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Authors: Leila Sales

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BOOK: Once Was a Time
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Chapter 14

When the first day of school came, ten days later, I was ready for it.

Well, not exactly. But I
was
ready to get out of Melanie and Keith's house.

They were perfectly nice. But they were always
there.
Both of them worked from the house so much of the time, and if one of them had a meeting somewhere else, they made sure the other was staying at home with me. Even if I was just going out to their backyard to play, Melanie would move her laptop computer and telephone to the deck, so she could watch me. I didn't so much feel like pretending to be a woodland fairy, or a lost princess, when my real-life foster parents were sitting a few feet away. And I
certainly
couldn't start trying to find a way to time travel home when every few minutes someone was asking me if I wanted a glass of lemonade or if I'd hurt myself badly when I stubbed my toe on the porch step.

For the first time, I really understood how Kitty must have felt, having parents who never left her alone. Kind of, well, trapped. Trapped in their world.

And what good had it done the McLaughlins? For all that they watched Kitty, they weren't able to save her.

I read a lot, of course. Just as much as I had in Bristol, and then some, filling my mind with made-up lives so I wouldn't have to think about my own. But what was oddest about Melanie and Keith was this: They didn't read books.
At all.

It wasn't because they were constantly working, like my dad. They had free time, but they spent it going to the gym, or doing things on their computers, or watching the television. They just
did not read
. They had bookcases, but they were filled only with knickknacks and framed photographs. One day, out of sheer boredom, I went up to the attic and looked through all of Penelope's old boxes, expecting at least one of them to hold books. But they were all filled just with clothing, jewelry, and silvery round objects that Melanie told me were called “CDs.”

“Penelope was never really a reader,” Melanie said, like this explained things.

I finished
The Baby-Sitters Club #4: Mary Anne Saves the Day
on my second day at Melanie and Keith's house, and by my fifth day there I had read the only other books I could find: one called
The World Is Flat
, which explained many things about the twenty-first century—but also raised more questions for me than it answered—and one called
The Da Vinci Code
, which was confusing but dramatic and involved a lot of running around Paris for some reason.

“I never actually read it,” Keith said, when he saw me flying through
The Da Vinci Code
. “I heard good things, though.”

When I looked around the house and saw no books left, I went back to the library. And I kept going, every single day. At first Melanie or Keith insisted on driving me there and back, but when they realized how much time I wanted to spend there, they gave up.

I loved being at the library. Miss Timms showed me more and more ways to use the Internet, and I continued to read my way alphabetically through the books in the children's room. My only rule for myself was that I not read anything I had read in Bristol. Those books made me too sad. So no
Little Princess
. No
Wizard of Oz
. I was a new girl with a new name, a new country, and a new birthday. I didn't need any books to remind me of the life I'd lost.

I also spent some of my library time researching time travel, trying to find a way home. I knew my dad had said that if you went through a portal, you had to accept that you could
never
go back. And my dad always knew what he was talking about.

But what if there was another way? Instead of just waiting for another portal to open up in front of me, which I understood was impossible, what if I could make my
own
way back? Build a time travel machine, or find a genie who would grant me three wishes, or . . . something?

If there was any hope of that, I had to try. I would go back to the day we were taken, the day of Kitty's Film Stars invitation, and I would tell her to leave me, to go to the cinema with Betsy and Margaret and Jeanine. Or I would go back even further than that, to before my mum went away, and I would find a way to make her stay.

But nothing at the library seemed helpful. Articles that promised “easy ways to time travel!” were rubbish, filled with theoretical musings that only my dad would have been able to parse, or advice to “let go of fear and set your mind
free.”

I tried that, by the way. I would try anything, no matter how silly it sounded. I let go of fear, but I didn't time travel anywhere. I just nodded off for a few minutes.

I read one book where the kids held a séance to conjure up the dead, and that seemed like a good idea—maybe I could call up the ghost of my dad and ask him how I could get home again. Or I could call up Kitty, and even if I couldn't go anywhere, at least I could tell her that I was
sorry.

But I couldn't have a séance alone. I needed friends for that. And I didn't reckon that Miss Timms and Mr.
Babcock
would be terribly helpful. So I just kept reading, and thinking, and imagining.

By the end of summer, I was in the library from the minute it opened until the minute it closed. Unfortunately, that was only noon to six p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. All the rest of my time, I was just home. At Melanie and Keith's house. Watching them watching me.

So I could not
wait
for school to start.

Melanie drove me to Sutton Brook Elementary on my first day. I wore my lollipop top, just as Dakota had ordered. Even though I knew I shouldn't, I spent the car ride picking at the glitter on the shirt, peeling off small bits into my
hand.

