Fiction by Molly Harris
Charlie heard the details for Elise’s memorial service over the PA. A static, mechanical, monotone voice. She ignored the empty lunch table chair next to her. She focused on her half-eaten mashed potatoes, gray under the fluorescent lighting of the school cafeteria.
She didn’t need to hear what her principal said. She already knew the details. She only thought about Elise, drunk on the train tracks. Elise, watching homecoming fireworks alone on the tracks until a southbound train from Kansas City brought her up to the firestorms above.
A chair squeaked against the vinyl floor, and someone sat down in Elise’s seat.
“Do you need a ride home today?”
It was her older sister, Tia, asking. Charlie didn’t look up at her.
“I think I might study in the library after school.”
“Okay, well, I’m not picking your ass up later. Dad’s at the base still, so after school’s gonna be your last chance for a ride.”
Charlie smashed her mashed potato volcano with her plastic fork.
“I’ll find a ride home,” she said.
“Okay,” Tia paused. “Make sure your finish your food.”
Charlie listened to her sister’s footsteps as she walked away. She chewed her food slowly, and it scratched the inside of her throat, burning.
She skipped the rest of her classes to sit out on the soccer fields. When she looked up, the blue sky blinded her. She saw floaters in her peripheries. Elise and Charlie used to skip class to sit in the grass. They were never the good kids. Administration would call up their houses, but her father was always at work on the base on the outskirts of town, and her mother was jailed, and Elise lived just with her older sister, who was usually at a boyfriend’s. There was no one to reprimand them.
Now, it was just Charlie skipping class. She clutched the grass in between her fingers and ripped it up, watched it be caught by the wind. She thought of Elise’s face—thin and gaunt, with long stringy blonde hair and gray eyes. She was smiling, gap-toothed.
She felt the rain in the air before it began. The humidity coated her skin, and the clouds covered her blue sky fast. Her hair frizzed up, and she could smell the strong, earthy scent that occurred before a storm. She thought she heard a car horn, and when she looked from the fields to the street by her school, she saw a peeling piss-gold Bonneville. It was Tia’s car. She started to walk to towards it, but ran when a clap of thunder brought down the rain.
Tia rolled down her window and yelled at Charlie to hurry up.
“Why the fuck didn’t you go to your classes?” she asked once Charlie got in the car. Her hair was piled into a crow’s nest on top of her head.
“I knew you weren’t gonna study in the library.”
Tia’s hands gripped the wheel. Long red acrylic nails tapped on the pleather of her wheel.
“Are you gonna say sorry for lying to me?” she asked.
Charlie just looked down. The car’s floor was littered with empty Styrofoam cups and cases with their CDs missing.
“Where’s even your school bag? Did you even bring your damn school bag? You’re gonna flunk out of the tenth grade, Charlene Moreau, is that what you want?”
“Why do you always gotta use my whole name when you yell at me?”
“Because that’s your goddamn name, and you’re a goddamn idiot.”
Tia took her car out of park and jerked off the shoulder. Her car drove like a boat—the steering was off—so she had to complete the circle for a minor turn.
“Aren’t you gonna drive slow in the rain?” asked Charlie, watching rain drops race each other on her window.
“Aren’t you gonna keep your mouth shut until we get home?”
Tia drove with one hand, using the other to put in a CD that she pulled out of the glove box. It was scratched, so she had to press the forward button until music started. The song she played was fuzzy, recorded through just a tape recorder. A male voice broke through, singing, I’m going nowhere, but I’m guaranteed to be late.
“Can we turn this off?” asked Charlie. “What is this even?”
“I don’t know. Caroline burned me this CD, like, last week.”
Caroline was Tia’s friend who was a year above her. She had just graduated, but Charlie wasn’t sure if she went to school. Charlie thought she was a little weird. She cut her own hair, jagged right below her ears.
“You know,” Tia started, lowering her tone, “Caroline’s dad just died. Maybe you could talk to her about this?”
The CD fuzzed out more lyrics, how have you been, and Charlie turned to her sister for the first time since the ride started.
