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Authors: Leila Sales

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Chapter 34

“How old are you?” I asked, at the same moment that Kitty asked me, in pretty much the same astonished tone of voice, “How did you ever find me?” We both laughed a little.

“You first,” I said.

“Eighty-six,” Kitty replied. “I'm eighty-six years old. I
. . .
I'm overwhelmed. How are you here? How is this possible? Is this really happening, or am I dreaming?”

“I've dreamt about this so many times,” I said. “This time it's different. This time it's real.”

We were still holding each other, as if time and space might once again tear us apart if we let go. Finally Kitty pulled back, her eyes shining, and said, “Here, Lottie, come
inside.”

And at hearing her say my name,
Lottie
, I almost started to bawl. I didn't know how I'd forgotten for so long who I was, when Kitty always knew.

I waved at the Adlers to let them know that I was safe, then followed Kitty into her house. Her steps were slow and deliberate, her back hunched over. No longer was she three inches taller than I, and her wispy blond hair had turned even wispier, and white. But when she turned to look at me, to soak in my physical appearance in the same way that I was taking in hers, I could see that her eyes were exactly the same. The same as they'd always been, the same as mine.

Eighty-six.
“How did you get so old?” I asked.

“The same way everybody gets old,” she replied. “Time passed. I grew up. How did you get
here
?”

“Oh. That's a really long story,” I said.

We sat down next to each other on a sofa in her living room. The room was small but cozy, peaceful, with fascinating decorations—woven wall hangings and artsy photographs and carved statuettes. I saw no TV, no computer, no obvious links to the outside world. I thought that Jake would love it in here: It was like a miniature, personal art
museum.

Kitty took my hands in hers. “And how old are
you
?” she asked.

“Thirteen.”

Her eyes widened. “So it's been only three years since the last time you saw me?”

Only
. I never would have said
only
about those three years. “Yes,” I told her, “but it felt a lot longer than that.”

“Lottie,” she said, the name again sending a thrill down my spine, “I've not seen you in
seventy-six years.
I thought I was never going to see you again.”

“I thought
I
was never going to see you again! I thought they killed you.”

“I thought you'd time traveled to—well, I had no idea! The fourteen hundreds or the twenty-third century or goodness knows when. Never did I let myself imagine that you might have gone to a day and an age when I would be alive to see you again.”

I blinked at her. “But if you thought that I'd wound up hundreds of years ago, or hundreds of years in the future, then why did you leave me all those clues to find you?”

She tilted her head to the side. “What clues?”

“Like this postcard.” I pulled it out of my bag and showed it to her. At this point the postcard was looking a little dirty, and a little ragged around the edges, just from how much time I'd spent holding it.

She looked at the photo, then flipped it over to read the message on the back. “Where did you come across this?”

“In the copy of
A Little Princess
at the Sutton library. Isn't that where you put it?”

She shook her head slightly. “Sutton. Where is that?”

Kitty was old. Her wrinkled hands trembled as she held the postcard. I wondered whether perhaps she was so old that she had just . . . forgotten. Forgotten about Sutton, forgotten that she had left a series of clues so that I, and no one else, would be able to find her. And the idea devastated me: that I could finally, finally find Kitty again, but she still wasn't the Kitty I remembered.

“Sutton is a town in Wisconsin, America,” I told her slowly, loudly, as I might speak to any elderly person. “It's where I live.”

Kitty laughed a little. “Ah. So you're American now?”

“I guess so. I have an American passport.”

“And you traveled all the way from America to here . . . because of this postcard?”

I wanted to stomp my feet on the floor. I wanted to throw one of her intricately crafted little statues and shatter it against the wall. I wanted to shake my best friend right out of this old, forgetful, confused lady. “Yes! That was the point of it, Kitty. That's why you put the postcard in the book in the first place, so I could find it and then find you. Remember?”

She was shaking her head again. “I remember many, many things, Lottie, but that is not how it happened.” Her voice was authoritative, and I felt myself relax a tiny bit. “Do you want to know what happened?”

“Of course!”

“Good. But first, I'm going to get us something cold to drink. It's such a hot day, isn't it?”

I followed her into her kitchen while she poured us each a glass of sparkling water, and then I followed her back to the sofa. I didn't want to let her out of my sight for an instant.

“I'll start right when you left me.” Kitty paused, and I pictured her rewinding the long film of her life all the way back to that day in 1940. “I've never discussed this with anybody,” she said, “so forgive me if it comes out wrong.

“We watched you vanish through that portal, and then seconds later the portal vanished, too. It was extraordinary. It was nothing short of magical. Even for Rob—your father, I mean—who had modeled and studied this for so long, who knew every theorem and equation behind what had just happened. . . . Even knowing all that science, it still seemed inexplicable.

“I've had that experience many more times in my life. The first time humans traveled into outer space, the first time I sent an e-mail, or even sometimes when I just look at the stars here in Manarola, I think,
How can this be possible
?
But I have never felt that so strongly as the day I watched you disappear into thin air.”

I licked my lips and asked, “Were you mad at me for leaving?”

