Charlotte looked around and saw a dozen people staring at her: a pair of ladies out for a stroll, some farmers with a load of grain, and half the staff from the general store. Also the Stranger, standing outside the saloon, her hat tipped forward. Charlotte grimaced. Respectable journalists didn’t get into brawls in the street.
“I’m sorry,” Davis said. “Honest, I am.”
Charlotte took a deep breath. She’d known Davis too long to believe he was one bit sorry. Even with his nose bloodied, he still looked like he was laughing at her.
“Girl, be nice now,” the sheriff said. “He says he’s sorry.”
Grinding her teeth, Charlotte offered Davis a hand of truce. With a cruel smile, he reached out to accept it.
The earth rumbled beneath their feet. In the distance, they heard a sound like all the iron in the blacksmith’s shop clanging together or like two steam engines colliding, but magnified a thousand times. Charlotte and Davis staggered back. The noise was so loud Charlotte had to cover her ears.
“What in tarnation!” the sheriff said.
The sky turned dark, and the ground rumbled again. The banging, crashing sounds came from every direction, some louder than others.
Charlotte lost her balance and fell, but she didn’t fall like she expected. Instead of falling down, she fell up.
* * *
At first, Charlotte lost all sense of direction. She floated in the air like she was floating in water. The sun had stopped shining, and she couldn’t see a thing. She heard nothing but hollering and screaming around her and added her own panicked voice to the chaos.
The sun flickered back to life, glowing dull orange one instant before dying again. It flickered a few more times, and each time the sky looked different. It was clear blue, then it was full of thunderheads, then it was full of stars, then it was blue again.
“I repent! I repent!” voices cried out.
“God save us!” others said.
Charlotte remained weightless a few moments longer then dropped like a stone, smacking face down in the dust. The rest of the town fell too: people and horses, wagons and bushels of hay. Wood splintered, glass shattered, and water spilled over the dry soil. The sun and sky kept changing, and Charlotte still felt dull vibrations someplace deep underground.
As Charlotte got to her feet, seeing the town in the sun’s inconstant light, her gaze fixed on the Stranger. She stood outside the saloon exactly as before, her arms crossed, her hat tipped forward. She regarded Charlotte with a bemused grin.
The rest of the town’s population came running, the young dashing toward the church and the elderly hobbling along behind them. Charlotte caught a glimpse of the sheriff going the other direction, toward his jail.
“Charlotte!” Rebecca yelled, running toward her and pulling her into a tight embrace. “Oh, Charlotte, I’m so sorry. I’ve never been a proper mother to you. I hope God will forgive me.”
“Get off me,” Charlotte said.
“Charlotte, don’t you realize what’s happening?”
“No, but I mean to find out. It must have something to do what that Stranger. That Talie Tappler woman.”
“Please, Charlotte. This is no time for playing journalist.”
Charlotte shoved her mother away and escaped her grasp. Before Rebecca could catch her again, Charlotte disappeared into the bustling crowd. She headed toward the saloon, but when she got there the Stranger was gone.
* * *
Willard the Drunk came stumbling through the streets, raving in his inebriated state. “The munchkins!” he shouted. “They did it! They killed the Sun!”
When Charlotte first started her newspaper, she’d promised to write Willard’s story: how he’d gone off into the hill country, following the river north; how he’d been attacked by munchkin men; how he’d woken up back in town with no memory of how he got there. She’d promised to write it, but somehow she’d never gotten around to it.
Before Charlotte could slip by, Willard saw her. “Miss Charlotte!” he yelled.
Charlotte cursed under her breath. “Hi, Mr. Willard,” she said.
“The munchkins did this!”
“Okay,” Charlotte said, quickening her pace.
“And the woman with purple eyes!” Willard said. “She’s one of them!”
Charlotte stopped. “She’s no munchkin,” she said.
“No, but there’s something peculiar about her. Something unnatural. She’s with the munchkins.”
The sun had stopped flickering, plunging the world into darkness. A few people lit candles or torches, but otherwise Charlotte couldn’t see a thing.
