“Mom? Mom, you in here? Abby?”
Charlie walked the four steps from her bedroom to the kitchen where she could see into the living room. Her mother’s bag was absent from the coffee table. The TV was off; the trailer oddly silent. Silence didn’t bother Charlie, and, when she really thought about it, neither did the absence of her mother. Abby had probably gone out the night before and hadn’t come back yet. That was usually what happened.
She went back to her tiny bedroom for her backpack and when she returned for her keys, the door screeched open. Sunlight spilled onto the dirty carpet, Abby casting a shadow from where she lounged in the doorway, a grin on her face.
“Hi, Charlie,” she said, stumbling up the last of the rickety steps and into the trailer. Charlie didn’t have to be close to her mother to realize Abby was currently in orbit. The fresh needle mark on the inside of her skinny white arm was proof enough.
Abby stumbled across the small room to the couch. Charlie watched for another couple of seconds and then looked back at the still-open door. She slowly counted to five in her head and sure enough, Rick appeared. He gave Charlie a sly smile and lingered in the doorway, blocking the exit. Rick was tall and thin, what her dad would call a “yuppie” if he were there to see. But Jason wasn’t there to see and hadn’t been for almost four years. Not for the first time Charlie wished he’d taken her with him. She’d been willing enough to go at the time, but Jason had told her she needed Abby, needed a mother as she grew up more than she’d need a father. What he was really saying was that Abby needed Charlie more than he did. Then it was like he’d fallen off the face of the earth; Charlie hadn’t had so much as a phone call from her father in the last year and a half.
“Hey Charlie,” Rick drawled, moving from the doorway to sit next to Abby. Charlie forced a smile and shoved the thoughts of her dad out of her mind. Not only was Rick Abby’s current boyfriend, he was also her dealer. Every bit as slimy as he looked. Charlie watched Abby turn the television on and lean against Rick.
“I gotta go,” Charlie said, grabbing her keys from the counter and walking to the door.
She had one foot on the top step and paused. The use of her given name from Rick always made her pause. It also always made her feel dirty. Still, she turned and looked at him.
“Your mom’s busy tonight,” he said, petting Abby’s hair. His eyes told her all she wanted to know, and more she didn’t.
“Got it.” Charlie turned her back to them both, leaning up to shut the door once she was on the cracked cement of the “patio,” really nothing more than a slab of concrete that the trailer sat next to. The phrase “busy tonight” could mean anything from drugs and alcohol, to having sex. Or all three. It wouldn’t be safe for her to come back until late, around ten or so.
With a sigh, Charlie hiked her backpack higher on her shoulders and started for the city of Clarence. She walked up the row of other trailers, all looking essentially the same, like she had the morning before and nothing was out of the ordinary; rap was thumping from Harvey’s, the one directly next door to her own, while Mr. and Mrs. Bennette were arguing, yet again, the words barely discernible. Money was the subject that morning. It was mundane in some respects, yet an integral part of her life. It was a walk she made every morning, sunshine or otherwise, from Sunset Park, across the old, unused railroad tracks to the suburban fringes of Clarence. In some ways, it was all that defined her.
School started at eight-thirty. Charlie left Sunset a little before seven to make sure she got to Ellie’s by seven-twenty. She’d met Ellie Porter in first grade after they’d been paired together for a small project. Ellie was the first and only person, besides the faculty, who hadn’t cared that Charlie was from Sunset. Despite the dirty looks from some of their classmates, Ellie had found the whole trailer park thing cool, though neither of them completely understood the social implications. They’d been best friends ever since, one explanation as to why Charlie practically lived at Ellie’s large, Victorian-esque house with wrap-around porch, a definite step above the glory that was Sunset.
Ellie’s older brother Isaac had been monumental during the girls’ transition into middle school; he didn’t carry the same prejudices the other students carried, something to which everyone involved had been extremely grateful for. Charlie couldn’t have been happier in that regard. The Porter family also acknowledged that Charlie’s home life wasn’t exactly ideal, and usually didn’t ask about Abby. Renee Porter, Ellie’s mother, looked at Charlie almost like a second daughter some days. She’d also been feeding Charlie breakfast for nearly four years.
When Charlie reached the Porter house, she skipped knocking and simply opened the door. The smell of bacon and eggs wafted from the kitchen and she smiled. This was what home was supposed to smell like in the morning; eggs sizzling, almost burnt bacon, and coffee ready to go. Number 9, Sunset Park didn’t smell anything like 482 East Fifth Street.
“Charlotte? That you?” Renee called from the kitchen.
“Yeah, it’s me,” she answered back, slipping her shoes off onto the mat by the stairs. Her backpack came next and she wandered into the kitchen, hands stuffed in the pockets of her jeans. “Smells good.”
“Coffee on the counter, orange juice in the fridge, but I don’t have to remind you, do I?”
It was a variation of the same conversation they’d had yesterday, and the day before.
“No, ma’am.” Charlie reached into a cupboard for a coffee mug. Renee turned back to the stove and Charlie looked at the mug between her hands; the green enamel showed spidery cracks from years of use. Ellie said it was Isaac’s favorite when he was home from college. The normalcy of it struck her hard and she blinked back tears. This was what family was supposed to feel like; coffee cups and good mornings. Not for the first time, she wondered what her father, Jason’s, mornings were like. Did he have coffee and eggs? Or maybe orange juice? She missed him always, but some days hurt more than others.
“Charlie? You okay?”
She turned and looked at Ellie’s dad, Robert.
“Yeah. I’m good.” She set the mug on the counter and added creamer before she poured the coffee. Robert had taught her that – doing them in reverse stirred the creamer into the coffee without dirtying a spoon. Not that dirty dishes were a problem; a dishwasher was a great invention, not that Charlie wished she had one in the trailer. There were never enough dirty dishes to worry about, anyway. Abby didn’t do much cooking.
“Hey Char,” Ellie said when she flounced into the kitchen. She wrinkled her nose at the coffee smell. “Ew. I don’t know how you can drink that stuff. Don’t you know too much of it will put a hole in your stomach?”
