Responding to feedback, I decided to rework my story in a massive revision that took (literally) all night to finish. I spent much of today tweaking it, making small additions and wording changes. Approximately 5400 words longer now and significantly rearranged, here is v.2.0 of this story. To make it easier for readers of v.1.0, I have recorded in red all of the new stuff (well, almost all–there is probably some that I missed when going back over it), but the rearranged stuff is on you.
It Takes a Village
With the hand of a god, Robert lifted Brian Sandberg off of the track just before the train would have run him down. He knew that Brian and his friends Pete and Hassan were playing near the embankment, but Robert had no idea how one of them had gotten onto the tracks themselves. Perhaps he slipped in the snow. But if Robert hadn’t noticed…
The town wasn’t even equipped for funerals, he thought. He hadn’t foreseen a need. There shouldn’t be a need. In fact, the whole town should exist on a plane about as far from any thoughts of death and funerals as it is possible for it to be. That was his intention when he had designed it: to create a slice of self-contained paradise where the darkness of the universe simply didn’t exist. And Brian might have ruined that. He decided that the boys needed to go home to their families, which was a good thing especially for Hassan, who might otherwise have been late for afternoon prayers.
The train, having not killed a boy, continued on its pre-ordained mission of circumnavigating the small county, heading at this point for the station at the energy plant, the largest active station outside of town. It would pick up the workers at the end of their shift and take them home: just another normal day.
Some people actually still had normal days. Robert could hardly remember them, though it had been less than a year. Less than six months, in fact, but the universe doesn’t need more than a moment to change completely, as Brian, his friends and family, and for that matter Gene, the train conductor, might have discovered a few minutes ago. As so many discover every day. As Robert himself had discovered last June.
Since then, days had been anything but normal. At first he tried to keep working, keep designing the shopping centers and refurbished town squares that had made him a known commodity in the world he’d dedicated his life to, but he couldn’t focus on any of it. Abandoning all of his other projects, he began dedicating his creative efforts to this one alone, and he had seen it continue to grow and grow.
It began, as most projects did, with a vision: create a permanent Christmas village. Of course it had evolved from there, especially once he determined, first of all, that his initial idea had already been done, and second, that the concept was far too confining for what he needed this to become. But there were trains in the Christmas village in his mind, so there were trains here as well: two trains, running on separate tracks with separate schedules, running simultaneously around and through a wintry landscape that he had meticulously created after working as much as eighteen hours a day to make his vision come alive.
Of course, he was not the only one who had suffered a loss, and he knew that. It was in fact one of the reasons he felt such an urgent need to complete his project: something in his mind told him it might help Charlotte.
If Robert missed Emily and felt devastated by her death, he knew that his emotions were only a fraction of what his 12-year-old daughter was feeling. He simply could not imagine being so young, so completely attached to your mother, and losing her in that stupid, incomprehensible way. As if any way would have been better. She was so lonely these days. And it seemed that she could never find anything to do that interested her anymore.
At first, he’d tried to enlist her help with the Village, but she simply wasn’t interested at all, though he caught her paying attention on the periphery at times when she thought he wasn’t looking, so he knew she was at least aware of what was happening.
After he had the basic environment of the county and the trains, which had grown to take up a huge chunk of one half of their oversized living room, buildings sprang up along the tracks. At first the buildings related to the train: stations of one sort or another. But it didn’t take long until a small town blossomed near the largest station, complete with commerce and people to create that commerce. He’d decided from the beginning that the town would be modern, its style matching the trains he’d started with. Still, theme village or not, it was going to be Christmastime there, so a bit of retro flair—horse-drawn carriages and the like—wouldn’t be out of place.
Homes sprang up in the outcroppings of his little universe, as did small businesses like gas stations, restaurants, and the like, and a few other little enclaves in random corners of the huge and ever-expanding complex. People build where they build; he wasn’t going to stop them. And by December his universe was humming along, full of people and life and whatever comes with it.
Like his own life, though, that of his universe was of the still variety.
He did what he needed to take care of his daughter. Or anyway he tried. When she began wetting the bed, that had surprised him; she’d never done that before. But the child psychologist he’d taken her to (after being assured by her doctors that nothing was physically wrong) told him that it wasn’t uncommon for children to react in many different ways to such traumatic losses. The shrink had suggested using protection to limit the mess. Robert really thought Charlotte would fight him on that, but she’d agreed without even a word.
She saw the shrink every two weeks alone, and every week with him. He wasn’t really sure if the therapy helped either one of them, but he knew he would try anything. It was so hard to help her when his own world was so shattered. Emily had been that world since the day he’d met her. She’d been standing outside of Second City, this beautiful redhead desperately trying to get rid of two tickets for that night’s show. So he went up to her.
“How much?” he asked.
“Oh God,” she laughed. “At this point, I don’t even care!”
He joined her laughter. “Well,” he said, “you really are not a very good negotiator. Tell me, why are you giving them up?”
She shrugged. “My boyfriend turned out to be a dipshit, so I got stuck with these.”
He thought for a moment, and then said, “Tell you what. I’ll buy both of them at face value if you’ll use the second one and see the show with me.”
She shrugged again. “Well, you can’t be any more of a dipshit than he turned out to be, and at least I get sixty bucks and a show in the bargain.”
They’d both gotten much more than that. Until last summer, when…
Robert looked across the living room at his daughter, glumly seated on the couch with a book perched in her lap, a nearby lamp illuminating her, pretending to read.
“Charlotte?” he said.
She looked up.
“I was thinking: want to put up Christmas decorations?”
In truth he really didn’t want to; it was something that reminded him too much of Emily. But he thought Charlotte should have something normal.
She shook her head. “Not really,” she said.
He looked down at his universe. There was a large parcel in the east side he could do something with. The O’Deans might want to move out of the apartment they were sharing with her mother, with the baby on the way. Maybe they should build a house just out of town, and if he put up a new subdivision?
He shook off the thought. Focus on Charlotte.
“Why not, Honey? You usually like putting up decorations. It would be fun.”
She didn’t even hesitate. “It won’t.”
“Come on, Char. We can light some candles to get that nice Christmasy smell we like, and I can drag up all of the decorations to put up, and—”
“NO!” she practically screamed, cutting him off in mid-thought.
For a beat, there was silence. He looked at his daughter and saw, in the lamplight, that her eyes were damp. “No,” he repeated. And then, though he already knew the answer: “May I ask why not?”
Her small voice filtered across the room. “Because it was Mommy’s thing.”
With that, she got up and quietly walked down the hallway to her bedroom, closing her door behind her.
In her room, she found that she was too keyed up. She stood behind the closed door for a moment, just listening to her own breath. Then, impulsively, holding back a scream, she reached one hand toward a small bookcase and, with a swift, violent motion, knocked everything on top of it to the floor. She watched as things she thought were precious—a framed photo of her and her mother at a fair, a soccer MVP trophy, several small gifts from her friends, back when she actually had friends—fell to the carpet in a heap. It wasn’t enough: she wanted to knock the bookcase over and follow that with the rest of the furniture in the room. Instead, she threw herself onto the bed and cried into her pillow, holding her stuffed polar bear, Pringles.
After several minutes she felt she had cried herself out, at least for the time being. A glance at her clock–9:35–told her it was late enough to go to bed if she wanted to, so she decided just to power down for the night.
In her bathroom, she brushed her teeth and took her nighttime pills. Staring at the bottles, she decided to add a Xanax. She didn’t take them regularly, but tonight it would calm her down, help her to sleep.
Going back into her room, Charlotte changed into her pajamas. As she got out her diaper, she had two sudden thoughts: the first was how bizarrely routine this nighttime ritual had become for a twelve-year-old girl. And the second, immediately following it, was how likely the thing would be needed, especially with the Xanax.
When it was all done, she crawled into her bed and curled up, cuddling Pringles, who was more than half as tall as she was. It helped to cuddle him; he had been part of her life as long as she could remember, a birthday gift her parents had given her a long time ago, when things were…right.
After a while, though, it seemed that even Pringles and the pills would not help her tonight. Pulling the covers back and sliding the bear out of the way, she reached over, turned on a small light, picked up her diary and started writing. Most of the time, it helped to get her thoughts onto the page, and she had two full journals now, plus this one, of angsty poems and diary entries filled with her private pain to prove it. Tonight, though, nothing seemed to make any sense. She was definitely angry, but she didn’t think she was angry at her father. Offering to set up decorations was a bit stupid, but he meant well. It’s just that she didn’t want to do…anything. He should have known that by now anyway: her world died with her mother.
Her mother had always promised to keep her safe. She’d told her that, no matter what, she would be there to keep her safe. Well, she wasn’t going to be. Charlotte was twelve years old and had no one to keep her safe.
OK, that wasn’t totally true. She had her father, but sometimes she felt he was more of a wreck than she was. And she was smart enough to know she was a wreck. Hell, she was supposed to be some kind of genius. Last year, in sixth grade, she had the best grades in the class. This year, though, she found she just didn’t care. Her friends, especially Abby and Marianne, had really tried to be supportive, but she was such a mess that even they were slipping away. She hardly saw them outside of school anymore, and she wasn’t sure she cared about that, either. She hadn’t even cared about the nighttime diaper, which her father still insisted on calling protection. That whole thing probably should have been emotionally devastating; logically, she knew that. But whatever. She could need them all day long and she still wouldn’t care. Her mother was dead. There was nothing left to care about.
Why in the world had she gone kayaking that morning? She knew the weather forecasts; they had joked about it the night before.
“What does she mean by heavy weather, Mommy? How can weather be heavy?”
She had smiled. “I don’t know,” she said, “but look at that skinny girl. I’ll bet it’s all heavy to her!”
Still, she went out. Alone. Before Charlotte and her dad were even awake. And when the storm began, they didn’t even know to look for her. Charlotte had been first awake and was watching TV. Daddy had decided to sleep in; nothing to do in a storm anyway. It wasn’t until he came downstairs and Mommy wasn’t there that they realized she wasn’t home, that there was something to be worried about.
Why the hell did she go out? She swore she’d always be there, but she went out into a storm and now she wasn’t. And she never would be again.
“I hate you,” Charlotte said aloud, surprising herself. She didn’t know where it had come from. It wasn’t a thought she’d ever had before. She turned it over, considered it. She thought of the nightmares, the incontinence, the fact of her life now. She tried it out again.
“I hate you.”
It should have hurt, but it didn’t. She said it louder. “I hate you!” Finally, she searched her soul for all of the pain she could find, all of the emptiness, all of the dreams of who she should have been, and she screamed as loud as she could manage: “I HATE YOU!!!”
