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Authors: Leila Sales

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BOOK: Once Was a Time
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Chapter 20

Two weeks later, Miss Timms and I were at the library together, boxing up books. This was a tiring process, tiring and sad. I didn't complain, though, because Miss Timms had said, “If we pack the books, then we can donate them to a children's hospital or a homeless shelter or even another library. At least that way someone can still enjoy them. That's how we've gotten a lot of our older books, in fact. The main library in Chicago donated a couple hundred titles to our collection a few years back.”

I taped up another box and shoved it against the wall. “Why can't the city council just let the library stay here?” I asked, breaking a long period of silence.

“They redid the city budget,” Miss Timms explained, “and decided they just didn't have enough money for it. When I first started here, there were two librarians, and the library was open from nine every morning until eight every night, except Sundays. Then the council redid the budget, and they had to lay off the other librarian and change the library hours to noon to six. Remember? That was how it was when I first met you. Then the council redid the budget
, so the library could only be open three days a week. And then . . . then this.”

“It's stupid,” I snapped, and Miss Timms nodded her agreement. “Where did all the money for the library

“Well, it comes from taxes,” Miss Timms explained. “And the city is bringing in less money in taxes now than it used to, for a whole bunch of pretty boring and depressing reasons. As for the money that they're still collecting, the local government decided that other city services needed it more. The fire stations, or the city parks, or the post office, or . . . who knows. They decided Sutton didn't need a library anymore.”

“Of course we do!” This was crazy. If
hadn't had a library, where would I have gone on my first day here? Where would I have gone almost every day
since then?

“We tried fund-raising,” Miss Timms went on. “Some private citizens donated their own money to help keep it open. But we couldn't raise enough money, so it didn't work. And the city council took that as even more of a sign that the people of Sutton didn't care
whether we
had a library or not. Which is an absurd way of think­i
ng, since
the people who most need a library are the ones who
pay for it; the people who need our free
and computers and reference materials and a quiet place to sit because they can't afford to buy any of that for themselves.”

“How much does it even cost to keep a library open?” I protested. “The books are already here.”

“True,” Miss Timms said, “but new books are published every day, and I would like to be able to add some of those to the collection, too. And it costs money just to maintain the facilities—to heat the building, to replace broken computers, to use lights and Internet.”

“I would work here for free,” I offered. “You wouldn't need to keep paying me.”

“Thank you, hon,” Miss Timms said with a small smile, “but your stipend is nowhere near
enough to make the difference between closing down the library or leaving it open. And remember, I make a salary, too.”

could offer to make less money,” I suggested.

Miss Timms wiped down a newly empty bookshelf and gave me a wry look. “I don't make that much money to start with, Charlotte. I need to eat. I need to make a living.”

“So what are you going to do to make a living now?”

She exhaled for a long time, pressing the air out through her lips. “I don't exactly know yet,” she answered at last. “I need to start applying for other librarian jobs.”

“But there aren't any other libraries in Sutton,” I pointed

Miss Timms stopped wiping the bookshelf and looked at me closely. “I won't be in Sutton,” she said quietly but clearly.

One of the books I was holding slipped out of my hands. I didn't pick it up. “Where will you be?” My voice trembled.

“I really don't know. I would like to stay nearby, so I can be close to my brother and my nieces. But it will depend on where I can find a job.”

“You're leaving me?” I asked, and I could hear my voice going higher and higher, ending in a high-pitched wail.

Miss Timms stepped over a pile of books to come over and wrap her arms around me. “I'm not leaving
” she murmured. “I may need to leave. But it is absolutely not because of

But that doesn't make any difference, does it? When somebody leaves, they leave
. Even if you're not the reason
they leave, you're still the one left behind.

We get what we deserve. It made sense for wonderful Miss Timms to leave me, because I had left Kitty. So when I cried now, it was not only for Miss Timms or for the library. I cried because nothing in the whole world, no matter how good, can last forever.

“It will be okay,” Miss Timms promised me as I sniffled. “I might not have to go very far to find a job. And we can e-mail and talk on the phone. And you have so many good friends here to take care of you! Melanie, Keith, Dakota, Sydney, Kianna . . .”

“They're not the same,” I told her.

Miss Timms nodded, and I saw that her eyes were a little wet, too. “I know.”

“Now I'm never going to make it to the end of the alphabet,” I said numbly. “I was working really hard on

“But maybe you can make it to the
s,” Miss Timms said. “If you read fast enough. After all, we have the whole rest of the summer before we have to be out of here.”

