Free Fiction Monday: When Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone

Free Fiction Monday: When Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone

When Living History Professor Kimber Lawson’s least favorite student brings her a report of Mary Todd Lincoln conducting séances in the White House, Kimber brushes it off.

But then more reports come to her attention—of historical figures hearing voices, seeing ghosts and holding séances that had never before been reported—she knows she must investigate.

And what she finds might change everything she thought she knew about time travel.

“When Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here. 

 

 

When Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

 

Chapter 1

I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches—all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth—I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt]. Or James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce deciding which was the more useless to the country. And when Millard Fillmore and Chester Arthur join in for place and show, the din is almost unbearable. But I still get some work done.”

—President Harry S. Truman
in a letter to his wife Bess
June 12, 1945

 

“Mary Todd Lincoln is holding séances in the White House.” Ambra Theeson stood just inside the office door, clutching a small research tablet so hard that her right hand was shaking. “And I think it’s our fault.”

Professor Kimber Lawson looked up from her desk. She pulled off her glasses—an affectation because no one needed glasses any longer, but an affectation she loved. She set them on the three-hundred-year-old partners desk her former husband had bought her on their honeymoon in Maine.

Ambra sounded close to tears, but there was no trace of them on her moon-shaped face. Ambra had always been a bit of a drama queen, even on her very first day of her very first 100-level class, more than eight years ago.

Kimber wished her book-lined office was bigger. Or that she had brought some of the oldest tomes to her apartment, rather than leave them here as an impressive (if out-of-date) tribute to her profession. Because, right now, even with the door open, Ambra was too close.

“Mary Todd Lincoln,” Kimber said in the most patient tone she could muster, “was well-known for her spiritualist tendencies.”

“But there’d been no evidence of séances,” Ambra said.

Kimber wondered if there was evidence of them now. Ambra had passed the personality tests—necessary requirements for someone who wanted to tackle Living History as a discipline. But those tests examined her ability to tolerate delayed gratification. If Ambra hadn’t been able to sustain research over several years with no result whatsoever, she wouldn’t be in this program.

Kimber now believed the tests were inadequate. Ambra was a case in point. She was disciplined, all right, but she was also prone to making wild conclusions based on next to no evidence, something that the department hadn’t thought of testing for, at least not three years ago when Ambra applied full time.

After all, Living History was still a new discipline—less than twenty years old, barely long enough for revisionists to appear. (And, in Kimber’s opinion, those who had didn’t really count.) Everyone was still trying to figure out what was needed, who the best scholars were, and what scholarship actually meant in the modern era.

“Perhaps people knew about the séances, but never made a note about them,” Kimber said. “I mean, why else would we believe that Mary Todd Lincoln had spiritualist tendencies?”

Kimber truly couldn’t remember, which only made her more annoyed at Ambra. The chair of the Living History department shouldn’t be seen as ignorant about the Lincolns. Lincoln remained, two centuries after his death, the most studied president in American history.

“Because she kept seeing Willie’s ghost in her bedroom after he died,” Ambra said in that tone people use when they think someone else should know something. “She never tried to summon him.”

Kimber assumed that Willie was the dead son, but she couldn’t remember when or how he died. And wasn’t there another named Tad?

“Do we know for certain that she never tried to contact him?” Kimber asked.

“Yes, we know that for certain,” Ambra said with a little too much force. She still clutched the tablet, but now she was watching Kimber like Kimber had grown two heads. “We know more about Willie’s death and its impact on both Lincolns than we know about almost anything else. I mean, they were in the White House at the time, and the number of servants and assistants and—”

“I mean,” Kimber said, “do we know for certain that Mary Todd Lincoln held no séances?”

Yes,” Ambra said. “We do.”

“Because,” Kimber said over her, “we learn that all sorts of things we thought were true weren’t when we travel back and observe. And vice versa, of course.”

Ambra actually rolled her eyes, which Kimber thought horribly unfair. She’d wanted to roll her eyes at Ambra for nearly eight years now and, so far, she had restrained herself from doing so.

“We’ve been visiting the Lincolns for more than two decades and no one, no one, has seen a séance in the White House. And it makes sense.” Ambra was now waving the tablet at Kimber as if the tablet held the truth. “I mean, think about it. If the Lincolns had held séances in the White House during the Civil War, the muckraking press would have been all over them. It would have reflected badly on them and—”

“I understand,” Kimber said as calmly as she could. So she had shown her ignorance. At least she’d shown it to Ambra, whom everyone else found as annoying as she did. “But my earlier comment still remains. Sometimes presidents do manage to keep secrets, even from the press.”

“Not something like this,” Ambra said. “There would’ve been too many people involved.”

Kimber closed her eyes, because otherwise she would look up to the heavens and shake her head. The day had already been a long one—she’d had to organize everything from next year’s schedule to the waiting list for next month’s historical visits—and she really didn’t want to spend time with her most difficult student.

Nor did she want to explain something to Ambra that Ambra should have already known: Presidents kept major secrets all the time, secrets that were closely held by dozens of others, from staff to compatriots to members of the opposition party. A lot of those secrets got lost to history in the days before time travel. Now, those secrets were being recovered and revealed.

