As Caitlin, all dressed up in an elaborate gown, followed Polly through the door, she had to stop herself at the last second from stepping right into the water. She still couldn’t get over the fact that doors opened right onto the water, that one could step into the water as easily as one would step onto a sidewalk elsewhere.
As Caitlin stood there, at the water’s edge, in the fading sunset, she looked down at the rippling water, and was finally able to see her reflection.
“Look!” Caitlin said in amazement, grabbing Polly’s arm, in shock that she could actually see herself.
“I know,” Polly said. “We use it all the time. It’s our only way of seeing ourselves. It’s not exactly a mirror, but it has to do.”
Caitlin was startled at how she looked. She wore a huge gown, yellow, gold and white, festive and multi-layered, with floral designs all over it. Her hair had been braided by Polly, and Caitlin completed her costume with her Venetian mask. She especially liked the mask. Behind this mask, she could have been anyone. With it on, she seemed so mysterious, so regal, even a bit dangerous.
Caitlin looked up and saw that all around her, Polly’s coven members, dozens of them, were at the water’s edge, preparing to board their gondolas. She was impressed by how they looked: they were all so dressed up, in gowns and masks of every color and fabric and style. They had spent all afternoon preparing, and they took it seriously. Their formality was so different from what Caitlin was used to. In a weird way, it was refreshing. They were all so elegant, so refined. Caitlin thought back to what it was like going out for the night in the 21st century. She would spend maybe 10 minutes getting ready, maybe throw on jeans and a turtleneck. That all seemed so boring, so commonplace, next to this. The people in this century seemed to really embrace living life to the fullest.
It was a bit of a challenge for Caitlin to get into the narrow, rocking gondola in her huge gown. Tyler, a boat over, saw her struggling, and hurried over and held out his hand for her.
“Thanks,” she said, taking it.
She took two steps into the rickety boat, swayed and then balanced yourself, as the boat rocked all over the place. She managed to quickly sit and tuck her gown in, right before it draped into the water.
Rose whined, looking on from the water’s edge, clearly wanting to come.
“Sorry, Rose,” Caitlin said. “Not this time. Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.”
Rose kept whining, wanting to be by her side, and Caitlin felt bad. But at the same time, she was happy at the thought of Rose on this island, safe and secure.
All around them, coven members were boarding their gondolas. There was a small fleet of about a dozen gondolas, with two people in each, one sitting down low, and the other standing and rowing. Caitlin recognized many of them: Taylor and Tyler, Cain and Barbara, Patrick, Madeline, Harrison…Polly had introduced her to all of them again throughout the day. It was so weird for her to be introduced to all these people she already knew. But she went along with it, and everything had gone smoothly. Even Cain was nice to her this time.
They all welcomed her as if she’d been there forever, and once again, she felt at home with them. She was starting to feel as if everything she’d lost on Pollepel was slowly being restored to her. Once again, she was slowly beginning to feel like she was home. But she was scared of the feeling, too: it seemed like every time she settled into a place, something ended up happening to uproot her.
The boats pushed off, cutting their way through the clear blue water, lit up in the twilight by the rising full moon. The water was rougher now, at night, than it had been earlier, and her boat bobbed up and down. But it was a peaceful, repetitive motion, and it set her at ease, as did the sound of the waves lapping against it. Caitlin leaned back and closed her eyes, feeling the salt air on her face, and breathed deeply. It was a warm night, and she felt completely relaxed.
She heard a voice break out into song, and opened her eyes and looked over. One of her coven members, in a neighboring boat, was singing as he rowed. It was in a language she did not understand, and he sung in a deep, melodic voice. It was slow, sad song, which merged with the sounds of the lapping waves and the occasional bird crying overhead.
Caitlin closed her eyes again, and allowed herself to relax. Once again, she felt at home, a sense of ease in the world. She allowed her mind to wander, and to think of the night to come.
Despite all the stark cultural differences, despite being dressed in a costume and mask and being in the year 1790 and heading to a ball, Caitlin felt that things weren’t really all that different than they might be back home. She almost felt as if she could be going out with friends on a Saturday night, heading to a dance. The exteriors were very different, but ultimately, deep down, it was the same thing. Going out for the night with friends. Hoping to have a good time. Hoping to meet someone. It was amazing to her how some things never changed.
