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Authors: Leila Sales

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BOOK: Once Was a Time
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Chapter 8

I awoke with a start, my neck aching from the awkward position I'd slept in.

Where was I?

The library. The future. Of course.

I checked the wall clock. It was just past nine in the morning. Light was streaming in through the windows, while inside everything was still quiet, the library obviously not yet open.

I rolled my tongue around in my mouth, trying to get rid of the dryness. I hadn't brushed my teeth or eaten since being sick yesterday, and the taste of vomit lingered.

I stood up, stretched, and tried to deal with my situation as best I could. First I found a lavatory. I drank straight from the tap for a couple of minutes, the cool water sliding down my throat. I took more water and splashed it on my face, and worked some through my hair, trying in vain to tear through all the tangles. It wasn't a bath. But it was a start.

My stomach rumbled, so I left the lavatory and went on a hunt through the library for something to eat. I didn't really expect to find anything, since food was distinctly Not Allowed at the Bristol library, and I couldn't imagine that rule had changed over the past seventy-three years. But I couldn't go out and buy anything, since I didn't have money or a ration book on me—and even if I had, it would have been English coins, not whatever sort of currency they used here in America.

Behind the librarian's desk, I found a bag of individually wrapped chocolates and another bag of small crackers shaped like fish. I tucked in as if I hadn't eaten in years. I devoured as many goldfish as I thought I could get away with, and I sent out a silent apology to the nice librarian with the short haircut whose food I was probably stealing.

Now that I was clean and full—sort of—I felt much more optimistic about things. A library wasn't the worst place to live. It had cozy chairs and running water, and I knew that I would never get bored here. Feeding myself regularly was going to be the big problem, but I would work it out. After all, I had read
A Little Princess
.
Sara Crewe was an orphan, too, and she had survived in far worse conditions than mine. Maybe I would even get a rat to be my friend, as Sara had. This idea repulsed me: Rats scared me, the disgust­ing way they scurried around. But Sara had found that a rat friend was better than no friends at all, and perhaps I would find the same.

I wanted to sit back down in my armchair and finish reading the book about the bird-angel-man, but I knew the librarian would return at some point, and I didn't want her to find me and start asking questions about exactly how I got into the library before it was open for the day. So I got that book, as well as the one that came next, alphabetically—the author's last name was Applegate—and I squeezed into an empty bottom shelf of a bookcase in the back of the nonfiction room. It was the perfect hiding spot. Someone would only find me if she turned on the lights, got down on the ground, and looked.

Mummy always used to yell at me for reading without turning on a lamp. “You'll ruin your eyes!” she would threaten.

“My eyes are
already
ruined,” I'd remind her, pointing to my glasses.

But Mum wasn't here, and she never would be. So if I wanted to read in the shadows of a bookcase in the corner of a darkened library, I could.

This is a game
, I told myself. Like the sort of games Kitty and I used to play.
If you could play then, you can play now.

A few hours later, after the overhead lights had been turned on and I started hearing different voices throughout the library, I decided there were enough people in the building that nobody would notice one more. I uncurled myself from my hiding spot, my cramped legs buckling under me.

An older man, standing at the end of the row, turned to gawp at me. My heart started pounding. “Sorry,” I squeaked out. “I was . . . playing hide-and-seek. Yes. Well, all right, then. Good-bye!”

I gave him an “I'm a harmless child” smile and fled as quickly as I could.

The nice librarian was at the front desk, and she waved when she saw me. I was briefly concerned that she'd ask something like, “When did
you
walk in that door?” but all she said was, “It's my British friend from yesterday! Good to see you again.”

The librarian looked to be somewhat younger than my mum, maybe in her early thirties. Today she was wearing a pretty navy-blue skirt that ballooned around her knees and a polka-dot headscarf. She didn't look anything like the Bristol librarians, who were all old ladies with prunelike faces whose vocabulary consisted entirely of the word “Shh!”

“Same costume today, I see,” the librarian said, pointing at my pajamas. Goodness, was I growing weary of my pajamas. “I feel you,” she went on. “When I was a kid, I went through a phase where I dressed up as Miss Piggy every day for two weeks. I refused to wear anything else. My parents would have to take the dress off me while I was asleep, wash it, and put it back on before I woke up. Can you imagine?”

I didn't know who Miss Piggy was, but I nodded as if to say, “Me, too. I have parents here who do that, too.”

“My name is Jennifer Timms, by the way,” the librarian said. I searched my brain for anagrams of
Jennifer Timms
, but I'd never been as quick at it as Kitty was, and nothing came to me.

