Jonah fidgeted in his seat, and his chair fidgeted right along with him. In another mood, Jonah would have been fascinated by this—how was the chair programmed? Did it have a computer chip making it squirm? But right now Jonah was too distracted. He was sitting in a sterile, nearly empty room, waiting to travel back in time to an unknown era and unknown dangers. So all he could do was fidget.
You’d think, with time travel, there wouldn’t have to be any waiting, he thought grumpily.
Beside him, his eleven-year-old sister, Katherine, bounced in her chair—making the chair bounce too—and chattered away to Andrea, the third kid who would be going to the past with them. Indeed, Andrea was the most important time traveler that day. She was the reason they were all going.
“Don’t worry,” Katherine told Andrea. “You don’t have to hold your breath or anything to travel through time. It’s easy.”
“That’s good,” Andrea said softly. She sat perfectly still, and so did her chair. She had her eyes focused on the blank wall across from her and barely seemed to be paying attention to Katherine. Normally Jonah would have approved of that—he tried to ignore his younger sister as much as possible too. But unlike Katherine and Jonah, Andrea had never traveled to the past before. She didn’t know what time period she was going to, or what she’d have to do there. Shouldn’t she be asking questions? Shouldn’t she at least act like she cared?
“Only, if you get time sick, that’s no fun,” Katherine rambled on, flipping her blond ponytail over her shoulder. “When we went back to 1483 with Chip and Alex, I thought I was going to throw up for sure. And I felt really dizzy, and—”
“Katherine!” Jonah interrupted, because he could put up with Katherine’s babbling for only so long. “Andrea won’t get time sick like you did. Remember? She’s going back to her proper time. Where she belongs. So she’ll feel good.”
At that, Andrea’s whole face brightened.
Wow, Jonah thought. She’s really pretty. He honestly hadn’t noticed before. Of course, he barely knew Andrea. The first time he’d met her, there’d been thirty-four other kids around, and four grown-ups fighting about what was going to happen to the kids, and people being Tasered and tied up and zapped back in time . . . Jonah had had a good excuse for not looking closely. All he remembered from that first meeting was that Andrea had worn her long brown hair in two braids, and she hadn’t screamed and panicked like a lot of the other kids. And he guessed he knew that—like him and the other kids the grown-ups were fighting over—Andrea was thirteen years old, and she was a missing child from history, one who had been stolen from her proper time and place by baby smugglers. One who had to go back, to save history.
Suddenly Jonah really wanted to remind Andrea that he and Katherine had already proved that they could save history and save missing kids, all at once, even when the time experts thought it was impossible. They’d managed to save Chip and Alex from the 1480s, hadn’t they? Jonah started to smile back at Andrea and was working up what he wanted to say to her: something suave but casual and not too conceited-sounding . . . . Did, Don’t be scared. I’ll take care of you sound stupid?
Katherine began talking again before Jonah had a chance to say anything.
“Andrea can too get time sick,” Katherine argued. “Not the kind from being in the wrong time period, but the kind just from traveling through time. Remember JB thought I had both kinds? And that’s why I felt so awful? And . . .”
Katherine broke off because the door opened just then and JB, the very person she’d been talking about, stepped through.
JB was a time traveler from the future, and the main person who was trying to fix time by returning all the stolen kids to history. Tall, with gleaming chestnut-brown hair, JB was so good-looking that Katherine had nicknamed him cute janitor boy before any of them had found out what he really did for a living. For some reason, JB’s appearance really annoyed Jonah right now. Depending on how you looked at it, Jonah had known JB for only a few weeks—or for more than five hundred years. (Or, actually, more than a thousand, if you counted the fact that Jonah, Katherine, Chip, and Alex had traveled between the fifteenth and twenty-first centuries in both directions.) Regardless, it had taken Jonah a while to figure out whether to trust JB or not. JB had helped Jonah and Katherine and their friends, but Jonah still wasn’t sure: If JB had to choose between saving kids and saving history, which would he pick?
I have to make sure that isn’t the choice, Jonah told himself grimly. He gazed over at Andrea again, with her clear pale skin and her gray eyes that somehow looked sad again—haunted, even. I will protect you, he thought, even though he figured he’d really sound foolish if he said that now. He kicked his foot against the ground, and his chair kicked too.
“Careful,” JB warned. “Those are calibrated to a very sensitive level.” He seemed to notice Katherine’s bouncing for the first time. “They’re not really meant for kids.”
Katherine stopped mid-bounce. Her chair rose up and caught her.
“Sorry,” Katherine said. “Can we go now? There’s no chance that we’ll hurt your precious chairs if you just send us to the past.”
She sounded offended. Jonah wondered if he should warn JB that it wasn’t a good idea to offend Katherine.
“Not yet,” JB said. “You need to be debriefed first.”