Once upon a time, Kimber used to think the revelations were the most exciting part of her work. Now she was so tired, she doubted she would ever use the word ‘exciting’ again.

Kimber made herself open her eyes and pretend interest. “How did you find out about the séances?”

“It showed up in the Wikipedia listings,” Ambra said.

Kimber barely managed to keep from laughing in surprise. “And what were you doing on Wikipedia?”

That old creaky thing had existed as long as Kimber could remember, and no serious scholar used it. It was for school children and the occasional pedant who was giving a speech.

The site would probably vanish sometime soon. It was already losing its importance. People preferred to watch their history live, in snippets, and if they were going to make some kind of presentation, they now clipped the actual scholarly visitation and presented the quote or the moment on screen so that everyone could see both its veracity and its historical beauty.

And Kimber did mean beauty. The elegance of the Living History work kept her in this chair. She loved everything from accurate scholarship to the videos of actual historical events. Young scholars could watch major moments through protected observation portals (Windows Into The Past, the manufacturers called them), but the true scholars, the ones who wanted to dedicate their lives to discovering what actually happened during an event or even a war, would show up and observe in real time, unnoticed by the subjects themselves.

“I was checking the listings,” Ambra said. “I volunteered to monitor some of the Wikipedia Living History links last year, remember? You’re the one who assigned it to me.”

Kimber nodded, even though she had forgotten. She had given Ambra the assignment to keep her busy, to make her think she was actually doing real work when, in fact, she wasn’t.

Kimber kept hoping that Ambra would drop out of the program but, so far, no such luck.

“I followed the link,” Ambra was saying, “and here it is, plain as day. Look.”

She set the tablet on Kimber’s desk, narrowly missing her glasses, and tapped the screen. A tiny little recording of a group of people in 19th century garb sat around a large table in near-darkness. Someone was chanting faintly, and in the background, a spectral figure arose.

“See?” Ambra said, poking her finger on the tablet, making the images jump. “That’s Raymond Hall.”

At first, Kimber thought she meant some nickname for a Washington D.C. building that she wasn’t familiar with. Then she realized that Ambra meant Raymond Hall was a person.

“You know him?” Kimber asked.

“We went to high school together,” Ambra said.

“And he’s enrolled here?” Kimber asked.

“Jeez, no,” Ambra said. “He’s not smart enough to get in here.”

Sometimes Kimber was astonished that Ambra had possessed the intelligence to get in here. “Then I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

“That spectral image, that’s Raymond Hall.”

“I got that,” Kimber said, “but how can that be our fault?”

“I didn’t mean our as in the university’s. I meant our as in the Living History Project’s. As in at all the universities. Now Mary Todd Lincoln is holding séances.”

She said that last as if Mary Todd Lincoln were still alive.

That was another danger of the Living History Project. The lesser scholars often forgot their subject had already lived his life, and had moved on to whatever it was humans moved on to.

“Has it crossed your mind that this image might be faked?” Kimber asked.

Ambra snatched the tablet off Kimber’s desk as if Kimber were going to damage it. She wasn’t, of course. To do damage, she had to care, and at this moment all she cared about was getting Ambra out of her office.

“I checked,” Ambra said. “It’s real.”

“How could you check?” Kimber asked. “It takes a lot of technical skill to verify Living History recordings.”

“Okay, I ran it through our immediate checker, the one we use for monographs and presentations,” Ambra said. “And it cleared those.”

The immediate checker was designed for professors who needed to check major presentations from students on a variety of subjects the professors might not know much about. The immediate checker caught flat-out fraud and historical reenactments, but couldn’t tell if a particular piece of actual scholarship was real or not.

Still, Kimber wasn’t going to argue at the moment. No one cared about Wikipedia, least of all her.

“Pull the piece down from Wikipedia as pending review,” Kimber said, “and then give it to one of our techs. I’m sure he’ll figure out that this is some kind of prank.”

Ambra hugged to tablet to her chest. “How can you be so sure?”

Kimber smiled at her, hoping the smile wasn’t too condescending. “We’ve long ago established that the processes we use to observe the past have no impact on that history whatsoever. We can’t touch anything, we can’t move anything, we can’t interact with the environment in any way.”

“You actually believe that?” Ambra asked.

“I do,” Kimber said.

“Then explain Raymond Hall.”

This time, Kimber did roll her eyes. “I already did,” she said.

Ambra scowled at her and left the office, slamming the door behind her. Kimber stared at the blond wood for a moment. Maybe this was enough to expel Ambra from the department.

Kimber certainly hoped so. It was students like Ambra who took all the fun out of Living History.

Okay. That wasn’t true. The fun had left Living History the moment the programs got institutionalized.

Kimber rubbed a hand over her face, then picked up her glasses. Maybe it was just time to retire. She hated the students, she hated the administration, and she hated teaching.

The only reason she stayed was her unlimited opportunities to head to the past, and actually see the people she had admired, living their lives as if they really were unobserved.

Which, of course, they were not.