I did not want to introduce myself to this lady, did not want to make any sort of strong impression on her. I didn't want her to remember that she kept seeing me here, day in and day out. But it seemed like it was already too late for that. So I said, “I'm Charlotte Bromley,” since my mum always introduced me with my full name. I stuck my hand out. Unlike Jake, Miss Timms shook it. Apparently some Americans knew what that meant, after all.

“Can I help you find something today?” Miss Timms asked. “Another newspaper?”

And I didn't want her help, didn't want her to know or notice too much about me . . . but she might have the answers I needed. I tugged at my hair and peered up at her. “My father once told me, ‘A librarian can work out the answer to any question.' Do you think that's true?”

Miss Timms tapped her pen against her teeth, and I liked that she paused, because it meant she was taking me seriously. “I guess it depends on the question,” she said at last. “But I'd say that with enough time, a good librarian can work out the answer to
almost
any question.”

“Then can you help me work out what happened to some people who lived in England a long time ago?” I asked, blinking rapidly. “In the 1940s, for example?”

I needed to know what had happened to them. All of them. Mum and Dad and Justine and Thomas . . . but most of all, more than anything, Kitty.

Of course the Nazis had shot her. I'd left her with a gun pointed at her head and not a second to spare. Kitty died that night—she must have—and I knew it because I was there. But I hadn't seen her body, and I wouldn't believe it until I had proof.

Anyone would grasp at straws if straws were all that was left.

“I think we could probably figure that out,” Miss Timms said. She didn't ask why I was looking for this information, and this was one of the things that I had always appreciated about librarians: They didn't ask why. If you wanted a book about stinging nettles, they didn't say, as Mum might, “Oh my goodness, did some nettles sting you?” If you wanted a book about romance and heartbreak, they didn't say, as Justine might, “Why, do you
fancy
someone?” Librarians just liked to share information, and they didn't need to know why you wanted it.

“Do you want to find out about specific people,” Miss Timms asked, “or just generally about what life was like in the 1940s?”

“Specific people,” I said. I already knew what life was like in the 1940s.

She paused for a moment, and I could almost see the wheels in her head turning, whirring, sorting thoughts. “There's a database of obituaries you can use,” she said at last.

“Obituaries,” I repeated. “Those are what they write about people . . . when they die.”

“Right. Here, follow me, and I'll show you how to use the database.”

I had no idea what a database was, but I followed her nonetheless. Miss Timms led me past bookcase after bookcase to a group of small tables, each of which had on it a metal device, like a thin rectangular board.

“You can sit,” she offered, so I took a seat in front of one of the flat boards and wondered what this metallic object would have to tell me about Kitty McLaughlin.

“Why don't you open up a browser,” Miss Timms said to me. “The database is online.”

I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. I stared at her. I stared at the thin board. I waited for something to happen. Maybe an envelope would appear that said “browser” on it, so I could open it.

A minute went by, then another.

“Charlotte,” Miss Timms said finally, “do you not know how to use the Internet?”

I shook my head and felt myself blush a little, because, even though I hadn't a clue what the Internet was, I could tell from Miss Timms's tone that this was something I was supposed to know.

To her credit, she did not say anything like, “What year did
you
travel here from?” even though it seemed as if maybe she wanted to. Instead, she just pulled up another chair to sit next to me and said, “Hon, get ready, because I am about to show you something that will blow your mind.”

Chapter 9

Half an hour later, I knew how to use the Internet. Well, a little bit. I knew how to search a database of obituaries to find out about any person who had died since the year 1858. Miss Timms said there was more to the
Internet than that, but she
couldn't teach it all to me in one
sitting. “Come back tomorrow,” she said, “and I'll show you how to use e-mail.” Then she left me alone with the obituary database so she could help someone else. I didn't explain that I wouldn't have to
come back
tomorrow, since I would already
be here
. I did want to learn more about the Internet, though. It seemed to have
everything
. Every answer in the whole world. And I wanted answers so badly, because right now, I had only questions.

Who to look up first?

I decided to go with someone who I didn't know personally. That seemed easier than reading about someone who I knew and loved.

So, naturally, I started with Hitler.

Adolf Hitler (born April 20, 1889) was an Austrian-­born German politician and the leader of the National
Socialist German
Workers Party. He was chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945 and dictator of Nazi
Germany
from 1934 to 1945. He was the author of an autobiography, Mein Kampf, one of the founding texts
of the
Nazi Party. Shortly before Germany lost World War II, Hitler married his mistress, Eva Braun, and the couple committed suicide on April 30, 1945, to avoid capture by the Red Army.