Charlie rolled her eyes. “Haven’t heard that one before.” She sat at the table and casually glanced at the headline. Police Cracking Down on Illegal Drug Dealers. Unease swirled in her belly and her forehead creased. Abby was careful, wasn’t she? She only bought from Rick and didn’t sell, right? She couldn’t answer the questions her mind asked her because she didn’t know her mother’s habit that well. Truthfully, she tried to ignore what Abby did since it usually involved Rick. And drugs. Experience and the memory of Abby passed out on the lumpy couch, not responding to anything Charlie said or did to wake her up was not a reassuring combination.
“Eggs, honey?” Renee asked serenely. Charlie took a deep breath, looking away from the glaring headline. She suddenly didn’t have an appetite.
“No, thanks, I’m okay with coffee,” she said. Her voice was steadier than she gave herself credit for. She grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl in the middle of the table for good measure. Renee was a health nut which explained why Ellie was a closet junk food junkie.
Eight-fifteen couldn’t come fast enough for Charlie and when it did she was the first to the neat row of shoes near the door. Ellie kissed her mother goodbye and joined Charlie.
“You okay today?” she asked as they walked down the sidewalk, heading for the corner to catch the bus.
Charlie kicked at the grass by the edge of the cement. “Abby came home this morning. With Rick.” Ellie knew all about Rick, having the unfortunate chance to meet him the only time she had ever been to Charlie’s, just to see what it was like. Once was more than enough in her opinion. “And the paper says the police are cracking down on dealers.”
“She’s not entirely stupid,” Ellie said, bending down to adjust the bottom of her designer jeans over her almost-new Nikes. “I mean, she’s an idiot to be into the stuff, but I’m sure that she’s sort of careful. If she isn’t then Rick is because he doesn’t wanna go to jail.”
Ellie was right, logically, but Charlie’s gut was still churning. One parent had abandoned her already, the other barely there in the full sense of the word. Still, it was all that Charlie had and she wanted to hang onto it as best she could. It was better than nothing.
“Guess you’re right,” she sighed as the bus pulled up. “They’re careful.”
Charlie closed her locker and squared her shoulders. This was nothing new. Similar phrases had been following her around since she was old enough to understand their meaning. Middle school had been a special kind of hell; there were no restrictions on how mean the other girls could be and they did it publicly. High school was classier in a way; the others still talked about her, but at least they did it behind her back where she couldn’t hear. Boys barely said anything to her about it; a few well-aimed punches in middle school had solved that problem. Charlie thanked God for small blessings.
“You gonna stand there all day or we gonna actually go to class?”
Thank God for Ellie, too. “Amanda Jensen just needs to not run her mouth so much, especially when she realizes Austin’s gonna think her ass looks big in those pants.” Charlie didn’t have to look to see the other girl turn scarlet. Ellie grinned.
“So the rumor is that Patten’s going to assign another project,” Ellie prattled on as they turned to enter the classroom. Charlie’s elbow bumped into the back of the boy ahead of her and he looked over his shoulder at her. Brennan Westbury. She froze for a moment. Brennan stepped back and allowed her and Ellie to enter first, the picture of a perfect gentleman.
“Thanks,” Charlie murmured, her gray eyes locked on his brown ones. Heart beating a little faster, she hurried into the room and rammed her thigh into the corner of the first desk in her row. Biting back a curse she eased into her seat and shot a glare at a silently laughing Ellie. She massaged her throbbing thigh as Patten closed the door and took his usual spot behind the podium, all thoughts of Brennan’s beautiful brown eyes mostly forgotten. She tried not to think about how she was nursing a crush the size of Canada on the boy, and had been doing so for years.
“It’s project time again,” he said excitedly, clapping his hands together. “Now, since you’re all high school kids and can pick your own partners depending on what grade you think you’d like, I’m going to throw a wrench in the system and pick your partners for you. Mix it up a little.”
“Mix it up a little” reminded Charlie of the stickers they handed out a few years ago, to try and get people to sit in different places with different people during lunch. To integrate themselves more. It hadn’t worked well, in Charlie’s opinion, but she was willing to bet good money she didn’t have that Patten’s attempt would be better. However, it was with a dawning dread that she realized her and Ellie’s take-no-prisoners-always-earn-an-A partnership was probably first on the chopping block.
Patten started listing off the names of the various pairs and there was the usual sniggering from the back row. Charlie was still massaging her thigh (it was probably going to bruise spectacularly) when she heard Ellie’s name paired with Carl and winced. Carl was the worst slacker in the history of slackers, notorious for late assignments and hangovers. Patten was probably thinking that Ellie could turn him around. Charlie reasoned Ellie was more likely to get frustrated and put her size eight where the sun didn’t shine.
“And Brennan and Charlotte. These sheets going around are the topics that you’ve been assigned and the due dates…”
Charlie’s world narrowed, her thigh momentarily forgotten. It was both the best day of her life and the day that would doom her. She’d had an unofficial “thing” for Brennan Westbury, second-youngest of the four Westbury boys since she could honestly remember and had always kept her distance. The Westbury family lived in a affluent part of Clarence and she, well, she lived in a completely different world. Not only was Brennan’s family sitting comfortable, all four boys were easy on the eyes, and smart, to boot. Brennan and his brother Evan were the only other pair in the class to really give her and Ellie any sort of academic challenge. Scholastically it was a winning combination; personally, Charlie knew she was destined to rot in hell to be so close to something so good and not be able to do a damn thing about it.
She was further saved from her ruminations when the classroom phone rang. Her heart resumed its mile a minute pace as Patten crossed the room with short strides, nearly yanking the phone off the wall in his haste to answer it. Charlie glanced at Ellie who was still somewhat dumbstruck at the pairings but was still coherent enough to flash her a thumbs up.
“Of course. She’ll be right down.” Patten hung up with considerably more grace than he’d answered and Charlie sat up a little straighter in her chair. Something was wrong. He moved down the aisle toward her, leaning close to softly say, “They want you in the main office, Charlotte. Take your things.” Him using a gentle tone was frightening in itself; if anybody got called anywhere he simply bellowed it across the room. Charlie’s stomach sank to her ankles as she gathered her things.
