Charlie Hudson pivots on his good leg, balancing the hot, greasy plates in the air to avoid slamming into Della as she slouches through the morning ignoring the fact that the Waffle Barn is filled with hungry locals who are more likely to pull a hunting knife and gut him than complain about the slow service.
“With moves like that, you’ll be a Lion again in no time,” Mr. Henderson says without putting down his ratty newspaper. Three of his fingers are nubs and the others are stained coal black with newsprint.
“Sure,” Charlie says under his breath. He sets the plates down on the counter in front of Mr. Henderson. “Two eggs up, rye toast, bacon, ham, and a triple bypass for desert.
Before Mr. Henderson can reply, Charlie limps back to the window to grab the next order so Roy–owner and cook and all around asshole–doesn’t lose it and start throwing plates at him. Anyway, Mr. Henderson would talk the ears off a corpse if given half a chance, and Charlie’s got far too much to do.
Charlie hustles in spite of his leg. The muscles ache when he puts too much weight on it, but it’s a small price to pay and he’s thankful to be out of the cast. Being able to scratch his itchy skin for the first time in months was one of the greatest things Charlie remembers feeling. The leg still looks like it belongs to another person, and Charlie refuses to wear shorts on account of how pale and thin it is, even if that means suffering in long pants through what’s shaping up to be one hell of an Indian summer.
It’s nearly seven and Charlie is surprised when he sees the clock. He’s been busting his ass at the Barn since 5am, and awake so long he can’t remember when he last slept. Time is always running away from him.
There are dirty tables and hungry customers and orders cooling in the window and that relentless bell over the door that Charlie has come to loathe these last few weeks, all begging for his attention. But Charlie stands in the middle of the diner, awash in the pointless conversations and the competing smells of jam and manure and butter and sweat, unable to think clearly. Each second that passes threatens to be the one that does his head in for good.
“Charlie?” a woman says. He should know her name but doesn’t. Toothy and concerned, Charlie looks at her through a twisting prism.
The light from the dusty overhead lamps flickers and fades. The woman at the table says his name again, but her lips finish moving before the sound reaches him. The bell over the door chimes seconds before the door actually opens. The Barn smells moldy, feels damp. Charlie is drowning in open air while people stuff their faces with burnt omelets and complain about the weather. One step is all Charlie tries to take, but reality stutters and he stumbles into the nearest table, catching himself barely, shoving his hand into steaming hot hash browns. He jerks his hand back with a yelp and cradles it to his chest.
“Charlie?” Mrs. Nelson asks. That’s her name. “You all right, sweetie?” The layers of makeup artificially age her and Charlie often wonders what kind of woman he’d find underneath if he scraped away the strata of insecurity.
“It’s my leg,” Charlie says when he notices that everyone is watching him. “Still a little gimpy, you know?” His hand stings from the hot potatoes but he scoops up Mrs. Nelson’s plates and carries them back into the kitchen, more to escape than anything else. All those eyes, all those people. Charlie hates them. Hates how they stare. He needs their money, not their pity.
Roy screams at him to get back to work; Charlie ignores him. He rubs his eyes with the balls of his hands, watching the spots dance in the void behind his eyes. It’s the lack of sleep. All those hours he spends awake at night thinking about yesterday. It’s eating away at his sanity. And he can’t shake the dread that holds him hostage, the feeling that he died that night and returned to a world gone wrong. Or worse yet, that the world is right and he’s the one who’s wrong.
Without hardly remembering any of it, Charlie clears all the dirty tables and seats the folks waiting by the door, bringing them fresh coffee that he swears tastes like it’s cut with ammonia. At 7:22am, Charlie presents himself at the window, waiting to get Roy’s attention.
“Roy. School. Gotta run.”
“Another hour,” Roy says without looking up from the grill. He’s as gristly and tough as the T-bone special. “At least until the rush clears out.”
Roy looks up, mopping his shiny forehead with a filthy rag. “I didn’t go to school and I turned out fine.”
“That’s a matter of opinion, Roy Baker.” The speaker is a woman behind Charlie. He knows her flinty voice like his own mother’s, but wishes he didn’t.
“They’ll toss me in juvie for cutting school,” Charlie says, doing his damnedest to ignore the woman, though the tactic has never succeeded in the past and is doomed to failure now.
Roy gives Charlie a good glare, which stopped being intimidating after his first couple of days of work. “Get Dinah’s order before you abandon me. And don’t think I’m paying you for a full shift.”