In Caitlin’s case, the only thing on her mind was Caleb. She felt her heart pounding with excitement with every row the boat took, hoping that it took her one step closer to meeting him. She felt with her whole heart that she would see him at the dance tonight. She willed it to be the case. She prayed, she really prayed, that he was alive, that he had survived the trip. That he would be there. It seemed like the best chance she had.
If he wasn’t here, if he hadn’t made it, she would be crushed. And if he was there… She didn’t even know where to begin. She tried to imagine the moment. Seeing him again for the first time. She prayed that he would recognize her, that their love would make it possible. That the second their eyes locked, he would embrace her, would remember everything. He would tell her how he had been searching for her, too, and how grateful he was to have her back. He would thank her for reviving him. He would tell her how happy he was that they could live together now, free from any harm.
Caitlin’s heart swelled as she thought of it. It was a chance to start clean with Caleb, and it was a chance to meet him for the first time all over again. In a way, it would be like a first date. And maybe there would be a first dance. And a first kiss.
And then…just maybe, they could get married this time. And have a child once again.
It was dark by the time they arrived in Venice, and as they rounded a bend and approached the city, Caitlin was struck by its beauty at night. The city was lit up, candles in every window, and torches on every boat. The water, filled with boats, was even more crowded than before, lit with the reflection of thousands of torches from hundreds of ships gliding through the night. If anything, the city look even more festive during the night than it had during the day. Caitlin was shocked at how much they managed to achieve without electricity.
And, to Caitlin’s surprise, it was even more crowded. Even from this distance, she could hear the laughing, the singing, and most of all, the music. In every direction, on every corner, in every square, even in the boats, people were playing music, strumming on lutes, harps, guitars…It was as if they were entering one huge party.
People were also openly drinking everywhere, and laughter filled the air. It soared above the noise, as if everyone seemed to be in a fit of hysterics over something.
Caitlin looked forward to re-entering the city, especially, this time, with all of her newfound friends in tow, but she was still a bit intimidated by the maze of streets, and by the crowds. People were everywhere, and with everyone was in costume, it seemed far too easy to get separated and lost in the fray.
Their gondola headed under a bridge, and then pulled up to the dock. All of her coven members jumped out, securing their boats, and giving each other a hand.
Before Caitlin could even stand, Tyler had jumped out of his boat, run over to hers, and knelt down, offering her hand.
“Aren’t you going to offer me a hand?” Polly asked, joking.
“She’s the new girl,” Tyler said. “She needs it.”
Caitlin took his hand gladly, hoping that he didn’t look too much into it, as she stepped out of the rocky boat; with one big step, he lifted her and she jumped onto shore. It was no easy feat, and she wondered how she’d ever get back into it.
Before Polly could get off, Patrick suddenly appeared, running over to her and holding out his hand.
“Can I help you, Polly?” he asked, hopefully. He stood there with his big grin, large ears, and shock of red hair, and looked exactly as Caitlin had remembered him on Pollepel.
“Thanks anyway,” Polly said, “but I’ll be OK.”
Patrick turned away, crestfallen.
Caitlin marveled at the twists of fate. She remembered a time when Polly was desperate to court Patrick; now, the situation had clearly changed.
Caitlin felt happy to be on land, standing there with all of her new friends, ready to see the city at night for the first time. In her first trip here, she had felt so disoriented; now, she really felt ready to take it all in.
The group of them hurried off into the crowd, and Caitlin stuck close by Polly’s side, careful not to lose her. It shouldn’t be too hard, because Polly’s bright pink and white dress—and matching mask—was hard to miss. Polly reached over and grabbed Caitlin’s wrist, as they were jostled every which way through the crowd.
“Venice is unlike any place in the world,” Polly said. “The city is in decline, but no one really cares. It’s sinking, literally, into the water, but no one seems to care about that, either. They just want to have fun. People come here from all over the world to join in the party, and to shake their heads at our lifestyle.” Polly shrugged. “We’re far removed from it being on our island—but when we do come in, it’s always a good time.”
They all turned down a side street, and then into a large square, buildings facing it from every direction with elaborate, marble façades. It was beautiful, and the square was absolutely packed, aglow with torches.
Caitlin wondered if the crowds would ever die down, anywhere in this city.
The square was lined with cafés along one side, hundreds of people sitting at small tables, mostly in costume and wearing masks, sipping on cups of coffee, or drinking glasses of wine. The clinking of dishes could be heard from far away. Dogs roamed amidst them, scavenging for scraps.
