When You Knew me

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Chapter Two - Disaster

It’s twilight. Abbi and Tessa are getting into Charlotte’s convertible, awash with perfume, dressed up, giggling. Their overnight bags are stashed in the boot. Charlotte is wearing her new Elsa Langbein white mini dress, studded with crystals. There’s a strange comfort in this facade of friendship - having companions, but without the necessity or facility for sharing any real confidences.

“Buckle up, Gorgeouses. It’s time to partay!” She chirps.

The girls squeal.

“You’ve been to Petra Nova before, right?” Abbi asks, pulling the seatbelt around herself and clicking it in place.

“Of course,” Charlotte affirms, with just the slightest hint of boredom. You can’t be too enthusiastic, like it’s all so new and wonderful. “It’s the best retreat ever. Heavenly spa. And the masseurs are all male, wear only white and look like models,” Charlotte says, checking her nail polish is still immaculate. Even one tiny chip is a flaw in her persona.

The girls make appreciative sounds.

“Can’t wait to get all relaxed tomorrow,” says Abbi, checking her lipstick in a compact mirror. “Cool place for a party. You get to sleep in and have servants come in and clean up after you.”

"And a massage,” Charlotte reminds her. They all giggle.

“I bet Evan will be there tonight!” Tessa gushes from the back seat.

“Yeah. Probably.”

“You gone off him already?” Abbi asks, one eyebrow raised at Charlotte.

“He’s… Never mind.” Charlotte wants to say a cheap, sleazy bastard. But she’s already noticed Tessa’s infatuation with him and can’t bring herself to smack him down in front of her. Tessa is an innocent. Charlotte pulls smoothly out of the driveway. Glancing at Abbi’s white, gold and black outfit she has to admit to herself it’s stunning. And her fake tan looks pretty natural.

“Like the tan?” There’s a glint in Abbi’s eye.

“Looks totally natural. Is it Scarlett Love?” Charlotte pulls up at the last set of traffic lights before they head out of town.

“No, my beautician did it this morning. It’s new. From Switzerland.”

“I’ll ask Candice about it,” says Charlotte, hating to concede ground. It’s a small victory for Abbi. She turns up the music to discourage further gloating.

“Do you think I could get on Candice’s books?” asks Tessa, not realising she sounds pathetic. Charlotte and Abbi exchange smirks. Tessa tries way too hard. The traffic light turns green. Charlotte accelerates away from the intersection, her mind only half on the road. The stench of rotten cheese hits them. The biscuit factory is baking the cheese crackers tonight.

“Oh my God, I never get used to that smell!” Abbi holds her nose with perfectly manicured fingers.

“Wait for it...” says Charlotte. They’re about to pass near the town refuse dump. The combination is utterly spew-worthy. Charlotte swallows her disgust and tries to breathe through her mouth. It doesn’t make any difference.

“UGH!” Abbi shivers. “Why can’t they put it underground or something?”

“What, the biscuit factory?” says Tessa. Charlotte can see her in the rear view mirror, biting her lip. Her grandfather, uncle and brother all work there.

“No, the fricken dump!” Abbi says, oblivious to Tessa’s turmoil.

“Oh.” Tessa smiles wanly and looks at the landscape flashing by. There’s nothing but vacant land, the odd farm with dreary animals and the massive concrete complex of Shannon’s Biscuits, like an alien city landed there, unchallenged.

“Sometimes I just wish we didn’t live in Harlington,” says Abbi, with a sudden twinge of melancholy. The excitement of the party has vanished. Charlotte drives on, thinking about the factory and Tessa’s shame.

“Er, is that truck meant to be on our side of the road?” Abbi says, an edge to her voice.

“Yeah,” says Charlotte absently, looking at herself in the rear view mirror. That lipstick isn’t quite the right shade of pink.

Tessa screams and Charlotte snaps back to reality. The smell of brakes and burning rubber washes over them. A double semi-trailer is weaving all over the road, heading straight for them, shrouded in blue smoke. Charlotte slams her foot on the brake pedal. The tyres screech as she yanks the steering wheel left, but the car continues to slide. The girls scream, tossed around in the roller coaster pod. Grinding closer, shedding black asphalt, the truck’s unending screech of brakes is like the screams of a hundred terror-stricken children. Charlotte’s arms are frozen, fingers locked on the wheel. Already she can feel the magnetic urgency of the giant mechanical beast, pushing a hazy wall of heat before it like a snowplough, her own tiny car sliding inexorably towards it, side-on, wheels locked.

They’re going to die.

