The Silent Skater

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Chapter Seven

“Dear Charlene,

After a great deal of deliberation, I have decided that your skating talents and heart for the ice would be a fine asset to the Blades and Satin legacy. If you are still amenable to joining our troupe, you are welcomed. Your first practice will be on the house ice at 9:00 a.m. Monday next—please wear clothing suitable for hard work. We’ll discuss salary and such at that time.

I’m looking forward to working with you.

Yours,

Elizabeth Oakshue

P.S. —Since you’ll be working with us so much, I invite you to consider moving back into the house—it only makes sense, right? E.O.

“That was it?”

“That was it.”

Charlene sat on her former bed on a rainy Friday afternoon, in the same room that she had spent her first night back among family. Her cousin Melanie sat next to her, reading the letter that had arrived at her apartment a week before.

It had been three weeks and change since that Blades and Satin meeting, and Charlene had worked very hard not to go crazy wondering what was happening. She hadn’t tried to contact Melanie, or Sarah, and neither had dropped by to see her. She just kept waiting, looking up every time someone new walked into the library, in case it might be Mel…or Elizabeth…

Then the letter had arrived. Charlene didn’t know how she felt about it. Heart for the ice…that had been nice and poetic. The whole thing hadn’t been too surprising, except for that postscript.

Move back in? Well…this entire stretch, the whole let-me-join-the-troupe thing had been with the design of getting closer to her family.

Why not move back in?

So here she was, broken lease and all, Doug having just brought up the last of her boxes—there still weren’t many, anyway—and having left for the evening. Once they had gotten a moment to sit down, Charlene had brought out the letter to see what Melanie thought.

“Sounds like my mother.”

“What, cold? Unrevealing? Unnecessarily intellectual?”

Melanie read this, and Charlene realized she was holding her breath. That might have been a little too far, considering. Really—Melanie had made it clear she didn’t get along too closely with her mother, but this might be pushing things a little beyond their slowly budding friendship.

All her cousin said was, “That sounds about right.”

Charlene wanted to know more, and figured if she’d pushed this far… “What is it with her?”

“What do you mean?”

Was Mel being difficult, or playing dumb, or what? And why in God’s name do I have to write everything down?? She wanted to really ask, to maybe have a deeper conversation than she and Melanie had previously enjoyed, but this uneven I write, you talk, you wait while I write some more nonsense made deep conversations extremely difficult.

And yet…while Charlene had to sit and think about what she wanted to say, her cousin didn’t make excuses for her or think of things to fill the silence or, worse, say goodnight and walk off. She just sat back on the bed, petted her dog, and waited.

Thank you, Melanie. The chance to work out what she wanted to say without having to rush, without having to meet someone else’s timetable, was a blessing.

Finally, “After the Blades and Satin meeting, you figured out that your mom must have seen me skate at some point.”

“I remember. You didn’t want to talk about it.”

“I didn’t then. Basically, the night after your last performance—” And Charlene went on to describe her one glorious moment on that unknowingly forbidden rink—and the words Melanie’s mother had used when she had been discovered. “I still hear her voice, every time I think about it. ‘You don’t belong!’”

“Wow.” Melanie laid her head down along Toepick’s back, as he snored on the bed. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not really upset anymore—but I still don’t understand. I’m willing to bet I was breaking a rule or two, but that reaction…it wasn’t about rules.”

Melanie read, and replied. “Well, you were breaking several rules, mainly Stay-Off-The-Ice-Unless-You’re-Practicing. But you’re right about the rest, too—the rule-breaking doesn’t explain why mom freaked like that. She really shouted?”

“My ears are still ringing.”

“She never loses control. Never.

“She did so twice in one week, if I’m not mistaken.”

“What?”

“Remember in the car? On the way home from the airport?”

Melanie clucked her tongue. “Yeah, geez—I’d almost forgotten. Come to think of it, I was kinda surprised at the way she blew up that night. I mean, I was pushing her buttons as hard as I could, but still…I’ve never gotten her that jacked up that quick.” She thought about it, “I guess something’s been bugging her lately.”

Since I showed up. Charlene didn’t write this down, but she thought about it good and hard. Maybe that wasn’t the case…but then again, it might answer a lot of questions. Like why Elizabeth’s control—which Charlene was already sure had to be the woman’s shield against life—had slipped so much ever since her unknown niece had come to town. Why Auntie Liz had gotten mad in the car, and that evening in the barn. Why she had looked so strange during the Blades and Satin meeting.

