“—And the Evil King laughed, and said, ‘We will have a party tonight to celebrate my capturing the Handsome Prince in my trap. You, Princess Josie, will be mine forever and ever.’”
As little Josie in seat 24B paused, trying to figure out what would happen next, Charlene Oakshue in seat 24C thought about how strange a way it was to celebrate one’s nineteenth birthday.
She was on a 747 heading from Indianapolis to Boston, hoping in the end to get to New Hampshire and the only family she had left in all the world. And the best part was, she didn’t even know if her aunt and her cousin would be there to meet her.
Josie had found her exciting climax. “So, the beautiful Princess Josie knew what she must do. She went back to her castle, found the beautifullest one of her thousands of gowns, and let down her long golden hair.” Josie stopped then, closing her eyes for a moment, then holding a lock of her own red hair in front of her eyes. Then she made a face. “Anyway, Princess Josie put on her makeup and her beautifullest blue gown and went to the ball that night.” The girl’s eyes were shining with excitement. “When the Evil King saw her, he fell completely and totally in love, just like that.
“He couldn’t keep the Prince locked up anymore, he loved Princess Josie way too much to do that to her. So, the King set the Prince free, and went off to live in an old folks’ home and loved her forever. Too bad for him. And the Prince married the Princess and went to live with her and clean her house and they were always happy.” Finished, Josie sat back and looked pleased with herself. “Was that good?”
Smiling, Charlene nodded at her. In Seat 24A, Josie’s mother shifted in her sleep. Beyond her the small window showed the setting sun. The flight was almost over.
“Do you know any stories?”
Charlene would have loved to tell the little girl a number of stories, but she honestly didn’t know if Josie could read. And if the child couldn’t read…Charlene really didn’t have a good way to tell her anything.
Fortunately, Josie took a shrug for an answer and thought of something else. “Do you have any pictures?” While Charlene was still thinking about the question, the girl dove into her pink backpack, presumably after photos of her own.
That, at least, was a request Charlene could work with. She pulled out her purse and found the little wallet-sized wedding portrait and the old, faded magazine article.
And one lonely card, the only evidence she had to say that her aunt even existed.
One card that had arrived in her parent’s mailbox almost nineteen years before, bearing nothing but a single factory imprinted message, Congratulations on Your Newborn, and a set of handwritten initials. E.O.
“This is my family. Mom made sure I had a picture so I wouldn’t forget.” Josie pointed out every family member. “That’s Daddy, and Mommy and my smelly brother Robert, and that’s me!” They were all smiling in the department-store portrait and looked like a very happy family.
Josie went on. “Mommy and Daddy don’t live together anymore. They have, um…” she had to think about it, “unrecognizable differences.”
Irreconcilable differences, Charlene thought soberly. What an awful phrase for a five-year-old to have to understand.
“Is that your mommy and daddy?” Josie pointed at the wedding picture, and Charlene handed it to her. “Wow, she’s real pretty. She looks like you. Your Dad is handsome too. Are they flying with you, on the plane?”
Charlene shook her head no, and then traded Josie the magazine article for the small picture. She was surprised when the little girl read the headline carefully, out loud. “World Champion Oakshues Win Crowd and Judges at Osaka.” She pronounced it Oh-say-ka, but she could read…perhaps Charlene would get to tell her a story after all.
While Josie read, Charlene studied the picture of her parents for the thousandth time. Her mom had been so very beautiful, and by now Charlene didn’t even need a picture. She could just look in any mirror and see her mother. The same long dark hair, the same deep-set, dark blue eyes that people found so unusual and intriguing.
Her father had been handsome, Josie was right about that, his honey-blonde hair framing an oval face that bore a fine, straight nose and light green eyes. His eyes had always lit up when he laughed. Charlene could still hear his laugh.
It had been nine years, but she still missed them terribly.
“Let me see your parents again.”
Agreeably, Charlene traded once more, and looked instead at the twenty-four-year old magazine picture. Her father had been just as handsome at eighteen, as sparkling ice skates carried him towards whoever had snapped the photo. On his shoulders he carried Charlene’s aunt Elizabeth, who had been sixteen at the time.
