The Silent Skater

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Chapter Eleven

That night, exactly two months before the first performance, there was a scheduled Blades and Satin meeting in the Oakshue dining room. Practice ran so late that Charlene and Doug had to bolt their supper standing up in the kitchen, and just barely arrived in time. Elizabeth, who had kept them late, was sitting in her usual spot as if she had been there from the dawn of time…and looked fresh and coldly beautiful to boot.

How does that woman do that? Charlene wondered vaguely as she found a seat. She half expected Doug to sit next to her, and then she looked across the room to meet Melanie’s angry eyes—which Doug apparently noticed, because he decided to just lean next to the door. Oh, this is fun.

Dammit, Mel…

Enough for that later. It was obvious that there was more to go on than the normal two-month-warning kind of meeting. Elizabeth greeted everyone, talked about the good job everyone was doing in a dispassionate kind of way, and then opened the room for questions or discussion.

Then goode olde Queen Elizabeth—why haven’t I thought of that before? It’s so fitting—quietly listened to skaters going over this nit, that music requirement, saying very little except when spoken to directly.

Oh, she’s going to drop a bomb on us, I can just feel it. Perhaps the others could too, because what people had to say wasn’t much. Within five minutes the room was silent.

“We have an…interesting challenge in front of us.” She spoke, she stilled, and the room waited for her to speak again.

“The owners of the arena are no longer that interested in hockey.” She stopped here, and for a moment the room lightened—most everyone thinking that now they wouldn’t have to share their ice anymore.

Charlene knew, she knew, that couldn’t be it. She met Anya’s eyes, and Tim’s, and they were withholding their joy as well.

Elizabeth continued. “They are not especially interested in ice skating, either.” That resilenced the room very effectively.

The sadness and fear behind the woman’s eyes…Charlene felt herself wanting to cry, wanting to share what her aunt was feeling, wishing there were something she could do to help, to make it okay. Auntie, why do you hide from everyone??

Whatever the reason, Elizabeth wasn’t about to break tradition. With the steeliest of light-green eyes, she said flatly, “According to Smedlowe and Favor, either Blades and Satin doubles last year’s income…or the Baskerville Arena is going to become a parking garage.”

Charlene thought the room had been quiet before. Now everyone seemed to be holding their breath, and not a sound interrupted the frantic thoughts. Even in the midst of such horrible news, bringing them all together in sorrow, Charlene found that Melanie still wouldn’t meet her eyes.

Jack Peck, the Blades and Satin sound-lights-and-technical-stuff technician, offered, “Baskerville’s not…I mean, there are other—”

“I spent all morning trying the others, Jack. Nobody is even slightly interested.”

“You’re giving up awful quick, aren’t you?” Doug’s voice echoed over Charlene’s shoulder.

Elizabeth looked like she wanted to get angry at that, but if so, she swallowed it. “I haven’t given up on anything, Douglas. Like I said, this is just a challenge.” But the slump of her shoulders spoke against her hearty words…as did the emptiness in her eyes.

Paula Rustikov tried her best. “It’s an opportunity, dancers, not a problem! How can we make this show better?”

Charlene felt bad for her—the attempt at a pep-talk keeled over dead on the conference table. Paula received several hopeful looks, but nobody spoke.

Except Bruce Drake, who looked Elizabeth in the eye. “What did you say to them, exactly?”

Elizabeth turned her head. “Excuse me, Bruce?” Her words were courteous but her tone was not.

Bruce did not back down. “During your conversation with the arena managers, what did you say—and more importantly, Elizabeth, just how did you say it?”

“I don’t think I understand what you’re getting—”

“I know you understand exactly what I’m getting at. Did it ever occur to you, before this important meeting, that it might benefit the troupe, the team that’s so all-important to you, if you brought along someone who has more tact and sense than they have angry pride?”

Speaking of angry pride, did anyone else see how white her lips just got? Charlene had seen plenty of Queen Elizabeth’s anger, but she had a feeling a whole new level had just been reached.