As they crossed to the other side of the square, Caitlin saw that it was lined with gambling booths: there were hundreds of small tables, hustlers behind them, moving small shells or offering various other ways for unsuspecting victims to gamble their money. Crowded around them were hundreds of people, betting away their money on sure losses.
There was a sudden eruption and shouting, as one of the tables was knocked over by an angry customer. He pounced on the hustler, and the two of them wrestled to the ground, punching and hitting each other, as a commotion broke out.
Caitlin felt a tug on her arm, and followed Polly as the group turned down another side street. This alleyway was narrow, barely big enough to fit a few people side-by-side, and it was darker than the others. As they walked, wooden shutters opened above them on all sides, and girls, not much older than Caitlin, stuck their heads out, smiling widely, and pulling their dresses low enough to reveal their breasts.
Caitlin was shocked.
“Want a good time?” one of them called out.
“Hey honey!” screamed another
“I’m for hire!” another screamed.
Caitlin felt bad that girls her age had to work that way, and she marveled at the injustice of the world. Some things never seemed to change.
They entered another square, and this one was filled with jugglers, fire eaters, and all sorts of games. The music here was even louder, as a whole band of performers strummed guitars, and a chorus of people sang along.
A jug of wine was thrust under Caitlin’s nose, as several vendors crowded around them, shoving it under their faces. She tried to push them away, but they kept getting closer. Finally, Polly reached over and shoved them hard, and they went away.
“It’s the only way to handle them,” Polly said.
Caitlin was taken aback by the roughness of this place. It seemed like complete mayhem.
As she headed deeper into yet another thick crowd, she began to feel claustrophobic. It was getting harder to move, as the crowd seemed to grow continually thicker, people pouring into the square from all directions. Worse, she was overwhelmed by the stench. It seemed no one bathed, and that the closest attempt was throwing on cheap perfume, which didn’t even work.
Caitlin looked over and noticed Polly take out a small pouch from her pocket, and raise it to her nose.
“What’s that?” Caitlin asked.
Polly looked over, and realize that Caitlin didn’t have one, and reached into her pocket and handed her one. It felt funny in Caitlin’s hand, like a small, silk bag of potpourri.
“Hold it to your nose,” Polly instructed. “It helps.”
Caitlin held it up, and it helped right away. Instead of the smell of the people, she inhaled the scent of roses and perfume.
“It’s really impossible to get through Venice without it.”
Caitlin surveyed the crowd, and saw the other coven members were holding them, too.
They finally exited onto a side street, and as they walked, the street ended in a footbridge. They had to ascend, up about 15 steps or so, then the bridge flattened out, over a canal of water. Caitlin looked left and right as they did, and saw the canal wind its way through the narrow side streets of Venice. Seeing water like that, right in the middle of the city, was really incredible. It was amazing to her that she couldn’t have continued walking down this street without crossing a small bridge.
They came down the footbridge on the other end, and turned down another side street, and entered yet another square. The square was much more elegant than the others, lined with huge palaces, elaborate marble façades, arched doorways, and huge arched windows. Caitlin wondered if this was where royalty lived.
Just as she was about to ask Polly where they were, the group stopped in front of one of the more beautiful buildings, before an oak door. One of them reached up, grabbed the metal knocker, and slammed it with three short knocks that echoed throughout the plaza.
Within seconds, an elaborately dressed butler opened the door. He bowed his head and stepped aside.
“Just on time,” he said with a smile.
Caitlin entered the huge palace, sticking close to Polly, and looked up at her surroundings in awe. It was unlike any place she had ever been. This huge, opulent palace had soaring ceilings, painted with frescoes and lined with fancy moldings. The walls were covered in oil paintings and enormous gold mirrors. A gigantic chandelier hung low, holding dozens of candles which lit up the room. Beneath Caitlin’s feet was an intricate black-and-white tiled marble floor, so shiny that she could almost see her reflection in it. Before her was a wide marble staircase, winding to the left and to the right with an ornate railing, and lush red carpeting right down the middle.
The room was packed with people. It was a different sort of crowd than had filled the streets—here, the people seemed refined, elegant, and were clearly very, very rich. They were all dripping with jewelry—some of the most brilliant and opulent jewels Caitlin had ever seen. Their costumes were more fancy, more ornate, and everyone wore masks, some covered in jewels. The laughter in here was more subtle, and nearly everyone drank from a crystal glass. It felt like she was in an exclusive cocktail party inside a lavish museum. There were hundreds of people milling about, as far as her eye could see.
