Zoey knew more about the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than all her peers combined. She'd read The Female Quixote six times, Evelina twice as many and Pride and Prejudice a whopping eighteen. Why hadn't these idiots asked her how to dress?
As soon as Will opened the doors to the “Grand Hall” – aka, the goddamned cafeteria – the screech of off-tune violins filled the air and the stench of sweating bodies hit her. She stood in place, thunderstruck. Lace, bonnets, grandma prints – this was all wrong! Where were the silks, the colours? Where were the elegant up-does, the fashionable coats and hats she'd read about? Her classmates looked like they'd been dragged through dirt before coming here! Was she the only one who read?
“After you, my Lady,” said Will, bending into a bow. Her gaze flicked to the knee-length socks he wore. Will's hair was cow-licked and his ruffly collar went all the way to his chin. He didn't look like Mr. Darcy or Lord Orville; he looked like a sausage in a casing. To think he'd gazed at her strangely when he'd picked her up that evening. She'd copied Keira Knightly's dress right down to the stitching!
“I wish we could've rented a hall,” she whispered as they advanced into the caf. Orange wax paper was taped over the ceiling lights to mimic firelight, but it just made the dancers look weird and shadowy. And the dance itself – well, she shouldn't be surprised they'd gotten that wrong, too. The guys and girls weren't even touching! Some girls she knew from History class wrinkled their noses at her.
“Such a merry gathering!” said Will, looking delighted by this poor excuse of a theme. She hadn't known he could do accents. “Would you care for refreshment?”
“Aye, matey, bring me a grog,” she answered with a wink. Will had mistaken pirate for regency talk yesterday and she'd promised to never let him live it down – but it didn't look like he remembered, because he just shot her a raised eyebrow and hurried away.
Weird. If she hadn't known better, she could've sworn he was embarrassed to be seen with her.
Shaking the thought, Zoey scanned the hall for people she knew. She was the only one in emerald green; the other girls wore white and cream and boring crap like ribbons. Even Paula – Paula, who just last week had come to church with her breasts hanging out. Now she looked like she'd escaped from a convent. Zoey waved at her, but she turned and pretended not to see.
“Can you fathom such attire on a young lady?” someone whispered, glaring at Zoey.
Zoey glanced down at herself to make sure she hadn't spilled anything. Were they jealous that her dress was more realistic than theirs? Well, it didn't matter; she couldn't let them ruin her fun. She made her way to the dance floor, determined to show off the moves she'd spent hours learning from YouTube videos. She couldn't spot her Mr. Darcy, but Justin was alright-looking and standing alone by the buffet table. She marched up to him.
He turned around and gasped as his eyes fell on her bust-line. This corset had pushed her breasts up pretty high, she had to admit. “Want to dance?” she asked. “It's okay if you don't know the moves. I'll lead.”
“Heavens, Madam,” he said, backing away. “Upon my word, I am wholly unused to this level of forwardness from a lady. Pray, grant me leave to rejoin my company.”
And like Will, he bolted. Zoey only took a few dazed steps toward the buffet table before a short, chubby teen with a cane intercepted her.
“My Lady.” Kyle gave her a sleazy grin, totally unlike the shy boy she knew. “I do not believe I have had the pleasure of making your acquaintance. Would you honour me with your hand?”
Zoey had never feared saying 'no' – in fact, her bluntness had made guys cry in the past – but something about this atmosphere stifled her impending rejection and she found herself answering, “Sure.”
Kyle led Louisa – for Zoey was her middle name, and really quite a vulgar one, she'd always thought – to the cafeteria's make-do dance floor, weaving between lace-and-muslin-clad bodies. The off-tune student orchestra suddenly dwindled to silence and they turned to the front of the caf where Principal Duval was clinking her glass with a spoon. “Ladies and gentlemen, quadrille! The lovely couples on the floor shall take this round.”
Louisa felt a surge of excitement. Now this was more like it! It would be just like Elizabeth and Darcy danced at the Netherfield Ball. She finally spotted her Darcy, senior Howard Glanville, on the dance floor and prepared a most charming line with which to engage him when their turn came to be paired. They'd sashay between dancers, holding each other's gazes, longing for their next brief interaction...
