Halfway Home

And here is Chapter 9.  Please remember, this is draft zero, so be gentle:  it’s rough.

It’s also the halfway point of the book.  I’m more than a little stunned that I’ve made it this far.  A little over four months ago, I had an idea:  three characters, three people, whose lives were turned inside out by a war.  And nearly 40k words later, those people have come to life, and are on the brink of events that will change them forever.  I’ve been privileged enough to serve as their witness, transcribing the events that will lead them into the darkest of nights with only the hint of a possible dawn to keep them keeping on.

I may need to take a moment, now that I’m halfway done with the first book, to reflect on where I’ve gone and where I still need to go.  There’s that story, “The Last Star”, which needs to be shaped up into a complete whole.  And a new job to find, and a family to love…in the immortal words of Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, this means something, and I owe it to myself to figure out what it means.

In the meantime, enjoy.


Chapter 9

The sun was beginning to set, golden rays falling through the windows like physical beams, edges clearly defined against the shadows in the room, catching specs of dust that sparkled in the light. The old woman finished pouring tea into their mis-matched cups and took her seat opposite Charlotte at the table. Charlotte picked up her cup, using both hands–she was no longer shaking, but felt weak after the day’s ordeals and still didn’t trust her body to do what she willed it to, even simple things. She’d clung to the old woman’s arm for support the entire way here, and had settled into her chair gingerly, like a cripple instead of an athletic fifteen year-old girl.

Her earlier panic was gone now, slipping away from her with each step they’d taken away from the crowd and with each moment she was removed from the coincidental (it had to be a coincidence) mention of that name. Left in its place was an emptiness that felt physical, a mental and emotional void that felt like her stomach did after she’d been sick, hollow and sore. And as they’d neared this house, and then entered it, walking down a hallway that creaked familiarly under their feet, their brief journey ending in a kitchen where Charlotte was sure she could see the lingering imprints of her feet in the dust on the counters, as impossible as that was, weeks after she’d come through here in the middle of the night, that emptiness began to be filled by a new breed of nerves. These she could deal with, though, or at least they’d never been a serious problem for her in the past; feigning innocence at the scene of the crime is one of the core skills thieves need to survive.

Though, so was dealing with large crowds, which she’d also never had a problem with before today, so in this sudden absence of enough solid ground to stand upon, she focused on the little details. Like using two hands to hold her cup of tea.

The old woman–Lois, she’d said her name was Lois–started at Charlotte without speaking, a serious expression on her face. She appeared content to just sit there and let the silence grow for as long as it took. Charlotte was not as content.

“Thank you. I–the… I don’t normally…”

“Why don’t you start with your name.”

“Charlie–Charlotte. My name is Charlotte.”

“Please to meet you, Charlotte. Would you like me to call you Charlie?”

“No– Not that. Just Charlotte.”

“Okay then, Charlotte it is.” Lois paused a moment, then struck right at the one place Charlotte was hoping she’d forgotten about.

“Where did you learn to do that?”

“To…what?”

“The purse, hon. That wasn’t the first time you’ve done that.”

“Oh. I…” Charlotte found no more words to say. As much as she’d avoided large crowds since leaving Victor’s crew and the cities where they worked behind her three years ago, she’d even more deliberately tried to avoid sitting down and talking to people one on one like this. And especially never to discuss the types of things she did to stay alive, out on her own, the skills she’d spent most of her short conscious life trying to perfect. Jumbled thoughts battled for position in her mind: a possible attempt to run a con on this kindly old woman, lingering here just long enough to talk her into sending Charlotte on her way with some food, a supplement from the same source she’d already secretly drawn upon a few weeks ago (low chance of success–the woman was old and seemingly kind, but very obviously not addled or stupid); a desire to just up and bolt, with no thought of what might happen after (certainly nothing good); or just to sit here and dissemble, saying as little as possible until she could find a good excuse to leave.

The silence grew again as all of these possibilities weighed against each other in her mind, and she was so lost in them that she startled herself when she opened her mouth and began talking, selecting a fourth option: none of the above.

“I always have. It’s just what I do.”

“Where are you from?”

“The south. Innias, I think. I don’t know; I moved around a lot.”