The walk to the office was shorter than she remembered it from the few times she’d walked it and the secretaries grew silent the moment they saw her. Her heart thudded loudly in her chest as she was directed to Principle Hayes’ office. Two uniformed cops, a man in regular clothes with a badge around his neck on a chain, the school guidance counselor and the principle all stood, waiting for her.
“Shut the door, Charlotte.”
The thud of the heavy door was a death sentence. She worked her jaw back and forth to keep her lower lip from wobbling. “It’s Abby, isn’t it?” She already knew the answer but still felt the need to ask. She had to make sure.
The plainclothes officer nodded. “I’m Detective Stone with the Clarence Narcotics Unit.” He didn’t make any attempt to shake Charlie’s hand; she wouldn’t have, anyway. “Rick Edmonston and Abigail Anderson were arrested earlier today for being on and in the possession of illegal drugs.” Charlie leaned against the door, swallowing repeatedly to keep the tears away. “This isn’t their first time in custody.”
“I know,” Charlie said, staring at the window blinds. She couldn’t look at anyone; if she did, she’d lose it completely and start crying. “She did time in rehab for it.” But rehab hadn’t been enough. Abby had gone back to Rick and the drugs after leaving her daughter alone for over a week. “She’s not coming home tonight, is she?” She finally looked at Detective Stone.
So it was done.
Her mother’s habit had finally caught up with her. Jason leaving hadn’t been enough, the first time in rehab hadn’t been enough, now Abby was in serious trouble. And she was leaving Charlie alone again, after promising she wouldn’t. Charlie realized then that most of Abby’s promises were empty, her word saved only for Rick and the next high. Charlie was then, and had always been, second-best.
“We can’t seem to find your father. Do you know where he is?”
Charlie swallowed hard and shook her head, not trusting her voice.
“We assumed that might be the case. As of now you’re being placed in the care of your father’s sister, Megan Anderson, who has been informed of what has happened. These officers will escort you back to Sunset Park to gather your belongings.” He paused. “Do you understand what’s happening?”
“Yeah,” Charlie said faintly. “I get it.” Life as she had known it was done.
Charlie looked at the contrast of her worn sneakers against the pristine sidewalk in silence, anything to keep from focusing on the house in front of her.
She looked at Detective Stone, her shabby suitcase in his hand and tightened her grip on her backpack strap, knuckles white. She was hugely relieved it was dusk; had it been lighter there would have been curtain-peekers from the rest of the cul-de-sac neighbors. This was going to be awkward enough as it was without an audience.
Charlie looked at Stone and nodded, following him lamely up the carefully tailored walk to the front porch of the sprawling, three-story house. It was the only modest-sized place on the entire street.
She’d never felt so out of place in her entire life.
Stone rang the doorbell, oblivious to Charlie’s discomfort. Her heart thumped hard against her ribcage, a million different things running through her head. First and foremost was whether or not Megan would even like her. There was no telling how long Charlie would be staying there because there was no time limit on how long Abby would be gone. Or, whether she was coming back at all. Charlie absolutely refused to continue that line of thinking.
Lost in her own head, she was completely unprepared for the door to open, bathing her and Stone in light. Charlie lifted her head and swallowed hard. She tried to remember the last time she’d seen Megan and an image came immediately to mind – she was seven, sitting on her father’s lap in the grand living room, a basket of multi-colored eggs in front of them on the floor. She’d just finished finding them. Megan stood to the side, camera in hand. Abby was nowhere to be found.
“I wasn’t expecting you so early,” Megan said, stepping onto the porch. Her brown eyes fell on Charlie and she was reminded forcibly of Jason. Megan reached a tentative hand out, cupping Charlie’s cheek with her palm, eyes unreadable. “You’ve grown up so much.”
Charlie’s lower lip wobbled at the unexpected tenderness; Stone shuffled his feet, awkward in the presence of such an intimate moment.
Megan must have heard the noise because she looked at the detective. “Detective. I’ll take her suitcase.”
Stone handed it over without protest, wanting nothing more than to get to off the porch.
The silence stretched.
Stone cleared his throat. “Good evening, ladies.” He neither wanted nor needed a thank you, glad when neither woman provided one.
Charlie was saved the sight of Stone driving away as Megan herded her into the house. Her immediate impression was classic elegance but comfortably lived-in. If she allowed herself to realize it, it was exactly how she remembered it.
Megan shut the door. “Now, do you prefer Charlotte or Charlie?”
“Charlie’s a little more comfortable.” She didn’t mind her given name, really, except from Rick. Still, she’d be Charlie any day; her father had given her the nickname. She stood there awkwardly, hand still curled around her backpack strap, her lifeline.
“There’s a room upstairs for you,” Megan said to break the silence that had descended on them. “Upstairs, upstairs. I thought you might enjoy something a little…off the ground, like an attic room.”
Charlie smiled. She’d always been secretly jealous of Ellie’s second-floor bedroom, and while living in the attic sounded a bit Harry Potter it would be a nice change of pace.
Megan smiled a bit wider, glad Charlie liked the idea. She easily hefted the suitcase and started up the stairs, Charlie following dutifully behind. Like most houses, there were pictures carefully arranged on the way up the stairs. Charlie paused with a wince, her brace-faced eighth grade self grinning out at her from a mahogany frame. This must have been the last photo that Jason had sent. School pictures were taken in the fall, Jason had left shortly after that January. Charlie felt a stab of guilt that she hadn’t thought to continue sending photos. That was the consequence of thinking Abby would take care of it.
“That’s one of my favorites of you,” Megan said from the landing. “I’ve always thought you photographed well.”
Charlie blushed and finished going up the first flight and then another. There was a large sitting room or sorts on the right and on the left a door. Megan pushed open the door and flicked on the light. The room was, to Charlie, bigger than the entire trailer. The walls were light blue with an almost purple tinge, the furniture made of dark, sturdy oak. There were windows, many of them, dark with night behind delicate white curtains. The space was nice, bare enough that Charlie could take it and make it her own. Her lower lip wobbled – the kindness downstairs, the picture on the wall a reminder of both how life was and could have been with Jason, and a space to call her own – everything was almost too much to handle.
