The Silent Skater

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Chapter Six

Charlene held out Card #3 from her new Library set. The gray-haired patron read, “These will be due back in three weeks. Don’t forget!” and matched her, smile for smile. “Okay, dear. See you soon.” She left with her books and the next person in line stepped up.

The Chester Public Library was a nice place to get used to. Charlene had been right about finding a kind of peace there, and also about having less problems with her handicap. The regulars, like Mrs. Marsh who had just left, quickly learned that she could hear and treated her very normally. Even the strangers didn’t usually give her trouble, since it was a library and people were supposed to be quiet anyway. Not being able to speak just attracted less notice here.

Which Charlene was thankful for. Thankful for something going well.

After a month of living in her own apartment she had not thought of a single way to talk to Aunt Elizabeth about what had happened and was beginning to wonder if she should even bother.

The yelling and grabbing and throwing-out-of-the-barn that very early Saturday morning had been the last straw for Charlene, and by Saturday evening she had found and moved into her own place. It wasn’t, however, very far from the Oakshues or the arena.

She still had reasons to stick around.

After a week or two of cooling down, she had decided she wanted to talk to her aunt and namesake about that night as well. If that were possible.

But you had to get to know most people, wait awhile until they trusted you, before they would open up. Charlene felt herself to be a very open person, and yet she wouldn’t pour her heart out to, say, Doug, for example. For whatever reason, Aunt Elizabeth had iron-clad walls up around herself, and they would not be battered down. The only way through, Charlene felt sure, would be to wait and get to know her aunt…and then the gate might come down some day on its own.

Getting to know her aunt seemed to be the problem. How could you know someone when you couldn’t speak on the phone, someone who didn’t ever have time to read what you might write them?

Sarah and Doug, of all people, had helped her move, and she had seen more of her youngest cousin in the past month—but no word from Melanie or Elizabeth. Whenever she was over at the Oakshue’s she would try and talk to them—but her aunt never wanted to listen, and Melanie was just always gone, always busy.

While she ran a trio of comic books under the scanner, Charlene thought about it for the thousandth time. Something was bothering that family, something big. Her aunt especially. The sorrow that awful night, followed by the anger in the barn…and what was worse under that.

Fear. Terrible, naked fear that Charlene had no way to understand.

Aunt Elizabeth had gone to great lengths to make herself unreachable, unknowable, and maybe that in itself was what kept driving at Charlene. Or perhaps she saw something of herself in the woman’s stubbornness.

But whatever the reason, Charlene very much wanted to talk with her aunt about things, to know what made her so sad. What she was so afraid of.

It was not happening. It was too easy for her aunt to just ignore her—if you didn’t want to read what she wrote it was pretty easy to do, Charlene had to admit to herself—and no progress had been made. Lately she had stopped going by the house much. She felt bad for Sarah, and kept making promises to herself to find something they could do together, but…

I’m about ready to give up.

Charlene was distracted, thinking about it, when the library patron in front of the desk raised a question. “I think I might have lost a book—how much will I have to pay to replace it?”

Darn it all, a question she didn’t have a Card answer for. Where’s my pad?

She started fussing around, looking for it, when she realized the person who had asked the question was laughing.

The person was her cousin Melanie. “I bet when librarians daydream they go to really interesting places.”

Charlene didn’t know what to think. Melanie was the last person she had expected to see.

Well, second-to-last.

Her cousin seemed to be uncomfortable as well. Charlene couldn’t read the look in her eyes, but it wasn’t anything usual. “I wanted to talk to you. The lady on the phone said your shift would be over at three.”

The clock on the wall was pointing at two-fifty-four.

“What about?”

“Just some things.” The same look was there, vague and unexplained. Although…did Melanie need something?

That would make a lot of sense—would explain why she would show up now, after being Miss Vanish for the past month. Charlene didn’t have so much patience that she really felt like jumping at this chance—frankly, she sort of wanted the satisfaction of disappearing herself, telling her cousin that she was too busy.

For a long moment, while she studied Melanie’s face, watching her as she shifted from one sneakered foot to the other, Charlene almost walked away.

But the letters. Daddy’s letters.

Walking away wouldn’t bring that treasure any closer…and despite loving Sarah that treasure was just about the only thing keeping her in New Hampshire.

“Give me a minute.”

The library was already empty, so close to closing time. Charlene went about clearing off desks and turning off computers, taking care of all the little things before she could button up. Melanie waited by the front doors, and when these were finally locked for the night they walked to their cars.

Where are we going? What are we going to talk about? Why have you shown up now? A thousand questions, none of which would work very well on paper.