I said nothing. If I knew I could never make it to
, there didn't seem to be much of a point.

“Do you want to get started on boxing up the kids' section?” Miss Timms asked. “That way you won't accidentally pack up anything you're planning to read in the next few weeks.”

“Okay.” I left Miss Timms and headed over to the children's room with an armful of cardboard boxes. I started with the
s, since I'd already gone through them all and probably wouldn't need them in the next month.

Stack them up in piles, see how many fit into a box, tape up the box. Do it again. Good-bye, old friends. Good-bye,
Tuck Everlasting
. Good-bye,
Peter and the Starcatchers
. Goodbye,
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
. I hope you are happy, wherever you go.

Then I came to
A Little Princess
. Before throwing it in the box, I paused, looking at it in my hands. The same cover art stared back at me that I knew so well from the Bristol library's copy, seventy-six years ago.

I had avoided this book ever since coming to
and as I held it now, I knew why. All the memories associated with it came flooding into me: Reading under my desk at school until Miss Dickens noticed and rapped my knuckles with her ruler. Playing make-believe boarding school with Kitty. Getting a new doll for Christmas and naming her Emily, just like Sara Crewe named her doll. Talking about the Magic, like Sara did, as if magic were real.

I sat down on the rug and flipped open the book to the first page. Although I hadn't touched this book for seventy-six years, I knew what to expect.

Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

That's one of the wonderful things about books: They are always the same, no matter where or when you are.

But in this copy of
A Little Princess
, something was different. There was a postcard stuck inside the front cover. The postcard showed a picture of a fancy old stone building, with the words hotel firenze printed in elaborate script. I flipped it over. The back side said benvenuto da italia!, and an address was typed below that. This was followed by a handwritten note.

The note was very brief, but it changed my life forever.

Dear Lottie,

I think about you often. I wish I could figure out where you went, and if you're safe. I followed your footsteps, but still I don't suppose I'll ever see you again. I just wanted to leave this note, so you know that
you are not forgotten.


Chapter 21

Kitty was alive.

She hadn't been killed by Nazis in a locked room in 1940, after all.

She had lived.

I stumbled out of the library, clutching the book with the postcard to my chest, calling out some garbled good-bye to Miss Timms as I ran. I made it as far as the park—that park where I'd once eaten out of the garbage—before I collapsed onto a bench. My legs were shaking, my teeth chattering.

I looked through the entire book, page by page, to see if there was anything else different about it. But it was just
A Little Princess
, exactly as I remembered it.

Then I studied the postcard, sucking down its every detail. I hadn't seen this handwriting in decades, but it was undeniably Kitty's. A little neater than I remembered it, maybe, but that made sense; we were older now.

And actually—I tried to wrap my head around the math of it all. Kitty's note said
I followed in your footsteps
but it didn't say
. It seemed unlikely that she would have come through the same portal that I did, because then wouldn't she have also landed in Sutton, Wisconsin, in the year 2013, just the same as me? It was much more likely that she had come through a different portal, maybe weeks or months or even

meant that someone must have figured out the secret to time travel after all.

This changed everything. I'd believed that nobody had ever discovered how time travel worked. If my dad couldn't do it, then it couldn't be done. But now it was clear that somebody
. They must have done, because somehow, Kitty had figured out where I had gone. And somehow, she had come after me.

My eyes darted everywhere around the park, as if maybe Kitty would be sitting on a nearby bench, waiting for me. But that was silly, of course. Sutton was a small town, and I had lived here for three years. If Kitty were here, too, we would have already found each other.

I went back to staring at the postcard. It had no postage or “to” line; clearly Kitty had stuck the postcard in the book herself, not sent it through the mail. I wondered when she'd put this postcard in the book, and when she had left the book at the library. Had she thought I'd come to Sutton earlier than I actually had? Did she arrive here in 2010, wait around for me for a couple years, and then leave this postcard and take off ?

But if she'd known with certainty that my portal took me to Sutton, then why hadn't she stayed here for as long as it took until I showed up? Did she choose to move on—or was she forced?

The more I thought about it, the more possibilities came to mind, but none of them fit together in a way that made sense. There were only three things I knew for sure, and I clung to them like life preservers in a vast ocean.

One, Kitty had hoped that I would find this note. She had left it in the one book that she trusted I would reread wherever and whenever I was, because she thought that was her best way to reach me.

