01. Alba is.
Alba loves time traveling: the funny squeeze of the air, the feel of another time on her bare skin.
02. Alba is 28.
Henry never told her that he was at her wedding. Probably he didn't know: she glimpses him through the crowd at the reception as he darts in, loads a plate at the buffet, and saunters out, just a lanky figure in a poorly-fitted blazer he stole from somewhere. Her heart leaps and she stumbles. Rhys catches her.
"You okay?" he says, steadying her.
"Fine," she says, beaming, her eyes full of tears. "Just fine."
He kisses her hand. "Going somewhere without me?"
"Not today," she says, and kisses his mouth, the wide, funny, sensitive mouth she loves.
03. Alba is 12 and 19.
Alba wakes up when Alba climbs into bed. "Push over, small fry." Alba is wearing only a t-shirt that's much too small for her; she smells like beer and something deeper and richer and sweatier.
"Have you been drinking?" Alba demands. She is twelve, on a cusp, envious of Alba's curves and certainty.
"I only had half a beer," Alba says, yawning. She drags Alba's pillow away. "I just lost our virginity."
"We have a boyfriend?" Alba says, and her voice squeaks. She is so full of questions that she bites her own lip trying to let them come out in the proper order.
"We'll see," Alba says with a secretive smile, and burrows into the pillows, leaving Alba awake and rigid with longing to be at that moment.
04. Alba is 6 and 15.
Clare registers her at school as a CDP - chrono-displaced person. It will allow her certain privileges, in case time takes her out of her classroom. Alba holds her mother's hand and tries to see over the counter.
"Oh," the secretary says kindly, "you're a Traveler." She says it with a capital T that Alba can hear, and more than a touch of what an older Alba will call envy. "Do you get it from your mother?"
"Her father," Clare says, and Alba squeezes her mother's hand, surprised at the sharpness in Clare's voice.
"Well, we'll take good care of her," the secretary assures Clare. "We keep plenty of spare clothes in the nurse's office, and a supply of snacks."
Clare opens her mouth, pauses, and closes it again. "Thank you. It's hard to get used to the idea that this is normal now."
The secretary nods. "Retroeducation has been a marvel. Isn't it funny, that they had to come back and tell us that it would be ordinary, just so it would be ordinary? I guess there are a few things you can change."
"Precious few," Clare says, and squeezes Alba's hand back.
"Thank you," Alba says, smiling her prettiest smile at the secretary.
"We'll see you soon, honey," the secretary says. "Alba DeTamble. What a nice name."
"I'm a city on a hill," Alba tells her, and the secretary looks puzzled, but smiles.
"Thank you," Clare says instead, and gets Alba an ice cream on the way home. When they get to the house, Clare disappears into her studio without saying anything. Alba finds her favorite book and reads in the kitchen, not touching anything she's not supposed to touch. When Clare comes back, her hands and her eyes and her nose are all red. They have fish sticks for dinner, a little bit burned. Clare only reads a short story when it is time for bed, but Alba doesn't say anything.
She wakes up in her own bed, watching herself rummage through her jewelry box, holding up a pair of earrings to her pierced ears.
"Did it hurt to get holes?" Alba says. She's tried to sneak up on herself before, but Alba of the present whenever is never surprised.
"Nope. There's a t-shirt for you under the pillow," Alba says, and Alba pulls it on. "First day of school, huh?"
"Almost," Alba says. Alba comes over and ruffles her hair.
"Things'll be all right, Alba."
"Mom's sad," Alba says without thinking, and realizing it makes her unhappy.
"I know," Alba says. "You just have to wait. Help her out when you can, okay?"
"I don't know how," Alba says.
"Just be there," Alba says. "Sleep for a little while. Everything will be okay."
05. Alba is 10.
Seeing Henry at the museum leaves Alba delighted for a week. She dances around the house. Clare looks weary and spends a lot of time in her studio. The paper she makes is fine and smooth as silk. When she comes in, she sprawls in a chair, and Alba dances in front of her, a happy Dad-was-here dance, complete with boogie moves and plenty of hip-shaking.
"Mom, do you think I'll see Dad again soon?"
"I don't know, sweetheart," Clare says, passing a hand over her eyes. "You'd be able to know better than I would."
Alba goes and hugs her mother, hanging on tight to Clare's neck until Clare puts her hands up and hugs back.
"He wants to see you, Mom," Alba whispers.
Clare takes a deep breath and seems to hold it for a long time. "Thank you, baby. Maybe I'll get to talk to him next time."
"I'm gonna do my homework now," Alba announces. She takes the stairs to her room two at a time.
06. Alba is 11.
She tries to go to ancient Egypt; the pictures in her schoolbooks fascinate her. The desert is so dry and strange compared to home. She doesn't quite make it, though she does end up shivering near the pyramids in the middle of the night. Someone comes by in a car and takes her away, giving her an oversized camouflage shirt to wear, and she can't understand him when he talks, but he seems concerned, and she wishes she could tell him it's okay. When she tries, he just shakes his head and gestures more. She waves when she pops back out, almost laughing at the startled look on his thin brown face.
