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Getting into Charlotte’s bedroom isn’t exactly easy but it’s doable. Both penthouse condos have security but it’s outwardly focused meaning that the cameras are on the elevators and the entrances as are the alarms. When Uncle Bo built the Randolph Towers, he built a long hallway between the kitchens of the two condos. There’s a service elevator there but it shut down every night at 7 pm. Anything sent up after that would set off an alarm.
Dad explained this to Nick and I when I was ten and Nick was eight when he caught us trying to pry open the elevator doors to see if we could climb down the shaft and pretend we were Woody and Buzz from Toy Story. Shortly after we found ourselves enrolled in a rock climbing classes so we’d have harnesses for the time we thought about rappelling down the inside of an elevator shaft.
Nick and I’ve had some dumbass ideas over the years. Mom says it’s a miracle we’re still alive so there’s some kind of sick ass irony over Charlotte being the one so sick, her health so fragile that she has to move away. She never tried to climb down the rooftop terrace onto the balcony and she covered her eyes on the sidewalk when Nick and I played Frogger on Michigan Avenue.
But of all the stupid ideas that Nick and I had come up with over the years, not one of them came close to Charlotte’s belief that leaving me—us—would make her better. Which is why I’m creeping down the service hallway between our two homes and into her bedroom at midnight.
Earlier today I’d been in Charlotte’s kitchen, ostensibly because we were out of milk or at least that’s what I told Donna, the Randolph’s housekeeper. She rolled her eyes, handed me a carton and kicked me out. I stuffed some putty into the lock when she wasn’t looking and sure enough the door opens soundlessly, lock unengaged. Score.
There is little light over the stove, but I’ve been in Charlotte’s home enough to walk through it blindfolded. Silently moving over the marble tile and then on down the hall to the bedrooms, the darkness hides the figure leaning against the wall right past the entrance of the living room.
“You got a death wish boy?” rumbles Uncle Bo’s voice. My heart stutters and then I trip on the smooth surface nearly falling on my face. A hand passes over my mouth and I’m jerked upright.
Blood pounding in my ears, I look up into the shadowed face of Charlotte’s Dad. He looks like he can see every dirty thought I’d had about his fifteen year old daughter. Almost sixteen though, well, in May or so and that’s only like five months away. As the silence lengthens between us, I remind myself that Uncle Bo loves me. I’m like his firstborn son, really.
“Hey Uncle Bo,” I mumble into his hand.
His hand drops from my face to my shoulder and he turns so that we are looking straight at each other. I’m an inch taller than him but not as bulked out. I wonder briefly whether I could take him and that must show on my face because he busts out a huge grin. “No, you can’t take me, son.”
“In a couple of years,” I say only half in jest, still wondering if my nuts are in danger of being chopped off because there’s really only one reason I could be standing in this hallway.
Whatever Bo is thinking, he doesn’t let on. Instead his hands fall away and he turns on his heel and walks toward his own bedroom. Over his shoulder he says, “She needs her sleep.”
I’m momentarily paralyzed. I think he’s given me permission to enter Charlotte’s bedroom but it could also be a trap. The darkness at the end of the hall swallowed him up and I quickly dart into Charlotte’s room before Bo can come back.
Charlotte isn’t asleep. She’s lying on top of her covers listening to something, no doubt a female artist. Charlotte says she doesn’t like to hear male voices or maybe she just doesn’t like what male’s sing about. Who knows. I’ve never given it much thought. The lamp on her nightstand is the only illumination in the room.
She doesn’t even move when I come in although the carpet pile is so thick in here that an elephant could walk in and the sound would be swallowed up. Puzzled I sit on the side of the bed and pull down her headphones. Does she have so many midnight visitors that my appearance here is just normal?
“Nick texted me.” She holds up her phone and I see a huge number of texts between the two. My mouth falls open as I take in the sheer volume of exchanges. They must text each other like every day, several times a day. A curd of something unfurls inside of me and I don’t like it. There’s always been a closeness between Nick and Charlotte, but it’s just a friendship. That’s what I’ve always believed. “And I told Daddy so he wouldn’t shoot you when you tripped the alarm.”
“You have interior alarms?”
She looks at me like I’m stupid and I guess I am. “Yes, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t think so.” At least I didn’t up until this moment. Nick and I would have to do some snooping. “I think your dad did threaten me out there in the hall but I’m not sure what the consequences will be.”
“Oh it’ll be castration,” she says impishly like it’s no big deal but I think my nuts are shrinking just at the thought. “That’s his go-to threat.” She moves over on the bed to make room for me. I stretch out beside her still a little tense but then I tell myself her dad is three doors down and I’d be able to be on my feet and in the armchair before he even twists her doorknob.
“Real comforting, Charlotte.” I suppress the urge to cup myself protectively.
She smirks but the expression fades away quickly at my next question.
“Why are you really leaving? There’s no way there is better medical care somewhere else in the world than you can get here. Is it because we hid you were sick? So we don’t do that anymore.”