NO! Something inside Charlotte snaps into place, like a machine has finally found its missing part. Heat surges up from the furnace in her core, alive and eager. Her eyes are fixed upon the truck, calculating, willing the metal giant to slow... slow... slow. A deafening roar fills her ears. The lumbering, distorted body of the truck twists and slows, as if the hand of God Himself has intervened. Charlotte has a fuzzy realisation that there’s plenty of time to notice everything - the gleaming red paint, the chrome front bumper, the windscreen. And the face of the dark haired driver, mouth grim, strong arms wrestling with the wheel. Charlotte swerves right, dodging the truck easily, then left with perfect precision. The monster groans past, shrieking in fury, like Snow White’s nemesis. There’s a pregnant sliver of time, hanging in the air...

Then suddenly everything speeds up again. Charlotte’s car skids to a halt on the opposite verge in a lavish spray of gravel. Tessa’s shrill cries tear at the air. Abbi is breathing in little frightened gasps, her fingernails embedded in the upholstery. Charlotte releases the steering wheel and holds her head in both hands, mute with the excruciating pain jabbing into her brain like a frenzied ice pick. She gasps, unable to speak.

“Oh! Oh! Oh my God!” Abbi says it for them all. Charlotte feels a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right Charlotte?”

“How did you DO THAT?” shrieks Tessa, beside herself. “I can’t believe it! Oh!”

Charlotte weakly holds up a hand.

“Please, shut up Tessa!” she groans. “My head is splitting apart!”

“That was totally freaky,” Abbi says breathlessly, her hand on her heaving chest. “Charlotte, that’s the best driving I’ve ever seen!”

The pain is strong and fear is smothering all thought.

“Abbi. Drive,” Charlotte croaks. She opens the door and struggles to get her legs out. The stupid high heels are stuck. She wrenches them off, flinging them on the road. Cars are rushing past, like nothing happened. Her candy red Jimmy Stein shoes are pummelled and squashed under the wheels of vehicle after vehicle. The verge gravel is sharp under her bare feet. She clicks open the rear door and falls face first onto the back seat, unable to move.

“Charlotte! Are you all right?” shrieks Tessa again. “Charlotte? Help, someone!”

“Enough with the shouting,” Charlotte moans, her hand wavering in the air. She manages to get her legs inside and pulls herself upright, her head against the headrest. Tessa helps her with the seatbelt. Abbi puts her foot down and the car screeches away into a gap in the traffic.

They pull up in the parking lot of a huge Georgian mansion towering aloof and elegant, one of its walls covered in thick, dark green ivy. Coloured lights are strung up everywhere like an enormous candy store is open for business. Music blasts, pulsing through the car body. Charlotte gets out slowly, her hand upon the car for support. She pops the boot open. Unzipping her huge overnight bag she takes out a pair of expensive black stilettos.

“You brought a spare pair of Jimmy Steins?” Tessa gasps. Charlotte shrugs, though her head is throbbing and she’s unsteady on her feet.

“Couldn’t make up my mind which ones to wear, so I brought them both.”

“It so pays to be fussy about shoes,” agrees Abbi, smoothing her dress. Charlotte checks that her own dress is sitting right. They can hear the clink of glasses and shrieks of laughter tinkling over the stone wall of the courtyard. The girls teeter up the steps in their ludicrously high heels, holding onto one another. In the courtyard everyone is dancing, grinding their bodies together, enveloped in throbbing music, weirdly camouflaged in pink and blue oscillating lights. Charlotte feels dizzy and clutches Abbi’s arm.

“Ouch! What did you do that for?” Abbi says, frowning at Charlotte’s fingernails fixed in her forearm.

“Sorry.”

“You should lie down, Charlotte. You don’t look so good.” Tessa looks at her with pity.

“I’m fine. Let’s grab a drink.” Charlotte defiantly lifts her chin, stands tall, determined to go through the ritual of greeting the significant people at the party. If she sidles away to a dark corner, people will talk. She’ll appear weak. She can almost feel her popularity count falling as every second passes by. Charlotte totters onto the paved area, fighting the nausea, her nostrils flared. Someone screams and Charlotte panics, whipping around. Then there’s a splash and more shrieking. A guy has fallen into the pool and taken a girl with him. They’re making out, thrashing their legs in unison to stay afloat.

The music shifts to a faster pace and the dancing becomes frantic. The urge to be sick is rising in her throat with a burning grip.

“Charlotte! Over here!” It’s Nick, standing with a bunch of boys. He’s been trying to get into her pants since grade ten. She swallows the vomit back down her throat and walks over casually, swinging her hips, her mouth twisted into a sly grin. She knows the hot pink lipstick is glossy and inviting. Several guys standing around him are gawking at her. The girls clustered about them are staring, either at her, or their own feet, shamefaced. Normally Charlotte would feel buoyed; drunk on this power, but tonight all she wants is to lie down. It’s taking all her strength to keep up the charade.

