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Authors: Leila Sales

Once Was a Time (6 page)

BOOK: Once Was a Time
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Chapter 10

What do you do when you learn, without a doubt, that you've lost everyone you love and you're trapped by time forever?

I didn't know. So I just read another book. And I anagrammed things. The “Read a book!” poster on the wall became “a bake odor.” The name of the author of the bird-angel-man book became “diva and mold.” Nothing I came up with was particularly impressive, and Kitty could have done much better, but at least focusing on words took my mind off my real life for a little while.

After a few hours, I felt like I should eat, even though I couldn't imagine ever being hungry again. I left the library in search of food. It was still hot outside, and I felt like I was wilting under the sun as soon as my feet hit the pavement. I thought maybe I could pick nuts and berries, or possibly kill a rabbit, like in the wilderness survival books I'd read. But I didn't see any bushes that looked like the nut or berry type. Nor did I see any rabbits. Nor would I have had any idea how to kill a rabbit, had one suddenly appeared. Instead I pulled a half-eaten sandwich out of a rubbish bin on the corner, and I ate that. It made me feel wretched, but I supposed I deserved to feel wretched.

Shortly before six o'clock, when the library was due to close, I slipped back inside and hid once again in the bottom shelf of the bookcase. I came out only once I was certain Miss Timms was gone.

I'd fantasized before about running away to live in a library. All the books I could ever want, right there in my home—what could be better? But in my fantasies, I'd always packed money and food and a toothbrush. In my fantasies, Kitty had always come with me.

I thought about all the stories I'd read about orphans and runaways. Sometimes they slept in abandoned buildings, and sometimes they slept in train cars, but always, at the end, they found a family. Children never stayed on their own forever.

How long could I keep this up?

The answer was: Not much longer at all. Because when Miss Timms arrived at the library the next morning, she discovered me, fast asleep in the middle of the children's
room.

“Good morning, hon.”

I sat up immediately, blinking hard. I tried to read the librarian's expression. She didn't look angry, thank goodness, but she certainly did not look pleased.

“Good morning,” I said. “I . . . I think I fell asleep.”

“I think you did, too. Your parents are probably very, very worried right now, Charlotte. Do you want to use my phone to call them?”

She pulled a small, rectangular silver device out of her skirt pocket and tried to hand it to me. I stared at it.

“Do you know your parents' number?” the librarian asked.

“I'll just walk home,” I told Miss Timms, standing up. “I don't need to ring them first. Thank you, though.”

She shook her head. “I don't feel comfortable letting you do that. I need to know that you'll get home safely.” When I didn't say anything, she looked deeply into my eyes, and I felt like she could see the truth in there. It was so obvious, how could she not? “Where are your parents?” she asked.

I didn't know what else to do, so I told the truth. “Dead.”

“I'm so sorry,” she said.

I shrugged.

“Who is your guardian, then? Do you live with other relatives, or friends, or . . . ?”

I pictured my relatives and friends: Justine, Thomas, Aunt Matilda, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty. “I suppose I don't live anywhere,” I said.

I wondered whether Miss Timms would call the police. After all, I was a homeless girl hiding out in the children's room. Maybe I would wind up in an orphanage.

I thought again about Sara Crewe from
A Little Princess
. When she was orphaned, she got to stay at her posh London boarding school; she just had to sleep in the attic and work as an unpaid scullery maid. Maybe this librarian would send me to be a maid somewhere. I didn't know how to cook or clean really, but at least it would be a place to sleep.

But Miss Timms didn't call the police on me. Instead she said, “Come on, hon. Let me take you out for breakfast.”

* * *

We walked to a restaurant down the street with a big shiny sign outside that said
tony's diner
—
24 hrs
. The waiter sat us at a booth with slippery seats and brought over menus that were twelve pages long. Really! There was a whole page just for eggs and a whole page just for sandwiches and another page still for beverages. I didn't recognize half the names of the foods, but that was all right because some of them had pictures, too.

“Order whatever you want,” Miss Timms told me.

