They ate, and Sarah talked, of course, but this time Charlene brought out her pad and talked back, which wasn’t easy but didn’t seem to bother her younger cousin. The girl just talked while she wrote, read quickly, and talked some more. Douglas was there for dinner as well but seemed content to stay at his end of the table and speak with Elizabeth or Melanie when he said anything. Charlene had to keep reminding herself that Melanie liked him and she should reserve judgment until she knew him better. For Mel’s sake.
After finishing quickly Doug and Melanie grabbed their skate cases and drove into town. After finishing at a reasonable pace and clearing the table, Elizabeth, Charlene and Sarah followed in the Lexus. It was too dark by then for Charlene to write anything, so she listened to her cousin talk in the backseat. Though even Sarah could run out of things to say when no-one was responding, and Elizabeth said nothing during the trip. Thinking about the conversation between herself and Melanie that afternoon, Charlene knew of several things she really wanted to speak to her aunt about…but somehow, she didn’t think Elizabeth would want to talk.
Someday it might be good to push her, a little, to try and get her talking. But not that night.
So, Charlene sat in the quiet Lexus and tried not to think about how everyone going to the practice that night had a skate case…except her. She hadn’t even asked—certain that during Official Practice she wouldn’t be allowed.
But she promised herself that once evening came, once everybody who could possibly care was in bed…
The cars stopped in the parking lot of the Baskerville arena, and the first thing Charlene noticed was the banner stretched proudly over the doors. “Home of Blades and Satin!“ Elizabeth walked up to the front doors and right on in as if she owned the place, the rest of them in tow. Sarah had found her voice. “Char, this is our rink, where we have our show, every weekend from mid-October through mid-March. We’ve been doing it for years, longer than I’ve been alive. Isn’t this place the greatest?”
Charlene was starting to understand. Elizabeth had mentioned a troupe, and practicing, and now they had a show of some kind. Blades and Satin. Nice.
Charlene could hardly take in everything Sarah began saying, hearing bits about jugglers and ice-ballet and her own part clearing the ice after acts. It was amazing. The arena was a full-size ice rink, and when they turned the corner to see the ice lying there, waiting for them, as the big lights slowly warmed up and illuminated the white expanse, Charlene felt a thrill in her heart and wished like anything she had brought her own skates. I’ll skate tonight, she promised herself again.
Sarah said as much as she could between the front hall and the dressing room, and then Elizabeth ushered her daughter in ahead of her, turning to her niece. “Feel free to find a seat. Sarah has a job to do, I’d rather you didn’t distract her.” A pleasant smile, and then the door was shut in her face.
Okay, that was just plain rude. Would it have killed Auntie Liz to let her see the dressing room?
Yet Sarah had mentioned the final performance being tomorrow night, and it was not unknown for people to get jittery, or a little uptight, before final performances. Charlene sighed and let out a little more of that thinning slack as she walked back the way she had come.
She found a seat right down by the ice, checking as she did so to make sure her card necklace and pad were handy. The chances of meeting new people—and explaining the way things were again—looked very likely.
When Charlene finally focused on the ice in front of her, she saw something completely unexpected.
Out on the ice, Melanie was going through a routine with a young man who looked familiar. For a moment Charlene just watched her cousin skate. Talent on ice really did run in the family, she could easily see. The dance she and her partner were doing was challenging, nothing at Olympic levels but still difficult—and she looked graceful, and natural, as she spun and flowed across the rink.
It was also a nice change, in Charlene’s opinion, to see her cousin wearing something pretty. The whole kit-and-kaboodle, with tights and a bit of makeup, to say nothing of the knee-length red dress complete with hood.
Red Riding Hood. Was that who Melanie was supposed to be? It looked like it. With legs like that, you’d think she’d get out of overalls once in a while. But there was no accounting for taste…
Something about the pair was bothering her. Who—no! I don’t believe it.
It made perfect sense when she thought about it, except that it didn’t make sense at all.
