The Silent Skater

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Chapter Two

She hadn’t expected the introductions to go very smoothly. She was not disappointed.

Melanie spoke first again. “Uh, hi, I guess. Um…” She looked at her mother.

Elizabeth tried. “Hello, Charlene. Can you…I mean, you can understand me, right?” She had slowed down her speech as well.

Oops, forgot to tell them I ain’t deef. This stupid ‘difficulty’ of hers could be such a pain. Charlene quickly turned to Card #7.

Elizabeth and Melanie both read, “I can hear you, I just cannot speak.”

“You can…okay, uh, cool. Charlene, I’m Melanie and it’s good to meet you.” Her cousin’s eyes weren’t the friendliest in the world, but she was smiling, and Charlene shook her hand gratefully. They both turned to Elizabeth, who plainly did not enjoy being made to feel uncomfortable.

“Charlene, I’m sure you’ve realized that I’m your aunt Elizabeth. I don’t know what to do with all of this, dear, I hope you can understand this is very unsettling. I haven’t heard a thing about you in nine years, and all of a sudden a letter arrives from nowhere.”

Even if she could have interrupted her aunt, Charlene would not have known what to say. This was not going well.

“However, you are here and we are here, and for now at least we’ll go home together and sort things out later. I wish you had said something about your difficulty, though. I find this handicap just a bit awkward to deal with.”

Try living with it sometime, lady, Charlene thought.

Sometimes it was a good thing not to be able to blurt out whatever one was thinking. Charlene decided they’d better start learning to deal with it and pulled a small pad out of her purse. A small pad with an attached golden pen.

Elizabeth and Melanie waited while she wrote quickly.

At least she had been blessed with neat handwriting. “I know this all must be strange, but I’m here and I’m tired. Can we shelve explanations for now?”

Whatever else she might be, Elizabeth seemed a sensible woman. She didn’t begrudge Charlene’s question but rather agreed to it immediately. “Yes, you’re right. It’s been a long day for all told, I’m sure. So where do you suggest we go now?”

Was her aunt patronizing her? Charlene chose to ignore it, and the answer to the question was simple enough that she didn’t have to write it down. She simply pointed to the Baggage Claim sign that was hanging behind her aunt.

“Of course. Well, let’s go.” Without another word Elizabeth turned to walk towards the escalators, leaving her daughter and niece to catch up as they would.

Charlene and Melanie fell into step behind her. When Charlene managed to catch her cousin’s eye, she tilted her head towards Melanie’s mother, raising her eyebrows. Melanie laughed shortly, rolling her eyes. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

Elizabeth was far enough ahead of them that Charlene was sure she couldn’t have overheard, but just then she turned around. When the two had walked up to her, she smiled very slightly. “I guess I haven’t said it yet, Charlene, but it is a pleasure to finally meet you. Your arrival is a bit of a challenge and I don’t know how it’s all going to work out, but I truly hope it does.”

The surprise must have registered on Charlene’s face, because her aunt went on, “Come on, Charlene, I’m not a complete witch.”

Then she turned and kept walking. Charlene blushed all the way down the escalators and into Claims.

Elizabeth and Melanie both stood back and waited while Charlene went forward to collect a brown suitcase, a black garment bag, and a spotless white ice-skate case. By the time the case trundled around, Melanie was beside her, and Charlene mouthed a grateful “Thank you,” for the help.

Her cousin reached for the suitcase, and then noticed the white box. “Hey, that’s an ice-skate case!”

So, her cousin also skated? That was interesting. Perhaps they would get along after all.

Yet Melanie looked at it strangely, like she was surprised and yet not surprised. “I wonder what Mom’ll say about that.”

Charlene didn’t have a clue what that was supposed to mean but felt exhausted and not up to any riddle guessing for the time being. As it turned out, Melanie’s mother said precisely nothing about the case when they approached, although Charlene was sure she noticed it.