She looked at Megan, eyes wide and vacant.
“Did you eat?”
“Yeah,” she said, clearing her throat. “Detective Stone took me to Subway.” She skipped the part where she had been mortified he’d bought her dinner.
“How about some ice cream?” Megan was looking to distract her from the dark place in her mind, the harsh reality of the day’s events as they were trying to catch up with her.
Charlie nodded silently and left her backpack on the bed, hands feeling oddly empty, and was the first out the door. Once she hit the first floor, she used the same Easter memory from earlier to guide her to the huge kitchen. She leaned against the kitchen island, trying to get accustomed to the stainless steel and name-brand appliances instead of the cramped barrenness and scratched, hand-me-down pots and pans.
Megan pulled two bowls down from the cupboard; Charlie found the silverware drawer and ice cream scoop after some investigation. Megan placed the tub of Cookies-N-Cream ice cream on the island, coaxing a smile from Charlie.
“You think I’d forget your favorite?” Megan smiled.
“It’s yours, too, isn’t it?” That tidbit was dredged from another memory, another holiday. Memorial Day, maybe. Charlie wasn’t sure.
They stood at the kitchen island, silently eating ice cream. Charlie was used to silence from the trailer, from Abby, but this was different. Calmer. Less apocalyptic. Abby wasn’t going to come busting through the door at any moment, Rick in tow. For as much as Charlie loved her mother, she didn’t miss the suspense. She didn’t miss Abby.
Ellie jumped damn near out of her skin at Charlie’s voice in her ear, slamming her locker and narrowly missing her fingers. “Jesus, Charlie, scare me why don’t you.” She glared at the other girl for a moment and then softened, her eyes worried. “You okay?”
Charlie shrugged. “Not really anything I can do about it. Megan’s nice. We spent a lot of time together when I was little.” Before Jason left hung unspoken between them. “Didn’t sleep well last night but it was really quiet.” In contrast to Megan’s eerily silent house, the trailer park was almost never quiet, especially at night. Charlie had tossed and turned for hours before finally drifting off around one.
Ellie nodded as the two headed to the library. Patten’s class was meeting there because of the newest project.
“Shit,” Charlie muttered. The project, her partner Brennan Westbury, her massive crush on him, and the fact that her life had just been turned on its head all cumulated into that one expressive word. She came immediately to the panicked conclusion that he couldn’t know. He could not know that Abby was her mother, that Abby had been arrested, that Abby was a junkie. He simply couldn’t know. And because he couldn’t know, she wouldn’t tell him. Neither could anyone else.
“You can’t tell him.”
Ellie looked at her like she had a squid for a head. “Can’t tell who what?”
“Brennan.” She swallowed hard. “He can’t know about Abby.”
“What? So, you’re going to lie to him?”
Charlie flinched. Lie was such an ugly word and as much as she wanted Brennan to accept her as herself, she wanted him to know Charlie as a person, not the daughter of an arrested druggie.
“I’m not going to lie to him,” Charlie said carefully. “I’m just…not going to tell him everything. It’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” Ellie shrugged. “I’ll be on standby with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s for when this backfires.”
She didn’t have a snappy comeback for that and said nothing. She stepped into the library, unconsciously tightening her grip on her backpack strap. Charlie grinned and waved as Ellie went to sit with Carl. She was still smiling when she approached Brennan’s table. His brother, Evan, was leaning over his shoulder, their heads almost touching, in complete concentration of whatever was on the table in front of them.
Both heads popped up, two sets of eyes locked on her and they responded in perfect harmony, “Hi.”
Brennan gave her a smile as she took a seat, a bit shell-shocked, and said to his brother, “That’s pretty much it, Ev. Not exactly rocket science.”
Evan rolled his eyes, cuffed his brother on the shoulder, and wandered back to his own partner.
“Math test,” Brennan said. “He doesn’t do too well with math. Wants me to sit the test for him.” He snorted. “Like O’Hara wouldn’t notice the difference.”
Charlie smirked. Teachers must have had it difficult trying to tell all four boys apart. Patten had issues some days with only two. She felt a stab of sympathy for Brennan’s mother.
“So, we’ve got the American Revolution.”
Her face brightened immediately and she had to forcibly restrain herself from getting up and doing a happy dance on the table. She absolutely loved the American Revolution.
“Somebody’s excited.” The grin was evident in his voice.
“You have no idea.” She cracked open her notebook and began writing down important people, places, and events they would need to include and incorporate. Brennan watched with a kind of awe. She paused, halfway through scribbling Boston and asked, “What?”
He held his hands up, a gesture of defense and shook his head. “Nothing.” He got out his textbook; she went back to writing and they worked in silence for a few minutes. “So, we’re going to have to work on this outside of school.” He was hesitant, unsure.
Charlie looked up and realized he was nervous.
“So, um, where do you live?”
She looked at him oddly, wondering if he was being an idiot on purpose. Then she decided that he either didn’t know and had therefore not really been living in the same town as her the past seventeen years, or had completely disregarded that information. Or maybe he figured she’d moved. She bit her lip, trying to decide how to phrase what she needed to say, the not-quite-lie she was going to feed him. “I’m staying with my aunt for a while. My mom’s out of town.” She had no idea where her mother was at the moment and Brennan definitely did not need to know that, either.
“Oh.” Brennan was still hesitant. “Where does your aunt live?”
“Um, forty-six Rose Park East,” Charlie said, her forehead scrunched as she tried to remember her new – possibly temporary, possibly not – address. Uncomfortable, she fumbled with her pen and dropped it on the floor.
Brennan cocked his head to the side, surprise on his beautiful features. “Meg’s your aunt?”
Charlie was reaching for the dropped pen and nearly fell out of her chair. Brennan knew Megan? This was not going to be as easy as she’d hoped for. Straightening, pen closed in her fist, she smiled thinly. “That’s my aunt. You know her?” Her stomach felt queasy.