“Are you nervous?” Melanie asked as we pulled up in front of the school.

I gave her a dark look.
What do you think?

Melanie laughed. “I'm sure you'll make many new friends,” she said.

I wasn't sure of that at all. I was sure
Penelope
, as a child, had made many new friends. Penelope, who had boxes filled with her personal style, who played a sport, who was “never really a reader.” But for all that I slept in Penelope's bed and sat in Penelope's seat at the dinner table, I was not her. I was
Charlotte
, whoever that might turn out to be.

Melanie gave me a hug good-bye. I got out of the car and walked slowly into the playground, which was already filled with children running around, playing on the swings, shrieking. I was supposed to stay out here until the fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Vasquez, called us to line up.

I looked around for a place where I could sit down and read my book. I was just about to settle on an unclaimed sliver of grass when I heard a voice call, “Charlotte! Hey!”

I turned around.

“Jake!” I exclaimed, thrilled to see a familiar face. “Hullo! All right, are you?”

He looked down at himself, his face perplexed, as if expecting to see a stain on the front of his shirt. “Why wouldn't I be all right?” he asked.

“Oh—I just meant—how are you doing? How was the rest of your summer?”

“Oh, I get it.” Jake's face turned red. “Yeah, I'm good. We were at Lake Michigan for the past week for a big family reunion thing.”

“Smashing!” I exclaimed.

“Yeah!” Jake's blush faded now. “It was awesome. On the last night we built this big bonfire, and I ate
six
s'mores.
And
I beat my older cousin at Chubby Bunnies, even though he's fifteen and his cheeks are huge.” Jake stuck his fingers in the corners of his mouth and pulled them apart, to demonstrate. “I almost threw up,” he added.

I giggled. “I don't know what s'mores are, though,” I said. “Or Chubby Bunnies.”

“Really?” Jake's eyebrows widened. “You don't make s'mores in England?”

“I don't know.”

“Charlotte,” Jake said, very seriously. “S'mores are the best food in the world. You should come over sometime and we can make them on the grill.” He paused, then added hastily, “I mean, only if you want to.”

“Of course I want to, silly,” I said.

He smiled widely, showing off crooked teeth and too much gum. “Hey, whose class are you in?”

“Mrs. Vasquez's,” I replied.

“Me, too!” Jake jumped up and down twice, then stopped abruptly. “I mean, that's cool that we're in the same class. Yeah. Noah had Mrs. Vasquez for fifth grade, too, and he liked her. Well, he's Noah, so he's never actually
liked
a teacher. But he said she let them play Seven-Up sometimes at the end of the day, and she never assigned weekend homework, so that's good, I guess.”

“Probably,” I agreed.

“Hey,” Jake went on. “When you come over, we can also play . . .”

He faded to silence, staring at something behind me. I turned around.

It was Dakota.

“Hullo!” I said, pleased to see another familiar face. Maybe starting school would be better than I'd thought.

As promised, Dakota was wearing the same lollipop shirt, though I could tell that she hadn't picked any of the glitter off hers. She wrinkled her nose at Jake, then said to me, as if he wasn't even there, “Hi, Charlotte! Oh my gosh, you look
adorable
. Come on, let me introduce you to Sydney and Kianna. They're totally dying to meet you.”

She grabbed my hand and pulled me away. “Good-bye, Jake!” I called behind me. He did not reply.

“Look,” Dakota said in a low voice, slowing the pace once we were far enough away from Jake, “I get that you're new here, so you probably don't know this yet, but—don't hang out with Jake Adler.”

“Why not?” I twisted my head around to look back at him. He was still standing in the spot where I'd left him, staring down at the grass.

“He's not cool,” Dakota explained.

“How can you tell?”

“I don't have to tell,” Dakota said. “I just know.”

We stopped at a tree where two girls in matching lollipop shirts were already standing. “This is Sydney, and this is Kianna,” Dakota introduced them.

“Hullo.” I waved.

“Look at you!” Sydney shrieked. “You are exactly as cute as Dakota said you were.”

“Say something!” Kianna demanded.

My eyes darted from Kianna to Dakota, hoping for some more guidance than that. At last I said, “Something?”

“Say something
British
,” Kianna explained. “Like ‘bangers and mash.'”

“Bangers and mash,” I repeated, and the three girls squealed in unison.

“Why can't I hang out with Jake Adler?” I asked.


So
cute,” Sydney commented.

“Ew,” Dakota said.

Sydney blushed. “I meant her accent, not Jake Adler! He's gross.”

“Why?” I asked again.

“He talks to himself sometimes,” Dakota explained. “He keeps a collection of action figures in his desk, and he majorly freaked out last year when he couldn't find one. He plays on the swing set during recess. By himself. Like we're in kindergarten.”