She simply said, “Well, is that all?”

It most certainly is not. Charlene shook her head.

Elizabeth huffed. “What else?”

Charlene felt like huffing herself, but she set her suitcase and skate case down carefully instead, grabbing for her pad. She wrote one word and turned the pad to her aunt.

“Dog.”

“What?”

Did I stutter? Again, she was glad that she couldn’t say everything that came to her mind. Of course Auntie Elizabeth didn’t like dogs. Why should she—that would mean something was going right for a change.

Auntie Elizabeth looked like she was still digesting this new bit of information—when Charlene saw a harried-looking skycap pushing a large white dog carrier on a cart. She brushed past both her aunt and her cousin and ran up to him.

“This your dog?”

She nodded, and produced identification, and was left with the carrier and the cart. “Just leave the cart inside the doors when you’re done,” the man said and disappeared.

Melanie was again by her side. “You have a dog?” Her cousin followed her around to the front grate, where Charlene was very pleased and relieved to see that her baby, a large and beautiful golden retriever with laughing brown eyes, was quite safe and none the worse for the trip.

“Ohhh! What’s his name?”

Charlene was trying to point out the tag on her baby’s collar when there was a delicate throat-clearing behind them both. They turned to see Elizabeth Oakshue standing where they had left her and looking even less pleased.

“And it’s a large dog into the bargain.”

Charlene met her eyes steadily, deciding right then and there that she would stay alone in Boston before she would leave her dog behind.

Elizabeth must have read this in her gaze. For a long moment she didn’t say anything, but suddenly she turned, picked up the white skate case, and called over her shoulder, “Let’s go home, then.”

To her credit, Charlene’s aunt winced only slightly when Toepick bounded into the backseat of the Lexus. Charlene followed once she had put the cart back…and finally, after what seemed a truly long ordeal, she was able to relax a bit.

This’ll be real interesting. She revised her opinion. This’ll probably suck.

Before long she was leaning against the backseat with her eyes closed, fingers full of golden retriever fur. After a few miles Melanie apparently thought she had fallen asleep. “Char?”

Receiving no answer, Melanie turned around to face the windshield again. The sun had set and twilight was heavy on the car as they drove east. The younger girl spoke quietly to her mother. “Where is she going to sleep?”

Elizabeth apparently also thought that her niece was sleeping, though she answered just as quietly. “We have three guest bedrooms, dear, I’m sure she’ll make do.”

There was a pause, and Charlene felt Melanie studying her. “She’s not like I expected.”

“What could you possibly have expected? You’ve never met.”

“I didn’t think she would be beautiful.” Melanie sounded a little jealous.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Takes after her mother, right?”

“That’s the rumor.”

Charlene heard her cousin turn around to face forward again. “That not-speaking thing is a bit weird, isn’t it? I’ve never heard of anyone who could hear but not talk.”

“Neither have I.”

“Didn’t my uncle ever mention it?”

“Not once, and he wrote about her often enough.” Elizabeth looked over her shoulder, and Charlene felt them swing left into another lane. “Maybe something happened when they died.”

Her aunt was righter than she knew, and normally thinking about that awful day would bother Charlene very much…but something else her aunt had said was too important to focus on bad memories.

He wrote about me?

Did that mean there had been letters? Did that mean there perhaps still were letters?

Charlene had never understood why her father’s side of the family seemed not to exist. Why no Oakshues had come to the funeral so long before, why all of her father’s possessions had just been tossed out before she could do anything to stop it.

Charlene had some of her mother’s clothes, some of her mother’s jewelry, things that—when she started to forget—she could bring out to help her remember.

She had nothing, nothing of her father except a wedding picture and an old magazine article.

To realize that there was a chance, a slim-but-still-hopefully-real chance that her father’s words, letters he had written his sister about his job, his marriage, his only daughter…

Charlene realized that she was crying. She bit her lip and made herself stop. They might have been thrown away. They might have been burned.

