Charlene smoothed the pleated skirt, looking at all three reflections of herself.
After the ordeal in the arena, both Charlene and Elizabeth apparently wanted to put it all behind them, and almost too easily it was back to skating as usual…and the days flew by.
Charlene was to discover that the skating troupe of Blades and Satin spared, it seemed, no expense when it came to skating costumes. Even though Charlene had protested at how extravagant Elizabeth was being, the leader of the troupe hadn’t even bothered to listen, giving an obviously rehearsed speech about how everyone was supposed to represent the company, and so on and so forth.
I guess I can’t complain.
Her outfit was all sequins and sparkle, in a dark blue tint that complemented her eyes and a white skirt that matched her skates. And shows off those fabulous, Oakshue-inherited legs. Charlene blushed a little when she really thought about that, her legs and all being right out there for everyone to see. She had always been fine skating in sweats. Well, change is good, I guess. When she couldn’t resist it any longer, she turned, twisting her head to look at her other side in the mirror. Aw…even my butt looks good.
“You look wonderful, Charlene.” Millie Perkins beamed at her.
I can’t argue with her. Wow! She was in danger of becoming positively prideful and couldn’t help but enjoy that a little.
A knock came on the dressing-room door. “Permission to enter?” It was Doug’s voice, followed by “C’mon, Charlene, we want to see what you look like, Mom wouldn’t tell me what the design was and Melanie didn’t know and we’re just dying of curiosity so open the door already, huh?” The owner of that sentence was so obvious Charlene had to silently laugh.
Millie looked at her. “Should we let them in?”
Well, Sarah can come in, of course, but…hmm. She really wanted Doug’s opinion. Charlene shrugged and Millie took this as a yes. She walked out of the dressing room and across the dance floor to the closed hallway door.
During the ten seconds before the spectators were let in, Charlene had a moment to wonder where the time had gone. It was October already, three days before the first performance, and Elizabeth had been shocked to realize, a week before, that nobody had taken care of Charlene’s costume. Charlene herself had caught a piece of the anger, as if she was supposed to know anything about what professional skaters needed!
After the announcement, and the betrayal, Auntie Elizabeth had become absolutely impossible—though Charlene couldn’t take it personally, as the woman was riding herd on everyone. Apparently, she had decided that everything could be set right if only Blades and Satin could perform about two-hundred percent better than they ever had, and she was doing everything in her power to make that happen.
Charlene had witnessed skaters in tears, skaters threatening to quit, one of the Rustikovs had actually thrown up on the ice because she had been working herself so hard, trying to please Elizabeth and make everything okay…
It’s almost impossible to have fun skating around here. Charlene wouldn’t have thought that could happen, six months before—would not have dreamed that there was any ice skating, anywhere, that wasn’t absolute joy.
Elizabeth Oakshue had a way of sucking the joy out of everything. And as hard as Charlene had tried, she had found very little on the ice in the past few months.
Skating with Douglas, though, did have its moments.
In the middle of thinking this, the man himself walked in behind her cousin Sarah. The eleven year-old—wait a tick, she’s twelve now—could hardly contain herself, and was jabbering about the sequins or the skirt or something. Charlene felt vaguely bad for not listening, but she had little attention for anything besides the way Doug was looking at her.
How could I have let two months go by—and we still haven’t had that first date? Not that there hadn’t been a million other things going on, but when she met his eyes, she couldn’t imagine what had been so important.
“You look amazing,” he whispered.
They had been friends long enough now that she knew she could mouth Thank you at him and he would understand. When he reached out and took her hand, Charlene didn’t care what Mrs. Perkins or Sarah thought about it—she pulled him to her and held him close. I hadn’t planned on doing this. After a moment when nobody seemed to object, she forced herself to relax and enjoy it.
Since she remained on the stepstool, they were pretty much at eye-level for once. Stupid Mr. Tall anyway. She smelled his shampoo and felt the strength in the arms around her waist and wished she could whisper nice things in his ear about how patient he had been and how sorry she was to have made him wait so long.
