The Silent Skater

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Chapter Ten

It had taken a miracle to get Elizabeth Oakshue to let Charlene continue working at the library even part-time, and it was a miracle that Charlene could perform those duties. The only Oakshue currently speaking to her was Sarah, and all the poor girl could comment on was all the tension floating through the house. Doug had not shown up for practice—and what was worse, Elizabeth hadn’t seemed to care. Why or what or who…? Sharky thoughts kept swimming through Charlene’s mind—about Elizabeth’s strange breakdown, about what she was sure she felt for Doug, about how hurt Melanie would be if she realized, about the imminent opening of the Blades and Satin season and her inability to skate in front of people…

Maybe it’s a good thing I can’t talk. Nobody’s asking why I’m not saying anything. Charlene just kept swiping library cards into the reader, occasionally pointing people to the section of library they were looking for and tried quietly not to go crazy.

By mid-afternoon she noticed that the library had completely emptied, even though there were several hours to closing time. Everyone’s out having a wonderful day.

Just us bookworms, here with our thoughts. Lucky us.

Just when she thought she had something of a handle on her Aunt—the solid Rock, always in control, Sergeant Oakshue—the woman revealed she did subscribe to the monthly magazine Feelings, even if she kept her back issues hidden away.

Her back issues? I’ve got to get out of this place.

The other problems, Doug and Melanie and the skating, that all came together in a mishmash. She needed Doug’s help to get over her fear—having an inkling that Aunt Elizabeth might not be the best person to talk to. I never tried, though.

No. Even she didn’t have that much courage.

Charlene needed Doug’s help, and found herself desiring his company even then, even knowing how hurt Melanie would be. Not that it was her fault that Melanie held feelings for someone who didn’t return them, not that it was her fault that Douglas was somehow two people and might not be trustworthy…not that it was her fault that she had to work with both of them all the time and keep up good relations with both or else Blades and Satin was going to fall apart which it might do anyway if she fell on her face in front of God and everyone…

Charlene realized that she just didn’t have any strength left to deal with it and leaned forward against her librarian’s desk to put her head in her hands.

She heard the creaky front door open and close but rebelled against being a good library assistant and looking up, angry at the thought of smiling at anybody. She could possibly lose her job on top of which she would be terribly embarrassed—and not even able to explain what was wrong—but she just didn’t care anymore.

Charlene heard footsteps walking across the hardwood floor, right up to her desk.

“Char? Are you okay?”

She heard the words, recognized the voice, and could not believe her ears. How could he be here, now? What am I going to do?

Well, girlfriend, you can’t hide in your arms forever… Charlene raised her head and looked Doug Hawkins square in his pretty brown eyes.

“You didn’t think I’d be here.”

She could only shake her head no.

He was carrying his notebook, and his pen. “I keep my promises.”

She read that and just looked at him for a long moment. If he’s upset about yesterday, if he’s come to try and win my heart, if if if…I don’t care what if, I just don’t want to deal with it. I’m tired. Tired of my handicap and tired of difficult people and tired of everything.

But Blades and Satin…that wasn’t just about her, that problem was going to affect them all, and she really needed help.

“We’d better sit down.”

They moved through the silent library to a table by the window. The afternoon sunlight laced shadows across the surface, and for a time Charlene just let the beams play across her fingers. Doug had written something, but she didn’t read it right away. Interesting power people have over me…nice to see it in reverse for once.

Perhaps showing his character, Doug waited, letting her take her own time.

“So, the problem of skating in public.”

No. Not yet. She took her pen and crossed this out. “Doug, we need to talk about yesterday first.”

“We don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to.”

“I wanted you to kiss me.”

Now it was his turn to sit back, and if Charlene was any judge—I wonder, anymore—his eyes looked hurt. “Then why didn’t you let me?”

“Why didn’t you let me explain?”

“Hey, I know rejection when I see it.”

By now the conversation had turned a page in the notebook, but Charlene turned it back and circled I wanted you to kiss me twice.

“Then why did you walk away?”

Not writing things down anymore? Fabulous. Well, I still have to…

“Because of who I didn’t want to hurt…who is hurt anyway.”

As he read, Doug’s face changed. Some of the fear and anger that had been playing across his eyes drifted away, like maybe he understood what she meant. He leaned back in his creaky wooden library chair, and they just looked at one another for a minute.

I did want you to kiss me? I want you to kiss me right now, Douglas. I want you to push your chair back and walk around this table and smooth the hair away from my face…

She stopped herself.

But not because I love you. I don’t, yet. Maybe I won’t ever.

I just want my first kiss.

Like it would be worth anything, that first kiss, if there wasn’t love behind it.