“None of this is rationed?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

The last time I'd bought food, everything had been rationed: meat, sugar, eggs. Everything. Dad (or, more often lately, Justine and I) had to go to the shops with our ration books in order to get most foods, and then we were
only allowed a little
bit of everything. It was hard every week, when we reached the end of our rations and realized we were all out of butter or tea. Everybody got snippy with one another, even though it was Hitler's fault, not any of
ours.

I hadn't realized how hungry I was. When the waiter came back to take our order, I pointed to everything I wanted: something called a grilled cheese sandwich, pork sausages, a chocolate milkshake. “And have you really got bananas?” I demanded.

“Yeah,” the waiter said. “We really do.”

“One of those, please. Actually, two, if that's all right.”

The last time I'd had a banana was for Kitty's tenth birthday. She'd saved it especially for me. I don't know how or where she got it. I held on to it for days, drawing out the excitement.

By the time I finally could not stand to wait a minute longer, the banana had already gone brown and mushy. I ate it anyway. But it wasn't very good.

“I love the way you say banana,” Miss Timms commented after the waiter left. “Bah-nah-nah.”

I smiled. “You say it funny.”

She shrugged. “You say tom
ay
to, I say tom
ah
to.” She took a sip of her water. “So, I guess now I understand why you've been spending so much time in the library, hmm? Where did you come from, Charlotte?”

That was one question I could answer truthfully. “Bristol.”

Miss Timms tapped a fingernail against her water glass. “I don't know where that is.”

“Southwest England,” I said helpfully. “About one hundred and twenty miles west of London.”

“Got it. So how did you get from the southwest of England to middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin, without any parents or guardians, carrying no belongings, and wearing nothing but a flannel pantsuit?”

“It's
pajamas
,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow and waited.

I tried to think of what Kitty would say if she were here with me. Would she be able to find us a home, a way to start a new life? We had spent so much time talking about time travel, imagining all the different places we could explore. Now I realized that we had never discussed the details of how we would actually live when we got to a new place and time, having no money and knowing no one. And maybe that's why I'd been happy to talk about it—because I'd assumed it would never really happen.

If Kitty were here with me, everything would be different. Wherever this librarian sent us, at least she would send us there together. And I wouldn't be carrying around this heavy weight in my stomach, because if Kitty were here, I would not be the girl who jumped time and left her friend behind.

How stupid we had been. With our innocent, wide-eyed confidence.
Oh, of
course
! I
'll just go to a tower that's four thousand miles and seventy-three years away from here, and there Kitty will be, waiting for me!

What a rotten plan Kitty and I had come up with. And we'd thought ourselves so brilliant. As if we were any match for war, or happenstance, or time.

“Charlotte?” Miss Timms prompted.

I gave up. Miss Timms seemed so nice, and I was sick of lying and planning and hiding. I took a deep breath and said, “Do you believe in time travel?”

Chapter 11

The waiter brought over our meals: a mug of coffee and a dish of yogurt for Miss Timms, and two full plates heaped high with food, bananas on the side, and a milkshake for
me.

“No,” Miss Timms said with a smile. “I don't believe in time travel. Charlotte, you can tell me how you really ended up here. I won't get mad, no matter what it is. I promise.”

My shoulders sank. But of course Miss Timms wouldn't believe me. In a world where no one had ever discovered the secrets of time travel, what had happened to me was wholly unbelievable.

I peeled open my first banana and took a bite. “Oh!” I cried. “It's even better than I remembered!”

Miss Timms smiled at me again, but her eyes were sad. “Are you okay, Charlotte?” she asked. “Has anyone hurt you? I hate to ask this, but . . . were you kidnapped? You can tell me anything, hon. I know you don't know me, but I promise, I'm on your side.”

I could tell she was on my side, but there was nothing I could tell her. Yes, I had been kidnapped, but that was just about the least of my problems.

“Nobody hurt me,” I said. “I'm fine. I'm just . . . lost, I
think.”

“Here's what we're going to do,” Miss Timms said. She took a sip of coffee. “I have a friend who works for Child Services. We're going to go over to his office, and we'll see what he thinks. He'll probably interview you, and then put you in a foster home, at least for a little while, until they figure out who you really belong to. How does that sound?”

