The Silent Skater

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Chapter Nine

“Sorry.”

That’s okay, Doug! Let’s get on with life already!

Somehow it had become late June…and a month of doubles skating had proved Elizabeth at least partly right: Charlene was getting better all the time. It did indeed seem to be something she could learn.

Ice dancing wasn’t especially new, somehow the turns and spins, the movements of her arms and head met up well with the sort of skating she had enjoyed all her life.

Ice dancing with a partner, with another skater often just inches away—and more often in direct contact—that was something else entirely.

Charlene really, honestly couldn’t say that she minded, though. Douglas Hawkins was…strange, hard to understand, but when they were working together if he erred at all it was in being too kind, too much of a gentleman.

Like just now, as they skated diagonally across the ice together following their second double-jump, and his hand had swept down the side of her body to grab hers. For the hundredth time, she had been turned too far sideways or he hadn’t been close enough or whatever and his hand had accidentally brushed her chest.

And Doug had apologized, again, for the hundredth time. They were almost to the next jump, but suddenly Charlene had had enough, and she dug her right toepick into the ice, snapping around to a halt while Doug went on without her. After he had completed the jump he looked around, but Charlene was halfway to the side of the rink.

Elizabeth was off dealing with some crisis or other, leaving them alone in the barn. So, there was nobody there to complain if she stopped practice for a moment to write a quick note.

By the time Doug had skated up to her she was ready.

“Enough already, Doug—we’re partners and we have to touch each other and I understand and I’m not offended or anything. If you apologize again for anything that happens on the ice, I will bury my right toepick in the side of your neck, understand me?” It was a little over the top, but enough was enough!

Charlene had expected Doug to look embarrassed, and he did; but by the time he was finished reading, there was a slight smile on his face, and when he looked at her the edges of his eyes were crinkled just a bit. “The side of my neck?”

She raised an eyebrow and nodded solemnly.

“You don’t have the reach.”

Nh! She had to write a response to that. “Just try me, Hawkins.”

His smile widened just a bit, and he nodded, and they went back to skating.

Unfortunately, though the bit with Doug had distracted her, once it was over and they got back to work a problem that was becoming all too familiar crowded back into her mind.

Charlene was still having trouble on the ice—that same trouble that had peeked in at her the first day of training, that same uncertainty whenever she thought about performing, skating in front of actual people.

Now, instead of just missing a beat, she was actually getting nervous and sweaty just thinking about it. Having never skated for an audience before.

Having never done anything for an audience before. Oh, maybe there had been dance recitals or something before the accident, but that part of her life was so divorced from current reality that she hardly remembered it…except for the afternoons on Watson’s Pond.

And those afternoons wouldn’t help her now, since only mom and dad had seen her skating lessons.

Life since the accident? What was a girl who couldn’t talk and didn’t tap dance or make shadow puppets supposed to get up in front of people and do?

Skate, apparently.

And the realization that she would have to do so was slowly freezing solid in her mind—and scaring her to death. Even as she and Doug began work again, Charlene had to concentrate away from those thoughts, away from What if I make a fool of myself and What if I ruin everything, before her stupid stage fright made it impossible to even practice.

It was more interesting—though almost as worrisome—to consider another line of thought. How when Doug had touched her, just then, for the hundredth time…

Her heart had skipped a beat, again, for the hundredth time…

Charlene had to admit it to herself—working so closely with Douglas Hawkins was not helping her not be interested in him. As irritating as it had gotten that he apologized all the time, she hadn’t missed the respect that he had offered her every time he said he was sorry.

If I am going to get interested in him, and I think that’s already happened, I’d better find out who he really is. This is complicated enough without knowing anything about the guy I’m falling in l—eep! That was a little too far. Without knowing who I’m—uh—I’m getting a crush on.

So, when practice was finally over, Charlene went to the most likely source of information on Douglas Hawkins. Who was in the den, watching music videos on the Gigantron.

“Hey, sister girl.”

“Hey yourself, boy stealer.”

Charlene read this and looked at her cousin—who was kidding, but not very much, it seemed. “Mel…nothing has happened. We’re working together, that’s all.”

“That’s not what it looks like, Char.”

Now Melanie was looking right at her—since she wasn’t bothering to write at the moment. That doesn’t make it easier for me, cousin. “I can’t help what it looks like. All I can tell you is the truth.”

Her cousin picked up the pad again. “So tell me the truth, then. Are you falling for him?”

Eep! Does she have to ask that? Charlene didn’t want to just lie to Melanie, but really… “Doug and I are Just Friends, okay?” Which was true, pretty much, tonight anyway… Maybe a quick question would give Melanie something else to think about. “What is there between you and Doug?”