Don’t get excited.

Deep down inside, however, her heart was fluttering with the thought, and would not be still.

Her aunt and cousin had continued talking while she was busy thinking. When she tuned in again, Melanie was asking, “Did you see that skate case?”

“Of course.”

“Betcha it’s a custom pair.”

“I daresay.” Her aunt was a regular chatterbox.

“Think she’s any good?”

“It runs in the family, doesn’t it?”

There was another quiet pause. “Was Uncle Andrew any good?”

Almost a minute of highway passed before her aunt’s reply. “He was the best I’ve ever known.”

“I bet my father has a better slapshot.”

Melanie sounded like she was joking, and yet as soon as the words came out of her mouth, the emotional temperature in the car dropped a hundred degrees. Even Toepick shivered.

Her aunt’s voice came straight off a glacier. “Your father was a drinking, brawling, worthless hockey player and I do not wish to speak of him, do you understand me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Charlene had forgotten that she was supposed to be asleep, and she looked at her cousin. Melanie’s eyes had gone as cold as her mother’s voice, and then she turned away to look out at the night.

Or perhaps at her own reflection.

While Charlene studied her cousin secretly, the mystery from that first impression at the airport became a little clearer. When she first saw Melanie, the teenager had looked exactly like the girl in the old picture—without looking like her at all. Now Charlene could start to catch why.

Melanie had the same eyes, the same facial structure, the same color hair—had she wanted to, she could have looked just like a younger version of her mother.

Which seemed to be the clue. Elizabeth’s hair was long, sweeping halfway down her back, while Melanie’s blonde tresses were pretty much tressless, cropped close around her head. Charlene’s aunt was dressed simply yet expensively in a pastel business suit, with makeup and earrings and better shoes than Charlene had ever felt comfortable considering.

Her cousin wore overalls, a white t-shirt and scuffed sneakers. She even slouched a little, Charlene recalled from the airport, while Aunt Elizabeth—of course—stood proud and tall.

One had gone to great trouble to look unlike the other. Charlene thought she could guess who.

Melanie was still looking out the window as she said, “Is Doug coming to dinner?”

“He’s invited, but I doubt that he’s coming.”

“Not much for meeting new people.”

Yet another silence full of things unsaid. Until Melanie picked one and said it. “I wonder if he’ll think she’s pretty.”

“Well, Melanie—your cousin is at least closer to his age. I imagine they would have a lot more in common.”

Melanie turned to face her mother again, green eyes flashing even in the dim light. “Just what is that supposed to mean?”

Her mother didn’t shrink from the look or the question. “Dear, sooner or later you’d better realize that Doug Hawkins is not going to fall in love with you.”

There had been more silences than conversation, and this one was angry.

Then, without warning, Melanie’s mood changed. There was still anger in it but something else had taken over. The girl smiled in a sultry way, stretching slowly until her fingertips brushed the car ceiling. Her voice matched her actions. “I dunno, mom, I think I still might be able to catch Douggie’s fancy.”

For the first time, Elizabeth sounded just slightly rattled. “You leave his fancy alone, Melanie Gloria. If I catch the two of you together—”

“Oh, like you give a damn about what I do or who I do it with.”

“I do care when your actions start hurting the troupe.” They were both hissing, trying to be courteous to their guest if not each other.

“I’m sick of the troupe, ma, the only thing you really do care about. The troupe, the troupe, the troupe—where were your concerns about the troupe when you were fooling around with Mr. Drake?”

“Shut up!”

Charlene saw how much the venomous rebuke stung. Melanie’s face was white.

“I don’t want you to talk anymore. You are an ungrateful, unappreciative, ugly little girl who would do better to keep her mouth shut!”

And there was no more conversation throughout the rest of the trip. As the passing streetlights lit up her cousin’s face, staring again out the window, Charlene saw that Melanie’s reflection was crying.

