“Lottie?” Lucy asked.
Charlotte about jumped out of her chair. She had been sitting at a table surrounded by three others. One of them was her friend Lucy, who had been talking for the last fifteen minutes. But, the constant ticking of the clock hanging over the door, had become a distraction. Watching the minutes’ pass by, one after another.
“Are you even listening, Lottie?” Lucy asked.
Charlotte faced Lucy, whose hair was black like rich coffee. And dark brown eyes, looking at Charlotte.
“I was listening,” Charlotte said.
“Right,” Lucy drew the single word out.
“I was listening to you.”
“So, then what did I say about the homework?”
“The homework? You have a lot to say about the homework.”
Lucy about to open her mouth to speak when a woman in a dull gray pants suit walked into the classroom.
“Charlotte Johnston?” The pantsuit woman asked.
With a deep breath, Charlotte got up twirling her rainbow-colored hair. Walking out of the classroom, she followed the pantsuit woman down the hall.
“Was there anything important I interrupted?” pantsuit woman said.
Charlotte tore her gaze from the picture on the wall. “Nothing important.”
“Is this about my grades?”
“No, that’s a counselor’s job.”
“That’s a relief.” Charlotte laughed under her breath.
Classes were finishing up, their doors shut. Practical voices of teachers escaped through the crack of the doors. She sensed the gazes of curious eyes from the classrooms, she kept her head down. They climbed three flights of stairs in silence. Charlotte examined the posters on the white walls.
They stopped outside a small room, it looked cramped inside. In view of the two chairs that sat in front of the desk, it looked it could fit three people. On the other end of the desk sat the third chair. Charlotte wiped her moist hands against her pants though the school was cool. Pantsuit woman pushed open the door, and with a deep breath, she followed the pantsuit woman into the room.
“Please have a seat, Charlotte.” The pantsuit woman took a seat in her blue swivel chair.
Charlotte took a seat, folding her hands in her lap.
“Charlotte, I am Mrs. Blanchard. I’m here for Social Services,” Mrs.
Charlotte swallowed and nodded. She locked her knees together.
“How’s school going for you?” Mrs. Blanchard said.
“All right,” Charlotte said.
“Charlotte, I brought you to this to talk about your family.”
“What about my family?” Charlotte swallowed.
“Yes. I got a call from the hospital.”
“Yes. The hospital called about your mother.”
Charlotte crossed her legs with a sigh.
“What I’m about to tell you will be sensitive news.” Mrs. Blanchard handed Charlotte a tissue.
Charlotte took the tissue, folding it in her lap.
“And what’s that?” Charlotte said.
“The hospital said last night a woman got wheeled in. The woman kept talking about a girl named Charlotte. She had been in a car accident and was bleeding out. They tried to recover her, but she lost too much blood. Her last words had been ‘tell my daughter I love her.’”
Charlotte’s hands shook, she clinched at the tissue. Her eyes burned, from the burning tears in her eyes. Tessa did not call her last night. She had stayed up all night waiting for her, dialing the number many times. Rich hadn’t noticed Tessa had gone out last night. He didn’t bother to ask where she was. No one bothered to tell her last night Tessa had gotten in a car accident.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Blanchard said.
Charlotte placed her head in her hands. Trying to escape the situation, she closed her eyes. Sweat was wiping off her hands against her head. Wondering if this was what a blow to the stomach was like.
“Lottie! Can you help me with my bags?”
Charlotte rushed to her mother’s side. Tessa was balancing three small cardboard boxes on top of each other in her hands. In the crook of her left elbow was a small duffel bag slipping from her elbow. She was panting and frowning as she took slow steps down the stairs. Charlotte grabbed two boxes, and her mother grinned. They placed the boxes inside the open trunk of Tessa’s car. Tessa tossed the duffel bag in the back seat.
“Mom, why are you leaving so late at night?” Lottie shut the trunk and turned to face her mother.
Tessa gripped her daughter’s shoulders and bent to consider her. “We have to leave. I will pick you up after school tomorrow.”