The room was also filled with music. In the corner of the room sat a string quartet, the mellow sounds of the violin and cello echoing off the high walls. Caitlin wondered who lived here. Was it some sort of government palace? Or was it a private residence?
“It’s the Doge’s Palace,” Polly said, answering her thoughts, as she tugged on her arm, leading her through the crowd. “He’s the elected ruler of the humans. The palace is used for parties by the richest family in Venice. They’ve ruled this town for hundreds of years.”
“How did they get so rich?” Caitlin asked.
“Salt?” Caitlin asked, thinking she’d misheard.
“It used to be a precious commodity. There was a time when no one in Europe could get it. And Venice had it in troves. Haven’t you seen the water? Smelled the air? It’s packed with salt. That’s why all the buildings are rotting. The salt water’s corroding their foundations.
“When the first Venetians came here, they quickly realized they were sitting on a gold mine. All they had to do was extract salt from the water. It was like minting money, and they created more wealth than you or I could ever imagine.”
They continued weaving through more of the crowd.
“But it’s a dying family now,” Polly continued. “Their empire is dwindling. The descendants now are nothing like their ancestors. But some of them are kind of cute. I’ve got my eye on one in particular. Robert. The grandson. He’s about our age, and he’s never been turned. He’s fabulous,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “He wears the most outrageous outfits. I think he likes me, too. I’m hoping he’ll ask me to dance tonight. Every time I see him, he’s spending money in the most ridiculous, lavish way.”
They finally reached the far end of the room and Polly opened a grand door, and as she did, Caitlin’s jaw dropped.
“Like hiring Mozart,” Polly added.
There, on the far side of the room, seated at the end of an immense banquet table, sat Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Wearing a white wig, dressed in an elaborate costume, he was the only one in the room without a mask—and the only one who didn’t need one. His personality was more than enough. Short, pudgy and very pale, he sat behind a harpsichord, drinking with one hand and playing with the other. When he set down the goblet, he broke into wild laughter, and continued playing with both hands.
For all his levity, his music was intense, spiritual. It was unlike anything Caitlin had ever heard. She had, in fact, never heard a harpsichord in her life. It had a tin, metallic sound, and it was not very loud—yet it really resonated in its own way. His playing was fun, upbeat, playful. Much like the man himself. But still, there was an undercurrent to it, something so profound.
The table already sat about a hundred, and was half full with humans. There remained about fifty empty chairs, and Caitlin found herself led to the table with her coven members. They all sat together, completing the table, and the other diners all raised a glass and cheered as they did. Caitlin’s group raised their glasses back, and as Caitlin picked hers up, she saw that it was already conveniently filled with a red liquid.
Caitlin sat in the lush, red velvet armchair, sinking into it, propping her elbows on its huge arms, and examined her glass. It was fine crystal, the red liquid illuminated by the huge candelabra on the table. She had a feeling she knew what it was, and as she drank, she realized she was right: blood. It coursed through her veins with a rush, energizing her, and she realized there was something else mixed in, too—some kind of alcohol. Caitlin felt it go right to her head, and felt a bit dizzy. She also felt relaxed. She realized how on-edge she’d been since she’d arrived.
Elegant china was set before her, on which was a small piece of raw meat. Similar plates were being placed before all of her coven members. The fleet of waiters disappeared, and before they’d even left, another fleet arrived, setting down all sorts of delicacies and meats on the table. In the center sat a huge stuffed pig, an apple in its mouth.
There was more food on this table than Caitlin had ever seen, and every second it seemed another servant brought out a new dish. This was in addition to the dozens of servers who circled around them, constantly refilling everyone’s glasses. They filled Caitlin’s side of the table with the dark liquid, and filled all the others with what looked like champagne.
Caitlin wanted to ask Polly what this was all about, why they were here, whose house this was, but she was too mesmerized by Mozart. Caitlin didn’t understand classical music, and didn’t know how to appreciate it, but even so, it was obvious, even to a layperson, that he played with a skill and passion unlike anything anyone in the room had ever known. The man was on fire. Music seemed to stream right from his fingertips, completing the festive atmosphere. Equally amazingly, he laughed and drank as he played without even missing a note.
All of the people around the table were drinking and laughing. The doors to the huge room were left wide open, and other people continually streamed in and out, the party extending itself into the room, and spreading out all around them. It was less of a formal dining room than it was a dining table set in the midst of a cocktail party. Caitlin could hardly believe the lavishness of this place.