 

Chapter 2

Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge (1923-29), was the first person to say she had actually seen Lincoln’s ghost. According to her, the lanky former president was standing looking out a window of the Oval Office, across the Potomac to the former Civil War battlefields beyond.”

—“Ghosts in the White House”
History.com

 

“Have you seen this?” Professor Donald Hemmet said as he thrust a printout at Kimber in the faculty dining room of Union North the next morning.

Hemmet was a large man with an equally large brain. Kimber usually liked to talk to him, but he often saw problems where there were none—or, at least, problems where there were none that she cared about.

She smiled in what she hoped was a non-committal manner, and took the printout, placing it under her orange tray. The dining room hadn’t been redesigned since the teens, and smelled like it. The entire area reeked of decades-old hamburgers. But it was the only place on campus that still served eggs fried in butter, the way that her grandmother used to make them.

When the stresses of the job got in her way, Kimber skipped the oatmeal covered in fresh fruit and went straight for the fat and grease. And right now, the stresses had increased. The Living History technology was changing again, and she had to go to California to investigate the new equipment. As if she knew how it all worked. She only knew that it did work. She would, of course, bring techs with her, but techs always wanted to upgrade everything, even if the upgrades meant that the equipment no longer did the job it was meant for.

She sat at one of the wooden tables near the window overlooking the quad. When she’d taken over as head of the department, she had never expected the work to take most of her research and planning time. She thought it a small addition to her salary, with a few hours spent here and there advising her colleagues on tiny matters that no one really cared about.

How wrong could a woman be?

She dug into her eggs—heavenly, with butter dripping off them—and studied the printout that Hemmet gave her. He was watching her from another table. He knew better than to approach her during a meal. She had begun to think of eating as her only free time, and she guarded it jealously.

The printout relayed stories told by several Living History graduate students. While standing in the Yellow Oval Room at the White House, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s valet, Cesear Carrera, heard a voice. When Carrera looked in the direction of the voice, he heard someone say, “I’m Mr. Burns.” But no one was there.

Others heard the same thing in the same spot. Reports had shown up in various documentation that everyone from a Truman Administration guard to a housemaid in the 1960s heard a male voice claim to be Mr. Burns in the Yellow Oval Room. The Truman guard actually checked to make sure that the speaker hadn’t been Secretary of State James F. Byrne. The search made it into the records, even though Byrne himself hadn’t been in the White House at the time.

White House historians from the previous century even had a theory on the subject. Mr. Burns was, they said, the unhappy previous owner of the land, David Burns, who had been forced to give up his land to make room for the White House in 1790.

Kimber knew of Burns and knew that he had indeed been unwilling to give up his land. She’d always meant to use the time travel technology to visit the meeting in which Burns pissed off George Washington by slandering his wife. Kimber wanted to see if the story was true.

By the time Kimber finished reading, her eggs were cold and congealed. She ate them anyway. Ghost stories abounded in houses like the White House, houses with a lot of history and a large amount of people going through. She wasn’t surprised that a lot of people had claimed to see spirits over the years.

The only thing that did surprise her in the printout was the last bit, the one from a Living History administrator. One of his students, using a protected observation portal to explore the entire White House on what everyone thought was a particularly empty day, broke the rules and answered his phone in the middle of the view.

He listened to the voice on the other end and then said, loudly, “I’m Mr. Burns,” before the administrator took him away—and banned the unthinking Mr. Burns from the viewing area for the next two years.

She ran a hand over her face, and set the printout down. She heard a clank, and saw that Hemmet—and his tray, filled with pastries and two cups of coffee—had joined her. She wanted to tell him to go away. Take that printout and shove it. Take her job and do it himself.

But she didn’t.

“You realize this is impossible,” she said. “The technology does not bleed through and even if it did, no one would notice.”

“That’s the thing,” he said, shoving the printout toward her. “I think we have some serious technical issues.”

Two of these conversations in two days. How fun. And this time, from someone she respected. She couldn’t escape, so she decided to play along.

“Okay, even if I grant that,” she said, “it doesn’t really matter. We’re not influencing anyone in the past. We’re not changing history.”

“Oh,” Hemmet said softer than she thought he could speak. “I believe history is changing, and it is changing because of us.”

She sighed and wished she hadn’t had the eggs after all. They sat like a lump in her stomach. Had someone decided to haze her? Had the department chosen this busy week to have everyone pull a prank on her? Did they want to see how she’d handle it?

She wanted to tell Hemmet to leave her alone, but she was supposed to be diplomatic. After all, she was the department chair, which was, in its way, as close to an in-house diplomatic post a university employee could hold.

“You think we’re changing history because people are hearing ghosts?” She couldn’t quite keep the skepticism out of her voice. “People have always heard ghosts, Dr. Hemmet. Shakespeare wrote about ghosts for a reason.”

“Shakespeare’s ghosts.” Hemmet picked up one of the pastries and shook it at her. “You realize that the early draft of the plays contained no ghosts at all.”

Ambra had shaken a tablet at her. To Kimber’s knowledge, no one had shaken anything at her in a conversation before this week. Maybe that was part of the conspiracy as well.

