Charlotte was playing in her room with the doll she had been given as a baby. Riley, as she had named it, was her best friend, confidante, and companion. She was busy hosting a tea party with Riley as her special guest when Rog and Bella knocked gently on the door to her room.
“Can we come in, sweetheart?” Bella asked softly.
“Yes Mama,” Charli answered. “Do you want tea?”
“You bet,” Bella said. “Pour one for Daddy, too.”
Charli made room at her play table for two more guests of honor. “We need to talk to you, munchkin,” Rog said as she poured tea for her mother.
“What about?” Charli stopped and stared at Rog, trying to read him.
“Well,” Bella began, “Daddy and Mama are going on vacation.”
“What’s that?” Her little face wrinkled with concern.
“We’re just going away for a while. Together.” Rog answered her. He pulled out a map of the world, and showed her where China was on it. “We’re going here.”
Her eyes lit up. “Can I go? Please?”
“No, not this time, sweetheart.” Bella bit her lip. She really didn’t think Charli would want to go. “When you’re a little older, and Chris can come too, we’ll all go somewhere.”
“Right now, munchkin, Mama and Daddy need to do this, together.” Rog patted her little hand. He saw tears of disappointment in her eyes, and he felt bad.
“Besides,” Bella added, “you don’t want to miss school, do you?”
Charli sniffled and thought carefully. She did love going to school and being with her new friends. “No, I don’t.” Rog kissed her head.
“Mama and I will bring back lots of goodies for you and Chris,” Rog told her. “We promise.”
It was early when Charli felt Bella gently nudging her. “Wake up, Charli.”
She blinked twice, trying to focus. “Mama?”
“Yes, sweetheart. Daddy and I are leaving for the airport,” Bella told her. “We wanted to say bye-bye.”
Rog sat down on the bed next to Charli and placed her in his lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck and put her head sleepily on his shoulder. Gently, he rocked her back and forth, her warm breath tickling his neck. Bella kissed her cheek, and Rog did the same. “Mama and I love you so much, princess,” Rog whispered to her, and kissed her cheek one more time.
“I love you too, Daddy.” Charli was trying so hard to stay awake, but sleep was quickly taking her. “Bye-bye.”
He stood up with her in his arms, while Bella pulled back the blankets. He gave her one last hug as he put her back into bed. She rolled onto her side and snuggled up with Riley. She vaguely heard them saying goodbye to Chris as she fell peacefully back to sleep.
Shana was the next person she saw when she woke that morning. “Where are Mama and Daddy?”
“Don’t you remember, little one? They woke you to tell you they were leaving on vacation.” Shana said sweetly, as she picked Chris up from his crib. She rubbed her eyes.
“Not really,” she answered, feeling sad.
“Aww, it’s okay honey,” Shana told her. “Come, I’ll fix you breakfast and we’ll play in the pool today.”
“Pool? Yay!” Charli jumped up and down and laughed. “I can’t wait!”
“Hey Mama, can I ask you something?” Charlotte was just home from her first day of middle school.
“Sure, sweetheart. What’s on your mind?”
“Were you really a magician when you were younger, like, before you had us?” Bella swallowed hard. She knew this would come up eventually, but she had hoped Charlotte would be older than 12 when it did.
“I was, yes. You know your Nana was Destiny Hill, right?” Bella had hoped to steer her away from what she feared was coming next, the inevitable Estevan incident. Almost 15 years later, it was still haunting her.
“Of course, Mama. Everyone knows Nana was Destiny Hill. But a boy said today in class that you used to be a magician, and your name was Bella Hill.” Charli looked concerned, and it was that look that scared Bella senseless. “Is that true?”
“Yes, sweetheart, it is true.” Rather than volunteer information, Bella thought that just answering her questions would be better.
“What does ‘tramp’ mean?”
Oh no, what do I tell her now? Bella was panicked, but desperately trying to hide her fear. “Generally, a tramp is someone who travels around a lot, and doesn’t stay put for very long.” She was hoping the context of Charli’s question would be sated with that answer. But the furrowed brow on her daughter’s face told a different story.