“In that moment? Absolutely not. Lottie, you saved my life by going through that portal. It was the perfect demonstration to make our captors realize,
Yes, time travel really does exist; we have witnessed it with our own eyes.
It gave your father the upper hand. He told them that if they let me live, he would study the portal that had just appeared, he would work out where you went and how you got there. Of course they agreed. This was far more important than my little life.”

I scrunched up my face. “That's not true. Nothing's more important than your life.”

“Well, I'm just telling you what they thought. It was chaos when you left. Absolute chaos. And those people who had taken us, the people holding us in that room—”

“I remember them.” I shuddered. “I never forget them.”

“Well, they made a grave error in that moment of panic and confusion. They revealed who they really were.”

“What do you mean, ‘who they really were'? Weren't they Nazis?”

Kitty sighed. “I wish they had been. The entire rest of my life would have been so much simpler. No, Lottie: They were part of the British Directorate of Military Intelligence.”

Chapter 35

I nearly knocked over my water glass. “That woman in the gray coat—those men with the guns—they really
were
British?
Why on earth would
they
kidnap us? And threaten to
kill
us?! They were supposed to be the good guys! That doesn't make any sense.”

“Here's the thing I've realized about war, Lottie,” Kitty said, locking eyes with me. “And I have lived through a lot of wars, so by this point I should know. There may be one side that's fighting for freedom and democracy and tolerance, while the other side is fighting for oppression and conformity and fear. There may be one side whose values you agree with, and one side whose values you deplore. In that regard, there may well be ‘good guys' and ‘bad guys.' But both sides, regardless of what they're fighting
for
, will fight dirty. Both sides will kill people—lots and lots of
people—
before a war is won.”

“Even so,” I said, “I don't understand why the British Military Intelligence department thought that kidnapping two little girls would help them win the war.”

Kitty nodded; she hadn't understood it at first, either. But, she told me, she and my dad quickly figured out that the British military believed he
had
discovered the secrets of time travel. They believed that he
did
know how to create a portal to a specific time and place, and he just wasn't telling them—maybe for his personal gain, or because he didn't believe the military should be able to use this information.

It was as if a scientist had figured out how to make the atomic bomb, but was refusing to hand over his work to the United States government, and was feigning ignorance so they would not be able to create one of these bombs and drop it on Japan. That's what the British military thought was happening with my dad. So they captured me and Kitty in order to try to force the issue.

“Unfortunately for them,” Kitty said, “their plot backfired enormously.”

“What did you do when you realized they weren't Nazis?”

“Oh, your father was livid, naturally. They really would have murdered us—us, loyal British subjects! And even though they didn't, thank goodness, we lost
you
. Your father hoped and prayed that you'd gone someplace where you'd be safe and well cared-for, but he had no way of knowing. He was so worried. He never stopped worrying about you, for the rest of his life.”

I blinked back tears. “I
did
go someplace safe. I have been cared for—
so
well cared-for. I didn't know Daddy would be so concerned. He was always so busy and distracted. He didn't seem to really care about my safety or who was taking care of me when I lived under his own roof.”

“Once you were gone,” Kitty said, “he realized that. He regretted it deeply. You were his daughter, after all. Like many scientists, he lacked some of the skills for showing his feelings, but he loved you desperately.”

“I wish there'd been some way to let him know that I was safe.”

“I think he sensed it, deep down. Or maybe he just had to believe it, to find any sort of peace.”

“So what did you do?” I asked, leaning forward. “When you discovered that our kidnappers were actually part of Military Intelligence, I mean. Did you tell . . .” I tried to imagine who you should tell, when your own military turns on you. “The prime minister?” I tried.

“We didn't know who in the government was part of this plot,” Kitty said. “We didn't know who had authorized the whole scheme, or whom we could trust. And it wasn't as though we could just waltz out of the building where we were being held. Not only did they intend to keep us there until your father worked out all the science behind time travel, but also they worried that we
would
tell someone if they released us. Maybe not the prime minister, but the newspapers. Can you imagine how bad that would have looked for Britain's war efforts, if word got out that they were experimenting in time travel, capturing scientists, and shooting at children?”

“Yes,” I said. “I absolutely can.” Despite the heat, I shivered.

Kitty must have noticed, because she took my hand and held it in hers. Immediately I felt myself relax. “It's okay,” she soothed me. “We all made it through safely. It's okay.”

I nodded and let out a deep breath. “How
did
you make it out?”

“We kept believing that someone would find us, and rescue us. But weeks passed by, and nobody did. We assumed that our families and perhaps the police were searching but having no success, that we'd been too well hidden. We weren't allowed outside. They put me in a room with a cot and they fed us three times a day, but there were no windows. I was frightened, but I also remember being so
bored
. One of the guards took pity on me and brought me crossword puzzles, but that hardly made up for a lack of sunlight, fresh air, conversation, other children.

“I started hanging around your father in the laboratory they had set up for him, and he would give me little tasks to do—sorting papers or washing beakers, that sort of thing, just to keep me occupied.

“Much later, after we were free, we learned that the
reason why nobody rescued us wasn't even because we were so well hidden, but probably
because they weren't even searching.”