Life was just like that, sometimes. Wishes couldn’t always come true.
Eventually—maybe a minute later—she pushed back a bit, and he let go. Sarah was still talking, bless her, and Millie had a smile on her face that a lot of people had been getting lately when she and Doug were together. But she still could really focus on only one person.
Charlene pointed at the table nearby, where her clothes were neatly folded—and her pad was sitting on top. Doug looked over and back at her. “What?”
I’ve seen that look in his eyes before. He was going to be exasperating. She pointed again.
“Your compact? Your wallet? What is it?”
You’ve succeeded. I’m exasperated. How you could love someone and want to throttle them at the same time…she settled for a sharp flick! of her fingers at his right ear. Ignoring his dramatic cries of pain, she looked at Millie and pointed at the floor.
“Certainly, dear, you can get down.” It looked like she was laughing at both of them.
Stepping carefully off the stool, Charlene picked up her pad, whacked the man she had just decided to fall in love with over the head, and began writing.
“I don’t know why I should do anything for or with you, but if you’ll hang around outside for five minutes while I change, I want to talk.”
Doug read, looked at her with his eyebrows raised, and then held up his hands. “Okay, fine, you can simultaneously kick me out and tell me to hang around. But if a cute surfer blonde happens to walk by, I can’t make any promises.”
She gave him her best don’t mess with me glare, and he seemed to get the idea. He was still smiling, but he left without another word.
Charlene turned back to the mirror once more. Just to look one last time. Millie moved up behind her to help with the zipper pull she couldn’t reach, and they looked at one another for a moment. “I’ve always liked him,” the older woman smiled.
Yeah. Me too. Well, not always. But he does grow on you.
When she walked out into the hallway, back in her jeans and favorite lavender hoodie, Doug was leaning against the wall, waiting. “Hi.”
All Charlene could do was smile, but that seemed to be enough. It was the most normal, natural thing in the world to take his hand as they walked through the Baskerville Arena hallways, until they found a place in the food court where they could sit and talk.
Charlene set her pad on the table and reached for her pen, but he whisked the paper away before she could write anything. Hey! She slapped her hand on the table and gave him her best mean look.
“Even your evil eye is still cute, Char. I just wanted to say, that skating outfit made you look even more beautiful than usual.”
Okay, I guess he’s forgiven for everything. The feeling like she was melting inside, she wasn’t used to that. But she sure wanted more of it. “I take it no cute surfer blondes walked past?”
“Actually, I counted eight separate cute surfer blondes, and funny thing, every last one asked for my number. But I just couldn’t.”
“Nope. There’s a beautiful skater brunette that has my whole attention.”
She raised an eyebrow, twisted a lock of her hair around her finger, and pointed it at him with one hand while she wrote with the other. “Duh—this look brown to you?”
Doug tilted his head, looking at her. “Okay, a beautiful skater blackhead.”
Eeeeww! “I take it back, I’m a brunette! Never mind!”
That did it—he laughed.
Oh, Doug…I wish I could laugh with you. Out loud, somehow. She told him this when he noticed her sudden frown and asked what was wrong.
“You have more laughter in your eyes, Charlene Oakshue, than some people have in their entire being.”
Yup. Definitely falling in love with this guy. And yet, there was still—still!—a hesitation in her heart, a fear that wouldn’t leave, that said he was just here for a short time, just out to get…what he could from her, and then everything would change.
Something still wouldn’t let her trust him.
But sometimes you have to take chances.
She reached for his hand and was suddenly glad she had done so with her left—so that she still had her writing hand free. “I just woke up twenty minutes ago and realized that it’s been two months and I haven’t let you take me out yet. Did you still want to?”
He read her note while she waited. Don’t make fun, Doug, please, I deserve to be put off, you can play hard to get, but please don’t joke about this.
