Owen Northrop sits at his mother’s desk, munching on a PB&J while he does his science homework and pretends not to look across at Charlie Hudson every chance he gets. The Blackpool Sheriff’s office is library quiet and smaller than it looks from the outside. There are two desks in addition to Northrop’s, and Buck Gray is sitting at one, playing solitaire on his phone.
“Wanna bite?” Owen asks. He offers the half-eaten sandwich to Charlie, who waves it away. “It’s not so good anyway.” Still, he tears off another bite before returning to his homework. Back to the scritch, scritch, scritch of his pencil on his math worksheet.
“I got new books.”
“Good,” Charlie says, drawing circles on the wood desk with the tip of his moist finger.
“And a different locker.”
“Yeah,” Owen says. “And I–”
Charlie holds up his hand and says, “Listen, kid, I’m not in the mood for chatting. No offense…just…this ain’t a social call.”
“Are you getting arrested?” Owen asks after a quiet moment.
Buck Gray glances up from his game. “If your momma doesn’t string him up first.”
“Don’t know,” Charlie says, ignoring Buck. “Maybe.”
The three young men fall into silence. The only indication that Buck is older than Charlie or Owen is his uniform, which is in need of a good pressing, a detail Deputy Northrop notices the moment she walks in. That woman sees everything, as Owen knows all too well.
“Charlie,” Northrop calls. She motions for him to come along, and he gets up at once, leaving his guitar too near Owen’s sticky fingers for his comfort. Not that he has a choice.
“If anything happens to her, I know where to find you,” Charlie says in Owen’s direction. He wrestles with the feeling of dread that comes every time he and his instrument are apart.
“You call Ashview?” Charlie asks as Northrop leads him down a hall and into a plain, gray room with only a table and two chairs centered in the middle.
Deputy Northrop heard Charlie’s question, but she doesn’t answer. Instead, she points at a chair and waits for him to sit before straddling the other. There is nothing remarkable about this room. It is small, dry, cold, and gray. It might possibly be the most unremarkable room on the entire planet. And yet, it is a room that Charlie will never forget. The cracks in the plaster wall, the grooves in the wooden table, the brown, stained ceiling tiles.
The drive back from the prison was uneventful. Charlie offered nothing, and Deputy Northrop hadn’t pressed him for information, seeming to know that she’d get her answers eventually. He thinks he should call his mother, at least let her know where he is, but can’t bring himself to do it. Maybe later.
“I talked to Mary,” Northrop says. She makes a steeple of her hands and rests her lips on the tips of her fingers. She gives away nothing of what she is thinking. Not in the creases at the corners of her brown eyes or at the place where her cracked lips meet.
Seeing Deputy Northrop outside the prison, it had been too easy to let his guilt float to the surface, to confess to her, but now that he is back in control, Charlie isn’t sure how to proceed. By now, Northrop has seen the pages from Theo’s journal that Jed Wolfe plastered on the school walls. Charlie has never read Theo’s journal, except for the pages he saw earlier, but he lived much of it and can guess the rest. It’s personal stuff, but nothing that implicates him in what happened to Theo.
“Can I have some water?” Charlie’s voice ricochets between the walls.
A crease forms between Deputy Northrop’s eyes as though she thinks the request is a stall tactic, but she gets up anyway and leaves the room, replaced by Officer Gray. Buck reminds Charlie of Rob Langdon in many ways. In his cool stance and Teflon smile.
“It’s always the quiet ones,” Buck says. He doesn’t sit in the chair, he doesn’t come fully into the room. Nor does he pause his game. He looks up between moves like Charlie isn’t worthy of his full attention. “Was it a lover’s quarrel? Is that why you killed your boyfriend?” His tone is a corkscrew that he twists into Charlie’s eye. “Were you the boy or the girl in the relationship? The other kid had the look of it, but I got twenty dollars says you were the bitch.” Buck taps something on his screen and throws his fist into the air. “Score!”
Charlie imagines putting his hands around the officer’s neck and squeezing the life out of him. Charlie may have lost some muscle since the accident, but with the element of surprise on his side, he could definitely break Buck’s nose before Northrop returns. All he needs is ten seconds.