Melanie read and looked away. “Nothing, Char.” After a moment she wrote: “He’s twenty-one and I’m just sixteen, and he’s known me for years but I’m just a kid sister to him.

“But I’ve gotten grown up when he wasn’t watching, and he’s going to notice me. I can promise you that.”

Oh, Mel... She couldn’t see that Doug hadn’t the slightest interest in her, grown-up or not. And of course, I can just tell her that, right? “So, what’s his deal—he seems like such a jerk sometimes, but now that we’re skating together, it’s like I’ve seen a whole other side of him.”

Melanie laughed. “Congratulations, you’ve met both Dougs.”

Charlene tilted her head, inviting Melanie to explain.

“You met Tough Doug the day you first came, and that was probably the only Doug you knew for awhile, but when you’re on the ice you’re with Nice Doug. It’s really like two separate people—but until you get to know him you don’t see Nice Doug.”

“Does that strike you as being a little weird?”

“Well—everybody has false faces, right? Doug just isn’t himself until you get to know him.”

“But that’s not just a false face, that’s two separate people—you said it yourself.”

“Yeah, I guess. Why worry about it?”

Why indeed? “I guess it doesn’t matter. I just don’t understand.”

Tough Doug vs. Nice Doug? Which one was real?

At least Melanie seemed to be more at ease about Charlene not stealing her “boyfriend.” Her body language, tense when Charlene had walked in, was now much more relaxed.

This isn’t good.

If it came down to it—and unless Charlene stopped being interested in Doug, it looked like it was going to come down to it—was she willing to lose Melanie, her cousin, her friend, her sister, over this guy?

Over the only guy who had ever shown this much interest in her?

A guy who was apparently two people?

Hoo boy.

At least it gave her something to think about besides her growing stage fright.

Which didn’t get better as time went on. It got noticeably worse, actually, until Charlene could hardly think of anything else as she and Doug practiced. And as they were working so closely together, he couldn’t help but notice, apparently. It was early July before he said anything, though.

“What’s going on, Cricket?” It was his nickname for her, and Charlene didn’t hate it as much as she should have. They were sweeping down the boards together, and then in the next turn she made a practiced extra spin to put some distance between them before the next jump. They were facing each other then, and she shook her head, knowing he would see it. He wouldn’t know, she was sure, if she meant Not now because Elizabeth will get upset or Not now because I don’t want to talk about it but that was his problem.

After that jump, and a tandem spin, they were close again, and he breathed into her ear, “I’m not buying, Charlene. Something’s wrong, and it’s affecting what we’re-” Doug didn’t get a chance to finish because the next spin came up, and he was too busy spinning to talk.

She was waiting for the rest of his sentence when they came together again, but it didn’t come. Even as he lifted her and threw her, even as they practiced the part that really freaked her out where Doug grabbed her hands and spun, and she was supposed to relax and let him get her airborne, into and out of the technique and not a word.

Maybe he’ll let it go. Somehow, she didn’t believe that was the case, though.

It wasn’t. When Elizabeth let them stop much later for a long break, Doug was the first off the ice, blade-walking over to his water and towel. Charlene vaguely noticed him sitting down and doing something over in his corner, but at the time she was much more interested in her own water to really look.

But she did take notice a minute later, when he walked over and slid something onto the bench. It was a notebook.

“What if I ask like this?”

Charlene read the sentence, and read it again, and read it again…and if her heart had skipped a beat or two that day, she felt like it stopped for a good ten seconds when the realization struck her.

He must have talked to Melanie. She must have told him.

And he had bought a notebook of his own. Charlene managed to tear her eyes away from the notebook as Doug sat down next to her. He looked at her, down at the words, and back up again. Obviously, he wasn’t going to say anything more.

He wasn’t going to say anything more.

He cannot possibly understand how much this means to me. There’s no way he could know.

When she still didn’t do anything, he wrote a bit more. “Are you okay?”

…But she didn’t know who he really was, she didn’t understand why Doug was two people, she didn’t trust him, even after this she didn’t trust him…and Melanie!

“It’s not something I want to talk about right now. I’m having struggles but I think I can get over it. If I haven’t by August—ask me again.”

“Fair enough.” Just like that, he was back out on the ice.

It was a good minute before Charlene could put all the thoughts away in little boxes and follow him.

Concerned about how she was feeling, worried all the more how things were almost certainly going to blow right the hell up in everybody’s faces before long—she was sure of it—Charlene tried very hard to give Doug some distance.