I liked that Miss Timms said “we,” and I liked that she was really asking for my opinion, as though, should I say this was a bad idea, we wouldn't have to go through with it.

“Aren't you needed back at the library?” I asked.

She checked her watch, then sighed. “I wish. They've cut funding again, so now I'm officially only there from noon to six. I went early today to reshelve some books before we opened to the public. So, I definitely appreciate your concern, but I can get you to Child Services and back before anyone even starts to look for me. What do you say?”

“Fine,” I said. “That sounds fine.”

“Great!” Miss Timms said. “But first,” she added, “let's finish eating.”

* * *

Miss Timms's friend was a slender man with dark brown skin and very short hair. He introduced himself as “Christophe Babcock, but you can call me Chris,” and I wondered why it was that both the American adults I'd met wanted to be called by their first names.

As Miss Timms had predicted, Mr. Babcock asked me a series of questions. He was very nice about all of them. There just wasn't anything I could tell him.

My name is Charlotte Bromley. I'm ten years old. I'm from Bristol, England. My father is Robert Bromley, and my mother is Elizabeth Bromley, and they are both dead. No known living relations. How did I get here? I don't know. Did anyone hurt me? No one to speak of. Will anyone come looking for me? Not likely.

“Jennifer tells me you think you might have time traveled here,” Mr. Babcock said gently.

I shrugged noncommittally.

“You know,” he said, “sometimes we like to believe that something happened to us, because that's easier than confronting whatever it is that actually
did
happen to us. Do you know what I mean?”

“Sort of,” I said.

Mr. Babcock didn't seem that bothered by any of this, as if ten-year-old orphan girls often landed in his office with no explanation. Come to think of it, maybe they did. Maybe that's what working in Child Services meant. “Don't worry, Charlotte,” he reassured me. “I'll work on finding any relatives you might have out there, anyone who could be wondering where you are. That's part of my job.”

I gave him a weak smile.
Good luck with that, Mr. Babcock.

Eventually Miss Timms had to go to work. “Please call me, or stop by the library, once you're settled,” she asked. “I want to know that you're okay.”

“Thank you for breakfast,” I replied, and I watched her walk away from me.

I spent a long time waiting in Mr. Babcock's office. I didn't mind too much, though, since he had a shelf full of books. One of them was called
The Baby-Sitters Club #4: Mary Anne Saves the Day
, and I read almost all of it before Mr. Babcock said to me, “Charlotte, I've found a family for you to stay with. Do you want to go over to their house to meet them?”

“Yes
. . .
” I said dubiously, holding my place in the book with my finger.

“I promise they're very nice,” he said. “You don't need to worry. I know it's been hard up to now, but you'll be safe there.”

“I'm not worried,” I told him. “I just . . . Could I stay here a little while longer? So I can finish the book?” I held up
The Baby-Sitters Club #4: Mary Anne Saves the Day.

“You know what?” he said. “You can take it with you.”

“Really?” I squealed. “Thank you ever so much, Mr. Babcock!”

He blinked a few times. “Just Chris is fine.”

He drove me over to my new house. I liked it instantly. It was brick, considerably smaller than Jake and Noah's house, although it still had its own front yard. There were houses on either side, which made me feel better—the buildings on Jake's street were spaced so far from one another that it felt like an alien planet. Best of all, we drove past the library on the way, and the house seemed to be close by. I would be able to walk to visit Miss Timms.

A woman and man opened the door to the house as we stopped in front of it. They looked at least a decade older than my parents, maybe more. The woman was wearing trousers, an untucked button-down shirt, and silly pink sandals with big flowers on the toes. The man wore shorts with images of red fish sewn onto them.

“Hi, Chris!” the woman called as Mr. Babcock and I walked up the front stairs. She gave me a small hug and a kiss on the cheek. I tried not to flinch. “You must be
Charlotte,”
she said, holding me back so she could look me in the eye. “Hi, Charlotte. Welcome home.”

BOOK: Once Was a Time
13.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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