“You look... awesome,” says Nick, his eyes roaming hungrily over every inch of her.

“Articulate as always, Nick,” says Charlotte, as someone hands her a champagne flute of sparkling, bubbly liquid. She tips back her head genteelly and lets the liquid pour down her throat, knowing the guys are staring, open-mouthed at her cleavage. There’s a stab of pain behind her eyes and Charlotte winces.

“You all right?” says one of the girls in a voice edged with barbs.

“Fine,” says Charlotte, gently pushing a long, platinum blonde lock of hair away from her face. “Pulled an all-nighter, online shopping, that’s all.” The girl scowls. Abbi and Tessa appear beside her, drinks in hand.

“You should have seen Charlotte’s driving on the way here!” Gushes Tessa. “We almost got killed by a truck!” The boys snort derisively.

“Well, actually, it was amazing,” says Abbi, taking a delicate sip from her glass. A pocket of silence holds them all as they wait for Abbi to continue. She pauses, relishing the control of their attention, flicks her hair. “I still don’t know how she did it. A semi was sliding on our side of the road, straight towards us.” She shrugs. “I drove here. Charlotte couldn’t drive, she was too shaky.”

Charlotte feels a small rent in the fabric of her authority. She straightens and flashes a broad smile. “I’m fine now! Let’s party!” She dances off towards the dance floor, carefully, carefully in her high heels. The last thing she needs is to go arse up in front of everyone. The others follow in a sort of conga line. The music hypes her up and the pain is lessening with the alcohol. She feels a hand on her bum and starts, slopping champagne on her white dress.

“What are you...” She whirls. It’s Nick, swaying. “You’re drunk!” She glares at him. His grin widens.

“Ooh, little Miss Precious, how about a hot dance with me?” He grinds his pelvis into her, holding a beer in one hand the other in the small of her back. Charlotte’s head is thumping again and everything seems to be spinning on a tilted axis. She knows she’s going to faint. Or vomit.

“Get lost, Nick!” she seethes, pushing his hand away. She totters from the dance floor, trying not to falter, puts her glass down somewhere and heads for the open French doors. Inside there’s a lounge. She sinks into it, holding her head. People come and go, murmuring. She gets out her compact mirror and pretends to check her makeup. She can’t stay here, alone. Charlotte Campbell is supposed to be always surrounded by devotees. Getting up, she finds a bathroom and stumbles inside to a toilet bowl just in time to puke. Shutting the door with her foot she stays there a long time, teary, listening, waiting for the other occupants to leave. Two girls are laughing.

“Slut,” says one girl. “Ew, that’s smell is disgusting.”

“I bet it’s all over her clothes. She’s probably passed out by now.” They clatter out the door.

“Who is it, anyway?”

“Dunno. Who cares? She got drunk within five minutes of being here. She’s a loser.”

Finally there’s silence. Charlotte emerges from her cubicle, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Just as Abbi breezes in.

“Have you been sick?” Abbi’s face screws up in a grimace that’s somewhere between amazement, disgust and glee.

“I’m fine.” The taste of vomit stings her throat and the inside of her nose. She’s dying to rinse and spit, but leans forward to touch up her lipstick instead. Her mascara has run a bit. She takes out a tissue from her Gucci ‘Disco’ purse and touches the corner of it to her eye.

“You’re white as a sheet,” says Abbi with fake concern.” You’re not up the duff, are you?”

Charlotte chokes, hatred and shame burning her face. “What the hell, Abbi? Are you fricken drunk?" She says, hand on her hip. Abbi touches up her lipstick with a gloss brush, a look of catlike pleasure upon her face.

“Just askin’.”

“Well, shove it, ok?” Charlotte packs up her things. She turns at the door. “And find your own bloody way home, all right?”

Abbi laughs darkly.

“At least with someone else, I might actually get there.”

“Piss off, Abbi!”

Charlotte stalks down the hallway, straight past Tessa, who’s headed into a bedroom with Evan. Tessa gives her a look of pure joy. Charlotte stares at her. Oh Tessa, what are you doing?

Getting into her car she revs the engine and shoves it in reverse. There’s a jolt and a crash. A small group of people in the parking lot laugh and point. Charlotte Campbell just backed her brand new sports car into Nick’s immaculate ute. She plants her foot and squeals away, tears running down her face. Footage of her humiliating crash is by now already being uploaded to the internet.

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