The little clock by the bed said the time was half-past seven. It took a couple seconds to remember who and where she was.
Oh, yes. I wonder if there’s a set time for breakfast as well?
There was, as it turned out. And she had missed it. However missing breakfast did not seem to be quite so terrible a crime as being late to dinner.
Charlene fixed herself some toast with grape jelly and wondered where in the world everybody was. Sarah had passed her on the way downstairs, offering a hello and did Charlene possibly know where she had put her math book? Her cousin did not know but kept her eyes open in the dozen or so rooms she went through on the way to the kitchen. She didn’t see any more math books than she did cousins or aunts, nothing except a big golden-furred dog that needed to be let out.
Breakfast was surprisingly peaceful, coming as it did with the welcome absence of anybody put-out or disapproving. It was also a bit disconcerting, however, since it seemed like her aunt and cousin had disappeared without a trace.
Just about the time she thought of checking the backyard ice-rink, a strange young man walked right into the kitchen. Quite without warning, and quite unexpectedly, the front door being out of hearing range. Charlene had to pick her toast off the floor which didn’t improve her morning mood. For that matter, the young man didn’t seem very excited to see her, either.
“And you are?” He didn’t even bother waiting for the answer but turned around and started digging through the pantry.
With the way the morning was shaping up, Charlene didn’t even know if she felt like telling him but thought she might as well dig out the proper card. When he finally turned around with his Froot Loops, the young intruder read “Hello, my name is Charlene Oakshue. I’m very pleased to meet you!”
He blinked. “Huh. Well, Charlene Oakshue,” he said carefully and slowly, not to mention more loudly as if that would help were she really deaf, “I’m Doug Hawkins.”
Of course. She felt silly for not figuring that out. Charlene did not feel like correcting his mistaken deaf assumptions. Not when it would be so much more interesting to listen to him make a fool of himself, as he did when he turned around to grab an apple out of a bowl on the counter. “Great. I’m supposed to be taking Chatterbox to school and then racing back here so the Ice Queen can work my tail off, and I’m stuck in here with somebody’s deaf relative.”
Charlene just looked at him when he turned around, without allowing that she had heard any of his words. This was wonderful Doug Hawkins that Melanie was so into? She could have him.
Looking frustrated, Doug continued speaking slowly and loudly—and now he starting using his hands, as if that would help. “Do you know where Sarah is?”
She wouldn’t tell him if her life depended on it.
Just about then the girl herself bounded back into the kitchen, math book in hand. “Hi, Douggie. Char, I found it under the bed, I must’ve kicked it there last night.” She continued speaking even as her head disappeared into the fridge, searching for the banana she took out. “Sorry I have to go just when we were getting to know each other, but I’ll be back after school, and we’ll have fun then, okay?”
Doug’s mouth was open but Charlene didn’t look at him. She just nodded and smiled at Sarah and went back to her toast.
“You could hear me the whole time?”
Now she did look up, and tapped the side of her head, still smiling.
“So, you just like playing games with people’s minds?”
It’s not my fault you’re a dork. She flipped to Card #7.
“You can hear, you just can’t speak.” At least he had the decency to blush a little. “Well. Great meeting you.” He left, shaking his head.
She wasn’t going to miss him at all. Arrogant jerk.
Not long after, Melanie came in from outside, looking hurried. “Hey, Char, sorry to rush off on your first real day here but I’ve gotta get to school, see you later bye,” and was in and out of the room in less time than it took to say it.
Charlene sat in front of her empty plate, wondering if she would ever figure this family out. Well, both cousins were gone for the next eight hours, it looked like, so she might as well see how her aunt was doing. Perhaps they could make a better start than they had the previous night.
Before she went out to see, Charlene found her way back upstairs and grabbed the white skate case. A nice run on the ice was just the way to greet the morning.
The day had dawned clear, with thin wisps of cloud stretching across blue skies, though the air was bitterly cold. Charlene wasted no time crossing the stone path and easing through the big barn door.
It wasn’t the most elaborate affair, but for an indoor private rink Charlene was still impressed. The ice was no bigger than old Watson’s pond, but big enough for an indoor rink. A wooden rail ran around the length of the rink, with a plastic barrier to the inside that would ward off any errant crashes. Charlene saw audio speakers, and thought she recognized a wire harness for practicing lifts and throws, ice dancing moves, and there was even a small carpeted area leading to the ice for changing footwear. A classy place for a haybarn.