She managed to get home. Rebecca and the other dancing girls lived in a small house behind the saloon. Charlotte lived in the attic. She found some matches and the kerosene lantern the girls kept by the door then headed back outside.
She’d forgotten all about Willard and his stories. In some versions, he’d claimed lizards attacked him, not munchkins. In others, it was knights in armor, like from fairy tales.
One thing had always confused Charlotte, though: where did Willard get his liquor? He never visited the saloon, and she knew he wasn’t distilling whiskey himself. She’d searched his home thoroughly.
Charlotte found no sign of the Stranger in town, so she headed down to the stables and saddled up a horse. She didn’t think this counted as stealing, given the circumstances. Something odd had happened to Willard. Whether it involved munchkins, lizards, or knights, Charlotte couldn’t say, but he might be right about the Stranger.
Charlotte rode down to the river and followed it north, just as Willard had done. Amidst all the commotion, no one had noticed it had run dry. Looking down at it with her lantern, Charlotte only saw a few puddles where the water once flowed three feet deep. She let her horse trot along the banks, leaving shallow hoof prints in the mud, then pushed him to a gallop toward the hill country and the mountains beyond.
* * *
The last time Charlotte traveled this far, she’d been working on a story, investigating the way Mr. Perkins treated the two black boys on his farm. Rumor had it Mr. Perkins didn’t abide by the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on slavery, and that rumor turned out to be true. Perkins chased Charlotte off his land with a shotgun and gave her the evil eye ever since, but her article did some good. The black boys were free, and now they had a farm of their own.
In the total darkness, without even a sliver of moonlight or twinkling of stars, Charlotte couldn’t tell if she’d reached Perkins’ land yet. She’d been riding long enough that she’d probably passed it, but she wasn’t sure.
The ground sloped upward and the riverbed widened. Before she could stop her horse, she saw a wide, flat surface in front of her. The horse crashed into it full speed, throwing Charlotte off his back and braying in pain.
Charlotte rolled across the ground, hitting rocks and thorny weeds until she splashed in a stagnant pool. She felt scrapes and bruises all over her body and couldn’t imagine how bad the horse was hurt. He was grunting and whinnying somewhere close by. Her lantern had shattered, the light had gone out, and Charlotte flailed about blindly.
Her hand touched a cool, flat surface. Her other hand found it too, and she began to explore the strange wall blocking her path. Near the bottom, at water level, she discovered what felt like a wrought iron grate.
White light flooded the area.
“Howdy, partner!” the Stranger said. “What brings you this far from town?”
“Who are you?” Charlotte demanded, squinting into the light and seeing the Stranger’s silhouette approaching.
“The name’s Talie Tappler, but you already knew that. I’m a reporter from the Tomorrow News Network. This is my cameraman, Mr. Cognis.”
Charlotte squinted at Talie. The strange woman’s hair sparkled in the light, and her violet eyes seemed to emit a subtle glow of their own. A man stood behind her, tall and muscular, wearing a ten-gallon hat. He had some funny contraption attached to his face, and a glowing, white orb floated over his shoulder.
“You probably don’t realize this,” Talie said, “but you and your town are famous. You’re the first humans in outer space!”
“What’s outer space?” Charlotte said.
Talie laughed. “I’m not going to tell you, but when you walk through that door you’ll find out.”
Charlotte looked where Talie pointed. In the orb’s illumination, she saw the wall–a wall with a whole landscape painted on it: rolling hills, distant mountains, the rest of the river winding off to the horizon. A rectangular patch was missing. It looked just large enough to be a door. Charlotte took an uncertain step toward it.
“Hold your horses!” Talie said. “Before you go, may I ask a few questions?”
“Why?” Charlotte said.
“It’s my job. I’m a journalist.”
“I’m a journalist too,” Charlotte said. “Maybe I should be the one asking questions.”
Talie smiled. She hopped down into the riverbed with Charlotte.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Talie said. “I’ll interview you, and then you can interview me.”
“Ms. Tappler,” Cognis said, “that seems unwise.”
“Don’t worry,” Talie said. “I did the calculations myself. Chronological resistance measured over ninety temporal ohms. The ultimate outcome of these events is fixed, and nothing you or I say can change that.”