“Shut your hole, Gray. Go finish your paperwork.” Just in time, Northrop slides into the room with a bottle of water that she sets in front of Charlie, letting the sweat bead down the sides and collect in a ring on the table. Buck leaves without so much as a goodbye, and Charlie’s anger leaves with him.
Deputy Northrop settles into her seat and says, “There’s only one way back from this, Charlie, and that’s for you to tell me the truth.” Her voice is dressed in a mother’s concern. Maybe it is only an interrogation tactic but Charlie finds that he would like to trust her, to tell her everything, even though he knows it is not possible. Lies have a way of going viral. They replicate and spread. Give them long enough and they can kill. And there ain’t no way home from death.
“You told me you didn’t know him.”
“I lied,” Charlie says. “And I think you know why.”
“I’d still like you to tell me.”
“Am I under arrest?”
“Should you be?” Deputy Northrop sits in her chair like it’s stove top hot. Like all she wants to do is leave this room and take her boy home. Charlie isn’t even sure whether she cares if he sleeps in his own bed or a prison cell tonight, so long as she gets her answers.
Charlie shakes his head. “I don’t suppose I’m the best person to answer that.”
Deputy Northrop clenches her jaw. “Did you love him?”
“Did you drown him?”
“But you killed him,” Northrop says. “That’s what you said. You said ‘I killed Theo.'”
Charlie nods. “He wanted to go public about us and I wouldn’t let him. You know how people around here are. Maybe if I’d said yes, this wouldn’t have happened.”
The concern returns to Deputy Northrop’s face. She wonders sometimes about Owen. He’s not like other boys, doesn’t have many friends. When she sees Charlie, hears about Theo, she prays she is not glimpsing Owen’s future.
“Did you see Theo on prom night?”
Charlie shakes his head. “I took Lily Wolfe. Jed’s sister.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“I saw him dancing with Minnie Reynolds.”
“Were you with him?”
Charlie pauses. He feels time gathering around him like a knot of maggots devouring dead flesh. This is the moment he could tell her everything. The moment the truth could free him. Charlie could tell her about the picture with the death threat on the back, and about the last time he saw Theo alive. It would be so easy to tell her.
“No,” Charlie says. “We broke up before prom.”
Northrop’s eyes narrow and she sighs as if Charlie has squandered his one and only chance for salvation.
Charlie is not worried. He has the only picture of he and Theo together at prom; and while Jed might have exposed their relationship, he wouldn’t dare risk the rest getting out. Plus, he and Theo actually had broken up before prom, though it hadn’t really stuck.
Northrop scrapes back her chair and stands up. Charlie thinks she is done, but she pokes her head into the hall.
“Buck?” Northrop calls. He must have been waiting outside the door because he comes in not a second later with a small, plastic evidence bag. One side is blood red and something sits heavy at the bottom. Deputy Northrop dangles the bag in front of her for a moment and flings it onto the table, blood side down, exposing its innards.
The digital watch is dead and ugly. It is coated with lake scum, and its blank face makes the accusation in the vacuum of Northrop’s silence.
“It’s a watch,” Charlie says, only because he can’t think of anything else.
“Don’t be a smartass,” Buck snaps, but Deputy Northrop waves him out of the room.
“Theodore Jackson described a watch like this in his journal,” Northrop says. “A watch worn by you.”
Charlie barely hears the question because he can’t stop staring at the plastic band and broken LED screen. He isn’t aware he’s crying until he can’t breathe. Sobs choke him and still, he can’t stop staring at the watch.
Deputy Northrop doesn’t move, but she says, “I think it’s time to call your mother.”
“Seth wanted me to tell you that he loves you,” Charlie says as he sits quietly in the lumpy passenger seat of the old Cadillac his mother has been borrowing from one of her girlfriends. It leaks oil and sounds like a kitten in a blender when it starts up, but it is the only thing standing between Ruth Hudson and financial ruin.