What have I gotten into? And was it too late to hitchhike to Florida?

Charlene amused herself with an image of standing by the road with a golden retriever and a sign, WILL FIGURE SKATE FOR FOOD. The Lexus slipped through the moonlight without a sound.

By seven-thirty they reached the Oakshue house, which seemed fairly large even in darkness. Elizabeth drove into the three-car garage, parking next to a fairly unremarkable aging white station wagon. Which was weird…no, wait. Not if that was Melanie’s car.

That would actually make sense—Charlene was new here, but somehow Auntie Elizabeth didn’t strike her as the type to buy people new cars.

Unless she was wrong. Do I have to read into everything? She made herself stop.

Toepick had jumped out when the door opened, finding a nice spot to mark as his own. Charlene found the dark blue leash in her suitcase and snapped it on his collar before he started digging holes.

A motion-sensor turned the porch light on as the weary and silent travelers approached, and the house seemed even bigger with the lights on. Half a mansion, really.

So, despite old station wagons, whoever they might belong to, Auntie Elizabeth had a fair stake as well. Charlene didn’t think that she was very surprised. They trooped inside and her aunt disappeared, saying something about supper at eight-thirty “just this once.”

“It’s usually at 6 sharp,” Melanie explained. “C’mon, let me show you around.”

First, though, they found several old dishes and gave the big dog some food and water. “He was hungry,” Melanie remarked, watching both bowls quickly empty.

I should think so, poor baby. Charlene could see that whatever her faults, Melanie liked animals.

“He is housebroken, right?”

As if to answer her question, Toepick trotted over to the back door and scratched on it.

“Lucky you,” Melanie chuckled, going to let the dog out.

Elizabeth’s voice came from the other kitchen three rooms away. “You’re going to put felt or something on the door tomorrow, right?”

Her cousin shut the door after her dog and replied, “Why don’t we just hire a doggie butler?”

“Don’t push me, Melanie.”

After the dog was finished, the girls took a quick tour of the house.

It was quite a place, with a library, a well-stocked tv room, a billiards room, the three guest bedrooms Charlene had heard about and a fair bit more. She picked one of these bedrooms and tossed her suitcase on the bed—and would have been content to just rest for a minute, but—“C’mere, there’s something out back you probably want to see.”

She followed her cousin back down two flights of stairs and through several rooms and finally outside by the same back door Toepick had so recently used. He was already asleep on her new bed, so the two had the backyard to themselves.

Not many people’s backyards consisted of several wooded acres and what looked like a hay barn. That was interesting enough, but Melanie was leading the way to the barn itself.

“Look,” she said, and opened the door, switching on the lights. Charlene followed her in, feeling heat escape from inside…

And her breath caught in her throat. A heated…indoor…ice-skating rink. She was glad that Melanie didn’t expect her to say anything…because she would not have known what to say. Okay, now I’ve got to make this family thing work.

Melanie laughed. “I can see you like it.”

Charlene hated leaving it behind, especially without taking at least one glide across…but her skates were a jillion rooms and two flights of stairs away, and she really was tired.

The rink would still be there later. If it were not a mirage.

With her cousin’s help, Charlene found the way back to her room. Melanie looked around once or twice on the way but didn’t find what she was looking for. “I’m surprised we didn’t see Sarah. She must be curled up with a book somewhere. You’ll meet her at dinner.”

Charlene didn’t know who Sarah was, but supposed she would find out. Suddenly she realized how much she wanted to clean up and change. Apparently, Melanie picked up on this, because she excused herself, reminding her cousin that dinner was at eight-thirty.

That gave her more than a half-hour to prepare. Charlene meant just to take a shower, but her room had a full bathroom en suite, and looking at that gloriously big tub…

The bubble bath took a tad longer than she realized, and when Melanie came to fetch her, just finished dressing, it was—hmm, 8:47. That can’t be good.

“I figured I’d better come get you,” her cousin said, “Mom doesn’t appreciate lateness to the table.”