Then she collapsed onto the bed.
“Charlotte?” Her father opened the door a crack. “Do you need me to come in?”
She was silent for a moment before she softly answered, “No, Daddy, it’s OK; I’m going to sleep,” and let him leave. There was nothing he could do anyway. He and his train village. Once, it had been just a small hobby for him; they had always had a little train running around the Christmas tree. But since her mother died, he had immersed himself in his made-up world. At first it was probably just his way to ease the pain and fill a void of time and energy in his life: browse websites and order things; put them together. But she knew: now he lived there. He was so obsessed with that thing that he hardly even noticed how much she was hurting anymore. Hell, he was in so deep he talked to it. He had named the residents. She even knew some of them; you could hardly help knowing if you lived with him. McKenzie the baker, Miller the cop, Benny and Will over at the coffee shop, Charlie the cabbie, etc. And each of them had full background stories as well. It was nuts, but at least he had an outlet.
She didn’t. She had diapers. And Pringles.
There was something about the sky that always felt as if it were actually smiling to Charlotte when her family came here to the lake, and now she was smiling back as her mother glided toward her through a sunlight so startling she needed to shield her eyes.
Raising her hand to her forehead, she could see her mother clearly though she was still closer to the house than to the dock where Charlotte sat. Everything about her mother shimmered: her softly swaying hair, her blue and green beach covering, whatever skin was showing: everything. A trick of the sun, which was so bright it hurt.
“If you’re coming out to sit, I hope you used lots of sunscreen,” she called out. “It’s a beast today.”
Her mother smiled, her face still shimmering, as she joined her near the dock, taking the chair next to Charlotte and sitting down. “I’ve raised you well,” she said. “You’ll be fine.”
The compliment was nice, but Charlotte failed to grasp its meaning. She turned toward her mother.
She was gone.
Charlotte leapt from the chair so quickly that she knocked it over. “Mom?” she called out. “Mommy?”
There was no answer other than the sound of waves hitting against the dock. She cried out louder, “Mommy! Where are you?” Only the waves, thwacking the dock on their way to shore.
But that too wasn’t right: the lake should be calm on a sunny day. She turned and saw that, for some reason she didn’t understand, it was indeed churning almost violently. Why? She hadn’t heard any speedboats pass that would account for it. And anyway it wasn’t only here; the whole lake seemed to be full of waves as if there were a storm coming.
Suddenly she realized: there was a storm coming. Something enormous, sitting out on the lake. She screamed again for her mother, but her voice was lost in the wind that had come out of nowhere, blowing the chairs across the lawn, smashing their boat against the dock, practically lifting her right off the ground as she fought against it on the way back to the house.
Her father stood on the porch. “Charlotte!” he yelled into the wind. “Charlotte!”
He tried to edge out into the yard toward her but the wind was so strong he couldn’t; it pushed him back as it was pushing her back. And she realized…it was blowing both ways. She was never going to be able to fight this thing. In a moment, it would just…take her.
And then she was there again, like a beacon: her mother. She was standing, somehow untouched by the demon wind, just ten feet away.
“Come to me, Sweetheart,” she said. “I’ll keep you safe.”
But as Charlotte struggled her hardest against the fierce wind, desperately striving to make it to that oddly calm place, she felt her strength giving way.
“Mommy!” she hollered. “I can’t make it! Help me!”
But her mother stood there, arms out, waiting for her.
“I’m not going to make it, Mommy!” she screamed into the roaring winds.
As Charlotte finally gave into her growing weakness and let the wind carry her away, three things happened. First, she watched the calm pocket containing her mother vanish as easily as it had appeared. Second, she heard, over the howls of the winds, her father desperately crying her name.
Third, she woke–as she always did–in her bed, in her room in Evanston, breathing heavily and wearing a wet diaper. She was used to the nighttime incontinence by now, so the drenched garment didn’t bother her half so much as the fact that she’d had that damned dream again.
Goddamn it, she thought, trying to bring her breath under control. She hated that dream even more than the other one where she discovered her mother’s drowned, decaying corpse. And she’d lost count of how many times she’d had each dream by now. Bad enough to lose your mother, but to be plagued by recurring nightmares too? And bedwetting? Removing the soggy diaper, she felt certain that somehow she had drawn the shortest of all possible short straws.
The reality, though, was that she’d have both nightmares every day and wear diapers to school if it would get her mother back. The last five months had been so utterly…empty…without her. Daddy tried, in and around working on his stupid village, but he just wasn’t Mommy. And while she had always loved them both, she was without a doubt a Mommy’s Girl. Because Emily was a feature writer for an online magazine, she could make her own hours, which made it easy to spend all sorts of time doing things with her daughter, and she did. Charlotte’s young life was chock full of Mommy/daughter outings to both Chicago zoos, many different parks, beaches, all of the various Chicago museums (Emily’s favorite was the Art Institute, while Charlotte’s was the Museum of Science and Industry), movies, plays and musicals, the Botanical Gardens, and even out of town outings. Once they had gone, just the two of them, to New York City, where her mother had managed to get great seats to the latest Disney musical on Broadway. Charlotte had, of course, come back home singing all of the songs.
But it wasn’t just the outings that Charlotte missed: she missed the simple, quiet times even more. She missed putting up the Christmas decorations: pulling things out of that huge box and figuring out where to put them this time. She missed the afternoons baking cookies or helping with dinner. She missed being read to, an indulgence she still took advantage of even this year, even at twelve, and which her mom seemed to love as much as she did. She missed cuddling on the couch while watching some silly movie on TV and making fun of it. She missed talking to Mommy about the things she was reading; she had always read them too and they had great conversations. She missed Mommy’s hot chocolate with the tiny marshmallows. She missed Mommy’s smile. She just missed…Mommy.
Strike what I thought before. There was absolutely nothing she wouldn’t do or give to have Mommy back. No limits. None. Not that that does any good. I’m in no position to bargain and there’s no one to bargain with.
It was all so hopeless. Not to mention pointless. This “life” she was living was hardly worth the name. She hadn’t been able to find anything that worked as an outlet for her at all. She’d tried. The shrink had suggested all sorts of things. Drawing. Sports. Writing. Walking. Yoga. And Abby and Marianne tried, too, while they still came around, but nothing stuck. The truth is, she thought, she just didn’t want to do anything. What she wanted to do, if she really admitted it, was to die.
Why not? Without her mother she was dead anyway. Just waiting for the real thing to catch up, hanging around spending her days hoping for a visit from the Grim Reaper. If she told her shrink that she’d probably be locked up. But it was true: she had no interests anymore, no friends anymore, no life anymore. Her father was living in a fantasy world of miniature trains, towns, and people. She was exhausted. She was tired of waking up to wet diapers caused by terrible nightmares. She was tired of living as one of the walking dead. Far better to be one of the really dead. Then at least she could be with her mother, if that was really a thing. Probably wasn’t, though. But whatever. Anything was better than this.
No one would miss her anyway, except her father. And he’d get over her quickly enough. He’d probably name someone in his village for her, just as she knew he’d done with her mother.
She knew exactly how to do it. The drugs her shrink gave her for her depression: she just needed to take the whole bottle. It was a fresh refill, so there were lots of pills. And if she did it when she went to bed on a weekend night, her father wouldn’t find her until…well, heck, maybe not until the body started stinking.
She smirked. It was a gross thought. And it was unfair to her father. Probably.
But it got her thinking. Today was a weekend day, and tonight was a weekend night. Why wait? She could do this tonight, end all of her pain tonight. It was suddenly so tempting a thought that, for the first time in what seemed forever, the tumult in Charlotte’s head glossed over. Where there was usually the ache of emptiness and the horror of loneliness along with the pain of abandonment and the misery of lost love, there was now…nothing. A calm. A way out.
A smile crept onto Charlotte’s face as she pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. Grabbing the rolled-up diaper to throw away, she headed out into the kitchen to get some breakfast. It was going to be delicious.
Charlotte’s day passed slowly but carefully. She spent a lot of it reading, not that she really cared, since she would never know whether Bella would choose Edmund or Jacob in the end; she just needed to keep occupied, needed to be sure to resist the temptation to do something stupid that might alert anyone of her plan. She stayed far away from social media; in fact she didn’t go on the computer at all, and since her friendships had pretty much withered away she wasn’t worried too much about anyone calling her. Once or twice her father tried to start conversations, but she just feigned irritation caused by a tremendous need to know more about sparkly vampires, and he let her alone. Eventually, it was late enough in the evening that she could reasonably excuse herself for the night.
She put her book down and walked over to where her father was sitting reading his own novel. She considered sitting next to him and giving him a hug, but she hadn’t done that now in so long he’d have to be suspicious. She settled for the next best thing: she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.
“Good night, Daddy,” she said.
He looked a bit glazed. “What brought that on?” he asked. She knew he would; she hadn’t shown him any physical affection like that in a long time.
She offered him a sad smile and a soft shrug. “I love you,” she said.
As she hoped, he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. “I love you too, Sweetheart. Can I get a hug too?”
That worked better than I could have planned. She leaned into his arms and they hugged. She knew she was crying; it was all she could do to hold back sobs. When he released her, she twisted away gently so she could dry off her eyes as she stood up; then she turned back to him and said good night once again.
“Good night, Honey,” he said. “Sleep tight.”
“You too, Daddy,” she said, and left the room.
This time when she threw herself into her pillows to cry it wasn’t to suppress anger; it was to express her sadness and frustration and loss. It was to let everything inside of her out so nothing was left, so she could see if she still needed to do this. She cried until her pillow was damp, until the world was spinning, until she had let out so many feelings she was simply an empty vessel. And when she arrived at that point, she slowly rolled over and got to her feet. She walked into the bathroom and examined the bottle of pills, opening it and spilling some onto her hands, considering.
She took the handful of pills and the bottle, along with a glass of water, out into the bedroom and set them all on her night table, the pills plink-plinking on the wooden top as they settled randomly next to their container. Then she undressed herself almost mechanically, taking the time to fold and put away the clothing she’d worn and toss her undies into the hamper before putting on her diaper and pajamas. She’d realized during the day that, for once, she was actually glad for her “protection”: she had learned somewhere that dead bodies evacuated their waste, and she was happy to be prepared.
She thought suddenly that she should probably leave a note, not that her reason wouldn’t be obvious, so she opened her drawer and pulled out her journal. Picking up her favorite pen—the one that rolled on with purple sparkly ink—she started the letter:
But she just stared at it. It was all wrong. The paper, the ink…everything. She put the journal away and instead opened her laptop. When it had booted up, she typed:
I’m sorry. I really am. You did your best but I just couldn’t take it.