With nothing better to do, she read the article underneath like she had so many times before.
“World Champion Oakshues Win Crowd and Judges at Osaka
By Heather Reardon
Until last night, the ice-skating duo of Elizabeth and Andrew Oakshue were considered the best team in two countries. Last night, however, they showed the strict judges at the Osaka World Championships that they had what it took to become World Champions, beating out fourteen other teams for the title.
Born in New Jersey and trained for most of their lives in Canada, the brother-sister team have glided onto the western scene in the past two years with a magical talent. Their performances are technically precise and yet wonderfully artistic, and now judges on the world stage have ruled the Oakshues to be the Prince and Princess of the ice-skating world.
“Their success is not greatly surprising; added to a wonderful natural talent have been the coaching jewels of Bella and Vanya Saldevik, the pairs team once responsible for a quartet of Olympic gold medals. Bella even went on to win a fifth medal of her very own in a stunning display at the Olympic Games in Reykjavik.”
Reykjavik? Charlene was surprised that Josie hadn’t asked for help with that one. Wonder how she pronounced it, she thought distractedly.
“The Saldeviks are now retired, but have been training Elizabeth and Andrew very hard—as we have all born witness to. The Olympics quickly approach, and everyone will be watching.
“Until last night, the ice-skating duo of Elizabeth and Andrew Oakshue were considered the best team in two countries. Today, they have proven to be the best in the world.”
The best in the world. For that one night, for a few moments, her father and her aunt had been the best in the world together.
Then somewhere along the line, somehow, they had completely parted company. Charlene had never met her aunt, when she knew him her father was a carpenter, not a world-champion skater, even though he had taught her everything she knew on ice. And though she had obviously always had an Aunt somewhere in the world, the article she had found in a drawer when she was seven, and that one card from her own birth that her mother had saved...they were the only evidence the woman existed. Her father had never spoken about what had happened between them, and Charlene had not asked soon enough.
As she looked at the picture, Charlene was again struck by the difference in the two faces that were so similar. Both Andrew and Elizabeth had golden hair, and green eyes, but her father’s smile to the camera was real, his eyes sparkling in the way that was so like him.
Her aunt Elizabeth’s smile was so fixed it seemed like it belonged to a doll, and her eyes were…
Cold, and blank, pools of green ice sheltering deep caverns where nothing could live.
Or perhaps that’s just the old picture talking. Charlene hoped it was. She hoped her aunt really wasn’t like that. Yet no one had responded to her recent letter to Portsmouth. She had gotten the address from her grandfather shortly before he died, an address he had retained for legal purposes which he seemed to think was accurate.
So, Charlene had bought a plane ticket to the closest airport and then written to say that she was coming.
With no response.
The best thing to do, after her grandfather’s death, might have been for Charlene to forget it and stay in Indianapolis. Yet she had no closer friends there than in Portsmouth, and so she had decided to go to New Hampshire anyway, to find her aunt Elizabeth and her cousin Melanie if she could.
She only knew she had a cousin because it had been written on the index card with their address. How old the card was, how accurate the address was…whether anyone living there would want to see her…
These things she did not know.
If worst came to worst, however, and she either couldn’t find her family or her family didn’t want her? Well, she had the ability and the means to live without family, to find a way to live life the way she wanted on her own.
Except Charlene didn’t want much to live a life without family…
Thankfully the Fasten Seatbelt sign came on at that time, along with the attendant’s announcement that they would soon be landing, both of which let Charlene stop thinking about things. She would find what she would find.
She got her picture back from Josie before the girl dove into her backpack again. In seat 24A, Josie’s mother stretched and rubbed her eyes. “Are you packed up for landing, huggy bear?”
“Pretty much,” came from the depths of the bag.
“Let’s get pretty much finished, hmm?” She looked over her daughter at Charlene. “Thank you so much for keeping her occupied. I’ve been so stressed since the divorce, I haven’t been sleeping well lately.”
Charlene wondered vaguely what it was about her that made people want to tell her everything. She fished for her flip-card necklace, then held out Card #10, “It’s a pleasure!”