She tells Henry about it, the next time she sees him, the two of them on a bench in the park. He shakes his head, tweaking the ends of her braids. "You're a marvel, Alba. I've never been to another continent. Be careful, though. If anything happens to you, I don't know what your mom will do."
"I'm careful!" she says. "I take care of Mom."
"I know you do, baby." He kisses her forehead. "I'm going. Tell Clare I love her."
"I will, Daddy." He vanishes. Alba loops her arms around her knees and waits for the tingle that means she's going back.
07. Alba is 19.
There is never a bad time.
Clare tries to find ways to keep her stuck in the present. Alba knows it's out of love; she tries to humor Clare, but sometimes there's no way to shake herself out of it. Kendrick gives her pills to try, but they only make the slip slower, so that she feels every snag in the timestream as she passes through stories she'll never know and others she'll come to in her own peculiar time. For a while, the violin helps. She picks it up and starts to play when she feels the dizziness building, and the complexity of the fingerings on the pieces her grandfather is teaching her tie her firmly enough to her present and Clare's that she manages to hold on, but she can't help thinking of what she might have been supposed to have done.
She writes essays at school and drives her teachers mad inventing verb tenses to explain her experiences.
For a while, when she is a teenager, she jumps every day, just to see what she can see. She sees Clare, wrapped up in her art. She sees her parents' past. She sees her own future. It's like flying. She cheats on a couple of tests, but repents; she never tells Clare. She jumps farther than Henry ever did, timewise and distancewise. She sees history made. She skips to the end of relationships; they never work out. A couple of times, she babysits herself while Clare is in the studio. She meets her own children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren; they jump back to see her, much more focused, much more able than she is. They have dark hair and red hair and blue eyes and green eyes and six different shades of skin. She tells them stories about Henry and Clare, about the first love to withstand time.
Of course there are things that are unpleasant. She doesn't like being naked in the rain in a strange place. Sometimes the burden of history is a heavy weight: she can't stop things that have happened, and it's difficult to know what she has or hasn't done to affect a time or event, and what she could or couldn't have done differently. She snaps at Clare about it, gets sullen and won't talk, but Clare just bears it, and Alba learns to apologize swiftly.
There are some close scrapes, but God, she never loses her feet. She never gets beaten or raped or lost or waylaid the way Henry feared. There is one near-disaster, when she's 19: she is caught out of time and ends up someplace snowy and dark and deserted. Still, she's lucky - there's a shack nearby, and when she looks in the window, there's a stove and a bed and some blankets and food. She blesses her mother under her breath for letting her learn to pick locks and starts to jimmy the lock with a convenient bit of wire. It's cold, but she stamps her feet and hops in place as she twists the wire into the mechanism.
The crunch of the snow warns her that someone's there; she whirls and sees the dog hurtling toward her. The man behind it shouts something in what sounds like Russian. He's big, burly, and he's wearing a fur coat, and he has a gun. Alba bites her lip trying not to yell. The dog leaps at her, teeth bared. She clutches the wire so hard it almost breaks the skin of her hand and pushes herself between times, something she's never been able to do before, jump from one time to another without snapping back to her proper time.
She comes out on a beach and sprawls panting in the surf, the sun beating down on her. Someone exclaims and flings a towel over her. Someone else brings her a plush bathrobe with a hotel monogramme; someone else entirely brings her a drink, until the entire population of the beach seems to be fussing over her. Alba's swoon is genuine: the transition from cold fear to tropics has upset her equilibrium, and she is desperately hungry and tired from the jump. When she feels the itch that will take her home, to her own time and place, she slips off the toilets, almost sobbing with relief.
The next day she has a sunburn; it heals slowly and she is peeling off flakes of skin for a week, but she stays in her own time.
08. Alba is 26.
She always learns something. She always finds something. It's how she meets Rhys, jumping accidentally into her own future just as she runs into him on the street, literally runs into him and they both go flying. For a moment she is watching herself from the corner of a restaurant as she sips a cup of coffee and flirts with him over the narrow breadth of the table, and then she is crashing to the ground.
"Oh my god," she says, "it's you." He dusts off his hands; he has scuffed his palm on the ground, but he still pushes himself up and offers her a strong arm to help her off the sidewalk, and he picks up her bags.
"Were you expecting me?" he asks, his eyes crinkling with humor.
"In half an hour I'm having coffee with you," she says, bewildered, blushing, making a mess of her shopping as she rummages through the bags so that she can keep her busy hands off him. She sneaks looks at him through the curtain of her hair; he is the most gorgeous thing she has ever seen, all dark curls and blue eyes. They are a pair, she knows it, and she trembles with the cold and a sense of destiny as she straightens up. She has never seen him before now, but she knows.
"Well," he says, spreading his hands. She wants to kiss the abrasion that's there, angry red against the faint olive of his skin. "That's not really a line I can pass up. But I have to tell you, I don't think you have to wait. There's a little café right around the corner."
They spend three hours at the table, lingering over coffee and biscotti, and when they can't dawdle any longer, he wraps her scarf tenderly around her neck and she stretches up to kiss him, natural as anything.
