Chapter Eleven - Second Miracle
Within the safe cocoon of her car, Charlotte shakily applies emergency makeup. The spot on her face is tingling. She can feel a surge of panic rising inside her, demanding to be acknowledged. Ignore it. Concentrate on driving. She starts the car. The fuel gauge light is flashing. She won’t make it home without filling up.
At the petrol station she fumbles with the keys, then the petrol cap. A carload of boys roars past, whooping, waving their arms at her, shouting something. She turns away, hiding her face with her sweaty long hair. Storm clouds are looming overhead, the air is fetid. Charlotte just wants to get home and hide. Going inside to pay she grabs a bar of chocolate.
“You walked into a door or something, Sweetheart?” says the woman behind the counter, pecking at the beeping keys with a bright orange talon on her chubby finger. Charlotte snatches back her credit card and stalks out the door. Thunder booms overhead as she dashes to her car, the rain dumping down. It rattles on her roof like bullets as she speeds off into the traffic. Three sets of traffic lights flash by. She’s on automatic - braking, accelerating, indicating with a deft flick of the wrist. At the fourth she has to pull up and wait, as the rain lashes at her windscreen and pounds the roof. It’s the longest minute of her life. Her foot taps impatiently on the floor. Come on, come on! Apartment blocks tower either side of her like ugly, inquisitive giants. Something red catches her eye, high up on the building to her right. Charlotte squints. A child is climbing over the balcony wall, her little feet dangling. Charlotte stares through sheets of rain, unbelieving. Where is the mother? Charlotte gasps. The child has lost her grip. Her little form is tumbling through the air.
“No!” In a blur, Charlotte is out of her car, standing at the foot of the building. A soft gauzy curtain whirrs around her. Outside of this tiny world she has created, everything moves sluggishly as if caught in glue, including the falling child. Transparent fingers of water spray out from passing cars, raindrops look like arrows dropping from the sky, but inside the bubble it’s dry. Charlotte knows what she is doing this time, crafts it exquisitely. A man and a woman are running in slow motion towards them, their mouths contorted in horror, their eyes bulging. But there’s plenty of time. Eons. Calmly she reaches up, allowing the child to fall through the bubble and softly into her arms.
“Hello,” says the child, giggling. Looking down into her upturned face, Charlotte panics. What if she’s identified? How could she ever explain this? She plonks the girl down, making sure the man and woman are within easy reach of the child. Darting to her car she slips into her seat, revs the engine and drives away, zooming around the suspended traffic with ease as the rain falls in lazy curtains. She can’t hold the bubble for long. Any second the headache will hit, making driving almost impossible.
And then it hits her, obliterating all thought. Charlotte gasps, grips the wheel tighter, fastening her gaze upon the road. Even so, she swerves and bumps in and out of the gutter several times and flies through a red light. The bubble disintegrates like a shattered window. Traffic and storm explode in her ears. The pain reduces her to harsh, hoarse cries, but she is determined to get home. No one can see her like this. No hospital can know about her. Screeching to a stop in her garage she struggles to disentangle herself from the car. Nausea flows like a river, submerging, drowning. She falls into blackness.
“Charlie?” A warm hand is stroking her face. Vomit claws at the back of her throat.
“Ugh!” She croaks, reaching a hand to her pounding head. “What happened?” She squints at the bright light flooding through the window.
“You fainted, Sweetheart,” says her father, patting her hand. She can feel the softness of her own bed, but the stench of vomit all over herself is overpowering.
“I need a shower.” She tries to get up. The room lurches. “My head... Oh!” She clutches it with both hands.
“Here.” A cool glass is pressed into her hand, two tablets into her other palm. Her neck feels like it’s made of leaden jelly, the joints in her arm are reluctant to cooperate. Swallowing the aspirin, she slumps back to the pillow. The cool water feels like ice in her throat.
“Help me up please?” Even her lips feel old and stiff. Strong hands help her slowly to stand.
“Can you walk?”
“Sort of.” They shuffle like an elderly spider to her bathroom. He turns on the taps and helps manoeuvre her clumsy body under the warm spray, clothes and all. She clutches the rail, moaning. It’s like she’s six again, sick with the mumps or something. Dad’s presence is a comfort.
“You ok to continue?” he says, releasing her.
“Don’t go!” She grips his wet arm. “I can’t... I need help.” Dad hesitates, awkward. “Please, Dad. I don’t care... Just help me.”
In a short while she’s tucked up in bed, her wet hair wrapped clumsily in a towel. She sinks into the softness, the fanatic throbbing in her head is now a dull beat at her temples. Sleep is coming. She surrenders.