She’s afraid of me.

Why?

“It’s really hard, isn’t it?”

Charlene stopped thinking about her aunt and looked at her cousin.

“Having to write everything down.”

“You get used to it.”

If Melanie was bothered by the brushoff, she didn’t show it. “Wish there were an easier way.”

“So do I. I’ve never found one.”

“Yeah.”

Of course, as she thought about the last time the subject had come up, Charlene did notice that Melanie’s attitude had changed—so her cousin could work up to caring about people? Maybe it was time to push a little into things that Charlene didn’t understand.

She looked at her cousin, lost in her own thoughts. “Can I ask you something personal?”

Melanie read, considered, and shrugged like she didn’t care, but Charlene saw the lines in her face change, saw her cousin’s tension. “Knock yourself out.”

You don’t have to be afraid of me, Mel. You don’t have to toughen up. I won’t hurt you.

Even if a person could speak, how would they say such things?

“You’ve told me stuff about your past—how Mrs. Perkins kinda raised you, and about Sarah’s Dad.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You don’t have to, but—what about your father?” What would come of this?

“Oh, him.” Her tone made it sound like she was talking about some acquaintance, somebody she had known for a summer once. “Yeah, good old dad. His name is Rick, Rick Mochrie. He’s a wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.” Melanie looked at her, like she wanted to make sure she was understood. “You know, hockey?”

Charlene knew.

“Yeah, so he and Mom met while she was big into skating championships and stuff. She grew up in Canada, away from her parents. She and your Dad, my uncle, were big-time skaters when they grew up.”

Right. I knew that. Of course, she only knew it because of that one newspaper article, the one thing she had found after her father had died—the one that had started raising so many questions within her young heart. With a pang in that heart, no longer so young but with just as many questions, Charlene realized again how little she had gotten to know her father. Not that he had ever hidden from her, but there had been so much still to tell…

“They won the World Championships when mom was my age.”

Charlene held up a finger, looked around, and spotted her purse. She looked through it to pull out the faded article for her cousin to read.

“Oh, wow.” For a moment the tough teenager faded, and the real Melanie peeked through. Charlene watched, and saw her cousin’s soft edges. You can’t hide from me, Melanie dear. Best not to push it, though.

“Mom’s talked about that Championship, just like she has about the Olympics, later, but I’ve never seen anything. Not even her medal, you know?”

“No, I don’t know. What Olympics?” This was news indeed.

“You don’t know about the Olympics? Wow, you don’t know much, do you?” Fortunately, Melanie continued, before her cousin had the chance to be especially offended. “After they won the World Championships, something happened, I don’t know what but Mom and Uncle Andrew just went their separate ways. Mom kept up training, met my father, started having fun with him, you know, and when she was twenty she went to the Olympics for ice-dancing.”

Charlene had seen the woman dance, and she could certainly hold her own…even if she didn’t love skating anymore. Maybe she had back then.

“She won gold, which she never tires of reminding all of us when we start questioning her decisions or authority on the ice.” Melanie sat back, raised one eyebrow, and managed to look quite a bit like her mother. “She’s all, ‘How many people here have won an Olympic gold medal? I thought so,’ and goes back to bossing us all.”

I can totally see that happening. Still, gold at the Olympics was pretty impressive.

“Of course, we all have to take her word for it that she won Gold. I mean, I’ve never seen the frapping medal.”

“You’re kidding.” Charlene would have expected her aunt to trot the award out every chance she got.

“Nope. She’ll mention it all the time, but nobody ever sees it. All of the awards, everything she and my uncle won, then she later won by herself…I’ve never seen anything.”

That was weird.

“Anyway, she won the Olympics when she was twenty, which would have been twenty years ago, ha-ha,” Melanie went on in singsong, “Mom’s tur-ning for-ty. After the Olympics, if she ever skated in competition again she’s never mentioned it. I think she quit.”

“Really? Why?” In her prime and everything?