She stared for a moment at the screen as if it were some kind of talisman. Finally, she stood up, catching sight of herself in her full-length mirror as she did.
Am I really going to do this? she silently asked no one at all.
From behind her came a completely unexpected answer: “I don’t think you should.”
Whirling around with a speed she’d forgotten she had, Charlotte searched her room for the source of the response. At first, she saw nothing, and the only sound she could hear was the magnified echo of her own pounding pulse.
“Is someone…here?” she asked aloud.
“Of course,” said Pringles.
She stared at the stuffed bear sitting on her bed. She’d never read that any of the things she was on caused hallucinations, but—
“You’re not hallucinating, Charlotte,” said the bear. “I’m talking to you.”
This time Charlotte saw the bear’s mouth move, saw his eyes twinkle and his head nod, saw his arms and hands gesture. Wait…not hands…paws.
She leapt away quickly, realizing even as she did it that she was feeling frightened of Pringles. What was going on here?
The bear smiled. “It’s actually pretty simple, Charlotte. I’m not really Pringles. I’m just appearing to you in the most comforting form I could find in your mind.”
The not-Pringles bear continued to smile, as if that totally explained everything, as if she’d be perfectly happy that something had possessed her teddy bear. Or whatever was going on. Charlotte backed farther away. Suddenly the bear grew anxious.
“Oh, no,” said not-Pringles. “I see that didn’t really…I was trying to help you to…oh darn it!”
Not-Pringles had completely lost his smile. He rambled on, talking more to himself than to her. “This always happens. No matter what I’m supposed to do, I somehow mess it up. And now you’re too scared of me for it to work.”
Charlotte was slightly less scared by now than utterly confused, so she asked, “For what to work?”
The white bear looked up at the girl. “For me to help you. Of course.”
They stared at each other for what seemed to each of them to be a very long time before Charlotte replied, “Of course.”
Tentatively, not-Pringles started speaking. “May I–may I try this again?”
She nodded, uncertain of what other response she could possible give.
The bear sighed. “Have you ever heard of a guardian angel?” he asked. Another nod. “Well, I’m one. I’m yours. And I’m sorry: I haven’t done a very good job so far.”
She considered that statement for a moment. “No,” she said, her voice glossing over with her normal dull pain. And then, pointedly, “No, you haven’t.”
“Wait,” the not-Pringles bear-angel said. “Please. Hear me first before you go where you’re going. I know you have every right to be mad at me, at Fate, at Heaven, at the Universe, at everything. You’ve had terrible things happen to you. I couldn’t stop them; that isn’t the job of a guardian angel.”
“Then what the hell is?”
“Helping you through the inevitable pain that comes from being alive. And that’s where I’ve really let you down. I haven’t found a way to slice through your pain.”
Charlotte stared at the bear. “Maybe I just don’t want you to.”
The white bear looked sad. “But you need to, Charlotte. It’s part of being human. It’s part of being alive.”
She shook her head. “I stopped being alive when my mother died. I’m no more alive than the people in Daddy’s village.”
Not-Pringles looked up, thoughtful. “That could work,” he said.
“What could work?”
For the first time since this Alice In Wonderland lunacy had begun, the bear stood up. Now he could look her directly in the eyes, and when she looked back she saw that there was something very peculiar going on there. Pringles’ eyes were made of some shiny marbles or something, and they looked dark and glistening. But not-Pringles’ eyes were…she didn’t know what they were. Looking into them was like looking into the night sky. Stars and planets and comets swirled in spirals and patterns within his eyes. She couldn’t take hers away. And slowly she just felt herself melting into them.
When the swirling patterns congealed into glowing, twinkling lights surrounding her every side, she suddenly realized she was sitting in a gazebo. It was a great white gazebo in the center of a town square, sparkling with Christmas lights. Casting her glance around the square, she saw that the entire town was similarly decorated, and people were walking about everywhere: happy people stopping to talk to each other, wandering into stores, sipping what looked like coffee or hot chocolate from a kiosk at the edge of the park.
She seemed to have somehow materialized right in the middle of an episode of “Gilmore Girls.” Charlotte found herself looking for familiar characters or places, but there was no Lorelei, no Luke’s. It wasn’t Stars Hollow; it was…she didn’t know what it was.
What the heck was going on?
How had she gotten here? Where was her bedroom? And where was that stupid bear?
She looked down at herself for the first time. She was dressed pretty much as everyone else she could see, though there was nothing she was wearing that she actually recalled owning: boots, leggings, skirt, sweater, warm jacket, hat, gloves, scarf, all in Christmasy colors.The temperature wasn’t actually cold; in fact, everything seemed perfect, though oddly she didn’t feel overdressed for the weather. She slipped one of the gloves off and reached under her skirt, confirming what she already knew: she was wearing her diaper. Why? She was outside, awake. She didn’t need it when she was up.
Charlotte stood in the gazebo, taking in the town as far as she could see it. At one end of the square stood a lovely white town hall. It looked like every other town hall she’d ever seen. Clearly it was kept up well: it had a new coat of paint on it, the statues near it were clean and devoid of graffiti or pigeon droppings or whatever, and of course the omnipresent Christmas lights and wreaths decorated its entrance.
At the other end was an old fashioned movie theatre, one of those places you just knew had been around when the movies Daddy loved watching–Casablanca, Singing in the Rain–were playing first run. She liked Singing in the Rain; it was really funny. They had seen the musical theatre version of it last June, before–
She shook the thought off, continuing her visual journey around the square, which seemed oddly familiar though she couldn’t remember ever having been here, when she suddenly realized that music was playing from speakers in poles throughout it. Right now the song was “Carol of the Bells,” her mother’s favorite Christmas song. Crap, she thought. Just when I’m trying to stop thinking of her, that comes on. No choice but to wait it out; there was nowhere to go to escape it. Thank goodness it was a short song. But no sooner had she thought that when she heard something in the music that told her that this specific version was a mix that would likely be much longer than usual.
Feeling tears slipping down her face, she sat down and closed her eyes.
Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say throw cares away…
Her mother’s sweet voice singing along as she made cookies, the house filling with the chocolate chip smell she loved so much. Charlotte standing below her, sneaking a fingerful whenever she could from the mixing bowl, receiving a teasing admonishment whenever she was caught. The two of them, when the last of the cookies were in the oven, sitting there on the kitchen stools, greedily eating the rest of the raw dough, laughing.
Gaily they ring while people sing songs of good cheer: Christmas is here…
Coming downstairs on Christmas morning to a mountain of presents, both parents following groggily behind before heading into the kitchen to make some coffee. Their sweet laughter as they spoke of yet another year gone by, telling all of the stories of Christmases past. The one where she knocked the tree down. The one they spent in Hawaii. The one when the cat–remember Crystal?–climbed inside the tree and refused to come out. So many fun stories, and they laughed and laughed.
Merry merry merry merry Christmas, Merry merry merry merry Christmas.…
Her tears were falling freely now; she wasn’t even bothering to wipe them off anymore. And by the time the song ended, she wasn’t even surprised to discover that someone had been watching her as she sat alone in the town gazebo crying amongst all of this gaiety. It was another girl about her own age. She had walked up onto the stairs of the gazebo and stood there, a respectable distance away, but now, with Charlotte no longer openly sobbing, the girl decided it was OK to speak.
“Are you all right?”
Charlotte scanned the region around the square and found what had to be the girl’s parents watching them.
“I’m…fine,” she said.
The girl shook her head. “No, you’re not. I can always tell.”
Doesn’t take a genius right now, Charlotte thought, but said nothing. The girl was being nice. There was no reason to be mean. She looked down.
“No, you’re right. I’m…not fine.”
“Thought so,” said the girl, without any note of satisfaction. “What’s wrong?”
What isn’t? My mother’s dead, I’m having awful nightmares that make me wet the bed, I’m hallucinating talking bears, and now I’m…I don’t know what this is.
All she could manage to say was, “I’m just sad.”
The girl looked at her. “You shouldn’t be sad around Christmas. Where’s your family?”
Charlotte snorted. “Good question.”
She shrugged. “I guess you could call it that.”
The girl smiled. “Well you can’t just sit here in the gazebo all night. Come home with me and my parents. They’ll call the police and we’ll sort it all out tomorrow.”
Since she had no better ideas, Charlotte went with the girl, whose parents turned out to be just as nice as she was. They didn’t ask her any questions, seeming to sense that she didn’t want to talk. Instead, they stopped at the little kiosk and bought both girls hot chocolates so that not talking wouldn’t be so weird. Then they slowly made their way home.
“Yes, Officer Miller. She was just sitting in the gazebo. Well, it’s a bit late tonight, don’t you think? No, it’s not a problem. Good. First thing tomorrow then. We’ll see you around 9.”
The woman, whom Charlotte had learned was named Mrs. Jenkins, hung up the phone.
“The police will come by in the morning to try to figure out where your parents are, Sweetheart.”
Charlotte nodded. She’d said so little since joining them that she was beginning to feel a bit rude to this pleasant family. Grace, the girl who had come to her in the gazebo, was just so nice that it almost made her feel uncomfortable; there was no way for her to return that. Not now. Maybe she’d never been able to. But certainly not now.
“Can you tell me anything about where you last saw them, Honey?”
Charlotte sighed. She could volunteer at least that much. Maybe they’d leave her alone.
“I’m really not sure. And it’s just him. My mother is dead.”
Mrs. Jenkins nodded her head, a sympathetic gesture, but something in her daughter’s eyes suddenly changed, grew curious.
“When did she die?” she asked, looking at Charlotte more intensely than before.
Her mother gave her a sharp look. “Grace Jenkins! If our guest wants to talk about that, she will. And I think it’s clear she doesn’t want to tell us personal things, at least not yet.”
Charlotte blushed. She was keenly aware, as were they, that she hadn’t even told them her name. She looked at Grace. “No, it’s…OK. She died in the summer.”
Grace’s eyes widened. “How did it happen?”
Her mother was almost apoplectic. “What is wrong with you, child? The girl was crying alone tonight! She’s lost! We don’t pry about personal matters!”
But Grace persisted. “No, Mom, it’s important! Please…can you tell me how she died?”
Confused, Charlotte said, “She…she died on a lake. She drowned.”
Grace turned and looked at her mother as if communicating something silently. Her mother’s eyes no longer reflected anger; she was registering the same surprise as her daughter. She said to her,
“You have a picture, right?”
“Bring it out here.”
