Prompt: Smoke hung so thick in the library’s rafters that she could read words in it.
Not true words, of course. But if she squinted and looked at the smoke from the right angles, she could trick her mind into believing it was trying to tell her something: Beware. Go home. Watch your step. You don’t belong here.
She stifled a cough and ducked beneath the dense smoke, holding her arms out for balance as she stepped from one rafter to the next. Below her, men smoked and gestured and laughed, oblivious (for now) of what lurked above them.
Lurked? No, that wasn’t what she was doing here. Lurking implied a malicious intent, but the only thing Jane Foster wanted to do was hightail her way out of this filthy building and check into her hotel room.
She had been told in her history classes how dirty things could get in the mid-twentieth century, but she couldn’t have fathomed how dirty until she witnessed it for herself. It was not an experience she would wish to repeat. But she couldn’t dwell on that now; she was already here, and she knew she would be for some time.
Time. Jane snorted softly to herself. Blasted time.
She’d made it to the far wall– as far away from the assembly of men as she could get. She squatted, then lowered her hands until they gripped the beam of wood beneath her feet. Her legs trembled as she removed one foot, then the other, and hung by her hips across the beam. She took a deep breath, counted to three, and then swung out and released her grip.
She fell– that was expected. What she hadn’t expected was to fall onto someone.
Jane hastily rolled away and rose to her feet, her “I’m so sorry!” bursting from her lips before she’d even had the chance to look at the victim of her carelessness. When she did, her heart beat even faster than it already had been, and heat rose to her cheeks.
Even reclined on the floor, the handsome young man bore himself with confident superiority. His rusty brown hair fell into his eyes as he leaned forward before standing. Jane got a look at his profile and noted with appreciation his aquiline nose and strong jawline. He reached up a hand and swept the hair out of his eyes, then looked down at Jane (he was so tall!) with a scrutinizing frown. Under his stare, Jane self-consciously glanced at her dust-covered clothing. But the dust apparently wasn’t what the young man was most interested in. “Where’d you find getup like that?”
“Your costume. What’d you do– steal it from a theatre closet?”
“Umm… yeah, something like that,” said Jane, staring at her feet and clasping her hands behind her back.
“Nifty.” The young man relaxed and smiled.
Jane was taken aback by his unexpected change of attitude, but she didn’t trust herself to respond. She’d obviously made a mistake with her clothing; she didn’t want to add “use of inappropriate word choices” to her list of time-traveling transgressions. She had studied for this mission. Trained for months. It wasn’t her fault the intel she’d been given had been wrong. The clothing the young man wore hardly resembled what she’d been shown in her pamphlets, either.
Maybe I’m in the wrong time. “Umm, is there a place I can get a newspaper?”
“Sure.” The young man pointed to a stack of papers strewn out over a low table in a small reading nook with a pastel blue couch and yellow plush chairs. Jane was aware of the way his gaze followed her as she made her way to the table and picked up the front page.
February 24th, 1954. It was the right date after all. Reassured, she began reading the front page article about the first administrations of the polio vaccine in the United States and became deeply engrossed in this opportunity to peruse such a historical document.
“You might be happier reading the funny pages or the grocery ads.”
Jane jumped at the voice now coming from directly behind her left shoulder. But her startle reflex soon gave way to indignation at the young man’s condescending tone. “Excuse me?” she said.
Confused, the young man stammered. “I– I just thought–”
“–that a ‘pretty girl’ like me shouldn’t ‘worry my little head’ about things that don’t concern me?” Jane had been warned about the chauvanist tendencies of the male sex during this period in time, but it still shocked her.
“No, I– I mean, yes, but– Oh, nevermind…” He turned and stalked away.
Jane hurried after him. “Wait!” she said.
The young man stopped. Jane caught up to him at the library’s exit. She couldn’t explain it, but despite his arrogance, she couldn’t help feeling drawn to him somehow. And she wasn’t ready to lose contact with the only person she’d managed to meet since her arrival in this strange new/old world. At least, that’s how she justified to herself what she did next. “Can I– see you again?” she asked.
The young man laughed. “Sure.” He grinned at Jane and offered his hand, which she took; he squeezed as they shook, but not too hard. Jane extricated her hand with some difficulty– not because his grip was too strong, but because she didn’t want to let go. “You got a number?”
“A number. So I can call you.”
“Oh. Umm. I’m staying at the Ritz-Carlton. Ask for Jane Foster.” Her palms felt sweaty and she wiped them on her dusty trousers, gaining two grime-covered hands for her trouble.
“Ritz-Carlton, huh?” He obviously found this claim difficult to believe, but he shrugged and smiled. “Okay, Jane Foster. I’ll see you later, then.”
He opened the door and walked out, but once again Jane followed him. “What’s your name?” she shouted down the library steps.
“Call me Don,” the young man called back, with a wave and a jerk of his head. “Don Jamison.”
No! It couldn’t be. Surely this wasn’t the same man; Donald was a common name, after all– as was Jamison.
Every test she’d taken– every psychological evaluation, every compatibility metric– had indicated that she would be a safe girl to send on this mission. Everything had indicated significant odds that her charge would be one of the least likely men in the world– either past or present– to ever attract her in a romantic way.
What a dumpster fire this whole affair had become. And Jane Foster had no idea how she was going to put out the flames.