Kimber was getting real tired of this. “Dr. Hemmet, no one knows which drafts are the early drafts.”

“No one used to know,” he said.

She put a hand up to her face and rubbed her eyes. She hadn’t followed Shakespearean scholarship. She considered Shakespearean scholarship both literary history and British history, and as such, outside of her purview.

She sighed. He was watching her, his florid face filled with—of all things—concern.

“What have you personally found that’s changed?” she asked. “And I don’t mean from your own visits to the past. I mean within the established historical document scholarship.”

His lips thinned. “Eleanor Roosevelt held séances in the White House.”

Before Kimber could stop herself, she made a sound of disgust. “One of our most revered and sane first ladies? Are you kidding me?”

Kimber could believe that Mary Todd Lincoln, who had a history of mental illness, held séances. But Eleanor Roosevelt? The most grounded woman in the mid-century? She would never—

“No, I’m not kidding you,” Hemmet said, “and I have the documentation.”

Kimber’s heart started to pound. She did not want to be convinced of this. She wasn’t sure what she could do about it even if she were convinced.

But she was an information gatherer—that’s what historians were, as she told her students—historical reporters, nothing more, nothing less. And as such, she needed information like she needed air.

“Do the séances correspond with any Living History visits?” she asked.

“Not from our school, but the University of Chicago has some scholars who specialize in Lincoln—”

“Lincoln?” She let out a small breath of air. Relief flooded her. This issue (non-issue?) was bothering her more than she thought. “He has nothing to do with the Roosevelts.”

“But he does.” Hemmet gave her a pitying look. “Lincoln’s ghost started appearing in the 1920s, or so they say, and both Queen Wilhelmina of Norway and Winston Churchill saw him during the Second World War. Churchill, who was getting out of a bath, managed to quip, ‘Mr. President, you seem to have me at a disadvantage,’ before Lincoln disappeared.”

“Well, that sounds completely made up,” Kimber said. “You know that one of the first things the British Living History teams discovered was Churchill’s gift for embellishment.”

“I don’t think that was a discovery so much as a confirmation,” Hemmet said with a smile.

Kimber refused to smile in return. “Even if it did happen, we don’t have students who look like Lincoln.”

“How do you know?” Hemmet said. “We’re not the only ones using the Living History devices.”

He was right about that too. Even though her department was the oldest Living History department in the entire world, other schools had adopted the discipline. Over forty schools in the English-speaking world alone had Living History devices, with more adopting the technology and the discipline all the time.

“If the devices were malfunctioning, we’d know,” she said.

Hemmet picked up a coffee cup and took a sip. “I think we do know.”

“Two incidences of séances and an ‘I’m Mr. Burns,’ are not proof,” she snapped.

Two incidences?” he asked.

She flushed. Could he really not know about Ambra? Was Kimber the only person Ambra contacted on a regular basis?

“Believe me,” Kimber said, “the first incident doesn’t count.”

Hemmet frowned at her. She got the sense, not for the first time, that he understood her better than she wanted him to.

“If you say it doesn’t count, then I’ll believe you.” His tone said otherwise, of course. “But, I think we should look into this before all those time travel paradoxes actually come true.”

This exact same discussion had precipitated her divorce, all those years ago. Her ex-husband kept citing science fiction writer after science fiction writer, bad movie after bad movie, physicist after physicist, about time travel paradoxes, and asking her why she wasn’t worried about them.

I don’t want to be married to the woman who destroyed history as we know it, he had said one particularly difficult afternoon.

That’s the point, she had replied harshly. We don’t know history. And without these devices, we never will.

She wasn’t going to go into any of that with Hemmet. She knew that he knew as much about current time travel theory as she did.

Still, she had to say, “Time travel paradoxes are a myth.”

“So were germs, once upon a time,” Hemmet said. “And bacteria. And global warming—”

“All right,” she said. “You’ve made your point.”

She just wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do about it.

 

Chapter 3

Barbara and I haven’t seen the ghost of Abraham Lincoln walking the halls, but this is our first Halloween in the White House, so maybe we’ll see him tonight.”

—George H.W. Bush,
October 31, 1989

 

The first thing Kimber did do was postpone her own scheduled trip at the end of the week. She wouldn’t take a time travel trip until she figured out what was going on, if something actually was going on. With that in mind, she reviewed the archives by searching for séance in the official calendar of each First Family. Disturbingly, she found two more First Ladies involved in séances, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton.

Kimber believed Nancy Reagan, who took all of that California-at-mid-twentieth century-New-Age crap a little more seriously than most, might hold a séance, just to see what it was like. But Kimber didn’t believe Hillary Clinton would.

Kimber had actually met Hillary once. (The first name reference had become a historical convention to distinguish Hillary from the rest of her family [Clinton (aka Bill) and Chelsea].) Hillary had been formidable, even though she had been in her mid-nineties. It was easy to see why heads of state paid attention to her and how she managed to maintain her iron-lady reputation all those years. She was probably one of the smartest people Kimber had ever met.

Hillary had even known about the Living History project which was then in its infancy.