“Well, that doesn’t make any sense, Mama. You don’t travel very much at all.” She was trying very hard to understand, but unfortunately, Bella’s words weren’t making much sense.
“Okay,” Bella submitted. “No more beating around the bush. You asked, and you deserve the truth. But, if there is something you don’t understand, ask me questions. Are we good?”
“Technically, the definition I gave you of ‘tramp’ is correct, but I’m guessing it’s not in the proper context. You know what that means, sweetie?”
“Okay, good. How they meant it when they said ‘tramp’ means a woman who has relations with many men, recklessly and often.”
Charli blushed. “Wow, Mama. I wasn’t expecting that answer.”
“I know, honey, which is why I was trying to avoid it. But you remember we had that talk a few months ago. This shouldn’t be unfamiliar for you.”
“No, I’m following okay so far, Mama.” Charli nodded her head, still trying to make sense of what her friends said.
“So, I’m guessing one of your friends, or someone called me a tramp. Is that correct?”
“Okay, good. Well, not good, but at least I understand better.” She paused and retrieved a photo album from her childhood. Inside were photos of her and Estevan when they were together. She opened the album to the page and pointed out the image. “See this boy? His name was Estevan, and he was my boyfriend when Aunt Bree was dating that Nigel guy you saw in town a few times. You remember, he was talking to himself by the lake at Verde Park, and you asked me about him.”
Charli nodded. “I didn’t like him, Mama.”
Bella laughed. “That makes all of us. Anyway, Estevan and I broke up after we dated for almost a year. Do you know what vengeance means, sweetie?”
“I think so. Is it when you try to get back at someone for something?”
“That’s exactly it! So, after a few years, when I was just starting in my career, Estevan started following me around and trying to get me in trouble with my agent, the lady before Jen. Do you remember Jen? She gave you Riley.”
“Well, not important. Anyway, Estevan and his sister, Maria, started spreading lies about me and your dad all over town. None of it was true. I thought this was well behind us, but I guess it will follow me all the way to my last day, especially since you’re asking me about this now.” Bella took a sip of water. “To make a long story short, honey, they were put in jail for lying about me and your Daddy. We were cleared, but sometimes lies are easier to believe than the truth.”
“Why would he do that, Mama? To get back at you for what? I don’t understand.”
“Estevan wasn’t a very nice person, and you know, sometimes people are just not nice. But you can’t let the not nice people push you around. Most of the time, I still don’t understand why. But it happened, and it is in the past.” She hugged Charlotte. “I won’t tell you what to believe, but what I will ask you to do is think of everything you know to be true about me, and whether the information you hear is consistent with what you know. Then make your own decisions.” Hopefully, she thought, your decisions won’t make me the bad guy. “You can apply that to everything in life, Charlotte. But never let anyone tell you what to believe, without searching your heart and the evidence for the truth. Because the truth will always set you free.”
“Well, I know you’re my Mama, and I know you love me more than I even understand, even when I don’t behave, even when I do something stupid. That doesn’t sound like the person they described to me today.” Charlotte was a brilliant and observant child, and she wasn’t easy to fool. Bella and Rog were thankful for that every day.
“You know what, princess? You’re a pretty incredible kid. Your daddy and I love you and Christopher to the moon and back.”
“Well,” she said, smiling impishly, “I can’t speak for him, but I love you more.”
“Nope, that’s impossible!” Bella hugged her tightly and tickled her belly.
“Not fair, Mama!” she giggled.
“So, are we good, honey?” Bella kissed her forehead as she let her grasp loosen.
“Yes, Mama. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, baby girl.”
Bella pulled Rog aside one sunny afternoon, before Charlotte’s 15th birthday. “Hey, baby, I was thinking,” she said, “You know that ring my Daddy gave me?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “What about it?”