Charlie turns to the counter, trying like mad to wipe the anxiety off his face before it squeezes the breath out of him. “The usual, Deputy Northrop?”
Dinah’s sitting on a stool, resting her elbows on the blue counter, perilously close to a smear of jam. She looks smart in her crisp brown uniform and Charlie has thought more than once that under normal circumstances, they might have gotten along. But the situation between Charlie Hudson and Deputy Northrop is far from normal.
“You know my son Owen, right?” the deputy asks, motioning at a small, hawkish boy beside her who seems to be working hard to remain unnoticed. Charlie might not have noticed him at all if his mother hadn’t pointed him out.
“Two usuals,” Deputy Northrop says.
Relieved, Charlie calls the orders back to Roy and limps to the corner to gather his things. Not much. A notebook and pen and his guitar. Maybe it’s only paranoia, but Charlie feels Deputy Northrop watching him, analyzing every movement. It is the same thing every morning. Short stack with honey, grits, and a side of a suspicious staring. Bringing Owen, though, that’s new.
“Owen’s starting JD today,” Deputy Northrop says. She nudges Owen, who grinds his teeth and looks for all the world as though he’d love nothing more than to toss his mother into Roy’s deep fryer. “Any advice for a newly minted freshman from a world weary senior?”
“Don’t take gym right after lunch unless you got an iron stomach.”
“Yeah.” Charlie nods curtly. “Don’t want to be late.”
“I’ll give you a ride,” Northrop says. “Already going that way.”
Charlie doesn’t even pretend to consider the offer. Showing up for the first day of school chauffeured by a sheriff’s deputy would be suicide. He feels bad for Owen, but the kid isn’t his problem.
“No thanks. I need all the exercise I can get.”
Deputy Northrop purses her lips. For a moment, Charlie thinks she’s going to insist, but Mr. Henderson blunders into the awkward silence. “Found another dead dog on my porch, Dinah.” The old man slams his newspaper on the counter to punctuate his sentence. The thin pages flutter closed, sapping the act of its desired effect. Undeterred, Mr. Henderson plows ahead. “You promised you were going to see to it. You stood right in my sitting room and told me to my face you were going to stop it.”
Charlie steals into the opening created by Mr. Henderson’s interruption and escapes. The Barn is still swamped, and Della is snail-pacing about, but they’re no longer his concern. These people survived before Charlie and they’d keep on keeping on long after he left.
“–they’re everywhere!” Mr. Henderson is shouting now, gathering an audience of nodders and self-righteous finger-waggers. “I seen three dead ones yesterday, and a cow rotting in the middle of Hainey Lane not two days ago. We got carcasses in the road now, and it ain’t right!”
“Calm down, George,” Deputy Northrop says, to him as much as to the others. She’s got her hands full but still manages to glance at Charlie as he slips out the front door.
The road to Jefferson Davis High School is a long stretch of forgotten two-lane asphalt that looks like it leads straight to end of the earth. Road kill and cigarette butts litter the shoulder, tossed off by the careless and the unconcerned. Charlie limps on the shoulder, putting as much weight on his leg as he can bear. It’s getting stronger every day but his thigh muscles ache at night and there’s not enough Aspirin to fully dull the pain. Dr. Echols set him up with a physical therapist in Luther, next town over, but he lacked a car or money, and instead does the best he can and tries not to complain.
Charlie once read a book about a boy who attempted to break every bone in his body because he believed the mended bones would be stronger than before. Dr. Echols laughed when he asked her if it could really happen, but as he walks, Charlie hopes he’s growing bones of steel.
School is still a good mile off, but Charlie veers down a weedy path, shoving aside wild branches that have spent the summer growing unchecked. The smell of hot tar gives way to the sweet smell of living things. Green things. And still water. He hears it before he sees it. The ripples that lap against the shore. Blackpool Lake is flat, so Charlie thinks it must be his imagination.
Never has Charlie loved and hated a place so much. Before, he never thought about the lake much. There are cabins nestled in the woods around the other side of the lake, and exercise junkies running with their dogs down the shore. Some parts, the trees and brambles get so thick that you could get lost for days and maybe never find your way out. But this clearing is the spot Charlie comes to most.