“That’s nice,” she says. Charlie’s mother has not looked at him once. Not when she got to the Sheriff’s station, not when she threatened to sue Northrop for questioning her son without her permission, not when Sheriff Clark ordered Northrop to release Charlie on the grounds that having the watch didn’t prove he murdered Theodore Jackson. Not even when Charlie thanked her as they put the station behind them.
When they get home and drag themselves into the trailer, Charlie realizes that he hasn’t eaten all day and that he’s so hungry that spots are dancing in his vision. He searches the cupboards until he finds a can of tomato soup and some bread that is only a little moldy. A joke about their lack of food dies on Charlie’s tongue as his mother disappears behind the accordion door to her bedroom.
Charlie warms his soup and eats at the table in silence. He listens for sounds from his mother but hears only the clink of his spoon against the edge of the ceramic mug, and the light, hot wind, rustling the trees outside.
There is only so much that his mother can take, and Charlie begins to wonder if he has pushed her over the edge. If Charlie were to enter his mother’s tiny room and look at the mirror over her dresser, he would see three things: A picture of his father, a picture of him and his brother, and a picture of a cat dangling from a branch over the caption: Hang in there.
Ruth Hudson pushes open her door and watches Charlie rinse his dishes in the sink.
“Did you love that other boy?” Mrs. Hudson asks. Her voice is this tiny thing. This fragile glass so near to breaking that Charlie doesn’t see how he can keep it from falling apart.
It is the second time tonight someone has asked him that question. Charlie dries the bowl and puts it back in the cupboard. He picks up his guitar and says, “I still do.”
Shortly after Theo fades and Charlie turns out the lights, the darkness creeps in. Though Charlie is not yet asleep, he doesn’t see the darkness coming because everything is darkness.
Even if the lights were on and Charlie wouldn’t notice the coattails of the shadows lengthening across his room, draping over his bare feet. He is still thinking about his mother. About her question. He is thinking about the first time that he told Theo he loved him and knew it to be true. Charlie can’t help wondering if Theo wrote about it in his journal. He replays the moment in his head, over and over.
Charlie is so lost in his memories that the shadowy fingers around his wrists and ankles don’t register until it is too late for him to stop them.
The moment Charlie moves, the hands clamp down around his bones like manacles and pull with lethal intent. Charlie screams. He kicks and flails and bucks his whole body, still not even sure what is happening. Where the dark hands touch his skin, he feels cold and smells the stench of rot, but Charlie ignores them because a primal part of his brain screams that he is going to die. That he must not let the darkness take him or he will never return. He will lose his life, lose his brother, lose his mother, and, most of all, he will lose Theodore Jackson.
Charlie screams again, and shadows pour into his mouth like a rag, stifling him, smothering him, stoppering his cries for help. His strength flags as more hands grab and tear and pull him into the black. He is going to die. It is the thought that floats on the surface of his awareness as it circles the drain into oblivion. Charlie is going to die and it is better than he deserves. This, this is his punishment for what happened to Theo. This is divine retribution.
The light in Charlie’s room flares to life, beating back the darkness. It releases Charlie, retreating from where it came. Mrs. Hudson pushes her way into the room, nearly taking the door off its hinges, and shakes Charlie with all her might, not realizing right away that he is shaking already.
Charlie convulses, his muscles rigid and hard, his bladder releasing a flood of urine onto his bed. In another time and place, he would have felt shame, but this is not that time or place. In the here and now, Charlie feels only one thing: fear. And then he feels nothing at all.
Dr. Echols shines a light into Charlie’s eyes. First one, then the other. She writes something down and then asks if he’s done any drugs recently. “Pot? Meth? What about Vicodin?”
Charlie shakes his head slowly. Every muscle in his body hurts like hell. He feels like he bench-pressed a bull. “Nothing.” He glances at his mother swaying from foot to foot in the corner of the tiny curtained-off square that affords about as much privacy as a bathroom stall. Charlie doesn’t remember anything specific after singing. Just a faint memory of yawning nothingness.
“You’re sure this time?” Dr. Echols asks.
“Ask Deputy Northrop,” Charlie says. “I was at the prison visiting Seth, then with her, and then with my mom. Except for sleep, I haven’t been alone for more than a pee since…” Charlie’s words trail off as the memory of being alone with Theo’s ghost in the band room slugs him in the gut. Charlie’s voice catches and he rubs his temples. “I’m sorry, my head is killing me.”