“We can’t. He’ll notice.” Lottie looked at her mother.
“Lottie, your father is dangerous when he’s drunk. And most of the time he is. I can’t let this get worse.”
“What happened to your arm?” Charlotte stared at the blood-soaked gauze bandage on her mother’s thin arm.
“No matter.” Tessa stood up and moved her arm behind her back. “Go to sleep. I’ll be back tomorrow to get you. We’ll go to the new house tomorrow.”
Charlotte stood still.
“Go, Lottie. I promise I’ll be back.”
Charlotte blinked and walked to the front door. She turned to witness her mother stepping into the car and turning on the ignition. Tessa opened the window and appeared out.
“I love you,” she said.
Charlotte couldn’t form words. She had gaped at her mother when Tessa backed out of the driveway and drive off into the clear, black night.
“What’s going to happen?” Charlotte looked up at Mrs. Blanchard.
“Your father can’t take care for you because of the situation he is in. So, we are finding another family to care for you?” Mrs. Blanchard shuffled the papers, in front of her.
“What about any other family members?”
“We couldn’t find anyone. Your parents were the only ones listed as legal guardians.”
Charlotte fell silent.
A lump formed in Charlotte’s throat. “I am going into…” She looked down at her hands in her lap. The sweat from her hands made them look shiny.
“Foster care,” Mrs. Blanchard finished for her.
“Have you found anyone yet?”
Mrs. Blanchard smiled at Charlotte. The look in her eyes was enough to tell Charlotte this wasn’t an official plan.
“Yes, we have. Temporary. A family will care for you after your mother’s funeral until someone adopts you,” Mrs. Blanchard said.
“And what if no one wants to adopt me? Will I get placed in different homes then?” Charlotte said.
“Your foster family might adopt you. Here’s the thing, Charlotte. It all depends on if a family will adopt you or not.”
Charlotte would say goodbye to her family, end up in a temporary home, and hope for the best.
“What if I convince someone to adopt me?” Charlotte said.
“Like I said before. We couldn’t find anyone,” Mrs. Blanchard said.
“I will find someone.”
“Charlotte,” Mrs. Blanchard said, “time does not heal all wounds, but acceptance will. It’s like growing up, you must accept the surrounding changes.”
“I can accept the surrounding changes. It takes time.”
“And that’s okay. Everyone takes the time to accept the world-changing.”
“I don’t need your speeches.” Charlotte stood up from her chair.
“You don’t have to listen, but at least let me walk out,” Mrs. Blanchard stood up from her chair.
Mrs. Blanchard walked over to the door, holding it open for Charlotte. Charlotte stepped out before Mrs. Blanchard. The bell rang as a mob of anxious students bolted by. They headed down the hall and down the stairs. From time to time Charlotte wiped at her eyes to hide her tears. When they stopped by the main entrance, Mrs. Blanchard took a Post-it note from her pocket.
“Here’s your new address, Charlotte.” Mrs. Blanchard handed Charlotte the note.
“Thank you.” Charlotte took the note.
“Charlotte, if you ever need someone to talk to. I’m here and so is the counselor’s.”
Charlotte nodded and managed a smile. When Mrs. Blanchard walked away, she saw Lucy standing by the entryway doors with a group of friends. Lucy looked up and spotted Charlotte. Their eyes connected and Charlotte couldn’t move. Watching Lucy mutter something, she walked over to her.
“Lottie?” Lucy searched Charlotte’s eyes. “Is everything alright?”
“No. Well, I’m not sure.” Charlotte wiped at the tears in her eyes.
“What happened?” Lucy took Charlotte’s hand.
“Last night Tessa was packing. She said she would pick me up after school. To go to our new home, she found. I waited for her to call me. She didn’t.”
“Oh, Lottie! It can’t be!” Lucy hugged Charlotte close to her.
“It is. The police found her last night and this afternoon in the hospital she died.” Charlotte sobbed into Lucy’s shoulder.