“Charlotte is getting to the same age I was when he gave it to me. I’d like her to have it, with the same promise to go with it.” Bella opened the box where she kept it and showed it to Rog. “I mean, it needs to be cleaned and polished, but I’d really like you to give this to her.”
Rog picked the ring out of the box and slipped it on to his pinky finger. “Yeah, it looks a bit beat up, but I’m sure the jeweler in town can pretty it up.” He slipped it back off his finger and gave it back to Bella. “But, why don’t you give it to her yourself?”
Bella wasn’t sure how to approach it. Rog hadn’t been the example that Arthur had been for her, though it wasn’t necessarily bad. Just different. But it was something that she treasured as a gift from her own dad, and she thought Charli would cherish it, coming from Rog. “Well, I don’t want to compare you to my father,” she began, “because it’s apples and oranges, to borrow your expression. But wouldn’t it be nice to take her on a real date, you know, before she starts dating young men? So she knows how she should be treated, and how a young gentleman is supposed to act?” She looked at the ring, feeling emotional.
“You know, I never even considered that.” Rog knew how Bella obtained her ring years ago, but it never occurred to him to impart that same knowledge to his own daughter. “My dad never did that with my sisters, so I guess it didn’t occur to me.”
“I’d love it if you would, baby.” She stepped behind him and laid her head on his shoulder. “It would mean the world to me.”
“Then, consider it done!”
“You’re the best!” Bella kissed his shoulder and he turned around. “I’ll get the ring fixed up, and you can take her out when it’s done.”
“It will be my honor. She should know what to expect, and what to accept.” Rog hugged her close and kissed her.
Outside the bedroom door, Charlotte was trying to listen in. She knew they were talking about her, but she was unable to make out words, and it was frustrating. The door opened, and they caught her eavesdropping.
“How much did you hear, Charlotte?” Rog was not amused.
“Not much, nothing really.” She knew by the tone of his voice he wasn’t happy with her.
“Which is it, not much, or nothing?”
“Do you know how awful it is to spy on other people? What if your mother and I did that to you while you are on the phone?” Rog was stern with her. He wanted to be able to trust her, especially since the gift was pending. He only hoped she hadn’t discovered their intentions.
“You’re right, Dad. I’m sorry.”
“Go to your room, Charlotte,” Bella told her. “I don’t want to see you until dinner, understood?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Charlotte kicked her door as she walked into the bedroom, and closed the door gently behind her. Good job, Charlotte, she thought. Good luck trying to get to prom next week now.
“I don’t believe she just did that,” Bella told Rog. “I never expected that from her.”
“Me neither,” Rog agreed. “Are you sure about that ring?”
Bella nodded. “Especially now. I am going to need that promise, and soon. I want to be a grandmother someday, but not while I’m still raising my own!” She slipped the ring box into her pocket. “I’ll be back in a while.”
“Drive safe!” he yelled to her.
Charlotte had a note tucked under her bedroom door, addressed to her. Thinking it strange, she opened the envelope and read the letter inside:
My sweet Charlotte, would you do me the honor of being my dinner date this evening? I am looking forward to spending time with you. I love you with all my heart.
She looked at her alarm clock. Seven in the morning. She knew it was too late to catch him before work, so she sent him a text:
Daddy, I would love to have dinner with you tonight. What should I wear? I love you, too.
Charli ran downstairs and showed the letter to Bella. “Do you know anything about this, Mama?”
Bella’s sly smile gave her away. “I was going to say no, but you’re too smart for that.”
“I love this, but why? Wouldn’t Daddy rather take you for dinner to some fancy restaurant tonight?”
“He has his reasons, Charli. That’s all I’m going to say.” She hugged her daughter. “It’s time for school. Come right home afterward, okay?”
“Yes, Mama!” She blew a kiss to Bella and ran for the bus.
All morning long, she found it difficult to concentrate. All she could think of was her “date” with her father, but she dared not tell anyone at school about it. She had already heard new whispers of rumors that she didn’t even want to entertain, and she couldn’t afford to be ostracized from her group of friends.
