Chapter Eight - Queen No More
Charlotte is late. She’s changed her outfit five times and ended up with tight jeans, red lace top, white cotton jacket. Fortunately, it’s a good hair day. Charlotte smiles at her reflection, then narrows her eyes at the faint grey spot, now covered judiciously with foundation and blush. No sign of it.
I beat you, you sucker!
As her heels click on the floor Charlotte notices the halls are empty, except for a few stragglers. No matter, I’ll make a grand entrance. They’ll see there’s nothing wrong. The queen is back.
She collects her notebook and the English class novel, “Half Life” from her locker. Her ipad is tucked into her designer bag in its gorgeous leather case, embossed with her name in gold. Deliciously ostentatious. She shuts the locker, turns and - there he is, ten feet away, green eyes watching her.
“You’re back.” he says, hands in pockets, books tucked under a bulging bicep. His white T shirt has black trim and the symbol for pi in the centre.
“Said I would be.” She lifts her chin.
She waits. There seems to be something else he wants to say. She takes a few steps towards him. She’s shaking a little but she has to know. “Why did you come to my house? I don’t even know you.” He smiles. His teeth are perfect. There’s a certain hardness to the lines of his face, but it’s not ugliness. Gabe Murray looks as if he keeps his secrets close to his chest. He’d probably be quite good looking if only he’d take off those stupid glasses!
“I came to offer help, should you need it,” he says rather stiffly, like he’s rehearsed it.
“And you thought I needed it?”
“I still do. But it’s your decision.” His gaze flicks to the nearby classroom door. “Gotta get to English. Coming?”
“Erm, I just forgot something,” she says hurriedly. “You go on ahead. Tessa’s saved me a seat anyway.”
“Don’t want to be seen with a nerd?”
Charlotte flushes violently. “No...” She says meekly.
“Have it your way.” He turns and strides away. Now she feels like crap. He’s been nice to her, nicer than any other boy she’s known, spoken to her like she was a real person, not just a set of boobs on legs. She waits until the classroom door has closed behind him. In a few steps she’s there. Taking a deep breath she straightens her clothes. This is it. Time to get back on the horse, Charlotte.
She opens the door and the first person she sees is Tessa, grinning happily at her. The windows on the far wall are flooding the room with light. Miss Haflinger, in usual floral cotton dress, has stopped talking. All eyes are on Charlotte. This is the moment! Charlotte smiles confidently.
Then trips over someone’s bag on the floor and falls flat on her face.
Her stuff flies everywhere. Someone titters, someone snorts, then everyone starts laughing. Charlotte lifts her head and looks straight up into Gabe’s eyes. He is still there, at the door. He offers his hand. Her ankle is twisted. It hurts. She tries to ignore his hand and get up by herself.
“Ah!” The pain is shooting up her leg. Strong arms lift her easily onto her feet and support her. The spicy smell of cologne melts into her senses. She blinks. Gabe is holding her bag and books, his arm still around her. There’s cat calls. Wolf whistles.
“Go, go, weirdo!” yells one of the boys. The girls are giggling, whispering. Charlotte’s face is hot. She’s struggling to hold the tears in check. Miss Haflinger, stares blankly, her mouth open. Charlotte searches wildly for Tessa’s reassuring face, but Tessa’s look is apologetic. Beside her sits some other girl. Some girl called Becka. And Abbi, smiling like a well fed cat, is sitting in Charlotte’s seat. The world is suddenly spinning. Charlotte can feel her heart pounding up into her ears, pulsing along the veins in her neck, throbbing behind her eyes. She can’t run, can’t escape. Hiding her shame, she stares at the floor.
“Take me outside,” she whispers, her fingers digging into Gabe’s arm. Without a word he swivels them both, as one entity, opens the door and half-carries her out to the hall. Laughter follows them.
“The Queen of the geeks!” shouts some girl. The door mercifully closes of its own accord. There’s banging and cheering inside. Charlotte leans up against the wall, holding her foot up, panting with fear and humiliation. She bites her bottom lip. Finally, she makes eye contact with Gabe.
“You!” she growls, fighting traitorous tears. “You tripped me up on purpose! That was your bag on the floor!” She wants a fight. She wants it so badly.
“We should get you to sick bay.” He leans in towards her. “Want me to carry you?”
“No! Get away from me! You’ve ruined it! I’m a laughing stock now!”
He leans in, his hands against the wall, either side of her head. She can feel the heat from his body, hear his breathing. She has to meet his gaze now. His face is centimetres from hers.
“You mean your comeback as Queen of Harlington High?” He says in a slightly mocking tone. “Come on Charlotte, get real! You lost that title days ago.”
“Shut up! What would you know, you fricken weirdo!” She screams, punching his chest with both fists. He claps a warm, soft hand over her mouth.
“Before you embarrass yourself further,” he says calmly, his face close to hers. Tears spill down her face. She’s wordless. Fightless. “I’m taking you home.” He doesn’t wait for her answer, just lifts her easily into his arms and carries her through the halls, out the main doors and to the parking lot.