“I don’t wanna talk to anybody,” she said.
She saw Tia furrow her eyebrows, thick like her own, and bite down on her inner cheek.
“Well, you know what, I don’t want to talk to your selfish ass either. And no, I’m not turning off the damn music. I’m not listening to the damn rain all the way home.”
Charlie just turned to look out the window. Small homes, each with their own tall oak tree standing guard, blurred together and got washed away through the reflection of the rain.
When Tia pulled up in front of their small bungalow, Charlie bolted out, slamming the door shut behind her. She could tell the house was dark before she even got inside. She didn’t need Tia to tell her that their father wasn’t going to be home for a couple days. She could hear Tia yell at her from behind, asking her why she was in such a hurry. She called the bathroom as soon as she unlocked the door. She turned on every light she passed on the way upstairs. She slammed the bathroom door behind her. It didn’t have a working lock, so Charlie put the old, heavy, wood hamper in front of it. She didn’t want to deal with anyone. She took off her clothes, leaving them in heaps on the floor. She looked at her face in the mirror. Her hair had doubled its size from the storm. Her eyes looked swollen, but she couldn’t remember crying recently. She tried to weave a hand through her hair, but she couldn’t get it past the knots. She sighed at her reflection, sticking out her lower lip. She turned on the shower and waited for it to heat up.
Once inside, she slid down the wall to the floor. It was a glass shower, one with the sliding doors that you couldn’t take a bath in. When they were younger, Tia had always bitched to their mother because she couldn’t take baths, but Charlie never minded. She liked the floor of it. She could sit down and let the showerhead rain over her, and it did, matting down her hair as she watched the water trail into the drain. Her mind started to wander to thoughts of Elise, to her smile, and her stomach dropped. She stood back up, grabbing her soap bar from the caddy. She wasn’t going to think about that right now. She let her mind zone out to nothing, massaging her conditioner into her hair at a slow pace.
“Charlie, are you done yet? You’ve been in there for like an hour.”
Charlie glared at the door through the warped mosaic glass of the shower.
“I’m deep conditioning my hair.”
She started to carve an alien face into the oval soap. She dug in the almond eyes with her fingernails. The soap scrapings got stuck between her skin and her nail. She heard Tia sigh, slamming a fist on the door.
“Come on. It’s been, like, an hour.”
Charlie worked on the nose, giving her alien two nostrils. The mouth—a crooked line that took a bit longer to carve. Her fingernails got stuck in the grooves. As soon as she finished her mouth, it slipped out of her hand and hit the tiles with a dull thud.
“Are you all right?”
Because of the way the soap fell, the face had dented and looked deformed.
“Yeah, Tia. I’m fine.”
She reached out to turn off the water, but the lights went out, and she screamed. She slipped on the soap, landing on the shower floor, right on her tail bone. She could hear Tia try to open up the door, shaking it back and forth. The only thing she could see were stars.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Charlene, what did you put in front of this damn door?”
Charlie’s eyes began to adjust to the sudden darkness. She pulled herself up to sit on the floor. The water was still on, spraying her. It was starting to get cold.
“I think the power went out, Tia,” she said.
“No shit, Charlie. Open this door. Are you okay?”
Charlie stood up, grabbing the railing for the door. She turned off the water.
“I’m fine. Give me a second.”
She groped around in the dark for her towel. She finally felt it, rough and worn-out, and wrapped it around herself. She fumbled for the hamper, falling over it, and the clothes and towels spilled on the wet tiles. Tia threw open the door.
Charlie just walked past her into the hallway, holding up her towel with her hand. She sidestepped half-read books and clothes that were strewn on the floor of the bedroom, so she could make it to the window. She lifted her curtain and looked out. She called for her sister.
“The streetlights are out. Do you think it’s the whole town?” she asked.
Tia stood in the doorway with her arms crossed. Her hip was propped up on the doorframe.
“Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. Is it still raining?”
Tia walked up behind Charlie, leaning onto her and resting her hand on the window. Rain pelted down. A steady stream flowed into the storm drain by their house. Charlie’s towel dropped a little, but she grabbed it back up.