Grace left and went to her room, leaving Charlotte completely confused. When she returned, Grace showed the picture to her mother, whose eyes grew as wide as her daughter’s.
“What?” asked Charlotte. “What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Jenkins. “Your name…is Charlotte Merriman, isn’t it?”
Everything started swirling around Charlotte. She had not told these people her name; how could they possibly have known it? What on earth was happening here? She started to stand, but the woman reached toward her, placed her hand over Charlotte’s gently, calming her at least for a moment.
“I understand you’d be confused, Honey. Frankly, so am I. Grace, how did you know?
“The details and that picture. We’re studying it in school!”
It was all too much for Charlotte, who suddenly burst out: “What is the picture?”
Slowly, Grace pushed it toward her. Trembling, she flipped it over: it was a lovely photograph of her, taken not even a year ago. She recognized it; it was the one from the last photo session the whole family had done together last spring. Her mind raced. What did this mean?
“What…how…where did you get this?” she stammered.
“School,” Grace answered, but that made no sense at all. That picture…we’re studying it in school. What was going on here?
Charlotte closed her eyes and slowly counted to ten before opening them again. Everything was the same. It was as if the others were trying to figure out how to proceed.
Finally, it was Grace who did. “This is amazing. You’re Charlotte. The Charlotte.”
“The Charlotte? What does that even mean?”
Mrs. Jenkins grabbed a newspaper and showed it to her: The Charlottesville Gazette. “The whole town is named after you, Honey. You didn’t see tonight because it’s dark, but most of the shops are, too. You’re…the Founder.”
“None of this makes any sense whatsoever,” Charlotte said. “I’m just a girl from Evanston.”
Grace looked at her, puzzled. “What’s ‘Evanston’?”
“My town. It’s near Chicago.”
Now Charlotte looked puzzled. “Wait: how can you never have heard of Chicago? I guess…um…look it up online?”
Grace was still drawing a blank. “What’s ‘online’?”
“My God!” Charlotte cried out. “You don’t know the internet?” She turned to Mrs. Jenkins and said, accusingly, “Why don’t you let your daughter online?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied. “I’ve never heard of this ‘internet’ thing.”
Charlotte drew in her breath. “What about–?”
“No, I’ve never heard of Chicago either.”
Charlotte sat back, trying to take it all in. “So where exactly am I?”
It was Grace who answered. “Charlottesville.”
“Right. And what state is that in?”
Somehow she had expected that answer. “And I’m…”
“Right. And you study me in school.”
“What do you learn about me?”
Grace now went into good student mode, as if she were remembering her studies for a test. “Well, let’s see. You were born to Emily and Robert Merrimann on May 15, 20–”
Charlotte interrupted. “I know the basic biography stuff, Grace.”
Grace laughed. “Oh, right. Of course. I always thought it was fun that you and your father have the same birthday. Years apart, of course.”
Charlotte sighed. They’d always had a running joke in the family that she was the best birthday present he had ever received or could receive, which is why he insisted on never getting any more birthday presents. Of course, that never stopped Charlotte from making him something—a card, a painting, a sculpture—and he still had every one of them. And every year, for their combined birthdays, they all went up to the lake for a weekend, even though it wasn’t quite the season yet.
Maybe not anymore.
Grace was still talking. “Well. After the death of your mother Emily, you were very depressed and needed an outlet. So you started building a village as a tribute to your mother. It was very meticulous, down to the flowers on the trees and the working streetlights. When it was complete, though, your father, Robert, wouldn’t let you name it after her because he was still in so much pain, so he insisted it be named after you. And one day, we learned, you would appear here with us, for some very important reason. And here we are.”
In the silence that followed, Charlotte considered. “So…we’re in the model village in my living room?”
Mrs. Jenkins replied, “That about covers it.”
“And I built it.”
“And I didn’t name anything after my mother, even though I built it for her?”
Mrs. Jenkins smiled. “Well now, you know you did, Charlotte, you little subversive. Like the mail service is called Emily’s Post. Things like that.”
Charlotte had to admit that did sound like her. She knew about Emily Post from conversations with her mother.
She shook her head. “This is so insane. If this is the village in my living room, where are the trains? It should have trains.”
Mrs. Jenkins smiled. “We have an ordinance that they don’t run at night. Noise thing.”
Charlotte stared at both of them, wondering when they’d let her in on the joke. “Come on! How can you expect me to believe this is that village?”
Grace and Mrs. Jenkins looked at each other. “Charles?” the latter called in to her husband, who had gone in to watch some game when they’d arrived, “We’re going back out for just a little while. Be right back.”
All bundled up again–for what reason, Charlotte didn’t know, for the outside temperature and the indoor temperature were pretty much the same–they moved back out into the now-silent town. When they got to the square, the only large open site, Mrs. Jenkins stopped them.
“OK,” she said. “Somehow I suspect this is not going to be quite what you’re used to.”
“What?” Charlotte said.
Mrs. Jenkins smiled. “Look up.”
Charlotte obeyed. Instead of the usual pattern of stars, or even a covering of clouds, there was…something else. High above them, almost invisible it was so stratospheric, was a casual white layer. She could swear she saw something swirled into it, but she wasn’t certain that it might not be a trick of the eyes. There was nothing between them and the white layer, which caught the village’s lights and bounced them back down.
Suddenly, in the distance, at its edge, the layer lit up dimly. It remained lit for a few minutes, then just as suddenly became dark again.
“We don’t know what that is,” Mrs. Jenkins said. “Some believe it has to do with God.”
Charlotte believed it had to do with her father turning on the kitchen light to get a late-night snack, but she didn’t say anything. She needed time to process all of this. Somehow she really was in her father’s village. And the people here were alive…and they thought she was the one who had created it.
Grace tugged at her coat. “So why are you here?”
“When you come, it’s supposed to be for a very important reason.”
Charlotte looked at Grace, whose innocent eyes expected so much from her at that moment. Behind Grace was her mother, equally interested in the answer. But all Charlotte could do was shake her head and mutter, “I have absolutely no idea.”
Back at the house, Charlotte and Grace were sent to their shared room to change into pajamas for the night. Charlotte was still wearing the diaper she’d arrived in, so at least for tonight she didn’t need to worry about explaining it to Grace or Mrs. Jenkins. She just pulled on her pajamas while Grace wasn’t paying attention, and they both went to bed.
“Grace?” Charlotte said quietly into the darkness.
“Yeah?” her new roommate responded.
“Thanks for being so nice to me.”
“Oh God. Of course. I mean we’re delighted to be the fortunate ones to get to have the Founder with us.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Charlotte said. “You were all great to me well before you knew who I was.”
“Duh,” Grace said. “People ought to be nice to people. That’s just how it should be.”
Charlotte snickered. “I wish.”
“Nothing. What’s it like, living here?”
Grace paused for a moment. “I’m not sure. I mean I don’t have anything to compare it to. But I get up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to school, then come home, hang with friends, do homework, hang with my parents, and then go to bed.”
“Wait,” Charlotte said. “You hang with your parents every night?”
So this is the world Daddy built: a world of perfect families. “What do you do?”
“Games, stories, nights out like tonight, lots of different things.”
Charlotte knew she was starting to cry but she didn’t care. “And everyone’s family is like this?”
“As far as I know. They aren’t like this Up There?”
She paused, thinking about old TV shows and musicals she had seen. “Not anymore, anyway. I think maybe they were, once. But that was a long time ago. Kids today just don’t generally enjoy being with their parents.”
There was silence in the room for a minute, and Charlotte started thinking Grace had fallen asleep. Then she heard her voice at last.
“But you built this entire place because of how much missed your mom. Surely you liked being with her.”
“I think,” said Charlotte, “I’m an exception rather than the rule.”
She didn’t know how much time had passed before the voices awakened her: people talking in the living room. This late? It seemed very odd. She rolled over to see if Grace was awake so she could ask her about it, but Grace’s bed was empty. Weird. Yet another thing that she didn’t understand. Did people here not sleep the same way she did? Charlotte considered walking right out into the middle of the conversation and asking what was going on, but something inside her told her to be stealthy about it instead.
As quietly as she could, she slipped out of her bed and through the door into the darkened hall. As soon as she was in the hallway, she could hear the voices more distinctly: all three Jenkins were there, and someone else. She crept as close as she dared so she could hear it more clearly.
“—the fate of the town,” Mr. Jenkins said.
“Charles, let’s not use hyperbole,” Mrs. Jenkins replied.
Then the new voice came in. “It isn’t hyperbole at all, Sarah. The girl is the reason the town exists, and you tell me she doesn’t know why she is here? We all know the prophecies.”
Mr. Jenkins’ voice answered him. “We all know a lot of things, Larry. They don’t have to happen that way.”
There was a pause, and it was Grace’s small voice that interrupted it. “They may not have to happen as written Up There, but here? All we are is what we were intended to be. We don’t know for sure what happens to us if she fails.”
Grace’s voice faltered, and her mother addressed her in comfort. “It’s OK, Grace. It’s early yet. It’s only the First Midnight.”
“That’s right,” said the new voice. “She has plenty of time. Besides, you don’t think the Council has been sitting on its heels all this time, do you?”
Mr. Jenkins’ voice sounded a bit nervous to Charlotte. “What do you mean, Larry?”
“Only that if Miss Merriman doesn’t find her way on time, we’ve come up with a…contingency plan.”
“I won’t let you hurt that girl,” Mr. Jenkins said.
“Hurt? No, no. We wouldn’t do that. I’m pretty sure there’s something in the town code forbidding it anyway. But Charlotte, whether she succeeds or fails, is powerful. If she succeeds, well we know what happens. If she fails, the Council will make sure we can still use her power after the Third Midnight.”
There was another pause.
“But as I said,” he continued, “she still has lots of time. No need to worry about things like that.”
There was some shuffling in the room, and Charlotte scrambled back to her bed as quietly and quickly as she could. A few minutes later, Grace came into the room. She walked over to Charlotte’s bed and looked at her for a moment, then slipped into her own and shortly fell asleep.
Whatever I am meant to do, they really need me to do it. Suddenly Charlotte’s fate and the fate of all of the people in the town bearing her name seemed intertwined in ways that she couldn’t understand, but that seemed unavoidable. And what did the new voice mean when he said they needed her power? She was pondering these things and a lot more when she too fell asleep.
“Oh my gosh,” said Officer Miller (Miller the cop, Charlotte thought). “It’s really the Charlotte? Well…we’re not likely to find her parents, are we–sorry, Love, I mean your Dad’s Up There and your Mom’s, well…so what are we going to do?”