“I’m so sorry to hear about this. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Charlotte looked up at Lucy through her tears. “Yes.”
“And what is that?” Lucy wiped a tear from Charlotte’s face.
“Can you stay with me for a few days?”
“I would love to.”
“Oh, thank you!”
“I’ll call my mother and see if it’s all right with her.”
Charlotte smiled, giving Lucy a hug. Lucy dug her phone from her pocket. Turning towards the doors, Lucy called her mother. Standing with anxious eyes Charlotte caught the plea Lucy gave over the phone. An exaggerated buzz came from the other end of Lucy’s phone.
Looking around the school, Charlotte’s eyes landed on the entryway. Inside the doors, were students sitting on the wooden benches. Or with their faces pressed up against the glass, waiting for their rides. Looking at the Trojan head area, she spotted a group of students, conversing with each other. Lucy clicked off and turned to Charlotte.
“What did she say?” Charlotte said.
Lucy smiled at Charlotte. “She said I can stay with you for a few days, but I have to come home after the funeral.”
“That’s fine. I’ll be with a new family a day or two after the funeral.”
“Do you need a ride home?”
“Yeah. I have no ride.”
During the car ride to Charlotte’s house, Lucy played their favorite songs loud on the radio. It did distract Charlotte from all the sad stuff going on. When they drove up to the house, she saw Rich’s car parked in front of the garage.
Lucy took the keys from the ignition switch, the buzz on the radio cut off. “You can do it.”
“If you are with me,” Charlotte said.
They unbuckled and made their way up to the front door. Opening the door, Charlotte recognized Rich’s voice coming from the kitchen.
“I’m home.” Charlotte looked at the empty glass table by the door. Tessa kept her handbag on the table when she was home.
“Charlie?” Said Rich.
He sounded like the father she dreamed of until his life changed for the worse. Charlotte and Lucy turned and walked into the kitchen. Rich was leaning up against the kitchen counter, talking on the phone. With a sigh, he hung up the phone and turned to look at Charlotte.
“How was school?” Rich said.
Rich looked clean today with his orange-brown hair brushed and green eyes somber.
“ It was all right, Charlotte said.
“What’s wrong?” His eyes searched hers.
“After the funeral, I’m moving.” Charlotte looked past her father, at the steel fridge. A photo of herself with her hair its original color taped to the fridge. Along with a grocery list.
“What do you mean you’re moving after the funeral?” Rich crossed his arms.
“Socials Services wants me in foster care.” Charlotte looked at the ground.
“Foster care?” Rich raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, the place where children go until someone adopts them.”
“I know. They should know I care for you,” said Rich.
“What do you mean to care? You may be my father, but what have you provided the family with? What good thing have you done for me?”
Rich took a step forward, his hands clenched into fists at his side. Charlotte thought she was taking it too far. She looked back at the photo of herself on the fridge. Wishing she was the girl she at one time had been. Normal looking Charlotte with orange-brown hair. Who had no problem walking over to her father and say “I know you care for me. You have been there for me.” Not since Rich had lost his job and came home with blank bloodshot eyes. Pushing past Charlotte or Tessa. Acting like no one existed. Except for himself.
“Charlie, is there something you are not telling me?” Rich’s breath was warm against her neck.
Charlotte swallowed and looked back at Rich. “With the shape, you are in, social services believes I would be happier to another family.”
Charlotte watched as Rich stumbled back and gripped at the counter for support. He took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair. His eyes searched the kitchen like he was trying to find an escape route. Charlotte stepped forward and touched his hand.
“I’m sorry for –,” Charlotte started to say, but Rich pulled his hand away like he might hurt her.
“It’s all right,” Rich said.
Charlotte nodded and turned towards Lucy. Lucy was looking at the kitchen window with her arms crossed.
“Lucy,” Charlotte said.
Lucy jumped a little as if caught off guard and turned to face Charlotte.
“It’s best if we give him his space,” Charlotte said.
Lucy nodded and took Charlotte’s hand. They walked in silence up the stairs to Charlotte’s room.