The obituary went on and on—Hitler was a famous man, so there was a lot to say about his life, the Holocaust, the war he started that killed millions of people. But I stopped reading there, because I had already learned all I needed to know. Hitler died. And Germany lost.

That was good news, and it filled me with relief. But it filled me with sadness as well. I wasn't sad that
Hitler's
army had lost, of course. But I was sad that he had been born in the first place, sad that he had been the ruler of
Germany
and that the war had happened, just as I remembered.

I had wanted to believe that ultimately, somehow, my dad
did
unlock the secrets of time travel. That all of it—Mum's leaving us, Dad's long hours at the labs, the kidnapping, my jumping through time—had paid off. But if Hitler existed and did all those terrible things, then nobody had traveled back in time to kill him, and my dad was just another failure.

I wanted to run home to tell Thomas, “We won the war! We won!” Then I remembered that my brother, if he had lived to see 1945, would already have known that.

I hoped he had lived to see the war end. He would have enjoyed that.

So I looked up his name next. There were a lot of Thomas Bromleys, but when I narrowed it down to the year and place of my brother's birth, there was only one.

Thomas Bromley (born in Bristol on February 2, 1933) was a political commentator for the BBC. He lived most of his life in London. He died on July 8, 1997, from a massive coronary. He is survived by his wife, Denise, and his sons, Michael and Paul.

My baby brother, a political commentator for the BBC? That was absurd. I tried to picture him as a grown-up news reporter, but all I could imagine was seven-year-old Thomas with his model airplanes, screeching, “It's a fighter plane! Pow, pow! She's going down!”

How could that vibrant, energetic boy have lived his whole life, moved to London, had children of his own, and died, when I had just seen him yesterday? It wasn't right, it wasn't
fair
, for me to have missed all of that. I was his big sister. I was supposed to watch out for him.

I briefly considered looking up Denise, Michael, and Paul—these people whose Christian names I did not recognize, but whose surname was my own. At least one of them was bound to still be alive. Maybe Michael or Paul would want to adopt their father's sister.

But had Thomas told them about time travel? Did they know I was alive? Could the news of my time travel have made it out of that locked room if Dad and Kitty were never set free?

I tried Justine next. If she were still alive, she would certainly give me a home. I wouldn't give her a choice.

Justine Liu (née Justine Bromley, born in Bristol on March 16, 1925) was a devoted gardener and a patron of the arts. After marrying Albert Liu in 1956, the couple eventually settled in Mr. Liu's native Taiwan, where they amassed a sizable collection of Oriental art. Justine Liu died on December 5, 2012. She is survived by her husband and her daughter, Grace Young.

That snapped at me, like a quick jab to my stomach. Justine had died in 2012. It was now 2013. I had come
so close
to seeing my sister again, seeing Taiwan (Taiwan!), seeing her sizable collection of Oriental art (when did Justine start liking Oriental art?). If only the portal had sent me one year earlier . . .

Time, it occurred to me then, was not very fair.

Mum's obituary next. I felt my breath coming fast, as if I'd been running too quickly, and I hugged my arms around my middle to stop my body from shaking. It's not easy to read about how everyone you know died, all in one sitting. I wanted to stop so badly. I wanted to go back to reading a story.

But walking away from this computer wouldn't bring anybody back. Their obituaries would still be here, whether I read them or not.

Elizabeth Bromley (née Elizabeth Smith, born in Bristol on May 14, 1904) accomplished many things in her eighty-six-year life; she was the mother of three children, the wife of scientist Robert Bromley, an ambulance driver in London during World War II, an accomplished soprano with the Christchurch Ladies Choir, and a professional reader of books for the blind during the last thirty years of her life. She died on July 5, 1990. She is survived by her children, Justine Liu and Thomas Bromley.

She was not survived, I noticed, by
me
.

Still, Mum had lived through the war. She had lived a good, long life; she had not been hit by a stray bomb on the streets of London. And that should be a relief.

Should be, but wasn't really. A relief would have been to see Mum again, to be held in her arms, to smell her perfume. To at least have known, that day when she left for London, that this was not just good-bye but our
final
good-bye, that I would never have another chance to see her face.

Out of all the obituaries I had read so far, it was Mum's that shocked me most. I'd not known that my brother would become a political commentator, or that my sister would move to the Orient—but they were young when I knew them, with their whole lives ahead of them. Of course I'd had no way of knowing what they would become. I was only ten; maybe someday I would move to the Orient, too.

But my mum, when I knew her, was a
grown-up
. She was old. How had she had this whole secret life that I'd never known? My mother, an accomplished soprano? I didn't know she sang at all, except for sometimes quietly, to herself, while washing up. And she read books for the blind? As a job? Mum had never held a job before.