Charlotte had not wet her diaper overnight for the first time in months. Maybe she didn’t need it here in Whoville. She’d taken it off and stored it away, hiding it behind a dresser, in case she ended up staying another night, a second midnight. Why am I here? How can I find out? She’d borrowed Grace’s clothes and got dressed. Amazingly, like the pajamas, they all fit perfectly.
The policeman rambled on. “…tell the Mayor, of course, and the Chief. Maybe there should be a holiday or something. Founder’s Day is May 15, but we can always have another one.”
“May 15?” asked Charlotte.
“Of course,” he said. “Your birthday. But that doesn’t mean–”
Mrs. Jenkins cut him off. “Thank you, Officer Miller. I’m sure you’re right. We’ll take her to see the mayor this afternoon.”
He seemed extraordinarily pleased, and Charlotte thought that perhaps Officer Miller did not receive praise very often.
After breakfast, bundled up once more (why not?), Charlotte, Grace, and Mrs. Jenkins took a horse-drawn carriage ride (really? thought Charlotte; he really added these?) that took them into the little town. She had to admit the carriage ride was fun, and it was weird that everyone they passed waved hello to her, calling her by name in such happy tones that she got swept up in their joy, all but forgetting her mission: figuring out why she was here so that the town wouldn’t implode or whatever it was supposed to do. She needed to keep her eyes open, search for anything that would give her a clue.
At one point, she asked Mrs. Jenkins if they could stop for a hot chocolate and a donut at the local coffee shop, and when the carriage pulled over, the owners themselves (Benny and Will, of course) came out, bringing her the best cocoa she’d ever had other than her mother’s and telling her how happy they were that she had stopped at their shop. It was pretty ridiculous, she thought: it was as if she were the Queen of England. As they enjoyed the cocoa and cakes, she asked Will and Benny about their shop.
“Oh, it’s a dream come true,” Benny said.
“Yes,” Will agreed. “We’ve wanted to open a little place like this since we were teenagers. It’s a strange ambition, I guess, but it’s what we always hoped for.”
Charlotte swallowed a bite of her cake. “No,” she said, “I think it’s wonderful. You’re doing exactly what you love.”
Both men smiled. Benny said, “That’s what’s so great about your town, Charlotte. Everyone here does what we love to do. Engineers out at the energy plant: they love that stuff. Charlie the cabby is the happiest guy in town because he’s always meeting new people. Amul at the Gazette? He’s a born journalist. And Doc Sheila is so good you’d think she was born with a stethoscope around her neck.”
Charlotte was enthralled. Daddy built heaven. But what could she possibly add to all of this? What was her role?
Saying goodbye to Will and Benny, Charlotte and the Jenkins let the driver continue on through the town. They passed the train station, where she noted without surprise that the signs on the platforms read “To Charlottesville” in both directions. They continued around the square, passing all kinds of waving people, until they were directly in front of the movie house. As the carriage paused so that people could cross in front of them, Charlotte noted the coming attraction placard in the window: Amelie.
“Charlotte, are you all right?” Mrs. Jenkins was speaking, but Charlotte barely heard her. All she could concentrate on was the placard.
Suddenly Charlotte leapt from the carriage and bolted across the square. She had no idea what she was doing or where she was going; she just needed to run, run, run. If she stopped running, the pain would start again, and she couldn’t let it, so run. She had the vague notion that she was being chased, but she didn’t care. Without direction, without goal, without a notion in the world of why she was really doing it, she just…ran. Until she couldn’t run any longer. Until her legs gave out and she fell to the ground, sobbing.
A hand reached down to her. A man’s hand.
“Miss? May I help you?”
A slightly Southern accent. Friendly. She didn’t know the voice, but somehow she knew she could trust it. She looked up to see the face. The man was middle aged, clean-shaven, a little overweight. His graying hair was covered by the kind of hats the kids wore in Newsies. His expression was concerned, but friendly.
“Are you all right? May I help you up?”
She became aware of a crowd of people standing around them watching all of this. She refocused on the man.
“Please,” she said.
Lifting her to her feet, he helped her clean herself off a bit and then smiled. “Looks as if you really needed to run something off there.”
Charlotte smiled. “I guess so.”
“My name is Charlie,” the man said. “I drive the local cab. I’m completely at the Founder’s service, but today, well, today I just saw a girl in trouble. Are you sure you’re all right now?”
She smiled again. “Yes I am. Thank you, Charlie.”
Charlie looked out into the crowd and called, “Who is Charlotte staying with?”
Mrs. Jenkins, who had by now managed to get to the front, told him that Charlotte was with them and thanked him for his help. Then, along with Grace, she and Charlotte walked off away from the direction of the crowd.
Once they were a sufficient distance away, Mrs. Jenkins asked, “Do you feel comfortable talking about that?”
Charlotte shook her head. She wasn’t really sure herself what had just happened. It had been an instinctive reaction, something primal. She was afraid of it. But then Grace chimed in. “It might be important. It might help to figure out why you’re here.”
They walked silently for several minutes. She could be right, Charlotte thought. She’d been looking for a sign, and then she came across one…literally. Finally she said, “It was the placard at the movie theatre. Amelie.”
Mrs. Jenkins shook her head, confused. “What about it?”
“Well, first of all, it was my mom’s favorite movie. We must have watched it together ten times. I could practically understand the French.”
“Oh,” said Grace, understanding. “That makes sense then.”
“No, no,” said Charlotte quickly, piecing it together as she spoke. “That’s not it though. Well, not all of it anyway. I mean, yeah, it’s true I’ve avoided that movie since she died and all, but when I saw the poster I suddenly realized something else.”
They walked in silence for a couple of minutes, both Grace and her mother allowing Charlotte to process her thoughts before moving on. When she had, she said, “Amelie is a movie about an intelligent young girl whose mother dies. Her father is so broken that he basically confines himself to his home and spends all of his time working on a monument to his wife.”
Mrs. Jenkins looked at her almost expectantly. “Oh dear,” she said finally. “That’s so…”
“Yeah,” said Charlotte. “Anyway, everything Amelie could have been is lost, all because she and her father couldn’t get past the death of her mother.”
“That sounds terrible!” Grace said.
Charlotte smiled. “Well, it would have been, but Amelie meets someone and weird things happen and she gets pulled out of her solitary life. And then she manages to pull her father out of his too.”
Mrs. Jenkins lit up. “Well, that’s certainly more appropriate for children than the film you were describing at first.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Charlotte. “But anyway I flashed on all of that when I saw the placard, but I didn’t really understand any of it. Not until now, talking about it. Does that make any sense?”
Mrs. Jenkins looked at her. “Talking about things is often the best way to process them, Honey.”
“Yeah,” said Charlotte. “That’s exactly what my shrink says, too.”
“So did you figure anything out?”
Charlotte was unsure. “I saw what was happening to my life. Like Amelie, I’ve given up.”
At that, Grace clapped her hands. “Yes! That has to be it! You’re here to start to move on! You built Charlottesville so we could help you figure that out!”
Her mother tried to catch Grace’s eye, but there was no stopping the child’s exuberance. She grabbed Charlotte and hugged her, starting an impromptu dance in the street. Mrs. Jenkins joined them, and before long they noticed that pretty much everyone who could be seen was dancing as well.
Charlotte laughed. The Founder has great power.
Now, the parade, Charlotte thought, was way over the top. It was like every Fourth of July parade she’d ever been to rolled into one, and it was all in honor of her, which was–in a word–ridiculous. When the Mayor heard that the Founder was actually in Charlottesville, he pulled out all the stops. He closed the schools, ordered the town’s restaurants to provide parade route refreshments, got the high school band to play, pulled the last parade’s floats out of storage and set 100 volunteers to work hastily remaking them for the occasion, and basically did everything he could to insure that it would be the Grandest Occasion in town history.
When Charlotte’s float, having rolled through the town to nonstop cheers, finally arrived at the town hall, he met her there personally.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said into a microphone so everyone gathered in the square and on the route could hear, “it’s my pleasure to welcome the reason the town exists, Charlotte Merriman!”
There were wild cheers throughout the crowd.
“We’re not much for ceremony here, but this is indeed a monumental occasion, so I have decided, as Mayor of Charlottesville, to award you the key to the city, though I suspect that you could probably get into anyplace you want anyway, since you built them all.”
Everyone laughed, and he placed a ribbon with a huge gold-colored key around Charlotte’s neck. Close to him now, she wondered where she knew him from, but didn’t have time to give it a lot of thought: anyway, her father had probably patterned him after a business associate.
After the ceremony, Charlotte was driven (those horse-drawn carriages again) back to the Jenkins’ house with Grace and Mrs. Jenkins. She noticed that Mr. Jenkins had stayed behind and was exchanging a few not-too-pleasant words with the Mayor.
“What’s that all about?” she asked Mrs. Jenkins with a nod toward the argument.
Mrs. Jenkins smiled calmly. “Nothing serious, I’m sure. Charles and Larry fight about everything. I don’t think they’ve agreed on a single issue since Larry became Mayor.”
Larry. The extra voice last night was the Mayor. Of course! He had even used the same phrase from the ceremony last night: “she is the reason the town exists.” But what else had he said? Whether she succeeds or fails, she is powerful. We all know the prophecies.
“What are the prophecies?” she asked, hoping she could just get away with it, that they’d figure she heard it somewhere.
“The Founder Prophecies,” answered Mrs. Jenkins. “They’re our Holy Book.”
“Like the Bible?”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Of course not. So what is in these prophecies?”
“Well, for one thing,” Mrs. Jenkins went on, “there is the visit you are currently making to our town. It was foretold by the prophecies.”
Charlotte nodded. “Right, and they said I would come for a very important reason.”
Charlotte considered that for a minute. “Mrs. Jenkins?”
“Why are holy books and prophecies so darned impossible to understand?”
“I don’t know. I think they always need some interpretation.”
“I mean why can’t they ever be specific? If you’re going to bother making prophecies in the first place, why not make them useful? It’s like, you get a fortune told and it’s always you will meet someone new who will be important or something. It’s never the guy in English class with the blonde hair will be your new boyfriend.”
“I know, but I don’t think they work that way.”
“Well, it would certainly be useful to know, for example, exactly what the reason is that I’m supposed to be here for. Prophecies always leave way too much open ended.”
“I suppose they do.”
But Charlotte was on a roll. “And they absolutely are never anything like make sure your mom doesn’t go out on the lake in the morning because if she does you’ll never see her again.”
Charlotte had no idea where that came from. She had not at all expected it. The words were several seconds quicker than her brain’s ability to process them. When she caught up, she could feel what Mrs. Jenkins and Grace saw: her face contorting, tears beginning to stream, the Founder losing control.
