When Robert sees a woman sitting at the end of his bed, at first he thinks it's a hallucination. Maybe his fever's got worse. He pats the night table for the thermometer, coughing, and then she lifts her face a little. The faint light in the room glints off the ankh at her throat, and she smiles, and he knows her.
"Hello, Hob," she says. No one's called him that since the sixteenth century.
Panic makes him sit up, pulling his legs to his chest, away from her. He coughs some more, wheezes for a bit, and finally says, "Oh no. No. I've survived plague--more than once. Not to mention famine, fire, revolution, two world wars, and a nasty accident in a hansom cab. I'm not about to die of the bloody flu."
"You're at a boundary, you humans. An era's ending. I thought you might want . . . what do they call it? Closure."
"Technically, the millennium won't end until next year."
She smiles again, tenderness in her lovely eyes, and Robert doubts that any woman has ever wanted him so much. "Technically. But it's what people believe that matters."
Her slim white hands rest on her lap. They'd be cool on his hot forehead. They would ease every ache in his bones. "I remember when the year began on Lady Day," Robert says. "In springtime. I liked that better."
She can remember much more, of course. She can remember how the years turned in Rome, in Egypt, in Babylon. She can remember the earth before there were people to measure time, and the young sun before there was an earth. Her calendar marks the life and death of stars.
Robert wonders how she bears it, when he feels so old sometimes.
"You're missing the fireworks," she says.
"I know. I wanted to go. The millennium--that's a first for me." There aren't many anymore, at least not if he counts his life by landmarks and boundaries. And yet every minute is a first, too. Every flower, every kiss; every frustration, every cough.
"Well. Better luck next time." There's a soft sound, a stir like a bird flying past, and then she's gone.
Robert settles back against his sweaty pillow, closes his eyes, and dreams of her hands.