Doug finally spoke. “I know all about the way Melanie feels, Charlene. I don’t want her to be hurt any more than you do.” His eyes were very serious. “I can’t help the way she feels.” Yet even as he said this he looked down at the table.

Now what?

“I…guess I did flirt with her when we were getting to know one another, three years ago. I didn’t think there was anything in it, I just want people to like me. And we were working so close together…I mean, you know how that goes.”

Come again? She raised an eyebrow, silently daring him to explain that.

He blushed, of all things. “I don’t mean—what I’m saying is that when you’re skating as a team, as a couple, if you will…there’s a lot of physical contact.”

The physical contact that he had apologized for so many times. Now I get it.

“I never intentionally touched her, Charlene,” and he was looking her straight in the eyes as he said this, “But you’ve been there, it happens by accident all the time.

“Except I don’t think Melanie ever realized it was an accident.”

The way that girl feels about sex, I’m inclined to believe him.

What was she going to do?

Charlene picked up her pad, wrote on it, and set it down near her on the table. Either he would come over and read, or he would not.

After a moment he got up and walked over.

“I don’t know how to trust you, Douglas.”

“Char, I’ve had a thing for you since that first day, but did I ever press it? Did I ever push myself on you, even when we were working so close together?”

Well, there was that. On top of which, the mention of that first day brought back to Charlene’s mind thoughts of a thing or two she had done that had been deceptive…she knew she was blushing now and wondered what he would think.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to live inside your skin. I can’t imagine how hard it is to deal with the world. I’d like to think I can imagine how hurt you’ve probably been in the past.

“Maybe I’ve been hurt too. Maybe there are people in this world I can’t talk to either, even though I still have my voice.

“Maybe I understand better than you think.”

She read his words and wondered at them. I want to believe him, I really do. And yet she still just didn’t know. She didn’t know enough.

So ask him. “You want me to trust you?”

“If it’s not too much trouble…” He was smiling a little, like that had been a joke.

I’m not in a funny mood, Hawkins, really, I’m not. But he was about to realize that, wasn’t he? “Explain what the deal is with Tough Doug.”

His response would say so much. If he withdrew, or got angry…

Doug read her words and looked up to meet her eyes. For a long moment he didn’t do anything. Then, “Char, I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t write this down.

“I shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve picked up on that—probably talking to Melanie helped. I can’t fault you for wanting to know about that. About how I’m two different people.” He said all this still looking her right in the eye. “I’m aware of what I do. Someday…someday when the time comes I’ll explain why.

“I’m not going to say anything more today except that it’s something I have to do, had to do, to cope with life. I had to be Tough Doug sometimes just to get by. But he only comes out around people I don’t trust.

“You don’t have to like it, but you don’t have to worry about it getting in the way of…whatever we might have.”

She didn’t like it. But that could be the control freak talking. The trust issue went both ways, didn’t it? And he trusted her enough to open up this far, anyway.

He was writing again.

“Give me a chance?”

Charlene met his eyes again and hated being afraid. God, I want him to kiss me. Oh, God! Please! But it wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be love.

“Give me some time?”

Reading this, Doug’s shoulders fell a bit. He didn’t look like waiting was something he had any desire to do. “I don’t like that. But okay.”

As she read this, the library door opened to admit elderly Mrs. Janssen, come to collect her latest book. Charlene smiled as she left the table to help her friend. Mrs. Janssen was always into the strangest things for a 60-some year-old woman. This month it was motorcycles, and she was full of news of the old bike she had bought and was trying to repair.

The image of the elderly woman on her knees in coveralls, hands in the middle of a motorcycle engine, broke even Charlene’s difficult mood.

Sometimes life just couldn’t be taken seriously.

She and Mrs. Janssen managed to find what the woman was looking for, and Charlene let Doug wait a little more while she reshelved several returned books. Putting the last one away, there was room enough over the top to look through the shelves to where he was sitting.

Why do you want me?

No. She didn’t like that train of thought. I know what I’m worth. I’m pretty sure I do.

Still, though… At that moment he looked up and met her eyes, and his gaze was strong, even twenty feet away. Charlene couldn’t help but notice that she was rather…hungry, emotionally. And physically.

Show me you can wait, Doug.

You won’t have to wait long, I don’t think.

But what happened now? Once Mrs. Janssen had left there was nothing to do but walk back over to where Doug was waiting for her. Would he continue to try and get somewhere, relationship-wise? Did she want him to?

Good or bad, Charlene didn’t have to figure out the answer to her last question. Doug proved as good as his word and had moved on to other things by the time she had returned.

Or moved back to other things. “So, the problem of skating in public.”

This at least she could deal with. I sure hope he’s got some ideas. “Yeah. What are we going to do—I don’t want to ruin everything for everyone.”