“She lives two houses down from me.”
Charlie’s heart and stomach fled in opposite directions at his soft, truthful statement, one to her throat and the other to her ankles. This was going to be nowhere near easy.
“So, you didn’t tell me that you lived near the Westbury boys.”
Megan looked over her shoulder from where she was making stir-fry. Charlie was leaning against the kitchen island, worrying an apple between her hands. She went back to the stir-fry with an absent, “Didn’t think it was a big deal. Is it?”
Not really. I’ve just had a crush on Brennan since the beginning of my school career and I’m now partnered with him for a school project, my mother’s a druggie, and my life has been turned completely upside down. So, no, it’s not really a big deal. She didn’t say any of what was running through her head, opting for, “I’m working on a school project with one of them. Brennan.”
“He’s a nice boy. They’re all nice boys.”
“They are.” She really only knew Brennan, but if his brother’s were anything like him, then all four were the dictionary entry on “gentleman.” Probably pictured there, too. Charlie wished she owned a copy of said dictionary. Maybe she could make one.
“So? There something you’re not telling me Charlie?” Megan took the stir-fry off the stove and set it on the table in the joint dining room. She leaned against the doorjamb and watched her niece fidget. “You like him, don’t you?”
Charlie shoved her hands in her pockets and refused to let the flush creep up her neck. She’d never talked boys with anyone other than Ellie. The only other female in her life had been Abby and there hadn’t been a time when Abby had sat down, just the two of them, and wanted to hear about her social life. Hell, her mother had stopped offering to help with her homework after the fifth grade. That had been all Jason.
“You have a crush on him, don’t you?” Megan grinned, needling shamelessly.
Charlie said nothing; her blush answered for her.
“So, now would be a good time to tell you that every Wednesday they invite me for dinner?”
“What?” Charlie’s eyes grew wide and round, half horrified, half ecstatic.
Megan simply cackled in a kind sort of way. Charlie wished the floor would swallow her whole.
Charlie’s breath caught in her chest the moment Brennan opened the door to his house Wednesday afternoon. They had a little left to do on their project, mostly a lot of putting together and adding aesthetic pieces, and she’d agreed to come with him early, before her aunt arrived for dinner the way she did every Wednesday. It would be Charlie’s first joint dinner with the Westbury’s, though she’d been spending quite a bit of time with Brennan, courtesy of the project. She was beginning to wish they didn’t have to stop working together; it was too nice to spend time with him. And there was no way he’d want to continue seeing her, so what was the point of hoping for it?
“The savages aren’t home,” he said, toeing his shoes off on the mat by the door. “My brothers,” he clarified at her blank look. “Do you want a snack or a drink or anything before we get to work and finish this thing?”He stuffed his hands in his pockets to prevent himself from fidgeting.
“I’m okay, thanks.” The downstairs, what she could see of it, looked well-kept and neat. Not at all what she’d been expecting with four teenage boys in the house, following Brennan as he led her into the study, the polished table gleaming in the sunlight as it streamed through the picture window. There were pens, colored pencils, pieces of poster paper, glue, tape and scissors already there, ready and waiting.
Definitely more than prepared, she mused, digging into her bag for her notebook. Warm weight pressed close to her back for a moment and she froze. It was gone within a couple heartbeats, Brennan on the other side of her and absently alphabetizing the colored pencils. She let her head tilt to the side slightly, wondering if he was a tad on the OCD side….
She sucked in a breath and smiled, trying for innocence. “Nothin’.”
Brennan shrugged and they got to work. The first half an hour was spent cutting and laying out, light banter and conversation traded in quiet voices, occasionally rising in laughter or to make a point first. As much as Charlie was enjoying herself, she knew it would hurt when it was over and they went back to their respective places in society – Brennan in his huge house, his family having dinner with Meg every Wednesday and everything stereotypically great and her to her changed life, living with Meg without the thought of Abby coming back to her and the notion that she would follow that same path hanging always over her head. The Earth would continue to spin on its axis and the universe would be saved from imploding from impracticality.
Charlie looked over at him, unaware she’d been gnawing on her bottom lip like a carrot, eyes wet and wide with unexpected tears. “Yeah,” she croaked, her voice harsh. She swallowed the roughness away. “Yeah. I’m okay.”
“Miss your mom?” he ventured.
She did her best not to stiffen like a dead man in rigor. “She’ll come back…and it’ll be like she wasn’t even gone.”
Brennan set down the glue and scissors, wiping his hands nervously on his pants. He looked in her eyes briefly and then looked away, a flush creeping up his neck. Charlie blinked at him, completely unprepared for when he swooped in and gently touched his lips to hers.
The world then tipped off its axis and the universe imploded. And it was the sweetest thing she’d ever experienced.
There was a new kind of order invoked, one that Charlie vowed to make last as long as possible because it ensured her happiness. Her mother’s absence, whether Abby was in jail or checked into a rehab center by then, still weighed on her, more so than before. She hated that there was that pivotal secret between her and Brennan, the only blemish on her fairy tale, and fear ate at her whenever the conversation turned to the latest front-page, always wondering if Abby would one day appear front and center there. And if Meg knew what was happening with her sister-in-law, she did a good job keeping it from her niece out of respect for the quality of life Charlie now had, and the happiness that made her smile wide and often.
But Brennan wasn’t an honor student because he was attractive. He knew there was something bothering Charlie, something she was keeping from him. Every time he pressed her, trying to get her to open up about, she either closed off and changed the subject or practically fled. He was confused and frustrated; there was something deeply worrisome in her life and as close as they had become he still wasn’t privy to it. Which led him inevitably to Ellie.
“Can’t tell you,” Ellie said before he had the chance to open his mouth. “Really.”
“Why won’t she tell me?” He’d realized it was useless to bribe her for information and settled on wanting to know why he was so lacking to Charlie.
“It’s not that she doesn’t trust you,” Ellie said, making a mental note to stock up on pints of Ben and Jerry’s for when this blew up, “but it’s….personal for her. Really personal.”