So frustrating.

Apparently, Melanie could read her fairly well. “I’d be confused too, don’t worry—it’s nothing huge. Tell you what, do you want to go skating first?”

Surprised, Charlene raised her eyebrows, but the immediate question had to be written down. So she grabbed her pad and wrote it. Might as well find out how much she wants to talk. Whether or not someone was willing to read what she had to say usually determined such things.

Melanie waited patiently while she wrote.


“I thought you hated skating.”

“No, I just hate my mother. I love skating—and I noticed you had yours with you.”

Her skate case was visible through the Mustang’s back window. Works for me, although…this all seems very weird, Melanie. Charlene didn’t bother writing this down, just mouthed “Okay!”

“Great.” Her cousin looked a little relieved. What was going on? “You want to follow me?”

Charlene followed her. The rink they went to was by now quite familiar to Charlene and was not Baskerville Arena. The way she had been treated by Auntie Liz the last time there had been ice involved, Charlene didn’t much want to skate in front of Melanie’s mother either.

There weren’t many folks at the indoor skating rink—the weather outside was much more suitable for sailing, which a lot of people were enjoying. But Charlene had always preferred ice over water.

For the first five minutes that they skated, Charlene kept an eye on her cousin, and if the look in the younger girl’s eyes was any indication…a love for ice ran in the family.

What a shame that skating for her mother was such a burden. Charlene lost herself in thinking about that for awhile, as her body swept into and out of pirouettes without her even really noticing. I know the look in her eyes. I know the love she has for this. Even Auntie Liz doesn’t have that, not anymore, but Mel still does.

Why lose it? Why set aside love—no, worse, why lose a love to serve someone who doesn’t even care, why lose something you love for no reason?

She didn’t know, and she didn’t have the right to ask, not really, and it was driving her crazy. Yet she was still skating, and before long Charlene wasn’t really thinking about anything anymore, except a spin leading into a sweeping turn, leading into a double axel…

After a good fifteen minutes where Charlene was lost in sheer passion, in her turns and jumps and just gliding across the ice, she happened to notice that Melanie wasn’t even moving anymore. Her cousin was just standing by the edge of the rink, watching her.

Skating right up to her, Charlene raised her eyebrows, giving her cousin her best silent What?

For the first time in a long time, Melanie met her eyes, and didn’t look away. “You are really, really good, Char. I’d been hoping to see you skate since you showed up at the airport with that custom case, and still I didn’t know how good you were.”

Charlene felt her cheeks flush. It was nice of Melanie to say so. There did, however, seem to be a catch coming.

“I want to ask you something.”

As I expected. Get on with it.

“The month off from practice is over, and this afternoon there’s a big meeting for everybody involved in the show. I don’t know what news mom’s gotten lately, but she’s not happy. I think it’s bad.”

Charlene waited.

“I want you to come to the meeting.”


Her cousin read her face, and now she looked away.

What was Melanie afraid of? Or was it fear?

“Because—well, I mean, if you wanted to…Charlene,” she said in a rush, “The show isn’t doing well at all. I think we need to improve it, and that means more people, and like I said…you’re,” she cleared her throat, “-you’re really great.”

That was out of left field, and it took Charlene completely by surprise. She hadn’t once thought of asking for a place in the show or being offered one.

“This is nothing huge?”

Her cousin blushed, looked down at the pad, and didn’t say anything.

Charlene turned away from her, vaguely watching the other two skaters that had come out on the summer’s day, her mind clicking. Assuming that Aunt Elizabeth wanted her help, which seemed somehow like it might be a big assumption—did she really want to get into Blades and Satin? Have a cute skating outfit, put on a show?

The ice had been her passion all of her life, but it had always been a private joy. She had never skated in any competition, any performance. Come to think of it, I don’t even know what’s involved in such a choice. Maybe I don’t have what it takes.

No, that thought was silly. With all the experience she had, Melanie could certainly judge whether or not a skater had what it took—and to toss such an idea before Elizabeth the Ice Queen? Melanie had to know what she was doing.

And for the other…Melanie was asking for her help. The show was a very important thing in the lives of the only family she had left anywhere. And for that matter… While Charlene was not naïve enough to expect much favor from Auntie Liz, she would bet the owner/operator of Blades and Satin might just be open to a bargain, if someone were to lend a hand…

Hmmm. Maybe she should think about it.

“I’ll come to the meeting. More than that I don’t know.”

Melanie brightened. “Thanks, cousin. I really appreciate it.”

“You really think your mom will want my help?”

“With one look at how you can take the ice, I’m sure she’ll want your help.” She turned, picking up her skates. “But let’s go find out, huh?”