“Hey, Honey,” Mrs. Jenkins said, quickly putting her arms around Charlotte. “It will be OK. It really will.”
But Charlotte, crying in her arms, shook her head and said, “No. No it won’t. Not all of it.”
Grace, sitting across from them, said, “It’s a wonder you don’t do that all the time. I think I would.”
Charlotte looked up, tears still streaming. “That’s just it, though: it’s all I have been doing for months. I’ve been dead inside. I’ve forgotten how to be alive. Then I come here and you…remind me.”
They rode a while in silence, and finally Charlotte’s tears slowed enough for her to ask, “The prophecies. What else do they say about me?”
Grace and her mother looked purposefully at each other. “I think you know all of it,” Grace said.
“I don’t,” protested Charlotte. “I don’t know, for instance, whether there are any risks attached to my learning or not learning my reason for being here.”
Once again, there was silence. Finally, Mrs. Jenkins asked, “What have you heard?”
“That there are consequences for the town if I fail.”
Mrs. Jenkins was about to calm her fears, but her daughter stopped her. “It’s true. The prophecy is…unclear…about what would happen, but what is clear is that it wouldn’t be good.”
“I see,” said Charlotte. “Anything else I should know?”
The carriage had arrived home, and all three stopped the conversation long enough to get into the house and take off their outdoor clothing. Mrs. Jenkins went into the kitchen to make some cocoa, and they all sat at the table.
“Well?” asked Charlotte. “Can we start with Mayor McCheese back there? I heard him talking with you last night. What was that bit about a contingency plan?”
The front door opened, and Mr. Jenkins walked in.
“Good timing, Charles,” called Mrs. Jenkins. “We need your input here.”
He walked in and saw the three of them sitting with their cocoas. “Looks as if you have plenty to input already,” he said with a smile.
His wife shook her head. “No joking right now, Sweetheart. We’ve been having a very serious conversation, and right now Charlotte wants to know what Larry meant last night by a contingency plan.”
The look on his face went from sugary to serious to concerned in less than a second. “You heard us.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, I did,” she said.
He shook his head. “You weren’t supposed to. I told him we shouldn’t meet here. He’s such an idiot. Anyway, doesn’t matter. Did you see me arguing with him after the ceremony today?”
“Well, that’s what it was about. You’ve got nothing to worry about. I convinced him that, no matter what, he needs to call off his plan, whatever it is.”
Grace spoke up. “Do you trust him, Daddy?”
“What a question. My little cynical daughter! Yes, I trust him,” he said. “That’s why we elect politicians: to do what they promise to do.”
Charlotte looked at her host. “Thank you so much, Mr. Jenkins. I heard you stand up for me last night as well.”
“No more than I’d do for anyone, Honey. Out of curiosity, are you any closer to figuring it all out?”
She shook her head. “I thought I had something today, but I may have been on the wrong track. I’ll keep thinking about it.”
He smiled. “You do that.”
The whole thing, to Charlotte, was insane. Everyone wanted her to answer some mysterious question that no one had any clue about, but there were obvious questions that none of them even thought about at all. For example, no one at all questioned how their entire world could have been constructed by a 12-year-old. That alone, to Charlotte, set this existence somewhere in the Wonderland/Neverland universe, where things didn’t actually have to make a whole lot of logical sense. No one here wondered how they had lived their whole lives, and their ancestors’ lives, since last summer when her mother had died. Time here just behaved differently, she guessed. To them, this was of course Life As Usual: Charlotte Merriman had built this town and everything in it, and she mattered to them.
Charlotte Merriman mattered. She was important. People cared about her. They loved her. When she was in a crowd, they noticed her…and in a good way. It was more than she could ever want.
Lying on her bed, Charlotte felt very tired. She had way too much on her mind for any more conversation, but she had no idea where to begin. Too many issues: her purpose, her power, the prophecies…
If her purpose had to do with Amelie, why did she feel that she still had not figured it all out? She thought she understood the movie pretty well; she’d certainly talked about it enough with her mother. And what should she think about the mayor and his “contingency”? It all sounded like some kind of threat to her. But one thing was for sure, she knew: he was right that she did have power here. Everyone’s reactions had proved that pretty well. She was going to use that power to get to the bottom of things. She was going to expose him and whatever deceitful game he was playing.
How could she expose the Mayor’s treachery when she was such a fraud? It was all a lie. That was the only way she could ever matter: based on a lie. Everything felt so wrong, so dishonest. She knew she hadn’t invented the lie, but she’d gone along with it; wasn’t that the same thing? But, she thought, it made everyone here so happy. What does it really matter if it makes everyone happy? It clearly makes them happy to pretend entire lifetimes can be lived in six months and that complex villages can be invented by 12-year-olds, so why not?
But she knew she lacked the capacity for self-delusion that these people, who after all were the products of her father’s inventive mind, possessed. A lie was a lie was a lie. And, yes, she’d had actual fun today. And, yes, for a while she’d even forgotten her pain. But that was a lie too. Anything based on a lie is also a lie.
She knew what she had to do. And she suddenly realized something else as well. Since she wasn’t the founder, none of the Founder prophecies were actually in play with her visit. So the only one likely to be hurt be her revelations was Charlotte herself. And that was fine; as the beneficiary of a lie, she deserved it.
The next morning (dry again!) she found all three Jenkins at the table eating breakfast when she awoke. It was funny, she realized, she hadn’t talked much to Mr Jenkins since she’d been here, had hardly seen him, but now here he was. As she looked at him, she was stunned by his appearance: he looked so much like Daddy! It unnerved her for a moment, and she ended up asking something she hadn’t intended to, once the morning niceties were out of the way.
“Why haven’t I seen pictures of my parents anywhere? I mean there weren’t even any at the parade.”
The Jenkins looked quietly at each other and kept eating.
“Did I ask something wrong?”
Finally, Mrs. Jenkins said, “We celebrate you, my dear. The way you intended it. You didn’t put any of those pictures into the town.”
Charlotte closed her eyes. Her father had not only built this entire town to immortalize her, to make her young life have meaning, to make sure she could never fade from existence like her mother, but had done it so selflessly that he’d erased all traces of himself from it?
Not on her watch.
She looked at her hosts. “I didn’t,” she said.
“What?” they all responded, confused. Mr. Jenkins added, “You didn’t what?”
“I didn’t intend anything. I didn’t build Charlottesville. My father did.”
The room grew still. Then, slowly, all three of her hosts’ faces opened into great smiles. The sunlight, which had been sifting gently into the space, burst forth in full noontime blaze. From everywhere, Charlotte heard the sound of trumpets blowing, sending a call into what passed here for the heavens. The Jenkins had stood and come to her side of the table, surrounding her. They were all hugging her, all talking at the same time.
Charlotte had never been so confused in all of her life, not even when her teddy bear had started talking to her.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
Grace held her and smiled. “You’ve done it, Charlotte. You’ve done it.”
Charlotte watched them all laughing and dancing around her as if they’d suddenly been zapped with one of those comic book weapons that steals your senses.
“Done what?” she asked.
And Mr. Jenkins, so reminiscent of her father, spoke now in a calm voice. “Despite personal risk, you acted in a selfless way, Sweetheart. You’ve been so miserable for so long. You could have just let yourself be happy, which for a little while you actually were, even though you didn’t deserve it. But instead you let the real architect have the credit.”
Charlotte paused. “You all…knew?”
“The whole town was designed for this moment, Charlotte,” said Mrs. Jenkins. “Your father knew your pain, and he couldn’t get through to you Up There, so this is how he chose to help. He needed you to heal. It was the purpose of your visit.”
Grace let out a small laugh. “We’re all so relieved, to be honest. We were worried you wouldn’t make it.”
Mrs. Jenkins joined in. “It’s the second full day, and tonight will be the third midnight. I don’t know how many stories you’ve ever read about mystical matters, but, well, you don’t get a fourth midnight.”
“Yeah,” said Grace. “If you hadn’t figured it out today, it all would have been for nothing.”
“Does that mean I’m–?”
“Going home tonight, yes,” Grace answered. “You basically have to.”
Charlotte shook her head, realizing she’d been doing a lot of that since she got here. “But how? I don’t even have a clue about how I got here in the first place!”
“Well, I think I can help with that,” came a voice behind her.
She knew that voice. She turned, and standing on the floor behind her was a three foot tall stuffed polar bear.
“Pringles!” she said, jumping up and hugging him.
“Hey,” he cautioned her. “Don’t squeeze out my stuffing!”
“You sent me here?”
The bear smiled. “Of course I did. We guardian angels do have a few tricks up our sleeves. You said you were no more alive than these people; I decided to show you exactly what that really meant.”
Charlotte looked at Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins, who had been so very nice to her. She looked at Grace, who’d been like a sister for the past couple of days. Not alive? These were the most alive people she’d ever met!
“Yes, they are,” said the bear.
She rolled her eyes. “Can you please wait until I actually say something before responding?”
He smiled. “I’m doing that right now.”
“Arrgh,” she said.
Mrs. Jenkins tapped her on the shoulders. “Um, Charlotte, care to introduce us?”
“Oh! Goodness. I totally forgot. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins, Grace, this is Pringles, my bear. Or, well, he’s not really Pringles, but he’s using Pringles because it makes me comfortable. Or something.”
The bear stepped in. “I’m her guardian angel. How do you do?”
When everyone had said their hellos, not-Pringles said to Charlotte, “So I guess you know you’re going home tonight.”
She nodded. “But I can’t leave yet.”
“Why not?” asked Grace.
“What about Daddy?” Charlotte said. “He’s been every bit as stuck as I was. He fixed me; I have to fix him too.”
For the second time in the past few minutes, the universe abruptly changed. Colored lights whirled about the room, fireworks seemed to be going off, and fanfares played. When it had run its course, it was Mrs. Jenkins, not Charlotte, who asked, “What on earth was that?”
Not-Pringles answered. “Oh, a little sparkle of my own design.”
Charlotte looked at him. “Why?”
“Because, though you fulfilled the design of your father’s world and saved yourself, there was nothing here requiring you to save him. Nope. That one was your own call, my little Amelie.”
She smiled the biggest smile she had since before her mother died. “So how?”
Not-Pringles considered. “Well I’m not his guardian angel, you know, and we’re fresh out of garden gnomes, but while you’re still here there might be one possibility. Mrs. Jenkins, could you call a cab for Charlotte?”
“Now to be honest I’m a bit uncertain about this specific plan of action,” not-Pringles said, leaning into the cab window after telling Charlie where to go. “You’ve come so far here and I don’t want to send you plunging back. So I wasn’t even going to tell you.”