“How about Monday night? I’ll be fried tomorrow and Sunday after the shows, but since we get Monday off…”
Charlene looked up, so surprised that it must have shown on her face.
“What is it?”
“You’re not going to make me work for it? I deserve to be stood up, after the way I forgot you.”
Doug read this and smiled, much to her surprise. He isn’t planning on doing that, standing me up, is he?
No. He would never. She knew that—somehow.
“I’ll drop by the mansion at 7.”
That was all he said, and suddenly she felt very embarrassed for pushing him to reject her. You’re a better man than I deserve, Douglas Hawkins. There was precious little she could do about her red face, but to try and get past her moment of stupidity Charlene looked around her—and really noticed the food court for the first time since they had sat down.
It was about one in the afternoon, on a weekday, but still, only two of the mini-restaurants were serving any customers. Actually, Charlene realized, those two were the only chains even still open. The food court, capable of serving hundreds of people, was almost deserted.
“It’s like a ghost town,” Doug said, when their eyes met, and she knew he understood.
“Are you worried? About-” She didn’t write the rest. He knew what about.
“I can’t help but be worried some, but the show will be what it is, you know? Being worried that we’ll fail won’t solve anything.”
“I’m not worried that we’ll fail, I’m worried that I’m going to screw everything up.” And worried that she would make a fool of herself in front of thousands, and worried that Elizabeth would never speak to her again. Whether or not things went well.
That’s a lot of worries, kiddo
“I think I’m most worried about Elizabeth.”
“Because of her inevitable tantrum?”
She still hadn’t told him what Auntie Liz had done. Deep inside her heart was still angry, still hurt, but Charlene told herself that it didn’t matter, because Elizabeth wouldn’t ever get a second chance to do that to her. “Because I don’t want to disappoint her.”
Doug looked at her, like he was trying to figure something out.
“I don’t want that either, but it’s not our fault if we don’t meet her ideal, is it?”
“I guess not.” It was too late to tell him, and it didn’t matter anyway. Charlene refused to care, anymore, what Elizabeth was feeling, or if there was a real person inside. She wouldn’t ever love that woman, and so nothing about Elizabeth Oakshue mattered in any way.
What a long way Charlene had come from sticking around in hopes of finding a stack of old letters.
The letters… She hadn’t thought about them in a long time, months now. But the pain of their loss was made freshly new once again. Damn you, Elizabeth.
“Hey—you all right?”
She nodded at Doug, noticing how his grip on her hand had tightened a little.
“You’ll be fine, Cricket.”
He had written that last just to bug her. Charlene accepted the out he was offering, letting bad thoughts slip away somewhere. “What is it with that nickname, anyway?”
As he read, a smile opened up on his face that told her he had been waiting months for her to ask.
“You remember that Monopoly game we played way back?”
She remembered. When Melanie had been talking to her, and she, Mel, Doug and Sarah had spent five endless hours playing at having money.
“You remember how you had your feet up on the table?”
Not offhand, but it sounds like me. Especially if there was a chance Auntie Liz would walk in and be annoyed. Melanie’s not the only rebellious one, come to think of it.
“You remember having an itch?”
Eh? “Now you’ve lost me.”
His grin was spreading. Okay, now I’m afraid.
“You had your feet on the table, and an itch on your leg, and so you rubbed your legs together to get rid of it.” He sat back, his eyes sparkling, like she was supposed to understand.
“While I had my feet up on the table.” I’m still lost here, Hawkins…
So, I had an itch, and I scratched it the easy way, without using my hands…
Crickets make sounds by rubbing their legs together.
Charlene was certain she had never wanted to roll her eyes so much in her entire life. Can I possibly be falling for a guy this exasperating?
“It’s not like I make music, or anything.”
Doug looked at her for a long moment before writing. “I dunno…every time I see you, I hear music.”
And just like that Charlene melted again. It wasn’t a line—well, it was, but she could tell he really meant it. “Okay, I’ll let you go on the nickname. Maybe I’ll even start to like it.”