You know what they’re calling it at the Supreme Court, don’t you? Hillary had said over dinner. Hillary and Kimber had been seated near each other at one of those glittering White House dinners that seemed to happen no matter who the president was.

They’re talking about this at the Supreme Court? Kimber had asked.

Oh, yes, Hillary had said, and they’re very happy that, at the moment, the people in the past can’t sue. No one else will have standing. Because the Court really doesn’t want to consider the Constitutional implications of all of this stuff you’re meddling in.

Constitutional implications? Kimber said. But our scientists have shown that we can’t have an impact on history. So we can’t meddle with the Constitution—

My dear Professor, Hillary had said with a bright smile that always surprised people. Of course we can meddle with the Constitution. It’s a living document, after all, one that we “interpret.” And the group on this particular court is very happy that it will not be interpreting the right to privacy for long-dead Americans. Think about it: Do we value their privacy rights over our right to publish treatises about the past? Is that free speech? Do we have the right to invade each other’s homes at the most vulnerable times? Is there truly a need to know? Or is it just historical voyeurism?

At the time, Kimber had thought Hillary was worried for her past self, particularly about those days when the Monica Lewinski scandal broke in the late 1990s. No matter who you were or how famous, you really didn’t want some historian listening in as you berated your husband for his adulteries.

Later, though, Kimber realized that Hillary had more pertinent concerns. With the cult of Lincoln, and the serious scholarship happening around FDR, those two historical figures probably never had a moment of real privacy. Scholars watched their every move—literally.

Fortunately, Kimber would say when an occasional student brought up this concern, the historical figures had no idea they were being watched.

But what if they did?

She shuddered. Hillary was long dead now, but had she, at some point in her life, known that the whole world was watching?

Still, would that lead to séances?

Twentieth century American politicians were not Kimber’s area of expertise, although she knew more about them than she knew about Lincoln, partly because she’d met a few of them, and partly because she’d flirted with writing about all the major twentieth-century cataclysms, until she realized that they did not suit her. She preferred more genteel times, and more genteel questions. It wasn’t a coincidence that Hillary had discussed the Constitution with her.

Kimber wasn’t a constitutional scholar, but she was a student of the Constitutional period. The men of that era fascinated her. And as much as academics wanted to talk about Abigail Adams, the woman really had been relegated to the sidelines. The Constitution of these United States had been built by the men, for the men, and of the men, and it was only by understanding those men, Kimber believed, that the world could understand what the United States had become.

Besides, she found the young Thomas Jefferson a lot more sexy than she had expected—something she admitted to no one, not even the ex-husband before he became an ex.

Kimber was now taking all of this change seriously—with the séances (now numbering four that she could easily find), the Lincoln sightings (which seemed to be growing exponentially), and that regrettable, “I’m Mr. Burns” incident nagging at her more than she wanted to admit.

She went into what she called The Pit, and the others called the Viewing Rooms, and talked to technicians, who left her more confused than she had been when she arrived. Then she talked to the university’s scientists, including those who had worked with the developers of time travel. They all told her the same thing: time paradoxes were impossible, given the way that time travel actually works. For a paradox to happen, the travelers had to interact with their environment, and it had been proven time and time again that these travelers did not interact.

“But isn’t a sighting an interaction?” Kimber had asked.

“Prove to me that the sightings—if they happen—have changed the course of history, and I’ll let you know,” one of the time travel techs had said.

So she went to two scholars, one who specialized in Eleanor Roosevelt, and one who specialized in Hillary Clinton.

Kimber met them off-campus, at a dive bar that felt like something out of a spy thriller instead of a place for a private discussion. The bar even had a jukebox—or a jukebox replica (theoretically, it played music accessed on an ancient cloud, as if that were supposed to make everyone feel better). The music that afternoon was some 20s techno-fusion-funk, which was hard to listen to, and drove the other patrons out of the bar.

The professors, Leonard Hughes and Connie Caio, seemed intrigued enough especially after Kimber found a booth far enough away from the music that everyone could be heard.

“What I really need,” Kimber said, after giving them all of the preliminaries, and listening to Hughes’s repeated “I knew it! I knew it!,” “are documents that you’ve had in your offices for years, things that haven’t touched any media source from the cloud to the web to anything else you can think of. These documents can’t have been near any portals either. I just want historical stuff, maybe even the hard copies of the calendars from the days of the séances, showing that the séances didn’t happen.”

“What if they did?” Connie Caio asked. “I mean, we don’t know everything.”

Kimber hated having her own words turned back on her. She shrugged. “I guess we accept it then.”

“In the meantime, though,” Caio said, “you want us to look for proof that things have changed.”

Kimber tilted her head back. The music throbbed in her skull, like a never-ending headache.

What would it prove if the actual paper documents had no mention of séance? Prudence on the part of the participants? Or proof that the presence of the ghostly scholars actually changed history?

“Both women kept official and unofficial diaries, right?” Kimber asked.

“Yes,” Hughes said, and then looked at Caio uncomfortably. Perhaps he had answered for them both without knowing what he was talking about.

