She was all nerves as the carriage turned the corner. Vanessa Ives glanced out onto dusty, filth-strewn streets and realized that she had never been to this area before. Her fingers fumbled with a piece of paper that had already worn thin from folds, twists, and other forms of abuse. She carefully peeled it open and again read the address. "Here will be fine," she shouted out to the driver. Her voice sounded brittle to her own ears. But she had barely slept over the last two nights. A little brittleness was to be expected.
Vanessa stepped out onto the street and held her breath. She glanced right and saw her destination. It was nondescript save for a white banner that read "Kinetoscopes Inside." All she could think was: "Kinetoscopes? What is he dragging me toward?"
There was a small line to the building. She queued up, careful to keep her eyes averted. A man walking in the opposite direction tried to meet her gaze. She turned to the side. She approached the front and found a young man standing by the door. He gave her a curt nod as he opened the door. She smiled back, mouth tight, and walked inside.
The immediate smell and heat of human bodies almost overwhelmed her. It took her breath away, forcing her to stand still and take in the scene. Her eyes scanned the crush of well-dressed Londoners hunched over wooden boxes. Ten of those boxes stood side-by-side, each with a line of people standing in front of it. She took a step forward and felt a hand drop onto her shoulder. She closed her eyes and released the breath. "Mr. Chandler, I presume?"
"You'd be correct, Miss Ives."
Vanessa frowned and turned to face him. He was smiling. All she could think was: how can he? "What is all this?" she asked. "Why should we be out on a night like this when everything is so up in the air? When…?"
"I thought you needed a night out. And why not at a place like this?" he asked, sweeping his hand out toward the scene. "You know, I head this is all the rage in America."
"Oh, well if it's all the fashion in States...why not?" she said with a smile. It began to feel more like a sneer the longer she held it.
He shrugged. "I think it could still be fun."
"Of course. So," she whispered, pulling Ethan closer, "what are we supposed to do?"
"Just get in line. It'll all make sense once you reach the front."
And so she did. Vanessa queued in the longest line. It moved with a swiftness that surprised her. She noticed that some people would immediately queue into the next line. Others, perhaps the largest group, would walk away.
Once she reached the front, she stood and stared at the the box labeled "Greeting." She slipped a coin in a slot and pressed her eyes to the metal viewer. Suddenly, a man appeared before her eyes, hat in hand. He passed the hat to the other hand. Just as quickly, he disappeared.
She turned to Ethan and asked, "What mischief is this?"
"They're moving pictures," he said. "Do you want to see another?"
She paused, seemingly in thought even though she already knew her answer. "Yes. I think I do."
"Then come on."
Vanessa took his hand and they raced the to the pack of the next line. "Tell me, have you seen them all?" she asked.
"Then what is the next one?"
"A pillow fight. But you'll see it soon enough."
"But what if I don't want to? It seems so...mundane."
"More mundane than a man passing a hat from one hand to another?"
"That's amazing for a first view. But after that, I'd like to see something strange, a little more exotic."
"You can skip it if you wish. The next one over is probably more to your liking."
Vanessa again grabbed Ethan's hand and took him into the next line. The line filtered out a bit more slowly this time. When she reached the front, she looked down and read the placard for this box: Serpentine Dance. She dropped in the coin and peered down.
A woman emerged from the darkness clad in a long, flowing dress. She hopped and twirled, sometimes bounding back and forth around one central point. It seemed very amatuer, but the thing that caught Vanessa's eye was the color. The woman's hair was tinted a brassy red. Her dress shifted color with each movement, sometimes vibrant orange before revealing a world of pink hiding along another fold of cloth all before shifting back to a bright yellow.
"A world in vibrant color," she said.
"It's different. And I thought you might like it."
"It's very lovely. Is there anything else like this?"
"Not like this but there's…."
"Hey!" shouted a voice from behind. "Stop holding up the bloody line!"
They stared, momentarily dumbfounded. But a laugh began to build inside her, stifled just a second before tumbling forth in vivid sound. She fell against Ethan and an arm wrapped around her shoulders. She heard an odd rumble reverberate against her ear. He was laughing too.
"I suppose we need to move on," said Ethan.
"Right you are," she said as she pulled away from him. "Let's go back to the pillow fight."
Ethan held out his hand. "I'll lean on you to lead the way."
They hurried past a group of men to the nearest carriage. Once inside, Vanessa fell against him and the laughter poured forth again. "Oh, their faces during that kiss!"
"Now, now, I wouldn't go so far as to laugh," said Ethan. "There was a sweetness there, don't you think?"
She looked up into his eyes and, voice trying to shake off a few straggling giggles, said, "I suppose so."