“Like always—when it comes to my mom, I never know why.” Melanie shook her head. “As far as I know, she never competed again, just kinda bummed around with my dad. They lived together for awhile, got married, got around to having me which must have been a mistake on somebody’s part because neither ever really wanted me,” Mel looked away as she said this, and Charlene saw her fighting to hold on to her control, “and when I was three they had a humongous fight and got divorced. Hey, did I tell you I was baptized in the Stanley Cup?”

Charlene raised her eyebrows. Was that a change of subject, or did a train wreck just pass by?

“Yeah, Dad’s team won the Championship the year I was born, and I was baptized in the Stanley Cup. That I do have a picture of.” Just like that Melanie hopped off the bed and disappeared out the door.

God, how do these people get through life? Charlene didn’t know herself if she was just exclaiming in her own mind or actually praying for an answer. If Melanie didn’t care about her father, which her attitude and tone tried to make real…then why run for his picture? Why run after the few happy moments she and her dad had known together?

She cares. That was obvious. Whether or not Melanie knew she cared was another story.

The girl came back with a red photo album. It was almost empty. Suddenly Charlene had to bite her lip to keep a tear from rolling down her face.

“See?” A very cute little baby, nakedly splashing around in the Stanley Cup. “Highest percentage of body fat I’ve ever had.”

Charlene didn’t know what in the world to do with that statement, so she looked at the other pictures. There were maybe half-a-dozen with the man who was obviously Rick Mochrie, a few scattered shots of little Sarah, from birth to present, and one nicely posed picture of Melanie Oakshue in her ice-dancing costume, leaning against the boards at the edge of the rink and looking saucy. “Douggie took that one,” she said before Charlene could question. “It’s not like mom even cares—as long as I don’t screw up.”

“Does your dad care?” How would this question strike her cousin?

Melanie had to look around the room for a good thirty seconds before she could answer in the same uncaring voice. “Not really. I think Mom wanted to forget she ever had a husband, so she didn’t ask for alimony or anything—not like she isn’t loaded anyway, right? So Dad just disappeared. He’s still on the team, and sometimes I’ll watch his games off satellite…but it’s been about three years since I saw or heard from him.”

There was no helping it now…Charlene couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down her face. It made her very uncomfortable, to be crying over something like this when the girl telling the story, the daughter whose father didn’t love her, just sat there. Melanie even offered her a tissue. Charlene couldn’t tell if her cousin was scornful or bemused or what. After she had blown her nose, Charlene wrote quietly, “I’m sorry.”

“You get used to it.” Melanie stroked Toepick’s shiny fur, not looking at her.

Charlene had known her share of heartache, certainly—and she knew when someone was quietly mourning their loss…and when someone was blocking feelings they didn’t want to deal with.

But I don’t know everything. Maybe I’m wrong.

Now Melanie looked up.

Don’t say it, Mel.

“It’s really all my fault.”

Dammit! How could she think that, as Charlene looked straight into her eyes and saw that Mel did believe every word, how could she? You’d better wait while I write this down, cousin. Maybe a little shock would help her cousin look at things differently.

“You’re right. It is.”

It was obvious that Melanie hadn’t expected that response, which was Charlene’s intention. She sat and looked at her cousin, wondering how she would react. Agreement? Sorrow? Anger?

Melanie was frowning, not in anger but in concentration, like she was thinking about something…and then after a moment her face cleared and she laughed, hard enough and long enough that she had to grab a tissue of her own to wipe her eyes.

This family is stark raving mad.

“You’re all right, Char.” She shook her head. “But do me a favor and don’t go all therapisty on me, huh?”

So Melanie had seen through her trick. Well… “I had to try something.”

“I appreciate it, hun, but it was never gonna work.” Melanie looked away for a moment, and the tone of her voice belied her recent laughter. “You have to have a heart before it can be broken.”

Charlene very much wanted to push at that sentence, but she never got the chance. At that moment there were pounding feet on the steps, and then Sarah Oakshue burst into the room like a whirling eleven-year-old dervish. “CHAR! I can’t believe you moved back in, it’s been so long since I got a chance to talk to you or really anyone since nobody listens to me around this house, and Mom told me I have to keep quiet during the meetings so I couldn’t talk to you last time you were here, this is so amazing I can’t believe it!”

That was all that the girl could manage before she had to breathe, but as soon as she did she was off to the races again.

