Isobel watched the revelry from a park bench situated at the edge of the frozen lake. The skaters darted, bobbed, and shrieked across the ice with boundless energy. It was the first skate of the year; the lake had iced over the night before during a storm and left the water smooth beneath a modest layer of powdery snow. In anticipation of a crowd, the rental shop had opened up early that morning, and the city had shoveled the lake. They had not been disappointed. At 10 A.M., the lake, now a rink, began to fill up and by noon there was a wait list.
She straightened her back and tipped her chin up with a regal air as she brushed a gloved hand across the mink trim of her coat. She was glad to have chosen the matching pill box hat and navy blue skirt embroidered with silver-threaded pine trees. Though she could pretend to be a well-to-do, turn-of-the-century lady, in reality she was not that at all. Nor did she really fit in with any other class or profession. Not here. Not in this place.
She pressed her lips together and looked down at her worn rental skates. They were laced around her ankles, ready to glide across the already scarred ice. However, she made no movement. Instead, her gloved hands rested on her lap, and her breath froze in the air as she looked up to scan the crowd. When she didn’t see Henry amongst the eddy of bodies, she crossed her arms over her chest and picked a piece of lint off her sleeve. He wasn’t supposed to be late.
“Isobel, over here!”
She looked up.
Only a few yards away, Henry hurried towards her. As always, he was handsome with hair the color of coal, broad shoulders and a face that was soft, yet hard around the eyes, which gave him a world-weary look. He flipped his coat collar up and quickened his stride.
“You’re late. I was starting to wonder where you were.”She brushed her skirt as she stood, trying to hide her annoyance. Did he think she had all the time in the world?
“I know. I’m sorry. I was …detained.”His eyes glimmered.
“Detained?”Isobel’s narrowed. “What do you mean detained?”
“I got caught up at work.”
“At work?”She found that odd. Henry’s sole purpose should be to tend to her, not his watchmaking shop.
“Yes. It’s an exquisite commission. You’d love it.”
He nodded as he stepped close to take her hands. She could feel his breath on her cheeks. Her skin prickled, and her heart fluttered. He had such power over her; she couldn’t possibly stay mad.
“Tell me about it,”she said. “What does this watch look like?”
His lips brushed her cheek. “Understated and elegant. Fine, gold hands with a rectangular, ivory face bordered by small diamonds and a wristband made of three delicate strands of pearls.”He touched her wrist. “It is small and meant to rest loosely over the lady’s glove.”He drew her close. “Engraved on the back is a note that says: To my darling, with love.”
He could always mesmerize her. “On what occasion do you wear it?”
“Going to a fine dinner, or an opera, perhaps.”
“Yes.”He rubbed her arms with his gloved hands. His touch felt good. “One of those operas with famous Italian singers.”
“Maybe we can see one next time.”
“I don’t see why not. Next time,” he said.
“I’d like that.”She pressed her nose against his cheek, closed her eyes and inhaled. She would never feel this way with David. Though David was her fiancé in real life, he wasn’t the romantic type. He was painfully dutiful and doting.
The muscles of Henry’s cheeks flexed into a grin. “You’re cold,”he said. “I shouldn’t have kept you. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay.”She didn’t care anymore. “But I can’t stay very long.”
“Something came up at home.”
“Is everything okay?” His eyes searched the rink. “Is it Dinah? Is she alright?”
Dinah was her closest friend. “She’s fine. She won’t be coming today though,” Isobel said. She couldn’t tell if he was disappointed. Some days she wasn’t sure if he even liked Dinah.
“Then what is it?”
“There are a few things I need to do at home. Errands.” She didn’t want to say any more. He wouldn’t understand anything about her business in Attica City, or how she had to be home when her brother Finn got back from school. “Are you ready to skate?”she asked instead.
“Maybe a kiss first?”
She reached up onto the tips of her skates and kissed him on the lips. As innocent as it was, their close proximity sent her senses into a tailspin. He kissed her back, much less demure. She drew away.
“Is that all I get?”
“For now. Come on. Let’s go.”She picked up a pair of rentals that had been resting on the bench next to her. “I got you a pair.”
She handed him the skates. He sat down next to her and began to lace them up. Her eyes drifted to a grand building in the distance. Gothic with high gables, arched doorways and bay windows, it looked out across the vast field that was Central Park. It still took her breath away. She loved this city more than any other place. “That building is amazing, isn’t it?”