That afternoon, the next day, and all through July. As much as she didn’t want to push Doug away, she wanted family more, and as wonderful as Doug’s offer had been—and he kept it up, seemed to always have the notebook with him whenever she saw him—Charlene still couldn’t trust it. She still didn’t trust him.

It wasn’t until August that they “talked” again.

By then practices were being held in the Baskerville Arena, whenever the members of Blades and Satin could get the local hockey team, the Portsmouth Whatevers, off their ice. Friday the Fourteenth, exactly two months before opening night, Elizabeth Oakshue was in one extremely foul mood.

It was the fear again, Charlene was able to tell after watching her aunt out of the corner of her eye for some time. Every time Auntie Liz had a moment to herself, when she thought nobody was watching, her face fell out of its regal anger to an awful depression. If she hadn’t known how old her aunt was, Charlene would have placed her expression at about sixteen—a very mournful sixteen.

Something was killing the woman, and Charlene knew Elizabeth would never admit it.

So I put it out of my mind? That sucks.

But she had little choice—to sit and worry about her aunt would affect her own performance, and as much as Charlene wanted to find some intimacy with the woman…when you put up that many KEEP OUT signs, the point had to be taken.

Since it was a Friday practice—and since, despite Elizabeth’s mood, everyone in the troupe was putting out a fabulous performance—practice ended early, leaving a windy but otherwise beautiful midsummer afternoon waiting for them all.

Not that touch football was exactly how Charlene would have wanted to spend her afternoon; a few rounds of tennis would have been more her speed—or even a long walk. But everybody else was saying football, and it was really hard to play tennis by yourself…

…and if what she wanted was family, well, her family was playing football that afternoon. And I’m not going to miss it. She had given Sarah and the 9-year-old Perkins twins, Zachary and Avery, a ride to the Stewart Park, and was glad to get the doors open and let all that talk spill out into the fresh air. Charlene shook her head to clear it as she stepped out.

Let’s see…football? Huh. She figured taking her pad with her wasn’t a great idea; it would just get lost or smushed or something. The same thing went for her cards. Geez, I’ll feel naked.

Charlene compromised, took the cards with her—promising herself she’d leave them on the sidelines and not forget them.

From the moment she walked onto the park grounds, following everybody else across the park to the field, she was in step with Douglas Hawkins.

By August their relationship had become very different—almost strange. They worked together so much that she knew she could trust him, knew she could count on him, and yet they hadn’t really talked about anything. Like his being two people. Charlene still didn’t have any comprehension of that, even though by then she had seen it more plainly—when a stranger, or an acquaintance, walked into Doug’s life, someone he didn’t really trust, Tough Doug was the only Hawkins in the room.

Charlene didn’t like that at all and didn’t trust it either…but tell that to my heart, she thought as she felt his presence just a step away. He could hold my hand right now.

Oh, honestly! And we’re still thirteen, are we?

He interrupted her silent confusion. “It’s August.” Before she could get upset at the rhetorical statement she couldn’t answer anyway, he went on, “Are you all better? Out on the ice?”

They both knew that she was worse. But it was nice of him to let her admit it for herself. And she did so admit, shaking her head no emphatically.

“So, when do we sit down and talk about it?”

She had thought about that a lot—and if not Doug, then Melanie…and lately her talks with Melanie had almost dried up. Maybe if I’d told her about my problem three months ago, I’d have a solution by now.

Did I want to keep it for Doug to solve? That thought wasn’t any fun at all. Why can’t I make my heart shut up??

Elizabeth had not made herself available for such a discussion, so…Charlene nodded again.

“Can I take you to dinner tomorrow night?”

No. You can’t. She gave her head a good shaking in case he couldn’t read her expression.

He was silent for at least thirty seconds—probably trying to figure out why I say yes and no to basically the same question. Wish I understood myself. But she wasn’t going out with him Saturday night, that she was sure about.

“What if I drop by the library tomorrow? Are you working?”

She looked at her skating partner as they approached the field. I really wish I knew what you were thinking. But she needed to get over this problem, and that meant at least talking about it with someone…

Charlene gave in and nodded. Doug didn’t exactly look relieved that she had said yes, but he did smile quietly. “Thanks.”

She thought about it for a moment, then pulled out Card #10: “It’s my pleasure!”

He didn’t say anything, but his eyes crinkled at the corners—the way they did when he was really smiling, even though his mouth didn’t always move.

Before she could stop herself, Charlene looked around for Melanie—and found her already waiting on the field, watching them both. Oh, this is so bad. Mel, I don’t want you to be hurt—but he doesn’t feel like that about you, dear!

Like it would matter.