“What is all this?” Caitlin finally asked Polly. “Why are we here? Whose place is this? I thought we were going to a ball?”
Polly had a piece of raw meat in her mouth, sucking the blood from it, savoring every ounce. She finally put it down, looking refreshed, and wiped her mouth and looked over at Caitlin.
“This is Venice, my dear,” she said. “Nothing ever starts on time. And everything is always preceded by something else. We would never jump right into a ball. Before that is dinner; and before that, music; and before that, drinking; and before that, games. Life here is not about merely going to an event and leaving. It is about making an event last all night long.”
Caitlin could already tell that that was the case. As she looked up, she saw a bunch of circus performers approach the far side of the table, rolling carts with all sorts of balls on them. Another cart rolled up with shells on them. As the table watched, they shuffled the shells in every direction.
“That one!” someone yelled, reaching out and pointing a finger at a shell.
It was a heavy woman, covered in too much makeup, sitting on a man’s lap, and as she screamed, she reached over and pushed a huge pile of gold coins into the center of the table.
“No, no, that one!” screamed someone else, pushing their own pile of coins.
After a dramatic pause, the performer lifted the shell and revealed the empty one. The table erupted into a roar of delight.
The woman who had guessed correctly gathered her coins, plus others, and leaned over and kissed the man she was with.
Caitlin looked around the table, and noticed that many women were sitting on men’s laps, and that some were kissing passionately, in full view of the others. No one seemed to care.
“Don’t you think he’s fabulous?” Polly asked.
Caitlin followed her gaze to the head of the table. Seated there was an arrogant looking fellow, maybe 18, with striking features. He had dark brown hair, brown eyes, was clean shaven, and looked like he’d been pampered his entire life.
“That’s him,” Polly continued, “Robert.”
Polly was right: he was dressed fabulously, and he was very attractive. But he was not Caitlin’s type at all. He seemed so full of himself. He wore his gold mask pulled back, sitting on his forehead, and held a ruby-encrusted goblet. Several attractive woman stood behind him, one with a hand on his shoulder.
He suddenly looked right at Caitlin, raised his glass, and nodded.
“Oh my God, did you see that?” Polly asked. “He looked right at us! Did you see!? I think he was looking at me! I really hope we dance tonight.”
Caitlin fell a twinge of nervousness in her stomach. She knew, without a doubt, that Robert had been looking at her, not at Polly. She was suddenly afraid that he liked her, and, if so, that Polly would hate her for it. She always seemed to end up in these situations.
Caitlin settled into her overstuffed chair, realizing she was in for a long night. On the one hand, it was fun. But on the other hand, it was too much. Over the top. Decadent. There was just too much of everything—too much food, too much wine, too many games, too many people. It seemed never ending.
All she wanted was to see Caleb. She desperately missed him, now more than ever, with every pore of her body. She had imagined herself coming out tonight, walking right into the ball, and finding him right away. These drinks, these games, this dinner—it all felt like a distraction. It was prolonging her from seeing him. She started to grow impatient.
“So when does the dance start?” Caitlin asked.
“Oh, never before midnight,” Polly said casually, as she took another sip of her wine.
Midnight, Caitlin thought. She looked across the room, at a huge grandfather clock, and saw that it had just struck nine.
She was in for a long night, indeed.
Caitlin was slumped in her chair, feeling lightheaded from the endless glasses of wine, from the nonstop, hysterical laughter from every direction, from dish after dish landing in front of her. It was a hedonistic feast unlike anything she had ever experienced. She could hardly believe that this was all just the warm up to the night.
She observed everything carefully, so curious about how people acted and what they talked about, in 1790. She concluded that a dinner party was a very, very different experience. Everyone here really engaged each other, valued each other’s presence, was engrossed in conversation. No one was on cell phones; no one was texting; no one was checking their voicemails or Facebook page. No telephones rang; no electronics buzzed. And soft candlelight took the place of electricity. It was all so much more relaxed, more slow-paced, more civil. No one was in a rush; everyone seemed to have all the time in the world. Maybe that was what happened, she figured, when you took technology away.
And yet, it was not unsophisticated: the China, the crystal, the silverware, the elaborate dress, the gourmet meal, the vintage wines…It could have been like something out of a gourmet restaurant of the 21st century.