“Don’t you ever speak to me like that, Bruce Drake, you have no right—”

“My rights? Do I have the right to a career? Do I have the right to continue skating with a team that I love? What right do you have to risk the livelihood of forty-some people that—”

“You are out of line, Bruce! I have had enough!” They were both standing now, shouting at each other across three feet of oak table.

“I just want to know at precisely what point your own selfishness became more important than your family!”

“Get out! Get out of my house!

He stood his ground. “I’ll leave, Elizabeth, but I won’t quit. I won’t abandon my place in this team just to spite you.”

Charlene looked at Bruce, trying to read his eyes. You’re kidding, she thought to herself. But she had seen a moment of softness, seen that longing for just a second while his shout was still bouncing around the room…he loves her.

His voice dropped suddenly in volume. Though they could all still hear, it was as if he was speaking to Elizabeth alone. “You know I gave up competing to skate with this troupe. I left because I believed—in your dream. I believed in what we could accomplish, and some mornings I still do.

“Elizabeth, you can’t blame the arena, you can’t blame the fans, and you sure as hell can’t blame any of us.” Charlene could see how much it hurt him to say it. “You don’t have a clue what I’m saying, I’m sure. But if Blades and Satin dies,

“It will be no-one’s fault but yours.” He held her gaze for a very long moment, and then turned away. “If we have to do twice as well, we’d better start practicing twice as hard. Baskerville tomorrow morning, skaters. 6 a.m.”

Coon spoke up, though he had to clear his throat twice before words would come out. “Isn’t there a game or practice or something?”

Bruce spoke as he moved towards the door. “I’ll speak with them. We’re practicing tomorrow.” His tone left no doubt—it would be done. Then the door closed behind him, and Charlene wondered what happened next. She had never heard anyone speak to Elizabeth like that. She had a feeling maybe nobody had ever spoken to Elizabeth like that.

It was like the script had been thrown out the window, the reason they had all gotten together was forgotten, and everyone just sat there looking at their leader, who stood and stared and said nothing.

Charlene watched the muscles in her jaw working feverishly. Either she’s going to bawl somebody out, or her head’s going to explode.

When the woman finally did speak, it was obvious she was exercising all of her control. “Practice will begin tomorrow at 6. This meeting is over.”

Now all of you get out of my house. Not that Elizabeth would ever say that, but Charlene certainly felt it was implied. I even live here and I think I want to get out for awhile. Rather than wait for everyone like last time, Elizabeth swept out of the room with all the dignity she had left. Charlene stood and joined the crowd of exiting skaters. She tried to catch up with Melanie, but the girl was moving off down the hallway like her feet were on fire, only a few steps behind her mother. They even stalk off the same way.

All around her were whispers about the arena closing, the fight, what would happen to the troupe. Charlene felt like something of an outsider—her family was involved in this Blades and Satin thing, but the team itself wasn’t really her family…

Not that she wouldn’t think it was awful if everything collapsed, but even with a place in the show, and an apparently honored one at that, her life still hadn’t begun revolving around Blades and Satin.

Maybe it should. It was a stray thought, and unwanted, but it came up anyway. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Breaking away from the mass of people snaking their way back to the real world, Charlene cut through the den, heading for the second kitchen.

To find Doug Hawkins sitting in a chair, looking out the back window, idly petting her dog. When she entered, Toepick ran to her, and he looked up. “Hi.”

She offered a halfhearted wave and leaned against the refrigerator. Toepick decided he needed to go outside, so she took care of that, and turned to find Doug watching her. Please don’t start anything right now, Doug, I don’t know what I’d do. And not knowing kinda scared her.

His mind was still on the meeting, though. “Do you think we’re going to make it?”

Charlene had no doubt that he meant the team. She responded with Card #8, “I don’t know.”

“There’s never been an argument like that before.”