During her language class, her phone chimed. Rog texted back at his morning break, writing:
Dearest Charlotte, wear your best dress. Have Mama help you fix your hair and makeup. I am eagerly awaiting our date.
Hugs and kisses,
Her smile was apparent, and the teacher knew she was not paying attention because the lesson was not much to smile about. “Miss St John, what are the major parts of a sentence?”
Charlotte didn’t have a clue, but decided not to fake it. “I’m not sure, Mr. Lawrence. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“I will give you credit for admitting it.” The teacher turned to his desk and reached down for an assignment. “Your classmates will thank you for an extra assignment tonight. I want it tomorrow, first thing in the morning, on my desk.” Charli sighed. This was not going to help her social standing in the group.
“Thanks a lot, Charli,” was the standard, sarcastic expression of gratitude she heard from her classmates.
Mr. Lawrence pulled her aside after class. “What was so important that you had to disrupt my class, Miss St. John?”
“A text from my father,” she stated. “He was answering a question I had asked him earlier.” She fumbled with her phone, trying to put it away. “I didn’t get to see him before work today, and it was important.”
“Was it an emergency? And by emergency, was someone dying at home? Sick? Severely injured?”
“I see.” He thought for a moment, then stated, “If your phone disrupts my class again, I will confiscate it and your father can pick it up after school. Have I made myself clear?”
She knew what would happen if Rog had to collect her phone because she broke the rules. “Crystal clear, sir.”
“Very well, Charlotte. You’ll be late for your next class. You know I don’t do tardy notes, so you had better hurry.”
Charlotte rushed home as quickly as she could, so she could start her extra essay assignment before her date.
“What’s that you have, Charlotte?” Bella asked her, as she spread her assignments across the dining room table.
“An extra assignment, thanks to me.” Bella already knew about the phone incident in class, and she was super impressed that she didn’t throw Rog under the bus.
“My phone chimed. I got a text message that could have waited until after class, but I had to look.” She wrote a few sentences in her essay. “It was my fault.”
“Well, I’m proud of you for owning your mistake.” Bella looked at her watch. “About an hour, we’ll need to get you ready for your date.”
Charli worked for the full hour, trying to squeeze as much homework into the allotted time as she could. Then she went up to shower quickly, and Bella pulled her hair up into a tail, which fanned out on top of her head like a flower. Charli’s hair wasn’t especially long, so the style worked well for her. A few dabs of makeup, but not too much, and she wiggled into a pink gown to finish the look. Gazing upon her reflection in the mirror, she became her own worst critic.
“I look like a candy wrapper in this. Might as well write ‘Sblonked!’ across my body and call it good.” She tried to smooth the satin with her hand, but she didn’t like the way the dress hung on her small frame.
“You look stunning, Charli. Your Daddy is going to love this.” Bella readjusted the bits of hair that became disheveled when she got dressed. “Now it’s perfect!”
Bella’s phone chimed in with a message. “Your father is downstairs waiting for you.” She took Charlotte’s arm and led her down the steps, and out to a limousine. “Wow, he got you a limo. I’m officially jealous!” She kissed her daughter’s cheek, and said, “Have a great time with your dad. He has been looking so forward to this.” The driver opened and held the door for her, and she sat down, Rog beaming at her.
“You look amazing, my princess.” He took her hand and kissed it. Charli blushed.
“Why are you making a fuss over me, Dad? Wouldn’t you rather spoil Mama with this?”
“Why can’t a father spoil his only daughter once in a while?” He popped open a bottle of sparkling cider, the kind she did like, and poured a glass for her, and one for him. He offered a toast, and they talked on the way to the restaurant.
When the limo arrived, the driver opened and held the door for her again. Rog, who had already gotten out of the car, held his hand for her to take. She gently placed her hand in his and stood up. Rog gave the driver a generous tip, and asked that he stay close by.
The restaurant was an older establishment, but not one they frequented, only for special occasions. Rog had arranged for yellow roses, Charlotte’s favorite, to be on the table before their date. The Maître d’ showed them to the table, which was set out of the way. She had never seen a more elegant scene, and the experience was beginning to overwhelm her.
