The room was hardly big enough to hold all of the trophies, pictures, medals and memorabilia of a lifetime spent winning prizes on ice-skates. Charlene stopped just a step past the door, wide-eyed with the shock of it. So this is where she keeps everything.
Soft track lighting showed off every wall, and every space on every wall was filled with relics—not only trophies, pictures and medals but framed newspaper clippings, photos…a hundred different pieces of the past. Charlene saw the article she herself had a copy of, “World Champion Oakshues Win Crowd and Judges at Osaka.”
This whole room just raised another question…why wasn’t any of this in the rest of the house? Elizabeth was the sort who would want everyone to know what she had done, wasn’t she?
When her amazed eyes finally rested on where her aunt was standing, by the farthest corner, Charlene saw the piece de resistance of the little room. An Olympic Gold medal under glass, with a special light of its very own.
The Holy Grail. Charlene found herself standing next to her aunt, and for several minutes they just looked at it together. Elizabeth had been awarded the medal in Calgary, and—now that’s funny—she had won the medal for ice dancing, not for pairs figure-skating.
But that old, faded article had been about Elizabeth and Andrew Oakshue, the pairs team that was the best in the world.
If she doesn’t make with some answers, I’m going to—scream in frustration? Oh, right, she couldn’t. Well, I’ll break something. Elizabeth had called this meeting for a reason, though, and she was in the secret room…Charlene decided to hold her peace and see what would happen.
“Did your father tell you about how we grew up?”
Charlene shook her head no when Auntie Liz looked over.
“There’s no history of skating in our family, at least not before Andrew and me. We started taking lessons just for something to do, and within months the coaches in New Jersey were telling my father that we needed better instruction than they could give, that we could be great.
“My father was the owner of a series of New Jersey bank holdings, and it was no strain on his pocketbook to send us to Canada for training. Andrew was eight and I was six, and we were shipped off to Vanya and Bella Saldevik for nine months.”
Charlene remembered the names from the article but was more interested in what kind of a parent could send their children to another country just like that.
“They weren’t much as parents, but they were great coaches, which, after all, was the point,” Elizabeth continued in a detached sort of way. “We got enough schooling to be able to read and write, but our purpose in life was skating, always skating, and that was all we spent our time doing.
“At first it was easy to think of the summer months, of going home again, and for the first three years with the Saldeviks we did go home…but all too soon they didn’t even bother sending for us anymore. My father paid Vanya and Bella to be our parents.
“Ice skating is the only life I’ve ever known.”
She didn’t say this happily, and Charlene couldn’t blame her. I guess I start to understand.
“They taught us separately for five years, and Bella kept telling me how much better I could be than my brother. The Saldeviks had won four Gold medals as pairs skaters, but Bella had won a Gold all her own, and she would trot it out all the time. ‘Bright Eyes,’ she would say, and I hated when she called me that, ’Bright Eyes, look at this. Does it not shine brighter than the other four?
“’That is because I won it all by myself. I do not share it with my husband. You can have one too, all your own. Think of it! Come, Bright Eyes, we skate.’ That was usually all that was said to me— ‘Come, we skate.’ Morning, noon, night. Skating and more skating and no friends, no family, nobody but Andrew. I forgot what my parents looked like, forgot their voices, forgot everything except…except that they were supposed to love me.”
Love. That word sounded very strange coming out of Elizabeth Oakshue’s pretty mouth.
“I started thinking that if we could do well enough, win enough, that they would let us come home. That they would love us again. I started working harder, and we got better, and since Andrew and I had no one else we grew very close to each other.
“And I loved him. I really did.” She looked so sad, and yet there was a hint of a smile on her face just the same…and somehow Charlene knew that for the first time, she was seeing the real Elizabeth. She knew what an honor that was, but still she questioned why.
“We practiced and skated and won tournaments and championships and world events, and everyone celebrated, but we still didn’t get to go home. They still didn’t want us.