I didn't know she had been driving ambulances in
London
, either. I thought she moved to London just to live with her sister and do . . . well, nothing, I suppose. An ambulance driver! That was so brave. That was so dangerous. I felt proud as I read that sentence. But I was also confused, and sad, to think that there had been so much to my mother, and now I would never get to discover it all. How peculiar to realize, more than seven decades later, that Mum had been doing
her
part for the war effort, just as Dad had been doing his.

Thinking of Daddy reminded me, as if I could have forgotten, that I needed to look up his obituary, too. What had happened to him? He saw me travel through time right before his eyes. He saw me dive through a shimmery screen of air and never return.

And then what?

I couldn't stop my teeth from chattering, and my hands felt numb. I didn't know how Americans did it, this artificial cooling, but it was too much. I wished it would stop, even for a moment. It was so cold in this library.

Robert Bromley (born in Pangbourne on July 24, 1894) was the Duncan Henley Endowed Chair of Physics at Bristol University. He was a dynamic, inspired lecturer, whose laboratory research focused primarily on electrical and magnetic properties of light. He died on October 25, 1940, in a blackout incident. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and his children Justine and Thomas.

I leaned back in the desk chair. October 25, 1940, was the day that Kitty and I had been kidnapped. It was the last day that I saw my dad. And, apparently, the last day that he was alive.

A “blackout incident”? What did that mean? “Blackout incident” wasn't how
I
would describe getting captured by Nazis with guns. Furthermore, this obituary didn't say anything about Dad's
real
work—which made sense, perhaps, since it was so secret. Not once had I ever heard Dad say anything about “electrical and magnetic properties of light.” That wasn't his research. His research was time travel.

When I read Mum's obituary, I felt uncomfortably as if this nameless, faceless obituary writer somehow knew my own mother much better than I ever would. But when I read Dad's, I sensed that the writer did not know him
at all
. And that feeling was even worse.

I kept staring at the computer screen as though it might suddenly tell me something more about my father. Something real, something that would make sense. Dad had always been able to explain things, whether it was time travel or the mean girls at school or the way kites flew across the Downs. That was just how his brain worked.

But from beyond the grave, my dad explained nothing, and nothing made sense.

I felt like my heart might break. I could not bear all this loss, all at once.

I wondered whether there was an obituary for me, too. Did people think I had died? How else would they explain someone who simply ceased to exist? So I searched. It wasn't hard to find.

Charlotte Bromley (born in Bristol on October 18, 1930) was the daughter of Robert and Elizabeth Bromley and sister of Justine and Thomas. She had a great imagination and she loved books. She died on October 25, 1940, in a blackout incident.

So that was me, then. That was all there was to me. I felt so disconnected from this girl described on the computer. Yes, that was my name, and yes, that was my birthday, and yes, I loved books—
but that girl was dead. And yet, here I was.

I wanted to stop there, to walk away from the computer and lose myself in somebody else's fiction. But I forced myself to keep going, to type in Kitty's name.

It took me a long time. It was hard to find the right keys. They didn't go in alphabetical order. My dad had a typewriter, but I never used it, so I wasn't sure whether or not its keys were in the same order as these.

When I finally managed to type in “Kitty McLaughlin,” the database turned up no results. My heart soared. Kitty was alive!
Kitty was alive!
There was no obituary, so she had not died!

Then it occurred to me, like a hand clenching around my neck, that she might be in there by her full name. The one I had never called her, the one with all the pretty anagrams. And when I typed in “Catherine McLaughlin,” there she
was.

Catherine McLaughlin (born in Bristol on July 18, 1930) was the daughter of Harriet and Brendan McLaughlin. She was a good student, and she enjoyed word games and swimming. She died in a blackout incident on October 25, 1940.

My eyes felt hot and my head hurt.
She was a good student, and she enjoyed word games and swimming.
What utter
tosh. What a
ridiculous thing to say about a life, a
person—
especially when that person was Kitty, who was so much more. This obituary could go on for pages, chapters—­forever—and it would never do justice to the person Kitty
was.

But I suppose that's what happens when you die at the age of ten. You will never chair a university department, or marry, or collect Oriental art, or sing in the Christchurch Ladies Choir. You will be remembered as a good student who enjoyed word games and swimming, because there wasn't time for you to show the world that you were anything more.

For minutes, maybe hours, I sat huddled at the computer in the library in the artificial cold. There was nothing left to hope for now. That computer knew the truth, and now so did I:

Kitty was gone. I had time traveled to safety, and I had left my best friend behind to die.

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