Charlotte pushed the door to her bedroom open, looking around, a rush of bad and good memories came to mind. The room was empty, with everything in large cardboard boxes. Her white walls stripped bare where a large map used to be. Pictures of landscapes surrounding the map were also rolled up in the same box. Her white framed bed pressed up against the wall was bare. The white and purple striped comforter folded in another box. The rocking chair stripped of its red cushions and the brown teddy bear. The Christmas lights also stripped from the ceiling and windows.
Charlotte walked into the room and turned to look at Lucy, her face masked with something of shock and horror.
“What happened?” Lucy said.
“I wasn’t lying when I said Tessa had found a new home,” Charlotte said.
“It was that bad?”
“Tessa had the bruises to prove it. She wanted the abuse to stop, but told me Rich was beyond saving. So, she came up with a plan. As soon as she found a house, we would move in. Away from Rich. Away from the abuse and the neglect.”
“Your mom went through all that? You could have told me. My family would allow for your mother and you to move in with me.”
“I didn’t want anyone to feel bad.”
Lucy looked around the room, her eyes landed on the box filled with Christmas lights. Pulling the lights from the box, she wrapped them around herself. Strutting around the room with her head held high.
“You have a thing for Christmas lights,” Charlotte said.
“Remember when we put these up?” Lucy stopped strutting.
Charlotte remembered. She remembered the day and had always clung on to it. She clung on to the memory as though it was her way to escape into happiness and to keep Lucy and Rich close to her. As a child, Charlotte had often watched the night sky. It had fascinated her to gaze at the stars twinkling above her and the moon floating in the dull light. She had to have them, as children often wanted things they couldn’t have. So, she begged Lucy to help her carry a whole box of Christmas lights up to her room. It was not easy for two small children carrying a heavy box up two flights of stairs.
Charlotte had only been six years old and had run into the kitchen. Where Rich, had stared in disbelief at her plea for help and then had carried the box up for the girls. Charlotte had not thought she needed her father’s help. But she couldn’t reach the ceiling or her windows yet. Lucy and she had tried to balance on the bed and had lost their balance many times. Charlotte had ended up in tears when she couldn’t string up the lights.
This time, when Rich pinned up the lights, he said, “Shoot for the moon and if you miss you will end up among the stars.”
“And what if you fall through the stars?” Charlotte asked. “What if you hit the bottom?”
Rich smiled and gave her a hug. Before Charlotte, went to bed, Lucy, and she had giggled and talked about pretending to reach for the stars.
Their voices brought Rich in. He stared at the two girls, with a look of curiosity and exhaustion. At last, Rich shook his head. “I see Charlie being an astronomer when she’s older,” he said, and with determination, he picked Charlotte up in his arms.
She felt like she was flying when he lifted her up above his head. He made whooshing noises as they zoomed around the room. Charlotte had her eyes closed and imagined herself flying through the sky. experiencing the touch of the stars in her hands. She imagined they didn’t burn her hands to the bone but warmed her skin.
When he set Charlotte back down on her bed, she had stared up at him with large eyes. “I was flying, daddy!”
He gave her a small smile. “The best things in life are unseen. That’s why we close our eyes when we kiss, laugh, and dream mon petit ange. Go to sleep.”
Charlotte did, and she dreamed of being in the stars forever. For years, she would ask Rich if she could spend her nights watching the stars outside. He would smile and say, “Only when you can’t sleep.” When she had flinched away from him after his abusive behaviors and was in her room. She had remembered him flying her around the room. The memory had been like an unexpected slap in the face; she had curled up near the pain and cried.
“Rich had laughed at us for trying to put up the lights on our own,” Charlotte said. She had practiced enough so she knew how to hide the pain from her face. “He thought I would be an astronomer when I would grow up. It must have been in the stars.”
Lucy looked at her sideways, and Charlotte had her suspicions of Lucy are seeing through, the walls she built up better than she wanted her to have.
“The night sky,” Lucy said. “Of all things you can dream of, the sky.”
