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Authors: Leila Sales

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BOOK: Once Was a Time
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Chapter 18

The morning of July 18, my thirteenth birthday, I awoke bathed in sweat, despite the powerful air conditioning vent right next to my bed. I pulled myself into wakefulness as a rodent might drag itself out of a swamp—pieces of my dream still clung to me like mud, heavy and slick.

There was a girl. A girl with hazel eyes just like mine, and airy blond hair that framed her face like a halo.
, she whispered, her porcelain hand reaching out for mine.
Lottie, don't go.

I had seen this girl before, in dreams. Sometimes I dreamt of her every single night for a week. Sometimes months would go by without her. But she always came back.

I would have taken her hand—grabbed it as hard as I could and never let go—but I was stuck here, in this swamp between dreaming and waking, and try as I might, I could not make my arm move toward her.

Just tell me where you're going so I can come with you
, she pleaded.

But my dream-self said nothing, as though I wasn't even there.

Just tell me why you're leaving me
, she whispered.
Why did you leave me, Lottie? . . . Lottie?


My eyes sprung open. I was awake now, staring up
at Melanie. The
blond girl disappeared like a blown-out candle.

“Happy thirteenth birthday, sweetie!” Melanie said. “Look who's here to see you.”

Dakota, Kianna, and Sydney came running in from the hallway. “Happy birthday to you,” they sang. “Happy birthday to you!” Dakota shot a glare at Sydney, who was, as always, off-key. “Happy birthday, dear Charlotte. Happy birthday to you!”

The three of them jumped onto my bed, and we were suddenly a mess of squeals and intermingled limbs and a chocolate chip muffin that Kianna dropped on my sheets, sending crumbs everywhere.

“Ugh,” she groaned. “That was supposed to be your birthday breakfast in bed!”

I fished the muffin out from under my comforter and took a bite. “I'll eat it anyway.”

“Girls,” Melanie said, “let Charlotte get out of bed so we can get the celebrations under way! You all have a busy day ahead of you.” She kissed me on the forehead and left my room.

I climbed out from under the pig-pile and started sorting through my closet, trying to decide what to wear. At last I settled on a little cheerleader-esque skirt, a purple tank top, and sparkly ballet flats—a variation on the outfits my friends were wearing.

Once I was dressed, the four of us ran downstairs and outside, where Keith was already firing up the grill. “I hope you girls are hungry for some burgers,” he said.

Dakota looked pointedly at her watch and wrinkled her nose. “It's still the
,” she said.

“So?” I asked.

“So, it's too early for burgers. You can't eat burgers until the

With Dakota, I never knew what the rules were until I'd already broken them. I gave Keith a weak smile. “We'll definitely want burgers at some point today,” I told him. “Maybe after we come back from the pool.”

“I got s'more fixins, too,” Keith tried, “since I know how much you love them, Charlotte.”

Jake had been right when he told me on the first day of fifth grade that s'mores were the best food in the world. In the nearly three years since that day, Jake Adler and I had not spoken once. I barely ever thought about him, or the time I called him a big fat baby. But I did remember that conversation every time I ate a marshmallow.

“Thanks, Keith,” I said. His apron read
Kiss the chef
, but that seemed gross, so I just hugged the chef instead.

Then Melanie emerged from the house, carrying an ice cream cake with both hands. It had fourteen candles glowing brightly: thirteen for me, plus one to grow on. Kianna and Sydney both
ed appreciatively, and Dakota said, even more exasperated this time, “You can't eat
ice cream
in the morning, either!”

I gave her a helpless look. “But it'll melt if
we don't eat it.”

Dakota shrugged, like,
not my problem

“Make a wish!” Kianna ordered, jumping up and down, as Melanie placed the cake on the little metal patio table.

“What are you going to wish for?” Sydney asked.

“I bet
know what she's going to wish for,” Dakota said, raising an eyebrow and holding my gaze.

I felt my body tense. “Oh, really?” I said. “What's that?”

Dakota smirked. “You're going to wish for Gavin to ask you out.”

Kianna and Sydney both squealed.