It’s evening when she wakes. Moonlight has softened the sun’s glare into silvery shadows. Dad is snoozing on her chair in front of the window.
“Dad,” she croaks, hoisting herself up to her elbows. He jerks awake.
“Charlie?” He pads over to the bed and perches on the edge. “You feeling better?” He feels her brow.
“A bit.” Even in the soft light she can see her father has aged ten years in a day. “You look terrible.” She’s expecting him to grin, brush it off, but he doesn’t.
“I saw your arm,” he says. Their eyes lock in a silent dance of fear. She slowly pulls up her sleeve. A dark patch with grey edges spreads over her forearm.
“No....” Her voice cracks and trails off in despair.
“It’s ok Charlie,” he insists gently. “Another transfusion will take care of it. The mark on your face is faint now.” His lie shouts at her. She knows it’s worse this time. She feels so tired, so empty, like the husk of a human being with nothing but a thin coating of dust inside a shell.
“Can you tell me what happened?” He tries to sound casual, like she’s just an accident prone kid.
“I can’t remember.” She looks away, hunting the room for a distraction. There’s a tray on the bedside table with hot tea and a couple of plain crackers on a plate. She reaches gingerly for the cup. “Could you hand me that remote please?”
“Sure.” He looks puzzled. Her stiff finger presses the button and the large TV blares into pixelated life. It’s the six o’clock news and reporters are scrabbling over each other in the rain, trying to get the big scoop of the day. With a jolt, Charlotte recognises the apartment block where the little girl fell. A cold sweat races over her body. Was I fast enough? She flicks a look at her father, sitting awkwardly on the edge of her bed. The voice of a female reporter, sharp and incessant, cuts through the end of the ad break.
“A child fell fifteen storeys from this apartment building today and landed, somehow, unhurt. Five year old Ruby Reynolds insists a mysterious, unidentified lady helped her.” The reporter shoves a microphone in the little girl’s face. “Can you tell us who helped you when you fell, Ruby?”
“A nice lady, in fancy jeans.”
“And your parents, Jean and Julian Reynolds, what can you tell us about this spectacular event?”
The parents smile awkwardly.
“We don’t quite know what happened,” says the mother, guilt written all over her face. “Ruby disappeared out the door and over the balcony before we even realised she was out there.”
“And what did you see?” persists the reporter.
“We saw... I know it sounds ridiculous. It could just be the shock, but we saw her fall, wrapped in a sort of... blur.”
“A blur? Can you describe what you were feeling?”
The mother laughs hysterically. “Sheer terror, of course!”
“And you say a young woman was somehow involved. Could you describe her?”
“All Ruby keeps saying is that she was nice and had fancy jeans. She’s only five. She doesn’t really know how to...” The mother looks helplessly at her husband. He looks straight down the camera lens, tears in his eyes.
“We just want to say thank you, to the remarkable young woman who saved our precious girl - however you did it. From the bottom of our hearts. You’ve given our daughter back to us.” The reporter signs off and the music swells to another ad break. Charlotte takes a shaky sip of tea, watching her father. The last words of Ruby’s father echo in her head. Given our daughter back to us... Was this how her own parents felt when she woke up in her new body? No doubt they prayed for a miracle when she first became ill. Then her father had calmly created a new daughter, with a petrie dish and a pipette. It feels absurd to be that person, whose inauspicious beginning had resulted in someone who could manipulate space-time.
“Lucky little girl,” remarks Dad.
“Mm.” replies Charlotte. The news returns. On the big screen Ruby’s parents clutch at their little happy faced girl. It’s true, it is a gift. That little girl can go on living now, grow up. She gets another chance. All because of me. Charlotte allows herself a smile. Then it falls from her face as she sees a hotline number flashing under the scene. A stern looking police chief is appealing for witnesses to come forward and help them find ‘the heroine’. A stern faced woman stands slightly behind him, staring straight at the camera, as if she can see through the screen and into Charlotte’s room. Charlotte feels a cold foreboding creep over her skin. They’re looking for me!
“I’ll leave you to rest,” says Dad, getting up, taking her empty cup. “We can talk later.”
“Ok.” The door closes and Charlotte is left alone in the dim light with her thoughts, trying to reassure herself. They won’t believe what a little kid says. It’s ridiculous! By tomorrow everyone will have forgotten all about it. Some super model’s boob job will be the top story.
But Charlotte knows she is not the same person who woke up in this bed a few days ago. She possesses a body and mind capable of stretching time.