Jonah Skidmore took a deep breath as he peered at the, computer screen in front of him. He’d recently survived time travel, a war zone, betrayal, deception, mutiny, and the near destruction of time itself. So surely he was brave enough to call up a list of names on a computer.
He kept his finger poised over the computer mouse.
I’ll be brave enough in a minute, he told himself. Or . . . two.
“What’s wrong?” his sister, Katherine, said from behind him. “Did Google lock up or something? Hit that link again.”
Patience wasn’t one of her virtues. Before Jonah had a chance to reply, she shoved her hand over his, pressing his finger down on the mouse.
“There,” Katherine said. “Just what we need. Famous missing children in history. Let’s see . . .”
There was a good chance that Jonah’s name might be on the list coming up on the computer screen before them. Not his real name—not Jonah Skidmore. But his original name. The name he’d been born with.
To keep from actually looking at the screen now, Jonah whirled in his seat to glare at Katherine.
“Keep your voice down!” he commanded. “Do you want Mom or Dad to hear?”
Unfortunately for Jonah, his parents were the kind who believed all those warnings about monitoring kids’ computer use. So the Skidmore family computer was right smack in the middle of the kitchen. And Mom and Dad were just around the corner and down the hall, where they were hanging Jonah’s and Katherine’s newest school pictures along the staircase.
Mom and Dad had no clue that Jonah and Katherine had traveled through time again and again and again, their lives in danger in one century after another.
But even without the complications of time travel and historical danger and intrigue, Jonah wouldn’t have wanted his parents to know how desperate he was to find out his preadoption identity.
Not that I exactly want to know it, he told himself. I just . . . need to.
“Mom and Dad wouldn’t mind us talking about history,”
Katherine said, barely bothering to lower her voice. Then she leaned in closer and dropped her voice to a total whisper: “Do you think you might be the Russian kid?”
She pointed to a name on the screen.
Jonah grimaced so fiercely he could barely see.
What if I’m wrong about everything? he wondered. What if there’s some chance my other identity will never actually matter? Can’t I go on ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist?
He knew the answer to that question: No. He couldn’t. He was only thirteen—and Katherine was not quite twelve—but in the last few months they’d learned that the past had a way of coming back and grabbing you.
That is not the right way to think about time travel, Jonah told himself. Remember, you have a new attitude now.
He forced himself to open his eyes wide enough to read the words on the screen before him—and then wider still, in indignation.
“Alexis Romanov?” he protested. “No way—that’s a girl’s name!”
Katherine reached over Jonah’s shoulder and clicked on a link for the name.
“No, it’s a guy,” she corrected. “It’s Russian, remember? Sometimes he’s listed as Alexis, sometimes Alexei. Same kid, just different translations. Definitely a boy. See?”
Phrases jumped out at Jonah from the screenful of information she’d called up: heir to the throne of the Russian empire . . . World War I . . . Russian Revolution . . . Alexis was imprisoned with the rest of his family . . . then in 1918 the Bolsheviks decided . . .
Jonah didn’t know much about Russian history—or anything about it, actually—but he was pretty sure that things hadn’t gone well for this Alexis or Alexei Romanov back in 1918.
Well, duh, Jonah told himself. Kids don’t vanish from history because everything’s going great. All of us were in some kind of danger.
For most of his life, Jonah had believed what his parents believed: that he was a perfectly ordinary kid in a perfectly ordinary family, growing up in a perfectly ordinary Ohio suburb. He was adopted and his sister wasn’t—that was the only detail about him that had ever seemed the least bit unusual. And Jonah’s attitude toward that little fact had always been, Well, so what? Who cares?
Then the mysterious letters had begun arriving, and Jonah had found out that he wasn’t an ordinary adoptee.
Not at all.
Instead, he and thirty-five other kids were, depending on how you looked at it, either refugees from history or children audaciously stolen from the past. Or both at once.
The only reason he and the other kids were growing up now, at the start of the twenty-first century, was because their kidnappers had crash-landed in this time period with a planeload of stolen babies. Fearing the wrath of time agents determined to keep history on its original track, the kidnappers had abandoned the babies and run away, vowing to come back for them as soon as they could.
At least we got thirteen years of happy ignorance before everyone started fighting over us again, Jonah thought.
And that wasn’t the right way to think either. Ignorance wasn’t a good thing. Jonah and Katherine had traveled back and forth through history multiple times in the past few months, repairing time and rescuing other kids endangered by their own time periods. How many times on those trips had ignorance almost gotten someone killed?
Let’s see . . . in 1483 . . . 1485 . . . 1600 . . . 1605 . . . 1611 . . . 1903 . . .
Jonah had returned from his last trip through time vowing to face up to even the facts he desperately didn’t want to know.
Facts like what his original identity in history actually was.
Just yesterday he’d asked JB, the time agent he knew best, to finally reveal it.
This may have been a little unfair. After their last trip
through time, JB was going through an identity crisis of his own. It probably wasn’t surprising that JB had refused to tell.
So Jonah had decided to take matters into his own hands.
Because you never know, Jonah told himself. You never know when I might be zapped back in time, when I might have to deal with whatever historical mess this Alexis or Alexei Romanov—or whoever I really am—had to deal with. I refuse to take another time-travel trip blind!