“Do we have any candles?” she asked.
Tia stared out the window.
“Do we have any candles, Tia?”
“Oh, yeah. You get dressed, and I’ll go get them.”
They sat on the floor of their living room, around the coffee table. Candles of all different scents and heights lit the table. Tia always kept the house clean while their father was away, and in the darkness, Charlie was thankful for that. She braided her still wet hair by the dim light, looking down. Tia sat next to her, trying to do her calculus homework by candlelight. Tia had always been good at math, a lot better than Charlie ever was. Thunder rolled outside, and the occasional lightning strike would light up the living room.
“Why are you doing your homework? It’s Friday,” said Charlie.
“Because I gotta work tomorrow and Sunday,” Tia replied, not looking up from her work.
Charlie stopped braiding her own hair.
“Tia, could you French braid my hair? You always do it better than me.”
Tia looked up from her homework with an eyebrow raised.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Just braid my damn hair.”
Tia scooched behind her, untangling the half-assed braid that Charlie had been working on.
“Elise usually did this for me,” Charlie said.
She felt her sister stop braiding for a second.
“I don’t know why I never picked it up,” she continued, clutching the fabric of her pajamas pants.
Tia finished the braid, smoothing down Charlie’s hair.
“Do you care if we sleep out here?” Charlie asked without looking at her sister.
She was expecting Tia to look frustrated, to ask her if she was afraid of the dark. Thunder roared outside, and a flash of lightning illuminated her sister’s face—round like her own. But Tia just said okay, and she got up to get the blankets and the pillows.
When Charlie awoke, Tia had her back to her. The rain had stopped, but it was still dark outside. She snuck out from under the blankets, and she grabbed a hoodie on her way out the front door. Her bare feet were cold on the wet pavement. The streetlight still hadn’t turned on. She felt her braid, now dry, and she undid it, letting her hair bounce up from her scalp. She followed the wet concrete path her father had laid down for them when they were younger, before he took the job at the base. The wind broke through her thin pajamas. She knew where she was going.
She walked out of her cul-de-sac to the neighborhood park. Usually, she had the light of the streetlights and the moon to guide her there, but tonight, she was on her own. She used to sneak out with Elise in middle school, sneaking sips of stolen beer from Elise’s sister, and smoking Marlboro Reds Charlie took from her mother’s bag. She had only been to this park once by herself, when she found out about her mother’s conviction. Her mother assaulted two young girls just around her age at the high school a town away. Her mother was their guidance counselor. People told her she was lucky it wasn’t her, but she didn’t feel too lucky. The night Charlie had found out about it, she fell asleep under the roof of the top of the slide. The only town cop found her there, and he drove her through a McDonalds drive-thru before he dropped her off at Elise’s house. He told her that her mother’s sins weren’t her own, and that your family could be made, not just born. She had taken those fries and walked into Elise’s house. She shared them with Elise, who was home alone, and understood what the cop had told her.
When she got to the park, she walked on the wood pellets of the playset, wet with rain. She took off her hoodie to wipe the swings down. Her ass still got wet, and the black rubber of the swing made her shiver. She threw the sopping hoodie to the ground so she could grip the metal chains. Her feet touched the ground, but Charlie remembered when her feet did not touch the ground. She gripped the chains tighter until the cold metal burned her palms. When Elise and Charlie were younger, they would push each other on the swings. They would scream about how they were pilots. Charlie would grab the chains and pull Elise way back before letting her go. Elise would laugh and look up to the blue sky and comment on the occasional cloud formations, or the different jet streams. Elise would scream that she was flying, and that she never wanted to come down. But she eventually would. She would come down for Charlie, so she could push her up into the clouds.
Now, it was dark, and Elise was not here. Charlie wasn’t swinging. She just sat. She heard the midnight train roar in the distance, heard its horn, and she wondered why the train to Kansas City didn’t blare its horn when the conductor saw Elise. Charlie thought of how it must have looked in the darkness, without the streetlamps to give its own light. How it would have looked like a speeding dark monster, its wheels turned to claws and its billowing exhaust turned to breaths.