Two, Kitty had made it out of that locked room safely.

And three, now that I knew Kitty was alive, I would stop at nothing to find her. Forget séances or wishes or spells. I didn't need to contact a ghost or travel backward in time. I just needed to find her in the here and now. I could do it. And I
Even if it took the rest of our lives.

Chapter 22

With as many questions as I had, the only way forward was to do some research and try to find some answers.
the library was now only officially open for a couple hours, only two days a week, as the rest of the time Miss Timms was busy preparing for its closing at the end of the month.

I tried searching for time travel information on my computer at home, as I had many times before. As always, nothing helpful came up. I skimmed through pages on wormholes and cosmic strings, sci-fi stories about time machines, and conspiracy theories claiming that
John F. Kennedy
or Mahatma Gandhi were actually visitors from the far future. None of this bore any resemblance to my experience, and it didn't shed any light on where Kitty was, either.

But now I knew there
to be more out there. Somebody knew something, because that was how Kitty had found a way to come after me.

The next time the library opened to the public was
afternoon. I was getting ready to head over there, to do more serious research than I could at home, when the phone rang.

“Hi,” I answered, before adding, as an afterthought, “Hullo.” Sometimes I wondered whether any of my friends would even like me if I didn't sound like an English movie character.

“Charlotte?” said the boy's voice on the other end of the line. “Uh, it's Gavin.”

“How are you, Gavin?” I asked, searching under my bed for my sneakers. It had only taken a couple months before Penelope's bedroom had become exactly as messy as the room I used to share with Justine. I tried not to feel bad about it.

“Good,” Gavin said. “How are you?”

“I'm good.” I saw no sneakers, but I
find my flip-flops, so I slid those on. I didn't know what Gavin wanted, but if this call went the same as the last one, we were just going to say the word “good” back and forth to each other for what felt like eternity, which to be totally honest I had neither the time nor the interest for. If Melanie was right and he was calling to ask me out, then I wished he would just get it over with.

But maybe I should have been more careful what I wished for, because after a long pause, Gavin blurted out, “Do you want to go to the pool with me?”

I grew still. “Now?”

“Yeah. We could bike over together if you want.”

Gavin and I had never spent time together one-on-one. We didn't have any reason to. Before the first time he called me, we'd never even really talked.

I stared at myself in the full-length mirror. Was I really so old, to be asked out on dates, to have a boy care whether or not I said yes? Did I look that old? I didn't feel like I was.

I could go with him, of course. It was a hot day, and a dip in the pool would feel nice. My friends would be impressed. I could easily hear Dakota's voice in my head, telling me that I could start eighth grade with a boyfriend, which she felt was a very convenient way to begin the school year. And even if I spent all afternoon at the library as I'd planned, there was no reason to believe that I'd find any information to bring me closer to Kitty.

But I had survived without her for long enough. I didn't want to wait any longer.

“Thanks, Gavin,” I said, “but I'm actually busy today.”

“Oh,” he said. “That's okay.”

“Maybe some other time?” I suggested awkwardly.

“Yeah, maybe.”

We got off the phone and I flip-flopped down the road to the library. I tried to ignore the partially empty shelves and half-packed boxes of books as I approached Miss Timms, who was fixing the summer reading display.

“Do you recognize this?” I asked her, holding out
postcard. I'd found it in Miss Timms's library, after all. She knew a lot about what went on in her library.

Miss Timms glanced at the photo as she rearranged the books, moving them each into the appropriate section of the display. “It's a hotel in Florence, right?” she said. “But I don't recognize it. Why?”

“How do you know that it's Florence?” I demanded.

“ ‘
is the Italian name for Florence,”
explained. “So I guess that's the Hotel Florence.”

I made a mental note of that, then pressed, “Forget about the building in the picture. The postcard itself. Have you seen it before?” I flipped it over so she could see Kitty's writing on the back. “Do you recognize this?”

She turned, and her elbow hit a book, knocking over a few others like dominos. She cursed under her breath and picked them up.

“Do you?” I prompted.

She gave a little sigh. “I don't think so, hon. Should I?”

I inspected her closely. Did she know more than she was letting on? Was there some chance she'd helped Kitty hide this postcard?

But I saw nothing in Miss Timms's face that made me think she was hiding anything. Her expression just looked like she was tolerating my sudden obsession with a random postcard while she tried to get everything else done.

“Never mind,” I said. “Hey, isn't it almost story time?”