“Melanie said that you were moving back in and then she said that you’ll be joining us on the skating team, is it really true? I was so surprised when Mom said you were good enough because she doesn’t think anybody’s ever good enough even her own daughters, but she must know something we don’t, did I tell you about this new boy at school?”

Charlene let Sarah’s voice wash over her, taking the necessary time to get caught up with this young lady that she cared so much about…and when she had a moment to notice, Melanie was gone.

Well, she had a weekend to get used to being a part of the Oakshue family again.

This should be interesting.

There was little chance to talk to Melanie during dinner. She sat at the other side and far down the ridiculously large table, next to Douglas Hawkins.

Sarah hadn’t nearly gotten done with her news by the Dinner Hour, so she sat next to Charlene and kept going. Charlene found herself trying to pay attention but distracted by several things.

Her question and—as much as she hated to admit it—concern about the role she was now supposed to assume with Blades and Satin. And then there was the thought always in the back of her mind about her father’s letters, his written legacy…that might or might not exist, and every time she thought about it that unknown was driving her crazy.

But what she really couldn’t get away from, as she honestly tried to listen to her cousin Sarah rattle on…was the young man sitting across the table, down aways, next to her cousin Melanie.

The same young man she had been so angry with all those weeks ago, the man she still didn’t trust. The young man she had hardly thought of in the months she had been living on her own.

The young man who still had the same look in his eye that had been there all those weeks ago.

Charlene Elizabeth Oakshue! You are not allowed to develop a crush on Mr. Hawkins. She tried to remind herself of that first conversation, when he had referred to her as “Somebody’s deaf relative.”

But he had helped her move without a word of complaint. Twice.

And all that time ago, so far removed that she had almost forgotten, he had stopped on the ice and picked up one of the fallen Perkins children.

And he is cute, Mr. Brown Eyes and all.

Oh, honestly! She made herself pay attention to Sarah, looking at her brown eyes for the rest of the meal.

Elizabeth Oakshue, the guiding force behind it all—troupe and family alike—said virtually nothing during dinner. If she was glad or excited or even surprised to have her niece living under her roof once again, she made no sign.

By the time Sarah had finished talking, they had the table to themselves. Her cousin ran off to her room, calling “I have math homework to finish if I want to pass fifth grade, see you later,” over her shoulder as she went.

Her dog was fed, dinner was over, and she hadn’t had homework of her own to do for some time. So, what does one do on a Friday night?

Well…

After the last experience in the Oakshue barn Charlene wasn’t about to just go out and start skating. It took her ten minutes to find Elizabeth, but she finally tracked her aunt down in a small study on the third floor, east wing. It was a room Charlene hadn’t seen before, and she wondered vaguely as she knocked on the slightly open door if this was where that Olympic medal resided.

Or maybe there was a stack of old letters, somewhere in a drawer?

“Charlene? What can I do for you?”

She handed her aunt the prepared note. “May I go and skate for awhile?”

Somehow, I don’t expect this to be easy. But if Auntie Liz wanted her to skate in her troupe, she’d have to practice, wouldn’t she?

Wouldn’t she? Charlene watched the struggle on Elizabeth’s face, as much as she tried to hide it. She fancied she could almost read her aunt’s thoughts, at least those practical thoughts that were saying She’s got to practice, hasn’t she? It was the opposing viewpoint; whatever voice was trying to convince her that Charlene shouldn’t be any part of this at all…

That was the part Charlene didn’t understand—and wanted to get to the bottom of. She remembered how she had felt during her talk with Melanie that afternoon.

What is this woman so afraid of?

It was only maybe three seconds that all this took place. Then Elizabeth almost smiled. “Whenever you wish, dear, the ice is yours.” She turned back to whatever she had been doing. “Have fun.”

I will. Charlene thought about holding up Card #4, but Elizabeth was already gone. Thanks, though, Auntie. Whatever process had taken place in her aunt’s head, whatever reasons had been considered and discarded, at least she was free to skate.

Tonight, anyway.

Everything else she would hopefully, somehow, get to the bottom of later.

Within minutes she was out in the barn, the music of the blades and the ice sweeping her worries away.

But before she could sleep that night, the same simple letter that had invited her back into this house crossed her thoughts again. For some reason, though she had read the letter thirty times, her mind focused for the first time on the signature. E.O. Charlene thought of the other piece of mail she had with those initials, a certain Congratulations card, and wondered about the past…

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