For several minutes Charlene stopped at the rail, her case on the floor beside her, watching her aunt skate.
It was really something to see. Charlene could finally capture in three-dimensions the woman from that old picture. The woman who had been a World Champion at sixteen. Her form was perfect—that is to say her skating, the lines she turned on the ice were flawless.
But, come to think of it, her form ain’t bad either, especially for forty years old and two children. Elizabeth obviously knew how to take care of herself, and Charlene remembered seeing a small gym and dance floor in the whirlwind tour of the previous evening.
If this was what Aunt Elizabeth had devoted her life to, she was as devoted as they came, and the work was paying off.
Except…except for something that she didn’t notice at first. For a few minutes just watching her aunt skate, watching the graceful turns and perfect spins was entertaining, even magical, and every time the woman went into a jump her timing and landings were so precise that Charlene almost applauded.
It took her a while to notice, but her aunt’s face never changed. No, strike that—it did change, but never for the better. When she made a mistake, which did happen all of three times in the fifteen minutes Charlene stood watching, she frowned angrily, seemingly berating herself for not being perfect.
And when she wasn’t frowning, she just looked terribly sad.
I’m imagining things. That was all. An overactive imagination.
Charlene put the thought from her mind and pulled the skates from her case. It hadn’t always been easy, first convincing her grandfather to buy her skates when she needed them, and then working for her own as she got older, but as far back as she could remember Charlene had always had custom-fitted ice-skates. The best that could be bought under whatever circumstances she found herself.
Circumstances hadn’t been fantastic lately, but her feet had stopped growing years ago, and the skates she had were still good for many turns around a rink.
The moment she stepped onto the ice, just enjoying the feel of it under her skates, her aunt stopped.
What? Charlene didn’t move but stood still, balancing without effort on her blades while her aunt stroked towards her from across the rink, finally sliding to a stop right before her eyes.
“This is practice ice. I’m working here.”
Her niece didn’t know what to say but waved a hand around the arena. There really was room enough for two…
“No, it’s not enough room for two. Not when I’m trying to get ready for our final show. Douglas will be back soon and then I work with him, and others will be arriving throughout the day. I’m sorry, Charlene, but I cannot allow you to skate right now.”
I see. She didn’t say anything—of course—but again met her aunt’s gaze for a long moment. Was this because of last night? Was she being punished for having a will of her own?
Then Charlene laughed silently, looking away. How silly. Of course, her aunt needed space to practice for whatever this troupe was she had heard about. She was being childish. Fishing around the neckline of her sweatshirt, she pulled the flip-cards out and found Card #9, “I’m sorry.”
Her aunt read this and brightened a little. “That’s quite all right, dear, I’m glad you understand.”
It was the last thing in the world she wanted to do, but Charlene smiled at her aunt, bowed slightly without being sarcastic about it, and turned, stepping off the ice. She put her skates back where they had come from and wondered what she might do with her morning.
One thing was certain: if that young man was coming back, she was going out.
Where’s my pad?
She took the cards and the pad with her everywhere, well aware that most people didn’t understand sign language.
Elizabeth had begun her routine again and was again on the far side of the arena when Charlene finished writing and walked up to the edge of the ice. She couldn’t exactly call to her, could she?
There were other ways to make noise. A couple of sharp kicks to the back of the fiberglass sheet that encircled the ice was enough to get her aunt to look up.
Elizabeth didn’t look excited by the interruption, but what was Charlene expected to do?
When her aunt skated over, she read: “I’d like to go into town, get the feel of things, plus Toepick needs food. Is there a car I can borrow?”
Her aunt looked even less excited. “Oh, Charlene…I don’t know, Melanie’s taken her station wagon—”
I knew it!
“—and you certainly are not allowed to borrow mine.”
Being right about Melanie’s car didn’t make her feel better about still needing one herself. So, I should start walking? C’mon, Liz, give me a chance here!