She was willing to bet that he wanted to talk about it, so she sat down at the kitchen table and looked at him. Doug had returned to staring out the window, but when he looked back at her and saw her waiting, he grunted and stood up. He looked like he was going to say something, then he caught himself, and began looking around the kitchen, his face red. Charlene wondered what was wrong. She got her answer when he pulled a To Do pad off of the kitchen counter and grabbed a left-behind colored pencil, probably Sarah’s.

God, he is so sweet. He could just talk to me, but instead… Her heart was warming to him all the time.

“Do you want to talk?”

“I think I do.”

They looked at each other across the pad for a moment. You know, I hadn’t bothered thinking about how he feels in all this. She felt a little guilty about that. “You okay?”

After a moment, thinking about it, Doug reached over and tapped Card #8, at the top of the stack resting on the table. She guessed he meant he didn’t know whether he was okay or not.

She waited while he thought some more about it.

“I’ve been around Elizabeth and company for almost five years. We’ve had tons of arguments, but never anything like that.”

“Do you think we’ll get through this?”

“That’s a really hard question anymore. We used to have so much going for us, have so much fun out there, but now…”

Charlene wondered if Doug would tell her what he really thought of Auntie Liz. “Do you think Bruce is right?”

“About?”

“About why this is all happening.”

Doug didn’t answer that for a long time, which gave Charlene time to make herself crazy trying to figure out what was taking so long. He’s questioning how I’ll take it. He’s wondering about his own loyalties to Oakshues in general. He’s trying to come up with the answer I want to hear.

He took long enough that she started making up weird excuses just to amuse herself. He’s feeling a bit gassy. He’s mentally undressing me. He’s mentally undressing himself. He’s stopped in the middle of mentally undressing himself because he can’t remember if he’s wearing clean underwear.

“Something funny?”

Oh, crap! She had gotten so distracted with herself she had forgotten him and started grinning. If he makes me explain I’m just going to die right here. Charlene shook her head at him, hoping he wouldn’t press it. Thankfully he didn’t.

While she had been away, he had been writing. “I’d hate for you to think I’m not Elizabeth’s friend, that I’m not on her side, but I have to say that I think Bruce was bang on target.” He watched her while she read, looking a little apprehensive.

You’re cute, you know that? She didn’t write this down. “I don’t want so sound like I’m against my own family, and I’ve only been around for 6 months, but I thought Bruce was right too! I dunno—what he said about pride, and all…”

“Yeah. She could teach a class.”

“What is her deal? Does anybody know? I mean, she would throw away all of the team’s hopes, careers even, because she won’t give a little on ticket prices, or location?” Charlene didn’t believe for one minute that nobody in the area would even think of hosting the famous and well-received Blades and Satin.

“Or cut down on costume expenses, or consider bringing in more talent, or—perish the thought—letting someone else skate in the Star Finisher position.”

“Well, as far as that last one, she is the best.” As she wrote that down, Charlene wondered if she really believed it or just wanted to be loyal.

Doug looked at her, an expression on his face that she couldn’t read. “Do you really think so?”

She wasn’t sure what he meant. “I suppose Anya might have better days, and Lord knows Bruce works his tail off, but still!”

“Char,” he began, and then pulled the pad out of her hands.

“YOU are better than Elizabeth.”

…She read his words, and looked him in the eye, and saw that he believed it. She shook her head at him. You’re wrong, Doug.

“Yes, you are, Charlene.”

Abruptly, she pushed back from the table, stood, and walked across the kitchen to stare out the same window that had fascinated Doug so recently. She didn’t want to look him in the eye anymore. He’s wrong. He has to be. Doug, you just don’t know what you’re saying. She had been taught on a neighborhood pond, by her father, and as good as he apparently had been, she had never competed, never won anything or been any sort of professional.

You have to be wrong about that, Doug, because I don’t know what it would do to me if you weren’t.

