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Authors: Leila Sales

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BOOK: Once Was a Time
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Chapter 30

After we'd checked into our hotel in Florence, a yellowish-beige building with awnings and big windows looking out over the river, the first thing we did was go to the place from Kitty's postcard: the Hotel Firenze.

“I don't understand why you guys are so obsessed with seeing a hotel,” Noah grumbled as Jake and I led the way down narrow, zigzagging streets, trying to find the address from the back of the postcard. “If you love hotels so much, why not just go back to the hotel we're
staying
in?”

“I have to say that I see Noah's point,” Rachel agreed, taking the map back from Jake and flipping it around. “This city is filled with art, architecture, history, food, shopping—there's more than we could ever hope to see in six days. Is a hotel really the priority?”

“Yes,” I said.

“This hotel's supposed to have great art in it, too,” Jake volunteered. “It's more like a museum with rooms in it than it is like a hotel. That's what I read on their website.”

“Is that true?” I whispered to him as we hurried around another corner.

“Sort of,” he whispered back.

When we finally found the Hotel Firenze, I saw that he was correct. Inside the stately lobby, the walls were covered in paintings, and Jake immediately pulled out his sketch pad to start copying them down. One in particular caught my eye immediately. It showed a dense cluster of small, colorful buildings—pink, green, yellow, red, purple—all stacked together on a sheer rock cliff over a sparkling aqua body of water. It was captivating. Like a rainbow brought to life. The painting was named
Manarola in Primavera (Manarola in the Spring)
, and I thought that if I kept exploring the world after this trip, Manarola in the spring was exactly the sort of place I would want to go.

“Charlotte?” a voice said, and I managed to tear my attention away from the painting. It was Jake. “Are you going to ask about Kitty?”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “Right.”

I squared my shoulders, turned away from the painting, and headed to the receptionist's desk. Like everything else in this hotel, it was shiny, tall, and imposing. I stood on my toes to lean across the thick wood and ask, “Do you speak English?”

“Of course,
signorina
,” she said. “How may I help you?”

“I'm looking for a guest at the hotel,” I said. “Catherine McLaughlin.”

The receptionist's fingers flew across the keyboard. When she didn't say anything, I tried, “She might go by Kitty McLaughlin. That's her nickname, you see. But she likes Catherine better, I guess. Because of the anagrams.”

The receptionist ignored that. “My apologies,
signorina
. We have no guests with that name.”

“Oh. Well, did you have someone with that name before?” I wasn't surprised that Kitty was no longer staying here. Disappointed, but not surprised. And whenever she'd been here, I imagined the hotel might still have her phone number or address on file.

“When was she staying with us?” the receptionist asked.

“I don't know.”

“Within the past week? Past month?” she prompted me.

“I don't know,” I said again. “Can't you just search for her name and tell me when she was here?”

The receptionist gave me a tight-lipped smile. “I am afraid our system does not work that way. And regardless, we do not give out such information about our guests, due to privacy concerns.”

“Oh.”

A middle-aged couple came up behind me. “
Guten Tag
,” said the man, and the receptionist seamlessly switched into German to check them in.

When they left with their room key a few minutes later, I tried another tack. “Maybe you've seen a girl in this hotel before,” I said, “who's around my age, and has the same accent as me, and the same color eyes, but blond hair?” I widened my eyes so she could make out the color.

“I'm sorry,” said the receptionist, not sounding very sorry at all. “So many guests pass through here, I really cannot say.”

“I'll leave you my e-mail address,” I said, my voice quavering a little. “And if you see the girl I'm talking about, maybe . . . maybe you could give it to her?”

“Of course,
signorina
.” The receptionist handed me a postcard—the same postcard that Kitty had used, but a fresh one, with no handwritten message on the back. “You may write your e-mail address on here,” she told me.

So I did. And then, after another minute, I walked away from the desk, because I didn't know what else to do.

I wandered around the lobby, weaving through big potted plants and small marble sculptures, hoping to see a clue without having the foggiest idea what a clue might look like. I found Jake, who was sitting on a pink upholstered bench. He snapped shut his
sketchbook when he saw me coming.

“Let's go,” I said to him.

He squinted his eyes up at me. “What did you find out?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

“Huh. So what are we going to do now? Like, what's the next step?”