Her skating partner was Douglas Hawkins. Charlene had watched them for five minutes without recognizing him. What was different? It wasn’t like his hair had gone blue or anything. He was wearing a princely outfit, also with tights, which she allowed herself to snicker at, but otherwise?
He looked completely different. Maybe because he wasn’t scowling, maybe because he looked at peace and happy. That had to be it. Doug Hawkins looked happy, out on the ice.
The boy could really skate, too. Charlene found herself becoming impressed against her will. And it was very strange, come to think of it, to see this young man in such a different setting—it was like watching another person. Melanie looked different, certainly, but she was still herself. Douglas looked absolutely different, like it came from the inside.
Not that Charlene had a clue what that meant.
A thankful distraction skated up from the other side of the ice, stopping right by where she was sitting. A six-foot tall brown bear.
Goodness. They’ll let anybody skate in here.
The bear removed his head and was revealed as a middle-aged, slightly balding man who looked like he should have been a tax accountant. “Howdy, friend! I’m old Coondog Perkins. Word on the street says you’re Charlene, Mel’s cousin.”
She had Card #7 ready, and unlike showing it to Doug that morning, honestly was pleased to meet this nice man.
He took the Card in stride, and Charlene figured somebody had filled him in. “And it’s most certainly a pleasure to meet you. I’m afraid I don’t know much about you, dear, but we’ll have to find time to get acquainted.” He smiled at her, and then looked past her towards the rink’s entrance. “Hey now, there’s a few folks you ought to meet! Hiya, Millie!”
As Coondog waved, Charlene turned to see a small, pleasantly round woman walking down the aisle towards them, flanked by five children, three boys and two girls, who looked like they ranged from four to about eleven. Coondog spoke from behind her, “That’s my wife Millie, and the little ’uns. It took us so long to start having children, we had a hard time stopping. Millie! Meet my new friend Charlene.”
Card #7 came out again, and though she couldn’t have been warned, Millie was very gracious as she said hello. The kids didn’t wait to be introduced but quickly donned their own little sets of ice-skates and clambered over the low wall onto the rink.
It was a bit of a blur, getting the explanation, but Charlene finally came to understand that Coondog Perkins played the bear’s part in the Blades and Satin show, while Millie helped look after the children, though during the show all five were busy with ‘ice duty.’
This last was a bit confusing until the acts began, a little while later, and Charlene witnessed the five Perkins children and her cousin Sarah swooping around the ice during practice, alert for any broken laces or dropped bits of costume that could foul up a skater’s feet.
Before the practice began, a small meeting was held with the performers, who were about thirty in number including ‘ice-duty’, and the two technicians who ran the sound and the lights. Elizabeth glided in her simple and yet startlingly graceful way onto the ice, and Charlene saw another side of a beautiful woman. Her ice-dancing dress was almost a queen’s gown that sparkled and floated and made her look more regal than ever. As well as showing off, at random moments, her aunt’s fabulous legs, which also seemed to run in the family.
Charlene giggled at her own silent pun.
Her aunt called all of the skaters in. The group gathered close to where Charlene was sitting, and the first order of business had her blushing a little.
“Before we get to practicing, I would like to introduce to you all my lovely niece Charlene, who has come to stay with us for awhile.”
Charlene didn’t embarrass easily, but when twenty-plus heads swiveled in her direction, and she couldn’t even say hello, it was a little uncomfortable. She smiled as best she could, and waved, and received a round of smiles in return. Even her aunt smiled and seemed genuine. It had been nice of Elizabeth to introduce her instead of just letting people figure things out for themselves.
Doug was standing between Elizabeth and Melanie and was the last to look away. Charlene remembered her stupid trick that morning to get his car—and almost blushed again. Don’t even think about it, buddy, I don’t care how good you look when you skate. Then her aunt went on to business. “We only have one practice left before the final show. I know you are all sure of your acts, of your footwork and of the people you work with.” Charlene watched the group as they listened, and they all did seem confident. “But we’re going to work hard tonight, and here’s why.