Come to think of it, she herself probably wouldn’t want to loan out a Lexus to some nineteen-year-old she barely knew. But that didn’t make the situation any easier—she couldn’t even call Greyhound to learn the bus schedule.
Her aunt seemed a little sympathetic and a lot impatient. “Like I said, Douglas should be back here any minute. Maybe we can convince him to loan you his car, he’ll be working out here all morning anyway.”
So now she got to ask that punk for a favor? Crap, I’d rather walk.
Charlene waited in one of the folding chairs by the rink wall, trying not to listen to her aunt’s blades skimming along. She had really wanted just a quick glide…
Doug looked like Charlene felt when he walked into the barn, and it was easy to see that they were not going to quickly become the best of friends. “Hello again.”
Aunt Elizabeth slid up and stopped with unnoticed precision. “Douglas, it’s about time you got back. I don’t care how good you think your routines are, you can slack off after the final tomorrow night. Today, you work.” Then, as an afterthought, “Oh, yes, do you think you could let Charlene borrow your car for a few hours? She has errands and just got into town, you know how it is.”
Charlene was a tad surprised, her aunt could really turn on the charm when she wanted. Whether Auntie Liz was doing so to help her niece or to get that niece out of her beautiful golden hair was uncertain, but it was a good step closer towards the niece getting what she wanted—so Charlene didn’t argue.
“You’re kidding. I don’t even know this—this mime here, and you expect me to just toss my keys into her waiting hands?”
“Douglas, it’s only for a few hours. She’ll likely be with us for awhile, you’ll end up seeing a lot of Charlene.”
Not if she can help it, Charlene thought quietly.
“Don’t you think you could just help her out this one time? Trust me, she’s a very responsible driver. Your car won’t end up on the nine o’clock news.”
He still looked a little skeptical. Charlene thought she might have an incentive of her own to still bring into play, if Douglas Hawkins turned out to be like most men.
She had been told on occasion that she was exceptionally beautiful. There had been more than a few bad poems about her ‘striking raven locks’ and ‘eyes darker than purest opal.’ If she were to open her eyes a little bigger, and swing her hair around to frame her face, and pout ever so slightly…
Douglas Hawkins turned out to be like most men, and after sighing and rolling his eyes, tossed his keys into her waiting hands. “You might at least put some gas in the car.”
He was letting her borrow his car, so she tried not to even think anything mean towards him but mouthed a “Thank you,” and smiled, before leaving them to their practice.
Gathering up her dog and her purse, Charlene made sure she had the paperwork she needed to start a new bank account, a handy map of Portsmouth that Melanie had left in the kitchen for her and found her way out to the Douglas Hawkins chariot.
He’s worried about me driving this thing? The two-seater low-rent sports car was more dented than solid, and covered in dirt which didn’t hide the fact that the car’s paint job was gray—except for the driver’s side door, which was red. The American Beater. What an honor to drive.
She let Toepick jump in and settle himself in the passenger seat, and if he left long golden retriever hairs everywhere, Doug would survive. The inside was almost as dusty as the outside, she noticed as she fit the passenger seatbelt snugly around her baby.
Yet the car started right up when she turned the key, and as she left the driveway and turned out onto Yarmouth, she gave Doug’s car a little too much gas and fishtailed for a moment. Toepick barked in excitement, his tongue hanging out.
Laughing to herself, Charlene got the car straightened out and headed into town. Maybe this deal ain’t as bad as I thought. I could get used to this.
She even found the radio set to an oldies music station. Perhaps Douglas had a good point or two.
Wondering if she cared enough to really find out, Charlene headed into the heart of Portsmouth, New Hampshire to get her new life in a little better order.
When she returned to the mansion, very pleased with herself that she hadn’t gotten lost once, Charlene had a brand-new bank account, had let the postal service know where she was, and had plenty of food for her hungry golden tiger.
Not bad for a mime.
Doug hadn’t forgotten that she was driving his pride and joy. She got back to the Oakshues at fifteen to three, thinking somebody probably needed Doug’s car to get Sarah from school. The second she pulled up he was outside, trying to look like he didn’t care about anything. She watched him pretend not to check out his car and make sure she hadn’t damaged it. “That’s a beautiful dog.”