I rubbed my eyes. My brain felt fuzzy and dull. “I don't
know.”

“Are you ready to start sightseeing?” Rachel asked, walking up to us and looking at her watch.

Part of me wanted to stick around, just in case Kitty might show up all of a sudden. But the rest of me knew that wasn't going to happen. “Sure,” I told Rachel. “We're ready.”

We walked a few blocks over to the Duomo. “This is the main cathedral of Florence,” Rachel read to us from her guidebook, as we stood outside, craning our necks back to look up at the massive white building with intricate pink and green detailing. Tourists streamed past us, reading aloud from their own guidebooks, which I assumed said the same things as ours, in their own native languages. “Construction was begun in 1296 and completed in 1436,” Rachel went on. “This is the largest brick dome ever. And we can climb to the top of it! It's four hundred and thirty-six steps. Are you kids up for that?” She didn't bother to wait for our answer before she took off.

The climb took a very long time, through narrow passageways and spiral stairwells. Every time we came to the end of a flight, there was another in front of us. My legs ached, but at least I wasn't scared of the height or the cramped quarters. Noah was scared—I could tell because he kept saying things like, “
Why
isn't there an elevator here? Is it even legal to have a building without an elevator? What if there was a fire?”

“They hadn't invented elevators in 1436,”
Jake pointed out.

“Yeah, duh, Jake, I
know
,” snapped Noah, wiping sweat off his brow.

When we finally reached the top, I pressed myself to a railing, staring out at the city sprawled below. We were so high up that the wind blew my hair around my face, and it reminded me a bit of the way the wind used to whip at me across the Downs, a long time ago.

I looked out over the tiled roofs, seeing other church spires and towers rising in the distance. In the piazza below, I saw hundreds, maybe thousands of people swarming around like multicolored bugs. If they were Italian or American, old or young, if they were fighting or in love or strangers, I was too far removed to see it.

Suddenly I felt like Noah in the stairwells: terrified, dizzy. I had reached a dead end, and there were so many people. How could I ever hope to find Kitty among them?

Chapter 31

As our time in Florence ticked by, my mood grew worse and worse. That overwhelmed feeling from the top of the cathedral followed me everywhere, and I had no idea what to do about it. I felt rotten to my core, trailing the Adlers from one museum to the next with no real understanding of or interest in what I was seeing there.

Jake was the exact opposite. It was as if he grew into himself the longer we spent away from Sutton—he smiled more, opened his eyes wider, stood up straighter. He could spend hours in front of a single painting or sculpture at the Uffizi Gallery as he worked on mimicking the shading and dimensions in his own notebook.

Rachel got audio guides and read aloud from her guidebook so we had a constant running commentary on whatever sights we were seeing. Noah downed as many cups of gelato and espresso as he could and took to calling all the waitresses “
bella
,” which he told us was Italian for “beautiful.” (“So bilingual,” Jake told him. “Wow, you're just so, so bilingual.”) Everyone found a place for themselves in Florence. Everyone except for me.

When we had only two days left on our trip, Jake snapped. Or, I guess, we both did. We were in his hotel room before going out for dinner. Jake was flipping through a comic book. Noah was in the lobby downstairs, probably flirting more with the receptionist. And I was sitting on his bed, trying to read a book but really just staring at Kitty's postcard.

Jake gave a long sigh and noisily turned a page. “What are you doing, Charlotte?”

“Just reading,” I said. “I can go, if you want.”

“No, I mean, what are you
doing
, here, in Florence, in general.” He threw down his comic. “You're not even trying to find your friend anymore. You really think you're going to stumble across her by sitting in my hotel room? Of course not. And if you've decided to give up on looking for her, well, that's your business. But then you should at least enjoy being on a cool vacation and stop acting like it's torture for you to see world-famous Renaissance art.
You know?”

I stared at him, open-mouthed. “I have
not
given up
on looking for her,” I said, stung. “I found her postcard, I did so much research, I worked out a way to get to a whole other
country
—how dare you accuse
me of not trying hard enough?”

“I'm not
accusing
you of anything,” Jake said. “I just think being all sad and looking at that postcard for the millionth time isn't actually making anything happen. Maybe there's something we're missing, and we're not going to find it by moping around.”