“After seven successful years, the owners of this arena are getting a little worried about their bottom line. The O’Neills seem to think that we aren’t filling enough seats anymore.”
A tall, handsome man that Charlene hadn’t met, one of three wearing similar brightly polka-dotted shirts and black pants along with blue ice-skates, spoke up. “We haven’t sold out much lately, but we still get them in.”
“We haven’t sold out once in three years, and the numbers keep dropping. Management has started talking about fewer shows or raising ticket prices.”
Although the group was listening, they didn’t all seem to agree with their leader. Charlene saw rolled eyes, and mutterings. She didn’t know what that meant.
Also noticing that Doug was more-or-less staring at her, Charlene fancied that she did at least know what that meant. She wished he would stop.
The same man spoke again. “Well, Elizabeth, we’ve had the same prices for seven years now, it might be time to—”
“It’s not ever going to be time to, Timothy, not if I have anything to say about it. Not if we all get our acts together and give a show like nobody on the East Coast has ever seen. I realize that’s not going to happen in the next twenty-four hours, and I have been very proud of the work you’ve all done this year.
“What this means in the long run is that it’s going to be a long, hard summer of work before we come back in October.”
“And in the short run?” Coondog asked the question.
Didn’t Mr. Hawkins have anything better to do? Charlene tried glaring right at him, a ‘what?’ sort of look, and he finally dropped his eyes.
“In the short run I want you to practice hard tonight and pull out all the stops tomorrow. Because management is going to be in the stands. This is the final chance to assure them we can still make this show a success—before summer where they have a long, hot time to change their minds.
“You all have it in you to make tomorrow night the best show yet.” Nobody said a word. “So, let’s get to work! Free skate for ten minutes, and then I want to see the BallBoys go through all three routines.” She clapped her hands, and the crowd gracefully scattered.
A few of the skaters who hadn’t had a chance before slid up to the rail and introduced themselves to Charlene. She couldn’t remember all ten of the names she was told in quick succession, but she met all three of the polka-dotted performers, catching something about them being “the BallBoys,” as well as some of the members of the Rustikov Ballet Ensemble, of which all dozen members apparently performed with the troupe.
Not to mention others, and it was just a whirl of who did this performance and that act and pleased-to-meet-yous. Charlene did notice that everyone seemed to be older, in their late twenties or early thirties at least, excepting Oakshue children, Perkins children, and the ever-present Douglas Hawkins.
Against her will she noticed Doug, and watched him skate for a minute or two, hoping in the back of her mind that he wouldn’t see her looking at him, because the ideas he might get then…
He was a different person on the ice, that was for sure. Charlene couldn’t put her finger on why, though. There was a grace and beauty to his skating which was not evident in the general way he seemed to live his life—But that’s you talking out of your head, missy. You’ve known him how long?
As she watched, one of the countless Perkins children—it seemed like they were everywhere—fell down on the ice, at the far end of the rink. Nobody was around, nobody seemed to have noticed, and the little one looked about to cry.
Suddenly Douglas Hawkins was there, giving the child a hand up, making a funny face that turned tears into laughter.
The Perkins girl and Doug went their separate ways, and only Charlene had seen it.
She felt like blinking and looking again. Who was that—that nice young man who just went out of his way to be kind? She thought she knew the answer, but then again, she had no idea. And why haven’t I seen him before?
It was all too much to understand. Charlene filed the moment away for further contemplation.
Her aunt Elizabeth skated around, talking to one and all, looking as completely at home as Charlene had yet seen her. Apparently, this group, this show, was what mattered to Elizabeth Oakshue.
When the BallBoys skated out to begin their first act, Charlene was pleasantly surprised to watch something she had never before seen: men on ice skates performing juggling tricks. They were good, too.
Melanie slid to a stop right by where Charlene was sitting. “Bet you never saw anybody do that before.”