At the same time, they didn’t seem to have a great regard for their health. Had they ever heard of cholesterol? They drank and ate as if there were no consequences, as if they would all drop dead tomorrow. And she assumed that most of these people had never seen a gym—or even knew what that was. It was baffling.
As Caitlin slumped further, absolutely stuffed, her eyes began to close—and suddenly, the clock rang out.
Everyone stood, and Caitlin realized the large clock had struck midnight.
As everyone got up, a set of double doors opened on the far side of the room, leading to a ballroom.
Caitlin got up with the others, Polly taking her arm excitedly, and they all hurried, with the crowd, towards the ballroom. More and more people flowed in from all the rooms, and within moments, the massive room was completely filled.
This huge room was much like the others: it boasted a black and white tiled marble floor, a massive fireplace, chandeliers filled with burning candles and gold mirrors on every wall, reflecting the light, making this immense room seem even bigger than it was. Hundreds of people were already in it, and more and more poured through the doors. The room was so wide, Caitlin could hardly see the other end from where she stood. She craned her neck, searching for Caleb, but it was no use. There was a sea of bodies, and, besides, they were all wearing masks.
Caitlin was nervous as the music began. Mozart sat at the far end of the room, on a small dais, and began playing the harpsichord; as he did, cellists and violinists joined in. It was an upbeat, formal waltz.
Everyone in the room knew what to do. Everyone, that is, but Caitlin. She stood to the side, feeling like an idiot, as everyone lined up perfectly on either side. She looked for Polly, nearly losing her amidst the throng, and hurried to her side.
“Don’t worry, it’s an easy dance,” Polly said. “They always start with easy ones.”
The entire room moved in perfect synchronicity, holding their arms out to the sides, taking one step forward then two steps back, half turning to the right than half turning to the left. Caitlin tried to follow, and as she did, she’d never felt so clumsy. She’d never been a good dancer, and she had no idea what kind of dance this was. Her one saving grace was that the tempo was slow enough for her to catch up with the others.
Caitlin again scanned the crowd, hoping for a glimpse of Caleb. But with all the costumes and masks, it was impossible to even tell who was really male or female. Occasionally, long hair sprawled out the back, and that made it easy, but some women wore their hair tucked in, covered up by a high collar, and dressed in men’s clothing. And some men, Caitlin noticed, strangely enough, dressed in gowns; she could only tell they were men by the muscles in their calves. She had never imagined that there would be any cross-dressing in this century. Was there anything off-limits?
Caitlin was just beginning to get the hang of the song, when suddenly the music stopped. Mozart, with a loud laugh, suddenly started a new one, this one with a much faster tempo.
A new dance began. A set of four lines formed on opposite sides of the room, and the room paired off, grabbed each other, and waltzed in wide circles throughout the room.
“My God, there he is,” Polly said, watching Robert dance across the room with a buxom blonde. Caitlin looked, but couldn’t see what she saw in him.
Patrick came hurrying over to Polly, pulled back his mask, and smiled. He held out a hand.
“A dance?” he asked, hopefully.
He blocked Polly’s view of Robert, and she craned her neck, annoyed.
“Maybe later,” Polly said.
His smile dropped, as he slinked away.
“I have to try to get a dance with him,” she said, and headed off into the crowd for Robert.
Caitlin stood there, feeling more alone than ever, and nervously scanned the faces again. This was not going as she had imagined at all. A blur of masks passed in front of her, one after the other. How could she possibly hope to find Caleb? As she tried to picture his face, it became harder and harder. She began to wonder if she ever even knew him at all. She felt a pit in her stomach, as she began to despair that he had never even survived the trip.
Caitlin tried to center herself, to use her senses. She closed her eyes and breathed deep, trying to shut out all the music, and noise, and movement. As she felt herself getting jostled, she tried to ignore it, to focus on Caleb. She took a deep breath, hoping she could somehow sense his presence. Deep down, she felt she would just know if he were in the same room.
“Caitlin?” suddenly came a man’s voice.
Caitlin opened her eyes excitedly, her heart soaring.
Before her stood a man with elaborate green mask, and he broke into a smile. Had it worked?
Caitlin broke into a smile herself, hoping.
But when the man threw back the mask, Caitlin’s heart broke.
Infuriatingly, it was Tyler.
The same old Tyler. After all these centuries, still trying to pick her up. “May I have this dance?” he asked.
Caitlin was annoyed. He had ruined her moment.
