a meeting with your mother. Does this please you, too?”
“Monsieur Brionne.” My maman interrupts us. She wears a yellow dress of a much brighter shade than my own. Both complementary of our dark hair and skin. My skin and …
… not my skin. I looked down at my fingernails, not recognizing the oval shapes and bitten nails. I didn’t bite my nails.
“May I call upon Cecile tomorrow?” Monsieur Brionne asks my maman. He keeps his hand at my waist, and I know that he doesn’t want to let me go. Something about the way his fingers grip my waist is worrisome; as is the look in his eyes that tells me he hopes I’ll be alone tomorrow when he calls.
“That will be agreeable.” Maman dips her head into a slight bow.
The music begins, slow and disarming, and we step back into the throng of dancers, everyone here is part of the system of plaçage, arranged left-handed marriages of prosperous white men and women of color.
The soft glow of an electric chandelier replaces candlelight, and
the smell of calla lilies perfumes the air as bodies whirl around me.
Monsieur Brionne stops, and I spin out of his arms. The room fades, tilts, and the light changes, going from soft focus to sharp relief.
“A joining of two fine families.” I jump when a man with a shiny, bald head claps me on the shoulder. “Congratulations.”
I didn’t recognize my own voice.
My dress was no longer yellow, but stark white, and my hair fell in blond ringlets below my shoulders. A huge diamond graced my left ring finger, with a gold band below it.
“I’m so happy.”
The words came out of my mouth and not my mouth. The kiss I received landed softly on my cheek and not my cheek.
“No happier than I.”
I knew this man would be gentle, unlike Monsieur Brionne. He looked at me with the same kindness Dune did.
“David.” I hold his hand as my new husband guides me across the crowded room. He takes two champagne glasses from a tray, and gives one to me.
“To my bride,” he says. “To Melina.”
“To Melina,” the crowd says in chorus.
Before I could catch my breath, the scene changed again.
Six women in prayer. A rosary in my hand. My hair in a tight bun. Feelings of peace, concern, benevolence. And sensible shoes.
The yellow fever is spreading; bodies lie in piles on the streets outside. We can’t take on any more orphans, but the infection makes new ones every day. Every hour.
Is it punishment? Justice? Crying, hungry children speak of neither.
The sound of a bouncing ball echoes down the hallway. Playtime and prayer time blend into an ache in my chest.
The ache spread out through my limbs, and my head began to spin. Three sets of sight competed, fighting for purchase.
Maman and I, leaving the ballroom as Monsieur Brionne watches.
My husband and I, laughing as we dance in the middle of the floor.
My gnarled hands and the pain in my knees, speaking of good use and great age as I kneel to pray.
Who is Hallie?
“Please, Hallie. Wake up.”
I squeezed my eyes closed, breathed deeply into my center, and pushed.
Sister Mary Christina.
Their worlds disappeared, but their memories remained. Time sealed itself shut behind them, and the ballroom fell silent.
I’d experienced more life than I could ever live on my own in the Bourbon Orleans ballroom, in the span of a few seconds. Something in me sensed the wrongness of the situation, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want it. I could go on a thousand jobs for Chronos, but I’d never dance in a pre–Civil War ballroom. I could fall in love a hundred times, but I’d never be the debutante who married an aspiring politician in the calm that came before the Vietnam War. I could live for eighty more years, but I’d never, ever be a nun.
My eyes flew open. It took me a few seconds to focus on the chandelier above me, and a few more to find Dune’s gray green eyes.
“Dune?” I was on the floor. “What happened?”
“I don’t think we should talk about this here.” His face was drawn, his eyes guarded.
“Why?” I struggled to sit.
“Not here, Hallie.”
He scooped me up in his arms like I weighed nothing. I rested my head on his chest, barely noticing my surroundings as he took me to the room.
The unfamiliar memories that now belonged to me repeated on playback in my brain. I had real power. Not false bravery or blustering confidence. I could still feel it in my veins, pulsing under my skin.
“Are you okay?” Dune sat beside me so softly that the couch barely moved, a feat for someone his size. He brushed my hair back from my face.
How had we gotten to the room so quickly?
“I don’t know.” I tried to sit up and he helped me, his arm around my waist. “Was … was it like last time?”
“It was different.” Caution kept his voice guarded. “Powerful.”
“It felt like freedom. Ultimate, supernatural freedom. I lived other people’s lives through their eyes, and I felt all their emotions. But you didn’t feel that, did you? What did you see?”
He didn’t answer. Just looked at me like he was afraid of me.
“You were three different people. At first, you just froze. Your face was expressionless.” Her irises had reflected the light pouring in through the windows, and she’d stopped blinking. I’d stepped back from her, and that’s when her feet left the ground. “Then the rip sucked you in. It was all around me, but I wasn’t part of it.”
Like I was the ghost, and the rip world was the reality.
“What else?” she prompted.
“Your facial features rearranged. When it happened outside Lafitte’s, it was one face. Today, it was three. A young girl with brown eyes. A blonde with a slightly crooked nose. An older woman with dark skin. You were three people in quick succession, and then, somehow, you were all three at once.”