Fat chance. Charlene looked at her watch and slid the pad back over to her side of the table. “I can’t be late for dinner—so I should go.”
“Drive you?” She jingled her car keys at him. He made like he was crestfallen. “Is there nothing I can do for my lady?”
You’ve done more than you know, Douglas. “Pick me up at 7 sharp, Monday night.”
His smile could have lit up the entire arena. It stayed in place as he walked her to her car and flashed at her in the rearview mirror as she drove away. You’re one of a kind, Mr. Hawkins.
So, what should I get nervous about? My first real date, or my first chance to look like an idiot in front of thousands of people?
Charlene was home before she figured it out. Melanie’s car was in the garage next to the Lexus…The gang’s all here. Charlene left her purse and jacket in her room, found the second kitchen on the first try and fed her dog, and made it to dinner exactly two minutes early.
As she sat down, Charlene realized just how exhausted she was. And dinner promised no relaxation—trying to catch Melanie’s eye and think of ways to make up with her almost sister, trying to pretend Elizabeth didn’t exist, and then listening to Sarah go on and on aside from everything else—the struggle to skate her best, on top of the relationship-with-Doug worries on top of this whole family that she always seemed to be disappointing or enraging…
Or having to listen to. Charlene would never have thought it possible—she loved Sarah—but at that moment she wished her cousin would just be quiet for once.
“—and I guess I look okay in my costume, although geez, it’s not like I have a figure or anything—yet—but you looked just amazing, I couldn’t believe it, like some magical fairy or princess, or maybe-”
Usually Charlene looked forward to listening to her cousin. Sarah had an amazing gift to find the good, the joyful, in every single day. More than once Charlene had found her spirits lifted after a few minutes of just listening.
Tonight, she just didn’t want to hear it.
Across and down the table, Melanie’s face was still—still!—as hard as stone. Charlene couldn’t honestly remember the last time they had enjoyed a civil conversation.
Thinking about the hours they had spent writing back and forth to each other, how Mel had been the very first person to approach her handicap on her level…it all made Charlene want to weep with sorrow and frustration.
No guy is worth this, Mel!
That didn’t really work—Doug was worth just as much as Melanie, as a person, and the way her cousin had been treating her, Charlene had much more affection for Doug, family ties or not. But I still love you, Melanie…
There was nothing, nothing she could think of to do but wait and pray and hope.
And that really sucked.
At the head of the table, of course, sat the Ice Queen, a woman Charlene was working very hard to hate utterly, a woman she would never trust again for one second who was currently in charge of Charlene’s entire future.
Well, we can always change that. If necessary.
Yet, even as she thought this, Charlene wondered to herself if she could ever really leave this family. Her family.
So, Sarah chattered, Melanie sat in her corner hating, and Elizabeth relaxed blithely above it all, eating chicken Kiev and fooling herself that absolutely everything would be perfect, while her house of cards fell down around her regal blonde head.
Charlene wanted to cry and scream and run all at the same time. It seemed suddenly like anything else, one more thing going wrong, would just push her right over the edge.
And right at that moment, trying to reach for her own stupid water glass, Charlene’s fingers stumbled and the entire contents spilled out over the table.
Such a little thing. Spilled water. Just the downside of gravity.
But as the little rivers of spring water carved their way around silverware and floral arrangements, staining the no-doubt-expensive linen tablecloth, Charlene felt somehow that the simple accident represented her whole life. The unmanageable, out-of-control mess just kept spreading and staining and ruining everything.
Simultaneously Elizabeth sighed, “Oh, Charlene, did you have to?” while Melanie laughed in obvious scorn and Sarah switched chatter tracks to “Oh, no, well don’t worry, I do that all the time, gosh,” and it was too much. Charlene could not take it one second longer.
As she yanked herself to her feet, not caring anymore what trouble she caused, her chair fell over backwards, probably breaking something. If Elizabeth or Melanie or Sarah said anything she couldn’t hear it over the heartbeat throbbing in her ears as she ran from the stifling room.