What? Charlene questioned, and had to write it down, and then had to stomp on the floor to get Melanie to look up and read it. I hate this!

“The meeting is right now?”

“Yeah. Is that okay?”

“Do I have a choice?”

Her cousin laughed nervously. “Of course you do, I mean, nobody can force you into this, but it would mean a lot to me and I know you can do it.”

Charlene had to laugh. “You sound like Sarah.”

“Whatever, I just—will you come?”

I don’t like this at all. Yet she nodded and started pulling off her skates.

Suddenly the world seemed to be moving a lot faster—they left the ice and headed for this important meeting, Charlene still very unsure of what she might be getting into.

After all, Auntie Liz has already gotten one look at how I skate, hasn’t she?

And that didn’t go so well.

The meeting was held in the guest dining room of the Oakshue palace, which was more than large enough to house thirty people. Charlene and Melanie were the last to arrive, which meant everybody looked at them when they walked in.

Everyone was there. Rustikovs, Perkinses, BallBoys, even Sarah was off in a corner looking a little frustrated, probably because she had to be quiet. All those words must get backed up, poor dear. Charlene hoped the seat next to her little cousin was still open.

She had bet herself twenty bucks on the ride over that Aunt Elizabeth, upon seeing her, would order her from the room or at least be visibly upset. She lost—because her aunt said nothing, and the quietly calm expression on her face didn’t change, even when they made direct eye contact.

Heckuva poker player, that one.

The seat on Sarah’s right was still open, and Charlene took it, squeezing her cousin’s hand gratefully. As she looked around, she also saw Douglas Hawkins sitting quietly in a corner—and did not realize until she saw him that she had been looking for him and hoping that he would be there.


Such thoughts did not even bear scrutiny. She looked away before he looked at her and blamed the whole thing on excitement or anxiety. Don’t start getting weird on me now, Charlene Elizabeth.

As Charlene and Melanie took their seats, Elizabeth stood. “I believe we shall begin.

“I trust you all enjoyed your month of vacation, because it is time to get to work, and we have much to do. It is time to look to the future of this company.” She stopped and looked down. “I know how hard you all worked, how much you put into our last performance.” She looked up again, her gaze traveling the length of the room. “I want you all to know how much I appreciated your efforts.”

Goodness. Is there a real person in there?

“However, we cannot revel in past glory, in forgotten performances.”

Hmm. Maybe not.

“You will remember, I’m sure, that management was watching at our last show. I spoke with Messrs. Smedlowe and Favor, and while they had no problems with the show itself, they still feel that we’re not bringing in the profit for the arena that they want to see.”

Charlene was watching very closely, and though Elizabeth’s calm face didn’t slip, there was still—Charlene was sure of it—a deep pain buried far back in her eyes as she said this. For a long moment, that was all that was said.

“And so?” One of the Rustikovs, Piotr, said quietly.

Elizabeth sighed, just as quietly. “So, ticket prices will rise, against my wishes, and…we will have fewer shows.”

“Why…what’s the sense in cutting down on shows if they’re not making enough of a profit?” This quiet question came from Doug Hawkins, who was as thoughtful and…normal as Charlene had yet seen him.

The room waited for an answer.

Elizabeth looked up, then down. “For now, until we start bringing in more business, we will be sharing the arena.”

An already quiet room became absolutely silent.

She continued, answering the question that everyone wanted to ask. “With a hockey league.”

It didn’t really sound like the end of the world to Charlene, but everyone else in the room became very upset. “Sharing the arena?” “We’ve had total access for fifteen years.” “Helped them put in the first lighting system, and now—”

As the words skated about the room, Charlene watched her aunt. Elizabeth had closed her eyes again.

Old Coon spoke first after the hubbub had died down. “We’ve weathered storms before.”

Anya Rustikov picked up where Coon left off, her accent thicker than ever. “This whole…adventure, this whole journey has always been gamble. No hockey league can run us off now, eh?”

As Anya was speaking Charlene looked at Melanie and then Doug. Both were watching Elizabeth.

“I don’t know,” the owner/operator of Blades and Satin said without opening her eyes. “I just don’t know.”

Bruce Drake spoke, and it sounded to Charlene like he was choosing his words very carefully. “We’re all standing with you, Elizabeth. You’ve always been our fire. If you say we go on, then we go on.”

When Elizabeth opened her eyes again, Charlene realized the woman was looking right at her. They held one another’s gaze for what seemed like ages, and Charlene—already hungry to learn who this woman really was, and why—used the opportunity to study her aunt, to try and understand.