“Oh, jeez, yes!” she said, and she hurried off to gather up the craft materials and picture books.

I sat down at a computer and started poking around the library's database of academic journals. I had never properly read a scientific journal before, but we used to have them at home, since sometimes Dad published his research in them. That was before the war, of course, before he signed the Official Secrets Act, back when he was doing the sort of work that he was allowed to write up and publish.

I thought maybe a publication about physics would help me, but I quickly discovered that there were so
physics journals, containing thousands of articles across decades and decades. I'd had no idea there was so much to say about physics, especially so much nonsense—articles with names like “Reassessments of the Boltzmann factor and Brownian ratchets,” or “Poynting vector flow in a circular circuit,” or “Derivation of the magnetization current from the non-
Pauli equation.” Any of these could be exactly the thing I needed, but there was no way for me to tell.

I wished for my dad. He would understand all of this. He would help
understand it.

I narrowed in on some articles on the theory of relativity, something called “space-time,” the Gödel metric, Stephen Hawking's chronology protection conjecture. All of this seemed like it had something to do with time travel, but none in any way that made sense to me, and I started to wonder why I had thought that reading scientific journals might help me at all. I wasn't my father, I wasn't a scientist; I was just a girl.

A couple hours had gone by, and Miss Timms had made the “half hour until closing” announcement, when I finally hit the jackpot.

It was an article that had been published more than twenty years ago, in 1992, in an Italian journal called
di Fisica
—which meant
Journal of Physics,
according to an online translator. It was written in Italian, of course, which was why I hadn't found it more quickly. It said nothing about me or Kitty, specifically—not that I'd thought it would.

But it did mention my father.

It just included his last name, in parentheses, which I knew meant that this article was referencing his research. Breathless, I ran the entire text—eleven pages, each filled with tiny font—through an online translator. The phrasing seemed awkward in places, probably due to the automated translation, but I could still make some sense of it. Well, not really, but about as much sense as I'd been able to make out of any of these articles.

This was what I read, in the paragraph with my last name:

“The now-familiar ‘grandfather paradox' posits that time travel to the past is theoretically impossible because, if the time traveler journeyed to the past and were to kill his own grandfather before the grandfather met his grandmother, then the time traveler would not be able to exist—meaning that he would not be able to go back in time and kill his grandfather. To many this has been seen as philosophical proof of the nonexistence of journeys to the past. But if one looks at time as omnipresent, rather than as a straight line of cause and effect, then he can see how
both the man and his grandfather exist ‘simultaneously, with the difference in years nothing more than a perceived prism, or a curtain that could be, at least for a moment, swept aside' (Bromley 1928).”

Even without understanding exactly what that paragraph meant, or what it was doing in this article, I felt my heart leap. Because there was my father's name, defending the existence of time travel. Whoever wrote this article was someone other than me who knew who my dad was, who had listened to what he had to say.

I muddled my way through the rest of the article. Its name translated to “Theoretical concepts in the space-time continuum.” Pretty much all I understood was that this scientist believed time travel was possible, and he had some theories as to how it might function. There was nothing seriously useful, though; nothing that said, “Here are step-by-step instructions to creating a portal,” or, “Here is a complete list of real people who have time traveled.”

But there was one other paragraph that stopped me. And this is what it said:

“What these hypotheses do not account for is the possibility
indeed, the likelihood—of spontaneously occurring time travel portals. What if a portal were not always a man-made device or machine, but rather an occurrence as natural as an earthquake or a rainbow, only far more rare and localized? What if a portal could simply appear in front of you, shimmering and rippling in midair?”

That idea—a portal that just randomly appeared, shimmering in the air—that was my father's vision of how time travel worked. And it was what had happened to me.

Which meant that the scientist who wrote this article somehow knew
and believed
my father's secret research. Maybe he had time traveled himself, or maybe he'd spoken to someone who had, just as my dad had interviewed that man who saw the portal in Wales.

And maybe the person this scientist had met . . . maybe that was Kitty.

“Five o'clock!” Miss Timms called. “Everyone, please come check out your books. We will be open again next Tuesday!”

Quickly, I printed the article and stuck it in my bag.

“No new books today, Charlotte?” Miss Timms teased as I passed by the front desk. “You'll never get through the
s at this rate!”

I shook my head and touched the time travel article with my fingertips. For the first time in my life, books failed to interest me. The only thing I cared about reading and rereading now were those eleven pages.

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