Huh—not what she had expected. She pointed Card #4 in his face, “Thank you very much!” Then she gave him his keys back, hefted the bag of dogfood and walked right past him into the house, Toepick following behind. Charlene hadn’t forgotten the morning comments. Maybe Douglas would like to be a little friendlier with her, especially after her shameless performance to get the loan of his car, but maybe she was a big believer in first impressions. And not inclined to allow a second.
Melanie was home too and walking down the stairs when Charlene opened the front door. She looked a little concerned. “Hey, so you borrowed Doug’s car, huh?”
If there was one thing Charlene hated, it was rhetorical questions that she couldn’t answer if she wanted. What was she supposed to do, nod?
“He’s very particular about it. I hope you didn’t run over anybody or anything.”
There was one very big question behind Melanie’s half-smile which Charlene knew the girl wouldn’t ask. So, she set down the dog-food, grabbed her cousin’s arm and led her upstairs, ignoring all protests.
When they got to her room Charlene sat on the bed for a moment, feeling like it had been a long day. Perhaps it had been. Then she shook her head and grabbed her pad. Melanie sat beside her, the better to read.
“Just say it, already.”
Honestly. Charlene wrote, “Repeat after me: Are you—”
Melanie was at least teachable. “Are you,”
“Making a play—”
This was also repeated.
“For the childish, disagreeable boy—”
“For the childish, disagree—hey!”
“That I think I’m in love with?” There. Now the question had been asked.
Melanie read the last in silence. “How did you know?”
Oops. She had been asleep during last night’s conversation, hadn’t she?
Then again…Melanie was family, all the family she had, almost.
Lying to her was not going to become a habit, and she might as well nip it in the bud. “Remember the ride home yesterday, when I was asleep?”
She didn’t have to write it down. A look between them sufficed.
“You heard everything?”
It looked as if Melanie was running the conversation over in her mind, remembering all the things that had been said. “I’m…embarrassed. I would’ve sworn you were asleep.” She looked out the window. “I’m sorry.”
“I should apologize. I let you both be deceived.”
Her cousin read the words, then played with her necklaces for a moment. Then she looked up. “So, you got to see what we were really like right off the bat. I can’t believe you’re still here!”
“You aren’t that bad.”
“Huh.” Apparently, that was going to go unchallenged. Then, abruptly, “Well, are you?”
The question caught Charlene upside the head. “Am I what?”
“Are you making a play for the childish, disagreeable boy I think I’m in love with?” More than a hint of jealousy and warning.
Was her description of him not answer enough? Obviously not. “Mel, he’s all yours. I think he’s a real jerk and I’ve met some, believe me—but regardless, it’s all you, babe.”
Her cousin looked relieved though still upset. “He’s not really a jerk, he’s just bad with first impressions. Once you get to know him—anyway, since he let you borrow his car and he won’t let anybody do that, I figured maybe something…you know…”
Ew! No, she did not know, and furthermore she did not want to know.
Come to think of it, she probably wouldn’t be too excited to hear how I enticed Douggie into the loan. He better not get any ideas. Time to switch subjects. “What’s going on around here? Like tonight?”
“We have practice tonight, over at the arena. I’m sure you’re welcome to tag along.”
“Is this part of the troupe? I don’t even know what that is.”
“You’ll see.” And that was all Melanie would say.
“Are you busy at the moment?”
Arrgh…it was so hard, taking thirty seconds, a minute, to write out what she wanted to say when people could respond in a flash! “I’ve been on my own all day and I’m dying to talk to somebody!” Even as difficult as conversation was, especially with someone who didn’t really give a damn.
Her cousin looked noncommittal. “Yeah, okay. Come to think of it, I don’t usually have anybody to talk to either. Mom’s always busy.”
“What about Sarah?”
Melanie laughed. “With Sarah I’m lucky if I can get a word in edgewise. You two looked like you were hitting it off, though, last night.”
Was that jealousy? Couldn’t be. I’m not here to replace you, Mel.
“Only because I don’t have any way to get words in with, edgewise or not. It was—” what was it? “It was relaxing, after a long day, to have human contact but not be struggling to communicate. Not to mention that Sarah is just great, I think. A little chatty but a great spirit, seems like a lot of fun.”
