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Authors: Leila Sales

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BOOK: Once Was a Time
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Chapter 12

The woman introduced herself as Melanie, and the man in the fish-patterned shorts said he was Keith. They didn't offer their surnames, so I reckoned “Melanie” and “Keith” were just what I had to call them. I tried to anagram their names but stopped as soon as I rearranged the letters in “Melanie” to spell “Mean lie.”

Melanie—who did
not
seem like a mean liar—led us into the kitchen, and she and Keith spoke with Mr. Babcock for a while until eventually it was time for him to go.

“Call me if you need anything, Charlotte,” Mr. Babcock said. “Anything at all. Here's my number and e-mail.”

He handed me a little cream-colored card. I stared at it and didn't say anything.

“I'll be back to check on you tomorrow,” Mr. Babcock went on. “But remember that you can call me twenty-four seven.”

The numbers “twenty-four seven” were not printed on the cream-colored card, so I didn't know what Mr. Babcock meant. I also didn't know how I would call him, even if something terrible happened and I needed help right away. I hadn't yet seen a telephone anywhere in Melanie and Keith's house. Maybe they shared one with their neighbors.

After Mr. Babcock left, Melanie said, “Let me show you to your room, Charlotte.”

I followed her up the stairs, looking at the framed photo­graphs hanging all along the wall. There were loads of pictures of Melanie and Keith with a big dog and a girl who changed ages from photo to photo. Here they were on a boat, and the girl looked like she was my age, all freckles and tangled hair. Here they were in front of a fancy modern castle, and the girl couldn't have been older than four. Here they were again, and this time the girl was tall and even older than Justine, wearing a long black gown, like my dad when he went to Friday-night dinners at the university.

“That's our daughter, Penelope,” Melanie explained,
following
my gaze. “And that big bozo of a dog was Snookums, who unfortunately died a few years ago. He's buried in the backyard. You can go take a look, if you like dog graves.”

“I don't know if I like dog graves or not,” I told her honestly.

Melanie opened a door at the top of the stairs. “This,” she said, “is your bedroom.”

I stepped inside. The walls were painted pink, and there was a bed in the corner with a matching pink-and-white eiderdown and loads of pink-and-white lace pillows. A small white desk sat in the corner, a little lamp perched on it.

The room was nice. And clean. And
untouched
.

A desperate longing surged up inside of me, and I rested my hand on the doorknob to steady myself. Out of all the things about my old life to miss, was I honestly missing my
bedroom
? That messy room I shared with Justine that constantly had our clothes strewn about the floor, the beds unmade, the corners unswept? I was an orphan now, but my room in 1940 looked far more like an orphanage than this new room did. Who would miss that?

But it kept overwhelming me. The continual remembering that I could never go back.

“I hope you like pink,” Melanie said.

I used to like pink, because pink was Kitty's favorite color, which meant that it was my second-favorite color, just out of loyalty. But now I would sleep every night smothered by pink pillows that reminded me only of the way I left her.

“I don't know if I like pink or not.”

Melanie sat down on the pink bed. I continued to stand. “I know you just got here,” she said. “But do you have any questions for me? I'm happy to answer anything.”

“Yes,” I said, but then I couldn't work out what to ask. I had
so many
questions, but where to start? And which could I say without giving away that I was a time traveler?

Of course, I was starting to realize, if these people didn't believe in time travel, then nothing would give me away. They would never suspect the truth.

“Why?” I asked at last. Melanie didn't say anything, and I realized this wasn't enough of a question yet. “Why are you letting me stay with you?” I went on. “You don't even know me.”

She nodded. “Keith and I have been taking in foster children for years. Ever since Penelope first left for college, and she's twenty-six now. She went to school out in
Hawaii . . .”
I must have looked blank, because Melanie elaborated. “It's
very
far away. So while the neighbors' kids were coming home from college every time they needed to do their laundry, Penelope came home for Christmas and that was it.”

I was relieved to hear that they still had Christmas in the future, because that was our favorite holiday. Kitty would come over first thing on Christmas morning. Mum even prepared a stocking for her. We would eat a big breakfast with my family, and together we would pull our Christmas crackers and wear the paper crowns from them for the whole rest of the day. Then we would run over to the McLaughlins' house for a big turkey dinner, and we would open our second stockings of the day there. We would listen to the King's speech and go caroling. Kitty and I would walk across the Downs and along Whiteladies Road. Absolutely every shop was closed on Christmas, so no one else would be there, and with the street all to ourselves, we pretended that we were the owners and rulers of the whole city.