Josie’s mother read the card, doing the same double take that Charlene had witnessed ever so many times—and like usually happened, the woman began talking very slowly, mouthing the words with great care. “I hope she didn’t bother you.”
Charlene just smiled and shook her head. The object of their mutual attention sat up then, brandishing a brand-new, hot pink pencil. “Here, this is for you!” There was a city outside the window now, as the plane turned for final approach to Logan International Airport and Boston beyond.
Flipping over to Card #4, Charlene showed “Thank you very much!” to her new friend.
Josie read this, and looked up, a question forming on her lips. “Why—”
“Come on, dear, let’s get your seatbelt buckled,” her mother interrupted. Between buckling and tray-folding and making sure everything was back in the pink backpack, the question was forgotten.
Forgotten until after the safe landing, after carry-on bags had been found and the line was forming to exit the airplane. Charlene stood up, stretched, and then smoothed her simple red sweater. She made sure her Claims Check tag was still in its jeans pocket. She wasn’t about to leave her baby alone in this terribly strange land. Turning back for a moment, Charlene patted the pencil she had stuck carefully in her purse pocket and shook Josie’s hand.
“Thanks for flying with me,” the little girl said.
A last wave and Charlene turned to take her place in line, checking to make sure her purse was closed and she hadn’t left anything behind. Josie and her mother moved in behind her.
The question Charlene had been expecting finally burst forth once her back was turned. “What’s wrong with her, mommy?”
Josie’s mother didn’t shush her now—why should she? “She’s deaf, dear. She can’t hear you.”
“But I told her a story…”
As they walked off the plane and down the jetway, Charlene listened to Josie’s mother explain all about lip-reading and sign language and Josie’s second cousin Frankie who had been born deaf.
Charlene sighed quietly, tired as she often was of people’s assumptions. Not to mention tired of her stupid handicap.
But neither the handicap nor the assumptions were Josie’s fault, or her mother’s, so Charlene made sure to wave one last time as they left the jetway exit.
Logan International Airport was a busy place. Charlene scanned the crowd but didn’t see anyone holding a sign with her name on it, or anything. So, she moved over to a bench and sat down, wondering what to do next.
Find a hotel, maybe, or a New Hampshire phone book…
Then she became aware of a conversation taking place not ten feet from her. She would never be able to explain why those two voices out of the dozens all around caught her attention—she had certainly never heard her aunt or her cousin’s voice.
Yet… “Do you see her?” The sound of a teenage girl.
“The last picture I ever saw, she was only nine years old, that was ten years ago.” An older, very cultured voice. A bit cold, too.
“I told you we should’ve gotten here sooner.”
“I’m still not sure why I’m here at all, Melanie.”
As she heard that last, Charlene finally got to see the two women, one older, one younger…who had to be her aunt Elizabeth and her cousin Melanie.
They both had the same honey-blonde hair like her father, and her father’s light green eyes. The similarity was so striking that it took her breath away. A pang of remembering ran through her, and she just watched them for a moment.
Elizabeth had blossomed from the sixteen-year-old in the magazine picture to an almost regal middle-aged woman, still apparently in great shape and just as beautiful as she had been.
Cousin Melanie, who had to be somewhere near sixteen herself, looked just like the girl in that old picture, except that she didn’t look like her at all. Charlene decided she would figure that out later.
She waited just a moment more, feeling her heart heavy with worry. It wasn’t like her to worry, but these two people were the only family she had left anywhere…and they might not want her. They might not like her. They knew nothing about her stupid handicap—what if they rejected her for that?
No. It wouldn’t do to worry. Walk over there and introduce yourself and pray for the best, Charlene Elizabeth.
She stood up, collecting her purse and her anxieties, and walked towards them, searching her flip cards as she went. When Charlene looked up again, having found the one she wanted, Melanie was just looking her way, and the younger girl’s eyes stopped when they met Charlene’s. Then her cousin tugged her mother’s sleeve, and Elizabeth looked over as well.
They both stood waiting while she walked the last few feet. Melanie spoke first. “I have a feeling you’re my cousin Charlene, aren’t you?”
Putting on her best smile, Charlene held out Card #6.
“Hello, my name is Charlene Oakshue. I’m very pleased to meet you!”