“No,” she snapped, and turned away.
She saw his face fall in disappointment as he walked away.
She suddenly felt bad. She shouldn’t have been so harsh with him. He certainly didn’t deserve that; after all, he only asked her to dance, and it wasn’t his fault. But he had caught her at the wrong moment. And now she felt even worse.
As Caitlin scanned the room, she began to despair. She didn’t see how she could ever find Caleb in this place. And clearly, her senses weren’t helping her. There was too much going on, too much getting in the way of her focusing.
The music changed again, and the room transitioned into a new dance, one in which couples danced with each other, then switched off, each person dancing with someone new every few steps. As Caitlin watched it, she realized that was what she needed to find him. She had to join in, to sweep the entire room, to dance with as many people as she could. Just standing there was doing her no good. She needed to hold hands with as many people as she could. She knew, she just knew, that if her hands actually touched Caleb’s, there was no way, there was no possible way, that she could not know.
Determined, Caitlin hurried out onto the floor with a new passion, grabbing the hands of the nearest partner, following the three-step dance clumsily, then switching off when everyone else did, and grabbing the hands of another.
The hands she grabbed were sweaty, and she could smell the alcohol coming out of their masks.
She danced and danced, finally getting the hang of it, switching off to so many people so quickly, that finally the room began to blur. At one point, she didn’t even know if she had danced with a woman by accident. Everyone just kept switching off, faster and faster, as the music picked up. She danced from one side of the room to the other—again and again and again.
Always, it was a new hand. A new shoulder. A new spin, a new partner. Short ones and tall ones and skinny ones and fat ones. Each new person had an even more elaborate mask; some were funny and made her laugh, while others were sinister.
But still, no Caleb.
Finally, the music stopped. Caitlin, exhausted physically and emotionally, stopped to rest in a corner of the room. As everyone took a breath, she pulled back her mask and wiped the sweat from her forehead, breathing hard, as it was getting hot in here.
“May I request the pleasure of a dance?” came a voice.
Caitlin spun, hoping.
But it was not Caleb—she knew that already from the voice.
No, it was Robert. The Duke.
He was the last person she wanted to dance with. Not only because he was arrogant, but more importantly, because Polly liked him.
He stood there, facing her, cheeks red from too much wine, and with a ridiculous white feather protruding from the back of mask, climbing several feet into the air.
This time she would be more tactful.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’m taking a break.”
His face reddened. “How dare you! Would you really dare to turn down a dance with me? Don’t you know who I am? After all, you are just a commoner. You’d be well advised to accept my offer—while it lasts.”
Despite herself, Caitlin broke into a laugh. It made her realize the stark difference between the 21st and 18th centuries, the class lines that still existed. This man needed a good dose of her time. Now she was mad.
“I wouldn’t dance with you if you paid me,” she said coldly.
The man’s face scrunched up in indignation. He stormed off, stomping his feet. He had probably never been spoken to that way in his life.
Good, Caitlin thought. It was past time that he had.
Caitlin needed some air. It was so stuffy in here; not a single window was open, and the hundreds of moving bodies created a tremendous heat.
She began to cross the dance floor, and as she did, a new song started up, a slower, more romantic one. Partners again began pairing off. Caitlin tried to ignore them, to brush past them, but it was another switching song, and partners didn’t ask. People grabbed whoever was on the floor, danced with them for several steps, and let them go, and Caitlin felt herself being grabbed and spun. There was simply no way around it.
She gave in, deciding that she would just dance her way across the room one last time, and then head for the exit. She switched from one partner to another, grabbing hands and letting go.
And then, it happened. As her hands touched those of her final partner, an electric shock ran through her body.
His hands, his energy. She felt it from her head down to her toes.
She looked up at him carefully. He wore a mask, a proud, golden mask of royalty, and she couldn’t see his eyes. But her body told her.
She became breathless. The entire room stopped around here.
It had to be Caleb.
But as she opened her mouth to speak, a random dancer pulled her away, grabbed her and spun her in the other direction. At the same time, another dancer grabbed him away, and spun him in the other direction.
Caitlin tried to yank herself away, but he was too heavy and strong. By the time she managed to disengage, she was already halfway across the room, looking desperately for Caleb. She scoured every which way, looking for that golden mask, but he seemed to be gone, lost in the sea of bodies.
Frantic, Caitlin hurried through the room, shoving anyone in her way, absolutely determined to find him.