“With your parents?”

“No.”

“Where are they?”

“Dead, I think. I never…” She couldn’t find the words to finish that thought, never had been able to, not even when asking herself the same questions in the stillness of her own head, and so she just shrugged and hoped it would convey what needed to be said.

“Well now. What are we going to do with you,” Lois said, the last bit clearly not a question, more of a thesis statement, the opening moment of whatever came next. Charlotte was about to reply–with what, she didn’t know, was as curious as anyone to find out what might come out of her mouth next–when they heard a loud squeal, followed by a door slamming open and the thudding of tiny feet moving very fast.

“Grammy! Grammy! Guess what Daddy said!”

A little girl came tearing into the kitchen, maybe six or seven years old. Her long blonde hair was a tangled mess flopping all around her, but was no worse off than the rest of her: bare feet so encrusted with dirt you couldn’t see the toenails, a long baggy dress with a multitude of stains in various places, the hem and ends of both sleeves darker than the rest, soaked through, the sleeves with the girl’s saliva from the nearly constant unconscious sucking and chewing that had recently replaced thumb sucking, the hem with god-knows-what. There was a scabbed over scratch on her right cheek, drawing even more attention to her big, excited blue eyes.

She ran straight for Lois, slamming into her with no braking between her charge and impact, wrapping her arms around her Grammy’s neck and burrowing her check against her Grammy’s chest. Lois embraced her granddaughter right back, appearing no worse for the wear after the joyful violence of her arrival.

“What did he say, sweetheart?”

“He said– Charlie!” The little girl’s eyes had found Charlotte, and unlike the sleepy sadness of their first meeting, the squeal of her name was at least as joyous as everything else she’d so far done and said. As was her second assault in as many minutes: she untangled herself from her Grammy and made straight for Charlotte, wrapping her up in the same loving chokehold.

Charlotte froze–a distant part of her mind was getting more and more upset at how often that was happening recently, how out of control things were getting–but only long enough to take a single breath. She inhaled, and smelled dirt, and grass, and childhood sweat, and the ghost of a little-girl fart (which probably had a suitably little-girl name, at least when she said it, like “fluffer” or “poofy” or something equally cute)…and, somehow, sunshine, which didn’t have a scent, as far as Charlotte knew. Nor did fun, nor love, nor joy…but all of those things and more were given her in a single breath taken with this little girl hugging her.

She closed her eyes, and after another moment’s hesitation–she hadn’t hugged or been hugged in so long, there was no muscle memory to guide her actions until she caught another whiff of the little girl and realized that there was no wrong way to hug someone who was hugging you, other than to not do it at all–put her arms around the little girl, feeling the tiny heart beating against hers.

She wasn’t sure how much time passed sitting like that–it couldn’t have been more than a couple of seconds, though it felt much longer–when a hand, adult-sized and strong, grabbed her wrist and started to unwrap her arms from around the child. She opened her eyes to find Lois standing over them, panic on her face, and anger, though it was tempered with a confusion that was causing her to restrain herself slightly, or at least to act less hastily than those emotions alone would have dictated.

Charlotte knew the exact questions running through the old woman’s mind: her idle curiosity for who Charlotte was and how she’d ended up here in this small town had turned into a protective imperative to find out how this strange thief knew her granddaughter. The hesitation came from the child’s obvious excitement at seeing Charlotte and her immediate outpouring of love…children were perfectly capable of lying convincingly, Charlotte knew that well enough from her own life, but there was no mistaking genuine emotion on this scale. The child clearly knew and cared for Charlotte, and the important question was how.

Charlotte was already wondering the same thing herself.

Lois was about to speak when there was more noise from the front of the house, the measured pounding of multiple pairs of adult feet in boots, likely male given the weight and cadence, which was confirmed when one of them spoke, calling out.

“Mother?”

A large man entered the kitchen from the hallway, defined in an instant as something paternal by his large mustache, the same deep black as the hair on his head, both sharing the hint of gray creeping in at the edges. He was followed by two more men–barely men, actually, the larger of the two sporting his own non-gray, not-nearly-as-large mustache, the smaller still plenty big but probably not much older than Charlotte himself–neither of them as tall or as broad as their father but definitely showing the potential for it. They all carried in their hands the kind of wide-brimmed hat common this far to the north, and were wearing similar outfits, dark blue shirts and pants intended for work but relatively clean and pressed, clearly saved for occasions where they wanted to look their best.

