Sneaking in just under the wire with this one. As you may recall, every month, Cait Gordon gives a flash fiction challenge based on luck of the draw. On the first Monday, she chooses at random from a deck of cards and gives a prompt with a genre, setting, and item. This month, she chose steampunk, an apothecary, and a spider.
For some reason, this put me in mind of a flash fiction draw post I wrote in 2018, when ’Nathan was in charge of the challenge. So, I decided to check in with Miss Vida Greenleaf, the time-traveling drag queen, and see what she was up to.
I’ll admit, I kind of cheated with this one. How? Well, I went way over the word count. As for the rest, you’ll have to read on to figure that out, won’t you? And you can check out what other folks wrote as well.
This was loads of fun. Thanks, Cait!
So, without further ado….
Have Cupboard, Will Travel
Miss Vida Greenleaf was worried.
It was not in her nature to worry, and she couldn’t say she liked it. She did like Jake’s apartment, though: on the top floor of a Washington Avenue loft that, if she wasn’t mistaken, used to be the Ely and Walker Dry Goods building. Who knew those drafty old warehouses would one day be turned into such cozy homes?
And the kitchen! The oven was electric, and it even had an electric stove, and a cabinet where he put dirty dishes that magically came out clean. And an electric ice box! That no one had to haul blocks of ice up seven flights for! If only Herbert could see—
That thought sent her into a decline, and she ventured aimlessly toward the window while Jake made her tea. The apartment offered a view south toward Union Station, although the trains didn’t run any longer.
She sighed and turned away from the window and the view. She’d been in the future a day already, and that was one day longer than she’d anticipated in the first place. Herbert’s temporal accelerator had sent her forward in time one hundred fourteen years from 1904, and the longer she waited for him to reverse the process, the more she wondered if he could.
Or maybe this time, his machine had finally overloaded and blown up the Union Electric plant.
Miss Vida shook her head and sat on the sofa, and Jake brought over a mug—just the mug, no teapot — with a tag attached to a string dangling over the side. She held it up curiously.
“Young man, just what is this?”
He frowned and looked perplexed, which Miss Vida had to admit was an expression that favored him. “It’s tea,” he said.
“No. I mean,” she fingered the tag, “what is this?”
“The what?” She peered into the mug and noticed the triangular sachet at the end of the string. Amber swirls radiated of it, and when she sniffed the mug—sure enough, it was tea. She pulled at the string and lifted the bag just above the water to confirm her suspicion.
“What a genius invention! Did you create this?”
“Teabags?” Jake laughed. “No, they’ve been around since—well, always, I guess.”
“I can assure you they most certainly have not been.” She sipped from the mug—Earl Grey, with a hint of lavender. She took a deeper drink and then reclined on the sofa. “I can’t thank you enough for your kindness and your hospitality, but I really must be going after I’ve finished my tea.”
Jake sat down in the armchair opposite the sofa. “Go? Where would you go? You’re from a hundred fourteen years in the past.”
She set her mug on the coffee table and sat up a little straighter. “A lady never wears out her welcome, young man. Besides, surely there must be boarding houses in this day and age still, where a lady could procure accommodation.”
Jake truly looked puzzled. “Well, you could just stay here.”
She gasped and raised a hand to her bosom. “The very idea. I’m already straining the bounds of propriety by calling unaccompanied.” She shook her head. “No, I’m decided. You’ve been very kind, but I’ll trouble you no further.”
She rose from the sofa—and then floor seemed to tilt beneath her feet. Was the building collapsing? The walls swayed, and she plummeted backwards into darkness.
Something nearby buzzed and beeped. It was dark, and after a moment, Miss Vida realized that was because her eyes were closed. She opened them to find herself still in Jake’s apartment, lying on his sofa, and they had been joined by several other people, in uniforms of a sort, and surrounded by myriad devices that, in another context, she might have mistaken for instruments of torture.
“Ma’am, I need you to stay lying down, please,” one of the men said as she struggled to lift herself into a seated position.
“That’s ‘miss,’ if you please. And I don’t think I should be—“
“Oh for goodness’ sake, Vee, don’t give the man what-for when he’s trying to save your life.”
That voice! Now she really did sit up, consequences be damned, and looked around expectantly. Jake stepped inside the circle of uniformed men surrounding her—in other circumstances, she would have relished such attention—and right behind Jake was Herbert.