Charlotte stomped her foot. “I’d have been furious with you. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. This is for Daddy.”
After passing through a lot of snow-covered undeveloped territory that separated this small area of Charlottesville from the rest of the county, the cab pulled up on a city block that Charlotte recognized. She’d been here before, but it was so odd to see it like this: detached from the city that gave it a home and a name.
“Can you wait for me?” she asked Charlie. “I’ll probably be an hour or two and I don’t even know if there are cabs here.”
He smiled. “For you, Charlotte, anything. You’re the daughter of the Founder.”
Charlotte’s face lit up. Overnight, the world—at least this one—had changed.
She got out in front of the small bar on the east side of the street and crossed to the unusual facade. Its doorway was set back behind an archway featuring a pair of sculpted pillars and old-fashioned looking street lamps. Hanging above the archway was the lone sign: a vertical one that said, simply, “The Second City.”
Waiting beneath it, attempting to sell off tickets for that evening’s show (when did it become evening? Charlotte wondered) to people in the incoming crowd, was a very young version of her mother.
Charlotte drew in her breath. She’s not really her, she told herself over and over.
Gathering all of her strength, she reminded herself what she needed to do. She knew her father had never put a true version of himself in this village, so this Emily would sell her tickets, if she sold them, to someone else and then go home. As she did every night, according to not-Pringles.
But not this time.
She approached the woman, taking in her striking beauty as her father must have all those years ago. Wow. No wonder he married her. The woman was so very much younger than her mother, but she was also clearly the same person: it was the eyes, Charlotte thought. She has Mommy’s eyes. Which means she has my eyes. Of course she did; Daddy’s an artist. As she got close enough, she drew up all of her strength, walked up to her, reached out an arm as if to shake hands, and said, “Hi, Emily.”
In her mother-to-be’s apartment, an hour later, Charlotte sipped a Coke wondering if she would believe the kind of tale she had just told this woman. A strange kid walks up to you, introduces herself by using your name, and then informs you that she is actually your daughter from some future time. Not only that, but you are not actually you, since you died last summer in a kayak accident, and your grieving husband somehow has created a magical village named after your daughter that includes, on its outskirts, an exact replica of the theatre outside of which you met him, and every night you play out that moment again and again. You’re unsuccessful, though, because he’s been too sad to build a replica of himself to place into this world. And he just can’t move on.
Oh, right, and a guardian angel shaped like a teddy bear magically transported the girl here to cure her of a horrific depression she’d been in since your death, and she has to go back tonight.
“Anything else?” her mother asked.
She considered. Lots of small things, but nothing that seemed completely important. And she really didn’t feel like mentioning the bedwetting. She shrugged. “I think that’s about it.”
“Well,” her mother said with a smile. “If that’s all.”
Charlotte pleaded. “I know it sounds crazy. I know it does. But…haven’t you ever wondered why the only part of Chicago that even exists is this single block? Have you ever tried to go outside of it? Maybe walk down North to the lakefront? Go to the Loop and see a play?”
Her mother laughed. “Of course I have. I used to live in a high-rise downtown on the lakefront. And I saw a show just last week.”
How could that be? Charlotte thought. Then she remembered.
“Could you do something for me? If you don’t believe me afterwards, I’ll just go away, and I’m sure that tomorrow this will all be less than a weird dream. Could you?”
The woman shook her head, smiling. “Whatever,” she said.
Outside, the two turned east on North and walked toward the lake. The traffic was light, and there was a breeze.
“What do you think is going to happen?” her mother asked.
“I don’t know,” Charlotte answered, “but it will surely be something like–”
Suddenly they were standing in front of the Second City building again.
“–that,” Charlotte finished.
Her mother’s face turned white. Both of them walked back to her apartment in silence.
“What was that?” her mother asked, still ashen.
Charlotte shrugged. “I don’t know. Time bending back on itself, maybe. Whatever. You have a remembered back story, but all you relive is this one night, again and again.”
Her mother poured herself a drink and quickly downed it. “Do you need one?”
“I’m only twelve.”
“Thank goodness you get better at parenting later.”
“Give me a break, kid. I’ve just seen the impossible.”
Charlotte smiled. “I’ve been living a lot of impossible things lately. But if it’s any consolation, I think you’ll forget it all when your clock resets.”
They were silent for a moment.
“So why did you tell me? Did you just want to meet me?”
“Well, actually my guardian angel was really worried that meeting you would send me into a depression spiral. It hasn’t, though; I think it’s because you’re not enough like what you become later. You were childless for a while after a long courtship, so basically where I am is more than twenty years from now.”
“I need something from you.”
Emily leaned into the window of Charlie’s cab. “Charlotte? Do you really think that will help?”
Charlotte shrugged. “Can’t hurt,” she said.
Her mother leaned further in toward her. “Would you mind,” she asked, “if I…kissed you?”
Charlotte felt tears in her eyes. “Mom…I’d like nothing more.”
Outside of the area of The Second City, it was getting to be twilight. As they drove back to Charlottesville proper, Charlotte thought about everything that had happened to her in the last few days. What she had told her mother was right: she’d been living a lot of impossible things lately. What had started it? Meeting the not-Pringles bear, she supposed, which happened because she––
“Holy shit!” she said out loud.
“Is something wrong?” Charlie asked her.
“Yes! I mean I don’t know! I mean I need to get back as quickly as you can get me there!”
“Not a problem, Miss,” said Charlie, and they pulled up at the Jenkins’ house.
“What?” Charlotte asked, confused. “But we just left… How?”
“You asked me to get you here quickly, so I did.”
She shook her head. “I keep forgetting that this place doesn’t work the same as Up There.” Suddenly realizing she had nothing to pay him, she blushed.
“Um, Charlie…I need to go in to get Mr. Jenkins to pay you, OK?”
He just smiled. “There is no charge for you, Miss. Ever.”
This place really was amazing. “Thank you, Charlie.”
“You are completely welcome, Miss.”
Exiting the cab, Charlotte ran up the stairs. As soon as she was inside, she asked Mrs. Jenkins, “Where is Pringles?”
“Whoa, there!” her host said. “Why the rush?”
But Charlotte was desperate. “I need to talk with him. It’s about…how I left things at home.”
“Well, I’m sure things there will work themselves out,” Mrs. Jenkins said, but Charlotte suddenly put her hand over her face and started crying. The woman took her into her arms and held her.
“It’s OK,” she said. “I’m sure it will be fine.”
“You don’t–understand,” Charlotte sobbed. “You don’t–know–what I–did.”
Mrs, Jenkins kept stroking her hair and talking to her as if she were a much younger child. “Whatever it is, it will work out.”
“I don’t think so!” Charlotte yelled. “I think it’s–too–late.”
The hallway door opened and Grace walked in. Seeing her friend in such a state, she immediately knew what to do. Turning back to her room, she re-emerged with Pringles.
As soon as the bear saw Charlotte, he understood.
“I can’t tell you what’s happening Up There, Charlotte. Not from here.”
“But I left that note, and I’ve been gone so long, and he must be panicked!”
“All we can do is get you home.”
She was shaking like a leaf, but allowed herself to be led to the room she’d been sharing.
“You need to be dressed as you were when you arrived,” non-Pringles told her. She gave him a small, pleading eye, but he said, “Exactly.”
So Charlotte reached behind the dresser and pulled out her diaper, still miraculously dry after two nights down here in the village named for her. Neither Grace nor her mother indicated any surprise, and it occurred to Charlotte that this was yet another thing that everyone down here knew about her.
“Would you like me to help, Honey?” Mrs. Jenkins offered. “It might not stick very well on the third night.”
Charlotte, beyond embarrassment, considered it and accepted the help. Mrs. Jenkins taped her up with a little duct tape assistance to hold the thing on no matter what. She noticed that the tape was a pleasing pink color, another oddity of Charlottesville. After that, she finished dressing in the clothing she’d found herself wearing on the gazebo.
“Time to go,” said the bear.
All bundled up now against the lack of cold, they made their way to the town square and the white gazebo. As hard as it was, she said her goodbyes to the Jenkins family. When it came time to say goodbye to Grace, she whispered, “If ever you are curious about what my father–the Founder–looks like, take a look at your dad. He’s pretty much a doppelganger.”
As the family walked away to wait near the kiosk, Charlotte smiled to see Grace staring wide-eyed at her father with newfound respect.
Together, the bear and the girl sat on the gazebo.
“Will he be OK, do you think?” she asked him.
“I think so, yes,” he responded, having politely waited for her to ask the question. “It’s possible you may frighten him, but the fact that you’re better will no doubt help a lot.”
She looked around at the town and its twinkling lights one more time, listening to the music. This time she sang along.
“Hark how the bells,
Sweet silver bells,
All seem to say,
Throw cares away.”
The carol faded out and another song started. And another. And another. But nothing was happening. The town square was just as it always was: lights, carols, people wandering about, kiosk selling whatever…and she was still here.
“Something’s wrong,” she said to not-Pringles.
She looked at the bear and realized that he too seemed a bit alarmed. “Not to…worry,” he answered. “We’re just, well, in terms of going back, we seem not to be…there are…complications…”
She stared at him. “Complications?” she yelled.
“Now, now,” he said. “It’s just that it’s…broken, I think.”
She was confused. “What’s broken?”
“The gazebo,” he admitted sheepishly.
“Just a little problem. I’ll figure something out.”
She sat there, immobile, tears again overflowing her eyes. This couldn’t possibly be happening. “I thought everyone said I had to get back tonight.”
He looked at her, trying what came across as a very tentative smile. “Well, um, yes, um, that’s pretty much…true.”
“And if I don’t?”
“It…was all for nothing.”
She paused, every connection in her mind firing at the same time. Then she looked the bear straight in the eye and practically screamed. “SO GET ME BACK!!!”
For several minutes they both were quiet other than her sobbing. The night was generally quiet other than the carols; people were wandering about, but no one appeared to recognize the girl in the winter clothing as Charlotte. And then there was a commotion over near the kiosk where the Jenkins were waiting for her disappearance. Someone had joined them, and there was arguing. Mr. Jenkins angrily stormed away from the kiosk in their direction, the other man trailing behind.
“Charlotte,” Mr. Jenkins said, not even attempting to hide the irritation in his voice, “the Mayor needs to tell you something.”
Suddenly Charlotte realized that the second man was indeed the Mayor, looking very small and sheepish.
“Um, Charlotte, I…” He stopped, apparently unable to get the words out.