“Well, yes, Jake, obviously there's something we're missing,” I snapped. “And if you know what it is, I'm all ears!” I slammed my book closed. “You want to know something? Kitty and I used to pretend that we were psychic. We would practice reading each other's minds. But it wasn't real.
None of that was real.
If we were psychic, then I wouldn't be sitting here all by myself right now.”

“You're not,” Jake pointed out. “I'm here.”

“Yes, but you don't even like me! You think I'm mean and boring and selfish—oh, and now you think I'm lazy and mopey, too—and the only reason you let me come along was so I could help you learn more about time travel. And now I can't even do that.”

“Okay, yeah, I
used
to think you were mean and boring and selfish,” Jake said. “But . . . I don't know. You're a lot different than you seem to be.”

I shrugged.

“Why do you even hang out with those girls at school, anyway?” Jake asked, leaning forward. “Dakota and all of them. The more I get to know you, the more I don't get it. You're a lot better when you're not with them.”

“I like them,” I said. “We have fun together.” Or we
had
fun together, before they stopped liking me. “And when I'm with them,” I added, “I don't have to be alone.”

“What's so bad about being alone?” Jake asked.

“You tell me, Jake. What's so bad about it that you would bring me all the way to Italy, just so
you
wouldn't have to be alone anymore? I think you'd know better than I would.”

Jake blinked a number of times. “That's mean,” he said quietly. It was the first time his voice had gone mumbly like that in days.

We sat in silence for a moment. I picked up my book again, put it down, and crossed and uncrossed my arms.

At last Jake spoke again. “I just don't get why you have to change who you
are
in order to get people to like you.”

“I don't think you even know who I really am,” I told him. “I don't think anybody does.”

And I stood up and walked out of Jake's room, letting his door slam shut behind me.

* * *

Maybe I'd thought that fighting with Jake would make me feel better, as if a few of my problems could somehow become his fault. But instead I just felt worse, like I'd
doubled
my misery rather than halving it. At the seafood restaurant where we had dinner two hours later, his mother said to him, “Do you want to give Charlotte her present
now?”

“No, Mom,” Jake muttered, staring down at his swordfish. “It's not ready yet, okay?”

“I think it looks great,” she disagreed.

“What present?” I asked. Those were the first words I'd spoken to Jake all evening.

He shrugged. “It's just a dumb thing.” He reached into his bag, pulled out a piece of paper, and handed it to me. “Here.”

I recognized it immediately. It was a drawing of the
Manarola in Primavera
painting that had mesmerized me at the Hotel Firenze.

“Jake noticed how much you liked it, so he wanted to give you a copy all of your own,” Rachel said. “Isn't that nice, Charlotte?”

“Yes,” I said. It was. It was so nice, I felt like my heart was cracking in two. Here was Jake, being so nice to me, and I couldn't even be nice back.

After dinner, I changed into my pajamas and lay down on my cot at the foot of Jake's mom's bed. I wished I could go to sleep and wake up back at home.

“Charlotte,” Rachel said. She'd just emerged from brushing her teeth and putting all her creams and lotions on her face in the bathroom. She had a very long nighttime ritual, I'd noticed.

“Yes?” I said, setting aside the book that I wasn't really reading.

“I've been so glad to have you on this trip,” she said. She sat down on her bed and looked at me. “It's really meant a lot to Jake, to share this experience with you. He's a special kid. I know all parents say that about their children, but, well, Jake has a particularly strong personality. He has no talent for bending it to fit into other people's lives, and I say that with love. So it's all the more meaningful to see how the two of you have clicked. I can tell he really values your friendship.”

I had no idea what had prompted Jake's mom to say all of this to me right now. It was like she had some second sight telling her that he and I had been fighting.

Or maybe she'd just noticed how little we'd spoken to each other at dinner, and how weird we'd both been about the drawing he'd done for me.

My stomach twisted at her praise. “Thanks, Rachel,” I said, “but I don't think Jake really likes me. He just said I could come on this trip as a ‘business arrangement.'”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I worried that she'd ask what the arrangement was—what exactly I was supposed to give Jake in exchange for what he'd given me. But instead she laughed lightly. “Yes, that sounds like Jake,” she said. “That sounds like Jake trying to protect himself.” She clicked off the light and said, “Now let's get to sleep. We have one last big day of sightseeing tomorrow.”

