In Love and War

Truths were bitter. Truth. Sophie was dead. Truth. I was not going to be happy for a long time.
Truth. I was going to be sent far far away.

After losing her best friend, Charlotte moves away to forget her, to forget that the drama and the tension. Of course, she could never expect that the things waiting for her at the place she ran away to, would be far more painful.

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4. Foreigner

Chapter Four

 

            Jenny talked through most of the five hour drive. She was more like a teenager on a sugar rush than a mother of two. Charlotte nodded at the appropriate moments, smiled, and occasionally, to her own initial shock, talked back freely.

            Finally her father took the exit and the trees started to disappear. Buildings appeared on either side of the six-lane road. They weren’t the two-story, three-story buildings she was used to in suburbia. She had to crane her neck up to see their top, and even then sometimes she failed to. People hurried along on the sidewalks, almost all of them in their office clothes. Occasionally she would see someone in normal clothes, but they looked grossly out of place.

            She frowned at her own folly. Of course it would be different. It was New York. She already missed the open spaces and the mowed grass of her small town. There wasn’t anything green in sight except for a traffic light.

            Cars surrounded theirs on all sides, and traffic moved at a horrifyingly slow pace. It was five in the evening, so she guessed it was the famous New York rush hour. Eventually, an hour later, they exited the nightmarish concrete streets and their car slipped into what looked like a residential area.

            Two-story and three-story houses were prevalent along the streets, each joined to the next one by a common wall. Some trees were planted in regular intervals along the sidewalk, and that made her feel better. People walked their dogs, and mothers were on walks with their stroller-bound children.

            Her father parked the car in front of a large three-story house. It was basically a red-brick structure, but the walls were mostly covered by ivy. A set of steps led up to the large front door. Roman pillars stood at the top of the stairs, forming a tiny porch. Golden light shined out from the open windows, although she could nothing of what was inside.

            She gawked unabashedly as she stepped out of the car. Her father already had her bags in his hands and was heading up the stairs. Jenny took her hand and Charlotte slowly walked up the stairs, wondering if they were actually at the right house.

            A plump woman with silver hair and a friendly face opened the door for them, looking towards Charlotte with curiosity. The first room they entered was a small foyer with a small chaise and a closet. An arch led into the living room, and as she stepped through it, she couldn’t help but feel shocked. The outside of the house was traditional, old architecture. But the inside was an entirely different story. The walls were painted a rich purple, with matching dark minimalist furniture. An art deco painting hung behind the couch, opposite a giant plasma screen television.

            “Did you win the lottery?” she asked her father.

            Jenny laughed, as her father shook his head and left to another room.

            “Let’s let him get some rest,” she suggested. “I’ll show your room.”

            Charlotte held onto her large suitcase and her stole, while Jenny carried the duffel bag. After going up a flight of stairs, she heard the sound of giggling behind a closed pink door. Jenny passed by it and led her to the end of the hall.

            A door of dark wood that almost looked black stood in front of them. Jenny opened it, and revealed another flight of stairs. Charlie gave her a quizzical look.

            “I know, know, stepmother’s making you live in the attic,” Jenny said laughingly. “It’s actually the biggest room in the house, and we had it renovated a year ago. If you don’t like it, there’s a guest room next to the twins’ room.”

            She continued to talk as they went up the stairs. Charlotte looked around the giant room, walls painted a soft sea green, the white four-poster bed, the bay window overlooking what she guessed was the backyard, and the white wicker furniture. It wasn’t like her small frilly room in her old house, but the room was her.

            “Of course, if choose to stay in the guest room, I can’t guarantee you privacy,” Jenny said. As an afterthought she added, “Or your sanity for that matter. After all, you’re right next to the twins. So do you-”

            “Love it, Jenny,” Charlie said breathlessly. “I love this room.”

            She hugged Jenny tight, screaming thanks and jumping. After ten seconds she realized what she was doing and pulled back. It wasn’t like her. She didn’t hug, or jump, or scream. Charlotte blamed it on the New York air. It was getting into her head.

            “Sorry,” Charlie said. “I’m not usually like this.”

            “You should be,” Jenny said, touching her cheek lightly. “Happy is a good look for you.”

            They headed downstairs, where Jenny showed her the library, and their bedroom, and the guest bedroom. Charlie still heard the muffled sounds, sounds that seemed like arguing, from behind that pink door. Her breathing was speeding up. She knew it was pathetic that she was nervous about meeting two five-year olds.

            Jenny opened the door, revealing a little girl playing with a giant dollhouse. The other one stood in the corner, with a remote control for a remote-controlled car in her hand. Charlotte stood frozen at the door as they stared back at her. They were twins, but that wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when she looked at them.

            They were little living dolls, with adorable round faces, cute button noses and innocent smiles. And they were undoubtedly polar opposites. The girl in front of the dollhouse was an absolute girly girl, long hair in pigtails, pink dress, the works. And the girl standing in the corner was a devil. It was impossible not to see the mischief in her eyes. She had a short brown pixie cut, and wore dark blue overalls over a white t-shirt.