At that moment two of the three were tossing bowling pins to one another across a good twenty feet of ice, slowly moving further apart all the time—and Charlene was very impressed.
Melanie was close enough to read her cousin’s pad. “They’ve worked a long time to get that impressive.” She turned back to watch for awhile. “Darned handsome, too, if I do say so myself.”
Charlene had to poke Melanie in the shoulder to get her to read again. “In those outfits?
“Oh, once you get used to the polka-dots…” They shared an unexpected smile.
The second set came to an end to scattered and distracted applause, and the girls watched the BallBoys prepare for their final act. It looked like one of the three was taking off his skates. “Did you get introduced?”
He was indeed taking off his skates, the dark-haired one that had spoken during the meeting. Melanie continued, “The blonde is Tim Grayson, the brunette is Richard Todd, and the guy getting on Dick’s shoulders—” because that was in fact exactly what he was doing, at the edge of the ice rink, “is Bruce Drake.”
Now Bruce stood tall on Richard’s shoulders, and the lower man slowly began culling the blades of his skates in a wave-like pattern, in and out, which gradually moved him away from the edge of the rink and out into center ice. Charlene had used that motion before herself…but she had never seen anyone skate with someone else standing on his shoulders.
“They haven’t even started yet, cousin.” Melanie laughed.
When Richard and Bruce reached center ice, Tim suddenly swooped around them, circling the pair twice, then stopping right in front of Richard. He had six pins in his hands and gave half of them to Richard who very carefully passed them up to where Bruce was standing. Tim culled his own blades back a few steps, then, and the BallBoy tower steadied themselves.
Then Tim called, “Hep!” and began tossing pins. Bruce began throwing his own, and that fast they had a rhythm going with all six. Charlene marveled. Most of the people in the rink turned to watch, even though she knew they had all seen this many times…it was something worth seeing again, she was sure.
Richard, at the bottom of the tower, didn’t even watch but closed his eyes to concentrate. Bruce focused on Tim and kept tossing pins, without a wobble.
“And you guys have trouble keeping the seats filled?”
“You wouldn’t think so, would you?” Occasionally Bruce and Tim would juggle their own pins for awhile, without any audible signal, and then switch right back to the cross-ice throwing.
“How did they ever come up with that? It’s amazing!”
“They worked a long time. And they’ve been at this awhile. It wasn’t always so smooth.”
“Has Bruce ever fallen?”
“Plenty of times. Broke his collarbone once. It’s not like there’s a soft landing anywhere, and if Tim tried to catch him they could both be hurt.”
“That’s amazing. These guys are impressive—especially Bruce, all the way up there.”
Now Richard had his eyes open, the pins still passing back and forth, and Tim called “Hep!” again. Ever so slowly and carefully, both he and Richard started moving their skates, as all three gently swept across the ice, their rhythm never faltering.
“You know Sarah?”
Well, duh… Charlene didn’t bother writing that, just caught Melanie’s eyes and rolled her own.
“Bruce is her father.”
Charlene wouldn’t have thought that anything could divert her attention from the ice-juggling, but she stared at her cousin. Melanie shrugged.
“But not your father.”
“Far from it.”
“Are he and Aunt Liz…”
“Married? Engaged? Seeing each other? None of the above.”
How could that be, Charlene wondered to herself. And when was this family going to stop throwing weird surprises at her?
“Does Sarah know?”
Melanie pointed at the other side of the rink, where little Sarah was watching the juggling, grinning from ear to ear.
“She asked me a few years ago why Mr. Drake was always so nice to her, and I figured she should know the truth. It’s never seemed to bother her—nothing seems to bother her.” Melanie watched quietly for a minute. Then, “Hell, she’s never really had a mother, either.” She spoke this so quietly that Charlene wasn’t sure she should have heard it, and so she didn’t turn to her cousin or write anything down.
This family was messed up.