Dr. Echols frowns skeptically, but she makes notes on her pad and says, “I’d like to run some more tests. It could be nothing, but I’d want to be sure.”
“Will it be expensive?” Mrs. Hudson asks.
“I won’t keep him overnight unless I have to.”
Ruth nods and looks down at her hands. Charlie is thankful that he can not read her thoughts.
A nurse pulls back the curtain and sticks his head in. “Incoming,” he says. ” Ed Sweeny fell out of his loft and impaled himself on the handle of a shovel.” He grimaces before popping back out.
Dr. Echols sighs. “I’ll try to send someone to get your blood work started, but we’re a little short-staffed tonight.”
“Okay,” Charlie says, laying back against the crinkly paper pillow. He doesn’t know what to say to his mother. They’re both exhausted, and not just from lack of sleep. Charlie thinks about apologizing but he doesn’t know what he’d be apologizing for. The seizure? The accident? Seth?
“Why don’t you go get yourself some coffee?” Charlie says. “You’re like the walking dead.”
Ruth nods but doesn’t stand. Instead she asks, “What were you doing tonight?”
“Sleeping, so far as I know,” Charlie says.
“Before that. I thought I heard you singing.”
Charlie looks up at the ceiling. “Wasn’t me. Maybe a neighbor.”
“Maybe,” Ruth says. “When you were little, you sang in your sleep. Every night. You drove your brother mad with it.”
“I never did that.”
“You did,” Mrs. Hudson says. “Every night, the most beautiful songs right before your father came home.”
Charlie tries to remember his father, but the man’s face, his smell, the sound of his voice are memories that have become little more than wisps of smoke. “How come I don’t remember?”
“You were probably too young.”
“Why’d I stop?”
Ruth Hudson shakes her head. “I don’t know, but you stopped around the same time your father left for good. And I never figured out whether you stopped singing because he didn’t come home or whether he didn’t come home because you stopped singing.” She shakes her head again. “I think maybe you’re right about that coffee.” She leaves the room quietly.
Charlie is alone when the commotion begins. Someone is screaming while Dr. Echols shouts instructions. He slips down off the bed, holding his ineffective gown closed to avoid exposing himself, and ventures beyond the curtains. He still aches, but he can’t resist the thrill of sneaking around the emergency room.
The ER is smaller than Charlie thought it would be. He keeps to the walls as nurses in their faded green scrubs rush past, too focused on doing their jobs to pay attention to him.
Ed Sweeny lays shirtless on a gurney. His round, hairy stomach bulges in the air like a pregnant woman’s, and a nurse cuts off his jeans, leaving him in nothing but white briefs. He is so exposed, so vulnerable; Charlie almost turns away to preserve what little dignity the man has left. Almost. He is captivated by the thick wood handle protruding from Mr. Sweeny’s chest about where his heart should be. Sweeny was a regular at the Waffle Barn, and Charlie had expected his death to be the result of his regular T-bone and egg breakfast rather than a wooden stake through the heart.
Dr. Echols is a madwoman, furious and cold. She works with precision, more machine now than woman. It is a side of her that awes Charlie. He doesn’t understand half of the things she says, but he gathers that they are losing the battle. Another doctor tells her that Ed Sweeny needs surgery.
“He’ll die before we get him there,” Dr. Echols says, never taking her hands out of the patient. “We have to stop the bleeding now.”
The other doctor tries to argue, but there isn’t time and in the end they pull the handle free.
Blood fountains into the air like a fish that leaps from its bowl, unaware that death awaits it on the outside. Dr. Echols swears and dives into the crater, though it doesn’t take a doctor to realize that Ed Sweeny never had a chance. Still, Dr. Echols leads the others in one last valiant charge. There are no odds for this sort of thing, and not even Charlie would bet against death right now.
It feels longer than a few minutes, but Ed Sweeney’s heart stops. The persistent whine of the monitor is like a precocious child stating what is clearly obvious. A nurse mutes the awful sound, and Dr. Echols strips off her gloves, tossing them into the garbage.