Without Kitty, maybe Christmas wasn't my favorite holiday anymore.

Melanie was still speaking. “We had this empty bedroom sitting here,” she said, “so we figured, why not give a kid a home? You know, there are some people who just feel like being a parent is their true calling in life. That's how Keith and I are. Of course we have jobs—he works in minor league baseball, and I'm an event planner. But our
passion
is raising children. Penelope's long done being raised, as she'll be the first to tell you, but we weren't done with our roles yet.”

This was all so foreign to me, and I don't just mean “American.” I was pretty certain my parents had never felt that raising me, Justine, and Thomas was their “true calling in life.” My dad's true calling was to unravel the mystery of time travel. And my mum's was . . . well, she had never said. But obviously it wasn't me.

“You're our fourth foster child,” Melanie went on. “The other three were very happy here, and I hope you will be, too. I know it's a difficult transition, but with time I think you might realize that living here may be easier than . . . well, than whatever you left behind.”

She said this carefully, as if I might tell her what I had left behind.

As if I could.

“Where did the other three go?” I asked.

“Back to their families.” Melanie adjusted the pillows behind her, even though they already looked outrageously neat to me. “Sometimes parents go to jail for a while, or go missing for a while, or go somewhere to deal with their problems for a while. That's where foster families step in. But when the parents are ready to be parents again, they get their kids back. We're always sad to give the kids up, because we love them, but their parents love them, too, and that's the deal.”

I wondered how Melanie would feel if she knew that my
parents were definitely never ever going to be ready to be parents again. She would never have to be sad to give
me
up.

“Do you have anything you want to unpack?” Melanie asked.

I held my hands out to the sides so she could see they were empty.

“Not to worry. I have most everything Penelope ever wore. I'm sure we can find something that will fit you. Let me go look in the attic.”

Melanie left the room, and I stood in the middle of it, alone, and tried to think of a plan.

Then I realized that I couldn't think of a plan because there
was
no plan. This was it. This was my life. My life was soundless cars and grilled cheese sandwiches and pink walls and inexplicably chilly buildings in inexplicably hot weather, and there was no choice about any of that.

The thought filled me with terror. This could not be it. I could not live like this forever. I would go mad. I pressed my face to the closed window, like an animal in a cage.

I turned back around when Melanie returned carrying a cardboard box labeled penelope, 10 yrs. “Clearly all these clothes are from sixteen years ago, so I apologize that you're not going to be the height of modern fashion in them.” She set the box down on the desk. “But this will do until we can go shopping. I'm sure we can find something in here that's a little more summery than what you've got on.”

I nodded. My pajamas had long ago started to feel grimy.

Melanie left me alone to change. I opened the box and started taking out clothes. Sixteen years ago would be 1997. Apparently girls in 1997 wore a lot of brightly colored shirts with pictures of footballs on them and phrases like “Sutton Town Soccer.”

I took off my pajamas and folded them up at the end of Penelope's bed. I would never have bothered to do that in my own room, but here everything looked so neat that I felt like I should be neat, too.

I changed into a purple corduroy skirt and one of the football shirts, and then I stood in front of the mirror. In Penelope's old clothes, I didn't look like myself anymore. But I didn't look like Penelope, either, or at least not the Penelope I had seen in that photograph of her and her family on a boat. Penelope was redheaded and muscular and tanned, and I was none of that.

I looked like a stranger. Like an imaginary girl from the future.

I touched my hand to the mirror, and I made a promise to my reflection: “I will find a way out of this,” I whispered. “I will find a way home.”

Chapter 13

Melanie woke me early the next morning, flinging open Penelope's pink curtains. It was another sunny day. Three in a row. If this had happened in Bristol, Mum would be mumbling darkly about how this much pleasant weather foretold “a long winter,” or some rubbish like that. Mum had always been suspicious of too much sun. And ever since the Battle of Britain had started, I'd seen her point: Clear skies made it much easier for German bombs to find their
targets.