“Is it about her mom?”
Ellie leaned against her locker and chewed her lip.
“It is, isn’t it?”
“Brennan. You’re a great guy. But I promised my best friend I wouldn’t say anything. When she’s ready, she’ll tell you.” She gave him a pleading look. “Trust her on that. It’s just hard.” Ellie slung her bag on her shoulders and walked away, leaving a very confused Brennan Westbury standing in the hallway.
He didn’t jump. He should have known this was coming. The wolves would only stay quiet for so long. He turned to see Amanda Jensen and met her eyes, absolutely refusing to look at what she was wearing not only in deference to his girlfriend, Charlie, but also because he knew that’s what she wanted and had no desire to give it to her.
“I know what your trailer trash tramp won’t tell you.” Amanda pulled a folded newspaper from her Coach bag. “About her mother.” She handed him the newspaper. “Local section. The police columns. See what she’s been hiding.” Amanda leaned in close; her perfume wafted heavy and cloying in his nose, a contrast to Charlie’s pure, clean smell, and knew if he looked down he’d have a perfect glance at her chest. He kept his eyes on her nose. “What you’re not good enough to know.” She straightened and flipped her hair over her shoulder. “See you around, Brennan.”
Brennan looked at the newspaper and instantly thought of trust. How much would he be betraying Charlie’s faith in him if he looked? But how much was she betraying him by keeping something from him? They were friends before they were boyfriend and girlfriend. It needed to be that way for anything to work.
“You gonna look?” Charlie asked from over his shoulder. Her heart was thudding hard in her chest. It was all coming out now, every bit of it. She took a deep breath, feeling like she was shattering from the inside out. “It was nice while it lasted.”
He jerked his head up and craned his neck to look back at her but she was gone just as suddenly as she had arrived. He looked at the folded paper in his hands, backdated at least two weeks, nearly three. The day that Charlie had been called to the office and hadn’t come back to class after. He rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache coming on, and pulled his phone from his pocket.
Need ur help guys. Library. Now.
All four Westbury boys were huddled at a table in the corner of the library, oblivious to the outside world and completely focused on whatever was the on the table in front of them. Ellie almost didn’t want to interrupt. But this was an emergency. Charlie hadn’t even moved for the pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ellie had gotten for her on a run to the store during their lunch period. Right then her best friend was sitting in the smallest of the school’s enclosed courtyards and feeling as though her heart had broken into tiny shards that were stabbing into her lungs, that Brennan knew her dirty secret and wanted nothing to do with her. From what Ellie could tell that was the exact opposite of what Brennan was thinking, not that she could convince Charlie of that. So she was calling in the big guns.
She let her feet take her to the table on autopilot. “Brennan?”
All four heads shot up at once. It took a lot not to flinch back.
“Do you know where she is?” Brennan asked. He was worried; it was plain in every facet of his character.
Ellie looked at the newspaper on the table. She swallowed. Nobody knew about Charlie’s hiding place but her. This was either going to be the best thing she could have done or the biggest screw up in her friendship with Charlie. “Courtyard by the AV Lab.”
“Thank you,” he breathed, nearly mowing his brother over in an attempt to get out of his chair and to the door.
Ellie wrapped her arms around her middle and tried to convince herself she hadn’t betrayed her best friend. She risked a look at Evan, who gave her a reassuring smile. The feeling didn’t go away.
Charlie sat with her legs pulled to her chest beneath a cherry blossom tree, her long hair tickling her bare upper arms. She retreated to the little used courtyard when she needed to think. It was surrounded by AV and computer labs so the shades were always drawn in the classrooms. She was careful to stay quiet so no one would know she was there.
Well, almost no one.
The thud of the closing door alerted her to another presence. She knew in her gut it wasn’t Ellie and hugged her knees tighter. This was a day from hell, almost rival to the day when her mother had been arrested and carted off somewhere. How lousy of a daughter was she to not even know where her own mother was? Or even care?
“Charlie?” Brennan kept his voice soft, coming to stand in front of her as she sat on the stone bench beneath the tree, blossoms falling gently to the ground, her agony apparent in the untouched and melting pint of ice cream beside her. “I looked at the newspaper.”
If it had been anybody else but the two of them, it wouldn’t have mattered. It would have been just another newspaper, just another couple. Charlie wouldn’t have felt as vulnerable as she did.
Brennan sat on the bench beside her.
“I didn’t want you to look at me and see what everyone else sees.” Tears glistened anew at the corners of her eyes. “Didn’t…Didn’t want you to see…” The words stuck painfully in her throat. “The Sunset girl. With a junkie mom and a dad who left her behind.” She kept her face hidden from him so he wouldn’t see her shame and her tears.
Brennan didn’t even begin to understand all that was going through her mind and chose instead to follow his instincts. Gently, he cupped her chin in his palm and turned her toward him, watching intently until she met his eyes. With his other hand he wiped away her fresh-fallen tears and brushed her hair from her face.
“Listen to me,” he said, soft and sincere. His eyes never left hers. “I don’t know a Sunset girl. I know a Charlie Anderson, a funny, sweet, incredibly intelligent and talented young lady. She’s got green eyes, a beautiful smile and a kind heart. She’s who she is, despite what she’s been through, and I wouldn’t change any of it because I think I love this girl. You, Charlie, I love you for you. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Charlie had no words to express herself. Instead, she launched herself at him, wrapping her arms around him and sobbing her happiness at his acceptance of her into his neck. For the first time she could let it go. All of it. She wasn’t the Sunset Girl anymore. She was only Charlie Anderson and, content, for once, to have nothing to hide.
“I want to show you something.”
Brennan looked up from his math book at Charlie as she sat curled in the window seat of one of his bedroom windows. They’d retreated to his house after the fiasco at school. This was the first she’d spoken since they’d gotten back from the courtyard.
“Okay.” He had an idea of where this was going and knew he needed to let her lead.
She uncurled herself and held out her hand. He took it without hesitation. “We have to walk, though,” she clarified.