He made himself focus on the words on the screen and read them in order, not skipping around:
Alexis Romanov, the last tsarevitch of Russia, was born in 1904. He had four older sisters—Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia—but as the first and only male child of Tsar Nicholas II, he was the designated heir, intended from birth to inherit the throne. At that time, the Russian empire covered a sixth of the globe . . .
Jonah stopped reading.
“If I really was, like, the future leader of Russia, don’t you think I’d . . .” He let his voice trail off, because there was no way he could say what he was thinking. If I really am this kid, shouldn’t I feel more special? Shouldn’t I be smarter, more
talented—more obviously someone capable of ruling a sixth of the planet?
“What? Do you think you should look more like a prince—or a ‘tsarevitch’ or whatever the Russians called it?” Katherine teased. “Do you think you shouldn’t look like such a goofball?”
“How I should look . . . ,” Jonah muttered. “Duh, Katherine, we’re idiots. In 1918 they had cameras. They—”
He stopped explaining and started typing instead. He clicked back over to Google and started an image search for Alexis or Alexei Romanov.
Within seconds he’d called up a picture of a boy in a sailor suit. The kid was maybe nine or ten, and staring unsmilingly toward the camera. It was a black-and-white image, so it was impossible to tell if the boy’s hair was brown or just dark blond. It was impossible to tell eye color. It was impossible to tell why the boy looked so serious. But Jonah could tell one thing for sure:
“It’s not me,” he said, relief swimming over him.
Katherine squinted at the picture.
“Maybe you just think that because it’s such an old picture, and you’re used to seeing yourself in this century,” she said. “Or—you know how sometimes people don’t look like themselves in one particular shot?”
Jonah clicked the back arrow, returning to the lineup of
dozens of images of Alexis/Alexei Romanov. He reached to the top of the computer desk, where Mom had stashed the packets of the other copies of his and Katherine’s school pictures, ready to be handed out to various relatives at Thanksgiving. He shook out a five-by-seven of himself and held it up beside the computer screen.
“See?” he said. “No way that’s me.”
“Okay,” Katherine said softly.
She was looking too closely at the picture of Jonah. Jonah couldn’t help staring at it too.
Did anybody like his or her seventh-grade school picture? Jonah’s hair stuck up in a weird way, and his grin was both crooked and too wide. But there was something else about the picture that bothered Jonah.
It was taken back in September, before I got the first letter. Before I went back in time for that first trip. It might as well have been a million years ago.
The Jonah in the picture looked too baby-faced, too unformed, too innocent.
It hurt, just looking at this picture of the kid Jonah had once been.
No wonder Katherine was doubtful about Jonah and Alexei/Alexis’s appearance. Even Jonah didn’t look like himself anymore.
He turned the picture facedown and slipped it back into the packet at the top of the computer desk. He caught only a glimpse of the packet of Katherine’s school pictures, the multiple images of her blond hair, her blue eyes, and her confident gaze, which seemed to say, You think there are going to be a lot of mean girls in sixth grade? So what? I’m not worried!
As if that was all Katherine was ever going to have to worry about.
Katherine looked like a total little kid in her school pictures from a few months ago too.
“Oh, hey,” he said loudly, trying to distract himself and Katherine. He pointed back toward the computer screen. “Why are all these pictures of girls mixed in with the images of the boy Alexis? Maybe you’re wrong after all.”
Katherine took control of the mouse and the keyboard again.
“No, those are his sisters,” she said, clicking through images until she came to a large one of four girls in lacy white dresses and Alexis/Alexei—looking much younger—in yet another sailor suit. “Do you remember, back in the time cave, back in the beginning of all this, when we saw all the names of the missing kids from history on that plane? Two Romanovs were on that list, weren’t they? Alexis and Anastasia?” She zoomed in until only the
two youngest children showed on the screen. “Do these kids look familiar?”
Jonah frowned. He had met almost all of the other kids stolen from history in the time cave, the day the original kidnappers had come back hoping to retrieve each one of them. But Jonah didn’t have quite enough imagination to mentally replace the old-fashioned lace dress and sailor suit in the picture of the Romanovs with the modern jeans and T-shirts and sweatshirts the other kids had been wearing in the time cave.
“I don’t know,” Jonah said irritably.
Anastasia and Alexis Romanov seemed to stare back at him from the computer screen, their expressions plaintive and pleading. Jonah wished he’d never thought to look for pictures. Now that he knew he himself wasn’t a Romanov, he didn’t want to learn anything else about these kids. It was too much of a burden. He already had to worry about his friends Chip and Alex, trying to recover from the trauma of the 1400s, and his friend Andrea, who’d wanted to stay in 1600 even though it was a complete mess, and Emily, who—
Katherine gasped beside him. Jonah turned and saw that she’d gone totally pale.
“What’s wrong with you?” he muttered.
“Everyone’s just supposed to be missing, right?”
Katherine asked, her voice shaking. “You and the other kids—you just vanished from history and nobody was ever supposed to know what happened to you. Isn’t that how it was always supposed to be? For all thirty-six of you?”
“Uh, sure,” Jonah said uneasily. “Why?”
Katherine raised a trembling hand and pointed to a sentence Jonah hadn’t noticed before, directly below the picture on the screen.
“Because,” Katherine said. “Because this says Anastasia and Alexis Romanov are dead.”