“We need to…” the father said, then changed the train of his thoughts as he noticed Charlotte. “Who’s this?”

Lois continued to stare at Charlotte, trying to decide how to answer, but the little girl jumped in before either of them could speak. She bounced off of Charlotte and ran to her father, slamming into his legs, arms outstretched; her preferred display of affection was clearly to charge like a tiny blonde bull at whatever she had currently fixed her eyes and heart upon.

“Daddy! Daddy! Can I tell Grammy what you said?”

He looked down at his daughter, hugging her to his side with one large hand, then looked back at Lois, still waiting for an answer to his question.

“This is,” Lois started, pausing for a definite moment to look at Charlotte before continuing, “Charlotte. Found her at the faire today. She’ll be staying for supper, if that’s alright.”

The man looked from Lois to Charlotte and back again. If he had any more questions–and he clearly might, if only to find out what had caused the expression Lois was wearing on her face, and that deliberate pause before Charlotte’s name–they could wait for now.

“That’s fine. You’re welcome here. We have to eat soon, though, and no dawdling. They–”

The little girl, still clinging to his side, interrupted with another round of, “Daddy! Daddy!”

“Yes Miri?”

“Can I tell her?”

“Yes.”

Miri ran back to her Grammy, stopping just short of another full-body collision and said, in between giggles, “Daddy said I could wait up with you tonight!”

“That’s nice dear,” Lois said. And then to her son, Miri’s father, “What are we waiting for tonight, Samuel?”

The man gestured to his sons, still standing behind him, and they nodded and set out for a different part of the house, their footsteps echoing their progress as they took the stairs continued moving around on the second story. Then he sat down at the table, moving aside the teapot and cups to make room for his hat.

“The militia’s called up. Too many folks today who couldn’t account for themselves.” He didn’t actually look at Charlotte as he said that, but it felt like he had to her.

“The mines?” Lois asked. Samuel nodded.

“Georges thinks it likely. One, maybe more. We’re going up to see what we can find. I’ll be taking the boys with us.”

“Are you sure… They won’t take kindly to it, not if their already risking the Crown’s wrath up there.”

“That’s why we’re going tonight. They’ll be drunk, and happy. The full militia’s been called, so we’ll have enough with us to discourage anything from happening. We’ll just ask them to move on, and if they haven’t yet in a day or so we’ll send word down to Toman, get them to send some soldiers up this way to handle things.”

“But the boys?” Lois’s eyes drifted up, where they could still hear the two boys moving around and their muffled voices.

“They’re old enough. Fritz certainly, and Chris is big for his age.” Samuel leaned forward, taking one of his mother’s hands in his own. “We’re just going to look and talk, nothing more.”

The little girl, still clearly excited by anything and everything, interjected.

“Can Charlie and I come?”

Samuel was hung up for a moment before realizing that his daughter had meant Charlotte, then smiled and reached out to ruffle the hair on Miri’s head.

“No sweetheart. I need you to stay here with Grammy and keep watch for us. Can you do that?”

“Sure!”

Samuel smiled and stood up again.

“Now, I need to wash up. Can you girls put something together for us, short order?”

“Yup! C’mon Charlie! C’mon Grammy!” Miri grabbed one of their hands in each of her own and began pulling them to follow her. And even with all of the uncertainty in the air, the unspoken and unanswered questions still waiting to be given voice, and all of the panic and strangeness the day had already brought, and no idea what might come next, Charlotte found that she was smiling.

*

Supper was finished, dishes cleared, night draping the windows in a silent black rimmed in the gold of spilling light from the torches lining the street outside. Samuel and his two sons were standing near the door, each having added a leather coat–matching only in the amount of wear and repairs done to them–each holding a quarterstaff. Samuel and the older boy, Fritz, held theirs with confidence; Charlotte couldn’t tell how much skill they might have with the staff, but it was clear they were at least comfortable and had had some practice with them. The younger boy, Chris, looked much less comfortable, and had already dropped his noisily to the floor once…but Charlotte thought that might have more to do with her than with a lack of experience wielding the blunt weapon.