            Charlie had the instinct to hug them to death, but she settled for a friendly smile and wave instead. The girl with the remote control pressed a button as the other one stared at Charlie. A toy car appeared out of nowhere and rammed into the dollhouse, making half of the structure collapse.

            Jenny sat Indian-style on the floor and started fixing up the dollhouse. It looked like she was used to it. The girl with the remote smirked evilly, and Charlotte knew that one would be her favorite. The other girl wailed loudly, grabbing at her dolls beneath the debris of the dollhouse.

            “This is Evie,” Jenny said, pointing towards the girl who was still in tears. “And the little demon over there is Mia.”

            The little girl in the corner of the room laughed, reversing her car and making it neatly drive into a closet. She flopped down onto the bed, resting on her stomach with her hands under her chin.

            “Who’s this, Mama?” she asked.

            “Charlie,” Jenny answered absent-mindedly, struggling with putting the dollhouse back together.

            “Charlie?” Mia said curiously, as if Jenny had shown her a two-headed dog. Charlie’s breathing was starting to rise again. Judgment. Even when it was by preschoolers, she still hated it.

            “Mia?” Charlie mocked her, with the same disbelieving tone. The girl giggled.

            “Yes!” Jenny yelled. The dollhouse was intact again. Evie’s tears were forgotten, and she started arranged her displaced dolls. Jenny looked around in surprise, obviously embarrassed by her triumphant outburst.

            She smoothed down her brown hair and walked over to Charlotte, still standing at the door.

            “This is Charlie,uh, Charlotte,” she said. “Your big sister.”

            Mia’s eyes widened, while Evie laughed gleefully and clapped her hands together. Charlotte balked a little. Who clapped their hands together anymore?

            “No way, Mama,” Mia said. “No way. Katie’s big sister made us eat a worm. I don’t want one!”

            Charlotte hid her smile behind her hand and tried to look innocent. Mia jumped on the bed yelling protests as Jenny tried to calm her down. But Charlie was good with kids. She was never around them, but she knew how they worked.

            “Hey Mia,” she said. The girl stopped at the sound of her voice. “Want to go for ice cream this weekend?”

            And then everything changed. She became their angel in the span of the second the words ‘ice cream’ came out of her mouth. Suddenly they couldn’t have enough of her, and Jenny and she had to drag them down for dinner.

            As she saw more of the house, Charlotte couldn’t help notice that although everything looked expensive, there was no ostentatiousness to any of the things. Most of the décor depended on smooth lines and the sleek shine of polished metal and glass for a sense of Zen.

            They settled down around the kitchen table, where the silver-haired woman from before was setting the plates. The woman had a friendly demeanor about her, but her movements, the precision of them, belied discipline.

            “This is Margo,” Jenny said. “She’s our housekeeper.”

            Charlie waved a hello. Her father was the last to come in, with a book in his hands, marking down notes in the margins and with a pencil in his ear. Margo grabbed the book from out of his hands, and frowned at him.

            “Sorry, Margo,” he said jokingly. Dinner wasn’t quiet like it was at her house. They spoke about the most random things, and she listened in awe. Even though she didn’t speak, she didn’t feel like an outsider.

            “So, Charlie,” Jenny said. “You’re probably have a lot of questions, right?”

            Yes, Charlie had a lot of questions. But they weren’t exactly things she could ask out right. She wondered how her lower-middle class father with alimony payments could afford to live in such a nice place. She wondered what Jenny did for a living, but she was already supposed to know. So, she would stick to pleasantries.

            “Tell me about New York,” she said.

            “New York,” Jenny breathed out with a loopy smile on her face. Charlie raised her eyebrows. “New York is the most wonderful place in the world.”

            “I grew up here,” she continued. “And didn’t really love it back then. Then I moved to the country for a few years. It was like, the whole place was asleep, you know? So I came back. Because New York, after all, is the city that never sleeps. You’ll love it Charlie.”

            “Why don’t you take her on a little tour this weekend?” her father suggested.

            “That’s actually a good idea, but not this weekend. I have to work this Sunday. We’ll just go to the park this weekend, and next weekend we can all go out.”

            “Central Park?” Charlie asked. That was one of the few landmarks of New York that she knew. Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Times Square. Beyond that, she was clueless.

            “No, this is the Village,” Jenny explained. “So Washington Square Park.”

            Charlie nodded. She had no idea what ‘the Village’ was, but she figured that was what Google was for. After dinner they started playing Mario Kart so she excused herself to her room. Her bags were still unpacked.

            There was a small arch that she hadn’t noticed before in the attic, leading into a moderately-sized walk-in closet, which in turn led to a bathroom. She freshened up and unpacked her things, which didn’t take much time at all. Afterwards she picked up one her books, falling asleep just as Oliver Twist fainted in court.

            The next morning everything was silent by the time she got up. It was still very early, and the only sounds came from the kitchen. She headed towards the sound, finding Margo stirring something in a bowl. The older woman looked up at her.

            “So, you’re an early bird are ye?” Margo said.