“Oh for crying out loud,” said not-Pringles. Then turning to Charlotte, “This idiot was worried that you might not find your way, so he set up a contingency plan to keep you here if he needed to.”
“The town itself would have failed, Charlotte,” the mayor pleaded. “We all would have died.”
She looked at him. “But I figured it out,” she said. “I even went further and did more than required. And besides: I’m not the Founder so nothing even applied!”
The Mayor shook his head. “Yes. Yes it did. All of those prophecies were called Founder Prophecies but they were actually aimed at you. But you’re right: you passed.”
“So what’s the issue?”
The Mayor looked like he was trying to shrink into himself, so not-Pringles answered for him again.
“One of the even bigger morons on the Council didn’t hear that you’d passed and broke the gazebo.”
“How?” she asked.
The Mayor responded, “Since we knew that was where you came in, we figured that would be how you would have to leave. Jeremiah’s cousin does a little magic, so…”
“…you cast a spell preventing traveling here,” not-Pringles finished for him. “Super.”
Charlotte started crying again. “What happens now?”
Mr. Jenkins replied. “It’s closing in on 10:30. If you’re not gone by midnight, it’s worse than it not meaning anything. It seems that you…can’t leave.”
She turned to not-Pringles. “Ever?”
He nodded. “I’m afraid that’s true.”
She fell to the floor of the gazebo and grabbed at his fur. “Please…please think of something!”
For almost another hour, not-Pringles mumbled to himself, trying to work out some way to get back without the gazebo. While the mayor shrank as far back into the surrounding brush as he could, the Jenkins offered solace to Charlotte.
“Would it be so bad?” Grace asked. “We could be sisters.”
“I know,” Charlotte said. “And I’d love that. But Daddy would have no one. I just can’t imagine leaving him all alone.”
Mr. Jenkins, the image of her father, leaned down. “We’ll figure this out, Charlotte.”
Then, suddenly, not-Pringles leapt up and cried out, “Eureka!”
Charlotte asked through her tears, “You figured it out?”
“Well, actually, I’ve always wanted to leap up and cry out ‘Eureka.’” He paused. “I must admit it isn’t quite as satisfying as I thought it would be.”
He smiled. “Yes, yes, I did figure it out. Come with me. No time to waste.”
He ambled off of the gazebo, Charlotte and the rest following, and they headed across the square and down a side street. It didn’t take long before Charlotte too figured out where they were going.
“The train station? But they don’t run at night!”
He smiled at her. “Normally they don’t. But who are you?”
She stopped for a moment, and then her face changed. “Oh right. And I can ride the train home?”
“Should work,” he said. “Where does the sign say it goes?”
“Charlottesville,” she said.
“There you go.”
At first she didn’t get it. And then she did. She laughed. “I guess one Charlottesville is as good as another. Is the conductor here?”
A tall man in a green coat walked up to them. “Sure am, Miss. Anything you need.”
Charlotte sighed, pointing at the sign on the platform. “I guess I’m going to Charlottesville, please. Um…11:45 train. One way.”
She wanted to sleep some more, but couldn’t. Someone was jostling her, moving her around.
“Lemmego,” she slurred. “Wannasleep.”
“You’ve been sleeping forever,” her father’s voice said from somewhere. “But OK, a little longe–”
He stopped in the middle of a word, his silence penetrating the veils of sleep far better than anything else he might have done. She opened her eyes and saw him. His eyes were…what?…frightened? She had never seen them like that. She let her gaze slip downward; he was holding her computer.
“Charlotte? What is this?”
As he looked toward her, there was no way for him to miss the pill bottle on her night table. He lunged for it, knocking the loose pills to the floor, and opened it, hastily examining, mentally counting to be sure all was well. His breath was heavy. He turned back to her, reached down and grabbed her shoulders. He shook her.
“You can’t ever do that.” There was something in his voice that terrified her. “Never! Never ever!” At first she didn’t recognize it but then she did: he was terrified. He’d lost his wife and now it seemed his daughter was suicidal.
“It’s OK, Daddy,” she said. “It’s OK. Really. When I wrote that I meant it, but I’m fine now.”
She hoped that didn’t sound as stupid to him as it did to her. After all, it had clearly been a dream. Here she was, waking up the very next day. Pringles was next to her in bed as always, and he wasn’t talking or moving around. But it was a dream like she’d never had before in her life, a dream that, she felt, changed her. Somehow she’d have to convey that to him.
Speaking of changes, she realized she was wet. Yet another part of it that was only a dream. Oh well.
The look on her father’s face said he was far from finished with her, but the diaper wasn’t comfortable, so she took a chance. “Daddy, I know we need to talk, but could I just have a moment to change? I’m kind of itchy.”
She knew he would never force her to stay in a wet diaper.
“OK, Charlotte. But then you meet me in the living room.”
When he had gone, she got up and eased her pajamas off, a movement she did by rote while looking for what she wanted to put on. But when she reached down to pull off the diaper, she met some unusual resistance. Looking down, she was shocked to see it secured by two pieces of pink duct tape.
“What on earth?”
The dream was crystal clear; she knew where the tape should have come from, where it must have come from. But it couldn’t have. And yet… Shaking her head, she made a ballsy decision. She put on a t-shirt and did something she never had done before: walked out of her bedroom in nothing but a t-shirt and her diaper.
Moving into the living room, she stood and waited for her father to turn and see her.
“What the hell are you wearing?” he asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” she returned.
“Yes,” he said, “but why? It’s still wet; you haven’t even changed. And what’s with the tape?”
She fixed his eyes with hers. “Daddy, do we have any pink duct tape?”
The look on his face answered the question before he did. “What? Of course not! I didn’t even know it existed.”
She smiled. “Oh my God,” she said.
She walked past him to the village in the corner and stared at it, following its mazes of streets, looking for…
The look on her face would have amazed him if he could see it. She turned.
“What’s gotten into you?” he asked her.
She walked over and sat next to him on the couch. Touching his hand and holding it so he could not pull away, she told him of the “dream,” beginning with her suicide plan and moving through everything that happened right up to when she awoke in her own bed.
His face went through all sorts of contortions as she told the story and, though he tried to interrupt many times, she bulled on, refusing to allow it. When she was through, he was in tears, but all he asked was, “How did you find out I’d named it after you?”
She laughed. “I told you. I was there.”
He shook his head. Through his tear-filled eyes, he said, “Charlotte, this isn’t funny. And telling me you actually saw your mom? That really…hurts. I think you need more help than I’m able to give you.”
He started to get up and walk away, but she called to him. “Wait! Let me show you something, OK? If you don’t believe me then, I’ll do whatever you say. Fair?”
He turned back slowly. “You promise?”
She nodded. “Absolutely.”
She beckoned him over to the village. It took only a moment this time for her to follow the roads again outside of Charlottesville into the hillsides to the tiny half-block of Chicago he had created. But once she found it, she simply pointed.
Atop the Second City building, there was a message spelled out in tiny cursive letters.
“ROBERT: CHARLOTTE WAS HERE WITH ME. SHE IS BEAUTIFUL. LOVE HER. EMILY.”
The writing was slightly wobbly, the result of Charlotte having kept her hand on Emily’s the whole time she was writing. She guessed that would prevent its resetting, and it turned out she’d been right. Emily had provided the money for the spray paint and managed to get them to the roof. (It was amazing how daring she could be when she knew nothing really mattered.) And she’d also decided what to write. Charlotte had blushed a bit at the word “beautiful.”
The single word escaped Robert Merriman’s lips as he stared down at letters he had never put on the rooftop of The Second City, letters he knew were not there when he’d gone to bed last night, letters in a handwriting he had not seen new in a very long time. He looked into the smiling, tear-filled eyes of his daughter and realized just how much she had grown to look like her mother. He reached out and let her fall into his arms.
The living room was festively decorated, colored lights shining everywhere, especially from the huge tree standing in the corner opposite the Charlottesville village. She wondered what that must look like from down there: all of those odd colored lights in the sky, some kind of strange permanent aurora. She thought it was probably beautiful.
It was completely unfair, she knew, that her father would never have the chance to enter his own creation and see what he’d built. More importantly, that he’d never be able to see Mommy again even though she was right down there. Well, something like her was anyway. But he was happy again, so that was all that really mattered.
She’d started doing stuff with Marianne again. Abby was a bit more cautious; Charlotte had burned her too many times. But maybe she’d get both of her friends back in time. She had no clue what to do about this utterly lost semester in school; her grades were in the toilet and there was no getting that back. But she’d just move on; she was smart enough, she thought, to pick things up in January. Perhaps the best thing: her bedwetting was abating. She was still doing it, but only a few times a week, not every night. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, she was sure. And then there would be no sign of diapers anywhere except the two pieces of pink duct tape stuck to the mirror in her room. Those she would never give up.
“Want some hot chocolate and cookies?”
Her dad entered the room with a dinner tray holding two steaming mugs heaped with whipped cream and a plate of chocolate chip cookies. She smiled.
“Is there ever a time when I don’t?”
“I put whipped cream and little marshmallows,” he said, and she smiled.
They sat together, enjoying their snacks, in front of a fire and a glowing tree, across from his village. It was time, she thought.
She smiled. “I’d like to give you a present early.”
He laughed. “Why?”
“Because I think I need to?”
He looked at his daughter, who had changed so much, undergone so much, in the last year, and shook his head. “Far be it from me to doubt a thought in your mind,” he said.
From behind her back, she pulled a small, wrapped parcel and handed it to him. As he peeled back the paper, his eyes at first registered surprise and then confusion. Then they began tearing up.
“It’s me,” he said.
He was holding a miniature of himself, just like the hundreds of other miniatures he had placed into the village, But this miniature was not of him today; it was of him twenty years ago, at the time he met Emily. He looked at Charlotte, who smiled through her own tears.
“You can’t let her go on like that, Daddy.”
Nodding his head, he reached out to her and enveloped her in a huge hug. After a few minutes, he pulled back.
The two of them walked over to the village and looked down at Charlottesville. They moved across to the remote corner where the one block of Chicago had been recreated and bent down. Then her father turned to her.
“You should do this,” he said.
She pulled back. “Why?”
His smile, though full of love, was sad. “You know why.”
He placed the figure into her hands, and she reached into the scene and set it just inside of one of the pillars.
He put his arm around her. “Looks perfect.”
She looked at her father. “Merry Christmas, Daddy.”
His eyes full of water, he answered, “Merry Christmas, Honey.”
As they stood up, he turned and looked back at the village. “Merry Christmas, Emily,” he said, as he and his daughter went back to their cookies and cocoa.