Katherine leaned forward in her chair, and her chair leaned with her.
“Really?” she breathed, seeming to forget any hurt feelings. “You’ll tell us where we’re going this time—before we get there?”
“You didn’t give me much of a chance the last time,” he reminded her.
“That wasn’t our fault,” Jonah argued hotly. “If you hadn’t sent Chip and Alex back without telling them anything, and if you hadn’t cheated when I gave you the Elucidator, and if—”
JB held up his hand, cutting Jonah off.
“Hey, hey,” JB said. “Calm down. I’m sorry, okay? That’s over and done with. Water under the bridge. Haven’t you ever heard the expression, ‘No need to relive the past’?”
Katherine and Jonah both stared at him blankly.
“Um, isn’t it kind of, uh, contradictory, for a time traveler to say that?” Katherine asked.
“Yep.” JB beamed at them. “You caught the irony. Time-traveler humor—gotta love it.”
He turned toward Andrea, who was still sitting quietly, unaffected.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re all on the same team this time around,” JB said. “From the very beginning. No keeping secrets unnecessarily. Deal?” He held out his hand to Andrea.
“Of course,” Andrea said calmly. She shook JB’s hand, before he moved on to shake Jonah’s and Katherine’s in turn. Maybe if Jonah hadn’t been paying such close attention to Andrea now, he wouldn’t have noticed that Andrea hesitated slightly before speaking, before taking JB’s hand.
She is scared, Jonah thought. She really does need me to take care of her.
“So you’ll tell Andrea who she really is?” Katherine asked eagerly.
And me? Jonah almost asked, forgetting that he was supposed to be all about protecting Andrea at the moment. Jonah had seen his two friends Chip and Alex learn their original identities in history. And he knew that, ultimately, he would have to return to his original time period, at least briefly—just like all the other missing kids from history. But, as much as he wanted to know his own identity and his own time period . . . maybe he wasn’t quite ready to know right now?
The moment when he could have asked was past. JB was answering Katherine.
“I thought I’d just show her,” he said.
JB flipped a switch on the wall behind Jonah’s chair, and the wall opposite them instantly turned into what appeared to be an incredibly high-definition TV screen. Waves crashed against a sandy beach, and Jonah had no doubt that, if he looked carefully enough, he’d be able to make out each individual grain of sand.
“Just skip to the part she’s going to be interested in,” JB said.
Jonah wasn’t sure if JB was talking directly to the TV screen (or whatever futuristic invention it actually was) or if there was someone in a control room somewhere who was monitoring their entire conversation. Sometimes Jonah just didn’t want to think too much about the whole time-travel mess. He knew that JB had already pulled them out of the twenty-first century, and the waiting room they were in was a “time hollow,” a place where time didn’t really exist. He knew that JB was probably about to show them some scene from Andrea’s “real” life, before she’d been kidnapped by unethical time travelers, and before she’d crash-landed (with all the other missing kids) at the very end of the twentieth century. But it made Jonah feel better if he told himself he was just watching a TV with really, really good reception.
The scene before him shifted, seeming to fly across the water to a marshy coastline and then inland a bit to a primitive-looking cluster of houses. Some of the houses were encircled by a wooden fence that was maybe eight or nine feet tall. Both the houses and the fence looked a bit ramshackle, with holes in several spots.
The view shifted again, focusing on a woman rushing out of one of the nicer houses. The woman was wearing what Jonah thought of as old-fashioned clothes: a long skirt, long sleeves, and a funny-looking hat covering her head. The skirt wasn’t quite as sweeping as the ones he’d seen in the fifteenth century, but Jonah wasn’t sure if that meant that he was looking at a different time period now, or if he was just watching different people. Poorer ones. Not royalty anymore.
“Mistress Dare’s baby has arrived!” the woman called, joy overtaking the exhaustion in her face. “A wee girl child, strong and fair!”
Other people began rushing out of the other houses, cheering and calling out, “Huzzah, huzzah!” But Jonah got only a brief glimpse of them before the camera—or whatever perspective he was watching—zoomed in tighter. Through the door, across a clay floor, up to a bed . . . On the bed a woman hugged a tiny baby against her chest.
“My dearest girl,” the woman whispered, her face glowing with love, even in the dim candlelight. “My little Virginia.”
“NO!” someone screamed.
It took Jonah a moment to realize that the screaming hadn’t come from the scene before him. He peered around, annoyed that Katherine would interrupt like that. But Katherine, beside him, was gazing around in befuddlement too.
It was Andrea—quiet, calm, unperturbed Andrea—who had her mouth open, who was even now jumping to her feet, eyes blazing with fury.
“NO!” she screamed again. “That’s not me! That’s not my mother!”
© 2010 Margaret Peterson Haddix