She leaned back in the swing to look up at the sky, to search for familiar constellations, like Orion, but there were too many clouds from the storm. She tried to kick back, to start swinging herself, but she kicked up a pellet and tripped over it. She bowed over, still holding the swing, staring at the wet ground. She decided she didn’t want to be a pilot anymore. She knew she was still afraid of the train. Her face heated, and she tried not to cry.
When she got home, it was almost morning. The sky was still dark, and the grass was wet. Tia was sitting at their kitchen table, working on homework. She looked up.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“I went to the park. It wasn’t raining anymore. Is the power still out?”
Tia sighed and looked her sister up and down. Charlie’s clothes were damp, and the hoodie she held hadn’t dried yet.
“Yeah, it is. Our stove won’t even turn on,” Tia said.
“I need to eat before work, but I can’t make any damn eggs since our electricity is out. Since I guess this is all we have in this damn house.”
Charlie looked at her sister—stressed and tired.
“I can go get Waffle House for us. I got the money. Just let me go change first.”
“What, you gonna borrow my car?”
“Yeah, I’ve driven it before. Just because I don’t have my own car doesn’t mean I’m not a licensed driver, Tianna Moreau.”
Tia pursed her lips.
“Girl, don’t do that shit to me. Just take my car. I’m gonna get the hash brown bowl, only with the eggs fried, you hear?”
Charlie smiled and walked to her room to change. When she walked out, Tia threw her keys to her, not looking up from her homework.
“Don’t wreck it,” she said.
“I won’t,” Charlie replied.
The fuzzy, skipping CD that Caroline had given Tia was still in the Bonneville when Charlie started the engine. She let it play. She backed out the driveway slowly. She saw Tia watching her from the window.
It was different to be the driver than to be a passenger. Charlie saw that her town was more rural than she thought. They lived in one the few subdivisions off of State Highway Y. She sped up to sixty, twenty miles over the limit, but there was only one cop in her town, and he wouldn’t be around here.
Something shook in the bushes, but she paid no mind to it, and a doe ran in front of the Bonneville’s headlights. Its coat seemed golden in the light. She slammed on the breaks and swerved off the road. They locked up, and she shut her eyes. She imagined that this was what Elise had felt, in the end. The pure terror, the sudden shock. She felt her body get caught by the seat belt, and it cut into her neck. She opened her eyes. Her hands were still on the wheel. She saw the deer skip off in the woods on the other side of the road, out of her headlights’ gaze and back into the darkness. Her hands were still shaking. Her car had stopped inches from an oak. She felt something bubble in her throat, and she let it out.
It was loud, primal sobs, a half scream, cut off by a hiccup. Her face swelled up, and snot ran down her nose, and she cried. She tried to curl up, but her seatbelt prevented her, so she hid her face in her hands. She leaned her head on the steering wheel, bent over like a prayer. Her elbows hit the horn, and she jolted up in surprise.
Charlie sat there for a minute, watching the world move within the confines of her headlights. She saw a squirrel skitter up the oak she’d almost hit. The weeds and tall grasses moved in the direction of the wind. Silhouettes of bugs were outlined by the Bonneville’s light. Charlie calmed her breathing, and she felt the fake leather of the steering wheel. She felt the hard plastic of the interior of the car, and she felt the soft, worn seats of it, saw its vinyl cover peeling. She popped down her mirror, which was cracked from wear, and she looked at herself. Her face was divided into two, but the two halves were similar. Wild, alert, bloodshot eyes, hairs that were out of place on her head, big lips that were swollen from her biting them nervously. She touched her face, and she closed her eyes.
When she opened them, she was still afraid, but it was okay to be afraid. She wiped her tears, and she got back on the road. She drove to Waffle House, and she got the hash brown bowl with the fried eggs and two coffees, one for her and one for Tia.
Molly Harris is a Missouri native living in Chicago with her boyfriend and their two cats. She’s currently finishing up her final semester at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before taking a year off to work and apply to graduate programs.