“I thought it must be the Olympics. If the Oakshue children could take the Gold, then surely…and we went to the Olympics, and everyone thought we would win, and I fell. And we lost.”
Falling, at the Olympics? I can’t imagine how terrible that would feel.
“I thought Andrew would hate me for losing him the Gold, but by then he didn’t care anymore. He tried to tell me, after the Games, that it didn’t matter that we hadn’t won. I know now…I’ve known for ages…that he finally figured out who he wanted to be, and what mattered, and whether our parents gave a damn about us or not wasn’t on his list.
“But when he told me, all I could see was that he was abandoning me. That he didn’t need me, and I was sure that meant he didn’t love me, either. After the Olympics he just left—he was nineteen, I was seventeen, and he just didn’t want the life we had been handed anymore. I felt betrayed, abandoned, and we had a horrible fight.” She stopped, then continued more softly, “I had a horrible fight, and he listened, told me he loved me, and left.
“He wrote that first week, and every month thereafter until he died. I never saw him again.”
The reminder of her parents’ death from this new source made Charlene want to cry, but she pushed it back. This isn’t about me.
“When he left, I was determined to prove him wrong. I knew, I knew that if I could win Gold that they’d love me again. Without Andrew I had to learn a new type of skating…but I had four years, and I threw myself into the work. When I wasn’t skating I would go out, party away, and go back to skating without missing a beat. I was determined to prove to him that I was right.
“Two years after he left, two years before my next chance, Andrew’s letters started talking about this Margaret he had found. Six months before the Olympics they sent me a wedding invitation. He sounded so happy, but I couldn’t be happy for him—I still had to show him he was wrong.
“So, I ignored the wedding, kept skating, and went to the Olympics…and I won.” Elizabeth reached out, tracing the line of her medal with a finger on the glass. “And my parents were there, and they applauded, and hugged me, and they were two strangers. People I didn’t know, who went back to their lives after that weekend was over. Nothing had changed.
“Andrew had said he would come if I wanted him, but I never wrote back. I just never wrote back.”
Except once. Charlene thought about that one card, and her thoughts were echoed by Elizabeth’s memories.
“Except for one time, when his latest letter told me about the new baby. That was a year after I won Gold, a year after all of my hopes died. I don’t even know why I sent the card when you were born. I didn’t write anything on it, just signed my initials—I suppose I wanted him to know I still cared.
“By then I had decided to find a new plan. If Gold wouldn’t do it, maybe a marriage, or like Andrew, maybe having a child would do it for me. If I could create a life, maybe that life would…want me?”
That’s so terrible. Charlene felt the weight of Elizabeth’s life, forty years spent chasing…what? The success, the money, the relationship that would bring her love? The woman had spent her entire life trying to catch the wind in a bag.
“If anything, that card encouraged my brother—he wrote twice a month after that. I wanted to write back, I should have written or called—but my pride wouldn’t let me. I still hadn’t proved him wrong. That’s what Blades and Satin is. That’s what it has always been—my life, my attempt to be worth something and have a place in this world. Without this troupe, I don’t matter. I don’t even exist.
“I thought I could build a professional touring company out of nothing, and become a success, and then I could go back to him. Then I could be his sister again, when I didn’t need him anymore. But I didn’t get far enough before the letters stopped.” For the first time in ten minutes, Elizabeth looked at her niece. “Melanie’s told you the rest?”
Charlene nodded, still fighting tears.
“Everything I had done, it seemed, was for or because of him, and when he died I really had nothing left. It took a long, long time to stop thinking about him, to go on in a life that didn’t have my brother in it anymore. About fifteen years ago I put everything in here that reminded me of him, shut the door on it all, and made Blades and Satin my whole life.”
And the children, little what’s-their-names? Charlene was torn between feeling deep sympathy for Elizabeth and hating her guts but was distracted when she realized that Elizabeth was talking about her.
“—your letter came out of nowhere, and then you were there at the airport, and with every look, every smile, every turn of your skates you remind me of him again. Charlene, you have no idea how much of your father you carry around. Sometimes…I could hardly stand to look at you.