Why, though, would it matter? She had no dreams of competing, or being a star, did she?

Do I?

Charlene didn’t like that train of thought at all and grabbed for another. Then she walked right back to the table and reached for the pad.

“I’m not prepared to say whether you’re right or wrong—except to say that you’re wrong—but one thing you can not do is tell Elizabeth Oakshue what you just told me.”

He read and looked a little puzzled. “Because…”

Wasn’t it obvious? “Because—” and the answer hit her with an icy slap and opened a brand-new window on everything.

Because that’s what she’s afraid of.

A quick series of memories flashed through Charlene’s mind: the look in her aunt’s eyes when that white skate case had first shown up at the airport; her dismissal when Charlene had first attempted to skate out at the barn; the shouting fit when she had caught her niece there later…

Maybe it doesn’t explain everything, but…hmm. She would have to think about that.

Meanwhile Doug was still sitting there, waiting for her answer. So very lame! “Because of that whole pride thing.”

If he had noticed her brainstorm, he let it pass without comment. “Okay. I will let it go—even though I’m right.”

As good a time as any to change subjects. “Have you talked to Melanie?”

“I’d love to, but she’s not speaking to me.”

“Then she’s not speaking to either of us.”

“And Queen Elizabeth is off brooding over her skating failures—if it wasn’t for Sarah, this house would be dead silent sometimes.” He slid the pad over, got a strange look on his face, and grabbed it back, adding, “No offense.”

She read and laughed silently. “None taken.” Noting that Doug called her Queen Elizabeth too, she wrote, “How could we forget about Sarah? Maybe she’s not okay either.”

Doug nodded and stood up. “Then let’s go find her.” She rose too and was already on her way when he caught her hand.

Well, I like that.

He let it go too quickly, though, as if she might be offended. “I don’t know if this is such a good idea, but…”

He’s going to kiss me. A quick check—You know, I might just let him. That thought surprised her.

But he grabbed the pad, wrote, and handed it to her. “Do you trust me yet?”

So that, the question, he had been worried about. Charlene could understand. He deserved some slack on her part, he really did. “More than before.” Even as he read this, she snaked an arm under his hand to write, “You won’t have to wait much longer.”

He looked in her eyes, and when he took her hand again, she didn’t pull away. It was okay, just for a moment, to be close to him, to feel the tender touch of his hand.

He even smells good. Okay, Charlene Elizabeth, it isn’t time for this. Against her will she finally moved away, and he let her go.

They went searching through the mansion for little Sarah—fortunately not running into either Melanie or the Ice Queen along the way.

Sarah was in her room. The door was closed but Charlene could hear muffled tears seeping out underneath. Oh… She knocked once.

The “Come in,” wasn’t very hopeful.

Charlene pushed open the door, and Sarah was just sitting up straight on the bed, wiping her tears away and looking like she was getting ready for a talking to.

When she saw who it was, she burst out in fresh tears and ran to throw her arms around Doug. “Oh! I thought it was mom come to tell me that it was all my fault the troupe’s in trouble, but I didn’t mean to fall last night, I really didn’t!” She sobbed into his chest.

“It’s not your fault, kiddo. It’s not your fault.” Without letting go, Doug shuffled with Sarah over to the bed, and they sat while she cried.

Charlene couldn’t help but cry too, although she felt just a little hurt that Sarah had made a beeline for Doug.

But she’s known him for five years. He’s more family than I am…and shame on me for thinking of myself right now anyway!

Charlene moved a stuffed alligator and sat down in the little chair by Sarah’s bedroom window, waiting in case there was something she could do. Meanwhile she watched Douglas Hawkins holding her little cousin, stroking her hair, whispering words of comfort, and…he’s crying.

Somehow the things she didn’t understand about him didn’t matter quite so much anymore.

You won’t wait much longer, Doug. I promise.