Charlotte smiled for the briefest moment. “What else is there to dream about?”
Charlotte could make out Rich’s footsteps coming down the hall. She turned to look at him, standing in the doorway.
Rich cleared his throat. “Wanted to let you girls know family and friends of Tessa will be over tomorrow.”
Wearing a white and black floral dress, Charlotte sat on the couch in the living room holding a warm cup of tea in her hands. Watching as a tall woman in a long silk, silver dress made her way through the crowd, stopping so often to say a word or two to those who pulled her aside. The woman nodded her head and continued to glide towards the family room, her eyes searching. Charlotte tried to hold back a gasp when the woman’s eyes landed on her. The woman sat down next to her, turning herself to face her.
“You must be Charlotte? I’m Leslie. Your mother’s close friend,” Leslie said.
“Nice to meet you, Leslie,” Charlotte said.
“Your mother, Tessa, talked about you all the time. She also talked about a house she brought for you and her?”
Charlotte’s heart stopped for a moment. “Yes. We were going to move in.”
“When I had last saw her, she gave me a spare key to the house. She said if she never got the key to you, I should then give you the key.”
Charlotte watched as Leslie pulled a key out her small gray handbag. She took the key from her, holding it close to her heart. She managed a smile, she had found a piece of Tessa.
“But I can’t live in the house alone,” Charlotte said.
“No, but I have signed the adoption papers. We will talk about this later, now’s not the time.”
“Why do such a giving thing? I don’t know you.”
“You do. I met you when you were a little girl. When you started getting older, Tessa, and you stopped visiting me as much. I knew something up, so I called Tessa up a few times, so we could talk over coffee during the day.”
Charlotte looked back down at the key, turning it over in her hand. Tessa had been planning her life out, when things had been going wrong.
“Tessa also wanted me to give you this.” Leslie handed her a scrapbook.
Charlotte opened the scrapbook to the booked mark page and found a folded-up note on one of the pages. She opened it and read through it. The letter touched on how Tessa expected her death, and how it could be from Rich’s abuse or her great escape from him. She mentioned how she wished to be a braver woman and better role model. There was how she entrusted the letter to Leslie, who she trusted the most. She talked about falling in love with Rich, a man who thought she would be a stable enough person to start a family.
Charlotte folded the letter and set it in back in the scrapbook, before wiping the tears from her eyes. Looking down at her hand, she saw Lucy writing Are You Okay across her hand with her finger. She squeezed Lucy’s hand back, who smiled back at her.
“I’m sorry,” Leslie said.
“Don’t be. I am happy I got the letter. It is the closure I needed. I know what Tessa wanted to tell me.” Charlotte managed a smile.
“I’m happy to hear. I hope everything will turn out for you. Give me a call when you’re ready to move in. The key has my number.”
Charlotte watched Leslie bid her goodbyes to certain people, and walk out of the house. The rest of the day, Charlotte turned the key over her hand, thinking about how it had unlocked new doors of possibilities for her — a new life.
Charlotte stood outside holding an umbrella in one hand, and her mother’s pale hand in the other. It was sad to think Tessa, laying so dead and at peace, can finally be at peace and not worry about another plate slicing her fragile skin or a hurtful word being thrown at her. Rich sat in one of white fold up chairs, had his head bent into his hands, and looked somewhere between crying and praying, for no sound was coming from him. She turned in time to see the pastor walking towards her and the guest, finding their seats, but she didn’t want to sit down or view her mother getting buried.
“Lottie, come with me,” Lucy said.
“I’ll be leaving her. I have to stay with her,” Charlotte said.
“You’ll still be near her.”
Charlotte looked back down at her mother, letting a teardrop land on her mother’s cheek, she set her mother’s hand down and bid her goodbye. She let Lucy walk her to their seats and hold her hand, as she prayed with the congregation and listened to the pastor talk about Tessa. She watched as different people stepped forward and talked about each were affected by Tessa’s forgiving and helpful personality.