The nasal drone of oboes started the quadrille, and the couples bowed to one another. Louisa curtseyed to Kyle, growing conscious of how tight her high-waisted bodice really was, and wondering if she'd be able to execute the appropriate turns in it. As the strings joined in, the group linked hands and began moving in a circle. Louisa watched her feet, trying to remember she had to kick out her hem every time she stepped.
Before she knew it she was handed off to Kyle, spun, handed off to the next pimple-faced 'gentleman,' spun again, and so forth until she thought she'd be ill. So focused was she on the difficult steps that she barely noticed being tossed to Glanville before rebounding ungraciously back to Kyle. Passed like a ping-pong ball between gentlemen!
Soon she was gasping from fatigue, the air so thick with candle smoke it burned her throat. And good gracious, the smell of these brutes! Certainly they shouldn't have neglected to bathe for such an occasion?
This is frightfully disagreeable! No witty banter, no graceful twirling, just steps and sweat and rules! she lamented to herself, as the dancers accrued into a circle again. Imagine the offence to propriety if I simply sat down, placed my head betwixt my knees, and let these fops trip over me left and right! The power of it was invigorating. If she so desired, she could put a stick between the gears of this coordinated machine.
The song's finale ground the machine to a halt before she could gather her courage. Lightheaded, Louisa curtseyed to Sir Kyle and allowed herself to be conducted to a chair. She found herself tugging at her ruffled sleeves and, deeming this conduct unworthy of a lady of her calibre, folded her gloved hands in her lap.
How foolish do these sheep appear, thought she, with the utmost vexation, prancing round the ballroom in their identically drab attire, each indistinguishable from the next.
Who did they think they were to rebuke her for her gown? Was green not the colour Keira Knightley wore to portray Elizabeth Bennett? Let them suffer this, thought Lady Louisa, grasping her dinner knife off the table and fashioning a slit in the hem of her gown, all the way to her calf. Indeed, now she believed she'd scandalize the ladies effectively.
Barely a moment's reprieve from dancing had Lady Louisa been afforded before the honoured Lord Glanville approached her table. Louisa, greatly fearing his Lordship's intent was to give censure for her discourteous manner of dress, and dreading the ill opinion of one so esteemed in her eyes, tripped away to the toilet, seeking to avoid further humiliation. Why, her cream-coloured gown even sported emerald buttons; a style at once unsuited to the fashion and disagreeable to the ladies of lower birth, for whom such expressions of wealth were beyond reach. O, what madness had driven her to disregard all decency?
A sudden roar like that of a beast made Louisa's heart beat out of her chest, and she turned, surprised and terrified to find the source of the noise a most peculiar-looking machine. So great was her distress that she would fain have run from the room –
Wait a minute. She turned again.
An automatic hand-drier? That was what had nearly given her a heart attack?
Shaking, Zoey leaned over the sink, cupped water in her hands and splashed it over her face. What the hell was wrong with her? It might only be a high school cafeteria, but for a moment everything had felt so real. Like she was actually in a period novel, only with...gross smells and stuff, and no romance whatsoever.
She wiped her face on the embroidered towel, then studied herself in the mirror. Her curls lay piled atop her head, contrasting nicely with her green dress. Frowning, she yanked the pins from her hair and let it tumble down her back. The whole period thing wasn't fun anymore. Frankly, it was getting a little scary.
Time to bring back modernity.
Leaving the washroom, Zoey crossed the darkened hall and waited for the footmen – no, not footmen, just Brad and Sam in stupid costumes – to let her back into the caf. The doors creaked inward and the smell of flame and candle wax struck her, though she could've sworn that orange glow wasn't real firelight. This dim lighting made the caf seem larger than she remembered it, and a few of those pillars looked like they might be winding staircases leading to a second floor – but such things didn't exist in school cafeterias, so Zoey gave it no more thought. Her heart began pounding again, though she didn't know why.
In her haste she strut right through a group of chatting girls, spilling champagne all over them. They shouldn't be drinking, anyways. Gasps followed in her wake but she didn't care, she was done with this game. The men – boys? – in the orchestra followed her with their eyes as she elbowed her way between Josephina Andrews and Cole Bennett, taking the latter's arm.
“Mr. Bennett,” she said in her snootiest accent. “Care to ditch this crowd?”
Cole blinked. “My apologies, Miss, but...do I know you?”
“How scandalously rude!” said Josephina.
Zoey leaned into him a little, making sure he had a view down her bustline. That would snap him out of it. “C'mon, seriously, want to get some fresh air?”