He was about her age, and had been more obvious in his attempts to avoid staring at her than if he’d just given in and looked right at her the entire meal. Charlotte wasn’t sure how she felt about that…there was a small bit of pleasure at the idea that she was old enough now to exert a new kind of power (after years with Victor’s crew–in which, as a child burglar, she’d been the exception, rather than the rule–she knew full well what went on between men and women once they stopped being little boys and girls), but no real interest from her side in him beyond that, certainly not anything approaching what he’d clearly been going through.

It had been a relatively quiet meal otherwise, most of the spaces filled in with Miri’s excited voice telling them about something she’d seen or done, or thought that she’d seen or done, or wished that she’d seen or done. She was obviously well-loved, the men smiled easily at her ongoing, jumbled narrative, and Lois only interrupted her when one of her pronouncements led to an accompanying gesture that threatened to knock something over. Charlotte had been especially glad for the little girl’s never-ending enthusiasms: there’d been no room left over for questions, and she wasn’t sure just yet how she was going to answer any of the ones she was expecting Lois (or even worse, Samuel) to ask, or even if she could. She’d been able to set aside her own questions during the meal, the new ones generated by the awfulness and unexpected events of the day as well as those she’d been carrying around with her for the last two weeks, ever since she’d first met this little girl in the silent middle of the night–namely how this little girl seemed to already know her, and more specifically knew her by a name that she hadn’t used in years–but now that the evening was closing in, the silence between moments growing longer, there was less to hide behind. Not to mention the increasingly obvious and pointed glances Lois was giving her…the time for answers was drawing near.

Samuel shifted the staff in his hand again and spoke to his mother, though his eyes were watching Charlotte as he did.

“Will our guest be staying the night?”

Now Lois was staring at Charlotte, as were the two boys (Chris’s face turning red as he realized what he was doing)–she was the center of attention and wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing, just that it was a new thing, and making her incredibly uncomfortable. Her skin began to itch under their eyes, and she couldn’t tell if Lois was waiting for her to say something or if she was going to answer herself and was just thinking about it first. And then, as she had been all evening, Miri saved her from the moment.

Bouncing up and down, swinging between her father and grandmother, the little girl said, “Ooo! Ooo! Can Charlie stay? Pleeease!”

“We’ll see,” Lois said, still watching Charlotte closely, “but I think so.”

“Yay!” And Miri accompanied her victorious yell by jumping into Charlotte’s lap, nearly knocking the wind out of her, and hugged her tightly enough around the neck that she had to reach up and loosen the girl’s grip on her a bit to continue breathing.

“Okay then,” Samuel said, and started towards the door, his sons falling in line behind him.

“Be careful,” Lois called after him, and he nodded, reaching for the handle. As he opened the door, Miri realized that they were leaving and jumped out of Charlotte’s lap as quickly as she’d jumped in, running to his side.

“Wait! Daddy!”

He picked her up, kissing her on the cheek then turning his own to her so she could return the favor. The he held her out so she could repeat the ritual with both of her brothers, then set her down again.

“Mind your Grammy, okay?”

“Okay!”

He glanced at his sons, cocking his head towards the open door, then went out into the night, the two of them following. Miri stood at the open door waving, yelling out a succession of goodbyes, until Lois told her to close the door. She did, and ran back into the kitchen.

“Miri,” Lois said, “I need to talk to Charlotte. Go on up to your room and play for a bit.”

“Can I go outside?”

“No. It’s dark already.”

“Please?”

“Miriam…”

“Okay.” It was hard not to smile at the little girl pout of disappointment on her face. She tried to stomp off angrily, but that didn’t last long, and by the time she reached the stairs she was running again, excited and happy.

Lois, watching her go, said, “Dear thing. She has two speeds: running and asleep.”

Then she turned back to Charlotte and sat there, waiting for her to say something. Charlotte had no idea what exactly she was waiting for–now that they were down to it, just the two of them, alone, there were a dozen different doors waiting to be opened, and she didn’t know which of them they’d be going through first–so she tried to find something nice to say, something unimportant that would fill in the waiting silence.

