The Alphabet Stories: Mental Maze
Story by Liane Carter
Illustration by E.J. Klepinger
Charlotte isn’t responding to my messages or answering her phone. I don’t know what to do. My sister always responds, even if it’s just, ‘Later’. Then I know she’s occupied. After a few boyfriends who’ve kicked her about - physically and psychologically - we agreed to this for her safety … and my nerves. Okay, maybe more for my nerves. She’s not with anyone at the moment, so she should be all right. She would have told me. I think.
Why isn’t she answering?
It’s been 2 days. My boss has let me have the rest of the week as holiday, yet doing nothing is making me worse. Okay, maybe not worse than pouring spaghetti Bolognese in a customer’s lap, but still. Damn, I’m lucky he didn’t fire me, though once I told him I was worried about Charlotte, his eyes widened and the anger disappeared. He’s only met her twice and both times she left with enough food for days and more cheek kisses than necessary.
Pacing and chewing the skin from my finger isn’t helping anymore. And my finger is sore.
‘Frank Quilling, do something.’
Great. I’m talking aloud to myself. I check my phone one more time. I want to scream. Why don’t I know some big strong guy who could help me? Why can’t I be a big strong guy? Sigh. I have to go over there. Don’t I? But I’m Charlotte’s wimpy baby brother. She may not call me that, yet I am, and she may need a knight. I grab my jacket and leave the safety of my apartment. Shit. What am I going to find?
I have Charlotte’s address, yet I’ve never been there. It’s two bus rides away, and she always says it is easier to visit me as she has her motorbike. Oh my God. What if she’s been in an accident? No, the police would have called me. I check the phone in case they have called and are wondering why I haven’t responded to a call from the police about my own sister.
I stuff my phone in my pocket and press my fingers into my temples. Breathe. Okay. I stride to the bus stop, and when I see the bus coming down the road, I start to run. Please be okay, Charlotte.
Now I am on the second bus and getting closer, I am hoping Charlotte isn’t going to be mad with me. She doesn’t like people turning up unannounced. Dad would be a grenade waiting to explode if people arrived uninvited. I think Charlotte thinks that grenade is still present in our lives, instead of being eaten by beetles and other bugs in the cemetery.
The double bus journey has taken an hour and my thoughts have exhausted me. I’m such a mess that, when I get off the second bus, after asking the driver for directions, and her telling me Charlotte’s road is two minutes away, after walking for ten minutes, I’m lost. I’m too nervous to ask anyone else.
A man and a little girl holding hands, approach on the other side of the street. The man is beaming down at the girl. That’s how dad used to look at Charlotte. The man looks up and across at me and I flinch expecting the same scorn my dad had for me. But the man beams at me too … and nods, like, he actually sees me. He carries on walking and I realize I smiled back. I can feel the upturn of my lips. I look down at myself and give myself the slightest hug. I have been seen.
Fifteen minutes later I reach Charlotte’s new home and I flinch. The front garden is overrun with wild flowers which should be beautiful, yet they are pushing against the front fence and seem to be leaning away from the house. I think I am too. Something’s wrong.
It’s starting to get dark, yet I can see no lights on in the house. The gate creaks open. I stifle a scream, jump back and nearly fall over my own foot.
“Charlotte?” I say.
The gate is only waist-high. She’s not on the other side, but there’s comfort in saying her name. There always has been.
I glance from the gate to the house. I use the tip of my index finger to see if the gate will move more. It doesn’t. Why are there no lights on? I’d feel better if I could see a light. I estimate twelve steps to the front door.
Twelve steps is a long time in a garden that opens its own gate.
I decide to call Charlotte on my mobile again while running to the front door. I run so fast that I thud against the door which falls open and I tumble into a heap in the hallway. Charlotte’s phone is ringing in my ear and I also hear it in the house. I scramble to my feet, my heart thudding in my chest. This is what happened with her ex, Gary. I walked in and found him dead. Please, don’t be dead, Charlotte. Oh please, God, no. Why does this happen to me? Not Charlotte. Please, not Charlotte. Why did I wait so long to come? I fumble with the light switch and speed up the stairs, racing towards the sound of her phone.