Charlie keeps his hands in his pockets as he looks over the water. His fingers itch to play the guitar. When he was twelve, he took up smoking because his older brother Seth smoked. When his mother caught him two years later she made him quit cold turkey. Those first days were excruciating. Charlie’s fingers itch like that. They need to play. Not playing is agony. Every moment he spends not playing, he dies. One cell at a time, gasping for life, succumbing to death. The pain only goes away when he plays, and only stays gone for the length of the song.
Charlie’s will crumbles and he touches the guitar strap across his chest. But it’s not enough. It’s like holding an unlit cigarette in your mouth. Torture.
If he stays to play, he’ll be late for school. If he’s late for school, his probation worker will find out and send him back in front of the judge. It is unlikely Charlie would be allowed to play his guitar in juvie.
“Later,” says Charlie. He puts his hand back in his pocket and limps up to the road.
Coach Roubidoux is an ox of a man who hides behind a pair of gold aviator sunglasses and a seventies style moustache that no one would dare make fun of to his face. “I’m not on your schedule, son. You’re on my schedule. You’re on my time. If you can’t be on this field, suited up and ready to play when I tell you to, then you can do laps all night.” Coach never yells. He can be loud when necessary, but he never yells. Instead, he speaks with this intensity that is often far more frightening than any yell could be. “Why are you standing there gaping at me, son? Laps. Now.”
Rob Langdon turns without hesitation and begins jogging around the football field. He has lost weight since Charlie last saw him, and it’s most evident in his gaunt cheeks.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into that boy,” Coach Rubidoux says.
Charlie stands on the sidelines with Coach watching the Jefferson Davis Lions run drills. Being on the sidelines is nothing new to him, but this is the first year he’s been a spectator instead of a player, and he isn’t sure how he feels about it. As a Lion, people treated Charlie with respect. He wasn’t a hero like Jed Wolfe or Will Asendorf, or even like Rob. But when he wore his football jersey, it made him feel strong, made him feel like he belonged to something bigger than himself. The only downside was having to deal with Jed.
“I can still use you,” Coach says. “I can’t guarantee you’ll play but…” Coach walks slower than normal so that Charlie can keep up. He’s an endless well of energy, even at his age, which Charlie guesses is about forty. No on the team knows for sure. No one knows much about Coach’s life off the field. For all intents and purposes, Coach Rubidoux is Jefferson Davis football, and nothing else.
“Principal Barrymore banned me from sports for the year on account of my accident,” Charlie says. He tries to hide his limp so that his former teammates don’t see his weakness.
“I could talk to him.”
“Don’t waste your breath,” Charlie says. “I wasn’t never much of a player.
Coach stops walking. He looks across the field at where Jed and Will are arguing instead of running drills. “Idiots,” Coach says under his breath. Then, “Don’t sell yourself short, Charlie.”
“Yes, sir.” The response comes automatically. “I never got to thank you for what you said to the judge.”
“We all make mistakes.” Coach Rubidoux takes off his sunglasses and puts his hand on Charlie’s shoulder. Charlie is nearly as tall as Coach, but he feels like a child in the man’s shadow. “Don’t punish yourself forever.” The moment ends and Coach puts his aviators back on.
Charlie adjusts his guitar strap on his shoulder. “Listen, Coach, I gotta run. They’re real strict up at Ashview and–”
As Charlie is about to leave, Jed throws a beautiful pass down the field; must be fifty or sixty yards. Will is waiting in the end zone to catch it. Coach swears again and Charlie doesn’t need to ask why. He is used to Jed’s antics.
“Maybe you’ll make State this year.”
“Maybe,” Coach says, but he doesn’t sound optimistic, and Charlie shoulders some of the blame for that. “You’re a part of this team, son, whether you play or not.”
“Thanks, Coach,” Charlie says, and he turns his back on the Lions and walks toward campus.
Jefferson Davis High School is quiet. No one left except teachers and overeager students. Every summer the school gets a fresh coat of paint slapped on the walls to hide the scars of the previous year. As Charlie makes his way to his locker, tracing his path through the halls that had once seemed so intimidating, he reckons he can still see last year’s bloody wounds; festering gashes that no amount of paint will ever be able to cover.
Charlie’s locker is on the edge of campus out near the portable units used for overflow. If he’d been earlier getting to school he could have gotten a locker closer to his classes, but by the time he limped the last mile, the choice lockers were taken. He hurries even though sticking around to talk to Coach has already made him late for his community service. Mary is going to roast him alive. It doesn’t matter whether he’s five minutes or five hours late. Even if he stays to make up the time, Charlie is certain Mary isn’t going to sign off on his sheet today.