Did Doug know? About how Melanie felt? Charlene wasn’t sure—boys could, in her experience, be amazingly dense sometimes. Maybe he knew but didn’t find it terribly important to be on Melanie’s good side.

Which was fine for him—Melanie wasn’t the closest thing he had to a sister.

Or was she? I really have no idea.

Somehow Melanie and Douglas became opposing captains, and everybody ranged around to see who would be picked. How novel, Charlene realized. I don’t think I’ve ever been in one of these before. Hope I don’t get picked last.

Far from it—after a quick look at Doug, Melanie picked Charlene first. Oh dear. If Doug minded he didn’t react, calling Tim Drake over to his side. The others walked this way and that accordingly—various BallBoys, Rustikovs, and Perkinses. Almost everybody had come over for the game, and even Millie was watching from the sidelines, keeping her youngest out from under big kid feet.

For no reason that she understood, Charlene had a sudden pang, remembering how her mother had once sat on a bench, smiling as her father taught her how to skate.

Before she let the memory get the better of her, Charlene ran over and handed Millie her cards for safekeeping.

“Don’t let those boys run you over, dear,” Millie said, smiling gently.

I’ll give ’em what for, Millie, don’t you worry. Having no way to actually say this, Charlene just returned a smile and ran onto the field. She was almost late for her first huddle but got into the thick of things just as Melanie was preparing her first play.

Over Melanie’s “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do, Anya, you go out ten yards and hook left. Coon, you go down the middle—” and Sarah’s “I can’t believe my own sister picked me last, like she didn’t even know me even though I dropped the ball a couple times last game it’s not like I don’t have any feelings—” Charlene caught herself looking over the heads in the huddle, over at the other side. Doug was joking with Tim Drake, then he swooped down to tickle little Zachary Perkins, then he stopped to tie the right shoe of one of the twins…

I guess Tough Doug stayed home. I’m glad of that.

Boy, though—I really wish I understood. Anything!

The first play began. Charlene surprised herself—having never really played football before, and having only a vague understanding of the rules, she managed to do her part, blocking one or the other—sometimes both—of the Perkins twins, and even once catching a touchdown pass. Which she promptly dropped before she took a step, not knowing how heavy the ball was going to be.

Melanie rolled her eyes at this, offering no more than “Good one, Char,” but Charlene didn’t care—she had caught the ball, and was proud of herself. She laughed about it with Sarah and Anya who both seemed much more understanding.

After about an hour, when she really had stopped thinking much about Doug or Melanie or anything but football, it happened. Old Coon jumped to try and catch a wild pass Bruce threw at him, and fell over Richard, tumbling both men to the ground. The football bounced into the brushy woods and disappeared.

The players closest to the accident immediately stopped to see if Coon and Richard were okay—the way they both were laughing, everything was apparently all right. Charlene, standing close to where the ball had disappeared, voted herself Retrieval Duty and plunged into the forest.

Surprisingly thick in here, she thought to herself. The brush was a lot deeper and the trees a lot closer together than it looked from outside. Just finding the ball would be a trick. She finally spotted it in a tangle of weeds and had just reached down to yank it out when another hand grabbed the other end.

It was Doug, just appeared from around a tree. “Whoa! Oh, hey—you startled me.”

Yeah. Charlene suddenly realized she didn’t much feel like moving. Doug wasn’t really getting around to picking up the football himself. Somehow, they had both ended up kneeling close together, not quite touching…and not moving much either.

The forest was so quiet—nothing to compare with her heart, thudding away like it would deafen her. His eyes were such a deep brown, and Charlene knew with absolute certainty that he wanted to kiss her, and she knew with even more certainty that she was dying to let him. And when she didn’t pull away, he began to lean towards her…

But Melanie!!

Just like that Charlene stood up, dusting off her jeans. Doug looked confused, then hurt, then extremely guarded as a thick set of walls slammed down behind his eyes.

Don’t be like that, please! How could she tell him? Charlene tried mouthing Melanie at him, but all he did was shake his head, saying, “I don’t understand you, Char. I’m sorry.” He pulled the football free, and numbly she followed him out of the forest.

Charlene only really snapped back to reality when they left the trees behind and she looked at the field. Everybody was goofing around—except Melanie Oakshue, who was standing and staring right at them both.

And Charlene knew that the expression on her and Doug’s face wouldn’t make a difference, nor would anything she might say. I might as well have let him kiss me—she’ll never believe it didn’t happen.

The game continued, but it wasn’t fun anymore. Charlene didn’t even remember who won, as she dropped off chattering Perkins twins and headed home with the one remaining Oakshue she hadn’t really annoyed lately.