I exhaled, my shoulders relaxing. Of course Dakota didn't know what I wished for. How could

Gavin Fletcher was going into eighth grade with us. He was nice enough. He was short and his dad was from South Africa, and, according to my friends, this was reason enough for him to be my boyfriend. “You're
short,” Dakota had explained to me before, as if I hadn't noticed that even after three years of eating modern American food, my body still hadn't caught up with modern American girls'. “And together you guys could have babies with really cute foreign accents.”

Then we all screamed
, because obviously having babies would be disgusting, whether they were with Gavin Fletcher or any other boy in all of Sutton Middle School.

The truth was that my accent was less cute than it had been when Dakota first met me. I almost never heard an English accent these days, outside of an occasional movie or TV show. And I heard so many American accents, constantly, pounding away at my brain. It was easy to forget what my voice was supposed to sound like.

Words had left me, too. Some of those were choices that I'd made, so people wouldn't think I was weird, or ask too many questions. Referring to
was just easier. Offering to
do the dishes
instead of
the washing up
meant that Melanie and Keith wouldn't look at me funny. But over the years, so many expressions had slipped away from me, even without my choosing. I think I used to say
thank you
differently. There was a different way that I used to say

I still clung to my accent, but that was mostly because my friends liked the way it sounded. The other day
asked me if I wanted to watch a movie with her, and I answered
. That wasn't real. I had never said
when I was English.

Melanie nudged me. “Gavin Fletcher, hmm? Is that the sweet boy who called the house the other day?”

I nodded, staring down at my brightly burning candles.

my friends shrieked.

“You did not tell me that he called,” Dakota said, her voice an octave higher than usual.

“What did he want?” Sydney demanded.

“Did he ask you out?” Kianna asked.

“Of course not,” Dakota snapped. “Or she would have told us already.

I nodded. “He was just calling to talk. I don't know why. We were only on the phone for a couple minutes before he had to go.”

Melanie gave me a wise smile. “He was going to ask you out but he got cold feet at the last minute. Trust me; I saw it a million times with Penelope.”

“Just wish for it now and it will definitely happen,” Dakota told me.

I gave her a tight smile. Dakota could tell me to do lots of things, and I would do them. But she couldn't tell me what thoughts to have inside of my head.

“Make your wish, sweetie,” Melanie encouraged me. “Before wax gets all over the cake.”

I closed my eyes to wish, and what I saw there was not Gavin Fletcher at all, but the girl from my dream. Maybe it was impossible for me to ever get her back, or to ever again be the girl who derserved her as a friend. Maybe to believe that those things could happen was silly, childish make-believe.

Yet still, I couldn't help myself. And so I wished, as I did every year on July 18, for her. For nothing at all: just her.

Everyone cheered as I blew out the candles. I opened my eyes, and Kianna snapped a photo. That was Kianna's job: documenting our lives together, creating proof that the four of us were a unit, friends forever, that we never stopped having fun.

Then I stopped smiling for the camera and turned my head abruptly. Because it was crazy.

It was unbelievable.

But I thought I'd seen something out of the corner of my eye. Something in the air, something that shouldn't have been there.

Something that looked remarkably like . . .

A portal.

Chapter 19

I'd been wrong.

It wasn't a time travel portal.

There had just been something in the way the late-morning light hit the dust in the air that had made it seem, from my perspective, like something more than it was. But really it was nothing at all.

Of course.

I tried to calm the pounding of my heart and reminded myself that I was just seeing what I wanted to see, and making up magic because I wanted magic to be real. That was all. Because everything I'd tried in the past three years—the séance, the wishes on birthday candles and dandelions and eyelashes, the made-up spells—none of that had made any

The older I got, the more I doubted it all. That I had really lived in England and had a father who was a scientist and had time traveled seventy-three years. I knew what Dakota would say if I told her that story.
That's impossible
, and
That doesn't make sense.
And the more time passed, the more I wondered if she was right. I had no proof of my old life, after all. Just hand-sewn pajamas with a Peter Pan collar, now too small for me, sitting in a plastic bag on the top shelf of my closet. A sad, silent hobby of rearranging the letters in words for myself. And dreams haunted by a blond girl whom I could not forget.

And was that really so bad, if I never found a way out of here? I'd thought it was, but the more I adjusted to Sutton, the less certain I was of that. I had foster parents who loved me, friends to play with, a boy who maybe had a crush on me—it could be a worse life. Did I really need another portal, too?