Locker H33 is at the end of the hall near a bathroom that’s been out of order since he was a freshman. These days kids use it as a hideout to smoke pot and skip classes. They don’t bother anyone and mostly no one bothers them. Vice Principal Mathers occasionally makes a show of cracking down on skippers, but rumor has it that he’s easily bribed. Charlie doesn’t know what the going rate is and he doesn’t really care. The lock on his locker is broken but the only thing of importance in it is a twenty-year-old copy of The Joy of American Economic Policy. Anyone who wants to steal it is welcome to it. Everything Charlie values is on his person.
A metal door slams and Charlie is surprised to see Owen Northrop standing a few feet from him. He isn’t sure if the boy was there before or just walked up. Either way, Owen is standing at his locker with his arms hanging at his sides, hopeless as Charlie has ever seen anyone.
“They took everything.”
“You miss the bus?” Charlie asks.
Owen doesn’t answer or acknowledge that he heard the question. He just stares into his locker. Pitiful. It’s against his better judgment, but Charlie hobbles to Owen’s locker and peeks inside. It is empty. No, not empty. Not completely. But Charlie already knew that. He reaches in and peels off a Polaroid picture taped to the back of the locker.
“Your stuff’s out behind the auditorium,” Charlie says. “But you’re better off forgetting about it. It ain’t worth nothing anymore.”
“Why?” Owen asks, and Charlie understands that he’s not asking why his belongings are now worthless. It’s a question he’s heard before.
“It’s nothing personal,” Charlie says. “It’s just something they do to freshmen.” That’s a lie though. Charlie remembers last year, standing around a similar pile of books, papers, and clothes, with the boys. He didn’t know whose belongings they were but he laughed with Jed and Rob and Will as they pissed all over them and snapped celebratory pictures. For Jed at least, it had been personal then and Charlie knew it was personal now. But telling Owen that won’t help him; he can’t change who his mother is.
“Oh,” Owen says. If the kid ever had any fight in him, it’s gone now.
“Keep your head down,” Charlie says. “Keep your head down and ignore them. Eventually, they’ll get bored.”
Charlie doesn’t tell him that it’s going to get far worse before it gets better. He gets his Calc book from his locker and walks back the way he came.
Room 1127 smells like baby shit and broccoli, which is exponentially better than usual. The air is parchment dry and makes Charlie’s throat feel scratchy every time he’s here. Not that he has a choice. This is his court-ordered punishment. Two months down, two to go. The only thing he is thankful for is that he does not have to personally change any of the patients out of their shitty clothes, but Mary Tisdale still manages to make Charlie’s life a living hell by making him hold the soiled linens. At first it was disgusting, but it’s routine now and hardly bothers him.
“You think this is a vacation, Charles?” Mary asks. She handles the patients brusquely but confidently. She could do this in her sleep. “You’re here to work. I’m here to make certain that you uphold your obligations. If I let you show up whenever you please, you’ll never learn your lesson.” Mary emphasizes syllables oddly, putting random spaces where they don’t belong. Everything she says sounds stilted, but Charlie doesn’t dare interrupt her. That’s one lesson he did learn.
Mary folds the contaminated sheets with the excrement on the inside and shoves the whole bundle into Charlie’s outstretched arms. “Take those to the laundry and then check the pans in Autumn. When you’re done, report back so we can discuss how you’re going to make up for today’s tardiness.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Charlie marches out of the room with the dirty linens. On his way to the laundry room, Charlie makes a list of every single thing he hates about Mary Tisdale. All the nurses complain about her quietly. Even Mr. Joyce, Mary’s boss, avoids her when he can help it. He supposedly does a spot-on impression of her that Charlie has only heard about. If she weren’t so good at her job, she’d have been fired ages ago, but even her worst enemies can’t deny that Ashview would fall apart without iron fist to guide it.
Charlie chucks the sheets into a wide-mouth basket that is filled with similarly soiled linens. More than the smell of piss and shit, he hates the reek of bleach that strangles him when he goes into the laundry room. Sometimes Mary makes him spend all day doing the wash, and Charlie is sure she does it out of spite. Thankfully, all he has to do today is check for full bedpans. It’s not as cherry a job as delivering dinners to Spring patients, but it’s better than laundry.