That took a lot of writing, and then Melanie had to read it. This stupid handicap—it made regular, normal, everyday communication so damnably difficult.
“She’s the only light in this house sometimes. Mom and I stomp around angry or slink around gloomy, and she almost always seems to be happy and full of things to say.” She paused. “The kid gets on my nerves sometimes, but she’s okay.”
Now that she had her conversation thing going, Charlene couldn’t think of anything to say. “I’m not keeping you from homework, am I?”
“No, it’s cool. I don’t have any that won’t keep until Monday. I’ve got all weekend.”
Charlene nodded. So, what could they talk about…there had to be a thousand things!
It was Melanie who broke the silence. “So—you heard everything yesterday?”
Meeting her gaze, Charlene nodded. Praise God for yes-and-no questions.
Her cousin was blushing a little. Charlene wondered which part was the cause.
“I’m sorry about what I said. About your handicap being weird.”
Oh. She had almost forgotten that. “It’s okay. It is weird.”
“I’ve never heard of anybody with that kind of difficulty. I know some deaf people can speak, like if they lost their hearing later in life, but this is like, reversed—were you born like this? My mom didn’t think so.”
“Your mom’s right. It was the accident.”
“When I was six, and Sarah just a baby. I remember how devastated Mom was.”
“I was nine.”
Melanie looked a little uncomfortable, and said oddly, “You know, I still don’t know exactly what happened. I mean,” she went on in a rush, “the only thing I knew about any of your family was that my uncle’s name was Andrew, that he and mom had skated together for a long time, and that would have been it, except for his letters.”
His letters. Ooh… Charlene knew she didn’t have the right to ask yet, but still…
“He sent mom a letter at least once a month, sometimes more, and occasionally I would sneak a look at one before she put it away somewhere. She always read them, then they disappeared. I never understood why he wrote so much, and why she didn’t seem to care, and why she never wrote back.”
Once a month? There must be dozens. Had her aunt kept them? Were they really in the house somewhere?
The locked room. That has to be it. Oh, why did I study dog grooming over the summer instead of lockpicking?
Melanie absently played with her Celtic cross necklace. “His letters, the ones I got to read, were always full of stuff about you and your mom. I guess you could say that I knew a ton about you, actually, but it wasn’t the same as really meeting you, or really knowing your family. It was just words on a page, and it even felt, sometimes, like something made up, something that didn’t exist.
“I didn’t really think that I had an aunt, an uncle, a cousin. They just became monthly stories, after awhile, stories that didn’t seem real.” Her eyes seemed very far away. “And then they stopped.”
Charlene knew where this was going.
“I had figured out what time each month to get to the mailbox first and had been able to read each monthly letter for about a year. Your dad had been writing about your ninth birthday party, and his carpentry business, and how your mother was helping out at the church, and the last letter Mom got was in late September, and I was waiting all through October for the next one.
“It never came. Mom even started wondering, I think she got used to the constant barrage of mail. October came and went, and then November, and then as we were getting ready for Christmas—which is nothing much around here, I’m sorry to say—the phone rang.”
Glad that Melanie could tell her story without the usual encouraging noises people made, Charlene let her pen lie still, listening without bothering to write.
“It was Grandma.”
Someone else Charlene had never met. Her father had talked about his parents, talked about how they would go see Grandma and Grandpa soon…but it had never happened.
There were so many secrets in her family, so many things she didn’t understand.
And most of the people who would know were dead, her grandparents included.
Melanie laughed sort of mournfully. “I didn’t even know my grandparents were alive. I had never heard of them, Mom had never talked about them…it was so weird when she turned with the phone in her hand and said ‘It’s your grandmother.’ She might as well have said, ‘It’s a unicorn.’ Then the strangest thing happened. Mom just listened to the phone for what seemed like forever, said “No, just dump it all,” and hung up without even saying goodbye.
“For about thirty seconds after she put the phone up, we both just stood in the kitchen, while I looked at her and she looked out the window. Then without warning, she—” Melanie cast about, like she was trying to explain something difficult, “She just exploded, emotionally, like a bomb had gone off and she crumpled on the floor, weeping like the world was coming to an end.
“I had never seen that before. It didn’t seem like my mother, it was like all the emotion that hadn’t appeared in the six years I’d known her just burst out.”