They sat down, and Rog ordered for both of them. Then, he took her hands in his, noticing how worn and calloused his hands looked compared to her soft, youthful ones.
“Sweetheart, I want to tell you why we are here tonight.” He rubbed her fingers, if for no other reason than to calm his own nerves. “I know you’re getting older, and soon you’ll want to date boys in your school.” Charli blushed. “Hear me out, honey,” Rog asked. “I don’t mean to embarrass you. Anyway, when that time comes, I want you to know what to expect. I want you to know how you should expect to be treated, and how you should be respected.” Rog smiled softly at her. “Remember, my love, if a boy mistreats you, or disrespects you, you won’t want him around.” He remembered Bella’s years-long struggle with Estevan Best. He did not wish that sort of torment on his beautiful daughter.
The waiter came with bread and a small Caprese salad, which they shared. “Now, I’m not implying that every date should be this extravagant because a young man won’t have much money. It’s not the restaurant, and it isn’t the flowers. A boy should want to be with you because he wants to know more about you, not because of what he thinks he will get from you.” Rog reached into his pocket and pulled out the ring box. Gently, he opened it, watching her expression. “This ring was your mama’s ring, given to her by her own father when she was just about your age. Your grandfather told her it was meant to be worn on her left hand, until it was replaced by a wedding band. Tonight, I want to give you this ring with the same promise from you, and the same understanding.” He took the ring from the box and slid it on to her left ring finger. “Sweetheart, this ring is to be worn on your left hand, until your future husband replaces it with your wedding band.” Charlotte nodded, tears in her eyes. The meaning of such a gift, having an heirloom passed down from her own mother, flooded her heart. He kissed her hand, admiring the golden band with the small solitaire diamond. The jeweler had done a great job making it like new.
Charli opened her handbag and found that Bella had put some tissues into the compartment inside. Taking one from the package, she dabbed her eyes. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me, Daddy. I love it, and I adore that it was Mama’s ring, too. I promise to wait.” Rog stood up and held his hand for her to take. She took it and stood up, and he hugged her.
“That’s my girl,” he said. “Would you like to dance?” he asked, leading her to the dance floor.
“But, I don’t know how!” she protested.
“That’s what I’m going to show you,” he answered.
They returned to the table just before dinner was served. Rog gave her more tips and advice as they enjoyed their meal and each other’s company. “I’m so happy you agreed to come for dinner with me tonight, Charlotte.” He wiped a tear from his own eyes as he spoke. “You’re almost an adult, only three more years until you graduate high school, and you’ll be on your own, ready to spread your wings.” He took a sip of water to help him swallow the growing lump in his throat. “Your Mama and I are so proud of you, Charli. You’re a sweet, smart and charming young woman.”
“I’m glad you think so. I wasn’t very popular with my language class this morning.”
Having heard from Mr. Lawrence, who had contacted Rog to corroborate her story, he already knew of the incident. In fact, he’d been waiting for it to come up. Now, he offered her one last chance to shift the blame, knowing she would tell the truth. “What happened this morning?”
“I got a text during his class, and my phone chimed.” She waited for him to ask if it was his text, but he didn’t. “I knew it could have waited until after class, but I didn’t wait, and I got caught.” She sighed, remembering the unfinished essay that waited for her. It would be a long night. “I knew the rules in his class, and I disobeyed them. It got us an extra assignment, because of my carelessness.”
Rog smiled. She answered the question exactly how he knew she would, and he couldn’t have been more delighted. “Why didn’t you say that it was my text that got you in trouble?”
“Because, Daddy, it was still my fault. I knew my phone was supposed to be off, but I disobeyed the rules.” She hung her head, ashamed of herself.