“Up and at 'em, Charlotte,” Melanie said, pulling back Penelope's pink-and-white eiderdown. “We need to get you some new clothes before school starts. You don't want to wear one of Penelope's old soccer tees on your first day. What will the other girls think?”

My stomach tightened, and I wanted to pull the blankets right back over my head. It hadn't occurred to me until this very moment that I would have to go to a new school, with new girls, and no Kitty by my side.

Maybe schools in the future were different. Maybe all the students here were really friendly to everybody, even to bookish girls in glasses. Humans had invented the
Internet
and artificial cooling systems; surely they could have invented a way for kids to be nice.

But I wasn't holding my breath.

I was going to find a way home. I was. I had to. But I hadn't the foggiest notion how, or when, and I had to admit that the school term would probably start before I, a lone ten-year-old girl, had worked out the secret to time travel.

Within an hour, Melanie and I were at an enormous place that she called “the mall.” It was the biggest building I had ever seen. It was far bigger than Wills Tower, bigger even than the Houses of Parliament, which had stunned me with their grandness when we went on holiday to London.

Melanie decided we should start at a colorful, glittery store that sold only clothes for girls. “I'm thinking we should get you a few pairs of jeans,” she said, flipping through the racks with expert speed. “And a pair or two of shorts, I guess, even though summer's almost over. And leggings. And obviously T-shirts, some long-sleeved tees, sneakers . . . I love to shop, don't you?”

She waited for my reply. I wasn't sure what to say. At last I settled on, “What are sneakers?”

Melanie blinked a few times. “Isn't it funny?” she said after a moment. “You'd think America and England would basically be the same, since we speak the same language. But they aren't actually the same at all, are they?”

I shook my head. “I don't know.”

“Here.” Melanie handed me a pile of clothes. “These”—she pointed to the pink plimsolls on top—“are sneakers. Why don't you try everything on, and we can figure out what your personal style is?”

The tone of Melanie's voice made me suspect that figur­ing out your personal style was a tremendously exciting and important thing to do.

“I didn't used to get a personal style,” I told her. “My mum made all our clothes.”

Melanie raised her eyebrows. “Your mum,” she said, “must be superhuman.”

Melanie sent me into a fitting room. Nobody seemed to work in this colorful, glittery store. It wasn't like the few times I'd gone to Selfridges in London with Mum, where there'd been shopgirls who measured you and waited on you. Here they just closed you in a small room with a mirror and left you alone.

I tried on a pair of very tight trousers and a sleeveless top with the word
Lollipop
written on it in rainbow-colored letters. I looked at myself in the mirror and giggled. I imagined what Kitty would say, if she were here. “‘Lollipop'? Like in
The Wizard of Oz
? My goodness, Americans do wear the most peculiar things, don't they?”

My smile faded. I shouldn't be giggling. Girls who let their best friends die ought not giggle ever again.

“Come on out here, Charlotte!”
Melanie called. “Let's see.”

I opened the door and stepped out of the dressing room. “You look so cute!” Melanie exclaimed. “We
have
to get that tank top.”

Melanie was not alone. Next to her stood another woman and a girl who looked to be about my age. They both had straight, shiny, chestnut-brown hair, like horses' manes. My hair immediately felt even messier and frizzier than usual.

“This is Luanne Fulton,” Melanie introduced the woman. “And her daughter, Dakota.”

“Dakota” did not sound like a name to me. It sounded like a place to store winter clothing.

“We're here doing some back-to-school shopping for Dakota, too, and we just ran into Melanie,” Mrs. Fulton explained.

I tittered, and everyone looked at me. “Sorry,” I mumbled, not wanting to explain that I'd stopped listening while anagramming Dakota Fulton's name to “a fat loud knot.”

“It's
so
nice to meet you, Charlotte,” Mrs. Fulton said to me in a childlike voice. “You're such a brave kid.”

I stopped smiling. I didn't feel brave. Yes, I was at the mall, shopping for clothes when every single person I knew and loved was gone. But that wasn't
brave.
It was just keeping calm and carrying on—because what other choice did I have?

“After all you've been through . . .” Mrs. Fulton raised her eyebrows, as if waiting for me to fill in with a description of what I'd been through.

“Mmm,” I murmured.

Mrs. Fulton's eyebrows went back to normal.

“So have you decided what color to paint the house?” Melanie asked Mrs. Fulton, distracting her. The two of them started talking, some grown-up conversation that did not include me.