Charlene tried to imagine her aunt weeping uncontrollably. She had a pretty good imagination, but it didn’t stretch that far.
Now Melanie’s eyes were so far away, Charlene wondered if her cousin even remembered she was in the room. “I wanted to do something, I tried to get her to talk to me but she wouldn’t respond, she wouldn’t look up or stop, she just kept sobbing and sobbing. And the next thing I knew, she was packing and just left, and Mrs. Perkins was taking care of us.”
Melanie blinked, and was back in the house with her. “Oh, um—yeah. Mrs. Perkins was technically my nanny, but she pretty much raised me. And Sarah, too, I guess. Mom’s never been much for motherly duties.”
That had to be one of the most awful things she had ever heard—Charlene hoped her cousin was exaggerating.
“Anyway, that was it for Christmas. Mom went off to some clinic to get better, and she was gone until March. It wasn’t until she came back that I had any idea what the phone call had been about. All I knew was that the call had come from Grandma. She came back, so much later, after Sarah and Mrs. Perkins and I managed through Christmas and New Year’s, and she was back to the Mom we knew. She was as cold as ever, and in control, like nothing had happened.”
Charlene heard voices downstairs, one of which was talking nonstop. Obviously, Doug had gotten Sarah from school.
“She finally answered my question about the call. I remembered the whole thing, even months later—I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life. Mom was arranging some flowers in a vase, I can still recall that ten years later. They were these blue and white flowers. I asked about the phone call, and she said, calmly, without turning around, ’That was your grandmother calling to tell me that my brother and his wife were killed in a car crash on October 1st. The funeral was over and she wondered if I wanted any of his belongings. And I didn’t.’ Like I had asked what we were having for dinner, or who she took to her high-school prom. She didn’t even seem to mind missing the funeral.”
A funeral that Charlene had missed because she was in the hospital. A funeral only her mother’s side of the family had attended. No grandparents, for reasons nobody seemed to know. No Aunt Elizabeth or Cousin Melanie—which was now explained.
And all that had remained of her father was gone. Thanks to his sister, who just didn’t care.
I’m dying to find a reason to like that woman, but it isn’t going well.
“So, my uncle Andrew was dead, along with his wife. There wouldn’t be any more letters. Mom didn’t know what had happened to you. It was just the end. And she was so cold, like nothing would ever touch her again.”
She looked so sad. Not knowing what to do, Charlene put an arm around her shoulders. Melanie immediately leaned away, then moved away, to sit far enough apart that Charlene couldn’t reach her.
“I’m sorry.” She wanted to be able to say.
Melanie looked away, though Charlene could tell she was wiping tears. “It’s okay. It’s fine. It’s—I’m fine.”
The pen in Charlene’s hand was still. For a long, awkward moment, they both sat silently.
Melanie sighed. “Would you mind telling me what happened? I mean, I know there was a crash, but that’s all I know.” She looked away again. “That is, if you don’t mind.”
Did she mind?
“I think I do. Tonight, anyway.” The frustration of trying to really talk about such things when one could speak and the other had to write everything down! “You remember last night, when you asked me if this was how we had to talk?”
“Yes. That wasn’t very nice. I’m sorry.”
“I really meant it when I said if you came up with anything better, let me know.” She thought about stopping there but didn’t. “I don’t like doing it like this.”
There was a tread of footsteps coming down the hall, and then Aunt Elizabeth opened the door and walked in. “Melanie, don’t forget we’re doing dinner at 5 tonight so that we can have an hour longer to practice. I would get started now if I were you.
“Charlene, you’re welcome to come with us and watch practice. I don’t know if there’ll be much for you to do here.”
And she was gone. No hello, no “So, how do you like our little town?” Nothing.
Melanie blew her nose. “I’ll go get supper started. And I’ll think about it, Char, but I’m busy. I don’t know how much time I’ll have for you.”
Was there anything here worth staying for? Give it another day, Charlene, she told herself.
Especially since those letters might still be around.
There was no greater treasure that she knew of, and if there was any way to get ahold of them…
Charlene got up and followed Melanie downstairs to help her fix dinner, even though her cousin hadn’t asked her to.
Every little bit helps.