And it did nothing more than to remind Charlene how much her mother and father had loved her; how much they had meant to her. That deepest place inside still hurt, still felt alone. No matter how well she took care of herself, that deepest place still hid away and refused to heal.
She couldn’t bring them back. She had to keep going.
Charlene sniffed and wiped away a traitor tear. Without turning her head, Melanie said, “Are you okay?”
Since Charlene had no way to answer someone who wasn’t looking at her, she waited until Melanie turned back before she nodded.
“Just wondering.” Her cousin looked down.
Was there a real person inside Miss Oakshue?
Maybe they could meet.
“You know—” Melanie started, then stopped, then started again, as if she wasn’t sure what she was saying, “I really am glad you came up here.” She was looking away across the ice again. “It’s nice to get a third heart into our cold house.”
But there are four of us—oh. Charlene understood.
The juggling act ended as the BallBoy tower slid very carefully back to the edge of the rink, and two of the Rustikovs helped Bruce down. Elizabeth, who had been coaching Coondog the bear on the sidelines during the act, clapped her hands and called for Melanie’s attention. Her cousin’s eyes flicked towards her mother, but she didn’t move.
“I wish I could’ve met you a long time ago.”
Beyond them, Auntie Liz was getting seriously upset that she couldn’t get her daughter’s attention, Coondog was waiting to begin their act, and everybody was looking at them.
“Maybe things could’ve been different.”
Charlene didn’t care too much about what people thought, but she had been on Elizabeth’s bad side so many times already. When Mel looked at her again, Charlene nodded towards the ice, a little nervous. Not that I’m pushing you away, cousin…
Melanie apparently read the question in her eyes and sighed. “I suppose. But I’ll tell you a secret, Char.” She leaned in close. “Mom needs me in this stupid band, although she would never admit it—and I don’t really give a damn whether I ever skate again. So, I don’t mind pushing her a little.”
With that, Mel stroked away to begin her first act. Charlene watched her play the part of Little Red Riding Hood being chased by a bear, and every time she swept past, even as she smiled at her cousin…Charlene could see that the wall had been resealed. The same coldness was back in her eyes. The exact same coldness as her mother at sixteen, in that old, old picture.
When it came time for Doug and Melanie to skate together, he looked different too, the same difference she had noticed when first seeing him skate. Everybody who went out onto the ice was different, it seemed. Charlene wondered if that was true of herself as well.
Practice was still going when ten o’clock rolled around, and Mrs. Perkins started collecting her children and Sarah for a ride home. After a quick moment thinking about it, Charlene realized that if she stayed, she would either ride home alone with her aunt—or worse, share a car with her aunt and her cousin. She didn’t think she could handle either situation that night, but Sarah assured her that the Perkins had room. It was a tight fit, and she had to listen to six voices vying for attention the entire way—but at least the insults got no worse than stupid head.
She couldn’t, she was sure, have said as much for the older, more adult Oakshues.
Sarah talked all the way home about her father. As far as Charlene could gather, the little girl hardly saw Bruce except at practices, and shows. While he sounded like he was nice to her, he also didn’t seem to have any special feelings for her at all. As Sarah went on and on about how great a skater he was, and how funny his jokes were, and the one time he had taken her and the Perkins children out for ice cream… “He jokes around with everyone, you know, he can be so funny. But I know he really cares about me. He got me a banana split while the Perkinses just got regular cones. I mean, I was the oldest, and he said I needed growing food, looking after the kids the way I do, but I could tell it was special. The way he smiled at me when he gave it to me—you haven’t told me about your parents or anything, but I’ll bet your dad loves you too, and smiles at you like that. I just know sooner or later he and Mommy will make things better, because Mommy always talks about how well the show is doing, and if we all pull together and Blades and Satin really takes off, I mean really, then everything will work out—”
Charlene listened to her cousin talk in the dark minivan, and silently cried for her. Cried for wonder at this precious child’s heart, and fear at the kind of world Sarah would someday wake up to find.