She had expected anger, and determination. She had expected doubt. She saw all of this.

Despite that previous evening out in the haybarn, Charlene was still caught by surprise at how much fear was buried deep in her aunt’s perfect green eyes.

A blink, a look away…and it was gone. The perfect control had returned.

This arena thing must have Auntie Liz really spooked to make her drop her guard like that.

Or was it because she was looking at me?

Right off that seemed ludicrous to Charlene. What possible reason would Aunt Elizabeth have for needing her approval? How could Auntie Liz be afraid of her? You’re heading for the loonie bin on that one, dear.

It was easy not to care when her aunt was being cold and controlled. Charlene didn’t need to spend her life beating her head against that kind of wall. But when such a moment of vulnerability came and went, and the real person dying somewhere inside looked out…

Nonsense. You’re just seeing things. She had to believe that and get back to reality.

Her aunt was speaking again, truly under control once more. “Obviously we are going on, and even more obviously we need to reshape the program, give management something to get excited about. If anyone has any suggestions, I want to hear them.”

“So you can shoot them down,” Tim Grayson whispered, so quietly that Charlene knew only she had heard him.

She hadn’t thought about it, but Charlene hoped Melanie was going to speak on her behalf. Come to think of it, she hoped Elizabeth, if it came to it, wouldn’t ask her any direct questions. Visions of an angry Aunt Liz demanding “How extensive is your training?” and “What skills do you bring to this table?” in front of everyone, with her having to frantically scribble answers that nobody wanted to wait for…

How did I get into this? Suddenly Charlene just wanted to disappear.

While she was busy being worried, several of the performers spoke of this musical change or that costume idea, but nobody had anything really earthshaking.

Nobody except Melanie Oakshue.

When she thought about it later, Charlene didn’t remember making eye contact with her cousin, giving her any signal that this was all still okay with her…but apparently Melanie was also a little worried about how things would turn out, because Charlene distinctly remembered the tremor in her voice. “Mother?”

“Melanie?” Elizabeth rubbed her eyes tiredly.

Because she doesn’t believe Mel has anything valid to offer…or because she knows what’s coming? Might that be what the look a moment before had been about? Had the woman already guessed?

Suddenly Charlene knew—Melanie had no chance. The idea might have possibility, but her cousin hadn’t seen the look on Auntie Liz’s face that night in the barn. Whatever might be going on in that regal head, there was no way the outsider of the “family” was going to be performing with her precious team.

“Well, um,” her cousin began, uncertainly, “I know someone—I mean, we’re looking for new faces, aren’t we? New talent?”

Great opening, Mel. If it hadn’t already been hopeless, that beginning would have sealed it. Charlene felt herself relax—there was nothing to worry about. Of course, I don’t know what to do now, not where ‘family’ is concerned. She realized she had started getting her hopes up, maybe working her way in again. This wasn’t going to help.

Elizabeth hadn’t answered Melanie’s faltering question, but the girl plucked up her courage and continued. “I happen to know someone who would really be an asset to this team.”

Again, everyone’s attention shifted to the troupe’s director, who after taking such charge of the meeting now was turning an expensive pen around and around in her fingers, not looking at her daughter—or indeed, anybody else.

Fabulous. Just turn her down and let’s get on with life, shall we?

Since the head of the meeting wasn’t saying anything, it was Old Coon who finally tugged, “And that skater is?”

Melanie still looked at her mother and spoke to her alone. “Your niece, my cousin…um, you know. Charlene?”

At which point everyone, in surprise, turned and looked at the person in question. God, I hate that I blush. Really, though, they had every right to be surprised. None of them has ever seen me skate, have they? A stray thought passed by during that awkward moment—as open as Auntie Liz probably was about her life, Charlene wondered if any of them had even heard about her father. Not that his being good meant she would be, but still…

Ugh! Just cut this idea off at the knees already, Liz!

But the troupe’s guiding light hadn’t said a word after Melanie’s announcement, and when the attention started to shift back in her direction, she still didn’t look up or speak. Elizabeth seemed lost in her own world.

BallBoy Tim cleared his throat. “Not that we don’t all appreciate your presence, Charlene, and think you’re a fabulous person…but this troupe has a certain standard to uphold. We need all of our performers to be able to skate at a professional level, you know?”

He looks as embarrassed as I feel. Charlene smiled a little to let him know that she understood. And agree. I mean, really, what chance did this idea ever have?

Anyway, now that Tim had provided the out, surely Elizabeth would take advantage of it and graciously excuse her.

“She’s more than good enough.”