We both look at the other side of the bed were an IV stand sits like a creepy skeleton. Charlotte has had to have one bag of IV nutrition a day since Halloween. It’s nearing Christmas and she looks a lot healthier now. The bones in her wrists and shoulders don’t look as sharp and her cheeks are fuller. She can stand to gain another twenty pounds but I keep that to myself. The last time I mentioned that she should eat more, she threw her sandwich at me and didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day. But I bet she texted Nick, I think sourly.
“I just…” she pauses and then squints at the ceiling as if she can read her thoughts up there. “It’s not just the hiding thing because that was my fault not yours. It’s everything. I’m so behind in all my classes and everyone looks at me like I’m about to keel over. Where I’m going, you know, everyone there is kind of in the same boat I’m in.”
“We can take care of you better than anyone,” I tell her. She glances at me and smiles and it’s the smile that she gets when she’s about to do something that she knows no one is going to like. I saw that smile when she jumped stripped down to her underwear at the Carson’s pool party last summer, right after she’d turned fifteen. We’d had a big fight after that. She kept telling me it was the same as wearing a bikini and that every other girl had done the same thing. Everyone wasn’t Charlotte though. I didn’t care what every one else did. I only cared what Charlotte did but she didn’t see it that way. She just thought I was being Nate, the no fun police when it came to her.
“You know, before I was sick you were pretty mean to me all the time.”
“Was not.” I was never mean to her. Watching out for her yes. Mean, no.
“You were. You’re always criticizing what I’m wearing or that I’m hanging out with the wrong people who—“ she points a finger into my chest, “—are the same people you hang out with.”
I grab her finger so the pointy nail doesn’t dig any farther into my chest wall and then I cover her hand with mine so her palm is flat against my pecs. “I’m just watching out for you.”
She comes closer until her head is resting on my bicep and then her hand curls underneath my arm. “Nate.” My name is like a soft sigh escaping and it sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard from her before. It’s almost like a caress, a whisper of longing underneath a note of tenderness. My hand grips hers tighter and I roll so I can face her, my palm still clasping hers over my heart.
“If I’ve ever made you feel bad, I’m sorry,” I tell her. There are a few strands of hair that are falling across her forward and so I move them for her, tucking them behind her ear. Her eyes flutter shut and this time I see contentment. She ducks her head and I stroke run my fingers through her hair, rubbing her scalp. The moan that she releases is so sexy that it goes from my fingers straight to my dick. Do I tell her that every time I’ve ever been angry was when I was scared or jealous and sometimes both? That she grew from kid to someone who made my pants too tight with just a smile in what seemed like overnight and that if she was affecting me this way, she had to be affecting every male around her in that fashion except for Nick who apparently still sees her as Charlotte, his five year old playmate?
“No, I know it’s because you care.” Her hand slips out from under mine and creeps up to my shoulder. My hand stills and merely cups the back of her head. She begins a small exploration feeling my clavicle and then down over the ridges of my bicep and back up again. Goosebumps freckle my skin at her touch and I wonder if she knows what affect she has on me. Nah, because if she did, she wouldn’t be lying here so angelic next to me.
Or maybe she would. Maybe all those times she was challenging me to do something.
“I do care,” I say, pulling her head closer to mine. “Did you know I was the first one outside of your family to hold you? Nick was still a baby so Mom was holding him and Dad was getting cigars out for everyone. Aunt AM had the nurse place you in my lap.”
“How do you remember these things? You were like two.”
“I just do,” I shrug and the motion makes her hand fall away. It slips under my arm and then finds it way to my chest. I wonder if she can feel the thunderous beat of my heart. I don’t think she’s ever touched me this much, this closely, with this kind of attention. My loose sweatpants are suddenly too confining as every part of me strains toward her feather light caresses.
“I can’t remember anything.”
The back of her head has a surgical scar and the hair is thin and slightly curly. Under her hair and her skin lies a shunt, a tube that drains out any excess fluid. Charlotte thinks her head is too big in the back but it feels okay to me. I’m surprised she is allowing me to touch her there but I don’t question it nor do I fiddle with her scar, knowing that if I pay too much attention to what she thinks are flaws our little moment will be over.
“I remember when you turned two. You got cupcakes instead of a birthday cake but none of us could eat until you’d take a bite but you were confused by the paper around the cupcake. Nick got impatient and stuck his fingers in your frosting and made you cry.”
“I don’t remember that either.”
“I do,” I say curtly. I remember all of it, Charlotte, and now I realize it’s because you’re mine. I was born for you and you were born for me. “Don’t go. Stay here with us.” I say us because it’s safer.
“I’m going because it’s better for all of us,” she responds and then tugs on my shoulder until our faces are so close together I can see the tiny hairs on her forehead. “But Nate before I go, I want—“ she stops and then ducks her head into my chest and I feel her say something against my shirt but I can’t make it out.
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