She hoped and prayed that Sarah would know who she was, why she was worth loving, when that day came.
It didn’t look like her father or her mother were going to be any help.
I could be wrong, Charlene spoke in her mind to the stars. She had only been around for twenty-four hours and maybe she didn’t really understand. God, please let me be wrong.
Even at eleven years old, Sarah was sensible enough to send herself straight to bed when they got home. Charlene gave her a hug goodnight and watched her climb the stairs to her room and wiped away a fresh set of tears. If she needed a reason besides her father’s lost memories to stick around this family, there went one really good one. She couldn’t be Sarah’s mother, but that girl needed a solid family that loved her—more than anything.
I hope a cousin will do, kiddo.
Charlene shook her head. What was she doing, standing by the stairs? Her very own Emerald City waited in the backyard, and the Wicked Witch wasn’t home!
There was a fleeting guilt for thinking so about her aunt, but it passed while Charlene was busy grabbing her skate case, checking on her sleeping dog, and almost skipping out the back door.
She breathed icicles all the way to the barn, but it was warm inside. Flipping the lights on, Charlene turned and just stared for a moment.
The little rink lay just waiting for her, the smoothest surface in the world, and in her mind the most inviting.
Whenever Charlene allowed herself a moment to look, to just smell and see the silently beckoning ice, no matter what skating rink she might be at, whenever she allowed herself to feel that waiting, glistening expanse…she always remembered Watson’s pond. Remembered those first few lessons, with her father’s strong hands on her shoulders and her mother watching contentedly from the bench under the willow tree. She could hear his instructions, and her quiet laughter. She could almost…see them. Almost.
Which was why she did not allow herself that moment very often. Because the deeper place could be felt then, the deepest place that contained such feeling as might not…let her go. Might not let her out alive. If she ever allowed herself to feel it all.
Charlene let out the breath she had been holding, sharply. The sound echoed back from the far wall. You’re wasting time with the past, beautiful. Get those skates on.
Her skates were custom-made, custom-fitted, and absolutely white. The blades were exactly and carefully centered, and regularly sharpened.
Charlene stepped eagerly onto the ice, and with one smooth stroke pushed herself away and into the center. The blades sighed with frozen friction, and she felt so very marvelous to skate again. It had been months, since before her grandfather’s death. Far too long.
She looked around at the empty haybarn and smiled to herself. If everyone looked different when they got onto the ice, she must appear to be the happiest young lady in all the world.
Time was wearing away, but she would not hurry. Quietly she pushed off, and turned, and began to dance in her glistening ballroom.
Her movements were unplanned, there was no routine to follow, but she slid forward, then back, and around…her arms seemed to move of their own accord, raising heavenward and then down again. Once as she turned at speed she leaned over to brush her fingers on the cold, cold surface, and raised her hand to her lips for a taste of the sweet water.
Ice, indeed! Such a simple word for her favorite element. Charlene danced on, as free as the windswept night sky.
When she had thought for anything besides the ice she looked at the clock by the door. Goodness! Almost midnight! Her cousin and her aunt might already be home—if they weren’t they likely would be soon!
Charlene had no reason to think that Elizabeth would be upset to find her here…but she had no reason to think that her aunt wouldn’t be upset, either. The abrupt refusal that morning, and then again at the arena…there was something besides the need for practice and preparation, something Charlene didn’t begin to understand.
She was certain that Aunt Elizabeth would not be happy to see her only niece defiling her sacred ice rink.
Looking for lighted windows, listening for voices or cars in the driveway, Charlene was glad to find the house still dark and quiet.
As she climbed the stairs to her room, she paused outside Sarah’s door, easing it open a smidge with her finger. There was a quiet mumbling coming from the area of the bed.
She’s…well of course she talks in her sleep.
Dream sweetly, cousin.
The last thing Charlene saw before she herself slept was the light of the angel, warm and friendly in the surrounding darkness.