Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
Charlotte’s heart was broken. She had always wondered what it would feel like, in a way. She hoped it would never happen to her, but part of her wanted to know. In the movies the grown-up ladies are always talking about getting their hearts broken. Charlotte always thought it would make her feel so mature if it happened to her, too. But she didn’t feel grown up. She felt humiliated. Here she was, sobbing into her pillow in the soft glow of her Scooby-Doo nightlight, the one her mother had tried to make her get rid of for years but she couldn’t sleep without it, and thinking of Timothy Newell, the boy who had done this to her. Take My Breath Away was playing on repeat, and every time the chorus looped Julia choked and coughed and the tears poured all the faster. She just couldn’t seem to stop. Once it had started, it just kept coming. This had been her song for Timothy. She would lay in this very spot and mouth along with the words—or if her mother was gone and she was feeling confident, she would belt the words right along with Terri Nunn.
Now every word stabbed. The happy thoughts and fantasies, of what it meant that Timothy had asked her to the Christmas Social, her first Junior High dance. She had fantasized about that happening all year, since when he first sat by her in Geography. He had been so cute. The way he smiled and touched the back of his neck. She thought he looked like Kevin Bacon in Footloose, and couldn’t help but blush. She wanted to talk to him, but it was like her tongue was swollen. But he introduced himself first. They talked some over the next couple months, and she helped him with his work sometimes, always happy to have the chance to talk to him and be closer to him. But most days he didn’t really notice her, it seemed. Until the last day of class for the semester, he caught up to her in the hallway and asked. He did his shy move again, the hand on his neck, and she melted, almost screamed. She flushed scarlet and stammered yes.
Her mother was excited, too. She took the next night off and took Charlotte dress shopping. Charlotte couldn’t remember the last time her mother had seemed so giddy. She usually looked really sad. They picked out a cool-blue dress with big, fluffy sleeves. Her mother said it was a good winter color, and that it made her auburn hair and blue eyes pop.
The dance was on the 23rd, the Saturday before Christmas. Charlotte’s mother had to work all night, but Timothy and his mom were going to pick Charlotte up. Her mother helped her get ready, and showered her with kisses before leaving for work.
“I’ll see you when I get off, honey! And we can eat ice cream and you can tell me everything,” she said. Her eyes got watery as she stroked Charlotte’s hair. “You’re going to have the best time, I just know it.” And she was gone, leaving Charlotte with a cold knot of anxiety and anticipation in her stomach. Timothy would be there at six to pick her up, but at five she was so flushed from nerves that she decided to get her coat and wait on the porch for him.
But six o’clock came and went. So did seven. Then eight. By ten, Charlotte had given up all hope. She was chilled to the bone, but the biting wind and the cold stinging numbness of her nose kept her from facing the feelings that were bubbling inside of her. She walked inside in a daze, numbly shut the door and locked it. She threw her corsage sanctimoniously on the foyer table and stumbled into the kitchen for a glass of water. As she gulped it down, her breaths became harsh. She all but fell forward, slamming the glass on the counter as she caught herself, and was wracked by one great, shuddering sob, ripping from her chest as if it were a ferocious animal bursting from a wooden crate. She left the glass on the counter and felt her way down the hall, the tears flowing too readily for her to see clearly, relying on instinct to lead her up the stairs and into her room. She closed the door unconsciously, shrugged out of her coat and fell on the bed, fully at the mercy of her grief. After a few minutes of sobbing, she reached over and put the needle on the record, played The Song. As her hand fell away she turned the volume up farther than she had ever dared, and the music unleashed everything.
Time was immaterial as she cried and cried, and thought about Timothy’s hair, and cried some more. Then she thought about how it would be when she saw him back at school, and cried harder than ever. She felt so stupid that she wanted to die, laying there in that stupid dress. It didn’t bring out her eyes. Her eyes were disgusting, they were dull. And her hair? It was sickening. Janice Elliot had said it looked like cat puke in the sixth grade, and everyone had laughed. It must be true.
Finally, though, she grew exhausted from the sheer effort of crying. She felt empty, now. Not better. Just drained. Too worn out to cry anymore, so she just lay there with her head on her arms and stared at Scooby and Shaggy, holding each other and shaking like usual. How much time had gone by, Charlotte had no idea. Every time The Song had ended, she’d restarted it, and that had been countless times. She guessed at least two hours, so it was at least 12:30, and her mother wouldn’t be home until 2. The record had ended, and was skipping, a dull repetitive sound that made her think of a heartbeat, and she felt like she could hear hers in the stillness of the dark room. She didn’t have the energy to reach over and stop it, and she didn’t think she could bear to listen to it again.
Her eyelids had finally begun to flutter shut when there was a crashing sound in her closet. She let out a strangled, terrified yelp and bucked out of the bed, rolling gracelessly on the floor and getting a rugburn on her knee, and came up up against the wall, by the nightlight and the cracked door. She peered into the shadows on the other side of the room and didn’t think she saw anything. Her eyes were so wide she thought her eyelids might start to rip. Her heart was thundering in her ears . But then she heard thunder clap outside, and reasoned that that was responsible for the sound that had rattled her. She must have fallen asleep for a bit, after all. She felt a little better, but she still didn’t move. She wanted to, but she was paralyzed by a nagging, irrational fear. She kept staring, wide-eyed into the shadows across the room, where just hours before her mother had helped her dress. It was HER room. But right then, it was something unknown. Something uncertain. And something frightening.