I stumble into a bedroom and see a mound under the covers. Charlotte. I gulp, disconnect my call to her and the silence has a malevolence. The wall seems to be pulling me to it, so I rush closer to the bed. I’m scared to death - of this house and pulling back the duvet. I can’t do it. I’ve got to do it. I tent my fingers in front of my nose and pray to our mum. Charlotte used to tell me to do that when I was small. I step forward and pull back the cover. Charlotte is ashen. Oh my God.
I shake her.
“No, Charlotte. Wake up. Please wake up.”
I shake her more and find a strength I didn’t know I had.
Her eyes spring open and I scream.
“Frankie?” she says.
“Oh, thank God.”
I grab Charlotte in a hug and she is speaking into my shoulder but it’s muffled. I finally release her.
“Are you okay?” I say.
“No. My brother has just tried to shake me to death, and when that didn’t work, suffocate me.”
“You sound terrible, Charlotte.”
“No wonder. I’ll have bruises.”
She grins and so of course I do too, despite tears spilling down my cheeks.
“I mean it,” I say. “You’re so pale and your pjs are soaking.”
“Yeah. I stayed out in the rain for hours waiting for someone and I think I have a chest infection or something.”
“How long were you waiting?”
“Urgh. Don’t judge. About three hours.”
“Three hours? Don’t tell me. Not another Gary?”
“No. This one is different.”
“Really? So different he stands you up? Has he called to check on you?”
“I didn’t give him my number.”
“Oh, God, Charlotte. He’s that dangerous?”
Charlotte rolls her eyes and coughs for a while.
“I work with him. He was supposed to meet me to come and look at this place. I need a lodger and he needs a new place to stay.”
“And you like him?”
She grins and nods. “A bit.”
“Even though he didn’t show?”
“No. I knew where he was. He was called into a meeting. I just didn’t realize he’d be in there so long.”
“How long have you been like this?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want to worry you. You know how you get. So I just texted you as normal.”
“Until you didn’t. Charlotte, I have been ringing you all day. Your phone is right here and you didn’t hear it?” I pick it up from her nightstand.
“Wow. I must have really been out of it,” she says. “Sorry. I think my fever must have broken though. I feel better.”
“What’s his name?”
“The guy who gave you bronchitis or whatever it is you’ve got?”
She laughs which starts her coughing again.
I go and find the bathroom and bring her back a glass of water and sit on the side of the bed.
“Ben. His name’s Ben.”
“Well I hope he’s worth it.”
She cups my cheek with her palm.
“Thanks for coming. You’re my knight.”
I smile despite myself.
“Well that’s a first. You’re normally mine. Anything else this knight can do for you?”
“Could you run me a bath? And order a pizza first? I’m starving. There’s a flyer in the kitchen.”
I stand and she grabs my hand.
“Frankie, would you stay the night?”
I do my best not to look around the room.
“I know,” Charlotte says. “It’s creepy as hell here on my own.”
It would be creepy with ten people in here. I don’t want to stay. My legs and mind are already running to the bus stop.
“Okay,” I say.
Her shoulders relax.
“I have a spare toothbrush and pjs,” she says.
I go downstairs, close the front door, and turn on every light I find. I order Charlotte’s favourite pizza and head back upstairs to run her a bath. Whatever is in this house it is in the walls. It follows me from room to room and watches me. No wonder the flowers are trying to escape. I am sleeping in Charlotte’s bed with her tonight. I’ll tell her I am staying in her room to keep an eye on her. I almost hope her cough keeps me awake all night. I think we’ll be safer awake. Is the house laughing at me? I can almost hear it. I want it to be morning already … if we survive until the morning.