Charlene decided it was time to start figuring out how to communicate with her cousin. She sat down on the bed and dug out her pad.

Melanie sat as well and waited.

“Your mom may have to get used to change,” she wrote.

“Well, somebody will,” Melanie allowed after she finished reading.

“Thanks for the tour. I’ve never seen a private ice rink before.”

“Yeah, mom’s pride and joy. We skate on it all the time, practicing.”

For what, Charlene didn’t know. The troupe they had been arguing over? “Think I could do a turn out there sometime?”

“I don’t know why not, but you’ll have to ask mom. Is this how we have to talk to each other?”

Charlene managed, with a little effort, not to sigh. “If you can think of something better, let me know.”

“Huh. Well, whatever.” Melanie sounded like she didn’t really care.

“I suppose I’ve proved that I don’t jump when your mom says hop to. Let’s go, I’m starving!”

Her cousin made a bit of a snorting sound but said nothing more, leading the way downstairs. As they turned past the landing toward the rear dining room, Charlene saw a quiet brown door that hadn’t been mentioned on the tour.

Curiosity rose up in her—it just felt like that sort of door—and she turned the knob. Locked.

Melanie looked back and skidded to a stop on the parquet floor. “What are you, stupid? That room is always locked, nobody goes in there, and you don’t ask about it unless you want to see my mom get really upset.”

Perish the thought, and don’t you ever call me stupid again. A forbidden room? Now Charlene really wanted in. But she let herself be led to the dining room instead.

Charlene noticed three things upon entering. The table was only big enough for perhaps ten, much smaller than she expected; there was a girl sitting on one side of it, who Charlene guessed was Sarah; and neither the girl nor her aunt Elizabeth had waited. Indeed, it looked like Auntie Elizabeth was almost finished.

There was a clock visible in the next room. She and her cousin were twenty-five minutes late. Melanie gave her a not unkind “told you so” look and sat down. Charlene sat in the seat between her cousin and the girl she hadn’t met.

This last changed right off. “Hi,” the girl said, “I’m Sarah. You’re Charlene, right?”

Charlene was about to flip through her cards for a hello when her aunt interrupted. “Charlene, I know it’s been a long day and we’re all a little out of sorts.

“But there is no peace in this house unless the rules are obeyed. Do I make myself clear? We have a certain time for meals, and if you wish to eat at this table, you are expected to be on time.”

Elizabeth’s eyes looked just like that girl in the old picture, not angry or even very cold, Charlene could now see more clearly, but absolutely blocked off—as if there was nobody inside. As much as she wanted to look away, Charlene held her head up. She would offer her aunt courtesy and politeness—to a point—but she would not be intimidated or browbeaten.

“And another thing. We’ve never had a dog in this house and I’m not at all certain that I like it. You keep him under control or we’ll have problems. Understood?”

She still didn’t look away, even though her empty stomach and tired heart both yammered at her to just nod and get it over with. Charlene had held onto who she was in the face of many difficulties, but this woman across the table was a new challenge altogether.

After a moment she nodded. Apparently, they had a mutual understanding, at least about things like dinner times and dogs. Elizabeth said no more but went back to her food, looking calm and collected.

To Charlene’s right, cousin Melanie was eating fast and looking a little flushed, as if that stare down had affected her, too. To her left, Sarah jumped right back in as if nothing had happened. “I know that you’re my cousin, but not much else.”

Cousin? She had two cousins? Such a deal, but please tell me you’re nicer than Melanie.

“Cause Elizabeth’s my mom and Mel’s my sister so that makes you my cousin. I’m almost eleven, I can’t believe I’ve never met you. Are you going to stay awhile? I hope you do, you seem really nice.”

Charlene had been trying to find energy enough to explain her handicap one last time that day, but it looked like Sarah could hold up both ends of a conversation by herself. Listening to her newly discovered cousin go on, Charlene found herself forgetting her aunt’s contention and smiling.