“Charlotte?” Melanie interrupted my thoughts. “Do you want to cut the cake for your friends?”

I nodded silently, still trying to steady my breathing after the fake portal sighting. My hands shook as I picked up the knife.

“None for me,” Dakota said sweetly. “
don't eat ice cream this early in the day.”

I stared down at the cake and tried to remind myself how we used to celebrate my birthday, when I was Lottie.
Mum would bake me a cake, and Dad would take me to the bookshop and let me choose out whichever books I wanted. Kitty once wrote a pantomime for me, and she got Justine and Thomas to perform it with her, and I laughed so hard I cried. One year for my birthday, before the war, when petrol wasn't rationed, Kitty's mum and dad took us to Burnham-on-Sea and she showed off how fast she could swim and we played mermaids all day long.

I frowned. That wasn't right. My real birthday had been in October. It would have been too cold to play in the water then. Maybe we had gone to Burnham-on-Sea for
birthday? Or just for a random day trip? Or maybe we had never gone at all.

It was impossible to check these memories. I had no one to ask for confirmation. Even more than my accent, the memories slipped away from me: what Justine wore, how Mum smiled, the way Dad organized his bookshelf, why Kitty's pantomime made me laugh so
hard. I would never know.

certainly want a piece of cake!”

I turned around to see who had spoken. “Miss Timms!” I set down the knife and gave her a big hug. “Hi! What are you doing here?”

Of course I saw Miss Timms often, but only at the library. At first I'd worked at the library every day after school. Then the city council voted to cut back funding to the library even more, so now the only weekdays it was open were Tuesdays and Thursdays. But I still went there every Tuesday and every Thursday after school, without fail, to help Miss Timms with the books. I had never seen her at my house, though.

“I wanted to come wish you a happy birthday, of course,” Miss Timms said. “Keith invited me. Here.” She handed me a wrapped, rectangular present.

I beamed up at her. It was a book, of course. I knew no one else had gotten me a book. Melanie and Keith always said I didn't need to own any more, since I could borrow whatever I wanted from the library. “And anyway, we wouldn't even know what to get you,” Melanie explained. “The way you read, odds are it would be something you'd already finished.”

Dakota, Sydney, and Kianna had all chipped in to buy me a makeup kit. They gave it to me yesterday because they were too excited to wait. It had twelve different shades of eye shadow. I had never worn eye shadow, but Dakota said we should now, since we'd be starting eighth grade in a month. I could tell they'd spent a lot of money on the makeup kit. But it wasn't a book.

I opened Miss Timms's gift. “ ‘
The Book Thief
,' ” I read aloud, turning it over in my hands. “Thanks, Miss Timms.”

“It's by Markus Zusak,” she said. “I was concerned that you might not get to the
s any time soon, so I wanted to give this one to you now. What letter are you up to, anyway?”

,” I answered. “I'm doing Madeleine L'Engle now.”

Miss Timms nodded. Her eyes were sad. “L'Engle is one of my favorites. I ordered every one of her books for the library. I think you'll like this one, too.” She patted
The Book Thief
. “It's so beautiful. It's set during World War Two—”


I felt my lips press together and glanced away from Miss Timms for a moment. I focused on Sydney and Kianna, who had grown tired of waiting for me and started to cut into the cake themselves.

I didn't like to read books about the war. At first I just refused to read any books that I'd read in my previous life. But then I'd even stopped reading historical fiction set during my previous lifetime. I didn't want to think about any of that. I needed to move on. I needed to look forward.

“Thank you,” I said to Miss Timms again.

“You're a great reader, hon,” she replied, blinking
“One of the best I've ever met.” She offered me a weak smile.

“Is everything all right?” I asked.

Miss Timms bit her lip, and now it was her turn to look away from me, trying to compose herself. “It's your birthday,” she said. “I don't want to upset you.”

“Is it Little Furry?” I asked urgently. Miss Timms's pet spaniel was often sick, and I knew he was already pretty old, for a dog. “I'm so sorry.”

But she shook her head. “Little Furry is fine. I'm so sorry, Charlotte. It's the library.”

I blinked. “What happened to the library?” I asked.

“They're shutting it down,” she said. “For good.”

BOOK: Once Was a Time
4.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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