“You're going into fifth grade, too?” Dakota said to me, ignoring them.

I had no idea. I glanced to Melanie for help.

“Oh, I bet they call it something different in England,” Dakota said. “How old are you?”

“Ten.”

“When's your birthday?”

“The eighteenth of October.”

Dakota's forehead crinkled. “You're turning eleven on October eighteenth? That's less than two months from now. So you should actually be going into
sixth
grade.”

Drat. The maths of time travel kept tripping me up. When I left in 1940, it had been October, and I had only just turned ten. Now it was August 2013—nearly time for my birthday again!

Maybe I should say yes and collect another round of birthday presents from my new parents. Maybe I should find a way to keep time traveling to summers past and future, so it would always be nearly my birthday, and I could continually get new books and sweets.

But I didn't really think I could pass for eleven. Especially not here in America, where so many of the children I'd seen in the mall so far seemed
bigger
, somehow. Not fatter, necessarily, but sturdier. Like girls whose food had never been rationed, whose sky never ran out of sun.

So I said, “Sorry! That's an English thing. I got confused. My tenth birthday was actually in July.”

“Mine, too!” Dakota squealed. “What day?”

“Eighteenth,” I said. Then my stomach twisted suddenly, and I had to steady myself against the wall. The eighteenth of July wasn't my birthday. It was Kitty's.

“Mine is the ninth,” Dakota said. “I'm nine days older than you.”

She seemed to be expecting some sort of reward for this accomplishment, so I said, “Well done, you.”

“So,” she went on, dropping her voice a little. “You're an
orphan
?”

“I suppose so,” I replied.

“Oh my
gosh
!” Dakota clapped her hand to her mouth. “That's so cool.”

“Is it?”


Yes
. I wish I was an orphan, like, every day. You get to do whatever you want . . . no parents, no stupid rules or bedtimes or limits on how much TV you can watch. . . . Plus it's so
romantic
.”

Maybe I had once agreed with that, when I read
A Little Princess
and dreamt of living in an attic. But now I knew better. I considered telling Dakota about my two nights in the library, stealing goldfish crackers and scavenging sandwiches out of rubbish bins, sleeping on chairs and hiding in bookcases. Was that
romantic
?

“And you're British,” Dakota told me, as if I might not
know.

“I'm
English
,” I corrected her.

“What's the difference?”

I blinked at her. It seemed so obvious that I'd never actually thought about how to explain it. “Well, I was born in England. And my parents and their parents and
their
parents were born in England. If you said I was
British
, you might mean I was from Wales or Scotland—”

“Is that worse?” Dakota interrupted. “To be from Wales or Scotland or wherever?”

“Of course not,” I said, even though I sort of believed that it was.

“Either way,” she said, “it's supercute.”

“Being English?”

“Yeah. It's pretty much the cutest. Oh my
gosh
, I just want to eat you up!” She grabbed and squeezed my shoulders.

“D,” Mrs. Fulton said, coming back into our conversation, “you own that lollipop tank, don't you?” She pointed at my sleeveless top.

“Yup.”

“Then you girls better make sure you don't accidentally wear it on the same day!” She laughed.

“No, Mom, that's actually an
awesome
idea!” Dakota said. “Charlotte, let's both wear our lollipop shirts on the first day of school. I'll get Sydney and Kianna to do it, too. That way everyone will know we're together. Perfect, right?”

Mrs. Fulton rolled her eyes. “Kids!” she said to Melanie. Then, to her daughter, “Come on, D, we have a lot more shopping to do before we can leave. Say bye to Charlotte.”

“Bye!” Dakota took a few steps away with her mother, then whirled back around to face me, her shiny hair whipping across her shoulders. She pointed at me. “And you
have
to sit with us at recess on the first day. Okay? 'Cause I found you first!” She threw a big smile at Melanie and me, then left for good.

“Well,” Melanie said with a laugh, “at least we know we're definitely getting this shirt! If Luanne's kid likes it, I'm sure it's the height of fashion.”

I didn't say anything. I just went back into the dressing room with my piles of strange clothes.

Dakota wanted to sit with me at school. She wanted to be friends with me. I had a friend in the future now. And that was exactly what I needed.

So why did I still feel like I was going to be sick?

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