Sarah seemed to have an endless supply of tears, and after twenty minutes Charlene realized that there wasn’t anything she could do for her cousin, and quietly left the two alone. With all of the drama going on in the house that skating built, she knew she wasn’t about to drop right off into sleep, so Charlene figured she might as well watch some television—maybe get her mind off everything for awhile.

She was half hoping to corner Melanie in the den, but the big room was empty. She turned on the Gigantor and flipped through the cable channels, wishing she knew what she was looking for.

Of course, I know exactly what I’m looking for. But I don’t think they have a talk show on Matronly Ice-Skaters That Don’t Talk to People About Their Problems. She went through the channels again, just in case, but no luck.

Thirsty, Charlene slipped through the now silent house towards the kitchen she and Doug had shared earlier. She went through the swinging door into the dark room, opened the refrigerator, found a cold bottle of water, turned around and almost jumped out of her shoes.

Elizabeth Oakshue was standing by the table, and hadn’t said a word when Charlene had walked in. You could give a niece a heart attack, lady.

Her aunt wasn’t even looking at her—but rather the Things to Do pad that Charlene and Doug had been writing on earlier. They had just left it behind, and now it was in the hands of the Ice Queen, and Charlene could see what she was staring at. The moonlight slipping through the kitchen window was enough for her to read Doug’s words again.

“YOU are better than Elizabeth.”

She didn’t know what to think. For a very long minute Charlene looked at her aunt and Elizabeth looked at the pad, and neither one moved.

Finally, Elizabeth looked up, that muscle in her cheek twitching again. As usual, Charlene couldn’t begin to read the look in her guarded eyes. She waited for the explosion, the lecture, the angry words.

All the woman said was, “He’s right, you know.”

Then she put the pad down, turned, and disappeared, leaving Charlene with more questions…and no answers.

He’s right? She agrees with Doug—agrees that I’m a better skater. What does that mean? What does that mean to me? God, what does that mean to her?

Charlene waited days for the other shoe to drop, knowing that those words, that quiet statement, couldn’t be the whole story. After that weekend it was back to normal, practice practice practice and no real connection. Maybe they worked a little harder, but the first performance was drawing closer, and it was to be expected.

Yet Charlene knew that she hadn’t heard the end of it. She kicked herself for leaving the pad where Auntie Liz could get to it—and waited.

Elizabeth’s response came late in September, and in all Charlene’s wonderings, she had never imagined what her aunt would do.

They were working together on a difficult piece of the second dance, which was more challenging than the first to give the audience more to watch. Charlene wasn’t doing too badly, but something about the choreography as the third minute began, right after her and Doug’s triple Lutz, it just wasn’t working.

She and her aunt were alone in the whole Baskerville Arena, and her aunt’s comments and criticisms bounced around the empty seats, echoing off the far walls. Finally, it was time for a break, and strangely Elizabeth sat next to her niece while they both drained bottles of water. Even more strangely, Elizabeth seemed to want her help. “I know the movements aren’t flowing the way they should after the Lutz. Something’s not right.”

Glad I’m not the only one that noticed, my Queen.

Then her aunt said something that Charlene had never heard. “Do you have any ideas?”

Huh? I got ice in my ears or something? It sounded like Elizabeth just asked for my help.

Auntie Liz looked at her, obviously waiting, and Charlene realized it wasn’t a hallucination brought on by too much ice-skating. Will wonders never cease. Not that she had expected Elizabeth to care, but she did actually have some thoughts on the matter. Just let me get my pad…

Elizabeth saw Charlene reaching for her notepad and put a hand on hers. “I just want you to tell me.”

Sure, fine, just let me… But her aunt wouldn’t take her hand away. Liz, I can’t tell you unless I write it down…

“Charlene, look at me.” Her voice was serious. Charlene looked up. “Just tell me.”

I’m trying to, but—!

“Forget the pad, forget writing it down. Just look me in the eye and tell me what you want.”