But she nodded, so he smiled.

“Get me copies of both,” Kimber said. “Copies that are made from the actual documents, not from—”

“Any other media, we know,” Caio said. “I’ll have mine for you tomorrow.”

“Me, too,” Hughes said.

Kimber thanked them, but her mind was already working on another problem. This conversation convinced her the problem was more complex than she even realized.

She didn’t just need to know if the scholars were having an impact on the past. If they were, she needed solutions.

And she needed them before (if) anyone else figured out that problems actually existed.

 

Chapter 4

As for surprising [President] Taft, [Lillian Rogers Parks] wrote that it occurred on one of her first visits to the White House in 1909. Her mother turned down the president’s bed and then left her daughter [Lillian] in the bedroom, ordering her to stay put while she took care of some brief duties elsewhere. While she waited, a ‘very stout,’ ‘jolly’ man came into the room, took one look at the girl wearing a prim white dress and said, “Well, what have we here? Are you the little ghost of the White House I’ve been hearing about?”

—“Ex-White House ‘insider’ Lillian Rogers Parks dies,”
The Houston Chronicle
November 13, 1997

 

Kimber called a meeting with the other department heads in Physics, History, Biology, and Time Travel itself, to discuss all that she had learned and what she hadn’t.

She decided to hold the meeting in the VIP guest observation booth above the Pit, or Time Travel Central, as the university called the time travel wing of the Physics Building. Eventually Time Travel would get its own building, but in the beginning the funding had to come out of Physics and History, because the alumni were scared to fund the project.

After the alumni had gotten to see it—first in this glass-enclosed viewing booth (like the VIP suites at the football stadium) and then on the floor below where they used protected observation portals for the first time, they started throwing money at Time Travel and Living History. But it had taken a few years.

Usually Eoin McKinty oversaw the alumni visits. McKinty headed the Time Travel division. He didn’t discover time travel—hundreds of scientists over dozens of universities had done that—but he did invent the systems that allowed any old graduate student to confirm his hypothesis about Cromwell, if he so chose.

McKinty looked a lot younger than he had the right to. He was in his seventies now, but he looked no older than forty, and if someone commented on his appearance he would joke that time travel kept him young.

Kimber wasn’t even certain that McKinty had time traveled since he set up both the wing and the systems. He sat at the edge of the conference table now, chair pushed back, watching the students work the portals with one eye while keeping track of the other division heads at the same time.

The other division heads scattered around the table, looking a bit confused. It had probably been a decade since this group had been together outside of a general faculty meeting. Marcy Wolfson, the head of the Physics department, hadn’t even been a full professor ten years before, and Janet Hsia, the head of the History department, might not have been out of high school yet.

Both women had gotten their appointments around the point that Kimber had, enough that it prompted the local media to say that the university was on a female hiring spree, something Kimber believed shouldn’t even get noticed in the latter half of the 21st century.

The senior person here was eighty-five-year-old Isaac Brenner who ran the Biology department. He looked his age, bent and tired, except for his eyes, which were bright, sparkling, and full of humor. Kimber had always liked Brenner, who was said to be on the shortlist for the Nobel for his research into the biological development of consciousness.

That research, more than his department head status, was the reason she wanted him here.

Her stomach fluttered. She hadn’t slept well since this whole thing began—well, since she heard of the Hillary Clinton séances, anyway—and she wanted the drama to end soon, although she suspected it wouldn’t.

She had received actual paper copies of the diaries, which told her precisely nothing—or at least, nothing she hadn’t expected. Nancy Reagan’s personal diary did not list a séance, but did list several meetings with astrologers.

Hillary Clinton’s diaries, personal and public, were as practical as the woman herself.

Which meant that the older paper documents downloaded or copied decades ago were different from the same documents downloaded today. And, if those new versions of the documents had records of séances, then that might prove that the scholars were having an impact on history.

But they might not.

Because, if there was record of the rumors on paper documents going back before time travel, then the stories of séances might have existed all along—as rumors. Back in the early 1990s, a lot of Hillary detractors said truly stupid things about her, things that her later actions (never mind her spokespeople) discredited.

Kimber couldn’t think about any of that. She had to focus on the what-ifs, which she found a bit ironic, given what she was dealing with.

The what-ifs, as she presented them to the department heads, were simple: What if their new-fangled time travel and its scholarly uses actually had an impact on history?

It took her a while to get the others to discuss the actual what-if. Wolfson wanted to discuss the possibilities; Brenner wasn’t sure any of this fit into his expertise; Hsia believed that history wasn’t fixed at all; and McKinty jumped from that to a long discussion of alternate realities.

Finally, Kimber slammed her palms onto the table. “I know you find this fascinating. I do too.” (Okay, she was lying about that; the discussions just got in her way.) “But here’s what I need to know: If we are, indeed, having an impact on history, changing it, what do we do about it? Do we shut down the Time Travel and Living History departments?”

“Well, it’s not just us,” McKinty said. “Other universities have similar programs—”

“Do we all shut the projects down?” Kimber said over him. “Worldwide?”

“Why do we have to decide that now?” Hsia asked.