“Well, I’m just the water boy but I think that’s your first problem—thinking your skating is going to make or break the show.”

Hmm. He was probably right. “What, it’s not all about me?”

He did have a very nice smile. “I dunno, maybe it is—I’m just trying to get you to stop feeling that way about it.”

“Okay, say for argument’s sake that I can pull off this change in attitude. I’m still scared skateless of messing up in front of everybody. I’ve never skated with an audience!”

Doug tapped his pen on the pad for a long while. Then, “You’ve never once skated when anyone was watching?”

“Of course I’ve skated when someone was watching, but not,” and she couldn’t complete the thought, ’I mean—you know what I’m talking about!”

His mouth quirked up at the corners, like he was trying not to laugh. “I think I may have an idea or two.”

As it turned out, he had several ideas, and the time spent explaining each one, and laughing about things together, and just having someone to talk to who wasn’t distant or difficult was really nice, Charlene thought to herself later. She still didn’t trust him…

…but when the time came, maybe they would get a chance to figure out why.

The rather happy glow the time spent with Doug left in her heart lasted all the way back home from the library, lasted through changing into her skating practice clothes, winding through the mammoth house, and halfway to the barn.

Every good feeling in her life came to a screeching halt when Melanie slammed out of the barn door and stopped in her tracks, looking like twelve miles of black ice.

I’m not ready for this. The last thing Charlene wanted was a falling out between her and Melanie, but it wasn’t her fault that Doug didn’t—and it wasn’t her fault that Melanie wouldn’t—and whether she liked it or not, that falling out was going to happen anyway, wasn’t it?

Pretty much. Melanie’s eyes were snapping, her hands clutching her skate case so tightly they were bone white. “Are you—” it came out as a croak, and she had to stop and swallow, “Are you making a play for the childish, disagreeable boy I’m in love with?” Even as angry as those light-green eyes were, Charlene saw uncertainty as well, like Melanie was still hoping that she had misunderstood something.

But when her older cousin just stood there, not rushing to try and convince her that everything was okay…Melanie’s face hardened in a way that reminded Charlene strongly of her Aunt Elizabeth. Melanie, please…

“I think I’ve figured it out, Miss Charlene.” Melanie stepped forward, and Charlene almost stepped back before she caught herself. Melanie wasn’t right to be angry, and her older cousin wasn’t about to back down. “I’ve got it all worked out.

“You didn’t have a life of your own so you’ve come after mine.”

What?!

“You horned right in on our family—took Sarah’s heart, took my place in the troupe, took my dancing partner, you’ve been trying to get yourself a mother of your own, haven’t you-” she kept stepping forward as she spoke, but Charlene refused to back down. “-and now you and that dancing partner are gonna be dancing all over the place, aren’t you? You just want everything of mine, isn’t that it?” They were nose-to-nose now. Charlene could feel Melanie’s words hitting her face.

Oh, GOD, I wish I could shout back at her and make her understand. Make her see that I’ve got a side here too. Well, Melanie would just have to simmer down and read it, wouldn’t she?

Except…except she didn’t. And that broke Charlene’s heart more than any angry words her cousin could have come up with. As soon as Charlene brought out her pad, started to write her side, Melanie turned her back. “I don’t want to hear it, Charlene, I just don’t.

“I’m not speaking to you anymore.” After saying this Melanie turned, pushed past her cousin and disappeared into the house. Charlene heard stomping feet, a yelp, her cousin scream, “Toepick, get out of my way, idiot dog!” Then more stomping, fading off into the mansion somewhere.

The idiot dog nosed out the backdoor, and Charlene sank to her knees in the dirt to hug him. She didn’t mean it, boy. She must really be hurting to treat you like that. She must be. Charlene buried her face in her dog’s fur and cried. It’s my fault. If I could talk to her, if I could just tell her that none of what she said is true…it’s my fault because I can’t tell her.

Charlene knew this wasn’t really true, she knew that her cousin was a spoiled, selfish brat who had major issues with knowing who she really was…but she’s my spoiled selfish brat and I love her, and I can’t stand that she’s not speaking to me.

There was no time, unfortunately, to get over it, or even deal with it at all. It was instead time for more skating practice, time to prove once again to Elizabeth Oakshue that her freak niece can skate well enough to be on her precious ice-dancing team…

She seriously expected Auntie Liz to mention the night before, and the room nobody ever went into, but Elizabeth didn’t say a word, except “You’re late.”

The same bad mood. But it felt different than her normal foul moods, this one was more serious. Auntie Liz was frightened again, Charlene could see it deep in her eyes during the four hours they worked on her dances. Doug showed up soon after her practice started, and it was more enjoyable to practice with him there, but now she couldn’t help but notice the way he touched her, and the way her heart reacted every time.

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