Ashview Nursing Home has four sections that are divided into seasons: Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall. The level of care a patient requires determines where they’ll be placed. Those capable of taking care of themselves live in Spring while those on deathwatch are stored in Winter. It’s a terrible idea for a nursing home, but no one cares what Charlie thinks.
Replacing full bedpans with clean ones takes less than an hour. There’s so much piss. Gallons of the stuff in every shade of yellow God imagined. Sometimes a patient’s meds turn their urine an unusual red or green. Sometimes it’s red because of blood. Today, it’s all yellow, and Charlie races through each room, rarely speaking to anyone. The patients are used to him now and tend to ignore him. He suspects it’s because Mary told them that he was a juvenile delinquent, which is all right with him. Old people give him the willies.
When Charlie finishes with Ms. Cochran’s room, he sneaks down the hall to the front desk, peeking around every corner for Mary. The bedpans normally take Charlie about an hour, so he’s got ten or fifteen free minutes before Mary sends out a search party for him. Maybe longer. She’s at her desk lecturing one of the new nurses about some point of procedure that is probably meaningless. But Mary lives and dies by her little rules. Everything in Ashview happens according to plan. Patients come in, they grow older, they die. They always die. There’s a certainty to that that Mary finds comforting.
Normally, Charlie would feel bad for the nurse, but today he’s thankful that her screw-up bought him precious time.
Charlie runs to the staff lockers and gets his guitar. He takes it to Winter and goes right into room 619–though the “room” is barely larger than a closet. “Evening, Mr. Allen.” Mr. Allen doesn’t speak. He never speaks. A month ago he had a stroke and has been waiting his turn to die. Mr. Allen’s room is the furthest from the front desk and one of the few with a patient who never complains about his singing.
Mary would pull out his fingernails if she caught Charlie playing guitar in a patient’s room, but he can’t help himself. He’s waited all day and his hands are shaking so badly that he thinks he’ll die if he doesn’t sing. No, that’s not right. Because Charlie only truly feels alive when he’s playing, which means that he’s already dead when he’s not.
The guitar weighs nothing. Charlie arranges the strap around his neck and touches the tuning pins. He feels the tension in the strings; potential waiting for his fingers to tease it out, set it free. With a deep breath, Charlie closes his eyes, puts the calloused fingertips to the strings and–
“Is this covered by insurance?”
If not for the strap, Charlie would have dropped his guitar. He keeps his eyes closed, hoping maybe it was a hallucination. Because going insane would be the better alternative. He hears the wheeze of the respirator and the hiss of the AC and nothing else. Except–
“Right. I’m calling a nurse.”
“Don’t,” Charlie says. He opens his eyes and turns around. Sitting in a chair in the corner of the room is a girl. She had to have been there the whole time and Charlie curses at himself for being in such a rush. He was jonesing to play so badly that he didn’t see her. The girl is solid and wears a fierce frown that she wields like a cudgel. She stands up but doesn’t go for the call button on Mr. Allen’s bed.
“What’re you doing in here?” the girl asks. Her acid tone tells Charlie that she is not be trifled with. She is Charlie’s age, he thinks, but she holds herself like someone much older.
“Nothing,” Charlie says. He stutters. Pain cramps his fingers, running up his hands and into his arms, like a long, barbed needle shoved into the muscle through his fingernails. So much fucking pain.
“Sorry,” Charlie mumbles. “I wasn’t hurting anyone.” He leaves a quickly as his leg will allow.
Audrey Allen hates her first name but she’s glad that her mother named her after her favorite actress rather than her favorite movie. Going through life as Tootsie Allen would have been a catastrophe.
“You know that guy, Gramps?” Audrey asks after Charlie’s slow escape. She peeks out into the hallway, but the strange boy is gone. Odd, but he didn’t look like a menace. Part of Audrey wishes she’d kept her mouth shut until she’d at least had a chance to hear him play.
Audrey paces her grandfather’s small room, straightening his comforter and picking the petals off the wilted flowers. People stopped sending Get Well cards and bouquets after the first week. Not even her parents come by as often as they used to. Audrey is here every day. She used to come in the mornings, but now that school has started, she has to wait until after classes. Not that Gramps minds.
“I hate first days,” Audrey says after she settles back into her chair. “More stupid teachers, more stupid kids. I can’t wait to graduate, you know?” This is how it is. Audrey talks and her grandfather, insomuch as he is able to, listens. She is sure that he hears her, though even the doctors agree that it is likely he doesn’t. Gramps hated the mundane, and Audrey tells him every detail of her day in the hopes that he’ll snap out of it and yell at her to stop boring him. A miracle that seems less likely every day.