“Technically,” Brenner said, “if a scientific experiment goes awry and it has an actual impact on others, then the project gets shut down everywhere. Everyone stops working on it until whatever has gone wrong has been fixed.”

Hsia frowned. No one shut anything down in History Departments. They simply disagreed with each other, usually in some formal way, like a presentation or a paper, filled with video footnotes and lots and lots and lots of attribution.

“We have to define impact,” McKinty said. “When we talked about the impact of time travel in the early years, we were looking at the Butterfly Effect.”

Kimber felt that urge to roll her eyes again. Because she’d been in a thousand meetings where McKinty discussed that ridiculous butterfly/thunder story by fiction writer Ray Bradbury.

“Yeah, yeah,” Kimber said. “A time traveler stepped on a butterfly in the past, and changed the course of history because of it. It’s just a stupid story.”

“No, it’s part of chaos theory,” Wolfson said. “And it wasn’t a story. It was from a paper presented in 1972—”

“I don’t care,” Kimber said. “We all understand the butterfly effect.”

“The point is,” McKinty said, “we expected the changes to be big. You know, if someone steps on a butterfly in 15th century Illinois, did that prevent Abe Lincoln from being born, and if he wasn’t born, were the slaves freed? That kinda thing. This clearly isn’t it.”

“Really?” Brenner asked. “You think if more and more humans believe in ghosts that’s not a problem. What if they all start finding proof of ghosts? Entire worldviews change.”

“I don’t think they would change,” Hsia said in a tone that suggested she was about to lecture the entire group. “We’ve had ghosts as long as human culture has existed. Think about it. In religion alone, we have more incidents of ghosts than anywhere else. Even in Christianity. It refers to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

“I thought it was Holy Spirit,” Wolfson muttered.

“Certain parts of Chinese culture have accepted ghosts as real for thousands of years,” Hsia said, not put off by the muttering. Kimber wondered if she was used to students muttering during class. “And the Mesopotamians referred to ghosts all the time. Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. I know there are lots more.”

“Are there?” McKinty asked. “Or are we already in an alternate timeline? Did any of us believe in ghosts two years ago?”

“Do any of us believe in ghosts now?” Brenner asked Wolfson. She shrugged.

“My point,” Hsia said firmly, “is the same as Professor McKinty’s. What does it matter?”

“I thought you were making a different point. I thought you were pointing out that it did matter.” Brenner glanced at Kimber as if she could clear up his confusion.

She shrugged. She wanted solutions, not this intellectual banter.

“The thing is,” McKinty said, “if we are having an effect, it’s a relatively minor one. And besides, we’re already on this road. It can’t get worse. I don’t think we shut anything down or worry anyone. We haven’t proven anything.”

“He’s right,” Hsia said. “Four references to séances and a few mentions of ghosts don’t mean anything. I can show you more than that in Arabian Nights.”

“That’s a story,” Wolfson said.

“So’s the Bible,” Hsia said.

“Some would argue—”

“All right.” Kimber shook her head. She wasn’t going to get anything from them, and they didn’t see it as a problem. Or, at least, as a problem that they had to think about yet.

Either she made decisions on her own that would have an impact on the entire scholarly world, or she had to acquiesce to an academic timeline.

She was an academic, after all. She acquiesced.

“If we call for more study,” she said, “who does it?”

“I think we set up an international committee with quite a few experts,” Wolfson said. “Let’s put out the call, bring in people from other disciplines, see what the historical record produces, see if anyone can show harm that a belief in ghosts engenders, and go from there.”

Brenner and McKinty nodded. Hsia, for once, looked a bit shocked. “That’ll take years.”

“I think that’s the point,” Kimber said. Her frustration level had gone up, something she hadn’t thought possible.

There must have been some kind of change on her face, because McKinty patted her hand.

“Kimber,” he said gently, “what you’re missing is this: if the changes have already occurred, I have no idea how they could get worse.”

Maybe this was where they needed Ambra. She would have no trouble imagining how things would get worse. She would probably have some this-is-the-end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it scenario that would stop everyone in their tracks.

Of course, no one would believe the scenario because Ambra came up with it. Which simply echoed Kimber’s experience with this topic so far.

“I don’t have a dog in this hunt,” Brenner said, using a phrase Kimber hadn’t heard since her grandmother died. “I don’t care if your programs continue or not, but here’s what I think, Dr. Lawson. We’re discussing a what-if that could take away your life’s work. It would definitely take away Dr. McKinty’s life’s work. Don’t we owe it to both of you and everyone else who works in Time Travel and Living History to be absolutely certain of two things—one: that our methods actually cause ghosts to appear in the past, and two: that those ghosts actually cause harm?”

“Ghosts have an impact,” Hsia said. “The past has an impact on the present. Don’t we owe it to history to preserve it?”

“Do we really know what history is?” Wolfson asked. “Nothing is certain. If we look at chaos theory—”

“If we look at all theories, we’ll be here all day.” Kimber couldn’t quite keep the annoyance out of her voice. She had thought these people would help her.

She should have known better.