“Put me down!” She seethes through gritted teeth. He places her gently beside her car. She fossicks for the keys in her bag. He holds out his hand. “What?” she says irritably. “You’re not driving my car.”
“Well, you certainly can’t.” Muttering, she hands them over and tumbles into the passenger seat. Gabe drives smoothly, double clutching through the gears, dodging traffic like he’s a professional driver. Several times Charlotte gasps and clutches the arm rest. Finally, he pulls into her garage. Without a word, he helps her to the door.
“See ya,” he says, and strides away hands in pockets, whistling. Charlotte stands on one foot, staring at his tall form ambling down the driveway.
“You strange boy,” she says softly. He scares her, with his ideas and confidence. And yet, there’s something reassuring about the way he takes everything in his stride. He’s in her life now. But what does it mean? How can she possibly overcome the social annihilation that occurred this morning? And now her only friend is a full blown nerd.
Sun is streaming through the kitchen window. Dad is reading the paper, one leg crossed over the other, toast crumbs on his shirt. Charlotte sits in her pjs, absently stirring the contents of her cereal bowl. Its days since her humiliation at school. She’s been avoiding the topic.
“There’s nothing for it, Darling, you have to go back,” Dad says, flicking the broadsheet newspaper to get a better look at the sports section. “Show them you’re not that easily beaten.” Charlotte drops her spoon and it clatters against the white china bowl.
“You just don’t get it, Dad. My life is over! They all laughed at me!” Charlotte feels her face getting hot just at the memory of it. Dad looks up from his paper.
“Charlie, I thought you were made of sterner stuff.”
“You should know. You made me.” She stares at him, defying him to contradict her. He hesitates, folds the paper carefully and places it on the table.
“You’re still angry at me for saving your life?”
Charlotte looks away.
“Tell you what, I’ll meet you for lunch. We’ll go to All Things Turkish. How’s that? You love their food.”
“It’s not... Never mind.”
“Charlie, the world is so much bigger than high school. Believe me. What you’re going through now seems life threatening, but it’s just temporary. Life as an adult is much more exciting, interesting, complex. High School is almost finished. Ignore them. Do what you have to do and stop worrying about fitting in. I never did.” Charlotte looks at her father. He has great hair, but the styling is about fifty years out of date. His clothes are basic. Was hiker fashion ever a real fashion? She’s never seen him wear anything with a pattern or not made of cotton or merino. And his cargo pants must be at least three years old.
“How can you possibly understand what it’s like to be me, Dad? You’re a guy, for one thing.” She slumps over her bowl of soggy cereal.
“I was young too. I know how cruel kids can be. But do you really think I was going to let idiots like Joe Gillespie stop me from being a successful person? Joe Gillespie...”
“I know. Was a bully who now runs a small bike repair shop. He’s never been overseas and has been married four times. I know Dad!”
“Well then, you get my point, don’t you?”
“But Dad, you were a nerd, a full-on nerd. Somehow nerds are... immune to all that stuff.” She gets up and empties her bowl in the bin, shoves it in the dishwasher and slams the door. Pressing the button, she turns, her eyebrows raised, ready for his next smart retort. But Dad is staring at her. And his face has an expression she’s never seen before. Hard. Angry.
“What?” she says, feeling a little afraid of this strange tension in the room. His voice is low when he answers her. Full of pain.
“You have no idea what it was like, Charlotte, to be the brunt of every joke. To have goop slopped all over you, be shoved onto your back like a turtle, to have your things stolen or trashed repeatedly.” His voice rises and Charlotte shrinks away from him. “To be constantly humiliated and verbally abused! To be told you’re a loser all day, every day, to be referred to as moron, idiot, nerd; never by your real name. To be less than a nothing.”
This is a story she’s never heard before. So much pain in the telling. Suddenly she realises her own father was one of those boys, like Bird and Beefy Geek. I don’t even know their names! Charlotte feels hot shame. She is exactly like Joe Gillespie. She swiftly crosses the room and hugs her father, burying her face in his neck. Hearing the kids laugh at her was a nightmare finally come true. Never has she heard that sound directed at her. Never. She squeezes Dad and kisses his cheek. Imagine that feeling, multiplied by ten, every day, for years... She remembers deliberately stepping on Bird’s hand, that day in the hall, as he scrabbled around on the floor trying to gather his books. She thinks of Abbi and Tessa, looking down their noses at people, following her example! An ice cold wave of shame floods over Charlotte. She sits down next to Dad. He’s watching her and for a moment she doesn’t see her father, but someone like Bird or Beefy Geek. They deserve more respect.
“I’m sorry you were treated like that Dad. I’ve done it to people myself and there’s no excuse.” She shakes her head, looking out the window at Mum’s garden. “I don’t want to be top bitch anymore.”
“That’s my girl,” he says, smiling. And his face is softer again.