“Fuck,” she says.
The other doctor pulls off his mask and pats Echols on the back. If he is tempted to gloat, he does not show it. In this game, everyone loses.
Ruth Hudson startles her son when she moves in beside him and asks him what he’s doing.
“Watching,” Charlie says. “It’s over now.” He is about to turn and go back to his waiting room when a nurse screams so loudly that Ruth drops her coffee.
Ed Sweeny is trying to speak through a mouthful of blood and he is gripping the screaming nurse’s wrist so tightly that she can not tear her arm free. Muted, no one noticed the erratic peaks and valleys that now decorate his once-flat EKG. There is a moment when no one moves. A fragment of time that is paused while everyone sits in awe of the man who was dead, but is now alive and begging for help. Dr. Echols knew the moment that she saw Ed’s shredded heart that there was no saving him. And yet, his heart beats, his lungs draw breath. He has no right to be alive, but he is.
“Surgery!” Dr. Echols commands. “Now!”
Charlie and his mother watch Dr. Echols take the man who should have died up to surgery. When they are gone, the only evidence that they had once been here is the bloody gauze and cut jeans, Mrs. Hudson turns to Charlie and says, “That was some miracle.”
Except Charlie doesn’t believe in miracles. If Ed Sweeny lived when he should have died, Charlie knows that somewhere, someone died when they should have lived. But instead of wondering who or what that might have been, he only wonders: who sang for Mr. Sweeny?
Though Dr. Echols doesn’t admit Charlie, he does stay overnight. It takes until well after sunrise for someone to remember he is there. The tests reveal nothing, and he goes home. He sleeps through two days of school. On the third day after Jed Wolfe outed him, his mother refuses to let him stay home again, and he goes to work.
As Charlie takes orders, he ignores the sidelong stares, happy that more people are talking about the miraculous recovery of Ed Sweeny than about Charlie’s relationship with Theo. But still, people talk…just not to him. Not unless they have to.
Charlie keeps his ears open as he sails between tables, picking up pieces of conversations.
“…it ain’t just Ed either. I heard no one’s died in three days…”
“…went missing last night over in Luther…”
“…every chicken on the farm dead in its coop…”
“…with the Jackson boy. I say it’s a good thing he’s not a Lion anymore…”
Charlie pays little attention to the conversations. He slides the scraps into his pocket for later. Dead chickens are nothing new, and someone was probably exaggerating about nobody dying. It’s not as if people are expected to drop dead every day of the week.
When his shift ends, Charlie slips out without saying goodbye to Roy. He uses the back door to avoid Deputy Northrop and Owen, and plays a quick song before he walks to school. Theo only stays a short while, dripping wet, not saying a word. Charlie doesn’t say anything either. He tries to avoid thinking about his seizure, tries not to wonder whether it is connected to Theo. But he is beginning to suspect that everything is connected to Theo.
Like his watch. He doesn’t remember how Theo got his watch that night. He remembers waking up in the hospital and wondering where it had gone, but can’t remember giving it to Theo. How he ended up with it is a mystery that Charlie turns over vainly in his mind.
The school day passes without incident. He hears the things people call him but he ignores them. Coach Rubidoux gives him a pass from gym so that he can go to the library. He spends the first hour catching up on his homework, but there isn’t enough to keep him busy or to allow him to ignore the rumbling in his stomach, so he waits for a free computer and gets lost on the Internet.
The library computers are state of the art, gifts from the Wolfe family. There are even little brass plaques over the flat screen monitors thanking the Wolfe’s for their generosity. Charlie’s mom said that buying respectability was the Wolfe way, and they’d been like that for as long as anyone could remember. What they couldn’t buy, they took by force. That was the Wolfe way too.
After spending half-an-hour on Reddit, Charlie logs into his Facebook account. It’s been months since the last time he checked it out, and his profile is pathetic. It takes him a minute to find Theo’s page–they weren’t even friends on Facebook–and when he does, he wishes he’d left well enough alone. Theo’s page is a vicious stream of insults and slurs. Copies of Theo’s journal posted to his profile along with people’s favorite parts. The hate is palpable. It is cruel. This is not a tribute to the life of the boy Charlie loved, but a hellish boneyard of hate.
