Chapter Four - The Crocodile Pit
Charlotte has taken refuge among the pink satin pillows on her bed, hiding from the truth. Weeping until she’s hoarse, she slips into sleep. She finds herself in a frozen wood, turning round and round in the snow, her feet numb with cold. She’s seven years old.
“Mummy! Where are you?” Her voice is stolen by the trees, snatching up her puffed words in their twiggy fingers and holding them, dead eyes gleaming, to their hard chests. There is no escape. In this silvery hell small children disappear and are never seen again. Charlotte lifts her foot and lurches forward, tripping, flinging out her hands and landing on the icy snow. Shards of ice pierce her palms and knees, leaving a bright red stain. Dank fear of the forest invades her lungs, heavy and wooden. The snow feels like white fire against her skin, but she can’t seem to move. The trees lean in to inspect their prey. Charlotte imagines them grabbing her ankles and pulling her into the cold earth, past the burrows of sleeping animals to the private, suffocating darkness.
No! Get up! Pushing her hands into the snow she gets to her feet. Her hands… they’re so small…. She notices for the first time that she’s wearing a tattered, pink ballet costume. The thin satin shoes, strapped purposefully up her calves, offer little protection from the cold. She’ll die here. Like a statue of a little girl. Charlotte raises her eyes to the bleak sky.
“Where am I?” She whispers.
Waking in her sunlit room, the chill of the snowy wood still clings to her hair as the last wisps of the dream dissipate. Charlotte lies there, knowing something is different. And then she remembers. She’s a clone of herself. She’s like that little girl in an unknown wood. Lost. Unbelonging. How can she ever return to school? How can she keep this humongous secret? Abbi and Tessa will find out, somehow. Her life is over. She turns, numbly, to the window. Tiny motes of dust are caught in shafts of sunlight, twirling through the air like living things. As she watches them, her eyes defocus, and time stands still, allowing her a reprieve from the burden of knowledge.
Charlotte dresses and goes downstairs, avoiding the mirrors she once loved so much. In the kitchen her father has left a note.
See you this afternoon. Try not to worry. Love you with all my heart, my darling. Dad xx.
She prepares breakfast in a daze. What should she do today? How can she make a whole day disappear and seem normal? She slumps on the sofa, slopping cereal and turns on the TV. There’s nothing but fashion shows, fashion segments on the news, Top Model, chat shows and sport. She turns it off. Putting on some loud, sexy dance music she sways, bowl in hand, her slinky blue nightie brushing softly against her thighs. The music throbs into her body hungrily, driving out thoughts of death and humiliation. Charlotte glimpses movement in the garden and walks over to the full length windows. It’s the mythical gardener. He’s pushing a wheelbarrow filled with tools. She watches him rake a bare patch of lawn, sprinkle grass seed and cover it with a thin layer of dirt before watering it in. Then, wiping his hands on his faded green work trousers, he wheels the barrow out of sight. Charlotte notices, as if for the first time, that it’s Spring and the flower beds are full of glorious colour. Trees are bursting with pale buds, hanging like lace curtains over pink, yellow and orange striped tulips, daffodils and bluebells. The lawn is scattered with white blossom, like confetti. Charlotte sits cross-legged on the thick carpet and watches as tiny birds flit around the flowers, sucking nectar and splashing about in the bird bath. Life is good, out there in the garden. Life is new and vibrant, innocent, determined to thrive. Her thoughts turn to her friends, living it up at Petra Nova.
Tessa and Abbi would be in the thick of it right now, being pampered by white clad masseurs, sipping coffee, pretending to be grown-ups. It occurs to Charlotte that at seventeen one doesn’t actually know much about life. Her world is so tiny, so contrived and until yesterday, safe. But her father seemed to take everything so calmly, as if he’s seen it all, hundreds of times before. Is that what it means to be an adult - to see the worst that can happen over and over and get used to it? Charlotte can’t see that ever being a reality for her. There’s no escaping ugly or inconvenient truths. Reality always seems to rise up to smack you in the face, no matter what you do. The little birds in her mother’s favourite part of the garden never have to worry about how good they look or being an individual. They all wear the same colours. They never have to tell a white lie to their parents to save their feelings, never have to put on a nonchalant face when all they really want to do is scream until their voice disappears. Birds have it good. They fly about beautiful gardens and splash joyfully in birdbaths. They raise their young, have plenty to eat and live full and interesting lives. Wouldn’t it be great to be a bird? Sighing, she puts her dish in the dishwasher and goes upstairs to shower and dress. Shopping. That’s what she needs.