“Dearest.” She reached out to him and he rushed forward, stooping to one knee and kissing the back of her hands, each in rapid succession. He leaned back and press his hat to his chest. His face was flushed, his mustache glistened, and he was practically smashing the crown of his bowler against him. “Are you all right? They said you were bitten by a spider.”
“Left ankle,” one of the uniformed men said.
“A spider?” she asked.
Jake held up a tiny, see-through bag which contained the remains of a small brown arachnid. “It’s these old buildings,” he said. “Hard to keep them out.”
As the men—EMTs, Jake had called them—began packing up their gear and heading for the door, something else occurred to her. “Herbert, you got it working again, didn’t you?”
He nodded and gestured toward the far corner of Jake’s living room. There was a tall, lacquered cabinet, a plume of steam curling out of a pipe in its ceiling.
“Darling,” she said, “isn’t that the cupboard from the apothecary shop down the street?”
“No. Well, yes. In a way. Of course, it’s not down the street in this time period. But that’s not the most important thing.” He drew himself up proudly. “I’ve been to the future, Vee.”
She leveled a humoring gaze at him. “Yes, darling. I think that’s evident.”
Herbert shook his head. “No no, not this future, I mean a hundred years hence.”
That got Jake’s attention. “Wait, you mean the future? My future? Ours?”
“Precisely, my boy!” Herbert swept an arm toward the cupboard. “And while I was there, I built this.”
“An apothecary cupboard,” she deadpanned.
“No, no, no. It’s the temporal accelerator, but now it does more than just open gateways. It allows us to travel through them and get back, or go forward further if we so desire.”
She braced herself against the arm of the sofa and stood, Jake and Herbert both rushing to prop her up. But she waved them off and tested her weight on her left foot. The ankle throbbed a little, but she was able to lean against her parasol and gingerly make her way to the cupboard. It was warm beneath her hand when she touched the glossy surface, and a shallow thrumming hum radiated from it into her fingertips. Closer now, she could see the back of the cupboard was a maze of piping and wires, and a small receptacle that contained something radiant and bubbling.
“It’s very impressive, darling,” she said after a moment. She pulled a door handle and peered inside. “And quite compact. Is it a single-person capsule?”
“Big enough for two, although it may be a bit… snug.”
If she wasn’t mistaken, there was a bit of a twinkle in his eye now. She smiled. “I dare say that won’t be a problem for us. Now, did you say you built this while you were in the future? Exactly how long were you gone?”
“Twenty-seven days. Long enough to perfect my techniques and make a few enhancements. Thus….” He gestured to the cupboard again.
Jake ventured closer, trepidation carving divots in his brow. “You mean that people from the future actually gave you advanced technology to take with you to the past? Won’t that completely corrupt our timeline?”
Herbert raised an eyebrow. “‘Gave’ me? My boy, they had no clue about the principles of my device. I was the one who gave them the advanced technology. They just… spruced it up a bit. Gave it a spit and polish. Made it portable.”
Pride and admiration swelled in her, and she clutched her parasol to her tightly. “Simply magnificent, darling. Wait until Mister Wells hears about this.”
Herbert pulled the other door open and bowed to her. “Speaking of, shall we take our leave and return home?”
“Wait!” Jake said. “You can’t just—”
Miss Vida smiled at him. “Can’t just what, young man?”
“I mean….” He sighed. “It was nice to meet you both.”
Herbert tipped his hat, which he’d uncrushed and returned to its proper place on his head. Miss Vida patted Jake’s face with one gloved hand before leaning in and kissing him on the cheek. “A lady couldn’t have asked for a more charming chaperone.”
Jake blushed. Herbert offered Miss Vida his hand, and escorted her into the cabinet. Before he stepped inside himself, he shook Jake’s hand and held out an envelope.
“Something tells me you might be able to make use of this,” he said.
Then they were off. The pipe at the top of the cabinet chugged out a fog bank of steam, and the air split around the cabinet, swallowing it whole and zipping shut behind it. All that remained was a whiff of smoke.
And the envelope. Jake opened it and took out a folded sheet of blue paper. He unfolded it, and unfolded it again, and again, until he held in his outstretched hands a massive diagram of Herbert’s temporal accelerator.
Jake smiled, even though he couldn’t decipher at least half of what was written on the blueprints. He had time to figure it out.