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Date and Time

Susan Taitel grew up in Chicago and now lives in Minnesota. Her fiction has appeared in Cast of Wonders and Cossmass Infinities among others. This is her third appearance in Daily Science Fiction. She would happily go to dinner with multiple doomed historical figures.

Lady Jane Grey sits across from me, studying the menu. This is the last time I let Aunt Margie talk me into a blind date.
We've already exhausted the standard small talk. Where do you live? Me: Chaska. Her: the Tower of London. What do you do for a living? Me: freelance graphic designer and rideshare driver. Her: unemployed, previously queen.
"Queen of what?" I ask, against my better judgment. Jane is odd, even by Aunt Margie's standards but this is not the worst date I've been on recently. So far she hasn't tried to recruit me into an MLM.
"England, briefly," she says, barely audible.
"Queen of England. That's an accomplishment."
"No," she shakes her head, "it was neither my doing nor my wish to rule."
The waiter comes around to take our orders. Jane orders soup and asks for more bread. I order the duck. Aunt Margie promised to reimburse me for dinner.
"How did you become queen if you didn't want to be?"
"My cousin Edward, then the king, named me his successor shortly before his death." She looks away, lips drawn in a tight line. "The Duke of Northumberland manipulated him to prevent Edward's sister Mary from taking the throne. She was a Papist, you see."
"A Papist, right. That would have been... bad?"
"It's no matter now," Jane sighs. "For all my father-in-law's strategizing, my reign lasted a paltry nine days."
"Father-in-law?"
"The Duke of Northumberland is father to my husband, Guildford Dudley."
"You're married?" Aunt Margie didn't check that she was single?
"It is not a love match; our fathers arranged the marriage for political gain. Still, I am sorry that Guilford will surely be executed for treason."
Our food arrives. I know it's rude, but I can't stop staring at Jane. She's not pretty, per se; she's on the plain side. Her eyes are the palest blue I've ever seen and her skin is equally pallid. What I can see of her hair, under the headpiece she's wearing, is light brown and possibly thinning. She seems tired and sad and very young. It's impossible to look away.
When I was ten, my friend Sam was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I was eleven when he died. The last time I visited him in the hospital I was struck by this feeling that all the decades he'd never see had collapsed, trapping his small body underneath. Being only eleven, I couldn't put it into words. All I knew was I'd do anything to make him smile.
I don't care if Jane is a crackpot or a con-artist. I'm going to show this sad, exhausted, girl a good time.
Over dessert, I tell her my weirdest rideshare story. I picked up a man in neon green pajamas in front of a Hyatt. He told me to drive in any direction for at least five hours before returning to the hotel. Then he fell asleep, snoring so loudly my seat shook. Exactly five hours later, he woke up, pulled a business suit on over the pajamas, and handed me a small drawstring bag before getting out of the car.
"What was in the bag?" she asks, head tilted in interest.
"A silver egg with iridescent swirls all over the shell. I put it on top of my radiator. It stayed there for three weeks then one morning it was gone and its place were pieces of charred shell."
"What hatched?"
"No idea. But ever since, my apartment has smelled like honeysuckle and wet dog."
Jane's lips curl into a smile. "You made that up."
"It's all true, except the egg was just a paperweight." Sadly, the wet dog smell is real.
"Can I give you a ride?" I ask once I've paid the bill. She shakes her head.
"It's not far, I can walk."
"I'll go with you." It's not late but it's already dark. November in Minnesota, we don't have much daylight to speak of. She fastens her cloak and we leave the restaurant. After a few blocks, she turns into Loring Park. The trees are wrapped in Christmas lights and the path is lined with booths selling ornaments and spiced nuts.
"Is it a festival?" Jane asks.
"Sort of. They do this every weekend until Christmas."
I buy Jane a pair of mittens from one of the vendors. She puts them on gratefully.
People are gathering in an open clearing. Jane and I fall into the crowd. There's a sudden whirring sound overhead and then a crackling explosion of light and color.
"Oh my!" Jane gasps, covering her mouth with a mittened hand. We watch the firework display. Jane claps enthusiastically when it's done. We walk back toward the edge of the park past the skating rink. Jane pauses to watch.
"Want to try?" I ask.
"I don't know how."
"Me neither. We'll learn together." I get us each a pair of rental skates, taking a guess on her size. I help her tie off her brocade skirt so she won't trip and we gingerly make our way onto the ice. Luckily, we aren't the only novice skaters.
She clutches my arm. We're not so much skating as scooting at the exit. I lose my footing, dragging Jane down with me.
"Sorry! Sorry!"
"It's fine." She hauls herself upright, laughing as I crawl to the wall. "My word," she wheezes, still laughing. "That was so reckless! I loved it!"
We return the skates and continue our walk. We should have reached the end of the park by now. I should be able to see the headlights of cars merging onto I-94. All I see is more trees. Looking back, I can no longer see the fair behind us, but Jane seems certain of the way. We stop at a stone wall twice my height. A large turreted building looms behind it. Jane stops.
"This is it. I had a very nice time. Thank you." She hesitates for a second then plants a kiss on my cheek, then turns around and disappears through an opening in the wall.
Still disoriented, I walk in the direction I think we came. My phone won't turn on. It was seventy percent charged when we left the restaurant. Maybe it was damaged by the tumble on the ice. I look up at the sky in an attempt to navigate by the stars but even they seem out of place.
I'm almost positive that I'm walking in circles. I'm starting to panic when my phone chimes. The screen flickers erratically.
"Hello?"
"Alex?" Aunt Margie's voice crackles through the bad connection.
"Aunt Margie? I think I'm lost. I don't know--"
"There there, Alex, you're fine," she interrupts. "Take a breath. Look around."
I do. Trees. Darkness. More trees. I turn in a circle, still noth--the duck pond and the little bridge that crosses it. The basketball court. And the playground. It's Loring Park.
"Okay, yeah, I'm good." I do feel good. Like when you almost trip and you see the spot where you would've hit and your skull isn't cracked open on the pavement. I glance up. The stars have returned to their proper locations. "Thank you, Aunt Margie."
She's my grandfather's sister. Or possibly his cousin. Come to think of it I don't remember seeing her at any family functions. She could be one of those family friends that you call "aunt."
"All right, I just spoke to Jane and she had a marvelous time. Well done, kiddo."
"Uh... thanks but I don't think it was such a good match, Auntie. We didn't have much in common. Did you know she's married?"
Aunt Margie makes a noncommittal noise.
"And I'm pretty sure she was underage."
"That's true enough but I knew you wouldn't take advantage of her. You didn't, did you?" Her voice takes on a slight edge.
"Of course not!"
"There you go! Everyone had a nice evening. I'd call that a success."
"But... Is she going to be okay?"
"No, definitely not. She never was. That wasn't the point."
I let that sink in.
"All right dear, are you free on the seventh?"
"I think so. Why?"
"There's a girl you should meet. She's not as dour as poor Jane but she's as much in need of a nice time. What do you say?"
"Um..." It had been a strange, sometimes unsettling, evening. I close my eyes and see Jane gasping at the fireworks. The way her eyes lit up while we were "skating." Then I see Sam in his hospital bed, parrying my paper-towel-tube-sword with one of his own, smiling one more time.
"Sure, why not?"
"You're a good egg, Alex. I'll arrange it with Marie. That reminds me, how's your French?"
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 19th, 2021


Author Comments

When I was a teenager, around the same age as Jane at the time of her execution, I saw the movie Lady Jane starring Helena Bonham Carter. I've wanted to give Jane a hug and a cup of cocoa ever since.

- Susan Taitel
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