He nodded. A smile started to twist at the corners of his mouth. "They were kind of silly, though."
"That's what I thought. And what about the strongman? Impressive, if not a little vain."
"I don't know. I've seen more impressive men out West. Therese were men you wouldn't expect to rough it up until it was too late and you're face down in a pile of mud and regret."
"Oh, I can only imagine." She paused a moment. "Is that where you first saw these contraptions? Is it something they have 'out West?'"
Ethan shook his head. "This is more of a coastal affair, to my understanding. Nothing like this would even make it to Chicago before it had worn out its welcome in New York. Who knows when it would make it even further West? Besides, I don't think I'd have had the time."
"You had the time now?"
"It's not so much that I had the time," he explained. "It's that I had a moment and the means to try something different. There wasn't much for me to do out West. Well, not much to do outside of what I had been sent to do. Even if I had wanted to do anything else, it would have been no use."
Vanessa pulled away from him and settled to the other side of the carriage. "Why did you want to take me to this?"
"You didn't enjoy it?"
"It's not that. But with all we—namely, I—am facing, do you think it was right to take a night off? Our enemies have certainly not done so."
Ethan could only shake his head. "Yes, on one hand, we've taken 'a night off.' But on the other, you've really just learned to notice and pay attention to something different. Your guard wasn't down; it was open to something new. Your focus doesn't have to be on just that one thing all the time. Besides," he said with a smile, "you saw how full that room was. Who'd be foolish enough to strike us on this night or in that room?"
"Magic has a way of exceeding all of our expectations—for good or for ill. It has a way of being everywhere and nowhere at once."
"Of course it does," he said. "It was in that room with us, right in the box. I think there's just as much magic in our ability to watch men perform actions that were created thousands of miles away right here in London as there is in a medium's ability to speak with the dead. It's not what we've been dealing with—it's not primal. There's no mystical language needed to invoke it and neither gods nor devils had a hand in its creation. But there's still mystery in that box."
"Mass-produced magic? Maybe one day they'll sell it out of store fronts," she said.
"Why not? Magic for the people. Very egalitarian."
"You're fond of that, aren't you?"
"Yeah. You could say that I am."
She reached out and grabbed his hand. Vanessa peaked through the curtains. She turned back to Ethan and said, "We're almost home. What if we walked the rest of the way?"
"I think that'd be fine. Do you think it's safe?" he asked, eyebrow cocked.
"Why not? Perhaps we still have a little of that 'mass-produced magic' touching us, just enough to get home."
"Well, if you're fine with it."
She entered the Manor quietly. She turned to Ethan with a raised finger to her lips before ushering him in. They crept toward the stairway with light, delicate steps. The path they walked held more shadows than light. Though she was still touched by the night's festivities, Vanessa kept scanning the room. She was intimately aware from where each creak of moan originated in the suddenly living house.
Just before her foot touched the first step, Ethan came close to her ear and whispered, "Whose room are we going to?"
And so they sprinted up the stairs. Ethan managed to jump ahead of her and reached the door first. He opened the door, careful not to let it swing open. "Welcome to my parlor, Miss Ives."
She smiled and took a step forward. But that was all she could manage. She glanced inside, taking less note of its humble furnishing and more of the ceremonial herbs and branches that hung from the ceiling. A quick scan to the door revealed a cross nailed at dead center. It was all for them; it was just as much because of her.
"On second thought, I think I should turn in for the night," she said.
"Are you sure?"
"I think so," she said with a nod.
"You know," he said, moving closer to her, "you can let go for just a moment."
"And I don't think you understand. You can do that. I...I don't think I can."
"You'd be surprised." Ethan took her hand and said, "but maybe I'd be surprised too?"
Vanessa squeezed his hand. "This was a very special night. Thank you, Ethan. That is: thank you for thinking of me."
"It was my pleasure." Ethan raised her hand to his lips and placed a light kiss upon her knuckles. "Until the morning." He let her hand slip from his. It fell to her side with little resistance.
Ethan smiled. He gave her a curt nod and stood inside the doorway. He seemed to wait a moment before closing the door.
She stared ahead at the closed door. Foolish: it was the only word that flowed through her brain. "You can move on," she mouthed, "he is right."
Her hand shot out to reach for the knob. Just a little twist and she could put it all behind her. "But what waits before me?" Fractured memory of months before—the fight, the filth, the mania—flooded her mind. She pulled her hand away and took a step back. She let out a slow, steady breath and turned away.
Vanessa turned back once, pausing to take one last look at his door. "Thank you," she whispered. She turned away forward again and began her way to her room. Eyes facing forward, she let deliberate footsteps guide her to her room.
She didn't look back again.