“Princess, that is the most grown-up thing you have ever done.” He took her hand again and kissed it. “I couldn’t be prouder of you. Taking responsibility for something you’ve done is hard, but you did it despite what the consequences might be.” He took his phone from his pocket and showed her the email from Mr. Lawrence. It read:
Dear Mr. St John,
I am aware your daughter was waiting on a text from you regarding an important question she asked you this morning. I informed her that the next offense would be confiscation of her phone, and it would only be released back to you.. She accepted the terms, and she and the other students were given an extra assignment as punishment for her disruption. If she is as you say she is, however, and you will provide your witness to that fact, I am willing to waive the assignment for her, under the strictest confidence. I know you are a man of your word, Mr. St John, and a respected member of society. All she needs to do is be honest and accept full responsibility for her actions. Charlotte has always been a joy to have in class and is one of my favorite students. If I am hard on her, it is because I expect more from her. Please give her my regards, and enjoy your evening with her. You have inspired me to do the same with my own girls.
Tom Lawrence, Language Arts, Central High School.
Charli had to read it twice to make sure she understood it. “I don’t have to finish that essay?”
“No, you don’t. In fact, I’m about to text him right now and tell him that you did your mother and me proud tonight. But all you had to do was be yourself. You have a good heart, Charlotte. Remember that you are worthy of love, honor, and respect. But you have to love, honor and respect yourself, too.” Rog typed a quick message to Mr. Lawrence, and added one last thought. “You cannot tell your classmates you have been excused from that assignment, or we’re both in deep with your teacher!” He laughed, and she did, too.
“You have my word.”
“I know what your word is worth, sweetheart. That’s good enough for me.”
Charlotte was angry with her mother. After finding out that a job she was doing could have endangered her and her little brother, she really wanted nothing more to do with Bella. One morning, Charlotte was having a rough time trying to figure out what to wear to school, and her mother was really on her case about being late. Pushing her luck too far, she got herself grounded for two weeks.
Freedom, for one more day, she thought. I’m not going to school. So she went to the beach for the day and just sat around, pondering her life, and her upcoming graduation. She had fallen asleep in a lounge chair, listening to the sounds of the ocean, letting it drown out the echo of her mother’s nagging voice.
She was jarred awake by a lifeguard at 4:30. She was late getting home, and she knew that would get her into more trouble. So, she took the shortest way home she knew… right through downtown Shores.
The radio is playing some awesome music, she thought as she traveled down Los Sueños Drive toward the house. Suddenly, a car turned in front of her, and she slammed on her brakes. It wasn’t enough, and she plowed into the car, hitting it broadside. The force of the collision was enough to flip her car twice, her little white Ford coming to rest on the roof. A bystander called for police and fire/rescue while another tried to free her from the car, to no avail.
“Miss? Miss? Are you okay?”
Charlotte groaned and closed her eyes as she hung upside down, restrained by her seat belt. She reached up to touch her head, and her hand was damp. Opening her eyes, she tried to focus, but couldn’t. In the distance, sirens sounded, getting closer and closer until they stopped in front of her car, blocking it from more traffic and danger. She wiped her hand, which was sticky, on her shirt and let her arms fall limp.
A man stuck his face into her window. “Hey sweetie,” he said to her. “I’m Orrin, and I’m gonna get you out of this car, okay?” She nodded faintly. “I need a knife and a backboard!” Orrin yelled to the other medics on the scene. Gently, he cut away the seat belt and supported her as gravity let her fall onto the board. “That’s it, honey. Hang in there,” he encouraged. Twenty minutes later, they had her out of the car and did a preliminary assessment.
“What happened?” Charlotte asked. Her head hurt, and blood was running down her cheek.
“You had a bad accident, sweetie,” Orrin told her. “But you’re going to be okay.” They continued to evaluate her and discovered no major injuries, but lots of cuts, some broken glass poked out from her skin, and lots of bruising. “Is there someone I can call for you?”
She thought about calling her dad, but thought the better of it. He would go bananas if he saw the car, sitting on its roof, smoking and busted up. “No, it’s okay.”