But Cole detached his arm from her grip, then straightened his jacket as if to imply she'd ruffled both it and his patience. “Leave us at once, coquette. You offend my lady.”
It was all Zoey could do not to scream, or cry, or both. “This isn't funny anymore!” she yelled, and the violins faltered. Gathering her skirts, she ran as quickly as she could up the stairs that shouldn't have been there and onto a second-floor balcony. Wind rushed through her free hair and clung her dress to her body. She leaned against the railing, looking out into the night.
To find a very Georgian England spread out before her.
Shock charged every cell of Zoey's body as if she stood inside a brass bell someone had struck. She clutched the railing with white-knuckled hands. No matter how much she blinked, she couldn't shake the illusions of terraced townhomes and horse-drawn carriages rolling down cobblestone streets. No. Hell no. Was this bullshit contagious?
You're dreaming, she told herself.
“Awake, my deluded peers,” cried she, in a great passion, “awake from this visionary fancy, and exert yourself to surmount the evils with which it threatens you!”
Louisa – Zoey, damn it! – screamed and clamped her hands over her mouth. What the hell was visionary fancy? The students nearest the balcony gave her odd looks. Zoey uncovered her mouth. She tried her voice again. “This isn't real, guys! You're freakin' scaring me now! Stop it!”
“Fore George, I do reckon this creature is intoxicated,” a young man whispered to his date.
Zoey set her jaw. “Fine! I'll prove it to you. I'll prove none of this is real.” And, tears burning in her eyes, she hiked up her skirt and started clambering over the rail.
Screams and gasps ensued. But there was no stair, no second floor, and no balcony in the school cafeteria, and Zoey knew she wouldn't get hurt. How could she? The fall would only wake her from this nightmare.
Pushing off the rail, she launched herself into the night.
Lady Louisa landed in a heap of perplexity and shock upon the cobblestones, ignorant as to how she had come to be in such a deplorable condition.
“Good grief!” exclaimed Lord Glanville, who at that moment had been handing a lady into a coach, but upon sighting Louisa flew to her side with the utmost concern. “Has your Ladyship suffered any injuries?”
“Injuries, Sir!” said Louisa, colouring and accepting Lord Glanville's extended hand. “Only to my vanity, that your Lordship should find me in so dismal a state.”
Glanville helped Louisa to her feet and in a most genteel manner offered his handkerchief for the dirt staining her gown. Louisa could scarce forbear lamenting that it was spoilt; she'd favoured it over all her others for its modest cream-coloured silk and high neckline of lace.
“My lady! Your arm! It's bleeding!”
Louisa examined both arms, and finding them quite free of injury, said, with no little degree of confusion, “Whatever do you mean?”
“Indeed, Madam, you are hurt,” proclaimed another fellow, who had drawn up to observe the commotion.
A grievous pain then began in Louisa's left arm, and to her great surprise and terror, suddenly she saw it was covered in blood.
Glanville took her round the waist as she swooned. “However did this accident occur?” cried he.
“I...I do believe somebody pushed me.”
“Pushed, do you say? Villainous fellow!”
Louisa, still suffering from lightheadedness, looked up at the empty balcony and wondered what offence she could have given this mysterious aggressor to merit such ill-usage.
Miss Paula Woodhouse, hearing an uproar on the street below the second-floor balcony, and desirous to know its origins, fain would have joined the observers had they not been packed so tightly around the scene as to block her view.
“Pray, someone do tell me what the fuss is,” begged she, but in the general chaos none heeded her pleas.
“Louisa went home, that's all,” came a voice behind her. Paula spun and was faced with a young woman of the most provoking dress: emerald green was her gown, and with a tear travelling all the way to her thigh! Paula could scarce do more than stare with open mouth at the exotic creature. The offender gave a wry smile and glided into the crowd, disappearing.
Later that evening, still awe-struck by the stranger's boldness, Paula stole to the powder room with a steak knife and began cutting at her own gown's hem.
Alexandra Balasa graduated this year from the University of Toronto with a double major in English and Psychology. She wrote and blogged for the university's first and only speculative fiction journal. She is an avid reader and writer of science fiction and fantasy, and loves stories with psychological bents as well as complex, Sandersonian magic systems. When she isn't writing, Alexandra is contemplating existentialism, expanding her rock collection, and watching documentaries about space.