“The Dakota? It is.”He wrapped the excess string around his ankle and tied it in a double knot. “New York never ceases to surprise me. I mean, to see it like this, without any other buildings, is stunning.”
Her eyebrows knit. He should have no sense that there would one day be skyscrapers. She hadn’t programmed him to know anything about Manhattan beyond 1903. She wondered suddenly if there was a malfunction in the code. “What do you mean without any other buildings?”
“It feels like you aren’t even in the city anymore.”
The answer wasn’t satisfying.
Henry stood and offered her his hand. She frowned. There was a small blackish fleck perched along the rim of Henry’s iris. She knew then that something was terribly wrong. There was no mistaking it. Between his lateness, the comment about the Dakota, and now this, it was obvious the program was corrupt.
“What is it?”he asked.
“There’s something in your eye.”
He rubbed it.
“It’s still there.”
He frowned. “What is it?”
“A black fleck, like a dot.”Her voice sounded regretful, even to her own ears.
“Oh, that. It’s always been there – a birth mark of sorts.”
“No it hasn’t.” She knew every micro bit of him.
He laughed. “Of course it has. I would know, wouldn’t I?”
“You’re not supposed to have any imperfections. You’re perfect.” She released his hand and searched the rink. Where was the Exit when she needed it?
“Well, perhaps your idea of perfect is imperfect.”
“Impossible.”Isobel knew that Projections could pass for a real human at first glance, but their perfection was what gave them away. A Projection was a fantasy, and it was flawless. But Henry didn’t know that. He had no idea that he wasn’t real.
“Come now, my love.”He took her hand again. “I’ll get my eye looked at if you like, but I’m telling you I’ve always had it.”
She gave him a half-hearted smile. She would scan her computer for a virus when she returned home. She hoped it was repairable. If not, well — she’d have to rebuild it. That could take weeks. For now, all she could do was wait until the Exit appeared; it was impossible to leave early once the program started.
Henry twirled her onto the ice. They skated for a bit, hand in hand, weaving in and out of the crowds. When his shoulder touched hers, she leaned into him to feel the warmth of his body. When he spun her, she floated back into his embrace as soon as the blade of her skate allowed it. She could still enjoy herself; the anomalies would be fixed soon.
The other skaters turned around them in a symphony of color. Their laughter filled the air; their skates sliced the ice. A man in a thick scarf swept by pulling a fat woman on a sled that slipped and skidded on the slick rink. His face reddened from the exertion, and a spotted dog trotted unsteadily after them, barking. A boy in a red coat raced past with his hands interlaced behind his back. He sheared the ice as he swished by, brushing a little girl who wobbled on her blades. The girl lost her balance and fell into a heap. She sniffled and rubbed her eyes.
“They should kick that kid off the rink. Don’t you think?”Isobel said, nodding in the direction of the boy in the red coat.
“No doubt. I wonder where his parents are.” He twirled her in another circle. He turned her again, and again. She was beginning to feel faint. It was this stupid corset.
Before she could ask him to stop, a sudden, eerie feeling came over her, and she knew that her time in 1903 New York was ending.
She spotted the Exit sitting in plain sight in the middle of the rink. It always appeared in the same manner –a closed door with blue, pink and white lights pulsating around the edges of the frame. The small, brass knob glowed with the beat of her heart, as if to say, “Open me quickly!”Except for Henry, none of the other Projections could see it. They simply passed through it, as though it weren’t there. They didn’t know that the program would end once she moved through the Exit, and they would cease to exist until she returned.
Wanting to enjoy the final moments of the program, she threw her head back as Henry guided her through the crowd of blurry faces moving in a well-choreographed dance. She laughed and straightened her arms to give herself over to him, to turn and turn.
She released her hands and felt herself drawn backwards towards the Exit, like metal to a magnet.
Henry cupped his mouth. “When will I see you again?”
“Soon! I promise!”
He waved goodbye, without knowing where she was going or why. She knew he simply accepted her departure as part of his programming.
The door to the Exit opened, and the light swallowed her. The last thing she saw of 1903 was the ice rink with the Dakota in the distance and the freshly fallen snow. She was overwhelmed by a swirling cornucopia of color, and the sensation of a disorienting, multi-directional force crushing her, like a piece of paper crumpling into a ball.
And then, a pin-point of light.