He nodded, fully prepared to step into her shoes for a bit. They took the bus to a street near Ellie’s and went on foot from there. Charlie wouldn’t hold his hand; Brennan let her have her space, as much as it hurt him to see her so introverted, left hand kneading her right forearm. She paused in front of the cheerfully bright Sunset Park sign and he had to forcibly restrain himself from touching or hugging her. She walked them down a row of trailers and stopped at number nine. Brennan thought it was a little cleaner, a little better than the others.
“This is where I grew up.” She slipped a key from her pocket.
Brennan barely noticed the rickety steps. The first thing he noticed when his feet hit the carpet was that it was small and cramped, enough so a claustrophobic would already be breaking into a sweat. The place was stale; Charlie evidently hadn’t been back since that day. He followed Charlie down a short hall to a tiny room painted pale lavender. He stood on the edge of the carpet, teetering, on the verge of stepping into a place that was intimately Charlie.
“It’s okay.” She held out her hand to him.
She pulled him into her world. Sat him gingerly on her bed.
He looked at the walls, the random pieces of clothing on the floor, everything undisturbed in her absence.
“I’ll come back and sort through things but I just…I can’t right now.” Charlie sat on the bed next to him, bumping his shoulder with hers.
“We’ll help, if you want. My brothers. Ellie’d help, too.” Ellie was an absolute gem to Brennan and he was going to tell his brother to treat her right under penalty of endless noogies and dish-detail.
She leaned against him, breathing in his smell – a little bit of cologne, a hint of man-sweat, and a scent that was uniquely Brennan. She relaxed. He was in her world, the tiny trailer, and he filled it more than Abby and Rick had ever done. If Jason had showed up then, her world would have been complete. He put his arm around her and kissed her hair softly. She could feel the smile forming, her eyes already looking at her corkboard across the room, the picture tacked near the top – she was wearing a metal pasta strainer on her head like a helmet, wooden spoon in hand, and grinning in a devil-may-care kind of way.
“Should I even ask?” he muttered.
Charlie grinned. “No. No, you shouldn’t.”
True to his word, Brennan, his brothers, and Ellie helped Charlie sort through the trailer, room by room when she was ready almost a week after she’d taken him there. He helped Evan pack what she wanted from the kitchen while Colby and Darren, his older brothers, wrapped what little knickknacks there were in the living room in bubble wrap and put them in boxes. Ellie helped Charlie go through her mother’s room. Colby had poked his head in there on one occasion to see how it was going, and wasn’t surprised to find both girls on the floor, Charlie’s head on Ellie’s shoulder as she cried. He’d retreated from the room and told the other boys it would be best to leave them be until they came out on their own. They emerged a couple hours later, Charlie’s eyes puffy and red, a shoebox of photos in her hand. She made the decision to give the clothes she didn’t want or could no longer wear, along with bags of Abby’s old clothes, to the Salvation Army. Most of the other items in the trailer went that same way.
Brennan leaned against the side of Colby’s beat-up Chevy Impala while the girls made one last round in the trailer. It would go on the market that afternoon, after the park manager checked it over and maybe cleaned it. He looked at the letter, addressed to Charlie and unopened, in his hand. Meg had handed it to him when they’d picked up Charlie, choosing to allow him to decide how to handle it. He knew where it was from. Otter Creek Rehabilitation Center. Where Abby currently resided, trying to overcome her addiction and get her life back in order.
Charlie, a bit more color in her cheeks than before, came down the steps one last time, a sense of liberation exploding from her chest. She was done with it. She looked at Brennan, saw Colby, Darren, and Evan horsing around in the small brown yard between what used to be her trailer and her neighbors, felt Ellie beside and realized she had all the family she needed right there. And then there was Megan, more than willing to accept her and take her in, raise her as the daughter she’d never had. Charlie was more content with life than she had been since Jason left, something she thought she’d never achieve.
“You look better,” Brennan said with a smile as she walked over. Ellie had gone to harass Evan.
“I feel better.” She looked down at the photo she couldn’t seem to let go of. She was five, maybe six, when it was taken. She was cradled between both her parents, grinning, as they all were, and one happy family. She noticed the envelope. “What’s that?”
“It’s about Abby.” He’d learned pretty quickly to ease off on the references of Abby being Charlie’s mother. Though it was a biological fact he’d been slow to realize that Charlie didn’t refer to her mother as her mother because Abby really hadn’t filled the role as she should have through the years.
Charlie traded the picture for the envelope, not missing the smile that curled Brennan’s lips. She opened it quickly and started to read. When she was done she folded it hastily and stuffed it back in the envelope.
She had a million thoughts and feelings running through her, none of which made sense except the overwhelming anger. “They’re telling me she’s there and it would be beneficial for her “recovery” if a loved one came to visit.” She looked at him, eyes bright with unshed tears. “I can’t, Brennan. I can’t go see her. I just…I just got things under control.” Her movements were jerky, her throat working overtime to attempt to keep the tears in. “I can’t – I can’t see her because then it’ll be like it always was. Abby and her problems, the issue nobody wants to talk about and she doesn’t wanna fix, even for her baby girl.”
Brennan carefully slid the photograph into his pocket and took her unresisting in his arms. He rocked her, being her anchor in the world tipped sideways again. Ultimately it was her decision what she would do, whether she would visit or not. But her being stubborn, she might need a little push. “I still think you should go.” He wouldn’t pressure her, but he did have a plan forming in his mind.
“I can’t,” she whispered into his chest. “I can’t let her win.”
“Okay,” he said, nodding his agreement. “How about we go home?”
Charlie bit her lip and nodded. He opened the door to the backseat for her and whistled for his brothers. “Darren, put your brother down!” came Colby’s yell from around the back of the trailer as Brennan slid into the backseat next to Charlie. She leaned against him once more and stared out the window. This would be the last time she ever had to see the place. The last time she’d leave it for something better. She smiled ruefully as Colby started the Impala and pulled out.
She didn’t look back.