The policeman working the investigation blocked traffic for blocks around the site. They measured the tire marks her car left, to figure out the rate of speed at which she traveled. The other driver was critically injured, and was lifted to the hospital by helicopter. They spoke with witnesses, who all said that the other car turned in front of her, and she couldn’t have avoided the crash.
An hour later, and Charlotte was feeling better. A detective approached her to ask some questions about the crash, what she remembered about it.
“I thought I was going to die,” she told the officer. “I don’t know where he came from, I swear. I remember hitting my brakes, and then him. The sound was terrible. And then suddenly, it was over.”
“You’re a lucky girl, Charlotte,” he said. “We don’t know if the other driver will survive. He was hurt pretty badly. But, it wasn’t your fault, honey. Don’t you worry about that.” He patted her hand and left. From the corner of her eye, she saw Rog, flailing his arms around and asking questions. Oh no, she thought.
Rog ran to her, pale white, as if he’d seen a ghost. She looked so beaten up. And why wasn’t she at the hospital? So many questions to ask and so few answers. But, Rog was told she didn’t want to go, that her father was a doctor.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?” he asked when he finally got to see her. She nodded. “You don’t look okay.” He hugged her. “Your mother has been worried sick!”
“I’m sorry Daddy. I never meant… “ Charlotte never finished her sentence before she started to cry. He looked at the car and shook his head.
“How? How did you come out of that so uninjured?” Rog was gobsmacked.
“I don’t know, Daddy. I thought I was dead. It was awful.”
“I’m here now, princess,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He went to talk with the medics to get her released to bring home for medical monitoring. He could take care of her, and bring her in if needed. When he returned, he announced, “I’m just waiting on that paperwork, sweetheart, and we are free to go.”
“Daddy, I want to go home. Can we go?” She was tired of being poked and prodded, and she just wanted to lay down.
“Let me finish that paperwork so I can take you, and we’ll go.” Rog went to sign the paperwork that released liability from the paramedics, but they knew she was in good hands. Dr. St John was well known and respected in town. He was capable of caring for his daughter.
Two hours later, after they returned home, a flatbed truck delivered what remained of Charlotte’s car. Chris went out to see it and was almost sick when he saw the blood, shattered glass and twisted metal. Bella was horrified, but at the same time grateful that Charlotte escaped serious injury. Later that night, Rog was called back to the hospital to care for the other driver, who sadly didn’t survive the night.
Charlotte had a rough time the first night after the accident. Nightmares. Reliving the crash. She woke up screaming several times, and Bella sat up with her, holding her. She told Bella she thought she might have died, because she remembered someone telling her to go back, but there had been no reports of the Reaper at the crash site.
“You might have dreamed it, sweetheart, when you were unconscious.” Bella brushed her hair back away from her face as she rocked Charlotte. And all the while she sat, holding her daughter, she sang to her.
Rog brought Charlotte to work with him the next day, to check her out completely, and to his great surprise, nothing was broken, she had no concussion, and no glass embedded anywhere that hadn’t already been removed. She slept for most of the day in a bed while he worked, and he checked on her during his downtimes.
When Rog and Charlotte returned home, he sat down with Bella. “Darling, our daughter is a walking miracle. She should not have survived that crash, but she did. She should have life-altering injuries, but she is not harmed.”
Bella cried when he told her. “Well, I guess we can call her ‘Blessed.’”
Bella was ironing Charlotte’s graduation gown, while she was trying to hide a scar on her cheek. Since the accident, Charli and Bella had repaired their bitter relationship. In many ways, it was a blessing in disguise as Charlotte realized that life was fragile, and being young didn’t protect her from the Reaper’s unrelenting grasp. She gazed at the cap which sat on her desk, decorated with glitter and written in Bella’s beautiful calligraphy. It bore the word, “Blessed.” She never believed it more than she did after her car accident.
She was just barely eighteen years old, but she still felt like a child in so many ways. Though she was attending university with her younger brother, Chris, she was still so unsure of her future. She dabbed on the last bit of concealer and smoothed it out, to make it look more natural. “Turn around, let me look at you,” Bella said as she turned around.