Audrey knows what they call this place. Winter. Where the elderly come to die.
“Heya, Audrey,” Anne-Marie says as she bounces in the door. She’s a dowdy-looking but dedicated nurse who takes care of her grandfather and doesn’t treat him like he’s already dead.
“Mary’s on the rampage again.”
“So, same shit, different day?”
Sally nods as she checks Mr. Allen’s vitals and writes them down on his chart. “Looking good.”
“Right?” Audrey says. “I think he’s getting better.” Since the day her grandfather had his stroke, Audrey has seen a procession of doctors and nurses, all who encouraged her to prepare herself for her beloved grandfather to die. The only problem is that the old bastard refuses to go. And so long as he breathes, Audrey won’t give up.
“Who’s the guy who was in there?”
Sally looks puzzled. “Guy?”
“Blond hair. Guitar. Kinda cute in a mental way.”
“Charlie Hudson?” Sally asks. She frowns. “He’s not supposed to be in Winter without a nurse.”
“Hudson?” Audrey says. “Wasn’t he the kid who wrecked his car on prom night?” Audrey tries to recall the details from the newspaper but she had little love for some stupid jock who got wasted and nearly killed himself, and only skimmed the story.
Sally nods. “He’s a crappy driver, but one hell of a musician.”
“Then I suppose it’s a good thing I’m not looking for a chauffeur,” Audrey says as an idea begins to take shape in her mind.
It is dark when Charlie finally escapes from Mary. She signed off on his community service sheet but made him sit through a forty-five minute lecture first. The entire time she spoke, he waited for the girl in Room 619 to come in and rat him out for being somewhere he wasn’t supposed to. If that had happened, Mary would have surely booted him from Ashview and notified the judge, who would have tossed his ass in juvenile detention with the other scumbags. Charlie’s mother would have been so proud.
But the girl never came. Charlie tries to picture her while he walks down the long driveway to the road. His leg is almost unbearably painful now and recalling what she looked like helps take his mind off the agony. The image he constructs is a patchwork; he was more worried about escaping the room with his thumbs intact than checking her out. Yet, there was some quality about her face that he recalls vividly. A toughness to the set of her amber eyes that intrigues Charlie. Blackpool is a brutal town that tends to breed hard folk, but the girl in 619 lacked the grim resignation Charlie sees in most others. She had hope.
By the time Charlie gets into town, he hasn’t got a single clue what the girl in Mr. Allen’s room actually looked like, but he is certain that she is someone he needs to know. If only to steal a pocketful of her optimism.
The Waffle Barn is dark at 8pm. Most everything down Archer Street is. Except for the Three Hounds, a seedy bar run by Jed Wolfe’s parents. Its sharp neon lights slice through the night until 1am or someone complains about the noise and a Sheriff’s deputy shuts them down.
The shadows cling to the street and the wall and Charlie weaves around them aware that he is being irrational. Shadows are not dangerous things and he knows it, reminds himself of it repeatedly, but he hears whispers when he gets too close, things he is sure he ought not hear. Slips of conversations that don’t make sense or sadistic giggles bubbling up from the dark spaces, popping when they reach the light. He is convinced that it is little more than the lack of sleep, that everything will be okay when he finds a quiet spot to play his guitar, but that doesn’t dispel the dread that lingers in his throat. Taunting. Clawing for purchase in his waking mind.
“Go home, Rob!”
Charlie nearly cries out when Mr. Wolfe shoves Rob Langdon out the front door of the Hounds. “Don’t make me call your old man.” Mr. Wolfe has all of Jed’s size but none of his charm. The man is muscle and bone orbiting a dense nucleus of cruelty.
Rob isn’t looking a hell of a lot better. He spins around and tries to shoot Mr. Wolfe the bird but only manages to lose his balance and fall on his ass. Not that he seems to care. Mr. Wolfe shakes his head and returns to the bar, leaving Rob to laugh at his own shoes.
Charlie swears under his breath. All he wants to do, all he can think about, is going somewhere quiet to play his music. He’s managed to keep the shakes under control but his fingertips are on fire and every breath he takes feels like a lungful of sulfur. This is the longest Charlie has gone without playing since he left the hospital. It is the wound that never heals.