            Charlie was. But she didn’t respond. It was the first time she had heard Margo speak. Although she ate dinner with them the night before, she was a silent observer just like Charlotte. And now, hearing her voice, Charlotte was startled. Her voice had a thick accent. From what she knew, which was little, it wasn’t exactly British.

            “You’re Irish?” she asked.

            “Was Irish, girl,” the woman replied with a smile. “New York’s home now.”

            “Can I help with anything here?” she asked. It felt wrong, not doing anything while the older woman buzzed about the kitchen.

            “You can taste,” the woman replied, holding out a spoon with some cream on it.

            Charlie gingerly took the spoon and put it in her mouth. The cream looked delicious, but it felt like heaven. She closed her eyes, trying to savor the last inklings of the taste before it melted in her mouth completely.

            “So, ye like it?” She asked.

            “I love it,” Charlotte admitted. “What exactly is it?”

            “Vanilla crème, Mia loves it on everything. Waffles, pizza, meatloaf, anything.”

            Margo was a sugar-and-spice kind of person, Charlotte decided. She was sweet and caring, yet had her stern moments. It was a full hour before the others woke up, drudging in like zombies. Margo had two cups of coffee ready on the table.

            Charlie already knew her father was not a morning person. But Jenny in the morning, was a spectacle. Her hair stood in all directions, her eyes were bleary, and none of her usual energy could be found anywhere.

            Mia and Evie walked in later, devouring waffles with vanilla crème and syrup. What caffeine did for the adults, sugar did for the children. Charlie smiled witnessing the transformation. Jenny rushed upstairs to get ready, coming back in a record fifteen minutes in a pretty pink blouse and black pencil-skirt.

            And so the next few days went, as she waited for the weekend. She still didn’t ask any of the questions she had. She found out they lived in Greenwich Village. It used to be a neighborhood for artists and writers, but now it was just mostly rich people.

            In the mornings she helped Margo, and convinced the woman to teach her how to cook. Most of the day she acted as the twins’ favorite toy, and in the evenings she spent some time to herself. She didn’t hang out with her father a lot. Most of the time when Jenny left there was silence, which had been uncomfortable at first but was now familiar.

            On Saturday they headed to the park. Jenny made it clear that Charlotte could go out on her own as long as she came back before eight. But Charlie didn’t feel safe walking through the streets. Unfamiliar faces, a labyrinth of streets to navigate, she didn’t think she would make it back home alive.

            As Saturday came and she ventured out of the house for the first time, standing next to Jenny with Mia’s hand in her own, she couldn’t help but see what Jenny saw. New York in the summer was beautiful. It didn’t have the green open spaces and the rustic nature of her old town, but it had its own special charm.

            The red-brick structures, the order of the city, the chaos the people, it was starting to become inviting. They walked to the park, and sat on the benches as Mia and Evie played with other children.

            “So, I’m going to answer your questions,” Jenny said. When Charlotte tilted her head, pretending to be confused, the woman flicked her on the wrist.

            “Ow!” she yelped.

            “Well, that’s what you get for playing innocent,” Jenny said. “I know you’re curious about us. About how we… make money and all that. And considering you’re part of the family now, you should know.”

            Charlie said, “You don’t have to tell me.”

            “I do, actually,” Jenny said. “I don’t need you imagining things like me leading a drug cartel or something.”

            “Who could imagine you leading a drug cartel?” Charlie asked.

            “Maybe that was a bad example,” Jenny admitted. “But I’m going to tell you. You don’t really know anything about us, and I want to change that.”

            Jenny stuck out her hand, “I’m Jennifer Frazer Grey, children’s book author and editor at Red Cloud Books, which my dad owns.”

            “Okay,” Charlotte said, “So-”

            She stopped as Jenny held up her hand, “I’m not done yet, Charlie. Your dad is now a professor at Columbia. The house we live in, I inherited from my very rich grandparents, who left me a whole bunch of other properties.”

            “Well, I’m going to tell you about myself now,” Charlie said. “I love books, and my camera Piper, and I love my best friend Sophie, who died three weeks ago.”

            The shock was clear on Jenny’s face.

            “I’m not joking, Jenny,” she continued. “Sophie’s basically the reason I moved out here. I needed to forget her.”

            “Why are you telling me this?” Jenny asked, and then stopped. “I mean, you should be telling your dad.”

            “I think he already knows,” Charlotte said.

            “Well, why hasn’t he talked to you?” Jenny said. She looked angry.

            “There wasn’t really a need to,” Charlotte answered. “And I’m glad that he chose not to. Me and my dad, we don’t get through our problems by talking about them. We can’t just ‘get stuff off our chests’. All we can do is wait, and try to forget.”

            Jenny leaned towards her and hugged her. Charlotte hugged her back, the feeling of warmth new to her heart.

            “If you need me, I’m here,” Jenny said.

            “I’ll be fine,” Charlotte said. “There’ll be so many things here to distract me. I’m basically a foreigner here. I’ll be too busy finding my way to have time to think of her, to cry over her.”

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