Charlene just wanted to get away, and room after room flashed by in a blur until she finally found herself clutching the sink in the upstairs guest bathroom with both hands.
For a long moment she wondered if getting sick would make her somehow feel better, as if she could throw up all the bad in her life…but she didn’t feel at all sick. Just terribly tired and very, very angry.
Charlene gripped the porcelain hard enough to hurt her hands, and concentrated on breathing, in and out, as her arms shook. She didn’t look in the mirror. She didn’t want to know.
When she thought about it later—and she would go over the moment many times—Charlene was amazed that Sarah didn’t know better, having grown up in a house with consistently angry people. Maybe she felt Charlene was different. Maybe she thought she could make it better.
“I didn’t think I’d ever find you, is everything okay? You left so fast, you’re not sick are you—I hate it when I get sick, it just makes me feel terrible, but don’t worry if you are because this is just the guest bathroom so nobody will really mind—”
Lacking the ability to scream, Charlene was forced to do something else to express herself. Grabbing a convenient drinking glass off the sink, she whirled and threw it into the tub so hard that the glass shattered.
For once, even Sarah was silent.
Spinning back to where she had been, Charlene snatched up the soap and wrote on the mirror in angry block printing, DON’T YOU EVER SHUT UP?
She put the dot on the question mark so hard the mirror rattled.
At that precise moment she also caught sight of her own face, looked herself inadvertently in the eye—and just like that the anger broke.
Oh God…what have I done?
Charlene made herself look at her cousin. What she saw broke her heart…because she had obviously just broken Sarah’s.
The girl didn’t look mad, just confused—confused and extremely hurt. She whispered one soft “I’m…I’m sorry.” And then she ran.
Charlene sat slowly down on the edge of the tub. What have I done?
Nothing, really. Just destroyed the one honest, good heart in this family, who took crap from her mom and sister because she always had…and then trusted me.
Charlene glanced up towards the mirror…but didn’t have the courage to look again.
Instead she carefully picked up every shard of broken glass, running her hand around the tub to make sure she hadn’t missed anything—and then numbly walked to her room.
She wanted to run away, but there wasn’t a place on Earth far enough to escape her own mind. Leaning her head against the cold window, Charlene listened to the faint sounds of her cousin weeping four rooms away.
She wouldn’t allow herself to cry. She didn’t have the right.
She let angry and sad vie for attention inside her, let the thoughts and memories of the awful evening roll over and over in her mind.
Sometime later a quiet but firm knock at Charlene’s door startled her awake. She was still leaning against the window and had the stiff neck to prove it. Did somebody just knock? To answer her question, the sound was repeated. Charlene was sure it wasn’t Sarah…which of the other Oakshues wanted to make her evening complete?
Aunt Elizabeth, in sweats and a t-shirt, her hair pulled back. About as casual as Charlene had ever seen her. What is that woman doing here now? Her first instinct was to prepare for a scolding about the dinner table or what she had done to Sarah, but it had only been water—and since when did Auntie Liz give a rip about Sarah?
“Will you come with me?” For once, it wasn’t a command, and as her aunt turned and walked away down the corridor, Charlene was tempted to slam the door on her. But she found herself tagging along. Whatever is going on, any change in this woman is worth investigating. And there was something about Elizabeth, something different.
They walked together down several flights of stairs, through many rooms, and finally, turning a corner, came upon that room.
The untouched, stay-out little room by the front stairs, the room nobody ever entered. The room Charlene had heard her aunt crying in two months before.
Like it was the most natural thing in the world, Elizabeth fished a key out of a pocket, turned the lock, and went inside. Charlene paused on the doorstep, fingers poised to push the door open. Is the woman sleepwalking? Does she know what we’re doing here?
Then it hit her. Maybe, just maybe, this was a real invitation, and she was finally going to get some answers.
Without further hesitation Charlene pushed her way inside.