But he can’t leave Rob in the road. Someone is sure to run him over and he doesn’t appear to be in any shape to care.
“Rob,” Charlie says, detaching from his hiding spot by the wall. He limps across the street until he is standing over the guy the Gazette once called the most promising defensive tackle JD had seen in years. Charlie finds no evidence of that person tonight.
Rob Langdon looks up and squints at Charlie. His eyes are bloodshot and his cheeks are abnormally red. He was always crap at holding his liquor. “Chucky!”
“Get out of the road, asshole.” Charlie doesn’t offer Rob a hand because his leg is too weak and they’d both end up on the ground.
“It’s nice here,” Rob says. He smiles crookedly and lays on his back making lopsided angels in the gravel. “Ima gonna sleep.”
Charlie kicks Rob in the thigh. “Up. Before Sheriff Clark comes around and tosses you in a cell.”
Rob groans but sits up. “Buzzkill.”
“You’ll thank me tomorrow.”
“I doubt it.” It takes a few tries, but Rob manages to get to his feet. He takes a couple of experimental steps, and Charlie stands by in case he falls again.
Barely acknowledging his existence, Rob stumbles down the sidewalk in the direction of his house, with Charlie trailing along after. He considers taking off but, after Rob stops to take a piss on a bus bench, decides the guy needs his help, even if he doesn’t deserve it.
“Jed says I ain’t supposed to talk to you no more,” Rob mumbles.
“Then shut up and keep walking.”
Rob looks at the dark puddle of urine on the bench and chuckles as it runs over the edge. “Niagra Falls of piss.” He starts weaving home again.
Charlie always liked Rob the best of the guys. Even though he followed Jed around like a well-trained dog, Rob barely had a mean bone in his body. His jokes often went too far, but he wasn’t intentionally cruel. It was just that he didn’t overtax his brain thinking about the people who served as fodder for his jokes. Not like Jed, who took pleasure in other people’s pain, or Will craved the feeling of superiority.
These days, though, Rob hardly seems like the same guy.
“You ever think about that night?” Rob asks. His voice is so low that Charlie isn’t sure whether Rob is actually talking to him.
“No,” Charlie lies.
“Jed says we’re not supposed to.”
Charlie focuses on his footsteps. His thigh muscle clenches up so badly that he isn’t sure he’ll be able to make it home. “Jed can control lots of stuff,” Charlie says. “But not your thoughts.”
Rob doesn’t say anything else until they reach his house. It’s a shabby duplex badly in need of a paint job. A pit bull pops up in the window, barking like mad.
“Looks like your dad’s still up.”
“Yeah.” Rob trudges slowly up the path, ignoring the dog and the hulking shadow standing behind the shades. Charlie met Mr. Langdon once and that was enough. Though Rob has never said, Charlie is pretty certain he knows what’s in store for him when he gets inside. Rob stops at the front door and turn around. “Charlie?”
Charlie stops in a parking lot behind an abandoned Greek restaurant. The Taverna Olympus sign still dangles from the front of the building but the back is a wasteland haunted by stray cats and the occasional dog. The lot is more potholes than asphalt and someone has spray painted the brick wall with vulgar but colorful graffiti.
There are more shadows than light spots here but Charlie can’t wait any longer. His leg throbs and his fingers ache and he thinks if he doesn’t play right now, right here, his heart will stop beating. One lone cement parking chock remains and Charlie claims it as his own, gingerly lowering himself down onto it, stretching his tired leg out in front of him.
A few strays circle him suspiciously, trying to decide if he’s worth their time and attention. Charlie has never been a cat person and he shoos these away as best he can, though they mostly remain undeterred. The bravest is a charcoal girl with a pregnant belly and wide eyes. She nuzzles his knee and stares up at him expectantly.
“I got nothing,” Charlie says. “Go on, get out of here.” He gently pushes her away but the gray cat refuses to budge. “Well, I wasn’t expecting an audience, but if you’re determined.”
Charlie swings his guitar around to his front, adjusting his strap and letting the delicate body rest in his lap. The guitar is an extension of him. Part of him. He once read of a mental disorder where people believed that body parts–a leg or an arm–didn’t belong to them and wanted to cut them off. Charlie feels the opposite way about his guitar. It is his missing limb, and he only feels whole like this.