“Thank you for the meal. It was…really. Nice.”

Lois sat there for a moment, ignoring the pleasantry, and then leaned forward.

“Who’s Charlie?”

Not the question she’d been expecting. Charlotte wasn’t sure she could fully admit to herself where it had come from–she had these simple mental phrases, like “the time I spent in Victor’s crew” or “the things Victor taught me” that served to cover huge stretches of her life, a shorthand that allowed her to refer to people and events without actually having to remember any of the details, even to herself…that way lay madness. But Lois wouldn’t understand any of her shorthand, and yet it was no use trying to pretend it didn’t mean anything. She stumbled about, trying to find words that didn’t hurt.

“It’s a nickname…I…it’s what–I haven’t…years ago…”

Why don’t you start by telling me how you know my granddaughter.”

“I don’t…I’ve never…” Met her before was how she was about to finish, then felt a wild impulse to tell this woman the truth, at least as much as she understood. All of her instincts still pushed her to lie, to find some innocuous story that might pass muster and get her clear of this place, however nice they’d been to her so far. She was better off alone, it was the only lesson she’d learned that had held true for her.

But still…the brief bit of truth she’d shared earlier had given her an adrenaline rush that she could still feel. Like she’d been blind in one eye and only realized it in the sudden relief of being able to see out of both of them again, if only for a short while. She didn’t know what would happen if she went even further down that path, speaking openly and honestly about who she was and what she did–she realized she hadn’t even admitted many of those things to herself, choosing to ignore the larger questions, burying them, focusing on the plan she’d set out for herself and the details of execution, staying constantly in the moment–but she knew her heart was beginning to race at just the thought of telling this woman the truth, and decided to find out what would happen if she spoke just a little bit more.

“She said…she dreamed about me.”

“What did–when…” Of all the things she might have been expecting, it was clear that Lois hadn’t been expecting that. She had gone in an instant from a curious, determined interrogator to a flustered old woman. Charlotte could see the years creep back into her face with the sudden confusion…and there was fear there too.

“When did she-” Lois started again, then realized something. “It was you, wasn’t it?”

Charlotte didn’t answer immediately, not sure what the woman was referring to, then understood, even as Lois went on.

“Two weeks ago. Our pantry thief.”

“Yes, ma’am. I–”

“What happened?”

“I was…I didn’t want to go hungry again.”

“Not that. I don’t care about that. What happened with my granddaughter?”

And that was more than a little surprising. Lois had lept to the one fact Charlotte had been trying to hide, then skated right past that to something else entirely.

“She was awake when…when I was leaving. She knew my name. Said she dreamed me.”

“What else did she say this time?”

Charlotte almost got hung up on that last bit; there was something else the woman was worried about, something ongoing that Charlotte had clearly stumbled into.

“She asked me if it was time to go. I didn’t…it didn’t make any sense. I just…I didn’t want her to wake anyone up, so I said it wasn’t, and she should go back to bed. And she did.”

“Was there anything else?”

“No.” And then, because there was clearly more to this than Charlotte could understand, she added, “What is it?”

Lois didn’t initially appear to have heard the question. She was lost in thought, staring at her twisting, worrying hands.

“You’ll stay here tonight. I need to talk to my son about this. You can sleep with Miri.”

Spoken with a sense of authority that wasn’t used to anyone questioning her decisions. And Charlotte still had a brief impulse to refuse, to get up and leave, head back to her cave and try to forget this entire day and everything that had happened. But it had happened, too many strange and tiring things for her to make any sense out of them, and all she wanted was to sleep and wait for tomorrow to try to figure out what was going to happen next.

So she just nodded, and a short time later found herself curled up next to a very tired, very warm little girl.

*

That night, she dreamed of men fighting, swords clashing, painful screams and yelling, the whoosh of sudden fire…and a few loud pops which she thought might be guns, though she’d never seen nor heard one fired before.

It was all very chaotic, and exciting, until she woke, still in the middle of the night, and found that she’d only been dreaming about what she was hearing through her sleep, a battle raging in the street outside.

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