“‘All day’ is what we owe the past,” Hsia said in a prim little voice.

Kimber hadn’t thought there could be someone on the planet more annoying than Ambra, but Hsia had proven that theory wrong in less than two hours.

And that alone made Kimber want to finish this meeting. She turned to Hsia.

“I think you’re right,” Kimber said to her. “We owe the past a great deal. Perhaps you can set up this international committee? It will take a grant or two to establish, and someone—perhaps Dr. McKinty here—will need to set up the research guidelines, but I think it’s necessary.”

“What about you?” Hsia asked, her eyes bright. She probably saw the forward momentum of her entire career in this one assignment. “This is your idea, after all.”

Kimber nodded. “It is, and I’d be happy to sit on the committee if you need me. Otherwise, I’d prefer to let someone else take point on this. I’m almost six months behind on my research, and I’d like to finish before the year’s out.”

Everyone else chimed in about the state of their own research, and Kimber tuned out.

She had done what she could, hadn’t she? After all, did she owe history a debt? Was history an entity that actually could be owed a debt? Or was it simply a construct that many people refused to believe in?

Like ghosts.

 

Chapter 5

I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

—John F. Kennedy
Remarks at a dinner honoring
Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere
April 29, 1962

 

Kimber never spoke the word “séance” again, but she did think it, and in the most unlikely place. Or perhaps it was too likely.

For she was in the White House dining room designed by Thomas Jefferson, with its circular shelves that turned with the touch of a spring. The shelves really worked the way the history books said they would: covered dishes, filled with the finest food, prepared under the supervision of steward Etienne Lemaire, hid in each cabinet, so that the notoriously private Jefferson could dine alone.

In his own time, Jefferson’s public meals had been famous, written up in every single journal, and by many guests—particularly female guests, who had no idea that the Third President of the United States had a live-in lover who was also his slave. The entire country thought him an eligible bachelor.

Time travel, Living History, whatever anyone wanted to call it, had proven that Jefferson and Sally Hemings had indeed been intimate, and that Hemings did indeed look like her white half-sister, Jefferson’s late wife, Martha.

But those things hadn’t interested Kimber, at least not when she had made her grant proposal. She wanted to recreate the meals, the recipes, write about the grand conversations, once thought lost to time.

And she also wanted to know if Jefferson truly did dine alone, like John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, used to imagine.

Kimber had planned this trip for a long, long time. She’d researched the schedule, looked at guest diaries, researched the weather, and figured if Jefferson would ever dine alone it would be on this night. So she went back, to see not just the dining room, but the meal itself, and what he read while eating—if he read anything.

Instead, she found herself beside his chair, looking at one of the handsomest men to ever sit in the White House—red-headed, freckled, with a friendly face and lively blue eyes, more than six feet tall, and without an ounce of fat on a frame that was “straight as a gun barrel” (as Edmund Bacon once described him).

The table, like the shelves, was circular and, at this moment, littered with almonds and cut apples, an empty claret glass to one side, and some warm tea steaming near an open book.

The candles in the chandelier burned low, so another candle sat near the book itself, illuminating the text.

But Jefferson wasn’t looking at the book. He was staring at the other side of the table as if he saw people. His face had paled and his lips were parted. He said nothing.

Kimber followed his gaze, and saw half a dozen Jeffersonian scholars, her colleagues and rivals, all staring at Jefferson as if expecting him to say something profound.

She could see them, but they didn’t seem to notice her. Could she see them because she had expected them? Or had she conjured them herself like a medium at a séance?

She bowed her head, then cursed softly.

It was all gone for her now, the feeling of discovery, of aloneness, of scholarship. Now she truly felt like she was invading someone’s privacy.

All Thomas Jefferson wanted to do on this evening—on that evening, now hundreds of years in the past—was dine alone.

He had failed at that. And he had an inkling that he had failed.

He smiled a little sardonically, picked up his claret glass and peered at it in the manner of a man who thought he had had too much.

Then he shook his head and returned to his book.

Kimber let out a small breath. She wanted to ask his forgiveness, but she didn’t dare speak to him. What if her voice remained in the room, like poor Mr. Burns’ voice had?

She didn’t need this part of the White House to be haunted by a perpetual sorry attitude. Not that it probably would have, considering. After all, the British would burn this section of the building to the ground in less than a decade.

Still, she couldn’t resist. She looked at Jefferson’s bowed head, and mouthed her apology, realizing the apology wasn’t just to him, but to all residents of this magnificent house.

Because it would become—it already was—the most haunted place in America.

And she now knew she had contributed to its growing collection of ghosts.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Solaris Rising 2, edited by Ian Whates, Solaris, 2013
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2018 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Benoit Daoust/Dreamstime

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

3 responses to “Free Fiction Monday: When Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone”

  1. lfox328 says:

    Halfway through, I wondered whether I was truly alone.

    I may never sleep again.

  2. savantefolle says:

    And I am reading “Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait” by K.A. Bedford, a very funny romp when time machines are as current as cars, and the main character is a repairman deploring the stupid owners who don’t read their user’s manual…
    :^)

  3. Great story! Thank you.

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