The following weekend Charlie didn’t suspect a thing and for that Brennan heaved a sigh of relief and a thank you toward the heavens. She was asleep against him, the seatbelt awkwardly across her body as she sprawled in the backseat. Colby kept stealing glances at them in the rearview mirror; Darren was dead to the world in the front seat, ear buds from his iPod in his ears and head against the window. Evan had purposefully taken Ellie to the movies and a day of shopping (or at least excessive trying-on) at the mall and Charlie was under the assumption they were taking a road trip to a little tourist town by a lake she’d always wanted to visit. He’d take her there, eventually, just like he’d promised, but this was more important. This overruled his desire to obey her wishes because it was necessary. It had eaten at his conscience and after a long conversation with his brothers, Colby in particular, being the oldest, and his parents, he decided that, though it would be hard for her, she needed this one last thing from Abby and Abby needed this from her.
He knew he was in the doghouse for this. There would be no way around that.
Colby followed the signs for Otter Creek off the highway and pretty soon they were pulling into the visitors’ parking lot. He shut the car off and gracelessly bounced his brother’s head off the window to wake him up. Darren’s head hit the glass with a dull thunk and he snapped his eyes open, automatically taking a retaliatory swing at Colby, muttering something about useless older brothers.
Brennan coaxed Charlie awake, pushing her hair out of her eyes as she sat up, groggy.
“We’re here?” she asked, rubbing her eyes. Those same eyes widened when she looked through the window. This was definitely not where she thought she was. Once she found the sign that read Otter Creek she went from confused to exasperated and scared in less than ten seconds. “You didn’t.”
“We did,” Colby confirmed from the front, opening his door.
“That’s why Evan took Ellie to the mall,” Charlie said, getting out and slamming the door, the pieces falling effortlessly into place for her. She jerked her hand away from Brennan as he reached for her. “I can’t.”
“You can.” He held out his hand, praying she would take it. “Just one visit. Just one. If you don’t go, you’ll know you’ll regret it later. Please, Charlie? We’ll be with you the entire time.” He paused. “I’ll be with you the entire time. I won’t let go. Promise.”
She hesitated for what seemed like an eternity and then took his hand, lacing their fingers together. Colby appeared on her other side and closed his big hand over hers, the big brother she’d never had, and with Darren leading the way they headed for the visitors’ entrance.
It was nice. Soft neutral colors, strong wood accents, quiet staff. Charlie instantly hated it and knew Abby must, too. It even set Darren on edge, from the hunch of his shoulders, and nothing rattled Darren. Quiet conversation could be heard from various rooms off the check-in desk. Darren took care of the actual check-in process and filled out name tags for them all. Neither Colby or Brennan let go of her hand once, except to let her wipe under her eyes. She couldn’t imagine Abby being in such a place but knew it was helping her face the truth, the ugly reality of what she’d been doing for years.
“Abby’s in the main recreation room, down that hallway,” the woman at the desk said, pointing.
Their small group started down the hallway, and the rec room was easy to find. Colby gave her hand a squeeze and stopped at the door. Brennan pulled her gently through the doorway and steered her toward a table by the window. A solitary woman sat there, newspaper in front of her, staring out the window. Charlie could recognize Abby anywhere. Brennan slipped something into her hand when he let go and she felt like she was floating instead of walking, her mind vaguely thinking he’d broken his promise. She looked down at the picture. Her and Abby, curled on the couch and smiling up at whoever was taking the photo. Jason, most likely. Not long before he left. Not long before Abby started doing drugs. Not long before Charlie’s world fell slowly and surely apart until she learned to regain her balance on her own.
Abby turned at the sound of her name, her hollowed eyes brightening a bit when she saw Charlie. She’d lost weight. “Charlie.” She smiled but didn’t move.
Charlie slid woodenly into the chair across from her mother. Abby didn’t look well. Like she’d stopped eating. There was a plastic bracelet around her thin wrist, along with scars that looked fairly new. Charlie gripped her own wrist, her heart sinking. Abby wasn’t dealing well with getting over her addiction and started new habits to replace the ones she couldn’t feed anymore.
Charlie bit off the sharp retort before it could escape. “Fine. Fine. Just had a project a couple weeks ago.” She looked at Brennan out of the corner of her eye. He was leaning against the wall, oblivious to everything going on around him except her. She looked at the table, tracing the plastic tabletop with her fingers, the picture clenched in her other hand in her lap. “I’m happy, Abby.” She looked up. “I’m happy. I’ve got a real home now. With Megan. And she loves me and she cares.” Her lip wobbled. “And she wants me to tell you that when you get better you can come stay. And be part of our family.” She sniffled. “But you have to get better first.” She smiled, tears rolling gently down her cheeks. “I didn’t want to come. I got the letter and I didn’t want to come. Brennan and his brothers brought me, ‘cause he knew I’d regret not going.” She took a deep, shuddering breath and looked Abby in the eyes. “This is the best place for you. Where you should have gone after dad left. And I’m sorry I didn’t push for it. Get better, Abby.” She put the photo on the table and slid it toward her silent mother. Charlie gave her one last watery smile and got up. “Be happy I’m happy.”
It took every ounce of willpower that she had not to look back. Brennan slung his arm around her when she passed him, Colby and Darren joining them at the door.
Abby looked from her daughter’s back to the photo on the table. She picked it up. When she looked up again, Charlie was gone, as though she’d never been there. She knew then how Charlie had felt for the past four years, since Jason had left. Abby kissed the photograph and tucked it inside her robe, close to her heart, and carefully fingered the razor in her pocket.
Charlie gulped in heaving breaths of air in the parking lot. That would be the last time she visited Otter Creek. The last time she would visit Abby. She thought about that all the way back to Megan’s. It was then that the universe ground to a halt for a second time, accompanied by the explosion of the sun, at least to Charlie. Waiting for her on the steps was a man she hadn’t seen in years.
“Jason,” she breathed. “Dad!” She jumped and he caught her, clinging tight, and the universe righted itself, at least for the moment.
“I think that gets you outta the doghouse, buddy,” Colby whispered to Brennan, heading for his own house.
Brennan didn’t respond. His focus was elsewhere, on his Sunset girl as she glowed brighter than a supernova.