For a moment Charlene though Melanie had spoken…but the words belonged to her aunt. Looking at her in surprise, Charlene found that Elizabeth still refused to look up. Just when I really want to know what she’s thinking, too.

That statement pretty much shut everybody up, and they all waited for their leader to say something. Finally, she did. “Okay, troopers, I do appreciate all of your suggestions.” She looked up at last, smiling all around the group and at nobody in particular. “I will take them all under consideration, and meanwhile we’ll get to practicing, starting Monday.”

Now be nice and go away. Charlene kept her seat while the rest of the group, apparently quite used to such dismissals, started getting their things together and walking away from the table. Auntie Liz busied herself with papers and such, and in a minute they were alone.

Well. If she was waiting to hear more, Charlene realized, it wasn’t going to happen that day. Thanks so much, Liz. She tried very hard not to sigh as she stood—it wasn’t Elizabeth’s fault, Charlene figured, that the woman was so hard to understand. Or get along with. Or anything.


She was halfway to the door but turned and looked at her aunt. Charlene searched those light green eyes, wanting very much to comprehend this woman, her kin, in the least little bit.

Elizabeth’s question was short, quiet, and overflowing with curiosity: “Why?”

Fair question. She wished she had a better answer, but pulled out her pad and wrote it anyway, and for her part Aunt Elizabeth sat patiently, waiting. “Because Melanie asked me to.”

Their eyes met again for a long moment, and if Charlene knew anything her aunt was searching her, now, trying to find something. My real reason? That’s it, Auntie, no hidden motives here.

But her searching for such…what did that mean?

“Well, then. I’ll let you know.”

Charlene inclined her head, turned, and left the room, realizing that she didn’t know what to think.

Her oldest cousin was waiting for her out in the wide hallway. “She didn’t say anything, did she? Of course not. Well,” as they began walking towards the kitchen, “What she did say, during the meeting I mean, that was unexpected.”

Charlene looked at her cousin, cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, hoping Mel would get the idea.

She did. “What I mean is, well, it’s not like my mother is just overflowing with praise and encouragement. If you really shine she might say a word or two, but she—wait a minute.” Melanie looked like she was thinking. “I know my mother—at least in this instance—and she would never say what she did unless she had seen you skate with her own eyes.

“Am I missing something?”

There was no way to answer that question with body language. “Your mother caught me skating out at the rink, after the last Blades performance.”

“After the last…huh.” The wheels turning in Mel’s head were visible on her face. “Is that why you moved out? Something happened?”

“Something, yes.”

Melanie bit her lip. “Do you…do you want to talk about it?”

It was strange and kinda funny—watching her cousin try to care a little, while at the same time keeping her tough, don’t-touch-me exterior.

“Some other time.” Charlene appreciated the effort, she really did, but she had had quite enough of family for one day. “I got stuff to do.”

“Okay. Hey, wait a minute—” Mel opened the drawer of the nearest end table, rooting around. “I’d better write your number down, in case Mom wants you to come practice.”

My number? Mel, think about it.

Apparently, the realization struck her, because she stopped and looked up, blushing. “Oh, wait.”

Charlene wanted to smile because it was sort of funny, but she didn’t know if her cousin would be insulted if she did. She settled on letting her mouth quirk up at one corner.

That seemed to be the right idea, because Mel rolled her eyes at her own foolishness. “I guess you don’t have much reason for a phone. Well, I can always find you at the library, right?”

I should invite her over to the apartment sometime. She didn’t really feel ready to do that, though. So she just nodded.

“Good luck, then, with whatever.” There was the old Melanie. Though Charlene couldn’t blame her for being a little uncomfortable. Everyone else is, around me.

Melanie stood in the doorway of the Oakshue mansion while Charlene drove away. Charlene felt bad—knowing she had pretty much lied to her cousin. There wasn’t anything she needed to go do. It wasn’t like she had made any good friends in the month she’d lived alone.

Not that it was impossible, and not that there hadn’t been opportunities to get to know people better, this kind library patron, that smiling neighbor…but she hadn’t bothered.


The question bothered Charlene as she looked at her own eyes in the rearview mirror, trying to figure herself out for a change. She knew the answer. Because I want them to be close to. Sarah and Melanie and dare-I-think-it Aunt Elizabeth.

She still, more than just about anything except maybe those letters, wanted a family to call her own. And now there was the possibility of working her way in, right?

Her aunt’s words ran again in her mind. “She’s more than good enough.”

That was encouragement. That was a compliment.

And yet…

As encouraging as that was, there were other words she had received from Elizabeth Oakshue, words that rang even louder and just as heartfelt.

“You don’t belong!”

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