Within minutes, I heard Rachel's breathing grow deep and rhythmic. But I stayed awake for a long time, listening to the indistinct conversation and laughter coming from the piazza outside our open window.

When I finally drifted off to sleep, I dreamt of Kitty. She didn't look anything like herself, in my dream, but I knew that it was her because I would always know her. She was trying to anagram Jake's name, but because it was just a dream, it wasn't going right.

“Jake Adler,” said Dream Kitty. “It could anagram to I See You.”

“No, it couldn't,” I said. “There's no
Y
in ‘Jake Adler.' Is there?”

“Or ‘Star Wars Friend,'” she said.

I tried to count how many
R
s were in “Star Wars Friend” and how many were in “Jake Adler,” but I kept getting lost.

“I don't think that works,” I said. “I came up with some good ones for him already, all on my own, because you weren't here to do it.”

“Ooh, like what?” she asked.

But then I couldn't remember any of them. “Not everything anagrams, you know,” I told her.

“Yes, it does,” she insisted. “Everything does.”

“Not ‘Kitty,'” I reminded her.

“Of course ‘Kitty' has an anagram!” She sounded offended. And in my dream, she told me what it was, some other word that you could get if you rearranged the letters in her name just right. Some perfect word, and I tried repeating it to myself over and over, even as she and I kept talking, so that I could bring it with me back into my waking life—because it had just occurred to me that this was a dream, and that pieces of it would get lost when I woke up.

But nothing forces you out of a dream faster than the awareness that waking up is inevitable.

“Don't go,” I said to Kitty.

“Of course,” she said. “I never leave you.”

And then I was awake.

I sat up in bed and looked out the window. I didn't hear any people yet, just the twittering of birds, but the sky was gray and I figured it was nearly dawn. I wasn't tired anymore.

I picked up the drawing Jake had done for me and curled up with it in an overstuffed armchair in the corner of the room. Lightly I touched my fingers to his careful pencil lines and shading. Of course this lacked the vibrant colors of the original, but I could still tell what it was. He really was a good artist. And he was a good friend to notice that I'd liked that painting, to care enough to do something about it.

Looking at his drawing made me feel the same thing I had felt for three years, whenever I thought about Kitty, and what a committed friend she had been to me, and what a rotten friend I had been in return. I was used to feeling this way. I was comfortable with it.

I wished Rachel would wake up and talk to me so I wouldn't have to be alone with these thoughts, but I saw she had her eye mask on and her earplugs in. She was dead to the world. I did some anagramming instead, like Kitty in my dream.
Firenze. Zen fire.

Manarola. A Alarm On. Loan A Ram. Ron Alama.

My breath caught.

Ron Alama?

Yes. Ron Alama.

Still clutching Jake's drawing, I crept out of the room, easing the door shut behind me. I walked down the darkened hallway to the boys' room and banged and banged on their door.

After a few moments, Jake flung it open. “Charlotte!” he whispered loudly. His hair was sticking up in all directions, and he was engulfed in a T-shirt that read one ring to rule them all. “Are you okay? Is my mom okay? What's wrong?”

“We're fine,” I said. “Everyone's fine.”

His concern faded into a scowl. “Then what are you
doing
?” he asked. “It's five in the morning.”

“I wanted to say I'm sorry,” I said. “I'm sorry I told you that you were a big fat baby on the playground that time, I'm sorry for everything since then, and I'm sorry that I won't be able to get Dakota and the rest of them to be nice to you and invite you to parties and stuff. I know I said I could, but I can't. I'm not friends with them anymore. And Miss Timms is leaving, so I guess I don't really have any friends at all now, but I have
you—
I hope—that is, if you're willing to be friends with me. I would really like that. For the past couple years, I've thought that we get what we deserve. And—well, I want to believe that I deserve a friend like you.

“I was lying earlier, Jake. I think you do see who I am.
And I know that's not why I came on this trip with you, but it's true anyway.”

“Okay,” Jake said, looking baffled.

“Really?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Okay. I never really cared about those girls in particular. I just wanted somebody at school to be on my side.”


I'm
on your side,” I told him.

“Great.” He pushed his hair out of the way. “Then who needs them?”

I smiled at him, and Jake smiled back.

“Oh, and since you're awake anyway,” I said, holding up his drawing. “I think I figured out the next clue.”

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