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.
My request for a kiss doesn’t result in Nathan rolling me over and pinning me down on the bed. Oh no, he jumps off the mattress like I’ve stuck a burning iron in his side. His athletic instincts kick in and he’s halfway across the room before another breath is taken by either of us.
“What the fuck?” he almost yells at me and then, tossing a worried glance toward the door as if my dad will bust through any minute, he lowers his voice and repeats the question sans profanity. “What did you just ask me?”
Scowling, I answer, “I asked for you to kiss me, not kill me.”
He places one hand on his hip and another he scrubs through his hair, looking exasperated but his irritation is nothing compared to my mounting annoyance. My earlier shyness is chased away by my frustration. This is classic Jackson brother behavior. Because I’m a girl, I can’t possibly want the same things that they do.
“Charlotte, I…” he begins but I cut him off. I don’t even want to hear what he has to say. I roll over on my side so I’m not facing him.
“Forget it. I’m not going to beg you.” I would if I thought it would do any good. It’s just…since I’ve been sick Nathan’s been different to me. He’s been nicer and he’s held me closer. His behavior is not so brotherly. I catch him looking at me with a gleam in his eye and it makes me feel warm all over. But now he’s looking everywherebut me and so I turn away.
I feel his body depress the side of the bed and he rolls me toward him.
“What’s this all about?”
“Nothing, just go away.” I keep my eyes covered so he can’t see my hurt at his instant rejection. He didn’t even have to think twice about it. He can kiss—and more—with any number of girls at school or other schools or heck, even that a couple of girls who live in our building but the idea of kissing me results in curse words and discomfort.
“I’m not going away,” he insists. His palm is on my shoulder and I feel electrified just from that small touch and I wonder what it would feel like if he touched me other places.
“All that talk about me being important to you seems like just that—talk.” I mumble still refusing to look at him. He pulls on my wrist that is covering my eyes but I resist. It would be easy for him to overpower me but instead he just lets go and even that makes me sad.
“It’s not just talk, but you’re fifteen and I think we should wait.”
“I’ll be sixteen in five months and it’s not like you weren’t kissing girls when you were fifteen.”
“You stay here and we’ll kiss when you’re ready.”
I drop my arm away and sit up abruptly. Nathan reaches out to steady me and we are only inches apart. If I leaned forward I could kiss him. Instead I say slowly and clearly, “I’m ready now.”
“How do you know this? You were like twelve the first time you kissed Molly Masterson at her birthday party. And you had sex when you were fourteen at Olivia Petrzelka in her parents’ rec room.”
He gapes at me. “Goddamn Nick. I’m going to beat him until he can’t remember his own name let alone anything about me.”
“Nick? If you want to shut down the gossip pipeline, you better start picking better partners.”
Nathan does a double take. “Are you saying that it’s the girls?” He draws out the word girls in shocked disbelief.
“What do you think we’re talking about?” I drop to the bed and stretch out on the big bed like a starfish. “I’m going to kiss someone some day. Do you want that first kiss to be yours?”
He glares at me and presses his lips together but behind his glower I can see something else, something that maybe if I was more experienced I could identify. I just know it’s there and it’s something other than anger.
I stretch farther, making tiny linen angels in my bedsheets. Nathan’s attention is diverted and at first I think he’s staring at my chest, where my IV port is but then I realize his gaze is lower, much lower. A devilish impulse comes over me and I undulate my hips, draw my legs up and allow my knees to fall to the side. As I watch beneath my eyelashes, Nathan does not look away. He’s riveted and my gaze falls down his body past his chest and down to his sweatpants that hide absolutely nothing.
I’ve seen erections before, on the Internet, but I couldn’t decide whether I thought that penises were disgusting or attractive. I prefer looking at the naked chest, the abs on a male model, or even his back. Somehow I know that Nathan’s erection would be different, amazing. Girls in the locker room talk about blow jobs and oral but I haven’t done any of that. I pretend like I know what they are talking about but the closest I’ve ever come to anything remotely sexual is a few Tumblr gifs. No one is willing to brave the Jackson brothers to get to me and I haven’t been too interested in breaching the line either.
Saliva pools in my mouth as I think about taking Nathan inside my mouth and I wonder what it would feel like ifhe touches me between my legs. As quickly as the wanton spirit had spread over me, it leaves and I lock my legs together, rolling to the side, embarrassed at my thoughts.
Nathan groans, my motions awakening him from his trance. He turns to face the wall, and presses his forehead against a palm. Shame sets in and I’m sorry for what I’m doing to Nathan, what I’m doing to myself.
“I’m going to Switzerland. I’m leaving after the first of the year and I just don’t want my first time to be with someone other than you.” I bite my lip and then touch him tentatively on his back and wait for his response.
When my palm hits Nathan’s back, his muscles bunch tighter under his T-shirt as if he is anticipating a blow. Remorseful, I lean into him, resting my cheek in the middle of his spine and slip my arms around his waist. I’m not sure why I’m pushing him tonight. I think it’s because I’m scared of what is going to happen to us when I go away but my claim on Nathan has never been one of girlfriend/boyfriend. We’re family and no matter what he gives to the other girls in his life, I’ll always mean something to him. I should be satisfied with that.
I should be but I’m not.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper against the worn cotton. I rub my face tenderly against his back as if I am his old dog Hobo, seeking forgiveness from my owner.
I feel him exhale and then he grabs each of my hands in his to pull me tighter and we sit like that for some time, his head bowed and mine nestled in the curve of his back.
“You’re going no matter what, right?” he finally says.
I’m not able to explain to Nate why I feel compelled to go and how I really believe that this is the right thing for all of us, but especially me. I’ll never get better here because it will be too easy to rely on Nate and Nick to do things for me. Nick will cover for me in classes and Nate will glare all my detractors away and I’ll be smothered in sympathy and pity. It would be easy to stay and that tells me more than anything I should go.
If I tell this to Nathan, he won’t get it. His response will be that he can take care of me but that’s not what I want. If I’m ever to mean something more to Nathan than little Charlotte, the girl he remembers crying because her cupcake was smashed, then I’ve got to learn to stand on my own two feet.
My illness has only accelerated this problem. I suspect that if I let Nathan he’d still be cutting my food ten years from now. But while his hands would be feeding me from his fork, his attention would be wandering. I’d be a needy invalid and he’d want someone who could walk beside him.
“You’re breaking up the three Amigos.” He says lightly but I can hear a faint accusation there. I dread facing Nick tomorrow. He is never as careful with my feelings as Nate.
“You’re just mad because you don’t get to leave first. And because you like to tell Nick and I what to do.”
“I resemble that remark,” he quips. Gently he unwinds himself from my embrace and rises. My heart catches as I fear he’s going to leave. I’m not ready for him to go. I push up on my knees and reach out for him. He towers over me on the side of the bed, a fierce look on his face. Cupping my cheek and chin in one hand, Nathan pinches my chin with the other. “I can’t figure this one out but I’m not going to argue tonight.”
He pulls me to my feet and then reaches over to pull down the covers. “I’m going to hold you tonight, even though your Dad or Mom may kill me in the morning but that’s all we’re going to do.” Was this a warning for me or him?
We lie down together, our sides barely touching in the large bed. He reaches over and links his fingers through mine.
“How long,” he whispers.
His fingers tighten almost painfully on mine for a moment but I don’t move at all.
“We’ll figure this out,” he says.
I’m not sure what we have left to figure out but I’m too tired to ask. He’s beside me and we’re lying together, our hands entwined. It’s enough for now.