“It’s not enough that you killed him? Gotta keep on kicking him, huh?”
Charlie turns around and catches a slap that lands across his ear. He hardly has time to throw up his hands to block the second strike. “Stop!” The girl’s face is familiar but Charlie is too busy trying to avoid her slaps to figure out where he knows her from.
Ms. Schmidt, the librarian, glances at them from where she is stacking books. She isn’t the type to get involved unless she has to, and warns them with a flare of her nostrils.
The girl standing over Charlie backs away and lets her hands fall to her sides. She’s wearing a ripped Pac-Man shirt over another shirt, and hiding in a pair of baggy jeans. Her brown hair is tied off in two messy braids that dangle just over the tops of her shoulders, and she glares at Charlie like she is standing over the anti-Christ himself.
“Minnie?” Charlie asks, unable to hide his shock. He’d never hung out with her, had hardly spoken to her except for the one time they were forced to do an English project together in 10th grade, and barely recognizes her. Even in her baggy clothes, he can tell that she’s lost some weight since he saw her dancing with Theo at prom. “You look good.”
Minnie sneers. “Fucking piece of shit,” she says. “Don’t talk to me. Just don’t even…” She seems to lose her thought. Her anger dissipates and the weight of loss crushes her again. Charlie imagines he can actually see it settle onto her shoulders and bow her back. He wonders if she dropped the weight intentionally or if it was the cost of losing her best friend.
“I wanted to read his journal,” Charlie says.
“Like you haven’t already.” Minnie doesn’t look at Charlie; her eyes are fixed on the computer screen behind him. “Don’t tell me this isn’t your handiwork.”
“Jed posted the pages,” Charlie says. “He had Theo’s journal.”
Minnie’s mouth works but no sound comes out. “It was you.”
“No,” Charlie says. “I told you it was Jed Wolfe.”
“Not the pages, asshole.” Minnie breathes out a long sigh. “You were Theo’s secret boyfriend. You were the reason he always bailed on me.”
Deep down, Charlie had assumed that Theo had told Minnie. “Yeah.”
“But,” Minnie stutters. “All those things you did. How could you?”
“It was complicated.”
“Complicate this!” Minnie sucker punches Charlie in the neck and storms off. Ms. Schmidt, witness to the incident, yells for Minnie to stop, but the girl is out the door.
Charlie rubs his neck and logs off the computer. When Ms. Schmidt tries to help him, he tells her he is fine and goes back to his corner to finish his homework.
If anything, Mary Tisdale has gotten more sadistic since his last shift at Ashview. The moment Charlie walks through the door, she has him emptying bed pans and then sends him directly to the laundry. Having a seizure and ending up in the ER is clearly not a good enough reason for missing his community service.
By 6pm, Charlie is soaked through with sweat and feeling slightly dizzy, though it is more than likely that not eating has as much to do with it as the heat. He gulps water from a cup and wanders the halls, killing his last ten minutes before he can clock out.
Charlie turns around and sees Audrey Allen trotting down the hall in his direction. She is smiling, though Charlie can’t imagine what about seeing him could possibly make her smile.
“Hey,” Charlie says when she gets closer.
“Where ya been?” she asks. “Mary wouldn’t tell me and no one else seemed to know.”
For the first time ever, Charlie actually wishes Mary would show up and give him something to do so that he could get away from Audrey. It’s not that he doesn’t like her, it’s that he hasn’t got the energy to get to know her. His entire world is Theo. No one else matters, especially not some chick who abandoned him. But the halls are empty and salvation is unlikely.
“Oh. Feeling better then?”
“I guess,” Charlie says. He points toward the Winter wing. “Listen, I have stuff to do.”
Audrey’s face lights up. If nothing else, the girl has an amazing smile. “I’m heading that way.” She links her arm through Charlie’s and pulls him along. “You smell.”
Charlie sniffs at his damp shirt. “Been doing laundry. It’s hot as balls in there.”