She was going to like this one.

“I finally get to do a part in the show, even though it’s just cleaning the ice after acts. Plus keeping an eye on Mr. Perkins grandchildren, they help too. Did my mom say something about a dog? Is that big golden retriever yours? He’s beautiful, I always wanted a dog but…”

Charlene ate and listened, fascinated by all the things Sarah had to say, until Melanie got up from the table and said goodnight.

At some point her aunt had disappeared as well, when Charlene wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t really mind.

Sarah and her cousin finished at about the same time, since Charlene had come late to the table and Sarah rarely stopped talking to eat. They seemingly had the house to themselves and took their plates to the kitchen.

Sarah had been silent for an entire moment, making the house seem as still as snowfall. Charlene wondered if the girl wasn’t nervous about something. She kept tapping her fingers on the countertop while she stepped on and off her own stockinged foot. Suddenly she turned and came out with it in a quick breath. “You’re really pretty, Charlene. Am I pretty too?”

The question was a serious one, and Charlene gave it a serious answer. She turned to look at her cousin, lit by the moonlight shining through big windows and bouncing off the countertops. Sarah was, like her, an Oakshue not cut from the blond-and-light-green cloth. The girl’s hair was chestnut brown, and fine, so that she wore it short. Her eyes were big and brown even in moonlight. Taking a good, long look, Charlene smiled and nodded at her.

Sarah threw her arms about her startled cousin. “Oh, thank you so much! I ask Melanie if I’m pretty and she just says ‘Sure, whatever, get out of my room,’ and I ask mom if I’m pretty and she just tells me to stop bothering her, nobody ever really looked before!”

Charlene hugged Sarah back, and found herself blinking away a set of tears.

Sarah pulled back and she was smiling. “I never felt pretty because I’m in this household of blonde goddesses, you know, even though Melanie doesn’t even try anymore. She’s beautiful anyway. But you said I am, and you really looked, so I’ll believe you. I know you’re probably really tired so I’ll let you go to bed, okay, but I hope you’re around for awhile because we have so much to talk about!”

And with that, Sarah bounced away. Charlene stood in the kitchen alone, silently laughing to herself, wondering how precious little Sarah had escaped the Curse of the Bad Attitude. The contrast between her younger cousin and those other two…

Charlene knew she didn’t have to stay. She was smart and a hard worker. With a healthy trust fund, she reminded herself. She could just go and make her own way in the world. Standing in the silent kitchen, feeling the weight of the big, nearly empty house around her, Charlene wondered if there was anything worth grasping for at the Oakshue estate.

But these people, such as they seemed to be, were all the family she had left.

And lest she forget, somewhere in this ramble of a house there might be old, folded pages displaying a man’s handwriting…

A man who had loved her, and taught her how to skate, a man she had trouble sometimes, remembering…

Give ’em a chance, lady.

For a long moment Charlene looked out the window at the edge of the barn, that wonderful barn with an ice rink inside, thinking how delicious it would feel to strap her skates on and go flying…but somebody might not appreciate her skating after hours. Tomorrow. She could skate tomorrow.

Plus go get more dog food. Where was that rascal, anyway? Charlene thought she knew.

She refilled the water bowl and left the moonlit barn behind. She was proud of herself for finding the way to the bedroom and getting lost only once. Sure enough, Toepick was happily settled on her pillow. He wasn’t very excited about being moved but decided the foot of the bed was close enough.

One thing remained to do. In a special pocket of her suitcase was a small box, and from that box Charlene withdrew a nightlight in the shape of an angel. It was made of porcelain, with a little light bulb that made the angel shine. She plugged it in by the door where she would be able to see it from the bed, and with that light and a big whuffling dog at her feet felt almost at home.

For longer than she would have expected, Charlene lay listening to the March wind rustling past the house.

Happy birthday to me.

Then she slept.

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