“And his favorite class is
art
,” Kianna added. “He's always drawing little pictures or doing watercolors or gluing colored paper on to things. Like he's a
girl
.”

“And I don't think he ever learned to tie his shoes,”
Sydney
contributed.

“And his mom leaves him notes in his Star Wars lunchbox,” Dakota said, and the three girls howled with laughter. “I took one off his desk once when he wasn't looking,” Dakota added. “It said, ‘May the Force be with you today, Jake! Love, Mommy.'” They collapsed into giggles again.

I stared at these girls, these girls who wore the same shirt as me but seemed so different. I tried to laugh with them, but I couldn't understand. What were action figures? What was a Star Wars lunchbox? Why were any of these things bad?

All I knew about Jake was that he had helped me when I arrived in Sutton, alone and lost. That seemed good, to me.

But what did I know about what was good in America in the year 2013? What did I know about “coolness”?

Only what Dakota and her friends told me. Nothing more.

“Fifth grade!” a short older woman shouted from the steps of the school.

“That's Mrs. Vasquez!” Dakota held on to one of my hands and Sydney took the other. Together, my new friends and I queued up with the rest of our classmates.

I looked around for Jake, wondering whether I would be able to tell, when I looked at him, that he was not cool. Would it be obvious to me, now that I knew what I was looking for?

But when I found him, standing alone at the back of the queue, he didn't seem not-cool. He just seemed sad. And he didn't meet my eyes.

“Fifth graders, let's go!” Mrs. Vasquez called.

I turned back around to face the front, and I followed the teacher into school.

Chapter 15

The morning of my first day of school wasn't as bad as I'd feared. Maths is the same anywhere. In Social Studies we were doing American history, which I knew nothing about, but from what I could tell,
nobody
knew anything about American history yet. Mrs. Vasquez said we would learn. In English we were each given a shiny new paperback of a book called
The Giver
. I hadn't got to that one at the library yet, since I was still on the
A
s, and this author's last name was Lowry.

Then it was time for lunch and break. As soon as I got out to the playground, Dakota grabbed me and dragged me to the top of the brightly colored metal climbing structure with her. Sydney and Kianna were already up there.

“Charlotte,” Dakota said, her voice unusually deep. “Welcome to the Top of the Playground.”

I giggled. She sounded ridiculous.

Kianna and Sydney did not giggle. Dakota narrowed her eyes and shook out her horse-mane hair. “I'm serious,” she said. “Maybe you don't already know this because you're new here, but getting to hang out up here is a
very
big deal.”

“Probably the biggest,” Sydney contributed.

“Last year's fifth graders promised this spot to the three of us,” Dakota went on. “And we are sharing it with you. No one else can come up here except for people who we say are worthy.”

“Oh.” When she put it like that, it did sound like a big deal. “Thank you,” I added. I looked down at the rest of the playground and imagined briefly that I lived in outer space, staring down on the inhabitants of the foreign planet Earth. “What do you play up here?” I asked, hoping Dakota would answer “Martians.”

Dakota did not say “Martians.” She said,
“Truth or Dare.”

“Oh,” I said. Again. I was so tired of saying “Oh.”
Why don't
you
come to
my
time?
I kept wanting to scream at everyone.
See how well
you
can fake understanding things!

“You have to choose either Truth or Dare,” Dakota explained. “If you choose Truth, you have to answer whatever question I choose
completely truthfully
. No lies, no matter how embarrassing. And if you choose Dare, you have to do whatever dare I assign you. So, for example, Kianna—Truth or Dare?”

“Truth,” Kianna answered, swinging her legs back and forth between the metal bars.

Sydney and Dakota groaned. “You
always
choose Truth,” Sydney complained. “You're such a wimp.”

Kianna shrugged. “I like Truths.”

“Fine,” Dakota said. “Truth: Which of the boys in our class would you want to be your boyfriend?”

“Dylan Cooper,” Kianna answered. While Dakota and Sydney shrieked, I looked down on the playground and tried to remember which of the cap-wearing boys was Dylan Cooper. Then I tried to decide which of the boys I would want to be
my
boyfriend, but I didn't know anything about any of them, and also I didn't want a boyfriend, so this seemed like a pointless exercise.

Truth or Dare
, I thought.
Dear Hurt Rot. Rather Tudor. Hard Torture.

Hard Torture
seemed most accurate.

“So do you get how the game is played?” Dakota asked
me.

“Yes,” I said. “Do you want to play Martians instead?”

Kianna and Sydney sputtered with laughter.

“No
,” Dakota snapped. “We are playing Truth or Dare. Charlotte! Truth or Dare?”