I remember. Though Charlene had chalked it up to anger, or just meanness, at the time. Shows what I know.
“But you are…a wonderful person, Charlene. I know your father is proud of you.”
Thank you, Elizabeth. Charlene would have gone for her cards, to try and say this to her aunt, but the woman wasn’t finished.
“The reason I brought you down here tonight, the reason I’ve told all of this to you, is because I need to apologize. That day at the arena, when I tried to force you…” she looked away and wouldn’t meet Charlene’s eyes. “I know I hurt you. It was a terrible thing to do, and you should feel betrayed.
“But I wasn’t—I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I hope you’ll believe me, I didn’t act out of spite or anger, or any desire to control you, I just…I’ve seen how hard it can be for you. I’ve seen how frustrated you get, and I thought…” She finally looked up, and unbelievably there was a tear, an honest tear sliding down her face. “I thought I could fix you, that I could help you get past your handicap and make you better.
“I see now—you aren’t broken. There’s nothing wrong with you, you are just yourself. I could not see that. I am so sorry.”
With normal female types, this would be the perfect time for a good, long hug. Charlene, however, had known her Aunt Elizabeth too long to think the woman could accept such a gesture.
Maybe… She put a hand on Elizabeth’s forearm, and looked her in the eye. Can I say this honestly? Yes…I think I can. God, let her read my lips.
“I forgive you.”
Thankfully, Aunt Elizabeth seemed to understand, and she didn’t pull away at first. When she did, she wiped the tear from her cheek. “Thank you, Charlene.”
Maybe, Charlene thought to herself, the whole experience signaled a change, indicated that her aunt was becoming a different, better person.
“You know, I’m so excited about this coming season. The future is so bright, when the crowds see what you and I can do, this troupe will shine like never before.”
Aw…and we were so close. Charlene’s first instinct was to try and stop her aunt, not lose the moment that was already fading, and tell her what really mattered in the world. But it was already too late. Her aunt was already back to normal, shields up, chatting about how wonderful the season would be as if nothing had happened.
And I don’t even know if I can meet her expectations. Nothing anybody had said had made any difference where that problem was concerned. And here I had managed to forget my fear for a little while. It was back.
Well, as far as tiny locked rooms went, Charlene had just seen a real person in her Aunt Elizabeth, and if that person had already disappeared…at least she was in there, somewhere.
Despite reverting to normal, Elizabeth still had one surprise left. “It won’t make up for what I did, I know, but-” she moved some trophies and scrapbooks in one corner of the room, coming up with a medium sized cardboard box, and Charlene’s heart leaped.
It can’t be. Not after all this time.
But it was. Elizabeth offered her the box of letters. Before she pulled it out of her aunt’s hands Charlene just looked at her.
Her aunt looked away. “I’m sorry I lied to you. I really am. But this is all I have of him, and I just couldn’t, before. But it’s better for you to have them.”
“Thank you.” Again, her aunt understood.
There was nothing more to say, besides everything, and anyway Charlene had no easy way to say it. So, she turned and left, cradling the box to her chest. And just like that, I got what I’ve been after all this time.
Except it hadn’t been all about the letters, not entirely. Charlene worked it over and over again in her mind, as she put the box away safely in her room, took her skates and made her way to the barn.
Though skating and of course Blades and Satin had become so important, it was still the promise of family that had gotten Charlene Elizabeth Oakshue to New Hampshire.
Family? One cousin hated her guts, she had just that evening broken the other’s heart, and her Aunt Elizabeth…was seriously messed up, and had hurt her more than anyone in all her previous life—and could very well hurt her even more at some point in the future.
I really care for Doug, I think I love him, and I certainly love Sarah and Melanie and even Elizabeth when you get right down to it, but even if this ‘troupe’ thing works out, do I really want to stick around here?
Charlene skated turns and spins for hours, thinking of Melanie’s notebook, of Sarah’s constant chatter, of her Aunt’s one, honest tear…