As her car zooms over the Elvet Bridge towards the Kingsgate shopping precinct, an island of exciting opportunities for Charlotte, she focuses on what she’s going to buy, pushing aside the disturbing new reality to a distant corner of her mind.
As she totters up the main street, she notices a homeless man sitting on a bench, dressed in layers of dirty clothes, surrounded by large bags containing his worldly goods. He is busy picking his teeth. The guy is obviously retarded. Look at his teeth. His only got two teeth! Normally she would have crossed the road so as not to be tainted by him, but today she walks right up to him. Taking out her cheque-book she scribbles, tears it off and drops it in the man’s lap.
“Here. You really need to go to a good dentist.” And walks away with her head high, feeling quite pleased that she has change the world, if only in a small way. Meanwhile the homeless man watches her walk away, the cheque in his hand, a confused look on his face.
It’s Monday. Her car roars enthusiastically, eager to leap out from its captivity. The next minute, it seems, Charlotte is pulling into the school parking lot. She shakes her head. She doesn’t remember getting here, or the five sets of traffic lights. Grabbing her bag she opens the door and has a moment of panic.
What outfit did I put on this morning?
She looks down. Thin, tailored khaki jacket, white shirt, black pants, lots of gold jewellery. She looks in the mirror. Her makeup is perfect, her hair lustrous. The dead spot has disappeared under a careful layer of concealer. This is going to take balls of steel, pretending that nothing is wrong with her face. Dad has assured her that it’s temporary. And she chooses to believe him. The weekend was dull, but she’s got her story prepared, one she hopes even Abbi’s scrutiny won’t penetrate. Charlotte emerges from her car, straight into the path of Tessa.
“Charlotte! Hey, love that jacket!” Tessa is effervescent as usual.
“Oh! Am I glad to see you!” Charlotte blurts, before she’s able to stop herself. Tessa blinks, then smiles.
“I’m… glad to see you, too.”
Charlotte’s brain is fuzzy. She’s trying desperately to claw back some respect. It doesn’t pay to be too eager with people like Tessa. You have to remain aloof, as if you could take them or leave them, as if their presence isn’t that important to you. It’s the only way to survive. She stops to take in Tessa’s outfit, taking her time, like she’s really assessing its worth. Tessa blushes. Waiting for the verdict.
“Nice skirt. You’re wearing the turquoise shoes again.”
“Yeah.” Tessa looks ashamed. Her father has a shop. Her mother is a hairdresser. It’s a constant fight for Tessa to stay among the beautiful people, despite the fact that in truth, she is actually the prettiest girl in the senior school. But Charlotte can never let Tessa know these thoughts. As long as Tessa thinks she needs Charlotte’s approval, everything will be fine. Abbi, on the other hand, is another matter. Charlotte gives Tessa a patronising smile.
“She said she’d meet us in English.”
That new guy, the geek who talked to her, that was in English. What was his name again? Gabe. Gabriel. As she walks up the stairs to the second level Charlotte realises Tessa has been babbling to her and asked a question.
“I said, are you ok? You left the party so soon.” She lets the implications hang in the air.
“I’m fine. Tummy bug, that’s all. Went to my aunt’s for the weekend.”
Tessa puts her head on the side. “I didn’t know you had an aunt.”
“Yep. In Charingfield. Takes about two hours to get there, but it’s worth it. Awesome shops. I got this amazing Helena Robson Jacket.”
“Oh.” Tessa nods, impressed, but her eyes are darting over Charlotte’s whole persona, looking for something. Charlotte lifts her chin.
“Only four fifty. But I always pay full price for Helena Robson.”
“Me too,” says Tessa meekly, clutching her books to her ordinary white blouse. They walk into English, amid the cacophony of chatter and furniture being scraped across the floor. It smells like furniture polish. Evan has seated himself right smack in the middle of the room, surrounded by giggling girls. Ugh! Charlotte has no desire to talk to him. Normally she would, just to touch swords and acknowledge status because he’s king of the boys. Today she can’t be bothered. But as she walks to her seat everyone is talking about how Charlotte left the party early. Some smirk behind their hands. The boys are gloating at her as if they know something, as if she just walked in heavily pregnant. She hates them all. They’re obsessed with nothing but sex – who’s getting it, who’s giving it. Some of the lesser girls feed on the tension in the air, grabbing the confidence to stare at her. Charlotte fixes them with an acid glare and they gulp into silence. It’s taking so much energy, just to keep her social standing intact. Tessa, her bodyguard, glares at two girls sitting in the prime seats. Silently, they grab their stuff and move. It all seems trite and meaningless, compared to the huge, hairy mammoth secret Charlotte is carrying inside her head. Keep it together, girl! Charlotte sits down, watching Miss Haflinger fumble around looking for a marker pen. The slight woman never looks right in a classroom. Even her sensible shoes say ‘I’d rather be in the library right now.’