She decided she would wait downstairs for her mother to get home. They had planned on talking, anyway, so she had permission to be up late. She inched along the wall, and was suddenly grateful that she had left the door to her room open.
She froze with her hand on the knob, and a terrified thought crossed her mind. Hadn’t she closed it? She felt her skin turn to ice, cool sweat seeping from every pore. She glanced lightning-fast at the closet, but didn’t move her head. If there was anything there, it wouldn’t hurt her if she didn’t look at it, and she threw open the door and ran out into the hall and the safety of light, lights she had left on in her distraught state earlier, and she didn’t stop running until she was in the living room. Her legs felt like they were loaded with springs as she flew down the stairs, her feet bouncing up and crashing down to the next step, wobbling all the way but not daring to go slower. When she reached the center of the living room, the bright halo of light beneath the ceiling fan, she turned to face the stairs, defiantly.
There was nothing there. Nothing following her. No sound but the rain outside and the occasional soft roar of thunder. It sounded like the storm was moving away. And for the second time that night, Charlotte Michaels felt incredibly stupid. She had felt so grown up, putting on this dress and getting ready for her date, and now she felt like a dumb kid. And she thought to herself, I guess that’s what I am.
She let out a massive sigh and hung her head, feeling the adrenaline slowly siphon out, leaving her more drained than before. She had felt more in one night than she had felt in her whole twelve years of life. And it made her very hungry. She went into the kitchen, and was once more relieved that she had left all of the lights on. Her mother would be furious if she knew, but Charlotte didn’t care—the initial fear had passed, but she was still a little jumpy.
Her glass was where she had left it, and she filled it up and drank it practically in one gulp, and then again. She didn’t think there was enough water in the world to make up for what she’d cried out, but she would try. Then she crossed to the refrigerator and rooted around for something to eat.
As she was sniffing beneath some tinfoil to see if the pot roast was still good, there was a crash from the living room that practically shook the walls, and the ceramic dish tumbled from her hands, exploding in jagged shards and chunks of meat and gravy soaked carrots. Charlotte pressed herself against the open fridge, staring at the arch she had walked through, where the foyer and then the living room lay, when the power suddenly failed. The merry rush of warm air from the vents died out and left her alone in the darkness. She cowered against the interior of the refrigerator, fingers clinging to the cool metal racks, and her breath was coming in rapid, wheezing cries, every exhalation a whimper. She felt along the fridge for the wall, and willed herself to follow it, to move, to get anywhere. She cried out when her white stockinged foot crunched cruelly on a shard of ceramic, a sudden explosion of red in her dark vision, but she walked on, feeling the wet nylon sticking to the linoleum tile. Whatever was in the living room, the front door was between them. If she could just get to the door, she could run outside. Maybe her mom would even be pulling up right then, and she would get out and come over to her and make her feel better, make her realize how silly she was, and her mother would apologize for leaving her home alone, for all the times she had left her alone, and she would have the ice cream, and they would go somewhere else to stay because the power was out, a nice cozy motel room, and they would laugh in the soft yellow light and everything would be OK.
These thoughts carried her through the kitchen, down the short hallway past the hanging coats, and into the foyer. She was trying to breathe silently but failing. She made a little sound of terror every time breath left her lips. But she was almost there. She didn’t dare look around. She imagined the door in front of her in the darkness, and her vision was starting to adapt to the light. She could see the residual moonlight through the frosted glass around the door now. She was almost free. And her mom would be there. And it would all be OK.
She felt the door in front of her, and her already pounding heart doubled in speed. Her hands trembled as she frantically felt for the handle, and she finally clasped it and started to turn it and run as fast as her bloody little feet could carry her when something hit it from the other side. The Crashing sound, Like something massive had thrown its full weight into the door. The whole frame shook. She screamed and cried as she fell back away from the door and scuttled backward away from it. She felt the bottom stair and curled around the banister, babbling and crying and trying to breathe, her chest on fire, staring ahead at the door, mad with terror, white and green spots dancing across her vision. But there was nothing again. It was still. The wind whistled across the door outside. Her breathing slowed a little. Feeling returned slowly into her tense limbs.
She felt warm air move across the nape of her neck, and thought with sudden, simple relief that the power was back on, that the vents were going again. And her mother whispered in her ear, “Shhh, it’s ok Charlotte. I’m here,” and Charlotte felt warm relief spread over her whole body, all tension washed away in a sudden rush. But then she realized it was still dark. Still so quiet. And her mother wasn’t home yet. A finger brushed a lock of her hair behind her ear, and warm breath washed over her neck again, and and a reek like rotten meat. She slowly turned her head to look behind her. She couldn’t help it. She didn’t want to see. But she knew she had to look. It wouldn’t get her until she looked, and she couldn’t take anymore.
She didn’t think she could be any more frightened then she already was. But she was wrong. The darkness smiled at her, and it’s teeth were sharp, jagged and red. She didn’t scream as it tore into her supple flesh. There was no breath left. So her mother didn’t have to hear any of it as she pulled into the dark driveway, cursing her boss for making her stay late. But she had Charlotte’s favorite, Chunky Monkey, and she knew that her daughter wouldn’t mind her being a little late after having such a good night. She couldn’t wait to hear all about it. She walked to the porch, put her key in the lock, and was smiling as she opened the door.
Credit : Clayton Bolyard
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