She did it again and again, crisscrossing the entire room, from one exit to the other.
Finally, after almost an hour, she was exhausted. He was nowhere to be found. If it had been him, he was gone.
Or had she imagined the whole thing?
Caitlin bent over, removed her mask, and breathed. She couldn’t stand it. It was too much.
She ran out the nearest door and then kept running, through the lobby, and through another door.
Finally, she was outside, on the square, gulping in the fresh air. She removed her mask and felt overwhelmed with emotion.
She cried and cried and cried.
A bell tolled, and Caitlin looked up at the giant clock tower, on the opposite side of the square, and saw that it was four A.M. She couldn’t believe how late she’d been out. If she had been home, in modern times, and it had been a school night, her mom would’ve killed her. Here, no one cared. There had been many teenage girls in that room, and there were still many of them hanging out here in the square, at four in the morning.
Caitlin was exhausted. She just wanted to go home, to go back to Polly’s Island, and crash. She needed to sleep, to clear her head, to formulate a plan for finding Caleb—if he was even alive. She had been foolish, she realized now, to expect to find him in that ball. Even if that had been him, it clearly he was now gone for good.
She needed to go back in there, find Polly, and ask her if she was ready to go. She hoped that she was. The last thing she wanted was to wait here for hours more until Polly was ready to leave. And she didn’t exactly have another way of getting back to the island—or any place else to go.
Caitlin went back inside the ballroom, and was a bit relieved to see that it was already petering out. It was half as crowded as it had been, and people were leaving by the minute.
Caitlin found Polly, luckily, and was concerned to see her crying. She hurried up to her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “What happened?”
“Robert,” Polly said. “I asked him to dance. At first, he said no. Then, he changed his mind, and danced with me, but it was like he didn’t really want to dance. He was dancing too fast, like he was rushing to get through it, and jerking me around. He made me trip. He said I was a clumsy dancer. He made fun of me and people were laughing. I’m so embarrassed,” she said, crying.
Caitlin turned red, furious. If she needed one more reason to hate Robert, she’d just found it.
“Can we leave?” Polly asked. “I want to go home.”
Caitlin was relieved to hear those words, but after hearing the story, she wasn’t quite ready to go just yet. “Of course, she said, “but can you just give me one minute?”
Polly nodded through her tears, her makeup running, and Caitlin strutted through the room.
She spotted Robert easily—he was the easiest one in the room to find, with that huge white feather protruding off the back of his mask, three feet higher than anyone else. She saw him giggling as he danced with several girls across the floor.
Caitlin spotted a passing server, reached over and grabbed a silver goblet overflowing with champagne, and hurried towards him. She snuck up behind them, and as he was dancing, casually pretended to trip, and dumped the entire goblet of champagne down his back. She made sure she dumped it down his neck, so that it trickled down his bare skin.
Robert shrieked, and pranced about the room, hopping from one foot to the other, as the cold liquid trickled down his bare back.
Caitlin ducked into the crowd and hid herself. Robert wheeled, again and again, looking for the offender, but it was futile. The girls all around him laughed at him.
Caitlin, satisfied, set the goblet down and hurried back towards Polly.
The room was really emptying out now, and a new song started, a slower, more romantic one—probably, Caitlin assumed, the last song of the night. She looked over and saw that Mozart was still playing, sweat pouring off his face, pale, not looking very healthy.
And that was when she felt it.
The fingers on her shoulders. The electric thrill as it passed through her.
She stopped in her tracks. She was afraid to turn around and face him. Afraid that it was really him. And that she would lose him again.
Slowly, she turned.
And there he stood, with the same gold mask. With one hand outstretched, waiting for her hand. He had found her. For the last dance of the night.
Her heart pounding, Caitlin took his hand, as he placed his other on her waist. She held his hand tightly this time, and put her other on his shoulder, determined not to let anyone break them apart.
They waltzed slowly across the room, and with each step, she felt her heart soaring through her chest. It was really him. She was so happy that he was alive. That he had made it. It reaffirmed her belief that everything had a reason. That, no matter what came between them, they would always be destined to be together.
The dance went on, as slowly, the room emptied.
Finally, the dance died down, and they stopped, each holding the other tightly, neither willing to let go.
Finally, he released his grip, raised his hand, and prepared to lift his mask.
Caitlin’s heart pounded so hard, she could barely even think.
He pulled his mask back.
And that was when Caitlin fainted.