“Why not?” I demanded. “There's no way your parents weren't desperate to find you. They were obsessed with you.”

Kitty laughed, maybe a little sadly. “I love that you remember that,” she said. “I love talking to someone who remembers my parents.” She rubbed her hands over her face. “A statement had been released that your father had taken me and you for an evening stroll, and we'd walked right off the dock and drowned.”

“Who would have possibly believed such a story?” I asked with a laugh. “You're an excellent swimmer, and anyway, why would the three of us have been so silly and blind as to wander into the river at night?”

“Not blind,” Kitty said, “just unaccustomed to the blackout.”

My laughter died instantly. I remembered now how dark Bristol got during the Blitz at night. How any light would just serve to alert the Luftwaffe to the location of the city, to turn our town into a sitting target.

Some people really had been hit by cars whose drivers couldn't see them, they really had broken ankles by walking straight into invisible curbs or trees, and they really had walked off the edge of the dock and into the River Avon. I'd forgotten about this, because I hadn't known any of those people personally, and, considering the more screamingly obvious threats of bombs and fires, the dangers of the blackout seemed much less dramatic.

But apparently everyone who'd known me had thought that I
was
one of those people. Now I understood what those obituaries meant when they referred to
a blackout
incident.

“So that's what your parents and my mum and everyone thought happened to us?” I asked Kitty now.

“They must have done. Of course our bodies were never found in the river, but that wouldn't have meant anything. Considering what else was going on at that time, trawling the river for proof of our drowning was nobody's top priority—except perhaps our families'.”

“So anyone who might have come to rescue you just believed that you were dead,” I said.

“Yes. Sadly I'm not much of a swimmer these days. My body doesn't work quite the way it used to.”

“I guess that's why you're not swimming in the Miglio di Manarola right now,” I said.

“Oh, is that today? I don't know how I forgot. I used to swim in the sea every morning here. But”—she shrugged her birdlike shoulders—“things change.”

I felt a brief pang of sadness, that Kitty and I would never again play mermaids together in the water, as we'd once done. Even if she
could
still swim, did eighty-six-year-olds even like playing mermaids?

But it didn't matter, really. What mattered was that we were together. And even if we weren't mermaids anymore, we would be something else.

“We escaped nearly eight weeks after you time traveled,” Kitty went on. “I'd honestly thought I was going to go mad from isolation, but then we got lucky. A bomb exploded just down the road from where we were being held.”

“That doesn't sound lucky!” I said.

“Well, it was, because in the chaos surrounding the attack, your father and I fled. We didn't know where we were, and we certainly didn't know where we were going, but we ran into the night and hoped for the best. The next day we worked out that we were in Wales, near Port Talbot. You know almost all the railway signs had been removed, or replaced with incorrect signs, to mislead any spies. If you didn't already know where you were—which we didn't—it was quite the struggle to work it out.”

“So once you knew where you were,” I said, “did you go home? Did you see your parents? And Justine and Thomas? What did they say? Who had been taking care of them? Had my mum come home?”

Kitty was shaking her head. “We couldn't go back to Bristol. It wasn't safe for us.”

She explained that because their death statements had already been issued, everyone would have asked questions if they'd turned up alive. And the military would have been petrified that Kitty and my dad might tell people what had happened to them. She said that if they'd gone home, they would at best be taken away again, and at worst be killed. It wouldn't have just been unsafe for Kitty and Dad; it would have been unsafe for our whole families if they knew the truth. So Kitty never saw her parents again. They died in an air raid a few months later.

“I'm sorry,” I told her.

“Thank you,” she said quietly. “It's been years, of course.
Decades.
But I still miss them.” She cleared her throat. “Fortunately I had your father to take care of me.”

“If you couldn't go home, where
did
you go?” I asked.

“We managed to secure passage on a boat to Ireland.”

“Why? What was in Ireland?” I asked.

“It was a neutral nation,” Kitty explained. “It had sided with neither the Allied Forces nor the Axis Powers, so it seemed the safest place for us. Certainly safer than anywhere in England or Wales. We rented a flat in Cork, and your father found a job as a custodian to pay our bills, and we told everyone I was his daughter.”

“A
custodian
?” I giggled. I'd rarely known my father to clean anything.

Kitty giggled a little, too, and even though she looked so old, her laughter sounded the same as I remembered. “He was a far better experimental physicist than he was a custodian, I'll tell you that! But there was a war on. We did what we must. He went by the name Robert Blair, and we told everyone that I was his daughter, Catherine Blair, and my mum had passed away. After a while, those just became our names, and our identities.”

“If you pretend to be someone for long enough, then it doesn't even feel like pretending anymore,” I said.

“Quite right. Your father never stopped studying time travel, though. Both because he had already devoted so much of his life to it, and also because he deeply, deeply hoped that he would be able to find out where you had
gone.”

“He never did figure out how time travel worked, though, did he?” I said. “All those years and close calls, and he never figured it out.”

“No,” Kitty agreed. “He didn't.” She coughed into a handkerchief, then looked back up at me. “But I did.”

BOOK: Once Was a Time
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