Charlotte can feel eyes upon her and turns to the door. That guy is there, - Gabe, looking straight at her with those fearless eyes. Charlotte’s heartbeat is racing. She’s sweating. It’s like he knows! He sees right through her disguises, her false confidence, her bullshit persona. It’s like he can even see the hidden blemish on her face.
GOD! Will you calm down! He’s just a nerd. He knows nothing. Charlotte takes a deep breath and slowly lets it out. Gabe holds her gaze as he advances, then passes by, his friends trailing behind like bridesmaids. Charlotte pretends to be looking for something in her bag. Tessa is blathering on about Evan. Suddenly, the room falls silent, like a flock of seagulls have seen a hawk. Charlotte looks up. The hairs on her arms are erect, tingling. Abbi has paused in the doorway, holding everyone in her gaze, holding every breath in every body. Charlotte recognises the aura of power. Abbi stalks into the room like she’s on the catwalk. She’s got the look. She’s got the attitude. And it won’t be long before she’s got Charlotte’s crown too. Abbi flicks her hair off her shoulder and seats herself next to Charlotte without a word or a glance. It’s like she’s figuring out her play strategy. Charlotte says nothing, gives away nothing. The lesson drones on and the bell goes. As they exit, Tessa is torn between loyalties. Charlotte wins. For today. Abbi walks alongside as if nothing is out of the ordinary, but out of the corner of her eye Charlotte can see Abbi chewing her lip, deep in thought.
The Science teacher, Mr Heddings, has his back to the class and it’s on. Paper is flying everywhere, people are texting. Two kids up the front are kissing, their tongues inserted in each other’s mouth, their hands everywhere. The teacher is almost done loading the visuals from his laptop. The large screen flickers to life. Someone clears their throat and the kissers pull apart, smirking. Charlotte allows her eyes to defocus. I just have to get through this last class and then I can go home.
Her phone vibrates in her lap, out of sight of the teacher. It’s a message from Abbi, sitting on her right.
‘Hey, srry abt the othr nite. I ws drunk. I know I ws a shit 2 u.’
‘Frgt it.’ Charlotte types back, her fingers shaking a little. Abbi has bought her aunt story and slunk back to second spot without a fight. But for how long? Her phone vibrates again. It’s Tessa, sitting on her left. Charlotte glances at Tessa’s flushed face. It’s like she’s been waiting for permission to text. Permission from Abbi.
‘Had THE BEST nite w Evan lst nite! He took me to tht new club, Carlo’s. OMG!’ From within the shroud of her white-blonde hair, Charlotte grins at Tessa, then types back -
‘Nice!’ and adds a smiley face. She knows it’s lame. She can’t be bothered with Tessa’s joy right now. The spot on Charlotte’s face is tingling. Does this mean the cream Dad brought home is working or not? The teacher is talking about time and space. Quoting some book by a guy called Paul Davies. Mr Heddings is in his element, face flushed, excited. Charlotte groans inwardly. So boring.
“A singularity makes a wormhole impossible for humans to travel through. A much better method is this.” He points to a graphic on the screen with his laser. “A quantum vacuum. Can anyone tell me what Quantum Mechanics is based upon? Yes?” Mr Heddings points to the back of the class. Charlotte knows it’s going to be one of those geeks. Those freaks of nature who understand all this stuff. Out of curiosity she tries to concentrate, anything to get her mind off the blemish.
“Sir, Quantum Mechanics is based upon Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which predicts that all physical quantities fluctuate randomly, more so at the atomic level. Which means wormholes are actually extremely tiny and unstable. We don’t yet have the capacity to stretch them into bigger, more permanent structures.”
“Yes. Indeed. Thank you for that explanation, Alexander.” There’s a hissing sound around the room. As Mr Heddings turns again to point to the screen, a hail of spitpaper balls fly through the air. Charlotte turns to see Beefy Geek, trying feebly to shield himself from the onslaught, but he ends up just wiping his face with a hanky which he pulls out of his perfectly starched shirt pocket.
OMG. What a loser!
Then her eyes travel to the guy sitting next to him. It’s Gabe, staring straight at her. Why does he do that? Her cheeks flush, Charlotte whips her head around to face the front. Abbi looks sideways at her, an eyebrow raised. Charlotte shakes her head. ’It’s nothing,” she mouths.
A text on her phone asks, ‘Wht r u doing 2nite?’ It’s from Tessa. Charlotte’s perfectly manicured nail taps a reply.
