Losing Charlotte - By Heather Clay

For Nick

And gratia Jenny


CHARLOTTE WAS SPEAKING to her already. Not waiting there, in the dark, for Knox to crest out of sleep, but already talking, low and fast. Knox rubbed her ears, blinked, and tried to sit up. Her nightgown ticked against the sheet, making the brief flash of static that Knox thought of as “bed lightning”—Charlotte’s words. Charlotte had words that Knox tried to resist, but couldn’t.

She was a shape, hunched over Knox and saying I’m going now, I’m meeting Cash, go back to sleep.

Don’t go, Knox thought. But what she said was: Don’t tell me. I told you I don’t want to know. Stop telling me.

It’s not like I’m having sex with him, Charlotte said.

Shut up, Knox whispered.

He hasn’t asked me. I think he’s scared. He’s only fifteen.

Knox’s attempt to laugh quietly, incredulously, sounded like a hiss. So are you, she said.

Charlotte wiggled her shoulders a little. Maybe tonight’s the night, she said. If I feel like it. You never know. Hold down the fort for me.

Why are you acting like this, Knox said.

Charlotte never answered questions like that. Why would she? She lifted herself off the bed, crossed the room, and let herself into the hall so quietly that Knox hated her even more, hated that her talent for stealth was just another admirable thing about her, among too many.

Wish me luck, Charlotte said, her head appearing briefly around the jamb, then dissolving into the dark again.

Good luck, Knox said, despite herself.

She waited, breathing as softly as possible so she could hear. After a minute there was just one sound, a small creak, to signal Charlotte’s movement through the house. Knox felt she knew the floorboard that had made it, just as she knew everything, every bit of space that lay under their roof. She knew the roof, too, had crawled onto it from the window of her mother’s dressing room twice before and sat on a loose shingle, looking out at the scarecrow cast of the metal television antennae, the spiky landscape of storm rods. And below, she knew the banisters upon which, if she squinted, she could make out fingerprints in the polish, and smudges from all the gripping and sweat and dinner grease and soap and dirt from the yard and the fields outside. It was all here, all the evidence and effluvia of a family’s happiness, swimming around them. Knox could see it clearly, but all Charlotte could do was step on a creaky board on her way out, and probably not even register the sound it made.

Knox pulled the sheet taut, arranged it under her armpits, patting it around her body. She would sit, vigilant. It would be easier than sleeping, hot and anxious as she’d get trying find her way back to rest. Rest couldn’t come because Charlotte had been caught once. She had made their mother believe that she’d only been on the porch for ten minutes, having gone out “to think.” Knox, of course, knew otherwise, though she hadn’t asked to. That night, standing at the top of the stairs, she had mentally begged her mother to ask: Get dressed, to think? Wear eyeliner, to think? But Charlotte was safe that time—safe in the way their mother struggled to keep the hope off her face, and failed. It was beaming off her like heat.

“Think, honey?” she had said. “What about? Are you all right?” She meant: School, a boy, something worse? Anything was all right if it meant that Charlotte would talk. She had taken to disappearing into silences in a way that none of them had expected. She had new breasts, still nubbly but there, under her shirt. Her hands—everything about her was long now, more real somehow, taking up more room.

Charlotte glanced at Knox from her place at the bottom of the stairs on that particular night as their mother waited. She kept her eyes on Knox and said, “No. I don’t know.” Knox pleaded in her head for Charlotte to make something up, to ask for help for something, however far-fetched, but Charlotte gazed through her, concentrating on a point in space beyond her head. Charlotte shifted her weight; what their mother couldn’t seem to remember for long was that her sister hated questions and tended to harden under a prolonged gaze. She looked, to Knox, like she’d been tapped on the shoulder during a game of freeze tag, and was waiting only for the scream of somebody’s whistle to explode back into movement and into herself.