I bit my lip.
Truth
may have been the easier choice for Kianna, but it seemed to be the much harder choice for me.
Truth, Charlotte: Why are you an orphan? Truth, Charlotte: How did you wind up in Sutton, Wisconsin?

The truth would do me no favors. “Dare,” I said.

“See,
Charlotte
isn't a wimp,” Sydney murmured. Kianna elbowed her, and Sydney squealed dramatically. “Are you
trying
to push me off ?”

“Will you two shut up and help me think of a Dare for Charlotte?” Dakota said.

Immediately the three of them leaned their heads in together and started whispering. I couldn't make out what they were saying. But how bad could a Dare be, anyway? From a girl who has already lost everything, what more could they take?

Dakota, Sydney, and Kianna separated their heads and leaned back to look at me.

“Dare,” Dakota said. “I dare you to tell Jake Adler that he's a big fat baby.”

The playground grew still and silent for a moment. The chatter of my classmates below me faded into nothing. Kianna and Sydney watched me the way Aunt Matilda's cat used to watch budgies in their cages: with wordless, captivated delight.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” Dakota said, “he
is
a big fat baby.”

“But why do I have to tell him that?”

“Because those are the rules.”

I blinked a few times. “I'll get in trouble,” I said. “He'll tell Mrs. Vasquez, and I'll get in trouble.” I assumed that happened at schools everywhere, even in America, even in the future.

But the three girls were already shaking their heads. “Jake won't tell,” Dakota assured me.

“How do you know?”

Dakota shrugged. “Because he never does.”

Well, maybe he should
, I thought. But then I thought about what I did when Betsy, Margaret, and Jeanine told me that I couldn't be a Film Star, because I acted too young, because I liked to read, because I wore glasses,
because I was me
.

I did nothing.

So I could believe that Jake would do nothing, too.

Dakota and her friends were the Film Stars of Sutton Brook Elementary School. It was obvious. They dressed different, they talked different—but underneath all that, they were the same. Cruel and self-important, because they could be.

I could have walked away. I could have said, “Oh, sod your blooming game,” climbed all the way down from the Top of the Playground, and tried to make different friends.

What would happen, if I said no? These girls would hate me, I assumed. I would no longer be the clueless orphan with the cute accent and the romantic life story. They would most likely turn on me and treat me as they did Jake and try to make me miserable for however long I stayed in Sutton.

And maybe I would be able to make different friends, better friends—but maybe I wouldn't. There are only so many Kittys in the world, and I had already been lucky enough to have one of them in my life. I didn't expect to find another Kitty waiting for me here at Sutton Brook Elementary School.

Especially considering that I had abandoned the first one.

But none of that, really, was the reason I climbed down the metal structure and walked across the playground to Jake, with the other girls close at my heels. I could have lived with them hating me, I could have lived as a lonely outsider. I could have been brave enough to make that choice. But I didn't, and this is why:

Ever so occasionally, you come to a moment when everything about you is tested. When you must decide, with one action, what kind of friend and person you want to be. I knew this because I had already come to such a moment: when I was given the chance to stand by Kitty's side, or to let her die alone. And at that moment, I had already decided what kind of person I was: the bad kind. The kind who could not be trusted.

You cannot do something so drastic and expect not to have to pay for it. We get what we deserve.

I used to know who I was. As my obituary had said: I was Elizabeth and Robert's daughter; Justine and T
homas
's sister. I was in Miss Dickens's class at the Westminster School for Girls; I lived at 30 Orchard Close; I'd been born on October 18, 1930. I was Lottie Bromley. And Lottie Bromley would not have followed
Dakota's orders.

But now all of that was gone. All those things that defined my life had been sucked up by the past, leaving behind not even a photograph to prove that they'd once been mine.

Without any of that, who was I?

I was Charlotte now. I had to forget Lottie. I had to move forward. And that's why I took the Dare.

I crossed that playground and stopped in front of Jake. He was sitting alone, drawing something in the dirt with a stick, mumbling to himself.

Jake looked up at me and smiled, then stopped smiling when he saw Dakota, Sydney, and Kianna behind me.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hullo,” I said. There was a lump in my throat, so I could barely get out my next sentence, but I rasped it out as best I could. “Jake, you're a big fat baby.”

It was obvious that I didn't mean it. My words sounded hollow, forced, and fake. But sometimes we do things that we don't mean, and they hurt every bit as much as if we meant them.

Jake's head drooped, but he didn't run to tell Mrs. Vasquez, and he didn't fight back. And my new friends shrieked with laughter. I was one of them now.

That was the first way that I paid penance for what I had done to Kitty. But it didn't make me feel better. Until I found my way back to her, I would be paying for Kitty for the rest of my life.

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