‘Nothg much. Hvg a facial ths afternoon. Then gng 2 the gym.’ Of course it’s not true. She doesn’t want to see anybody looking like this.
‘Can I come 2 c ur beautician? Want to look my best 4 Evan!’
Charlotte feels a trickle of sweat find its way down between her shoulder blades. She types back, ‘Her books r closed atm. Sorry. But I’ll get her 2 put ur name on the waitg list. Ok?’ She gives Tessa a half-smile of regret. Tessa nods, but it’s not disappointment on her face. More like concern. Charlotte turns back to her phone, downloading a music video, but her mind is caught in a whirlpool. Tessa, when are you gonna get it? You’re never gonna be number one. You’re not ruthless enough or shallow enough. You actually have a heart.
Mr Heddings is droning on.
“Consequently, time travel is possible, but only forwards in time and by tiny increments. The wormholes in the Star Trek franchise are possibly centuries away.”
What’s this got to do with high school science? Charlotte thinks. She looks around the room. Most of the kids in here don’t know the difference between mitosis and osmosis. Doodling on her notebook, her mind drifts. She’s managed to get through high school and not let on that she’s smart enough to get straight A’s. There have been times when she almost put up her hand to answer a tricky question, but stopped herself just in time. The Queen of Harlington High cannot be studious. As long as she gets B’s and C’s nobody seems to notice and her dad is, well, not happy exactly, but satisfied she is getting an average education. Charlotte’s career plan has always been fashion designer and style guru. Until now she’s been right on track.
‘What the hell r u drawing?’
It’s a text from Abbi, who is frowning at Charlotte’s book, at the fusion of fashionable faces, with elaborate hairstyles and bits of machinery attached to their heads.
‘Wht IS tht?’
‘Jst random crap.’
‘Huh. Kill me now. This guy is soooo boring!’
‘I died of boredom half an hr ago .’ Charlotte replies. Mr Heddings clears his throat, puts his hands in his pockets and teeters back and forth on his heels.
“For homework, I’d like you to...” The bell rings and the room erupts. “It’s on the school website!” he calls, as everyone shuffles out the door. The boys are laughing, shouting, shoving each other. The girls are giggling, eyes watching each other, except for the nerd girls and losers who walk with their heads down, eyes averted.
“I’ll see you later, ok?” Abbi flicks her hair off her shoulders and smiles provocatively at three guys walking past them.
“Ok.” They jostle each other.
“Bye Charlotte,” says Tessa, leaving with Abbi. There’s a strange look on her face. Like pity. Charlotte is stunned. Tessa has finally abandoned her. With a sigh, Charlotte packs up her things. If only wormholes did exist. I’d slide into one right now and disappear forever.
She turns. It’s Evan. He’s making his way through the packed hallway. She looks around.
“Isn’t Tessa with you?” She asks. He shrugs.
“I dunno. Hey,” he lowers his voice, “Wanna come out with me tonight to Carlo’s? There’s an awesome band playing live.”
“But didn’t you go there last night, with Tessa?”
“Yeah. So?” He leers at her, his eyes roaming. Charlotte arches a brow. He had Tessa, so now he’s aiming for the big prize.
“Ugh! I’m busy.”
He shrugs. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“Uh, yes, I think I do.”
She turns away, allowing the curtain of her hair to fan out. She doesn’t bother dumping her books in the locker, but walks straight to the car park. Girls walking towards her are snickering behind their hands. She ploughs on, head high. Getting into her car she checks the mirror. Shocked, she yanks it closer. Oh no, no, NO! The dead patch is dark and big as a ten cent coin. She claps a hand over it and glances around her. Everyone is either getting into cars or onto buses. She keeps her head down. Tears slide down her cheeks.
Oh my God Everyone saw it! Everyone!
“Hey, can I speak to you for a second?” says an unfamiliar male voice. Panicked, she turns, hand still covering her cheek. It’s Gabe. His eyes are calm behind the stupid glasses. No! She struggles with the ignition key, turning it the wrong way. There’s a screech from the car. Students are staring. Finally, she gets it started and lurches awkwardly out of the parking lot, onto the main road. In the rear view mirror Gabe is standing there, tall, alone, holding a textbook.
A horn sounds. Charlotte jumps. She’s almost run into a car coming the other way. A pedestrian crossing looms and she slows to allow little kids to cross. The high school bus is right behind her now. A whole busload of people, who would love to laugh at her expense. Her eyes are drawn to the mirror, once her friend, now her enemy. The dead patch is ugly and huge. A zombie face. The bus toots and she jumps in fright, a panicked screech escaping from her lips. Putting her foot down she speeds all the way home. The memory of Gabe, standing there watching her, is etched on her brain.