“Lovely.” Audrey doesn’t say anything else until they get to her grandfather’s room. Nothing has changed since the last time Charlie was here. Audrey crosses to the bed and pulls a ratty quilt over her gramps. “He gets cold,” she says, even though Charlie didn’t ask and couldn’t care less.
In spite of her annoying qualities, Charlie can’t think of a better way to waste his last few minutes, and settles into a corner. “You spend an awful lot of time here.”
Audrey nods absently. “Gramps likes it when I talk to him.”
“He’s in a coma,” Charlie says. “I doubt he can hear you.”
“You’re wrong.” The moment she says it, Audrey looks embarrassed by the fierceness in her voice. But she doesn’t apologize. Charlie gets the feeling that she isn’t the kind of girl who apologizes often.
“I think,” Audrey says, softer this time. “I think it’s like Gramps is really far away, and if I keep talking to him, eventually he’ll hear me.”
“What if he’s too far away?”
“That’s why I keep trying to get my parents to visit.” Audrey finishes tidying up the room, which wasn’t particularly untidy to begin with, and says, “Maybe if enough people talk to him, if we’re loud enough, he’ll find his way back.”
Charlie frowns. “Maybe.”
“Everyone said he’d die,” Audrey says. “But he hasn’t died yet. They were wrong about that, and I’m willing to bet a few hours of my time that they’re wrong about this too.”
“I didn’t mean to say–”
Audrey holds up her hand. “It’s fine. Maybe you should go. I’m sure you have things to do.”
As Charlie stands up to leave, he finds that he actually wants to stay and help Audrey talk to her grandfather, but he doesn’t.
Outside his house, deep in the woods, Charlie sings a song for Theo. He has a head full of songs that only Theo has ever heard. It is dark, but Charlie feels the birds in the trees and the squirrels on the ground watching him as he plays. When the song ends, Charlie opens his eyes.
Theo is barely there. In the moonlight, Charlie sees right through him. His edges are fuzzy, and if Charlie weren’t looking for him, he might walk right by. He lifts his guitar to play another song, but he knows that it won’t work. It has been like this for days. Theo is becoming less distinct. Charlie is afraid that the day will come when he won’t be able to see Theo at all.
“You never told Minnie about us,” Charlie says. “I guess I always assumed that you had.”
As usual, Theo does not move.
“Am I crazy? Are you even here? Fuck, Theo, for all I know, I’ve been running around, playing guitar, talking to myself these last few months. Maybe one day, someone’s gonna come along and slap me in a straight jacket and lock me in a padded room.”
As usual, Theo doesn’t answer.
“Damn,” Charlie says. “I feel like I’m talking to Audrey’s gramps. He doesn’t talk back either.” Theo is almost totally faded. “Audrey’s got this funny notion that if she talks loud enough, her grandfather can follow her voice home. Dumb, huh?”
Only, the moment the words leave Charlie’s mouth, he thinks they might not be so dumb after all. He feels a knot in his stomach and his heart thuds in his ears.
“What do you think, baby? Think it could work?”
Charlie waits for an answer, but Theo is gone. As he packs up his guitar, he hears thumps on the ground and ignores them, knowing it is the birds falling from the trees. He thinks that if he ignores them, they won’t be real. But they are.
The trailer is empty when Charlie gets home, and he tears through his shoebox room until he finds his student directory. In all his time at Jefferson Davis High, he’s never used it, but he flips through it until he finds the number he’s looking for.
The phone rings three times before a sleepy voice answers. “Hello?”
Charlie’s mouth dries up and he croaks out an, “Audrey?”
“Who is this? It’s after eleven.”
“It’s Charlie. Hudson.”
“What do you want?” Audrey asks, clearly annoyed.
There is only one thing Charlie wants. It is the one thing he has wanted since he woke up in the hospital. And now, he thinks he might know how to get it. “Is your offer still open? To play in your band?”
Silence. Then, “You called me for that?”
“Yeah.” Charlie holds the phone close to his ear. He can hear the sound of his own breathing.
“You’re an ass.” More silence, and Charlie thinks she has hung up on him. When he is about to say her name, Audrey says, “We practice Sunday at noon. Don’t be late.”