She still didn’t understand. Fine, I’ll mime it for you, you weirdo! Charlene pointed at the ice and started shaping her arms the way she and Doug did when they hit after the jump—and was shocked when Elizabeth grabbed her hands.

“Stop playing around, Charlene, and just TELL ME!” The last words were a shout that bounced off the walls of the empty arena.

And finally, Charlene understood. Understood what her aunt was doing.

Suddenly Charlene was both so angry and so afraid that she thought she might be physically sick right there on the floor. She pushed it down, even as she fought to get her hands out of Elizabeth’s iron grip. What are you doing, you psycho…let go of me! She wished she could scream. Elizabeth’s eyes were so cold, colder than Charlene had ever seen them before. “I’m right here, Charlene, you don’t have to write it down, you can just say it, come on, I know you can say it!” Her voice was getting higher, wilder.

For one terrible moment, everything stopped, and Charlene looked her aunt in the eye, opened her mouth, and tried. For the first time in years, she really tried to bring a sentence, a word, anything out of her throat if only so she could scream at this horrible woman to let go of her.

But there was nothing, like always, and just when the look in her aunt’s eyes broke, and Charlene saw the same fear mirrored in those light-green eyes as she felt in her own heart, Elizabeth loosened her grip enough that Charlene could twist out of it and try to run away. She didn’t get two steps before her right ankle turned in the skate she was still wearing, and she fell hard, scraping her hands and knocking her head against a chair.

Dizzy, still struggling not to throw up, she ripped the laces free of their holes, dug her feet out of the skates and ran.

In the changing room she grabbed at her shoes, slipping them on and tying fiercely, wanting to get away before her aunt could come after her. Whether or not Elizabeth did come she never knew, as the blood pounding in her ears almost deafened her. As soon as the laces were tied she was off running again, out of the arena, straight to her car and away.

Charlene’s first instinct was to drive home, but…just exactly where was that? A mansion in the north of Portsmouth where two out of three family members either hated or tried to hurt her?

She hadn’t thought about leaving in a long time, but she thought about it that afternoon, driving the highways of New Hampshire aimlessly. She wished she could tell someone, but Sarah wouldn’t understand, and Melanie wasn’t speaking to her…and she didn’t know what Doug would do. Something rash, knowing him. And as much as Charlene really wanted to hurt Elizabeth Oakshue, she didn’t want to hurt Blades and Satin, all the friends she had made in these months…or little Sarah.

In the end she had to go home, and Charlene knew that in the end she had to face Elizabeth again. She couldn’t run away from this one. What, then, to do?

Well, that’s actually pretty easy, she realized, as she calmed down and all the fear and anger became a tight little knot in her stomach. I let it go, chalk up what she did to frustration or jealousy or whatever, and I let it go.

And above all, I never—ever—trust that woman again.

It was about time for a good cry over everything…but Charlene wouldn’t let herself. She can’t affect me that much. I won’t let her get to me that easily. Charlene made herself walk into the Oakshue mansion, where despite the size of the house she somehow managed to run into Elizabeth almost immediately.

You can’t hurt me. Charlene thrust her chin out, head high, and looked Elizabeth right in the eye. The woman could unload with both barrels, but it wasn’t getting through. I won’t let you hurt me again.

Charlene hadn’t let herself cry, but it was obvious that Elizabeth had been doing so, possibly all afternoon. She looked as bad as Charlene had ever seen her—her face puffy, no makeup, and a look in her eyes…

Like something’s haunting her. There was no other word for it, and the shock took some of the edge off Charlene’s attitude.

As did Elizabeth’s only words to her on the subject, delivered in a voice that was very quiet.

“I’m sorry.”

Charlene couldn’t help searching those eyes once again, as always looking for answers to the endless questions, and what she saw was strange and vaguely unsettling. I think I prefer her in angry mode—anger I can deal with. This was something else entirely.

Then, once more, Elizabeth Oakshue turned and walked away, leaving the endless questions behind.

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