"I'm a CDP," she says, breathless, when he lets her go.
"I thought so," he says. "You seemed so certain about the coffee."
"Is that a problem?" Her lips quiver; she presses them together.
He shrugs, wry. "You tell me. Do we have a future?"
"God yes," she says.
"You've seen me before?" His voice is low and intense and full of promises.
"No," she admits, "but I've met our children."
"Nothing for it, then," he says, laughing. "Pleased to meet you, Alba-my-future."
"Rhys, I didn't mean to," she says, feeling vulnerable. He chucks her under the chin.
"Don't worry," he says, "it takes no kind of coercion for me to want to see you again. I'm not afraid of you and your visions." He puts his arm around her and she sags against him gratefully.
09. Alba is 50.
It happens less, as she gets older. It's less easy and she wants it less. Sometimes she can circumvent the tingle with a quick dose of migraine medicine; after all that research, Kendrick's gene therapy almost worked, but she was nearly too old for it, and the tablets help. She still lets time skip when she wants to see Clare, or if she thinks she'll find Henry at the other end, but more and more, she wants to spend time with her family.
Alba doesn't talk to Clare about it; the ache in Clare's eyes is too much to bear. If only the cure could have come sooner, if only the respite could have been Henry's, if only he hadn't been the first. She takes Clare to the opera instead, or the movies, anywhere they don't have to speak. As guilty as she feels, there's only so much that Clare can understand, and all the knowledge in the world won't ease the pain of all those years of trying to hold on to her chrono-displaced family as she described her own limited path through space-time. Alba holds her tongue and watches her mother paint with hands that shake: Clare's own weary back, a trail of blood worn down, and angels flitting around her free and furious, angels with Alba's hair and Henry's grin and broken shackles trailing from their ankles.
10. Alba is 7 and 17 and 25 and 38 and 62 and 89 and 94.
The best time is at the opera, when she goes to see Grandmother Annette. Alba finds somebody's shawl in the cloakroom and wraps it around herself like her bath towel. The satin is beautiful against her skin. Over it, she puts a coat that's almost her size; it's funny to think that there are other kids here, since it's much later than Clare lets her stay up.
It's like Christmas. Everyone has that hushed, holiday feel, and the whole place is done in lush red velvet with pinpricks of light everywhere. Alba sneaks up to the second level and tucks herself behind a row of chairs. The stage is like an island of light and the people are the rustling, whispering, gleaming waves. It reminds her of when Clare takes her to the beach and the breeze ruffles along the shore and turns the water into spray; she closes her eyes and feels individual words of people's conversations sprinkling against her ears. Then Grandmother Annette comes out on stage and everybody goes still. Grandmother Annette's voice is the most beautiful thing Alba has ever heard. It fills the whole room, even though Grandmother Annette is just standing there like a doll that someone's dressed up. Alba stands as quiet as she can and lets all the sound wash around her. The song is pure and true; Alba can't understand the words, but she can understand the meaning of them, love and sadness and the most concentrated joy she's ever known. She's so caught up in it, the applause at the end takes her by surprise, and it's like she's riding the wave of noise out of the theater. She blows a kiss at Grandmother Annette, even though Annette can't possibly see her, and comes out blinking in the broad daylight of the backyard, Clare rushing over with a robe.
"Where were you, baby?" Clare asks, wrapping Alba up in the robe and a hug.
"Heaven," says Alba, still soaring.
She goes back when she can, appearing enough to the cloakroom that she's never caught before she manages to dress herself; by the end, in a crowd, she can pick out her own head from anywhere in the room, all those Albas looking for peace and the love of family, so in love with the music that no younger Alba notices the older Albas watching her and smiling. Anyway, how could they know? She touches her own elbow in a crowd once; Alba shies away, holding an elegant wool coat around herself. The last time, she hobbles backstage, wrapped in someone else's fur. She presses her grandmother's hand between her own two shaky ones. "My dear, you were magnificent."
"Thank you," Annette says, radiant, lovely, alive. Alba sees Henry in the way Annette holds her arms, in the set of her shoulders. "Singing the same songs night after night, one never knows if one is reaching the audience or not, and this isn't running much longer."
"Warte nur, balde / Ruhest du auch," Alba murmurs, heart aching, thinking of Clare paging through the volumes of poetry once shared with Henry, that in this time belong to this woman.
"I think we've all felt that way," Annette says, squeezing Alba's hands. "I'm so glad you came to see me tonight, before it's over." The warmth of her expression for Alba, Alba-the-stranger, is almost overwhelming. Alba's hands tremble in Annette's. She thinks of her father, whose hands she has not held for so long, and of his love for his mother, how this woman is, in a way, the gateway to all of the things she has done in her life.
"Thank you, my dear," Alba says, close to tears, and hobbles away. History is a burden tonight; she has done more than she ought, and less than she might, and she will go home to Rhys, who will also be at peace soon, a rest colder than any she's known, into which she will follow him. But for tonight, she has found heaven, the angels of her past, the origins of her story.