Rich stood up and made his way next to the casket, his eyes scanning over the crowd, then landing on Tessa, where they rested awhile, before casting them back at the crowd.
Rich cleared his throat. “Thank you for being here today. Tessa Tremblay. She had been many things. To many, she was a friend and a caregiver. She was Tess, a wonderful wife, who suffered through much for me, yet, never gave up a single hope. For my daughter, Charlie, she was a mother, often called Tessie or mama. It’s still hard to think there won’t be another day gone by where Charlie nor I will get to see her and hear her voice carry through the house. Even though, I can still see her sitting on the sofa drinking red wine and tell me it’s a dangerous task to drink wine on a nice couch in a nice room. I was lucky enough to call her mine and share many memories….”
The drone of Rich’s voice lulled her into the past. For a moment, she was a nine-year-old girl in the comfort of her background again, where she wanted to stay awake and swing until she was ready for bed.
“Daddy, I can reach the stars.” Charlotte’s small fingers grasped the links on the swing. Her other hand reaching out towards the night sky.
“What will you do if you catch a star?” Rich asks.
“Put it in a jar.” Charlotte grabs hold of both links, to steady herself.
Charlotte pumps and kicks, always going higher. Giggles fill the hush of the blue night, as Rich stands on the side of the swing set. He smiles at the sight of his daughter, remembering Tessa had put Charlotte’s hair in a braid earlier. He had told her they would be out here for a few minutes, to help her go to sleep. But, tiredness had not pulled her into its grasp.
“You want a night-light?” Rich looks up at the sky filled with stars.
“What about the string of lights you have in your room?”
“I like those. What about a real one!”
“You’re such a silly girl.”
“Catch me, daddy!”
Charlotte kicks and pumps harder, preparing herself to jump off the swing. Rich runs in front of the swings, his arms stretched out to catch her.
“Oh, Richie. She’s going to hurt herself,” a voice said from the doorway.
“She’s fine. Remember, she’s Charlie. She can do anything.” Rich looks over at his wife, Tessa.
Tessa stands in the doorway of the deck door, in black and white leaf-patterned pajama bottoms. Underneath the purple robe, she’s hugging tight around her is a loose white T-shirt.
“I’m flying!” Charlotte jumps from the swing.
Charlotte has her hands outstretched smiling, as she lands in Rich’s arms. He smiles back at her.
“You’re my little angel with stars in your eyes.” Rich swings Charlotte in a circle.
“Our little angel,” Tessa corrects Rich. “And she needs to go to bed.”
Charlotte blinked back the tears and memory looking back up at her father. Rich was now, holding Tessa’s hand and had a smile on his face like he had recalled a happy moment in his life. Charlotte wondered what he was on his mind.
“And Tessa will be Charlie’s and my angel in the stars, where she’ll be the brightest star in the night sky.” Rich kissed Tessa’s hand and walked back to his seat.
“No matter what I am your little angel,” Charlotte whispered.
The congregation became silent before they stood up and started singing. The wet hot tears filled up Charlotte’s eyes, her throat closed tight. Then the tears spilled over and flowed down her face like a river escaping a dam. When she looks up at the coffin that is being lowered, the pastor is saying something, but everything is a blur. A hand touches her back, and when she looks, it’s Rich. His mouth is moving, but she can’t make out anything he’s saying, and Lucy is nodding. She gets up and lets Rich guide her aside, a little way from everyone else. She cries into his shirt, and he strokes her hair.
“Charlie, I am sorry for everything,” Rich said.
Charlotte looked up at Rich. “I know you had hit rock bottom. I should have been there for you, been the hand helping you up. I’m sorry too.”
“Don’t be. You were there for me, but I was too blind to see it. Things will change. I promise.”
“I know. I’m moving in with a friend of Tessa’s and I’m sure she will allow me visitation rights.”
“You’ll like Leslie. Before you move in with her, I want you to stay with me a few extra days. Help clean up the house and get me going. Later Lucy can help you move into your new home.”
“I won’t leave you yet.”
“I know Charlie. I love you too.”