Quickly but carefully, Charlie runs his hands over the neck and the strings, testing each one and tuning as he goes, making minute changes that only he can hear. More cats gather around the first and, as Charlie readies his fingers to play, he sees he has amassed a dozen feline observers.
“Last chance,” Charlie says, but the cats remain.
Charlie closes his eyes and begins to play.
This dream is not new.
Nor is Charlie sure it is a dream.
The seams of the parking lot crack and tear, widening until they are a million open mouths devouring the moonlight and the air and the weedy smell of summer.
Silence falls about Charlie. It is a pitiful existence to live in a world with nothing to hear and nothing to see and nothing to smell or taste or feel.
The fear Charlie feels near shadows is this.
Stars go out.
Lights fade to nothing.
The notes of Charlie’s song turn stale and fall, the air unable to support them.
It is cold.
It is forever.
Charlie opens his eyes as his song ends, the last words still lingering in the air. He feels grimy and afraid; the darkness he sees when he sings clings to him like sticky, black tar. Theo Jackson sits next to him on the parking stop, more whole than Charlie has yet seen him. Maybe it is the night, and Theo’s solidity is only an illusion, but Charlie takes what he can get.
“Hey, baby,” Charlie says with all the smile he can muster.
Theo never smiles.
He is wearing his tuxedo. It is heavy with water. He never changes.
Despair carves gullies through Charlie, but seeing Theo is a relief. Every time Charlie plays he thinks that this is the time it won’t work. This is the time Theo won’t come.
Theo always comes.
Charlie touches Theo’s hand. The first time he tried it, he was sick for a week. Chills and vomiting and fever. But now he only feels a wave of nausea that passes quickly and is gone. He doesn’t know if Theo can feel him or if he even knows where he is, but Charlie has to believe he can. It’s the only thing he believes in now.
“Today was the first day of school,” Charlie says. “It sucked. Boring classes. I got Smelly Smith for Calc. Someone put a bottle of mouthwash tied up in a ribbon on his desk.” Theo doesn’t answer.
“I miss you, Theo.” Charlie kisses Theo’s cheek.
Death has bled all the Theo from Theo.
Charlie sits with Theo for as long as he can. The moment he stops singing, Theo beings to fade again, and now he is almost gone. Only the thought of his mother sitting at home wondering where he is keeps Charlie from playing another song. And only barely.
When Theo is little more than a shadow himself, Charlie looks him in his cold, unblinking eyes and says, “I’m going to bring you back, Theodore Jackson. I swear.”
It is probably his imagination, but Charlie thinks there is a flicker of understanding. Recognition. Then it is gone.
And so is Theo.
Charlie stays a minute more before stowing his guitar on his back and getting up. Sitting has only made the muscles in his leg tighter and he hopes there is still some hot water left at home for a bath. He limps to the edge of the parking lot and stops at the sidewalk.
The cats, his audience, are still sitting in a circle around the cement chock. They look like they could almost be sleeping.
But they’re not sleeping.
It is after ten when Charlie slips into the trailer home he shares with his mother. The door to her room is closed but there is a stack of bills on the counter that are all late. Most of them are from his accident. Charlie digs in his pocket for the tips he earned this morning. He leaves them next to the bills. It isn’t much, but it is the best he can do.
Charlie considers a soak but decides not to risk disturbing his mother. Besides, he has homework to do and doesn’t think he can sleep, even crippled by exhaustion. The high of seeing Theo still fills him. Singing for Theo is living, it is breathing, it is everything. But after, Charlie feels contaminated. Like death has carved off another bite of him. He tries not to think about the animals anymore. There’s nothing he can do about them except stop, and Charlie won’t stop until he can bring Theo back for good and forever.
Charlie’s bedroom is little more than a closet with a mattress and some milk crates for his clothes. Like his locker, he keeps nothing of value here except his guitar, which rests in a place of honor in the corner. He changes into boxers, tossing his dirty clothes in a pile, and settles onto his lumpy mattress with his calculus book. Only Smelly Smith would give students homework on the first day, but he clearly has no sympathy for seniors.
A picture falls onto Charlie’s stomach when he opens the book to the first set of problems. He tosses his book aside and picks the photo up, sure it is just a forgotten belonging of the book’s last owner. Only, the moment Charlie looks at it, he knows he’s got it all wrong. The photograph is of Theo. Alive. In his tux on prom night. And standing next to him, holding his hand, is Charlie.
Charlie flips the photo over. On the back is written: The truth will set you free, but I’m going to gut you.