And the only one who was remotely in a good mood. Melanie didn’t even show up for dinner, and Auntie Liz didn’t even notice—which was enough of a bad sign to keep even Sarah quiet for the entire meal. Elizabeth had that glassed-over look again, which Charlene knew by then meant something really bad had happened.

She knew better than to ask. Auntie Liz would drop whatever bomb it was on them all at the worst possible time and not before.

Since her aunt was mad anyway, Charlene figured she might as well go out and skate, it wouldn’t make things worse. And it didn’t—but for once, nothing became any better either.

That ice was where she had worked so hard with Doug, where she had started to realize how much she cared for him. When she found herself unconsciously working through their routine, first she thought of him, and when that proved too difficult and she tried to think of other things, the current skating problem she had was the only other train of thought available.

The skating problem that Doug was probably not, now, going to show up the next day and talk with her about. Which brings me right back where I started.

Even skating held no joy that night, and Charlene gave it up and hauled herself to bed early.

Of course, she couldn’t sleep. She tossed, she turned, she threw her pillow across the room. Even the beautiful angel nightlight was just a burning bulb in the corner.

Why is it that a person who can’t even speak can’t get her own mind to shut up?

She didn’t know—but it wasn’t happening. With absolutely nothing better to do, Charlene left her room and wandered the hallways in her oversized Buccaneers sweatshirt and bare feet. A fleeting thought wondered if Doug had stayed over, as he sometimes did, and what he would think of her if he came upon her in the hallway.

Which was followed by a thought wondering what Doug Hawkins wore to bed at night.

Maybe if I pound my head against the wall… But was there anything wrong in thinking about him? I don’t know, Char, why don’t we ask Melanie!

As she wandered towards the front of the house, Charlene suddenly realized she wanted to cry. Not that she tolerated pity parties, especially from herself, but why did absolutely everything have to be so complicated? Even if—

A noise in the silent house interrupted her upset thoughts. Charlene hadn’t been paying attention, but as she started to, she found herself on the ground floor, near that always locked, never explained little room.

That always locked, never explained little room that had light coming from beneath the door.

The insomniac detective, that’s what they’ll call me. It was strange what the mind threw out for grabs at three in the morning. There was, of course, no way she was going to go back to bed. Doug? Sarah? Melanie?

Like any of them were expert lockpicks? No, Charlene knew that there was going to be only one person in that little room.

If she had really been in a courageous mood, Charlene might have just walked up and thrown open the door, and that course of action did strike her for a moment…but it had not been a good day, and the last thing she needed was to get tossed out of the mansion again.

But if she catches me listening at the door I can always say I thought there was a burglar.

Charlene tiptoed close enough to even peek in the little crack that was open, but all she could see was the wall. What she could hear, though…

What she could hear was a quiet, constant weeping, followed by a shuddering breath, and then more tears.

What she could hear was Elizabeth Oakshue in absolute despair.

Charlene also picked up a phrase, just audible, that she only noticed because Elizabeth kept repeating herself, every few breaths. “I’ve failed. They’re going to take it all. I’ve failed.” She could hardly believe her ears.

None of this makes any sense. This is the Rock of freaking Gibraltar we’re talking about here. What is going on?

Maybe she’s practicing for a play.

Charlene tried to think of what she could do, wanting desperately to reach out to this woman. Not because of her father’s letters. Well, not just because, anyway.

At that moment, leaning against the wall listening to her aunt’s despair, Charlene realized that she loved Elizabeth Oakshue. Not that there had ever been a good reason to, not that there was any promise of anything being in it for her.

I love her. I love my Aunt Elizabeth, and God, please tell me there’s something I can do.

Charlene had gotten lost in her thoughts and hadn’t been paying close attention to the little room anymore, and it was a complete shock when the light switched off, the door opened, and she was face-to-face with Aunt Elizabeth.

Oh God, what have I done? What will she do?

The woman looked very small, somehow. Even as Charlene waited for the imminent explosion, she realized that there wasn’t going to be one…that Elizabeth had no fight, no life left in her that night.

Her Aunt didn’t say a word. They looked at each other for a very long moment, and then Elizabeth turned and walked down the hall, disappearing into the darkness.

She didn’t shut the door behind her. A dim thought in the midst of terrible apprehensions. Charlene looked, and the door, the door to the little room that nobody entered, was still open. She could solve one mystery right now.

Without thinking twice Charlene grabbed the door handle, slammed the door shut and raced up to her room, barely able to make it to her own bed before she collapsed.

She lay weeping for a very long time before sleep overtook her.

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