“I can’t see it, sweetie,” Bella reported. “You did a good job hiding it.”
After a moment’s pause, Charlotte announced, “You know what, Mama, I’ve changed my mind,” Charli announced as she went into the bathroom to wash her face. “I don’t want to hide my past.” Bella stopped in her tracks. It was probably the best advice she had ever gotten, and it came from the mouth of her 18-year-old daughter.
Rog and Bella, Chris and Charlotte rode together to City Hall for the graduation ceremony. The kids posed for pictures outside before the ceremony began, and then they went inside. Charlotte was named Valedictorian, like her mother and grandmother had been before her. Her speech was off the cuff and short, right to the point.
“My fellow graduates, I apologize for not having anything prepared for this. I thought my brother, Christopher, would be standing here instead of me.” The crowd laughed. “As you know, I was involved in a fatal accident two months ago. It changed my life, as it would for anyone, I guess. I shouldn’t be standing here, graduating with all of you. The paramedics that rescued me from my car that afternoon say I shouldn’t have lived. Even my father, Dr. St John, said I defied all odds when I survived the crash. What I will carry, as a permanent reminder, are scars. This one on my cheek had a shard of glass sticking out of it when I was pulled from the wreck. We will all accumulate scars, though yours might look different than mine, or they might come from a different place. But our scars are what make us unique, and beautiful. Never try to run from your past. Somehow, it has a way of catching you and reminding you.”
“I have learned much from that fateful day. I have learned I shouldn’t skip school.” That got a chuckle from the crowd. “I have learned that a car can be a dangerous thing, and that driving isn’t something anyone should take for granted. I have learned that just because I am young, I am not immune from the Reaper. And, I’ve learned to live life in the now, for the moment, because we are never guaranteed tomorrow.” She paused to wipe a tear from her eye. “The young man who was killed in that crash graduated from this high school 3 years ago this month. His bad decision cost him his own life, and nearly mine. He will never see another tomorrow. Let… let that not be us.” The crowd stood on their feet and gave her a standing ovation. “Thank you, to whatever force made me survive. I’ll never take that gift for granted again. Thank you, and congratulations!”
The first teacher to congratulate Charlotte was Tom Lawrence, her language teacher from freshman year. He hugged her and patted her on the back. “You have a great future ahead of you, Miss St John. Take full advantage of the opportunities at university, and you’ll succeed.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lawrence.”
“I’m proud of you, kiddo.” She smiled at him as he walked away. It was the first time he’d ever called her anything but Miss St John.
The alarm went off early for a Monday with no school, and Charlotte considered turning it off and rolling over. But she knew that an alarm would be sounding in the room down the hall, her parent’s room, so she thought the better of it. Her family photos had been taken down and packed into a box. Her laptop was already packed in her backpack. And Riley was all set in her new spot on Charlotte’s bed and would wait eagerly for her return in the spring. She got up and showered, and by the time she was headed downstairs, Bella was already making breakfast, and the house was alive with the sounds of family. It made her a little sad. This would be the last time they had breakfast as a family together for a long time, and certainly everything would be different the next time.
The truck arrived at 9:30am, and the movers began loading the boxes she and Chris had packed, along with their bicycles. By 10am, they were ready to ship out. Charlotte was almost ready for a new adventure, but she didn’t feel like she was done living her old one yet. Friends were being left behind, family she would miss terribly. And yet, she had her brother with her, though they were three years difference in age, she thought of him as a friend, too. And right now, he would be her closest friend. She promised her mother she would watch over Chris at Sim State, for he was the tender age of 15. Not the youngest to ever attend the university, but close.
“Well, Mama, I guess this is it. The cab is waiting for us.” Charlotte hugged Bella.
“I can’t believe my baby girl is all grown up!” Bella answered. “I’m going to miss you, so much!” She and Chris got into the cab and rolled the windows down. Waving, they repeated, “Bye-bye!” as the house faded into the horizon.
Up Next: Christopher Arthur St John